Hellman, Lillian (1905–1984)
Hellman, Lillian (1905–1984)
Major American playwright, distinguished for her unprecedented success for a woman on Broadway and for her literary career, including screenwriting and memoirs, which spanned nearly 50 years. Name variations: Lily; Lillian Kober. Pronunciation: HEL-men. Born Lillian Hellman on June 20, 1905, in New Orleans, Louisiana; died at Martha's Vineyard on June 30, 1984; daughter of Max Hellman (a salesman) and Julia (Newhouse) Hellman; attended public school in New Orleans and Public School 6 in New York City; graduated from Wadleigh High School in New York City, 1921; attended New York University for two years; married Arthur Kober (a press agent), in 1925 (divorced 1933); lived with Dashiell Hammett; no children.
Drama Critics Circle Award for Watch on the Rhine (1941) and Toys in the Attic (1960); American Academy of Arts and Letters (1962); MacDowell Medal for Contributions to Literature (1976); National Book Award for Arts and Letters for An Unfinished Woman (1969); awarded honorary doctorate from Yale University, Columbia University, and Smith College, as well as honorary degrees from various other schools.
Family moved back and forth between New Orleans and New York City before settling in New York when Hellman was 16; at 19, worked for Liveright Publishing Company as clerk-reader until she married Arthur Kober (1925); moved to Paris and then to Hollywood with husband, landed a job as a script reader for MGM; met Dashiell Hammett (1930); wrote The Children's Hour, her first hit play (1934); became a screenwriter for MGM but continued theater work, maintaining a residence in New York City; known for her political and social activism, particularly in the 1930s and '40s; supported the anti-fascist cause in Spain by raising money, financing and collaborating on film documentary on the Spanish Civil War; was one of the chief sponsors of the Waldorf Peace Conference (1949); called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1952) where she made her famous statement and narrowly avoided being cited for contempt for her refusal to "name names"; blacklisted from Hollywood (late 1940s–early 1950s) due to alleged Communist affiliations; after 12 original plays and 3 adaptations, her illustrious career in the theater was over by 1963; collaborated on her final screenplay, The Chase (1966); in her 60s, embarked on an even more rewarding literary career with her critically acclaimed memoirs; organized and chaired the Committee for Public Justice (1970s).
The Children's Hour (1934, ran for 691 performances); Days to Come (1936); The Little Foxes (1939); Watch on the Rhine (1941); The Searching Wind (1944); Another Part of the Forest (1946); Montserrat (adaptation, 1949); The Autumn Garden (1951); The Lark (adaptation, 1955); Toys in the Attic (1960).
(co-scripted) The Dark Angel (United Artists, 1935); These Three (based on her play The Children's Hour, Goldwyn/U.A., 1936); Dead End (U.A., 1937); The Little Foxes (RKO, 1941); The North Star (also titled Armored Attack, RKO, 1943); The Searching Wind (Paramount, 1946); The Chase (Columbia, 1966).
An Unfinished Woman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969); Pentimento (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973); Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976); Maybe (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980).
Lillian Hellman's image was that of a courageous and highly moralistic woman who stood her ground before the mighty HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) in 1952—and won—an uncommon feat, to be sure. But both her image and her stance belie the complexity and contradictions that haunted the renowned American playwright, screenwriter, and memoirist in her later years. She went to her grave with a $2 million lawsuit pending against fellow writer Mary McCarthy , who branded Hellman a liar on national television in 1980. "Every word she writes is a lie," said McCarthy on the "Dick Cavett Show," "including 'and' and 'the'." The lawsuit was dropped following Hellman's death in 1984.
But McCarthy's damning words, aimed mainly at some of the slippery "facts" reported in her memoirs, could not negate Hellman's literary achievements or her justifiable claim to fame. Having produced 12 original plays and 3 adaptations over almost a 30-year span (1934–61), she cut a swath in the American theater unrivaled by most of her contemporaries. Biographer William Wright reminds us that:
Even before the memoirs, she was honored by as many leading universities as any other playwright; her plays are performed regularly and around the world, and her position as a dramatist is debated periodically in intellectual journals, which is remarkable.
Her successful playwriting contemporaries Clifford Odets, Irwin Shaw, S.N. Behrman, Robert Sherwood, and Phillip Kaufman have not survived as well, critically or commercially. For this reason, Hellman would, understandably, bristle at American critic George Jean Nathan's double-edged compliment: "the best of our women playwrights." A male bastion unaccustomed to accomplished women playwrights, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, Broadway provided the stage for Hellman's zenith and nemesis. During the playwriting years of her career, she turned to Hollywood screenwriting for easy money, while in her later years she forged an entirely new literary identity. Her four slender memoirs won even greater critical acclaim than her plays, revived her popularity, and secured her stature in American literary history.
Hellman's place of birth and death—New Orleans in the South and Martha's Vineyard in the North—parallel the cultural disparity in her parentage and upbringing. Her father Max Hellman was a German Jew whose family had settled in and around New Orleans where Hellman was born in 1905. Born in Alabama, her Southern aristocratic mother Julia Newhouse Hellman —also of Jewish extraction—married beneath her, though it was Max who enjoyed the upper hand in the marriage. Lillian, an only child, was ferried between her father's sisters' New Orleans boarding house and her parents' apartment in Manhattan, the swankier upscale home base of Hellman's maternal relatives. After losing the shoe business in which his in-laws had set him up, Max Hellman made his living as a traveling salesman. In her memoirs, Hellman admits to being taken more with her lively colorful father and his family than with her demure docile mother and their claim to social status and wealth. In fact, while Lillian idealized her father's cousin Bethe and his sisters Jenny and Hannah in the second memoir Pentimento, she immortalized her mother's kinsfolk as the greedy evil Hubbards in the plays The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest. Ironically, Hellman herself always enjoyed lavish spending and the fineries of life, while remaining a firm supporter of social justice and the underdog.
An intelligent and precocious child, Lillian read voraciously and kept track of her observations on the interesting people who moved through her aunts' New Orleans boarding house in her writer's journal. Accustomed to having her way with her doting parents, she admittedly used her wrath as a weapon. (See Pentimento.) Her anger figured prominently in her life, as the catalyst in her fervor for justice and as the sign of an irascible and difficult personality.
An unexceptional but competent student, Lillian completed high school in Manhattan where her family had finally moved when Hellman was 16. After two years at New York University, she dropped out but managed to get hired as a clerk-reader for the prestigious Liveright Publishing Company, one of the future homes of up-and-coming American writers like William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. During this time, she met her husband Arthur Kober, a theatrical press agent and, like Hellman, an aspiring writer. Following their wedding in 1925, she left her job and worked on her fledgling writing career, producing stories that she would later refer to as "lady writer stories." Although she did get published in journals like the Paris Comet, which then-husband Arthur Kober edited, the stories did not amount to much, leaving Hellman frustrated and without direction. Apart from small jobs, like reviewing books for the New York Herald Tribune, she mostly moved with Kober and his jobs to Paris and then to Hollywood where the burgeoning film industry was importing writing talent from New York in the late 1920s. This move proved to be a crucial turning point in her life and career, for it was in Hollywood that Hellman met her mentor and the love of her life, famed detective fiction writer Dashiell Hammett.
Hellman's marriage to Kober was reportedly pleasant but unfulfilling for the headstrong adventurous Lillian, who was known to go off on her own, gamble for high stakes and engage in "flings." Hellman was not a conventional woman, even by today's more liberal standards. But she met her match in Dashiell Hammett. Given to womanizing, extended drinking bouts, and profligate spending, yet praised by those who knew him for his honesty and integrity, Hammett was a paradox—a most unconventional conventional man. In her memoirs, Hellman spoke extensively of Hammett, characterizing him in Pentimento as a "Dostoyevsky sinner-saint."
In 1930, the dashing Hammett cut quite a figure in Hollywood. Admired by men and
adored by women, he had reached the pinnacle of both artistic success and economic potential. The author of Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, and The Maltese Falcon had everything to win in Hollywood where his talents were being courted for the big screen. He was 36 when he met the 25-year-old Hellman who, apart from working as a low-paid script reader for MGM, was still floundering as a writer.
In Pentimento, Hellman recalls her first encounter with the "cool teacher" she felt she so needed. Their 30-odd-year relationship as mentor-protege-lovers must go down in the annals of such famous couplings as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn , and Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir . While witnesses and biographers dispute the time and location of their first encounter pinpointed by Hellman, none question the extent of Hammett's influence on the neophyte writer. With Hammett firmly affixed in her life, her short "pleasant" marriage ended in a friendly divorce, and Arthur Kober became a devoted and lifelong friend.
Hammett effectively guided Hellman toward the craft of playwriting and functioned as her personal editor. Tough and relentless in his criticism, he enjoyed a privileged hand in her work that Hellman accorded to no other individual at any time in her nearly 50-year professional career. But as her literary star ascended, his waned. Indeed, over time her work superseded his, in terms of productivity, critical importance, and staying power. In the early years of their relationship, he wrote and published The Thin Man, featuring the popular Nick and Nora Charles. (Nick, of course, sports many of Hammett's own
qualities, while the female villain as well as Nora, played in the movies by Myrna Loy , are loosely fashioned on Hellman.) But apart from some screenplay adaptation and touching up, his comparatively short writing career skidded to a halt as Hellman's steamed ahead.
They sustained a relationship of changing colors over a 30-year period—as lovers, confidantes, friends—sometimes in the same house and sometimes not, sometimes in the same city and sometimes not. But they remained committed companions, despite the innumerable "casual ladies" in Hammett's life and Hellman's intermittent and more serious romantic attachments.
Hammett is credited with suggesting the basis for Hellman's first play. She transformed William Roughead's factual account, "The Great Drumsheugh Case," into an acclaimed drama entitled, The Children's Hour. Her first dramatic effort—about two friends and managers of a boarding school destroyed by a child's "lie" accusing them of lesbianism—took Broadway by storm in 1934. In fact, as William Wright points out, the Drama Critics' Circle Award originated because theater critics were dismayed that The Children's Hour was not awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Nor was the play's success (one of Hellman's longest-running plays) slowed as a result of being banned from the stages of Boston and Chicago because of its unorthodox topic. The Children's Hour also established the long-term relationship between Hellman and Herman Shumlin, a major Broadway director and producer.
The tight well-made structure of the play became vintage Hellman, although this form of dramatic realism was well-established in the work of British writer Arthur Wing Pinero and of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen. But along with the play's commercial and critical success came the charge of "melodrama" that undermined Hellman's dramatic achievement. Her instant and consistent commercial success on Broadway seemed to work against her artistic status. Nonetheless, Hellman's reputation as a writer was cinched, and, lured by MGM, she returned to Hollywood as a highly paid screenwriter for Samuel Goldwyn. She reportedly enjoyed an uncommonly privileged professional and personal association with Goldwyn, head of one of Hollywood's major studios. Eventually, she would establish a home base in New York City, but in the 1930s and 1940s Hellman remained closely connected with Hollywood, which at that time was a hotbed of progressivism.
The decade following the Great Depression saw a heightened awareness of the need for social justice. Many liberal Americans, particularly artists and writers, looked favorably on the egalitarian Marxist theories that inspired the Communist revolution in Russia. With fascism on the rise in Italy, Germany, and Spain, Americans and Russians also shared—for once—a common enemy. As a result, a number of these socially conscious Americans courted Communism as a means of solving domestic problems, like low wages, unemployment, poverty, and disparity between the rich and the poor.
I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions.
As a rule, Hellman did not mix politics with art, and she avoided socialistic enterprises like the Federal Theater Project, the Trade Union Theater, and the Group Theater. (These government-subsidized projects were intended to relieve unemployment and encourage new writers in the post-Depression years.) But in her private life and especially during the 1930s and 1940s, Hellman was politically active. This involvement resulted in her being the subject of an ongoing FBI file as well as being blacklisted in Hollywood from the late 1940s into the 1950s. Unlike Hammett, Hellman swore she was not a "card-carrying" Communist, even though others had reported differently. But she shared Hammett's politics of social justice and humanitarianism, cementing the bond between them. Hellman consistently used her energy, influence, and talent to support causes like the moribund Screenwriter's Guild which she helped to revive and to organize. That she was a highly paid screenwriter at the time, unlike her poorly paid colleagues, seemed irrelevant. Hellman was also an active supporter of the Loyalists in Spain in their fight against fascism and General Francisco Franco. She helped to raise money for the refugees and to finance a documentary about wartorn Spain in the hopes of waking up sleepy Americans unmindful of the swelling fascist threat abroad. Hellman's account in An Unfinished Woman (1969) of her 1937 visit to Spain during the war is one of the topics on which her veracity is attacked by Martha Gellhorn , a war correspondent and fellow supporter of the Loyalist cause, who was then a lover and later a wife of Ernest Hemingway.
During this same 1937 trip, Hellman made her first trip to Russia, having been honored by an invitation to the Moscow Theater Festival. In 1944, she again visited Russia on a cultural mission and, while there, visited the Russian front and made lasting friends. (Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian film director, was one.) In the 1960s, she traveled to Russia a third time, and a diary account of these visits is contained in An Unfinished Woman. But her amicable relations with Russia and its people would be used as evidence of her un-Americanism in the chilly postwar climate of the late 1940s, when American hatred and fear of Communism reached a fevered pitch.
Hellman bought a piece of property in Connecticut which she named "Hardscrabble Farm" where she and Hammett lived contentedly and productively during a good deal of the '40s. But the HUAC hearings led by Senator Joseph McCarthy were in full swing by the end of the decade, and, with the cooperation of Hollywood's studio heads, the HUAC compiled a lengthy list of names (writers, actors, directors, etc.), resulting in the "blacklist" by which artists were branded as subversives and prevented from getting work. Hellman fell into this category, as did Hammett, who went to jail for six months in 1947 for refusing to cooperate with the committee. During this time, Hellman regretfully sold her farm, said goodbye to her happiest time with Hammett, and prepared herself for her own appearance before the HUAC in 1952. In a letter to the committee, she made her famous statement in which she agreed to talk about herself but not about others, refusing to "bring bad trouble" to old friends. (See Hellman's account in Scoundrel Time.) Although she was apparently not the first to take this stance, she was the first to frame her position so eloquently, publicly, and with such moral persuasion: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." Her letter was mistakenly read aloud in court and made public record, leading to the technicality which prevented the committee from finding Hellman in contempt. Despite her narrow escape, the hearings had exacted their toll on Hellman's life (loss of farm, Hammett's greatly deteriorated health) and career (loss of work and income).
Although she told PBS interviewer Marilyn Berger in 1980 she wished she had "told them all to go to hell," in this public moment of her private life Hellman held to the demand for moral rectitude that permeates her dramatic work. In her plays, morality is not an abstract notion but something that must be grasped on an individual basis, as through the lie one tells to another (The Children's Hour) or the lie one tells to one's self (Toys in the Attic, Autumn Garden, The Searching Wind). Elsewhere Hellman probes the greed and lust for power that would lead individuals to commit blackmail, theft, and even murder (The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, Watch on the Rhine). The struggle is always between "good and active evil," as Edith Issacs explained in an article in which she praised the dramatist for her "creative skill and technical equipment" in presenting the same theme so variously and effectively. Drama critic Allan Lewis put it this way: "Hellman's dark world of those who triumph for a calculated disregard of moral values is as grim and full of pain as is the most extreme theatre of the absurd. Her dramas… are portraits of people and not of abstract symbols." Unlike the social protest drama of her contemporaries, Hellman's moralistic drama has better stood the test of time.
She was also unique in her ability to grow as a writer and try other forms, including editing, adapting, screenwriting and, most important, the autobiographical memoir. By the early 1960s, her playwriting career was over, the HUAC trouble was behind her, and Hammett was dead. Now in her 60s, she began writing her memoirs. She even mined new territory in this traditional genre, by using the skills of the dramatist to provide narrative structure and to enliven the scenes and characters remembered. Her memoirs were enormously successful with audience and critics alike, and novelist Maureen Howard tried to capture the charm of Hellman's new and distinctive literary voice in The New York Times Book Review: "Memory has become a liberation: as she speaks directly to us her voice, unshared with her characters, has a new freedom. For a mind like Hellman's the imagination is enlarged not limited by the facts of her life."
Hellman's dramatic imagination, which served her art so well in the memoirs, apparently collided with fact. Accusations of untruthfulness followed, particularly after Julia, the well-received film adaptation of Pentimento, came out in 1976. One of the key issues concerned whether or not Julia was an actual friend of Hellman's as claimed, or a composite based on Muriel Gardiner , the only known American anti-fascist underground fighter. Hellman went to her death denying that and other charges, despite weighty evidence to the contrary. But her final memoir, Maybe, entertained the idea of whether or not we can trust memory or even know the "truth," and this may be Hellman's best answer to her accusers. Partially paralyzed and nearly blind, Lillian Hellman continued writing until she died in 1984, at age 79.
Howard, Maureen. The New York Times Book Review. April 25, 1976, p. 2.
Issacs, Edith J.R. "Lillian Hellman: A Playwright on the March" in Discussions of American Drama. Ed. by Walter J. Meserve. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath, 1966.
Lewis, Allan. American Plays and Playwrights of the American Theatre. NY: Crown, 1970.
Nathan, George Jean. "Playwrights in Petticoats," in American Mercury. June 1941, pp. 750–55.
Waites Lamm, Kathleen. "Lillian Hellman: Revisioning from Drama to Memoir." Diss. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, August 1986.
Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1986.
Mellen, Joan. Hellman and Hammett. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1996.
Papers, letters, manuscripts located at the Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas in Austin.
The Children's Hour (107 min.), produced by United Artists, directed by William Wyler, starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, Fay Bainter , and Miriam Hopkins , 1962 (titled The Loudest Whisper in Great Britain).
Dash and Lilly (television movie about Hammett and Hellman), starring Sam Shepard and Judy Davis , A&E Network and Granada Entertainment Production, directed by Kathy Bates , premiered on May 31,1999.
Julia (116 min.), based on Pentimento, was filmed by 20th-Century Fox, directed by Fred Zinnemann, with an Academy Award performance by Vanessa Redgrave , also starred Jane Fonda, Cathleen Nesbitt , with an early credit for Meryl Streep , 1977.
The Little Foxes (115 min.), produced by RKO, directed by William Wyler, starred Bette Davis (nominated for an Academy Award), Herbert Marshall, and Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge (both nominated for Best Supporting Actress), screenplay by Hellman, Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker , and Alan Campbell, 1941.
Watch on the Rhine (114 min.), produced by Warner Bros., directed by Herman Shumlin, starring Bette Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald , Paul Lukas, Beulah Bondi, Lucile Watson (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), screenplay by Hellman and Hammett, 1943.
Kathleen A. Waites Lamm , Professor of English and Women's Studies at Nova University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida