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
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