Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett
Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett

Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett.

From 1937 until 1952, Lillian Hellman owned Hardscrabble Farm in Mount Pleasant, and she relished her time there. Mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, with whom she shared a 30-year relationship, was a permanent houseguest. He too loved the farm in Westchester. In 1970 Hellman returned to Westchester because "Toys in the Attic" was being produced by a community group in Chappaqua. At that time she disclosed to a reporter that her years on the farm "were the best of her life," adding regretfully that she "would never have any of this beautiful hardscrabble land again."

Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett made an interesting couple—they drank, they fought, they had affairs with other people and then lied to each other about them, but throughout, they were totally devoted to each other in their own odd way. She depended on his guidance in her writing, and he depended on her for support. Hammett suffered from ongoing health problems, and by the time Hellman bought the farm, he had encountered what seemed to be insurmountable writer's block.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett.

Dashiell Hammett became well known for creating a new subgenre of crime fiction, featuring a dark world of hard-boiled detectives who lived by their own code of honor. Though he wrote successfully for only about a decade and a half, his style had a huge influence on mid-20th-century America, launching comic strips, radio shows and movies.

As an adolescent Hammett took various jobs to help support his family, and by age 20, he was working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which was to provide him with a wealth of information for plot lines. He eventually wrote some 90 short stories and five novels. His two best-known works are The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, partially because they were developed into movie or television scripts multiple times. Humphrey Bogart, the iconic actor of the era, made his breakthrough as a leading man by starring as Sam Spade in the 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon.

Hellman was born into a Jewish family in New Orleans. Her childhood years were split between New Orleans and New York. After high school, she took some courses at New York University and Columbia, but she dropped out in 1925 to marry Arthur Kober, a playwright and press agent. Kober's work took them to Los Angeles, where Lillian got a job as a script reader. She also met and fell in love with Dashiell Hammett. Kober and Hellman soon divorced, and Hellman and Hammett returned to New York together, although they would never marry.

At Hammett's urging, Hellman created a play based on a court case Hammett had read, which concerned two lesbian teachers whose relationship was revealed by a student. In 1934 "The Children's Hour" was her first Broadway hit. A good number of hits followed, and Hellman solidified her place as the leading female playwright of the American stage.

The Farm

Hellman bought a 130-acre estate in 1939 from Richard M. Lederer for under $40,000. Located in Mount Pleasant, sandwiched between Pleasantville, Briarcliff and Chappaqua, near the Saw Mill River Parkway, Hardscrabble Farm was a perfect sanctuary where Hellman and Hammett could escape the hectic pace of Broadway. Living on the farm enabled them to work, write and live together in a way that they had never been able to before.

The main farmhouse, built in 1810, was a rambling two-and-a-half story home with six bedrooms and five fireplaces. The grounds included a six-room caretaker's cottage, two guesthouses, a game house with a ping-pong table and a bar, a stone smokehouse and a stable. There was also an eight-acre man-made spring-fed lake with three islands.

Previous owners had created bridle paths, an elaborate Japanese rock garden, orchards of fruit trees, a grape arbor and vegetable gardens, which Lillian particularly loved. Privacy was an important element of the property. Even today, with the changes that have occurred with the property being subdivided, the main residence is set back and not visible from the road.

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman.

In her memoir, Pentimento, Hellman wrote: "We raised and sold poodles, very fashionable then, until we had enough profit to buy chickens. I took the money I got from the movie script of "The Little Foxes" and bought cattle and 3,000 plants of asparagus we bleached white and sold at great prices. We crossbred ducks that nobody liked but me; stocked the lake with bass and pickerel, raised good pigs and made good money with them, and lost that money on pheasants; made some of it back with the first giant tomatoes, the sale of young lambs and rich pasteurized milk." She hired a farmer to handle major operational responsibilities, but Lillian loved being out doing projects. She often helped milk the cows and tend the vegetable gardens.

Author Joan Mellon explored the couples' life together throughout their relationship in her excellent dual biography, Hellman and Hammett, published in 1996, which offers insight into their life at Hardscrabble Farm. Though Hellman and Hammett slept in separate wings of the house and often went their own ways while living there, there were also aspects of the property they enjoyed together. They both enjoyed fishing in the lake, and Lillian bought turtle traps that Dash tended; she then made turtle soup.

Both Hellman and Hammett had drinking problems, but she had long periods of sobriety at the farm. Hammett eventually took his doctor's words seriously, and by his last years there, had totally given up drinking.

All aspects of Hellman's life were peppered with various forms of unpleasantries, and life at Hardscrabble Farm was not spared. In 1944 Hellman appeared before the Mount Pleasant Town Board to make a very justifiable complaint about her house not being included in any fire district; she also voiced upset about hunters coming onto her property, and she griped that the repaved road leading to her farm was still too bumpy. The only complaint that the town board deigned to acknowledge was the concern about the hunters trespassing; they suggested she contact the police and refused to take up her other issues.

Hellman was an excellent cook and enjoyed entertaining. Visitors to the farm included Tallulah Bankhead, George Kaufman, Moss Hart, Archibald MacLeish, Paul Robeson, Dorothy Parker and Norman Mailer. Hellman's first husband, Arthur Kober, along with his new wife and daughter, were also frequent guests.

In An Unfinished Woman, the first of her three autobiographies, Hellman wrote of life on the farm: "At night, good-tired from writing, or spring planting, or cleaning chicken houses or autumn hunting, I would test my reading on Dash, who had years before in his usual fashion read all the books I was reading and a great deal more."

Trouble Enters Their World

Both Hellman and Hammett had been politically active at various times in their lives. Along with other writers, they had joined in the outcry against fascism during the Spanish Civil War, and both had joined the American Communist Party in the late 1930s, though Hellman suspended her membership after a couple of years. As a result, Hellman and Hammett were both called before Congress at various points when committees were investigating the "subversive" activities of Americans. Hammett refused to testify, and Hellman's statement read: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group."

In 1951 Hammett was called to appear before a federal judge and asked to reveal names of people who had donated to a bail fund that was being used to help defend those who had committed actions construed as an attempt to overthrow the government. Hammett refused to cooperate, and he was sentenced to six months in federal prison for contempt. He served his time in Kentucky. Hammett never complained about his jail time, but imprisonment worsened his health.

When he was released, Lillian came to meet him at the airport, but when she saw him, she stayed out of sight—he was running to the bathroom, looking quite ill, and she didn't want him to know she had seen him in such a weakened state. On the ride from the airport to New York City, Hellman had bad news for Hammett. She, too, had been taken on by the government. The IRS was complaining that Hardscrabble Farm was nothing more than a hobby, and her tax deductions were therefore not valid. To pay the $110,000 the government claimed she owed, she would have to sell the farm.

With all this going on, Hammett was blacklisted. His books were put out-of-print, and any plans for movies based on them were scrapped. During this time, Hellman bought the copyrights for his work, which denied his daughters by an earlier marriage any sort of inheritance. (Though the daughters had been raised by their mother, as young adults they established a relationship with their father. Had he fully understood what happened, it probably would have distressed him.)

Entrance to Hardscrabble Farm

Entrance to Hardscrabble Farm. Courtesy Patrick Raftery.

The 1950s and After

Though Hammett initially returned to New York City, he soon had to give up his apartment. He made arrangements with Dr. Sam Rosen in Westchester to move into the Rosens' carriage house for a time. His last years, however, were spent in Hellman's east-side apartment in the City. She looked after him until his death in 1961.

Over the course of her career, Hellman won a nomination for an Academy Award for her film adaptation of her play, "The Little Foxes," two New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, a Gold Medal from the Academy of Arts and Letters for Distinguished Achievements in the Theater and a National Book Award for An Unfinished Woman. She was quite taken with the youth activism on campuses during the Vietnam War years and accepted several visiting teaching positions (one at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers), hoping to further inspire change.

As for Hardscrabble Farm, though most of the property has been developed as part of the Hardscrabble Lake Development, George and Ellen Hodor have owned the main house and surrounding 12 acres for the past 30 years. They have been worthy caretakers of the property Hellman and Hammett so loved.