A Detective’s Detective

Inspired by reading Hammett, David Fechheimer became the consummate San Francisco detective. But his longest case was investigating the world of his hero, and his findings made future Hammett scholarship possible.

Fechheimer’s achievement, 1975/NW

By the early 1970s, sadly little proof remained of Dashiell Hammett’s one-time employment as a Pinkerton operative beyond the word of his family. The background of his former life as a sleuth had set him apart from his hard-boiled peers, and given his stories their plausible aura of authenticity. (Pinkerton’s, for their part, would not confirm or deny his employment.) In New York literary society, and in Hollywood, Hammett had entertained with many stories about his old Pinkerton days, but after his death it became cynically fashionable with some to doubt he had even been a detective.

When David Fechheimer arrived in San Francisco in the early Sixties, it was still “Hammett’s city,” he remembered. “Men wore hats, everybody drank.” But by 1965 the city was entering its countercultural bloom; Fechheimer was a “budding flower child” and poet on his way to a literature degree at San Francisco State when he encountered the books that got him off his academic track. (It was not a one-night transformation from reading The Maltese Falcon, as would be repeated in later profiles.)

“We all lived hand-to-mouth then,” he said, and all were looking for work; after noting the collection of Hammett’s other jobs listed on the backs of his novels he’d admired, Fechheimer called up Pinkerton’s San Francisco office and began his own detecting career where the writer had finished his. While working out of the very same Pinkerton branch in San Francisco in the late 1960s, David Fechheimer became increasingly interested in the history of the man whom no one at the businesslike Flood Building seemed to remember.

He learned all the skills of sleuthing, and, later under his longtime boss Hal Lipset, quite a few tricks unknown to Hammett, before eventually going into practice himself as a San Francisco private eye. Like Hammett, he began to learn the city around him right down to its bones.

As an investigator, he noticed things: While waiting for the M car on the traffic island opposite the House of Lucky Wedding Rings, he met Albert Samuels sweeping the sidewalk, who had once employed Hammett to write jewelry ads. He got his hair cut by an old barber named Bill Sibilia, who remembered trimming Hammett’s graying pompadour and that he was a good tipper.

Fechheimer also located a woman Hammett had written poems for in San Francisco; she talked to him in whispers outside her house, having never told her husband about her romance with Hammett or that he had said she inspired Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. He next found and interviewed Mrs. Hammett, long presumed dead by scholars at the time, then, hoping to find any of his hero’s old colleagues, he used the same method that had drawn Hammett into the agency to begin with — placing a simple newspaper ad.

Two old men answered his query: Jack Knight had been a well-traveled Pinkerton in the early twenties who never worked directly with Hammett but knew his reputation as one of the “fellows with particular ability.” The other, Phil Haultain, said he had learned to shadow from ‘Sam’ Hammett himself, and was his partner in the last months of Hammett’s career as an operative. Fechheimer went to meet Haultain in the office of his conveyor belt company in Emeryville, California in early September 1975. Their conversation remains the only eyewitness testimony about Hammett as a detective.

Shaking the old operative’s hand, Fechheimer must have felt, in the words of A.J. Liebling, “joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder.” Haultain was eighty years old, looking paunchy but stockily powerful at his desk, wearing a buff-colored Stetson and dark plaid shirt, flower-pattern tie and thin white mustache. “I was telling my wife today,” he said. “Sam Hammett made me a good shadow man.” Haultain recalled his Pinkerton mentor as “tall, thin, smart as a steel trap. He knew his business. He wasn’t a drinking man in those days, not that I know of. But he used to smoke like hell. Rolled his own cigarettes.” Like Sam Spade.

According to Haultain, Hammett schooled him in shadowing that fall of 1921, when Pinkerton’s was hired by the defense in the first manslaughter trial of the film comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. The two men were tailing a couple from Los Angeles who were likely witnesses for the prosecution, and Haultain remembered “we circled round them, and even with this hat [of mine], they didn’t get wise. He was a wonderful investigator.”

The ex-detective pictured for a newspaper profile, 1934/Harry Ransom Collect.

So, too, was the man Haultain was talking to, who gathered this and other interviews for a special Hammett issue of Francis Ford Coppola’s weekly, City of San Francisco, on November 4, 1975, much of it compiled, researched, and written by guest editor David Fechheimer. (The issue also served as a run-up to a Hammett film Coppolla was producing directed by Wim Wenders.)

A reviewer of a Hammett bio in the 1980s complained that all Hammett lives offer the same slideshow, they just reshuffle the slides. With his discoveries for that issue of City, Fechheimer made most of the slides biographers have shuffled since the seventies. He never published his own Hammett book, although he got close — commissioned to do one by a New York publisher, he got far enough along to draw warning letters from Lillian Hellman. But in the end he handed off his research to future Hammett biographer and executor Richard Layman and returned to detecting. The material he had gathered made later books possible about this strangely secretive man who destroyed so many letters.

Most important, perhaps, was something that did not appear in the City issue: Fechheimer “borrowed” Hammett’s Army medical record, which detailed, year by year, the biography of his disabling Tuberculosis and the emergence of his art when it rendered him unfit to keep working even part-time for Pinkerton’s or, later, for Samuels Jewelers. After recieving the VA file in a steakhouse, he read it into his tape recorder and had it transcribed by an English typist recommended by Eldridge Cleaver.

The medical file was central to testing Hammett’s origins story that he began writing his authentic crime stories because he was confined to his bed of pain in San Francisco. Thanks to Fechheimer, you could follow along as each government nurse evaluated Hammett for disability, sometimes reporting that he had even bragged about selling a few stories to magazines.

After Richard Layman graciously shared the transcript with me, I hung much of my own Hammett book on this account of his transformation. (The real government file went officially missing and was presumed lost in a fire at an archive. Or Fechheimer’s contact never returned it to the shelf.)

When I first met Fechheimer in later years, his stealthy profession didn’t seem at first to jibe with the trim white beard and rimless glasses, which suggested a professor of American Studies, perhaps, or Constitutional Law, instead of a detective. We had several wonderful meals together, during which the fact that he was a detective sometimes added gravity to even trivial things he was talking about — recommending a new coffee place, for instance, like it was a secret passed on by his criminal informant (“You go behind the old Mint, and there it is.”). He was generous enough to appear with me and the Hammett historian Don Herron on the stage of the Mechanics Institute, after which I had him sign my copy of his 1975 issue of City.

At the last of our lunches, I somehow left my phone on the table while visiting the rest room. When I returned, the private detective was scrolling through my roll of Western landscapes. “Is that Montana?” he asked, more to confirm what he already knew. Of course it was. Butte, to be precise, where he had already been, chasing Hammett.