SAN DIEGO, CALIF. — It's hardly a surprise that two smart-talking, literary women like Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy would attract a smart-talking, literary woman like Nora Ephron.
What's more surprising is that, while remembered largely as bitter rivals, the two literary legends have so much in common with each other.
"Both of them had amazing, productive lives," explained Ms. Ephron after a day of rehearsals. "They loved many men, they wrote many books."
Ephron, writer and director of "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," has a new play, "Imaginary Friends" her first. It premières Sept. 21 at the Globe Theatres in San Diego before opening on Broadway in December. It is part extended argument, part mock trial, part boozy conversation between Lillian Hellman, who wrote plays like "The Children's Hour" and "The Little Foxes," and novelist Mary McCarthy, best known for "The Group" and "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood."
Ephron finds the rivalry especially potent, since "they had almost nothing to do with one another and yet they ended up part-famous for this thing that happened at the end of their lives."
"The thing" Ephron refers to is a lawsuit that Hellman brought after McCarthy made the now-famous statement on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1980, in reference to Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' "
Hellman is perhaps most famous for another quote, which she gave to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, by way of refusing to name names: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."
Both Hellman and McCarthy wrote prolifically, lived flamboyantly, and conducted liaisons with literary men like Dashiell Hammett (Hellman's longtime love), Edmund Wilson, and Philip Rahv (McCarthy's loves, though Hellman may have had a fling with Rahv).
But Ephron was fascinated by the central irony of two women who hated each other becoming intertwined in people's memories.
"They were probably in the same room two or three times in each other's lives and yet they ended up each mentioned in the third or fourth paragraph of each other's obituaries. And that was interesting for me that they ended up tangled up in each other's biography."
In "Imaginary Friends," Ephron allows the women to meet on stage and attempt to sort out what exactly the fuss is all about. Judging from the script, the result is provocative and funny. Ephron indulges in large, playful liberties, most of which serve to break down conventional theatrical facade so that the audience is forced to confront issues of fact and fiction, art and biography. Hellman (Swoosie Kurtz) and McCarthy (Cherry Jones) dress and do their stage makeup while chatting with the audience and verbally baiting each other; they request more lighting; rewrite scenes to hilarious effect; and arrange settings.
In this way, the who-said-what argument becomes a larger discussion about how art is created and how artists are remembered. Everyday details like a mink coat, a hat box, or novelist John Dos Passos finding a bug in his chicken all serve to illuminate larger issues about art and mortality. "Imaginary Friends" seems to combine Ephron's easy, stylish dialogue with some genuinely illuminating moments.
"You go, girl!" Hellman bursts out after McCarthy admits trying to set fire to husband Edmund Wilson's office. Other moments contain artful insight: "Look at you," one character says to McCarthy. "Someone once told you a lie, a terrible lie, so you made a religion out of the truth."
In a way, Ephron seems called to write a play exploring issues of biography and art. Her 1983 novel, "Heartburn," famously chronicled her real-life relationship with Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein. Well before that Ephron's parents, playwrights Henry and Pheobe Ephron, took inspiration from Nora's teen years to create the 1961 Broadway hit "Take Her, She's Mine." And Nora and sister Delia cowrote the movie "Hanging Up" (2000) about their family.
Ephron met Hellman once, back in her journalist days, when she interviewed her for The New York Times. "I found her completely mesmerizing and entertaining," she remembers.
But any suggestion of a comparison between the playwright and her subjects is dismissed with characteristic self-deprecation: "Oh, there's no chance anyone would ever consider me an intellectual," she laughs.