Hammett: Hollywood Goes Sports Mad

Terry Zobeck, back on the Mean Streets — and today he tells us about “a tongue-in-cheek article that Hammett published in 1934” with a link to its appearance in the November 8, 1934 issue of the Hartford Courant.

“I verified that it was not previously known,” Terry reports. “Not in Layman’s bibliography or in the Hammett section of his and Bruccoli’s Hardboiled Mystery Writers.

“Bill Mullins is the person who found it.

“While not major Hammett, it is another piece of the puzzle and exciting to have.

“Regardless, it has not been publicly identified.”

Until now.

In my recent post about Hammett’s cameo in the television production of “Two Sharp Knives” I mentioned I discovered this amazing clip as a result of an online newspaper search by a fellow FictionMags correspondent, Bill Mullins.

Bill knows that Hammett is my favorite author so he did a search for any potentially interesting Hammett notices in old newspapers. Among the possibilities he sent me was Hammett writing about the new-found enthusiasm for exercise and sport among the Hollywood crowd.

While Hammett wrote many book reviews for newspapers, only one newspaper article by him has been previously identified — a piece titled “Author of Stories Is Sorry He Killed His Book Character” that appeared in the November 3, 1934 issue of the San Francisco Call Bulletin, just five days before the sports in Hollywood article was published.

The “Killed His Character” article is included in the section on Hammett in Bruccoli’s and Layman’s Hardboiled Mystery Writers. In it Hammett expressed his regret for killing Nunheim in The Thin Man. He would have liked to have had him available to kill him in the script he was writing for the movie sequel.

As Layman notes, however, it is unlikely that Hammett actually wrote this article. More likely written by someone in the MGM publicity department. It certainly doesn’t read like Hammett, unlike the current article, which bears the hallmarks of Hammett’s comedic writing.

It’s 1934. Hammett was at the peak of his popularity. He’d published five best-selling novels. He was working as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. The film of The Thin Man, for which he wrote the screen story, was a smash hit.

Sometime that fall he was asked to be the guest columnist for Mollie Merrick’s gossip column, Hollywood in Person. Merrick, not as well-known as Walter Winchell or Louella Parsons, still had a large readership and was syndicated throughout the United States via the North American Newspaper Alliance.

Like the other gossip columnists, Merrick on occasion invited celebrity guests to sub for her. Among her most frequent guest subbers was Carole Lombard.

While I suppose we can’t be certain this piece of fluff was written by Hammett rather than a ghostwriter (a common practice at the time), it certainly reads as authentic.

Hammett, dismayed at the new-found fondness for exercise and activity, longs for the days when he could nap undisturbed in his studio offices. He laments the lack of old-time Hollywood parties. Rather than alcohol-fueled all-nighters, the new Hollywood folks abstain from booze and leave early because they have a golf or polo match the next morning.

He then suggests that he may have to bring his old friend Nick Charles to Hollywood because “some day, some chap who loves his sleep is going to be called early some morning, say sevenish, ‘for 36 holes of golf.’ Alongside his golf sticks will be found the phoning sportsman, cold in death. And a new mystery plot will have had its birth.”

This last bit suggests a darker subtext to the article, and may help to confirm that Hammett was indeed the author.

Perhaps the darkest event in Hammett’s life and certainly the most indefensible was his assault on the actress Elise De Viane in Los Angeles in 1931. According to De Viane’s court testimony she visited Hammett in his hotel suite accompanied by her young niece. By the time she arrived Hammett was already intoxicated. He asked her to have a drink with him, she declined, and then was dragged into the bathroom and assaulted.

She filed a police report which was investigated. No criminal charges were filed against Hammett. However, De Viane filed a civil suit against him for sexual assault and battery, requesting damages of $35,000. Hammett did not appear in court — he was in New York by this time. Following her testimony, the judge found in her favor and awarded her $2,500 in damages.

Hammett did not pay but in 1934 when he was back working in Hollywood, De Viane went back to court and had his scriptwriting wages garnished. In a letter dated November 5, 1934 to Lillian Hellman he writes:

Miss Deviane [sic] caught up with me and so my pay-check is sewed up, but I hope to get it fixed up tomorrow so that only a little is taken out each week — if $300 a week for 9 weeks can be called a little. But I’m stuck for it so I guess there’s no excuse for bellyaching.

The timing of the garnishing of his wages and the publication of the article lamenting the lack of old-style drinking at Hollywood parties may be coincidental, but drinking like it was 1931 seems to have been on his mind.

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