Brash, outspoken, Lillian Hellman follows her own truth. Even when that truth costs her love. From the thirties, where she lived in sin with Dashiell Hammett, to the fifties, where her political aspirations lead her to the U.S. Senate, Hellman stayed true to her beliefs. But when the dark days of Communist blacklisting threaten everything Hellman has built, she must decide whether her truth will carry her, or if she will, as Hammett once warned, sell out her friends to save herself. In our world, Hellman found fame as a writer. In this alternate world, Hellman follows her politics to find a very different path.
Sinner-Saints by USA Today bestselling writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this site for one week only. It’s also available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and in other ebookstores.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
From the unfinished autobiography of former Senator Lillian Hellman:
He was the most interesting man I’ve ever met. Even now, decades later, I think about him at the oddest times, when someone mixes a martini or when twilight sun streams in my living room window. Some people thought I have not spoken about Dashiell Hammett because I am still keeping secrets too potent to reveal. If I possess secrets, I do not know it. I have not spoken of Hammett because I have too much to say.
We met when I was twenty-four years old and he was thirty-six. I was a rebel who worked as a secretary and had a husband who didn’t understand how my rebelliousness leaned toward politics. Hammett was the hottest thing in Hollywood and New York.
It is not unusual to be the hottest thing in either city—the hottest kid changes for each winter season—but in his case it was of extra interest to those who collect people that the ex-detective who had bad cuts on his legs and an indentation in his head from being scrappy with criminals was gentle in manner, well educated, elegant to look at, born of early settlers, was eccentric, witty, and spent so much money on women that they would have liked him even if he had been none of those good things. When I met him, he was at the end of a five-day drunk and his wonderful face looked rumpled and his tall thin figure was sagged and tired. He spent no money on me. Instead, we wandered out of the restaurant in Hollywood and sat in his car all night, smoking cigarettes and talking of things I can no longer remember.
Sometimes I imagine that night we first spoke of my political career, young as it was, and he told me what he would tell me for years. “There will come a day, Lil, when they will ask you to sell out your friends.” The first time he said it, I got angry and swore I would never sell out my friends, and he looked at me with a sadness I only saw in those last days in ’61, in the hospital room before he died.
Those words started to haunt me in the spring of 1947 when Truman threw us back into war. J. Edgar Hoover started talking about the Communists as a fifth column, and Truman ordered his Attorney General to draw up a list. The list contained organizations with four ties—Communist, Fascist, totalitarian or subversive views—and membership in one of them would indicate that an applicant for a government job would suffer an investigation. The list was published later in the year, and opened the door for all the civil rights violations that would follow.
But in the early thirties, those far-off days were an unspeakable imagining. Most of the country lived in the deepest Depression the nation had ever seen, and only in a few isolated places—Hollywood being one of them—did people have the money to laugh and drink all night as if the twenties had never ended. I left my husband and moved in with Hammett, and, for a few wild and heady years, we acted as if the Depression did not exist. Then poverty crept back into my life in the form of ragged children on roadsides, beaten men standing on corners, asking for jobs but unwilling to take a nickel from strangers, faded and aging young women begging outside grocery stores for someone to buy their babies milk.
Hammett tossed them money, but I thought about other solutions. I had studied in Bonn a few years earlier and the rise of National Socialism out of the economic ruins of Germany frightened me. For the first time I had realized I was a Jew. I went home and saw afresh how my Southern family had made its fortune on the borrowings of poor Negroes, and the roots of my rebellion dug deep. Those roots called to me on bright California afternoons as I passed defeated people hunching together in little tent villages.
Hoover made proclamations and did nothing. FDR, then a bright speck on the political horizon, quoted vague ideas that seemed to come from a wealthy man’s view of the unfortunate masses. The Republicans had crashed with the market, and the Democrats were glorying in their new position instead of looking for answers. We watched the Spanish Civil War with fascination and dread—perhaps something like that would happen here. Some of Hollywood joined the Communist Party. Others spoke of the virtues of Marxism. I remember all-night discussions about the need for a third party, one with no ties to any other system.
During one of those all night discussions, a man by the name of Hubert Wallens asked me if I knew how such a party would start. Wallens was a dapper little man whose eyes shifted around the room as I spoke to him. I remember thinking, through the cigarette and alcohol haze, that he was merely biding time with me until someone more important came into his view. Later I learned he did this because he didn’t want to miss anything happening around him. In fact, he had absorbed all of our conversation and could repeat it almost to the last word.
He told me he was raising money for a third party presidential bid, and I told him he was wasting his dollars. He would never find the right candidate, the perfect hero for which the country was looking, and the larger parties would shatter his choice into little pieces. He reminded me that his method had worked in the nineteenth century, and I reminded him that we lived in the twentieth.
Our voices must have carried over the general din of conversation because the room gradually grew quiet. I told him that third parties had to begin with the people and sweep the country, ward by ward, district by district. His money would be better spent financing small heroes who could convince small areas that the new party was better. He would have to choose heroes who would deliver, whose personal force would gather people around them. He laughed then, and said maybe I had a vision in me after all.
The conversation ended, and others began. I found Hammett at my side, looking serious. He didn’t trust politicians. I knew that. Later he would say, when he refused to compromise his principles in a trial that would lead him to jail, “I better tell you that if it were more than jail, if it were my life, I would give it for what I think democracy is, and I don’t let cops or judges or politicians tell me what I think democracy is.”
He was drunk. His eyes had that red-rimmed look and his mouth grew tight. “You walk down this path, Lil, and you can never turn back.”
He was right. I never did.
Now when I think of him, standing beside me, wearing white without a stain on him despite the long-night drunk, I wonder what he was really saying. He was a proud man who asked for nothing, but sometimes in the echoes of his words, I hear the request of a man who never made them. The night before he died, when I visited his hospital room, he reached for me as if he would never let go, and I knew then what I had been too blind to see before, that we were two of a kind and always belonged together. He had known it, and I had not.
I started to spend a lot of time with Wallens in dark rooms and dirty restaurants, plotting, planning. This much money in this ward would bring that result. Hammett disappeared into his book. He wrote the last of his five novels that year, and it wasn’t until his final interview, published by the New York Times just after his death, that I learned he had modeled Nora Charles on me. It is nice to be Nora, married to Nick Charles, maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. Surely the only successful marriage I ever made.
Somehow those discussions in dark rooms turned to running me as a candidate. Wallens thought me perfect. I was outspoken, mannish in my attitudes, but feminine enough to attract the male vote without alienating the female. I hesitated. I had never considered myself a political person. I was more of a rebel.
The final conversation took place at an afternoon party held at a starlet’s estate. I had taken my drink beside the pool, preferring to sit in the sun while Hammett and the others argued art in the living room. The chlorine-scented water shone blue in the bright light. I closed my eyes, tired of conversation and endless parties that went nowhere, when I felt someone sit on the edge of my chair.
“See, Lil,” said a voice. It was Wallens. “This life isn’t for you. It bores you.”
“I’m tired, Hubert,” I said.
“You’re tempted,” he said, and I opened my eyes. With the sun at his back and the light framing him, he looked like an angel. A dark angel, I corrected myself and smiled at the reference. He thought that meant I agreed with him. “Lil–”
I raised a hand to silence him. “If I disagree with someone, I’ll tell him, Hubert. If I dislike someone, chances are I’ll tell him, too. If I think someone’s policies stink, I say that, in public most likely and at the wrong time.”
“Good,” he said. “It’s time for honesty in politics.”
“Honesty and politics don’t mix,” I said. “I would hate to be the proving ground of an old cliché.”
“You’re as excited about this as I am,” he said. “Why not run with it?”
I closed my eyes and leaned back, unable to respond. He knew me better than I thought. I was excited and tempted and scared. Fear was a great motivator. I was also young. “I’ll damage the party.”
“You’ll help it.”
“I’m better behind the scenes.
“We need someone like you out front.”
The arguments were no different than they were before. But perhaps discussing them in the light, beside a rich woman’s pool, gave them more credence than they had had in dark rooms. I agreed, and felt a little thrill of delight run to my stomach.
He said nothing. I refilled my drink, a little uneasy about his lack of response. The chair beside the pool lost its allure and I wandered through the grounds, alone, thinking about what I had done. I could think of no arguments to change my mind.
Later that evening, Hammett and I had a fight in front of the remaining guests. He said it started because I objected to the way he kissed the starlet. I had seen him kiss other women before and it had never bothered me. I do remember screaming about the starlet, but I think I was angry about his silence. In everything else, Hammett had given me total support. In this, he withdrew.
He didn’t come home that night, nor the next, nor the next. Sometimes, he and his friends would go on several day drunks, so that was not unusual. But he hadn’t touched anything heavier than beer since he began the novel, and he had not stayed away at night in nearly a year. By the time he came home, I couldn’t decide if I was hysterical with fear or with anger.
He looked as rumpled as he had the day I met him. The twilight sun streaming in from the windows caught him. His white hair, white pants and white shirt made a straight, flat surface. I thought: maybe that’s the handsomest sight I ever saw, that line of a man, the knife for a nose, and I yelled at him, “So you’re a Dostoevsky sinner-saint. So you are.”
He said he didn’t know what that meant, and it didn’t matter anyway. I could keep the apartment, he said, but he would be moving on.
Moving on, as if I were his starlet, or the women he had talked about when he began to write in the twenties. Maybe he had said that to his wife and two daughters when he left them. Or maybe he had only said it to me.
He took his books and his clothes and a few items of furniture. Not much, perhaps because he thought I had no money, or perhaps because he didn’t want it. I said nothing as he left and nothing years afterward. I sank myself into my campaign with a single-minded zeal I had not realized I was capable of.
And in all those years, in all those campaigns, through all those interviews, no one said a word about Dash.
He contributed to all of my campaigns even, I later learned, when he had no money to spare. Over the years, he finished the novel, wrote screenplays, and then stopped writing at all. The party grew—especially in California—and I moved from the House to the Senate with a small group of like-minded people following me up the ranks. I was as outspoken as I had warned Wallens I would be, and usually he tolerated it, although he didn’t like it as much as he thought he would. Still, I had a constituency, and the press liked me, and there was even talk, in those early days, as running me to be the first female President.
In 1941, the war came, as I had been fearing since I saw the National Socialist banners in Bonn. I supported a strike against the Nazi evil and my vehemence startled my friends, but I remembered how it felt to walk the streets of a city and be conscious that I was a Jew. I heard the stories, unsubstantiated, of camps and prisons and Krystalnachts, and I decided that Fascism had to stop, even if I wasn’t certain of the methods.
I had returned to California for town meetings when an old friend told me Hammett was being shipped out in a few days. I was shocked and assumed that a bureaucratic mistake had caused a forty-eight-year-old man to fight in a war designed for the young. He was still living in the old neighborhood. Going to see him was like stepping back in time. I almost pulled the shabby door open, and stepped inside, removing my gloves and shoes and settling into a chair before lighting a cigarette.
But I did not. I rapped on the door firmly, the sound muted by my gloves, adjusted my hat like a school girl and wished for the old familiarity. I didn’t like the nerves that tickled at my throat. I blamed them on thirst. When the door opened, Hammett stood before me, still thin, still handsome, eyes twinkling as if I had been the one on the two-day drunk.
“The clothes suit you, Lil,” he said as he pulled open the door.
I stepped inside and removed my hat before I thought about it. The room was cluttered with books and old magazines. Gadgets of all sizes and in all states of repair leaned against the undecorated walls. Hammett lived alone. The possessions told me that. I had never expected it of him.
We had not spoken since the day he left. The old hurt was there, throbbing like a reopened wound. I longed to shout at him and have him shout back—to know that all was right in the world again.
He pulled books off a metal kitchen chair, and I sat on it, feeling prim. We stared at each other for a few minutes, unwilling to say the clichés of old lovers. Then he took a chair himself.
“So what exactly did you mean,” he asked, “Dostoevsky sinner-saint?”
I told him I didn’t know, and maybe at that point, I didn’t. I did later, when I realized the sinning had passed—whatever sinning was—and he became the Hammett of his final years. I tried then to explain it to him, but he said it was all too religious for him.
His question wiped away the barriers and made me want to ask my own question, the one that had haunted me since he told me he was going to move on. A little plaintive whine played in my head, begging to know why he had left, what had caused him to close the door behind us. I said nothing. Hammett knew that I wanted to know. He would tell me when he was ready.
“I heard you’re shipping out soon,” I said, pulling off my gloves. The gesture was that of a genteel Southern Lady, a pose I adopted when I was nervous. “You know you don’t have to go, Dash. I can fix whatever bureaucratic error caused the problem.”
Color suffused his face, then faded, followed by an all-too-familiar smile. “No error, Lil,” he said. “I enlisted.”
“What?” The genteel Southern Lady was gone. In her place, the brash and brassy woman with whom Hammett had fallen in love. “You’re too old, Dash. Let the children fight this war. We need you at home.”
At first I thought my outburst didn’t disturb him. Then he stood up and his hands were shaking. “Need me for what, Lil? To write war propaganda for the moving pictures? To show the young enlistees what kind of future they can hope for?”
“What about the scars on your lungs?” Scars he had gotten in the First World War, battling tuberculosis.
He shrugged and smiled and poured me a drink. I didn’t take it. “That fire serves you well on the Hill.”
“Dash, I can’t let you.”
The laughter stopped. He set the bottle down, looked at me with a look I hope no one ever uses on me again, and said. “I never expected you to say that.”
I had been prepared to pull every string I had to keep him stateside, to keep him out of the shooting and the fighting even before I knew where he was going to go. His look made me feel like a wayward child who had disappointed an indulgent parent.
“I enlisted, the army accepted me, and I’m going to go. You can’t stop me, Lil. You have no right.”
I pulled my gloves back on and grabbed for my hat. My response had startled me. I spent my entire career defending the rights of people who had none and I was about to take away the rights of a forty-eight-year-old man all because I loved him. Still, “I have to go.”
“Like hell,” he said.
“I have meetings.”
“Meetings be damned if they lead you to think you can screw with someone else’s life.”
He was right and I didn’t know how to tell him. I could only think of getting out of the room. “I made a mistake.”
“That’s right,” he said. “And you’re going to stay here until we make sure you’re not going to make that mistake again.”
It took Wallens two days and half a dozen missed meetings to find me. The old gang was gone, but the all night discussions were the same. Hammett had a touch of tenderness I had forgotten, or perhaps it had appeared in the years we were apart. When Wallens called, Hammett let me go with a wave and a smile, and no discussion about whether I would ever be back.
Soon after that, the first reporters asked questions. Wallens smelled a scandal—“How could you have lived with him without marrying him, Lillian?” “I was already married at the time, Hubert.”—but it got buried under the weight of the war. Hammett was a war hero, even though he never fought on any front, just the idea that a man like him would enlist was enough. And I had other battles to fight in the Senate, battles that were more important than a decade-old relationship and the mistakes of a young girl.
He sent me letters from the Aleutian Islands. I have many letters describing their beauty and for years he talked about going back to see them again. He conducted a training program there for a while and edited a good army newspaper: the copy was clean, the news was accurate, and the jokes were funny. I never knew what attracted a man like him to the army. Maybe it gave him, a man who never sought out other people, a place. Maybe he felt a sense of pride that a man of forty-eight could keep pace with boys half his age. Or maybe he liked his country and felt this was a just war and had to be fought.
I never asked Hammett about his politics. It seems odd, I suppose, considering how much happened because of them. But in the early years, we discussed my political changes and in the later years, I no longer felt the need to ask. What had happened had changed us; we could not go back. I do not know if Hammett was a Communist Party member. I do think he was a Marxist. But he was a very critical Marxist, often critical of the Soviet Union in the same hick sense that many Americans are critical of foreigners. I know that, whatever he believed in, whatever he arrived at, came from reading and thinking. He took time to find out what he thought, and he had an open mind and a tolerant nature.
When we won the war, I believed that we had vanquished evil and the world was a rosy place. Perhaps that was a product of the times. I had enough knowledge of human nature to know that each of us carries our own contradictions, our own good and evil views, Dostoevsky sinner-saints on the small view, and I was fooling myself that ticker-tape parades and dead dictators could make up for willful American ignorance about death camps and Asian cities destroyed by a single bomb dropped from a great height. I rode in those parades and made speeches about the glories of our country and saw Hammett once after he returned.
He had a wildness I had never seen before, and a way of looking through me that I didn’t like, and we fought about my speeches and his enlistment and we both went away sour. The memories of the days before the war were overshadowed by the new fight and the drinking.
Those weren’t the only shadows. The Attorney General’s list and Alger Hiss rose like specters on the collective horizon. I spoke out against them, but no longer had my fingers on the pulse. The letters from my constituents grew angry and frustrated. They wanted our party to disavow any ties with other third parties, including the Communist Party from which many of our early members had come. I refused. I found myself repeating many times during those days that I could not and would not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.
The test of that statement came when Hammett went to prison in 1951. He and two other trustees of the bail bond fund of the Civil Rights Congress refused to reveal the names of the contributors to that fund. He was prosecuted for withholding information, but the truth was that Hammett had never been to the Congress’ offices, and didn’t know the name of a single contributor. It was his particular honor that led him to jail, and his particular honor that opened the door to all that was to follow.
Even though Hammett had written little in the last decade, the memory of his days as the hottest thing in New York and Hollywood had not faded. Reporters questioned him and his trial was big news in all the major papers. And then someone remembered the rumors about me.
The information wasn’t hard to find. Hammett and I did live together twenty years before. Sometimes we acted like a married couple and sometimes we acted like roommates. In those days, when everyone would testify to anything to avoid being destroyed by a congressional committee, no one had to lie about the fact that Dashiell Hammett and I had once had a strong and passionate relationship.
But now the press wanted to know if Hammett was a Communist and if I had ever “harbored” him. The rumors were thick and damaging. Wallens called for a meeting. His offices, as the head of the party, were also in Washington, up a long windy stairway in one of the older buildings just down from the embassies. I hated going up there and would often complain that I felt as if I were going to see a Mafia don. Wallens smiled at the comparison, and toward the end, I always felt as if I wanted him to deny it.
That afternoon, he poured me a drink before talking with me. His office had no window and was dominated by a huge leather chair that a patron had given him years before. The chair even dwarfed his desk. He had a liquor cabinet off to the side, built with mahogany, just like his bookcases, and the crystal glasses were more for show than for sharing. So when he reached for them, I knew the discussion would be serious.
“Tell me about Hammett, Lil,” he said as he handed me my glass.
I continued standing. The pictures decorating the office caught my eye. Wallens and I at a party fundraiser. Wallens sitting before a congressional committee. Wallens with FDR. Wallens with Truman. Wallens shaking the hand of Churchill. We had come a long way, Wallens and I. “Dash is in jail.”
“I know,” he said. He perched on the edge of his expensive desk. Funny how I had never questioned his money or the party’s backing before. “I mean, what can you tell me about your relationship with Hammett?”
“You know about my relationship with Dash. I was living with him when you and I met.”
“Yes, and we’ve managed to keep that quiet until now.”
I remember thinking that I didn’t want the surprise I felt to show on my face. I didn’t know this man. I had worked with him for two decades, started a political movement with him, but I didn’t know him. “I haven’t kept anything quiet,” I said.
“Who have you told?” His face held a kind of alarm.
“Until recently, no one has asked. The information is private, so I haven’t said anything. But I don’t keep things quiet, Hubert. You know that.”
He knew that but had forgotten it, or had chosen to forget it. He downed his drink so fast I thought he was going to choke. “I think we need to keep it quiet now, Lil,” he said. “Or it will kill us. You, me, the party, everything we’ve worked for.”
“If I lie to protect everything we’ve worked for, then it’s all gone anyway,” I said. “We started this to be different, and I warned you that I was outspoken. The party is based on honesty. What makes you think I can lie?”
“It will make no difference to Hammett,” Wallens said, and his voice had a whine I had never heard before. This was what powerful men sounded like when they begged. “He’s already in jail.”
“And what happens when he gets out? When someone with photographs or proof shows him that I have denied a relationship that once meant something to both of us. It cheapens me, Hubert. It cheapens the party. And it cheapens what Hammett and I had.”
“What did you have, Lil?” Wallens asked, face studying the drops remaining in his tumbler. “He left when you decided to become your own woman.”
“He did, didn’t he.” I felt around my heart the old wound I had had those days with Hammett before the war, when I let myself believe that our separation hadn’t mattered, that time, patience and a bit of healing would reconcile us again. In that moment, I understood the fear and bitterness that made people sell out their friends, sell out their beliefs, to protect themselves. “But that changes nothing, Hubert. It happened. And I will not lie and say it didn’t.”
“Think about it,” he said. “Talk to me in the morning.”
“In the morning,” I said. “I will not have changed my mind.”
I left my drink untouched on his desk and walked down those long gloomy stairs. My feet tapped a rhythm on the wood and with each beat, I heard his demands over and over. What had caused us to go from that jubilation I had felt at the end of the war to this paranoia? What had caused Wallens to cave in to it? And what was causing me to listen to him?
By the time I reached the street I knew that I would need some other solution. The questions about Hammett would surface again and again, and I needed an answer or at least an attitude.
I thought about writing to Hammett, for he was the wisest man I knew. But he was in prison and his mail was censored, and all I needed was for some prison warden with dreams of fame to publish our mail. Still, I was angry at Hammett for his stubbornness. If he had told the truth about the bail bondsmen he wouldn’t be in jail and I wouldn’t be struggling with this dilemma on my own. But if he had told the truth about the bail bondsmen, he wouldn’t have been Hammett.
Funny how I felt I needed him then, even though I had struggled through other difficult questions on my own. Perhaps it was because his words were haunting me, his words on my post-war speeches, on the inevitability of the road I walked, on betrayal: There will come a day, Lil, when they will ask you to sell out your friends.
The day had come, a day I had been too naïve to believe in.
I didn’t sleep the night I saw Wallens. Instead, I wandered around my Georgetown apartment, staring at the city lights and letting my thoughts drift. In addition to Hammett’s statements about loyalty, I heard my own voice claiming boldly that I did not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions. And Hammett again, just before he went to jail, telling me that no cop or judge or politician would tell him what democracy was. No one would tell me either.
I knew that my decision would destroy the party. And I knew it would destroy my political career. But since I had discussed it with no one and since I had no backing but my own conscience, I never realized the difficulties buried in such a decision. I had always considered myself a smart and honest woman who would do what she must in difficult times. I dedicated myself to truth and sense in all things. I helped what people I could, gave back what things I could, and made policy based on my beliefs. Hammett once called me a Jeffersonian politician—one who believed not so much in the leadership of the people, but in the people’s ability to choose someone with the moral courage to represent their interests. Few such Jeffersonians were left. And even fewer stood up on the Hill.
The next morning, I called a press conference. We held it in the press room on the Hill and every reporter in town appeared on very short notice. I read a prepared statement that not even my staff had seen. It was short and I had memorized it, so that I could see the faces around me as I spoke.
“In the last week, you have asked me many questions about my past. I have not answered, because in these times, an answer is often taken as a confession to a crime no one understands. I have never lied about my life. Indeed, I am proud of most of it. The way I lived before I went into public life created the politician I now am. That is, I think, a good thing.”
Wallens slipped in the back of the room. His face was white, but he nodded as I spoke and I assumed I was on the right track. The reporters were scribbling furiously and beneath the podium, tape recorders whirred. A few flashbulbs went off in my face.
“Many of you have asked about my relationship with Dashiell Hammett. I cannot describe it to you because I cannot describe it to myself. We shared a home in the early thirties after I had left my husband and we had a friendship that remains, to me, special. Beyond that, I will not discuss him because you want to know about his political views and the only political views I understand are my own.”
Wallens no longer looked pale, he looked sick. He leaned against the wall for support. The reporters continued scribbling. I felt as if I were lecturing a class.
I stepped back from the podium and instantly a dozen voices shouted “Senator! Senator!” For a moment, I thought of ignoring the questions, but decided that was cowardly. I had set my ground rules. I would stick to them.
The questions flew like spitballs. I could not see who fired them.
“Was Dashiell Hammett your lover?”
“Aren’t you still married, Senator?”
“Are you advocating living in sin?”
“Did you know he was a Communist when you met him?”
“When will you purge your party of its 683 Communist members?”
I had stood silent before the podium, letting the questions pelt me. I did not duck, but I had no response to most of them. Finally, I heard a question I could answer.
“Are you a Communist, Senator?”
The questioner was a new, young reporter for the New York Times. He later became the head of his own paper and pretended he had been a liberal his entire life. I would remind him of his anti-Communist leanings in the fifties, and he would leave me alone. Now he stood in front of me, young and brash and full of his position as a cub at the Times. His black hair tumbled into his eyes and his sleeves were rolled above the elbow. He leaned forward with an eagerness of a dog at the hunt.
I ignored the other questions and stared at him. “I am not a Communist,” I said. “Nor have I ever been one. There is no Communist menace in this country and you know it. You have made cowards into liars, an ugly business, and the things our country stands for and fought for in a war not ten years gone have disintegrated into the petty squabbling of frightened children. The search for a Communist under each rock and bushel will destroy us as quickly as an atomic bomb dropped overhead. And you who report these stories with the glee of slavering dogs are as guilty of that destruction as my colleagues in Congress who do not know that the business of running a government includes the concepts of justice, honesty and fairness no matter what a person’s political stripe.”
In the silence that followed, Wallens disappeared out the back door. The reporters stared at me, reprimanded only momentarily. Then hands went up and the cries of Senator! Senator! began again. I stepped away from the podium, for good this time, and walked off the stage.
What I remember of the next four hours has blurred with time and pressure. People I never expected—silent Congressmen and Senators—patted me on the back and thanked me for speaking out. Richard Nixon pointedly avoided me in the halls.
The headlines were grand—HELLMAN SPEAKS OUT FOR FREEDOM. SENATOR FIGHTS BACK. COMMUNISTS NOT A MENACE, SENATOR SAYS—but they lasted a mere heartbeat before the fight began again. Old pictures of me with Hammett graced the front page of the Times with my young friend’s byline on the stories, claiming that I had accompanied Hammett to Communist Party meetings. More and more of my friends appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and more and more of them lied when pressed—yes, I saw Lillian Hellman at a Communist Party rally. Yes, I saw Lilly flash her Communist Party card. I did not know I had liked so many cowards. Wallens publicly denounced me, and in the fall elections, the voters denounced me, too.
The days were empty. I did not retire, an elder statesman, as I had once thought my due. No one spoke to me about Washington or the Communist menace. I bought a farm in New England and retired there, away from the crowds.
Hammett sent me a letter. Two confusing sentences that I stared at for days before I finally set it aside. I’m sorry, Lil. I should have trusted your strength.
I did not see him again until the week before his death, although we corresponded through the remaining years. That week he was too tired for meaningful conversation and, I think, we saw no need for it. A mutual friend had told me that he was alone in the hospital, his daughters refusing to come although they were paying the bill, and I went not knowing what I would find.
Disease had blunted the knife-edged handsomeness and his eyes were dulled by pain. His grip on mine was stronger than I expected. We spoke little and what we did say was of old times, of good times, when we were young. The stories had the feeling of code, the kind an old married couple uses when the tales have been remade into comforting legend. We pretended that we had had more of a life together than apart.
He died, his grip still tight upon my hand.
His daughters let me go through his papers. I found among them a scrap I thought an excised part of a story. I later realized it was part of a journal he kept on random slips of papers, scattered throughout his manuscripts. The date on it marked from the night he left me.
Maybe the way she was looking when I walked out the door made me reconsider. That little lost stare on a face that had never looked lost before. I almost went back inside. But I knew if I did that, everything she wanted would disappear or I would kill it, just by my presence. She wouldn’t have to betray me. We would betray ourselves.
He had moved on because he thought our relationship would kill my dreams. Or maybe he was less noble than that. Maybe by not trusting my strength, he failed to believe that I would defend him—defend us—when the time came. Maybe he was afraid that my life as a politician would offend his sense of democracy.
I sat in his office, which smelled of sickness and pipe smoke and Hammett and clutched that piece of paper so hard my thumb pierced it through. Our silences—the perfect understandings of Nick and Nora Charles—transformed into unspoken needs and wants and led to a misunderstanding that resulted in three decades apart instead of three decades together.
When I think of Hammett, I think not of the fights nor the silences but of the longing I felt sitting across the table in his sloppy kitchen, my gloves and hat beside me, a glass of Scotch in my hand. I wanted to breach the distance between us, but instead we danced and played and argued about things that mattered only on the periphery and not inside.
The paper sits beside me now, my rip an angry scar along its bottom. His letter beside it, another silent request from a man who never made them, a request I did not understand. I want to shake him for taking care of me, yell at him for not asking what I wanted, hold him as tightly as, in the end, he held me.
The distance remains, and the longing remains, and the silence remains. Forever.
Author’s Note: Some descriptions of Dashiell Hammett were taken from Lillian Hellman’s autobiographies An Unfinished Woman and Scoundrel Time.
Copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 1993.
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2014 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Alnat/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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