Finding Marlowe
November 2, 2014 3:30 PM   Subscribe

Was This Black Man The Inspiration For Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade? Samuel B. Marlowe was possibly the first black licenced PI in Los Angeles at the time Chandler and Hammett wrote their iconic characters. An intriguing real-life LA Noir is now unfolding, with the bold claim that Chandler and Hammett both corresponded and had personal consultations with and even even engaged the services (Chandler) of Samuel Marlowe for the purpose of character development for their most famous creations: Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade.

Screenwriter and former Hollywood executive Louise Ransil spent years researching this intriguing story, and now has been joined by journalist and writer Daniel Miller who has dedicated himself to following down all the rabbit holes.

'Marlowe, she said, was the city’s first licensed black private detective. He shadowed lives, took care of secrets, knew his way around Tinseltown. Ransil dropped the names of some Hollywood heavies — Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Howard Hughes.

But it got better. Marlowe knew hard-boiled writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, she said.

The private eye had written them after reading their early stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask to say their fictional gumshoes were doing it all wrong. They began writing regularly, or so her story went. The authors relied on Marlowe for writing advice, and in the case of Chandler, some real-life detective work.'

There are of course plenty of skeptics who think this tale is a might too tall, but don't we expect confusion, lost evidence, intriguing clues, outright lies and always colorful characters to all be part of a good LA Noir?
posted by VikingSword (22 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
This article makes that connection seem very, very unlikely. Too much unverified, too many pieces of missing evidence, too much that doesn't pass the smell test. I admit I read the article quickly, so I ask: is there anything here aside from "this woman and a few other folks claim it's true?"

Another bit that casts the story in a poor light: Hammett had been a PI for years before he wrote any stories. It's not as though he were a stranger to the job. That experience is well known and shaped his fiction. He was a detective and he knew other detectives. That letters from an unknown guy claiming to be a PI would shape his fiction seems a stretch. Also, Spade wasn't his first PI character. He'd already written a bunch of short stories and two novels about the Continental Op.

It doesn't help the story that Ransil admits she's angling for a movie deal out of this.

I'm not saying this story isn't true, but I will say that it sets off a whole lot of bullshit alarms.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 3:41 PM on November 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

Hammett had been a PI for years before he wrote any stories.

And Chandler a devoted reader of the pulps while traveling on business. He thought he could write better than those bums. He could, too, no doubt in part thanks to an expensive British Public School education. Couldn't plot worth a damn, but with that prose, who cares?

As to this story - I'd really like it to be true, I hope it's true, but on the evidence given and lack of evidence where one might expect some, the very best I can give it at this time is a Scotch verdict.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:00 PM on November 2, 2014

Plus one Obituary which although very interesting in its own right has nothing to say about white writers

Plus a review of the screenplay.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:08 PM on November 2, 2014

at some point, chandler went beyond the well-known tropes of the detective story and started to write convincingly about the poorer, more underground half of los angeles - he knew a lot more than it was really necessary for him to write mere who-dun-its

somehow, i don't think hammett ever quite got to that level so i won't say

but where chandler is concerned, i think he had plenty of connections with the seedier side of l a and it doesn't seem impossible that samuel b marlowe was one of them - it's obvious to me that he talked to a lot of people in a lot of different stations in life
posted by pyramid termite at 4:10 PM on November 2, 2014

If this is true, the name "Sam Spade" takes on some pretty shitty baggage.
posted by kafziel at 4:15 PM on November 2, 2014 [8 favorites]

If this is true, the name "Sam Spade" takes on some pretty shitty baggage.

From TFA:

"Marlowe claimed that Spade’s first name was an homage to him, and that the character’s surname was Hammett’s “winking inside joke,” because “spade” was a derogatory term for a black person, Marlowe Jr. told Ransil."

When was this meaning of "spade" popular? At the time of the writing of that character? Or not? I'd google, but I'd rather not have that word in my search history.
posted by VikingSword at 4:21 PM on November 2, 2014

It was popular for most of the last century, in this or that or the other culture, with various translations in various languages. The card suits have been what they are for centuries. So far as your search history goes, forget it. You've typed the word on the internet.
posted by carping demon at 4:45 PM on November 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

When was this meaning of "spade" popular?

Not sure I would use the adjective "popular". It was current in some Harlem Renaissance writings (that is, just after WWI, though some milieus at least as earlier as the post WWI era (some say as early as the US Civil War) and on through the forties. Mencken's History of the American Language 4th edition (1936) cites it as a slur. By the seventies if not the sixties it was pretty old-timey; I think I recall seeing it in the National Lampoon, which often reached back to an earlier America for jokes, though my memory could be playing me false.

Never heard that it translated to other languages.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:52 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Betteridge's Law of Headlines: "No."
posted by reiichiroh at 4:54 PM on November 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'd google, but I'd rather not have that word in my search history.

Seriously? It's not like you're searching for child porn. Or is it an "at work" thing?
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:39 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seriously. I mean the word itself is innocuous, but if you want to find the slur meaning of it, you have to google for the word + slur and I'd rather not get a flood of stormfront-type sites and racist garbage flooding in. Perhaps I'm overly cautious, and I apologize for that, but I have very low tolerance for stuff like that.
posted by VikingSword at 5:47 PM on November 2, 2014

I got a hot tip through the Chandler underground, so have had a few weeks to poke around the usual archival sources. Initial impression: if Sam Marlowe was a private dick, he was an unusually discrete or unsuccessful one, consistently listing himself in city directories and on census forms as a realtor or manual laborer. There is in fact only one known period source, a 1927 advertorial, and quite possibly aspirational, placement in the California Eagle. And it doesn't say much about the year Daniel Miller spent on the case that I located this through an ordinary web search and he, with the resources of the Times behind him, did not (source: he DM'd to ask where I found it).

Of course, there is nothing from or to this man Marlowe in Chandler's or Hammett's well-catalogued correspondence, and most Chandler scholars believe Marlowe is named for the poet and/or the Dulwich day house.

I've talked with Louise Ransil, who has been on our Chandler bus, and while she seems sincere, her Chinatown-esque screenplay about crooked business behind the Arroyo Seco Parkway is assuredly not "based on a true story from the case files of P.I. Samuel B. Marlowe." And the Jean Harlow twist is simply ridiculous.

Without any physical evidence, it's just a fish story, and a sad reminder of the reams of interesting archival material that gets dumped every day. I'd like to see the papers of Sam Marlowe, black mid-century L.A. realtor, with or without a connection to noir royalty. But I'm afraid material that doesn't promote the Chandler/Hammett agenda isn't likely to see the light. Let's just hope it stays out of the dumpster.
posted by Scram at 6:55 PM on November 2, 2014 [9 favorites]

There are a lots of letters in the archives of both Chandler and Hammet. I assume letters from Samuel B. Marlowe are not there or the writer would have mentioned them in the article.

It does appear that they, like many others, corresponded with a wide group of people and you'd imagine that if Marlowe is anything like he is being described, both would jump at the chance.

The name being almost a too-obvious noir mashup, including "Spade" slur.
posted by chaz at 8:45 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Those three script pages are all kinds of terrible.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:14 PM on November 2, 2014

Yeah, this doesn't make any sense.

"Hammett’s debut novel, “Red Harvest,” was published in 1929 — the same year Marlowe wrote the author to complain about his writing, Ransil said."

Hammett's been writing detective fiction since 1922. He began publishing the Maltese Falcon as a serial in Black Mask on September 29th. Before he wrote, he worked for Pinkerton from 1915-1922. So this story doesn't make any sense.
posted by I-baLL at 9:35 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

When was this meaning of "spade" popular?

It was certainly still well-known when I was growing up. In 1985 I saw a production of Hamlet (with Aidan Quinn and Del Close!) that was set in a vaguely modern time period, in which the gravediggers were black (though a bit thirties in appearance), and a "spade" gag made the audience laugh uncomfortably.
posted by dhartung at 10:57 PM on November 2, 2014

I always thought "spade" was old beatnik/hipster (yes, hipster) slang ("I scored these from a spade cat who lives in the Village, man") and I didn't know that it had ever functioned as a straight-up racial slur.
posted by thelonius at 3:38 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

When was this meaning of "spade" popular?

Like, forever.

Growing up in the 60's, spade was pretty common among my parents' crowd, as well as with other adult relatives. So, I have to assume it goes back a good long way. I'm sure I've seen it used in some older movies...My memory seems to recall seeing its use in a title card of some silent movie or another.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:26 AM on November 3, 2014

Colored Spade is the title of a long musical list of derogatory words for black people in Hair, which debuted off-Broadway in 1967. Very educational.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 7:02 AM on November 3, 2014

According to wikipedia "spade" as a racial slur was first written down in 1928.
posted by doctor_negative at 3:50 PM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

So the Maltese Falcon was serially published starting with September 1929, in which case if "spade" was written down in 1928 that's cutting it pretty close, considering that Hammett must have started writing or outlining earlier than Sept 1929. Of course, who knows how long "spade" had been used that way before being written down in 1928. I guess that's not going to be evidence one way or another.
posted by VikingSword at 3:58 PM on November 3, 2014

Sam Spade was not named after the racial slur. The only reason this is being discussed here is because above kafziel said "If this is true, the name "Sam Spade" takes on some pretty shitty baggage." and because the article claims that:

"Marlowe claimed that Spade’s first name was an homage to him, and that the character’s surname was Hammett’s “winking inside joke,” because “spade” was a derogatory term for a black person, Marlowe Jr. told Ransil."

Since the claim that Marlowe inspired the creation of Sam Spade and taught Daschell Hammett about the life of private detectives is most likely false then the name Spade has nothing to do with the racial slur. It always seemed to me that it referred to the ace of spades.
posted by I-baLL at 1:48 AM on November 6, 2014

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