Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Dashiell Hammett Collection at the University of South Carolina

Dashiell Hammett
The University of South Carolina immortalized that saucy hard-boiled detective Sam Spade. His sandpaper personality made all the ladies quiver, and sent the bad guys scurrying for their hideouts. Humphrey Bogart got his start by playing the rough and tough Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon.

Spade’s author, Dashiell Hammett created and perfected the noir genre. Hammett started out working as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency that helped with his writing. Most of his stories were first published as serials in magazines. He spawned many other authors in the genre including Elmore Leonard.

In addition to the Maltese Falcon, Hammett also wrote the Thin Man. His main characters in the Thin Man included a hard drinking couple Nick and Nora Charles from New York. He loosely based the characters on his relationship with his long time girlfriend, Lillian Hellman. Both stories became Hollywood classics.

Hammett’s literary contemporaries included Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like these gentlemen, Hammett also enjoyed imbibing alcohol and smoking cigarettes. He suffered from lung complications most of his adult life, and died from lung cancer in 1961 at the age of 67.

The War Years

Hammett Grave Site Arlington National Cemetery
Hammett declared himself to be both a patriot and a Communist, two items not often seen linked together. He served in both the great World Wars. He enlisted in the ambulance core in World War I where he caught the Spanish flu and tuberculosis.

Due to his TB doctors recommended he separate from his wife, Jose Dolan Hammett and his two daughters. He used the proceeds of his books and films to support his two children. He later entered a relationship with Lillian Hellman, and remained with her the rest of his life. Like many artists of this era, Hammett joined the Communist party.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army. Because of his TB and Communist affiliation, he needed special permission. He was assigned to the Aleutian Islands where he edited the Army newspaper. The Army provided close supervision to ensure no subversive Communist propaganda found its way into print. The cold Alaskan climate irritated his lungs, and he contracted emphysema.


In the late 1940s his activities against the Un-American Activities Committee and his support for the Hollywood 10 earned him the recognition of Congress. He was invited to testify, but choose to plead the 5th amendment. For this, he served time in a West Virginia Federal Prison cleaning toilets.

His time in prison further exacerbated his lung condition. He spent the last few years of his life in obscurity, and wrote no more. Hellman remained at his side the whole time. They were together 30 years. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery because of his military service.

The Collection

The University of South Carolina procured two collections for an undisclosed amount of money. The first collection was obtained from Hammett’s daughter and grandchildren. It includes family letters. The other collection came from Richard Hayman who has spent 40 years collecting materials, researching and recording Hammett’s biography.

The combined collection contains letters, books, family photographs, screenplays and memorabilia including his Pinkerton badge. The collection should be available for viewing in about a year. The University of South Carolina also houses other fiction detective collections including Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy.

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