SF_chinatown gate_gift from china 1969

Grant Street, San Francisco

The first thing that this hair net package calls to mind is obviously the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; but it actually bears some resemblance to the Grant Street Gate to that city’s Chinatown.  

My initial impulse when I sat down to write this post was to follow a straight line from the Golden Gate Bridge to Chinatown, but my thinking is rarely stays that linear.  After a few minutes I realized that what San Francisco means to me, other than 1960s psychedelic bands, is Sam Spade.  

bogart_sam spade

Humphrey Bogart

The novel THE MALTESE FALCON, featuring the character of Sam Spade, was written by Dashiell Hammett and was published in 1930 – during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.  

The golden age of detective fiction is generally considered to be those years between the World Wars.  Many of the writers of the Golden Age were British (e.g. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers); however, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were successfully writing classic American detective stories during that period.  Today Hammett and Chandler are two of the best known of the era’s hard-boiled detective fiction authors.  

ronald knox

Ronald Knox

As early as 1929, writers were attempting to define the mystery/detective genre. Ronald Knox, an English theologian, priest and crime writer published some rules for writing detective fiction.  

According to Knox a detective story: “must have as its main interest the unraveling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.”  

Knox’s “Ten Commandments” (or “Decalogue”) are as follows:  

  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

the-chinese-parrot1Rule number five is particularly odious. No Chinaman? What happens when the detective is a Chinaman?  Earl Derr Biggers created Charlie Chan during the 1920s.  There are many reasons to be offended by the portrayal of Chan both in the books and in the subsequent films; however, I think  a good rule of thumb is to never apply today’s sensibilities to yesterday’s literature.  My reading list would shrink to nearly nothing if I did that.  I look at the stories in the context of their time, and by putting Charlie Chan in a position of authority I believe that Biggers was taking an interesting, and somewhat risky step forward.  

Quoting from Wikipedia: “Interpretations of Chan by critics are split, especially as relates to his ethnicity. Positive interpretations of Chan argue that he is portrayed as intelligent, benevolent, and honorable, in contrast to most depictions of Chinese at the time the character was created. Others argue that Chan, despite his good qualities, reinforces Chinese stereotypes such as poor English grammar, and is overly subservient in nature.” I’ll leave the debate on ethnicity and stereotypes to others.  

Rule number seven was probably meant to discourage other writers from doing what Agatha Christie had done so successfully in 1926, which was to write a detective novel in which the narrator turns out to be the killer.  The novel, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, has been considered by many to have been Christie’s masterpiece.  

In 1930 Agatha Christie published her first Miss Marple novel, MURDER AT THE VICARAGE, (a classic “cozy”) and Dashiell Hammett published THE MALTESE FALCON, the only novel to feature Sam Spade and, arguably, the novel that first introduced the archetype of the hard-boiled detective to the world. In the novel Spade is cynical, bitter, and morally ambiguous, that is until he explains to Brigid O’Shaunassey his reasons for turning her in. Spade’s moral code may be non-traditional, but he adheres to it.  Spade tells her that he had fallen for her, but she had murdered his partner. He’d never be able to trust her, and he’d likely go to prison with her if he concealed what he knew from the cops.  Finally Spade tells Brigid that he’ll wait for her; provided she doesn’t hang.  


lillian hellman_young

Lillian Hellman

Hammett not only created the modern private detective, but he created two of my favorite film characters, Nick and Nora Charles.  Hammett wasn’t quite as enamored of the THIN MAN films as I am, but they did provide him with enough money to afford decent liquor, at least for a while.  Who were Nick and Nora in real life?  Hammett told his long-time companion, writer Lillian Hellman, that she was the inspiration for Nora. However, according to Hellman “Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess.”   

Hellman and Hammett had a 30 year long relationship – a part of which was depicted in the 1977 film JULIA starring Jane Fonda, Jason Robards, and Vanessa Redgrave.  Did Hellman really smuggle papers out of Nazi Germany in her hat as shown in the film, or had she taken another woman’s (i.e. Muriel Gardiner) story as her own?   The jury is still out on whether or not Hellman greatly embellished her autobiographies.  

In any case, JULIA was a compelling enough film to win three Oscars.  I love the movie – the costumes are exquisite, the acting superb.  It’s worth watching whether the story is Hellman’s or not. Oh, and look at this clip from the film with Meryl Streep as Anne Marie and Jane Fonda as Lillian.  

huac hearings

HUAC Hearings

During the 1950s Hammett was investigated by Congress, and testified on March 26, 1953 before the House on Un-American Activities Committee. Although he testified to his own activities, he refused to cooperate with the committee and was blacklisted.  

Others refused, as did Hammett, to cooperate with HUAC and they paid dearly.  A group of Hollywood writers who refused to cooperate with the committee became known as THE HOLLYWOOD TEN. They were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson,  Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo.  


Dashiell Hammett

The ten men claimed that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to refuse to answer questions about their beliefs. The HUAC and, subsequently, the courts disagreed and all ten men were found guilty of contempt of congress. Each of them was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison.  

Hellman had appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. At the time, HUAC was well aware that Dashiell Hammett had been a Communist Party member. Asked to name names of acquaintances with communist affiliations, Hellman delivered a prepared statement which read in part: 

“To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable.  I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have not comfortable place in any political group.” 


Hellman may have embellished her autobiographies, but her statement to HUAC leads me to believe that she was also a stand-up dame.    

About Hammett’s writing career, Hellman said:

“I have been asked many times over the years why he did not write another novel after The Thin Man. I do not know. I think, but I only think, I know a few of the reasons: he wanted to do a new kind of work; he was sick for many of those years and getting sicker. But he kept his work, and his plans for work, in angry privacy and even I would not have been answered if I had ever asked, and maybe because I never asked is why I was with him until the last day of his life.”   

I’ve never been able to visit San Francisco without thinking of Dashiell Hammett or Sam Spade.  Even though Hammett never wrote another novel after THE THIN MAN, his contribution to mystery fiction, in particular to the hard-boiled genre, was seminal.


Because of my interest in Los Angeles history, crime, vintage clothing, and cosmetics history, I rushed out to see The Changeling last weekend. As a result, I decided to feature the Elite hair net package from my collection. The woman  on the envelope is from the same era (c. 1928) as depicted in the film, and the hairstyle resembles that worn by Angelina Jolie who stars in the movie.
The story that inspired the The Changeling is even more compelling and repellent than the story told by the film. Compelling because it is based upon an actual case from Los Angeles in the 1920s. Repellent because of the nature of the crimes (the kidnapping, molestation, and murder of young boys), and also because of the criminal — a sociopath by the name of Gordon Stewart Northcott. (Warning — spoilers for the film to follow.)
Walter Collins

Walter Collins

On March 10, 1928 Walter Collins, aged nine, vanished from his home at 217 North Avenue 23 in Lincoln Heights, CA. By August, Los Angeles police claimed to have located Walter in De Kalb, Illinois. The boy was returned to Los Angeles, but as soon Christine Collins, Walter’s mom, clapped eyes on the boy she knew that he was an imposter.
Corruption was rife in Los Angeles at the time and some members of the LAPD, as well as local politicians, were involved in bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution. The police department couldn’t bear further scrutiny or negative press, and they were anxious to have a public relations win. Returning the Collins boy to his mother was just what they needed. The difficulty that they couldn’t overcome was that the boy that they brought back to Los Angeles to be reunited with Christine was not Walter!
Arthur Hutchins, Jr.

Arthur Hutchins, Jr.

Christine resisted, but was finally convinced by LAPD Captain J.J. Jones to take the boy home with her. No amount of wishing, or coercion by Jones, would make the faux Walter morph into the genuine article. Christine kicked up a fuss and was summarily committed by Captain Jones to a local psych ward. It took about 10 days to pry the truth out of the devious counterfeit Walter.

After giving authorities at least two more aliases, the boy finally admitted that he was Arthur Hutchins, Jr. from Marion, Iowa and that he’d pretended to be Walter Collins to get a free trip to Los Angeles. It seems that young Arthur was a big fan of cowboy films — particularly Tom Mix.
Meanwhile, out in Wineville, CA (now Mira Loma) the depraved and profoundly evil Gordon Northcott was molesting, torturing and murdering young boys. One of whom was probably Walter Collins.
Gordon Stewart Northcott

Gordon Stewart Northcott

Then in a deus ex machina worthy of a Greek tragedy, a Canadian cousin of Northcott’s, Sanford Clark (aged 15) entered the drama. He’d been gone from his home for two years when he was arrested at the Wineville ranch as an illegal alien and held for deportation.  While in custody the young man broke down and told police a story so heinous that it was difficult for them to believe him. He said that Gordon Northcott had forced him to assist in the kidnapping and murder of several young boys.
Murder chicken coop

Murder chicken coop

Even as newspaper headlines screamed “Murder Farm” from the newsstands, Gordon and his mother fled to Canada to avoid prosecution. They could run, but they couldn’t escape the long arm of the law. The two were soon located and returned to California to stand trial.

In a noir twist echoed decades later in the Roman Polanski film Chinatown (“she’s my sister, she’s my daughter”) during his trial Gordon would learn that his mother was in fact his grandmother, and that he was the result of an incestuous relationship between his sister and his father.
Gordon was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. His mother/grandmother (who had initially confessed to killing Walter Collins, then recanted) was sentenced to life in prison, but she was paroled after serving only 12 years.
I loved being able to identify some of the buildings used in the film, and found the interior sets to be  faithful to the era. 
Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins

Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins

Angelina Jolie’s wardrobe in the film was gorgeous, and the credit goes to costume designer Deborah Hopper who has worked with director Clint Eastwood for over 20 years. According to Wikipedia, Hopper had to find 1920s style clothing for approximately 1000 people! Archive media featuring the real Christine Collins was used to create Angelina’s authentically styled wardrobe (note the cloche hat and the coat with the fur collar).  Jolie’s makeup was also correct for the time; but as you can see in the photo the real Christine wore few, if any, cosmetics.

One thing I noticed was that Angelina’s shoes are almost certainly reproductions made by an LA-based company called Remix Vintage Shoes.  Check out their site and see if you agree.
Christine Collins

Christine Collins

In the film, as in life, Christine Collins never stopped believing that Walter was alive. She pinned her hopes in part on Northcott’s cynical and cruel manipulations.  From death row he continued to taunt and torment the parents of the victims by sometimes accepting responsility for the killings, and then later insisting that he’d had nothing to do with the slaughter at the ranch. Remains found at the chicken ranch in Wineville could not be positively identified as Walter’s, and this too kept Christine’s hope alive. Her dream of a reunion with her son must have been rekindled when a boy believed to have been murdered by Northcott turned up several years later alive and well.
Sadly, Christine never saw Walter again in this life and she eventually disappeared from public view. The last mention of her that I could find was on January 21, 1941 in the Los Angeles Times.  The newspaper reported that she had renewed a suit for damages against Captain J.J. Jones, the cop who’d had her committed to the psych ward when she refused to accept Arthur Hutchins, Jr. as her son.