Wednesday, June 17, 2020

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

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," by Dashiell Hammett (The Bookman, September 1927)

For all the admirers landmark crime writer Dashiell Hammett has today (I count myself among their number), one can make the case, as one can with the similarly legendary crime writer Raymond Chandler (another favorite of mine), that the man, however impressive were his writing achievements (and they were), was, well, something of a bastard.  For, after all, Hammett was a compulsive womanizer and nasty drunk; a family man who left his family; a spendthrift who neglected to pay his taxes while he lectured others about the blessings of Communism; and, above all, if you care about his writing, a fritterer away of his glorious natural talents in inglorious debauched excess. 

A 1982 review of a Hammett biography in the New York Times Book Review bluntly lays Hammett's unpleasant attributes on the line:

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 (he liked black and Oriental [sic!] prostitutes best), 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.  

Then around 1937 this self-indulgent and self-destructive man apparently became a devoted member of the Communist Party and, like many others in the artistic community at the time, "damn well towed the line" in the face of manifold contrary evidence, twisting his views around like a pretzel to stay in accord with whatever was the party line being laid down at the time, as dictated by Soviet dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin.  Hammett's commitment to Communism laid the predicate for the shameful persecution he would suffer at the hands of the U. S. government some fourteen years later, when he was continually harassed and ultimately jailed for nearly six months.

There are some points I would like to discuss about that later period in Hammett's life, but here I want to look at an episode from the summer of 1931, after the money from the book and film adaptations had begun flowing into Hammett's coffers and he had begun really to enjoy what is facilely termed the good life.

It was in 1931 that Hammett, having left his wife and daughters several years earlier, met, and commenced a longtime, on and off again, relationship with writer Lillian Hellman.  Being involved with Hellman did not put a stop to Hammett's casual affairs with other women, however.  One of these causal affairs would have consequences--though they were not so consequential as they would have been today, one imagines.

Elise De Viane's native Belgian father
Alphonse (1867-1939), who
brought his family to America in 1910
On visits to their father's suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Hammett's two daughters Mary and Jo, frequently encountered his many lady friends.  Mary, the elder of the two girls, would tell her sister not to mention these ladies to their mother.  The latest lady friend--who, according to Hammett biographer Sally Cline, had "met and charmed" the girls while they were on a shopping trip to find a gift for their mother--was one "Elise De Viane," whom Cline terms an "exotic starlet."  An earlier Hammett biographer, Diane Johnson, wrote that Mary Hammett remembered "the ravishing but silent Miss De Viane."  (How the ravishing but silent Elise charmed Mary and Jo without ever speaking, to square these two accounts, is unclear.)

Exotic starlet Elise De Viane played the leading role in a scandal that, in today's culture, might well have then and there crushed out Hammett's career like a burnt-out cigarette butt. Let me quote the separate accounts of the shocking incident that are made Sally Cline and Diana Johnson:

Ambassador Hotel, where Elise said Hammett's
violent sexual assault upon her had been committed
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)

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 notes that after Hammett failed to pay the judgment (he seems to have had the same attitude toward civil suit damages that he had to taxes), Elise successfully garnished his wages.  "Miss Deviane caught up with me and so my paycheck is sewed up," Hammett laconically wrote 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."  This letter was written in November 1934, over two years after he had lost the lawsuit, so he kept Elise waiting for quite some time.

Needless to say neither of these accounts put Hammett in a good light, but in Cline's version Hammett is charged with rape, in Johnson's with knocking Elise around "a little."  Cline also claims that Elise called the police at the time of the alleged assault at Hammett's suite (which was said to have taken place on July 14, 1931, not the winter of 1931-32 as Cline vaguely states), but I have never seen a newspaper account stating that.  As I have deciphered it, on August 5, 1931, Elise brought a civil suit against Hammett in the California Superior Court for battery committed on her person by the author, asking $36,700 in damages (over $600,000 today).  As noted above, she won her suit, with Hammett not even appearing in court to contest it, but she had to settle for $2500, or about $42,000 in modern dollars.  To the victor, for whatever reason, went much reduced spoils.

Why so serious?
Dashiell Hammett in 1933
Surprisingly, given Hammett's increasing celebrity as a popular and prestigious 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 ever seem to have leaked into the press.  Elise was quoted, however, as testifying that she had called at Hammett's apartment to have dinner.  As recounted by her, it hardly seems that she could have had in mind a steamy sexual tryst when she knocked on Dash's door: "I was accompanied by my niece, Eleanor Gerg, seven years old....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 into the bathroom.  I fought him off and he beat me."

Giving some notion of the different environment of that day, a writer for one newspaper, the Manhattan (Kansas) Republic, flippantly quipped:

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.  

Newspapers often didn't even get Elise's name right, the cardinal sin, we proverbially hear, against the Hollywood publicity seeker.  As you can see, the Manhattan Republic called her Elsie.  The Wilmington Morning News called her Elsie De Maine.  The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph called her Elsie DeMaine.  The Oakland Tribune called her Elsie De Diane.  The Detroit Free Press called her Eliss De Viane.  When these newspaper stories were methodically gathered earlier this year on Evan Lewis' davycrockettsalmanack blog, Lewis responded to a commenter who speculated from all this that Hammett seems to have been 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 this actress was, like Hammett's femme fatale Brigid O'Shaugnessy, a lady of  doubtful character, making a dubious claim.

So who was Elise De Viane (to use her most common newspaper appellation)?  Surprisingly, no one seems to have tried to find answers to this question, despite the fact that Elsie made rather a damning accusation indeed against Hammett's character.  In "Unbecoming Dashiell Hammett," Steven Gore's 2015 article on Hammett in the LA Review of Books, Gore states that the allegation that Hammett "battered and attempted to rape actress Elise de Viane" went unrebutted by Hammett and thus must be presumed true.  I can't go as far as that myself, but I have to admit the facts which we have, paltry as they are, seem extremely damning to Hammett. 

Can't we go farther and add to the facts, however?  Can't we at least try to find out whatever happened to Elise De Viane?  Was she just another one of Hammett's "loose women," as Joan Mellen, author of a book on power couple Hammett and Hellman put it in a 2009 lecture?

Knickerbocker Hotel, where Elise was living
when she met Dashiell Hammett
First, just who was she, really?  All we get told is that she was an "exotic starlet," or dismissive variations thereof.  As far as her calling goes, I have been able only to find a 1929 newspaper reference to her being a Hollywood chorus girl contracted to First National Pictures, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, in a brief piece about pretentiously fancy stage names adopted by ladies of the chorus:

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 exotic starlet Elise De Viane was kicking it in the chorus line two years before she met Dashiell Hammett.  In 1930, she was residing at the famed Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel and she gave her occupation as "motion pictures actress," which may have been a bit of hopeful embellishment.  By this time she was already thirty-one years old (four months to the day older than my paternal grandmother, an Oklahoma schoolteacher), which made her a bit elderly, perhaps, for an "exotic starlet."  Probably for this reason she had shaved five years off her age, claiming to be twenty-five.

Gold Diggers of 1935 was one of the later First National pictures

Whatever fibs Elise may have told about herself, however, she was not lying about her name.  It really was Elise De Viane, or more accurately Elise De Viaene.  Later in life it became simply Elise Deviane.  She was born in Ghent, Belgium in 1899, and first came to the United States with her family in 1910, settling in Chicago.  Her parents were John Alphonse and Marie De Viaene and her younger sister Louise.  Although when he immigrated to the United States he listed his occupation as "baker," Alphonse was working in Chicago in 1910 as a garden laborer and later in life as a janitor. 

I included a photograph of Alphonse near the top of this blog post (regrettably I haven't found one of fetching Elise).  A handsome and well-preserved gentleman of fifty-four years of age, the Belgian Alphonse has, I think, that certain gravity and formal bearing which one sees in still photos of Hammett, who through his mother had French Huguenot ancestry--although in marked contrast with Hammett, Alphonse stood only a diminutive 5'5".  Like Hammett, Alphonse was a father of two girls.  What did he make of his elder daughter's troubles in paradise, one wonders?

In 1920, likely not long before she made it out to Hollywood, Elise was prosaically working as a bundler at a tailor's shop.  Louise, who worked 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, and an Alex or Allen Berg, a man in the motor trade.  By Henry Lawson she had a daughter, Eleanor Jean, who is the Eleanor "Gerg" (actually Berg of course) who accompanied her Aunt Elise to Dashiell Hammett's place on a visit out to California, becoming an inadvertent witness, if you believe Elise's account, to her attractive aunt's violent beating and attempted rape at the hands of a drunken and aroused crime writer.

Elise had made the classic trek to Hollywood, like so many other young hopefuls in the Twenties and Thirties.  She never became a star, her biggest claim to fame being, sadly, that she narrowly avoided getting raped by Dashiell Hammett.  By 1940, nine years after the event, she had become a naturalized American citizen and had married Max Shagrin.  A mellifluous-voiced native Slovakian Jew a dozen years older than Elise, Shagrin with his twin brother Joe had managed a theater in Youngstown, Ohio before moving out to California to manage a chain of theaters in San Francisco for Warner Brothers.

the Shagrin brothers (Max, who married Elise, on the left)

By the time he married Elise, Max had moved down to LA (residing at the Knickerbocker), where he had become a successful Hollywood agent.  His stable of clients included child actress Jane Withers, film foil to Shirley Temple, and George Tobias, who later attained fame as Abner Kravitz on television's Bewitched.  Max was less successful with a skinny nineteen year old young man from New York.  He advised this youngster, who had taken the stage name Tyrone Power, to go back home and gain more experience and more weight.

Elise died in Los Angeles in 1974, five years after Max, whom it appears she may have divorced many years earlier.  Evidently no one had ever come to her over the space of more than four decades to dredge up memories of her fateful 1931 affray with Dashiell Hammett, even though the author's reputation had been decidedly on the upswing since a collection of his stories, The  Big Knockover, had been published in 1966, complete with a moving, if not always necessarily truthful, introduction by Lillian Hellman, who had wrested control of Hammett's literary estate (and the profits therefrom) away from his wife and daughters.

In 1940 Elise's niece, Eleanor Lawson (as she now called herself), was a senior in high school and resided out in LA on Sunset Boulevard in the household of Elise and Max.  She died in California a year after her aunt while only in her early fifties, but her mother and Elise's sister Louise, who had also moved out to California and married yet again in 1943 (to Charles Kendall Marks), survived to the age of ninety-five, passing away near the end of the century in 1997, by which time the full scale Hammett revival was roaring along.  Louise had had a son as well, a half-brother of Eleanor's named Ronald Berg, who was born in 1928 and may, for all I know, still be alive.  I advise future Hammett biographers to get on the trail before it's too late!  Inquiring minds want to know.  Or at least your friendly neighborhood Passing Tramp does.

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