Skip to content

Dollarton days: Malcolm Lowry made himself at home on the waterfront

Historian Sheryl Salloum says writer's happiest times were spent in North Vancouver

Like Baudelaire, Malcolm Lowry was a remittance man.

His family kept him on a financial string, tenuous at best, especially after the Second World War started and the flow of money slowed to a trickle. The funds were distributed in dribs and drabs by a third party who reported back to his father in the U.K.

Under the Volcano, completed at Dollarton and published in 1947, is set in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Lowry and his first wife Jan Gabrial arrived on the Day of the Dead, Nov. 2, 1936 to live out at least some of the story in real time.

The experiences in the novel have been filtered through many prisms, including second wife Margerie Bonner who collaborated on the book as Lowry's chief typist, editor and bottle washer after he split with Gabrial.

Initially Lowry didn't want to be in Vancouver but the 31-year-old writer was stuck in limbo after he came north to renew his visa. The Mexicans had essentially kicked him out and the Americans wouldn't let him back in due to a lack of anything resembling independent means. A perfect storm of circumstances (alcohol abuse, disapproving family, onset of war) left him stranded and he eventually settled in Vancouver, living mainly on the Dollarton waterfront, for 14 years.

Sheryl Salloum launched her book Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days (Harbour Publishing), during the Malcolm Lowry Symposium held at UBC in May 1987. Based on interviews with Lowry's wife Margerie Bonner, as well as friends and neighbours who knew the writer during his 14 years as a squatter on the shores of Burrard Inlet, Salloum recreates his life and times with immense detail. She spoke to the North Shore News about Lowry and her research into the history of squatters in the Vancouver area. Malcolm Lowry would have celebrated his 105th birthday on July 28. While alive he spent many of those birthdays on the Dollarton waterfront.

North Shore News: The research in Vancouver Days is quite extensive. It must have been a massive undertaking.

Sheryl Salloum: It was. I actually didn't know what I was doing when I started because I'd never written a book before but it was quite extensive and a great deal of fun. I had my book launch at the symposium but when I was writing the book I didn't know the symposium was being held. It was an incredible event. There were about 100 local and international scholars in attendance and we had a guided bus tour of all the Lowry sites in Vancouver which are now for the most part gone and then we went to Cates Park and had a ceremony and an unveiling. I don't know if you've seen the rock? That was unveiled by Dr. Sherrill Grace and David Markson, who's an American writer who's sadly now passed away, and he was a friend of Lowry's. It was quite an experience and all the scholars walked down the beach to near the site of where Lowry's cabin was and eventually some shots of Tequila came out. Later we went to a banquet and everyone was given tequila to toast Malcolm.

North Shore News: The perfect occasion to launch your book because a lot of the information didn't exist anywhere else.

Sheryl Salloum: Yes it was really wonderful to be launching it with all those scholars there. The reason I wrote the book was because I had been working as a teacher and I returned to Simon Fraser to finish my Bachelor's degree - at the time you could teach with three years of university and a year of teacher training. I returned to finish my degree and took a course that was titled 'Canadian Literature.' given by Dr. Peter Buitenhuis and it was all dedicated to Malcolm Lowry. He took us on a field trip out to Cates Park on a really cold blustery November day. We were running around with our Under the Volcano books trying to locate sites. It struck me as being pretty pathetic and rather embarrassing that international scholars who came to UBC to study Lowry would always go out to Cates Park and there was absolutely nothing there - no markers, no tribute in any form. The one book that had been written at that time, by Douglas Day interviewed local people that had known Lowry but they really didn't feature in the book at all. There was a lot of information from those people that had known him that needed to be recorded and it was just going to be a recording initially. I was going to interview these people, just to document their stories and quickly realized that it should be a book. Most if not all of the people now have passed away that I interviewed. One or two are still alive I think but it was sort of the last time to record those stories.

North Shore News: How did you track them down? This was before email. Was it just footwork?

Sheryl Salloum: Footwork and some serendipity I guess. When I finally realized I was going to write a book I thought I better immerse myself in everything and Peter Buitenhuis who I'd taken my course from was giving a night course at Simon Fraser downtown and I thought well I will just go and sit in on it to keep myself fresh with the information. It turned out that William McConnell, who had been a very good friend of Lowry's, was in attendance so I introduced myself to him and came to know him. He told me to contact a few people and then research led me to a few people and I eventually located people and of course UBC has a marvellous archive - boxes and boxes and boxes of not just manuscripts but memorabilia and his book collection and just all sorts of interesting things, bus tickets.

North Shore News: Everything that they left behind in the shack?

Sheryl Salloum: A large part of it comes from that. When his second shack burnt down a big trunk of material went to Phil and Hilda Thomas and they kept it under their kitchen table for the longest time. They eventually thought this had to go somewhere and took it to UBC and since then the collection has just grown. People come from all over the world to study Lowry's work there and I couldn't count the number of books that have been written about him in many languages.

North Shore News: Apparently Lowry hated Vancouver at first and he only stayed because they wouldn't let him leave. He couldn't cross the American border with no money to his name. What did Margerie think of Vancouver? She was devoted to Lowry but the shack in winter must have been no fun at all and very different from her California roots.

Sheryl Salloum: Yes I think she had mixed feelings. She loved it there in the summer. She was married to a man who was an alcoholic and may have had other issues as well but living out there worked very well for him. I actually think he died because he left North Vancouver. I think he could never find another place that was as restive for his problems. He may have had mental health issues as well as alcoholism and even though it was stimulating for his writing I think she eventually said we have to leave in winter. It was just too difficult. So they did that and of course he drank more and was a little more out of control - it really was a wonderful place for them.

North Shore News: There was at one time as many as 90 shacks on the waterfront?

Sheryl Salloum: Yes that's what my research told me.

North Shore News: And the Lowry's were one of the few that lived there yearround for a couple of years anyway. Was it royalties from Under the Volcano that allowed them to move to the city in winter or was it just out of necessity?

Sheryl Salloum: I doubt it. He really didn't get much in the way of royalties. I think Margerie put her foot down. 'I'm too old to sleep on a floor here on a mattress.' I think Lowry would have happily stayed out there. I'm not sure exactly what they survived on. I mean he was a remittance man and some money did come from his father for awhile but during the war years it was hard to send money to Canada and he did make a little money initially on royalties but the book was more of an academic success than a financial success. They did take some royalty money and go to Europe on a big trip so I don't think there was much left for living in Vancouver. I'm not sure how they managed to live but Margerie herself became a writer and she had some royalties. She wrote three mystery novels that sold quite well in the States especially. (Did she sell more than him?) Good question. I have no proof of that so I don't know but initially she may have. (She had Max Perkins as an editor at one point). They're mysteries written in that era. They are quite good. I think they probably worked quite well together. They probably helped one another and I can see phrasing and description in Lowry's writing you just know no man wrote that and vice versa I'm sure he helped her. They worked well as writers and of course she dedicated herself to typing up his manuscripts. Sometimes she would have to sit quietly for maybe up to an hour as he fussed and got ready and had to go into this zone. She put up with quite a bit.

Bonner and Lowry's connections with Hollywood ran deep. Her sister Priscilla was a silent film star in the '20s and she herself acted in a series of films, mainly westerns. When Malcolm met Margerie in Los Angeles in 1939 she was working as an assistant to Penny Singleton who starred in the Dagwood and Blondie Bumstead series for radio and film. After Gabrial left Lowry she also settled in L.A. and found work in Hollywood answering Jimmy Stewart's mail among other jobs.

Lowry and Bonner were members of the film society in Vancouver regularly making the bus trip between Dollarton and West 10th to catch the latest offerings in world cinema. During their years in North Vancouver they not only completed Under the Volcano but also worked on a mammoth unpublished, unfilmed script for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night.

North Shore News: What was the extent of Margerie Bonner's acting career in L.A. before she met Lowry?

Sheryl Salloum: I don't really know, I just know that she was part of the Silent Era. She and her sister Priscilla. She was quite flamboyant which was problematic for a lot of people in stodgy old Vancouver.

North Shore News: During some periods of his life in Vancouver Lowry was incapable of looking after himself whereas at other times he functioned quite well.

Sheryl Salloum: He was a man of many contradictions and it depended on how well he had his addictions under control. When they lived out in the Dollarton area Margerie was very smart -they would work all day and then they would have their little hour around supper time and have a little drink or two. In some of the latest research on alcoholism they get drinks everyday but they are restricted to how much they have. And that was enough to prevent him from drinking too much. It kept him where he should be - well and working. And he wasn't distracted by things that caused him to drink. He was very uncomfortable with a lot of people. He was uncomfortable in crowded places. Being isolated was really good for his psyche. It was a tonic for him andwhen they moved, when they were forced to leave he couldn't find a spiritual place again. When they lived in England the pub was just down the road and I think he was eventually kicked out of the local pub and he lost control of himself sadly.

North Shore News: Did Lowry swim back and forth across the Inlet?

Sheryl Salloum: I don't know if he did. Some people may have said he did. He was certainly a strong swimmer and if you look in the book and you see the pictures of him he has a huge upper body. And he rowed. He once rowed David Markson all the way to Port Moody and back. That would be quite a long row in a rowboat. He was quite powerfully built and when he was healthy he was physically fit, chopping and hauling wood. He loved doing all those things and he swam fairly often in the summer months even though that water's cold.

North Shore News: The Shellburn terminal seem to have given him a lot of grief. Sheryl Salloum: I think he loved the symbolism of that. He was a man who loved symbols so when the S sign went out yes he did not like it - apparently it was quite noisy and it wasn't the nicest view but he was a man who wrote about heaven and hell so I think he actually loved having it there.

North Shore News: You mentioned 150 years of squatter history. Is that the timeline?

Sheryl Salloum: I think it's over 150 years but I think the first squatters that we know of were sailors who jumped ship and married aboriginal women and lived near Brockton Point. They are the first I have been able to track down and that dates back to 1862. Finn Slough (at the south end of No. 4 Road in Richmond) and Belcarra are really the last of a long history. There were squatters on both sides of Burrard Inlet for a long time.

North Shore News: Finn Slough, like Dollarton, was started by fishermen. Sheryl Salloum: It grew out of necessity. After those shacks were there a lot of Vancouverites would row over and use them as vacation huts.

North Shore News: Eviction seems to have been something they were always worried about.

Sheryl Salloum: That's an ongoing saga for squatters everywhere. Eviction notices would come and go and most people ignored them but eventually they were enforced. You've heard about what's happening now in Belcarra. They are the last in Burrard Inlet. I think it's a great shame they can't leave a few of them as a historic legacy. I guess developers always have their eyes on these places. I think it's wonderful that Cates Park came about because otherwise all the history that is there now would be lost. What's nice is Cates Park still has things that Lowry wrote about. They still have heron's nests, they still have the Malcolm Lowry walk through the trail that he probably took. I don't know if you've read "The Forest Path to the Spring?" It's in his book of short stories published posthumously, called with the impossibly long title, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place.

All of those stories are set in the Vancouver area and I think "The Forest Path to the Spring" is the most beautiful and it is set in what is now Cates Park. He talks about the spring where he went to get water and he talks about the flora and fauna and it really is a very beautiful story quite different from the dire symbolism and the dire places that you have to go to in Under the Volcano. It's a celebration of the spirituality that he felt he lived with there. It's really a lovely tribute to Cates Park.


For more on the Dollarton waterfront see also:


“At dusk, every evening, I used to go through the forest to the spring for water.

   The way that led to the spring from our cabin was a path wandering along the bank of the inlet through snowberry and thimbleberry and shallon bushes, with the sea below you on the right, and the shingled roofs of the houses, all built down on the beach beneath the little crescent of the bay.

   Far aloft gently swayed the mastheads of the trees: pines, maples, cedars, hemlocks, alders. Much of this was second growth but some of the pines were gigantic. The forest had been logged from time to time, though the slash the loggers left behind was soon obliterated by the young birch and vines growing up quickly.

   Beyond, going toward the spring through the trees, range beyond celestial range, crowded the mountains, snow-peaked for most of the year. At dusk they were violet, and frequently they looked on fire, the white fire of the mist. Sometimes in the early mornings this mist looked like a huge family wash, the property of Titans, hanging out to dry between the folds of their lower hills. At other times all was chaos, and Valkyries of storm-drift drove across them out of the ever reclouding heavens.

   Often all you could see in the whole world of the dawn was a huge sun with two pines silhouetted in it, like a great blaze behind a Gothic cathedral. And at night the same pines would write a Chinese poem on the moon. Wolves howled from the mountains. On the path to the spring the mountains appeared and disappeared through the trees.”

— Malcolm Lowry from “The Forest Path to the Spring,” first published in the posthumous story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961).





Personal interview:

— Sheryl Salloum, historian, author of Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days (Harbour Publishing 1987).



—  West of Eden, Presentation House Gallery, Editor: Lance Blomgren, 2014

— Moodyville, Capilano Review and Presentation House Gallery, Editors Jenny Penberthy and Helga Pakasaar, 2009

— "Without Deed or Permit: Squatters in the Lower Mainland" in Raincoast Chronicles 19 by Sheryl Salloum, Harbour Publishing, 2003

— Inside the Volcano by Jan Gabrial, St. Martin's Press, 2000

— Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry by Gordon Bowker, St. Martin's Press, 1997

— "The By-Gone Days of Dollarton" in Raincoast Chronicles 15 by Sheryl Salloum, Harbour Publishing, 1993

— The Cinema of Malcolm Lowry: A Scholarly Edition of Lowry's Tender is the Night by Miguel Mota and Paul Tiessen, UBC Press, 1990

— Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days by Sheryl Salloum, Harbour Publishing, 1987

— Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place by Malcolm Lowry, J. Cape, 1961

— Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947


Site-specific work:

— Ken Lum: from shangri-la to shangri-la (2010) at the Maplewood Flats Conservation Area, 2645 Dollarton Highway, North Vancouver.



— Al Neil — Boot and Fog (Music Gallery Editions 1980).