“Papa was lots of people.”

Posted: October 8, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

Book cover courtesy Amazon

 

Your blogger has just started reading in another recommended title, Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960. Richard Layman, our guest speaker at On The Same Page a few weeks ago, edited this compilation with Julie Rivett, Hammett’s granddaughter.  (Published in 2001. Yes, the library has it in the collection; do ask for it. You can have it next!)

Josephine Hammett Marshall, Hammett’s younger daughter, contributed a foreword, talking about her remembrances and understanding of her father vis-à-vis his public persona and his literary legacy, and about his relationships with the people most important in his life. This foreword is a lovely–and loving–and perceptive piece of writing. I don’t know why I am relieved to know that Hammett was such a funny person, but she says he was, and I’m glad. One of the joys of On The Same Page is that it allows us to become intimate not only with a book, but with an author, and to read The Maltese Falcon is to want to know more about the man who wrote it:

 

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)

Image via Wikipedia

 

“But if you tried to read his life from his work you’d get it wrong. Yes, there’s a piece of Sam Spade in him, the Op, Ned Beaumont, even Nick Charles, but there’s much more: the man who loved hunting, fishing, and babies, who listened to Gershwin and Haydn, who read Moon Mullins, Doc Savage, and Dostoyevsky, who was a womanizer and a Victorian father. The man I knew and the one I only knew about.” (page viii)

Her brief foreword manages to be both emotionally moving and ironic, and it inclines you to want to pick up her book Dashiell Hammett; A Daughter Remembers, which she published in 2001, simply because you want to read more of her writing, notwithstanding who she is, or about whom she was writing. Eschewing the work as a biography, a genre which she respects to a circumscribed degree, she emphasizes it as a child’s, and later as a more critical adult’s, memories. She is remembering a clearly loving, if often absent father, so there is both intense sweetness and sadness in her memories. Her control in talking about her mother and father’s relationship is pretty remarkable, yet the description of how her Mother came not to attend Hammett’s funeral is quite harrowing.

But the simpler wistfulness and quiet sadness aren’t what kept me reading. It was the controlled irony and humor and and the willingness to be fair and analytic about the people she loved. And her remark about Lillian Hellman, her father’s long-time collaborator/paramour in the second half of his life,  is among the most masterful things I have ever read: “The only solution, so far, has been to think of Lillian in the same way I think of cholesterol. There is good cholesterol, and there is bad cholesterol. They often work at odds, but they’re there in the same system, use the same name, and can’t be separated out. It’s a schizo, inadequate accommodation, but the best I have come up with.” (p.80.)

I’d love to have written that myself. Though I am thankful never to have had the need to write it.

So, since the FCPL also owns a copy of this book, take some time with it. The writing is both vigorous and restrained, yet still loving and intimate. It is loaded with pictures, and Ms. Hammett is quite direct in confessing what it is she most misses about her father, and what is is she regrets about their relationship.

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