Henry David Thoreau and Raymond Chandler, Two American Eccentrics, Pt. II: Chandlerland
(Click herefor Part I)
Judith Freeman, The Long Embrace, Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, New York, Pantheon, 2007, 368 pp.
Both the subtitle of Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace: “Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,” as well as its author’s stated purpose, lead us to believe that its primary subject is Chandler’s enigmatic older wife, Cissy. Freeman’s obsessive interest in Chandler led her to read selections from his letters, and from that she became obsessed with Cissy, with whom Chandler himself was clearly obsessed. Part of her fascination is the very paucity of information which has come down about her, only a handful of photographs and a few notes. However, Raymond Chandler himself comes first, both in the subtitle and in Freeman’s obsession, and, while Cissy is most prominently the leitmotiv which holds the book and its various themes together, we get more exposure to Chandler’s other love (in what was most definitely a love-hate relationship, as was the possibly other) the city of Los Angeles, since much of Freeman’s research consisted of finding and motoring to the many furnished houses and flats in which they lived over their forty mostly reclusive years together, and much of her text consists of personal, even intimate narrations of her experiences in these visits. In her work Freeman could not help becoming more deeply immersed in the city, which she and Chandler made their adoptive home.
Ms. Freeman’s goal, of course, was to see the city through Chandler’s eyes—not an easy or a pleasant task, ultimately. The real Chandlerland is largely invisible to the physical eyes: it is the the nightmarish world of his novels and stories, which is no more real than Nabokov’s Zembla. If we try to see the “real” Los Angeles as reflected in Chandler’s mind, we find ourselves in a fissured and conflicted place, one haunted by a memory of Dulwich College and his formative years in England, or how, when he returned to midwestern America, where he was born, he was ridiculed for his English manners and accent, as he had been ridiculed for his American accent, when he first arrived at Dulwich. As Freeman acutely observes:
To the end he remained a “split personality,” a man divided between two countries, two languages, two cultures and continents. The American boy who has been taken from the sun-blasted open spaces of the demotic Midwest and deposited in the clotted urban realms of class-conscious London. […] Did he ever become fully English: No. Did he ever really embrace America? No…He loved England, and he hated it. He loved America, and he also hated it.
Extensive as Freeman’s research was—and she has possibly uncovered some new information—we know little more about Cissy than before. Chandler decided to destroy her letters shortly before his own death, and in spite of the archives in the Bodleian and at UCLA, much has disappeared. What’s more, by the time Raymond began to become well-known, Cissy’s health had begun to erode, and she led the house-bound life of a semi-invalid. Many of his contacts in the world of books and the movies, who might have noted something about her, never came into contact with her. Much of the fabric of The Long Embrace is conjecture, not only about Cissy, but about Raymond as well. For most biographers this is a recipe for disaster, but Freeman manages her method with such perceptivity and intelligence that she gets away with it. She cleverly grounds her perspective in her own, as she plays out her obsession, and this “keeps her honest,” not to mention the thoroughness of her research. Her technique of illuminating their biographies with passages from Chandler’s fiction, another dangerous gambit, also benefits from these virtues.
This doesn’t mean that we can agree with all of her conclusions, nor does Judith Freeman expect us to. Chandler’s complex, labile personality, which sets an all-important mark on his fiction, is fertile ground for ambiguity. For Freeman, their co-dependent relationship gave Chandler whatever stability he could grasp, preventing him from destroying himself much earlier than he did. As it bound him to the reclusive, home-centered existence of looking after a sick wife, it kept him away from liquor for extensive periods. By contrast, another Chandler biographer, Tom Hiney, asserts that “Two things stabilized him. Being drunk, which he often was, and Philip Marlowe.” And I can see the truth of that as well. Hiney also quotes a letter by his Hollywood agent, H. N. Swanson, who observed that “Ray loved his cat. He had a cat he would talk to for hours. That cat knew more about him than anybody else. He was a shy man, and he struck some people as cold and rude. He was good to his cat and his wife…” Now, what began as a couple, has grown into a quadrangle and ended up as a pentagram: that is, a married couple, an addiction, a fictional character, and a cat, whose name was Taki. Just as his exact contemporary Gerald Murphy adopted the pentagram as an emblem for himself, his wife Sara (who was five years older than he), and their three children, it could serve for Chandler as well, were he inclined to that sort of symbolism. Need I go on and include the couple’s glass menageries, Ray’s collection included almost fifty diminutive glass animals, which they called “amuels” and to which they gave pet names, and which Cissy meticulously catalogued in her favorite turquoise ink? Freeman’s conclusion (p. 144) is typical:
It seemed to go beyond a mere collection—as if these figures were talismans, intimates in a world largely free of human friends or acquaintances, a magical assortment of beasts to provide company for the solitary couple. Cissy was the keeper of the magic, their recorder of names and of certain stories, and the amuels were part of the magic and stories. Part of the invented, insular world they carried from place to place.
This is pure conjecture, of course, but Ms. Freeman, as a novelist and Chandler-obsessive, makes it an enlightening one.
Raymond Chandler first came to Los Angeles at the invitation of Warren Lloyd, a cultivated theosophist he befriended on the steamer he took to America in 1912, obeying what seemed to him to be a mysterious call he couldn’t explain. When Chandler arrived in L. A. they following year, Lloyd put him up, found him a job, and made him a member of the Optimists, a circle of his educated and art-loving friends, who frequented soirées at his house: evenings of conversation, music, and consultation of the Ouija board. Raymond’s mother, Flossie, joined him there, and the two of them found an apartment near Angel’s Flight on Bunker Hill. the Chandlers met Cissy, who, born in 1870, was only a few years younger than Flossie and married to her second husband, a sickly, but rather distinguished pianist named Julian Pascal (He had been Myra Hess’s teacher!), a colonial Englishman she had met in New York. Hence, when they first met, Cissy was forty-three, and Raymond twenty-five. His mother was especially drawn to the couple, and they became intimate friends. The situation of Raymond and Julian’s son going off together to fight in the Great War makes it clear that in their circles Cissy, as beautiful and young-looking as she was, belonged to the generation of Raymond’s mother, and he to next. It was only when Raymond, no longer boyish, returned in 1919, that they began an affair. When it finally came to a head between them and became known, both lovers went through a lengthy series of consultations with the head of their circle, Warren Lloyd, who had written a book on psychology. Raymond’s mother was appalled, not least to have the status quo of her friendship with the couple destroyed. Even after the divorce, Raymond and Cissy could not get married until Flossie died in 1924. On the marriage certificate Cissy took ten years off her age, making herself only eight years older than Raymond. In fact, she was fifty-three and Raymond thirty-five. According to Freeman and Chandler’s other biographers, he most likely never knew her real age until the end. She was still beautiful and relatively trim, but Raymond must have been deeply infatuated not to get some sense of how much older she was after over ten years of acquaintance. Perhaps in the first years he idolized her in a post-adolescent crush, then after the separation of the war, he could see her in more accessible terms, a situation which must have been terrifically exciting for him. When she died in 1954, sixty-six-year-old Raymond entered her age on the death certificate as sixty-eight, subtracting another six years from her age—a touching sign of his chivalrous protectiveness towards his wife.
Especially in later years, Chandler described their marriage as “near-perfect.” There was apparently an intense sexual component in it during the earlier years. An Ohio girl who settled in New York, she had worked as an artist’s model and frequented a bohemian crowd, who favored opium as an intoxicant. Considerable sexual experience must have come with this, for shy Raymond, a discovery rivaling Cortez’ view from the peak in Darien. Nonetheless, soon after their marriage, Raymond began to drink heavily and have affairs with secretaries at his lucrative job as an oil executive. With one in particular he would disappear for days. Eventually he was fired. His alcoholism and his inability to cope with the closely intertwined social life of the working world became recurrent issues. Cissy and Raymond separated at one point. Could not this first bout of erratic behavior have come from his realization of Cissy’s deception, even in vague terms, and his ensuing rage, which he repressed under loving kindess at home? Her health had already begun to deteriorate only a few years after their marriage. This extraordinary woman with a colorful past, of which he only seems to have spoken admiringly, had duped him into a marriage in which he would soon become more a caregiver than a lover. He eventually accepted the role with enthusiasm, albeit mixed at times. The couple reconciled. Chandler gave up drinking by sheer force of will. He didn’t return to a job. They lived on savings in the isolation which followed them most of their days. They enjoyed motor trips up the coast and around Southern California together. Raymond began to read Black Mask and other pulp magazines, and it was on one of their road trips that he decided to try his hand at it, publishing his first story in 1933, at the age of forty-five.
Chandler’s career as a pulp writer grew. Cissy, who suffered from fibrosis, began to experience more and more difficulty in breathing. Meanwhile she continued to dress as if she were thirty years younger than her age. Her once red hair was dyed blonde. She slept in a frilly boudoir which exuded the sexuality of another age. She was known for doing housework in the nude, not as an odd kind of eroticism, but as an application of the Mensendieck System of Practical Exercises, as Freeman amusingly and convincingly explains. (Believe it or not, the system is still practiced today, but clothed, it seems, at least in group sessions.) Both nostalgia for her old profession of posing for artists in the nude and the System’s posture-building virtues would have attracted her. She prided herself on her cooking. Cissy had affected a pretentious Angloid accent for many years, a good match for the habits and dress Raymond had brought over from England. Raymond himself often referred to them as being excessively fastidious about food, dress, and manners. No wonder they were both especially fond of Henry James. Later on, someone described meeting her as being like “going back to 1910.” This air of a bygone era must have appealed to Chandler as much as her beauty and “highly sexed” nature. He once said, “The trouble with my wife is she has too much good taste for this generation.”
It is interesting that Cissy never had much enthusiasm for Chandler’s writing, which she found brutal. He fostered the idea of growing into a literary author, and soon after his first successes he drew up a plan for the next few years, and this included a transition away from thrillers. He gave it to Cissy for comment, and her notes express a sharp scepticism about his overly ambitious plans. Some scholars take them as cruel, and others, including Freeman, as loving and kindly. She was right, after all. Some years later Raymond added a good-natured line of acquiescence to the sheet. This rare document shows an interchange of particular complexity between them, but it also shows a frankness, which may well have been the best thing in their marriage.
Chandler kept some photographs of Cissy in the nude from her modeling days. Only one of these has survived, but in it she is not nude, rather amply draped in what, according to Freeman, “looks like a long flowing toga.” Here, where she expatiates rather vaguely on the suggestive photographs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she fails to interpret the photograph, which she describes as “blue-tinted” (a cyanotype?). The risibly elaborate beaux-arts pose and the meticulously arranged drapery puts this photograph firmly within the realm of the academy. While it should obvious to anyone that Cissy was a very beautiful and sexy woman, the softest of the softest core photographs of the time contain more exposure and follow a more crooked path between the “artistic” and the lubricious. What the photograph actually shows is her expertise as a model, holding this highly artificial pose, which probably even the best model could not hold long enough for the artist’s chalk. The photograph could have equally been made as a teaching material. It is also interesting that the pose, while it is inherently sculptural, was demanded by a painter, as the stretcher in the background indicates. On a broader level, it is striking evidence of how Cissy’s long life spanned the Belle Époque and the age of CinemaScope. The photograph was most likely made before Raymond had learned to walk.
The Long Embrace is not without faults, mostly typos and muddled chronologies. More importantly, in two cases Freeman may just possibly be guilty of indulging in two modern pseudo-intellectual fads: “where’s the fetishist?” and “where’s the gay?” Nonetheless, she almost manages to redeem herself with some rather interesting observations. The problem is that these questions have lost much of their cachet, as they have been disrobed of Freudian theory.
When Freeman (pp. 42ff.), taking her point of departure from a conventional expression in one of Chandler’s early romantic poems for Cissy (“I bowed down to your feet with reckless words…”) speculates about the role of fetishism in his life and work, adducing some of his always impressive descriptions of dressed femmes fatales and their occasional focus on legs, I could not help thinking she has been seduced by a fashionable contemporary cliché. However, it is interesting to reflect that when Chandler went off to fight in 1917, men were still finding intense excitement in the rare glimpse of a lady’s ankle. By the time he wrote the cited passage from Playback (1958), he could put into the mouth of a knowing young woman, as Marlowe stares at her legs: “‘Christian Dior,’ she said, reading my rather open mind. ‘I never wear anything else. A light, please.’” If this passage is sexually charged (and it obviously is), the psycho-literary exegete might add brand fetishism, cigarette fetishism (N.B. The final frames of Hawks’ version of The Big Sleep have nothing to do with Chandler!), and language fetishism. The double entendre in her brand name boast, which conjures up an image of her wearing nothing but stockings, and the absence of a question mark after her saucy request for a light are indeed provocative…and such barbed density! (I wonder if Chandler took to Persius at Dulwich?) Enjoying a landscape, one man might admire the rocks on the mountain peak, another the tree, and yet another the waterfall and the cave beneath it. Do we learn anything by categorizing people on this basis? The real point is that in the world of pulp fiction, the sexual landscape is heightened in keeping with its dream-like character. It is not an Arcadia with nymphs, shepherds, and satyrs, but a hypostasized modern world, in which women and their newly reduced clothes, uplift brassieres, stockings, high heels, cigarettes, cigarette lighters, cigarette holders, etc., etc. were to be exploited with a peculiarly modern, surreal kind of stylization, and always with an eye on the censor: Chandler could go far describing legs, while the bust remained dangerous territory. But what a difference between these sharp-edged and hard-surfaced objects and Cissy’s delicate dresses, fluffy nightgowns, and pink-frilled bed! I haven’t said anything about all the guns, gats, and rods, but Chandler was known to have turned them on himself on several occasions in flamboyant style.
Less interesting is Freeman’s astonishingly lengthy (pp. 158-73) discussion of Chandler’s fictional treatment of homosexuality, the peculiarities of his marriage to a “mother image” (as Billy Wilder characterized Cissy), his alcoholism, and their implications about his possible repressed or closeted homosexuality. Again, Freeman cites Chandler’s vivid characterizations of queers and his suggestive account of partially clad he-men sleeping together in a shared bed, etc. etc. Although Chandler had a special genius for this sort of detail, these are once again topoi of the sexually heightened world of pulp fiction. People read magazines like Black Mask and the novels of Hammett, Cain, and Chandler to be shocked and titillated. Censors were prepared to tolerate more in such popular literature, but they were not infinitely flexible. It was the prurience of the time and the repression of homosexual behavior which gave these passages their punch. On the other hand, emotional friendships between men, an uncomfortable subject these days, form an important theme in Chandler’s work, for example the complex triangle, amply lubricated with brandy, between General Sternwood, Marlowe, and Rusty Regan, deceased, or the friendship between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes in his screenplay after James M. Cain’s story. In sexuality we are all different, of course, and Chandler would not have been able to write as he did without the unique configurations of sexual tensions in his psyche, but after all, he was a man who married a beautiful and highly sexed woman, however much a “mother image,” and when he cheated on her, he primarily sought out young secretaries. (No starlets for him, it seems.) That is all we know. In any case, I think Thoreau fares much better in Carl Bode’s Freudian analysis, than either Chandler in Freeman or poor Murphy in Ken Silver’s essay in the recent WCMA exhibition catalogue. In these contemporary discussions, it seems more like establishing a fact to fill into some census form or perhaps entry papers for an asylum or concentration camp. This sort of speculation was much more stylish before everyone decided to throw out Freud. The mythological element of the Oedipus Complex made it all so much more dignified, and, well, “cultural,” as I imagine Cissy might have said. I cannot help thinking that twenty years from now, when Chandler lovers and grad students take Freeman’s book of the shelf, those fifteen pages will be the ones they skim over with impatience, while Bode’s Epilogue to the Portable Thoreau—shorter than Freeman’s riff, too—is still an engrossing and elegant read, if a quaint one.
I shall discuss aelurophilia, a rather more marked aberration in Chandler’s character, on another occasion.
Perhaps I am becoming as obsessed as Judith Freeman with the louche American companion of my Oxford days, but I am also struck with admiration for the her success in what in most cases would be a losing strategy. The Long Embrace shines for its insight, honesty, literary skill, hard work, and warmth. Clearly her success lies in her experience as a novelist. Centering on her own experience in her research, she builds the narrative on a quasi-cinematic intercutting which has in fact been with us since Virgil, who refined the method from Homer. She cuts back and forth not only from her personal narrative and the Chandlers’ story, but also sections of Chandler’s stories as well. At one point, discoursing on relationships between older women with younger men, she digresses on Colette and her Chéri novels—which I thought a particularly poignant way to develop the theme. Indeed, Freeman knows how to move her readers, as her account of Cissy’s final years, the Chandlers’ London visit, and her death amply show.
As an adoptive Angelena, Freeman makes a striking point in the inhabitants’ obsession with the privacy of their home. She says that she and most others are happiest if they can stay at home, or in their garden, if they have one. During one of L.A.’s well-publicized torrential rains, which lasted weeks, she was only too delighted to hole up with movies by and after Chandler. Chandler shared that, it seems. He allowed himself, much of the time, to be tied to the house and Cissy’s needs. Freeman is not precise about the chronology of her decline, but it seems to have started within a few years of their marriage. As an older woman she must have been aware of the power of her neediness, and Raymond accepted it, understanding that he could survive no other way. He broke out whenever his work put him in an office, as he did at Paramount and later at Universal. Every time he did his best to seduce the secretaries and drink himself into oblivion. I shall leave it up to you to read Freeman’s vivid account of the climax of his Paramount career, the final moments of his original screenplay, The Blue Dahlia. The results are impressive, even if the film didn’t have a Hawks or a Wilder directing it and was leadened by the presence of “Miss Moronica Lake,” as Chandler called her, much to the delight of his colleagues at the studio.
Chandler made so much money as a screenwriter, he could buy Cissy her dream house in La Jolla, which he hated, and here the enforced isolation with Cissy, as she declined, began to work against him. They were surrounded by the idle rich, whom Raymond despised, their sun tans, their incessant swilling, and their country club, anti-Semitic of course, which he refused to join for that reason. Even after Cissy’s death, he never returned to Los Angeles, although he felt deprived of inspiration away from it. Most fascinating is Freeman’s good, but all too brief account of the visit of George Cukor and Somerset Maugham. If Chandler were in the least gay, those two would have noticed it, but Maugham was a man of of reticence and taste, and he may well have decided to leave his host in his closet in peace. Maugham was a man of taste in art as well, and one can only wonder what he thought of the Chandlers’ “amuels,” which seems to have been the extent of their collecting impulses.
If there was and is as much unreality to life in the city of Los Angeles as there is to Chandler’s dream world, the Chandlers created their own fantasy life within the confines of the many furnished bungalows and apartments they rented about the city. A how different these three fantasy worlds were from one another! Freeman reflects on the effort of packing thetroops of “amuels” every year or less, boxing them in tissue paper, laying them in their car, and setting off to their next hideout—always, it seems a world of a rather pathetic gentility, bred of Raymond’s Dulwich education, his tweeds, and Cissy’s frilly, pink boudoirs, and her mannerisms, all full-grown before Queen Victoria’s death. Cissy was quite a decent pianist, and when Raymond bought her a Steinway for the La Jolla home, she played regularly. Most evenings, from early on, the couple listened religiously to the Gas Company Evening Concert on the radio. Did they enjoy Percy Grainger, or would they have thought him vulgar? Did they frequent concerts, perhaps the Hollywood Bowl, where Otto Klemperer and other greats played during the Second World War? Or was the Bowl too vulgar? What if Chandler had met Thomas Mann? I imagine they’d have gotten along famously, not least as people with a deep feeling of exile, if they had been able to talk about it. What the Chandlers most enjoyed was driving around together. They might go as far as Santa Barbara. Raymond usually went to San Francisco alone, perhaps for drinking and wenching. They liked visiting Chandler’s colleague and friend, Erle Stanley Gardner at his Temecula ranch, staying at the Mission Inn in Riverside on the way.
Perhaps Los Angeles with her vast, uncentered streetsimposes this unresolvable tension between a public and an intimate, cloistered life of fantasies. Chandler lived it at home, in his writing, and in his disastrous forays into office life. As much as Angelenos may love their private gardens—a trait they share with the English of Cissy’s generation—there comes a time when the loneliness is too much and one has to break out. This is how Marlowe drove the streets of Los Angeles:
I drove east on Sunset, but I didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupés and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west towards home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colours, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed car-hops, the counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad. Great double trucks rumbled down over Sepulveda from Wilmington and San Pedro and crossed towards the Ridge Route, starting up in low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the zoo.
Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars. Screen stars, phooey. The veterans of a thousand beds. Hold it, Marlowe, you’re not human to-night.
The air got cooler. The highway narrowed. The cars were so few now that the headlights hurt. The grade rose against chalk walls and at the top a breeze, unbroken from the ocean, danced casually across the night.
I ate dinner at a place near Thousand Oaks. Bad but quick. Feed ‘em and throw ‘em out. Lots of business. We can’t bother with you sitting over your second cup of coffee, mister. You’re using money space. See those people over there behind the rope? They want to eat. Anyway they think they have to. God knows why they want to eat here. They could do better home out of a can. They’re just restless. Like you. They have to get the car out and go somewhere. Sucker-bait for the racketeers that have taken over the restaurants. Here we go again. You’re not human to-night, Marlowe.
I paid off and stopped in a bar to drop a brandy on top of the New York cut. Why New York, I thought. It was Detroit where they made machine tools. I stepped out into the night air that nobody had yet found out how to option. But a lot of people were probably trying. They’d get around it.
I drove on to the Oxnard cut-off and turned back along the ocean. The big eight-wheelers and sixteen-wheelers were streaming north, all hung over with orange lights. On the right the great fat solid Pacific trudging into shore like a scrub-woman going home. No moon, no fuss, hardly a sound of the surf. No smell. None of the harsh wild smell of the sea. A California ocean. California, the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing. Here we go again. You’re not human tonight, Marlowe.
[…] Well, what is my business ? Do I know ? Did I ever know? Let’s not go into that. You’re not human to-night, Marlowe. Maybe I never was nor ever will be. Maybe I’m an ectoplasm with a private licence. Maybe we all get like this in the cold, half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right.
Malibu. More movie stars. More pink and blue bathtubs. More tufted beds. More Chanel No. 5. More Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs. More wind-blown hair and sunglasses and attitudes and pseudo-refined voices and waterfront morals. Now, wait a minute. Lots of nice people work in pictures. You’ve got the wrong attitude, Marlowe. You’re not human tonight.
I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and like a living room that had been closed too long. But the coloured lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.
So I went to a picture show…