Dashiell Hammett Biography

(Regarded as one of the Best Mystery Writers of All Time)

Birthday: May 27, 1894 (Gemini)

Born In: St. Mary's County, Maryland, United States

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was a well-known American novelist, short story writer of crime fiction, screenwriter, and political activist. He created several memorable characters, including ‘the Continental Op,’ ‘Nick and Nora Charles,’ and ‘Sam Spade.’ His ‘The Maltese Falcon’ was adapted into a film of the same name. This 1941 film was directed by John Huston and featured Humphrey Bogart as ‘Spade.’ He is widely acknowledged as “one of the best mystery writers of all time.” ‘Time’ magazine featured his ‘Red Harvest’ (published in 1929) on its ‘100 best English-language novels’ published during 1923-2005. His work has inspired several movie genres, including mystery thrillers, film-noir, and detective fiction. As a young man, Hammett joined a detective agency and also served in the army, but did not stay in these jobs for long. When he stopped writing novels, he shifted his focus to writing short stories. The fame he received after his books were adapted into movies was unprecedented.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Samuel Dashiell Hammett

Died At Age: 66


Spouse/Ex-: Josephine Dolan (m. 1921 - div. 1937)

father: Richard Thomas Hammett

mother: Anne Bond Dashiell

children: Josephine, Mary Jane

Partner: Lillian Hellman (1931 – 1961)

Born Country: United States

Novelists Political Activists

Died on: January 10, 1961

place of death: New York, New York, United States

Notable Alumni: Baltimore Polytechnic Institute

Diseases & Disabilities: Lung Cancer

Cause of Death: Lung Cancer

U.S. State: Maryland

More Facts

education: Baltimore Polytechnic Institute

Childhood & Early Life
He was born Samuel Dashiell Hammett, on May 27, 1894, to Richard Thomas Hammett and Anne Bond Dashiell. His mother’s French name was ‘De Chiel’ and she belonged to an old Maryland family. He also had an older sister, Aronia, and a younger brother, Richard Jr.
He was baptized a Catholic and was raised in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
He worked at several places before joining the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, where he worked as an operative from 1915 to 1922. He also served in World War I.
He enlisted in the US army in 1918 and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps. During this time, he contracted the ‘Spanish flu’ and later got afflicted by tuberculosis. While serving the army, he spent most of his time as a patient at ‘Cushman Hospital’ in Tacoma, Washington.
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After he was forced to quit ‘Pinkertons,’ he went on to pen some of the most legendary works credited to him. He turned his experience at the ‘Pinkerton Agency’ into short detective stories; his ‘The Smart Set’ was published in 1922.
Majority of his initial work was published in leading crime fiction magazine ‘Black Mask.’
He wrote most of his detective stories during his stay in San Francisco in the 1920s and many of the locations are often mentioned in his works.
He went on to write over 80 stories in his lifetime that featured iconic detectives, such as ‘Sam Spade’ and ‘the Continental Op,’ two of his famous characters that became the classics of the Hammett-created “hard-boiled” genre. No nonsense and heavy drinking men, his characters go through life by a strong personal sense of morality and a code of honour. ‘Sam Spade’ was his central man who became the symbol of the American private eye, especially after the film ‘The Maltese Falcon’ was released in 1941.
’The Maltese Falcon’ was his second novel and went into seven printings in its first year. He wrote only four other novels – ‘Red Harvest’ in 1929, ‘The Dain Curse’ in 1929, ‘The Glass Key’ in 1931, and ‘The Thin Man’ in 1934.
After writing ‘The Thin Man,’ he never wrote another story and spent his time in left-wing political causes and civil rights.
In 1942, he again enlisted in the US Army after the ‘Pearl Harbor Bombing’ during World War II. He moved to New York during this time and was hit with hard times.
After the Second World War, Hammett got back to political activism; he was elected president of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) on June 5, 1946, and devoted a lot his time to CRC activities. He was one of the three trustees of a bail fund, which was set up by the CRC to help in the release of individuals arrested for political reasons. On April 3, 1947, the Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations identified the CRC as a Communist front group.
On November 4, 1949, the CRC posted a huge bail amount of $260,000 for the release of eleven men, who were appealing against their conviction under the 'Smith Act.' On July 2, 1951, four of the convicted men fled, which led the court to order the questioning of the trustees of the CRC bail fund. He testified on July 9, 1951, but refused to provide the information the government wanted, citing the Fifth Amendment. He was found guilty of contempt of court and had to serve time in a West Virginia federal penitentiary.
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He was investigated by Congress during the 1950s. On March 26, 1953, he appeared before the 'House Un-American Activities Committee,' but refused to cooperate. As a result of his non-cooperation, he was blacklisted, along with several others.
Major Works
Hammett wrote several short stories which include ‘The Barber and His Wife’ (1922), ‘The Parthian Shot’ (1922), ‘The Great Lovers’ (1922), ‘Immortality’ (1922), ‘The Road Home’ (1922), ‘The Master Mind’ (1923), and ‘The Sardonic Star of Tom Doody’ (1923).
In 1943, his famous bestseller mystery, a collection of two connected Continental Op stories, ‘The Big Knockover’ and ‘$106,000 Blood Money,’ were published.
In 1944, another bestseller mystery ‘The Adventures of Sam Spade’ came out.
He wrote several screenplays, including ‘City Streets’ in 1931, ‘Mister Dynamite’ in 1935, ‘After the Thin Man’ in 1936, ‘Another Thin Man’ in 1936, and ‘Watch on the Rhine’ in 1943.
Personal Life, Death & Legacy
He was married to Josephine Dolan and the couple had two daughters, Mary Jane, born in 1921, and Josephine, born in 1926.
Soon after the birth of their second daughter, Dolan was advised to stay away from him due to his tuberculosis. She soon rented out a house in San Francisco where he would visit them on weekends. Unfortunately, their marriage soon fell apart, but he continued to support his wife and his daughters with the income he earned from his writing.
He was romantically involved with Nell Martin during 1929-1930.
In 1931, he started a relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman, which lasted thirty nearly years.

He wrote his final story in 1934, over 25 years before his death. It is not known why he moved away from writing fiction, but it is believed that his ill health was the reason.
In a posthumous collection of his novels, his partner, Hellman, observed, "I think, but I only think, I know a few of the reasons: he wanted to do new kind of work, he was sick for many of those years and getting sicker.”
In the 1940s, he and his partner lived at her farm, ‘Hardscrabble Farm,’ in Pleasantville in New York.
Hammett died on January 10, 1961, due to lung cancer, which was diagnosed just two months before his death. As he was a veteran of two world wars, he was buried at ‘Arlington National Cemetery.’
He was romantically involved with writer Nell Martin for a short time, and dedicated his book ‘The Glass Key’ to her. She, in turn, dedicated her novel ‘Lovers Should Marry’ to him.
In 2011, fifteen of his previously unknown short stories were found by magazine editor Andrew Gulli in the archives of the ‘Harry Ransom Center’ at ‘the University Texas at Austin.’
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