05 April 2009

'...a helluva town to come back to'

Montreal Confidential
Al Palmer
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

Readying for a trip to my hometown, I reach for this cheap little paperback. A bit of a lark, really — this is a Montreal that no longer exists, one I know only through ephemera, flotsam and William Weintraub's excellent City Unique. Palmer's book sells glossy snapshots of a time when Stanley was Swing Street and St Catherine was known as St Kit's ('as every native Montrealer calls it'). These were the years of radio personalities, hat check girls and Lili St Cyr, 'who spreads an epidemic of striptacoccus'. It's easy to see why Weintraub dubbed Palmer the 'poet laureate of Montreal nightlife'. In his eyes, dancers aren't dancers, they're glamorines who pitch their curves around while gawkers down stagger syrup.

A once and future columnist for the Herald, Palmer warns that his book is no tourist guide: 'It doesn't tell you how to find a hotel room and a companion — if you're under 21 we wouldn't tell you and if you're over 21 you shouldn't need to be told.' Not entirely true. The newspaperman tells the reader how to smuggle a doll into a hotel room, where heroin and marijuana might be bought, and which restaurant will impress a date (the Laurentian Hotel's Pine Lounge). There's plenty of other advice, such as:
If it is at all possible don't go out on Saturday night. That is the night when all niteries are jampacked by those of the lesser income brackets. Cafe Society usually remains at home and house parties are the gathering spots of those who would normally be ringsiding it. Saturday night is the one night the shoe clerks go out and howl.
There's no denying that Montreal Confidential is a rip-off of Dell's New York: Confidential! (1949) and Chicago Confidential (1950) — the latter employed the very same pitch: 'The Low Down on the Big Town' — yet Palmer's is an altogether different treatment. He has a great affection for his city, and — as early as 1950 — has begun a fall into nostalgia. The Frolics and El Morocco had closed their doors, Johnny 'The Wop' Pannunzio was dead and Harry David had been filled 'full of uncomfortable bullet holes in the tatter's horse parlor on Stanley Street.'

Seven years after Montreal Confidential appeared in drugstores, the Herald folded; Palmer moved on to the crime beat at the Gazette. He died in 1971.

Trivia: Concordia University holds the Al Palmer fonds, which includes well over 300 photographs of the era's nightclub entertainers, and at least one of the author himself.

Object: Cheap and nasty. My copy has a poorly cut head and isn't even rectangular.

Access: Library and Archives Canada has a copy, as does Concordia, but that's it. A handful of acceptable copies are available from online booksellers at between C$30 and C$40.

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