The life of the great American crime writer Dashiell Hammett appears to have been one very brainy, money-oiled train wreck. A longtime alcoholic; a habitual womanizer who today would likely get busted for sexual harassment and whose second case of gonorrhea put him in a hospital; a highly paid professional who blew through his small fortune like someone "who didn't expect to live past Thursday," as a drinking buddy put it; a man who could not finish a fresh work of fiction during his last 27 years: Hammett fits the hoary cliché of the brilliant maladjusted author perfectly. It's a pity he didn't get to Alaska until middle age.
Hammett, whose parentage on both sides stretched back to before the War of Independence, grew up poor in a dysfunctional Catholic family in Eastern Maryland and Baltimore. He saw his father betray his mother, dropped out of school forever when he was 14, worked a few clerk-type jobs, then found employment and success as a Pinkerton detective whose assignments included the support of powerful corporations in their fight against unionizers as well as true investigative work. He turned to writing in his late 20s out of necessity, forced to be sedentary after nearly dying from tuberculosis, which he caught as a stateside doughboy in World War I. Thin as a post and a cigarette smoker, Hammett's health would be an issue all his life until lung cancer killed him in 1961, at age 66.
Hammett did enjoy a brief, unusual period of contentment during which he stayed largely clear of his dominant vices and threw himself instead into a cause he cared deeply about, the fight against Nazi Germany and fascism. The period lasted roughly 24 months in 1943-45, when he served once again in the U.S. Army. He would go months without a drink and was not irritated by its absence. He even gained weight. After years of disorderly living, he more or less followed a routine and found it conducive. Assigned to the Signal Corps, he wrote training manuals and gave lectures and radio broadcasts on the progress of the war in all theaters. He edited a soldiers' newspaper, becoming a mentor and father figure to bright young men who were awed by him, coaching them to be reporters and illustrators, close observers of the life around them. Two of those protégés went on to successful careers in American journalism and one became a noted painter and illustrator.
Loved the Aleutians
What is most remarkable is that all this occurred not in the glamorous parlors and lurid bedrooms of Hollywood or the glittering nightclubs of New York — haunts with which Hammett was all too familiar — but in the wet, windy, women-bereft, all-but-written-off Aleutian Islands, a place that Hammett, in contrast to the many thousands of troops who served there in WWII, actually loved.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett is today remembered as one of America's greatest writers of crime fiction. "The Maltese Falcon," a novel whose continuing appeal can be measured by the scores of American public libraries that have chosen it in recent years as their "Big Read," is one of the very few detective stories that seem to cross over effortlessly from mystery genre to literature. Writing in the 1920s and '30s, Hammett by and large invented the laconic, tough-guy private dick who walks the mean streets but "who is not himself mean," in the famous formulation of Raymond Chandler, a writer often mentioned in the same sentence as Hammett. A New York Times obituary called Hammett the dean of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction.
"Hammett was our first poet of crime," writes novelist and critic Jerome Charyn, who, quoting French poet Louis Aragon, goes on to say in his introduction to "The New Mystery" anthology that "one could learn more about the meanness of modern life from Hammett than from any other American writer, including Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald," all Hammett contemporaries.
That the Army accepted Hammett was testament both to manpower needs in 1942 and the writer's persistence. Twice he had failed to enlist. A 48-year-old, 6-foot-2 drinker who carries only 140 pounds, has bad lungs and a mouth of mostly rotten teeth does not, in any army, inspire soldierly confidence. But America in 1942 did not have the assurance of victory it would acquire later, so on the third try the Army said yes.
But rather than sending him to Europe, where he had hoped to go, the military posted him to Alaska after a year of desk work at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. In the late 1930s, Hammett, an admitted Marxist, had been active in left-wing politics. Adak and other Aleutian posts are where many such soldiers ended up.
According to Reese Palley, the 93-year-old author of "Concrete: A 7,000-Year History" and several books on ocean sailing, who served in the Aleutians and knew Hammett, "Adak was the place where the Army sent three types of people — troublemakers, homosexuals and P.A.F.s," or premature anti-fascists, a term of official disapproval for leftists who in the 1930s had seen dangers in the rise of Hitler and Mussolini and opposed the Nationalists in Spain.
Despite Hammett's politics, the Army on Adak was friendly to him and knew exactly how to use him. As a soldier, Hammett never traded on his fame and never bucked for higher rank (he made sergeant some months before his discharge in 1945). Such social restraint derived from a genuine identification not with the officer class but with the enlistees, which won him their broad admiration. But the brass knew all about his star power.
To understand Hammett's value to the Alaska Command, consider the sinking morale of many troops in the Aleutian garrisons. The 15-month "thousand-mile war" that ended in August 1943 had been costly, mistake-ridden and weather-bedeviled. But we had won. In the end, two of the islands, Attu and Kiska, belonged once again to America, not Japan.
The Aleutian victory gave the nation relief from any Japanese threat against Alaska and the West Coast and improved the U.S. strategic position in the North Pacific. But it gave no relief to the tens of thousands of GIs who would be stationed there.
In "Report from the Aleutian Islands," a poem published in the Saturday Evening Post in May 1945, Cpl. Erwin Spitzer, who landed on Adak in December 1942 and sometimes worked for Hammett, etched GI frustration that the war had passed them by:
We fight phantoms here.
Bayonet and rifle are useless. …
Would you use a grenade
How large a cannon is necessary
To demolish monotony? …
We fight no thundering battles,
Suffer no pity-inspiring wounds,
Are never found in the boisterous headlines
Or even the minor, modest print.
A 1949 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, "Retrospection on Part of the Aleutian Campaign," cited multiple causes of GI distress — the lack of a night life, shortages of fruit and vegetables, unfounded fears that the water flowing in island streams lacked the right minerals and would lead to a softening of the bones. Frank Gelbman, an Army psychiatrist who had spent time during the war on Adak and in Anchorage, noted that soldiers on Adak deeply resented the policy that allotted liquor to officers but only an uncertain supply of beer to enlistees.
And, of course, there was the nearly total absence of female company. "For unknown reasons," Gelbman writes, "the myth that prolonged heterosexual abstinence would lead to impotency … was prevalent." Many GIs, he noted, feared that continued lack of sex with women would turn them homosexual.
The Aleutian soldier, Gelbman reports, lost "all interest in having a neat appearance. These men were probably the dirtiest and sloppiest non-combat troops in the Army."
Leading The Adakian
Soon after arriving on Adak in early September 1943, Cpl. Dashiell Hammett took up a typescript that had been started by Cpl. Robert Colodny, a trained historian who had gotten to Adak earlier. Hammett kept Colodny's captions but rewrote the text. "The Battle of the Aleutians: A Graphic History 1942-1943" was finished in October 1943 and printed and distributed to troops the following year as a 24-page, densely illustrated, 8-by-5.5-inch booklet. Sanctioned by the Army's Intelligence Section, its purpose, like the purpose of all of Hammett's projects in Alaska, was to connect the GIs to the wider war — in general, to improve morale. The booklet summarized the Aleutian campaign and the "Northern Highway to Victory" in authoritative prose that rides along with a triumphal zing (no surprise from an expert writer who had begun his career turning out ad copy). A sample:
"War had come to the Aleutians — to a chain of islands where modern armies had never fought before. Modern armies had never fought before on any field that was like the Aleutians. We could borrow no knowledge from the past. We would have to learn as we went along, how to live and fight and win in this new land, the least known part of our America."
Next for Hammett was a newspaper, to be called The Adakian. In December 1943, the 38th Special Services Company — about 100 singers, musicians, actors, budding journalists, theatrical technicians — came ashore at Adak. Several went to work for Hammett, including a well-educated 26-year-old married teacher from California, William "Bill" Glackin. In a 1998 remembrance in the Sacramento Bee, Glackin wrote about 16,000 Army and 3,000 Navy troops "sitting around wondering why they were there." Brig. Gen. Harry F. Thompson, commander of Adak Army Air Base, "thought a newspaper might at least give them a connection to the war in the rest of the world," wrote Glackin, who would become essentially the managing editor of the paper and, after the war, would go on to work 54 years as an arts writer and editor for the Bee.
Hammett, with little to no newspaper experience, set out to publish a daily morning paper run off a mimeograph machine—two legal-size sheets, four pages in all (eventually six pages on Sunday). The print run reached 5,000 copies. The entire operation, including reporters and illustrators, their tables and chairs and the mimeo machine, was confined to an ordinary Quonset hut situated in softly rolling hills just northwest of the airfield, a few miles up from the port. The staff worked all night long.
"It was a grind," said Brendan Glackin, the son of Bill Glackin, who died in 2002. "They just worked on it continuously, get it out in the morning, go to sleep, get up, go to work, work all day, get it out. They would stop to eat, have some recreation time, but those guys were pretty tight. They were in that hut an awful lot."
Letters to lover Lillian Hellman
In a January 1944 letter to playwright Lillian Hellman, his longtime lover who lived in New York, Hammett wrote of his hopes for the paper:
"Now the program I'm working on is designed to tell (the Adak troops) as clearly as possible what's cooking — why we got into this war and what we stand to get out of it, good or bad; how the war is progressing, and what people at home and any place abroad think of it; what's going on in the U.S. and elsewhere, what people think and do; what plans are being concocted at home and abroad for post-war life, and what people think of them; in short, we want to produce a soldier who, up here, knows more, not less, than he ever knew about his world in civilian life down there."
The staff used the wire services available to other GI papers — The Associated Press, United Press, Camp News Service. These supplied news of the war, politics, sports, entertainment. But Hammett went beyond those to gather national and international news, and to get it not through slow military channels but from Hellman. He asked her to send him, for example, the Week in Review section of Sunday's New York Times, newsmagazines from home and abroad, and 16mm prints of two anti-Nazi movies released in 1943, "The North Star," uninhibitedly pro-Soviet propaganda written by Hellman, and "Watch on the Rhine," written by Hammett from a Hellman play, that were to be shown in Adak theaters the following month.
Hammett's little Adakian gave its readers more news of the war than military readers at other posts got — concise original movie reviews by staffer Hal Sykes and maps drawn by the paper's illustrators — and he gave all of it to them sooner.
"I would rewrite what we had put in the paper and put it on the morning news," Kalb, who will be 93 early next month, said in a phone interview from his home outside Washington, D.C. Kalb had had only a bit of college journalism before The Adakian, but the paper, for which he would sometimes write five GI profiles a week, got him his first job after the war, producing radio copy for a New York Times-owned station in Manhattan. Eventually he was recruited into the Times' own newsroom. He would rise to fame as an internationally known correspondent for CBS News and NBC News. Kalb, whose younger brother is the well-known journalist Marvin Kalb, won awards for his coverage of the Vietnam War.
The Adakian was for Adak eyes only. It could not be mailed. Yet soldiers at other Aleutian bases knew about it, because of its cartoons. The paper printed two, three and sometimes four single-panel cartoons every issue that were wildly popular. Hammett rejected the comic strips available to him from the States and instead directed his illustrators — Bernie Anastasia, Oliver Pedigo and Donald Miller — to depict the life and the gripes (mostly the gripes) of the ordinary soldier on Adak. The surprising fact about the cartoons is that it was Hammett who supplied most of their captions. He modeled them on cartoons in The New Yorker, applying his own wry, waggish humor to life on Adak.
"Me, I sit around and think up ideas for gag cartoons," he wrote to Hellman in February 1944. "One of the eagles on a colonel's shoulders lays an egg there. A non-com lies sleeping in bed with his stripes sewed on a comforter over his arm. A rat coming down a rope from a ship says to one behind him, 'Go back, this is the Aleutians.' A bedraggled raven swoops down saying to another, 'Look, I'm a dive bomber.' A bottle of milk and a morning paper stand at the door of a Quonset hut. A soldier sits on his bunk dressing, saying, 'I dreamed about Evelyn again. Gee, travel improves her.' And on and — ho hum — on and on. Sometimes I think I've missed too many boats."
Hammett wrote hundreds of letters from Adak — to his ex-wife, his two daughters, other lovers and, of course, to Hellman. (Many were published in 2001 in "Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett: 1921-1960," edited by Hammett scholar and biographer Richard Layman, with the collaboration of Hammett's granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett.) The letters show the writer's warmer side and his charming wit. But in the Adakian newsroom, Hammett was not so outgoing — unless he had traveled to Anchorage and returned in a souse after having visited the bars — and the young journalists were at pains to relate to him.
"It was very difficult for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to make conversation with him," Reese Palley said in a phone interview from his Philadelphia home. Palley was a theatrical lighting technician with Special Services on Adak and spent his copious free time hanging around the Adakian. Hammett, he said, "was a mature man with an enormous history, an enormous literary background, enormous accomplishments, so what could we say to him? None of us were smart enough to know how important he was. It was a matter of not having the background or experience to talk with him … I was just happy to be in his presence."
"He was not the most socially available. ... He was reserved," Kalb said. "To me, Hammett was the great mystery writer, period. I had no idea of his political orientation. Occasionally, very occasionally, he would read a letter to us, a letter or two from Lillian Hellman when she went to Moscow (in fall of 1944) for Colliers. My memory of Hammett is of him stretched out in the back on a wooden table reading a book. He was just sort of there and played very little part in running the paper," which was left to Glackin.
Breaking down barriers
Hammett's "political orientation" did have one striking effect: He actively recruited two black men for his staff, Jamaica-born Don Miller, the illustrator, and Alva Morris, the printer. Their hiring, according to Hammett's biographers, made the paper's staff the first integrated unit in the Aleutians (the U.S. armed forces were not officially integrated until 1948).
Hammett asked no one's permission. He warned no one. He merely went ahead and hired two black enlistees. No one on the staff made so much as a peep. Some didn't think it all that unusual.
"I have no recollection of that being a calculated decision at all," said Kalb, who was born in New York. "To me, these were two guys — one was an artist, one ran the stencil machine, and that's it. … We're in the top of the Pacific, the war is going on in the South Pacific, we are so far out of the war it's unbelievable. I didn't have any idea we were part of a racial revolution. My reaction was: This is perfectly normal to have the different races thrown together."
Bill Glackin thought otherwise.
"My father said it (The Adakian) was the only integrated unit in World War II," Brendan Glackin remembered. "My father said it was at Hammett's insistence. He was really proud of the fact his unit had integrated."
For Don Miller, Hammett performed a revolutionary act. Judy Miller, his widow, a retired professor of African-American studies who lives in Montclair, New Jersey, recalled that her husband "knew Dashiell Hammett's decision to integrate the paper was an act of defiance of the status quo, and (Don) admired him for it. He saw him as a kind of hero."
Her husband, she added, "was really a kid, 18 or 19 years old. He said it was an experience that changed his life, because most of the guys were older, and it opened up another world to him."
Don Miller, who enjoyed a successful career illustrating 40 children's books and painting the huge, 56-foot-long mural in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., visited Anchorage in 1989 to give a talk about his wartime experiences at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. He told the Anchorage Daily News at the time that his hiring by Hammett was "one of life's strange and rare pieces of unexplained good luck."
Miller returned to Alaska again in 1990, this time with his wife. He and Judy Miller visited Adak where Don gave a commencement talk at the high school. They stayed a few days. Many of the WWII Quonset huts had been removed by the Navy. But with the help of an old map, they located the spot where The Adakian's hut stood, Judy Miller said. She found a doorknob and brought it back to New Jersey.
As far as is known, Don Miller, who died in 1993, is the only member of The Adakian's crew to have revisited Adak.
Peter Porco, a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, is presently reworking his play, "Wind Blown and Dripping," about Hammett's days on Adak. His research has been supported by grants from the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska State Council on the Arts. "Shadow Man" by Richard Layman and "Dashiell Hammett: A Life" by Diane Johnson are among the sources he consulted.
Hammett program Thursday night
Toby Widdicombe, a professor in the English Department at UAA, author of a book on Raymond Chandler and an admirer of Hammett, and Jocelyn Paine, an Anchorage performer, writer and visual artist, spearhead the local Time Travel Literary Club and will showcase some of Dashiell Hammett's life and work on Thursday evening at the Hugi-Lewis Gallery in Midtown Anchorage. The 6:30-9 p.m. program includes people dressing up in period outfits, the dramatized reading of a Hammett radio play, and the showing of clips from Hammett-related movies like "The Maltese Falcon" with Humphrey Bogart. For more information, call 907-276-8195.