A Force of Nature: Lillian Hellman

“A defeat for an only child can always be turned into a later victory,” writes Lillian Hellman in An Unfinished Woman.

Born on June 20, 1905, defeat simply wasn’t part of Hellman’s world. She was a woman of singular talent and courage who became one of the most eminent playwrights of the 20th century. The only child of Max Bernard Hellman, a Jewish shoe salesman, and Julia Newhouse Hellman, Lillian was independent from the beginning and grew up quickly. Her father’s job forced the family to live in New York with her mother’s relatives half of the year and in the south, with her father’s two sisters, who ran a boarding house, for the other half. Caught literally and figuratively in the middle, as a child Lillian found that she was always ahead of her southern classmates and constantly behind her peers in New York. So she made her own rules and frequently skipped school.

But Lillian was brilliant and became a scholar of the world very young. She graduated from high school in New York, and attended New York and Columbia Universities. Her formal education ended in 1924 when she started working as a manuscript readerat a New York City publishing company. Hellman quickly found herself part of the Bohemian literary party scene. She married theatrical press agent Arthur Kober on December 1, 1925, and the two spent time in Europe. In 1929 Hellman made a side trip to Germany where she witnessed the Nazi movement’s anti-Semitism and was horrified not just because she was Jewish but because she was a citizen of the world.

From the beginning, Hellman was a feminist who played by her own rules and described herself as “openly rebellious.” In an age when women were supposed to be little more than decoration, she spoke her mind and took risks that most men feared to take. Always confrontational, Hellman had the courage of her convictions. She was active in the campaign against fascism in Europe and stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee when subpoenaed in 1952. Unlike some other Hollywood writers who placed their careers before their principles, Lillian refused to name her friends as Communists. She would not as she said, “cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” Although Hellman was not jailed for this action, she was added to Hollywood’s blacklist and hit with a huge and unexplainable tax bill. In order to pay the bill, Hellman had to sell her home and start all over again which she did without regrets.

When Hellman and Kober moved to Hollywood in 1930 she started working as a script reader for Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer. It was there that she met mystery novelist and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man), who would become her muse and lover until his death in 1961. Hellman and Kober divorced in 1931. Hellman’s adventures took her everywhere. She visited Paris with Kober shortly after their marriage, attended a theater festival in Moscow, and accompanied Ernest Hemingway for a firsthand view of the Spanish Civil War in 1937. In 1941 she participated in the Fourth Writers Conference, which was considered a Communist gathering. During the war, Hellman helped smuggle $50,000 over the border for a group that wanted to overthrow Hitler.

Hellman used her work to bring taboo topics out in the open and, in turn, to spark controversy. She wrote The Children’s Hour in 1934, reportedly at the suggestion of Dashiell Hammett. Hammett believed that The Great Drumsheugh Case, a true story about a scandal at a Scottish boarding school (where a student accused two teachers of having a lesbian affair) would make a great play. He was right. Hellman’s adaptation, which opened in November 1934, shocked and fascinated Broadway audiences with its straightforward treatment of lesbianism. It enjoyed a run of 691 performances.

Hellman’s first great success, The Little Foxes (1939,) was a chilling study of a ruthless southern family. In 1946 she followed this with Another Part of the Forest, a prequel to the family’s story. The setting for these plays was the same part of the south where Hellman grew up. The treatment of anti-fascists in America is the subject of Watch on the Rhine, which was staged in 1941. The play was produced just before America entered WWII. Hellman thought it was time for this country to face the truth about what was happening in Europe.

Other well-known works by Hellman include Days to Come in 1936, The Autumn Garden in 1951, and Toys in the Attic in 1960. But Hellman didn’t stop with original plays. Some of her adaptations included The Lark, from Jean Anouilh’s L’Alouette (which she also translated) in 1955, a musical version of Voltaire’s Candide in 1957, and My Mother, My Father, and Me, from Burt Blechman’s novel How Much? Hellman also worked on film scripts from The Dark Angel in 1935 to the autobiographical Julia in 1977, and edited projects, such as Anton Chekov’s Selected Letters (1955) and The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett in 1966.

An overachiever who wasn’t content to write one book about her life; Hellman wrote three. Her first book of memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, was published in 1969, followed by Pentimento in 1973 and Scoundrel Time, in 1976. The latter detailed Lillian’s troubles, as well as the troubles of her friends with the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950s.

Throughout her life Hellman received many awards, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Watch on the Rhine in 1941 and Toys in the Attic in 1960. She received Academy Award nominations for screenplays of The Little Foxes and The North Star, as well as honorary degrees from various universities.

Although she wasn’t the most attractive woman of her generation, Hellman may have been one of the most alluring, tenacious, and vibrant. She had affairs with a great many handsome men who found her mind to be one of her most seductive qualities. It is also rumored that the night before her death, blind, a frail 80 pounds, and in a wheelchair, she tried to pick up a young man at a cocktail party. Lillian Hellman died of cardiac arrest on June 30, 1984 at her summer home in Martha’s Vineyard. Her estimated four-million-dollar estate was placed in two funds: one named after herself to promote educational, literacy and to aid writers regardless of their national origin, age, sex, or political beliefs. The other was named for Dashiell Hammett to promote the writings of liberal authors.

Commentary from Joan Rivers: “Hellman didn’t go quietly into the sunset. This woman you’re looking at is not going anywhere quietly. Just look at that cigarette and the cavalier, tough angle of the watch. Look at the jewelry, the way the ring is pushed the wrong way on her pinkie. It has been there forever…. She confirms the right way to be as a woman, and also the tragedy of being a smart woman, because there’s a tremendous loneliness in the picture. She’s hugging herself with one hand, and the other hand is trying to be so nonchalant. But I think Hellman walked into the photo session and said, ‘You’ve got ten minutes. Let’s go. You’re not going to do anything with this face.’”