Dashiell Hammett and San Francisco’s Seedy Underbelly
By Don Herron
The 1920s. Jazz Age San Francisco. The decade a young detective wandered into town and traded gumshoe work for writing.
By the time he left, The Maltese Falcon —a now-classic crime novel—was notched on his typewriter and became one of the most famous books set in the city by the Bay, with private eye Sam Spade hiking the hills in search of the elusive figurine of a mysterious black bird.
The 1941 film adaptation, directed by John Huston, made Humphrey Bogart a superstar of Hollywood’s golden age. In 2013, a prop of the falcon statue from that movie sold at auction for more than four million bucks.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961) came to town to get married on July 7, 1921. He met his bride, a nurse, while hospitalized for tuberculosis, contracted during a year in the Army in World War I. Family lore suggests that he and his new wife planned to honeymoon here for only a few weeks before heading off to Hammett’s hometown of Baltimore. But they liked what they saw and settled in until September 1929, when the newly famous author set out for New York, and then Hollywood.
In 1915, when he was about 21, Hammett had signed up as an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Baltimore. With regional branches all over America, all Hammett had to do when he arrived here was show his badge in suite 314 of the James Flood Building in 870 Market, the local Pinkerton office. He had worked the East Coast, Idaho and Montana, and along the Pacific Coast. San Francisco would be his last stop as a sleuth.
The most famous case Hammett claimed to have worked on was the rape and murder trial for Hollywood silent comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. On September 5, 1921, Arbuckle hosted a party in the St. Francis Hotel during which he was accused of sexually assaulting the young actress Virginia Rappe. When she died on September 9, he was brought up for homicide. Eventually Arbuckle was acquitted of the charges, but the scandal derailed his career.
Whether Hammett actually worked this case or not, who can say? The Pinkerton archives that might prove his involvement no longer exist. Take his word for it or don’t, but this incident seems to be the moment when Hammett picked up the idea for having a Fat Man as a bad guy—best exemplified by Caspar Gutman in The Maltese Falcon.
Another local case took Hammett to the Central Valley where he encountered a young thief the papers dubbed The Midget Bandit. Hammett later wrote that this crook became the model for young Wilmer Cook, the boy gunman traveling with Gutman in Falcon. He said most characters in the novel were based on people encountered traveling the country as a Pinkerton man—with Gutman based on a man he shadowed around Washington D.C. in the early days of World War I and who was suspected of being a German agent. Hammett said the man wasn’t an agent for Germany, but was the most boring man he had to follow around in his entire life.
By early 1922, Hammett got a job in the advertising department of the Albert S. Samuels Company, Jewelers, then located in 895 Market. If Hammett had only worked as an ad man, his legend wouldn’t have become part of the enduring lore of San Francisco: the detective-turned-writer-of-crime-fiction. Creator of an American literary form, the hardboiled detective story.
He began turning out mystery stories for a pulp magazine titled The Black Mask in a room at 620 Eddy Street. Longer work followed: First short stories, then novelettes, and by the end of his stay in the city, from a studio apartment in 891 Post, his most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon. In the novel, Sam Spade lives in this same studio—a plaque next to the entrance celebrates the most famous resident and his most famous work.
Among other places, Hammett lived for a few months in 1926 in 20 Monroe, now 20 Dashiell Hammett Street, a one-block street between Pine and Bush between Powell and Stockton—not coincidentally, half a block from Burritt alley off Bush and Stockton, where Spade’s partner Miles Archer gets bumped off, the first Maltese Falcon murder.
Hammett even lived on Nob Hill—in 1309 Hyde at Clay, where he wrote the short novel The Big Knockover. And he had his wife and their two daughters of the San Francisco years installed in 1155 Leavenworth while he pounded out the wordage on Post Street. They often kept separate rooms because of his bouts with TB.
Most of us know that Nick and Nora Charles are residents of San Francisco, although they happen to be sleuthing in New York, where the action in The Thin Man occurs.
And has anyone not yet had a meal in John’s Grill, at 63 Ellis Street? That’s where Spade grabs a quick bite before heading off on a wild goose chase down to Burlingame. San Francisco is riddled with Hammett sites.
Once he left the city, Hammett only came back on a few short visits. Legend has it that his former boss, Albert Samuels, loaned him a big chunk of change—$500, $1,000—to take his shot at the big money in New York and Hollywood in 1929. The next year, Hammett returned to pay him back, staying in the Fairmont, tracking down old pals to buy them drinks—blowing so much loot that he needed to borrow another $500 from Samuels just to make it back to Hollywood.
Don Herron has led The Dashiell Hammett Tour in the city since 1977. He is the author, among other books, of The Literary World of San Francisco.
Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in this studio apartment at 891 Post Street, also the address of fictional private eye Sam Spade.