by PAUL JOHNSON
At nineteen Lillian Hellman got a job at the publishers Boni and Liveright which, under Horace Liveright, was then the most enterprising firm in New York. She later claimed she had discovered William Faulkner and was responsible for the publication of his satirical novel Mosquitoes, set in New Orleans; but facts prove otherwise. She had an abortion and then, pregnant again, married the theatrical agent Arthur Kober, left publishing and took up reviewing. She had an affair with David Cort, subsequently foreign editor of Life; in the 1970s he proposed to publish her letters, some with erotic drawings in the margins, and she took legal action to prevent him - when he died, destitute, the letters were accidentally destroyed.
Married to Kober, Hellman made trips to Paris, Bonn (in 1929), where she considered joining the Nazi Youth, and Hollywood. She worked briefly as a play-reader for Anne Nichols and later claimed she had discovered Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel; but this was not true either. In Hollywood, where Kober had a staff-writing job, she read scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at $50 a week. Hellman's radicalism began with her involvement in the trade-union side of the motion picture industry, where writers were bitter at their treatment by the big studios. But the crucial event in her political as well as her emotional life occurred in 1930 when she met Dashiell Hammett, the mystery-writer.
As she subsequently romanticized both him and their relationship, it is necessary to be clear about what kind of man he was. He came from an old, genteel-poor Maryland family. He left school at thirteen, did odd jobs, fought in the First World War and was wounded, then gained his inside knowledge of police work as a Pinkerton detective. At the agency he had worked for the lawyers employed by Fatty Arbuckle, who was broken by the court case in which the film comedian was accused of raping Virginia Rappe, who died afterwards. According to what detectives told him, the woman died not of the rape but of venereal disease, and the case seems to have given him a cynical dislike for authority generally (and also a fascination for fat villains, who figure largely in his fiction).
When he met Hellman he had published four novels and was in the process of becoming famous through The Maltese Falcon, his best. Hammett was a very serious case of alcoholism. The success the book enjoyed was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to him; it brought him money and credit and meant he had little need to work. He was not a natural writer and seems to have found the creative act extraordinarily daunting.
He did, after many efforts, finish The Thin Man which brought him even more money and fame, but after that he wrote nothing at all. He would hole up in a hotel with a crate of Johnnie Walker Red Label and drink himself into sickness. Alcohol brought about moral collapse in a man who seems to have had, at times, strong principles. He had a wife, Josephine Dolan, and two children, but his payments to them were haphazard and arbitrary; sometimes he was generous, usually he just forgot them.
Pathetic letters to his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, survive:
Tor the past seven months Mr Hammett has sent me only one hundred dollars and has failed to write and explain his troubles - right now I am desperate - the children need clothing and are not getting the right food - and I am unable to find work - living with my parents who are growing old and can't offer us any more help.
Hammett, with a script contract, was to be found in Bel Air, drinking. The studio secretary assigned to him, Mildred Lewis, had nothing to do as he would not write but lay in bed; she described how she heard prostitutes, summoned by phone from Madame Lee Francis' - they were usually black or oriental women - creeping up and down the stairs; she would turn her back so she could not see them. He probably made over two million dollars from his books but often contrived to be penniless and in debt, and would sneak out of hotels in which he had run up large bills (the Pierre in New York, for instance, where he owed $1000) wearing his clothes in layers.
Alcohol also made Hammett abusive and violent, not least to women. In 1932 he was sued for assault by the actress Elise de Viane. She claimed he got drunk at his hotel and when she resisted his attempts to make love to her, beat her up. Hammett made no effort to contest the suit and $2500 damages were awarded against him. Shortly after he met Hellman, he hit her on the jaw at a party and knocked her down. Their relationship can never have been easy. In 1931 and again in 1936 he contracted gonorrhea from prostitutes, and the second time had great difficulty in getting cured.
There were constant rows over his women. Indeed it is not clear whether, and if so for how long, they ever actually lived together, though both eventually divorced their respective spouses. Years later, when her lying about many other things had been thoroughly exposed, Gore Vidal asked cynically: 'Did anybody ever see them together?' Clearly Hellman exaggerated their relationship for her own purposes of self-publicity. Yet there was substance to it. In 1938, by which time she had moved to New York, where she had a town house and a farm at Pleasantville, Hammett was reported to be lying hopelessly drunk in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where he had run up a bill of $8000. Hellman had him brought by air to New York; he was met by an ambulance and taken to hospital. Later he lived for some time at her house.
But he made a habit of visiting Harlem brothels, which were much to his taste. So there were more rows. In 1941, while drunk, he demanded sex with her and she refused; after that he never made or attempted to make love with her again. But their relationship continued, if in tenuous form, and for the last three years of his life (he died in 1958) he led a zombie-like existence in her New York home. This was an unselfish act on her part for it meant sacrificing the work-room she adored. She would say to guests: "Please keep it down. There's a dying man upstairs." What is clear about their friendship is that Hellman, as a writer, owed a great deal to Hammett. In fact there is a curious, and some would say suspicious, asymmetry about their writing careers. Not long after he met Hellman, Hammett's writing dwindled to a trickle, then dried up altogether. She, by contrast, began to write with great fluency and success. It was as though the creative spirit moved from one into the other, remaining in her until his death; once he had gone, she never wrote another successful play.
She had always been avaricious, and the propensity increased with age. Most of her lawsuits had had a financial object. After Hammett died, she formed a liaison with a rich Philadelphian, Arthur Cowan. He advised her on investments. He also put her up to a dodge to acquire Hammett's copyrights, held by the US government in lieu of his tax debts. As very little was coming in royalties, Cowan persuaded the government to put the rights up to auction, setting a minimum bid of $5000. Hellman persuaded Hammett's daughters to agree to the sale, telling them, falsely, that otherwise they would themselves be liable for Hammett's debts. Cowan and Hellman were the only bidders, at $2500 each, and got the rights. Hellman then began to work this literary property vigorously and it was soon bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars - $250,000 for one television adaptation of a Hammett story alone.
When Cowan died in turn, he left no will, according to Hellman's account in Pentimento. Sam McCracken established that he did leave a will, and Hellman got nothing, suggesting they had a quarrel before he died. But Hellman evidently persuaded Cowan's sister that it had been his intention she should get his share of the Hammett rights, as the sister wrote a letter relinquishing them to her. Thus Hellman enjoyed the increasingly valuable Hammett copyrights in toto until her death, and it was only then that she left something, in her will, to the impoverished Hammett daughters.
Paul Johnson is the world's greatest living historian. He is the author of Intellectuals, from which this selection has been excerpted. You can buy it here.
"Cold" - The Telescopes (mp3)
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