Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2007
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.
Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline
Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!
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 of her career and which she attributed to her mother’s family in An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (1969) and Pentimento (1972).
In Watch on the Rhine (1941), Hellman focuses on the innocence of Americans and their blindness to the appeasement of fascism that had gone on throughout the 1930’s. In Kurt Müller, a German anti-Fascist fighter seeking momentary refuge in the United States, she creates a vulnerable hero, a fragile man with broken hands who is constrained to strangle a foreign national who threatens to reveal Kurt’s presence and to expose the network of anti-Fascist groups Kurt supports. That Fanny Farrelly, the mother of Kurt’s American wife, Sarah, must condone this killing in her own household and allow Kurt to escape, accomplishes the playwright’s aim in bringing home to Americans the fact that they are implicated in the world’s evils and must take some responsibility for combating them, even at the price of losing their innocence.
Although Hellman managed to complete a second successful play on the Hubbards, Another Part of the Forest (pr. 1946, pb. 1947), she began to sense that her resources as a playwright were diminishing. Her final plays—The Autumn Garden (1951), Toys in the Attic (1960), and an adaptation of a novel, My Mother, My Father, and Me (1963)—show that she was moving toward the form of the memoir as more flexible and more open than her tightly wound melodramas.
Called on to explain her career in numerous interviews, and energized by the contentious campus life of the 1960’s (she taught at Harvard, Yale, and other colleges), it seemed incumbent on Hellman to present some record of herself. In her memoirs, Hellman dedicated herself not only to explaining the origins of her work but also to revealing to a later generation what it was like growing up in the 1920’s, making her way among the writers and the politics of the 1930’s and 1940’s and coping with being blacklisted in the 1950’s for her leftist sympathies.
Hellman’s first two volumes of memoirs, An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento, were an enormous success, garnering her the best reviews of her life. She became a cult figure, lionized by young people, especially women, who saw in her a role model who had held her own in a man’s world while remaining feminine. There was criticism of her long-term relationship with Hammett—some women viewing Hellman as the subordinate partner—but on the whole she was praised for confronting the temper of her times with magnificent courage and candor. The style of the memoirs, particularly Pentimento, was much admired, for her chapters read like short stories, especially her account of her childhood friend, Julia, who had become part of the anti-Fascist underground in Europe and whom Hellman had aided at considerable risk to herself.
When Hellman’s third memoir, Scoundrel Time (1976), appeared, it was initially greeted with rave reviews. Eventually, however, the tide turned as her enemies of the 1930’s and 1940’s emerged to dispute her accounts. In an article published in The Paris Review in 1981, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, ridiculed the contradictions and inaccuracies of An Unfinished Woman and made a compelling case for Hellman’s having lied about many incidents to aggrandize her own life. Other attacks followed, pointing up the self-serving quality of Scoundrel Time and its deficiencies as history. The culmination of this criticism came in Mary McCarthy’s allegation on national television that every word Hellman wrote was a lie.
Hellman received little sympathy when she decided to sue McCarthy for libel. Having built her reputation on candor, the likelihood that the stories in Pentimento, especially Julia’s, were fiction came as devastating news to Hellman’s readers, and Hellman did not deign to reply to the charges. When she died on June 30, 1984, the suit against McCarthy was still pending, but Hellman’s reputation had been significantly damaged.
Several of Lillian Hellman’s plays—The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, The Autumn Garden, Toys in the Attic—are regularly revived and are likely to remain a part of the American repertory. The quality of the writing in her memoirs is high, although their final place in the canon of American literature remains to be determined, as does the precise nature of her political views and the extent to which those views must be considered in an analysis of her writing.
Hellman’s life represents a challenge and an inspiration to women’s studies. On the one hand, she was a product of her moment—especially of the 1930’s—when her writing reflected the need of many writers to engage in some form of political engagement. She chose to pursue the hardboiled creed of her mentor, Dashiell Hammett, never excusing or rationalizing her actions. On the other hand, her memoirs and plays provide ample criticism not merely of male chauvinism but of her characters and of herself. She knew that she was “unfinished,” and that many of her actions were contradictory. The very terms she used—such as pentimento—suggest that she recognized that human identity, and especially a woman’s identity, entailed constant revision and remaking—similar to the artistic process of repenting, in which an artist makes changes and paints over his or her work. This dynamic process of self-creation is what accounted for the tremendous success of Hellman’s memoirs, and it is what is likely to repay study in considering Hellman’s status as a woman of achievement.
Dick, Bernard F. Hellman in Hollywood. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982. The only complete study of Hellman’s screenwriting career, based not only on archival sources but also on interviews with her coworkers. Notes, bibliography, and index.
Feibleman, Peter. Lilly: Reminiscences of Lillian Hellman. New York: William Morrow, 1988. An effective memoir of his close association with Hellman, which provides important details on the last years of her life.
Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A sound introductory study, including a chapter on her biography and discussions of her major plays and memoirs. Contains notes, chronology, 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 1950’s because of his love affair with Hellman.
Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A full-length biography that discusses all of Hellman’s major work as autobiographer, screenwriter, and playwright. There is also an extensive discussion of her politics and sketches of the main characters in her life. Useful footnotes, bibliography, and index.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Female Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. Contains a searching and highly critical discussion of Hellman’s memoirs.
Triesch, Manfred, comp. The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966. An important census and discussion of Hellman’s manuscripts in the most important depository of her work.
Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. A full-length biography concentrating on Hellman’s life. Wright is less concerned with her plays and memoirs than with her politics, which he treats in a fairly objective manner. Notes and index.