Samuel Dashiell Hammett ( May 27, 1894 – January 10, 1961) was an American author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories, a screenplay writer, and political activist. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), and the Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse).
In addition to the significant influence his novels and stories had on film, Hammett “is now widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time”and was called, in his obituary in The New York Times, “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction.” Time magazine included Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest on a list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.
Hammett was born on a farm in St. Mary’s County, in southern Maryland His parents were Richard Thomas Hammett and Anne Bond Dashiell. His mother belonged to an old Maryland family whose name was Anglicized from the French De Chiel. Hammett was baptized a Catholic and grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. “Sam”, as he was known before he began writing, left school when he was 13 years old and held several jobs before working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He served as an operative for the Pinkertons from 1915 to February 1922, with time off to serve in World War I. However, the agency’s role in union strike-breaking eventually disillusioned him.
Hammett enlisted in the Army in 1918 and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps. However, he became ill with the Spanish flu and later contracted tuberculosis. He spent most of his time in the Army as a patient in Cushman Hospital, Tacoma, Washington. While there he met a nurse, Josephine Dolan, whom he later married. Hammett and Dolan had two daugh.ters, Mary Jane (born 15 October 1921) and Josephine (born in 1926). Shortly after the birth of their second child, Health Services nurses informed Dolan that due to Hammett’s TB, she and the children should not live with him full-time Dolan rented a home in San Francisco, where Hammett would visit on weekends. The marriage soon fell apart, but he continued to financially support his wife and daughters with the income he made from his writing.
Hammett became an alcoholic before working in advertising and, eventually, writing. His previous work at the detective agency provided him the inspiration for his writings. Hammett wrote most of his detective fiction during the period that he was living in San Francisco (the 1920s), and specific streets and locations in San Francisco are frequently mentioned in his stories.
He was first published in 1922 in the magazine The Smart Set. Known for his authenticity and realism in his writing, Hammett drew on his experiences as a Pinkerton operative. As Hammett said: “All my characters were based on people I’ve known personally, or known about.”
Raymond Chandler, often considered Hammett’s successor, summarized his accomplishments:
Hammett was the ace performer… He is said to have lacked heart; yet the
story he himself thought the most of The Glass Key is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.
– Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder.
From 1929 to 1930 Dashiell was romantically involved with Nell Martin, an author of short stories and several novels. He dedicated The Glass Key to her, and in turn, she dedicated her novel Lovers Should Marry to Hammett. In 1931, Hammett embarked on a 30-year affair with playwright Lillian Hellman. He wrote his final novel in 1934, and devoted much of the rest of his life to left-wing activism. He was a strong anti-fascist throughout the 1930s and in 1937 he joined the Communist Party USA.
In early 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hammett again enlisted in the United States Army. He was a disabled veteran of World War I, a victim of tuberculosis, and a Communist, but he pulled strings in order to be admitted. He served as a sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper. In 1943, while a member of the military, he had co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians with Cpl. Robert Colodny, under the direction of an Infantry intelligence officer, Major Henry W. Hall. While located in the Aleutians he fell victim to emphysema.
After the war, Hammett returned to political activism, “but he played that role with less fervor than before.” He was elected President of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) on June 5, 1946 at a meeting held at the Hotel Diplomat in New York City, and “devoted the largest portion of his working time to CRC activities.” In 1946, a bail fund was created by the CRC “to be used at the discretion of three trustees to gain the release of defendants arrested for political reasons.”
Those three trustees were Hammett, who was chairman, Robert W. Dunn, and Frederick Vanderbilt Field, “millionaire Communist supporter.” On April 3, 1947, the CRC was identified as a Communist front group on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations, as directed by U.S. President Harry S. Truman via an executive order.
During the 1950s he was investigated by Congress. He testified on March 26, 1953 before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his own activities, but refused to cooperate with the committee. No official action was taken, but his stand was widely unpopular and he was boycotted, or blacklisted.
A lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking worsened Hammett’s tuberculosis contracted in World War I, and then according to Hellman “jail had made a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker … I knew he would now always be sick.” He may have meant to start a new literary life with the novel Tulip, but left it unfinished perhaps because he was “just too ill to care, too worn out to listen to plans or read contracts. The fact of breathing, just breathing, took up all the days and nights.”
As the years of the 1950s wore on, Hellman says Hammett became “a hermit”, his decline evident in the clutter of his rented “ugly little country cottage” where “[t]he signs of sickness were all around: now the phonograph was unplayed, the typewriter untouched, the beloved foolish gadgets unopened in their packages.” Hammett no longer could live alone and they both knew it, so the last four years of his life he spent with Hellman. “Not all of that time was easy, and some of it very bad”, she wrote but, “guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards.” On January 10, 1961, Hammett died in New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, of lung cancer, diagnosed just two months before. As a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.