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Lillian Hellman (1905-1984)


American playwright and memoirist, who had a lifelong relationship with the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. Many of Hellman's characters were based on members of her own family. Despite writing only 12 plays, Hellman was a leading voice in the American theatre. She was also active on the political stage and was included in Richard A. Posner's list of the twentieth century's top 100 public intellectuals.

"There are people who eat earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. And other people who stand around and watch them eat." (from The Little Foxes, 1939)

Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans to Julia (Newhouse) Hellman, who came from Alabama, and Max B. Hellman, from New Orleans. At the age of five she moved with her family to New York. Half of every year was spent in New York City and the other half back in Louisiana, at a boarding house run by her aunts.

Hellman studied at New York University (1922-24) and Columbia University (1924) without completing a degree. In 1925 she began her writing career by reviewing books for the New York Herald Tribune. Her short stories were published in the magazine The Paris Comet. Beginning in 1930 Hellman read scripts for MGM in Hollywood. "When I first went out to Hollywood one heard talk from writers about whoring," she once said. "But you are not tempted to whore unless you want to be a whore." (Playwrights at Work, ed. George Plimton, 2000) Hellman's marriage (1925-32) to playwright and press agent Arthur Kober ended in divorce, after which she returned to New York. By that time she had already started an intimate friendship with Hammett that would continue until his death in 1961.

"We met when I was twenty-four years old and he was thirty-six in a restaurant in Hollywood," Hellman recalled. "The five-day drunk had left the wonderful face looking rumpled, and the very tall thin figure was tired and sagged. We talked of T.S. Eliot, although I no longer remember what we said, and then went and sat in his car and talked at each other and over each other until it was daylight. We were to meet again a few days later, and, after that, on and sometimes off again for the rest of his life and thirty years of mine." (The Dashiell Hammett Story Omnibus, 1962)

Hellman was the inspiration for Hammett's Nora Charles, the loyal wife of his detective hero Nick Charles. In real life, Hellman had several affairs during the decades she was close to Hammett, among others with John Melby, whom she met in Moscow in the 1940s. Many who knew her found her sensual and attractive, though the actor Walter Matthau said she was about as "seductive as a large bowl of oatmeal." She was slim, had brown-reddish hair, sometimes blonde, dressed elegantly, and was a chain smoker. Hellman heself lamented her "flat ass", but liked her bosom, or "huge shelf", as Norman Mailer said. (Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels by Deborah Martinson, 2005) At the age of 71, she posed for the Blackglama fur advertisement in Harper's Bazaar.

In 1929 Hellman made a trip to Europe. As a playwright, Hellman first gained success with The Children's Hour (1934), a story in which a spoiled child attacks her teachers through destructive gossip about their lesbianism. Originally the story was based on a law case which Hellman had found in a book by William Roughead. According to some sources, it was Hammett who first offered the idea to Hellman, who lacked inspiration. Hammett helped her with the writing but he did not attend opening night.

The case took place in Edinburgh in the nineteenth century and was about two old-maid schoolteachers and a little girl who brought charges of lesbianism against the two teachers. "It's not about lesbians," Hellman explained to Samuel Goldwyn's story editor, who wanted to buy the screen rights of the play. "It's about the power of a lie." Despite the controversial theme, the play ran on Broadway for nearly 700 performances.

Hellman signed in 1935  a three-year contract with Goldwyn. She became involved in a number of Hollywood projects, which softened the failure of Days to Come (1936), a play which drew its subject from a labor strike in a Midwestern town. Critics and audienced scorned it. These Three (1936), based on The Children's Hour and directed by William Wyler, was the first of several collaborations between Wyler and Hellman. "We had to become friends," she told Goldwyn biographer Scott Berg, "because we were the only two people in the Goldwyn asylum who weren't completely loony." (from A Talent for Trouble by Jan Herman, 1997)

In 1936-37 Hellman traveled in Europe. She met Ernest Hemingway and other American writers living in Paris, visited Spain, where she witnessed the horrors of the civil war, and traveled in the Soviet Union. To this period Hellman returned in her first memoir, An Unfinished Woman (1969). According to her biographer William Wright (in Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman, 1986), she fictionalized much of her adventures. Hellman's political sympathies had turned to the left and in her antifascist play Watch on the Rhine (1941), Hellman criticized the naiveté of the Americans. While traveling in Europe, Hellman helped to smuggle $50,000 over the border for a group who wanted to oust Hitler.

From the mid-1930s, Hellman was irregularly involved in liberal and leftist activities and organizations. However, she later asserted that she never joined the Communist Party. Like Sartre in France, Hellman was not among the first intellectuals who condemned the Soviet system – George Orwell's and Arthur Koestler's opinions about Communism had changed already in the 1930s. During the Cold War Era, Hellman sympathized with dissidents writers of the Eastern block.

In 1937 Hellman became pregnant with Hammett's child. He divorced from Josephine Dolan but Hellman abandoned plans to marry him and had an abortion. The Little Foxes (1939), which restored Hellman's fame after the flop of Days to Come, is among her best-known works. The chronicle of hatred and greed among the members of the Hubbard family was partly based on her own memories of the South. The Goldwyn studio had purchased the rights for the play after it gained success on Broadway. Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell were hired to do the final work on Hellman's script for William Wyler's film adaptation. The film, starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, and Teresa Wright, received nine Academy Award nominations, but didn't win a single Oscar. According to Hellman, the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein prized The Little Foxes so highly that he showed it over and over at private parties.

The Little Foxes was set in the South in 1900. Brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard plan to establish a mill in their town and need $75,000 for the venture. They ask help from their sister Regina Giddens, who is married to Horace, the president of the local bank. Horace, who has only a short time to live, refuses to become involved. Oscar's son Leo, who is working at the bank, steals bonds to help his father. Horace discovers the theft but will not prosecute the brothers. He makes a new will, in which Regina receives only the exact amount of the theft. Horace dies and Regina blackmails her brothers into assigning her a 75 percent interest in the mill. Alexandra, her daughter, discovers her mother's treachery and greed and leaves her home forever. Hellman returned to the Hubard family history again in the play Another Part of the Forest (1946), which was set in Alabama in 1880.

With earnings from The Little Foxes, Hellman purchased a 130-acre farm in Pleasantville, Westchester County, NY, which she called "Hardscrabble Farm." Hammett who had helped her to to write the play, spent much time there with her, but they did not sleep together. Hellman entertained her own friends and lovers, when she was not milking cows.

In the 1940s Hellman worked in Hollywood adapting her plays for the screen. She wrote the screenplay for The North Star (1943), which glorified the heroism of the Russian people in the war against the Germans. Contrary to the opinion of a number of other writers, she did not sympathize with the Finns in the Winter War between Finland and the Red Army in 1939-40 – the war started by order of Stalin. With William Wyler, Hellman developed an idea to make a documentary about the Soviet Union’s struggle against the Nazi invasion. The Soviet ambassador Maxim Litvinov and the foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov promised to supply all the equipment, but Hellman's and Wyler's frayed relations with Goldwyn stalled the project. Goldwyn promised Hellman to finance the short film The Negro Soldier.

When Hammett was serving his sentence for refusing to cooperate with the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, his lawyer advised Hellman to leave the country. She sailed to Europe with Wyler, who knew she was broke and paid her fare and hotel bills.

In 1952 Hellman was called to appear before HUAC. She refused to reveal the names of associates and friends in the theater who might have Communist associations, but she wasn't charged with contempt of Congress. In a letter to the Committee she wrote: "But the hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group..." Hellman was excused by the committee with the remark: "Why cite her for contempt? After all, she is a woman..."

Hellman was blacklisted from the late 1940s to the 1960s. When her income virtually disappeared, she sold her home, the Hardscrabble Farm. In the 1950s Hellman adapted works from other writers for the stage, among them Jean Anouilh's play L'Alouette about Joan of Arc, and Voltaire's satire Candide, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John Latouche and Dorothy Parker. Hellman's play Toys in the Attic (1960), about a Southern man obsessed with grandiose dreams, was filmed by George Roy Hill.  By 1955, she was able to buy an old cottage on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. She also kept an apartment in Manhattan.

After the failure of My Mother, My Father and Me (1963) Hellman abandoned writing for the stage, and focused on teaching and writing her memoir trilogy. An Unfinished Woman, which was a bestseller, described her childhood in New Orleans, years in Hollywood, and her relationship with Hammett. Pentimento (1973), even a greater hit, dealt with her youth and early days in New York. The most popular section of the book, about her friend Julia who was trapped by the Nazis, was the basis for the 1977 film adaptation. Scoundrel Time (1976) was an account of her experiences in the 1950s, when she was called to testify on Un-American Activities.

Hellman was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She taught writing classes at the University of New York, Yale University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1964 The National Institute of Arts and Letters presented her with the Gold Medal for Drama. In 1976 she was awarded the MacDowell Medal. Hellman died on June 30, 1984. Before her death, Hellman had suffered from poor eyesight. She managed to publish in 1980 a little novel about elusiveness of the truth of the past entitled Maybe. In 1984 appeared Eating Together: Recipes and Recollections. Her life has inspired several biographers. Even Hellman's part-time housekeeper for one summer, Rosemary Mahoney, has published her recollections of the author. "She always had the final word," Mahoney wrote in A Likely Story (1998) on Hellman, whom she saw as "a sea turtle at rest on the ocean floor, dreaming and digesting ..."

For further reading: A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris (2012); Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels by Deborah Martinson (2005); Playwrights at Work, ed. George Plimton, (2000); Ex-Friends: Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer by Robert P. Newman (1999); A Likely Story by Rosemary Mahoney (1998); Lillian Hellman by Barbara Lee Horn (1998); The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank by Ralp Melnick (1997); Lillian Hellman: Rebel Playwright by Ruth Turk (1995); The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby by R.P. Newman (1989); Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. M.W. Estrin (1989); Lilly: Reminiscences of Lillian Hellman by P.S. Feibleman (1988); Lillian Hellman: Her Legacy and Her Legend by C.E. Rollyson (1988); Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman by W. Wright (1986); Hellman in Hollywood by B.F. Dick (1982); Lillian Hellman by K. Lederer (1979); Contributions of Women: Theater by A. Dillon and C. Bix (1978); Lillian Hellman by D.V. Falk (1978); Lillian Hellman: Playwright by R. Moody (1972); Dramatic Soundings by J. Gassner (1968); Catalogue of the Lillian Hellman Collection by M. Triesch (1967); The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas by M. Triesch (1966) - See also: Wole Soyinka

Selected bibliography:

  • The Children's Hour, 1934
    - Films: 1936 (These Three), prod. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, dir. William Wyler, starring Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon, Joel McCrea; 1961 (GB title: The Loudest Whisper), prod. The Mirisch Company, dir. William Wyler, starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley Maclaine, James Garner, Miriam Hopkins, Fay Bainter. "Today, when every form of perversion except masturbation and bestiality have been shown on the screen, Hellman, Wyler and the Mirisch Co. apparently thought a re-do of The Children's Hour would sell tickets if lesbianism were not only restored as the charge the evil child falsely brings, but also condoned... There is an explicit line of dialogue which asserts that those who choose to practice lesbianism are not destroyed by it - a claim disapproved by the number of lesbians who become insane and/or commit suicide." (from Films in Review, April 1962)
  • The Dark Angel, 1935 (film script with Mordaunt Sharp, play Guy Bolton)
    - Prod. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, dir. Sidney Franklin, starring Merle Oberon, Fredric March, Herbert Marshall
  • Days To Come, 1936
  • The Spanish Earth, 1937 (screenplay/uncredited, with John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish)
    - Documentary, dir. Joris Ivens, narrated by Orson Welles, commentator Ernest Hemingway, with Manuel Azaña, José Díaz and Dolores Ibárruri
  • Dead End, 1937 (screenplay, play by Sidney Kingsley)
    - Prod. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, dir. William Wyler, starring Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart
  • The Little Foxes, 1939
    - Films: 1941, prod. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, screenplay L.H. with Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, dir. William Wyler, starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, Charles Dingle, Dan Duryea; 1951, TV drama in BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, starring Arnold Bell, George Coulouris and Walter Crisham; Raposas, TV drama 1953, in TV de Vanguarda, prod. TV Tupi, dir. Cassiano Gabus Mendes; TVdrama 1956, in Hallmark Hall of Fame, dir. George Schaefer, starring Greer Garson, Franchot Tone, Mildred Trares; Die kleinen Füchse, TV film 1962, prod. Sender Freies Berlin (West Germany), dir. Peter Beauvais; Le piccole volpi, TV film 1965, dir. Vittorio Cottafavi
  • Watch on the Rhine, 1941
    - Film 1943, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, screenplay by Dashiell Hammett, dir. Herman Shumlin, starring Dette Davis, Lucile Watson, George Coulouris
  • The Little Foxes, 1941 (film script)
  • Four Plays, 1942
  • The North Star, 1943 (script)
    - Prod. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, dir. Lewis Milestone, starring Anne Baxter, Farley Granger, Jane Withers, Dana Andrews
  • The Searching Wind, 1944
    - Film 1946, prod. Hal Wallis Productions, screenplay L.H., directed by William Dieterle, Robert Young, Sylvia Sidney, Ann Richards
  • Another Part of the Forest, 1946
    - Films: 1948, prod. Universal International Pictures (UI), screenplay Vladimir Pozner, dir. Machael Gordon, starring Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Ann Blyth, Dan Duryea; TV drama, in ITV Play of the Week, prod. Granada Television, dir. Henry Kaplan, starring Walter Fitzgerald, William Sylvester and Diana Fairfax; TV film 1972, prod. Hollywood Television Theatre, dir. Daniel Mann, starring Barry Sullivan, William Bassett and Tiffany Bolling
  • Montserrat, 1950 (adaptation of a play by E. Robles)
    - TV drama 1954, novel by Emmanuel Roblès, starring Denholm Elliott, Stephen Murray, Wensley Pithey, Donald Pleasence; TV drama 1955, in First Performance, prod. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC); TV film 1957, prod. Hessischer Rundfunk (West Germany), dir. Fritz Umgelter, starring Mario Ahrens, Isolde Bräuner and Peter Capell; TV drama 1958, in Play of the Week, prod. Granada Television, dir. Phil Brown, starring Lyndon Brook, Michael Caridia and John Chandos
  • The Autumn Garden, 1951
  • Lark, 1955 (adaptation of Jean Anouilh's play about Joan of Arc)
    - TV drama 1957, in Hallmark Hall of Fame, teleplay James Costigan, dir. George Schaefer, starring Julie Harris, Ward Costello and Harry Davis
  • Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1955 (ed.)
  • Candide, 1957 (musical work based on Voltaire's satire)
  • Toys in the Attic, 1960
    - Film 1963, prod. Meadway-Claude Productions Company, The Mirisch Corporation, screenplay James Poe, dir. George Roy Hill, starring Geraldine Page, Wendy Hiller, Dean Martin
  • Six Plays, 1960
  • My Mother, My Father and Me, 1963 (from Burt Blechman's novel How Much?)
  • The Big Knockover, 1966 (ed., collection of Dashiell Hammett's short stories)
  • The Chase, 1966 (script)
    - Prod. Horizon Pictures, Columbia Pictures Corporation, dir. Arthur Penn, from Horton Foote's novel, starring Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Angie Dickinson, Janice Rule, James Fox
  • An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir, 1969 (National Book Award)
  • Collected Plays, 1972
  • Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, 1973
    - Film adaptation 1977 (Julia), prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, dir. Fred Zinnemann, starring Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards Jnr, Maximilian Schell
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker, 1973 (collected by Lillian Hellman)
  • Scoundrel Time, 1976
  •  Maybe: A Story, 1980
  • Maybe: A Story (1980 novel)
  • Eating Together: Recipes and Recollections, 1984 (with Peter Feibleman)
  • Conversations with Lillian Hellman, 1986 (ed. J. R. Bryer)

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