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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.”

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.

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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    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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