This Day In Writing History
On May 20th, 1905, the legendary American playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was born to a wealthy Jewish family, and spent her childhood partly in New Orleans and partly in New York City.
Lillian studied at New York University and Columbia University. Then, at the age of 24, she traveled around Europe, settling in Bonn, Germany, where she continued her education.
It was 1925, and Lillian became interested in a student group dedicated to what she thought was the cause of socialism. Instead, it turned out to be a national socialist (Nazi) group that rejected her because she was Jewish.
Shaken, Lillian returned to the United States. There, she found work as a reader for the MGM film studio in Hollywood. It was her job to read novels, short stories, plays, and newspaper articles and determine if they would make good movies.
While in Hollywood, she met the legendary mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and fell in love with him. After divorcing her husband, she began a love affair with Hammett that would last nearly thirty years, until his death in 1961.
Hammett would base his famous characters Nick and Nora Charles, from his classic novel The Thin Man, on himself and Lillian Hellman.
In 1932, Lillian returned to New York City, where she wrote her classic, controversial play The Children's Hour. It premiered on Broadway in November of 1934 and ran for nearly 700 performances.
The Children's Hour was inspired by a real incident that took place in Scotland, circa 1810. The play is set at an all-girls boarding school run by close friends Karen Wright and Martha Dobie.
Mary Tilford, a student at the school, is spoiled, petulant, vindictive, and a pathological liar. Mary's cousin, Joe Cardin, is a handsome young doctor who plans to marry Karen.
Seething with jealousy, Mary falsely accuses Karen and Martha of having a lesbian affair and blackmails another student, Rosalie Wells, into corroborating her false testimony.
Karen and Martha sue for libel, but Mary's lies are believed. The women lose the case and their school. Joe still believes in Karen and won't leave her, even though his life has been ruined by the scandal.
Karen decides they must break up for Joe's sake, but he persuades her to think things over. When Martha learns that Karen wanted Joe to leave her, she becomes consumed with guilt. Martha is forced to come to terms with the fact that she really is a lesbian.
When Martha finally admits her feelings to Karen, Karen coldly dismisses her, telling her that they never really felt that way about each other. Martha tries to declare her love for Karen, but Karen won't have it and tells Martha she's going to bed.
While sitting in her bedroom, Karen hears a gunshot. She discovers that Martha has killed herself.
The Children's Hour became a huge hit and was considered very shocking by early 1930s audiences. Even though it was illegal at the time to mention homosexuality on the Broadway stage, the play was not closed by the censors because it was so good.
Lillian's success with The Children's Hour earned her a screenwriting job in Hollywood. When MGM picked up the film rights to her play, Lillian wrote the screenplay herself.
Unfortunately, the stifling Production Code was in effect, and it forbade any mention of homosexuality on the screen. So, Lillian was forced to change her story.
In her film adaptation, These Three (1936), Martha is secretly in love with Joe and falsely accused of having an illicit affair with him. Despite the change, the film received good reviews from critics.
As a screenwriter, Lillian was also known for her adaptation of Sidney Kingsley's hit Broadway play, Dead End. The bleak film, released in 1937, was the first to feature the Dead End Kids.
The Dead End Kids were a street gang whose members were poor youths from the slums of New York City's East Side desperate to escape their lives of poverty and despair. Some have no problem turning to crime, while others seek a better way out.
Another of Lillian's accomplishments as a screenwriter was her work for the Screen Writers Guild, a then fledgling union for screenwriters. Lillian fought hard to get her fellow screenwriters onscreen credit for their work and decent pay.
In 1936, with the Spanish Civil War capturing the attention of the world, Lillian sought to warn people of the growing threat of fascism. She joined other literary figures such as Dorothy Parker and Archibald MacLeish to fund an anti-fascist documentary, The Spanish Earth (1937).
The film famously miscredited Orson Welles as narrator. It was in fact narrated by the legendary writer Ernest Hemingway.
Lillian went to Spain to offer her support to the International Brigades - the foreign soldiers from around the world who had volunteered to fight General Franco's fascist army. She did a broadcast to the United States on Radio Madrid while bombs were falling on the city.
Back in the United States, Lillian joined the Communist Party, but left after a couple years. She found her chapter of the party to be boring and ineffective. "[I] saw and heard nothing more than people sitting around a room talking of current events or discussing the books they had read."
After World War 2 broke out in 1939, Lillian, who was enjoying the success of her play The Little Foxes, grew frustrated by her country's isolationism. So, she wrote another play hoping to awaken Americans to the threat of Hitler.
Watch on the Rhine opened on Broadway in April 1941 - just eight months before Pearl Harbor. The play, which told of a German Resistance operative with an American wife who returns to Germany to rescue his comrades from the Gestapo, won Lillian the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
In 1943 and 44, Lillian applied for a passport so she could visit England but was denied twice because she was deemed an active communist, though she'd left the party a few years before and never rejoined. Her politics would come back to haunt her in the next decade.
Years later, in 1952, while enjoying the success of her classic play The Autumn Garden, Lillian found herself subpoenaed by HUAC (the House Unamerican Activities Committee) for interrogation.
Lillian refused to apologize for her past membership in the Communist Party or denounce the party. She was willing to testify about her own political beliefs and associations, but adamantly refused to name names and denounce others.
The HUAC desperately wanted Lillian to denounce her former lover John F. Melby, who worked for the State Department, as a communist, but she refused.
Lillian wasn't charged with a crime by the HUAC after she concluded her testimony, but the FBI increased its surveillance of her and began monitoring her mail.
The 1960s found Lillian enjoying the success of her last great play, Toys in the Attic (1960). Another film adaptation of The Children's Hour was released in 1961.
Although Karen and Martha are falsely accused of having a lesbian affair in this version, the Production Code, albeit loosened somewhat, was still in effect, so the lesbian aspect of the story is incredibly watered down.
Despite a stellar cast that featured Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, and James Garner in his film debut, The Children's Hour was mostly panned by critics and a flop at the box office.
Lillian had nothing to do with the production. She had just lost her longtime lover, Dashiell Hammett. She would later edit a collection of his short stories, The Big Knockover. The book featured an introduction by Lillian.
In the 1970s, Lillian wrote and published a series of memoirs. Part of the second book, Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), would be adapted as the 1977 Oscar winning feature film, Julia.
In 1979, Lillian's longtime enemy, writer and critic Mary McCarthy, was being interviewed on PBS' The Dick Cavett Show when she accused Lillian of fabricating her Pentimento memoir, saying "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"
Lillian Hellman filed a multi-million dollar defamation lawsuit against McCarthy, Dick Cavett, and PBS. The suit hadn't been settled when Lillian died of a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 79. Her executors decided to drop it.
Quote Of The Day
"Nothing you write, if you hope to be good, will ever come out as you first hoped." - Lillian Hellman
Today's video features a 1944 radio play adaptation of Lillian Hellman's classic play, Watch on the Rhine - starring Bette Davis! Enjoy!