Biography of Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman was an American playwright and screenwriter who was known for her highly-acclaimed work on Broadway and her leftist political leanings. Her literary achievements are as numerous and notable as her reputation as a political activist.

Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to Jewish parents, and split her time between there and Alabama before moving to New York for college. In 1925 she married a playwright and press agent named Arthur Kober. She became a reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1930s, at which point she met Dashiell Hammett, a mystery writer responsible for some of the greatest American detective novels and inspirations for numerous film noirs, such as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. Hellman divorced Kober to pursue a relationship with Hammett.

Hellman's first play to achieve critical success was The Children's Hour, which premiered on Broadway in 1934. The play was a success and earned Hellman a job as a screenwriter for Goldwyn Pictures. She adapted The Children's Hour for film, making it conform with Hays Code standards, eliminating all mention or allusion to lesbianism, and renaming it These Three.

In 1936, Hellman had a play, Days to Come, close on Broadway after only seven performances. The play examined a labor dispute and was criticized by Communists as not adequately taking a political position. In the midst of her budding writing career, Hellman became more and more involved in leftist politics, signing "An Open Letter to American Liberals" in 1937, a document that many viewed as a defense of Stalin's Moscow Purge Trials. She was also active in supporting the anti-Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War. She was a member of the Communist party between 1938 and 1940.

In 1939, Hellman's play The Little Foxes premiered on Broadway, starring Tallulah Bankhead. Over the course of the production, Hellman and Bankhead butted heads about political matters, a feud which ruined their friendship. Her play Watch on the Rhine opened in 1941 on Broadway, and in 1942, Hellman was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay of her play The Little Foxes, which was turned into a film starring Bette Davis. In 1946, she wrote Another Part of the Forest.

By 1947, Hellman's Communist leanings were beginning to obstruct her creative career. When she refused to answer questions in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, she was forbidden from being employed in the motion picture industry. In 1951, The Autumn Garden premiered, a play which many consider to be her best. When she was again called in for questioning by HUAC, Hellman finally agreed to appear, but refused to answer many questions, citing the Fifth Amendment, and denying that she had ever been a member of the Communist Party. She refused to name other Communists, writing in a statement, "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."

Other writings by Hellman include the dialogue in Leonard Bernstein's comic operetta, Candide, Toys in the Attic, My Mother, My Father, and Me, the screenplay for The Chase, a memoir called Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, which addressed McCarthy-era paranoia, and a short novel, Maybe: A Story.

Study Guides on Works by Lillian Hellman