Hellman, Lillian Florence

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HELLMAN, LILLIAN FLORENCE (1905–1984), U.S. playwright. Sources vary about the year of her birth. The Library of Congress lists it as 1906. The New York Times, the newspaper of record, in its obituary for her in 1984, listed her age as 79. She first worked for a publishing house and wrote short stories. Turning to the theater, she won instant fame with The Children's Hour (1934), a psychological tragedy about a schoolgirl's accusation of lesbianism against two of her teachers. The play ran for 691 performances in New York and was later made into a movie; it was banned in England. Her reputation was enhanced by The Little Foxes (1939), which portrayed a reactionary Southern family striving to maintain its position in face of social change. The play was adapted for the screen two years later and made into a successful opera, Regina, by Marc *Blitzstein (1949). She wrote an outspokenly anti-Nazi drama, Watch on the Rhine (1941), partly inspired by her experiences in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Hellman's gift for dialogue and her remarkable stage technique were allied to a skill in handling strong, even unpleasant, themes. After The Searching Wing (1944), set in pre-World War ii Europe and wartime America, came Another Part of the Forest (1946), a sequel to The Little Foxes. In the 1950s Hellman's career was arrested as a result of her refusal to incriminate fellow artists when called before the U.S. Congress's House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, at the height of the McCarthy era. Declaring that "I cannot and will not cut up my conscience to fit this year's fashions," she thereby resigned herself to several years of relative anonymity. Toys in the Attic (1960) dealt with problems of race and sex in her native New Orleans. Together with Richard Wilbur and Leonard *Bernstein, she also wrote Candide (1957), a comic opera based on Voltaire's satirical classic. Her own interpretation of her political history – which was and is controversial – is easily found in her memoirs: An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), Scoundrel Time (1976), and her meditation, Maybe, A Story (1980). (In 1979, Mary McCarthy called Hellman "dishonest" as a writer and in 1980, Martha Gellhorn argued that An Un-finished Woman was, in the main, fiction.) Hellman's life and personality enjoyed renewed interest when her semi-autobiographical story of the wartime relationship between two women was made into a film, Julia, with Jane Fonda playing the part of Hellman.

For years, the great love of her life was Dashiell Hammett, a writer of classic crime novels such as The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Thin Man (1934).

add. bibliography:

M. Estrin (ed.), Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman (1989); P. Feibleman, Lily: Reminiscences of Lily (1988); B.Horn, Lillian Hellman: A Research and Production Sourcebook (1998); C. Rollyson, Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (1988). Anon., "Lillian Hellman … Dies at 79," New York Times (July 1, 1984), 1.

[Joseph Mersand /

Rohan Saxena and

Lewis Fried (2nd ed.)]