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December 11, 2017

Lillian Hellman on Telling

On this day in 1934, Lillian Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour, opened on Broadway. It was an enormous success, running for twenty-one months and beginning the string of hits -- The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, Toys in the Attic -- that made Hellman one of the most popular playwrights in mid-century American theater. Hellman took her story of a schoolgirl's malicious, anti-lesbian gossip from real life: in 1809, an Edinburgh court accepted the claims of a student and found two of her teachers guilty of "inordinate affection." The school was closed within forty-eight hours of the girl's allegations and never reopened, nor did the teachers get another job, although they won on appeal eleven years later. Hellman does not spell out the relationship between her teachers, but their affection was inordinate enough to get the play banned in Chicago, Boston and London, and to preclude a possible Pulitzer in that some on the committee refused to go see it.

It was Hellman's lifetime friend and sometime-partner, Dashiell Hammett, who suggested she develop the Edinburgh case into a play, and whom a drunken Hellman called in Hollywood on opening night to share her good news. Hammett's "secretary" answered the phone, and as Hellman tells the story it took her two days to sober or wise up to the fact that Hammett had no secretary, and that the call was made at three a.m. California time. It took her only one day to fly out to Hollywood, smash the soda fountain in the house Hammett was renting, and fly back to New York.

Hellman's success with The Children's Hour, and her feelings for Hammett, had her back in Hollywood early in 1935, as one of Sam Goldwyn's highest paid screenwriters. She and Hammett were soon heavily involved in organizing the Screen Writers Guild, and in those other leftist activities which McCarthy would later find so Un-American. She did not go to prison for it like Hammett, nor was she as broken by her blacklisted years as he was, but her response to the HUAC gossip-gathering is as famous as his silence: "... 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." This was 1952; later that year, in order to spit in the eye of the gossip-listeners who now would not hire her, she directed a successful revival of The Children's Hour.

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