Dashiell Hammett & Lillian Hellman

updated 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

Lillian Hellman was a 25-year-old aspiring screenwriter when she met Dashiell Hammett, 36 and already gray-haired, in a Hollywood restaurant in 1930, the year he published his greatest mystery, The Maltese Falcon. They embarked on what would turn out to be three tumultuous decades together, living high, writing intensely and experiencing, as she put it, "the pleasure of each other." They eventually got rid of their respective spouses.

"Dash" and Lillian were quick-witted, sharp-tongued and, in the early years, excessively fond of martinis. There are traces of them in Nick and Nora Charles, the sleuths in Hammett's 1932 classic The Thin Man, but with none of the Art Deco decorum. Hellman once smashed up the bar of a house where Hammett had assignations. And when Hellman asked for advice on her 1951 play The Autumn Garden, he read it and flung it in her face. "If you want to write like a hack," he snarled, "go live with someone else!"

"It was heavy going for them," says author and Hellman biographer Peter Feibleman, who became her lover after Hammett's death in 1961, "slugging it out and understanding what the rules were." Neither was interested in marriage or monogamy. "But there's a difference between infidelity and betrayal," says Feibleman, "and they knew it." They stood by each other, most courageously during the Communist witch-hunts of the '50s. Hammett, a former Party member, was proud to serve six months in federal prison in Ashland, Ky. Hellman, who supported leftist causes but never enlisted, "asked Hammett if he wanted her to go too," says Feibleman. "He told her, 'No. You'll die there. You have strength, not stamina. I have stamina.' "

When he lost his stamina in a battle with lung cancer beginning in 1956, she installed a bed on the library floor of her Manhattan brownstone and nursed him until his death five years later.

Hellman, who died at age 79 in 1984, remained single. In the '40s, when one of her flings was threatening to turn permanent, she went to Hammett with her decision. "Well," she informed the writer, "I decided not to marry him." Hammett answered, "You needn't have bothered. I never would have let you."

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