Shadowing Dashiell Hammett
© Copyright 2014 by Dale Fehringer
He looks the part, and we could tell who he was from a block away. Today was the day he was going to guide us around the parts of San Francisco where Dashiell Hammett lived, worked, and wrote. And there he was, standing on Market Street, in front of the historic Flood Building, on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Don Herron looks to be around 60. The years and the San Francisco fog have drained some of the color from him, and his hair and beard are turning gray. His face and hands have also taken on a gray tint. His attire is subdued – a well-worn tan fedora and open tan trench coat, which partially covers his black shirt, tan slacks, and brown shoes. He could easily fit in on the foggy streets of San Francisco in the 1920’s.
Don came to San Francisco from Tennessee in 1974. In 1977, he recognized the value of the tour, trademarked it, and began operating it for a living. Since then, he has led it hundreds of times, and it is now the longest-running literary tour in the nation.
In his book (The Dashiell Hammett Tour), Don figures he reached the peak of his fame when his tour turned up on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!:
Category: American Cities.
Answer: “The city in which Don Herron leads the Dashiell Hammett Tour.”
Question: “What is San Francisco?”
Don is a wealth of knowledge about Dashiell Hammett, San Francisco, and 20th-century American literature. He talks nearly non-stop throughout the four-hour tour, relating stories about San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett, and Sam Spade.
The tour begins at the Samuels clock in front of the Flood Building, on San Francisco’s Market Street.
“Hammett came to San Francisco in July 1921 to get married and stayed eight years,” Don says as the tour begins. “He went in to this building and hired in with the Pinkerton Detective Agency.”
Around the corner at John’s Grill, Don dispels a myth.
“Hammett did not write The Maltese Falcon at John’s Grill,” he states. “But he probably ate there.”
Don strides on, pointing out the Geary Theater, the Palace Hotel, the Stockton Tunnel, the Hunter-Doolin Building, and Burritt Street, where (in The Maltese Falcon) Brigid O’Shaughnessy shot Miles Archer. He shows us where Hammett slept, where he wrote, and where his characters lived and died. The final stop is 891 Post Street, Hammett’s residence while writing The Maltese Falcon.
“There,” Don says, “In the top-floor corner apartment, is where Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon.” Don has been in the apartment, and he re-read Hammett’s most famous book there.
That means a lot to Don and to us.
Today, Don lives in two distinct worlds: the high-tech, instant communication world of the 21st century, and the hard-boiled, shadowy world of Dashiell Hammett’s roaring ’20s. He seems to enjoy both. When he isn’t giving the tour or lecturing to clubs, Don manages a website and blog on Dashiell Hammett and other mystery writers. He has found something he loves, and he has figured out how to make a living doing it.
At this point, Don would probably agree with his man, Dashiell Hammett, who wrote, “I don’t know anything else, don’t enjoy anything else, don’t want to know or enjoy anything else. You can’t weigh that against any sum of money.”
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