Before Lillian Hellman's Demopolis play "The Little Foxes" electrified Broadway in 1939, she was already an acclaimed playwright and Hollywood collaborator with William Wyler. When her play "The Children's Hour" opened in New York on November 20, 1934, the audience greeted it with a long standing ovation and shouts after the final curtain for "Author! Author!" The success both overwhelmed and relieved Lillian. Based upon an actual 1810 legal case in Scotland, where a school girl deceptively told her grandmother that two women teachers had an "inordinate affection" for each other, "Hour" was a risky play for Thirties Broadway. Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn wanted to turn the hit play into a movie, but the plot had to change to get past censors.
Photo Above: Talli Wyler with William in his World War II uniform. (Courtesy, Wyler Family)
Hellman altered the girl's lie to suggest that the two teachers loved the same man. Though she surrendered to story changes, Hellman would not give up on her choice of William Wyler as the film's director. Wylerís movie, called "These Three," was an international hit. The writer and director partnered again for Goldwyn when they adapted Sidney Kingsley's 1935 Broadway hit, "Dead End," for the screen. The play about "haves" and "have nots" in Depression New York allegedly compelled FDR to clean up the slums of Manhattan.
Goldwyn did not like Wyler's depiction of dirt and debris along the streets of New York in the movie with Humphrey Bogart as a crime lord. In Wyler's words, Goldwyn "wanted everything to be clean." Screenwriter Hellman took Wyler's side in the fight against the mogul for a realistic look. Hellman and Wyler won the battle. Hellman told Goldwyn's biographer Scott Berg: "We had to become friends, because we were the only two people in the Goldwyn asylum who weren't completely loony."
Lillian Hellman and "Willy" Wyler became so close that they described their relationship as a "platonic love affair." When Wyler married another great granddaughter of a Demopolis, Alabama, family - Margaret Tallichet - in 1938, the "love affair" continued and "Talli" Wyler and Lillian Hellman also became good friends. In 1941, Hellman and Wyler made the movie version of "The Little Foxes," and in 1961, he brought "The Children's Hour" back to the screen with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
Photo Above: Margaret Tallichet in a Hollywood photo. (Courtesy, Wyler Family)
In the meantime, Hellman and Wyler confronted a world at war and the nation in a cold war. As Nazi Germany began to invade European territories, both artists argued for U.S. intervention well in advance of the country's commitment to World War II. "I was a warmonger," said Wyler. "I was concerned about Americans being isolationists. 'Mrs. Miniver' obviously was a propaganda film." The pro British "Miniver" won Best Picture of 1942 and rallied American support for the war effort.
Talli Wyler accepted her husband's Oscar for "Mrs. Miniver" on March 4, 1943, at a Cocoanut Grove ceremony. Talli spoke with pride when she told the audience that Willy was away and filming a bombing raid over Germany. During World War II, Wyler joined the service at an advanced age for combat and filmed two documentaries in the midst of battle including "The Memphis Belle" (1944). When he came home from the war, Willy had gone deaf in both ears.
Hellman did her part for the war, too. She believed that Nazism was an enemy to American democracy and wrote a pre-war play "Watch on the Rhine" to dramatize the threat. During the war, Sam Goldwyn asked her to develop a movie in support of America's ally Russia. She responded with the script for "North Star" about the Russian people, and ironically during the Red Scare, Hollywood turned on Lillian and blacklisted her as a "Communist." Washington jumped on the accusatory bandwagon against Hellman. The Wylers were outraged by the attacks on their friend, and as long as Hollywood did not let Lillian work, Willy Wyler kept money in a bank account for her. After the Scare was over, Hellman spoke of Wyler's kindness at a dinner party. Wyler had forgotten his own generosity and responded, "Lillian, I don't know what the hell you are talking about. I never opened any account for you."
Summoning the strong will and frankness of her Demopolis grandmother, Sophie Marx Newhouse, Lillian countered the Red Scare with her best weapon: words. She famously refused to name other Hollywood "Communists" and wrote to U.S. Congressman John S. Wood on May 19, 1952: "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."
Hellman rose again to prominence for the final acts of her life. Her autobiographical book AN UNFINISHED WOMAN won the National Book Award for 1969 and begins, " I was born in New Orleans to Julia Newhouse from Demopolis, Alabama. " Hellman's undercover efforts against Nazi Germany were the basis for the 1977 hit movie "Julia." A major 1981 revival of "The Little Foxes" featured Elizabeth Taylor. The production played Washington, D.C., in March, 1981, with President and Mrs. Reagan in the enthusiastic audience.
Sadly, Lillian lost her friend William Wyler just a few months later on Monday, July 27, 1981. Her friendship with Talli Wyler survived Willy's death. Lillian spent the last winter of her life in the Wylers' Beverly Hills home. Talli marveled at Lillianís refusal to surrender to emphysema and encroaching blindness. A fighter to the end, Hellman died on June 30, 1984, at her Martha's Vineyard home.