Hellman was a critically and popularly acclaimed playwright. Her work was occasionally political and often controversial, and the events of her personal life garnered as much publicity as her writing. She is best known for her plays The Children's Hour (1934) and The Little Foxes (1939), and her memoir of the McCarthy era, Scoundrel Time (1976).
An only child, Hellman was born in New Orleans on June 20 in either 1905 or 1906, to Max Hellman and Julia Newhouse Hellman. Although both parents were descended from German Jewish families who came to the United States in the 1840s, Hellman's maternal relatives were far more successful in America than her father's family. Her father started a shoe company with the money he acquired through marriage, but the business failed and the family moved to New York City, where the Newhouses had relocated. Starting at the age of six, Hellman divided her time between her two vastly different extended families, spending summers in the well-appointed Newhouse quarters on the upper west side of Manhattan and winters in the New Orleans boardinghouse run by her father's sisters. Her education suffered as a result of the frequent moves and the necessity of adjusting to different home environments and school districts. Hellman attended New York University from 1921 to 1924 and Columbia University in 1924 but dropped out of college in 1925 before finishing her degree. She worked briefly as a manuscript reader, and in December 1925 she married Arthur Kober, a publicist. She began doing publicity for plays and writing book reviews, publishing her first piece in the New York Herald Tribune in 1925.
The following year, Kober became editor of the literary journal Paris Comet, and the couple moved to France. Hellman began traveling around Europe and writing short stories, some of which were published in her husband's magazine. In 1929 the Kobers briefly returned to New York, where Hellman worked as a reader for Broadway plays, but a year later they moved to Hollywood, where Hellman took a position at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There she met Dashiell Hammett, a well-known detective novelist, and the two began a relationship—both personal and professional—that lasted for thirty-one years, until Hammett's death in 1961. Hellman and Kober divorced amicably in 1932.
In 1934, having returned to New York with Hammett, Hellman produced her first play, the well-received but controversial The Children's Hour, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her next effort, Days to Come (1936), was far less successful and closed after just a few performances. However, three years later she produced her most famous play, The Little Foxes. Hellman continued writing plays and screenplays throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. She retired from the theatre in 1963 and began writing her memoirs.
Hellman's politics, meanwhile, had embroiled her in further controversy. Frequently associated with liberal and radical causes, Hellman produced an editorial in the Screen Writers' Guild magazine critical of the Congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities. She was never actually charged with being a Communist, but she was blacklisted nonetheless and called to testify before the Committee in 1952. Refusing to name fellow writers and other Hollywood figures who might be Communists, Hellman wrote the Committee a letter that has often been reprinted as evidence of her personal principles. "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," she informed the Committee, "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."
In 1969, however, she again became involved in politics, this time in opposition to the war in Vietnam. She remained active in the movement for many years. Throughout the 1970s she served as visiting lecturer at a variety of prestigious universities, among them Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley, until her declining health forced her to give up her strenuous schedule. A lifelong smoker, Hellman suffered from emphysema and died June 30, 1984, in Martha's Vineyard.
Hellman's first produced play, The Children's Hour, deals with a young girl who falsely accuses her school headmistresses of involvement in a lesbian relationship. The resulting scandal causes many parents to remove their daughters from the school, and although the lie is exposed in the end, one of the headmistresses has by this time committed suicide. A commercial and critical success, the play was nonetheless banned in Boston, London, and Chicago, and its failure to win the Pulitzer Prize was widely attributed to its controversial subject matter.
Hellman's next major work was The Little Foxes, a carefully-researched drama set in 1900 in an Alabama town. The ruthless members of the Hubbard family—characters inspired by Hellman's maternal relatives—vie for control of the family business in a plot involving larceny, blackmail, and murder. The moral center of the play is Addie, who is modeled on Hellman's childhood nurse, Sophronia Mason, the only figure from Hellman's early life to receive positive treatment in her plays.
Hellman turned to contemporary politics for her next play, Watch on the Rhine (1941), a tale of international intrigue set in Washington, D.C., but very much involved with the events in 1940 Nazi Germany. Aimed at inspiring Americans to abandon neutrality, the play was a success both critically and commercially; it won the Drama Critics Circle Award, and ran for 378 performances. In 1944 Hellman's most political work, The Searching Wind, opened in New York, and once again the playwright used a domestic setting to explore issues of fascism abroad.
After the war, Hellman returned to family matters with Another Part of the Forest (1946) and The Autumn Garden (1951). Another Part of the Forest is a prequel to The Little Foxes, while The Autumn Garden offers a considerable departure from Hellman's earlier style and is often regarded as her most mature dramatic work. Toys in the Attic (1960) was Hellman's last original play. Set in New Orleans, the plot involves interracial relationships, the hint of incestuous desire, and the dangers of living in the past.
Hellman's most famous non-dramatic works include her three memoirs: An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). A chapter from Pentimento, which describes Hellman's 1937 mission to aid a childhood friend by smuggling currency to an anti-fascist group in Germany, became the basis for the motion picture Julia (1977). The story, along with Hellman's account of her role in the McCarthy hearings in Scoundrel Time, were both controversial; critics charged that both works were self-serving and riddled with untruths.
Hellman's major works were well received by both critics and audiences. Two of her plays, Watch on the Rhine and Toys in the Attic, received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and many productions of her work enjoyed long, successful theatrical runs. Because of the political nature of her dramas and her treatment of American capitalism, Hellman's plays attracted the attention of Marxist critics long after her death. More recently her work has been examined by feminist scholars, many of whom contend that Hellman was a feminist despite her statements to the contrary. Sally Burke (see Further Reading) includes Hellman in her study of feminist playwrights, despite the common critical contention that Hellman aspired to be "one of the boys" and Hellman's own contention that she encountered no discrimination as a woman in the theatre. Burke insists that the playwright "gave voice to feminist themes while publicly eschewing the title of feminist." Citing The Little Foxes as an example, Burke maintains that the play deals with "woman's status as chattel to be disposed of at the discretion of the patriarchy, and the convergence of race and class as well as gender in determining one's destiny." Judith E. Barlow also concludes that The Little Foxes, "with its attention to gendered role playing," meets the criteria associated with feminist drama. For Barlow, the play challenges the stereotypical domestic role for women and confronts "the hypocrisy of excluding the women from direct participation in business negotiations." Mary Lynn Broe suggests that Hellman's use of passivity in her dramas was at odds with the usual stereotypical association of women with passivity. According to Broe, the words and actions of Hellman's female characters "suggest not only new possibilities for moral being, a new range of expression for female behavior, but also a new approach to reevaluating Lillian Hellman's playwriting skills."