lillian hellmann

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.


And in 1939 there was The Little Foxes. Dash supposedly critiqued it so often and so thoroughly that he is frequently mistaken as the co-author, and not in a “Truman-Capote-trying-to-take-credit-for-To-Kill-A-Mockingbird” kind of a way. The plot of the play – if you want to do that thing where you try to find ways it mirrors its creators’ lives – is described  by Professor Wikipedia:

The focus is on Southerner Regina Hubbard Giddens, who struggles for wealth and freedom within the confines of an early 20th-century society where a father considered only sons as legal heirs. As a result, her avaricious brothers Benjamin and Oscar are independently wealthy, while she must rely upon her sickly, wheelchair-using husband Horace for financial support.

Regina’s brother Oscar has married Birdie, his much-maligned, alcoholic wife, solely to acquire her family’s plantation and its cotton fields. Oscar now wants to join forces with his brother, Benjamin, to construct a cotton mill. They approach their sister with their need for an additional $75,000 to invest in the project. Oscar initially proposes marriage between his son Leo and Regina’s daughter Alexandra – first cousins – as a means of getting Horace’s money, but Horace and Alexandra are repulsed by the suggestion. When Regina asks Horace outright for the money, he refuses, so Leo, a bank teller, is pressured into stealing his uncle Horace’s railroad bonds from the bank’s safety deposit box.

Horace, after discovering this, tells Regina he is going to change his will in favor of their daughter, and also will claim he gave Leo the bonds as a loan, thereby cutting Regina out of the deal completely. When he suffers a heart attack during this chat, she makes no effort to help him. He dies within hours, without anyone knowing his plan and before changing his will. This leaves Regina free to blackmail her brothers by threatening to report Leo’s theft unless they give her 75% ownership in the cotton mill (it is, in Regina’s mind, a fair exchange for the stolen bonds). The price Regina ultimately pays for her evil deeds is the loss of her daughter Alexandra’s love and respect. Regina’s actions cause Alexandra to finally understand the importance of not idly watching people do evil. She tells Regina she will not watch her be “one who eats the earth,” and abandons her. Having let her husband die, alienated her brothers, and driven away her only child, Regina is left wealthy but completely alone.

I mean, this clip starring Bette Davis is probably worth 1,000 words, though:


After the success of The Little Foxes Dash – like Regina in The Little Foxes! – came to despise Lillian. He said, “Look at me. Empty. Finished. She’s got it all now.” He angrily claimed he would never have sex with her again, though whether or not this is true seems uncertain. She bought a farm – called Hardscrabble Farm – with the proceeds from the play where they both lived. Though they may not have been technically together, their lives seemed inextricably intertwined.

It was also through Dash that Lillian met a woman who was to become her lifelong frenemy – Dorothy Parker.

Dorothy Parker made fun of Hellman’s outfits which, admittedly, were extravagant. Hellman was always convinced that she had to be beautiful if she wanted to be loved.

Hold for a moment:


But they came to enjoy one another’s company over time. Dorothy Parker inscribed a copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker “For Miss Hellman—The most beautiful, the most rich, the most chic, the most dashing, the most mysterious, the most fragrant, the most nobly-born, the most elegant, the most cryptic, the most startling, the most glorious, the most lovely—In short, for Miss Hellman (from Miss Parker).”

She may have been joking. They both acknowledged that they appreciated each other’s company “as much as they could that of any other woman.” Though it was still complicated. For instance, Hellman wrote:

“That goddamn bitch Dorothy Parker. . . . You won’t believe what she’s done. I paid her hotel bill at the Volney for years, kept her in booze, paid for her suicide attempts—all on the promise that when she died, she would leave me the rights to her writing. . . . But what did she do? She left them directly to the NAACP. Damn her!”

I think that’s a pretty good joke by Parker, personally.

Lillian was devoted to many liberal  causes. In 1940, she decried fascism and spoke about the threat to Jews in Europe, claiming:

I am a writer and I am also a Jew. I want to be quite sure that I can continue to be a writer and if I want to say that greed is bad or persecution is worse, I can do so without being branded by the malice of people who make a living by that malice. I also want to be able to go on saying that I am a Jew without being afraid of being called names or end in a prison camp or be forbidden to walk the street at night.

She remained intensely political throughout her life.She raised funds for anti-Nazi activists. In 1937 she spent some time in Spain in support of those fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. And by her own account she was a “casual” member of the Communist Party from 1938 to 1940.

During the McCarthy hearings (aka The House Un-American Activities Committee), while willing to discuss her own activities, she refused to testify, famously asserting:

I am advised by counsel that if I answer the committee’s questions about myself, I must also answer questions about other people and that if I refuse to do so, I can be cited for contempt. My counsel tells me that if I answer questions about myself, I will have waived my rights under the fifth amendment and could be forced legally to answer questions about others. This is very difficult for a layman to understand. But there is one principle that I do understand: I am not willing, now or in the future, to bring bad trouble to people who, in my past association with them, were completely innocent of any talk or any action that was disloyal or subversive. I do not like subversion or disloyalty in any form and if I had ever seen any I would have considered it my duty to have reported it to the proper authorities. But 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, 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.

That’s a pretty great statement.

As for Dash, she never ceased trying to persuade him to love her as passionately as she loved him. When, in 1958, he became so ill that he had to move in with her, he did so only with extreme reluctance.

When he was on his deathbed in 1961, Lillian – still desperate for some proof of love –  composed a letter for Dash to sign. It read:

The love that started on that day was greater than all the love anywhere, anytime, and all poetry cannot include it. I did not know what treasure I had, could not, and thus occasionally violated the grandeur of this bond. For which I regret… What but an unknown force could have given me, a sinner, this woman? Praise God.

Okay, if Dorothy Parker had written that and made some guy sign it, you would think she was making an absolutely hilarious joke (again). Lillian was serious. Despite her numerous accomplishments, she seemed determined – deeply determined – to cast herself as the heroine of a romantic opera. Dash signed the form, but he was very ill and, again, is said to have done so reluctantly.

At his funeral, she gave a eulogy, saying:

“Blessed are they, I hope, who leave good work behind, and who leave behind a life that is so worthy of respect. Whoever runs the blessing department, may they have sense enough to bless a good man this last day he is on earth.”

She spent the rest of her life writing books – four of them! – about her great love affair with Dash. Those books are An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), Scoundrel Time (1979) and Maybe (1980). A decade of writing books about her relationship. It became so absurd that Gore Vidal quipped “Did anyone ever actually see them together?”

Gore Vidal was witty.

But Lillian never let go of the notion of Dashiell Hammett as a great man – and great love – even when doing so came at the expense of authenticity. When her own biography was being written in 1983, a year before her death, she demanded that the biographer make no mention of Dash’s numerous infidelities and describe him as a “stylish drunk.”

Which is, perhaps, all very well. I’m sure we all wear rose colored glasses when it comes to people we love. But it is a shame that Lillian could never see her own accomplishments as being as important as her role in a romantic pair.

Because seriously, The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes are pretty great plays. (That she wrote – in their entirety.)

Additional reading:

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, by Alice Kessler-Harris

A History of Mistresses by Elizabeth Abbott 

Joan Mellen, Dashiell Hammett Lecture

“Estate of Mind”, Bookforum