The late Lillian Hellman did not have to wait long for validation of her talent — many of her 12 plays, including The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes, were instant successes. But some of her other contributions have taken a bit longer — in this case, more than 25 years — to reach fulfillment.
When she died in 1984 of cardiac arrest, the celebrated playwright arranged for a modest sum of money to be bequeathed to the Island, where she lived out many of her days and where she died. It was the intention of this playwright, who so often peopled her scripts with younger characters, that the money be used to sponsor programs for children around the Vineyard — and in particular the children in Aquinnah, where she owned a piece of property.
Not until now, however, a quarter of a century later, has money in the Lillian Hellman Fund finally become available for use. It will be administered by the Permanent Endowment of Martha’s Vineyard, whose board members made the announcement at an Aquinnah selectmen’s meeting earlier this month.
“It took about 25 years to get it finally to this step,” said John Alley, a board member for the Permanent Endowment. “We hope that you spread the word among . . . your neighbors, because we’re excited to have it,” said chairwoman Anne Williamson.
Like the dramatist’s fabled exaggerations about her own life, which have been discussed in no fewer than five books about her, Ms. Hellman’s bequests are far from straightforward.
It is clear that there were two different layers to Ms. Hellman’s intentions for funding recreation activities on the Island.
The first involved her beachfront property in Aquinnah. When she died, the executors of her estate were directed to set up the Lillian Hellman Recreational Trust, and to make the Aquinnah land available for recreational use by town children ages 8 to 16. But that project would have taken a tremendous amount of oversight by trustees, and the property was never used for that purpose. The property, as far as lawyers and others contacted for this story could say, has not been used for any purpose. It is not apparently on the market, however, the trustees have been granted permission from the attorney general to sell the property and put the money into a fund to benefit Island children’s programming. A Moshup Trail parcel in the Lillian Hellman Recreational Trust name was this year valued at about $60,000.
Meanwhile Ms. Hellman left her Vineyard Haven property to a friend, with the stipulation that once he sold the property, $100,000 of the proceeds would be used to fund children’s recreational programs. Again, lawyers could not say exactly when it was sold, though it was, and the $104,000 in funds became available to the Permanent Endowment just last month.
When the Aquinnah beachfront property is sold, that money will also be added to the fund.
So why did it take 25 years? Tangled estate issues, the deaths of several successive trustees, legal affairs that crossed state lines, and perhaps even the town’s name change — Ms. Hellman cited the children of Gay Head, who in 1997, when the town voted to change its name, became the children of Aquinnah, a fact perhaps little noted by executors in New York.
“My understanding was that there was this jurisdiction issue,” said Permanent Endowment Fund executive director Ralinda Lurie in a telephone interview after the selectmen’s meeting. Ms. Hellman was a resident of both New York and Massachusetts, and there was some difficulty getting the funding turned over to the appropriate state, Ms. Lurie said. As time went by, trustees passed away, and the job had to be turned over to new people.
“It was a series of things,” said Ms. Lurie, who learned of the bequest this year through the current trustees’ legal representatives on the Island. “They were involved since whenever the beginning of this is considered to be,” she said.
The attorneys contacted the Permanent Endowment, which was in its infancy on the Island when Ms. Hellman died, to administer the funds.
And still, 25 years later, people on all sides are working to tie up loose ends. “It hasn’t all gotten to us yet . . . [but] it’s almost organized,” said Ms. Lurie, adding with considerable understatement: “It’s a bit of a tangle in some ways.”
Even Ms. Hellman’s intentions are a bit of a tangle. Because of the directions regarding the Aquinnah property, Aquinnah children are the preferred beneficiaries. But because the funds also came from the convoluted Vineyard Haven part of the estate, which made no geographic stipulation among Island towns, other Island programs for children are also eligible.
According to Ms. Lurie, applications will be considered individually, based on the purpose and structure of the program.
The money in the fund will be invested, with some awarded in grants each year. Ms. Lurie said that the current plan calls for awarding two grants of $1,000 next year, one in the spring and one in the fall. “Hopefully it will grow and this can continue on for many years,” she said.
She said that the Permanent Endowment board members went to the selectmen to seek advice on how to apply the funds. “We do not have any other funds right now that give preference to a particular geographic region,” she said. “That’s why we’re reaching out to Aquinnah to see how we can best work with them.”
She said she hopes that the funding will both encourage new children’s programming and assist programs that already exist, as Ms. Hellman’s intentions were somewhat broad. Ms. Williamson told the selectmen that the money was intended to support recreation, leisure and education activities for school age children.
“We’re not quite sure yet [how the funds will be used], because we don’t know all of the opportunities that may be out there that would appropriately offer these kinds of programs [for] these Aquinnah kids,” said Ms. Lurie in a separate interview. “That leaves it open to a lot of different organizations that may have programs that meet those requirements.”
Because of the relatively small amounts of money given out at a time, and the Permanent Endowment Fund’s policy to grant funds to individual nonprofit organizations only once every 12 months, Ms. Lurie said it may be difficult to use the money to build a new program. In the early going, it is likely that the money will go to support existing programs.
But nothing is set in stone.
“If it’s used as a catalyst to bring something new, particularly to kids in Aquinnah, that would be great,” Ms. Lurie said.