"This book is a thing of beauty, from concept to execution, taking us all the way down to the life-marrow of hardboiled's one true icon. Under Richard 'Shadow Man' Layman's masterful guidance, we find what Hammett sought (and fought for) his
A literary event: The first-ever selection from the letters of Dashiell Hammett, the genius of American crime fiction.
"This book is a thing of beauty, from concept to execution, taking us all the way down to the life-marrow of hardboiled's one true icon. Under Richard 'Shadow Man' Layman's masterful guidance, we find what Hammett sought (and fought for) his entire life...Truth." Andrew Vachss.
More than any book before it, this one gives us the complete Hammett, in his own words. Here is Hammett the family man, distant but devoted, sometimes late with the check but never too late; Hammett the student of politics, scanning the headlines from a Marxist perspective; Hammett the lover of Lillian Hellman, delighting in her style, humor, accomplishments but maintaining his independence. Celebrity, soldier, activist, survivorHammett was each in turn, but he was always, above all else, a writer. The artist is present in every line, and this book adds to his stature as a classic American writer.
Author Biography: Richard Layman is the author of Shadow Man (1981), the first full biography of Dashiell Hammett, and the vice president of Bruccoli Clark Layman, a publisher of reference works in literature. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina. Julie M. Rivett is a granddaughter of Dashiell Hammett, and Josephine Hammett Marshall is his daughter. They live in Southern California.
"He knew then that men died at haphazard like that,
and lived only while blind chance spared them."
The Maltese Falcon, Chapter 7
Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born on May 27, 1894, in rural Saint Mary's County, Maryland. His father, Richard Hammett, was an opportunist who tried his hand at several occupations, none very successfully. His mother, Annie Bond Dashiell, was trained as a nurse, but respiratory illness kept her at home most of the timethat and the demands of her three children, Dashiell, his older sister, Reba, and his younger brother, Richard, called Dick. At the time Dashiell was born, his family was living with his paternal grandfather on a plot of land the Hammetts called "Hopewell and Aim."
When Dashiell was six, his father failed in a bid for political office after an acrimonious campaign and felt compelled to leave the county. He took his family to Philadelphia, where the prospects did not meet his expectations, and, after a year, they turned to Mrs. Hammett's mother for support, moving in with her in the house she rented in Baltimore. Richard Hammett was struggling to support the family and Dashiell dropped out of high school after one semester to help. He never returned to the classroom. His early education came from the streets, from his avid reading, and from a series of odd jobs he held during his teens. When he turned twenty-one, he began what he considered a career as an operative for Pinkerton'sNationalDetective Service. The job suited his intelligence, his sense of adventure, and his curiosity.
Hammett was still living with his parents in 1918 when he took leave from Pinkerton's to join the army during World War I. Though he did not travel more than about fifteen miles from his home during the war, the experience turned his life upside down. He was stationed at Camp Mead, Maryland, and assigned to a Motor Ambulance Company, transporting wounded soldiers returning from Europe. The worldwide Spanish influenza epidemic was especially evident in the United States at military installations, where soldiers returning from foreign service spread the disease that killed more people during the war years than warfare did. In 1919, Hammett was struck, and he spent the rest of his military service recuperating.
"I have always had good health until I contracted influenza, complicated by bronchial pneumonia treatment," Hammett told a doctor during his predischarge medical exam on 24 May 1919. The army pronounced his tuberculosis "arrested," and he was able to resume his prewar occupation as an operative for the Pinkerton's National Detective Service, working first in Baltimore, and then, after the beginning of 1920, in Spokane, Washington. Eighteen months after his discharge, however, his TB flared up again and he "broke down," in the words of a medical report. In November 1920 Hammett was among the first patients admitted to the newly opened Cushman Institute, a U.S. Public Health Service hospital in Tacoma, Washington.
Josephine Dolan, a pretty twenty-three-year-old from Anaconda, Montana, was among the staff of half a dozen nurses in the respiratory illnesses ward at Cushman. She and Hammett struck up a friendship that quickly became amorous. (She never believed that his tuberculosis was confirmed, despite the doctors' reports, and so discounted the possibility of becoming infected herself, a measure of how lovestruck she was.) Within a month they were dating; within two they were intimate. By the end of his third month, Hammett was among a group of tubercular patients transferred south to USPHS facilities in a warmer, drier climate. She stayed behind; he was admitted to the hospital at Camp Kearney near San Diego, and they continued their courtship by mail. These letters are the earliest surviving correspondence from Hammett. He was twenty-six years old when he began writing to Josephine Dolan in February 1921. They apparently did not know she was pregnant.
When Hammett was discharged from Camp Kearney in May 1921, he went first to see her in Spokane, stopping at Cushman to complain about his labored breathing. He then went to San Francisco, to search for an apartment where they could begin their married life. He and Josephine, whom he called Jose (pronounced "Joe's"), were married in the rectory at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco on 7 July 1921. Their daughter Mary Jane was born on 15 October. Hammett returned to work as a private detective, but soon found he was not physically fit for the job. He stood six foot one and a half inches, weighed 135 pounds, and suffered from dizziness, shortness of breath, and chest pains on exertion. He told a Health Service nurse that he was employed as a detective "at intervals" in the fall of 1921, earning $21 per week when he worked, to supplement his disability income of $40 a month. By the end of December he was too sick to work at all. His disability rating was revised to 100 percent, but his pension, though increased to $80 a month, barely paid the rent, and he had a family to support.
Hammett began vocational rehabilitation at Munson's Business College in February 1922, training as a reporter. That fall, he began writing fiction on spec to supplement his income, and soon afterward reported to a visiting nurse that he was writing stories four hours a day. The pulp magazines were an easy market to crack, and though the pay was only a penny or two a word, an industrious writer could make $30 or $40 a month. Hammett had his experience as a private detective to mine for material, and he soon became a favorite of detective pulp readers for his tough stories that had the ring of truth. He churned them out at the rate of better than one a month, and the paychecks bought groceries.
That was how he lived until 1926. Jose was pregnant with his second daughter. Hammett needed more money. When he failed to get it from the editors at Black Mask magazine, his most reliable publisher, he decided to venture again into the workforce. This time, he determined to draw on his writing ability and the journalistic skills he had learned in his vocational training course. He answered a want ad for an advertising copywriter/ad manager at Albert S. Samuels Jewelers. The pay was $350 a monthabout four times the income from his writing and pension combined. The job seemed perfect for him. Samuels was a congenial boss, and the social aspects of the job were very attractive to a man who had been a virtual shut-in for most of the past six years. Hammett enjoyed the freedom of the workplace; he enjoyed it too much. He began drinking heavily, spending too many evenings in speakeasies with cronies. Within six months the pace caught up with him. He collapsed at his office in a pool of blood, suffering from hepatitis and a recurrence of tuberculosis. Once again he was unable to hold a full-time job. That was his situation in winter 1926-7, when Joseph Shaw, the new editor at Black Mask magazine, wrote to Hammett with ambitious plans for revamping the magazine with a stable of star writers.
Shaw was a promoter with business savvy. He understood that the fortunes of his magazine were directly related to the success of his writers. He also recognized that readers respect novelists more than short story writers, so he encouraged his stable to undertake longer works and to aspire to book publication. Meanwhile, he began promoting them as an elite group pioneering a new type of mystery fiction. Shaw bragged that Herbert Hoover, J. P. Morgan, and A. S. W. Rosenbach read Black Mask, and that Hammett's contributions to the magazine were some of the best mystery fiction ever published. Soon Hammett had completed his first novel and submitted it unsolicited to Alfred A. Knopf, Publishers, who had just launched an imprint called Borzoi Mysteries. Within a year's time, Hammett had emerged as the most celebrated young mystery novelist in America, and respected reviewers were declaring him as good as if not better than Ernest Hemingway.
While Hammett's reputation soared, his personal life deteriorated. When his second daughter was born, Health Service nurses advised that Jose and the girls should not share quarters with the tubercular writer, who was sometimes too ill to walk unassisted to the bathroom. Jose and the girls went to Montana to visit her relatives in the fall of 1926, then they took a rented house fifteen miles north of San Francisco, where Hammett visited them on weekends. Such conditions made married life difficult; soon even the pretense of a marriage was abandoned. Hammett loved and supported his family, but he looked elsewhere for companionship and found it easily. His brief experience with family life had proven what he had clearly suspected: that it was not for him, especially when so many opportunities were available. He had a career to develop that required all his energies.
Within two years after his collapse at the jewelry store, Hammett had written three novels. Red Harvest and The Dain Curse were among the most prominently reviewed books of 1929, and The Maltese Falcon was recognized as possessing, in the words of one reviewer, "the absolute distinction of real art." Hammett was not satisfied, though. He saw greater opportunities in the writing game.
In 1927, Darryl F. Zanuck introduced sound to motion pictures with The Jazz Singer. By Valentine's Day 1930, when The Maltese Falcon was published, studios had already abandoned silent films because they recognized the enormous audience for talkies. That, in turn, created an unprecedented need for writers to provide scripts. The money was huge, even during the Depression, and Hammett capitalized on the opportunity to turn his reputation as a writer into pure gold. He left San Francisco for New York in the fall of 1929 and kept steady company with writer-musician Nell Martin, to whom he dedicated The Glass Key in 1930. They both had interests in Hollywood. Roadhouse Nights, a movie adaptation of Hammett's Red Harvest, was released by Paramount in February 1930, and her novel Lord Byron of Broadway was released as a movie by M-G-M in March. That year Hammett claimed to be making $800 a weektwice as much each month as the average American worker made in a year. And he spent it all, on starlets and hotel suites and limousines and chauffeurs and bootleg liquor and speakeasy nights. When he had money left over, he gave handouts to his friends.
To Josephine Dolan
On 21 February 1921 Hammett was transferred from Cushman Hospital, in Tacoma, Washington, to the U.S. Public Health Service hospital at Camp Kearney, near San Diego. He and Josephine Dolan, one of his nurses at Cushman, had fallen in love just after he arrived, in November 1920, and she was pregnant, though neither seems to have been aware of her condition.
27 Sept [i.e., February] 1921, [Camp Kearney, California]
Dear Little Fellow
We had just enough excitement on the trip down to keep away monotony, and landed here yesterday afternoon in pretty good shape.
This will be a pretty fair sort of a place, I reckon, after we get accustomed to it, but the going hasn't been any too smooth so far. Before we had our bags unpacked they flashed a set of rules on us (I mailed my copy to Larry Brazerhe'll get a kick out of 'em) but we have broken all but a couple and none of us have been shot yet, so I think we'll get along all right.
The food and the weather here are good so we should be able to put up with the rest of it.
But that's enough of the Kearn[e]y talknow for a little Cushman.
Which lunger are you taking out now and dragging into town when he should be sleeping? Or are you storing up a little sleep before you start off again?
(If I put in two or three months of this life don't trust yourself out on the bridge withnot even a middle-aged, homely and legless woman would be safe with me.)
The lights have gone democratic, so I'll have to stop this.
When you answer this tonight give me all the latest Cushman gossipjust the same as if we were sitting in the Peerless Grill.
To Josephine Dolan
Friday [probably 4 March 1921], Camp Kearney, California
I didn't intend doing thiswriting you a second letter before I got an answer to my firstbut that's the hell of being in love with a vamp, you do all sorts of things. Before long, most likely, I'll have fallen into the habits of your other victims and will be writing you frequent and foolish letters, which you won't trouble yourself to answer. And then I'll be getting so I can't eat or sleep, and will lose my immortal soul lying to you about the 15 and 18 hour naps I'm taking and the pounds of meat I am eatingfor I'd never admit that I allowed you to interfere with my comfort and health. You'd enjoy that too much!
I've been chasing the cure since I landed here, partly from choice but mostly from poverty. Most of the crew went into San Diego the other night but I am holding just about enough money to keep me in Bull Durham and postage till my check comes (that should be in about two weeks) so I am sticking at home and spending my days reading or playing lady-like games such as Hearts and Five Hundred. She is a great world!
Richards and I have become quite chummy and ever so often he starts telling me what a wonderful person "little Miss Dolan" was. I usually change the subject as soon as possible, for he has the regular and usual opinion of you: that the Virgin Mary was a wild woman in comparison. Seriously, thohe has a glorious opinion of the Little Handful, so you can add his name to your listunless you already have.
The Cushman party has been split upGoodhue and I are in the same ward. (I'll probably kill the God-damned fool one of these days!) The nurse here, a Miss Brown, is a friend of Mrs. Kelly's.
I like this joint very much and shall put in at least two months here. I've gained five pounds since I left Tacoma but I am pushing the thermometer up to 99° too often to please me.
The worst part of the day is when the clock shows 740 P.M., and I know that I should be down in front of the office, in the rain, waiting for Josephine Anna. Six o'clock worries me, alsooccasionally, when I figure it's time for your afternoon off and I should be standing on the People's Store corner, still in the rain, cursing you because you are fifteen minutes late and haven't shown up yet. I'll never awake at eleven, or I reckon I'd be thinking we ought to be out on the bridgein the rain, of coursestaging our customary friendly, but now and then a bit rough, dispute over the relative merits of "yes" and "no."
Are you still thinking of leaving Cushman? And do you think you could be persuaded to come to California? Has Miss Squally resigned yet? Has Mr. Brown left for Texas? Is Miss Jacobs as sweet as ever?
If you answered my other letter at all promptly (and God help you if you didn't) I should hear from you tomorrow or Monday, at the latest. And if my memory is right, you were to inclose a picture in the first letter! The question is: will it be there? You're such a dear little liar, Sweet, that I'd hate to bet my right arm on it being in the letter. If I'm ever to get it I'll most likely have to come up and take it away from you. Maybe that's what I should have done about something else I wanted.
I've just time for a shower before lights-out
1. Josephine Dolan's middle name was Annis, not Anna.
2. Inge Qually was on the nursing staff at Cushman Institute.
To Josephine Dolan
9 March 1921 [Camp Kearney, California]
Your letter of the fourth got here this afternoonso you see it does take nearly a week.
I was tickled pink to get your letter. I wasn't at all sure you'd write till some tiresome, draggy evening when you couldn't find anything else to do. But the letter came and so I feel as if I had the world by the tailit was better than a shot of hooch.
I'm still a long way from finding anyone to take part of your place. (I don't expect to find any one who could completely fill it.) All the nurses here are impossible. A few with fair ankles but, My God! the faceslike cartoons! But, seriously, I am being remarkably faithful to you. Some day I may partially forget you, and be able to enjoy another woman, but there's nothing to show that it'll be soon. If anything, I'm a damnder fool over you now than I ever was.
Mr. Brown is one fine ass, isn't he? I wonder where he got all his information. Dream Book? Or Ouija board? But I reckon it was half quesswork and half based on information furnished by Jacobs. Now you can paste the following in your hat:
I may have done a lot of things that weren't according to scripture, but I love Josephine Anna Dolanand have since about the sixth of Januarymore than anything in Christ's world. I know you don't expect or want me to deny Mr. Brown's news, so I won't bother you with it.
Meldner and Goodhue were kicked out a couple days ago for putting on a booze-party. I think they are at Alpine nowa san[i]torium about 30 miles out of San Diego.
You can't be missing me any more than I'm missing you, Sweet. It's pretty tough on these lonesome nights.
I'll have to cut this off now and fall in bed.
Yes'um, I deserve all the love you can spare me! And I want a lot more than I deserve.
To Josephine Dolan
11 March 1921 [Camp Kearney, California]
Dear Little Handful
Your letter deserved at least two answers, so here goes for the second.
First for the news, of which there isn't very much.
Armstrong is in the venereal ward. For a while it looked as if Byrd, Shell, Richards and a couple others would join him there, but they didn't.
I had a letter from Larry yesterday, giving me all the latest doings in the old home. He cheered me up by telling me he thought you were missing me. I don't know how he could tell, but I am anxious to believe him.
No one here has heard from Meldner or Goodhue since they left us.
My hands are usually quite warm nowadays so you needn't be afraid of 'em. But if you write me very much of that "in your nightie," "feeling chilly," "need someone to warm you" stuff I'll be climbing on a northbound train and coming up to take the job.
I wouldn't want to give you any advice as to whether or not it's best for you to be going out with patients. Some day another "tall man" will come to Cushman and you'll have him losing his head over you and keeping you out on the bridge at all hours, and freezing you.
But the chances are I'll never hear of it and I'll go to my grave thinking you were true to me.
In spite of the fact that I know you are a liar I really think you love me a littlejust because you said you didfor I've nothing else to base such a bel[ie]f upon. So if you don't, why then lie to me about it. I'll be happy that way till I find you outand that may take months.
Love in chunks
To Josephine Dolan
13 March 1921 [Camp Kearney, California]
I should have started this "Dear Mama," for quite a bit of your last letter was most motherlythe advice about being a good boy and taking the cure and so forth. It only fell short of being a maternal letter in that you didn't give me any advice about my underwear. Don't forget that next time.
I have been following your orders thoa few weeks more of this life and I'll be ready to grow a pair of downy wings and a pair of blue eyes. But my check should arrive (God only knows if it will) this week. Tijuana is open again so I reckon I'll make a trip down there as soon as I've something in my pockets besides my hands.
Altho it is none of my business, I'm glad you are sticking to your resolution about keeping away from the patients after hours. Even if it only lasts a little while. 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.
All the Cushman crew are quiet and well-behaved these days, except that Albert is becoming a chronic gambler. I'm afraid the boy is going to hell proper!
If I didn't know that you are an angeleven when the devil is looking out of your eyesI'd begin to think you hard to get along with; after reading of all these scraps you are having, and the "I hate him," and "I don't care if he never comes back," and the rest of it.
What was the trouble with McDermott? Or shouldn't I ask?
If you and anyone fall out I am willing to gamble it's their fault. And when you can't get along with the rest of the world, look me up. I'll let you walk all over meI'd get a good view of the pretty legs while you were doing it.
Lots of love to the dearest small person in the world, and lots of thanks for her dear letters
To Josephine Dolan
21 March 1921 [Camp Kearney, California]
Dear Josephine Anna
After a long while of waitingan even week it wasa letter from you came Saturday. I was beginning to think that another "tall man" had shown up and was dragging you into town every evening or so, and not leaving you time to write to me.
Meldner was up from Alpine a couple days ago. Said he liked it down there as they had no more rules than Cushman had.
That's all the news there isnobody ever does anything here. And if they did I'd probably be asleep at the time and miss it. I'm the sleeping kid these days. It's about all I dobesides write letters to you when I am lucky enough to have one to answer.
I'm glad you're keeping your promise to "try not forget me for a couple weeks." You always were a mystery to me, Little Chap. I never could figure out whether you liked me a little (I mean "love"I wouldn't give a God-damn to have you "like" me) or were just giving me your evenings because you hadn't anything else much to do with 'em, or merely vamping me to keep your hand in. Whichever it was tho, I had a mighty enjoyable time of it and right now I'd like to be anyplace at all with you.
If you'll live up to your dream and join me in a Los Angeles hotel (any time you say) I'll do my share and buy all the hot-water bags you wantif you think you'll need 'em.
You aren't the only one to dream these days. Even I, who have about three a year, dreamed of you during rest-hour yesterday. It was quite a remarkable dreamand I want a little information. Has the lady a mole on or near one hip? I want to knowif that part is true I can rely upon the rest coming true.
How about the picture, Sweet?
I'll be a "good boy" if I get enough letters from you to keep my mind occupied. If I don't I can't say what my behavior will be.
Lots of the meanest sort of love
Daddy L. L.
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