US playwright, most of whose work had a political theme.
Born in New Orleans of Southern Jewish parents, she was taken to New York at the age of five and thereafter attended schools in both cities. She studied at New York University and later at Columbia but did not take a degree. After working in publishing and as a reader for a theatrical agent, she wrote her first play, The Children's Hour (1934; filmed 1936 (as These Three), 1962, and 1979 (as The Loudest Whisper), about a girl who maliciously accuses her teachers of lesbianism. The play caused an uproar and was highly successful, running for 691 performances. The Little Foxes (1939; filmed 1941) concerns a Southern family and its attempt to hang on to its position of dominance. Watch on the Rhine (1941), an effective anti-Nazi play filmed in 1943, suggested that the country would soon join the war against Hitler. Among her other plays are Another Part of the Forest (1946; filmed 1948), The Autumn Garden (1951), and Toys in the Attic (1960; filmed 1963). Hellman dramatized novels for the stage and with the poet Richard Wilbur worked on the musical adaptation of Voltaire's Candide (1957), with a score by Leonard Bernstein. She was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy witch-hunt of the 1950s. Although she herself was by this time anticommunist, she refused to give names or betray friends. This period is covered in her memoir Scoundrel Time (1976). Other autobiographical volumes, which include an account of her long friendship with Dashiell Hammett, are An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Maybe (1980). Parts of An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento formed the basis of the film Julia (1977).