Lillian Hellman (June 20, 1905 – June 30, 1984) was a renowned American playwright and memoirist, born in New Orleans. Her plays dealt with difficult subject matter, and were very well received at a time when she was a pioneering female playwright. Growing up between New Orleans and New York, she was educated at NYU and Columbia University.
The Children’s Hour (1934) was the play that launched Hellman’s career in theater. This was followed by number of other successful productions, the best known of which are arguably The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, and Toys in the Attic. She was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Prize for best play of the year for the latter two. Though The Autumn Garden, which premiered in 1951, is perhaps not one of the first of her works that comes to mind, many critics considered it her best.
Hellman was also worked as a screenwriter and wrote a number of memoirs, though some questioned the accuracy of some of the events described in books like Pentimento. She had a bitter writer’s rivalry with Mary McCarthy, who famously said of Hellman on the Dick Cavett television show in 1979, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” Journalist Martha Gelhorn, one of Ernest Hemingway’s many wives, joined McCarthy in her public denouncements of Hellman’s veracity. Despite this, Hellman’s literary reputation has remained intact; her plays are still staged long after she herself passed on, before which she amassed honorary doctorates and numerous awards.
During the McCarthy era, Hellman was blacklisted, which caused a precipitous drop in her income but only put a temporary dent in her career. She was the longtime love interest of detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, with whom she had a relationship of thirty years, until his death in 1961. They never married, as Hammett already had a wife from whom he was long estranged but never divorced.
Hellman was able to combine the political and the personal in her plays. Her works that spoke out against political systems and their shortcomings as well as human foibles, dramatized so touchingly and tragically from her first play, The Children’s Hour, onward. She died of a heart attack at age 79 (1984) at her home in Martha’s Vineyard.
Major works (plays)
- The Children’s Hour (1934)
- The Little Foxes (1939)
- Watch on the Rhine (1941)
- Another Part of the Forest (1946)
- The Autumn Garden (1951)
- Toys in the Attic (1960)
- An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir by Lillian Hellman and Wendy Wasserstein
- Pentimento (1973) by Lillian Hellman
- Scoundrel Time (1976) by Lillian Hellman
- A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman
by Alice Kessler-Harris
- Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels
by Deborah Martinson
Articles, News, Etc.
- Paris Review – The Art of Theater No. 1, Lillian Hellman
- Lillian Hellman: A ‘Difficult,’ Vilified Woman (NPR)
Selected Film Adaptations
Lillian Hellman’s Archive
- Lillian Hellman papers at the Harry Ransom Center, Univ. of Texas at Austin
Lillian Hellman Quotes
“Failure in the theater is more dramatic and uglier than any other form of writing. It costs so much, you feel so guilty.”
“If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.”
“People change and forget to tell each other.” (Toys in the Attic, 1960)
“I am a moral writer, often too moral a writer, and I cannot avoid, it seems, the summing-up. I think that is only a mistake when it fails to achieved its purpose, and I would rather make the attempt and fail, than fail to make the attempt.” (On her own writing)
“Nobody outside of a baby in a carriage or a judge’s chamber believes in an unprejudiced point of view.”
“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.” (From the introduction of Pentimento, 1979)
“If you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the beginning. But if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then you will probably write melodrama.”
“We are a people who do not want to keep much of the past in our heads. It is considered unhealthy in America to remember mistakes, neurotic to think about them, psychotic to dwell on them.”
“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)
“Belief is a moral act for which the believer is to be held responsible.”
“For every man who lives without freedom, the rest of us must face the guilt.” (Watch on the Rhine, 1941)
“It is a mark of many famous people that they cannot part with their brightest hour.”
“Nothing you write, if you hope to be good, will ever come out as you first hoped.”
“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.” (From a letter to the US House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, 1952)
“Things start out as hopes and end up as habits.”
“Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth.” (The Little Foxes, 1939)
“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)
“The failure of a second work is, I think, more damaging to a writer than failure ever will be again. It is then that the success of the first work seems an accident and, if the fears you had as you wrote it were dissipated by praise, now you remember that the praise did not always come from the best minds and even when it did it could have been that they were not telling the truth or than you had played good tricks.”
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