HELLMAN AND HAMMETT by Joan Mellen

HELLMAN AND HAMMETT

The Legendary Passion of Lily and Dash
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A complex literary relationship gets an intense treatment that, thanks to the delicious awfulness of its central characters, is worth reading--but with caution. Drawing on numerous interviews as well as published and unpublished documents, Mellen (Kay Boyley, 1994, etc.) follows her outrageous protagonists from their 1930 Hollywood meeting, when Hammett's writing career was trailing off and Hellman's had not yet begun, to the years after Hammett's death, when Hellman effectively rewrote their relationship in her memoirs. The result is a gossipy account of love, literary mentorship, drink, and betrayal. Mellen's comments occasionally seem more appropriate for after-dinner conversation than thoughtful biography; she casually notes, for instance, that ``like any woman pained by her appearance, [Hellman] took sexual rejection hard.'' Likewise, Mellen's handling of information bears watching. For example, discussing the 1951 lien filed against Hammett for not paying income taxes while serving in WW II, she quotes Hammett wondering if he has four months after his return to pay up; elsewhere, Mellen fudges this to say Hammett thought he had ``plenty of time,'' thereby skirting the question of why he didn't pay. Other snags look like simple carelessness, as when Mellen reports that Hellman frightened a five-year-old godchild by saying, ``When the plane goes down, I'll get you.'' What plane was Hellman referring to? The book offers no context for the quotation. Such handling of detail gives readers ample room to wonder if the ideas organizing Mellen's work (such as her sense that Hammett deliberately and consciously transferred his ``creative enterprise'' and even his ``identity'' to Hellman) would hold up under scrutiny. Impressive research, but the rough edges make one wish Hammett had been around to say, ``Go back now and try again,'' as he did to Hellman when she was writing The Children's Hour. (32 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-06-018339-X
Page count: 592pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1996




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