Raymond Chandler’s fifth novel, The Little Sister, was noted by Los Angeles reviewers in early October 1949 as “the return of Marlowe” to the printed page. Having written The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, Farewell My Lovely and The High Window in fairly rapid succession between 1939 and 1943, Chandler had then turned to lucrative screenplay work. In the interim, all four novels were made into film adaptations, with four different actors portraying Philip Marlowe, who also joined the ranks of great radio detectives like Sam Spade and Mike Shayne with his own namesake radio program.
The novel, which features a perpetually grumpy Marlowe nostalgic for a long-lost Los Angeles, draws on Chandler’s experiences in the world of Hollywood movie making. As in his earlier book, The High Window, the plot hinges on a fortuitous photograph which is leveraged as blackmail.
In this case, the novel’s situation- a Brooklyn gangster snapped by an amateur photographer having lunch with an actress at a café when said gangster was supposed to be behind bars- was based on an actual incident that had occured in Los Angeles several years earlier.
It happened on November 8, 1940. Relocated Brooklyn gangster Bugsy (also spelled Bugsie) Siegel, while in custody in the Los Angeles County jail in the Hall of Justice for suspicion of murder in the Big Greenie case, had lunch at the popular Lindy’s restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard with actress Wendy Barrie. The event was said to have been captured by a “candid camera” photographer, who went to the newspapers with the information. The Los Angeles Examiner broke the scandal wide open, reporting that Siegel had made at least 18 such excursions- sanctioned by jail doctor Benjamin Blank (who knew Siegel socially) and escorted by Deputy Sheriff J.E. Pasco’ which lasted 4 to 6 hours each and generally included a lunch stop (1).
Later in the book, Marlowe and Miss Gonzales visit fictional Stillwood Heights bound for Steelgrave’s hilltop home, a “big house where they were setting up for gambling” and are stopped by local residents who are blocking the road and turning away all comers.
That scene, too, had a real-life counterpart. On the night of April 16, 1944, residents of Coldwater Canyon blocked the road leading to a hilltop mansion at 9100 Haven Drive, telling the 25-30 cars headed up there that the place was going to be raided and names of patrons were wanted for evidence. The cars turned back.
The Mediterranean revival mansion had been built in 1937 for Frederick F. Payne. On March 22, 1944, Mrs. Payne leased the property to a young woman, Helen Ann “Toni” Hughes and others. Neighbors soon began to complain of noise and traffic due to the house being used as an all-night club. They complained to the LAPD but the police said there wasn’t enough evidence to take action. They contacted D.A. Fred Howser, who passed the buck, saying it was a police matter. Frustrated by the lack of official response, residents took matters into their own hands that April night. Several residents said they had been threatened with violence. One, composer Sam Coslow, reported that a would-be patron had singled him out, threatening “I’m going to ‘take care’ of you Sam. We’re going to have a little party for you Sam.”
Although not identified as such at the time, the club was run by Mickey Cohen, using Hughes, Roger K. Leonard, and others as fronts.
Hughes and company insisted that she had merely been entertaining her friends and denied “insinuations” by neighbors that there was gambling going on in the house. Detective Lt. Guy Rudolph of the LAPD Administrative Vice Squad and confidential aide to Police Chief C.B. Horrall, came out and made an investigation into the matter, promising that “if these parties continue, some positive action will be forthcoming” (2).
Meanwhile Mrs. Payne filed a “cease and desist” order for her tenants to vacate. Miss Hughes made noises about slapping the residents with a $100,000 damage suit. Nothing came of it.
On May 11, 1944, the Los Angeles City Attorney held a special hearing to review what the L.A. Times soft-pedaled as “The Battle of Coldwater Canyon.” At its conclusion, he dismissed the case and reprimanded the neighbors for taking the law into their own hands, noting that THEY had violated several sections of the Penal Code. By that time, in any case, Mrs. Payne again occupied the mansion, Hughes and her “brother” having moved out (3).
The Little Sister was supposedly made into a TV movie in 1949, the same year it was published, but if so there isn’t much information about it.
It would take 20 years for the novel to make it to the big screen. Released under the title Marlowe in 1969, ten years after Chandler’s death, it stars James Garner in the title role. The novel’s setting is updated to the late 1960s, with some scenes filmed on location.
In the novel, Marlowe goes to the “Van Nuys Hotel.” In keeping with Chandler’s tendency to give fictional names to real places, there was no Van Nuys Hotel in 1949 Los Angeles, but there had once been. It opened in 1897 at the corner of Fourth and Main Street downtown. In 1929, twenty years before The Little Sister’s publication, it was renamed The Barclay.
Though The Barclay was still standing (and remains extant today), in the film the action takes place at the c. 1905 Alvarado Hotel in MacArthur Park.
In the film, Mavis “Wald” is an actress in a TV series but the exterior of the studio isn’t shown. The novel has Marlowe visit a (fictional) movie studio where Mavis Weld works. Chandler may have based it on Paramount Studios, where he once worked as a screenplay writer. He also briefly did screenplay work for MGM and Universal prior to completing The Little Sister.
In the film, Mavis lives in a modern (late 1960s, that is) apartment tower, the San Clemente, overlooking the ocean.
In the novel, Chandler writes: “The apartment house was over on Doheny Drive, just down the hill from the Strip. It was really two buildings, one behind the other, loosely connected by a floored patio with a fountain, and a room built over the arch. There were mailboxes and bells in the imitation marble foyer. Three out of the sixteen had no names over them.”
He may have had in mind thislate 1930s streamline moderne apartment building at 9231 Doheny Drive, just above the Strip, which had 16 units in separate buildings connected by a patio as described in the novel.
The home of Dolores Gonzales (played by Rita Moreno) is not seen in the film. In the novel, Dolores lives at the fictional “Chateau Bercy” on Franklin Avenue, which could have been based on any one of several French chateau-style apartments on that street. The most well know is Chateau Elysse at 5930 Franklin. Built in 1929 as a residential apartment-hotel for film stars, as of 1969 it had become the Hollywood Church of Scientology Center.
Some other locations that appear in the film have no counterpart in the novel, such as Union Station and the Largo burlesque club at 9009 Sunset Boulevard (exterior). Marlowe’s office building has been shifted from the “Cahuenga Building” in Hollywood to the Bradbury Building at Third & Broadway indowntown Los Angeles. The location of Steelgrave’s house in the hills was moved from “Stillwood Heights” to Mt. Wilson (actually, it was shot on the back lot) and the gambling house angle of the novel was dropped entirely.
(1) A similar scandal had occurred in 1928, involving bootlegger Albert Marco. As for a real life counterpart(s) to Weepy Moyer/Sonny Steelgrave, Murder Inc. hitman turned mob informant, Brooklyn gangster Abe Reles, whose confession had led to Siegel’s arrest in the Greenberg case, was noted for his ice pick technique. There was also one of Reles’ former gang members, now living in Hollywood and working in films as a bit actor, who made local headlines in March 1940 when he was arrested and extradited to New York to stand trial for the 1936 ice pick murder of another gangster. It was reported that he wept on the stand during his testimony and wept again when the verdict of not guilty was read.
(2) Both Rudolph and his boss, Chief Horrall, “retired” from the department in 1949, the year of The Little Sister’s publication, in the fallout from a multitude of scandals involving the LAPD, engineered for the most part by one short gangster, Mickey Cohen.
(3) Cohen later asserted that the hilltop gambling club operated for several months but, as is more often than not the case with him, his story and the known facts in the matter don’t quite mesh. Per the 1944 lawsuit filed by the homeowner, Lucy (Mrs. Fred) Payne to oust her tenants, she leased the house for six months on March 22, 1944. The neighbors who launched the complaint said it had been operating as an “all night club” for approximately three weeks when they implemented the blockade on April 16, and the following month reported that there had been no “all night parties” since then.