Helen Keller was propelled to fame at a young age when she became the first ever deafblind person to be awarded a university degree, and she remains a household name to this day: a saintly figure canonized in Sunday school lessons and picture books.
As well as being a disability rights activist, however, she was also an author and outspoken speaker, whose subjects ranged from woman’s suffrage and the necessity of birth control to a brand of socialism considered so radical that she was monitored by the FBI.
Her best known relationships are those with her family and paid carers. The story of Anne Sullivan holding the young Keller’s hand beneath a water pump and spelling ‘w-a-t-e-r’ onto her palm has truly become the stuff of legend. But the adult Keller enjoyed the company of a wide circle of friends. While she was studying at Harvard, large numbers of fellow intellectuals flocked to her home, keen to engage in political debate, and she later struck up friendships with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Martha Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mark Twain.
More subversively, she grew close to her neighbour: the actress and scriptwriter Nancy Hamilton, a ‘gay and chatty bachelor girl’, who boasted of drinking beer for breakfast and described herself as ‘the feminine Noël Coward’.
Hamilton was a writer and performer in the thirties and forties New York musical theatre world. Although she spent her professional life very much in the limelight, she had to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy.
As a lesbian, she infiltrated the underground ‘sewing circle’ scene so that she could forge romances behind the veil of ‘respectability’. After a fling with the screen icon Katharine Hepburn, she later formed a relationship with the first lady of the American stage, Katharine Cornell. Although they would be lifelong partners, they felt forced to hide behind Cornell’s ‘lavender marriage’ with the gay director Gurthrie McClintic.
Keller too was no stranger to sexual taboo and clandestine romance. Decidedly heterosexual, she displayed strong preferences for men from an early age and was eager to be found attractive by the opposite sex.
For her family and carers, though, it was unthinkable that a woman with profound disabilities should desire an erotic life. Sullivan was so disapproving of her charge’s love of romantic novels that Keller had to read her Braille copies in secret. And, when Keller’s mother discovered that a handsome young man was due to invigilate one of her daughter’s university exams, she insisted on a female replacement.
But when Keller was in her mid-thirties, Sullivan fell ill and an emergency ensued. Keller’s mother had to agree to a temporary male replacement, and so the socialist Peter Fagan, a twenty-nine year-old journalist, entered Keller’s household as her private secretary – his job to finger-spell the contents of letters, articles and books onto his employer’s open palm.
The pair soon fell in love and embarked on an intimate romance. Aware of the level of prejudice they faced, they got engaged in secret, filed for a marriage license and planned to elope.
But the newspapers got wind of this and Helen’s mother confronted the couple, her distress so great and her threats so strong that the lovers reluctantly parted ways.
Later in life, Keller had offers from filmmakers as famous as Truffaut all eager to make a documentary based on her autobiographical work. But she chose Hamilton, with her shared experience of illicit love, to write, direct and produce the biopic for which Eleanor Roosevelt would stump up much of the funds. Despite never having made a film before, The Unconquered – which wrote out Keller’s romantic history and contributed to the mythology of her as a saint – won Hamilton an academy award.
The nature of Keller’s disability meant that all her writing projects required her to work with others, making her expert in knowing when to step back and when to take the lead. Far from excluding her from intimacy, therefore, Keller’s disability provided her with some of the vital resources for collaboration, romance, friendship, and mutual support.
Helen Keller gave Nancy Hamilton the chance to try her hand at filmmaking. Inspired by them, this month we will encourage each other to try something new.