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Dashiell Hammett biography




Dashiell Hammett

(1894 - 1961)

Dashiell Hammett was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, as the son of Richard Hammett, a farmer and politician. Hammett?s mother, Annie Bond Dashiell, was trained a nurse, but was at home most of the time looking after her three children. The family moved to Philadelphia, and then to Baltimore. Hammett studied at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute but left school at at the age of 14 to help support the family. He worked as a newsboy, freight clerk, labourer, messenger, stevedore, and advertising manager before joining the Baltimore office of the Pinkerton Detective Agency as an operator.

During World War I Hammett was a sergeant in an ambulance corps. At that time the Spanish influenza epidemic spread especially at military installations. The worldwide Spanish influenza epidemic and Hammett contracted tuberculosis. "I have always had good health until I contracted influenza, complicated by bronchial pneumonia treatment," Hammett told his doctor in 1919. He spent the rest of the war in the hospital, and for much of his life suffered from ill health. He rejoined again the agency and worked them intermittently to earn extra money - Hammett's pension was small and he had now his own family to support. Most of Hammett's income during 1922-1926 came from writing advertising copy for a San Francisco jewelry store. At this time the investigator known as Continental Op made his appearance in the author's stories.

Hammett's first short story appeared in the magazine Black Mask of 1 October 1923, and his fiction writing career as novelist ended in 1934. In Black Mask Hammett became along with Erle Stanley Gardner one of its most popular writers. Under the pseudonym Peter Collinson, Hammet introduced a short, overweight, unnamed detective employed by the San Francisco branch of the Continental Detective Agency, who became known as The Continental Op. In the three dozen stories between 1929 and 1930, featuring the tough and dedicated Op, Hammett gave shape to the first believable detective hero in American fiction. Drawing on his Pinkerton experiences, Hammett created a private eye, whose methods of detection are completely convincing, and whose personality has more than one dimension. Op stories also appeared in hardcover form. RED HARVEST (1929) was a loosely constructed story about corruption and gangsters, set in 'Poisonville', and in THE DAIN CURSE (1929) Op unravels a mystery involving jewel theft, religious cults, a family curse, a bombing, and a ghost.

However, Hammett turned in 1929 his attention to a new private eye, Sam Spade, who made his initial appearance in Black Mask, in September, 1929. Next year the work appeared in book form. Hammett's language was unsentimental, journalistic, moral judgments were left tot the reader. The first-person narration of the Op stories is left behind and Hammett views the detective protagonist in the book from the outside. A beautiful woman, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, comes to the office of Spade and his partner Miles Archer. She asks them to trail a Floyd Thursby. Archer is murdered. His wife was seeking a divorce to marry Spade. Joel Cairo offers Spade a reward for the recovery of a statuette, the 'Maltese Falcon'. Also Casper Gutman, a fat man, seeks it, with the help of Wilmer, an evil young man. A lead imitation is found and Spade calls for the police to arrest Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer. Brigid, who has been involved in the quest for the falcon, confesses that she killed Archer. Spade doesn't protect her from the consequences, but turns her in. "Listen. When a man's partner's killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." (Bogart in The Maltese Falcon). This philosophy also marked Hammett's attitudes when he was questioned about his Communist contacts - he did not reveal them.

In The Maltese Falcon Spade became the personification of the American private eye, thanks in no small degree to Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of him in the 1941 film version of the novel. However, Hollywood had found Hammett's work already much earlier. Roadhouse Nights, directed by Hobart Henley, was based on Hammett's Red Harvest, and released by Paramount in 1930. The Maltese Falcon was filmed first time in 1931 and then in 1936 under the title Satan Met a Lady, directed by William Dieterle and starring Bette Davis. The falcon was changed into a gem-filled ram's horn. John Huston's adaptation from 1941 is the most famous. "But we were all having such a good time together on Falcon that, night after shooting, Bogie, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond, Mary Astor and I would go over to the Lakeside Country Club. We'd have a few drinks, then a buffet supper, and stay on till midnight. We all thought we were doing something good, but no one had any idea that The Maltese Falcon would be a great success and eventually take its place as a film classic." (John Huston in An Open Book, 1981)

In 1943 Hammett had screenplay credits for the adaptation of WATCH ON RHINE by Lillian Hellman. She had became Hammett's companion in 1930s. Hammett was first married to nurse Josephine Dolan, whom he met in the Cushman Institutel in the early 1920s. When Hammett was transferred to to the hospital at Camp Kearney near San Diego, he started to write her regularly. "This is the first time I ever felt that way about a woman; perhaps it's the first time I have ever really loved a woman. That sounds funny but it may be the truth." (from Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-1960, edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett, 2001) Hammett and Josephine were married in 1921. After the birth of his second daughter, Hammett's illness partly ended his family life - doctors warned Josephine for the risk of infection, and she took a house north of San Francisco, where Hammett visited during weekends. Formally they divorced in 1937. Josephine left his work as a nurse and Hammett send his family money, more or less regularly. Reciprocally Josephine sent him her picture, in which she did not smile.

THE GLASS KEY (1930) was apparently Hammett's favorite among his novels. The central character, Ned Beaumont, was partly a self-portrait: a tall, thin, tuberculosis-ridden gambler and heavy drinker. THE THIN MAN (1934), Hammett's last novel, presented Nick Charles, a former detective who had married a rich woman, Nora Charles. Her character was based on Lillian Hellman. The book gained a commercial success and inspired a series of adaptations for film, radio, and TV. In 1934 Hammett began working as a scriptwriter for the comic strip Secret Agent X-9. Hammett's earnings from his books and their spinn-offs allowed him to continue drinking and womanizing.

In the 1930s Hammett became politically active. He joined the Communist Party and was a fierce opponent of Nazism. However, when Hemingway and a number of other writers went to Spain to help the Republicans in the Civil War (1936-39), Hammett remained in the U.S., but helped veterans after their return from the war. Hellman's star was at that time in rise. Hammett himself was drinking heavily and had problems with his writing, but his support was crucial for Hellman's own career. She had success as a playwright, travelled in Spain, and an affair with John Melby, a diplomat. During World War II tubercular Hammett served three years in the US Army, editing a newspaper for the troops in the Aleutian Islands. This was perhaps the last, relatively happy period in his life. In 1948 he was vice-chairman of the Civil Rights Congress, an organization that the Attorney General and F.B.I. deemed subversive. He tried to start writing again, hired a secretary, but managed only produce some notes.

For his communist beliefs Hammett became a target during McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade. In 1951 he went to prison for five months rather than testify at the trial of four communist accused of conspiracy. He was blacklisted and when Internal Revenue Service claimed that he owed a huge amount in tax deficiencies, the federal government attached his income. For a while the State Department kept his books away from the shelves of American libraries overseas. The rest of his life Hammett lived in and around New York, teaching creative writing in Jefferson School of Social Science from 1946 to 1956. Lillian Hellman cared for him in her Park Avenue apartment form 1956. She wasn't afraid of contracting tuberculosis, but was aware of Hammett's venereal diseases he had on occasion. Hammett died penniless of lung cancer on January 10, 1961.

Information source: wikipedia