1929


One of the many pleasures of writing Percival’s Planet was unearthing the glorious slang of the period.  Edmund Wilson’s journals were great for this – deadpan documents of sex, drunkenness, and various kinds of cant (and other things spelled with a c, n, and t).

It was a sort of sport in that day – getting off the best line.  Here are just a few of my notes on the subject — those with checkmarks made it into the book, at least for the space of a draft or two.

Constance Lowell, widow of Percival Lowell, was an odd bird.  Her most obvious oddity was her contention that she was blind when in fact she was not.  As I discovered, this could get her into trouble.

While doing research for the novel, I was lucky enough to interview Henry Giclas.  Giclas, who was 95 when I interviewed him, called himself a “hill rat”.  Born and raised in Flagstaff, he spent time with Clyde Tombaugh during Clyde’s tenure at the Observatory (on Mars Hill), and later went on to become an astronomer in his own right.

Henry Giclas at the Pluto telescope

It was from Henry Giclas that I learned where you might have bought bootleg liquor in Flagstaff during Prohibition — in “Mexicantown”, on the other side of the railroad tracks.  I interviewed Giclas in his house in Flagstaff while he sat in an overstuffed armchair, watched TV, and fussed with his hearing aid while his daughter (as I remember it) served tea and cookies.

It was there that Henry Giclas told me the story of Constance Lowell and the birthday cake.

Constance, pretending to be blind, went everywhere with a lady’s maid.  One day, this maid decided to bake Constance a cake; she put candles on it to be festive.  She brought it into the dining room of the “Baronial Mansion” (the ramshackle house the Lowells kept on Mars Hill), with the candles lit.  Whereupon Constance, evidently overcome with satisfaction — someone hadat last seen what she deserved from life — said, “Oh, I see you baked me a cake!”

But of course, she couldn’t see the cake, supposedly; and everyone had to pretend as though they hadn’t heard anything.

After Henry Giclas told me that story, he shot me a strange, discomfited look.  He didn’t really know who I was, after all, and now he’d told me this story.  What would I do with it?  And — well, I couldn’t help but imagine the irascible, powerful, contemptuous Constance Lowell hovering around him, too, still a figure worthy of dread after all those years.

Clyde Tombaugh boarded the train to Flagstaff in January 1929.  He’d been invited by Vesto Slipher for a trial period – nobody in Flagstaff knew much about Tombaugh beyond the fact that he’d made his own telescope and was in need of work.  He came cheap, anyway — he had only a high school degree.

Clyde could indeed (as I have it in Percival’s Planet) have been carrying with him the new Popular Science Monthly, which featured articles on the “world’s greatest telescope,” the “marvels of the newest electric ocean liner”,  and, for the auto buffs, “Reverse Pliers Serve as Handy Valve Lifters.”  Clyde’s train left Larned, Kansas, on January 14, 1929 – the day after another Arizona legend, Wyatt Earp, died in a Los Angeles bungalow at the age of eighty, of chronic cystitis.  (Whatever that is.)

Clyde was nervous, of course, not knowing what to expect in Flagstaff; and well he might have been.  His future was in no way certain in Arizona.  On February 7, 1929, three weeks after Tombaugh arrived, Vesto Slipher wrote (to Lowell Observatory trustee Roger Putnam, in Massachusetts):

Mr. Tombaugh, the young man from Kansas, has been here since about the middle of January.  We think he is going to develop into a useful man.  He has several good qualities that are going to make up we think for his meager training.  He is looking forward to the arrival of the new objective and is eager to be working with it.  He has good attitude; careful with apparatus, willing to do anything to make himself useful and is enthusiastic about learning and wants to do observing.  We believe these qualities will after a time largely overcome his deficiency of schooling and training.

Slipher is not terribly impressed, perhaps.  But Clyde costs him only $90 a month, and he is awfully dogged.  So Slipher lets him stay.

Such a close thing life is, at every turn.

The “Pluto dome,” as it would come to be called, under construction in 1929.  That’s Stanley Sykes on top, kneeling.