The Daily Life of Kawther Salam

  ..: Lillian Hellman :..
May 7, 2003

"The writers always converge in their words, thoughts, experiences, histories and pain. The future recalls the past memories, and the past repays its history to the future" - Kawther Salam

It was a wonderful day, the golden lines of the sun rising on a spring day were dallyed my lineament at the morning. I waked up and stood in front of the window. The dawn hours were filled with a special kind of beauty and enjoyment.

I love hearing the birds singing and flying at the trees branches from tree to tree, I love smelling the zephyr mixed with dew drops the same like the birds, flowers and plants. I love watching the rush hour forebode a new day at the morning.

I gave silent thanks for my life and new day. How I can find work, what do I have to do? I collected some films I took in Palestine. I must develop these films.

My mother called: "I missed you, I'm kissing your pictures hanged on the walls", she said. I left home with painful memory from my homeland. My mother, my family, my friends, the occupation, the news which carried the killing of a Palestinian infant 16 months old, Ilayan Albshe, who was hit by a bullet to the head while playing in front of his home. The Israeli snipers were shooting on the densely populated Khan Yunis refugee camp in the south of the Gaza strip. Two years before the IDF snipers had killed a seven months infant, Iman Hijjo, also from Khan Yunis. Iman was the youngest victim of Sharon's hatred of the Palestinians.

(Note: Image on the left from Al-Quds newspaper / Jerusalem, image on the right from Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah / Ramallah newspaper)

I return home, the evening carried that Lillian Hellman granted me a prize. The American playwright Lillian Hellman, who left money in her will to assist writers from around the world who had been politically persecuted and were in financial need. The executors of her estate asked Human Rights Watch to set up and administer such a fund. Ms. Hellman's request was prompted by her experiences and those of her long-time companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett, during the anti-Communist paranoia in the U.S after World War II.

Hellman and Hammett were both interrogated about their political beliefs and affiliation by Congressional committees. Hellman suffered professionally and had trouble finding work for number of years. Hammett spent time in prison. A few lines about Lillian's background follow. I include in this diary a small part of what I found with Google.

Lillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans on June 20, 1905, the daughter of a shoe salesman. When she was five years old, her family moved to New York. She studied at New York University (1922-24) and Columbia University (1924), but did not earn a degree. In 1925, she began reviewing books for the New York Herald Tribune, and by 1930, she was employed as a script-reader by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood.

In the autumn of 1930, she met Dashiell Hammett with whom she would remain intimate until his death in 1961. Hammett, a mystery writer and author of The Maltese Falcon, would prove to be one of the greatest influences in Hellman's life. He reportedly suggested that she write a stage adaptation of 'The Great Drumsheugh Case,' an episode from William Roughead's Bad Companions which detailed the scandal at a Scottish boarding school when a pupil accused two teachers of having a lesbian affair. Hellman's adaptation, The Children's Hour (1934), shocked and fascinated Broadway audiences with its frank treatment of lesbianism and enjoyed a run of 691 performances. It also spawned two film adaptations including These Three (1936) penned by Hellman herself. Hellman also wrote the scripts for such films as Dark Angel (1935), Dead End (1937), and The North Star (1943).

Hellman's next stage success, Little Foxes (1939), has become perhaps her most well-known play. It is a chilling study of the financial and psychological conflicts within a wealthy Southern family. Already hailed as one of the greatest playwrights of her time, Hellman was a curiosity in the largely male-dominated world of American theatre. Soon she found herself being labelled as a 'second Ibsen' or 'the American Strindberg', but there were rough waters ahead for the young playwright. Throughout her career, Hellman openly held left-wing political views and was active in the campaign against the growth of fascism in Europe. As a result of her well-known political views, she was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Pressured to reveal the names of associates in the theatre who might have Communist associations, she replied:

"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, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group."

As a result of her defiance, Hellman's name was added to Hollywood's blacklist and she was slapped with an unexpected and unexplainable tax bill. Even worse, her partner, Dashiell Hammett, was sentenced to prison for six months. Alone and cut off from her only source of income, Hellman was soon forced to sell her home. Fortunately, she managed to stage a revival of The Children's Hour and used the proceeds to relocate to New York.

Hellman continued to write, adapting several works for the stage including Anouilh's The Lark and a musical version of Voltaire's Candide which featured a score by Leonard Bernstein. The proceeds from these productions enabled her to purchase some property in Martha's Vineyard. However, almost a decade would pass before Hellman would write another completely original work. Again, Hammett would suggest the theme. Toys in the Attic opened in February 1960 with Jason Robards in the lead role. Although this would be her last work for the stage, Hellman remained active throughout her life. She taught creative writing classes at the University of New York, Yale University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And in her later years, she focused on several autobiographical works including An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). She died of cardiac arrest on June 30, 1984, at her home in Martha's Vineyard. In her will, Hellman established two literary funds. The Lillian Hellman fund was to be used to advance the arts and sciences, and the second, intended to further radical causes, was named for Dashiell Hammett, her longtime companion and critic.

Hellman received numerous awards during her lifetime including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Watch on the Rhine (1941) and Toys in the Attic (1960), Academy Award nominations for the screenplays The Little Foxes (1941) and The North Star (1943), and numerous honorary degrees from various universities. In 1993, Cakewalk, a play based on Hellman's relationship with Peter Feibleman, premiered.