Often called the father of "hard-boiled" crime fiction, Dashiell Hammett wrote such classics as "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man" during the 1920s and '30s, creating iconic characters Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles. A longtime companion of playwright Lillian Hellman, Hammett was jailed briefly during the McCarthy era for refusing to answer questions regarding left-wing group the Civil Rights Congress.
The 21st century is seeing a flurry of Hammett-related publishing, including the "Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett," edited by Richard Layman with Hammett granddaughter Julie M. Rivett. She lives in Orange County near her mother, Josephine Hammett Marshall (whose own memoir of Hammett is scheduled for publication this fall). We spoke with Rivett recently about family history.
Wasn't your family unable to reprint Hammett's work for a time?
When my grandfather died [in 1961], he owed a great deal of money in back taxes. His literary rights went up for auction. Lillian Hellman bought those rights for $5,000. My mother managed to gain control over the five novels through a negotiated agreement with Hellman's trustees. To print the letters, we had to have permission from the trustees.
Did he and your grandmother remain married?
There was a paper divorce in the '30s, a Mexican mail-order divorce. He and she were always friendly; there are letters to her all the way up into the '50s. To get pension benefits, she petitioned the VA as a widow, and her claim was upheld.