was hot and I was late for lunch. I was feeling mean,
like I’d been left out in the sun too long.
were meeting at a joint on La Brea, the kind of place
where the booths have curtains you can pull shut if you
need a little privacy. I slid across cool leather and
got my first good look at Louise Ransil, a wisp of a
redhead with high cheekbones and appraising eyes.
sat with her hands folded on the worn table, a stack of
old paperbacks next to her.
had a script she’d been peddling to the studios. I’d
started reading it — a detective caper set in 1930s
Los Angeles — and wanted to find out about the claim
on the title page.
ON A TRUE STORY: From case files of P.I. Samuel B.
didn’t waste any time.
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,
it got better. Marlowe knew hard-boiled writers Raymond
Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, she said.
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.
his name was Samuel Marlowe ... and their most famous
characters were Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
was no accident, she was sure of it.
maybe not. At the very least, it was a hell of a
the letters that would prove it all had gone missing —
if they even existed.
relatives were searching for them. There was talk of a
secret compartment in a home in West Adams. Or maybe
they were hidden at a shuttered thrift shop in South Los
flashed a wry smile. Was I interested?
letters worth thousands. A family trying to uncover the
truth about a man all mixed up in the glamour and the
seediness of L.A. between the wars. And a Hollywood
screenwriter who stood to gain a lot from any story I
was L.A. noir.
didn’t know if I could trust Ransil, a former
executive with Orion Pictures and New Line Cinema who
lived alone in a penthouse with a pet parrot.
she had gotten to me. Chandler and Hammett created two
characters that shaped the archetype of the noir
detective as a world-weary white man, and she was saying
they might have been named after a black private eye.
started checking out Ransil’s story, looking up the
paid obituaries in The Times and the Los Angeles
Sentinel from when Marlowe died in 1991.
was born Aug. 3, 1890, in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
According to The Times obituary, he served in Britain’s
Egyptian Expeditionary Force, a World War I fighting
brigade that guarded the Suez Canal. After the war,
Marlowe immigrated to the U.S., settling in Los Angeles,
where he soon became a private detective.
obituaries made the same bold — and almost certainly
untrue — claim: "In L.A., he was the first
licensed P.I. west of the Mississippi."
notices were larded up with the private eye’s civic
achievements, even referencing a few organizations —
like the Old Black Screen Actor’s Guild, from his days
as a bit actor — that I couldn’t verify ever
needed to turn to Marlowe’s family members. And to
said that after reading the obituaries, she reached out
to the gumshoe’s son, Samuel Marlowe Jr., who gave her
access to his father’s archives.
the course of several months in 1991 and 1992, Ransil
said, she examined the PI’s papers at the younger
Marlowe’s home — rifling through old case files,
invoices and correspondence — and took notes in
Stenoscript shorthand. She showed me dozens of pages of
said she didn’t photocopy anything because it would
have amounted to hours of work and she figured there’d
be plenty of time to examine it all. She eventually set
aside the project, distracted by her day jobs. By the
time she picked it up again in 2006, Marlowe Jr. was
61, acknowledged that doubters could say she’s playing
fast and loose with the truth to score a movie deal. She’s
adamant that her motives are pure.
least Ransil wasn’t the only person who claimed to
have seen the letters.
Rawls, 74, a Marlowe family friend, said she examined
them around 2001 just before they went missing. And one
of Marlowe’s great-grandsons, Antoine Durousseau, said
he saw them too.
lot of them were handwritten — letters between Marlowe
and the authors," he said. "Marlowe kept a
pretty good file cabinet."
followed a lead to a big man drenched in sweat. He was
picking through battered steamer trunks and moldy
Cummings was searching for the lost letters — or
anything else that could prove the man he knew as a boy
was a trusted advisor to two literary lions.
had a gold-capped tooth right here," Cummings said
of his great-grandfather, pointing at one of his own
front teeth, "and was addicted to cigars, horses
the sun beat down on a dilapidated South L.A. building,
Cummings, 48, took a break. He wasn’t satisfied with
the objects he’d unearthed at the property, once a
thrift shop operated by his late father, who had
retrieved some of Marlowe’s personal effects when the
private eye died.
Cummings, it’s personal. He wants to prove what a
1980s story in the Sentinel asserted: When Marlowe
became a PI in 1921, he was the "first black man to
have a licensed detective agency in the state of
am more interested in Sr.’s legacy, and the legacy of
African American men who have blazed a trail and gone
unrecognized," said Cummings, speaking in a
California Department of Consumer Affairs, which issues
private detective licenses, has no record of Marlowe,
but an agency spokesman said that older files are often
incomplete or missing. USC history department researcher
Angelica Stoddard, whose work centers on L.A.’s first
licensed black private eyes, says Marlowe is the
earliest one she’s heard of.
ducked into a rusty white Ford Econoline van parked out
back and emerged with a heavy cardboard box. He set it
on the ground and plunged his hand in, pulling out a
pistol, bullets, stale cigars. There was an address book
with an entry for Universal Studios’ payroll
department and a placard that read, "This property
is protected by the Samuel B. Marlowe Detective
started re-reading Chandler’s and Hammett’s novels,
gulping down their stories of crooks and femmes fatales,
dizzy with all that hard language coursing through my
debut novel, "Red Harvest," was published in
1929 — the same year Marlowe wrote the author to
complain about his writing, Ransil said.
following year, Hammett released "The Maltese
Falcon," with its iconic, white private detective,
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.
1933, Hammett published "Nightshade," a
little-known, four-page tale that appeared in Mystery
League magazine and is his only work to feature a black
the story, the lead character, Jack Bye, helps a blond
out of a jam with two toughs. Afterward, they visit an
African American speak-easy called Mack’s.
she leaves, the barman tells Bye: "I like you, boy,
but you got to remember it don’t make no difference
how light your skin is or how many colleges you went to,
you’re still a n — ."
said that Marlowe’s cache of letters from Hammett
included a carbon copy of a draft of
"Nightshade" with an index card clipped to it
suggesting the story was inspired by the private eye:
came across this and thought you might like to have it.
You’ll see I changed a few of the details, but I think
it still works."
family members say, provided security for illegal
speak-easies during the Prohibition era, when Hollywood
types liked to frequent the Dunbar Hotel and other
nightspots on South L.A.’s Central Avenue — long the
center of African American life in Los Angeles.
Durousseau said that he’d been told by older relatives
that film studios also paid the gumshoe to "pick up
actors and actresses who were in the wrong part of town
at speak-easies and juke joints."
work on Central Avenue, and a walk-on part in the 1933
epic "King Kong," introduced Marlowe to a slew
of movie industry players.
those who relied on Marlowe were Howard Hughes and
Charlie Chaplin — both of whom used him to keep tabs
on women they were seeing, Ransil said.
1936, Paramount Pictures hired Marlowe to investigate an
attempt to blackmail actress Marlene Dietrich, Ransil’s
notes show. Marlowe went to a train station to stake out
the delivery of $8,000 in hush money provided by the
studio to a "young man." He turned out to be
the son of Dietrich’s makeup artist.
refused to have the makeup woman and son arrested
because she and the makeup woman had been lovers,"
Ransil’s notes show.
detective also started doing a little work for Chandler
after the author wrote the PI asking if he could
retrieve some police files, Ransil said. Marlowe’s
billing files, she said, show that he was also Chandler’s
guide on research expeditions to the "tough parts
gave Chandler a bit of advice on how to think like a PI:
"Believe no one, even the person hiring you —
especially the person hiring you," according to
1939, Chandler released "The Big Sleep," his
first Philip Marlowe novel. It turned the writer into a
followed up "The Big Sleep" a year later with
"Farewell, My Lovely," considered by some to
be his greatest work. Ransil believes that the South
L.A. vignette that opens the book depicts a side of the
city that Chandler would have been unfamiliar with
unless he had a guide like Marlowe.
novel opens on Chandler’s Philip Marlowe emerging from
a barbershop on Central Avenue. He watches the felon
Moose Malloy throw a black man out of a bar called
Florian’s. Later, Malloy and Marlowe come across an
African American bouncer at Florian’s who says,
"No white folks, brother. Jes’ fo’ the colored
people. I’se sorry."
did he get that? Why Central Avenue?" asked Judith
Freeman, author of the biography "The Long Embrace:
Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved."
research institutions that house the two writers’
papers said none mention Marlowe. And scholars have
plenty of other ideas about where the characters’
names might have come from. Freeman said the connection
would be plausible — "if one could find even the
smallest direct link."
thundered down the 110 toward Compton, my coupe
shuddering over the highway’s tar-smeared seams. I was
hoping for an audience with Marlowe’s oldest living
relative — his nephew.
Joseph Marlowe lives in a pink, wood-sided house with a
security gate at the front door. It was a Sunday, and
down the block a church was flooded with parishioners
who spilled out onto a porch.
parked across the street, where two steely-eyed men
sitting in a late-model sedan clocked me as I hustled up
the driveway. My visit was unannounced; I’d had a mind
to doorstep Samuel Joseph, who didn’t answer my
letters or have a working phone.
I found a withered man lolling deep in a stained couch,
as comfortable as an old shoe.
speech had been muddied by a recent stroke, but Samuel
Joseph, 88, was eager to talk.
spoke of his journey from Jamaica to Los Angeles in 1947
and how his uncle got him a job at a cold storage
facility. Marlowe was willing to lend a helping hand,
but when Samuel Joseph needed help filing his taxes, the
flinty PI charged him $10.
he finished my income tax I went by the house and he
said, ‘Your paperwork is finished,’ so I reached up
to get it," Samuel Joseph said. "He said, ‘You
can pay me $10 first.’ I picked it up anyway. He
pulled out his little pistol and said, ‘No, you put it
back until I get my money.’ He was joking, but he was
meaning it too. He didn’t pity no man."
Joseph smiled at the story but told me that he didn’t
know about Marlowe’s connection to the writers. He
said in a bashful sort of way that I knew more about his
uncle than he did.
what should I say about Uncle Sam?" he trailed off,
squinting at something unseen.
had hit another dead end.
kept things close to the vest, even with his relatives.
But as he grew older, he hinted at his glory years, back
when he called himself the "Answer Man."
remembers watching television with Marlowe years after
he’d retired. The old man’s eyes lighted up when the
film adaptation of "The Maltese Falcon" came
on the screen.
Humphrey Bogart hunt down the jewel-encrusted falcon
statuette, the elderly former detective gestured at the
television and said "he knew that guy from the
movie," Durousseau recalled.
private eye died two weeks before his 101st birthday. He’s
buried at the Inglewood Park Cemetery. I visited with
Durousseau and watched as he cleaned the grave marker in
row 1190 of the cemetery’s Resthaven section, sluicing
it with water from a fast-food restaurant cup.
outlived his family members, he’d seen Los Angeles
[transform] from nothing to everything," said
Durousseau, 44, stifling tears. "He just felt he
was ready to go."
the detective died, some of his possessions were
transferred to his son’s house in West Adams. The old
Dutch Colonial became the focus of a family legal battle
when Marlowe Jr. died in 2003, and that may have led to
the loss of the private eye’s files.
three years of legal skirmishing, the house was put on
the market — and the feuding heirs never retrieved the
files from it. When buyer Ethan Polk toured the property
before making an offer, it was filled with the
belongings of the late PI and his son. As part of the
transaction, Polk stipulated that it be cleaned out.
real estate agent hired a crew of people to clean out
the house," Polk said. "They basically dumped
had been a year of hard work but even harder luck when I
met Ransil for lunch again, this time at an Italian
place on Hillhurst Avenue. She appeared more frail than
I walked in, the faint sound of an army of air
conditioners registering their protests set me on edge.
We were in the middle of a ferocious heat wave and AC
units had been surrendering all across the city.
ordered a tuna melt with fried potatoes and picked at
the food. I barely gave her time to eat.
peppered her with questions, asking again why she hadn’t
photocopied Marlowe’s files. I told her about the real
estate agent’s crew, and what they’d done.
needed a good night’s sleep, I needed a change of
scenery, and I needed a break in the case. It didn’t
look like any were coming.
slumped back into the green leather booth. She said she
felt ashamed that she’d let the story slip through her
a long and twisted tale that didn’t turn out the way I’d
hoped," she said. "I’m kicking myself in a
lot of ways."
was another lead to pursue, and I wasn’t some
soft-boned flatheel who’d give up without a fight.
Dutch Colonial once owned by Marlowe’s son is a husk,
shedding roof shingles and sloughing off its white
clapboard exterior. But it could hold the private
is, the house contains at least one hidden compartment
where the younger Marlowe had stashed valuables. Ransil
said that the private eye’s daughter, Rena Hughes,
once told her about this. A former resident, Stacie
Ottley, recalled one in a bedroom too.
a room that had a little thing in the floor,"
Ottley said. "One of the floorboards moved."
the letters still be there? I asked Polk, the current
owner, if he’d mind if I tore up a room. He gave me a
look and, laughing a little, agreed.
called up my handyman, a street-smart Cincinnatian named
Dan Boster who keeps his salt-and-pepper hair short. I
asked for a favor.
week later, the two of us stooped in one of the house’s
closets. Boster yanked up musty carpet. He rapped his
fingers on the hardwood floor.
now, he leaned in and edged a steel scraper between two
boards. The wood gave way. Cool air rose from below.
swallowed and looked down.
spent a year chasing dead men. They weren’t talking.
Maybe they never would.
I just got another tip. I’m in too deep to quit now.