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Before We Forget 7 (Lillian Hellman)

Updated on March 4, 2011

"I can not, and will not, cut my conscience to fit this years fashions."

Lillian Hellman was a major American playwright who wrote a series of powerful, realistic plays. She explored very controversial themes. Her plays reflected her outspoken political and social views of her time.

"Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth."

Lillian Florence Hellman, born in New Orleans Louisiana June 20, 1906 of Jewish parents, Max Hellman, a shoe salesman, and Julia Newshouse, part of a family that made a small fortune in the banking industry. In the year 1910 her family moved to New York City, where she went to public schools, but her schooling was always interrupted with her father's frequent business trips back to New Orleans that lasted up to six months. But Lillian 'hung in there' and after graduation went on to study at New York University from 1923 to1924, and then went to Columbia University in that year. She then married Arthur Kober in 1925, who was an established writer for the New Yorker. This relationship helped Lillian get various jobs in New York City, including a job reading scripts for studios and as a book reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune. The marriage ended in 1932, however.

"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."

Lillian was a manuscript reader for the Liveright Publishers before becoming a 'main play reader' for the producer Herman Shumlin. Luckily she met Dashiell Hammett in 1930 because she was ready to drop her idea of being a writer; Dashiell talked her out of it. He became her lifelong mentor, teacher, partner and lover. In the early 1930s, Hellman, with Dashiell's help, found a job as a reader for MGM in California. She found the work dull but it gave her the opportunity to meet a wide range of creative people and experience the artistic and political scene of the times.

"Nobody outside of a baby carriage or a judge's chamber believes in an unprejudiced point of view."

After a "year and a half of stumbling stubbornness," as she put it, Lillian finished her first play, "The Children's Hour" in 1934 that was based on an actual incident that happened in Scotland. A story in which a spoiled child attacks her teachers through destructive gossip.The case took place in Edinburgh in the nineteenth century and was about two old-maid schoolteachers and a little girl who brought charges of lesbianism against the two teachers. "It's not about lesbians," Hellman explained to Samuel Goldwyn, "It's about the power of a lie."  The play ran on Broadway for nearly 700 performances. 

"There are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. And other people who stand around and watch them eat."

'Days to Come' in 1936, a play which drew its subject from a labor strike in a Midwestern town, was the first of several collaborations between director William Wyler and Hellman. "We had to become friends," she told biographer Scott Berg, "because we were the only two people in the Goldwyn asylum who weren't completely loony."

'The Little Foxes' (1939) is among Hellman's best-known works. The chronicle of hatred and greed among the members of the Hubbard family was based on her own memories of the South.

An Unfinished Woman (1969) she fictionalized much of her adventures. Hellman's political sympathies had turned to the left and in her antifascist play 'Watch on the Rhine' (1941), Hellman criticized the naiveté of the Americans. The North Star(1943), which glorified the heroism of the Russian people in the war against the Germans. 

In 1952 Hellman was called to appear before HUAC. She refused to reveal the names of associates and friends in the theater who might have Communist associations, but she wasn't charged with contempt of Congress. In a letter to the Committee she wrote: "But the 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..." Hellman was excused by the committee with the remark: "Why cite her for contempt? After all, she is a woman..."

"What a word is truth. Slippery, tricky, unreliable. I tried in these plays to tell the truth"


Lillian Hellman Nominated as Very Important Pothead

Writer Lillian Hellman has been publicly nominated as a Very Important Pothead by journalist Fred Gardner, who wrote in Counterpunch that he helped Hellman get marijuana to treat her glaucoma in the 1970s.
Gardner wrote me in an email, "I knew her very well '61-'71...The drink at the Huntington [when he suggested she try medicinal marijuana] was probably '77 or '78." He added, "Lil said she used mj when she was around people who used it. As in 'Whenever I'd be at a dinner with Gene Krupa...' "
According to the 1986 book Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman by William Wright, Hellman was a bit of a cougar in her later years, enjoying the company of young men in New York in the mid-1970s. At one gathering, Wright writes, "one of the company persuaded Hellman to smoke marijuana." The evening was "a raucous success" and Hellman had to be dissuaded from taking a walk down Park Avenue at 2AM.

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