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They left their hearts in San Francisco: The Ghost Stories of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman

Tony Bennett once sang “I left my heart in San Francisco”.  It looks like he wasn’t the only one…

Dashiell Hammett, author of noir classics such as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, was an infamous womanizer during the prohibition era. It wasn’t long before he set his sights on Lillian Hellman, a lively fledgling playwright with great talent and feminine wiles.  The two had an on-again, off-again relationship that spanned over three decades.

The Thin Man movie image
The cast of “The Thin Man”. Hammett loosely based the character of Nora Charles on Hellman.

The accounts about the nature of Lillian and Dash’s relationship vary greatly. Some sources say that they were “friends with benefits”, which was rather progressive for the time (Vercillo, 2007).  Neither Dash nor Lillian wanted to be tied down, and they enjoyed their time together, but were never in a committed relationship.  Other sources say that their relationship was volatile, filled with passion and, sometimes, violence.  Dash couldn’t stay faithful, which led Lillian to cheat out of vengeance.  It is entirely possible that these accounts are false, and that Lillian was painted this way because the thought of a liberated woman was, at the time, unpalatable.  Lillian was said to proposition men half her age, but these stories aren’t told in the same way that they would be were it a man to have been the one doing the wooing.  It’s a double standard, but it reveals how history is shaped by those who tell it.  A dual biography written by Joan Hellen paints the lovers as anything but idyllic.  Dash might have even been violent towards Lillian.  While I haven’t had the chance to read the entirety of this book, it has a tabloid-like feel to it, and it can be difficult to determine just how much is based in fact, and how much true. Especially when both parties involved are now dead.

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