"1918 was a very lively time," said photographer Berenice Abbott, reminiscing about the days she spent in Greenwich Village before she moved to Paris. "We were all involved with the Provincetown Players. Yes, that's where I met Eugene O'Neill, and there were some wonderful anarchists."
"Like Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton," joked Lillian Hellman, interrupting.
Abbott, Hellman and author Emily Hahn came to the Smithsonian's Carmichael Auditorium yesterday to discuss themselves and their contemporaries--"Creative Women in the '20s and '30s in Paris and New York." Names and remembrances: Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, John Reed, Louise Bryant and Emma Goldman--"I did meet her," said Abbott, "but not until much later. She was very harmless."
"Much too harmless," said Hellman, smoking throughout the program under a special suspension of the museum rules. "There is no smoking except on the stage," Dr. Barbara Shissler, curator of education, told the audience after Hellman walked on stage smoking.
Other names have been more obscured by time: Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of "The Little Review," and Princess Eugene Murat.
"She was a great artist at life and she did absolutely nothing," said Abbott of Murat, her friend and subject who posed in her Paris studio. "If she poured a cup of tea or went to the 10-cent store . . . she made an art of life."
The panel, moderated by art biographer Meryle Secrest, marked the opening this week of a National Museum of American Art exhibit of Abbott's work in Paris and New York during the '20s and '30s.
The three women lived vastly different lives. Abbott learned photography under the Paris tutelage of Man Ray and later moved back to New York to chronicle the changing face of that city during the '30s. Hellman shuttled between New Orleans and New York in her youth, visiting Paris only briefly. Hahn, a journalist and adventurer, walked through Africa during the '30s and covered the Orient for The New Yorker during World War II.
"My generation began to doubt," said Hellman of her contemporaries' awareness. "I began to sit in class and I thought, 'He doesn't know what the ---- he's talking about.' And I wasn't alone. My roommates did it. My friends did it."
"I am speaking about the creative women," said Abbott. "They were quite a group of women, but they were so different. There were no two people alike. They were totally different people."
Later the three women fielded questions from the audience. What was the artistic community in Paris like for a woman in the '20s?
"One was not afraid to go out alone on the streets in Paris," said Abbott. "The cafe' life was very good. Everybody danced. That was very healthy. In the small communities around America they were practically starved for that."
Why do you consider women have made a step backward in the two generations since then?
"Most women," said Hellman, explaining an earlier remark, "turned out like the rich San Francisco woman I told you of, who wants to think of herself as a creative person and has fooled herself into thinking she gave it all up to marry and become a wife. Who told her she was an artist from the start?"
Was there a profound sense of displacement moving around from city to city throughout your lives?
Hahn described a sea journey to an island off the coast of Taiwan and the climb down the ship's side in a dress she had bought in Winetka, Ill.
"A puff of wind came along and the dress went up and I thought, 'What in the hell am I doing here?' "
What are the qualities of a good photographer and good photography?
"That's a hard one," said Abbott, annoyed with the question. "You can't photograph the past or the future. You have to do what is there right now and you can't do that if you don't understand it."
"I'm not a photographer," said Hellman, "but I would say if you have to ask that question, don't be a photographer."