Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born on May 27th, 1894 on a farm named Hopewell at Saint Mary's County, Maryland.
The son of Richard Thomas Hammett and Anne Bond Dashiell he was baptized into the Catholic faith and grew up in Philadelphia and later Baltimore.
Hammett’s education ended at age 13 and ‘Sam’ left to try his hand in several different jobs before being engaged by the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1915 at age 21.
He would work for Pinkertons until 1922 except for a short spell from April 1918 when he enlisted with the US Army to serve in the Motor Ambulance Corps during World War I.
Unfortunately during his military service he contracted the pandemic Spanish flu and later tuberculosis ensuring he spent most of his Army time as a patient at Cushman Hospital in Tacoma, Washington. However on a more positive note he did meet Josephine Dolan, a nurse, whom he would shortly marry.
He and Josephine had two daughters, Mary Jane born in 1921 and Josephine in 1926. After the second birth the family was advised that due to Hammett’s TB living with him full time was not desirable. Josephine rented a home in San Francisco and Hammett would visit on weekends. Sadly under these conditions the marriage fell apart, but he continued to financially support his wife and daughters with the income he now accrued from his writing.
His health issues had become further exacerbated by his heavy drinking. It had begun when he worked in advertising and by the time he was writing full time he had become an alcoholic.
That jump into writing was immeasurably helped by his work at Pinkertons which provided both source material and inspiration, especially for his earlier works in the 1920s which centered on detective fiction. The Hard-Boiled kind.
His first published work was in 1922 for the magazine, The Smart Set. Known for his authenticity and realism, he would often name actual streets and locations, as well as creating characters from the traits of those he knew, all melding together creating a convincing environment that elevated his hard-boiled pulp thrillers into classic works of art.
As Hammett said: "All my characters were based on people I've known personally, or known about."
The equally famous Raymond Chandler was a great admirer of Hammett's works, saying: Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of, The Glass Key, is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.
From 1929 to 1930 Dashiell was romantically involved with Nell Martin, an author of short stories and several novels and dedicated The Glass Key to her. In turn, she dedicated her novel Lovers Should Marry to Hammett.
However that affair died and in 1931 Hammett embarked on a 30-year relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman.
By 1934 had written his final novel in 1934, a quarter century before his eventual death. No firm reason has ever been given although Hellman later speculated that "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."
Hammett devoted much of the rest of his life to left-wing activism, and had especially strong anti-fascist feelings. In 1937 he joined the Communist Party USA.
He suspended his anti-fascist activities when, as a member of the League of American Writers, he served on its Keep America Out of War Committee in January 1940 during the period of the infamous Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The League reversed its decision with the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941.
In early 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hammett enlisted once more in the United States Army after pulling a few strings. As a disabled veteran of World War I, with tuberculosis, and a Communist Party member, that may have meant pulling quite a few.
Hammett served as a sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper. In 1943 he had co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians with Corporal Robert Colodny. It was during this time that ill health again struck. This time he contracted emphysema.
After the war, Hammett returned to political activism, but was less committed. He was elected President of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) on June 5, 1946. That same year a bail fund was created by the CRC "to be used at the discretion of three trustees to gain the release of defendants arrested for political reasons." Those three trustees were Hammett, who was chairman, Robert W. Dunn, and Frederick Vanderbilt Field, "the millionaire Communist supporter."
Alarmingly in the witch-hunt that had began to prevail in post war America the CRC was identified as a Communist front group on the Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations, as directed by U.S. President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9835 on April 3rd, 1947.
The CRC's bail fund gained national attention on November 4, 1949, when bail of $260,000 was posted "to free eleven men appealing their convictions under the Smith Act for criminal conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence." On July 2, 1951, their appeals exhausted, four of the convicted men fled rather than surrender themselves. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York issued subpoenas to the trustees of the CRC bail fund in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of the fugitives. Hammett was called to testify on July 9, 1951 but refused to provide the required information the government wanted. Hammett took the Fifth on every question, refusing to even confirm his signature or initials on CRC documents the government had subpoenaed. As soon as his testimony concluded, Hammett was found guilty of contempt of court and served time in a West Virginia federal penitentiary where, apparently, he was assigned to cleaning toilets. Hammett was willing to endure the sentence and "had come to the conclusion that a man should keep his word."
He testified on March 26, 1953 before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his own activities, but refused to cooperate with the committee. No official action was taken, but his stand led to his being blacklisted, along with others, as a result of unchecked McCarthyism.
A lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking worsened Hammett's tuberculosis, and then according to Hellman "jail had made a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker ... I knew he would now always be sick."
He may have meant to start a new literary life with the novel Tulip, but left it unfinished perhaps because he was "just too ill to care, too worn out to listen to plans or read contracts. The fact of breathing, just breathing, took up all the days and nights."
As the years of the 1950s wore on, Hammett became reclusive and no longer engaged with things that he had once loved, even his typewriter.
Hammett could no longer live alone and they both knew it, so the last four years of his life he spent with Hellman. "Not all of that time was easy, and some of it very bad", she wrote but, "guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards."
On January 10, 1961, Hammett died in New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital, of lung cancer, diagnosed just two months before. As a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.