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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Lillian Hellman

One of the best known biographies about Lillian Hellman is titled A Difficult Woman and an observer once called her "the kind of girl that can take the tops off bottles with her teeth." Born in New Orleans in the early 1900's, Hellman drank like a fish, swore like a sailor, and had sex when and with whom she chose. But that didn't begin to cover all the ways she was an in-your-face woman.

For starters, she was a prolific cutting-edge playwright and author.  Her first huge hit on Broadway, for example, was a play written in the 1930's about two women school teachers who were accused of being lesbians.  It was not an accident that the play addressed the devastating effects of social judgments on private lives.  It was a topic Hellman examined in her work all her life, including in her memoirs, considered some of the most engaging ever written.

In 1937, Hellman joined 88 other prominent public figures in signing a letter to progressives in the U.S. warning that it would be a fascist act to interfere with the Soviet Union's attempts to prevent a reactionary coup against its newly established socialist government.  The letter called for a "united front against fascism" and marked Hellman forever after as a political critic worthy of suspicion in her native land.  Still, she called her two years as a member of the U.S. Communist Party "very casual" in that she wasn't a burning political firebrand.  She just disagreed with almost everybody about almost anything -- except that people ought to be allowed to think for themselves.

We might imagine that the plays Hellman wrote against fascism during World War II and her fundraising for anti-Nazis imprisoned in France would have made her look like a patriot, but instead it got her branded as a Communist and she was eventually blacklisted in Hollywood along with other people in the film industry who were considered suspect.  Nevertheless, unrepentant and aware that she could wind up in prison for doing so, when she was called up to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hellman refused to talk about anyone other than herself and issued a press release which read, in part, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."  In-your-face women are famous for their snappy answers.

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