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They left their hearts in San Francisco: The Ghost Stories of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman

Tony Bennett once sang “I left my heart in San Francisco”.  It looks like he wasn’t the only one…

Dashiell Hammett, author of noir classics such as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, was an infamous womanizer during the prohibition era. It wasn’t long before he set his sights on Lillian Hellman, a lively fledgling playwright with great talent and feminine wiles.  The two had an on-again, off-again relationship that spanned over three decades.

The Thin Man movie image
The cast of “The Thin Man”. Hammett loosely based the character of Nora Charles on Hellman.

The accounts about the nature of Lillian and Dash’s relationship vary greatly. Some sources say that they were “friends with benefits”, which was rather progressive for the time (Vercillo, 2007).  Neither Dash nor Lillian wanted to be tied down, and they enjoyed their time together, but were never in a committed relationship.  Other sources say that their relationship was volatile, filled with passion and, sometimes, violence.  Dash couldn’t stay faithful, which led Lillian to cheat out of vengeance.  It is entirely possible that these accounts are false, and that Lillian was painted this way because the thought of a liberated woman was, at the time, unpalatable.  Lillian was said to proposition men half her age, but these stories aren’t told in the same way that they would be were it a man to have been the one doing the wooing.  It’s a double standard, but it reveals how history is shaped by those who tell it.  A dual biography written by Joan Hellen paints the lovers as anything but idyllic.  Dash might have even been violent towards Lillian.  While I haven’t had the chance to read the entirety of this book, it has a tabloid-like feel to it, and it can be difficult to determine just how much is based in fact, and how much true. Especially when both parties involved are now dead.

Neither Dash nor Lillian died under peculiar circumstances. Dash died of lung cancer at the age of 67.  Lillian died in 1984, aged 79, of a heart attack.  Neither of them died in San Francisco.  Yet there are stories of both of them returning to the Golden City after death.

Accounts of Dashiell Hammett’s ghost are vague.  In life, he worked at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which was on the third floor of the James Flood Building.  Most stories indicate something along the lines of “Dashiell Hammett is said to haunt this floor…” without any concrete anecdotes, specific details, or “evidence”.

image of the flood building
The Flood Building being built in 1904

While there remains the question of whether or not Dash haunts the Flood Building, there are more substantial stories of other ghosts residing in this building.  Before being built, the Baldwin Hotel stood on this land.  In 1898 there was a terrible fire, which burned the building to the ground.  Years later, the Flood Building was erected in its place, but the screams of the children who perished in the fire can be heard when one walks alone down the halls.  If you believe that sort of thing.

Lillian Hellman’s story is a little more interesting.  She is said to haunt the Hotel Union Square, a place she visited many times for rendezvous with Dash.  Strange occurrences have happened in room 207.  Things like books and shoes often move, and objects suddenly appear in the room.  Some men have claimed that they’ve seen Lillian trying to climb into bed with them (Dwyer, 2011).  The source where I read this is questionable, as they didn’t cite their source.  I’m not sure if I’m inclined to believe this tale, but stories of Lillian’s haunting are prolific in various sources.

Hotel Union Square
Image of Hotel Union Square from Yngvadottir

But why would Lillian return to San Francisco, when she was a world traveller? Was it because she missed her Dash, her one shot at true love? Does she regret not spending more time with him?  If that were the case, why is she climbing into bed with random hotel guests?  Unless, even in death, she’s still trying to make Dash jealous?  There’s a suite named after Dashiell Hammett in the Hotel Union Square, and maybe she’s demanding that she have her own.  Maybe someday she will.  I find it anything but strange that the haunting is attributed to Lillian Hellman.  She was a sexually liberated woman, so of course the ghost that inappropriately creeps into strangers’ beds would be her.  Assuming that the men weren’t making up stories to try to explain why they were dreaming about a woman who wasn’t their wife, and that there is a ghost, I don’t think it’s Lillian Hellman at all. It could be someone else, another lonely lost soul that was forgotten in the sands of time.

The stories would have you believe that both Dash and Lillian returned to San Francisco after death.  But I’m not convinced.  What do you think?  Tell me in the comments.

Hammet & Hellman books


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