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Lillian Florence Hellman (June 20, 1905June 30, 1984) was an Americanmarker playwright, linked throughout her life with many left-wing causes. She was romantically involved for 30 years with mystery and crime writer Dashiell Hammett (and was the inspiration for his character Nora Charles), and was also a long-time friend and literary executor of author Dorothy Parker.

Early life

Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisianamarker into a Jewish family. During most of her childhood she spent half of each year in New Orleans, in a boarding home run by her aunts, and the other half in New York City.


Hellman's most famous plays include The Children's Hour (1934), The Little Foxes (1939), and Toys in the Attic (1960).

Hellman was fond of including younger characters in her plays. In The Children's Hour (1934), the play takes place in a children's school and the antagonist of the play, Mary, is a young girl. In The Little Foxes (1939), an important sub-plot revolves around the potential marriage of the youngest characters in the play, Leo and Alexandra.

Hellman also wrote three autobiographical memoirs: An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). The Oscar-winning film Julia was based on Pentimento. Upon the film's release, in 1977, New York psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner claimed that she was the basis for the title character and that she had never known Hellman. Hellman denied that the character was based on Gardiner. However, the fact that Hellman and Gardiner had the same lawyer (Wolf Schwabacher), that the lawyer had been privy to Gardiner's memoirs, and that the events in the film conform to those in the memoirs, have led some to conclude that they had been appropriated by Hellman without attribution to Gardiner.

Blacklist and aftermath

Hellman appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. At the time, HUAC was well aware that Hellman's longtime lover Dashiell Hammett had been a Communist Party member. Asked to name names of acquaintances with communist affiliations, Hellman said she delivered a prepared statement, which read in part:

As a result, Hellman was blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studios for many years. However, David Frum calls the claim that Hellman gave the remark about "this year's fashions" to HUAC "wholly fictitious." Hellman claimed that the committee room broke into applause after her speech, which Frum also says is fictional. Prior to the war, as a member of the League of American Writers with Hammett, she had served on its Keep America Out of War Committee during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

In Two Invented Lives: Hellman and Hammett, author Joan Mellen wrote that Hellman "invented her life, so that by the end even she was uncertain about what had been true." Mellen noted that while Hellman had excoriated anti-Communist liberals such as Elia Kazan in her memoirs for directing their energies against Communists rather than against fascists or capitalists, she held a double standard on the subject of free speech when it came to her own critics. Author Diana Trilling publicly accused Hellman of pressuring her publisher, Little Brown, to cancel its contract with Trilling, who had written a collection of essays defending herself and her husband Lionel Trilling against Hellman's charges.

Hellman had shaded the truth on some accounts of her life, including the assertion that she knew nothing about the Moscow Trials in which Stalin had purged the Soviet Communist Party of Party members who were then liquidated. Hellman had actually signed petitions (An Open Letter to American Liberals) applauding the guilty verdict and encouraged others not to cooperate with John Dewey's committee that sought to establish the truth behind Stalin's show trials. The latter denounced the "fantastic falsehood that the USSR and totalitarian states are basically alike."

Hellman had also opposed the granting of political asylum to Leon Trotsky by the United States, after the Soviet Union instructed the U.S. Communist Party to oppose his asylum. Trotsky was the former Soviet leader and Communist who became Stalin's nemesis in exile (and was eventually assassinated).

As late as 1969, according to Mellen, she told Dorothea Strauss that her husband was a "malefactor" because he had published the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Mellen quotes her as saying "If you knew what I know about American prisons, you would be a Stalinist, too." Mellen continues, "American justice allowed her now to maintain good faith with the tyrant who had, despite his methods, industrialized the 'first socialist state.'"

Hellman's feud with Mary McCarthy formed the basis for the play Imaginary Friends by Nora Ephron. McCarthy famously said of Hellman on The Dick Cavett Show that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." Hellman replied by filing a US$2,500,000 slander suit against McCarthy, Dick Cavett, and PBS. McCarthy in turn produced evidence that Hellman had shaded the truth on some accounts of her life, including some of the information that later appeared in Mellen's book. Cavett said he sympathized more with McCarthy than Hellman in the lawsuit, but "everybody lost" as a result of it. Norman Mailer attempted to mediate through an article he published in The New York Times.


Hellman died on June 30, 1984 at age 79 from natural causes on Martha's Vineyardmarker. She was still in litigation with Mary McCarthy, and the suit was dropped by Hellman's executors.


Hellman is also a main character in the play Cakewalk by Peter Feibleman, which is about Hellman's relationship with a younger novelist. Hellman did in fact have a long relationship with Feibleman, and the other main character in the play is somewhat based on him. Actress Elaine Stritch portrays Hellman in the audiobook version of the play.

Hellman appears in the fifteenth episode of the nineteenth season of The Simpsons, in Lisa's hallucination, urging her to take up smoking. The same episode also jokingly and incorrectly identified Hellman as the originator of Hellman's Mayonnaise.

Hellman is also be the subject of the forthcoming Chuck Palahniuk book "Tell All ". The novel reinvents her as a "larger than life Super Hero" and follows her incredible life and exploits, as she wrote about them in her memoir "An Unfinished Woman".

List of works

Hellman, on jacket of her autobiography An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir
Watch on the Rhine, 1941, and for Toys in the Attic, 1960


  1. Franklin Folsom, Days of Anger, Days of Hope, University Press of Colorado, 1994, ISBN 0870813323
  2. Bernstein, Richard, Long, Bitter Debate From the '50's: Views of Kazan and His Critics New York Times article, May 3, 1988
  3. Glazer, Nathan, An Answer to Lillian Hellman, Commentary Magazine, Vol. 61, No. 6 (June 1976)
  4. Mellen, Joan, Two Invented Lives: Hellman and Hammett, HarperCollins, New York, 1996
  5. Wright, William, Stage View, New York Times article, November 3, 1996
  6. Rollyson, Carl E., Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988) ISBN 0312000499
  7. Lamont, Corliss, Hellman, Lillian, et al., An Open Letter to American Liberals, Soviet Russia Today, March 1937 issue

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