Lillian Hellman

Lillian HellmanLillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans on June 20, 1905, the daughter of a shoe salesman. When she was five years old, her family moved to New York. She studied at New York University (1922-24) and Columbia University (1924), but did not earn a degree. In 1925, she began reviewing books for the New York Herald Tribune, and by 1930, she was employed as a script-reader by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood.

In the autumn of 1930, she met Dashiell Hammett with whom she would remain intimate until his death in 1961. 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's next stage success, 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. 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 labelled 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. As a result of her well-known political views, she was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Pressured to reveal the names of associates in the theatre who might have Communist associations, she replied:

"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.

Hellman continued to write, adapting several works for the stage including Anouilh's The Lark and a musical version of Voltaire's Candide which featured a score by Leonard Bernstein. The proceeds from these productions enabled her to purchase some property in Martha's Vineyard. However, almost a decade would pass before Hellman would write another completely original work. Again, Hammett would suggest the theme. Toys in the Attic opened in February 1960 with Jason Robards in the lead role. Although this would be her last work for the stage, Hellman remained active throughout her life. She taught creative writing classes at the University of New York, Yale University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And in her later years, she focused on several autobiographical works including An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). She died of cardiac arrest on June 30, 1984, at her home in Martha's Vineyard. 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. In 1993, Cakewalk, a play based on Hellman's relationship with Peter Feibleman, premiered at the American Repertory Theatre.

Hellman's Plays  |  Hellman's Films  |  Other Works  |  Biographies/Studies


Hellman's Plays

Hellman's Films

Other Works


Related Sites

American Theatre Index

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