In 1910 her family moved to New York City, where she attended public schools. She studied at New York University (1923 - 1924) and Columbia University (1924).
Hellman received honorary doctorates from several colleges and universities.
She explored highly controversial themes, with many of her plays reflecting her outspoken political and social views. She worked as a manuscript reader for Liveright Publishers before becoming main play reader for producer Herman Shumlin. In 1930, ready to drop her idea of being a writer, she was dissuaded by Dashiell Hammett, who became her lifelong mentor and partner. Major Works Invited Controversy After a "year and a half of stumbling stubbornness, " Hellman finished The Children's Hour (1934), based on an actual incident in Scotland. The action of the play is triggered by a child's accusation of lesbianism against two teachers, which leads to one woman's suicide. The play reveals Hellman's sharp characterizations and explicit, moral comment on a theme considered dramatically untouchable at the time. In Days to Come (1936), a play of family dissolution as well as of the struggle between union and management, Hellman's dramatic touch faltered. However, her next play, The Little Foxes (1939), ranks as one of the most powerful in American drama. Set in the South, it depicts a family almost completely engulfed by greed, avarice, and malice. During World War II Hellman wrote two plays. Watch on the Rhine (1941), an anti-Nazi drama about an underground hero, received the New York Critics Circle Award. The Searching Wind (1944) championed anti-fascist activity and criticized the failure of influential Americans to halt the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. In Another Part of the Forest (1946), Hellman again portrayed the Hubbard family of The Little Foxes; she also directed the play. Autumn Garden (1951) lacked the usual ferocity of her dramas but was a touching and revealing insight into a Southern boardinghouse. The style of the play is sometimes compared to Anton Chekhov's work. Work Outside of the Theater Hellman demonstrated her versatility as an author with a witty book for the musical Candide (1956); adaptations of two plays, Montserrat (1949) and Jean Anouilh's The Lark (1956); and her departure from realism in the humorous play of Jewish family life, My Mother, My Father and Me (1963). She also edited The Letters of Anton Chekhov in 1955. Hellman published three memoirs dealing with her career, personal relationships, and political activities (including her scathing criticism of the House Unamerican Activities Committee headed by Joseph McCarthy): An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). There was much discussion at the time about whether the content of these memoirs was greatly enhanced by Hellman.
Hellman died on June 30, 1984, aged 79, from a heart attack near her home on Martha's Vineyard.
In 1929, she traveled around Europe for a time and settled in Bonn to continue her education. She felt an initial attraction to a Nazi student group that advocated "a kind of socialism" until their questioning about her Jewish ties made their antisemitism clear, and she returned immediately to the United States. Years later she wrote, "Then for the first time in my life I thought about being a Jew. "
Hellman was romantically involved with fellow writer and political activist Dashiell Hammett, author of the classic detective novels The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, who also was blacklisted for 10 years until his death in 1961. The couple never married.