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Whatever Happened to Elise De Viane? On The Mystery Woman in Dashiell Hammett’s 1931 Sexual Assault Case


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A plague on these women who, lengthily wooed,
Are not to be won until one’s out of the mood.
And who then discerning one’s temperateness,
Accuse one of cooling because they said yes!

—”Curse in the Old Manner” (Dashiell Hammett poem published in The Bookman in September 1927)

“You’re going to behave. I don’t want a lot of monkey-business out of you.”

She laughed suddenly, asking: “Will you beat me if I’m bad?”

—Exchange between the Continental Op and Gabrielle Leggett in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Dain Curse (1929)

Tell me something, Nick. Tell me the truth: when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn’t you have an erection?

—Nora Charles to her husband Nick in The Thin Man (1934)

___________________________________

When writing her authorized biography of iconic hard-boiled detective novelist Dashiell Hammett in the early 1980s, author Diane Johnson found that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to her completing her book was the very woman who had authorized the project: famed playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett’s literary executor and former longtime paramour. Hellman “soon made it clear that Johnson was to assume her point of view on all major issues,” writes Joan Mellen, author of the definitive account of the Hammett-Hellman relationship, Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett (1996). One of Hellman’s many complaints about Johnson’s manuscript was that it included too many references to a certain woman named Elise De Viane, who had once been an intimate friend of Hammett until a violent incident occurred between the two in Los Angeles during the summer of 1931. “I do not think Hammett ever thought of her again,” Hellman emphatically declared to Johnson, referring to the period after De Viane won a sizable monetary judgment in court against Hammett for having committed sexual assault and battery upon her person.

Today, Elise De Viane indeed is a mostly forgotten woman, given little thought and only briefly referenced in four decades of Hammett biographies (including Diane Johnson’s), despite the fact that the serious charges which De Viane once brought against Hammett—charges which the crime writer never contested in court—doubtlessly would have induced a category five twitterstorm and killed off his career ninety years later, in the year 2021. (Apropos of present-day Twitter scandals, in a couple of Hammett novels, The Dain Curse and The Thin Man, the author with his morbid interest in cannibalism oddly recalls disgraced actor Armie Hammer, who has been similarly targeted of late with a rape allegation.) In this article I attempt to redress the balance and look at a question which Hammett’s many biographers have never, to my knowledge, addressed: whatever happened to Elise De Viane?

Despite the legion of admirers that Dashiell Hammett still claims in the twenty-first century, as we approach the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of his first trailblazing crime story in Black Mask, one can easily make the case that the legendary hard-boiled author was, his undeniably impressive writing achievements notwithstanding, something of a bastard. For, after all, “Dash” was an adulterous womanizer and mean drunk; a family man who left his family; a spendthrift who neglected to pay his taxes while preaching the blessings of Communism; and, above all, if you indeed care about his writing, a fritterer away of his glorious natural talent amid a welter of inglorious debauched excesses.
In a notice in the New York Times Book Review of Diane Johnson’s 1983 biography, the esteemed late Columbia University English professor George Stade bluntly—and occasionally offensively—laid it on the line concerning the shadier side of Hammett’s character:

He made over a million dollars, but he spent and gave away more than he made. He surrounded himself with loungers and spongers, with a chauffeur, a cook, a factotum, with secretaries (some of whom had to sue him for back wages), with actresses (he had walked out on his wife and two daughters, who never got to see much of his money), with call girls…, with women writers (first Nell Martin, then Lillian Hellman, whom he met in 1931). He had his own table at swanky restaurants and charge accounts at fashionable stores. He ran up huge hotel bills and then snuck out without paying. He lost large sums playing poker and betting on the ponies.

Above all, he drank. When drunk the otherwise untalkative Hammett became noisy and argumentative. He made scenes, broke windows, tyrannized waiters, slugged women, made plays for his friends’ wives and passed out flat on his face, in barrooms, in living rooms, in publishers’ offices, on streets. He died broke, owing the Government $163,286.48, plus interest, in back taxes [about 1.4 million dollars today].

More recently, in Steven Gore’s “Unbecoming Dashiell Hammett,” a penetrating review article on Nathan Ward’s 2015 biography The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, Gore categorically characterized Hammett as “a consistent and unrepentant liar, a betrayer, a humiliator of women, a strikebreaker, a batterer, a tormentor of the helpless, an attempted rapist, a fraudster and a tax evader….” To top it all off, George Stade noted back in 1983, this supremely self-indulgent and self-destructive man apparently became, sometime around 1937, a devoted member of the Communist Party and, like many others in the American artistic community at the time, both in Hollywood and elsewhere, “damn well towed the line” in the face of manifold contrary evidence, twisting his moral views around like a pretzel to stay in accord with whatever “truth” was being laid down at the moment, as ruthlessly dictated by Soviet dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin. Hammett’s ideological commitment to Communism laid the predicate for the shameful persecution which he would suffer at the hands of the U.S. government some fourteen years later in the midst of the McCarthy Era, when on account of his political conscience he was continually harassed and ultimately jailed for nearly six months.

***

There is much that could be said about the contradictory and often unsavory aspects of Hammett’s character (as well as his better qualities), but here I consider the disreputable episode in Hammett’s life from the summer of 1931, after the money from the books and the film adaptations had started flowing into the hard-boiled novelist’s coffers and he had begun really to enjoy what is so often facilely termed the good life. It was earlier in 1931 that the thirty-six-year-old Hammett, having left his wife Josephine and daughters for good a couple of years earlier, commenced a longtime on-and-off romantic relationship with Lillian Hellman, then a married twenty-five-year-old LA film script reader; yet being involved with Hellman did not put a stop to the high living author’s affairs with additional women. On visits to their father’s suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Hammett’s two daughters, Mary and Jo, often encountered their father’s many lady friends. Mary, the elder of the two girls, told her sister not to mention these ladies to mother.

The latest of Dash’s women—who, according to 2014 Hammett biographer Sally Cline, had “met and charmed” the youngsters while they were on a shopping trip with Hammett to find a gift for their mother—was Elise De Viane, whom Cline terms an “exotic starlet.” Hammett’s earlier biographer Diane Johnson wrote that Mary Hammett recalled “the ravishing but silent Miss De Viane.” (How the ravishing but silent Elise charmed Mary and Jo without speaking, to attempt to square these two accounts, is unclear.) For her part, Joan Mellen provides a slightly more detailed account than either Cline or Johnson, describing De Viane as “slim, elegant and exotic, with ashen pale skin and silky dresses.” She mentions the shopping excursion too, writing, rather repetitively in terms of her adjectives: “On one occasion [Hammett] took Elise on a shopping trip for a present for [Josephine], with the little girls tagging along. Elise was elegant, exotic, very slender.  Mellen tells us that Hammett bought his estranged wife a lamp, in case you were wondering. Presumably Cline drew her account from Mellen’s book, where the source that is given for it is Mellen’s interview with Hammett’s daughter Jo, yet Jo herself mentions nothing about Elise, understandably, in her moving 1999 memoir about her relationship with her famous flawed father, Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers.

Whatever part she may have played in the affair of the store lamp, “exotic starlet” Elise De Viane soon found herself taking the lead female role in a scandal that in today’s culture likely would have crushed Hammett’s career like a burnt-out cigarette butt. Below are the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them accounts of the incident from Cline, Mellen and Johnson:

With an exotic starlet, Elise De Viane, [Hammett] went too far….During winter 1931-1932, Dashiell invited Elise to supper in his hotel room. Later, she called the police and had him charged with assault, claiming that Hammett had raped and beaten her. She sued him for $35,000 in damages in California’s Superior Court. On June 30, 1932, he was found guilty in absentia, and the New York Times reported Elise was rewarded $2500. (Cline, 2014)

One night, only months after he met Lillian, Dash invited Elise to his hotel room for dinner. Later she called the police. After dinner, she claimed, he had raped her and beat her. She sued him for $35,000 in damages in Superior Court. He would not defend himself. (Mellen, 1996)

Elise was, as events proved, a real old-fashioned girl. One night after dinner at his place, he knocked her around a little. Sober, later, this scared him. And now she was charging him with assault and asking for damages. (Johnson, 1983)

These and other secondary sources are inconsistent as to the dates of the original occurrence and the litigation which arose out of it, because there are newspaper reports concerning the lawsuit from both 1931 and 1932. The first crop of news accounts dates from August 5/6, 1931 and generally states that actress Elise De Viane had sued Hammett for $36,700 in damages on account of his allegedly having beaten her during an altercation which took place at his hotel suite on either the fourteenth or twenty-fourth of July (just weeks after the premier of the first film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon). Yet the case does not appear ato have actually gone to trial until nearly a year later, on June 29, 1932, when, after Hammett had failed to appear in court (being nearly three thousand miles away in New York) and Elise had taken the stand to testify against him, Judge Joseph McCall found for the plaintiff and awarded Elise $2500 in damages, an amount reduced by 93% from that which Elise originally had sought. (In modern value this is a reduction roughly from $687,000 to $47,000.) What price virtue?

After Hammett failed to pay any of the reduced judgment—he seems to have had the same casual attitude toward civil suit damages that he had to taxes—Elise managed successfully to garnish the wages of the recalcitrant author, who was now working on screenplays for the series of films based on his smash 1934 novel The Thin Man. “Miss Deviane caught up with me and so my paycheck is sewed up,” Hammett laconically informed Lillian Hellman, “but I hope to get it fixed up tomorrow so that only a little is taken out each week—if $300 a week for nine weeks can be called a little. But I’m stuck for it so I suppose there’s no use bellyaching.” Hammett wrote this missive, which was collected in 2001 in the Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, co-edited by Richard Layman and Hammett’s granddaughter Julie M. Rivett, in November 1934, more than two years after he had lost the uncontested lawsuit; characteristically, he had kept Elise waiting for her compensation for quite some time. Was it because he genuinely deemed himself innocent of Elise’s charges or because he simply was a heel, hound, swine—or any of those other colorfully damning derogatory adjectives from the day—who had grown mortally weary of a woman whom he had, to quote the poem of his which headlines this article, “lengthily wooed”?

In her memoir Jo Hammett recalls that her father’s compulsive drinking infected him with “a kind of lashing-out desperation that scared me to death. I couldn’t understand how anyone so funny and kind could turn so awful; why a man who cared for his privacy and dignity so much would trash them.” She insists that Hammett never became violent in her presence when he was drunk, yet of course she cannot—and she does not attempt to—speculate as to the experiences of other individuals, like Elise De Viane, who had the misfortune to be with her father when he had delved too deeply into the dregs of his cups.

Concerning the question of Hammett’s capacity for violence, there is no doubt whatsoever in Elise’s version of events.

Concerning the question of Hammett’s capacity for violence, there is no doubt whatsoever in Elise’s version of events. As the San Francisco Examiner of August 5, 1931 stated, “Miss De Viane alleged Hammett struck her many blows.” Additionally, Joan Mellen claims that in 1947 Hammett, attempting to look after his troubled elder daughter Mary (now well into her twenties), on one occasion when inebriated struck her in frustration and “battered her, as he had Elise De Viane, the young Lillian, and other impossible women.” Tragically Mary Hammett was addicted to drink and drugs and was recklessly promiscuous, but if Hammett had really deemed Elise “impossible” sixteen years earlier on that fateful evening in 1931 it was, conversely, on account of her abstemiousness.

Obviously none of these accounts puts Hammett in a good light, but in the versions given by Cline and Mellen (Cline presumably draws hers substantially from Mellen), Elise claimed that Hammett raped her, while in her “authorized” version of events, Johnson writes dismissively that he simply “knocked her around a little.” (Does one detect the guiding hand of Lillian Hellman here, as in the omitted account of Elise and Dash’s shopping trip?) Contemporary newspaper accounts, while never using the word rape, make clear that Elise was accusing Hammett of having committed sexual assault and battery upon her. According to “the girl’s story,” reported the San Francisco Examiner, for example, “Hammett made violent love to her, then beat her” when she resisted his advances. Both Cline and Mellen also claim that Elise called the police at the time of the alleged assault at Hammett’s suite, although I have not seen a newspaper account stating that the LA police were brought into the affair. Mentions by Hammett biographers Richard Layman and William F. Nolan are even more cursory and unhelpful on this matter. In his later critical biography of Hammett, English crime writer Julian Symons does not even bother mentioning Elise De Viane by her name, simply referring to her as, yes, “a starlet.” Symons notes that Elise “was awarded $2500 in damages instead of the $35,000 for which she had asked,” thereby seemingly implying there might have been something dodgy about her claim.

Surprisingly, given Dashiell Hammett’s growing celebrity as a crime writer, the report of the judgment against him received only the scantest of mentions in the New York Times, and few details from the trial seem ever to have leaked into the press. (Perhaps Hammett declined to contest the lawsuit not out of some sense of belated chivalry, as some of his biographers seem to suggest, but precisely in order to avoid the publicity which inevitably would have followed a courtroom appearance and attendant testimony on his part.) However, in some papers Elise was quoted as having testified in court that she had called at Hammett’s suite to have dinner. As recounted by her, it hardly seems that she could have had a sexual tryst in mind when she knocked on Dash’s door, having brought with her a young child. “I was accompanied by my niece, Eleanor Gerg, seven years old,” Elise explained. “Mr. Hammett was very drunk and he insisted on my drinking. I refused and he tried to make love to me. I resisted and he carried me into the bathroom. I fought him off and he beat me.” (Eleanor was born on July 22, 1922 and thus actually was either eight or nine, depending on whether the incident took place on July 14 or July 24; poignantly the attack may have taken place two days after the little girl’s birthday.)

Suggesting the vastly different environment of that day, a writer for one newspaper, the Manhattan (Kansas) Republic, flippantly quipped of the alleged sexual assault and battery: “Dashiell Hammett, novelist, was ordered by a court to pay $2500 damages to Miss Elsie de Viane, actress, who charged he made violent love to her, then beat her. Probably he was only studying her reactions and getting material for a modern novel.” In its account the LA Times referred, only slightly less blithely, to “the asserted fervid love makings of Dashiell Hammett.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune drolly speculated that Hammett had been “too literal is his stories about strong-arm gangsters.” The implication seemed to be that if a woman finds herself in a hotel room alone with a soused and sexually aroused crime writer (the presence of Elise’s young niece seemingly was forgotten), she has only herself to blame for the consequences.

Newspapers often did not even bother to get Elise’s name quite right—the cardinal sin, we are told, against the calculating Hollywood publicity seeker. As you can see, the Manhattan Republic dubbed Elise “Elsie.” This may be merely a typesetter’s careless transposition of two letters (I did it myself while typing this article), yet there are more egregious examples. The Wilmington Morning News called Hammett’s putative victim Elsie De Maine, the Oakland Tribune Elsie De Diane, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Elise de Miane and the Detroit Free Press Eliss De Viane. When these various newspaper accounts were gathered on Evan Lewis’ davycrockettsalmanack blog, Lewis responded to a commenter who speculated that Hammett was a precursor to Harvey Weinstein by countering: “Except Hammett was only accused once, and that by a woman with seven different names.” The implication being, I think, that Elise De Viane, or whatever her name might be, was, like Hammett’s fictional femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a chameleon-like lady of doubtful character, making a dubious claim. Should we really hold Elise accountable for a parochial press corps’ spelling errors, however?

***

So who was this ‘exotic’ mystery woman of the ashen pale skin and silky dresses who had the grit to garnish Dashiell Hammett’s wages of sin? Who was Elise De Viane, to use by far the most common of her many newspaper appellations? Surprisingly, no one among Hammett’s cadre of biographers seems to have tried to find answers to this question, despite the fact that Elise had made a most damning accusation against Hammett’s character. In his incisive, no-holds-barred article “Unbecoming Dashiell Hammett,” Steven Gore chastises Hammett biographer Nathan Ward for suggesting that there is legitimate doubt over the question of whether Hammett actually committed sexual assault in 1931, stating that since the allegation that Hammett “battered and attempted to rape actress Elise de Viane” went unrebutted by the author, we are thereby compelled to deem it true. Certainly the facts which we have, bare and paltry as they may be, are damning to the hardboiled crime writer.

Can we go farther than this and try to add to the few known facts, however? Can we not at least attempt to recover some pieces of Elise? Was she just another one of Hammett’s countless “loose women,” as Joan Mellen offhandedly put it in a 2009 lecture—a disposable element in the larger timeless story of a great man’s rise to fame and, for a time, fortune? Personally, I think we owe it to history to probe the matter further, however uncomfortable that probing may be, and ask some more searching questions. First, just who was Elise, really?

All we are ever told, essentially, is that Elise De Viane was an “exotic starlet,” or dismissive variations thereof. As far as the woman’s calling goes, an amusing 1929 newspaper item about pretentiously ornate stage names adopted by chorus girls indicates that Elise was contracted to First National Pictures, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers:

Broadway or Hollywood, chorus girls simply will have their fancy names.
Here are a few selected at random from the First National-Vitaphone Chorus: Madelin Dorraine, Sugar Geiss, Diana Verne, Day Porter, Elise de Viane, Bonnie Winslow, Vivian Du Vaud, Doriane Wilde, Fleata Crawford, and—believe or not!—Lotis Dear!

So it turns out that “exotic starlet” Elise De Viane had been hoofing it in the Hollywood chorus line two years before she met Dashiell Hammett. She likely would have appeared uncredited in some of the frippery all-talking musical films which were then the rage with the movie going public. A prime example is Broadway Babies (1929), about a feisty Broadway chorus girl, Delight Foster, who becomes engaged to her stage manager, Billy Buvanney, only to resolve to marry a dodgy French Canadian bootlegger after she and Billy have a tiff. (Complications ensue.) As an uncredited extra Elise definitely appeared in the part of a café patron in the hit 1929 film The Desert Song, which was based on a 1926 operetta with a book by Oscar Hammerstein and exotically set in Morocco. (She may be one of the brunette women seated at the table on which leading lady Carlotta King stands while warbling the sprightly “French Marching Song.”) The next year Elise was residing at the famed Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, which had just opened the previous year and catered to people in the film industry. In the census taken that year she listed her occupation as “motion pictures actress,” which sounds higher-toned than chorus girl or film extra, to be sure. Yet by this time Elise was thirty-one years old, which made her a bit long in the tooth for an aspiring exotic starlet. Doubtlessly it was for this reason that Elise had shaved five years off her age, claiming to the census taker to be only twenty-five.

Whatever little white lies Elise may have told about herself, however, she was not fibbing about her true name, which really was Elise De Viane, or more accurately Elise De Viaene. Elise was born in Ghent, Belgium in 1899, and first came to the United States as a child with her family aboard the SS Zeeland in 1910, settling in Chicago. (In direct contrast with Agatha Christie’s fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot, however, she claimed in 1930 that she was not Belgian, but French.) She was the daughter of John Alphonse and Marie De Viaene and had a younger sister named Louise, who did not follow her sister’s path into the movies.

Although when Alphonse De Viaene migrated to the United States he listed his occupation as “baker,” he was employed in Chicago in 1910 as a gardener, while later in life he worked as a janitor. A 1922 passport photograph of Alphonse shows a handsome, well-preserved gentleman of fifty-four years of age, with blue eyes, an oval chin, a retroussé nose and dark gray hair. He bears a certain gravitas that one sees in photos of Hammett himself, who through his own preferred parent, his mother, claimed French Huguenot ancestry—although in marked contrast with the lanky detective writer, Alphonse stood only a diminutive 5’5.” Like Hammett as well, Alphonse was a father of two girls. What did he and his wife Mary, both of whom survived into the late 1930s, make of their elder daughter’s troubles in paradise? Presumably they were in her camp, for in September 1932, just a couple of months after Elise had won her case against Hammett, the Los Angeles Evening Post-Record noted that she had returned home to the Knickerbocker after a month long visit with her parents in Chicago, accompanied by her niece Eleanor, who had spent another California summer with her aunt, who seems to have functioned as something of a surrogate mother for the girl.

Back in 1920 “exotic” Elise, who left school after the seventh grade, had prosaically bundled clothes at a tailor’s shop. Her sister Louise, who then was employed as a nursemaid to a wealthy Jewish family engaged in the advertising business, stayed in Chicago for the next two decades, successively marrying Scandinavian-Americans Henry Olaf Lawson, a self-employed carpenter nearly twenty years her senior from whom she soon parted ways, and Albert Alaric “Alex” Berg, an automobile accessories salesman. Before her divorce from Lawson, Louise gave birth to a daughter, Eleanor Jean, who is the Eleanor “Gerg”—actually Berg of course—who figured in the Hammett case. Eleanor Berg was just four years older than Hammett’s favored daughter, Jo, whom Elise had befriended, along with her sister Mary, on that shopping excursion for the lamp. How less considerately Hammett appears to have treated young Eleanor Berg that fateful night at his hotel suite. In this century he might have been charged with child endangerment as well as sexual assault.

By 1929 Elise had made the classic trek halfway across the country to Hollywood, like so many other starry-eyed dreamers in the Twenties and Thirties. She never achieved any notable success there, her biggest claim to fame evidently being that she narrowly avoided getting raped by the leading founding father of hard-boiled crime fiction. In 1936, a couple of years after she finally started collecting damages from Hammett, Elise resided in Los Angeles at 555 North Rossmore Avenue, next to the noted art deco apartment building known as The Ravenswood, where famed risqué actress Mae West occupied the penthouse for half a century. That year Elise, now thirty-seven, at Santa Ana, California wed Hollywood agent Max Shagrin, who was nearing the age of fifty. A mellifluous-voiced and kindly-eyed native Slovakian Jew, Max Shagrin, along with his twin brother Joe, had managed a theater in Youngstown, Ohio before moving out to California to run a chain of San Francisco theaters for Warner Brothers.

After relocating to LA, where he too resided for a time at The Knickerbocker, and setting up business for himself as the Max Shagrin Agency, Max established a successful clientele including child actress Jane Withers, film foil to Shirley Temple and later beloved television commercial pitchwoman “Josephine the Plumber,” and George Tobias, who attained his greatest fame as perennial newspaper reader Abner Kravitz on television’s long running hit comedy series Bewitched. Max unfortunately was less successful with a skinny nineteen-year-old named Tyrone Power. He advised the handsome young hopeful to gain both weight and experience.

In 1968 Elise De Viane celebrated her birthday at the Garden Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, first opened during the Hollywood Golden Age in 1927, but now, like so much of old Hollywood, in a sad state of decline. (She was then sixty-nine, whatever age she may have admitted to.) Six years later Elise died in Los Angeles at the age of seventy-five, just a few years after Max, from whom it appears that she had parted ways as long ago as 1942. As, presumably, a Roman Catholic and, as Diane Johnson perhaps ironically put it, “a real old-fashioned girl,” Elise may have secured an annulment of her marriage, rather than a divorce. When I recently communicated with descendants of Max’s brother, Joe, none of them professed any knowledge that Max had ever been married. “We all thought he was gay,” commented a great-niece of Max’s to me when told of his long-ago matrimony, though his great-nephew discounts that notion. Surely Elise in her forties still possessed sufficient sexual allure for many men, for in 1943 she appeared in the same extra “café patron” role in the Oscar-nominated remake of The Desert Song, a sufficiently odd circumstance to make it into the newspapers, in a brief article cruelly headlined “From Rags to Rags.” Certainly Elise’s career had stalled, or, more accurately, never really gotten off the ground in the first place.

Evidently no journalist or writer with an ambitious research project ever came to Elise De Viane before her death in 1975 to dredge up foul, four-decades old memories of the frightful 1931 affray with Dashiell Hammett, despite the author’s continuing fame. The crime writer’s posthumous career had been decidedly on the upswing after a collection of his stories, The Big Knockover, had been published in 1966, five years after his death, complete with a moving (if not always necessarily truthful) introduction by Lillian Hellman. With her characteristic guile and deception, Hellman had wrested control of Hammett’s literary estate (and most of the profits therefrom) from his widow and two daughters—his rightful heirs, given that the Hammetts’ 1937 Mexican mail-order divorce had no legal standing in the United States.

In 1940 Elise’s niece—Eleanor Lawson she now called herself, her mother Louise, now an apartment manager at 837 West Wolfram in Chicago, having divorced Eleanor’s stepfather Alex Berg several years previously—was a high school senior living in LA with her aunt and Uncle Max at 7660 Hollywood Boulevard at the 1936 tile-roofed, Mediterranean-style townhouse which the couple rented. In 1946 Eleanor resided in Conoga Park in the San Fernando Valley, whether or not with her Aunt Elise I do not know. Eleanor died at the age of fifty-two at Laguna Beach in 1975 (a year after Elise), apparently having never married, but Louise, who had also moved out to California and wed yet again in 1943 (to carpenter Charles Kendall Marks, eight years younger than she), survived to the advanced age of ninety-five, expiring near the end of the twentieth century in 1997, by which time the full-scale Hammett revival was roaring along, with no fewer than four biographies about the great man having been published (five if one counts Joan Mellen’s Hellman-Hammett opus).

Long before that, on December 22, 1928, Louise by her second husband Alex Berg had given birth to a son, a half-brother of Eleanor’s named Ronald, who may, for all I know, still be alive today. In a twist which no doubt would have pleased the dormant writer in Dashiell Hammett (although the scenario more resembles something from the mind of James M. Cain), in 1934, when Ronald was just five years old, his father’s immediately younger brother, an ex-con named Gustav Adolf Berg, performed a brutal contract hit on a woman near the town of Manchester, Iowa, at the behest of her husband, Reginald Tracy, and his younger paramour, the memorably named Flossie Fear, eluding the net of the police even as the criminal couple was brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to death and life imprisonment respectively. The fate of the vanished Adolf Berg remains unknown today, although some say that with poetic justice, soon after the crime, the hardened killer was robbed of the two hundred dollar down payment he had received for his hit and was himself nastily murdered, his body dumped a couple of hundred feet down an Iowa sinkhole. Perhaps true crime writers and Hammett biographers alike would do well to get on the neglected trail of Elise De Viane’s nephew, Ronald Berg, before it grows literally as cold as the grave.

 

For Further Reading 

Steven Gore, “Unbecoming Hammett,” LA Review of Books, 15 September 2015

Nathan Ward, The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Sally Cline, Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (Arcade, 2014)

Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett (eds.), Dashiell Hammett, Selected Letters, 1921-1960 (Counterpoint, 2001)

Jo Hammett, Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers (Carroll and Graf, 1999)

Joan Mellen, Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett (HarperCollins, 1996)

Julian Symons, Dashiell Hammett (Harcourt, 1985)

Diane Johnson, Dashiell Hammett: A Life (Random House, 1983)

William F. Nolan, Hammett: A Life at the Edge (Congdon & Weed, 1983)

Richard Layman, Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981)

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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