Lillian Hellman in 1935
|Born||Lillian Florence Hellman|
June 20, 1905
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
|Died||June 30, 1984 (aged 79)|
Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Resting place||Abels Hill Chilmark cemetery, Chilmark, Martha's Vineyard|
(m. 1925; div. 1932)
|Partner||Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1931-1961)|
Lillian Florence Hellman (June 20, 1905 - June 30, 1984) was an American dramatist and screenwriter known for her success as a playwright on Broadway, as well as her Communist sympathies and political activism. She was blacklisted after her appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) at the height of the anti-communist campaigns of 1947-52. Although she continued to work on Broadway in the 1950s, her blacklisting by the American film industry caused a drop in her income. Many praised Hellman for refusing to answer questions by HUAC, but others believed, despite her denial, that she had belonged to the Communist Party.
As a playwright, Hellman had many successes on Broadway, including Watch on the Rhine, The Autumn Garden, Toys in the Attic, Another Part of the Forest, The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes. She adapted her semi-autobiographical play The Little Foxes into a screenplay, which starred Bette Davis and received an Academy Award nomination in 1942.
Hellman was romantically involved with fellow writer and political activist Dashiell Hammett, author of the classic detective novels The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, who also was blacklisted for 10 years until his death in 1961. The couple never married.
Hellman's accuracy was challenged after she brought a libel suit against Mary McCarthy. In 1979, on The Dick Cavett Show, McCarthy said that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." During the libel suit, investigators found errors in Hellman's popular memoirs such as Pentimento. They said that the "Julia" section of Pentimento, which had been the basis for the Oscar-winning 1977 movie of the same name, was actually based on the life of Muriel Gardiner.Martha Gellhorn, one of the most prominent war correspondents of the twentieth century, as well as Ernest Hemingway's third wife, said that Hellman's remembrances of Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War were wrong. McCarthy, Gellhorn and others accused Hellman of lying about her membership in the Communist Party and being an unrepentant Stalinist.
Lillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, into a Jewish family. Her mother was Julia Newhouse of Demopolis, Alabama, and her father was Max Hellman, a New Orleans shoe salesman. Julia Newhouse's parents were Sophie Marx, from a successful banking family, and Leonard Newhouse, a Demopolis liquor dealer. During most of her childhood she spent half of each year in New Orleans, in a boarding home run by her aunts, and the other half in New York City. She studied for two years at New York University and then took several courses at Columbia University.
On December 31, 1925, Hellman married Arthur Kober, a playwright and press agent, although they often lived apart. In 1929, she traveled around Europe for a time and settled in Bonn to continue her education. She felt an initial attraction to a Nazi student group that advocated "a kind of socialism" until their questioning about her Jewish ties made their antisemitism clear, and she returned immediately to the United States. Years later she wrote, "Then for the first time in my life I thought about being a Jew."
Beginning in 1930, for about a year she earned $50 a week as a reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood, writing summaries of novels and periodical literature for potential screenplays. Although she found the job rather dull, it created many opportunities for her to meet a greater range of creative people while she became involved in more political and artistic scenes during that time. While there she met and fell in love with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. She divorced Kober and returned to New York City in 1932. When she met Hammett in a Hollywood restaurant, she was 24 and he was 36. They maintained their relationship off and on until his death in January 1961.
Hellman's drama The Children's Hour premiered on Broadway on November 24, 1934, and ran for 691 performances. It depicts a false accusation of lesbianism by a schoolgirl against two of her teachers. The falsehood is discovered, but before amends can be made one teacher is rejected by her fiancé and the other commits suicide. Following the success of The Children's Hour, Hellman returned to Hollywood as a screenwriter for Goldwyn Pictures at $2,500 a week. She first collaborated on a screenplay for The Dark Angel, an earlier play and silent film.
Following that film's successful release in 1935, Goldwyn purchased the rights to The Children's Hour for $35,000 while it still was running on Broadway. Hellman rewrote the play to conform to the standards of the Motion Picture Production Code, under which any mention of lesbianism was impossible. Instead, one schoolteacher is accused of having sex with the other's fiancé. It appeared in 1936 under the title, These Three. She next wrote the screenplay for Dead End (1937), which featured the first appearance of the Dead End Kids and premiered in 1937.
On May 1, 1935, Hellman joined the League of American Writers (1935-1943), whose members included Dashiell Hammett, Alexander Trachtenberg of International Publishers, Frank Folsom, Louis Untermeyer, I.F. Stone, Myra Page, Millen Brand, and Arthur Miller. (Members were largely either Communist Party members or fellow travelers.)
Also in 1935, Hellman joined the struggling Screen Writers Guild, devoted herself to recruiting new members, and proved one of its most aggressive advocates. One of its key issues was the dictatorial way producers credited writers for their work, known as "screen credit." Hellman had received no recognition for some of her earlier projects, although she was the principal author of The Westerner (1934) and a principal contributor to The Melody Lingers On (1935).
In December 1936, her play Days to Come closed its Broadway run after just seven performances. In it, she portrayed a labor dispute in a small Ohio town during which the characters try to balance the competing claims of owners and workers, both represented as valid. Communist publications denounced her failure to take sides. That same month she joined several other literary figures, including Dorothy Parker and Archibald MacLeish, in forming and funding Contemporary Historians, Inc., to back a film project, The Spanish Earth, to demonstrate support for the anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War.
In March 1937, Hellman joined a group of 88 U.S. public figures in signing "An Open Letter to American Liberals" that protested an effort headed by John Dewey to examine Leon Trotsky's defense against his 1936 condemnation by the Soviet Union. The letter has been viewed by some critics as a defense of Stalin's Moscow Purge Trials. It charged some of Trotsky's defenders with aiming to destabilize the Soviet Union and said the Soviet Union "should be left to protect itself against treasonable plots as it saw fit." It asked U.S. liberals and progressives to unite with the Soviet Union against the growing threat of fascism and avoid an investigation that would only fuel "the reactionary sections of the press and public" in the United States. Endorsing this view, the editors of the New Republic wrote that "there are more important questions than Trotsky's guilt." Those who signed the Open Letter called for a united front against fascism, which, in their view, required uncritical support of the Soviet Union.
In October 1937, Hellman spent a few weeks in Spain to lend her support, as other writers had, to the International Brigades of non-Spaniards who had joined the anti-Franco side in the Spanish Civil War. As bombs fell on Madrid, she broadcast a report to the U.S. on Madrid Radio. In 1989, journalist and Ernest Hemingway's third wife, Martha Gellhorn, herself in Spain at that period, disputed the account of this trip in Hellman's memoirs and claimed that Hellman waited until all the witnesses were dead before describing events that never occurred. Nevertheless, Hellman had documented her trip in the New Republic in April 1938 as "A Day in Spain." Langston Hughes wrote admiringly of the radio broadcast in 1956.
Hellman was a member of the Communist Party from 1938-40, by her own account written in 1952, "a most casual member. 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."
Her play The Little Foxes opened on Broadway on February 13, 1939, and ran for 410 performances. The play starred Tallulah Bankhead as Regina, and after its success on Broadway the play toured extensively in the United States. The play was Hellman's personal favorite, and by far the most commercially and critically successful play she originated. However, she had an epic feud with Bankhead when Tallulah wanted to perform for a benefit for Finnish Relief, as the USSR had recently invaded Finland. Without thinking Hellman's approval was necessary, Bankhead and the cast told the press the news of the benefit. They were shocked when Hellman and Shumlin declined to give permission for the benefit performance, with the pretense of non-intervention and anti-militarism. Bankhead told reporters, "I've adopted Spanish Loyalist orphans and sent money to China, causes for which both Mr. Shumlin and Miss Hellman were strenuous proponents ... why should [they] suddenly become so insular?"
Hellman countered her star: "I don't believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about. I've been there and it seems like a little pro-Nazi Republic to me." Bankhead, who loathed both Nazism and Communism, was outraged and thought Hellman a moral hypocrite. Hellman had never been to Finland. Bankhead and the cast suspected that Hellman's refusal was motivated by her fanatical devotion to Soviet Russia. Hellman and Bankhead became adversaries as a result of the feud,.
Hellman aggravated the matter by claiming the real reason for turning down the benefit was because when the Spanish government fell to Franco's fascists, Hellman and Shumlin requested that Bankhead put on a benefit for the Spanish loyalists fleeing to neighboring France, and the actress and company refused. Bankhead was further incensed by this. Hellman and Bankhead would not speak again for 25 years. Years later, drama critic Joseph Wood Krutch recounted how he and fellow critic George Jean Nathan had shared a cab with Hellman and Bankhead:
Bankhead said: "That's the last time I act in one of your god-damned plays". Miss Hellman responded by slamming her purse against the actress's jaw. ... I decided that no self-respecting Gila monster would have behaved in that manner.
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.
Her play Watch on the Rhine opened on Broadway on April 1, 1941, and ran for 378 performances. It won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. She wrote the play in 1940, when its call for a united international alliance against Hitler directly contradicted the Communist position at the time, following the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939. Early in 1942, Hellman accompanied the production to Washington, D.C., for a benefit performance where she spoke with President Roosevelt. Hammett wrote the screenplay for the movie version that appeared in 1943.
In October 1941, Hellman and Ernest Hemingway co-hosted a dinner to raise money for anti-Nazi activists imprisoned in France. New York Governor Herbert Lehman agreed to participate, but withdrew because some of the sponsoring organizations, he wrote, "have long been connected with Communist activities." Hellman replied: "I do not and I did not ask the politics of any members of the committee and there is nobody who can with honesty vouch for anybody but themselves." She assured him the funds raised would be used as promised and later provided him with a detailed accounting. The next month she wrote him: "I am sure it will make you sad and ashamed as it did me to know that, of the seven resignations out of 147 sponsors, five were Jews. Of all the peoples in the world, I think, we should be the last to hold back help, on any grounds, from those who fought for us."
In 1942, Hellman received an Academy Award nomination for her screenplay for the film version of The Little Foxes. Two years later, she received another nomination for her screenplay for The North Star, the only original screenplay of her career. She objected to the film's production numbers that, she said, turned a village festival into "an extended opera bouffe peopled by musical comedy characters", but still told the New York Times that it was "a valuable and true picture which tells a good deal of the truth about fascism". To establish the difference between her screenplay and the film, Hellman published her screenplay in the fall of 1943. British historian Robert Conquest wrote that it was "a travesty greater than could have been shown on Soviet screens to audiences used to lies, but experienced in collective-farm conditions."
In April 1944, Hellman's The Searching Wind opened on Broadway. Her third World War II project, it tells the story of an ambassador whose indecisive relations with his wife and mistress mirror the vacillation and appeasement of his professional life. She wrote the screenplay for the film version that appeared two years later. Both versions depicted the ambassador's feckless response to anti-Semitism. The conservative press noted that the play reflected none of Hellman's pro-Soviet views, and the communist response to the play was negative.
Hellman's applications for a passport to travel to England in April 1943 and May 1944 were both denied because government authorities considered her "an active Communist", although in 1944 the head of the Passport Division of the Department of State, Ruth Shipley, cited "the present military situation" as the reason. In August 1944, she received a passport, indicative of government approval, for travel to Russia on a goodwill mission as a guest of VOKS, the Soviet agency that handled cultural exchanges. During her visit from November 5, 1944, to January 18, 1945, she began an affair with John F. Melby, a foreign service officer, that continued as an intermittent affair for years and as a friendship for the rest of her life.
In May 1946, the National Institute of Arts and Letters made Hellman a member. In November of that year, her play Another Part of the Forest premiered, directed by Hellman. It presented the same characters twenty years younger than they had appeared in The Little Foxes. A film version to which Hellman did not contribute followed in 1948.
In 1947, Columbia Pictures offered Hellman a multi-year contract, which she refused because the contract included a loyalty clause that she viewed as an infringement on her rights of free speech and association. It required her to sign a statement that she had never been a member of the Communist Party and would not associate with radicals or subversives, which would have required her to end her life with Hammett. Shortly thereafter, William Wyler told her he was unable to hire her to work on a film because she was blacklisted.
In November 1947, the leaders of the motion picture industry decided to deny employment to anyone who refused to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Following the Hollywood Ten's defiance of the committee, Hellman wrote an editorial in the December issue of Screen Writer, the publication of the Screen Writers Guild. Titled The Judas Goats, it mocked the committee and derided producers for allowing themselves to be intimidated. It said in part:
It was a week of turning the head in shame; of the horror of seeing politicians make the honorable institution of Congress into a honky tonk show; of listening to craven men lie and tattle, pushing each other in their efforts to lick the boots of their vilifiers; publicly trying to wreck the lives, not of strangers, mind you, but of men with whom they have worked and eaten and played, and made millions. ...
But why this particular industry, these particular people? Has it anything to do with Communism? Of course not. There has never been a single line or word of Communism in any American picture at any time. There has never or seldom been ideas of any kind. Naturally, men scared to make pictures about the American Negro, men who only in the last year have allowed the word Jew to be spoken in a picture, men who took more than ten years to make an anti-Fascist picture, those are frightened men and you pick frightened men to frighten first. Judas goats; they'll lead the others, maybe, to the slaughter for you. ...
They frighten mighty easy, and they talk mighty bad. ... I suggest the rest of us don't frighten so easy. It's still not un-American to fight the enemies of one's country. Let's fight.
Melby and Hellman corresponded regularly in the years following World War II while he held State Department assignments overseas. Their political views diverged as he came to advocate containment of communism while she was unwilling to hear criticism of the Soviet Union. They became, in one historian's view, "political strangers, occasional lovers, and mostly friends." Melby particularly objected to her support for Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election.
In 1952, Hellman was called to testify before HUAC, which had heard testimony that she had attended Communist Party meetings in 1937. She initially drafted a statement that said her two-year membership in the Communist Party had ended in 1940, but she did not condemn the party nor express regret for her participation in it. Her attorney, Joseph Rauh, opposed her admission of membership on technical grounds because she had attended meetings, but never formally become a party member. He warned that the committee and the public would expect her to take a strong anti-communist stand to atone for her political past, but she refused to apologize or denounce the party. Faced with Hellman's position, Rauh devised a strategy that produced favorable press coverage and allowed her to avoid the stigma of being labeled a "Fifth Amendment Communist". On May 19, 1952, Hellman authored a letter to HUAC that one historian has described as "written not to persuade the Committee, but to shape press coverage." In it she explained her willingness to testify only about herself and that she did not want to claim her rights under the Fifth Amendment-"I am ready and willing to testify before the representatives of our Government as to my own actions, regardless of any risks or consequences to myself." She wrote that she found the legal requirement that she testify about others if she wanted to speak about her own actions "difficult for a layman to understand." Rauh had the letter delivered to the HUAC's chairman Rep. John S. Wood on Monday.
In public testimony before HUAC on Tuesday, May 21, 1952, Hellman answered preliminary questions about her background. When asked about attending a specific meeting at the home of Hollywood screenwriter Martin Berkeley, she refused to respond, claiming her rights under the Fifth Amendment and she referred the committee to her letter by way of explanation. The Committee responded that it had considered and rejected her request to be allowed to testify only about herself and entered her letter into the record. Hellman answered only one additional question: she denied she had ever belonged to the Communist Party. She cited the Fifth Amendment in response to several more questions and the committee dismissed her. Historian John Earl Haynes credits both Rauh's "clever tactics" and Hellman's "sense of the dramatic" for what followed the conclusion of Hellman's testimony. As the committee moved on to other business, Rauh released to the press copies of her letter to HUAC. Committee members, unprepared for close questioning about Hellman's stance, offered only offhand comments. The press reported Hellman's statement at length, its language crafted to overshadow the comments of the HUAC members. She wrote in part:
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.
I was raised in an old-fashioned American tradition and there were certain homely things that were taught to me: to try to tell the truth, not to bear false witness, not to harm my neighbour, to be loyal to my country, and so on. In general, I respected these ideals of Christian honor and did as well as I knew how. It is my belief that you will agree with these simple rules of human decency and will not expect me to violate the good American tradition from which they spring. I would therefore like to come before you and speak of myself.
Reaction divided along political lines. Murray Kempton, a longtime critic of her sympathy for communist causes, praised her: "It is enough that she has reached into her conscience for an act based on something more than the material or the tactical ... she has chosen to act like a lady." The FBI increased its surveillance of her travel and her mail. In the early 1950s, at the height of anti-communist fervor in the United States, the State Department investigated whether Melby posed a security risk. In April 1952, the department stated its one formal charge against him: "that during the period 1945 to date, you have maintained an association with one, Lillian Hellman, reliably reported to be a member of the Communist Party," based on testimony from unidentified informants. When Melby appeared before the department's Loyalty Security Board, he was not allowed to contest Hellman's Communist Party affiliation or learn who informed against her, but only to present his understanding of her politics and the nature of his relationship with her, including the occasional renewal of their physical relationship. He said he had no plans to renew their friendship, but never promised to avoid contact with her.
In the course of a series of appeals, Hellman testified before the Loyalty Security Board on his behalf. She offered to answer questions about her political views and associations, but the board only allowed her to describe her relationship with Melby. She testified that she had many longstanding friendships with people of different political views and that political sympathy was not a part of those relationships. She described how her relationship with Melby changed over time and how their sexual relationship was briefly renewed in 1950 after a long hiatus: "The relationship obviously at this point was neither one thing nor the other: it was neither over nor was it not over." She said that:
... to make it black and white would be the lie it never has been, nor do I think many other relations ever are. I don't think it is as much a mystery as perhaps it looks. It has been a ... completely personal relationship of two people who once past being in love also happen to be very devoted to each other and very respectful of one another, and who I think in any other time besides our own would not be open to question of the complete innocence of and the complete morality, if I may say so, of people who were once in love and who have come out with respect and devotion to one another.
The State Department dismissed Melby on April 22, 1953. As was its practice, the board gave no reason for its decision.
In 1954, Hellman declined when asked to adapt Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl (1952) for the stage. According to writer and director Garson Kanin, she said that the diary was "a great historical work which will probably live forever, but I couldn't be more wrong as the adapter. If I did this it would run one night because it would be deeply depressing. You need someone who has a much lighter touch" and recommended her friends, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
Hellman made an English-language adaption of Jean Anouilh's play, L'Alouette, based on the trial of Joan of Arc, called The Lark. Leonard Bernstein composed incidental music for the first production, which opened on Broadway on November 17, 1955. Hellman edited a collection of Chekhov's correspondence that appeared in 1955 as The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov.
Following the success of The Lark, Hellman conceived of another play with incidental music, based on Voltaire's Candide. Bernstein convinced her to develop it as a comic operetta with a much more substantial musical component. She wrote the spoken dialogue, which many others then worked on, and wrote some lyrics as well for what became the often-revived, Candide. Hellman hated the collaboration and revisions on deadline that Candide required: "I went to pieces when something had to be done quickly, because someone didn't like something, and there was no proper time to think it out ... I realized that I panicked under conditions I wasn't accustomed to."
Toys in the Attic opened on Broadway on February 25, 1960, and ran for 464 performances. It received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. In this family drama set in New Orleans, money, marital infidelity, and revenge end in a woman's disfigurement. Hellman had no hand in the screenplay, which altered the drama's tone and exaggerated the characterizations, and the resulting film received bad reviews. Later that year she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
A second film version of The Children's Hour, less successful both with critics and at the box office, appeared in 1961 under that title, but Hellman played no role in the screenplay, having withdrawn from the project following Hammett's death in 1961. In the 1961 version of The Children's Hour, however, despite the continued existence of the Motion Picture Production Code, the lead characters (played by Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine) were explicitly accused of lesbianism.
In 1961, Brandeis University awarded her its Creative Arts Medal for outstanding lifetime achievement and the women's division of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University gave her its Achievement Award. The following year, in December 1962, Hellman was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and inducted at a May 1963 ceremony.
Another play, My Mother, My Father, and Me, proved unsuccessful when it was staged in March 1963. It closed after 17 performances. Hellman adapted it from Burt Blechman's novel How Much?
Hellman wrote another screenplay in 1965 for The Chase, starring Marlon Brando, based on a play and novel by Horton Foote. Although Hellman received sole credit for the screenplay, she worked from an earlier treatment, and producer Sam Spiegel made additional changes and altered the sequence of scenes. In 1966, she edited a collection of Hammett's stories, The Big Knockover. Her introductory profile of Hammett was her first exercise in memoir writing.
Hellman wrote a reminiscence of gulag-survivor Lev Kopelev, husband of her translator in Russia during 1944, to serve as the introduction to his anti-Stalinist memoirs, To Be Preserved Forever, which appeared in 1976. In February 1980, she, John Hersey, and Norman Mailer wrote to Soviet authorities to protest retribution against Kopelev for his defense of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Hellman was a long-time friend of author Dorothy Parker and served as her literary executor after her death in 1967.
Hellman published her first volume of memoirs that touched upon her political, artistic, and social life, An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir, in 1969, for which she received the U.S. National Book Award in category Arts and Letters, which was an award category from 1964 to 1976.
In the early 1970s, Hellman taught writing for short periods at the University of California, Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Hunter College in New York City. Her second volume of memoirs, Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, appeared in 1973. In an interview at the time, Hellman described the difficulty of writing about the 1950s:
I wasn't as shocked by McCarthy as by all the people who took no stand at all. ... I don't remember one large figure coming to anybody's aid. It's funny. Bitter funny. Black funny. And so often something else-in the case of Clifford Odets, for example, heart-breaking funny. I suppose I've come out frightened, thoroughly frightened of liberals. Most radicals of the time were comic but the liberals were frightening.
Hellman published her third volume of memoirs, Scoundrel Time, in 1976. These writings illustrated not only the exciting artistic time, but also depicted an influential tone, closely associated with the beginning of the feminist movement. In 1976, she posed in a fur coat for the Blackglama national advertising campaign "What Becomes a Legend Most?". In August of that year she was awarded the prestigious Edward MacDowell Medal for her contribution to literature. In October, she received the Paul Robeson Award from Actors' Equity.
In 1976, Hellman's publisher, Little Brown, canceled its contract to publish a book of Diana Trilling's essays because Trilling refused to delete four passages critical of Hellman. When Trilling's collection appeared the next year, in 1977, the New York Times critic felt the need to posit his own preference for the "simple confession of error" Hellman made in Scoundrel Time for her "acquiescence in Stalinism" to what he described as Trilling's excuses for her own behavior during McCarthyism.Arthur Herman, however, later described Scoundrel Time as "breathtaking dishonesty".
Hellman presented the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film at a ceremony on March 28, 1977. Greeted by a standing ovation, she said:
I was once upon a time a respectable member of this community. Respectable didn't necessarily mean more than I took a daily bath when I was sober, didn't spit except when I meant to, and mispronounced a few words of fancy French. Then suddenly, even before Senator Joe McCarthy reached for that rusty, poisoned ax, I and many others were no longer acceptable to the owners of this industry. ... [T]hey confronted the wild charges of Joe McCarthy with a force and courage of a bowl of mashed potatoes. I have no regrets for that period. Maybe you never do when you survive, but I have a mischievous pleasure in being restored to respectability, understanding full well that the younger generation who asked me here tonight meant more by that invitation than my name or my history.
This is not a work of fiction and certain laws have to be followed for that reason ... Your major difficulty to me is the treatment of Lillian as the leading character. The reason is simple: no matter what she does in this story-and I do not deny the danger I was in when I took the money into Germany-my role was passive. And nobody and nothing can change that unless you write a fictional and different story ... Isn't it necessary to know that I am a Jew? That, of course, is what mainly made the danger.
In a 1979 television interview, author Mary McCarthy, long Hellman's political adversary and the object of her negative literary judgment, said of Hellman that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." Hellman responded by filing a US$2,500,000 defamation suit against McCarthy, interviewer Dick Cavett, and PBS. McCarthy in turn produced evidence she said proved that Hellman had lied in some accounts of her life. Cavett said he sympathized more with McCarthy than Hellman in the lawsuit, but "everybody lost" as a result of it.Norman Mailer attempted unsuccessfully to mediate the dispute through an open letter he published in the New York Times. At the time of her death, Hellman was still in litigation with McCarthy; her executors dropped the suit.
In 1980, Hellman published a short novel, Maybe: A Story. Though presented as fiction, Hellman, Hammett, and other real-life people appeared as characters. It received a mixed reception and was sometimes read as another installment of Hellman's memoirs. Hellman's editor wrote to the New York Times to question a reviewer's attempt to check the facts in the novel. He described it as a work of fiction whose characters misremember and dissemble.
In 1983, New York psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner claimed she was the basis for the title character in Julia and that she had never known Hellman. Hellman denied the character was based on Gardiner. As the events Hellman described matched Gardiner's account of her life and Gardiner's family was closely tied to Hellman's attorney, Wolf Schwabacher, some critics believe that Hellman appropriated Gardiner's story without attribution.
Hellman died on June 30, 1984, aged 79, from a heart attack near her home on Martha's Vineyard and is buried beneath a pine tree on a rise at one end of Abels Hill/Chilmark Cemetery, Chilmark, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Hellman's papers are held by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Her archive includes an extensive collection of manuscript drafts, contracts, correspondence, scrapbooks, speeches, teaching notes, awards, legal documents, appointment books, and honorary degrees.
Institutions that awarded Hellman honorary degrees include Brandeis University (1955),Wheaton College (1960),Mt. Holyoke College (1966),Smith College (1974),Yale University (1974), and Columbia University (1976).
Hellman is the central character in Peter Feibleman's 1993 play Cakewalk, which depicts his relationship with Hellman, based in turn on Feibleman's 1988 memoir of their relationship, Lilly, which described "his tumultuous time as her lover, caretaker, writing partner and principal heir."
William Wright wrote The Julia Wars, based on the legal battle between Hellman and McCarthy. Chuck Palahniuk's novel Tell-All (2010) was described by Janet Maslin in the New York Times as "a looney pipe dream that savages Lillian Hellman". Dorothy Gallagher wrote a biography of Hellman, Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life.
It seems, indeed, that author Gallagher and her subject share more in common when it comes to the art of subterfuge.