It is difficult to write about Lillian Hellman, because there are two ways to tell her story. One is to say that she was a woman caught up in one of the most complicated literary romances of the 20th century – and she was, with Dashiell Hammett, the writer of the Sam Spade mysteries – and the other is to say that she was a competent, accomplished writer in her own right. That is to say, that she was a person, and not merely half of a romance.
Normally it would be natural to approach the story from the second stance, especially since, from everything I can understand, her love affair with Dash was terrible. However, Lillian Hellman longed for romance so much, and revolved her own life (at least from the tenor of her personal letters) around it so much, that I thought the relationship should be mentioned up front.
Though again, I’d like to reiterate that their relationship was terrible, but Lillian Hellman talks about it as being a great romance, so, fine. Josephine Hammett Marshall, Dash’s daughter, says that Lillian demanded it be regarded as “the Great Romance.”
Supposedly Lillian met Dash at a a restaurant in 1930 where she said to her friend, “Who is that man?” then immediately got up, crossed the room, and took his arm before he could go to his destination, which was the restroom. They then went to his car and had sex.
I always hear that story and think, “But he needed to go to the bathroom.”
But! That was the beginning of the Great Romance.
Then Lillian divorced her husband.
About two weeks later Dash and Lillian were at a party where he hit her (to which Hellman quipped, “You don’t know the half of it, I can’t bear to be touched”) a dynamic which continued for the next thirty years. The ‘his hitting her’ dynamic.
Dash also cheated on Lillian relentlessly, which tormented her, though he begged her to allow him his “chippies” saying that they meant nothing to him. That’s not entirely surprising coming from a man who wrote, “If a man has a past that he wants to forget, he can easiest drug his mind against memory through his body, with sensuality if not with narcotics.”
He wrote her some nice letters though, saying things like “a bed without Lily ain’t no bed” and, “it was nice nice nice to hear your voice today”. These are examples of the weird, folksy way that men who are otherwise terrible at relationships write, so, from my understanding the report of a terrible relationship checks out.
Lillian did claim that it was only through Dash’s help that she created her work. Which will allow us to segue delicately into “Lillian Hellman, independent human being.”
When people questioned why she stayed with Dash – WHICH WAS A REASONABLE QUESTION – Lillian always replied, “He gave me The Little Foxes.” He also, in a roundabout way, suggested her first major hit play, The Children’s Hour, when he told her he’d read an interesting piece about two lesbian school teachers in the 19th century. He was planning to write about it himself, but offered the idea to Lillian who had said that she desperately wanted to write but lacked inspiration.
In 1934 the play became a hit that skyrocketed her to the upper echelons of literary fame. It was adapted into a film in 1939 but all the lesbian elements had to be edited out, and since the entire plot was about two schoolteachers being accused of lesbianism, that made for a pretty terrible adaptation. In 1961 it was made into a much better film starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.