Lillian Hellman

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Lillian Hellman
Born June 20, 1905(1905-06-20,)
New Orleans, Louisiana
Died June 30 1984 (aged 79)
Tisbury, Massachusetts
Occupation writer
Nationality American
Spouse(s) Arthur Kober (1925-1932)

Lillian Florence Hellman (June 20, 1905 – June 30, 1984) was an American playwright. Linked throughout her life with many left-wing causes, she was a vigorous proponent of social justice and critic of exploitation and capitalist excess. Hellman is representative of the interwar generation of authors and artists who were highly critical of Western culture and its selfish individualism. Like most of them, Hellman became a proponent of socialism. Her ardent support ultimately led to her blacklisting during the era of McCarthyism, as well as a famous feud with Elia Kazan over the "naming of names" before the House Un-American Activities Committee.


Early Life

Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana into a Jewish family. 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. Hellman attended New York University and Columbia University in the early 1920s but did not receive a degree. She worked as a book reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune in the mid-1920s. She was married to the playwright Arthur Kober from 1925 to 1932. She was romantically involved for 30 years with mystery and crime writer Dashiell Hammett (and was the inspiration for his character Nora Charles). She was also a long-time friend and the literary executor of author Dorothy Parker.[1]


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 who maliciously accuses her teachers of lesbianism. 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.

The Little Foxes derives its title comes from Chapter 2, Verse 15 in the Song of Solomon in the King James version of the Bible, which reads, "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes."

The play addresses the role of women in the American South, where the aristocrat Regina Hubbard Giddens struggles for wealth and freedom within the confines of an early twentieth century society in which her father considered only sons as legal heirs. As a result, her avaricious brothers Benjamin and Oscar are independently wealthy, while she must rely upon her sickly husband Horace for financial support.

The play earned Hellman fame and success. 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.[2]


From the mid-1930s, Hellman became involved with left-wing politics. While never a "card-carrying" Communist Party member, she remained an ardent supporter even as events in the Soviet Union became increasingly repressive.

In 1936-1937 Hellman traveled in Europe where she met other American expatriate writers of the so-called Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway. She saw the Spanish Civil War first-hand and also visited the Soviet Union as well. 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.[3]

In the 1940s Hellman was a screenwriter in Hollywood where she adapted some of her plays for the screen. During the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s her professional life ran afoul of the "Red Scare."

Blacklist and Aftermath

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, Hellman was blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studios for many years.

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 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Hitler and Stalin.[4]

In Two Invented Lives: Hellman and Hammett, author Joan Mellen noted that while Hellman had excoriated anti-Communist liberals such as Elia Kazan[5] 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.[6][7] 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.[8][9]

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.[7][9][10] 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." [10][7]

Hellman had also opposed the granting of political asylum to Leon Trotsky by the United States.[10][7][9] 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 for asylum.

As late as 1969, according to Mellen, she told Dorothea Strauss that her husband was a "malefactor" because he had published the work of Alexander 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.'"[7]

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 at age 79 from natural causes while litigation was still ongoing, and the suit was dropped by Hellman's executors.[11]


The Oscar-winning film Julia was claimed to be based on the friendship between Hellman and the title character. Upon the film's release, in 1977, New York psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner claimed that she was "Julia" and that she had never known Hellman. Hellman replied that the person upon whom the character was based was not Gardiner. However, the fact that Hellman and Gardiner had the same lawyer (Wolf Schwabacher), that the lawyer had been privy to Gardiner's memoirs, and that the events in the film conform to those in the memoirs, have led some to conclude that they had been appropriated by Hellman without attribution to Gardiner.

Hellman is also a main character in the play Cakewalk by Peter Feibleman, which is about Hellman's relationship with a younger novelist. Hellman did in fact have a long relationship with Feibleman, and the other main character in the play is somewhat based on him.

List of works

  • The Children's Hour (1934)
  • These Three (1936)
  • The Dark Angel (1935)
  • Days To Come (1936)
  • Dead End (1937)
  • The North Star (1943)
  • The Little Foxes (1939 play)
  • Watch on the Rhine (1940)
  • The Little Foxes (1941 screenplay)
  • Another Part of the Forest (1946)
  • The Autumn Garden (1951)
  • Candide (1957)
  • The Big Knockover (preface) (1963)
  • Toys in the Attic (1959)
  • An Unfinished Woman (1969) (autobiographical)
  • Pentimento (1973) (autobiographical)
  • Scoundrel Time (1976)
  • Julia (1977) made into a film starring Jane Fonda.
  • Maybe: A Story (1982)

See also


All links retrieved July 8, 2008.

  1. "Lillian Hellman (1905-1984)" Books and Writers.kirjasto.
  2. "Lillian Hellman (1905-1984)" Books and Writerskirjasto.
  3. "Lillian Hellman (1905-1984)" Books and Writers kirjasto.
  4. Franklin Folsom. Days Of Rage, Days of Anger, Days of Hope. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1994)
  5. Richard Bernstein, "Long, Bitter Debate From the '50's: Views of Kazan and His Critics" New York Times article, May 3, 1988
  6. Nathan Glazer, "An Answer to Lillian Hellman," Commentary Magazine 61 (6) (June 1976)
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Joan Mellen. Two Invented Lives: Hellman and Hammett. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996)
  8. William Wright, "Stage View," New York Times article, November 3, 1996
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Carl E. Rollyson. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. ISBN 0312000499)
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Corliss Lamont, Lillian Hellman, et al., "An Open Letter to American Liberals," Soviet Russia Today, March 1937 issue
  11. "Lillian Hellman, Author and Rebel, Dies at Age 77" [1] Author Lillian Hellman, who delineated evil in such plays as "The Children's Hour" and "The Little Foxes" and fell victim to it during the political persecutions of the 1950s, died Saturday of a heart attack at 77. Los Angeles Times. accessdate=2008-04-18

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bernstein, Richard, "Long, Bitter Debate From the '50's: Views of Kazan and His Critics." New York Times article, May 3, 1988. ISSN 0362-4331
  • Folsom, Franklin. Days Of Rage, Days of Anger, Days of Hope, University Press of Colorado, 1994. ISBN 9780879462215
  • Glazer, Nathan, "An Answer to Lillian Hellman," Commentary Magazine, Vol. 61, No. 6 (June 1976) ISSN 0010-2601
  • Mellen, Joan, Two Invented Lives: Hellman and Hammett, HarperCollins, New York, 1996. ISBN 9780060183394
  • Rollyson, Carl E., Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988) ISBN 0312000499
  • Wright, William, "Stage View," New York Times article, November 3, 1996. ISSN 0362-4331

External links

All links retrieved October 25, 2022.


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