Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: A leading American playwright and important screenwriter, Hellman published memoirs in the 1960’s and 1970’s that advanced the growing interest in women’s lives and in autobiography.
Lillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on June 20, 1905, the daughter of Max Hellman, a shoe salesman, and Julia Newhouse, an Alabama native whose family had succeeded in several business enterprises, including banking. As a child, Lillian was acutely conscious of the power the Newhouses’ money gave them; financial speculation and chicanery would become the theme of her most powerful plays. When her father’s New Orleans shoe business failed, he moved his family for six months of each year to New York City while he traveled as a salesman. Five-year-old Lillian found it difficult to adjust to two different cultures and school systems; her record as a student was erratic. Nevertheless, she acquired a diversity of experience that stimulated her precocious imagination and provided many of the themes of her plays and memoirs.
Hellman was an only child, doted on by her parents, who indulged her whims and gave her room to experiment in the heady, vibrant atmosphere of New York City in the 1920’s. Hellman attended classes at New York University and then at Columbia, but she did not earn a degree. Instead she worked briefly for the innovative New York publisher, Horace Liveright, where she met important writers and celebrities, including her future husband, Arthur Kober, whom she married on December 21, 1925. Kober wrote plays and stories for The New Yorker, and he helped Hellman obtain various jobs as a script reader and publicity agent for theatrical producers. She had ambitions to write, but her early attempts at fiction fizzled, and she accompanied her husband to Hollywood, where he had a contract to write screenplays.
Hellman was hired in Hollywood as a script reader. Her job was to summarize books that might make good films. She found her work dull, but she made friends with writers and film actors, eventually meeting Dashiell Hammett, the handsome and successful writer of hardboiled detective stories. With the marriage to Kober failing (they were divorced in 1932), she became romantically involved with Hammett, who suggested that she write for the stage. He even provided the plot, based on a true story, for her first successful play, The Children’s Hour (1934). Despite many problems, the relationship with Hammett would endure until his death in 1961 and become an important theme in her memoirs.
For The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman updated the story of two teachers who had been accused of lesbianism in nineteenth century Edinburgh. She shifted the setting to twentieth century New England and made the teachers, Karen and Martha, victims of an accusation leveled against them by a malevolent child, Mary, who refuses to be disciplined and who strikes back by suggesting to her grandmother, a powerful member of the community, that her teachers have an “unnatural” love for each other. Karen and Martha are not lovers, but Martha kills herself when she realizes that she does have sexual feelings for Karen. The two teachers are the targets of the blind hysteria of society, which tends to take the word of authority figures and to be swayed by the emotional impact of a shocking accusation. An enormous success (the play ran for more than seven hundred performances on Broadway), The Children’s Hour established Hellman as a promising playwright with a keen eye for both individual and social psychology.
Hellman’s success as a playwright brought an offer from Samuel Goldwyn to write screenplays. Throughout the 1930’s, Hellman worked for Goldwyn, producing superior scripts for The Children’s Hour, retitled These Three (1936), and for Dead End (1937) as well as working in collaboration on other projects. She had unusual creative control over her own scripts and a reputation in Hollywood for independence. She was instrumental in forming the Screen Writers Guild and became involved in leftist politics, briefly becoming a Communist Party member from 1938 to 1940.
Hellman is perhaps best known for her third play, The Little Foxes (1939), a classic of the American theater, set in the South just after the Civil War. The play’s main character, Regina Hubbard Giddens, holds her own with her brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard, in capitalizing on the family business. Although the play is susceptible to a political reading and can be analyzed as a critique of capitalism, it is equally the story of a family, each member struggling for dominance and individuality. One of the most striking features of this play is its lack of sentimentality, a hardheadedness Hellman herself exemplified in the pursuit...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Hellman’s place in the American theater is secure. The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, The Autumn Garden, and Toys in the Attic reflect an astute moral intelligence and a vividness of characterization that will ensure the continuing revival of her major work.
Hellman also contributed an elegance of style to the memoir form; her depictions of events and portraits of friends in her life, although admitted by Hellman to contain factual inaccuracies, captivated readers.
Lillian Hellman spent her life attempting to establish a singular identity apart from any one cultural or political group. Reared in a Southern Jewish American family, she was educated in New Orleans and New York City. She was married for relatively few years (1925-1932) to author Arthur Kober and bore no children. She took a succession of male lovers, generally on her own terms, although her long relationship (1930-1961) with author Dashiell Hammett was an exception in that she usually followed his advice and accepted his criticism.
Although lesbianism figures in her first successful play, The Children’s Hour, Hellman refused to be called a feminist and was never active in women’s groups. She also charted an independent role in her career. All of her best plays, however, include strong-willed women characters whose independence and self-reliance thwart the males with whom they interact. Experiences from her upbringing in New Orleans formed the basis for her picture of the South in transition in The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest. She was fascinated by the business successes of her relatives, yet repelled by their selfishness and lack of interest in social issues. In contrast, she was an outspoken defender of liberal causes, including labor unions, anti-Franco efforts in the Spanish Civil War, civil rights, freedom of speech, and protests against the Vietnam War.
Although Jewish American, Hellman seemingly cared little about the Jewish religion and traditions. She was never a supporter of Zionism and identified most closely with Jewish culture during the 1930’s and 1940’s, when it was attacked by the Nazis. Her antifascist plays Watch on the Rhine (1941) and The Searching Wind (1944) do not, however, center directly on the mistreatment of Jews but rather emphasize the shortcomings of American liberals in combatting the fascist threat to American freedoms. Hellman’s staunch antifascism was somewhat based on her attraction to socialism and communism, a flirtation that led to her famous and largely successful confrontation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952.
Hellman became a living legend, admired by many for her outspoken independence and social commitment. Ironically, her last years were spent in bitter disputes over the reliability of her memoirs. The evidence suggests that Hellman’s very flattering self-portrait was largely fictional in the famous “Julia” section from Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), upon which a highly successful motion picture was based.
Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Lillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans of Jewish parents. Her father was also born in New Orleans, and her mother in Alabama, of a family long established there. Part of her mother’s family moved to New York, and when Hellman was five years old, her parents moved there and commenced a routine of spending six months of each year in New York and six in New Orleans with her father’s two unmarried sisters. As her memoirs make clear, Hellman’s plays are strongly influenced by her Southern, urban background. Her mother’s family was a source for the Hubbards in The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest; her paternal aunts, for the sisters in Toys in the Attic. All her original plays...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 834 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the only child of Max and Julia Hellman. She was spoiled as a child, and she doted on her philandering father. Her childhood was divided between New Orleans and New York; she spent half the year in each city, as her father, a traveling salesman, made his living after having failed in business in New Orleans. Raised also by her father’s two sisters, who owned a New Orleans boardinghouse, Hellman got to know a variety of human types that would later people her plays and memoirs.
Hellman had an inclination to write at an early age, but she was not certain where her...
(The entire section is 719 words.)