Hammett, Dashiell, 1894-1961

Alternative names
Birth 1894-05-27
Death 1961-01-10

Biographical notes:

American novelist and short story writer.

From the description of Dashiell Hammett Papers, 1923-1974. (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC); University of Texas at Austin). WorldCat record id: 85058436

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland on May 27, 1894 to a family long in the county. After working as a youth to help support his family, he left home in 1914 and worked as a detective before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War I. His contraction of influenza in 1918 led to tuberculosis, for which Hammett was treated in military hospitals on the west coast.

In one of these hospitals he met and married a nurse, Josephine (Jose) Dolan. Following his discharge in 1921 they moved to San Francisco, where he found work as an advertising copy writer. Soon he began writing fiction for publication, quickly gaining a following for his gritty detective writing in Black Mask magazine. Due to a relapse of tuberculosis, Hammett began living apart from his wife and two children, but continued with his increasingly well-received writing career.

In 1930 Knopf published Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, and his fame as an American author was made. He met Lillian Hellman in 1931, and though both were married at the time, they began a relationship that lasted until Hammett's death. His The Thin Man (1934) is in some sense a roman à clef based on their life together. Following the publication of The Thin Man Hammett's literary production essentially ceased, for reasons still debated.

In the years between 1935 and 1941 Hammett's life was marked by creative false starts, leftist activism, and increasingly severe alcohol abuse. After Pearl Harbor, however, he enlisted in the army and served for most of the war years in Alaska, a time that is generally regarded as one of personal contentment for Hammett, even though his literary work was limited to editing a serviceman's newspaper in the Aleutians.

Upon his discharge from military service in 1945 Hammett returned to New York, where his attempts at resuming a writing career were hampered by political persecution, poor health, and his drinking problem. Following a prison term in 1951 for refusing to answer questions posed by the congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities he lived a retired life, supported by Lillian Hellman and other friends. Dashiell Hammett died at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital on January 10, 1961.

From the guide to the Dashiell Hammett Papers TXRC 06-A0., 1923-1974, (The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center)

Dashiell Hammett, 1894–1961, was born in St. Mary's County, MD and raised in Philadelphia and Baltimore. After enlisting in the Army Ambulance Corps during the First World War (where he contracted tuberculosis) and getting various stints of employment across the country for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Hammett began writing short stories for publications such as The Smart Set and The Black Mask, the latter of which, in particular, shaped his reputation as a writer of hard-boiled crime fiction.

Hammett went on to write five novels: Red Harvest (1929); The Dain Curse (1929); The Maltese Falcon (1930), featuring iconic private eye Sam Spade; The Glass Key (1931); and The Thin Man (1934), featuring married detectives Nick and Nora Charles. Hammett spent the rest of his career writing screenplays and doctoring scripts for movies, television, and radio. Despite ill health, Hammett enlisted again in the Army during the Second World War, where he edited a military newspaper; and he was deeply involved in left-wing political activism before and after the WWII era. As president of the Civil Rights Congress in New York (labeled a communist front group by the Office of the Attorney General of the United States), Hammett in 1949 posted bail for eleven men accused of communist conspiracy and in 1951 refused to identify the contributors to the bail fund during testimony before a U.S. District Court. After taking the Fifth Amendment, he was found in contempt of court and sentenced to five months imprisonment. Upon release, the IRS charged him with over $100,000 in back taxes. In 1953, Hammett once more refused to cooperate during testimony, this time before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and was subsequently blacklisted. He lived the remaining years of his life in rural New York State before dying of lung cancer in New York, NY.

From the guide to the Hammett, Dashiell mss., 1949-1952, (Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington))


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  • Novelists, American--20th century--Biography


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