December 30th, 2001
Lillian Hellman
About Lillian Hellman

She became a writer at a time when writers were celebrities and their recklessness was admirable. Like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Hammett, Lillian Hellman was a smoker, a drinker, a lover, and a fighter. Hellman maintained a social and political life as large and restless as her talent. While her plays were a constant challenge to injustice, her memoirs were personal accounts of the exciting and turbulent life behind the art.

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1905, Hellman saw her young life populated by eccentric and avaricious relatives, who later appeared only thinly disguised in her plays. Moving back and forth between New Orleans and New York as a child, Hellman witnessed the diverse cultures within her national borders. After graduating from high school, she briefly attended both Columbia University and New York University. Leaving school, she found a job at a publishing house, where she got her first glimpse of the bohemian lifestyle of the 1920s writer and artist. She married one of these young writers, Arthur Kober, and with him moved to Hollywood.

By the early 1930s, Hellman had found a job as a reader for MGM. Though she found the work dull, it provided her the opportunity to meet a wider range of creative people and to become involved in the artistic and political scene of the times. An ardent leftist, Hellman organized her fellow readers into a union. It was through these political actions that she first met the writer Dashiell Hammett. By 1932 Hellman was already divorced, and her new relationship with Hammett was well under way. Though often rocky, Hellman and Hammett’s relationship remained close until Hammett’s death in 1961.

At the prompting of Hammett, Hellman took her first leap into professional writing with a play about two teachers accused of being lesbians by a privileged student. Overwhelmed by the accusation, one teacher kills herself. “The Children’s Hour,” was a gripping emotional tale about the abuse of power and its effects. The play was an enormous hit on Broadway (running for more than seven hundred performances), and brought the young playwright instant recognition. She followed it soon after with “In Days To Come” (1936) and “The Little Foxes” (1939). “The Little Foxes” was a story about three siblings struggling for control over a family business. Primarily an indictment of capitalist motives, it was also a telling story of three individuals, and an investigation of their inner lives. This ability to blend strong politics with humane (though not sentimental) stories of individual struggles was one of Hellman’s great achievements.

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.

On June 30, 1984 Lillian Hellman died in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts at the age of seventy-nine. Among the many honors she received were two New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, a Gold Medal from the Academy of Arts and Letters for Distinguished Achievement in the Theater, and a National Book Award for AN UNFINISHED WOMAN. As a teacher and scholar she was well respected, and her political involvement was integral in the fight against fascism at home and abroad. Lillian Hellman will be remembered not only as an activist, playwright, and memoirist, but as a woman who could overcome the hurdles of her time and succeed on her own terms.

  • Brooke Loveless

    she sounds like a strong woman. one who isnt to be messed with and retains dignity and respect. like someone i wanna be.

  • joe thompson

    Hellman was a Stalinist who fabricated stories about her life, most notably in the fictitious “Julia.”

  • http://www.little-bree.net Lisabeth Cabell

    thank you, Keep up the Great work :)

  • michele bondy

    Hellman was not a Stalinist. She was not a Communist. She was a leftist. BIG difference. She was also an anti-Fascist, Anti-Fascists oppose those on the far RIGHT who generally just oppose everyone.. Her Anti-Fascism sprang from a stance protesting the Spanish Civil War. Most intellectuals of the 30s and 40s had begun as supporters of the Popular Front, a group that actively protested Franco’s brutal take-over of Spain. And the Popular Front was not all a bunch or communists or anarchists. They were only a part of the Spanish who were struggling against Franco.

    Are some of her memoirs highly embellished fiction with only a kernel of personal truth? Probably so. She and Dorothy Parker shared a skill for exaggeration. If you want to understand some of the real experiences of her life, I recommend Scoundrel Time.

  • Kathleen

    Thanks, Michele. I’ve been wondering which of her autobiographies was likely to capture her actual life.

    I think it’s easy (and probably natural) to look back on a generation and to simplify it. That was, politically, just as complicated a time as this is and we should remember that there are very real distinctions to be made between Communism, Fascism, Leninism, Stalinism – and that they come from an era in which many at the bottom were struggling against the oppression from those in power.

  • Richard Parrish

    Lillian Hellman said publicly, in an interview with Nora Ephram I believe, that she didn’t want to write autobiography, that she thought that would be too pretentious. She selected the memoir form instead. Her second memoir, Pentimento, suggests the very nature of her prose: the idea of seeing and then seeing again. Hellman said she wanted to see what was there for her once, what is there for her now. In doing so, she dramatized stories about her own life, just as a playwright of many creations would do. Readers easily can discern that she wasn’t interested in writing historically accurate autobiography when they consider how she contradicts herself from one memoir to another. The story “Julia” was simply that, a story, with, as one writer commented, “a feeling for fiction, a sense of the dramatic.” Peter Feibleman, in his book about Hellman, comments on his amazement that many people didn’t understand the fictionalized nonfiction genre that she was engaging in. I, for one, find her memoirs captivating as they give readers not only a glimpse into a rather private public person and the time in which she lived but also a sense of what Hellman wished her life had been like. In the end, Hellman’s writing reminds us of what we know about all our lives: we have clear memories of some events, cloudy or uncertain memories of others, and wishes for what might have been had we sometimes taken other pathways.

  • IAN PAYNE

    Interesting site and woman !!!!

    This is of interest also :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tMOcRdVQNo&feature=related

    Now they are both having supper parties galore in heaven – RIP both !!!!

    Lilian is also mentioned in Pat Neal’s book AS I AM [1988]

    New bio on Roald Dahl here :

    http://www.harpercollins.co.uk/Titles/38460/storyteller-donald-sturrock-9780007254767

  • becca

    what is lillian hellmans inspiration?
    why? how?

  • Wayne

    OMG if you have to ask the question of what is her inspiration you obviously haven’t read her works or what others wrote about her.

  • imani

    she is a wonderful women
    i was born in that
    N.O to u know

  • CER

    Lillian never joined the communist party. As did Hammitt.

  • TruthTeller

    Lillian Hellman certainly was a communist. She admitted it to her lawyer when she was hauled before HUAC. She said she joined in 1938, then quit in 1940. She was a fascinating character, but also a huge liar.

  • shelly

    A huge liar? she was only a regular sized person. and a fabulous writer. Where is your proof for calling this accomplished woman a liar? I have heard a few digs about the Julia story by some folks who , while somewhat well known, never reached the importance in their work that was reached by Lillian Helleman. I am a pretty average person and I have stories that I dont tell that would certainly surprise the people I told, that is if they didn’t look back 35 years or so to something that took place before they were alive and on another continent and declare them “lies”. From what great well of knowledge do you write this stuff?? I think you are full of crap

  • Shelly

    Miss Hellman agreed to testify and tell the truth about herself and her involvment in the Communist Party but with one caveat, that being that she would not give names of anyone else or testify to anyone elses involvment, unlike many others who threw their friends under the bus in order to try to play along with McCarthy’s game and in hoping to win some kind of favor and avoid the harsher consequences for themselves.

  • Ron Simpson

    There is no doubt that Hellman was a Communist as well as a self-promoting liar and a vicious power mad woman to boot. Even two liberal left women(Martha Gellhorn and Mary McCarthy) exposed her many lies. See Gellhorn’s article in the Spring 1981 issue of Paris Review and details of Hellman’s lawsuit against Mary McCarthy in Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals(in Chapter 12, “Lies, Damned Lies and Lillian Hellman). Also see Samuel McCracken’s article in the June 1984 issue of Commentary(”Julia and Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman). Hellman and her lawyer, Arthur Cowan, also swindeled the daughters of Dashiel Hammett out of the copyright for Hammett’s works. Although Hellman had some talent as a writer(with a lot of help from Hammett), she was despicable as a human being. Shelly, you are the one that is full of it.

  • Jamie

    I just finished listening to a DVD by Nora Ephron that described her friendship with Lillian Hellman, starting with the interview noted up above by another person. Nora claims that ‘Julia’ was in fact a lie, as was much of Pentimento, and named the woman who was the real Julia. Which is apparently why it’s a memoir and not an autobiography? Perhaps there’s a fine line there. I am intrigued enough now to read her memoirs (aren’t books on iPads wonderful things?).

    Their friendship faded when Nora left one of her husbands and apparently Lillian wouldn’t stop asking her to forgive him and take him back. Otherwise, Nora had wonderful things to say about Lillian.

  • Kate

    I am somewhat ashamed to say that I only heard about Lillian Hellman quite recently. She sounds like a very interesting and foreward-thinking woman, and I think it’s fascinating and wonderful that she wasn’t afraid to take chances and let herself live in the way many of the male writers in her literary circle did — with vivacity and a fierce passion for life. My recent findings about Hellman make me want to explore her work; her plays sound especially magnificent! Also, thank you Richard, Jamie and Michele for clarifying!

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