An Unintended Memoir Holds a Lifetime of Memories

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Most booksellers know the Hammett byline. The five classic novels and several volumes of short stories by Dashiell Hammett, father of modern American crime fiction, have been steady sellers for decades.

Now, there's a new author named Hammett to stock and possibly to handsell: Jo Hammett, Dashiell's second and only surviving child, whose book Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler) is winning strong praise for its clear prose, its intimate glimpses of the legendary Hammett's private life, and its profusion of marvelous (and largely never-before-published) photographs.

Despite her clear flair for writing, Jo Hammett said she'd never before been strongly tempted to commit to a book; and that this one (edited by Hammett scholar Richard Layman and Jo's own daughter Julie M. Rivett) came about almost by accident.

"When we first started thinking (a few years ago) about getting the [Dashiell Hammett] letters published, we didn't really have in mind such a scholarly book (as the one we eventually produced). The book we envisioned was one that had some letters, and a lot of pictures, and then my comments on them. So, over the course of three years, as something hit me I would expand on that; and I just kept a bunch of jumbled notes."

That changed, Jo Hammett said, when Richard Layman joined the project in 1999: "He said, no, this is two books. One of them should be strictly the letters book (with his notes and so forth), and the other one would be my memories of my father. So that's really how it happened."

Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, also edited by Layman and Rivett, with an introduction by Jo Hammett (Counterpoint), came out a few months ago. Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers was published in November.

Jo Hammett's book, though brief, holds a lifetime of memories, some (especially those having to do with her mother's reactions to being separated from her father) heartbreakingly sad. What was it like to pin such incidents to the page?

"Well you know," Jo Hammett said with a rueful chuckle, "the good stuff was easy, and the bad stuff was painful. I put some tears into this book; I don't know if it shows or not…. I said to my daughter, 'This is either going to save me several years of psychological payment, or it's going to put me in the nuthouse for good!'

"But yes," she continued, "it's kind of a heart-wrenching thing to write. I tried to be honest and not sugarcoat things, not make people--or myself--look better than they were. That's the only thing I can say in my defense."

Yet the picture Hammett's daughter draws of Lillian Hellman, the playwright with whom Hammett chose to spend most of his latter years, is, it's suggested, surprisingly balanced and even affectionate.

"Well you know, that's interesting," Jo Hammett responded. "The two reviews I saw, one said what you said--and the other said I make her out to be a conniving witch or something like that, which I certainly didn't intend to. It shows you people read into things what they want to. Lillian was a very complex person, and with a lot to be admired, and I think she's really getting the short end of the stick now; it's like [everyone's] bashing Lillian. I was very grateful to her, for all she did for my father; that was kind of the bottom line."

Jo Hammett's sensitive text is supplemented by over 100 remarkable photographs, which document Dashiell Hammett's life from infancy to old age. "Some were ones we had saved from my childhood; those come out of my album," Jo Hammett said of the book's photos. "The World War I pictures--actually they're my mother's, but they were stored at my [late] sister's house.... They had been in an old album that mother kept, of her army days.... We were just amazed at these photographs. The ones of my father ... with his parents, those came from his relatives in Baltimore, the Hammetts…. Those were very recent acquisitions."

Another aspect of Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers that may surprise even those who think themselves knowledgeable about the late detective-novelist's life is the extent to which Hammett stayed in touch with and visited his daughters and his wife throughout the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

"Yes, that's [one] thing I would like people to know," Jo Hammett said. "Because it's been written over and over again that he abandoned us and didn't support us and that, you know, we were just dropped--which was certainly never the case. As I put in my book, he saw me through college, and paid for my wedding, and supported my sister's medical care (which was considerable) and my mother, until the last years when he couldn't contribute anymore. But he did, right up until he just couldn't."

-Tom Nolan