Quite a double-act: Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett's stormy partnership equals any onstage drama

When Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, "every word she says is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'", a certain attitude was fostered. Not only to the celebrated playwright's experiences in war-torn Spain during the 1930s or before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s, but also to her personal life. Hellmann, this attitude said, was a myth-maker of the worst kind. She couldn't be trusted to tell the truth, not even about those she loved. So what if she wrote in her memoirs that crime writer Dashiell Hammett, with whom she lived on-and-off for 30 years, was the most important person in her life? "Did anyone ever see them together?" queried Gore Vidal.

Writers make myths out of people's lives, especially their own. And when writers become embroiled with other writers, the opportunity increases ten-fold. It was to Hammett, the pulp magazine writer turned detective novelist, that she always owed a debt, Hellman insisted. The completion of her first play, The Children's Hour, in 1934, just four years after they met at a Hollywood party, was all thanks to "help from Hammett." She "worked better if Hammett was in the room." Yet Hellman's words about this crucial relationship have been doubted too. Perhaps it didn't help that she wrote in her 1969 memoir, An Unfinished Woman, "what a word is truth. Slippery, tricky, unreliable. I tried in these books to tell the truth...I see now, in re-reading, that I kept much from myself, not always, but sometimes."

Lillian Hellman was married to a writer, Arthur Kober, when they wound up in Hollywood in 1930. Kober had a script-writing job and Hellman was a script-reader. She was 25, bored in her five-year marriage and had writing ambitions. When she met Hammett at a party, he was 36 and famous, the bestselling author of Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. Different accounts of their first meeting don't help Hellman's case for truth-telling, but there is a nastier undercurrent to those who doubted Hellman's version of the subsequent relationship.

Hammett was extremely handsome and rich, thanks to his books. Hellman was never a pretty girl, and had a forthright manner that scared people. Some doubted Hammett's interest in her: why should such a successful writer take up with an unattractive nobody?

But Hammett had spotted something in Hellman, and his own bright star was on the wane. After 1930, he wrote only one major novel, The Thin Man, a semi-autobiographical account of his relationship with Hellman. His depressive moods, his reliance on alcohol and his promiscuous ways (he was felled by gonorrhoea several times) damaged his ability to write. The fire had gone out of his own literary ambitions, but that didn't mean he couldn't take an interest in another's writing. After his death, Hellman wrote, "in time I came to learn that he was good to all writers who needed help, and that the generosity had less to do with the writer than to do with the writing and the pains of writing."

Hellman's experience of the "pains of writing" were always assuaged by Hammett's presence, his advice and criticism, even though theirs was the stormiest of liaisons. At one party, during an argument, he punched her on the jaw. On the opening night in New York of The Children's Hour, a play that Hammett had suggested to Hellman after reading about a 19th-century court case where two headmistresses of a girls' school in Scotland were accused by a pupil of having a lesbian affair, she called him in LA to tell him how well it had gone. A woman answered, saying that she was his secretary. When Hellman realised it was 3am, and Hammett had no secretary, she jumped on a plane and trashed his house.

In response to his affairs, she would have affairs, desperate to make him jealous. That they infuriated each other often was clear: on one occasion, she found him grinding a lit cigarette stub into his cheek. "I said, 'What are you doing?' 'Keeping myself from doing it to you,' he said."

But always there was the writing. Hellman's instant success with The Children's Hour meant she wasn't afraid of controversy (the play was initially banned in the UK) and its follow-up, Days To Come, was an angry, political work about factory strikes. It failed, however, and many have blamed Hammett's influence: the Communist sympathiser who had once worked as a Pinkerton's agent was politically active and encouraged Hellman to be so. But The Little Foxes, based on families she knew in her home town of New Orleans, was another smash hit. It was the one, she maintained, "that was most dependent on [Hammett]. We were living in the same house, he was not doing any work of his own but after his death, when much became clear to me that had not been before, I knew that he was working so hard for me because Days To Come had scared me and scared him for my future."

In her memoirs, Hellman gives occasionally disturbing glimpses of their writing life. Hammett taught her to be economical with her style, to be direct, and was unstinting in his critiques. When she passed him the first draft of The Autumn Garden, he shouted at her, "You started out 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."

Did she like his bullying style? Could she only rate herself in his eyes? Why did she want to maintain this link with a man who beat her, cheated with prostitutes and other men's wives, encouraged her into alcoholism and, finally, berated her writing?

It's a picture that suggests a weak character, a submissiveness in Hellman that does her no credit. Indeed, actors in her plays would comment on how scared they were of her when she came to watch them rehearse because she could be formidable, masculine in her approach. Then Hammett would turn up and she would change, become more vulnerable, "feminine".

But that's to miss what was happening between these two writers, for all the cheating and drinking and fighting. An important exchange was taking place, as Hellman notes in her memoir, begun in their early days together when they booked into a New York hotel and he worked on The Thin Man: "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 it wasn't all one way. When Hammett was working on the screenplay of Hellman's 1940 play Watch on the Rhine, Hellman wasn't afraid to call him on it. According to one biographer, Hammett's "prodigious intellect" and considerable reading were only getting in the way, leading to turgid, overly reflective scripts. "For once, the roles were reversed: Hellman took the blue pencil to Hammett's disquisitions." Yet she still admired "the way Hammett could articulate human character and politics in movie scenes that were not in her play. 'He's put in one scene that I'd have given anything to have written,' she remarked."

Writers in relationships with one another will put up with a great deal for those rare, magical moments. If the rest of the time is plagued by jealousy and affairs and alcoholic rages, perhaps those moments do take on the status of myth. By 1952, the farm estate, Hardscrabble, that Hellman had bought with the proceeds of her plays and films had to be sold. Both she and Hammett were called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), accused of being Communist Party members, and pressurised to name those who were present at political meetings.

Hammett refused to testify and was sent to prison for six months; Hellman testified but refused to name names, and was subsequently blacklisted. Hardscrabble had to be sold, and when Hammett came out of prison, weaker and thinner (he had suffered from tuberculosis as a young man), it was only to spend his last few years ill and in poverty. In 1979, Hellman published her trilogy of memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time, and once again won over critics and the public alike.

Until Mary McCarthy denounced her on TV in 1980, with her famous remark. Martha Gellhorn added to the furore, questioning several of Hellman's recollections of her time in Spain. Gellhorn was there along with Hemingway, with whom she was having an affair. Hellman's claim that Hemingway had propositioned her, then changed his mind, might not have helped win her Gellhorn's support.

Lillian Hellman has been accused of invoking Dashiell Hammett's memory in her autobiographies in order to bolster her own reputation. But as one of the few female American playwrights to produce Broadway hit after Broadway hit, which often became hugely successful Hollywood films, she hardly needed to do that. No doubt the truth of their relationship is even murkier than the details she gives out suggest. Perhaps they didn't mean as much to each other as she says they did. But what we have is an account of a literary partnership that existed, and that mattered, to both writers involved. Hellman might never have been the success she was without Hammett, it's true. But that doesn't make her a lesser writer, or a victim of a male lover's often bad behaviour. It shows how important writing was to her. And that was something they both understood.

Lesley McDowell is the author of 'Between the Sheets: the literary liaisons of nine 20th-century women writers' (Duckworth Overlook). 'The Children's Hour' runs at the Comedy Theatre, London, from 22 January to 30 April

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us