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.