Tha Autumn Garden dramaturgy: biography

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Lillian Florence Hellman (June 20, 1905June 30, 1984) was an American playwright, linked throughout her life with many left-wing causes. She was romantically involved for 30 years with mystery and crime writer Dashiell Hammett (and was the inspiration for his character Nora Charles), and was also a long-time friend and literary executor of author Dorothy Parker.

Early Life

Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to Julia (Newhouse) Hellman, who came from Alabama, and Max B. Hellman, from New Orleans into a Jewish family. Her father was a shoe salesman. At the age of five she moved with her family to New York. During most of her childhood she spent half of each year in New Orleans, in a boarding home run by her aunts, and half in New York City.

In her memoir she states her first memory is of her family in a large New York apartment in an upper middle class situation often watching fancy parties held for her aunts to find suitors. Though as the poor granddaughter her times in New York and the summer cottage made her “an angry child and forever caused in me a wild extravagance mixed with respect for money and those who have it” (Hellman) of which she felt she rectified after writing Little Foxes.

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.” 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.

In the autumn of 1930, she met Dashiell Hammett with whom she would remain intimate 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.”

Hammett, a mystery writer and author of The Maltese Falcon, would prove to be one of the greatest influences in Hellman’s life. He reportedly suggested that she write a stage adaptation of ‘The Great Drumsheugh Case,’ an episode from William Roughead’s Bad Companions which detailed the scandal at a Scottish boarding school when a pupil accused two teachers of having a lesbain affair. Hellman’s adaptation, The Children’s Hour (1934), shocked and fascinated Broadway audiences with its frank treatment of lesbianism and enjoyed a run of 691 performances. It also spawned two film adaptations including These Three (1936) penned by Hellman herself. Hellman also wrote the scripts for such films as Dark Angel (1935), Dead End (1937), and The North Star (1943).

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.

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. Originally the story was based on a law case which Hellman had found in a book by William Roughead. 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.”

With earnings from The Little Foxes, Hellman purchased a farm in Westchester County, New York. Later she moved to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, but kept an apartment in Manhattan. 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, 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 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. 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.

In the 1960s Hellman began teaching and writing her memoir trilogy. An Unfinished Woman describes her childhood in New Orleans, years in Hollywood, and her relationship with Hammett. Pentimento (1973) dealt with her youth and early days in New York. The most popular section of the book, focusing on her friend Julia who was trapped by the Nazis, was the basis for the 1977 film adaptation. In Scoundrel Time (1976), Hellman returned to 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 …”

Hellman appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. At the time, HUAC was well aware that Hellman’s longtime lover Hammett had been a Communist Party member. Asked to name names of acquaintances with communist affiliations, Hellman instead delivered a prepared statement, which read in part:

To 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.

As a result of her defiance, Hellman’s name was added to Hollywood’s blacklist and she was slapped with an unexpected and unexplainable tax bill. Even worse, her partner, Dashiell Hammett, was sentenced to prison for six months. Alone and cut off from her only source of income, Hellman was soon forced to sell her home. Fortunately, she managed to stage a revival of The Children’s Hour and used the proceeds to relocate to New York.

Prior to the war, as a member of the League of American Writers with Hammett, she had served on its Keep America Out of War Committee during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

In Two Invented Lives: Hellman and Hammett, author Joan Mellen noted that while Hellman had excoriated anti-Communist liberals such as Elia Kazan in her memoirs for directing their energies against Communists rather than against fascists and capitalists, she held a double standard on the subject of free speech when it came to her own critics. Author Diana Trilling publicly accused Hellman of pressuring her publisher, Little Brown, to cancel its contract with Trilling, who had written a collection of essays defending herself and her husband Lionel Trilling against Hellman’s charges.[5][6]

Hellman had shaded the truth on some accounts of her life, including the assertion that she knew nothing about the Moscow Trials in which Stalin had purged the Soviet Communist Party of Party members who were then liquidated. Hellman had actually signed petitions (An Open Letter to American Liberals) applauding the guilty verdict and encouraged others not to cooperate with John Dewey’s committee that sought to establish the truth behind Stalin’s show trials. The letter denounced the “fantastic falsehood that the USSR and totalitarian states are basically alike.”

Hellman had also opposed the granting of political asylum to Leon Trotsky by the United States. Trotsky was the former Soviet leader and Communist who became Stalin’s nemesis in exile (and eventual victim of assassination), after the Soviet Union instructed the U.S. Communist Party to oppose just such a move.

As late as 1969, according to Mellen, she told Dorothea Strauss that her husband was a “malefactor” because he had published the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Mellen quotes her as saying “If you knew what I know about American prisons, you would be a Stalinist, too.” Mellen continues, “American justice allowed her now to maintain good faith with the tyrant who had, despite his methods, industrialized the ‘first socialist state.'”

Hellman’s feud with Mary McCarthy formed the basis for the play Imaginary Friends by Nora Ephron. McCarthy famously said of Hellman on The Dick Cavett Show that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” Hellman replied by filing a US$2,500,000 slander suit against McCarthy. McCarthy in turn produced evidence that Hellman had shaded the truth on some accounts of her life, including some of the information that later appeared in Mellen’s book.

Hellman died on June 30, 1984 at age 79 from natural causes on Martha’s Vineyard. She was still in litigation with Mary McCarthy, and the suit was dropped by Hellman’s executors. In her will, Hellman established two literary funds. The Lillian Hellman fund was to be used to advance the arts and sciences, and the second, intended to further radical causes, was named for Dashiell Hammett, her longtime companion and critic.

Hellman received numerous awards during her lifetime including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Watch on the Rhine (1941) and Toys in the Attic (1960), Academy Award nominations for the screenplays The Little Foxes (1941) and The North Star (1943), and numerous honorary degrees from various universities.

Her Writing

Hellman’s most famous plays include The Children’s Hour (1934), The Little Foxes (1939) and Toys in the Attic (1959).

Hellman was fond of including younger characters in her plays. In The Children’s Hour (1934), the play takes place in a children’s school and the antagonist of the play, Mary, is a young girl. In The Little Foxes (1939), an important sub-plot takes place between the potential marriage of the youngest characters in the play, Leo and Alexandra, another example of Hellman’s proclivity towards including children.

“They [Hellman’s Plays] are well constructed and well observed, with very strong moral centers. Her sense of character is always sharp and unsentimental.” – Wendy Wasserstein

Hellman received a ring from her Uncle Jake when she graduated school at age 15, she took it to a 59th street hock shop, got $25 and bought books. She told him about it that day and he said to her “So you’ve got spirit after all. Most of the rest of them are made of sugar water.” Which she later used in Little Foxes.

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.

Hellman’s next stage success (after Children’s Hour), Little Foxes (1939), has become perhaps her most well-known play. It is a chilling study of the financial and psychological conflicts within a wealthy Southern family based on her own memories. Already hailed as one of the greatest playwrights of her time, Hellman was a curiosity in the largely male-dominated world of American theatre. Soon she found herself being labeled as a ‘second Ibsen‘ or ‘the American Strindberg‘, but there were rough waters ahead for the young playwright. Throughout her career, Hellman openly held left-wing political views and was active in the campaign against the growth of fascism in Europe.

In 1935 Hellman signed a three-year contract with Goldwync. 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. 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)

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s she continued to write plays and increase her political activism. Her anti-fascist works “Watch the Rhine” (1941) and “The Searching Wind” (1944) directly criticized America’s failures to address and fight Hitler and Mussolini in their early years. Blacklisted in the 1950s for her leftist activism, Hellman continued to write and to speak out against the injustices around her. By the early 1960s, however, Hellman started to move away from drama and concentrated on writing her memoirs. Excited over recent student activism, Hellman began teaching. Throughout the rest of her life she would teach at a number of colleges, including both Harvard and Yale.

In 1969 Hellman published AN UNFINISHED WOMAN, the first of three memoirs that dealt with her social, political, and artistic life. Followed four years later by PENTIMENTO: A BOOK OF PORTRAITS and in 1976 by SCOUNDREL TIME, these books were a moving investigation of the life of a strong, successful woman — the life of a woman who stood against an unjust government and was able to maintain her dignity and artistic vision. Though criticized for inaccuracies, these books were influential not only for their depiction of an exceptional and exciting artistic time, but for their tone, which many associated with the beginnings of the feminist movement.


Lillian Hellman Timeline

1996 New York Times Article on Hellman

New York Times Articles on Hellman


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