Drinking, Fighting, & Writing with Dashiell Hammett & Lillian Hellman

Separating fact from fiction in ‘Lillian & Dash,’ a fictional biography of two great writers


Known for his terse prose and gritty outlook, writer Dashiell Hammett saw life through a black and white filter. There was good, there was evil. There were saints, there were sinners. In many ways Hammett fell into the latter category. He was abusive, he knocked back drinks like they were going out of style, and he was frequently unfaithful in his romantic relationships. He also defined the modern American detective novel with The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, setting the genre’s bar so high that few authors have come close to clearing it half a century later. Though Hammett died in 1961 at age 67, Sam Toperoff believes there’s more grey to the man many think of as the quintessential noir writer. 

In the recently released Lillian & Dash, Toperoff has written a fictional biography that explores Hammett through the lense of playwright Lillian Hellman, his longtime paramour. Though Hammett never told Hellman he loved her, the two had a personal and professional relationship that spanned thirty years. As destructive as the relationship could sometimes be, it came with a special affection and understanding that convinced Hellman it was a romance for the ages. Toperoff has constructed a fictional narrative based loosely on facts that attempts excavates who Hammett really was and why Hellman loved and admired him–sometimes in spite of himself.

Here are five theories that Toperoff puts forward in Lillian & Dash. Fact or fiction? That depends where the truth lies.

1. Meet Cute
The Story: Hammett and Hellman met at a fashionable restaurant frequented by the Hollywood elite. Hellman’s then-husband was also at the restaurant but that didn’t stop the two from going home together after the dinner ended. 

The Verdict: Fact. Dashiell and Lillian were both married when they met but neither were big believers in the institution. Hammett had already distanced himself from his wife, a nurse who he had met in the army. In Dashiell Hammett: A Memoir, Hellman recalls a story that’s almost identical story to the one Toperoff tells in Lillian and Dash.

“We met when I was twenty-four years old and he was thirty-six in a restaurant in Hollywood,” she wrote. “The five-day drunk had left the wonderful face looking rumpled, and the very tall thin figure was tired and sagged. We talked of T. S. Eliot, although I no longer remember what we said, and then went and sat in his car and talked at each other and over each other until it was daylight. We were to meet again a few weeks later and, after that, on and sometimes off again for the rest of his life and thirty years of mine.” 

2. Watching the Detectives
The Story: When Hammett was writing The Maltese Falcon, he put the breaks on the thriller to talk about life through the lense of a man named Flitcraft. In Lillian and Dash, Hammett claims the idea was given to him by another detective then Hellman challenges him, asserting that Hammett made up the detective to downplay his philosophical side. 

The Verdict: Hellman had it right. Though Hammett claims he wrote it after hearing an account from a friend and fellow P.I., scholars agree that it was Hammett’s prose. In Lillian and Dash, Hellman rests her case with the line: “Flitcraft is pure Hammett. Perhaps for the only time on paper. It’s Hammett lying next to me, his head on a pillow, smoking a Fatima, sharing a true, intimate thought.” 

3. Smartypants
The Story: Hammett grew up poor and his father, an abusive alcoholic, pulled him out of school in eighth grade to work. He managed to educate himself by learning Greek and Latin and reading a multitude of books in the library. 

The Verdict: Mostly fact. Hammett left school early and took a series of low-paying jobs, though it’s unclear whether he had to drop out or did it to help his mother with money after his father became sick. It is well documented that Hammett frequented the West Lexington Library, where he checked out numerous adventure and mystery novels. It is also well documented that Hammett loved his mother and hated his father. He said many times that he would never treat a woman the way his father treated his mother.

4. Sex, Lies, & Airplanes
The Story: Right before the broadway premiere of Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, Hammett very publically started drinking heavily and sleeping around. In the book, Hellman claims he did it not because he didn’t care about her but rather to distract her from obsessing over last minute details of the script. 

The Verdict: Murky. Around that time, Hellman did indeed discover Hammett was sleeping around and flew to Los Angeles to have it out with him. What’s harder to say is if Hammett wanted her to know. Hellman is known for putting rose colored glasses on their life together. If one buys into the portrait of Hellman in Lillian and Dash, perhaps he was doing it to distract her. But it’s equally plausible that he was just self-destructive.

5. Murder, He Wrote
The Story: In Lillian and Dash, a fellow named Jerry Waxman, the vice-president of the Northeast Electrical Workers Union, comes to Hollywood to help screenwriters organize a union then dies. Examining the scene of his death, Hammett decides Waxman has been killed by people who are vehemently opposed to a writers’ union. 

The Verdict: Murky. While there isn’t a prominent figure named Jerry Waxman who went down in history for union organizing, Hammett was integral to n the movement for a writers’ guild. He even hosted meetings at his house.

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