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Dashiell Hammett: A Memoir

For years we made jokes about the day I would write about him. In the early years, I would say, “Tell me more about the girl in San Francisco. The silly one who lived across the hall in Pine Street.” And he would laugh and say, “She lived across the hall in Pine Street and was silly.” “Tell more than that. How much did you like her, and—?” He would yawn: “Finish your drink and go to sleep.” But days later, maybe even that night, if I was on the find-out kick, and I was, most of the years, I would say, “O.K., be stubborn about the girls. So tell me about your grandmother and what you looked like as a baby.” “I was a very fat baby. My grandmother went to the movies every afternoon. She was very fond of a movie star called Wallace Reid and I’ve told you all this before.” I would say I wanted to get everything straight for the days after his death when I would write his biography and he would say that I was not to bother writing his biography because it would turn out to be the history of Lillian Hellman with an occasional reference to a friend called Hammett.

The day of his death came almost five years ago, on January 10th, 1961. I will never write that biography because I cannot write about my closest, my most beloved friend. And maybe, too, because all of those questions through all of the thirty-one on and off years, and the sometime answers, got muddled, and life changed for both of us and the questions and answers became one in the end, flowing together from the days when I was young to the days when I was middle-aged. And so this will be no attempt at a biography of Samuel Dashiell Hammett, born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland on May 27, 1894. Nor will it be a critical appraisal of his stories. There was a day when I thought all of them very good. But all of them are not good, though most of them, I think, are very good. It is only right to say immediately that, by publishing them at all,* I have done what Hammett did not want to do: he turned down all offers to republish the stories, although I never knew the reason and never asked. I did know from what he said about his unfinished novel, Tulip, that he meant to start a new literary life and may be didn’t want the old work to get in the way. But sometimes I think he was just too ill to care, too worn out to listen to plans or read contracts. The fact of breathing, just breathing, took up all the days and nights.

In the First World War, in camp, influenza led to tuberculosis and Hammett was to spend years after in army hospitals. He came out of the Second World War with emphysema, but how he ever got into the Second World War, at the age of forty-eight, still bewilders me. He telephoned me the day the army accepted him to say it was the happiest day of his life and before I could finish saying it wasn’t the happiest day of mine and what about the old scars on his lungs, he laughed and hung up. His death was caused by cancer of the lungs, discovered only two months before he died. It was not operable—I doubt that he would have agreed to an operation even if it had been—and so I decided not to tell him about the cancer. The doctor said that when the pain came, it would come in the right chest and arm, but that the pain might never come. The doctor was wrong: only a few hours after he told me the pain did come. Hammett had had self diagnosed rheumatism in the right arm and had always said that was why he had given up hunting. On the day I heard about the cancer, he said his gun shoulder hurt him again, would I rub it for him. I remember sitting behind him, rubbing the shoulder and hoping he would always think it was rheumatism and remember only the autumn hunting days. But the pain never came again or if it did he never mentioned it, or maybe death was so close that the shoulder pain faded into other pains.

He did not wish to die and I like to think he didn’t know that he was dying. But I keep from myself even now the possible meaning of a night, very late, a short time before his death. I came into his room and for the only time in the years I knew him, there were tears in his eyes and the book was lying unread. I sat down beside him and waited a long time before I could say, “Do you want to talk about it?” He said, almost with anger, “No. My only chance is not to talk about it.” And he never did. His patience, his courage, his dignity in those suffering months were very great. It was as if all that makes a man’s life had come together to prove itself: suffering was a private matter and there was to be no invasion of it. He would seldom even ask for anything he needed and so the most we did—my secretary and my cook who were devoted to him, as most women always had been—was to carry up the meals he barely touched, the books he now could hardly read, the afternoon coffee, and the martini that I insisted upon before the dinner that wasn’t aten. One night of that last year, a bad night, I said, “Have another martini. It will make you feel better.” “No,” he said, “I don’t want it.” I said, “Okay, but I bet you never thought I’d urge you to have another drink.” He laughed for the first time that day. “Nope. And I never thought I’d turn it down.”

Because on the night we had first met he was getting over a five-day drunk and he was to drink very heavily for the next eighteen years. And then one day, warned by a doctor, he said he would never have another drink and he kept his word except for the last year of the one martini, and that was my idea.

We met when I was twenty-four years old and he was thirty-six in a restaurant in Hollywood. The five-day drunk had left the wonderful face looking rumpled, and the very tall thin figure was tired and sagged. We talked of T. S. Eliot, although I no longer remember what we said, and then went and sat in his car and talked at each other and over each other until it was daylight. We were to meet again a few weeks later and, after that, on and sometimes off again for the rest of his life and thirty years of mine.

Thirty years is a long time, I guess and yet as I come now to write about them the memories skip about and make no pattern, and I know only certain of them are to be trusted. I know about that first meeting and the next, and there are many other pictures and sounds, but they are out of order and out of time, and I don’t seem to want to put them into place. (I could have done a research job, I have on other people, but I didn’t want to do one on Hammett, or to be a bookkeeper of my own life.) I don’t want modesty for either of us, but I ask myself now if it can mean much to anybody but me that my second sharpest memory is of a day when we were living on a small island off the coast of Connecticut. It was six years after we had first met: six happy, unhappy years during which I had, with help from Hammett, written my first play. I was returning from the mainland in a catboat filled with marketing and Hammett had come down to the dock to tie me up. He had been sick that summer—the first of the sicknesses—and he was even thinner than usual. The white hair, the white pants, the white shirt made a straight, flat surface in the late sun: I thought maybe that’s the handsomest sight I ever saw, that line of a man, the knife for a nose, and the sheet went out of my hand and the wind went out of the sail. Hammett laughed as I struggled to get back the sail. I don’t know why, but I yelled angrily, “So you’re a Dostoevsky sinner-saint. So you are.” The laughter slopped and when I finally came into the dock, we didn’t speak as we carried up the packages and didn’t speak through dinner. Later that night, he said, “What did you say that for? What does it mean?” I said I didn’t know why I had said it and I didn’t know what it meant.

Years later, when his life had changed, I did know what I had meant that day: I had seen the sinner—whatever is a sinner—and sensed the change before it came. When I told him that. Hammett said he didn’t know what I was talking about, it was all too religious for him. But he did know what I was talking about and he was pleased.

But the fat, loose, wild years were over by the time we talked that way. When I first met Dash he had written four of the five novels and was the hottest thing in Hollywood and New York. It is not remarkable to be the hottest thing in either city—the hottest kid changes for each winter season—but, in his case, it was of extra interest to those who collect people that the ex-detective who had bad cuts on his legs and an indentation in his head from being scrappy with criminals, was gentle in manner, well educated, elegant to look at, born of early settlers, was eccentric, witty, and spent so much money on women that they would have liked him even if he had been none of the good things. But as the years passed from 1930 to 1948, he wrote only one novel and a few short stories. By 1945, the drinking was no longer gay, the drinking bouts were longer and the moods darker. I was there, off and on for most of those years but in 1948 I didn’t want to see the drinking any more. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Hammett for two months until the day when his devoted cleaning lady called to say she thought I had better come down to his apartment. I said I wouldn’t, and then I did. She and I dressed a man who could barely lift an arm or a leg and brought him to my house, and that night I watched delirium tremens, although I didn’t know what I was watching until the doctor told me the next day at the hospital. The doctor was an old friend. He said, “I’m going to tell Hammett that if he goes on drinking, he’ll be dead in a few months. It’s my duty to say it, but it won’t do any good.” In a few minutes the doctor came out of Dash’s room and said, “I told him. Dash said O.K., he’d go on the wagon forever, but he can’t and he won’t. But he could and he did. Five or six years later, I told Hammett that the doctor had said he wouldn’t stay on the wagon. Dash looked puzzled: “But I gave my word that day.” I said, “Have you always kept your word?” “Most of the time,” he said “maybe because I’ve seldom given it.”

  1. *

    This essay is the Introduction to a collection of stories by Dashiell Hammett, to be published by Random House in the Spring of 1966.

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