The Métropolitain


By Alan Hustak on January 7, 2010


A Reprint of a 1950’s Montreal tourist guide; plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


Al Palmer, the hard-boiled Montreal gossip columnist who covered the city’s nightclub scene for The Herald and The Gazette in the 1940s and 50s, died in 1971, but his spirit lives. 

Palmer occupies a niche in the city’s history of journalism and he continues to entertain in the pages of the recent Vehicule Press reprint of Montreal Confidential, (165 pp $12.00), his guide to the city’s nightlife. It remains as delightful and as timely a read today as it was when it was first published 60 years ago. 

Palmer hooked readers with his breezy column, (Man About Town in The Herald and Our Town in the Gazette) in which he reported intimate details of what was happening around the city during the golden age of entertainment, when clubs were “noisy sexy and had plenty of bounce.”  The book was meant as a tourist guide to the city’s demi-monde.  While many of the clubs and cabarets he writes about have long disappeared, the attitude has not. Then, as now, as Palmer writes, Montreal is not so much a city as a state of mind. “To live there is to love it. Those of us who were born there consider it the nearest approach to Heaven we know of without leaving the ground.” 

Palmer was born in Montreal in 1913, and was orphaned while still a child.  In his teens he started covering amateur sport for suburban newspapers. During the Second World War he served with the Canadian Army and wrote for the armed forces newspaper, The Maple Leaf. When the war ended, he went to work for the Herald on the police beat. After a brief stint with the Key West Citizen in Florida, where ironically, Montreal Confidential was written, he came back to Montreal to cover the nightclub scene. When the Herald stopped publishing in 1957, he joined the Gazette, where he remained until his death at the age of 57.

Palmer developed a Lingo of his own; St. Catherine St. was called St. Kitts,   Stanley Street, where many of the cabarets were in the 1950’s is referred to as Swing Street, and he nicknamed St. Lawrence Blvd “the hardened artery.” His description of the The lower main as “rough, tough, lusty and lewd,” is still pretty accurate. 

Palmer describes his book as a collection of “legends, facts, after dark data,” and readers learn a lot about the city’s social history in the 40s. Palmer devotes a chapter to the circumstances surrounding the sensational underworld slaying of Harry Davis in 1946, one of the first mobsters in the city to meet an untimely end, and certainly not the last.  He dishes out advice to tourists that is as useful now as it was then. He offers dating tips but deliberately avoids telling the reader how to find a hotel room and a companion. “If you’re under 21 we won’t tell you,” he quips, “and if you are over 21 you shouldn’t need to be told.”  

The book is peppered with wry observations in the form of one liners that still strike a chord. Even then, Montreal was “a cosmopolitan town, you can get indigestion in any language, and if you ask around a bit, you are sure to find a colony of fellow countrymen, even if you are an Eskimo.” Palmer mines the Montreal–Toronto rivalry, and while Toronto isn’t as uptight as it was when he wrote the book, nothing in its mentality has changed.  In a chapter called A Tale of Two Cities, Palmer observes the feud between Canada’s two major cities is a one sided affair.  “Although Montrealers despise Torontonians, the feeling is not mutual,” he observes, “We have yet to hear a citizen of the Queen City cast disparaging remarks about MontreaL, with the exception of the few have decided that too many French Canadians live here…citizens from the Ontario capital descend en masse to Montreal, and a few, not the majority mind you, make themselves sufficiently obnoxious as to create an inhospitable feeling in a town where hospitality is everyone’s stock in trade.”

The reprint is enhanced with an introduction by William Weintraub, who knows about as much about the period as anyone, and with vintage photographs from Concordia University’s archives.  A must read for anyone who loves this town.