It’s the birthday of American playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman (books by this author), born in New Orleans (1905). She spent her childhood bouncing between Upper West End Avenue in New York City and a series of genteel boarding houses run by relatives in New Orleans. She was a smart loner who took refuge in books. She once ran away at 14 and pawned a birthday ring her uncle gave her to buy books. After she was found out, instead of scolding her, he told her, “So, you’ve got spirit, after all. Most of the rest of them are made of sugar water.” Hellman later used that line in one her most famous plays, The Little Foxes (1939). Her friend Dorothy Parker came up with the title for that play, which comes from Chapter 2, Verse 15 of The Song of Solomon.
Hellman was opinionated, brash, funny, and sometimes rash, as when she got into a very public spat with novelist Mary McCarthy, who went on the Dick Cavett show in 1979 and said every word Hellman ever wrote, “including ‘and’ and ‘the,’ was a ‘lie.’” Hellman sued McCarthy, the Educational Television Corporation, and Dick Cavett, for damages of $1.75 million for “mental pain and anguish.” It wasn’t the first time Hellman, who wrote four memoirs, had been challenged about her writing. She once said: “What I have written is the truth as I saw it, but the truth as I saw it, of course, doesn’t have much to do with the truth. It’s as if I have fitted parts of a picture puzzle and then a child overturned it and threw out some pieces.”
Hellman got her start in the theater working as a play reader for a producer. She was in a romantic relationship with novelist and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett, a relationship they’d cultivate for 30 tempestuous years, and he told her to try her hand a playwriting. She did, thinking what she was working on was just a lark, but when the producer read the first act, he said, “Swell.” After reading the second act he said, “I hope it keeps up.” After reading the third act he said, “I’ll produce it,” and he did. That play was called The Children’s Hour, and took on the taboo subject of rumors and lesbianism in a girls’ boarding school. It was a hit and ran for 691 performances, making Lillian Hellman a famous writer.