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When Mary Met Lillian

Interview with Nora Ephron, writer and director

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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."

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