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||Lillian Hellman (1905-1984)|
American playwright and memoirist, who had a lifelong relationship with the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. 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 and was included in Richard A. Posner's list of the twentieth century's top 100 public intellectuals.
"There are people who eat earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. And other people who stand around and watch them eat." (from The Little Foxes, 1939)
Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans to Julia (Newhouse) Hellman, who came from Alabama, and Max B. Hellman, from New Orleans. At the age of five she moved with her family to New York. Half of every year was spent in New York City and the other half back in Louisiana, at a boarding house run by her aunts.
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 Paris Comet- This English-language magazine, edited by her then-husband Arthur Kober.
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." (Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, 1986, p. 60) 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.
"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." ('Dashiell Hammett' by Lillian Hellman, in On the Contrary: Essays by Men and Women, edited by Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood, 1984, p. 35)
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. With Louis Kronenberg she worked on a satiric drama entitled Dear Queen. It was never produced. Many who knew her found her sensual and attractive, though the actor Walter Matthau insisted she was about as "seductive as a large bowl of oatmeal." (Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels by Deborah Martinson, 2005, p. 3) She was slim, had brown-reddish hair, sometimes blonde, dressed elegantly, and was a chain smoker. Hellman herself lamented her "flat ass", but liked her bosom, or "huge shelf", as Norman Mailer said. (Ibid., p. 4) At the age of 71, she posed for the Blackglama fur advertisement in Harper's Bazaar.
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 about their lesbianism. Originally the story was based on a law case which Hellman had found in a book by William Roughead. According to some sources, it was Hammett who first offered the idea to Hellman, who lacked inspiration. Hammett helped her with the writing but he did not attend opening night. He disliked theatre.
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. To make her point clear, Hellman explained to Samuel Goldwyn's story editor, who wanted to buy the screen rights of the play, that it is not about lesbians but about the power of a lie. Despite the controversial theme, the play ran on Broadway for nearly 700 performances.
Hellman signed in 1935 a three-year contract with Goldwyn. 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. Critics and audienced scorned it, William Randolp Hearst got up in the middle of the first act end left with a party of ten. "I vomited in the back aisle," Hellman revealed in an interview. (Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, 1986, p. 58) 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." (William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director by Gabriel Miller, 2013, p. 70) )
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 (in Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman, 1986), 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 1937 Hellman became pregnant with Hammett's child. He divorced from Josephine Dolan but Hellman abandoned plans to marry him and had an abortion. The Little Foxes (1939), which restored Hellman's fame after the flop of Days to Come, is among her best-known works. The chronicle of hatred and greed among the members of the Hubbard family was partly based on her own memories of the South. The Goldwyn studio had purchased the rights for the play after it gained success on Broadway. Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell were hired to do the final work on Hellman's script for William Wyler's screen adaptation. The film, starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, and Teresa Wright, received nine Academy Award nominations, but didn't win a single Oscar. According to Hellman, the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein prized The Little Foxes so highly that he showed it over and over at private parties.
The Little Foxes was set in the South in 1900. Brothers Ben
and Oscar Hubbard plan to establish a mill in their town and need
$75,000 for the venture. They ask help from their sister Regina
Giddens, who is married to Horace, the president of the local bank.
Horace, who has only a short time to live, refuses to become involved.
Oscar's son Leo, who is working at the bank, steals bonds to help his
father. Horace discovers the theft but will not prosecute the brothers.
He makes a new will, in which Regina receives only the exact amount of
the theft. Horace dies and Regina blackmails her brothers into
assigning her a 75 percent interest in the mill. Alexandra, her
daughter, discovers her mother's treachery and greed and leaves her
home forever. Hellman returned to the Hubard family history again in
the play Another Part of the Forest (1946), which was set in Alabama in 1880. Hellman always intended to do The Little Foxes as a trilogy.
With earnings from her celebrated play, Hellman purchased a 130-acre farm in Pleasantville, Westchester County, NY, which she called "Hardscrabble Farm." Hammett who had helped her to to write the play, spent much time there with her, but they did not sleep together. Hellman entertained her own friends and lovers, when she was not milking cows.
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." ('Playwright Lillian Hellman Is Dead of Cardiac Arrest' by Megan Rosenfeld, The Washington Post, July 1, 1984) Hellman was excused by the
committee with the remark: "Why cite her for contempt? After all, she
is a woman." (Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time, edited by Cyrus M. Copeland, 2003, p. 78)
Hellman was blacklisted from the late 1940s to the 1960s. When her
income virtually disappeared, she sold her home, the Hardscrabble Farm.
During the anti-Communist purges of the 1950s, Hellman collaborated
with the composer Leonard Bernstein on two plays, beginning from
Jean Anouilh's L'Alouette about Joan of Arc. Voltaire's satire Candide,
with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John
Latouche and Dorothy Parker, was aimed to make an artistic statement on
behalf of freedom of speech. "It's the very hardest work I've done for
the theater," said Bernstein, whose music got bigger and bigger. (Leonard Bernstein: A Life by Meryle Secrest, 1995, p. 205) According to a story, by the time Candide
was produced the Federal Bureau of Investigation had infiltrated the
orchestra so successfully that there were more FBI agents than
musicians. The overproduced show was a financial failure and was closed
after seventy-three performances. However, Bernstein's overture
became one of his most frequently performed works.
Hellman's play Toys in the Attic
(1960), about a Southern man obsessed with grandiose dreams, was filmed
by George Roy Hill. By 1955, she was able to buy an old
cottage on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. She also kept an apartment
in Manhattan. After the failure of My Mother, My Father and Me (1963)
Hellman abandoned writing for the stage, and focused on teaching and
writing her memoir trilogy. Her summers she spent in Vineyard Haven,
Massachusetts, in a comfortable modern house, with her maid and a
poodle. After Hammett died, she sold the old house where they lived.
An Unfinished Woman, which was a bestseller, described her childhood in New Orleans, years in Hollywood, and her relationship with Hammett. Pentimento (1973), even a greater hit, dealt with her youth and early days in New York. The most popular section of the book, about her friend Julia who was trapped by the Nazis, was the basis for the 1977 film adaptation. Scoundrel Time (1976) was an account of her experiences in 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
Hellman, whom she saw as "a sea turtle at rest on the ocean floor,
dreaming and digesting, with one dyspeptic eye half open in a sluggish
scan for predators and perhaps more food." (A Likely Story: One Summer With Lillian Hellman by Rosemary Mahoney, 1998, p. 104)
For further reading: Lillian Hellman: an Imperious Life by Dorothy Gallagher (2014); A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris (2012); Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels by Deborah Martinson (2005); Playwrights at Work, ed. George Plimton, (2000); Ex-Friends: Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer by Robert P. Newman (1999); A Likely Story by Rosemary Mahoney (1998); Lillian Hellman by Barbara Lee Horn (1998); The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank by Ralp Melnick (1997); Lillian Hellman: Rebel Playwright by Ruth Turk (1995); The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby by R.P. Newman (1989); Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, ed. M.W. Estrin (1989); Lilly: Reminiscences of Lillian Hellman by P.S. Feibleman (1988); Lillian Hellman: Her Legacy and Her Legend by C.E. Rollyson (1988); Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman by W. Wright (1986); Hellman in Hollywood by B.F. Dick (1982); Lillian Hellman by K. Lederer (1979); Contributions of Women: Theater by A. Dillon and C. Bix (1978); Lillian Hellman by D.V. Falk (1978); Lillian Hellman: Playwright by R. Moody (1972); Dramatic Soundings by J. Gassner (1968); Catalogue of the Lillian Hellman Collection by M. Triesch (1967); The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas by M. Triesch (1966) - See also: Wole Soyinka