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Partners in Crime

Dashiell Hammett
Original Thin Man: Crime novelist Dashiell Hammett's best work was behind him by the time he embarked on a stormy, three-decade-long relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman.

Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman were the real-life Nick and Nora--for better and worse

By Allen Barra

A FEW YEARS AGO, while working on a piece about the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, I reread Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man for the first time in 15 years and was shocked. The wisecracking private eyes Nick and Nora Charles of my memory had been replaced by a pair of cynical, hard-drinking shrews who seemed at least as unsavory as the characters they were trying to put in jail. The reason for my faulty memory is simple: the Nick and Nora I liked were created by William Powell and Myrna Loy on screen, while, as Joan Mellen reveals in her meticulously researched new dual biography, Hellman and Hammett, the Nick and Nora of the novel were modeled after the real Dash and Lily.

The three-decade-long relationship between Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman ranks with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, in 20th-century literary legend.

But all the others justified biographies or studies as individuals; as Mellen makes clear, the stories of Dash and Lily can't be separated. Hammett's career as a writer was nearly over by the time he met Hellman in 1930, which is when the literary portion of Hellman's career and the interesting part of Hammett's life begin.

Hellman and Hammett is skimpy on the early part of Hammett's life and the events that led up to the writing of his classic novels: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key. For those years, one is advised to check out, respectively, Diane Johnson's Dashiell Hammett: A Life and William F. Nolan's Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook. But Mellen's book is definitive, if only because it gives us an enormous amount of information on what we haven't been told about Hammett before, largely because Hellman succeeded in keeping it from us.

For instance, Mellen proves beyond doubt that Hammett was indeed a Communist, or at least a fiercely loyal supporter of the American Communist Party. (His introduction to communism was through the Baltimore longshoremen of his youth.)

Mary Jane, long thought to be Hammett's oldest daughter, died without knowing that Dash wasn't her natural father. Hammett did, however, father a daughter, Josephine, by Jose Dolan, a nurse he met while in a Tacoma, Wash., hospital. (Hammett married Jose out of loyalty; she had taken care of him when he was sick with tuberculosis.) But Josephine had to wait 30 years to receive her inheritance from Hammett: Hellman had appropriated the money.

That last bit of information is merely one of the nasty shockers Mellen has uncovered, and it points to why Hellman and Hammett is unique. It's the first book about either author written after free access to Hellman's papers--in other words, the first book that Hellman couldn't control. The result supports Mary McCarthy's famous remark about Hellman that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'a' and 'the.' "

McCarthy may have been generous in allowing her sole authorship of those words; apparently Hellman was a liar of almost insane proportion on nearly every aspect of her life.

She began with the myth of Sophronia, a black woman who worked briefly for the Hellmans in Louisiana when Lily was a baby. By the time Hellman was an adult, Sophronia had grown into the key figure of her childhood, perhaps the most important female in her life. (She despised her weak, easily dominated mother.)

Hellman's most successful scam, however, was the passing off of the "Julia" segment in her memoir, Pentimento, as fact. The story, which concerns Hellman's mission to Austria before World War II to help a childhood friend and smuggle cash past the Nazis, was made into a prestigious motion picture in 1977 that won several Academy Awards. (Vanessa Redgrave played the title character, referred to by The New Yorker's Pauline Kael as a "saintly Freudian Marxist queen"; Jane Fonda, who played Hellman, introduced Lillian on stage at an Oscar tribute in 1976.) Julia and her story, it turns out, are products of Hellman's fertile imagination. It might have been accepted as a first-rate work of fiction if Hellman hadn't insisted to her death that it was true.

THERE'S SOMETHING in Hellman and Hammett to outrage nearly everyone. Conservatives will be angry at how principled Dash's stand against McCarthyism was and how unjust his imprisonment for refusing to name names. (Hammett comes off much better in this period than Hellman, who, though she also named no names, "was hardly worthy of the mantle of Joan of Arc she assumed after her ordeal was over," as Mellen puts it.) Literary leftists will be angry at the dismissal of two longtime heroes as "Roosevelt Bohemians."

The Hammett cultists will be upset for not having Hellman to kick around anymore. Hammett, it seems, was flaming out as a writer well before he met Lily. Mellen shrewdly observes that "Hammett's aversion to introspection made him unsuited to transcend the detective genre," though she is wrong, as many are, in continuing to label him as a "mystery" writer. In some of his most famous books, Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, for instance, there is virtually no mystery to be solved. "Crime novelist," perhaps.

Feminists, too, lose something. Never again will the myth-mongering, venal and hypocritical Hellman be available for display as an early feminist icon. No woman who models her own personality so completely after a man's--Mellen continually refers to the tough-talking, heavy-drinking Lily as a "She-Hammett"--deserves such an honor.

Mellen even credits Hammett with much of the success of her first play, The Children's Hour, with his shrewd editing, though she seems to understand that Hellman was by far the superior literary artist.

About the only readers who won't be enraged by Hellman and Hammett are readers with no ideological ax to grind. They will put down the book more, not less, fascinated by the story of two people who were so much in love for so long because they might have been, in the final analysis, the only two people on earth who could have loved each other.

Hellman and Hammett--The Legendary Passion of Lily and Dash by Joan Mellen; Harper Collins; 549 pages, $32 cloth.

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From the July 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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