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Dashiell Hammett: A Memoir

He had made up honor early in his life and sluck with his rules, fierce in the protection of them. In 1951 he went to jail because he and two other trustees of the ball bond fund of The Civil Rights Congress refused to reveal the names of the contributors to the fund. The truth was that Hammett had never been in the office of the Committee and did not know the name of a single contributor. The night before he was to appear in court, I said, “Why don’t you say that you don’t know the names?” “No,” he said, “I can’t say that.” “Why?” “I don’t know why.” After we had a nervous silence he said, “I guess it has something to do with keeping my word, but I don’t want to talk about that. Nothing much will happen, although I think we’ll go to jail for a while, but you’re not to worry because—“ and then suddenly I couldn’t understand him because the voice had dropped and the words were coming in a most untypical nervous rush. I said I couldn’t hear him and he raised his voice and dropped his head. “I hate this damn kind of talk, but maybe I better tell you that if it were more than jail, if it were my life. I would give it for what I think democracy is and I don’t let cops or judges tell me what I think democracy is.” Then he went home to bed and the next day he went to jail.

July 14, 1965

It is a lovely summer day. Fourteen years ago on another lovely summer day the lawyer. Hammett said he didn’t need, didn’t want, but finally agreed to talk to because it might make me feel better, came back from West Street jail with a message from Hammett the lawyer had written on the back of an old envelope. “Tell Lily to go away. Tell her I don’t need proof she loves me and don’t want it.” And so I went to Europe, and wrote a letter almost every day, not knowing that about one letter in ten was given to him, and never getting a letter from him because he wasn’t allowed to write anybody who wasn’t related to him. (Hammett had, by this time, been moved to a federal peniteniary in West Virginia.) I had only one message that summer: that his prison job was cleaning bathrooms and he was cleaning them better than I had ever done.

I came back to New York to meet Hammett the night he came out of jail. Jail had made a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker. The invalid figure was trying to walk proud but, coming down the ramp from the plane, he was holding tight to the ralling and before he saw me he stumbled and stopped to rest. I guess that was the first time I know he would now always be sick. I felt too bad to say hello and so I ran back into the airport and we lost each other for a few minutes. But, in a week, when he had slept and was able to eat small amounts of food, an irritating farce began and was to last for the rest of his life: jail wasn’t bad at all. True, the food was awful and sometimes even rotted, but you could always have milk; the moon-shiners and car thieves were dopes but their conversation was no sillier than a New York cocktail party: nobody liked cleaning toilets but in time you came to take a certain pride in the work and an interest in the different cleaning materials; jail homosexuals were nasty tempered, but no worse than the ones in any bar, and so on. Hammett’s form of boasting—and of humor as well—was always to make fun of trouble or pain. We had once met Howard Fast on the street and he told us about his to-be-served jail sentence. As we moved away, Hammett said, “It will be easier for you, Howard, if you first take off the crown of thorns.” And so I should have guessed that Hammett would take about his own time in jail the way many of us talk about college.

I do not wish to avoid the subject of Hammett’s political beliefs but the truth is that I do not know if he was a member of the Communist Party and I never asked him. If that seems an odd evasion between two people we did not mean it as an evasion: it was, probably, the product of the time we lived through and a certain unspoken agreement about privacy. Now, in looking back, I think we had rather odd rules about privacy, unlike other people’s rules. We never, for example, asked each other about money, how much something cost or how much something earned, although each of us gave to the other as, through the years, each of us needed it. It does not matter much to me that I don’t know if he was a Communist Party member. Most certainly he was a Marxist. But he was a very critical Marxist, often contemptuous of the Soviet Union in the same hick sense that many Americans are contemptuous of foreigners. He was often witty and biting sharp about the American Communist Party, but he was, in the end, loyal to them. Once, in an argument with me, he said that of course a great deal about Communism worried him and always had and that when he found something better he intended to change his opinions. And then he said, “Now please don’t let’s ever argue about it again because we’re doing each other, harm.” And so we did not argue again and I suppose that itself does a kind of harm or leaves a moat too large for crossing, but it was better than the arguments we had been having—they had started in the 1940s—when he knew that I could not go his way. I think that must have pained him, but he never said so. It pained me, too, but I knew that, unlike many radicals, whatever he believed in whatever he had arrived at came from reading and thinking. He took time to find out what he thought and he had an open mind and a tolerant nature.

Hammett came from a generation of talented writers. The ones I knew of his generation were romantic about being writers: it was a good thing to be, a writer, maybe the best, and you made sacrifices for it. I guess they wanted money and praise as much as writers do today, but I don’t think the diseased need was as great, nor the poison as strong. You wanted to have money, of course, but you weren’t in competition with merchants or bankers, and if you threw your talents around you didn’t throw them to the Establishment for catching. When I first met Hammett he was throwing himself away on Hollywood parties and New York bars: the throwing away was probably no less damaging but a little more forgiveable because those who were there to catch could have stepped from The Day of the Locust. But he knew what was happening to him and, after 1948, it was not to happen again. It would be good to say that as his life changed the productivity increased, but it didn’t. Perhaps the vigor and the force had been dissipated. But, good as it is, productivity is not the only proof of a serious life and now, more than ever, he sat down to read. He read everything and anything. He didn’t like writers very much, he didn’t like or dislike most people but he was without envy of good writers and was tender about all writers, probably because he remembered his own early struggles.

I don’t know when he first decided to write, but I know that he started writing after he left army hospitals in the 1920s, settling with his wife and daughter—there was to be another daughter—in San Francisco, (Hammett went back to work for Pinkerton for a while, although I am not sure if it was this period or later.) Once, when I asked him why he never wanted to go to Europe, why he never wanted to see another country, he said he had wanted to go to Australia, maybe to stay, but on the day he decided to leave Pinkerton forever he decided to give up the idea of Australia forever, An Australian boat out of Sidney for San Francisco, carrying two hundred thousand dollars in gold, notified its San Francisco insurance broker that the gold was missing. The insurance company was a client of Pinkerton’s and so Hammett and another operative met the boat as it docked, examined all sailors and officers, searched the boat, but couldn’t find the gold. They knew the gold had to be on the boat and so when the boat was to sail for home, the agency decided that Hammett should sail with it. A very happy man, going free where he had always dreamed of going, packed his bags. A few hours before sailing time, the head of the agency suggested they give a last, hopeless search. Hammett climbed a smoke stack he had examined several times before looked down and shouted, “They moved it. It’s here.” He said that as the words came out of his mouth, he said to himself, “You haven’t sense enough even to be a detective. Why couldn’t you have discovered the gold one day out to sea?” He fished out the gold, took it back to the Pinkerton office, and resigned that afternoon.

With the resignation came a series of jobs, but I don’t remember what he said they were. In a year or so the tuberculosis started to cut up again and hemorrhages began. He was determined not to go back to army hospitals and since he thought he had a limited amount of time to live, he decided to spend it on something he wanted to do. He moved away from his wife and children lived on soup, and began to write. One day the hemorrhages stopped, never to reappear, and sometime in this period he began to earn a small living from pulp magazines and squibs and even poems sold to Mencken’s Smart Set. I am not clear about this time of Hammett’s life, but it always sounded rather nice and free and 1920s Bohemian, and the girl on Pine Street and the other on Grant Street, and good San Francisco food in cheap restaurants, and dago red wine, and fame in the pulp magazine field, then and maybe now a world of its own.

July 18, 1965

This memory of Hammett is being written in the summer. Maybe that’s why most of what I remember about him has to do with summer, although like all people who lived in the country, we were more closely thrown together in winter. Winter was the time of work for me and I worked better if Hammett was in the room. There he was, is, as I close my eyes and see another house, reading The Autumn Garden. I was, of course, nervous as I watched him: he had always been critical. I was used to that and wanted it, but now I sensed something new and was worried. He finished the play, came across the room, put the manuscript in my lap, went back to his chair and began to talk. It was not the usual criticism: it was sharp and angry, snarling. He spoke as if I had betrayed him. I was so shocked, so pained that I would not now remember the scene but for a diary that I’ve kept for each play. He said that day, “You started as a serious writer. That’s what I liked, that’s what I worked for. I don’t know what’s happened, but tear this up and throw it away. It’s worse than bad—it’s half good.” He sat glaring at me and I ran from the room and went down to New York and didn’t come back for a week. When I did come back I had torn up the play, put the scraps in a brief case, put the brief case outside his door. We never again mentioned the play until seven months later when I had rewritten it. I was no longer nervous as he read it: I was too tired to care and I went to sleep on the couch. I woke up because Hammett was sitting beside me, patting my hair, grinning at me and nodding. After he had nodded for a long time, I said, “What’s the matter with you?” And he said, “Nice things. Because it’s the best play anybody’s written in a long time. Maybe longer. It’s a good day. A good day.” I was so shocked with the kind of praise I had never heard before that I started out of the door to take a walk. He said, “Nix. Come on back. There’s a speech in the last act went sour. Do it again.” I said I wasn’t going to do it again. He said okay, he’d do it, and he did, working all through the night.

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