She was 25, just a script reader at MGM but moving up in Hollywood’s social circles. She had befriended Lee Gershwin, Ira’s wife, and on this night, they were in Darryl Zanuck’s party. They had attended a premiere, and afterwards were ushered into a limo for the ride to the Roosevelt Hotel to watch Crosby sing. The hotel was across the street from the theater. Lee objected, but Zanuck was firm: “Walking isn’t done here. We drive.”
It was a Saturday night. Crosby was opening that night, so the room was packed, but the Zanuck party was escorted to a table at the front of the stage. The spotlight hit Crosby and the band struck up the first number, but Hellman was drawn to a man passing by the table. He was tall, prematurely grey-haired and dressed to kill.
Lillian leaned over to Lee. “Who’s that man?”
Dashiell Hammett. Thirty-six. Ex-detective and writer. His first three novels ? “Red Harvest,” “The Dain Curse” and “The Maltese Falcon” ? had set a new course for mystery novels. He was in Hollywood to write for David O. Selznick. Lillian liked what she saw, and she might have what she needed: “a teacher, a cool teacher, who would not be impressed or disturbed by a strange and difficult girl.”
She caught up with him outside the men’s room. He was drunk and amused by her boldness. Although just a script reader, she showed intelligence and energy. They ended up talking all night.
They would stay together until Hammett’s death in 1961. She would put up with his abuse and his affairs, and sometimes she gave as good as she got.
He also helped her. It was he who read about the case of two teachers ruined because one of their pupils accuses them of being lesbians. He thought about using it himself, but gave it to Hellman instead. He worked with her on the drafts, and taunted her when she felt like quitting: “Don’t be a writer. Nobody asked you to be a writer. This is what it costs. This is what you have to do. If you can’t take it, don’t do it.” The result was “The Children’s Hour,” Hellman’s first hit play.
It’s a measure of the intensity of a love affair that even death cannot dampen the emotions. When Hammett ran off with S.J. Perleman’s wife after a notorious Fourth of July party (which I wrote about in “Writers Gone Wild.” she was hurt to her core. Laura Perleman was her best friend.
“I could kill him for that . . . even now,” she said a decade after his death. “I wish he were alive so I could kill him.”