Hardscrabble Farm: Playwright Lillian Hellman's Country Home in Pleasantville

Lillian Hellman’s Westchester home was a sanctuary for the famous—and troubled—playwright.



Photo by Rachelle LeBlanc

Up a narrow road in Pleasantville sits a classic Westchester country home. An old guest cabin is located on a hill, while the white-clapped main house is sited among acres of wood and farmland. Concealed by pine trees on a sprawling nine-acre property, this idyllic farm was once home to author Lillian Hellman, serving as her retreat from the bustling streets of New York City and an escape from the fame with which she never seemed comfortable.  

Born in New Orleans in 1905, Hellman spent a better part of her childhood traveling to and from New York City, and she continued living there through the 1920s, attending Columbia and NYU. But love and marriage eventually took her away from the East Coast to Hollywood.

A few years and one failed marriage later, Hellman returned to New York in 1931 with Dashiell Hammett, a fellow author whose romance with Hellman would span the next 30 years. In 1939, Hellman’s success reached unexpected heights and, with the small fortune she amassed from her play, Little Foxes, she bought a 130-acre farm in Pleasantville that soon became her haven. She named it Hardscrabble Farm with the intention to work the land by farming, gardening, fishing, and hunting.

It was here that Hellman felt truly at home, surrounded by woods, lakes, and land. The hard work reviving the land also revived Hellman, an alcoholic. She had long periods of sobriety during her time at Hardscrabble, where she penned several more plays. Hammett would also spend a great deal of time there, but while Hellman’s writing thrived, he suffered from writer’s block. Despite his inability to put pen to paper, Hammett, also an alcoholic, enjoyed the solitude that the farm offered and gave up drinking during his extended stays at Hardscrabble.

Photo by Rachelle LeBlanc

But their solitude would not last long. Opinionated and outspoken, Hellman was accused of being a communist and was brought to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Refusing to give names, she was blacklisted from Hollywood and was subsequently forced to sell her beloved Hardscrabble Farm. She eventually settled down again in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where she died in 1984.  

As for her farm, it’s been well-taken care of by George and Ellen Hodor, who have lived there for more than 30 years. Most of the 130-acre property is now part of the Hardscrabble Lake development, but the Hodors own several acres of what’s left of Hellman’s farm, which still retains remnants of Hellman—from the small cabin where her guests used to stay to the words “Ms. Hellman, yellow sheets, Mr. Hammett, blue sheets” etched into the linen closest.
 

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