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Lillian Hellman

Born June 20, 1905(1905-06-20)
New Orleans, Louisiana
Died June 30, 1984 (aged 79)
Tisbury, Massachusetts
Occupation writer
Nationality American
Spouse(s) Arthur Kober (1925-1932)

Lillian Florence Hellman (June 20, 1905 – June 30, 1984) was an American playwright, linked throughout her life with many left-wing causes. She was romantically involved for 30 years with mystery and crime writer Dashiell Hammett (and was the inspiration for his character Nora Charles), and was also a long-time friend and literary executor of author Dorothy Parker.


Early life

Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana into a Jewish family. 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.


Hellman's most famous plays include The Children's Hour (1934), The Little Foxes (1939), and Toys in the Attic (1960).

Hellman was fond of including younger characters in her plays. In The Children's Hour (1934), the play takes place in a children's school and the antagonist of the play, Mary, is a young girl. In The Little Foxes (1939), an important sub-plot revolves around the potential marriage of the youngest characters in the play, Leo and Alexandra.

Hellman also wrote three autobiographical memoirs: An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). The Oscar-winning film Julia was based on Pentimento. Upon the film's release, in 1977, New York psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner claimed that she was the basis for the title character and that she had never known Hellman. Hellman denied that the character was based on Gardiner. However, the fact that Hellman and Gardiner had the same lawyer (Wolf Schwabacher), that the lawyer had been privy to Gardiner's memoirs, and that the events in the film conform to those in the memoirs, have led some to conclude that they had been appropriated by Hellman without attribution to Gardiner.

Blacklist and aftermath

Hellman appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. At the time, HUAC was well aware that Hellman's longtime lover Dashiell Hammett had been a Communist Party member. Asked to name names of acquaintances with communist affiliations, Hellman said she delivered a prepared statement, which read in part:

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.

As a result, Hellman was blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studios for many years. However, David Frum calls the claim that Hellman gave the remark about "this year's fashions" to HUAC "wholly fictitious."[1] Hellman claimed that the committee room broke into applause after her speech, which Frum also says is fictional.[1] Prior to World War II, as a member of the League of American Writers with Hammett, she had served on its Keep America Out of War Committee during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact.[2]

In Two Invented Lives: Hellman and Hammett, author Joan Mellen wrote that Hellman "invented her life, so that by the end even she was uncertain about what had been true."[3] Mellen noted that while Hellman had excoriated anti-Communist liberals such as Elia Kazan[4] in her memoirs for directing their energies against Communists rather than against fascists or capitalists, she held a double standard on the subject of free speech when it came to her own critics.[5][6] Author Diana Trilling publicly accused Hellman of pressuring her publisher, Little Brown, to cancel its contract with Trilling, who had written a collection of essays defending herself and her husband Lionel Trilling against Hellman's charges.[7][8]

Hellman had shaded the truth on some accounts of her life, including the assertion that she knew nothing about the Moscow Trials in which Stalin had purged the Soviet Communist Party of Party members who were then liquidated.[6][8][9] Hellman had actually signed petitions (An Open Letter to American Liberals) applauding the guilty verdict and encouraged others not to cooperate with John Dewey's committee that sought to establish the truth behind Stalin's show trials. The latter denounced the "fantastic falsehood that the USSR and totalitarian states are basically alike."[9][6]

Hellman had also opposed the granting of political asylum to Leon Trotsky by the United States[9][6][8], after the Soviet Union instructed the U.S. Communist Party to oppose his asylum. Trotsky was the former Soviet leader and Communist who became Stalin's nemesis in exile (and was eventually assassinated).

As late as 1969, according to Mellen, Hellman told Dorothea Strauss that her husband was a "malefactor" because he had published the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Mellen quotes her as saying "If you knew what I know about American prisons, you would be a Stalinist, too." Mellen continues, "American justice allowed her now to maintain good faith with the tyrant who had, despite his methods, industrialized the 'first socialist state.'"[6]

Hellman's feud with Mary McCarthy formed the basis for the play Imaginary Friends by Nora Ephron. McCarthy famously said of Hellman on The Dick Cavett Show that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." Hellman replied by filing a US$2,500,000 slander suit against McCarthy, Dick Cavett, and PBS.[10] McCarthy in turn produced evidence that Hellman had shaded the truth on some accounts of her life, including some of the information that later appeared in Mellen's book. Cavett said he sympathized more with McCarthy than Hellman in the lawsuit, but "everybody lost" as a result of it.[10] Norman Mailer attempted to mediate through an article he published in The New York Times.[10]


Hellman died on June 30, 1984 at age 79 from natural causes on Martha's Vineyard. She was still in litigation with Mary McCarthy, and the suit was dropped by Hellman's executors.[11][12]


Hellman is a main character in the play Cakewalk by Peter Feibleman, which is about Hellman's relationship with a younger novelist. Hellman did have a long relationship with Feibleman, and the other main character in the play is somewhat based on him. Actress Elaine Stritch portrays Hellman in the audiobook version of the play.

Hellman appears in the fifteenth episode of the nineteenth season of The Simpsons, in Lisa's hallucination, urging her to take up smoking. The same episode also jokingly and incorrectly identified Hellman as the creator of Hellman's Mayonnaise.

Hellman is also the subject of the forthcoming Chuck Palahniuk book "Tell All (novel)". The novel reinvents her as a "larger than life Super Hero" and follows her incredible life and exploits, as she wrote about them in her memoir "An Unfinished Woman".

List of works

Hellman, on jacket of her autobiography An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir


  1. ^ a b Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. p. 308. ISBN 0465041957. 
  2. ^ Franklin Folsom, Days of Anger, Days of Hope, University Press of Colorado, 1994, ISBN 0870813323
  3. ^ "Two Invented Lives". New Politics journal. Summer 1997. Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  4. ^ Bernstein, Richard, Long, Bitter Debate From the '50's: Views of Kazan and His Critics New York Times article, May 3, 1988
  5. ^ Glazer, Nathan, An Answer to Lillian Hellman, Commentary Magazine, Vol. 61, No. 6 (June 1976)
  6. ^ a b c d e Mellen, Joan, Two Invented Lives: Hellman and Hammett, HarperCollins, New York, 1996
  7. ^ Wright, William, Stage View, New York Times article, November 3, 1996
  8. ^ a b c Rollyson, Carl E., Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988) ISBN 0312000499
  9. ^ a b c Lamont, Corliss, Hellman, Lillian, et al., An Open Letter to American Liberals, Soviet Russia Today, March 1937 issue
  10. ^ a b c Martinson, Deborah (2005). Lillian Hellman. Counterpoint Press. pp. 354–356. ISBN 1582433151. 
  11. ^ "Lillian Hellman, Author and Rebel, Dies at Age 79". Los Angeles Times. July 1, 1984. Retrieved 2008-04-18. "Author Lillian Hellman, who delineated evil in such plays as "The Children's Hour" and "The Little Foxes" and fell victim to it during the political persecutions of the 1950s, died Saturday of a heart attack at 77." 
  12. ^ "Lillian Hellman, Playwright, Author and Rebel, Dies at 77 [sic"]. New York Times. July 1, 1984. Retrieved 2008-07-07. "Lillian Hellman, one of the most important playwrights of the American theater, died of cardiac arrest yesterday at Martha's Vineyard (Mass.) Hospital near her summer home. She was 77 [sic] years old and also lived in Manhattan. The playwright had been taken to the hospital by ambulance from her home ..." 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

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.

Lillian Florence Hellman (20 June 190530 June 1984) was an American playwright.

See also: The Children's Hour


For every man who lives without freedom, the rest of us must face the guilt.
  • There are people who eat earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. And other people who stand around and watch them eat.
    • The Little Foxes (1939)
  • Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth.
    • The Little Foxes (1939)
  • For every man who lives without freedom, the rest of us must face the guilt.
    • The Watch on the Rhine (1941)
  • Lonely people, in talking to each other can make each other lonelier.
    • The Autumn Garden (1951)
  • I am ready and willing to testify before the representatives of our Government as to my own opinions and my own actions, regardless of any risks or consequences to myself.
    But I am advised by counsel that if I answer the committee’s questions about myself, I must also answer questions about other people and that if I refuse to do so, I can be cited for contempt. My counsel tells me that if I answer questions about myself, I will have waived my rights under the fifth amendment and could be forced legally to answer questions about others. This is very difficult for a layman to understand. 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 am prepared to waive the privilege against self-incrimination and to tell you everything you wish to know about my views or actions if your committee will agree to refrain from asking me to name other people. If the committee is unwilling to give me this assurance, I will be forced to plead the privilege of the fifth amendment at the hearing.
  • A man should be jailed for telling lies to the young.
    • Candide (1956) a comic operetta based upon the satire by Voltaire.
  • We will not think noble because we are not noble. We will not live in beautiful harmony because there is no such thing in this world, nor should there be. We promise only to do our best and to live out our lives. Dear God, that's all we can promise in truth.
    • Candide (1956)
  • Nothing, of course, begins at the time you think it did.
    • An Unfinished Woman (1969)
  • I do not believe in recovery. The past with its pleasures, its rewards, its foolishness, its punishments, is there for each of us forever, and it should be.
    • Scoundrel Time (1976)
  • Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter "repented," changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.
    • Introduction to Pentimento

Quotes about Hellman

  • You are reminded that this subject has a national reputation through her writings in which she has opposed Nazism and fascism. Under no circumstances should it be known that this bureau is conducting an investigation of her. It should be handled in a most discreet manner and under no circumstances should it be assigned to the local police or some other agency.
  • Today, when every form of perversion except masturbation and bestiality have been shown on the screen, Hellman, Wyler and the Mirisch Co. apparently thought a re-do of The Children's Hour would sell tickets if lesbianism were not only restored as the charge the evil child falsely brings, but also condoned... There is an explicit line of dialogue which asserts that those who choose to practice lesbianism are not destroyed by it — a claim disapproved by the number of lesbians who become insane and/or commit suicide.
    • Films in Review (April 1962)
  • Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.
    • Mary McCarthy, in a statement about Hellman in a 1979 interview on The Dick Cavett Show; this prompted a defamation suit against McCarthy which was dropped after Hellman's death.
  • If someone had told me, don't say anything about Lillian Hellman because she'll sue you, it wouldn't have stopped me. It might have spurred me on.

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