The Legacy of Lillian Hellman

Posted on July 9, 2020 by Martin Oaks under Community, Memorial, Resources
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Lillian Hellman’s singular gift as a writer was the ability to reduce complex ideas into a few, profound sentences. She was incisive, not lyrical.

Her eloquent brevity was on full display when the House Committee on un-American Activities subpoenaed her in February of 1952. It was the time of the “Hollywood Ten,” careers were on the line, those who failed to cooperate were sent to prison.

In her letter of response to the subpoena, Hellman wrote: “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…”

In two sentences, she framed a moral position which vividly contrasted with those who had “named names” during the hearings — simultaneously, Hellman slyly registered disdain for the intimidating tactics practiced by the committee. All that in thirty-six powerfully nuanced words.

Although Hellman did not receive a jail term for her defiance, she was blacklisted and forced to sell her beloved home to survive. But survive, she did — and the best of her writing is still acclaimed for its audacious originality.

Hellman’s most highly regarded work was done for the theater. Her best plays — The Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour, Watch on the Rhine, and The Autumn Garden — are not dated thematically or artistically.

Two leading critics on her work:

Walter Kerr (NY Herald Tribune) on The Little Foxes: “Miss Hellman knew exactly what she was doing every step of the way as she slipped into place just those character traits, just those lines, just those decisive gestures that would build a trim dramatic house. The Little Foxes is a confident play, and an airtight one…spare, appropriate, coherent.”

Brooks Atkinson (NY Times) on The Children’s Hour: “a mastery of craftsmanship…a powerful style…having clear insights into the psychology of her characters, having also a restless mind of her own, Miss Hellman draws her conclusions with vehemence and severity.”

Hellman’s success was due in part to the ruthless editing process she and her on-again, off-again lover, Dashiell Hammett, slogged through. Hammett, author of classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, had a 30-year tempestuous, alcohol-fueled relationship with Hellman — working on plays together was the creative glue that offset angry, unhappy times.

Hellman readily acknowledged Hammett’s contributions. When asked by reporter Bill Moyers if Hammett helped her with her writing, Hellman responded: “Oh yes, enormously, enormously. I can’t ever pay him enough gratitude for what he did beyond the obvious things that writers can help with. He was so enormously patient. And more than patient, he was honest, sometimes rather sharply and brutally honest. Without that I don’t think I would have done very much.”

After Hammett’s death at the age of 66 in 1961, Hellman split her time between teaching (Harvard, Berkeley and other distinguished universities) and writing three volumes of memoirs. The latter brought her terrific reviews, financial success, a National Book Award and a painful scandal that cast an immutable shadow on her reputation.

The three books (An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir; Pentimento: A Book of Portraits; and Scoundrel Time) were published between 1969 and 1976. Julia, an Oscar winning film based on material from Pentimento, was released in 1977.

During this time, Hellman was at her peak in public recognition: Jane Fonda had played her in a movie, taking her from theater celebrity and bestselling author status into a superstar dimension.

But this empire soon tumbled down. The three memoirs all contained, in the words of Mark Twain, “stretchers.” It’s not unusual for a prominent autobiography to falsely flatter — but Hellman invented out of whole cloth, especially the Julia episode.

Novelist Mary McCarthy pricked the boil on January 25, 1980.  On the popular “Dick Cavett Show,” McCarthy said of Hellman: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

Hellman saw the show and was livid — on February 15, she filed a $2,225,000 defamation suit against McCarthy, naming Dick Cavett and PBS as well.

The suit was still in the courts when Hellman passed away at 79 in June of 1984. Her estate soon dropped the legal action.

“Everybody lost” is what Cavett later said about the proceedings. Hellman took the most serious body blows: her memoirs were investigated and eviscerated. Biographer Joan Mellen wrote that they “turned out to be more fantasy, psychic obfuscation and inversion than autobiography.”

Jo Hammett, Dashiell’s daughter, said that Hellman was a gifted storyteller who re-wrote life “so that it played better.”

Hellman’s legacy rests primarily on her pre-memoir writings: those lean and literate words that are still enunciated in the revivals of her plays. A PBS documentary observed that Hellman will be remembered for more than her playwriting — she was “a woman who could overcome the hurdles of her time and succeed on her own terms.”

Lillian Hellman, June 20, 1905 – June 30, 1984, RIP.

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