February 20, 2011


Quite a double-act: Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett's stormy partnership equals any onstage drama (Lesley McDowell, 14 January 2011, Independent)

When Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, "every word she says is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'", a certain attitude was fostered. Not only to the celebrated playwright's experiences in war-torn Spain during the 1930s or before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s, but also to her personal life. Hellmann, this attitude said, was a myth-maker of the worst kind. She couldn't be trusted to tell the truth, not even about those she loved. So what if she wrote in her memoirs that crime writer Dashiell Hammett, with whom she lived on-and-off for 30 years, was the most important person in her life? "Did anyone ever see them together?" queried Gore Vidal. [...]

After 1930, he wrote only one major novel, The Thin Man, a semi-autobiographical account of his relationship with Hellman. His depressive moods, his reliance on alcohol and his promiscuous ways (he was felled by gonorrhoea several times) damaged his ability to write. The fire had gone out of his own literary ambitions, but that didn't mean he couldn't take an interest in another's writing. After his death, Hellman wrote, "in time I came to learn that he was good to all writers who needed help, and that the generosity had less to do with the writer than to do with the writing and the pains of writing."

Hellman's experience of the "pains of writing" were always assuaged by Hammett's presence, his advice and criticism, even though theirs was the stormiest of liaisons. At one party, during an argument, he punched her on the jaw. On the opening night in New York of The Children's Hour, a play that Hammett had suggested to Hellman after reading about a 19th-century court case where two headmistresses of a girls' school in Scotland were accused by a pupil of having a lesbian affair, she called him in LA to tell him how well it had gone. A woman answered, saying that she was his secretary. When Hellman realised it was 3am, and Hammett had no secretary, she jumped on a plane and trashed his house.

In response to his affairs, she would have affairs, desperate to make him jealous. That they infuriated each other often was clear: on one occasion, she found him grinding a lit cigarette stub into his cheek. "I said, 'What are you doing?' 'Keeping myself from doing it to you,' he said."

But always there was the writing. Hellman's instant success with The Children's Hour meant she wasn't afraid of controversy (the play was initially banned in the UK) and its follow-up, Days To Come, was an angry, political work about factory strikes. It failed, however, and many have blamed Hammett's influence: the Communist sympathiser who had once worked as a Pinkerton's agent was politically active and encouraged Hellman to be so.

It's a tragedy that he wasted his later years writing her melodramas instead of his own books, but what choice did he have after betraying Sam Spade's principles (and, thereby, his country)?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 20, 2011 8:43 AM
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