Lillian Hellman to be honored locally

Published 12:20 pm Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Demopolis is getting set this month to honor its connection with the famous playwright, Lillian Hellman.

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 18 southern towns from Natchez, Miss., to Savannah, Ga.,” 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 honored 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.”

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.

Scholars and friends say that Hellman spent time in Demopolis during her childhood. It is no coincidence that locales in her plays “The Little Foxes” and “Another Part of the Forest” resemble Demopolis settings. The Marxes remained prominent citizens of the town well into the twentieth century.

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.”

According to Gantt, Hellman admitted that the greedy bankers at the core of the play were based upon her Demopolis family. At the play’s premiere, she approached her Aunt Florence Newhouse during intermission and pointedly asked the elder lady: “Well, do you recognize your relatives?”

Hellman’s close friend and executor Peter Feibleman has confirmed that Regina Hubbard Giddens, the scheming lead character of “The Little Foxes,” was inspired by Hellman’s grandmother of Demopolis, Sophie Marx Newhouse. Hellman’s mother Julia inspired the sweeter, naive character Birdie. Lionnet Plantation in the play appears to be directly modeled upon the Lyon Family mansions in Demopolis: Lyon Hall and Bluff Hall.

Hellman scholars who attended the Hellman-Wyler Festival, 2007 in Demopolis say the similarities between the play’s settings and the city’s historic landmarks are not coincidental. It would have been typical of Hellman to adapt actual places and events into her dramas.

Director William Wyler,who has ties to Demopolis as well, took the play to the silver screen in 1941. The film version of The Little Foxes starred Bette Davis as Regina Hubbard Giddens 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.

“Hellman loved to share a story about the Demopolis family’s reaction to “Foxes” with her friends in New York and Martha’s Vineyard,” said Gantt. “When a friend of hers passed through Demopolis, he knocked on the front door of Mrs. Henry Marx’s house to say hello. ‘I’m a friend of your niece’s,’ he said when

Rosalie Marx opened the door. ‘Which niece?,’ she asked suspiciously. When he named Lillian Hellman, Mrs. Marx slammed the door in his face with an adamant declaration: ‘We don’t like her!”

“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.”

Events scheduled to honor Hellman in Demopolis in conjunction with the Southern Literary Trail are listed below. For more information about any of these events, call 289-9644.

“The Autumn Garden” performed by the Canebrake Players

Considered one of her best plays, “Garden” is set by Hellman in a “town on the Gulf of Mexico, a hundred miles from New Orleans.”

Friday, March 13, at 7 p.m. | Saturday, March 14, at 2 p.m.

The Old School Theater, South Main Avenue

Waves Casting Shadows: Literary Lure of Alabama’s Gulf Coast

Following the matinee performance of “The Autumn Garden,” Alabama scholars and writers Bert Hitchcock and William Cobb, both Demopolis natives, join University of West Alabama professor and writer Alan Brown for a discussion of writers and literary subjects influenced by the Gulf Coast.

Saturday, March 14, at 5 p.m.

The Old School Theater, South Main Avenue

The Marengo County Historical Society Pilgrimage of Homes

Tour over a dozen 19th- and early 20th-Century homes of Demopolis.

Saturday, March 14, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. | Sunday, March 15, 2 to 5 p.m.

Foxes in the Henhouse: Storytelling That Starts at Home

Scholars Bert Hitchcock, William Cobb and Alan Brown speak about the family dramas that compelled Hellman to write The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest. They also speak about the impact of places such as Demopolis on the written arts. The Reverend Rusty Goldsmith, another native of Demopolis joins them.

Sunday, March 15 at 3 p.m.

Lyon Hall, South Main Avenue