"The stuff dreams are made of": The search for the Maltese Falcon

Oct 5, 2016

Sam Spade is the private eye in The Maltese Falcon, the San Francisco detective novel that’s been mystifying readers for almost a century.

 

Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled page turner came out in 1930. In it, detective Sam Spade gets caught up in a frantic search for a mysterious gold and jewel encrusted statuette known as the Maltese Falcon. The bird has been covered with a layer of black enamel to mask its true value. In the end — spoiler alert — four people die and two are arrested - all over a statue that, when they finally chip the black enamel away, turns out to be worthless, a fake.

In this story, everything unravels instead of being neatly tied up and resolved, and in San Francisco, people cherish that ambiguity.

The mystery over what the falcon really is, whether it even existed, and why it has any value has remained so compelling, that over the years it has slipped off the pages of the book and into the streets of San Francisco.

John’s Grill

John’s Grill is the restaurant on Ellis Street, where Sam Spade goes to eat in The Maltese Falcon. It’s a real restaurant, on Ellis Street, in the middle of busy downtown San Francisco. And sixty-something years after the book was first published, John’s Grill decided to go after the legendary black bird.

They wanted one of the two real props from the Bogart movie. In 1994, one of the props goes up for auction in New York. The restaurant raises about $150,000 to bid, but they don’t get it. The bird is sold for almost $400,000, to a jeweler, but the jeweler lets the statue come to San Francisco for a visit.

Then, John’s Grill throws a big party for the bird, and invites the last living actor from the movie, and Hammett’s family. They let customers admire the visiting black falcon from the movie, but they also buy a $29 plaster cast of it from some prop store. They ask the Hammett family and the actor to sign it and install it in a glass case, so regulars and eager tourists alike can ogle it. But more than a decade later, that bird is stolen.

And people flip out.

Lee Housekeeper - who does PR for John’s Grill - says the cops treated it like  “a major crime scene, and the press is going along with this like of course. The loss of San Francisco’s Maltese Falcon would be like the loss of the World Series champion trophy. Worse!”

The restaurant offered a $25,000 reward for the statue - the owner even put a private eye on the case. But John’s Grill never got its bird back.

The Black Bird(s)

Though $25,000 might seem like a lot of money for a plaster statue - it isn’t even close to what people paid for other copies of the Maltese Falcon - the “real” copies from the movie. There were two props made for the Maltese Falcon movie - the one the jeweler bought, and a second one … that has a dent from where Humphrey Bogart once dropped it. The dented prop was sold for about $4.2 million. The jeweler then used his prop to fashion yet another version of the bird - a 10 lb solid gold bird, with ruby eyes and a 42 carat diamond hanging from its beak - a bird almost exactly like the one described in the book. That golden statue was sold to an anonymous buyer for an undisclosed sum (likely millions).

But it’s not just the mystery of a fake bird that has hooked San Franciscans for so long. Other confounding elements of the story have spilled out into real-life too.

On a street corner across from Burritt Alley, where Hammett writes that Detective Sam Spade’s partner was shot, someone once spray-painted “Miles Archer was shot here” on the ground. At the time, there was a restaurant there, and initially the owner was spooked. He didn’t know Archer was a character in a book, and he wanted the message removed. In the end, the city replaced the graffiti with a bronze plaque memorializing the fictitious murder, but it doesn’t mention the book. There was no reference to fiction.

Burritt Alley

Don Herron has been leading Hammett tours around San Francisco for 37 years. He calls the book “a perfect storm of elements.” It’s got the fake treasure, a complicated romance, and a lead character who’s hard to figure.

He says, “you go oh wait a second he's a good guy, no wait a second maybe he's not a good guy. So you have that sort of living dynamic.”

Dashiell Hammett’s apartment

Herron knows as much as anyone about Hammett and his books. And he’s managed to hook a lot of other devotees. Which brings us back to Bill Arney, that guy we met earlier, who’s read the book so many times. Don Herron, my tour guide, takes me to the building where Hammett lived while writing The Maltese Falcon.

He and three equally obsessed friends meet here every so often to play their own never-ending detective game, about things like which apartment Sam Spade lived in.

This tradition is both kind of sweet and kind of weird. Except for Herron, each of these guys either lives, or has lived in the building at one point in time. They chase shots of whiskey with cheap beer. The small apartment is smoky from all their cigarettes. If you just looked at them you’d think they would talk about … football, or something. Instead, they’re very serious about picking apart and solving every mystery from this decades old book.

Bill Arney actually lived in apartment 401 - the apartment where they believe Sam Spade lived - and where Hammett lived - they think. When Arney lived there, he started to renovate it to what it would have looked like during Hammett’s residency. But he never got to finish - he had to move in with his wife. Luckily, he found someone to take over the apartment and the painstaking renovation - a writer named Robert Mailer Anderson, who named his own son after Hammett. Anderson thinks San Franciscans don’t obsess enough about the literary landmarks surrounding them.

Anderson told me he’s spending his wife’s inheritance to keep this apartment frozen in time. It’s small. It has a kitchenette, a bathroom, and a living room. It’s got one of those Murphy beds that disappears into the wall when not in use - like in the book. There’s a claw footed bathtub, period furniture, even corked whisky bottles from the 1920s. It’s a beautiful apartment, and he doesn’t even live here. Most of the time, this place sits empty.

The story of the Maltese Falcon must be kept alive, Anderson insists. People “plant their flag around this Maltese Falcon. You know? I am Sam Spade. I am a flawed individual, you know, searching for my own moral code,” he tells me.

In the end, we’re all left in the fog - just like Hammett, when he walked up and down the streets of San Francisco. And us San Franciscans? We really love our fog.

This story original aired in February of 2015.