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.