On this day in 1905, the great playwright Lillian Hellman was born. I was kind of amazed that on the Wikipedia page, well over half of the overview section about her discussed not just her blacklisting by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), but the fact that she really did lie at the time when she said she hadn’t been a member of the Communist Party. There are still a lot of small minds out in the world, I guess.
Something I don’t understand to this day is why it was such a big deal that people turned to the Communist Party at the height of the Great Depression. It just makes sense that when a capitalist country is going through a period that ought to repudiate the idea of pure capitalism, people would look to other political and economic systems. There was no witch hunt for fascists in the 1950s. What’s more, when Stalin made a pact with Hitler in 1939, that was pretty much the end of American leftist support for the Soviet Union. But for Hellman, it wasn’t even about that.
As she wrote in 1952, “I attended very few meetings and saw and heard nothing more than people sitting around a room talking of current events or discussing the books they had read. I drifted away from the Communist Party because I seemed to be in the wrong place. My own maverick nature was no more suitable to the political left than it had been to the conservative background from which I came.” But the HCUA and Joseph McCarthy’s similar nonsense in the Senate were very much about going after mavericks and trying to turn America into the same kind of place that despots like Stalin liked where dissent was not accepted.
Hellman is known primarily for two incredibly powerful plays. The first is The Children’s Hour, which deals with false allegations of lesbianism between two teachers, which ends up destroying the school and the teachers. The second is The Little Foxes, which deals with a rich southern family and their financial machinations. It features Regina Hubbard Giddens, one of the greatest evil female characters ever. But by Hellman’s standards, it’s kind of upbeat. The Children’s Hour is just horribly depressing.
She also had a long term relationship with Dashiell Hammett. Last year I wrote that she was the only one who really loved him. I think that’s about right. I think without her, he would have died a lot younger. But again, Wikipedia refers to him as “fellow left-wing writer.” Is that how anyone thinks of Hammett. I think they remember Sam Spade and Nick & Nora Charles. It’s clear that the conservatives have got to the Hellman page. She deserves better.
Happy birthday Lillian Hellman!