RARA-AVIS: Hellman and Hammett (Review from Crimetime)

Expanding on the Thin Man, 
Finishing the Unfinished Woman:
Joan Mellen's _Hellman and 

Joan Mellen, _Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary 
Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett_
(New York: Harper Collins, 1996) $32US 572pp.
ISBN: 0-06-18339-X.  Hardback.

Joan Mellen's book combines the biography of Lillian 
Hellman with the biography of Dashiell Hammett, two 
American literary lives which were intertwined for some 
thirty years.  Mellen's work is, undoubtedly, an important 
one; scholars of Hammett and Hellman will find that 
much of the previous biographical work, most of which 
had been ruthlessly controlled by Hellman, is now 
superseded by Mellen's authoritative book. This isn't to 
suggest that the earlier works are rendered redundant: far 
from it; while Mellen's biography puts earlier works in 
context, the earlier studies focus on areas that do not fall 
within Mellen's scope.  Mellen deals primarily with the 
_lives_ of Hellman and Hammett, and does not discuss 
the literary and dramatic aspects of their work in any 
great detail--it is biography, after all, not a work of 
literary criticism, although Mellen teaches English at 
Philadelphia's Temple University.

The Hammett-Hellman relationship extended over a 
thirty-year period, off and on--more often off than on, 
we now know from Mellen, despite Hellman's contary 
assertions.  The off-on nature of the relationship was, we 
understand from previous studies, due to Hammett's 
sexual and alcoholic excesses.  Mellen's work provides 
some corrective to this view, relating Hellman's 
manipulation of the public aspect of her relationship with 
Hammett, and how she controlled Hammett's life, even 
after his death in 1961.  Mellen also provides evidence to 
show that much of the material Hellman wrote in her 
memoirs (_Pentimento_, _Scoundrel Time_, _An 
Unfinished Woman_) is something other than literal truth.  
Hellman embellished, emphasised and embroidered her 
life, particularly her relationship with Hammett, to such a 
degree that there is often little relation between what 
actually happened, what Hellman wrote, and what she 
told others.  Even those in Hellman's closest circle began 
to fear for her in light of the inevitable revelation that 
would come as Hellman began to lose control of the 
Dash & Lily myth toward the end of her life.

Mellen details aspects of Hammett's and Hellman's lives 
that others had known but had been unable to put in print 
due to Hellman's ability to maintain control of the work 
through he influence on publishers, and through contrac-
tual clauses which granted Hellman editorial rights. One 
example of the way in which Hellman maintained control 
is in her designation of Steven Marcus as Hammett's 
'official biographer' in 1974.  This was a strategy des-
igned to fend of other researchers who, after Hammett's 
death, began to appear seeking interviews with Hellman 
and her court, and with Hammett's daughters.  With an 
'official biographer', Hellman could refuse to co-operate 
with others without seeming unduly restrictive.

Because Marcus, an academic--once included in 
Hellman's circle--worked with the pace and thorough-
ness of an academic, Hellman became impatient.  She 
was also dissatisfied with the fact that, over three years 
and the course of the two chapters Marcus submitted for 
Hellman's approval, she did not feature as a key 
character in Hammett's life.  Mellen tells how Hellman 
used her influence with the Random House to prevent the 
renewal of Marcus's contract.  Once Marcus fell from 
favour and his contract was allowed to expire, his project 
was cancelled.  Hellman also sought to create legal 
difficulties--or the threat of legal difficulties--for 
Marcus once he became _persona non gratia_.

Marcus was one of the few people to learn that Mary, 
Hammett's first daughter, was not his biological child.  
Marcus's successor, Diane Johnson [author of the poorly-
received _Dashiell Hammett: A Life_ (NY: Random 
House, 1983)], was also aware that Hammett was not 
Mary's father.  Like Marcus, she was unable to make this 
fact known (Mellen reveals that, apart from biographers 
Marcus and Johnson, Hellman confided Mary's paternity 
only to her psychoanalyst, Gregory Zilboorg; to 
Hammett's younger daughter, Josephine; and to Fred 
Marshall, a former student of Hellman's whom she taught 
at Harvard, and who had, before Marcus, been in line to 
work on 'the Hammett biography'.) Mary herself died in 
1992 without ever learning that Hammett was not her 

In order to preserve the Hammett myth, Hellman retained 
'final and arbitrary' control over Johnson's work, as she 
did other works that sought to explore the thin man and 
the unfinished woman.  Mellen describes how the relat-
ionship between Johnson and Hellman became strained 
toward the end of the project, suggesting that an element 
of sexual chemistry crept into the relationship--that 
Hellman became jealous of Johnson's 'relationship' with 
Hammett.  Johnson realised she would have to comply 
with Hellman's demands for excisions if the book were 
ever to be published; Johnson's book was published, 
though generally not well received.  

A group of Hammett researchers in San Francisco feel 
that Hammett belongs to them, not to the east coast 
(most of Hammett's work was written in San Francisco in 
the 1920s).  Hellman is generally reviled by the San 
Francisco group, who feel that she was responsible for 
the termination of Hammett's writing career in the mid 
thirties-he published no new works in the last twenty-
eight years of his life, spending what energy he devoted 
to writing to collaborating with Hellman on her plays.

Lillian Hellman is also despised by the San Francisco 
group because she secured for herself the rights to 
Hammett's work, effectively preventing its republication 
except for works of which she 'approved'.  Hellman 
obstructed any projects involving Hammett, his name or 
his work.  Projects she blocked or sought to veto included 
a projected Hammett biography by scholar William 
Godshalk; a musical version of _The Maltese Falcon_; 
and a film of Joe Gores's novel, _Hammett_. 

Mellen reveals how, to Hellman's annoyance, the San 
Francisco group pooled forces and shared information: 
among them, thwarted biographer, William Godshalk; 
academic and compiler of Hammett's bibliography, 
Richard Layman; and novelist William F. Nolan, who is 
surely the most prolifically published Hammett 
researcher.  The disenfranchised Stephen Marcus shared 
information with them, as did David Fechheimer, a private 
detective Marcus had engaged while working on his 
Hammett biography, and an operative in Fechheimer's 
employ, Joshia Thompson, English-professor-turned-

Mellen's work contains many startling revelations.  She 
suggests that the turning point in the turbulent Hellman-
Hammett relationship came in 1937 when Hellman 
aborted Hammett's child.  This was but one abortion 
among several for Hellman, who was never to carry a  
child to term; something Mellen suggests had a profound 
effect on Hellman.

Mellen reveals Hellman to be a pathological liar, insecure, 
promiscuous and ultimately, pathetic.  Mellen appears to 
be more sympathetic to Hammett and to Hammett's 
daughters--the elder of whom, Mary, Mellen discloses, 
was not Hammett's biological daughter--despite the 
unsavoury revelations about Hammett's life.  Mary, 
alcoholic and promiscuous, moved into Hammett's New 
York apartment on 10th Street in 1947.  Mellen divulges 
Hammett and Mary's drunken, violent, relationship was all 
but incestuous--but not for want of trying; Hammett 
was generally impotent in his later years. This episode 
further separated Hammet and Hellman.
After Hammett's entanglement with the state over  
politics, resulting in his imprisonment for remaining silent 
over the names of contributors to the Bail Bond Fund of 
the Civil Rights Congress, the Inland Revenue discovered 
Hammett's unpaid taxes amounted to some $140,000.  
While never quite destitute, Hammett lived the rest of his 
life in rather straited circumstances. Mellen explains how 
Hellman gypped the IRS and the US government and 
acquired Hammett's copyrights for herself for $5,000 
while inveigling Hammett's daughter's to rescind their 
claim to the copyright of Hammett's work. 

In her scrutiny of the lives of Hammett and Hellman, 
Mellen makes use of interviews and material which her 
predecessors had not been able to fully exploit.  Despite 
Mellen's use of documents relating to the lives of 
Hammett and Hellman, she had access only to those 
which survive: Hammett kept very little, Hellman 
destroyed very carefully.  Previous biographers were 
limited in what they could publish as a result of their 
access to Hammett's and Hellman's documents, because 
Hellman and her inner circle used pressure and influence 
to suppress material she did wish to be made fully public.

Hellman's death in 1984 allows Mellen's work a freedom 
that others had not been able to enjoy.  Its disclosures 
are often startling.  It contributes new knowledge to what 
is known about two fascinating literary lives, and will 
undoubtedly add insights to the reading of the works of 
both Hellman and Hammett for those who seek to make 
connections between literary and dramatic works and the 
conditions and contexts of production.  

Some may find Mellen's over-friendly and frequent 
references to 'Dash' and 'Lily' a little grating, though there 
is a need to introduce some variants to 'Hammett' and 
'Hellman'. The notes are copious and generally useful, 
though they are organised by elliptical phrase, rather than 
enumeration which, in a book of some 450 pages of text 
followed by almost seventy pages of notes, is perhaps an 
error of stylistic judgement on the editor's part.  

The index is not as thorough as one would wish, and is 
perhaps the weakest aspect of the book.  Two examples 
must suffice: under 'Abortions, Hellman's', two page-
references are given: 117 and 124-125.  To these should 
be added pages 9 and 126. Under 'Detective stories and 
novels, Hammett's' we are instructed to 'see Fiction, 
Hammett's', which lists one entry each for 
'autobiographical elements in'; 'influences on'; 'political 
views in'; 'style' and 'women in', while there are no 
references at all to 'detective stories and novels'.  It is 
unfortunate that Harper Collins have flawed Mellen's work 
with such poor indexing.

Mellen's work is iconoclastic.  She reveals the sordid 
aspects that Hellman sought to conceal for so long: the 
sexual excesses that Hammett forced upon Hellman, 
such as his engagement of prostitutes that he might 
observe her in lesbian encounters; the violence--
Hammett would hit Hellman, causing black eyes and 
bruises; the way Hellman 'managed' her relationship with 
Hammett to create and maintain a myth which emphas-
ised her importance; and details of Hellman's acquisition 
of Hammett's copyrights.

It is unfortunate that despite the scope for interest in 
Hammett and Hellman in Britain (courses in American 
Studies and in American Literature, especially popular 
literature, abound in British Universities) Harper Collins 
have published Mellen's book only in North America and 
Canada, and there are currently no plans to publish a 
British edition.  British readers will have to acquire the 
book through Inter-Library Lending, which might take 
some months; or else purchase an imported copy though 
a bookshop, or an internet book dealer, which will add to 
the price.  Despite these difficulties, Mellen's book is 
essential for anyone wishing to see beyond Hellman's 
fabrications and earlier studies stultified by her influence.

E J M Duggan
University of East Anglia
University College, Suffolk

Review (C) E J M Duggan 
September 1996
1750 words
E J M Duggan     'Joan Mellen's Hellman and Hammett'    8   

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