Lillian Florence Hellman
(1905 - 1984)
Lillian Florence Hellman is regarded as one of the major
playwrights in America during the twentieth century. Her
plays were dominated with social justice themes that provoked controversy. Her skilled craftsmanship in writing
is compared to Ibsen and Chekhov.
She was born on June 20, 1905, in New Orleans, Louisiana, the
only child of Julia and Max Bernard Hellman. Her father was of
German Jewish ancestry, who struggled to make a living as a shoe
merchant. Financial losses forced the family to live six months in New
York and then back to New Orleans with her father's two sisters.
Her education was fragmented with different cultures as she went
to various schools. She graduated high school in New York and she
attended New York University and Columbia University. Her formal
education ended in 1924.
Hellman went to work as a manuscript reader for a New York City
publisher. After work, she found herself attending many publishers'
parties where she was introduced to the antics and reckless life of the
literary world of the 20's. She was in her twenties and enjoyed the
bohemian and adventurous life of the writers' world.
She married Arthur Kober, a theatrical press agent, on December 1,
1925. They went to Europe. In 1929, in Paris, she made a side trip to
Germany where she witnessed the anti-Semitism of the embryonic Nazi
movement. This experience appeared in two of her plays that she wrote
later in life: Watch on the Rhine and The Searching Wind.
In 1930, she went to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reading movie
scripts. It was here that she met Dashiell Hammett, a mystery novelist
and film writer. They became lifelong companions and he was one of
the greatest influences on her life. In 1932, she had an amicable
divorce from her husband.
She wrote many successful plays, including: The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, Montserrat, The Autumn
Garden, The Lark, Toys in the Attic and My Mother My Father and Me.
Hellman wrote the book that served as the basis for Leonard Bernstein's
musical Candide. She also wrote many screen plays and books, and
she contributed to numerous anthologies and magazines.
Hellman was subpoenaed in 1952 to appear before the House
Un-American Activities Committee. Her famous response to the
committee's questions was "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to
fit this year's fashions." She was blacklisted and forced to sell some of
her holdings to meet financial obligations.
Lillian Hellman received many awards during her life: New York
Drama Critics Circle Award for Watch on the Rhine, 1941, and for Toys in the Attic, 1960; Academy Award nominations for the screenplays The Little Foxes and The North Star, and she received many honorary degrees from various universities.
Lillian Hellman died of cardiac arrest on June 30, 1984, at her summer home in Martha's Vineyard. Her four-million-dollar estate was
placed in two funds: One was named for Dashiell Hammett to promote
writing from a leftist, radical viewpoint, and the other was named after
herself to promote "educational, literary, or scientific purposes to aid
writers regardless of their national origin, age, sex, or political beliefs."
Lillian Hellman was not intimidated by controversial themes. She was
very outspoken and her writings place her in the forefront of America's
greatest twentieth century writers.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism
included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America: 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996,
written by Seymour Sy Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated
by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime
Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.