Dashiell Hammett: A Life
by Diane Johnson
Johnson’s biography of Hammett takes the most unvarnished perspective of the books I’ve read, focusing mostly on his life and very little on his writing. Following the years of his life with only a brief discussion of his parents, Johnson presents the full biography authorized by Lillian Hellman (Layman, the author of Shadow Man complains quite a bit about Hellman in his preface, suggesting that she kept a stranglehold on biographers so she could write her preferred vision. Certainly, Hellman comes off nicely in the book, but she’s actually not all that present). A few thoughts:
- Hammett really didn’t think much of his detective stories. He was happy that they brought him money, but he always wanted to be a literary writer. I was particularly amused to learn that he mentioned new novel ideas in many interviews, even though he showed little (to no) evidence that he was working on them. At one point, after mentioning another new idea to a journalist, he wrote in a letter “It’s nice to have a new novel not to work on.”
- The other books acknowledged Hammett’s womanizing, but this book made it clear that he was as hooked on women as he was on alcohol, not only chasing casual sex with casual partners, but also hiring prostitutes. Lots of prostitutes. He got the clap three times, and the third time he had to endure a three-day fever treatment to cure it.
- His time as a Pinkerton detective helped shape his later political views, in which he saw the bosses as cruel and corrupt, hence his socialist leanings. Once, when he was working to prevent union organizers from making headway, he was offered $5,000 to “take care” of union leader Frank Little. Hammett declined, but Little died a couple days later in a suspicious suicide. Hammett later attributed that experience to his allegiance with workers.
- Hammett believed strongly in the first amendment, and much of his support of communism and socialism was about defending peoples’ rights to freedom of thought and assembly. Along those lines, Hammett may be the first Godwin. Hammett wrote that outlawing Communism was unconstitutional, and reminded his readers that the first thing the Nazis did was to make the Communist party illegal.
- He went on and off the wagon throughout his life, often going on major benders. But when the doctor told him if he kept drinking he would be dead in a month, he quit forever. Apparently the doctor expressed sad skepticism to Hellman that Hammett could stay dry, but Hellman knew he would — he’d given his word.
Dashiell Hammett: A Life is a well written, if depressing, sketch of a skilled writer who ruined himself with alcohol and debauchery. It’s a fair book, though, that also highlights many of the good things he did, both on the page and off.