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.

I’ve always wanted to be Nora Charles (as played by Myrna Loy). She was a sharp, classy (but not stuffy) dame who looked gorgeous and cracked wise. My marriage is pretty darned good — but Nick & Nora had a PERFECT marriage. The way that they interacted and shared adventures entertains me to this day.

Because we’re into the last weekend before Christmas, many of you will be out trying to finish your shopping; and that made me think of Nora Charles, her arms piled high with holiday packages, dragging along behind Asta (the cute-as-a-button terrier) as she made her grand entrance into the film “The Thin Man”.  As she attempted to collect herself after taking a tumble, Nora pulled a vanity case out of her handbag to check her makeup. She was a woman after my own heart.

Thinking of the Charles’ also made me crave a martini (well, in my case a gin gimlet).  In a little while I’m going to go and fix myself a cocktail, put my feet up, and watch Nick & Nora celebrate the holidays in their own inimitable style.

Here comes the bride, all dressed in white – and surrounded by art deco geometry. The bride on the Nupcial face powder box is dressed for a wedding in the late 1920s or early 1930s. She’s wearing a cloche style headdress, her hair is bobbed, and her bee-stung lips are painted a vivid crimson.

She represents a typical bride of the time, and she is obviously wearing make-up.  Commercial cosmetics were a recent phenomenon in the 1920s and 30s. Prior to that time women had passed recipes for kitchen cosmetics and skin preparations to one another. The recipes were often contained in cookbooks which were given as gifts, or handed down from mother to daughter. When the Nupcial bride was walking down the aisle, whether or not to “paint and powder” was still the subject of contentious debate.

The bride in the photo looks radiant and deliriously happy, or maybe just delirious; but what about the darker side of brides? For the noir side of brides we need only to look at the 1935 film, “Bride of Frankenstein”.  Elsa Lanchester may have been one of the most reluctant brides ever. She took one look at her intended mate, Boris Karloff, and let out an ear piercing shriek of terror.  Not exactly an “I do”.

Bride of Frankenstein

Bride of Frankenstein

I always feel sorry for the monster – look at his face, he was obviously smitten, and you can see why, Elsa made a lovely bride – even with the lightening bolt of white in her hair, and the extensive scarring on her neck.

“For her fifth wedding, the bride wore black and carried a scotch and soda.”

Phyllis Battelle, journalist

They may look benign in their beautiful gowns; with their hair perfectly coiffed and their makeup flawlessly applied, but brides can also be serial killers! The bride in Cornell Woolrich’s novel was widowed on her wedding day. She was not about to let the murderers escape justice, and the novel tracks the homicidal nearlywed as she lures, ensnares, then bumps off the five men who ruined her life. What the homicidal bride doesn’t know about the death of her groom is revealed in a contrived twist at the novel’s end.

Although he was not the same caliber of writer as either Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich was one of the fathers of the 20th century crime novel. He penned the story Rear Window which became the great Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.

 Woolrich was a profoundly unhappy man. He was a self-hating homosexual and was a groom one time only. He may have been even more hesitant to walk down the aisle than Frankenstein’s intended.  On a whim, he married the daughter of a movie mogul. The marriage was not consummated, and after a desperate phone call from his mother who claimed that she couldn’t live without him, he moved in with her and never left again.

Even in these enlightened times, wearing white and walking down the aisle with the man of your dreams seems to be a national obsession. There are TV shows devoted to brides behaving almost as badly as the woman in Woolrich’s novel. These women are the notorious “Bridezillas”.  Nothing makes them happy – neither the dress, nor the catering, and perhaps not even the groom. They roar and stomp, and generally make life miserable for all those with whom they come in contact. I’d rather face a starving raptor.

I think that the preoccupation with over the top weddings is a component of the nation’s other reigning mania – the desire for fame.  It seems as if everyone wants to star in her or his own movie, or share space with a “celebutante” on the cover of a supermarket tabloid.

My groom and I opted for a small retro style wedding. The elegant vintage cake topper was a flea market find and suited the theme of my wedding perfectly. I will always cherish it.