They Lived on West 9th Street: Dashiell Hammett is the 4th in a series.
Dashiell Hammett is arguably one of the most mysterious and alluring characters of American 20th century literature. Dashing and elusive, he rose from nothing to becoming one of the most celebrated of American writers.
While he spent most of his years shuttling back and forth between Hollywood and New York, when in New York, he took up residence in various places in the Village. The 1940 census shows Dashiell Hammett resided at 14 West 9th Street.
While he was the creator of the hard boiled hero and quintessential gum shoe, Sam Spade, few know that Hammett spent a good part of his own life as an employee of the infamous Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He was brainy and stealthy, and for these qualities was very quickly promoted through the ranks. He became one of Pinkerton’s most valued private eyes.
His time as a Pinkerton thoroughly informed his voice as a writer, and in each of his books and stories the characters live within or on the fringe of the world of murderers and thieves. His time as a Pinkerton also had a profound effect on his politics and philosophies of life.
Around 1917, Hammett was sent by the Pinkerton Agency to Montana, where he infiltrated the ranks of striking copper miners. He and other Pinkertons were offered $5, 000, a fortune at the time, to help kill Frank Little, the Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) leader organizing the miners. Little was ultimately lynched from a train trestle without Hammett’s involvement, but he learned a great deal about the lives of poor miners, whose strikes the Pinkerton men were hired to prevent. The misery of the miners he encountered greatly influenced the course and events of the rest of his life.
Diagnosed with TB and in very ill health, Hammett moved with his wife and new baby to San Francisco in 1921. Originally continuing as a Pinkerton, he found that the work was wreaking havoc with his health. He pounded the pavement and eventually found a new path with a job as an advertising man for a local jewelry store, Samuels Jewelry.
The owner, Al Samuels, was a strong believer in the power of advertising. He took out lengthy newspaper ads in the SF Chronicle and printed chatty ad copy. Hammett sharpened his skill writing story-like ads, some of which were written in the style of a detective story.
He began to write stories about the life he knew and submit them to various publishers. H. L. Menken, publisher of a magazine called Smart Set, a favorite of Hammett’s, published his first piece; “The Parthian Shot.” Menken and his partner George Jean Nathan started a new magazine which was aimed at quenching the American thirst for pulp fiction. It contained stories of mystery and crime fiction. Hammett enjoyed the magazine but felt he could write better.
By October of 1923, Hammett’s own detective series was printed in Black Mask. And while his advertising career was moving along quite well, his writing career was about to take off.
Poisonville, his first novel, drew from Hammett’s days as a Pinkerton in Montana for the material: the corrupt owners of the mines, the town bosses — all of the things he had witnessed firsthand. But he created almost a farce of the situations. The cops would go one way while the thieves the other. The writing is funny in the way that awful things can seem funny…upon later reflection.
Hammett’s hero, Continental Op, had lost all faith in the values of society, while society had lost its values. The novel appeared in parts in Black Mask and eventually was published in full by Alfred A. Knopf under the title Red Harvest.
The Maltese Falcon followed soon after, and Hammett’s success skyrocketed. The novel was an instant hit and the critics called it the best American detective story yet written. Hollywood beckoned and Hammett heeded the call. The Maltese Falcon was made into a major motion picture by Paramount and his fame was on the ascent.
Hammett met Lillian Hellman on a movie lot. She was a script reader for MGM and an aspiring writer. Both were married at the time, but they began a relationship which became a love affair that lasted until Hammett’s death. At the time, he was the hottest writer in Hollywood and New York.
In the fall of 1931, Hammett and Hellman moved to New York, where he preferred the literary company he kept. There he began work on The Thin Man, this author’s favorite of Hammett’s books and movies, which was modeled after his relationship with Lillian Hellman. Nick Charles, the protagonist, is a depressive ex-detective with a penchant for drink. His wife, Nora Charles, is a witty socialite with a penchant for talk (and drink!) The banter of the couple is reported to be much like talk between Hellman and Hammett.
Hammett finished the manuscript in May of 1933. The public, ravenous for another Dashiell Hammett book, was overjoyed to have his newest novel on the shelves. It was clear that The Thin Man would be a hit, and MGM bought the movie rights even before its publication.
By 1940 Dashiell Hammett, influenced by his time in Montana witnessing the inequities of the mining community, had become a staunch Communist. But most importantly, he was an anti-fascist. At this time, he had given up writing suspense novels to support leftist and other causes friendly to the Soviet Union.
His time at 14 West 9th Street was spent working on the political causes he was most fond of, including the basic rights of workers. The ensuing fallout from his political and social positions found Dashiell Hammett at the end of his life both penniless and disgraced. But his skills as a writer and political inclinations gave him a comfortable home in Greenwich Village.