Woman of the Day – Lillian Hellman

Green Party Women Celebrating Women’s History Month Day 7: Woman of the Day, Lillian Hellman #ForWomenAndPlanet

On March 7 1951, Lillian Hellman’s play The Autumn Garden premiered on Broadway in New York City. The Autumn Garden, a study of the defeats, disappointments and diminished expectations of people reaching middle age was recognised by critics and judged by Hellman as her best play.

Lillian was one of the most famous female writers of the 20th century whose dramas forcefully attacked injustice, exploitation, and selfishness, a genre known as Social Realism. She was also the first woman to be admitted to the previously all men’s club of American dramatists.

Early Years

Born June 20 1905 in New Orleans, she grew up in a comfortable Jewish household. After high school, she attended New York University for two years before moving to Bonn, Germany to finish her schooling.

On her return to America Lillian began her career working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, working as a reader and summary writer. She produced her first Broadway play The Children’s Hour in 1934. The success of the play landed her a job with Goldwyn pictures as a screenwriter.

In 1935, she joined the League of American Writers and the Screen Writers Guild advocating for proper credit to be given to screenwriters by producers.

As well as a prolific writer, Lillian was very active in politics, contributing to The Spanish Earth (1937), a film that denounced Franco and Fascism during the Spanish Civil War and travelling to Spain as part of the International Brigades.

She also advocated for liberals in the U.S. to join forces with the Soviet Union to fight off Fascism and was rumoured to be a member of the Communist Party between 1938 and 1940.

the House of Un-American Activities Committee

In 1952, a year after The Autumn Garden premiered, Lillian was called to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), because of her “Communist membership”. She denied ever being a member but she refused to apologise or denounce the party. Whilst willing to testify about herself, she refused to testify against others and claimed her right under the Fifth Amendment.

Despite this dark period in her history Lillian’s career continued to thrive and she went on to write several other plays, screen plays, her memoirs, as well as a novel and an operetta.

During her lifetime she received several awards including New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play – The Children’s Hour (1934), Drama Desk Special Award for Lifetime Achievement (1976) and Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for Best Play – Toys in the Attic (1960). She was also received three Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay.

“I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

Lillian died June 30 1984.

Snippets of the play The Autumn Garden are available to watch on YouTube.






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