Lillian Florence Hellman was an American playwright, linked throughout her life with many left-wing causes. She was romantically involved for 30 years with mystery and crime writer Dashiell Hammett
(and was the inspiration for his character Nora Charles
), and was also a long-time friend and literary executor of author Dorothy Parker
Until she was 16, Lillian Hellman lived half of her time in the South — New Orleans, Louisiana, where she was born in 1906 — and half in New York City. Once she married and began her career as a writer, she never returned to the South, which housed the rapacious immorality she denounced in The Little Foxes
, its “prequel,” Another Part of the Forest
, and Toys in the Attic
. Nor did she reserve her harsh moralizing for the South — most of her plays attack universal moral faults. Hellman’s repulsion against the profiteering of people like the Hubbard family of The Little Foxes
perhaps began as she listened to the scheming of her mother’s side of her family, the Marxs. They were a wealthy and elegant family who had risen from immigrant poverty to make their fortune in merchandising in the South, and who later succeeded in banking. Hellman is quoted in William Wright’s
1986 book, Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman
as asserting that the Marx family grew “rich from the ‘borrowings’ of poor Negroes,” and that this heritage fueled her lifelong radicalism. She further revealed that great-uncles Max and Isaac Marx and great-aunt Sophie Newhouse Marx served as models for the Hubbard family. When Lillian was five, her father contributed to Hellman’s lifelong obsession with the power of money — his shoe business went bankrupt, forcing the comfortable family to move in with poorer relatives, the Hellmans, who ran a boarding house. During Max Hellman’s entrepreneurial ups and downs, the Marx family wealth was always available for comparison, since each family maintained a home both in New York City and New Orleans.
From an early age, Hellman had a “wild” nature: she skipped school, smoked, and told people exactly what she thought of them. As an adult she had numerous love affairs, including a 30-year relationship with detective fiction author Dashiell Hammett. Her politics were equally scandalous. Disgusted with the alarming growth of fascism she found in Germany in 1929, Hellman, along with many other writers, academics, and intellectuals, became involved in the communist party. For this ideological experimentation, she found herself blacklisted by the film industry in 1948 and was required to appear before the McCarthy subcommittee on communist activity, the House Un-American Activities Committee, in 1952. On the stand Hellman stoutly denied being a member of the communist party, although recent biographer Carl Rolly son has confirmed that she was. However, a (HUAC) party member who was briefly Hellmmann’s lover has explained that what really mattered was whether or not the party controlled you and that Hellman was entirely independent. Independent Hellman certainly was — throughout her life she voiced her opposition to what she considered wrong, and she used her influence as an American intellectual and public figure to persuade others of her view. Unlike Alexandra
in The Little Foxes
, who does no more than threaten to find out the truth, Hellman wrote plays that made the truth stare her American audiences in the face. She died in 1984.