Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett
Treasures in the Archives
Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett were among America's most brilliant writers and political activists. Lifelong companions, they held high principles, had numerous affairs, fought for the truth yet told lies, and wrote books and plays that have become literary classics. Hammett, America's most enigmatic crime novelist, changed the face of detective fiction. Hellman together with Albee, O'Neill, Williams, and Miller, transformed 20th-century drama and then, in a second career, became America's most controversial memoirist.
Together they stood up for their beliefs during the red scare of the '50s when they notably battled against the McCarthy witch hunts but inevitably lost the fight. Hellman was bankrupted. Hammett was jailed. Both were blacklisted.
My Ransom Center research focused on overlooked areas, and my findings in the archives produced even more treasures than I had anticipated. I was interested in the writers' childhood traumas, which were similarly disordered but which produced in response highly conflicting philosophies. The collections revealed Hellman was a woman who desperately believed in a world structured by order and meaning. When events spiralled out of control, Hellman restored order through invention, rewriting, and reconstruction. Hellman archives show her reliance on memories for facts, and the constant drafts and versions allow her critics to call memory fiction and her a liar.
The Hammett archives evidence early arbitrary ordeals that led him along the opposite path. His creed became a stoical silence inside a world he saw ruled by meaningless blind chance. Yet ironically he chose a literary discipline, detective fiction, predicated on linear clues and an orderly progression of unearthing "facts." Though these philosophies seemed set in stone, the archives revealed how over the years these two stubborn writers subtly changed each other's world view.
The Center's papers also showed the way both Hellman and Hammett managed their own and each other's memories in order to further their fictions and create their legends. I researched a three-year period in the late '40s during which Hellman wrote Another Part of the Forest, her father wrote her some barely decipherable letters from an asylum, and Hammett wrote to his teenage daughter Mary inviting her to stay with him. The embargoed areas of two dangerous relationships came to light. The first was Hellman's crucial but damaging interaction with her father Max Hellman who loved her too much, betrayed her too young, then when too old to resist, was forcibly committed by Lillian to a mental institution. The second was Hammett's disturbingly passionate and violent connection with his daughter Mary, which angered and frightened Lillian so much that after Hammett's death in order to prop up her legendary partnership, she denied events, falsified facts, and spread a malicious lie that Mary was illegitimate as that seemed safer than risking a future biographer accusing Hammett of incest.
Hammett believed chance plays a compelling part in biographical research. He was right. During my time at the Ransom Center, a series of unpublished letters was suddenly handed to me. They had been found by an American second-hand bookseller. One packet contained letters at the start of young Lillian's career between her and Hollywood mogul Sam Marx (at Samuel Goldwyn Inc. then at Columbia Pictures). The other packet contained letters between the elderly blind Hellman and American journalist Wayne Warga. These letters helped alter the thrust of the start and conclusion to Hellman's life.
Another research success was based on a sudden hunch, which I then followed up with several weeks of investigation into the Hellman collection and also the Radclyffe Hall collection. My idea was that there might be undiscovered significant connections between Hellman's first Broadway success The Children's Hour and Radclyffe Hall's most notorious novel The Well of Loneliness. After exhaustive research I was able to write a new chapter indicating evidence to show very probable meetings in Paris between Hellman and Hall when Hall was redrafting her novel and to show firmly that the textual links between Hellman's play and Hall's novel are so great, they far exceed mere coincidence.
My most important discovery occurred when on my research trips through the States I stumbled upon an old faded box of papers. In it were two typescripts, one concerned Hellman's adolescence, the other related to Hellman's middle years. They read like a cross between fiction and autobiography not dissimilar from Maybe, Hellman's fourth and, it has been supposed, final published memoir.
No other biographer or researcher had to my knowledge seen or read them. They had not been published. I copied them and returned to the Harry Ransom Center. I spent weeks checking out the Hellman archives trying to match up dates, times, events, and styles of writing. Finally I felt secure enough in the scholarship to say with confidence that they are indeed two new unpublished Hellman memoirs. They have been incorporated as a highly original part of my forthcoming biography.
Hammett would have approved of the way blind fate dealt me several good hands.
Dr. Sally Cline is a British award-winning biographer and short story writer. Her research at the Ransom Center has been central to her ninth book and third literary biography, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett : Memories and Reflections, to be published by Gerald Duckworth in the UK and Overlook Press in the USA.