When I first learned about Lillian Hellman and her passion for writing, I wanted to be her. I was also intrigued by her passion for life and love and her unconventional lifestyle. She traveled extensively, flirted with communism, and had a 30 year relationship with the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. The relationship started even before she divorced Arthur Kober, a playwright and press agent, whom she married in 1925.
In the late 20s Hellman traveled in Europe, settling in Bonn to continue her education, which is when she became interested in a Nazi student group that advocated socialism. She wrote about those years in her second volume of memoirs, Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, which was published in 1973; and the 1977 film “Julia” was based on a chapter from that book. The story focuses on Hellman’s relationship with an alleged lifelong friend, “Julia,” who fought against the Nazis in the time leading up to WWII.
Later it was revealed that much of that story was highly fictionalized.
When Hellman returned to the United States in the early 30s, she worked as a reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood, writing summaries of novels and periodical literature for potential screenplays, and that is where she met Hammett. While they never married, they maintained their relationship until he died in 1961, and he is credited for pushing her toward creative excellence.
In November 1947, the leaders of the motion picture industry decided to deny employment to anyone who refused to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hellman was immediately blacklisted because she would not sign a loyalty clause in a contract with Columbia Pictures. To do so would have forced her to end her relationship with Hammett, and she was not willing to do that. She also thought the committee was wrong in their attempts to ferret out possible communists, or communist sympathizers, and she chastised those in the film business who allowed themselves to be intimidated.
Throughout her career, Hellman wrote numerous plays, screenplays and books. One of her more notable plays was “The Little Foxes”, which was later adapted for film. Her only original screenplay was for “The North Star.”
Hellman died in 1984 at the age of 79.
Are you a fan of Hellman’s work?