An Unfinished Woman (except)
by Lillian Hellman



In 1938, after I had been to Spain and was back in Hollywood for a short stay, Ernest and Joris brought the final cut of The Spanish Earth to California. It was a good picture, with remarkable work by Ivens and a narration by Ernest that I still like—I saw the picture again about a year ago—because he felt deeply enough not to care that he often sounded like a parody of himself. Frederic and Florence March offered us their house for a private showing of the picture. We invited a few well-heeled people and raised thirteen thousand dollars, a great deal of money in those days, to buy ambulances for Spain. (We all felt so good that night that nobody much cared that Enrol Flynn, invited because he claimed he had been to Spain during the war—Ernest said that Flynn had crossed the border and crossed right back again—went to the toilet during the money raising and was not seen again.)

When we left the Marches, Dorothy Parker asked a few of us to her house for a nightcap. (She had known Ernest for many years, and while they didn't like each other, the night was pleasant enough to make both of them affectionate.) I had met Scott Fitzgerald years before in Paris, but I had not seen him again until that night and I was shocked by the change in his face and manner. He hadn't seemed to recognize me and so I was surprised and pleased when he asked if I would ride with him to Dottie's. My admiration for Fitzgerald's work was very great, and I looked forward to talking to him alone. But we didn't talk: he was occupied with driving at ten or twelve miles an hour down Sunset Boulevard, a dangerous speed in most places, certainly in Beverly Hills. Fitzgerald crouched over the wheel when cars honked at us, we jerked to the right and then to the left, and passing drivers leaned out to shout at us. I could not bring myself to speak, or even to look at Fitzgerald, but when I saw that his hands were trembling on the wheel, all my rides from Metro came rushing back, and I put my hand over his hand. He brought the car to the side of the road and I told him about my old job at Metro, the awful rides home, my fears of California drivers, until he patted my arm several times and then I knew he hadn't been listening and had different troubles.

He said, “You see, I'm on the wagon. I'll take you to Dottie's but I don't want to go in.”

When we finally got to Dottie's, he came around to open the door for me. He said softly, “It's a long story. Ernest and me.”

In those days I knew no stories about Hemingway and Fitzgerald, just that they had been friends and weren't anymore, but I remembered that Dottie had once told me that she and Scott had slept together years before I knew her, in a casual one or two night affair.

I said, “But Dottie wants to see you. Everybody in that room wants to meet you.”

He shook his head and smiled. “No, I'm riding low now.”

“Not for writers, nor will you ever. The Great Gatsby is the best...”

He smiled and touched my shoulder. “I'm afraid of Ernest, I guess, scared of being sober when...”

I said, “Don't be. He could never like a good writer, certainly not a better one. Come. You'll have a nice time.”

I put out my hand and, after a second, he smiled and took it. We went into the hall and turned left to the living room. Nobody saw us come in because the four or five people in the room were all turned toward Ernest, who stood with bis back to the door, facing the fireplace. I don't know why he did it, or what had gone on before, but as we started into the room, Hemingway threw his highball glass against the stone fireplace. Fitzgerald and I stopped dead at the sound of the smashing glass: he stepped back into the hall and turned to leave, but I held his arm and he followed me through a swinging door as if he didn't know or care where he was going. Dottie and Hammett were in the kitchen talking about Errol Flynn as they watched Alan Campbell, Dottie's husband, grow irritable about ice trays.

I said, “Ernest just threw a glass.”

Dottie said, “Certainly,” as she kissed Fitzgerald.

I moved toward Dash and said in a whisper, “Please help Mr. Fitzgerald. He's frightened of Ernest and the glass throwing didn't help.”

Hammett, when he was drinking heavily, and he was that night, seldom paid any attention to what anybody said but continued with whatever was in his head at the minute.

So now he said, “Ernest has never been able to write a woman. He only puts them in books to admire him.”

By the time I asked what the hell that had to do with what I was saying, he was out of the kitchen, and when I went back into the hall he was saying the same thing to somebody else. The rest of the evening was quiet, but I don't remember how long Fitzgerald stayed and I was never to see him again.


Published as An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir by Lillian Hellman (Little, Brown 1969).