Thursday, October 14, 2021

A Steward of Hammett’s Digs, Now Gone

We must acknowledge, if belatedly, the death of William P. “Bill” Arney, who is said to have “reclaimed” the apartment, at 891 Post Street in San Francisco, once occupied by Dashiell Hammett and his private-eye creation, Sam Spade. He passed away this last September 28.

As author Mark Coggins explains in his blog,
Hammett lived in the building during the period [1927-1929] he wrote his first three novels and he put Spade in the same building in The Maltese Falcon. With a close reading of the Falcon text, and a comparison of the other apartments in the building, Hammett scholars have determined that #401 is the most likely to be Spade’s and Hammett’s, although there are no records of the particular apartment in which Hammett lived.”
From what I can learn online, Arney, an architect who arrived in the Bay Area from Peoria, Illinois, in 1981, rented that fourth-floor studio apartment, #401—all 275 square feet of it—a dozen years later, in 1993. He’d been a Hammett fan for the previous decade, so set about to renovate the place, “fixing the floorboards, installing a ceiling light, stripping paint off the window frames, and rehabilitating an old frosted-glass door he found in the basement to its former glory,” according to a 2001 piece in SF Weekly. “He invested in a desk and padded rocking chair, which are mentioned often in the book.”

Not surprisingly, Arney’s studio became a periodic stop on literary historian Don Herron’s popular Dashiell Hammett Tour, with participants riding up to it in what the Royal Rosamund Press blog calls “an elevator much like the one we see at the end of John Huston’s film version of Falcon—the one Brigid O’Shaughnessy gets ushered into after Sam Spade refuses to play the sap for her.”

The apartment building at 891 Post Street, San Francisco, where Hammett lived while batting out The Maltese Falcon.

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 cost Arney both his architectural post and his parallel job as occupant-caretaker of #401. But his fears that that historic place would be stripped of its original fixtures (including a Murphy bed and claw-footed bathtub) and otherwise modernized beyond recognition after he was gone were ultimately not realized. According to a piece by author Thomas Burchfield, “a local philanthropist, Robert Mailer Anderson, stepped in, took over the apartment and his kept as Bill left it, a most fitting memory.”

In addition to preserving Hammett’s onetime digs, Arney had a second claim to renown: For many years he was “the Voice of Noir City,” San Francisco’s annual film noir festival, delivering “wry, wisecracking introductions” to the movies on show. “From the start,” recalls Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, “Bill’s omniscient Master of Ceremonies became an essential part of the Noir City experience. He too became a fixture, making friends with many of the regular patrons. What a lot of people didn’t know is that his wardrobe—the hats, spats, trench coat—wasn’t a costume donned for the show. That was Mr. Arney himself.”

I haven’t yet located an authoritative report of how old Arney was at the time of his demise. Muller says, though: “He’d been battling an assortment of maladies over the past few months, but none that seemed lethal. In fact, Bill called me the day before he died and he sounded the same as always—charming and avuncular, with that gruff voice straight out of a 1940s film noir. An undetected virus in his lungs dropped him for the count the following day.”

We offer our most sincere condolences to Arney’s family.

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