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…

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