First Encounters: When Dorothy Parker met Dashiell Hammett

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Dashiell Hammett was clearly off his guard. Sam Spade would have cased the joint on arrival, spotted the phonies and deadbeats, reconnoitered. But Hammett, old Pinkerton sleuth that he was, had grown soft and careless in sunny, moneyed Hollywood. Escorting his friend Lillian Hellman to a New York cocktail party in the fall of 1931, he shrugged off precaution, and paid for it.

He had scarcely accepted his first drink when he was introduced to a tiny, dark-eyed woman who, without warning, dropped dramatically to her silk-stockinged knees, grasped his hand, and kissed it. Stunned, Hammett stared icily down at her. Of course he knew of Dorothy Parker, reigning lady of the Algonquin luncheon set, author of quirky little poems and sad little stories. More to the point, she had in a recent review called him a "hell-bent, cold-hearted writer" and meant it as praise. But public displays of adulation were less welcome. Hammett hated flamboyance; women should be self-possessed, controlled. Miss Wonderly never lost her cool.

It was a bad beginning, and although Hammett and Parker were closely associated for the rest of their lives, the relationship never much improved. As screenwriters in Hollywood in the Thirties, both enjoyed fat salaries for little work accomplished, and both spent the money frivolously, madly, as if ashamed to have it. Both drank too much, often in the same company, and they served together on committees for such causes as aiding Loyalist Spain, unionising film writers, and combating anti-Semitism. Hammett admired her wit and her talent for ferreting information out of people without their realising it, but not her predilection for turning that information humorously yet treacherously against them. He could not reconcile her contradictions. Hellman, intimate friend of both, would try to intercede, but it was quite literally a case of Dash/Dot, Dot/Dash, opposing entries, and invariably when Parker came to visit, Hammett moved elsewhere for the duration. Sam Spade never went looking for trouble