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The Life of Lillian Hellman

by Aliza Kenney

At the age of 15, Lillian Hellman stole a ring from her uncle which she pawned in order to buy books. When she confessed what she had done, her uncle said, “So you’ve got spirit after all. Most of the rest of them are made of sugar water.” This statement would go on to define Hellman’s life, and indeed, she used the line in The Little Foxes to describe her enigmatic heroine, Regina Giddens. Hellman was a fiercely unapologetic, intelligent, headstrong woman in an age when such behavior was met with shock, scorn, and condescension. She fought her whole career to be taken seriously as an artist and a public figure.

Photo of Lillian Hellman sitting in a chair in her home
UNITED STATES – APRIL 16: Author Lillian Hellman at home on Park Ave. (Photo by Dan Jancino/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

At the age of just 29, Hellman was the first woman to be admitted to the Club of American Dramatists after the huge success of her first play, The Children’s Hour. Yet much of her work, particularly The Little Foxes, has been discredited as “merely melodrama.” Some critics dismiss the dramatic plot and larger-than-life characters as too simplistic, comparing her work to the more down to earth, gritty work of her male contemporaries. They imply in their reviews that her gender limited her ability to tell complex, logical stories. But Hellman’s melodramatic style was intentional and effective. In an interview she reflected, “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.” Despite detractors, her melodramas were highly successful, annd earned her a place in theater history.

Photo of a younger Lillian Hellman
Lillian Hellman

In 1952, Hellman was called in from of the House Committee on Un-American Activities along with many artists and writers of the time. Her Communist connections and history of political leftism made her an ideal target. In fact, the themes of greed and corruption in The Little Foxes were touted as evidence of her Socialist tendencies. She agreed to testify, but only about her own activities. In a letter to the committee she said, “to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and dishonorable.” She risked imprisonment for contempt of Congress, was blacklisted, and saw her income drop from $150,000 a year to virtually nothing. Still, she stood by her actions, declaring, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” This move gained her respect and support on the left, but only served to confirm the worst assumptions of her doubters. To this day some have written her off as a “lying, Stalinist traitor.”

A screenshot of the cover of Lillian Hellman's Memoir "An Unfinished Woman" with her sitting down

Hellman was not immune to the antics that seemed to go hand in hand with literary celebrity at the time. In the same era when Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal were coming to blows in talk show green rooms and at parties, Hellman found an enemy in novelist, critic, and political activist Mary McCarthy. In 1979 during an interview on The Dick Cavett Show, McCarthy laughingly declared, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’” a comment which led to a long drawn-out lawsuit between the two women, which only ended when Hellman died.) Cavett himself said, “No one was neutral about Lillian. She had a famous friendship with Dorothy Parker, yet to Jean Stafford she was ‘Old Scaly Bird.’”

The Cover of Lillian Hellman's book "Pimento"

Even when she moved on from playwriting, Hellman continued to ruffle feathers. In her later years she wrote three memoirs about different eras in her life: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time. These books were even more popular than her plays, but the veracity of her stories was intensely debated. One chapter in Pentimento in particular led to a debate which haunts Hellman’s reputation to this day. It reflects on her relationship with a woman named Julia, and recounts that Hellman once smuggled $50,000 to her to be used in bribing Nazi guards to free prisoners. After the book’s release, Dr. Muriel Gardiner, a psychoanalyst who was active in the Austrian underground in World War II, suggested that her experience was the model for the Hellman story, though the two had never met. Hellman dismissed these accusations, claiming that that Gardiner “may have been the model for somebody else’s Julia, but she was certainly not the model for my Julia.”

Lillian Hellman and her long time partner Dashiell Hammett sitting and drinking

        Hellman split opinion and attracted the limelight all her life. At some points, she seemed to revel in the experience, at others she seemed to have been exhausted by the whole facade. She once quoted Dashiell Hammett, her long-time lover, as telling her, “The truth is you don’t like the theater except the times when you’re in a room by yourself putting the play on paper.” Though the apparent contradictions of her life may never be explained, some insight into the truth behind the imposing figure may be found in the stories she brought to life on stage. Above all else, she certainly had spirit, in a world of people made of sugar water.

More about The Little Foxes:

Lillian Hellman’s classic drama captures the riveting story of how a family’s vicious pursuit of financial success destroys the American Dream. In the post-Civil War South, Regina Giddens and her scheming brothers, Oscar and Ben, want to partner on a business deal to exploit the poor and increase their already substantial wealth. There is only one problem: Regina’s husband, Horace, refuses to give them the funds they need — setting in motion a vicious game of duplicitous dealings that ultimately leads to death. A timely story about corrosion of the soul and corruption of the heart.

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