Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans. Her father was a shoe salesman, and her mother came from a well-to-do family in Demopolis, Ala. While she was growing up, the family spent part of the year in New York and part in New Orleans, where they stayed in a boardinghouse owned and run by her father’s sisters. Hellman attended New York University but left without a degree to work as a manuscript reader for the publishing house Boni and Liveright. Hellman began writing short stories, although she was not successful in publishing them. In 1930, Hellman moved with her husband to Hollywood where she met and became involved with the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. Although their relationship was rocky, it continued until his death in 1961. Hammett strongly influenced her writing, critiquing draft versions of her writing efforts.
Hellman divorced her husband, and moved with Hammett to New York, where she worked as a script reader for a Broadway producer and began writing plays. Her first play to be produced, The Children's Hour, opened on Broadway in 1933. In 1935, Hellman returned to Hollywood as a screenwriter for MGM. Until the 1950s, she lived and worked in both New York and Hollywood and wrote both plays and screenplays. Hellman was active in leftist political causes. In 1952, she was accused of being a Communist and subpoenaed to appear before the U.S. Congress House Un-American Activities Committee. Fearing that an open discussion of her own activities would force her to name others, Hellman pled the Fifth Amendment. She was blacklisted and could no longer write for Hollywood, although she continued to write plays, some of which she also directed. In the late 1960s, Hellman ceased writing plays and began writing her memoirs, one of which, Scoundrel Time, was her version of the events of the McCarthy era. A chapter from another of her memoirs, Pentimento, was made into the motion picture Julia.
Lillian Hellman wrote plays with vivid characters, strong dialogue, and a moralistic tone. One of her most important themes was that good people must actively oppose evil or disaster will ensue. Two of her plays, The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest, are set in a fictionalized version of Demopolis, and the characters are based on her mother’s family.
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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-83026.
Last updated on May 30, 2008.