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Weekend Escape

Take a walk in Sam Spade's gumshoes

On the streets of San Francisco, a father and son enter the world of the 'Maltese Falcon' detective.

April 17, 2005|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — It was cool outside. The rain had stopped, but the dampness seeped into our bones with the chill of death. We walked from our hotel down through the Tenderloin, a no man's land of desperate panhandlers, to John's Grill, where we took a window table on the second floor and ordered the chops, baked potato and sliced tomato.

This was the meal Sam Spade ordered in the hard-boiled classic "The Maltese Falcon." We didn't ask the waiter to hurry it, as Spade did. We had no other place to be. We ate, then sat back and waited to see if a "youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes" would come tell us the car was ready for a run to Burlingame to rescue Brigid O'Shaughnessy.

No man in a cap showed. Still, the moment was fun.

In the 75 years since Dashiell Hammett maneuvered private detective Sam Spade through the streets of San Francisco, this city has changed. But not so much that "Falcon" fans can't still find the ghost of Spade's partner, Miles Archer, hovering "where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown" -- the alley where O'Shaughnessy plugged him.

Part of the fun of "The Maltese Falcon" is Hammett's emphasis on place as much as character, moving Spade among hotels, restaurants and apartment buildings selected from the writer's haunts in the 1920s.

Don Herron, a cabby, part-time writer and Hammett fanatic, has been leading walking tours through the heart of San Francisco since the 1970s, pointing out the past, both real and fictional. On a Friday in mid-March, my 14-year-old son, Michael, and I caught a short afternoon tour. (The long version covers three miles in four hours.) Fog would have added to the fun -- Spade awakened one night to the lonely echo of the Alcatraz foghorn -- but we got rain.

We started at the Flood Building, where Hammett worked intermittently from 1915 to 1921 as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency. Herron whisked us past a small display in the lobby and out the Ellis Street door to John's Grill, marked by a plaque and a falcon silhouette on its awning. It's the only restaurant where Spade ate that still exists.


What's in a name?

"The Maltese Falcon" begins with O'Shaughnessy -- using a fake name -- hiring Spade and Archer to find her sister by trailing Floyd Thursby, who she said was helping the girl. It's a ruse; O'Shaughnessy, Thursby and three others are all looking for the Maltese falcon, a priceless statue whose gem-encrusted surface is hidden beneath black enamel. Thursby and Archer get murdered, and Spade's pursuit of the killers -- and the falcon -- propels the plot.

As we walked, Herron pointed out key spots and a detail new to us. For reasons that remain unclear, Hammett used real restaurants in his books but gave hotels pseudonyms. In an intriguing hairsplit, he identified the Palace Hotel because Spade ate there, but no characters checked in.

O'Shaughnessy stayed first at the St. Mark hotel, which close readers of the novel think is the Westin St. Francis overlooking Union Square, and then moved to Apartment 1001 of the Coronet on California Street. Herron pointed out what some Falcon fans think is its model, the 19-story Cathedral Apartments, a 1930 sandstone-colored building rising above the corner of Jones and California streets. Because the Cathedral opened after the book was published, and Hammett described a route that suggests the real Coronet was farther west, we weren't convinced.

Underworld character Kasper Gutman and his gunman Wilmer Cook stayed at the Alexandria, whose model remains murky but is best-guessed as the Sir Francis Drake, where bellmen in beefeater garb still wrestle bags from car trunks and hail cabs. Wary conspirator Joel Cairo stayed at the Belvedere, generally read as the Bellevue (which is now the Monaco); it's just up from the Geary Theater, where Spade met Cairo on the sidewalk under Cook's watchful eyes.

Our soggy trek continued westward along Geary, passing the intersection with Leavenworth (where Thursby was gunned down) before arriving at 891 Post St., where Hammett lived from 1926 to 1929 and wrote "The Maltese Falcon" and two other novels, "Red Harvest" and "The Dain Curse."

Herron and other aficionados think Hammett lived in a corner unit on the fourth floor, though some hold it was the third. On the Saturday we were there, a plaque was added to the outside of the building marking it as a literary landmark. A friend of Herron's has rented the fourth-floor studio, so it often is included on the walking tour, as it was this day. In the late 1920s, Hammett was married with two children but had contracted tuberculosis, so he took this small apartment with a Murphy bed to avoid infecting his family. Fans believe he made it Spade's apartment too.

This is where Spade had his run-ins with the police, his romantic encounter with O'Shaughnessy and his showdown with Gutman, Cook and Cairo. And it's where, placing justice ahead of emotion, he handed O'Shaughnessy to the cops.


Off on their own

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