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The Knight of Sunset Boulevard

The classic British public school prepares its inmates expertly for taking on (or over) the world, and not at all for that half of the world known as the opposite sex. Its charges are trained, in effect, to see women as a foreign country (most of the old boarding schools are still all-male), and even as they are taught just how to give or take orders, and how to bring their curious blend of stoicism and fellowship to Afghanistan or Arabia, they receive no instruction in what to do with that alien force that awaits them every night at home. Much of twentieth-century English literature comes, not surprisingly, from products of these half-military, half-monastic institutions (not least because self-discipline and getting things done are part of what they impart), and the result is a grand corpus of books written by men who seem at once fascinated and unsettled by that mysterious other known as woman.

The archetype of this tradition might be said to be Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, about a crippled young medical student and sometime artist who is so determined to act in the chivalric mode, and so unused to dealing with real women in all their complication, that he alights upon a waitress who clearly has little time for him and sets about trying to rescue her, even if the consequences are disastrous for everyone concerned. Throughout the works of Philip Roth, a similar tangle between weak, too trusting men and manipulative women is often central, but the tone is strikingly different, if only because Roth’s men want merely to be good boys. They are just regular, somewhat bookish, largely bewildered young men, in love with their parents and not with their schools and a code of Tennysonian valor.

Or—to take an almost random example from Graham Greene—look at Wilson in The Heart of the Matter, composing love poems for his old school magazine while in Africa and blurting out “I love you” to a woman he’s met just once; his roommate, from the same public school, confesses, “To tell you the truth, women scare me.” It is in fact the very heart of Greene’s creed of paradoxes that it is the impulse to help or save others that always condemns us, and that “innocence must die young,” as he puts it in the same novel, “if it isn’t to kill the souls of men.” In works like The Quiet American the action turns upon the dialogue between an older man who barricades himself behind a pretense of not caring and a much younger man whose chivalry the older man mocks because he feels its vestiges so strongly in himself. Reading John le Carré, also, the clear heir to this tradition, one often comes away thinking that in his work, too, the author seems to know about all the esoteric conspiracies and hidden currents of the political world, on every continent, and yet to be moony and even helpless when it comes to women. His character George Smiley can solve any problem of espionage, but in trying to deal with his misbehaving wife, he’s generally at a loss.

For those intrigued by this distinctly British type, played in the movies these days by Ralph Fiennes or, for Wodehousian moments, by Hugh Grant, Raymond Chandler offers a casebook of evidence. Though born to an American father and an Irish mother in Chicago, Chandler was brought up in England and sent by a rich uncle to Dulwich, the public school from which Wodehouse (who seemed to live in the cloudless, protected world of school well into his nineties) graduated the year of Chandler’s arrival, and from which the explorer Ernest Shackleton had graduated only a few years before. Though he moved to California at the age of twenty-four, in 1913, and lived there until his death at seventy, Chandler held on to his Englishness as if it were all that could protect him in the rapacious and anarchic Los Angeles that was then taking shape; much of the poignancy and intensity of his depiction of the crooked world around him comes from his sense of himself wearing tweeds that smelled of mothballs and shopping for antiques with his wife, bringing the courtly code of Rupert Brooke to a hungry young society that had no European past and was determined to set up its own hierarchy based on real estate, oil, and motion picture images.

In every Philip Marlowe novel the action seems driven by a woman, usually an easy, alluring woman who at once attracts and unnerves Marlowe; the first page of the first novel, The Big Sleep, finds him looking up at a “knight in dark armor” on a stained-glass panel who is trying to rescue a naked lady, and thinking that the knight himself could do with some help. Marlowe’s power comes from the fact that he is tilting single-handedly against the corruptions of Los Angeles and usually trying to rescue a princess in a tower suite from the squalor and compromises all around; and yet, of course, it is the woman who is usually playing him, and who proves at least as corrupt as the society around her. In six of the seven Marlowe novels a murder is committed by a woman; and in none of the great books till the last, The Long Goodbye, does Marlowe even spend the night with a lover. When once a woman is shown in the nude, we meet the words “shame,” “shamelessly,” and “unashamed” in just two sentences.

It is the inspired idea of the novelist Judith Freeman, played out in her atmospheric and unusual The Long Embrace, to try to tease out something of Chandler’s nature by looking at his relations with women, and particularly with his wife of thirty years, Cissy. The book, Freeman stresses at the outset, will not be a biography (at least two solid Chandler biographies, by Frank MacShane and by the English journalist Tom Hiney, have already been published); nor does she pick apart the novels for clues as many of his admirers—who include W.H. Auden, Albert Camus, and Edith Sitwell—might do. Hers is, at heart, a more personal and curious mission: she confesses that she is obsessed by both Cissy and the man she habitually refers to as “Ray,” and drawn to them for reasons she can’t explain. The book becomes, therefore, a series of desultory, brooding, solitary meditations in which she drives around contemporary Los Angeles, looking, often in vain, for the places where Cissy and Chandler lived, and seeing what little she can dig up of a relationship that has always been mysterious.

Cissy Chandler was born Pearl Eugenia Hurlburt, in Perry, Ohio, and from an early age she seems to have had a rich sense of the theatrical. Even when she first got married, at twenty-seven, Freeman discovers, she was taking four years off her age, having by then rechristened herself with a name (“Cecilia” and then “Cissy”) that sounded more up-to-date and coquettish than Pearl Eugenia. She was on her second marriage by the time she met Chandler, among a group of bohemians in L.A. who called themselves the Optimists, and had studied piano in Harlem and posed, sometimes in the nude, for painters and photographers.

In all these respects she could not have been more different from a man eighteen years her junior who may have been a virgin when they met and who had grown up living with his mother Flossie after his father deserted them when he was just seven. After his mother took him to England, Chandler was something of an outsider, and even at Dulwich he was a “day boy” who returned to his mother’s house every evening, a devoted only child. When he came to L.A., he brought Flossie over to join him there and lived with her for four years, while Cissy lived nearby, even after he and Cissy had become a couple (two weeks after his mother died, he took Cissy to the altar). One does not have to suggest, as Freeman does, that Cissy and Flossie bore, in certain photographs, a passing physical resemblance to see something eerie in a young man courting a woman who is almost his mother’s age and calling her at times “Momma.”

Cissy gave Chandler something to adore—“Marriage is a perpetual courtship,” he wrote toward the end of his life—and every year on their anniversary he filled a room with red roses, while serenading her throughout their years together with flowery poems (“The touch of lips too dear for mortal kisses/The light of eyes too soft for common days”) that even he could see were “grade-B Georgian.” Almost every evening they listened to classical music on the radio together, and every afternoon took a ceremonial tea. Moving more than thirty times around southern California in their years together, as if to take in all the city’s angles, and to see Chandler’s constant antagonist in the round, they all but created and inhabited an out-of-place, out-of-time society of two. Their movements kept them from having many friends and instead of children they had cats and glass animals to whom (Freeman’s research in Oxford’s Bodleian Library discloses) they gave individual names, such as Snowflake and Violet and Walter.

You can make all sorts of jokes about sex,” Chandler wrote in characteristic terms near the end of his life,

but at the bottom of his heart every decent man feels that his approach to the woman he loves is an approach to a shrine. If that feeling is lost, as it seems to have been lost (in this country at the moment) all of us are lost with it. The glory has departed. All that is left is to die in the mud.

Yet the man who repeatedly voiced this creed of stainless romanticism, and who liked to refer to his own “exceptional sexual purity,” was also the man who devoted many of his pages to nymphomaniacs and who all but patented the image of the overwhelming blonde (giving Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake some of their defining roles). Had he remained only fearful and disdainful of the voracious society he saw around him, his books would have had none of their power. It is precisely his ambivalence toward the seductions that confront him, the fact that he is drawn to the fleshly temptations that he goes out of his way to condemn, that give both Philip Marlowe and his creator their uneasy psychological charge.

It wouldn’t be hard, in fact, to say that it is the shadow side of Marlowe, and of his creator (a heavy drinker at the time of Prohibition), that give the books much of their poetry. And much of the complication of the novels comes from the fact that Marlowe is afraid of vulnerable women, too, because he knows that he’s defenseless against his temptation to protect them. The sound that Chandler made his own was a mix of incantatory lyrical poetry and the rude vernacular of people who mocked all that such poetry traditionally described. His predecessor in hard-boiled writing, Dashiell Hammett, was a former detective. Chandler, much more dangerously, was a romantic poet with a gun.

Freeman is much too thoughtful a writer to get lost in Freudian speculations, and she refuses to come to any simple answer to the age-old question of how much Chandler was drawn to men as well as women. Yet what her book brings out is the mystery of how Cissy, “highly sexed” by all accounts, stayed at home, while the diffident Chandler went out and betrayed the woman he claimed to adore. Though he remained courtly and worshipful to the end, it was he who fell prey to adulterous trysts with secretaries while his elderly wife, often bedridden, was waiting for him to return. At the time his first novel came out, after all, Chandler was fifty-one, but Cissy was close to seventy.

It is the particular strangeness of Chandler’s Victorian code, moreover—and the source of his books’ moral fury—that it is being advanced in a grasping, unformed young city that has no sense of the classical tradition. In the 1940s, Los Angeles was so full of murdered young women that it was known as the “Port of Missing Women,” and when a former missionary set out to reform a city government already notorious for its rottenness—as Freeman describes in some resourceful excavation of local history—the cafeteria he owned was stink-bombed, his house was bombed, and then a fellow reformer was blown from his car when he tried to start it. Los Angeles, in short, was building itself around the ideals of money, fame, and connections; Philip Marlowe was strikingly bereft of all three.

It was Chandler’s mixed fortune, in fact, to be born into the very dying of the beau ideal that he had been taught to cherish in school. Though the end of World War II might have marked the final gasp of British self-confidence, with the dismemberment of empire, it was really World War I, when so many of the country’s brightest young men died senselessly in the trenches, that killed off its ideals. And Chandler, who had been trained to hold to an old-fashioned gentleman’s code in Edwardian England, found himself, by chance, living in the city that would come to represent both the arrival of a new sovereign power and the emergence of a much more rootless and scrambled way of life. He went over to fight in Europe in 1917 with the Gordon Highlanders, a Canadian regiment, and led a platoon that was mostly wiped out by German artillery; later, he would volunteer in vain to serve in the Canadian army again when World War II broke out—though he was in his fifties—and diligently send food packages to his old classics master at Dulwich. “There are other things a man could marry besides a wife,” his headmaster had famously declared.

It is a clash of centuries, as well as of cultures, that Chandler is recording in his stories of the quixotic, crusading detective—with few friends, no family, no past, really—pushing into the dark corners of the city, and it is one that he witnessed with special force, no doubt, after he got drawn into Hollywood in 1943. Where Wodehouse wrote comedies by keeping his unworldly public school hero, Bertie Wooster, in a bachelor’s never-never land, Chandler wrote tragedies—or elegies at least—by placing his in the middle of a painfully real world. Just how precarious Marlowe’s position was is suggested by the hero of a few years later, James Bond, product and embodiment of Old Etonian fantasy, who picks up available women and uses futuristic gadgets without a second thought.

Chandler always prided himself on being, as he said, the “first to write about Southern California in a realistic way,” going on to note that “to write about a place you have to love it or hate it or do both by turns, which is usually the way you love a woman.” Yet in 1939, the year of the publication of his first novel, The Big Sleep, two other Los Angeles classics also appeared: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West and Ask the Dust by John Fante. What he had that was genuinely unique was an outsider’s perspective, and a high classical elegance brought to a world of lowlifes and scams. Characters in his stories have names like Miss Quest and Miss Pride—Marlowe in the earliest stories is known as “Mallory”—and Chandler (like his protagonist) trained on the city a fresh indignation that is absent from the work of successors like Ross Macdonald and Michael Connelly. Marlowe is still innocent enough to be taken aback, and moved to rage, by the infidelities he sees all around him, and the sound of his woundedness is that of a student of Seneca in what Chandler calls a “paradise of fakers.”

It was only after he got fired from an oil company for general delinquency, in 1933, when he was forty-four, that Chandler set about dusting off the literary ambitions he’d begun to cultivate as a young man. He diligently taught himself how to write detective stories by working his way up from pieces for the pulp magazines of the times to short stories and then to a full novel; his plan, as Freeman tells us, was to do well enough in these genre exercises to put mystery writing behind him and move back to England.

In reality, however, he and Cissy stayed in their odd isolation, and in California, with Chandler growing more and more protective and exasperated as his wife grew older and more infirm (he claimed to have hired more than seventy cooks, secretaries, and housekeepers after they moved to La Jolla, near San Diego). The most passionate of his books, The Long Goodbye, is ostensibly about Marlowe’s devotion to a friend, Terry Lennox, who seems, with his perfect manners, his public school education, and his war-hero past to be the very picture of boys’ school romance (though as the book concludes, we see him disfigured and living under a Spanish alias, and realize, with Marlowe, that he’s been a con man all along). Yet it’s not hard also to see the title applying to the plight of a much too caring and wayward husband trying ineffectually to look after an octogenarian woman who was dying by “half inches” of fibrosis of the lungs.

When finally Cissy did expire, in 1954, it was Chandler, gallant to the end, who apparently put down her age on her death certificate as sixty-eight (she was eighty-four), and, under “usual occupation,” wrote “At home.” True to his creed—“She was the beat of my heart for thirty years,” he would say, and “She was the music heard faintly at the edge of sound”—he all but collapsed in her absence. He wrote no more substantial books after her death—only the throwaway novel Playback—and he sank back into alcoholism and halfhearted attempts at suicide. When finally he did return to London, he fell clumsily and dutifully in love with almost every woman who tried to look after him, and got thrown out of the Connaught for drinking, and then out of the Ritz.

Yet in the midst of all that, there remains a shadow of a more interesting story. At the end of his life Chandler said, “I seem to be the sort of idiot who will sacrifice himself for anyone in trouble, especially a woman,” and perhaps he felt that a part of this misbegotten chivalry was channeled toward his wife (whose real age, Freeman suggests, he might never have known). Freeman sees Philip Marlowe, the solitary idealist named after Marlowe House at Dulwich, as Chandler’s angry rebuke to his own failure to remain faithful to his code (and his wife), and sees Cissy as the muse who inspired the women in his books. But it seems just as likely that Marlowe was the way Chandler got out of the house and deeper into himself, escaping into an alternative life where the chivalrous impulse was still strong, but the temptations to stray from it were excitingly potent. And it’s possible, too, to see Cissy as being as much the victim as the cause of Chandler’s habit of idealizing women without thinking about the consequences of ideals sure not to stand the test of time. After her death, he even proposed marriage to his literary agent, Helga Greene, who, rounding out the circle, happened also to be Graham Greene’s former sister-in-law.

The Long Embrace is a book that owes its power less to its portrayal of its subjects than to its hauntedness. Freeman does not try to explain Chandler so much as to reclaim his world, and instead of answering most of the questions she raises (why, for example, having kept Cissy’s letters in a package tied with green ribbon and talked of publishing them, did he suddenly have them burned?), she takes the reader on long, moody trips around L.A. in which we seem to see his ghost around every corner. People look out at her from behind half-closed curtains, or sit at the wheels of stationary cars, staring out into the distance. She visits a hotel where Chandler once threatened to throw himself out of a window and is greeted in the restaurant by “an elderly maitre d’ with a rather bad comb-over and a courtly old-world manner. The room was nearly empty.”

She reads Chandler books in the rain—it is nearly always rainy or foggy in her L.A.—and reports on how the cops in her own neighborhood have been found guilty of murder and extortion, planting evidence on gang members and stealing from old ladies and young girls. She takes buses out to old Chandler haunts that have long since been abandoned or torn down, and reflects on the air of loneliness and displacement that haunts the unhistoried city to this day.

In some ways, The Long Embrace (and the title could apply to her own fascination with the Chandlers as much as to their clinging to one another) is a restless hallucination of a book about a woman obsessed by a mystery that she knows she will never solve—and perhaps does not wish to solve. Chandler has gotten so deeply into her mind that she sees his traces everywhere, “the sun like a pale yellow lightbulb shining through the steam of a shower.” Heading off on melancholy expeditions around a city of ruins and wandering exiles, and punctuating her text with small, uncaptioned black-and-white photographs, she creates a tone-poem that evokes L.A. in ways that recall W.G. Sebald’s ramblings among graves and old books in his Rings of Saturn.

What emerges from her account is a feeling that Chandler got hold of L.A. partly by always remaining at a distance from it, even intensifying his Englishness as the years went on, perhaps to keep the sense of difference alive. He never took the easy satiric line on it that ensnared Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley; and he never began to settle down in it or to exult in its sunshine or its pretty surfaces as those later, very English exiles Christopher Isherwood and David Hockney did. Rather, he made it the foil for his particular brand of moral disenchantment. “I like people with manners, grace, some social intuition,” he wrote, fed up with California.* “I like a conservative atmosphere, a sense of the past; I like everything Americans of past generations used to go and look for in Europe, but at the same time I don’t want to be bound by the rules.”

The setting wasn’t as important, really, as the romance of innocence and corruption that it made possible; in his story “English Summer,” buried in his notebooks and never published, it’s an Englishwoman who is the “man-eater” and a visiting American who is honest and protective, but, as Chandler noted, the story, like so much that he wrote, is really about “the decay of the refined character” and the death of too-innocent dreams. And as he clung to positions that he knew to be quickly fading, Cissy, playing Chopin on the piano and affecting an upper-class accent, was a perfect accomplice, traveling with him to a dude ranch outside Santa Barbara, for example, where he spent the week not riding horses, but reading the Hornblower stories of the Dulwich old boy C.S. Forester. Had he remained in Britain, he might have been reading tales of the American frontier.

When Somerset Maugham met the aging couple (the author of Of Human Bondage was, not surprisingly, a great admirer—and Chandler once wrote to his publisher that the one book he would like an inscribed first copy of was Maugham’s ground-breaking spy novel, Ashenden), he noted, as many did, that Cissy seemed a figure out of The Great Gatsby, with her bleached blond hair and “rather frivolous gown.” Chandler he took to be ten years younger than he really was, a “most distinguished person, indeed, who could have been either an Oxford professor or a poet, certainly more British than American.” Yet Chandler chose to keep himself for almost fifty years in a place where Oxford dons and “distinguished” poets would seem as quaint and beside the point as thank-you notes in the middle of “sex-hungry” vixens and under-the-table deals. Driving down rainy streets, past flickering red lights, seeing the shadows that lie behind the sunny promise of “getting rich quick,” he is one of the last to uphold an almost vanished code of high, heroic ethics, even as the young hoods are revving up their Porsches along Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset.

  1. *

    In this instance, as in many, Tom Hiney’s version of the quote, in his Raymond Chandler (Grove, 1997), is somewhat different. See his p. 121.

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