Marguerite Littman, a honey-voiced Louisianian and literary muse who taught Hollywood to speak Southern, but who left her most enduring legacy as an early force in the fight against AIDS, died on Oct. 16 at her home in London. She was 90.
Peter Eyre, a longtime friend, confirmed the death. He said she had been ill for some time.
By all accounts hypnotically charming, Ms. Littman, who landed in Los Angeles at midcentury, counted among her closest friends the writer Christopher Isherwood and his partner, the artist Don Bachardy, as well as Gore Vidal, David Hockney and, famously, Truman Capote, who is said to have distilled that charm into his most famous character, Holly Golightly of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
“She was a rarefied creature — generous, restless,” the Irish novelist and memoirist Edna O’Brien wrote in an email, adding, “She was like a character in fiction.”
An oft-told story about Ms. Littman goes like this: Mr. Capote and Ms. Littman were sitting at the pool at Cipriani’s in Venice in the late 1970s when Ms. Littman pointed out an extremely thin woman. “That is anorexia nervosa,” she declared. And Mr. Capote replied, “Oh Marguerite, you know everybody.”
“She wove legends while you were with her,” said Ben Brantley, the former chief theater critic for The New York Times and a longtime friend. “I remember someone saying you can’t take her seriously, but there was such seriousness in her frivolity. It was an existential choice.
“If you were sick, she was there,” Mr. Brantley continued. “She didn’t push darkness into a corner. She once said relationships should be ‘as light as a butterfly, a pale, pale shade of beige.’ Life was somber enough.”
In 1986, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, Ms. Littman, who was then living in London, wrote to 100 friends asking them each to contribute 100 pounds as a founding member of what would become the AIDS Charitable Trust, a powerhouse of fund-raising in Britain for more than a decade. Those famous friends all kicked in, and continued to do so.
One bonanza was the sale of the book “Hockney’s Alphabet,” a collaboration between Mr. Hockney and the poet Stephen Spender, who edited it, containing letters drawn by the artist and essays by authors like Iris Murdoch, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. (Mr. Vidal, writing about the letter E, began his essay with typical acidity, “I never liked the look of E. …”)
And just before her death in 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, long a supporter of AIDS organizations, donated her wardrobe for sale at an auction to benefit the trust and other charities. It raised more than $3 million.
“She rang me in the morning,” Ms. Littman told Cathy Horyn of The New York Times in 1999, when she was honored for her AIDS philanthropy by the Harvard AIDS Institute alongside the boldfaced names Judith Peabody and Deeda Blair. “She said: ‘I have a wonderful idea. I’m going to give you all of my dresses.’ I didn’t know quite what that meant. I thought, Oh, God, do I dress that badly?”
In 1999, Ms. Littman stepped back from the trust, and it was rolled into the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
“Marguerite was a true vanguard in the war on H.I.V./AIDS,” Mr. John and David Furnish, the organization’s chairman, wrote in an email. “In the ’80s, people dying of AIDS were treated like lepers — shunned from society because of fear, ignorance and bigotry. With her customary wit and indefatigable life force, Marguerite steamrollered in where others feared to tread and raised millions.”
Marguerite Lamkin was born on May 4, 1930, in Monroe, La. Her father, Ebenezer Tyler Lamkin II, known as Ebb, was a prominent lawyer. Her mother, Eugenia Layton (Speed) Lamkin, known as Layton, was a homemaker.
Marguerite studied philosophy at Newcomb, a women’s college that is now part of Tulane University in New Orleans, before attending Finch College in New York City. When her brother, Hillyer Speed Lamkin, a playwright and novelist, headed to Los Angeles with a contract from the producer Jerry Wald, she followed him.
Mr. Wald, she told Ms. Horyn of The Times, thought she looked like a young Susan Hayward, and sent her to a vocal coach to erase her accent. When that exercise failed, she became a coach herself, stretching the vowels of Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in the movie version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
She was briefly married to Harry Brown, a screenwriter and a friend of her brother’s who was said to be an alcoholic. When he threatened her with a gun one night, she fled to Mr. Isherwood and Mr. Bachardy’s house, saying she was going out for lamb chops, and never came back. Another brief marriage, to Rory Harrity, an actor, ended in divorce. By that point Ms. Littman had moved to New York City and was working for Glamour magazine as an advice columnist.
She also worked for the photographer Richard Avedon as an all-around fixer, cajoler and aide-de-camp when he was putting together “Nothing Personal” (1964), his searing portfolio of American identity, with his high school friend James Baldwin. The book’s portraits of civil rights workers, segregationists, children of slaves, Daughters of the American Revolution and lunatic asylum inmates offered a startling collision of humanity, and Ms. Littman’s charm and persistence helped Mr. Avedon secure most of them.
“Nobody could resist her,” said Neil Selkirk, a photographer and filmmaker who interviewed Ms. Littman for a documentary about Marvin Israel, the painter and art director who designed “Nothing Personal.” “She also knew everyone. She knew the head of the asylum.”
She also knew the terrifying Democratic Party boss and segregationist Leander Perez — whom Mr. Avedon captured pumped up with aggression, teeth clamped on a fat cigar — because he had shot pigeons with her uncle.
She and Mr Avedon received death threats on their Southern tour. “We’d been run out of every town in Louisiana,” Ms. Littman told Mr. Selkirk. “We were scared the whole time.”
Yet, Ms. Horyn recalled in a phone interview, “She was always comfortable in her skin, comfortable in the places she landed. She could navigate in a lot of circles and not boast about it. I don’t think she had anything to prove. For all her zest, there was a seriousness about her. She had missions to accomplish.”
In 1965, Ms. Littman married Mark Littman, a British barrister, and they settled in a house on Chester Square in London, the Belgravia neighborhood that has also been home to Margaret Thatcher and Mick Jagger. There, Ms. Littman gave what became storied lunch parties that began with Champagne laced with orange liqueur, moved onto jambalaya made with apricot jam, and ended with a nap. “It was great for starving artists,” the Swedish photographer Eric Boman said.
Her house “was like a fantasy world, with all these paintings by Hockney,” Mr. Eyre said.
“You could say she was sort of fantastic herself,” he added. “A fantasist. Her mind and her memory and her accent. Her husband said to me one day, ‘Do you find Marguerite’s accent has gotten heavier?’”
Ms. Littman’s brother died in 2011, and Mr. Littman died in 2015. She leaves no immediate survivors.
“I would say Marguerite had many talents and did many things, but her greatest achievement was her AIDS advocacy,” said Ms. Blair, whose decades-long friendship with Ms. Littman deepened through their AIDS work. “I would also say she was someone — how shall I put it? — who lingered in people’s minds.”