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The Defiant Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman, the playwright, memoirist, and novelist, was born in New Orleans on June 20, 1905. Her family moved to New York City when she was 5 years old, but continued to travel back and forth to New Orleans throughout her childhood. Hellman attended New York public schools while the family was in residence in NYC. In 1922, she enrolled at NYU and moved to Greenwich Village, where she was quite at home in the bohemian world of the 1920s. Hellman famously had a three-decades-long on-and-off relationship with Dashiell Hammett, the celebrated mystery writer, with whom she lived in various places in the Village, but primarily at 14 West 9th Street.

14 West 9th Street

Hellman is arguably one of the most famous American women writers of the 20th century. She was also the first woman to be admitted into the previously all-male club of American “dramatic literature.” Hammett suggested that Hellman write a stage adaptation of “The Great Drumsheugh Case,” an episode from William Roughead’s true-crime anthology Bad Companions. Based on an actual incident in Scotland, the narrative arc of the play is triggered by a child’s accusation of sexual relations against two female teachers, which leads to one woman’s suicide. In 1934, at the age of only 29, this led to Hellman’s theatrical classic The Children’s Hour, which premiered on Broadway and ran for over two years. Hellman gained notoriety for her sharp characterizations and for centering the story around lesbianism, a subject considered dramatically taboo at the time.

Hellman and Hammett at the 21 Club

In 1938, The Little Foxes — arguably Hellman’s most famous play — opened on Broadway. The play’s focus is Southerner Regina Hubbard Giddens, who struggles for wealth and freedom within the confines of an early 20th-century society where fathers considered only sons as their legal heirs. The fictional Hubbards in the play are reputedly drawn from Lillian Hellman’s mother’s relatives. She was commissioned to write the screenplay for a 1941 film version which was produced by Samuel Goldwyn, directed by William Wyler, and starred, among many others, Bette Davis. In 1941, Hellman became the first female screenwriter to receive an individual Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Little Foxes movie poster

Lillian Hellman was said to be a “difficult woman,” but society has always been less forgiving to strong women than it has to men—certainly successful ones, and especially in the first few decades following women’s right to vote. Hellman was a strong-willed person who always stuck to her guns. For this, she was often vilified.

She was also the subject of searing accusations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). During her time writing screenplays, Hellman was an active member of the union fighting for the right to a writer’s credit in films they contributed to. In her personal life, Hellman was steadfast in her opinions and assertions (in his final novel The Thin Man, Hammett based his resolute female character, Nora Charles, on Hellman). In her politics, Hellman was an outspoken leftist in the 1930s, like many of her friends and colleagues. Her political convictions would result in being brought before the HUAC. Unlike some of her contemporaries, however – whom she later denounced as “clowns” who “just took to the hills” – Hellman took a defiantly principled stand against the HUAC, refusing to name names. In a letter published in the New York Times in May 1952, she informed the committee that she would testify about her own activities, but refused to incriminate others, declaring: “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.” Hammett and Hellman were both blacklisted, and found trouble working for several years afterward.

Hammett died of lung cancer in 1961. Hellman went on to have an illustrious career after his death. She eventually moved to Martha’s Vinyard and was buried there in 1984. Her work, spanning five decades, was both courageous and literary. She was truly cut from the cloth of trailblazing women of Greenwich Village.

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