The Double Life of Lorraine Hansberry (Out Magazine, September 1999)
Life, or at least the way we dwell online, has vastly sped up. It’s not something I’d mourned, though I figured the days of thoughtful, clandestine responses to my own writing were largely over. I am fortunate, one, to have been mistaken and, two, to be able to make private exchanges public access.
In January of this year, shortly after reviewing Tracy Heather Strain’s underappreciated documentary on the American writer Lorraine Hansberry, I received an email from a woman I’ve never met. It’s one I’ve been mulling over for eight months now and, given this month’s release of Imani Perry’s biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, I’ve finally got the dander to share.
“Just wanted to let you know that I interviewed one of Hansberry’s girlfriends, Renee Kaplan, in a piece I wrote in Out in 1999,” Elise Harris wrote me. “I also interviewed many of Hansberry’s lesbian friends in that piece, which is now almost 20 years old.”
Indeed, her piece turned 19 this September. And Harris, in her email, was unbearably humble: at 5,000 words, the work isn’t so much of an interview as it is a devoted, eloquent exercise in lesbian biography. Hansberry, who was closeted in life out of necessity and in death by her ex-husband’s executorship of her estate, did not come out until her archive permitted her to in 2014. Hansberry won’t be the last great mind to be gagged by the academy which heavily relies upon her teachings. Lorraine’s dear friend James Baldwin has suffered similarly; parts of his archives remain sealed per family guidelines for NYPL’s Schomburg until ~2040, forcing older scholars and Baldwin devotees to participate in a cruel race against time.
Fifteen years before Lorraine was unsealed, Harris meticulously and accurately charted Hansberry’s queer life; she did not rely on institutions, but New York City dykes. The result is an essay that, nearly two decades later, surpasses any document on Lorraine, old or new, in its exploration of her intimate life. Harris does not walk on eggshells to appease a broader audience. No. With the flourish of a pulp author, she regales us with accounts of Hansberry impossibly breaking bread with Patricia Highsmith, she indulges anecdotes on the author’s hit-and-miss romantic prowess, she breaks hearts with Hansberry’s deathbed words to her lover, who would soon become her pallbearer: Harris writes for my ilk.
In Looking for Lorraine, Perry writes, “[Lorraine’s most intimate thoughts were published, and] people were hungry for more. And we deserve it. Her other work also deserves hearing, reading, and more performances. Her essays, her excepts, her heart and mind put down on paper will be pored over. Her pages lie in state at the Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem … she is waiting for us.”
What follows is for those who hunger but can’t fathom the ticket.
The Double Life of Lorraine Hansberry
Out Magazine, September 1999
In public she was the dignified, articulate civil rights spokeswoman and author of the groundbreaking 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. In private, she struggled to reconcile her marriage with a string of lesbian relationships and a lively gay social life.
BY ELISE HARRIS
It was opening night, and Lorraine Hansberry had decided to go for glamour. What does the public intellectual wear when she’s ready for her close-up? The vivacious 28 year-old writer usually zipped around New York’s Greenwich Village in chinos or corduroys, button-down shirts and cardigans, white sneakers and socks. But for the Broadway debut of her play A Raisin in the Sun on March 11, 1959, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, she set and styled her hair and did herself up in a black dress with bejeweled earrings, reveling in the effect of finished womanhood.
She sat in the third row with her husband of six years, Bobby Nemiroff, a slight man who bankrolled her writing and endured her tantrums and fits. Directly behind them was Marie Rupert, a theater colleague and college friend of Hansberry’s, with huband in tow. Critics opened their notebooks to weigh the merits of the show’s director, newcomer Lloyd Richards. A few aisles over, with a male date, sat Helen Leeds, an earnest New York University law student and Hansberry’s point of entry into a circle of Village gay girls. Leeds gabbed with Renee Kaplan, a dapper young woman on whom Hansberry harbored a crush.
Hansberry’s girlfriends speculated about their intellectual pal, the only black woman in their white lesbian circle. What was that marriage about, anyway? they wondered. Someone said that that someone had said that Hansberry’s husband played Willy to her Colette, the stern boss every writer needs to lock her in a room and make her get her work done. Who knew? Maybe they would get a peek at the couple’s dynamic at the dinner party at Sardi’s later. The lights dimmed.
After the performance — amid the cries of “Author! Author!” — Sidney Poitier, who was making his Broadway debut in the role of Walter Lee, leapt into the audience. Hansberry knew what was coming — she wanted it but she didn’t want it — and blood flushed the back of her neck. The screen star hoisted the shy intellectual aloft and carried her on stage. She was laughing and crying simultaneously. A star was born, and Broadway had lost its racial virginity in the process.
At Sardi’s, after a few glasses of champagne, Hansberry showed off her naturally girlish charms. She was feeling her power, warmly embracing dozens of friends from the various parts of her life: family members, civil rights activists, socialist organizers, black artists, gay girls, thespians. Hansberry’s attention focused briefly but intensely on an actor in a different drama. “She flirted with me outrageously at that party,” recalls Renee Kaplan, now 70 and retired in central Mexico. “I was very surprised.” She has never before been interviewed about her romantic involvement with Hansberry, but she is generous with her memories of those long-ago days. Hansberry probably flirted with a dozen people that night, but Kaplan received special attention. She smiles at the memory. “I think our relationship started after — five minutes after — opening night.”
It was a night of double and triple subplots. Hansberry family members looked at their relentlessly serious sister with new eyes. Nemiroff was savoring the rewards of his years of good husbandry, while Hansberry was privately weighing what to do about Kaplan. But none of these angles would make it into the New York Times article the next morning. Hansberry would be cast as a credit to her race, that exalted yet insulting stock role in the dramatis personae of the time.
On opening night the audience saw such black characters as had never before graced the Broadway stage — characters with inner lives and complicated narratives. Hansberry would finish another play and start several more before her death at the age of 34, but the dramatic conflict she depicted was always the same: Does the protagonist resist injustice or not? The answer she hoped America would give was a resounding, onward-and-upward yes! Raisin’s commercial success confirmed that others shared her aspirations; it became a smash success and won Hansberry a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play, defying the law that serious black theater was box office poison. Later made into a Hollywood film and a staple of high school curricula, Raisin created the space for black playwrights and directors such as August Wilson, Adrienne Kennedy, George C. Wolfe, Anna Deavere Smith, and Spike Lee.
Like many a closeted black celebrity, Hansberry created a role model version of herself for the media stage. It’s the image of Hansberry still familiar to many of us from eighth-grade English class: The noble civil rights crusader — dignified, articulate, controlled. While her plays showed characters wrestling with their demons, her own inner conflict and complexity were kept private. An intellectually gifted woman, Hansberry found emotional life unruly and irrational. But the moral strength so apparent in her work would be tempered by an internal battle between her affection for her husband and her love for women.
Born in 1930 on the South Side of Chicago to a doggedly patriotic, upper-middle-class landlord and his wife, Lorraine Hansberry, the youngest of four children, was, in her own words, “a serious, odd-talking kid who could neither jump double Dutch nor understand their cames but who — classically — envied them.” In the heart of the Depression, she was sent to kindergarten in a white fur coat à la Shirley Temple, and her classmates, without blinking, attacked her with an inkwell. Their scorn would never let up; it would only be matched by contempt from other quarters. When menacing white gangs came to her high school, she stood back with the other well-mannered black students, admiring the poorer black kids who fought back. Boxed in by class, race, exceptional intellect, and painful shyness, as she wrote later, she quickly learned how to play alone.
When Lorraine was 15, her father died in Mexico of a cerebral hemorrhage. After challenging racially exclusive covenants in real estate law all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, he had grown frustrated with this country and planned to move his family south of the border. In the years after his death, Hansberry’s siblings came to prefer their private familial world to wrangling with white people, but Lorraine was the good-hearted, ugly duckling of the family. She aspired to be a journalist and to change the world.
After two years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she studied art and found a group of politically minded friends, Hansberry dropped out. Bored with the provinces, she moved to New York so she could live in Harlem, study at the New School for Social Research, and work on Paul Robeson’s radical black newspaper, Freedom. The city represented a political and intellectual promised land. In 1951, reporting for Freedom on a picket line against a whites-only basketball team at NYU, she met Bobby Nemiroff, a quiet, slight, shy young man, the son of Russian Jews who were ardent communists. She became close to Nemiroff and his wife; when the pair split about a year later, Hansberry started dating him. A shared commitment to leftist politics and social-realist literature must have drawn them to each other, and a kind of romantic friendship bound them together. They spent two days before their 1953 wedding at a vigil for the Rosenbergs and then moved into a third-floor walk-up above a Laundromat at 337 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. It was far from a storybook life; after long nights holding forth with friends about McCarthyism, communism, American racial politics, And Arthur Miller, the newlyweds each crashed out at a private little campsite in the book-lined apartment.
An aspiring songwriter and critic, Nemiroff (who died in 1991) wrote songs while Hansberry worked various jobs: in a fur shop making and stitching labels (six months); as a typist at Wannamaker’s department store (four days — she couldn’t stand the ringing bells telling girls what to do and when); as a production assistant for a theatrical firm; on the staff of a folk-music magazine Sing Out; as a recreation leader at a federation for the handicapped (a few months); and as an (occasional) substitute waitress at Bobby’s parents’ restaurant, Potpourri. She possessed a joyous little-girl quality along with her razor-sharp intellect. For fun, the couple went skiing, to movies and plays, and invited friends in to hear Lorraine run her mouth.
During this time, she was also grasping toward something unsettling within her. Her marriage had been prompted by a genuine emotional attachment, but she was beginning to sense a powerful, persistent attraction to women. To understand her feelings, she did what came naturally: She went to the library. Hansberry immersed herself in Simone de Beauvoir’s just-published and much-discussed The Second Sex. De Beauvoir cogently observed that a woman, lesbian or not, finds it difficult to reconcile her autonomy with the passivity of her flesh, a passage that no doubt resonated with Hansberry.
While fashionable lesbians scorned the homophile organization Daughters of Bilitis, Lorraine took an interest. Its local chapters offered potluck dinners and coffee klatches with topics like “Should Lesbians Wear Skirts?” and “Acceptance by the World at Large.” Author Marijane Meaker recalls the DOB publication The Ladder as “a laughable magazine in a way. While they were very brave people, like many pioneers they weren’t the chicest people.” The ladder of the magazine’s title was one that lesbians, “variants” in the psychiatric lingo of the day, were supposed to climb up into the human race. The first six covers actually showed crudely drawn humanoid figures lurking in a muddy marshland around a ladder extending into the clouds.
Hansberry would never attend a DOB meeting. But the May 1957 Issue of The Ladder includes a letter from “L.H.N., New York, N.Y.” concerning the importance of gender-appropriate dress. “Someday, I expect, the ‘discreet’ Lesbian will not turn her head on the streets at the sight of the ‘butch’ strolling hand in hand with her friend in their trousers and definitive haircuts… But for the moment, it still disturbs. It creates an impossible area for discussion with one’s most enlightened (to use a hopeful term) heterosexual friends.” In the August issue, “L.N., New York, N.Y.” gets quite exercised over one writer’s glib suggestion that married lesbians up and leave their husbands to be true to themselves. “How could we ever begin to guess the numbers of women who are not prepared to risk a life alien to what they have been taught all their lives to believe was their ‘natural’ destiny — AND — their only expectation for ECONOMIC security.”
The theoretical analysis of de Beauvoir and the sartorial doctrine of the ladies of the DOB made sense to Hansberry. Actual sexual attraction to women was more intimidating.
At 28, Hansberry finally made her debut into a small, almost cotillion-like lesbian set. In the previous two years, she had finished Raisin and had seen it through trial runs in New Haven and Philadelphia. A few weeks before the Broadway premiere, she went to a party at a friend’s apartment. These were not serious ladies talking about existentialist philosophy. The girls were dressed like students from Seven Sisters colleges, in button-down shirts, cardigans, and pegged pants; they drank beer and mixed drinks. A bit unrelaxed amid the playful, drunken banter, and with one eye on Renee Kaplan, Hansberry bumped into Marijane Meaker.
“I didn’t know who she was,” recalls Meaker today. “All I knew was she was black, and I started to talk about how much I liked Ruth Brown and all these [black] singers. She was polite; she tolerated me. She asked me what I did. I said I was a writer. What do you do? ‘Well, actuall, I’m having my play produced.’ I said, ‘Where?’ Because I thought it was going to be some dinky little thing. And I was amazed to hear it was going to be on Broadway! And then I felt mortified. It was one of those nights when you go home from a party, and you think of what you did and you’re so embarrassed! Why did I ever talk to her about Ruth Brown?”
This animated, lighthearted lesbian scene was about the furthest Hansberry could get from the socialist and intellectual worlds in which she and her husband moved. Nonetheless, Hansberry and these chic, professional women came to constitute a private circle, centered around house parties in the Village and on the Upper East Side. The set included writers like Harriet the Spy’s Louise Fitzhugh, and Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley. It was purely social — who was going with whom and who felt sad about it; where they ate and drank, how many hours they drove to where, how much adventure group of young, independent women could have in 1959. Frederica Leser gave an annual winter masked ball for several hundred in her enormous Greenwich Village brownstone, though all-girl parties in apartment buildings were risky. Whenever I threw a party, I would always explain to the landlord that it was my sorority, says Meaker.
Hansberry came and found herself bobbing around in a sea of white women. She was familiar with being the only black person in the room, whether it harbored white male intellectuals or white homosexuals. Hansberry’s blackness became a conversational leitmotif as these women had the usual range of nervous white response to a black person. There was romantic curiosity and “I know a black person!” self-congratulation. (“I was very interested in blacks!” recalls one friend.) Some showed plight-of-the-Negro liberal hand-wringing; others diagnosed Hansberry with self-loathing because she had white girlfriends. “I was teasing Lorraine that she had a new white convertible and this white girl with blond hair,” jokes Meaker. “I remember her saying, ‘I’ve got to get another color (car) if I’m going to have her with me!’” On another occasion, Hansberry’s response to the dilemma was less glib. According to Meaker, at a 1963 meeting of civil rights leaders with Robert Kennedy, she was taken aback when she looked around the room and realized that everyone in attendance had a white partner.
During this time, James Baldwin lived eight blocks away from Hansberry at 81 Horatio Street; they struck up a friendship that may have helped mitigate the whiteness of her homosexual world. The Baldwin-Hansberry connection was explosive, fraternal, and important to both writers. He entertained at his apartment — afternoons spent drinking bourbon, listening to Bessie Smith and the Modern Jazz Quartet, championing Henry James, deploring the Beats. Baldwin writes of himself and his intellectual comrade “sometimes gracelessly fleeing the houses of others.” “She kept her work life and us very separate,” says Helen Leeds of Hansberry, but Leeds and other lesbian friends report meeting Baldwin through her.
With the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry had become a full-fledged celebrity and civil rights spokesperson, but this entailed an often frustrating engagement with the ignorance of the white media. In an amazing TV interview from this time with an insulting Mike Wallace — isn’t she exceptional for a Negro? Isn’t her success a special prize? — Hansberry looks as dignified as a cameo, prepared to do the usual approximation of herself. As Wallace begins, her eyes register a slight exhaustion at having to waste her time again. But she responds with wit and reason. Her speech is terse and cool. As in high school, she does not strike back.
Her friend George Tabori would later write of Hansberry as “a furious lady, half-kid, half-queen, with that extraordinary regal radiance that came from her negritude and femininity. I know I was worried about her regality and intellect, however much I admired them, for they were obviously inadequate to deal with her ancient rages. She was perhaps the last bridge between the black and white shores. If she had lived on, she might have refused to carry this awful traffic, or even the burden of love, to find, as other blacks find, that hatred is a liberator and to hell with, which has degenerated into an excuse for more injustice.”
“She was intellectually such a genius that her emotional life didn’t catch up,” muses Marie Rupert. “If she had lived longer, there would have been a developing and growing. She would have been more able to cope with the conflicting aspects of her nature.”
Hansberry would learn the ropes of emotional conflict soon enough, when she and Kaplan started to date. “When she lived on Bleecker and I lived on Grove Street, which was right around the corner, we had a love affair. She gave the impression that this was a new experience for her,” recalls Kaplan. “I suspect she came to my apartment more often than I went to hers. I have a feeling that I cooked more, and Bobby was more often in Bleecker Street.”
Kaplan remembers Hansberry as “youthful, fun-loving, easy-going. The intellectual connection was very important to me. Whenever I was with Lorraine, she kept my mind really alert — alive and active.” The two read poems by Langston Hughes to each other and spent weekends, often with friends in tow, at Kaplan’s house upstate in the Catskills. Leser remembers on such getaway. “It was a wonderful weekend, and it had snowed. I got to know Lorraine better because she was considerably more relaxed than she was at social gatherings. We made a very, very seductive snowwoman, and then we made a bunch of snow angels. She had a much lighter touch. Because she was very serious!”
The affair lasted for about two years. “I probably should have been a friend of Lorraine’s more than her lover,” says Kaplan straightforwardly. “Sexually it was not a great relationship. I think she felt sexual drive, but it wasn’t one of her priorities. I was not brokenhearted. My ego was probably a little dented. We had no problem with friendship after that.”
Later that year, Hansberry had a brief affair with Eve Ward (not her real name), a talented but frustrated writer from Tennessee, the daughter of white academics at a black college, Ward was pretty and vivacious, with a wicked sense of humor; she was on the rebound from an affair that had ended disastrously because the girl wouldn’t have sex in Rome while the Pope was there. “You might be saying something very pompous and serious,” says Meaker, “and you’d look across and see this smile on her face, like, ‘Don’t you put it on, Marijane.’” But Ward was theatrically private. No one went to her apartment. She claimed her money came from her having invented the polypacker, a machine that sealed meat. “She’s a Southerner, of course — anybody this crazy had to be a Southerner,” recalls Meaker. “Her mother would send her letters with one stick of gum in them.”
Hansberry and Ward went together to parties and dinner with Meaker and Patricia Highsmith at their house in Nyack, New York. They discussed writing and brainstormed movie ideas. “Lorraine was delightfully in love with Eve,” says Meaker. “She was lie someone with a beautiful, bright toy.” But they were an unlikely pair, a coupling typical of young lesbians swapping girlfriends within a miniscule, incestuous social pool. It was unlikely that Hansberry would find deep intimacy among women who were intelligent and caring but did not share her commitment to civil rights.
How could Nemiroff have felt about his wife’s new world? “He had another part of her and, I think, a part he felt more comfortable with,” says Rupert. After Hansberry’s death, Nemiroff would say that her lesbianism “was not a peripheral or causal part of her life but contributed significantly on many levels to the sensitivity and complexity of her view on human beings and of the world.”
Hansberry still loved her husband, but her lesbian acquaintances didn’t understand her marriage. They judged Nemiroff to be less of a man for his devotion. “She controlled him,” says Leeds. “He was a nebbish,” gripes Kaplin. “His life revolved around Lorraine and who she was. I have no idea why she married him. She didn’t abuse him in any way, but she treated him in a very offhand fashion. There were too many other things that were more important to her in life than Bobby, and she made it abundantly clear. And yet he was always there, he was always around.”
In fact, it was a painful, uneven romantic friendship, one that was starting to wear thin. “What was the nature of this intimate bond that she and Bobby had?” asks Rupert rhetorically. “It produced the plays, the ‘children’ that they had.” Bobby collated manuscripts, nudged Lorraine to be disciplined, typed things up, and spoke frankly when a speech or plot wasn’t working. He kept a scrapbook of her news clips. He retrenched when she pulled away, accepting ever-diminishing returns. “On the surface it appeared that Bobby was so easygoing that he would do whatever he could for her,” says Kaplan. “He was there to help her, and he didn’t make demands, but that was a demand. The access.” Says Rupert, “What he wouldn’t accept was no relationship. What was important that no one take Lorraine away from him. Not necessarily sexually, but just starting a whole other life without Bobby.”
Which did not happen, since Nemiroff helped her work and Hansberry needed help. She was floundering. “Post-Raisin, she was totally blocked about writing,” says Miranda d’Ancona, a director and friend of Hansberry’s. “She kept saying, ‘I can’t get to it, I can’t get to it.’ She was angry with herself but not finding her way out of it for a while.” Rupert, who met with Hansberry weekly to go over new drafts, adds that “she had very little quiet time to digest the situation of celebrity and also to be creative. I had to call her every morning. She was not paying attention [to work] like an adult professional.”
The writing just wasn’t coming. Hansberry loudly bemoaned Mailer’s and Genet’s use of “the Negro” as a symbolic fiction, but in her own work of the early ’60s, she too succumbed to a lazy tendency to illustrate ideas rather than create characters. Her profound love for humanity remained abstract and sentimental unless filtered through her own experience and psychological insight. At its best, her proclivity led her to represent black heroism and historical memory. At its worst, it made her characters read like stick figures in an intellectual allegory. She often said she wanted to represent not just how things were but also how things could be; her unfinished plays read like her opinion of how things should be.
It was Bobby’s idea in 1960 to take some of the Raisin money and invest it in a house at 112 Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. Dorothy Secules, a woman 15 years Hansberry’s senior, had been renting there since the 1930s. Secules stayed; Hansberry took the top floor; meeting somewhere on the stairs in between, the two women found themselves falling in love.
Secules, who died in 1993, was an attractive blue-eyed blond, shy and sweet. Employed by Loft’s Candy, she had worked her way up from store clerk to area manager for part of New Jersey and New York. Ethel Glidewell, a high-school friend of Secules’, recalls that “Dorothy was feisty and enthusiastic about things she liked, which was usually politics.” Secules was so opinionated, remembers Glidewell, that sometimes her friends would get her started on a political argument as a prank, “then she’d get mad, go ‘Ooooh!’ stomp out, and then come back and be OK.” Hansberry had found a woman who shared her enthusiasm for politics.
Hansberry and Secules socialized with d’Ancona and her girlfriend. “We went to plays and things,” says d’Ancona. “The four of us would have grand times — I remember Lorraine lined us up, all three of us, she in front, to teach us [the latest dance]. We all collapsed laughing; it turned into total silliness. That was the part of Lorraine that was so irresistible, where her intellect could take a rest for a while and just enjoy the fun of the evening.”
Hansberry and Nemiroff decided that a second home might help her focus on work, and in the summer of 1962 found her upstate in Croton-on-Hudson. She loved it in the country, and her writing picked up, but she was also separated from Secules. “Dorothy was deeply unhappy about all this, about Croton and about Bobby and this constant tug, and about Lorraine being so very divided in her attachment,” says d’Ancona. “It made for no full relationship either way.” Hansberry herself became consumed with doubts about her marriage.
“Lorraine was someone who felt personal honesty was very, very important, and she felt that she’d been using that relationship for quite a while and felt she ought to get out of it,” says Kaplan, who, like many a lesbian sex, had become a close friend. “I think she realized that situation was an almost constant struggle within her,” says d’Ancona. “Bobby was very supportive in her work, I mean, he was the person. It was almost too much so. I could see that it was her need of his advice, support, nurture, and also criticism, as well as his need to hold on to that aspect of her, if he could have nothing else. She needed it, but he needed for her to need it. She wanted (his support), but it didn’t free her to be totally herself, and it didn’t free him to have his own life.”
Sometime around April 1963, Hansberry had a sudden seizure and almost passed out. Chronic stomach pain set in. She underwent an operation in late 1963, the first of several. Nemiroff didn’t tell her she had been diagnosed with cancer. She sent a letter to Miranda d’Ancona. “I’m suffering some,” she wrote, then crossed out the last word to scrawl, “a lot.”
“To me it was always very telling that whether you’re fully aware that you’re going to die or whether you merely think that you’re very, very ill, unconsciously there comes a point when you must put yourself, your things in order before you die,” says d’Ancona. “It became a necessity for her to make a stand and make a decision about herself. And I think it may have been very painful for Bobby, but for Lorraine it was a very important thing. I really do.”
Hansberry obtained a divorce from Nemiroff on March 10, 1964 in Juarez, Mexico, on grounds of incompatability. In this divorce it was the wife who was divided up: Nemiroff got the writer; Secules the woman. “He went on nurturing Lorraine and her work forever and ever,” says d’Ancona, “ and to him, after her death he had her all to himself in a certain way because he had all her material.”
Hansberry was in and out of the hospital throughout 1964. “I lived across the street from the NYU hospital, [and] Lorraine’s room faced my building,” says Kaplan. “We used to wave to each other all the time. I was over there with great frequency.” Secules and Nemiroff kept constant watch. There were nights waking in agony, shingles on the torso from a compromised immune system, outings to Central Park in a wheelchair, numbness in the legs, and finally, the speech loss that meant the cancer had entered her brain. “For someone with the intellect she had, to lose her ability to use her mind — and to know that she was losing it — was terrible,” says Kaplan. “I remember being in her room when she tried desperately to tell me something and the words came out all garbled. The tears would come to her eyes, and she’d just be so frustrated.”
Through it all, Hansberry somehow kept working. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, about a New York intellectual struggling to stay committed to ethical and political involvement, was rushed prematurely into an October production on Broadway. “She was very worried about the play,” Meaker remembers. “She didn’t think it was ready.” By December, it was clear Hansberry’s ordeal, would not last much longer. Bobby arranged a Christmas celebration in the hospital and brought Hansberry a beautiful gold necklace. “Do you really think so?” she cried. “Oh God, if it could only be true — that I could wear it!” She toasted New Year’s 1965 in the hospital; she wanted to know what was happy about it. On January 12, she died.
The funeral program noted Renee Kaplan and “Dorothy Secuils” as honorary pallbearers. While the will named Nemiroff literary executor, it also made the divorce public. The Times and the New York Post asked Nemiroff to explain why he still used the term husband. “[Divorce] did not in any way affect the closeness of our friendship or the working relations between us,” he said, “[or] the size of my loss.” He would call himself her husband until his death. The Post noted that “the will provides… a $1,000 bequest to a Dorothy Sueles of New York City, not otherwise identified.” The Times spelled Secules’ name correctly and called her “a friend.”
If Hansberry’s life was truncated, her death provided no resolution to the absurd divisions that partitioned it — the fissures between intellect and emotion, art and activism, love and autonomy. Everywhere she went, she felt like she had left part of herself behind somewhere, but she was determined to be whole. The deathbed can be a theater, a place to stage resolution; Hansberry apparently told Secules “I love you” there. But usually it brings fear and pain, not what could be or should be but what is. Lorraine Hansberry found such possibility only in her writing, that space of profound solitude. But we’ve been working out the ideas she discovered there ever since.
Elise Harris has written for THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, THE NATION, and CIVILIZATION.