“Most things in San Francisco can be bought or
Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon,” the
book chosen for “The Big Read,” sponsored by the Fayetteville
community library program. It is as good a selection from Hammett’s
work as any. Sam Spade is a Hammett surrogate, reflecting and speaking
for the author so emphatically that in the 1941 film version (there
were three) Humphrey Bogart, a short, nondescript-looking man, seems
to resemble the tall, lean, ruggedly handsome Dashiell Hammett. And,
of course, lest there remain any doubt that the detective’s views
reflect those of the author, Samuel Dashiell Hammett even gave Spade
his own name.
Sam Spade is a man attuned to evil, to the deceptiveness of appearances.
He is a person cognizant of his own self-deceptions. Spade attempts
to hold back the flood of iniquity exuded by life in 1920s America
by means of a self-imposed code, a code that is entirely arbitrary,
but no less rigorous for that.
“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something
about it,” Spade says famously as he turns Brigid O’ Shaughnessy,
the woman he desires and may even love, over to the police for the murder of
his partner, Miles Archer. “It doesn’t make any difference what
you thought of him,” Spade adds, acknowledging that his partner was not
a particularly honorable man.
As for love, speaking for Hammett, Spade says, “I don’t
know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever?” He then adds: “Maybe
next month I won’t.”
This was the man with whom future playwright Lillian Hellman, a young
nobody in Los Angeles, fell in love on November 22, 1930. He was the
man she yearned for over the next thirty-five years, hoping he would
at last tell her that he loved her: even on his deathbed he would not.
My book about them was called “Hellman and Hammett” and
it chronicles the relationship between these two remarkable writers,
when they were together, and, for a much longer period, when they were
apart. Gore Vidal once asked, wickedly, “Did anyone actually
ever see them together?” so irritating had been Hellman’s
long effort, through four volumes of memoirs, to idealize their relationship.
Among the many ironies I discovered was that Hammett, who in “The
Maltese Falcon” is so appalled by Brigid’s almost reflexive
lying, should take up with a self-proclaimed liar. The year after the
publication of “The Maltese Falcon,” Dashiell Hammett allied
himself with a woman notorious for having been a habitual liar since
childhood, who would write a play about a child lying, “The Children’s
Hour,” and who depicts Hammett in one of her books as having
condemned her lying. “You didn’t owe anybody a lie,” Hammett
says. “It was undignified and you only hurt yourself in the end.
In the end it was a way of life.” Yet after Hammett’s death,
Lillian Hellman did nothing but mythologize their relationship.
The scene in which Spade calls Brigid O’Shaughnessy a liar ends
with his eyes burning “yellowly,” the psychological connotation
of the color yellow suggesting evil. In combating wrongdoing, Spade,
inevitably, participates in the very evil he opposes; this theme would
be taken up by Clint Eastwood in the later Dirty Harry films. That
confrontation between Spade and O’Shaughnessy concludes, scandalously
for those years, with the sexual act. Hammett/Spade is both attracted
and appalled by bad women.
Spade himself lies, as does Hammett’s other great detective hero,
the Op, who says in one story, “like a lot of people, I looked
most honest when I was lying.” To survive in a degenerate society,
you had to lie, or remain silent. So in “The Dain Curse,” another
of Hammett’s great novels of the 1920s, Hammett wrote, “If
a man has a past that he wants to forget, he can easiest drug his mind
against memory through his body, with sensuality if not with narcotics.”
The thesis of my book, “Hellman and Hammett,” was that,
in the course of their connection, these two vibrant, dynamic, talented
people exchanged identities, so that Hellman became what Hammett called
a “She-Hammett.” Lillian Hellman assumed Dashiell Hammett’s
writing style, his tough-talking, his smoking (like Sam Spade he rolled
his own cigarettes), and his drinking, while he receded into idleness.
Hellman became a prolific playwright, with his help (“The Little
Foxes,” her masterpiece, was a collaborative effort), while,
after “The Thin Man,” published in 1934, Hammett stopped
writing almost entirely. Playwright Jerome Weidman wrote in a memoir,
quoting Hammett, “Look at me. Empty. Finished. She’s got
it all now.” After “The Thin Man,” Hammett produced
only a thin semi-memoir called “Tulip,” self-indulgent
and with little of the old Hammett rigor and meticulous style.
I began my book with their meeting, only to flash back to the earlier
lives of each. Here is a bit of what I discovered about Dashiell Hammett.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born on May 27, 1894 on a tobacco farm
called “Hopewell and Aim,” in southern Maryland. He was
baptized a Catholic, although his mother was of French Huguenot ancestry:
in later years he joked that there were on his mother’s side
sixteen army men of France named De Chiell who never saw a battle.
Although Hammett himself served in both the First and Second World
Wars, he never appeared on a battlefield either.
The Hammett family moved to a working class neighborhood in Baltimore.
Sam grew into a tall, gangly boy with dark red hair. From childhood,
he was a loner, a boy who loved to read at the nearby Enoch Pratt library
branch. He lived six blocks away from the journalist H. L. Mencken.
Hammett as a young man was stubborn, somewhat belligerent, and mostly
Formal education did not suit him and he had what he called “a
fraction of a year” of high school at the Baltimore Polytechnic
Institute where the smart students went. His grades were mediocre and
reflected his indifference to regimented learning.
At the ripe old age of thirteen, Dashiell Hammett quit school to go
to work supervising street peddlers, a job his alcoholic, womanizing
father had but couldn’t keep. In later years, Hammett said that
he quit school at thirteen “because I wanted to loaf,” but
by then he was a man not given to verbal expressions of his feelings.
He did not come from a happy home, and Hammett told his cousin Effie
(shades of “The Maltese Falcon” and Spade’s secretary)
that he would never treat a woman the way his father abused his mother.
His mother Annie, in turn, told him that “all men are no good,” and
once remarked that a woman who wasn’t good in the kitchen wouldn’t
be much good in any of the other rooms either, a line Hammett would
later use in “Tulip” and Lillian Hellman would use in “Toys
In The Attic.”
Out of school, he took any job he could get: newsboy; messenger for
the B & O Railroad; freight clerk.
By his teenage years, Hammett already smoked, and drank, and gambled
at dice, cards, the horses and the fights. From his early years, he
developed the notion that there were two kinds of women: the saintly
good women, like his mother, Annie, and the sexually exciting lying
ones like Brigid O’Shaughnessy. By the time he was twenty, he
had suffered his first case of gonorrhea. The women who are trustworthy
in Hammett’s fiction resemble men, in a version of the sexism
of the era. Of one of these, Hammett writes in “The Thin Man,” admiringly, “there’s
a woman with hair on her chest.”
“You’re a damn good man, sister,” Spade tells his secretary
Effie, the ultimate compliment.
Lillian Hellman attempted to create her own persona in that Hammett
model, and she succeeded. He made no promises to her or to any other
woman in his life and once he told Hellman, “god knows I’m
doing my best to keep celibacy from rearing its ugly head in Hollywood.” Hellman
imitated Hammett so pervasively that she even insisted that one of
her favorite foods was pigs’ feet, stealing from the three page
scene during which, at length, Spade and detective Polhous dine on
that delicacy: life imitated art.
It was on the Baltimore waterfront that Dashiell Hammett first encountered
socialists, a group that his father Richard despised. Bitter fights
between father and son ensued. In 1918, just before the war’s
end, Hammett enlisted in the Army, scoring the second highest in IQ
of all those who had been interviewed. He left blank the space for
religion. His hair was already prematurely white, like that of his
He became a medical sergeant. Then an accident with an ambulance led
him never again to drive an automobile. In the world-wide epidemic
that followed World War I, he contracted Spanish influenza, which was
followed by bronchial pneumonia and by the latent tuberculosis that
would claim the life of his mother.
He worked for eight years as a Pinkerton detective, so that the profession
of Sam Spade was entirely familiar to him. He was assigned to the suppression
of the Anaconda copper mining strike which broke the IWW, the International
Workers of the World. Anaconda offered Hammett five thousand dollars
to kill a union organizer. For years, he would feel guilty about his
strike breaking and union busting for Anaconda.
As the 1920s dawned, living now in San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett
sat down at his kitchen table and became a writer. “I can do
better than that,” he said looking at the detective stories that
were his passion.
And so he invented his gallant, stoical, hard-boiled detective. Sometimes
he was called the Op or the Continental Op, Op standing, of course,
for “operative.” Or he was Sam Spade. The Hammett hero
is a stranger to sentimentality, to illusions, to romantic myopia.
He’s tough-talking and no woman can domesticate him. Dorothy
Parker, the famous humorist and writer who would become one of Hammett’s
friends, wrote that Sam Spade was “so hard-boiled you could roll
him on the White House lawn,” and that he had a “clear
eye for the ways of hard women.” Dashiell Hammett liked women
and he liked sex, but he could not be tamed or controlled, and his
writing was an expression of his person: direct, blunt, brutally honest,
and impatient with pretension.
In 1924, Hammett described himself in “Black Mask,” the
detective story magazine. He was “long and lean and grayheaded,
and very lazy. I have no ambition at all in the usual sense of the
word,” he writes. During that period, he demanded an advance
from “Cosmopolitan” magazine promising a completed manuscript
by the Monday only to disappear and emerge “a bit boiled” with
the half-story rolled up under his arm and the advance spent on bars
and whatever else. “Three times I have been mistaken for a Prohibition
agent, but never had any trouble clearing myself,” he wrote,
tongue in cheek, in “From The Memoirs Of A Private Detective,” a
piece published in “Smart Set” in 1923.
Like his father, he was an alcoholic. In these years, he could be a
disciplined writer. Otherwise, he was a drinker, and a womanizer, silent,
aloof and with an air of inaccessibility combined with startling good
looks and a fierce intelligence. His behavior was so self-destructive
that his Hollywood friend, the screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, attributed
Hammett’s recklessness to “his assumption that he had no
expectation of being alive much beyond Thursday.” The tuberculosis
of his youth would never quite leave him.
In addition to inventing the detective story “anti-hero,” a
man rooted in no rules but those of his own making, Hammett’s
books followed in the tradition of Mark Twain in reinventing – or,
rather, inventing -American English. He achieved this end with a prose
that realized his professed goals of “simplicity and clarity.” He
hated the “needlessly involved sentence, the clouded image.” Asked
what is the most beautiful sentence?” he answered, “the
shortest.” “Town and Country” magazine praised him
for having “developed the American tongue.” As for which
writers had influenced him, Hammett once told Lillian Hellman that
he learned to tell a detective story “chiefly from reading Henry
James and a good deal from Dostoevsky.” Critics, of course, compared
his dialogue to that of Hemingway. In fact, Hammett’s is much
From the start, Dashiell Hammett was an enemy of censorship. When his
editor at Knopf, his publisher, objected to the sexual scene, and to
the homosexual aspects of “The Maltese Falcon” in the character
of Joel Cairo, Hammett refused to make any changes. “I should
like to have them as they are, especially since you say they would
be all right perhaps in an ordinary novel. It seems to me that the
only thing that can be said against their use in a detective novel
is that nobody has tried it yet. I’d like to try it.”
Although he did not believe in marriage, Hammett married once. In 1921,
he wed an Army nurse named Josephine (Jose) Dolan not because he loved
her but because she was pregnant and she needed him. Some of my sources
told me that the child, who would be named Mary, was his. Hammett’s
surviving daughter, Josephine, was among these. Several of his friends,
however, said that Hammett had told them that Mary was not his natural
daughter. Some mysteries are never solved, the dots never connecting.
I do not know for sure.
I do know that Hammett had not fared well in the bosom of the nuclear
family and he would never develop a taste for domesticity. He had some
things in common with Jose. She too never made it past the eighth grade.
She was a thin not unpretty public health nurse with bad teeth, a Catholic
girl. Of their relationship, Hammett would say, “neither of us
ever said anything about seriously loving the other.”
His mother Annie objected vehemently to this marriage. “This
is going to kill me,” she said, but Hammett had promised that
he would marry Jose and so he did. His daughter Josephine, Jose’s
second child, was born in 1926. Hammett had already developed the habit
of disappearing at will, even as, in 1926, to support his family, he
was writing advertising copy for a jewelry store owner named Albert
Samuels. He slept with the typist who worked on his advertisements.
Her name was Peggy O’Toole, and some have speculated that she
was the model for Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
Hammett had left Jose for the first time in 1923. By 1927, he was alone,
spitting blood, and two years away from his great success. In 1930,
he borrowed a thousand dollars from Samuels and went to New York to
finish his last great novel, “The Glass Key.”
That year he met Lillian Hellman. Dashiell Hammett was a celebrity
now, living at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel. In 1930 he earned
over $100,000, the most he would ever earn in a year. He had a butler
and an African American chauffeur named Jones and was suffering from
those twin diseases of his manhood, gonorrhea and chronic tuberculosis.
Hammett liked to live in fancy hotel suites where he entertained his
loose women, one of whom, a starlet named Elise de Viane, accused him
of raping and beating her and sued him for $35,000. He refused to defend
himself. In a Los Angeles court in June 1932, Elise de Viane was awarded
$2,500 for having been “bruised and battered in resisting the
asserted fervid love makings of Dashiell Hammett.”
After the publication of “The Glass Key,” Hammett virtually
stopped writing. Money poured in from the movie sales of his novels,
and from radio sales of his stories. He wrote a comic strip, and “The
Maltese Falcon” came out as a comic book. He postponed his next
novel, “The Thin Man,” which would not be published until
1934. As the critic Heywood Hale Broun put it, Sam Spade had endured
the agony of having to live up to his code of honor. He fulfills the
demand of honor but it almost destroys him. Nick Charles, the hero
of “The Thin Man,” is beyond principles. Broun writes of
Charles: “He is an amoral, ugly man who lives off his wife’s
money.” Hammett’s personal despair had invaded his fiction.
Style came to matter to him overly. Years later, the author Norman
Mailer observed this tendency. “I had considerable respect for
Dash,” Mailer wrote Lillian Hellman in the late seventies, “but
not because he would often refuse to face into knotty problems and
would instead dismiss them by an exercise of his personal style.” In “The
Glass Key,” among the features of Ned Beaumont’s personal
code is “never wear silk socks with tweeds.”
Although today the concept of genre has broken down and detective novels,
like those of P.D. James, are accepted as mainstream fiction, in Hammett’s
day – and Hammett himself believed this – to be a detective
story writer (or a science fiction writer) was a lesser activity. Hammett
by 1931 was saying that he was through with the detective story. He
wanted to write what he called “straight” novels. He dismissed “The
Dain Curse” as “a silly story.” He thought “The
Maltese Falcon” was “too manufactured.” Only “The
Glass Key,” arguably his best novel, was “not so bad.”
There is another vital aspect to the biography of Dashiell Hammett.
As profoundly as he was a brilliant author, so, simultaneously, was
he a political man. From those days when he met socialists on the Baltimore
wharves, he had been politically committed. His early life had exposed
to him the vagaries of capitalist society. No one had taken any notice
of him, this exceedingly bright boy who was permitted to leave school
at the age of thirteen. In his twenties, he pleaded for his war pension.
He was no more successful than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Colonel,
a veteran of the Colombian civil wars in “No One Writes To The
Colonel,” who waits forty years for the pension that never arrives.
Hammett had registered the corruption of government, the inequity between
rich and poor, and the hopelessness of trusting politicians. He had
come to believe that the American system of justice was a hypocritical
sham. “Don’t kid yourselves that there’s any law
in Poisonville except what you make for yourself,” he writes
in the most searing of his detective novels, “Red Harvest,” which
is set in a place called “Poisonville,” a thinly veiled
euphemism for America.
Unique to Hammett is his infusing the detective story form with a political
consciousness previously absent. No writer before him had depicted
so unrelentingly the corruption of America’s social institutions.
In his stories and novels, Dashiell Hammett depicts a political system
in decay, its victims miserable and without recourse. “Everybody
has something to conceal,” Sam Spade says, speaking for Hammett.
Spade adds: “most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken.” By
San Francisco, another Poisonville, Hammett again means America.
Spade elaborates, speaking of the District Attorney: “I don’t
know that he ever deliberately framed anybody he believed innocent,
but I can’t imagine him letting himself believe them innocent
if he could scrape up or twist into shape proof of their guilt.” Such
was official justice. Survival in “The Maltese Falcon” depends
on Spade’s not trusting anybody; connecting sex with love is
particularly dangerous. Bored, greedy, selfish, murderous people – the
Gutman’s, the Joel Cairo’s, the Wilmer’s and the
Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s – are ubiquitous.
Sometimes Hammett’s capitalists disguise themselves as “liberals,” but
they never enact any lasting or structural reforms, as we see in “Red
Harvest.” In “The Glass Key,” a vast and sinister
conspiracy permeates society: the newspaperman’s mortgages are
held by the State Central Bank, which is owned by the gangster’s
candidate for the Senate. To own a newspaper, one must bow to the hegemony
of the powerful and spread corruption. Banks, press, gangsters and
politicians - all are under the control of robber barons, corporate
criminals lining their pockets greedily. The co-opted newspapers in
Hammett predict presciently the corrupted state of the press today
as newspapers, embedded in government, are passing out of existence
in part at least because they have not served their function honestly,
without, indeed, “fear or favor.” Hammett dramatized how
the press came to be enmeshed in the service of power, representing
its interests – this nearly one hundred years ago.
In the defining metaphor of “The Glass Key,” slithering
snakes suddenly appear. “We couldn’t lock the snakes in
and they came out all over us,” Janet Henry dreams. Evil cannot,
for Hammett, be contained in capitalist society. The glass key shatters
and all hell breaks loose.
Of the writers influenced by Hammett, among the foremost was, of course,
Raymond Chandler, who admitted that he learned how to transform “a
physical observation into something that reveals character” from
Hammett. In a paean to Hammett, Chandler wrote of how Hammett had revolutionized
the genre of the detective story so that murder was now no longer,
as in Agatha Christie, an affair of “the upper classes, the week-end
house party and the vicar’s rose garden,” but had been
restored “to the people who commit it for reasons, not just to
provide a corpse.”
Long schooled in the writings of Marx and Engels, in the wake of the
Depression, Dashiell Hammett joined the Communist Party. To keep up
with him, in the late thirties, by her own admission, Lillian Hellman
joined too. An irony of her biography is that, refusing to lie, she
confessed to being a Party member in the statement she authored for
the House Un-American Activities Committee only for her lawyer, Joseph
Rauh, to excise her admission. Rauh wrote her entire statement, but
for the line where Hellman declares, “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 political place in any political group.”
For years, Hammett, a man of considerable intelligence, followed the
party line dictated from Moscow, and to the letter. He supported the
unions, signed petitions and donated money to radical organizations.
He was among those Party members, artists, whose membership was kept
secret, the better for them to reach wider audiences. The late thirties
began the era when Moscow dictated that American Communists support
the Democratic Party’s New Deal. It was fashionable to be a Communist
then, and those critical of the Party would call Hammett and his friends “Roosevelt
Bohemians.” Hammett and Hellman, while waiting for the revolution
that would create a just society, enjoyed their lives.
The Party was not ideal, Hammett acknowledged, but it was the only
game in town. Occasionally he opposed them. When he wanted to volunteer
on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War, the Party refused to
grant him permission; under discipline, he obeyed and did not go to
Spain, to his regret. He had to content himself with contributing money
to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Hammett was well aware that the corruption of Poisonville rubs off
on everyone, even those opposed to it. In “Red Harvest,” the
IWW member, Quint, turns out to be one more liar. “Anybody that
brings any ethics to Poisonville is going to get them all rusty,” the
Op realizes. “Play with murder enough and it gets you one of
two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.” The Op,
in danger of becoming unhinged, becomes “blood-simple,” a
Hammett-invented phrase the Coen brothers would borrow for the title
of their first film.
In Hammett’s personal case, corruption made him sick. Hammett
hated the capitalist nightmare. Then, out of the nihilism of his life,
out of having lived as if each moment might be his last, this man with
a consuming passion for justice faltered. He stopped writing virtually
in tandem with his confounding of Stalinist Communism with a socialist
ideal of justice.
“When I find something better, I’ll change to it,” he reassured
Hellman. That moment never arrived. When people condemned the prospect of a
Hitler-Stalin in 1939, and many left the Party, Hammett authored a petition
excoriating them as “fascists” and “reactionaries.” It
was not his finest hour.
Only after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 did Hellman
and Hammett sign the League of American Writers’ call to “all
Creative Workers” to support Great Britain and the Soviet Union
in their struggle for the demolition of fascism.”
In 1942, Hammett enlisted in the U.S. Army for the second time, calling
that day “the happiest…of my life.” His medical
examination revealed dental problems. To ensure his being sent overseas,
he had all his teeth pulled. He was long beyond vanity now. Instead
of being sent to the front, however, he was stationed in Alaska, on
the Aleutian Islands where enlisted men with radical politics were
stashed. From Alaska, Hammett sent Hellman literary advice, while she
sent him packages of canned lobster, smoked turkey, chocolate, caviar
and other delicacies.
His fellow soldiers organized a screening of the 1941 film version
of “The Maltese Falcon” and asked Hammett to talk about
the book afterwards. “That’s a part of my life that’s
all over,” he said. He declined to appear. Yet he was still the
writer, offering aspiring authors his guidance.
Eliot Asinof, later to write a book about the Chicago Black Sox baseball
scandal, “Eight Men Out,” contributed an article for the
camp paper about the corruption of officers smuggling booze. Then he
waited eagerly for Hammett’s approval. The response came in the
form of fine advice for any writer. “Lieutenant,” Hammett
said, “everyone knows ‘what.’ Why don’t you
try to find out ‘why’?”
In 1951, on assignment from the Communist Party, Hammett was made president
of the New York State branch of the Civil Rights Congress, a Communist
front organization. He was also a trustee of its bail fund, which had
freed the Communists indicted under the Smith Act in United States
of America v. Dennis. President Roosevelt had signed into law the Smith
Act, rendering it illegal to “teach and advocate the overthrow
of the United States government by force and violence.” Since
it was aimed at first at the Trotskyists, Hellman and Hammett had uttered
no opposition to the Smith Act. Now it had been turned against them.
Thousands of people had contributed to this bail fund, and Hammett,
a figurehead leader, had no idea who they were.
In court, under subpoena, Hammett was ordered to hand over the Civil
Rights Congress bail fund checkbook and receipt book. On the stand,
he pleaded that answering might tend to incriminate him, as his lawyers
encouraged him to claim the protection of the Fifth Amendment. All
he would offer to the court was the dates he had been present in New
York. That day Dashiell Hammett was sentenced to six months in prison.
Bail was denied.
“Samuel Dashiell Hammett, have you anything to say as to why judgment
should not be pronounced on you by this court?” Judge Ryan demanded,
citing Hammett for contempt.
“Not a thing,” Hammett said. Like Sam Spade, he abided by his personal
code. The Treasury Department at once filed a lien on him for tax evasion for
more than one hundred thousand dollars, representing taxes he supposedly had
owed while he was overseas during the War. Later bail was set, but no one could
be found to pay it, in part because they feared bringing the wrath of the McCarthyites
down upon themselves. By the time the bail money was raised, the court wouldn’t
accept it, and Dash went off to federal prison. Hellman fled to Europe.
Hammett’s life was a downward spiral after that, with the only
writing he produced being “Tulip.” “If you are tired
you ought to rest, I think,” Hammett writes, “and not try
to fool yourself and your customers with colored bubbles.” “Tulip” is
an honest piece of writing, and an apologia for his life. “As
soon as things or people threaten to involve you,” Hammett writes
of himself, “you make up a fantasy you call the memory of some
place else to drag you away from any sort of responsibility.” He
had good excuses for not writing now: he had just been released from
prison where his health had been broken; his radio shows were off the
air; Hollywood had succumbed to yet another red scare.
At the end of his life, Hammett lived alone in a country cottage on
the property of some friends. “Ring, I really don’t want
to see anyone,” he told screenwriter Ring Lardner, whom he had
known since his first days in Hollywood. Nor, to her chagrin, did he
encourage Lillian Hellman to visit.
When he was too sick to live alone, at her insistence, and pleading
that this was only a temporary solution, he moved into Hellman’s
82nd Street townhouse. It was May 1958. Together they visited Hellman’s
house on Martha’s Vineyard, and Hammett even accompanied her
to the openings of her plays. He was nothing if not generous.
Yet no less than in his youth would he tolerate cant, bad writing or
hypocrisy. “I thought you got over that agitprop shit years ago,” he
told Hellman after attending a rehearsal of “Toys In The Attic.” When
she told him how shocked she was that an actress w ho had behaved with
honor during the McCarthy period was giving the directors and other
actors so much trouble, Hammett replied, “What makes you think
a hero can’t also be a son of a bitch?”
He was broke, and Hellman attempted to persuade him to ask the people
to whom he had loaned money to pay him back. They wouldn’t. Hellman
wanted to take legal action, but Hammett refused. “Just because
other people are shits doesn’t mean I have to be,” he said.
Dashiell Hammett died of lung cancer on January 10, 1961. Even at the
end, on his deathbed, he would not acquiesce in Hellman’s demand
that he declare his love for her. I found an excerpt from her diaries
tucked into one of her appointment books, and there she pours out her
heart and the bitter rue of her disappointment.
At Dashiell Hammett’s funeral, Hellman, who would outlive him
by more than twenty years, delivered a moving eulogy. “Blessed
are they, I hope, who leave good work behind,” she said. “And
who leave behind a life that is so worthy of respect. Whoever runs
the blessing department, may they have sense enough to bless a good
man this last day he is on earth.”
Dashiell Hammett was an American patriot, and so it should not be surprising
that it was his desire that he be buried in Arlington National Cemetery
with a military funeral. A last-minute government attempt to deny him
this wish was unsuccessful.