When I was a kid, the old timers in the fishing village said the red house next to the cliff used to be occupied by the Lady that's Known as Lou.
I liked the phrase, the rhythm of it, and would say it to myself like a nursery rhyme, but I didn't know what it meant.
Many years later I took care of the kids of a commercial fisherman who'd grown up in the village. To my surprise, this weathered Alaskan, who'd lived through many high seas adventures and tragedy, loved to watch old black and white films featuring a needle-witted, knitting sleuth named Miss Marple, played by the swashbuckling Margaret Rutherford.
In one of these movies, "Murder Most Foul," Dame Margaret recites, with gusto, a poem called "The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew."
And in it was the mysterious phrase from my childhood.
In the scene, Miss Marple is trying out for Mr. Cosgood of the Cosgood Players in an attempt to find out whodunit. She informs the empty theater, with only the prop men, a cleaning woman and Mr. Cosgood present, that she will be reciting "The Shooting of Dan McGrew'" by Robert Service.
A big, imposingly built woman, she intones portentously: "'A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon. The kid that handles the music box was hitting a jag time tune. And back of the bar--'" turning to gesture significantly at the wide eyed prop men "'in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew. And watching his luck was his light o' love, the lady that's known as Lou. When out of the night--'"
She goes to the stairs to stand on them as the transfixed prop men's eyes follow her, "'--when out of the night that was 50 below--'" clutching her bosom, "and into the din and the glare--'" coming back down the stairs and stumbling forward into the spotlight again, "--there stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dark dirty and loaded--'" slapping one ample hip, "'for bear.'"
Mr. Cosgood interrupts: "Just give me the gist and get to the climax!"
Miss Marple says, very serious and thoroughly British: "Oh dear, that's very difficult. It's a long poem and there's a great deal behind it. However, as you wish. Well, now--um--soon after the stranger has entered this lurid scene it becomes increasingly evident that there is a growing antagonism between him and Mr. McGrew--an antagonism that is to end in stark tragedy. Should I pick it up at the point where the miner, seated at the saloon piano, is playing like a maniac?"
Mr. Cosgood: "Yes, yes. Please do."
Miss Marple: "Thank you." She turns aside to play an air piano. "'And the stranger turned and his eyes they burned,'" playing the piano wildly, "'in a most peculiar way. In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway," the piano playing becomes more violent as she sways, "'and his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, but his voice was calm.'" She ceases playing. "'And boys, says he, you don't know me, and none of you care a darn--'"
Mr. Cosgood, looking at his watch: "Yes, yes, yes, but get to the point please."
Miss Marple, not missing a beat: "'But I want to state and my words are straight and I bet my poke they're true. One of you is a Hound of Hell, and that one is Dan McGrew! Then I ducked my head,'" she bends at the waist like a bull about to charge a matador, "'and the lights went out and two guns blazed in the dark, and a woman screamed--'" she flings off her cape and scarf, letting them sail to the floor, "'and the lights went up. And two men lay stiff and stark,'" both hands gesturing to the crumpled cape and scarf. "'Pitched on his head and pumped full of lead was Dangerous Dan McGrew. While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breasts of the lady that's known as Lou.''
There's a long pause, the cleaning woman leaning on her broom, looking enthralled, the prop guys are more transfixed than ever. Miss Marple stares at them for a moment then turns to the audience. "'I'm not as wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two, the woman who kissed him and pinched his poke was the lady that's known as Lou.'"
My question, after watching this performance, was who was Robert Service and how did his lady known as Lou end up in the fishing village near where I grew up?
"He was not a poet's poet. Fancy-Dan dillettantes will dispute the description 'great.' He was a people's poet. To the people he was great. They understood him, and knew that any verse carrying the by-line of Robert W. Service would be a lilting thing, clear, clean and power-packed, beating out a story with dramatic intensity that made the nerves tingle. And he was no poor, garret-type poet, either. His stuff made money hand over fist. One piece alone, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, rolled up half a million dollars for him. He lived it up well and also gave a great deal of help to others.
"'The only society I like,' he once said, 'is that which is rough and tumble--and the tougher the better. That's where you get down to bedrock and meet human people.' He found that kind of society in the Yukon Gold Rush, and he immortalized it." --Obituary of Robert W. Service in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, Sept. 16, 1958: "A Great Poet Died Last Week in Lancieux, France, at the Age of 84."
Robert Service was born in England in 1874 and grew up in Scotland. When he was 21 he traveled to British Columbia, Canada, hoping to be a cowboy, but instead became a polo playing bank clerk. In late 1904 the bank sent him to their Whitehorse branch in the Yukon. He bought himself a stylish raccoon coat on the bank's expense account and became a fashionable man striding around the muddy streets of the frontier town. He lived in rollicking Dawson, the raw spirit of the place inspiring many of his most successful poems, including The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew. It was here in Dawson where he met the old timers who could tell him about the gold rush days, the characters he would forever immortalize in his poetry.
During WWI he worked as a stretcher bearer and Red Cross ambulance when the Army wouldn't have him for health reasons. After the war, in which he'd lost a brother, he traveled abroad, including to the USSR where he was forever ostracized from Soviet letters or even acknowledged as a poet when he wrote the satirical Ballad of Lenin's Tomb.
During WWII he read his poems to soliders to help with morale. In 1942 he played himself in the Hollywood film The Spoilers, working alongside Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne and Randolph Scott. In the movie he specifically, tongue firmly in cheek, mentions the lady that's known as Lou.
He wrote some thrillers, including The Poisoned Paradise: A romance of Monte Carlo (1922) and many, many poems. Although, (or perhaps because of) one of the most commercially successful poets of the 20th century, his contemporaries spurned him as a poet, claiming he wrote popular doggerel for the masses.
Which suited him: "Verse," he said, "not poetry, is what I was after...something the man in the street would take notice of and the sweet old lady would paste in her album; something the schoolboy would spout and the fellow in the pub would quote. Yet I never wrote to please anyone but myself; it just happened. I belonged to the simple folks whom I liked to please."
A movie was filmed on Dan McGrew in 1915 and the audience of that day certainly took what they saw as credible--if overacted--fact. Eighty-three years later the Shooting of Dan McGrew became the basis for the novel The Man from the Creeks by Robert Kroetsch. In between the two the poem inspired many plays, imitative poetry and songs, including "Dangerous Dan McGrew" by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Candians (1949).
But were these people ever real, or just the figment of a creative mind? One Robert Service biographer states that despite Service's own disclaimers that "Most of the characters who permeated poems by Robert Service were based on real people." Others who knew Service intimately say the same.
As for Dan McGrew and the Lady that's known as Lou, there are varying stories about who they were. One story claims they were actually Murray and Lulu Mae Eads. (Robert Service, the proponents of this explanation say, misspelled her name to "Lou" rather than "Lu.") He was a hotel and saloon owner in Dawson and she was a goodtime girl who sang and entertained the miners at his establishments during the gold rush. She married him, but there is no record of the "lurid scene," as Miss Marple calls it, that Robert Service described in the shooting of Dan McGrew.
What became of the Eads? They were both aboard the ill-fated Princess Sophia in 1918 when she went aground on a reef in Lynn Canal. It was assumed that the passenger liner would be fine and could be refloated when the tide came back in. But some time in the night the liner slipped off the reef into deep water and not a soul of the 350 on board survived.
So, was that the end of the Lady that's known as Lou?
Some think Robert Service based the poem on Soapy Smith and Klondike Kate, both well-known characters of the Klondike gold rush. Soapy Smith was a con artist who did his skullduggery in Skagway and came to a violent end, but not over a woman as in the poem. Klondike Kate is described as "The toast of the sourdoughs of Dawson City in 1898; the red-headed daughter of the west who sang and danced for the gold rush miners and panned their pouches and their hearts." However, her biographers don't mention, in amongst her other adventures, that she was in a fatal shoot-out. In addition, Robert Service knew her, but the way he spoke about her indicated that she couldn't have been, at least to his mind, the Lady that's known as Lou.
The Milwaukee Sentinel in July of 1937 spoke with a Canadian who was a close friend of Service's who assured them that Dan McGrew and the Lady that's known as Lou were actually people that he and Service had heard about from the sourdough's in Dawson. The tragedy that took place in "the Malamute Saloon" had it's start in a young couple named Madden. He was a pianist and an engineer who was away from home too often to suit his bride. She ran off, abandoning her baby and her absent husband, to be with "McGrew." The baby died and Madden hunted down the couple, intent on getting his vengeance on them.
The Canadian, interviewed by the Milwaukee Sentinel, said that he still heard news of the Lady that's known as Lou. Some time after the fatal shoot out she went to live in Vancouver, and at the time of the interview, was making her way up the Inside Passage.
The fishing village next to where I live would have been right on her route.
So, who was the Lady that's known as Lou? All I've been able to discover is that the red house (known now for the name it acquired in its hippie days as Hotel California) in the nearby village was known as the house where Robert Service's "Lady Lou" lived. The evidence was in certain papers that old timers had in their possession, that they'd discovered in the house when they'd taken possession.
But those old timers, like Robert Service and all the people who inspired his poems, are long gone.
They live on, now, in his verse and in the various legends scattered throughout Alaska.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)