cover image Hellman and Hammett

Hellman and Hammett

Joan Mellen, Author HarperCollins Publishers $32 (0p) ISBN 978-0-06-018339-4

Dependent upon Lillian Hellman's writing income at the close of his life after drinking and wenching himself into literary and sexual impotence, Dashiell Hammett, the author of The Maltese Falcon, has survived as an artist while she is remembered as a self-loathing liar. A compulsive fantasist in such late-life memoirs as Pentimento, from which the film Julia was made, Hellman (1905-1984) outlived her turbulent and romanticized intimacy with Hammett (1894-1961), creator of hard-boiled private-eye fiction, and even outlasted her reputation for the realistic melodramas (The Little Foxes) that Hammett coached her in composing. When Hellman died, she was even more unlikable than in her glory days as hit playwright and parlor radical of the 1930s and 1940s. Mellen (Kay Boyle) evokes a ""she-Hammett"" (the term is irritatingly overused) who boozed and whored and talked tough in imitation of her sometime lover, but neither one of the pair compels much empathy as the drinking and the infidelities and the devotion to Stalinism pile up, while the narrative weaves in and out of fixable time. Yet the years matter little. The subjects' exhibitionistic literary and showbiz coteries on both coasts remain tiresomely self-indulgent. Of her image-enhancing fabrications, the aged Hellman would boast to a friend: ""That's what writing is for."" Mean, dishonest, insecure and possessive, Hellman comes off much worse than Hammett, who went to prison during the McCarthy years, served hitches in both world wars and fashioned elegantly spare tough-guy novels. Morally insolvent, the pair are viewed unsentimentally yet sympathetically in Mellen's carefully researched account of their lives. (June)