When Lilly Met Dash: Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett’s Love Affair
By Nava Atlas | On | Comments (0)
Lillian Hellman, the legendary American playwright, was romantically involved with Dashiell Hammett for thirty years, though they never married. Hammett, a hard-drinking former detective, was best known for the classic detective novels, The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. Both writers were politically active, complex personalities.
Though there’s no doubt about the trajectory of their relationship, Hellman’s memories of how things were, like many of her other memoirs, have always been taken with a grain of salt. Some of her fellow authors have outright called her a liar; while others acknowledge her penchant for embellishment. Here in the author’s own words, are some of those recollections of the long, on-and-off love affair of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, which began in the early 1930s.
This excerpt is adapted from the 1999 Little, Brown edition of An Unfinished Woman by Lillian Hellman:
We met when I was twenty-four year 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, and 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.
Hellman & Hammett
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 pt them into place …
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 full, happy, unhappy years during which I had, with help from Hammett, written The Children’s Hour, which was a success, and Days to Come, which was not.
See also: An Unfinished Woman by Lillian Hellman
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 …
When I first met Dash he had written four of the five novels and was the hottest thing in Hollywood and New York … 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 year, 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 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.” In a few minutes he came out of Dash’s room and said, “I told him. Dash said OK, he’d go on the wagon forever, but he can’t and he won’t.”
But he could and he did.
… I miss Hammett, and that is as it should be. He was the most interesting man I’d ever met. I laugh at what he did say, amuse myself with what he might say, and even this many years later speak to him, often angry that he still interferes with me, still dictates the rules.
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Hellman & Parker: The Friendship of Two Difficult Women
Dashiell Hammett was diagnosed with lung cancer in the 1950s. When he started to lose his stamina some time in 1956, Lillian Hellman installed a bed on the library floor of her Manhattan brownstone and took care of him until his death in 1961. For better or worse, the two were the best of friends.