On the Trail

Published 9:32 pm Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Once again playwright Lillian Hellman has brought attention the city she visited as a child. This time, earning it a spot in an upcoming literary event involving three states.

Demopolis is one of 18 stops along the Alabama Humanities Foundation’s Southern Literary Trail. The Trail links communities, towns and landmarks commemorating great Southern writers. Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi are taking part in the event.

The Southern Literary Trail is the nation’s first tri-state trail to connect places that influenced American literature. Every Trail community will present plays, movies, tours and discussion panels in March that explore the masterworks of Southern literature and honor their authors.

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“The Southern Literary Trail is a collaboration of eighteen southern towns from Natchez to Savannah,” said William Gantt, the trail’s project director and Demopolis native. “All of the organizers decided that we needed a big debut of the Trail and so we are hosting a ‘Trailfest’ in all three states to premiere the project.”

Events are scheduled in Demopolis on March 13-14. The Marengo County Historical Association is one of the main sponsors of the Trail.

Some of the most notable writers on the trail include, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William March, Margaret Mitchell, and Alice Walker.

Demopolis’ claim to the Trail, Lillian Hellman, was regarded as one of the best playwrights in the country in the 1930s and 40s.

“Hellman openly admitted that her most successful play, The Little Foxes, was based upon her Demopolis family,” said Gantt. “The play’s unflattering depiction of greed and manipulations within a Southern banking family won her national acclaim but a cold shoulder from her Demopolis relatives.”

He said that at the play’s premiere, she reportedly approached her Aunt Florence Newhouse during intermission and pointedly asked the elder lady: “Well, do you recognize your relatives?” Also, when prop managers for the play sought to label newspapers used on stage as The Demopolis Times, Hellman collected the props during a rehearsal and screamed, “Take these away. You will get me sued.”

Hellman, the granddaughter of Issac Marx, would often visit her Demopolis family as a child.

Marx was born in Bavaria in 1825 and left Germany to escape legalized discrimination toward the Jews. In 1844 he arrived in Demopolis and would become the patriarch of a family that achieved wealth and national stature, said Gantt.

Her Demopolis family cheered Hellman’s success as a young playwright on Broadway, first with The Children’s Hour in 1934.

“An ad in The Demopolis Times for These Three, the 1930s hit movie based upon The Children’s Hour, declared the film as, ‘Written by the niece of Mr. Henry Marx: Lillian Hellman, formerly of Demopolis!” said Gantt. “The attitudes of the Henry Marx family and her other relatives toward Hellman changed after The Little Foxes opened on Broadway in 1939.”

Director William Wyler’s film version of The Little Foxes starred Bette Davis as Regina Hubbard Giddens, a role influenced by Hellman’s grandmother Sophie Marx, and received nine Oscar nominations in 1941. Tallulah Bankhead successfully portrayed Regina, a post war Scarlett O’Hara, during the play’s first Broadway run in 1939.

After the success of Foxes, Hellman wrote another play inspired by her Demopolis family with the same set of characters, Another Part of the Forest, in 1946. That play received the first Tony Award ever awarded. It went to Patricia Neal, who played a young Regina Hubbard, winning the Tony for Best Newcomer to the Broadway stage. Hellman directed her in the play.

In 2007, Demopolis honored Hellman and film director William Wyler, who has a connection to Demopolis as well, with the Hellman-Wyler Festival.

“The more recent embrace by Demopolis of its connection to Hellman and her plays has won the town a leadership position in the Southern Literary Trail,” said Gantt. “The Hellman connection puts Demopolis on a tourism map with Savannah, Natchez and even Atlanta.”

Recognition from Hellman’s connection has come in other forms as well.

“When the Little Foxes was produced by the Shaw Festival in Canada in the summer season of 2008, the show’s director and lead actor visited Demopolis for research,” said Gantt. “Now, as the Pasadena Playhouse in California readies its production of the play for May 2009, the Playhouse has linked its websites to the Demopolis page within the site for the Southern Literary Trail.”