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Beyond the Iconic Hammett

Orange Coast, November 2016

As a child, Julie M. Rivett knew that her deceased grandfather was a famous writer. She knew he’d been a detective. She used to see copies of his novels on the bookshelves of her grandmother’s West Los Angeles home. At the time, she didn’t give it all that much thought.

“Later, I learned about the importance of those books, and about his background—the politics and the blacklist. But when you’re 10, you don’t know any of that.”

Rivett, who lives in Rossmoor, is the granddaughter of Dashiell Hammett, the author credited with inventing hard-boiled detective fiction. His novels include “The Maltese Falcon,” with that gritty gumshoe hero Sam Spade, and “The Thin Man,” which features two other indelible characters, Nick and Nora Charles, the glamorous, cocktail-swigging crime solvers.

When he died in 1961, at age 66, Hammett had a reputation as a hard-drinking ladies’ man who never regained his creative spark after his last novel was published in 1934. His 26-year bout with writer’s block was legendary. He was also an avowed leftist, who was caught in the crosshairs of the McCarthy era when he refused to answer questions about political associates. He served five months in federal prison. And he was part of a celebrity couple; he had a 30-year relationship with playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman.

But most of all he was heralded as a crime writer who forever changed and legitimized the genre. He was a rarity in that he knew first-hand about sleuthing. He’d been an operative for Pinkerton, the national agency that gave rise to the term “private eye.” (Its logo was of an open eye, and the claim “We never sleep.”)

Rivett sometimes feels like a detective, too. The literary kind. Though she met her grandfather only once, in the spring of 1960 when she was 3 years old, she developed a posthumous relationship with the literary icon by way of exhaustive research. She studied his letters, manuscripts, and photographs, and scrutinized his books and their film adaptations. She’s able to rattle off characters, plots, and snappy lines of dialogue.

She became a Hammett authority so she could represent his legacy. For Rivett, it’s tough to separate the man from the writer. “His personality is inherent in his writing – which is logical, succinct, thoughtful. Even his inability to write for all those years was about his devotion to perfection.” She adds, “I’ve come to feel a great fondness and attachment to him.”

One of four Hammett grandchildren, the 59-year-old Rivett is the defacto spokesperson for the family and serves as a trustee of his literary estate. The trustees work with Hammett publishers and others, including filmmakers. (Johnny Depp was in serious talks regarding a “Thin Man” remake for a while.) Rivett is also an editor for collections of her grandfather’s work, such as the recent “The Hunter and Other Stories,” short fiction that was found in his archives and never before published. She curates Hammett exhibits and speaks about him around the country. “One of my jobs in talking about my grandfather is to humanize him … to get beyond that iconic image,” Rivett says.

She begins with his first name. It should be pronounced as Dah-sheel (rhymes with Neal), not Dash-el.

“Some people get very excited to meet a family member,” she says, adding, “But, you have to remember, it’s a borrowed fame.”

Before Rivett stepped into this public role, her mother, Hammett’s younger daughter Jo Hammett Marshall, of Cypress, served as family representative and chronicler. In a slender 2001 memoir, “Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers,” Marshall quotes from the letters exchanged between her mother, Josephine Dolan, and Hammett. These missives chart the love affair that began in 1920. Hammett was diagnosed with tuberculosis while serving as an Army ambulance corps driver during World War I and he became attracted to Dolan, a young nurse treating him.

When he was released from the hospital he moved to San Francisco, and they started corresponding. In one letter, Dolan advises him to eat healthy and to “take the cure”—a euphemism at the time for laying off the liquor.

Dolan eventually joined Hammett in San Francisco, where they married and had two daughters, Mary (who is now deceased) and little Josephine, who was known as Jo. By the time Jo was born, the Hammetts were living apart due to a reoccurrence of his TB. Weakened from the illness, Hammett had to give up detective work. To make money, he wrote advertising copy and book reviews. He also turned to fiction writing.

His stories started appearing in Black Mask in 1923, three years after the famous pulp magazine was launched. Hammett’s first book, the blood-spattered “Red Harvest,” initially appeared there, too, in four installments. The violent 1929 novel is narrated by an investigator known as the Continental Op, who returns in a second novel, and a series of short stories.

“The Maltese Falcon” debuted in Black Mask and was published in book form in 1930. It was an immediate hit and enormously influential. As Raymond Chandler—creator of sleuth Philip Marlowe—noted, Hammett took murder out of the drawing room and put it in the back alley, where it belonged.

Richard Layman, a Hammett biographer and editor who co-edits the Hammett collections with Rivett, says that genre-wise, “Hammett brought a new level of literary sensibility to mystery fiction…. characterized by tough dialogue and a tough-minded sensibility, and a concentration on lower classes … He was at the forefront of the early modernist writers.”

With his fifth and final novel, “The Thin Man,” Hammett did some social climbing. The book and the film version both came out in 1934 and garnered raves. Famed New Yorker critic Alexander Woollcott called the book—which featured a dapper-looking Hammett on the cover—“The best detective story yet written in America.”

The bickering, bantering Nick and Nora became the template for future romantic duo detectives. There were six “Thin Man” movies, a long-running radio show and a 1950s TV series.

Meantime, more than a decade after its publication, “The Maltese Falcon” took flight as a film for the third time, and that one proved to be the charm. The 1941 quest to find the priceless jeweled statuette of the black bird is a beloved classic. Considered the first film noir, it received three Academy Award nominations, including for best picture, and made a star of 41-year-old Humphrey Bogart.

Today, Hammett’s works are studied in universities, and revered by other writers. “He’s the man, in terms of the hard-boiled school,” says Gordon McAlpine, the Irvine-based author of the critically admired novel “Hammett Unwritten,” which finds Hammett in search of a treasured falcon statuette, in hopes that by finding it he will cure his writer’s block. There’s a roster of Hammett-esque fiction: Ace Atkins’ “Devil’s Garden”; Joe Gores’ “Spade and Archer” a “Maltese Falcon” prequel (authorized by the estate); the “Black Mask Boys” novels by Hammett biographer William F. Nolan, in which Hammett teams with those other famed crime writers, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner, to solve mysteries.

Hammett’s private life garnered almost as much publicity as his fiction, especially once his fame took him to Hollywood. When Hammett and Hellman met there in 1930, they were married to other people. She got a divorce. He got a “Mexican mail-order” divorce from Rivett’s grandmother. But Hellman and Hammett never tied the knot.

Their eyebrow-raising romance captured the public’s imagination, though, and they have been depicted numerous times in print and on-screen. The 1977 film, “Julia,” was based on one of Hellman’s memoirs (the veracity of which were debated) and cast Jane Fonda as Hellman and Jason Robards as a boozy Hammett, for which he won a best supporting actor Oscar.

Rivett can be defensive about some of the claims made about her family. Biographers have taken Hammett to task for his treatment of his wife and children during his decades-long relationship with Hellman. (Per one reviewer, “Hammett was a creep, the kind of guy Spade would have enjoyed kicking in the teeth.”) Rivett argues that he was a “Disneyland Dad,” one of those guys who puts in impressive but far from daily appearances. But he was “not a deserter,” she says.

Marshall writes in her memoir about staying overnight with her father at the Beverly Wilshire and at the glamorous Ambassador and Roosevelt hotels. She recalls his signature accessories, including a gold pen and silver cigarette cases. And his white cable-knit sweater.

Rivett has a few special memories from that single visit with her grandfather and Hellman on Martha’s Vineyard. She remembers him teaching her to feed the dog by carefully holding her hand flat, with a treat on it. “He and Lillian Hellman raised those big standard poodles”—Rivett always uses Hellman’s full name—“and I remember going up the stairs to the tower. It was this kind of round, empty room. And we made loud echo-y noises.”

After Hammett’s death, Hellman got control of his writings through a complicated series of maneuvers for a paltry $5,000. The acquisition came literally at the expense of his family; biographers and scholars have reported that Hellman grew wealthy off Hammett’s writings. “My mom would get a check at Christmastime for a couple of thousand dollars,” Rivett says. “It was a big deal to us, because she’d give each of us kids $125 as our portion of the gift. Lillian Hellman sent letters that said things like, ‘My attorneys tell me I shouldn’t do this, but, consider this a gift from your father.’ ”

Hellman refused to cooperate with a number of Hammett biographers, including Layman, who reached out to her while researching his 1981 book, “Shadow Man: Life of Dashiell Hammett.” But Layman gives her credit for overseeing the Hammett reprintings that led to his rediscovery. “There’s nothing so fragile as a dead author’s literary reputation. It can go away in a flicker. She kept it alive.” But, he adds, “she had a self-aggrandizing view of Hammett that she insisted upon. She knew it was distorted, but she held onto it with a death grip.”

Before she died in 1984, Hellman established a Hammett literary trust and named its administrators—none of whom had ties to the family.

During the 1990s—after the death of matriarch Josephine—rights to Hammett’s five novels were transferred to Marshall, the result of copyright extension law. Then Marshall and other family members sought to change the administrators of the trust. It was especially galling to Marshall that she had to get a stranger’s permission to publish a book of her father’s letters. (“Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett: 1921-1960” finally came out in 2001.) There was a flurry of correspondence, some of it sent by Rivett’s brother, Los Angeles attorney Evan Marshall.

Rivett was a stay-at-home mom with two daughters, but as this was going on she went back to college. She planned to continue earlier studies in interior design but didn’t like the program, so she switched to American studies and communications studies at California State University, Long Beach, where she got her bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in communications. “By studying rhetoric, I learned about public speaking, and it all kind of came together, in terms of me working with the trust.” She took another significant step when she joined Layman in editing the collection of her grandfather’s letters and her mother’s memoir.

Today, the appointees to the Hammett literary trust are Rivett, her brother, and Layman, with Jo getting the final say so.

As the visible family representative, Rivett participates in literary events such as The Big Read, a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and local libraries. She’s often asked which one of his characters her grandfather most identified with. Her ready answer: “Sam Spade. He’s the most autobiographical. They both have a kind of pragmatic, existential outlook on life.”

She tries to get across a message that is in stark contrast with Hammett’s image. “He was brilliant, but imperfect. He had a family and a sense of humor. He loved children and dogs, and he liked working with his hands and hunting. He was a serious politician, and he was a drunk. In other words, he was a real person.”

Hammett's private life garnered almost as much publicity as his fiction, especially once his fame took him to Hollywood... When he died in 1961, at age 66, Hammett had a reputation as a hard-drinking ladies’ man who never regained his creative spark after his last novel was published in 1934. His 26-year bout with writer’s block was legendary.