Today is the 115th birthday of the playwright Lillian Hellman. She is noted as saying/writing: I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashion. As I was reading through her famous quotes this morning, somehow, that one rang true and current to me. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Lillian Hellman
DATE OF BIRTH: June 20, 1905
PLACE OF BIRTH: New Orleans, LA
DATE OF DEATH: June 30, 1984
PLACE OF DEATH: Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts
REMAINS: Buried, Abel’s Hill Cemetery, Chilmark, MA
American Academy of Arts and Letters (Dec-1962)
National Book Award for Arts and Letters 1970 for An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir
BEST KNOWN FOR: American dramatist and screenwriter known for her success as a playwright on Broadway, as well as her left-wing sympathies and political activism.
Lillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 20, 1906, of Jewish parents, Max Hellman, a shoe salesman, and Julia Newshouse, whose family had made a small fortune in the banking industry. In 1910 her family moved to New York City, where she attended public schools. Her schooling was constantly interrupted by her father’s frequent business trips to New Orleans, which would sometimes last up to six months.
Hellman went on to study at New York University (1923–1924) and Columbia University (1924). Her marriage to Arthur Kober in 1925, who was a writer for the New Yorker, helped Hellman get various jobs around New York City, including reading scripts for studios and working as a book reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune. The marriage ended in 1932.
Hellman worked as a manuscript reader for Liveright Publishers before becoming main play reader for producer Herman Shumlin. In 1930, ready to drop her idea of being a writer, she was talked out of quitting by Dashiell Hammett, who became her lifelong mentor, and partner.
After a “year and a half of stumbling stubbornness,” Hellman finished The Children’s Hour (1934), based on an actual incident in Scotland. The action of the play is triggered by a child’s accusation of sexual relations against two female teachers, which leads to one woman’s suicide. The play reveals Hellman’s sharp characterizations and clear, moral comment on a theme considered dramatically untouchable at the time.
In Days to Come (1936), a play of a crumbling family as well as of the struggle between union and management, Hellman’s dramatic touch faltered. However, her next play, The Little Foxes (1939), ranks as one of the most powerful in American drama. Set in the South, it depicts a family almost completely engulfed by greed and hate.
During World War II, Hellman wrote two plays. Watch on the Rhine (1941), which received the New York City Critics Circle Award, was a drama about an underground hero, and spoke out harshly against the Nazis. The Searching Wind (1944) championed the movement against fascism, criticizing the failure of influential Americans to halt the rise of Germany’s Hitler and Italy’s Mussolini.
In Another Part of the Forest (1946), Hellman again portrayed the Hubbard family of The Little Foxes; she also directed the play. Autumn Garden (1951) lacked the usual passion of her dramas but was a touching and revealing insight into a southern boardinghouse. The style of the play is sometimes compared to the Russian writer Chekhov’s work. Toys in the Attic (1960), a devastating portrait of possessive love set in New Orleans, won her another New York Critics Circle Award.
Hellman demonstrated her versatility as an author with a witty book for the musical Candide (1956); adaptations of two plays, Montserrat (1949) and Jean Anouilh’s The Lark (1956); and her departure from realism in the humorous play of Jewish family life, My Mother, My Father and Me (1963). She also edited The Letters of Anton Chekhov in 1955.
Hellman published three memoirs dealing with her career, personal relationships, and political activities: An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). These works included her sharp criticism of the House un-American Activities Committee headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, which accused hundreds of politicians, artists, and other Americans of being communists, the political design where goods and services are owned and distributed by the government. There was much discussion at the time about whether the content of these memoirs was greatly enhanced by Hellman.
Hellman received honorary degrees from several colleges and universities. Her theatrical awards included the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1941 and 1960); a Gold Medal from the Academy of Arts and Letters for Distinguished Achievement in the Theatre (1964); and election to the Theatre Hall of Fame (1973). She also received the National Book Award in 1969 for An Unfinished Woman and a nomination in 1974 for Pentimento: A Book of Portraits. Hellman died June 30, 1984, in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts.
Author of books:
An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (1969, memoir)
Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973, memoir)
Scoundrel Time (1976, memoir)
Maybe: A Story (1980, roman a clef)
The Children’s Hour (1934)
Dark Angel (1935)
These Three (1936)
Dead End (1937)
Little Foxes (1939)
Watch on the Rhine (1940)
The North Star (1943)
Another Part of the Forest (1946)
Toys in the Attic (1959)
My Mother, My Father, and Me (1963, adapted from How Much? by Burt Blechman)