BOOKS: LOVERS AND SCOUNDRELS

A DOUBLE BIOGRAPHY PORTRAYS THE STORMY ANTICS OF TWO LITERARY LIONS WHO LOVED, FOUGHT AND MOSTLY LOST

By the time Lillian Hellman died, 12 years ago, she had done all that was humanly possible to shore up the public image she had laboriously fashioned for herself. Biographical details had been eliminated, anecdotes shellacked, letters burned--many of them after she had extracted them from their recipients. As America's most prominent woman playwright (The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes) and the author of various memoirs (Pentimento, Scoundrel Time), Hellman wanted the record closed, and on her terms.

Dashiell Hammett might be called the principal love of Hellman's busy love life. He is credited with inventing the hard-boiled detective with the...

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