Wednesday, April 19, 2006

LILLIAN HELLMAN AND DASHIELL HAMMETT

"There are people who eat earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. And other people who stand around and watch them eat."

McCarthy’s assistant Roy Cohn questioned him about
a short story called “Night Shade,” which Hammett explained “had
to do with Negro-white relations...” “Did that story in any way re-
flect the Communist line?” asked Cohn. Hammett’s response: “That
is a difficult—on the word ‘reflect’I would say no, it didn’t reflect
it. It was against racism.”
"We met when I was twenty-four years old and he was thirty-six in a restaurant in Hollywood," Hellman recalled. "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 days later, and, after that, on and sometimes off again for the rest of his life and thirty years of mine."
So began one of the great literary romances of the twentieth century, Dashiell Hammett, creator of the hard boiled detective series featuring Sam Spade and iconoclastic Southern playwright Lillian Hellman. Both did their duty for the Spanish Republic, visiting there during the war and speaking out in the U.S., and both, especially Hammett paying the price during the Red Scare. Dashiell would spend six months in jail for his sympathies although neither one ever actually joined the communist party. Hellman got off a bit easier, and for a reason she no doubt hated - “ In 1952 Hellman was called to appear before HUAC. She refused to reveal the names of associates and friends in the theater who might have Communist associations, but she wasn't charged with contempt of Congress. In a letter to the Committee she wrote: "But the hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group..." Hellman was excused by the committee with the remark: "Why cite her for contempt? After all, she is a woman..." ”
Hammett effectively stopped writing after the publication of his finest work “The Thin Man” in 1934 and despite their stormy relationship, was supported by Hellman for much of his life. He died virtually penniless in 1961 but as a veteran of the U.S. armed forces in both WW I and WW II was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Hellman, perhaps made of stronger stuff, overcame the political persecution to enjoy a long and colorful career which she capped with my personal favorite, her memoir, “Scoundrel Time”. Of her involvement with the hearings she said – “Truth made you a traitor as it often does in a time of scoundrels.”

10 Comments:

Blogger Private Partz said...

Dur,

I know we spoke on this topic on the Orwell thread, i.e. literrati and celebrities inlvolved in the Spanish Civil War, but I was wondering if you had a list all the famous people that were "in country" at the time. I seem to recall something about Faulkner being there, but that may be false.

Partz

6:15 PM  
Blogger durrati said...

Partz,

I know of no such listing, many of the subjects of my posts I was aware of, others I have found along the way. I will investigate Faulkner's role. But the real heroes were the Spanish proletariat, who, unlike their German, Italian and Portugese counterparts resisted fascism with their blood and their lives and spurred the left, belatedly, into action...

6:29 PM  
Blogger Private Partz said...

Point well made, point well taken. Let's hope our fellow citizens look toward the Castillian example for inspiration and not the Bavarian, before it's too late.

P.P.

7:12 PM  
Anonymous WhattheH said...

Hellman and Hammett...What can one say. Little Foxes (Bette Davis), Children's Hour (Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLean), Watch on the Rhine (Bette Davis) - all made into movies (which didn't really reflect the power of the books) coupled with the Maltese Falcon (how I loved Bogart) and the Thin Man (same for Powell). Sigh, what wonderful talent these two had, and what a terrible shame that they were persecuted by HUAC because they were associated with the Spanish Civil War. That people of their stature could be brought to a low point by an ignorant beast like McCarthy is beyond belief. Thanks for the reminder - it's time I revisited two of my favourite authors. I've been lazy in my reading habits lately. I used to read a book every two or three days, but now weeks go by when I don't pick one up. Time to get back in shape.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous WhattheH said...

Her books were masterpieces of descriptive narrative, and have proven to be timeless. Some of the passages from Scoundrel are eerily familiar today. For example, when writing of McCarthy, Nixon and the HUAC gang:

"all of them, were what they were: men who invented when necessary, maligned even when it wasn't necessary. I do not think they believed much, if anything of what they said: the time was ripe for a new wave in America, and they seized their political chance to lead it along each day's opportunity, spitballing whatever and with whoever came into view."

and about McCarthy:

"But it is impossible to remember the drunken face of McCarthy, merry often with a kind of worldly malice, as if he were mocking those who took him seriously, and believe that he himself could take seriously anything but his boozed-up nightmares."

and her feeling of betrayal by people she thought she knew:

"I had, up to the late 1940's, believed that the educated, the intellectual, lived by what they claimed to believe: freedom of thought and speech, the right of each man to his own convictions....But only a very few raised to finger when McCarthy and the boys appeared. Almost all, either by what they did or did not do, contributed to McCarthyism, running after a bandwagon which hadn't bothered to stop and pick them up."

and finally for tonight:

"I had no right to think that American intellectuals were people who would fight for anything if doing so would injure them."

What's that saying about people who forget history being doomed to repeat it?

8:32 PM  
Blogger durrati said...

Whattheheh,

Thank you for your invaluable input. I read Hellman's "Scoundrel Times" when I was twenty and remain impressed by her honesty and the conviction of her words. I consider her to be one of the four or five best American writers of the 20th century. As you know she was not without her detractors; for she committed the common sin of thirties radicals, defending Stalin. I will put myself in her company, despite the damage he did against the Spanish Republic, by saying without the changes he wrought in the USSR between 1920 and 1940 the swastika would yet be flying over every European capital. It is all to easy to revise history from a distance, living in a world where Hitler is dead, to criticize those who shared the atmosphere with the beast. You can bet that Churchill and FDR both thanked their lucky stars that "Uncle Joe" was in power to deal with the berserkers. Regarding your last points and in answer to Hellman's critics I offer another of her quotes...

"The past, with its pleasures, its rewards, its foolishness, its punishments, is there for each of us forever, and it should be."

Well said Madame Hellman!

9:38 PM  
Blogger durrati said...

One more thing, what,

"spitballing whatever and with whoever came into view."

Can anyone describe Rove &Co. better?

Bless you Lillian...

10:42 PM  
Blogger Joe Don Martin said...

Yes, as a matter of fact, I can describe Rove & Co. better; "those ridiculous little fucks I used to shove in lockers, inadvertently given the keys to the kingdom", or "Niedermeyer"
Of concern, where will Rush Blimpdoll get his 1000 thread count, fine Chinese polyester, dogshit brown, longsleeved shirts made in an XXXXXXXXXXXXXL?

11:09 PM  
Blogger durrati said...

I stand corrected Joe, so it was you that got them so riled up!!

4:40 AM  
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