Authors: Lillian Hellman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American playwright, screenwriter, and memoirist.

June 20, 1905

New Orleans, Louisiana

June 30, 1984

Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Biography

Lillian Hellman was one of the five or six most important American playwrights in the first half of the twentieth century. Her influential memoirs, which were written at the end of her career in the theater, have enhanced her stature in the history of American literature. In her plays as well as her memoirs, she draws upon her family background and her early years in the South. Hellman’s father had failed in business when she was five years old, and the family thereupon moved to New York City, where Hellman’s mother’s family, the Newhouses, had banking and commercial interests. For part of each year, the Hellmans returned to New Orleans, and young Lillian was thus exposed to very different influences: the racial injustice and leisurely pace of the South and the urban grittiness and sophistication of the North. These contrary environments set up enormous conflicts in the strong-willed only child, who alternately identified with and condemned her mother’s rich family. They projected a dynamism and ambition the young child admired, but she envied and deplored their ruthless competitiveness.

Lillian Hellman

(Library of Congress)

Hellman’s first produced play, The Children’s Hour, was an enormous success. It is characteristic of her melodramatic penchant for presenting sharply drawn characters who come into conflict over basic issues of good and evil. Always acutely sensitive to society’s victimization of individuals, Hellman crafted a play about two teachers, close friends, who are maliciously accused of being lesbians by one of their pupils, a selfish spoiled child who is taking her revenge upon them because she was not allowed to have her way. Hellman’s second play, Days to Come, was a failure on Broadway—primarily because she failed to fuse its domestic plot (the story of a factory owner and his estranged wife) with the political theme of a labor strike. The playwright’s attempt to comment on society while developing convincing, fully realized characters resulted in what many critics feel is her greatest play, The Little Foxes, which draws directly upon her rapacious relatives, called the Hubbards in the play. They are, indeed, sly devious foxes who would sell out the South to a northern factory owner, crush its agrarian traditions, and make money not only from others but also from each other as they jockey for positions of dominance. It is a savagely funny, ironic play, in which the playwright at the same time depicts the greedy Hubbards as refreshingly free of pretense and sentimentality.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, Hellman was at her peak as a playwright. Her war plays, Watch on the Rhine and The Searching Wind, were enormous successes. Although some critics believe these plays are dated, they contain considerable force as statements of individual responsibility and democratic conviction. In The Searching Wind, Hellman probes the extent to which a generation’s habits of mind and the tendency to appease evil led to war. In Watch on the Rhine, she explores through her hero, Kurt Muller, the power that even a frail, vulnerable individual can exert in awakening complacent Americans to the part they must play in a world menaced by fascism and other antidemocratic powers.

In The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic, Hellman returns to the South and to the backgrounds of her youth. These mature plays, with their reflections on middle age, provide a transition to her deftly written memoirs, which concentrate not on her career but on the shaping of her character—a process she regarded as incomplete. The very title of her first memoir, An Unfinished Woman, suggests that for her the act of writing memoirs was an acknowledgment as much of what she failed to understand as of what she achieved. Indeed, as several reviewers remarked, she had little to say about her life in the theater, about her vision of drama, or about her career as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Instead, she offered her readers vivid anecdotes drawn from her childhood in New Orleans and New York, her years of living with the detective story writer Dashiell Hammett, and her political activities and travels. What matters most, Hellman’s memoirs imply, is her sense of herself as a personality. It is her foibles, her terrible anger, her puzzlement at other people’s behavior—such as that of her eccentric friend, Arthur Cowan—and her own contradictory actions that stock her memoirs with enormously entertaining episodes.

Because of the controversy that surrounded Hellman’s politics, including charges that she was an apologist for Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, much of her work has been attacked. Her memoirs won for her new generations of readers—many of whom did not know her plays—even as they gained new enemies for her who disparaged the veracity of what she had written. Yet such controversies cannot diminish her significant place in the American theater. Indeed, her best plays continue to be produced and her work continues to attract the serious attention of theater scholars and critics.

Hellman received numerous awards and honors throughout her career. These included the Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal for distinguished achievement in theater, a National Book Award (for An Unfinished Woman), and New York Drama Critics Circle awards. Hellman died on June 30, 1984, on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. She was seventy-nine years old.

Author Works Drama: The Children’s Hour, pr., pb. 1934 Days to Come, pr., pb. 1936 The Little Foxes, pr., pb. 1939 Watch on the Rhine, pr., pb. 1941 The Searching Wind, pr., pb. 1944 Another Part of the Forest, pr. 1946 Montserrat, pr. 1949 (adaptation of Emmanuel Robles’s play) The Autumn Garden, pr., pb. 1951 The Lark, pr. 1955 (adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s play L’Alouette) Candide, pr. 1956 (libretto; music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, and Dorothy Parker; adaptation of Voltaire’s novel) Toys in the Attic, pr., pb. 1960 My Mother, My Father, and Me, pr., pb. 1963 (adaptation of Burt Blechman’s novel How Much?) The Collected Plays, pb. 1972 Screenplays: The Dark Angel, 1935 (with Mordaunt Shairp) These Three, 1936 Dead End, 1937 (adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s play) The Little Foxes, 1941 (with Dorothy Parker, Arthur Kober, and Alan Campbell) Watch on the Rhine, 1943 (with Dashiell Hammett) The North Star: A Motion Picture About Some Russian People, 1943 The Searching Wind, 1946 The Chase, 1966 Nonfiction: An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir, 1969 Pentimento, 1973 Scoundrel Time, 1976 Maybe, 1980 Eating Together: Recipes and Recollections, 1984 (with Peter Feibleman) Conversations with Lillian Hellman, 1986 Edited Texts: The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1955 The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels of Dashiell Hammett, 1966 Bibliography Adams, Timothy Dow. Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. The chapter on Hellman (pp. 121–166) is an excellently argued defense against charges that Hellman was virtually a pathological liar. Based on intelligent analyses of the memoirs. Dick, Bernard F. Hellman in Hollywood. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982. An account of Hellman’s years as a screenwriter, with analyses of her adaptations and her original screenplay The North Star. Select bibliography, filmography, index. Feibleman, Peter. Lily: Reminiscences of Lillian Hellman. New York: William Morrow, 1988. The author, the son of old New Orleans friends of Hellman, became her close friend and companion in her last years, a relationship he describes in this book. Contains a sadly riveting account of Hellman’s illness. Some of the anecdotal accounts of their time together are in Hellman’s section of Eating Together. Griffin, Alice, and Geraldine Thorsten. Understanding Lillian Hellman. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. A study of Hellman’s literary output, including The Children’s Hour, Another Part of the Forest, The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, The Autumn Garden, and Toys in the Attic. Bibliography and index. Horn, Barbara Lee. Lillian Hellman: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Provides criticism and interpretation of Hellman’s dramatic works as well as plots and stage history. Bibliography and indexes. Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Part of Twayne’s United States Authors series, this volume provides a good general introduction to Hellman’s work. Annotated bibliography, index. Mahoney, Rosemary. A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman. New York: Doubleday, 1998. A look at Hellman from her friend, Rosemary Mahoney. Martinson, Deborah. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels. New York: Counterpoint, 2005. A portrait of Hellman that takes an in-depth look at her romantic affairs and chronicles her life from childhood to old age. Mellen, Joan. Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. The story of Hellman’s relationship with author Dashiell Hammett. Bibliography and index. Newman, Robert P. The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. An important contribution to an understanding of Hellman’s politics and her personal life, concentrating on her relationship with Melby, an American foreign service officer dismissed from his position in the 1950s because of his love affair with Hellman. Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A readable and scholarly biography of Hellman. Photographs, bibliography, index. Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. A biography of Hellman that covers her life and works. Bibliography and index.

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