Scotch, Martinis, and Hard-Boiled Crime: The Life of Dashiell Hammett
The author of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘The Thin Man’ not only created the modern detective story but changed how Americans drink.
Tall and dapper with a mysterious air, Dashiell Hammett seemed to have stepped out of the pages of one of his famous hard-boiled detective novels.
It seems only fitting given that Hammett practically invented the modern detective story. His works include the best-seller The Maltese Falcon, which features the adventures of hard-drinking protagonist Sam Spade. Humphrey Bogart, who starred in the most famous movie version of the book, seems like a fitting stand-in for Hammett, who had in real life actually worked as a detective. And like Bogie, he certainly knew how to put back a drink or two, or three.
“He was a very classy guy, whether it was his attire or his manner or his drinking preferences,” says Julie Rivett, Hammett’s granddaughter and trustee of his estate. (For the record, she immediately mentioned that his first name is pronounced Dash-eel rather than Dash-ul.) “He tended to be gentlemanly and well put together, so it’s easy to picture him with a nicely mixed cocktail in his hand.”
Rivett, who met her grandfather only once, when she was three years old, co-edited her mother Jo Hammett’s 2002 memoir, Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers. Jo was the younger of his two daughters, and though she lived apart from her father for much of her life—in part due to a post-World War I tuberculosis diagnosis that would plague him throughout the rest of his life—she remembers him as a difficult but loving figure. She also recalls his penchant for mixed drinks.
“My mother did say that he was always a light eater and he would almost always prefer to drink, even it wasn’t alcohol—he just liked liquids,” says Rivett. Though she’s quick to add, “there are those who recall him drinking [vodka] Martinis at breakfast.”
But it wasn’t always that way. Hammett’s drinking evolved throughout his life—often fueling his writing—and his art frequently mimicked his reality.
Hammett worked a variety of jobs after attending high school for just a single year, serving in both World Wars, and, notably, working as a gumshoe for the notorious Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Baltimore and then again in Washington.
But he’s most well-known for his dark, edgy, and often violent crime writing that pre-dates the noir style. His stories encompassed some of the most momentous events of the early 20th century: Prohibition, its repeal, and the slide into the Great Depression. He recognized that his time working at a detective agency was helpful for selling his crime writing.
At the time, Hammett lived in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, an area rife with speakeasies and illicit hooch. The experiences he had there found their way into his writing. In one scene in Red Harvest, the protagonist arrives at bootlegging operation that’s been shot up.
With two novels under his belt and another on the way, Hammett left San Francisco for New York. In 1930, The Maltese Falcon was published and was by all accounts well received, prompting an almost immediate film adaptation.
Flush with cash, Hammett spent time with literary giants like Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner. He also met famed playwright Lillian Hellman, who would become his lifelong partner, until his death in 1961. He frequented hotspots like The Stork Club, the 21 Club, and Nick’s in the Village.
“He had an amazing capacity for booze, so he could be lucid and witty deep into his cups when most people would have lost it,” says Rivett. “In excess he’d grow morose, but he had a terrific capacity for liquor and a huge intellect.”
After publishing The Glass Key in 1931, he wrote The Thin Man, which was poised to become a sensation in Depression-era America. Featuring retired detective Nick Charles, his socialite wife Nora, and Asta, their wire hair fox terrier, it first appeared in an issue of Redbook Magazine in 1933 with the disclaimer: “As hard-boiled and thrilling a murder-shocker as you’ve ever read—written by a man who was once a Pinkerton detective, and knows more about real murder than any other living writer.”
The Thin Man takes place during Prohibition, and was published the same month the Volstead Act was repealed—instantly dating the novel. But it was so popular that MGM quickly bought the film rights, transitioned it to post-Prohibition, and lightened it up just enough for its 1934 silver screen debut starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as the quick-witted, perpetually tipsy Nick and Nora.
He may have been tough, but Nick Charles was a sharp dresser with a quick wit who could always be found shaking a Dry Martini to waltz time (naturally) or working on a case of Scotch. The husband and wife duo take on a murder case because they’re bored, not because they need the money.
Once again, Hammett’s character mirrored his own reality—if only on the surface.
Audiences loved The Thin Man. Going to the movies was a cheap way to live vicariously through the Charles’ bougie antics. MGM brought Hammett on to help write five sequels. For the next few years, the author lived in Hollywood. (He had previously lived in L.A. while working as a detective for the defense team of comedian and actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was charged with the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rapp.)
“His work glamorized cocktail culture and also made it seem accessible and fun,” says Rivett. But she adds that Hammett was preoccupied by the dissonance between the film—for which Hollywood paid him boatloads of money—and the breadlines forming throughout the country in response to the Dust Bowl and the worsening economy.
While writing for MGM, Hammett drank constantly, frequenting Hollywood establishments like the Clover Club, The Trocadero, The Brown Derby, and Chasen’s, often overdoing it after a day at the studio. Though he was generally known for his quiet demeanor, he had a reputation for arguing and causing scenes while drinking.
Finally, in 1947, the Thin Man series ended for good, and Hammett was able to put Nick and Nora Charles to rest. But his time in Hollywood and service in World War II, during which he developed emphysema, had taken their toll. As a result, his doctor recommended he give up drinking for good, or—as a mob boss in one of his whodunits might say—else. He quit cold turkey.
In the years that followed, Hammett kept up his sharply dressed, gentlemanly persona for as long as he could. He continued writing, but didn’t publish another novel after The Thin Man. He became more and more involved in politics, even spending six months in jail in the early ‘50s after refusing to give up names of those who contributed to the bail fund of the communist Civil Rights Congress, of which he was president. His name then made the Hollywood blacklist.
However, cocktail culture never really left his life. Though he didn’t drink, Rivett says that a conversation she had with Muriel Alexander—Hammett’s secretary in New York in the early '50s—revealed that he would still occasionally host a cocktail hour.
“She told me that Stoli Vodka was his favorite, and if he wanted to at the cocktail hour, the two of them would sit down in front of the fireplace at his apartment in Greenwich Village and she would drink his Martini for him,” says Rivett.
Though he only lived in San Francisco for a decade, he left a lasting impression on the city, where bars still pay tribute to the author. John’s Grill, which was mentioned in The Maltese Falcon (Sam Spade orders “chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes” with coffee), has two cocktails on its menu in honor of the author—Hammett’s Martini and Spade’s Manhattan. And pioneering speakeasy cocktail bar Bourbon and Branch pays tribute to his writing with a Nick & Nora Martini.
“What had been Monroe Street is now Dashiell Hammett Place,” says Rivett. The street was renamed in 1988. “My grandfather lived on that street in the 1920s. His and his fictional life are deeply intertwined in that area.”