Raymond Chandler chose a career of writing like a mercenary picked up a weapon. At age 45–an oil executive recently drummed out of his high-paying job for his drinking and philandering binges–he decided to earn a living by making stories, and he pursued that goal with a new discipline and order. He read one pulp magazine after another, noting structure and absorbing style. He enrolled in a writing class, where he dutifully produced essays and stories according to prompts and assignments. Steadily, over the course of years, he moved from pulp fiction hack to successful novelist to Hollywood screenwriter. After his death, he became one of the most well-recognized American writers of the twentieth century.
I know the words Ray Chandler published like others know their chosen scriptures. For over ten years, I have read and reread and reread his novels and stories. I know their tone like the voice I hear in the back of my head. That distinct, utterly unique, first-person voice of the detective hero, one of the most enduring voices ever to come out of fiction.
Other lonely bookish girls have Mr. Darcy - for my part, I have always chosen Philip Marlowe. And yet there's more to it than that, more than a fixation or appreciation. Quite simply, it's recognition. I don't see Marlowe from the outside looking in. Does anyone, really? We only know him from his perspective. We hear his thoughts and never see his face. He never describes himself physically. All the screen representations, from Bogart to Mitchum to Gould - fine in themselves, yes. But definitively Marlowe? Never. He isn't something to be pinned down in such a way. He isn't to be pinned down by anything. He's a shadow behind our eyelids. More so in some of us than in others.
But even more shadowy and mysterious, lurking another layer deeper, is the man who brought Marlowe into existence. A man of profound romanticism, a genteel manner and a lively intelligence. A man who was by turns shy and engaging, taciturn and animated. An American raised in England who for almost all of his entire adult life refused to leave California, but who thought L.A. soulless. A man who assigned himself high moral standards and had no defense beyond alcohol to assuage the guilt when he failed to meet them. A man who devoted himself first to his mother and then to a wife nearly–although possibly not to his knowledge–twenty years older than he. A former accountant who picked up a Black Mask magazine and thought he could write stories as good as the ones in it. Ray Chandler is a mass of apparent contradictions, misunderstandings and impossibilities. Not entirely unlike his work.
"Any writer who cannot teach himself to write cannot be taught by others. Analyze and imitate. No other school is necessary."
There's a famous anecdote about the production of The Big Sleep as a film in Hollywood. William Faulkner, while working on the script, called Chandler to try to straighten out one of the book’s many plot holes and twists, asking who it was who actually killed the chauffeur. Ray’s honest reply was: "I have no idea." His writing was not about plot. It was about character, dialogue and feeling. That's why it became more than standard detective pulp fiction while simultaneously redefining what detective pulp fiction was supposed to be.
But it was also why some people had a hard time figuring out exactly what he was doing, himself included. His work was popular, but reviews were always mixed, and no one was a harsher critic of it than he was. Others condemned his novels as depraved and vulgar; he would often dismiss them himself as limited genre tales, which, he maintained, could never be classics. He always intended to write a book without Marlowe in it. Or, perhaps, as he once wrote in frustration to a friend, "one of those books where everyone goes for nice long walks."
Ray took the act of writing seriously, and championed the strength, rawness and daring of pulp fiction. But there was a part of him that remained apologetic, or at least deprecating, about what he wrote. He was charting entirely new waters in subject matter and narrative style and, ever the gentleman, he had the grace and humor to admit it had not yet been commonly accepted as a success.
He wrote with force and exquisite description. No one could turn a metaphor like Chandler. His writing was light and clever and unique and still pulled in themes that gave it deep, universal resonance. It could be brutal and beautiful in equal measure. Altogether, his work is one of the most interesting and honest expressions of a writer's hopes, beliefs and personality I've ever found.
"It's a peculiar thing, you know, in all the forty years plus that I have been in Hollywood, when people have come up and asked questions–newspaper men, researchers, or letters from all over the place–the two people that I’ve been connected with whom everyone is most interested in are Marilyn Monroe and Raymond Chandler." (Billy Wilder)
It's natural to feel you know so much about Ray from reading his words because there isn't really that much other information with which to paint a full picture of him - or, more to the point, to contradict the image you may have created of him. Little is known about his early life. It seems to have been marked by a fatherless home and a childhood spent moving around, even between countries, and the sting of being poor. Throughout the rest of his life, he was not fond of his relations and generally avoided them altogether.
Two women, mostly in succession, appear to have ruled Ray's personal life: his mother, Florence, and his wife, Cissy. By all accounts, Florence was a rigid, controlling woman. Ray was scrupulously dutiful to her, and took care of her every need, but it does not appear to have been the case that their relationship was a warm and open one. Florence was also very much opposed Ray's marriage to Cissy - although not entirely without understanding, given that when Ray met Cissy, the latter was married to a mutual friend. Even a few years after Cissy’s divorce, Ray waited a few months after his mother's death to marry her.
We know even less about Cissy Chandler's life before Ray than we know about his before her. In fact, we hardly know anything about her at all beyond what we glean through Ray's rose-tinted view. She was eighteen years older than he was, although she consistently lied about her age on legal documents, including their marriage license. Her past included an early flee from Ohio to the lively New York City of the late 1800s, where she was rumored to have been a nude artist’s model. She was with her second husband when she met Ray in the intellectual set of 1910's Los Angeles.
Cissy exuded femininity, but not necessarily passively so. She was smart and spirited. She was stunningly lovely and, especially for her era, sexually open and confident. For Ray, a younger man shy and rather throttled when it came to issues of sex, who was drawn to people whose vitality was visible and unashamed, the appeal was undeniable. Their marriage would last for the rest of her life, about thirty years.
Of course there were problems. Cissy's hidden age and increasingly failing health while Ray was in his prime. The horrible period of the late twenties when Ray spun out of control with alcoholism and affairs. But evidently underneath all of it was bedrock of understanding and companionship that prevailed. They complemented each other in the ways for which they were best suited - Cissy, to be adored, and Ray, to adore. He filled her room with red roses on every anniversary. He took offense if they were out and anyone from a server to a stranger did not pay her the attention or respect he felt she deserved. When she developed difficulty taking care of herself, he cooked her meals and served her and refused to let anyone else attend to her. To people like the screenwriter George Cukor, who later related the tale of meeting them late in their lives, Ray took great pride in describing Cissy's previous marriage as an unhappy one, from which, knight-like, he had rescued her.
"I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights." (The Big Sleep)
The dramatic tale of Ray and Cissy, however, can’t help but perversely raise a question that persistently returns in discussions about Chandler’s personal life: was Raymond Chandler gay? The question has been posed often enough before, with his pointed, ugly (read: self-loathing) treatment of homosexual characters and his tender friendships between men brought in as evidence - not to mention the fastidious British behavior, which must have seemed out of place in mid-century L.A. Some who knew him later in his life, especially after Cissy’s death, claimed they knew this was the case.
But I don't think it was. There seems to me to be far more evidence, in both his work and his life, that his complex feelings about men were nothing a side effect of his even more complex, contradictory and deep-seeded feelings about women. He quite apparently loved and feared women with equal passion. In his work, the women range from ideals to innocents to cold-hearted bitches. Sometimes they're more than one at once. Women commit the majority of the murders in his books. They tend to be more mysterious and impenetrable than the male characters - the now well-known trope of the deadly, unpredictable and dishonest dame did not evolve without Chandler's input, after all.
It's more likely the truth was that Ray could portray relationships between men with greater ease and simplicity because it was that much safer. Had there been any real risk of emotional or physical connection in male relations, there is a good chance it too would have been avoided. Instead, it was women who were the dangerous ones.
"A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins." (The High Window)
If there ever were a man a woman could trust to treat her as she deserved, it's Philip Marlowe. Ray made him that way. And it truly was as she deserved, whatever that might be. Tramps were dismissed, even if they attracted him. Innocents were handled with kid gloves and protected at all costs. Too aggressive or too manipulative, like the Sternwood girls who "gave him both barrels," and he’d get sick of you. Perhaps the only unfairness he ever showed to a woman was to a woman he loved, when he erred on the side of remaining cautiously distant and alone. (Ray seemed to regret this after the fact, and began a new novel to correct it. But he never got enough time to finish it.)
The woman who shines most purely in Ray's writing is The High Window's Anne O’Riordan. I love Anne - a bright, eager, intelligent policeman's daughter who puts herself into the investigation whether Marlowe likes it or not. He generally doesn't, but it's also to her he goes after a beating, and he’s scrupulously careful of her well-being. She's also a portrait of a smart, good woman who is irritated by the attention given to women who aren't. Picking at Marlowe after his flirtatious time spent with a married women they were interviewing, which rather obviously excluded her, she says bitterly, "I guess you can snap her garter any time you want. But one thing’s for sure, you’re a latecomer to the show."
She is a lovely, fair-skinned strawberry blonde. Like Cissy.
Anne makes it fairly clear, if in a ladylike way, that she would not be adverse to Marlowe making a move on her. He deliberately does not. In his mind, to his sense of honor that eclipses all else, she is too good for him. That isn't as straightforward as it seems to him. She is too good - she doesn't understand the darkness, in the world and in people. In Marlowe. He can admire someone like that, idealize someone like that. But he could never connect with her.
The only woman Marlowe is involved with throughout Chandler's books is The Long Goodbye's Linda Loring. Linda's character isn't as finely drawn as Anne's. She’s a beautiful, rich woman with spirit and wit, but she’s no ideal or innocent. She knows the darker side of life. She is unhappy with her weak husband. She’s sexually assured and experienced, but "no tramp." (Like Cissy.) In many ways, she's a good match and complement to Marlowe. However, their tryst is short, and Marlowe refuses her offer of more.
In his ruminations on the art of detective fiction, Ray insisted his hero must remain a loner. A real detective would never marry. (Evidently Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles–even though Chandler admired Hammett and Nick Charles is not unlike Marlowe in many ways–were excluded from this consideration.) He had an elaborate philosophy on the matter and, for the most part, it remains consistent throughout the Marlowe books. It began to falter later on, perhaps inspired by the creeping realization that he would soon have to be without Cissy. As Marlowe was his ideal, so was he Ray's way of both escaping from and making sense of a difficult world.
Late in his life, Ray began writing a novel called, "Poodle Springs," which opened on Marlowe and Linda's honeymoon. We'll never know if it only lasted the six months Marlowe predicted, however, because Ray never finished the story.
Many years later, the crime fiction writer Robert B. Parker, famous for his wry detective named after a poet of centuries past (Spencer), finished the story for him.
It didn't last.
"The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say goodbye is to die a little." (The Long Goodbye)
The Long Goodbye is the Chandler novel that transcends the genre to become bona fide literature. Scoff if you will–Ray himself might have–but it's true. It has depth and scope. It's about dreams and America and the past and the wide, empty future. It's about love and friendship that can't exist. Most of all, it's about loss. Ray wrote it while Cissy was on her deathbed.
It is also the novel that most clearly and straightforwardly reveals the pieces of Ray's self. He took himself apart and used the blood and guts to fashion the characters and dialogue and situations that Marlowe–himself made of the best Ray had to offer–moved through. Terry Lennox, Marlowe's doomed friend, is an American raised in England who retained his accent and British mannerisms. Roger Wade is a dissatisfied alcoholic hack writer who is married to a dream he can’t touch and who typewrites strange, stream-of-consciousness bits of word bile that reveal his frustration and hopelessness. Both men express tremendous amounts of contempt for the idle rich and for their own complicity in such a vapid society. The women in the book are similarly constrained by their lives. Eileen Wade has caged herself in a deception of lost love and a dissolved past. Linda Loring, bound by money and family, wants to sever herself from a horrible marriage and a dead-end California existence.
Marlowe says to himself in the book: "There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself." It's the common thread that ties each unfortunate and unhappy character together. By his own connections to all these people, Marlowe suffers as well, and, even after all the farewells are said, he's not entirely free of them.
Here is the thing - Ray was pushed and pulled by warring forces his entire life. It may be that this was simply his nature, as it is for many people, especially those inclined to scribble. But he strove for that entire life to reconcile them. He only ever reached this goal in his fiction. And there is a poignant comment in the fact that it was the one piece of fiction that didn't completely reconcile the struggle, that showed the cracks and the failure and the pain, was the fiction that became his favorite and best work.
The Long Goodbye was published in the US in March of 1954. Directly previous to that, in response to less-than-favorable feedback on the manuscript, Ray said:
"It may be that I am no good anymore. God knows I've had enough worry to drive me off the beam. Being old-fashioned enough to be deeply in love with my wife after twenty-eight years of marriage I feel the possibility that I have let emotion enter my life in a manner not suitable to the marts of commerce, as the cliche has it. Of course there is also the possibility–faint as it is, I admit–that you could be a little wrong."
In December of 1954, after a long period of declining health and constant illness, Cissy Chandler died. For the first time in thirty years, Ray was completely alone, and the path ahead was dark and uncertain. He would stumble on it for another four years more, mostly in a haze of alcohol, half-hearted suicide attempts and desperate kindness to any woman he could find who would tolerate his generosity and attention. Perhaps most demoralizing, his writing faltered. He published one more book, but it was only a pale imitation of his earlier work. The Long Goodbye would prophetically remain his own farewell, to both the good and bad of an unusual and confusing life.
"I thank you all again for your great kindness to me, and I am sure you will be relieved to know that, however much love I may have inside me, I have no more words that need to be said. (speech to the Mystery Writers of America on becoming president of the organization)
Ray died at 3:50 PM on March 26, 1959 at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California. He was alone, although at the hospital with him were the first seventeen pages of "Poodle Springs." He had nothing else at the end but words. But there was still much that still needed to be said. Ever since, his readers, and many writers he inspired, have been trying to do that, slowly but surely bringing him into his rightful place. It would seem a silly pursuit if it didn't align so closely with how he wanted to live his own life, and with what his most profound creations stood for at their hearts.
At some point in recent years, a historian and Chandler aficionado realized that Ray's (unfortunately legally unwritten) wishes to be buried with Cissy had never been honored. Ray himself had been too scattered and despondent after her death that her ashes were never interred, and there was no one around when he died who knew or cared to make the proper arrangements. As a result, for almost sixty years, Cissy's remains have sat in a storage facility directly next to the cemetery where Ray's grave is. So close and yet separated. After a petition to the San Diego city government, permission was received to bury Cissy's ashes with Ray, and place a marker for both at the grave site. A ceremony is planned for February 14, 2011. With a gin gimlet toast to follow.
No one is doing this for Raymond or for Cissy Chandler. That would be ludicrous - they are gone, nothing but ashes and dust. Like all human ceremonies marking the ending of life, this is to clarify and confirm our own lives. More profoundly, this act of fixing something that went awry so many years ago is something that sounds much like something Ray would try to do himself. A gesture of loving intent in the name of honor. As a way to say, yes, the world is messy and dark and mean, but that an individual in it need not be that way himself. No matter what the difficulty, or the cost, or the ludicrousness, pride in doing certain things as they should be done endures. Even with Ray gone, his hero who exemplifies that–his white knight who soldiers on alone, timelessly–remains to prove it. Because of that, even in confusion and uncertainty and pain, we ourselves can find something to be sure about, and raise a glass to the transcendent conviction that, for once, at least in this instance, if only for a moment, we can make things right.
Addendum: I did in fact attend this Valentine's Day ceremony. There is a brief account of it on my Tumblr as well as a handful of related (and unrelated - hey, it was also a vacation) on my Flickr page.