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Hellman and Hammett, by Joan Mellen

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

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

Reviewed by E.J.M. Duggan. © 1996.

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will find that much of the previous biographical work, most of which had been ruthlessly controlled by Hellman, is now superseded by Mellen's authoritative book.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 father.

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-gumshoe.

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 Hammett 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 straitened 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 emphasised 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

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Last modified: Tue Jan 14 00:41:45 EST 1997