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Dashiell Hammett: A Memoir

When The Autumn Garden was in rehearsal Dash came almost every day, even more disturbed than I was that something was happening to the play, life was going out of it, which can and does happen on the stage and once started can seldom be changed.

Yesterday I read three letters he wrote to a friend about the rehearsals, the opening, his hopes for the play. His concern for me and the play was very great, but I came in time to learn that he was good to all writers who came to him for help, and that perhaps the generosity had to do less with the writer than with writing, and the pains of writing. I knew, of course, about the generosity long before, but generosity and profligacy can intertwine and it took me a long time to tell them apart.

A few years after I met Dash the large Hollywood, money was gone, given away, spent on me who didn’t want it and on others who did. I think Hammett was the only person I ever met who really didn’t care about money, made no complaints and had no regrets when it was gone. Maybe money is unreal for most of us, easier to give away than things we want. (But I didn’t know that then, maybe confused it with profligacy or showing off.) Once, years later, Hammett bought himself an expensive crossbow at a time when it meant giving up other things to have it. It had just arrived that day and he was testing it, fiddling with it, liking it very much, when friends arrived with their ten-year-old boy. Hammett and the boy spent the afternoon with the crossbow and the child’s face was awful when he had to leave it. Hammett opened the back door of the car, put in the crossbow, went hurriedly into the house, refusing all cries of “No, no” and such. When our friends had gone, I said, “Was that necessary? You wanted it so much,” Hammett said, “The kid wanted it more. Things belong to people who want them most.” And thus it was, certainly, with money, and thus the troubles came, and suddenly there were days of no dinners, and rent unpaid and so on; but there they were, the lean times, no worse than many other people have had, but the contrast of no dinner on Monday and a wine-feast on Tuesday made me a kind of irritable he never understood.

When we were very broke, those first years in New York, Hammett got a modest advance from Knopf and began to write The Thin Man. He moved to what was jokingly called the Diplomat’s Suite in a hotel run by our friend Nathanael West. It was a new hotel but Pep West and the depression had managed to run it down immediately and certainly Hammett’s suite had never seen a diplomat because even the smallest Oriental could not have functioned well in the space. But the rent was cheap, the awful food could be charged, and some part of my idle time could be spent with Pep snooping around the lives of the other rather strange guests. I had known Dash when he was writing short stories, but I had never been around for a long piece of work. Life changed: the drinking stopped, the parties were over. The locking-in time had come and nothing was allowed to disturb it until the book was finished. I had never seen anybody work that way: the care for every word, the pride in the neatness of the typed page itself, the refusal for ten days or two weeks to go out even for a walk for fear something would be lost. It was a good year for me and I learned from it and was; perhaps, a little frightened by a man who now did not need me. It was thus a happy day when I was given half the manuscript to read and was told that I was Nora, It was nice to be Nora, married to Nice Charles: maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. But I was soon put back in place—Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess. I don’t know now if he was joking, but in those days it worried me: I was very anxious that he think well of me. Most people wanted that from him. Years later, Richard Wilbur said that as you came toward Hammett to shake his hand in the first meeting, you wanted him to approve of you. There are such people and Hammett was one of them. I don’t know what makes this quality in certain men: something floating around them that hasn’t much to do with what they’ve done, but maybe has to do with reserve so deep that we all know we cannot touch it with charm or jokes or favors. It comes out as something more than dignity and shows on the face. In jail the guards called him “sir” and out of jail other people came close to it. One night in the last years of his life, we walked into a restaurant, passing a group of young writers I knew but he didn’t. We stopped and I introduced him: these young and hip men suddenly turned into charming deferential schoolboys and their faces became what they must have been at ten years old. It took me years of teasing to force out of Hammett that he knew what effect he had on many people. Then he told me that when he was fourteen years old and had his first job working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, he had come late to work each day for a week. His employer told him he was fired. Hammett said he nodded, started from the room, got to the door, and was called back by a puzzled man who said, “If you give me your word it won’t happen again, you can keep the job.” Hammett said, “Thank you, but I can’t do that.” After a silence the man said, “O.K., keep the job, anyway.” Dash said that he didn’t know what was right about what he had done, but he knew it would always be useful.

When The Thin Man was sold to a magazine—most of the big slick magazines had turned it down for being too daring, although what they meant by daring was hard to understand—we got out of New York fast. We got drunk for a few weeks in Miami, then moved on to a primitive fishing camp in the Keys where we stayed through the spring and summer, fishing every day, reading every night. It was a fine year: we found out that we got along best without people, in the country. Hammett, like many Southerners, had a deep feeling for isolated places where there were animals, birds, bugs, and sounds. He was easy in the woods, a fine shot, and later when I bought a farm, he would spend the autumn days in the woods, coming back with birds or rabbits, and then, when the shooting season was over, would spend many winter days sitting on a stool in the woods watching squirrels or beavers or deer, or ice fishing in the lake. (He was, as are most sportsmen, obsessively neat with instruments, and obsessively messy with rooms.) The interests of the day would go into the nights when he would read Bees, Their Vision and Language or German Gun Makers of the 18th Century or something on how to tie knots, or inland birds, and then leave such a book for another book on whatever he had decided to learn. It would be impossible now for me to remember all that he wanted to learn, but I remember a long year of study on the retina of the eye; how to play chess in your head; the Icelandic sagas; the history of the snapping turtle; Hegel; would a hearing aid—he bought a very good one—help in detecting bird sounds; then from Hegel, of course, to Marx and Engels straight through; to the shore life of the Atlantic; and finally and for the rest of his life to mathematics. He was more interested in mathematics than in any other subject except baseball where, listening to television or the radio, he would mutter about the plays and the players to me who scarcely knew the difference between a ball and a bat. Often I would ask him to stop it and then he would shake his head and say, “All I ever wanted was a docile woman and look what I got,” and we would talk about docility, how little for a man to want, and he would claim that only vain or neurotic men needed to have “types” in women—all other men took what they could get.

The hit-and-miss reading, the picking up of any book, made for a remarkable mind, neat, accurate, respectful of fact. He took a strong and lasting dislike to a man who insisted mackerel were related to herring, and once left my living room while a famous writer talked without much knowledge of existentialism, refusing to come down to dinner with the writer because he said, “He’s the greatest waste of time since the parchesi board. Liars are bores.” A neighbor once rang up to ask him how to stop a leak in a swimming pool, and he knew; my farmer’s son asked him how to make a trap for snapping turtles, and he knew; born a Maryland Catholic (but long away from the church) he knew more about Judaism than I did, and more about New Orleans music; food, and architecture than my father who had grown up there. Once, I wanted to know about early glass making for windows and was headed for the encyclopedia, but Hammett told me before I got there; he knew the varieties of seaweed, for a month studied the cross pollination of corn, and for many, many months tried plasma physics. It was more than reading, it was a man at work. Any book would do, or almost any—he was narrowly impatient when I read letters or criticism and would refer to them as my “carrying” books, good only for balancing yourself as you climbed the stairs to bed. It was always strange to me that he liked books so much and had so little interest in the men who wrote them. (There were, of course, exceptions: he liked Faulkner and we had fine drinking nights together during Faulkner’s New York visits in the Thirties) Or it is more accurate to say that he had a good time with writers when they talked about books, and would leave them when they didn’t. But then he was deeply moved by painting—he himself tried to paint until the summer when he could no longer stand at an easel and the last walk we ever took was down the block to the Metropolitan Museum—and music, but I never remember his liking a painter or a musician although I do remember his saying that he thought most of them peacocks. He was never uncharitable toward simple people, he was often too impatient with famous people.

There are, of course, many men who are happy in an army but, up to the Second World War, I had never known any and didn’t want to. I was, therefore, shocked to find that Hammett was one of them. I do not know why an eccentric man who lived more than most Americans by his own standards, found the restrictions, the disciplines, and the hard work of an army enlisted man so pleasant and amusing. Maybe a life ruled over by other people solved some of the problems, allowed a place for a man who by himself could not seek out people, maybe gave him a sense of pride that a man of forty-eight could stand up with those half his age; maybe all that, and maybe simply that he liked his country and felt that this war had to be fought. Whatever Hammett’s reasons, the miseries of the Aleutian Islands were not miseries to him. I have many letters describing their beauty and for years he talked of going back to see them again. He conducted a training program there for a while and edited a good army newspaper: the copy was clean, the news was accurate, the jokes were funny. He became a kind of legend in the Alaska-Aloutian army. I have talked to many men who served with him and have a letter from one of them: “I was a kid then. We all were. The place was awful but there was Hammett, by the time I got there called Pop by some and Grandpop by others, editor of the paper with far more influence on us, scaring us more in a way than the Colonel although I think he also scared the Colonel…. I remember best that we’d come into the hut screaming or complaining and he’d be lying on his bunk reading. He’d look up and smile and we’d all shut up. Nobody would go near the bed or disturb him. When money was needed or help he’d hear about it and there he was. He paid for the leave and marriage of one kid. When another of us ran up a scarey bar bill in Nome, he gave the guy who cleaned the Nome toilets money to pay it and say it was his bill if anybody in the Army asked him…. A lot of kids did more than complain—they went half to nuts. And why not? We had the worst weather in the most desolate hole no fighting, constant williwaws when you had to crawl to the latrines because if you stood up the wind would take you to Siberia, and an entertainment program which got mixed up between Olivia De Havilland and recordings of W. H. Auden, But the main worry was women. When you’d been there a year all kinds of rumors went around about what happened to you without them. I remember nightly bull sessions in our hut about the dangers of celibacy. Hammett would listen for a while, smile, go back to reading or when the talk got too loud he’d sigh and go to sleep. (Because of the newspaper his work hours started around two A. M.) One night when the session was extra loud crazy and one kid was yelling, Hammett got off his bunk to go to work. The kid yelled, ‘What do you think, Pop? Say something.’ Hammett said, ‘O.K. A woman would be nice, but not getting any doesn’t cause your teeth or hair to fall out and if you go nuts you’d have gone anyway and if you kiddies don’t stop this stuff I’m going to move into another hut and under my bed is a bottle of scotch so drink it and go to sleep.’ Then he walked out to go to work. We got so scared about losing him that we never said another word like that in front of him.”

But the years after the war, as I have said, from 1945 to 1948, were not good years; the drinking grew wilder and there was a lost, thoughtless quality I had never seen before. I knew then that I had to go my own way. I do not mean that we were separated. I mean only that we saw less of each other, were less close to each other. But even in those years there were still wonderful days on the farm of autumn hunting and squirrel-pies and sausage-making and all the books he read as I tried to write a play. I can see him now getting up to put a log on the fire and coming over to shake me. He swore that I would always say, “I haven’t been sleeping. I’ve been thinking.” He would laugh and say, “Sure. You’ve been asleep for an hour, but lots of people think best when they’re asleep and you’re one of them.”

In 1952 I had to sell the farm. I moved to New York and Dash rented a small house in Katonah. I went once a week to see him, he came once a week to New York, and we talked on the phone every day. But he wanted to be alone, or so I thought then, but am now not so sure because I have learned that proud men who can ask for nothing may be fine characters in life and novels but they are difficult to live with or to understand. In any case, as the years went on, he became a hermit and the ugly little country cottage grew uglier with books piled on every chair and no place to sit, the desk a foot high with unanswered mail. The signs of sickness were all around: now the phonograph was unplayed, the typewriter untouched, the beloved, foolish gadgers unopened in their packages. When I went for my weekly visits we didn’t talk much and when he came for his weekly visits to me he was worn out from the short journey. Perhaps it took me too long to realize that he couldn’t live alone any more and, even after I realized it, I didn’t know how to say it. One day immediately after he had made me promise to stop reading. “Lil Abner,” and I was laughing at his vehemence about it, he suddenly looked embarrassed—he always looked embarrassed when he had something emotional to say—and he said, “I can’t live alone any more. I’ve been falling. I’m going to a Veteran’s Hospital. It will be okay, we’ll see each other all the time, and I don’t want any tears from you.” But there were tears from me, two days of tears, and finally he consented to come and live in my apartment. (Even now, as I write this, I am still angry and amused that he always had to have things on his own terms: a few minutes ago I got up from the typewriter and railed against him for it, as if he could still hear me. I know as little about the nature of romantic love as I knew when I was eighteen, but I do know about the deep pleasure of continuing interest, the excitement of wanting to know what somebody else thinks, will do, will not do, the tricks played and unplayed, the short cord that the years make into rope, and, in my case, is there, hanging loose, long after death. I am not sure what Hammett would feel about the rest of these notes about him, but I am sure that, in his mischief, he would be pleased that I am angry with him today.) And so he lived with me for the last four years of his life. Not all of that time was easy, and some of it was very bad, but it was an unspoken pleasure that having come together so many years before, ruined so much, and repaired a little, we had endured. Sometimes I would resent the understated, or seldom stated, side of us and, guessing death wasn’t too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards. One day I said, “We’ve done fine, haven’t we?” He said, “Fine’s too big a word for me. Why don’t we just say we’ve done better than most people?”

On New Year’s Eve, 1960, I left Hammott in the care of a pleasant practical nurse and went to spend a few hours with friends. I left their house at twelve-thirty, not knowing that the nurse began telephoning for me a few minutes later. As I came into Hammett’s room, he was sitting at his desk, his face as eager and excited as it had been in the drinking days. In his lap was a heavy book of Japanese prints that he had bought and liked many years before. He was pointing to a print and saying to the nurse, “Look at it, darling, it’s wonderful.” As I came toward him, the nurse moved away. But he caught her hand and kissed it, in the same charming flirtatious way of the early days, looking up to wink at me. But the book was lying upside down and so she didn’t need to mumble the word “irrational.” From then on—we took him to the hospital the next morning—I never knew and will now not ever know what irrational means. Hammett refused all medication, all aid from nurses and doctors, in some kind of mysterious wariness. Our plan, before the night of the upsidedown book, had been to move to Cambridge because I was under contract to teach at Haryard. An upside-down book should have told me the end had come, but I didn’t want to think that way, and so I flew up to Cambridge, found a nursing home for him, and flew back that night to tell him about it. He said, “But how are we going to get to Boston?” I said we’d take an ambulance and I guess for the first time in his life he said, “That will cost too much.” I said, “If it does, then we’ll take a covered wagon.” He smiled and said, “Maybe that’s the way we should have gone places anyway.” And so I felt better that night, sure of a postponement. I was wrong. Before six o’clock the next morning the hospital called me. Hammett had gone into a coma. As I ran across the room toward his bed there was a last sign of life: his eyes opened in shocked surprise and he tried to raise his head. But he was never to think again and he died two days later.

Letters

Dashiell Hammett March 3, 1966

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