Story by Daniel Miller
Illustrations by Morgan Schweitzer
Photography by Gina Ferazzi
November 1, 2014
It was hot and I was late for lunch. I was feeling mean, like I’d been left out in the sun too long.
We 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.
She sat with her hands folded on the worn table, a stack of old paperbacks next to her.
Ransil 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.
“BASED ON A TRUE STORY: From case files of P.I. Samuel B. Marlowe.”
The screenwriter Louise Ransil, a former Hollywood executive, says she spent “hundreds of hours going through Marlowe’s files, then intensive hours interviewing family members” before writing her film script, “Marlowe.
Ransil didn’t waste any time.
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.
So his name was Samuel Marlowe … and their most famous characters were Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
That was no accident, she was sure of it…
In 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…