1.United States playwright; her plays were often indictments of injustice (1905-1984)
auteur de théâtre (fr)[Classe]
écrivain américain. (fr)[ClasseParExt.]
Lillian Hellman (n.)
|Born||Lillian Florence Hellman
June 20, 1905
New Orleans, Louisiana
|Died||June 30, 1984
|Spouse(s)||Arthur Kober (1925 - 1932)|
|Partner(s)||Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1931 - 1961)|
Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, into a Jewish family. Her mother was Julia Newhouse of Demopolis, Alabama and her father was Max Hellman, a New Orleans shoe salesman. Julia Newhouse's parents were Sophie Marx, of a successful banking family, and Leonard Newhouse, a Demopolis liquor dealer. During most of her childhood she spent half of each year in New Orleans, in a boarding home run by her aunts, and the other half in New York City. She studied for two years at New York University and then took several courses at Columbia University.
On December 31, 1925, Hellman married Arthur Kober, a playwright and press agent, although they often lived apart. In 1929, she traveled around Europe for a time and settled in Bonn to continue her education. She felt an initial attraction to a Nazi student group that advocated "a kind of socialism" until their questioning about her Jewish ties made their anti-Semitism clear, and she returned immediately to the United States. Years later she wrote, "Then for the first time in my life I thought about being a Jew."
Beginning in 1930, for about a year she earned $50 a week as a reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood, writing summaries of novels and periodical literature for potential screenplays. While there she met and fell in love with a mystery writer, Dashiell Hammett. She divorced Kober and returned to New York City in 1932. When she met Hammett in a Hollywood restaurant, she was 24 and he was 36. They maintained their relationship off and on for 30 years until his death in January 1961.
Hellman's drama, The Children's Hour, premiered on Broadway on November 24, 1934, and ran for 691 performances. It depicts a false accusation of lesbianism by a schoolgirl against two of her teachers. The falsehood is discovered, but before amends can be made one teacher is rejected by her fiancé and the other commits suicide.
Following the success of The Children's Hour, Hellman returned to Hollywood as a screenwriter for Goldwyn Pictures at $2500 a week. She first collaborated on a screenplay for The Dark Angel, an earlier play and silent film. Following that film's successful release in 1935, Goldwyn purchased the rights to The Children's Hour for $35,000 while it still was running on Broadway. Hellman rewrote the play to conform to the standards of the Motion Picture Production Code, under which any mention of lesbianism was impossible. Instead, one schoolteacher is accused of having sex with the other's fiancé. It appeared in 1936 under the title, These Three. She next wrote the screenplay for Dead End, which featured the first appearance of the Dead End Kids and premiered in 1937.
In 1935, Hellman joined the struggling Screen Writers Guild, devoted herself to recruiting new members, and proved one of its most aggressive advocates. One of its key issues was the dictatorial way producers credited writers for their work, known as "screen credit." Hellman had gotten no recognition for some of her earlier projects, although she was the principal author of The Westerner (1934) and a principal contributor to The Melody Lingers On (1935).
In December 1936, her play Days to Come closed its Broadway run after just seven performances. In it, she portrayed a labor dispute in a small Ohio town during which the characters try to balance the competing claims of owners and workers, both represented as valid. Communist publications denounced her failure to take sides. That same month she joined several other literary figures, including Dorothy Parker and Archibald MacLeish, in forming and funding a company, Contemporary Historians, Inc., to back a film project, The Spanish Earth, to demonstrate support for the anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War.
In March 1937, Hellman joined a group of 88 U.S. public figures in signing "An Open Letter to American Liberals" that protested an effort headed by John Dewey to examine Leon Trotsky's defense against his 1936 condemnation by the Soviet Union. The letter has been viewed by some critics as a defense of Stalin's Moscow Purge Trials. It charged some of Trotsky's defenders with aiming to destabilize the Soviet Union and said that the Soviet Union "should be left to protect itself against treasonable plots as it saw fit." It asked U.S. liberals and progressives to unite with the Soviet Union against the growing fascist threat and avoid an investigation that would only fuel "the reactionary sections of the press and public" in the United States. Endorsing this view, the editors of the New Republic wrote that "there are more important questions than Trotsky's guilt". Those who signed the "Open Letter" called for a united front against fascism, that in their view required uncritical support of the Soviet Union.
In October 1937, Hellman spent a few weeks in Spain to lend her support, as other writers had, to the International Brigades of non-Spaniards who had joined the anti-Franco side in the Spanish Civil War. As bombs fell on Madrid, she broadcast a report to the U.S. on Madrid Radio. Decades later, in 1989, journalist Martha Gellhorn disputed the account of this trip in Hellman's memoirs and wrote that Hellman had waited until all witnesses were dead before describing events that never occurred. Details aside, Hellman had documented her trip in the New Republic in April 1938 as "A Day in Spain." Langston Hughes wrote admiringly of the radio broadcast in 1956.
Hellman was a member of the Communist Party from 1938 to 1940, by her own account written in 1952, "a most casual member. I attended very few meetings and saw and heard nothing more than people sitting around a room talking of current events or discussing the books they had read. I drifted away from the Communist Party because I seemed to be in the wrong place. My own maverick nature was no more suitable to the political left than it had been to the conservative background from which I came."
Her play The Little Foxes opened on Broadway on February 13, 1939, and ran for 410 performances.
I am a writer and I am also a Jew. I want to be quite sure that I can continue to be a writer and if I want to say that greed is bad or persecution is worse, I can do so without being branded by the malice of people who make a living by that malice. I also want to be able to go on saying that I am a Jew without being afraid of being called names or end in a prison camp or be forbidden to walk the street at night.
Her play Watch on the Rhine opened on Broadway on April 1, 1941, and ran for 378 performances. It won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. She wrote the play in 1940, when its call for a united international alliance against Hitler directly contradicted the Communist position at the time, following the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939. Early in 1942, Hellman accompanied the production to Washington, D.C., for a benefit performance where she spoke with President Roosevelt. Hammett wrote the screenplay for the movie version that appeared in 1943.
In October 1941, Hellman and Ernest Hemingway co-hosted a dinner to raise money for anti-Nazi activists imprisoned in France. New York Governor Herbert Lehman agreed to participate, but withdrew because some of the sponsoring organizations, he wrote, "have long been connected with Communist activities." Hellman replied: "I do not and I did not ask the politics of any members of the committee and there is nobody who can with honesty vouch for anybody but themselves." She assured him the funds raised would be used as promised and later provided him with a detailed accounting. The next month she wrote him: "I am sure it will make you sad and ashamed as it did me to know that, of the seven resignations out of 147 sponsors, five were Jews. Of all the peoples in the world, I think, we should be the last to hold back help, on any grounds, from those who fought for us."
In 1942, Hellman received an Academy Award nomination for her screenplay for the film version of The Little Foxes. Two years later, she received another nomination for her screenplay for The North Star, the only original screenplay of her career. She objected to the film's production numbers that, she said, turned a village festival into "an extended opera bouffe peopled by musical comedy characters," but still told the New York Times that it was "a valuable and true picture which tells a good deal of the truth about fascism." To establish the difference between her screenplay and the film, Hellman published her screenplay in the fall of 1943.
In April 1944, Hellman's The Searching Wind opened on Broadway. Her third World War II project, it tells the story of an ambassador whose indecisive relations with his wife and mistress mirror the vacillation and appeasement of his professional life. She wrote the screenplay for the film version that appeared two years later. Both versions depicted the ambassador's feckless response to anti-Semitism. The conservative press noted that the play reflected none of Hellman's pro-Soviet views, and the communist response to the play was negative.
Hellman's applications for a passport to travel to England in April 1943 and May 1944 were both denied because government authorities considered her "an active Communist," though in 1944 the head of the Passport Division of the Department of State, Ruth Shipley, cited "the present military situation" as the reason. In August 1944, she received a passport, indicative of government approval, for travel to Russia on a goodwill mission as a guest of VOKS, the Soviet agency that handled cultural exchanges. During her visit from November 5, 1944, to January 18, 1945, she began an affair with John F. Melby, a foreign service officer, that continued as an intermittent affair for years and as a friendship for the rest of her life.
In November 1946, her play Another Part of the Forest premiered. It also was directed by Hellman. It presented the same characters twenty years younger than they had appeared in The Little Foxes. A film version to which Hellman did not contribute followed in 1948.
In 1947, Columbia Pictures offered Hellman a multi-year contract, which she refused because the contract included a loyalty clause that she viewed as an infringement on her rights of free speech and association. It required her to sign a statement that she had never been a member of the Communist Party and would not associate with radicals or subversives, which would have required her to end her life with Hammett. Shortly thereafter, William Wyler told her he was unable to hire her to work on a film because she was blacklisted.
In November 1947, the leaders of the motion picture industry decided to deny employment to anyone who refused to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Following the Hollywood Ten's defiance of the committee, Hellman wrote an editorial in the December issue of Screen Writer, the publication of the Screen Writers Guild. Titled "The Judas Goats," it mocked the committee and derided the producers for allowing themselves to be intimidated. It said in part:
It was a week of turning the head in shame; of the horror of seeing politicians make the honorable institution of Congress into a honky tonk show; of listening to craven men lie and tattle, pushing each other in their efforts to lick the boots of their vilifiers; publicly trying to wreck the lives, not of strangers, mind you, but of men with whom they have worked and eaten and played, and made millions....
But why this particular industry, these particular people? Has it anything to do with Communism? Of course not. There has never been a single line or word of Communism in any American picture at any time. There has never or seldom been ideas of any kind. Naturally, men scared to make pictures about the American Negro, men who only in the last year have allowed the word Jew to be spoken in a picture, men who took more than ten years to make an anti-Fascist picture, those are frightened men and you pick frightened men to frighten first. Judas goats; they'll lead the others, maybe, to the slaughter for you....
They frighten mighty easy, and they talk mighty bad....I suggest the rest of us don't frighten so easy. It's still not un-American to fight the enemies of one's country. Let's fight.
Melby and Hellman corresponded regularly in the years following World War II while he held State Department assignments overseas. Their political views diverged as he came to advocate containment of communism while she was unwilling to hear criticism of the Soviet Union. They became, in one historian's view, "political strangers, occasional lovers, and mostly friends." Melby particularly objected to her support for Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election.
In 1952 Hellman was called to testify before HUAC, which had heard testimony that she had attended Communist Party meetings in 1937. She initially drafted a statement that said her two-year membership in the Communist Party had ended in 1940, without condemning the party or her participation. Her attorney, Joseph Rauh, opposed her admission of membership on technical grounds because she had attended meetings, but never formally become a party member. He warned that the committee and the public would expect her to take a strong anti-communist stand to atone for her political past. She refused to apologize or denounce the party, and in testimony before the HUAC on May 21, 1952, said she never belonged to the party and refused to discuss what she knew of the participation of others, claiming her rights under the Fifth Amendment. She avoided the stigma that normally attached to being a "Fifth Amendment Communist" when Rauh immediately released to the press a statement she had earlier sent to the HUAC about her testimony, "written not to persuade the Committee," writes one historian, "but to shape press coverage." The press reported Hellman's statement at length, its language crafted to overshadow the comments of the HUAC members. It said that she did not want to claim her rights under the Fifth Amendment–"I am ready and willing to testify before the representatives of our Government as to my own actions, regardless of any risks or consequences to myself."–but found the legal requirement that she testify about others if she wanted to speak about her own actions "difficult for a layman to understand." She continued in part:
But there is one principle that I do understand. I am not willing, now or in the future, to bring bad trouble to people who, in my past association with them, were completely innocent of any talk or any action that was disloyal or subversive. I do not like subversion or disloyalty in any form and if I had ever seen any I would have considered it my duty to have reported it to the proper authorities. But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. 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.
I was raised in an old-fashioned American tradition and there were certain homely things that were taught to me: to try to tell the truth, not to bear false witness, not to harm my neighbour, to be loyal to my country, and so on. In general, I respected these ideals of Christian honor and did as well as I knew how. It is my belief that you will agree with these simple rules of human decency and will not expect me to violate the good American tradition from which they spring. I would therefore like to come before you and speak of myself.
Reaction divided along political lines. Murray Kempton, a longtime critic of her sympathy for communist causes, praised her: "It is enough that she has reached into her conscience for an act based on something more than the material or the tactical...she has chosen to act like a lady." The FBI increased its surveillance of her travel and her mail.
In the early 1950s, at the height of anti-communist fervor in the United States, the state department investigated whether Melby posed a security risk. In April 1952, the department stated its one formal charge against him: "that during the period 1945 to date, you have maintained an association with one, Lillian Hellman, reliably reported to be a member of the Communist Party," based on testimony from unidentified informants. When Melby appeared before the department's Loyalty Security Board, he was not allowed to contest Hellman's Communist Party affiliation or learn who informed against her, but only to present his understanding of her politics and the nature of his relationship with her, including the occasional renewal of their physical relationship. He said he had no plans to renew their friendship, but never promised to avoid contact with her. In the course of a series of appeals, Hellman testified before the Loyalty Security Board on his behalf. She offered to answer questions about her political views and associations, but the board only allowed her to describe her relationship with Melby. She testified that she had many longstanding friendships with people of different political views and that political sympathy was not a part of those relationships. She described how her relationship with Melby changed over time and how their sexual relationship was briefly renewed in 1950 after a long hiatus: "The relationship obviously at this point was neither one thing nor the other: it was neither over nor was it not over." She said that:
...to make it black and white would be the lie it never has been, nor do I think many other relations ever are. I don't think it is as much a mystery as perhaps it looks. It has been a...completely personal relationship of two people who once past being in love also happen to be very devoted to each other and very respectful of one another, and who I think in any other time besides our own would not be open to question of the complete innocence of and the complete morality, if I may say so, of people who were once in love and who have come out with respect and devotion to one another.
The State Department dismissed Melby on April 22, 1953. As was its practice, the board gave no reason for its decision.
In 1954, Hellman declined when asked to adapt Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl (1952) for the stage. According to writer and director Garson Kanin, she said that the diary was "a great historical work which will probably live forever, but I couldn't be more wrong as the adapter. If I did this it would run one night because it would be deeply depressing. You need someone who has a much lighter touch." She recommended her friends, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
Hellman made an English-language adaption of Jean Anouilh's play, L'Alouette, based on the trial of Joan of Arc, called The Lark. Leonard Bernstein composed incidental music for the first production, which opened on Broadway on November 17, 1955.
Hellman edited a collection of Chekhov's correspondence that appeared in 1955 as The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov.
Following the success of The Lark, Hellman conceived of another play with incidental music, based on Voltaire's Candide. Bernstein convinced her to develop it as a comic operetta with a much more substantial musical component. She wrote the spoken dialogue, which many others then worked on, and wrote some lyrics as well for what became the often-revived, Candide. Hellman hated the collaboration and revisions on deadline that Candide required: "I went to pieces when something had to be done quickly, because someone didn't like something, and there was no proper time to think it out...I realized that I panicked under conditions I wasn't accustomed to."
Her play Toys in the Attic opened on Broadway on February 25, 1960, and ran for 464 performances. It received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. In this family drama set in New Orleans, money, marital infidelity, and revenge end in a woman's disfigurement. Hellman had no hand in the screenplay, which altered the drama's tone and exaggerated the characterizations, and the resulting film received bad reviews.
A second film version of The Children's Hour, less successful both with critics and at the box office, appeared in 1961 under that title, but Hellman played no role in the screenplay, having withdrawn from the project following Hammett's death in 1961.
In 1961, Brandeis University awarded her its Creative Arts Medal for outstanding lifetime achievement and the women's division of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University gave her its Achievement Award.
Another play, My Mother, My Father, and Me, proved unsuccessful when it was staged in March 1963. It closed after 17 performances. Hellman adapted it from Burt Blechman's novel How Much?
Hellman wrote another screenplay in 1965 for The Chase starring Marlon Brando based on a play and novel by Horton Foote. Though Hellman received sole credit for the screenplay, she worked from an earlier treatment, and director Sam Spiegel made additional changes and altered the sequence of scenes.
In 1966, Hellman edited a collection of Hammett's stories, The Big Knockover. Her introductory profile of Hammett was her first exercise in memoir writing.
Hellman wrote a reminiscence of gulag-survivor Lev Kopelev, husband of her translator in Russia during 1944, to serve as the introduction to his anti-Stalinist memoirs, To Be Preserved Forever, which appeared in 1976. In February 1980, she, John Hersey, and Norman Mailer wrote to Soviet authorities to protest retribution against Kopelev for his defense of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.
I wasn't as shocked by McCarthy as by all the people who took no stand at all....I don't remember one large figure coming to anybody's aid. It's funny. Bitter funny. Black funny. And so often something else–in the case of Clifford Odets, for example, heart-breaking funny. I suppose I've come out frightened, thoroughly frightened of liberals. Most radicals of the time were comic but the liberals were frightening.
Hellman published her third volume of memoirs, Scoundrel Time, in 1976.
In 1976, Hellman posed in a fur coat for the Blackglama national advertising campaign "What Becomes a Legend Most?". In August of that year she was awarded the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal for her contribution to literature. In October, she received the Paul Robeson Award from Actors' Equity.
In 1976, Hellman's publisher, Little Brown, canceled its contract to publish a book of Diana Trilling's essays because Trilling refused to delete four passages critical of Hellman. When Trilling's collection appeared in 1977, a sympathetic critic in the New York Times preferred the "simple confession of error" Hellman made in Scoundrel Time for her "acquiescence in Stalinism" to Trilling's excuses for her own behavior during the McCarthy period.
Hellman presented the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film at a ceremony on March 28, 1977. Greeted by a standing ovation, she said:
I was once upon a time a respectable member of this community. Respectable didn't necessarily mean more than I took a daily bath when I was sober, didn't spit except when I meant to, and mispronounced a few words of fancy French. Then suddenly, even before Senator Joe McCarthy reached for that rusty, poisoned ax, I and many others were no longer acceptable to the owners of this industry....[T]hey confronted the wild charges of Joe McCarthy with a force and courage of a bowl of mashed potatoes. I have no regrets for that period. Maybe you never do when you survive, but I have a mischievous pleasure in being restored to respectability, understanding full well that the younger generation who asked me here tonight meant more by that invitation than my name or my history.
This is not a work of fiction and certain laws have to be followed for that reason...Your major difficulty to me is the treatment of Lillian as the leading character. The reason is simple: no matter what she does in this story–and I do not deny the danger I was in when I took the money into Germany–my role was passive. And nobody and nothing can change that unless you write a fictional and different story...Isn't it necessary to know that I am a Jew? That, of course, is what mainly made the danger.
In a 1979 television interview, author Mary McCarthy, long Hellman's political adversary and the object of her negative literary judgment, said of Hellman that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." Hellman responded by filing a US$2,500,000 defamation suit against McCarthy, interviewer Dick Cavett, and PBS. McCarthy in turn produced evidence she said proved that Hellman had lied in some accounts of her life. Cavett said he sympathized more with McCarthy than Hellman in the lawsuit, but "everybody lost" as a result of it. Norman Mailer attempted unsuccessfully to mediate the dispute through an open letter he published in the New York Times. At the time of her death, Hellman was still in litigation with Mary McCarthy, and Hellman's executors dropped the suit.
In 1980, Hellman published a short novel, Maybe: A Story. Though presented as fiction, Hellman, Hammett, and other nonfictional people appeared as characters. It received a mixed reception and was sometimes read as another installment of Hellman's memoirs. Hellman's editor wrote to the New York Times to question a reviewer's attempt to check the facts in the novel, which he described as a work of fiction whose characters misremember and dissemble.
In 1983, New York psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner claimed that she was the basis for the title character in Julia and that she had never known Hellman. Hellman denied that the character was based on Gardiner. Because the events Hellman described matched Gardiner's account of her life and Gardiner's family was closely tied to Hellman's attorney, some believe that Hellman appropriated Gardiner's story without attribution.
Institutions that awarded Hellman honorary degrees include Brandeis University (1955), Wheaton College (1960), Mt. Holyoke College (1966), Smith College (1974), Yale University (1974), and Columbia University (1976).
Hellman's papers are held at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Human Rights Watch administers the Hellman/Hammett grant program named for the two writers.
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