If These Walls Could Talk: Lillian Hellman’s Mill House

Members of the social circle that swirled around Vineyard Haven, at Lillian Hellman's Mill House and the home of Rose and Bill Styron.

Lillian Hellman’s Mill House would have some incredible stories to tell.


Mill House has been all over the news this spring. Nearly everyone agrees that the historic home on Vineyard Haven Harbor was prematurely taken down to make way for a new “trophy” house. So what was the big stir all about? What was the Mill House and what did it represent? 


According to Bow Van Riper, research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the house was built in the 1770s, and among the owners was Mary “Aunt Molly” Merry, an extremely wealthy notorious cheapskate who is said to have kept a sailor’s tavern in the house. The house was eventually sold in the 1880s to Gen. Asa B. Carey, who at one time served as an assistant to Kit Carson on the western frontier. 


It was General Carey who bought the old mill that stood where the Vineyard Haven Town Hall is today and appended it to the house — thus, the Mill House. But what makes the house of particular interest today is the fact that dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, known as much for her plays (“Watch on the Rhine,” “The Children’s Hour,” and “The Little Foxes”) as for her caustic wit, her circle of literary friends, and her left-wing sympathies bought the house from General Carey’s daughter in 1956. She lived in Mill House with her on-again, off-again companion and love of her life Dashiell Hammett, the mystery writer, until he died in 1962. At that time Hellman sold Mill House and built another house just down the hill from it, because she couldn’t bear to live in Mill House any longer, beset with the memories of Hammett.  


For several decades, until Hellman’s death in 1984, Mill House and the adjacent house she built in 1962 (which was razed and rebuilt in 2001) served as a social nexus for an enclave of Vineyard writers the likes of which has seldom been seen before or since on the Island or elsewhere.


“Back in the day,” Van Riper said, “the stretch of Vineyard Haven from just north of Owen Park to the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club used to be called ‘writers row,’ because of John Hersey, Lillian Hellman, and Rose and Bill Styron’s houses all being within a couple of blocks. I think the concentration is absolutely significant. There’d been celebrity summer residents before (Thomas Hart Benton, Katharine Cornell, Denys Wortman, James Cagney), but as far as I know, they mostly went their own way … except for the ‘Barn House’ circle in Chilmark, they weren’t a coherent sub-community the way that Styron, Hellman, Hersey, and others were.”


A passage from the book, Eating Together, Recollections & Recipes, by Lillian Hellman and Peter Feibleman, gives some idea of the caliber of literary star power on call for one of Hellman’s dinner parties. 


“Lillian was expecting Mike and Anabel Nichols [said Peter Feibleman], which was considered top of the line even in that rarified atmosphere … ‘I think’ Lillian said as I reached for the coffee, ‘I’ll ask the Herseys, Anne and Art Buchwald, Kay Graham, Bob Brustein, Jules Feiffer, Bill and Rose Styron, Tony Lewis, Walter Cronkite, Lally Weymouth, Norman Mailer — he’s staying with the Styrons. What do you think?’ 

I said I thought that would be fine.” 


From left, Lucy Hackney, Bob Brustein, Art Buchwald, and Rose Styron at an annual Hate Cup at Vineyard Haven Yacht Club.

Others likely to appear at Hellman’s house included novelist John Marquand, Sheldon Hackney (president of the University of Pennsylvania) and his wife Lucy, Elaine May, Mike Wallace, publisher Bennett Cerf and from time to time, sardonic humorist Dorothy Parker.


“Lillian was definitely a center for the social scene in the 60s and 70s,” Jules Feiller, a frequent guest at Hellman’s table, said. “Rose Styron was the epicenter, but Lillian was right up there. She was a great cook, and she had a gift for entertaining.”


Peter Feibleman, in his biography Lilly, describes Hellman’s ability to manage a dinner party. “She would get up, walk over, take you abruptly by the hand, say ‘Come with me’ and lead you off to another part of the room. The strongest-willed, bossiest guest went along with it without question, and even newcomers seemed to sense that they would be happier wherever she put them. People instinctively trusted Lillian when she took them by the hand, as a 5-year-old will trust a parent blindly, without question — with only the anticipation of pleasure.” 


But the real attraction of a Hellman party was not her cooking or her seating arrangements, it was the grande dame herself.


William Styron

“At a dinner party,” Feiffer said, “everybody who was anybody of a literary significance on the Vineyard at the time was there: Hersey, Marquand, Mike Wallace … and Lillian was regaling the table, talking about how she went shopping at Cronig’s that day and told this endlessly boring story and everybody was totally engrossed, and I thought if I tried to get away with that story, the room would empty in 60 seconds. She was a self-dramatist but rather than dramatize by being expansive or dramatic, she would speak in a monotone and exchange confidences with the rest of the table about her shopping list, and Hersey and Styron were paying her rapt attention and I marvelled at her ability to work a glorious con job.”


Looking back at the times, Feiffer recalls that the conversations were not so much literary as they were social and political. It was the 60s and the 70s and war was raging in Viet Nam and politics were on everyone’s mind. “Politics and social encounters were one in the same,” Feiffer said. “If you were political and on the left that was a time for politics, and it was a time for talking about the war and other issues going on about the country and where America was going … we were trying to be good citizens.”


But Hellman apparently knew where to draw the line politically. “Lillian was not very ideological in her social relations,” Bob Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, said. “That was something she did publicly but her private life, not so much, otherwise she’d have lost all her friends … she was a Stalinist.” 


Mike Wallace

In 1947 Hellman was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) at which time she denied being a communist and refused to name names, famously saying, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”


But no discussion of Lillian Hellman is complete without mention of her temperament. In a word, she could be difficult. 


Rose Styron, one of Hellman’s oldest friends on the Island, recalls how Hellman introduced Bill and Rose to the Vineyard. 


“It was the mid-60s and we had just come from Nantucket,” Styron said. “We hadn’t been to the Vineyard before. Bill’s agent, Hiram Haydn, was supposed to meet us at the ferry in Vineyard Haven but he didn’t come to pick us up.” 


Instead, Styron explained, there was Lillian making a bit of a scene, chasing her dog yelling “Gregory Zilboorg” — she had named the dog after her psychologist. 


The Styrons had met Lillian previously at a wedding in Rome, so Hellman, upon seeing them at the ferry, invited them back to her house and insisted they never return to Nantucket. Hellman arranged a rental for the Styrons the next year, and the year after that they bought the house just down the road from Mill House.


“I had a love/hate relationship with Lillian,” Styron said. “When we first came, we were best friends; we enjoyed socializing and playing Scrabble but then as Bill met with more success and when my social circle expanded, she became very possessive and jealous. Lillian was very competitive — she had to be the center of attention, and if she weren’t, she was likely to leave.” 


One summer Bill’s publisher, Bennett Cerf, said Frank Sinatra was coming and asked if Rose and Bill could arrange to have him over for dinner. Unfortunately, Hellman was also invited to the dinner party and that evening she behaved badly and was downright rude to Sinatra.

The next year Cerf called and said Sinatra was coming back and could they come again for dinner — but this time could they please not invite Hellman. 


“I told Lillian that Frank was coming back again and Lillian was upset that I would have anything to do with him, let alone invite him over for dinner. Said she wouldn’t want to be at a party with him. But when she realized she wasn’t invited, several days later she called and invited us to a party at her house — on the same night. She said she was having some famous actor for dinner — I think it was Marlon Brando. She knew full well we were having a party with Sinatra that night. As it turns out she was just making the whole thing up.” 


The Sinatra incident wasn’t the only time Lillian used the fake guest ruse. Peter Feibleman writes in his book Lilly:


“Whenever Lilly got too bored with herself on the Vineyard, she took to baiting friends like the Styrons, but it [had been] a while since she had pulled off a successful practical joke … [until] the imminent arrival of the Styrons’ most impressive and famous house guest to date — a personage referred to diplomatically by Lillian as ‘the widow Kennedy’ — who was invited for a weekend. Mrs. Kennedy was without question the most famous woman in the world and Lilly had mused over her impending presence for days, convinced that Rose Stryron, in staking out the widow as her private property for a weekend, could now claim a corner on the celebrity market for life.


“‘I can’t let Rose get away with it,’ she muttered to herself over and over as the day approached, ‘it’s too much.’ 


Jules Feiffer

“Nobody in the world is quite as impressed by famous people as other famous people, and the Thursday before Mrs. Kennedy’s arrival the air around the little circle of summer celebrities quivered with anticipation. By then Lilly was a bundle of nerves and she still hadn’t come up with a solution. On Friday morning, in a last-ditch and somewhat lame attempt to save the day, she spread a rumor that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had unexpectedly arrived at her own house for the weekend, begging sanctuary. ‘Rose will have to invite the Burtons to dinner — she won’t be able to stop herself — and I’ll say they’re busy, and it will ruin her weekend.’”


The only problem was that the Boston Globe reported that Elizabeth Taylor had just broken her ankle in Capri when she was supposed to be staying with Hellman. Foiled again.


Styron said that Hellman was extremely vain about her age. When Mike Nichols and his then-girlfriend English novelist and film critic Penelope Gilliatt said they were traveling to eastern Europe, Hellman inveigled an invitation. As they were going through Checkpoint Charlie, the border agent checked Hellman’s passport and said she didn’t have to pay the crossing fee because of her age. Hellman protested, asking how did he know how old she was. The agent said it was on her passport. Hellman became indignant, claiming the passport had her age wrong and insisted on paying the fee anyway.


Island musician David Crohan, speaking in a 2012 interview with Linsey Lee, oral history curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, was blunt in his assessment of Hellman. “She was bossy and difficult,” Crohan said. “The first time I met her she was with (Leonard) Bernstein, and all I cared about was him. I don’t think I even knew who she was back then. But over the years, I met her more and more often. I got to know her much better when she was growing blind. [In Hellman’s later years, she was nearly blind.] I could talk to her about being blind, [Crohan himself being blind] and I think I made her have at least inklings of awareness that it didn’t have to be the unmitigated tragedy that she thought it was.” 


he Mill House was a gathering place for literary lights on Vineyard Haven Harbor. —MV Museum

“Lillian never made a single concession to anyone, especially because of her physical condition,” Feiffer said. “Normally when people lose their sight they make adjustments and learn to do things differently but that was bullshit to Lillian. Blindness was going to have to get used to her.”


Feiffer tells an anecdote underscoring her cantankerous nature. “I was driving with Lilly and Hanna Weinstein, a friend of ours, to the Marquand’s house in Edgartown. They were in the backseat and I was acting as their chauffeur. Lillian said, ‘Julius’ (she called me Julius) I don’t think you’re going the right way.’ She kept saying it and saying it until I got really irritated and I said, ‘Lillian, I’ve had backseat drivers before but this is the first time in my life I’ve ever had a blind backseat driver,’ and she started crowing with her loud cackling laugh and she said, ‘That’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to me’… Lillian loved it when you didn’t take her crap. She knew how the hierarchy worked, and she was at the pinnacle.”


So let’s take a moment to remember Mill House and all that it stood for on the Vineyard, with its swirl of literary high life presided over by a brilliant, charming, and, at times, an impossible hostess.


“What I miss most about those times had to do with Lillian,” Feiffer said. “It was a very rare and wonderful time with an extraordinary group of people. It was a great period in my life and I was thrilled to have shared it with Lillian.”


“She was brilliant, witty, and gifted,” Bob Brustein said. “She was special and made the Island special.”  


But perhaps the tribute that best captured the duality of Lillian Hellman, and one she would have secretly probably enjoyed the most, was delivered by John Marquand at Hellman’s funeral:


“She could be terrible — but she was worth it.”

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