Hammett: Birthday 121


Shot above, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett — who get stacks of their old mail officially donated to the University of South Carolina today, the 121st anniversary of Hammett’s birth.

Terry “Mr. Pure Texts” Zobeck and I had a little present for Hammett in the works to celebrate the birthday, but decided to hold it back for a few days and give the new library donation pride of place. This trove will become a mecca for Hammett and Hellman scholars, like the Ransom Center in Austin did, after Hellman donated literary papers from her and Hammett.

The bulk of the papers and photos seem to be coming from Jo Hammett, daughter of Dashiell Hammett — basis for her book Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers, but she also had a large stack of letters from Hellman that to the best of my knowledge hasn’t been explored by people interested in that sort of thing. And it must be Hammett biographer and bibliographer Rick Layman’s connections in South Carolina that landed the collection there — he is donating his personal collection of Hammett books and magazine appearances to bulk it up even more.

Based on the blurb, I can’t tell if two areas of potential research will be covered by the donated materials.

One is — and this comes up quite often as a question on the tour — how did Hammett’s wife handle the question of their “divorce” (divorce in quotes, since the papers filed in Mexico apparently did not legally result in a divorce). I’ve seen various of the papers Jo had in house, and it seemed to me that sometimes her mother would fill out a school paper (say for a field trip or the like)  saying that she and Hammett were still married, and that other times they would be “divorced.” Be nice to have all the papers in one place, lay them out on a table, and see if the data jumped back and forth or if after a certain point the data stayed the same. At best a minor point, but something that having access to the right set of papers probably could answer. That’s the sort of thing library collections really come in handy for. . . .

The other thing that I can see someone having real fun researching would be: How did Hellman pay out the royalties from Hammett’s writing in the era when she was handling the estate? Did she give his two daughters a fair and square share of the monies? Did she send along merely some token amount? Apparently Jo’s husband kept track of the payments when he was alive, so if that kind of info is at USC someone could juggle it against royalty statements from, oh, Random House, and figure things out (if said scholar can get access to the publishers’ record books).

People who like Hellman can prove her a just warden of the property — or people who don’t like her can show she took more than she gave, as the case may be.

If enough background data exists to make the case either way.

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