PBS Documentary 'Lives of Lillian Hellman' Airs June 30


30 Jun 1999

Lillian Hellman in the late 1970s, in Martha's Vineyard.
Lillian Hellman in the late 1970s, in Martha's Vineyard.
Photo by Dr. Jonathan LaPook
The complicated life of Lillian Hellman, the most prominent woman playwright in American theatre history, gets a fresh airing 9 PM (ET) June 30 on PBS' "American Masters" documentary series with "The Lives of Lillian Hellman."

The complicated life of Lillian Hellman, the most prominent woman playwright in American theatre history, gets a fresh airing 9 PM (ET) June 30 on PBS' "American Masters" documentary series with "The Lives of Lillian Hellman."

The outspoken author of such Broadway plays as The Children's Hour, Watch on the Rhine, The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest plunged into the intellectual and political concerns of her day, and the new documentary explores both her causes and her groundbreaking art.

Hellman was also a notorious drinker and lover, engaged in a 30-year affair with detective-novelist Dashiell Hammett. She fought with Hammett, with colleagues, with publishers and with senators in her day. She was also accused of fictionalizing events in her life (the famous "Julia" episode from her memoirs, which became a film with Jane Fonda, for example).

The program draws on a number of first-hand sources to paint a picture of a smoker, drinker, lover and fighter who was "considered one of the most unattractive and most seductive women of her time," according to program notes.



"To create her biography, we were given complete access to her estate -- the first time such access has ever been granted -- which includes hundreds of documents and photographs never before seen by the public," producer Susan Lacy said in press notes. "With such comprehensive materials, we were able to paint a definitive portrait of a woman who had an immense impact on our culture."

The program attempts to separate the woman from myth: Her output of a dozen plays, 11 movies and four books of prose, her childhood in New Orleans and New York, which was populated by eccentric and greedy relatives who later appeared as thinly disguised characters in her plays.

Hellman lived a bohemian writer's life in the 1920s and shows her helping form the Screenwriter's Guild in the Hollywood of the 1930s, where she met Hammett. They had an on-again, off-again affair for 30 years. He died in 1961.

"American Masters: The Lives of Lillian Hellman" features interviews with Warren Beatty, Art Buchwald, Walter Matthau, Norman Mailer, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Jules Feiffer, Patricia Neal, and Maureen Stapleton, among others, and archival interviews with the playwright herself, by Dan Rather, Bill Moyers and Marilyn Berger.

The public Hellman many know is here, too: The one committed to "radical" politics, from her formation of the Screenwriter's Guild in 1935 to her formation of the Committee for Public Justice in 1970. Her sympathies for Soviet Communism drew her into fierce battles. The film follows her trip to Spain in 1937 and to the Russian Front in 1944, and we witness her landmark appearance before the House Committee on Un American Activities in 1952.

She eventually retired from playwriting and taught at Harvard, Yale and MIT. Hellman died in 1984. Among her memoirs are "Pentimento," "An Unfinished Woman" and "Scoundrel Time."

"American Masters: The Lives of Lillian Hellman" is co-produced by Thirteen/WNET in New York and Castle Hill Productions. Check local listing for exact air date.

At 10 PM (ET), the Hellman piece will be followed by "American Masters: Dashiell Hammett. Detective. Writer."

-- By Kenneth Jones