Lillian Hellman (1905 – ) has been gone for 36 years and she is still relevant. When the super-talented, elegant gay actor/politician Cynthia Nixon won a Tony Award for the 2016 Broadway revival of Hellman’s The Little Foxes she said in her acceptance speech:
“It is a privilege to appear in Lillian Hellman’s eerily prescient play, at this specific moment in history. 80 years ago, she wrote, ‘There are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it, and other people who just stand around and watch them do it’. My love, my gratitude and my undying respect go out to all the people in 2017 who are refusing to just stand and watch them do it. Thank you.“
I am a fan of the life and works of Hellman. I find her great play The Little Foxes to have a top place in the cannon of the Best American Plays.
I am crazy, not just for her plays, but for her three volumes of memoirs: An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976).
The Academy Award winning film Julia (1977) is based on a section of Pentimento, with Jane Fonda playing Hellman. Hellman had a 30 year romance with writer Dashiell Hammett, played perfectly by Jason Robards in Julia, for which he won an Oscar, said that she was his inspiration for his character Nora Charles in The Thin Man.
Hellman was also a lifelong friend and the literary executor of famed wit Dorothy Parker.
Hellman was called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. At the time, HUAC knew that Hammett had once been a member of the Communist Party. Asked to name names of any acquaintances with Communist affiliations, Hellman delivered a prepared statement, which read in part:
“To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.“
As a result of her appearance before the committee, Hellman was blacklisted by the Hollywood film studios for many years.
She became a writer during an era when writers were big celebrities and audaciousness was considered an enviable personality trait. In popularity, Hellman was an equal to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and even to her beloved Hammett. She was a real tough cookie. She tossed off swear words with ease and she slept around. She smoked cigarettes and marijuana. She was a boozer. Hellman lived a social and political life as out loud as her talent. Her plays are a constant challenge to prejudice, small-thinking and oppression. Her memoirs are personal accounts of the intriguing and turbulent life behind her plays.
Hellman didn’t need a man. She was self-supporting. She felt no need to apologize for demanding to be paid what she thought she was worth. She even haggled over the royalties of her plays for use by high school drama departments and community theatres. Hellman took on the tough political battles of her time, actively supporting the Spanish Loyalists against the fascists, working against the Nazis, and standing up to Senator Joseph McCarthy and his gang.
Critics derided her gutsiness as “butch” and made fun of her big nose and raddled skin. All her money and all her celebrity couldn’t protect Hellman from being damned for the original sin of being a homely woman who was nonetheless sexual.
Hellman was the most famous American female playwright of the 20th century. She is a feminist icon. She was not pretty and rather butch, but still had lots of lovers and lived a life filled with sex and scandal. Hellman had to constantly push back against sexism and Antisemitism.
Although she was born in New Orleans, Hellman grew up in New York city. At 19-years-old, after she had dropped out of New York University and gone to work for a publisher, she married writer Arthur Kober. He had good connections in both the publishing and theatrical worlds. Encouraged by him, Hellman began writing book reviews and stories. Later after the couple had moved to Hollywood, she worked as a theatrical publicist and script reader.
The marriage did not last long. She was living then in Hollywood, where she met and fell in love with Hammett, the handsome, dashing, but frequently inebriated writer who would have an enormous influence on her life. It was from him that she got the plot for her play The Children’s Hour, and he guided her through writing it. The play opened on Broadway in 1934 when Hellman was only 29. It became a great big fat hit and her theatre career was off and running.
At the 1977 Academy Awards, Hellman presented the Oscar for Best Documentary. She was greeted by a standing ovation. She told the crowd of showbiz types:
“I was once upon a time a respectable member of this community. Respectable didn’t necessarily mean more than I took a daily bath when I was sober, didn’t spit except when I meant to, and mispronounced a few words of fancy French. Then suddenly, even before Senator Joe McCarthy reached for that rusty, poisoned ax, I and many others were no longer acceptable to the owners of this industry. They confronted the wild charges of Joe McCarthy with a force and courage of a bowl of mashed potatoes. I have no regrets for that period. Maybe you never do when you survive, but I have a mischievous pleasure in being restored to respectability, understanding full well that the younger generation who asked me here tonight meant more by that invitation than my name or my history.“
I once stood next to Hellman in line at Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of the island of Manhattan on an autumn Sunday morning in 1976. She was in her 70s then. She was smoking a cigarette and was wrapped in a large mink coat. I had recently read and had been absorbed by Pentimento. I excused myself for bothering her and then gushed about how much I admired her work, especially the memoir and how gobsmacked I felt to be standing next to her at a delicatessen.
Stephen: … so you see, Miss Hellman, you simply must understand how much your work and your life have impressed and inspired me.
Hellman: Of course they have. Now, be a dear and pay for my Danish. That’s being a sweetie.
… and off she went.
Lillian, Gay Icon? I like to think so. I would certainly enjoy seeing some queens do Lillian Hellman drag.
Hellman turns 115-years-old today and she looks much the same as she did when our paths crossed.