Born 20 June 1905, New Orleans, Louisiana; died 30 June 1984, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Daughter of Max B. and Julia Newhouse Hellman; married Arthur Kober, 1925 (divorced), lived with Dashiell Hammett
Lillian Hellman, an only child, was both repelled and fascinated by the vital obsession with money of her mother's family, who had become wealthy through shrewd and often unscrupulous business dealings; she had warmer feelings for her father's family, particularly his two sisters. Hellman spent her childhood in New York City and New Orleans. After two years at New York University from 1922 to 1924 and a brief stint at Columbia University, she accepted a position as manuscript reader for Horace Liveright, Inc., a New York publisher. She worked as a theatrical playreader in New York from 1927 to 1930 and a scenario reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1930 to 1931 before returning to New York in 1932.
Hellman met her future husband, press agent Arthur Kober, and became acquainted with the literary world while working in New York. Kober and Hellman also lived in Paris and Germany for several months, and Hellman later made extensive visits to Spain and the Soviet Union. Hellman's observations of the political situation in Europe, coupled with her own Jewish faith, contributed to the dislike of fascism and anti-Semitism apparent in her later political works.
After she and Kober got an amicable divorce, Hellman lived with Dashiell Hammett, the detective-fiction writer. An honest and severe critic, he read all Hellman's work in progress and kept after her to rewrite it until it met his exacting standards. With the profits from her early plays, Hellman bought a large working farm in New York, where she spent her happiest years with Hammett. After both she and Hammett were investigated in the 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and were blacklisted, they lost their major sources of income and had to sell their farm.
Hammett guided her to the source for her first produced play, The Children's Hour (1934), an account of an actual libel suit in 19th-century Scotland. It tells the story of Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, owners of a successful girls' school, who are ruined by a charge of lesbianism. Extremely successful, partly because of its then shocking theme, the play ran for 691 performances on Broadway. The Children's Hour is a skillfully wrought melodrama deepened by psychological penetration and moral significance.
The Children's Hour was one of a number of Hellman's plays made into highly successful films in the 1930s and 1940s. She received Academy Award nominations for her adaptation of The Little Foxes in 1941 and her original screenplay The North Star in 1943. Her other filmed plays include The Searching Wind, filmed in 1946. Among Hellman's theatrical awards are the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1941 and 1960, a Gold Medal from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964 for Distinguished Achievement in the Theatre, and election to the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1973.
The Little Foxes (1939) is a gripping drama about the Hubbards of Alabama, who display the greed and driving egotism Hellman saw in her mother's family. Ben and Oscar Hubbard and their sister, Regina Giddens, form a partnership with a Northern industrialist to set up a profitable cotton factory in their town, but they cannot secure a controlling interest without obtaining money from Regina's husband, Horace, which he refuses to advance because he is disgusted by the Hubbards' ruthless greed. Throughout the play, mastery shifts between the brothers and their sister, depending upon who seems more likely to get control of Horace's money. In the end, Regina gains control by deliberately provoking him into a fatal heart attack. The Little Foxes is even better constructed than The Children's Hour. Throughout the play, every speech advances the action; the climactic scene in which Regina drives Horace into heart failure is both psychologically prepared for and superbly effective theatrically.
Because the Hubbards are intended to be human beings as well as monsters of selfishness, Hellman decided to "look into their family background and find out what it was that made them the nasty people they were." In Another Part of the Forest (1947), she went back 20 years to show Ben, Oscar, and Regina as young people dominated by their father, Marcus. Hellman found humor as well as evil in people like the Hubbards, and made this more obvious in her second play about them.
In Watch on the Rhine (1941), Hellman turned to the current political situation in order to awaken Americans to the growing menace of fascism. The play is set in 1940, just before this country entered World War II. Its title, from a German marching song, suggests Nazism must be watched and fought not only in Europe but in the United States. Accordingly, Hellman brings the antifascist struggle into an upper-class American home. Her moral point overshadows artistic interest and realism, but her rather simplistic message was eagerly welcomed by a nation on the brink of war. Like Watch on the Rhine, The Searching Wind (1944) focused on the innocence of Americans and their inability to comprehend the growing power of fascism and anti-Semitism in the 1930s.
The Autumn Garden (1951) is unlike Hellman's earlier plays in emphasizing character over plot. In a handsome but shabby Southern resort hotel, she gathers 10 people who lack purpose, joy, and love. Hellman's characterization here shows a notable advance in subtlety, as she views her people with more sympathy and less simple judgement. General Griggs, who wants a divorce from the wife with whom he is desperately bored, is a touching portrait of a decent, intelligent man trapped with a woman who cannot grow. The artist Nick Denery is no simple villain, despite his irresponsibility to others. He does not mean to hurt people; he just cannot resist the temptation to win their affection by charming compliments and well-intentioned but ill-considered interference. Since his own life is empty—his wife despises him, and he has not finished a portrait for 12 years—he has to fill it by establishing intimacy with others, yet he is too shallow and selfish for emotional commitment. Despite inadequate plotting, Hellman has powerfully developed her theme of people stalemated in middle age.
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of Hellman's writing is her first-rate craftsmanship: the neat plotting of the Hubbard plays, where thrilling melodramatic climaxes are meticulously prepared for, as hints are dropped in the beginning, every one to be picked up by the end; the relief from this suspenseful melodrama through pathos or comedy; the sharp characterization and vividly authentic speeches, which at the same time economically move the plot along.
In her last two original plays—The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic (1960), which also present middle-aged people who come to recognize the bleakness of their lives but find they cannot change them—Hellman's artistry appears more in character development. Instead of presenting lively sketches of villainy or pathos, she probes the motivation of a shallow charmer like Nick Denery. Instead of presenting straightforward relationships of love or domination, she examines ambivalent ones of mutual dependency. She sacrifices neatness to subtlety: dialogue no longer proceeds so briskly, but it expresses more precisely the feelings between people. She relaxes her tight plotting to give her characters more room to develop, though she unfortunately retains some jarring melodramatic elements. Hellman is surely right in considering The Autumn Garden her finest play.
Well made and popular as her plays have been, they are all redeemed from commercialism by their strong moral commitment. Hellman constantly makes the point, equally applicable to private and public affairs, that it is immoral to remain passive when evil is being done. She believes that a clear moral message "is only a mistake when it fails to achieve its purpose, and I would rather make the attempt, and fail, than fail to make the attempt." Only in a few cases, such as the anticlimactic discussion after Martha's death in The Children's Hour and the antifascist plays, does the moral message become obtrusive. Generally, it is organically part of her artistic structure and characterization. Hellman's works consistently demonstrated responsibility, courage, and integrity.
Hellman turned from writing plays to teaching at various New England and New York universities in the 1960s. She taught and conducted seminars in literature and writing at Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Hunter College, and the City University of New York. In the 1970s, Hellman gained considerable fame through the publication of her memoirs, the first of which was released in 1969 as An Unfinished Woman, and won a National Book Award. This vivid autobiography runs from her childhood in New Orleans to the death of Hammett in 1961. The whole book is characterized by painstaking honesty, as Hellman analyzes her rebellions and conflicts, her ambivalent attitudes toward money and the theater, and the tensions of her relationship with Hammett. Often she renders her experience in dramatic dialogues. The second volume of her memoirs, Pentimento (1973) is Hellman's reconsideration of certain themes in her life not developed in An Unfinished Woman. It consists mostly of portraits, of which the most memorable is that of her beloved girlhood friend, "Julia," a passionate anti-Nazi who involved Hellman in the mission (especially perilous for a Jew) of carrying $50,000 into Berlin to ransom political prisoners. Hellman's innocence, played against the elaborate subterfuges undertaken to safeguard her mission, makes for taut suspense. Scoundrel Time (1976) describes Hellman's experience of political persecution in the 1950s. These three memoirs were republished together as Three in 1979 with new commentary by Hellman. Her last volume of memoirs, Maybe: A Story, was published in 1980.
With the publication of Three and Maybe came controversy, when Hellman was called a liar by Mary McCarthy in a televised interview (Hellman later sued her), while Martha Gellhorn asserted that Hellman had fictionalized parts of An Unfinished Woman. In addition, another woman, psychoanalyst Muriel Gariner, who wrote Code Name Mary (1983), said Hellman appropriated her past as the basis of her "Julia" recollections in Penitmento. None of the charges or allegations were ever settled and Hellman died before her libel suit against McCarthy went to court. A film based on the relationship of Hellman and Hammett was produced by the Arts & Entertainment (A & E) network in 1999, appropriately titled Dash and Lil.
Dear Queen (with L. Kronenberger, unpublished and unproduced play, 1931). Days to Come (1936). The North Star: A Motion Picture About Some Russian People (1943). Candide by Voltaire (dramatization by Hellman, with music by L. Bernstein and lyrics by R. Wilbur, J. LaTouche, and D. Parker, 1957). Four Plays (1942). Six Plays (1960). Collected Plays (1972). Eating Together: Recollections and Recipes (with P. S. Feibleman, 1984).
The Lillian Hellman Collection is housed in the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin.
Bryer, J. R., ed., Conversations with Lillian Hellman (1986). Dick, B. F., Hellman in Hollywood (1982). Estrin, M., Lillian Hellman: Plays, Films, Memoirs—A Reference Guide (1980). Estrin, M. W., ed., Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman (1989). Falk, D. V., Lillian Hellman (1978). Feibleman, P., Lilly (1988). Feibleman, P., Cakewalk (1993). Foster, K., "Detangling the Web: Mother-Daughter Relationships in the Plays of Marsha Norman, Lillian Hellman, Tina Howe, and Ntozake Shange" (thesis, 1994). Heilman, R. B., The Iceman, the Arsonist, and the Troubled Agent (1973). Heilman, R. B., Tragedy and Melodrama: Versions of Experience (1968). Holmin, L. R., The Dramatic Works of Lillian Hellman (1973). Lederer, K. Lillian Hellman (1979). Luce, W., Lillian (1986). Moody, R., Lillian Hellman: Playwright (1972). Nelson, R., Sensibility and Sense (1989). Riordan, M. M., Lillian Hellman: A Bibliography: 1926-1978 (1980). Rollyson, C., Lillian Hellman, Her Legend and Her Legacy (1988). Shannon, D. D., "Mothers and Daughters: The Quest for Psychological Wholeness in the Plays of Lillian Hellman and Marsha Norman" (thesis, 1994). Triesch, M., The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas (1968). Wright, W., Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman (1986).
American National Biography (1999). Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature (1991). CANR (1991). CB (May 1941, June 1960). Encyclopedia of World Biography (1998). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA (1942).
Contact (1959). Modern Drama (1960). Paris Review (1965, Spring 1981). Lillian Hellman: The Great Playwright Candidly Reflects on a Long, Rich Life (recording, 1977).
—KATHARINE M. ROGERS,
UPDATED BY LEAH J. SPARKS
AND NELSON RHODES
Lillian Hellman, American playwright, wrote a series of powerful, realistic plays that made her one of America's major dramatists. She explored highly controversial themes, with many of her plays reflecting her outspoken political and social views.
Lillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 20, 1906, of Jewish parents, Max Hellman, a shoe salesman, and Julia Newshouse, whose family had made a small fortune in the banking industry. In 1910 her family moved to New York City, where she attended public schools. Her schooling was constantly interrupted by her father's frequent business trips to New Orleans, which would sometimes last up to six months.
Hellman went on to study at New York University (1923–1924) and Columbia University (1924). Her marriage to Arthur Kober in 1925, who was a writer for the New Yorker, helped Hellman get various jobs around New York City, including reading scripts for studios and working as a book reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune. The marriage ended in 1932.
Hellman worked as a manuscript reader for Liveright Publishers before becoming main play reader for producer Herman Shumlin. In 1930, ready to drop her idea of being a writer, she was talked out of quitting by Dashiell Hammett, who became her lifelong mentor (teacher) and partner.
Major works invited controversy
After a "year and a half of stumbling stubbornness," Hellman finished "The Children's Hour" (1934), based on an actual incident in Scotland. The action of the play is triggered by a child's accusation of sexual relations against two female teachers, which leads to one woman's suicide (where a person takes his or her own life). The play reveals Hellman's sharp characterizations and clear, moral comment on a theme considered dramatically untouchable at the time.
"In Days to Come" (1936), a play of a crumbling family as well as of the struggle between union (an organization that fights for workers' rights) and management, Hellman's dramatic touch faltered. However, her next play, "The Little Foxes" (1939), ranks as one of the most powerful in American drama. Set in the South, it depicts a family almost completely engulfed by greed and hate.
During World War II (1939–45; a war in which France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan), Hellman wrote two plays. "Watch on the Rhine" (1941), which received the New York City Critics Circle Award, was a drama about an underground hero, and spoke out harshly against the Nazis (a radical political party that controlled Germany leading up to, and during, World War II). "The Searching Wind" (1944) championed the movement against fascism (a form of government characterized by leadership by one all-powerful ruler), criticizing the failure of influential Americans to halt the rise of Germany's Adolph Hitler (1889–1945) and Italy's Benito Mussolini (1883–1945).
In "Another Part of the Forest" (1946), Hellman again portrayed the Hubbard family of "The Little Foxes"; she also directed the play. "Autumn Garden" (1951) lacked the usual passion of her dramas but was a touching and revealing insight into a southern boardinghouse. The style of the play is sometimes compared to the Russian writer Anton Chekhov's (1860–1904) work. "Toys in the Attic" (1960), a devastating portrait of possessive love set in New Orleans, won her another New York Critics Circle Award.
Work outside of the theatre
Hellman demonstrated her versatility as an author with a witty book for the musical "Candide" (1956); adaptations of two plays, "Montserrat" (1949) and Jean Anouilh's "The Lark" (1956); and her departure from realism (realistic pieces) in the humorous play of Jewish family life, "My Mother, My Father and Me" (1963). She also edited The Letters of Anton Chekhov in 1955.
Hellman published three memoirs (personal writings) dealing with her career, personal relationships, and political activities: An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). These works included her sharp criticism of the House Unamerican Activities Committee headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957), which accused hundreds of politicians, artists, and other Americans of being communists, the political design where goods and services are owned and distributed by the government. There was much discussion at the time about whether the content of these memoirs was greatly enhanced by Hellman.
Hellman received honorary degrees from several colleges and universities. Her theatrical awards included the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1941 and 1960); a Gold Medal from the Academy of Arts and Letters for Distinguished Achievement in the Theatre (1964); and election to the Theatre Hall of Fame (1973). She also received the National Book Award in 1969 for An Unfinished Woman and a nomination in 1974 for Pentimento: A Book of Portraits. Hellman died June 30, 1984, in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts.
For More Information
Hellman, Lillian. An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.
Hellman, Lillian. Pentimento: A Book of Portraits. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.
Hellman, Lillian. Scoundrel Time. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976.
Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
Lillian Florence Hellman (June 20, 1905–June 30, 1984) was one of the greatest American playwrights of the twentieth century. She is best known for The Children's Hour (1934), The Little Foxes (1939), Watch on the Rhine (1941), and Toys in the Attic (1960). Many of her plays have been turned into successful motion pictures. Hellman's focus on the basic human problems of jealousy, greed, cowardice, and ambition give her dramas a weight of emotional depth, while they also shed light on the broader historical and political conflicts of Western society in the middle of the twentieth century. The Little Foxes, staged at the end of the Great Depression with Tallullah Bankhead in a starring role, provided a withering indictment of the American capitalist system through its portrayal of a southern family torn apart in the course of haggling over seed money for the construction of a mill. The radical sentiments expressed in the play were a possible outgrowth of Hellman's peripheral involvement in various Communist front organizations in the 1930s. Though she later claimed to have never belonged to the Communist Party, Hellman also never avoided relationships with those who did. This proximity to possible Communists eventually led to her being called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, an ordeal that she recounts in one of her famous memoirs, Scoundrel Time (1976).
Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. As a child, she spent half of each year in the South, and half in New York City, where her father did business. Though she preferred the more easygoing lifestyle of New Orleans, she went to college in New York and got a job at a publishing house after leaving school. Her vivacious personality could not endure an office environment for long, however, and when the writer Arthur Krober offered to marry her and take her to California, she jumped at the chance to escape. The working relationship Hellman established with Hollywood lasted much longer than her marriage, and by the early 1930s she was living with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. The two writers remained close companions until Hammett's death in 1961.
Due to her accomplishments and growth as a writer during the 1930s, Hellman became one of America's foremost public intellectuals. She was never shy about confronting inflammatory topics. For instance, her acclaimed play The Children's Hour explored issues of lesbianism while also examining, twenty years before McCarthyism, the damage caused by unsubstantiated public accusations. Other writers often criticized her by calling her a publicity hound, and author Mary McCarthy once said that "everything [Hellman] writes is a lie, including and and the." But these surly critics rarely matched Hellman's natural ability to be a true public figure. In her later years, Hellman turned to teaching and to the writing of her much-acclaimed memoirs, the first volume of which, An Unfinished Woman, was awarded the National Book Award in 1969. Hellman died on Martha's Vineyard in 1984.
Bryer, Jackson R., ed. Conversations with Lillian Hellman. 1986.
Hellman, Lillian. Pentimento: A Book of Portraits. 1973.
Hellman, Lillian. Six Plays. 1960.
Michael T. Van Dyke
(c. 1905 - 1984)
American playwright, scriptwriter, memoirist, short story writer, director, critic, and editor.LILLIAN HELLMAN: INTRODUCTION
LILLIAN HELLMAN: PRINCIPAL WORKS
LILLIAN HELLMAN: PRIMARY SOURCES
LILLIAN HELLMAN: GENERAL COMMENTARY
LILLIAN HELLMAN: TITLE COMMENTARY
LILLIAN HELLMAN: FURTHER READING