Over the course of 25 years of handwritten correspondence with my pen pal Persephone, none had ever been returned. Imagine my confusion when my last letter reappeared a couple of weeks later, unopened and defaced with an orange sticker offering 14 possible explanations. My confusion turned to alarm on noting the box checked “deceased.”
I was at my computer in seconds and punching “Persephone Longueuiel” onto my screen, a name spelled so uniquely that Google kept trying to suggest alternatives.
“Mother and daughter killed in house fire,” “Fire officials describe hoarder conditions,” “Neighbors remember reclusive women killed in Mission Hills blaze.”
Social media posts, newscasts, and cell-phone footage broke down the events of early Tuesday morning, April 4, 2017. The first body was discovered in a front room at 6:45 a.m. (Persephone, it turned out). Her mother Elizabeth was found near the back door, around 8:15 a.m. Seven hours after arriving, firefighters were dousing hotspots, and onlookers were still posting the pics and footage.
Comments ranged from “Good God how horrible” to “That’s what happens to hoarders, good thing they didn’t burn down the whole neighborhood.”
Video reports included helicopter footage of around 30 firefighters battling the blaze at 1737 Fort Stockton Drive — four houses east of Sunset Boulevard — which nearly lit up nearby properties and parts of Robyn’s Egg Trail in the canyon behind the house to the south. Persephone and her mom had lived there since Persephone was born in April 1967. She turned 50 two days before the conflagration. Her mom was 68.
“The high amount of items inside the home made the fire burn very quickly and very hot, which made it difficult for crews to extinguish,” San Diego Fire Department spokeswoman Mónica Muñoz told CBS News 8. The same report quoted neighbors saying that “a bedridden woman and her adult daughter lived in the home.... They were hoarders who preferred to be left alone.”
A second Channel 8 report covered a memorial “vigil” held later that week in Mission Hills by neighbors of the two women. This left me baffled, given how many of Persephone’s letters talked at length about her battles with nearly everyone on her street. Some of these skirmishes had been going on her entire life.
“They wanted nobody to be in their house, they had no friends. They didn’t want to leave this place,” Sam Shammas, owner of nearby Mission Hills Liquor & Deli, told the Union-Tribune. “This is not the end I wanted to see.” Shammas also provided TV news crews with footage of Persephone making a purchase at his store on her last day alive. Multiple stories quoted people saying the women drank every day and that the only place Persephone ever went was Shammas’s liquor store.
Monica Lafferty from across the street told one reporter “They were a little reclusive, and they weren’t readily accepting of help.” The impression left by this report and others was of reclusive drunk hoarders who didn’t like people and almost torched the neighborhood they had long battled.
Persephone Longueuiel was among my best friends. We’d been close since I worked with her and her mom at a local comic-book distributorship in the mid-1980s, and we corresponded by snail mail every few weeks since that job ended. Aside from hundreds of letters, we wrote stories and designed puzzles together for magazines and comic books (TV Teens Magazine, Starjam, Rock ’N’ Roll Comics, etc.), mostly while I served as managing editor of Hillcrest-based Revolutionary Comics, which used to occupy what seemed like a whole block of the south side of University Avenue just west of Park.
Tall and dark, with long jet-black hair and inclined toward gypsy-gothy clothes, she was a part-time photographer and aspiring author who spent 30 years working on a never-published book about homosexuals in early Hollywood forced to hide their sexuality. She lost her virginity at a San Diego Comic-Con to a famous horror author for whom she spent the rest of her life pining. She once managed the Comic Kingdom store in Hillcrest, and she owned a horror memorabilia collection valued many times the $20,000 fire officials say the contents of the “hoarder” house were worth. She bought one each of all the Stephen King signed hardcovers and other contemporary authors such as Clive Barker, but she also had rarities like a second edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and original editions of HP Lovecraft books such as The Outsider and Others. She had original TV scripts for shows such as The Addams Family, crates of Universal monster toys dating back to the 1940s, and movie posters for lovable turds such as Son of Blob and Attack of the Crab Monsters.
Her pen pals over the years included authors Robert “Psycho” Bloch, Clive Barker (Hellraiser), and comic creators Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Alan Moore (Watchmen). Persephone and Elizabeth got holiday cards from Ray Bradbury, Robert Crumb, and Isaac Asimov. One of those celebrated figures is the man who claimed her virginity at Comic-Con.
“I feel like a gay man trapped inside a woman’s body,” she once wrote me. “I’m totally attracted to men, but usually only gay men that, as a woman, I can never have… so many people have hurt me in so many ways, including physically, that my idealism rots.” (September 8, 1991)
Persephone took constant care of her mom Elizabeth, who always seemed afflicted with ailments. I never saw them apart, other than one lone date that Persephone and I went on. They didn’t take jobs unless they could work together. But then, after they quit working in the late 1980s, they still made enough money from a real estate rental to hole up in their home for the next quarter-century, watching movies, reading books, and collecting memorabilia (much of it paper).
“I’m marinating in pop culture,” she wrote on February 8, 2004. “I feel like [I’m] living a total life of leisure, I get to read and write whenever I get the inspiration (and you know how important it is to chase that elusive dragon whenever it appears somewhere just out of arm’s reach). My only fear is that someday one of these mountains of paper will come crashing down on either me or mom.”