At 1712-18 Prytania Street in New Orleans, there is an old white house with stained glass bay windows and a large oak tree in the front yard. It was here that the famous playwright and screenplay writer, Lillian Hellman, was born in 1905. At the time, this was boarding house owned by her two aunts, Jenny and Hannah Hellman. When Lillian Hellman was six, her family moved to New York. They spent half of each year between there and New Orleans. But Hellman's happiest times were those spent in the South at her aunts' boarding house. She was "crazy about other peoples' lives", and loved to talk to the boarders for hours. She liked to read in her lofty hideout in a fig tree in the backyard garden of the boarding house.
Hellman's early life had a large influence on her writing. She fashioned many characters in her plays after family members, and is well known for her character development. In The Little Foxes, she modeled characters after herself and her father. In The Autumn Garden, she called upon her two aunts who ran the boarding house for inspiration. Hellman also used her writing to express her views on many things, such as evil in society, politics, and people. This is shown in The Children's Hour through a young girl who gossips about her teachers.
In 1925, after completing two years of college at New York University, Hellman married Arthur Kober and moved to Hollywood. There in November of 1930, she met Dashiell Hammett, a famous author who wrote several novels including The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. Hellman divorced Kober the next year, and moved back to New York where she lived with Hammett at the Sutton Hotel. Their affair lasted a total of thirty-one years, until Hammett sadly died in 1961. The dedication page of The Children's Hour reads, "For Dashiell Hammett, with thanks."
The Children's Hour was written when Hellman was only twenty-seven years of age. It opened on November 20, 1934, and ran for a whopping 691 performances. The Children's Hour, a play about a hateful young schoolgirl who destroys the lives of two teachers by accusing them of homosexuality, was banned form public performance in London and also in Chicago for nineteen years.
The Little Foxes, another successful play about a Southern family who competes with each other for the family riches, opened on February 15, 1939. It ran for 410 performances after its opening night at National Theatre in New York City. With the money form the achievement of The Little Foxes in her pocket, she bought a farm in Westchester County, New York. She called it Hardscrabble Farm.
In 1952, Hellman and Hammett appeared before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to answer charges of being involved in Communist activities. It was here where she said her famous quote: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." Hellman was blacklisted in Hollywood for more than ten years as a result of the charges, and Hammett spent several years in jail.
In the late 1960's, Hellman began to write her memoirs. One very successful one was entitled Pentimento. An Unfinished Woman, which won the National Book Award, and Scoundrel Time are also among her memoirs.
"Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens, it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter 'repented,' changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.
"That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged now and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now."
By 1984, Hellman had developed a severe bronchial condition, was almost blind, and her weight had dwindled to a mere eighty pounds. She died that year, at age seventy-nine, of a heart attack in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.
Lillian Hellman changed American drama and theatre with her many plays and screenplays. When an interviewer once asked what she wanted to be remembered for, Hellman replied that she wanted to be remembered as a good writer. Perhaps she will be.
Lillian Hellman Timeline
1905- Lillian Florence Hellman is born in New Orleans at 1712-18 Prytania Street.
1910- Hellman's family moves to New York City.
1922-24- Hellman studies at the New York University and Columbia University.
1925- Marries Arthur Kober
1930- Hellman meets Dashiel Hammett in Hollywood. Hammett was a novelist who wrote pieces such as The Maltese Falcon and TheThin Man
1931- Hellman divorces Arthur Kober. She moves back to New York and lives with Hammett at the Sutton Hotel.
1932- Hellman writes The Children's Hour
1934- The Children's Hour premiers on Broadway on November 20. It runs for 691 performances.
1935- Julia Newhouse Hellman, Lillian's mother, dies.
1939- The Little Foxes opens on February 15. It runs for 410 performances. Hellman buys a 130-acre farm in Westchester County, New York. She calls it Hardscrabble Farm.
1941- Watch on the Rhine is published.
1948- Hellman is accused of being a communist and blacklisted in Hollywood as a result.
1952- Hellman appears before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and the charges are dropped. It is here that she says her famous quote: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."
1953- The ban in Chicago of public performance of The Children's Hour ends
1960- Toys in the Attic opens on February 25, and runs for 556 performances
1961- Dashiel Hammett dies
1969- An Unfinished Woman, Hellman's memoir, is published
1973- Pentimento, another memoir, is published
1984- Hellman dies of a heart attack at age 79 in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.
A Few Awards and Honors
1961 -Achievement Award from the Women's Division of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.
-Brandeis University Creative Arts Award
-Honorary Litt.D. from Wheaton College
1963 -Honorary Litt.D. from Douglass College of Rutgers University.
1964 -Gold Medal for Drama from the National Institute for Arts and Letters.
1968 -Award of Distinction from Jackson College of Tufts.
1970 -National Book Award for An Unfinished Woman