Dashiell Hammett: A Memoir, by Lillian Hellman in The New York Review of Books (1965)

hammett (1)

When we were very broke, those first years in New York, Hammett got a modest advance from Knopf and began to write The Thin Man. He moved to what was jokingly called the Diplomat’s Suite in a hotel run by our friend Nathanael West. It was a new hotel but Pep West and the depression had managed to run it down immediately and certainly Hammett’s suite had never seen a diplomat because even the smallest Oriental could not have functioned well in the space. But the rent was cheap, the awful food could be charged, and some part of my idle time could be spent with Pep snooping around the lives of the other rather strange guests. I had known Dash when he was writing short stories, but I had never been around for a long piece of work. Life changed: the drinking stopped, the parties were over. The locking-in time had come and nothing was allowed to disturb it until the book was finished. I had never seen anybody work that way: the care for every word, the pride in the neatness of the typed page itself, the refusal for ten days or two weeks to go out even for a walk for fear something would be lost. It was a good year for me and I learned from it and was; perhaps, a little frightened by a man who now did not need me. It was thus a happy day when I was given half the manuscript to read and was told that I was Nora, It was nice to be Nora, married to Nice Charles: maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. But I was soon put back in place—Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess. I don’t know now if he was joking, but in those days it worried me: I was very anxious that he think well of me. Most people wanted that from him.

Source: The New York Review of Books

Subscribe to Podcast


  1. October 15, 2015

    It’s always interesting to hear about the way other writers work. But I’m surprised Ms. Hellman enjoyed being told she was the inspiration for Nora. Maybe my memory of the book is significantly flawed but when i read it I always imagined Nick and Nora being horribly depressed alcoholics putting up a facade of joy fueled by massive consumption of booze.

    Now the movies inspired by the book… Those always seemed like wonderful, light-hearted entertainment full of fabulous banter and wonderful supporting characters. I can imagine her finding the comparison to the movie Nora very flattering.

    But memory is a crazy thing…

Comments are closed.