Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) was a highly literate outsider who used his ironic vantage on American culture to transform hard-boiled fiction. After Hammett he is the most important writer in the genre, and he was the best movie writer of the major novelists.
Born in Chicago in 1888 to Irish parents, Chandler grew up in Ireland, where his mother fled after his father abandoned them. His mother’s family moved to England later, in part for his education. Young “Ray” was an extraordinary student at Dulwich, a prestigious “public school” (what Americans would call a private school). There he studied the classics and acquired a code of honor he never forgot. He learned Latin and studied in France and Germany. On a six-day civil service exam in 1907, Chandler placed first in classics and third overall out of 600 test-takers, winning a clerkship in the British Admiralty. However, he soon gave up this “job-for-life” to pursue a literary career, writing poems and publishing book reviews in London. This came to naught, so he immigrated to the U.S. in 1912. 1
A shipboard meeting led him to Los Angeles, where he settled into the progressive “Arroyo Culture” around Pasadena. He worked as an accountant with a dairy and fell in love with Cissy Pascal, a full-figured, theatrically-beautiful, married woman eighteen years older than he was. World War I interrupted the romance; Chandler joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which fought in several of the war’s worst battles. At Vimy Ridge Chandler’s group was surrounded and he distinguished himself in battle; in a subsequent bombardment, everyone in his unit except Chandler was killed: he was concussed so badly he had to be evacuated. Rested and decorated, he tried to return with the Royal Flying Corps, but in 1919 he was discharged. 2
Chandler, thirty-one, tried writing for the Los Angeles Daily Express, but he left after six weeks. When his mother came to live with him, Chandler took a job with the Dabney Oil Syndicate. He was still in love with Cissy Pascal; when she divorced he rented an apartment for her in Hermosa Beach, while he lived nearby in Redondo Beach with his mother. Only after his mother died in 1924 did they marry.
The oil business at Signal Hill south of L.A. was gamble and grab in the 1920’s. Chandler’s days were filled with con men like promoter C.C. Julian, sudden millionaires like Edward Doheny, fistfights and pickpocketings, Zoot-suiters and hookers and cops on the take. Though Chandler ran the office for Dabney, where he was known for dictating flawless letters and rooting out inefficiency, he was often in the fields and developed an uncompromising attitude:
We had a truck carrying pipe in Signal Hill… and the pipe stuck out quite a long way but there was a red lantern on it, according to law. A car with two drunken sailors and two drunken girls crashed into it and filed actions for $1,000 a piece…. The insurance company said, “Oh well, it costs a lot of money to defend these suits, and we’d rather settle.” I said, “That’s all every well. It doesn’t cost you anything to settle. You simply put the rates up. If you don’t want to fight this case, and fight it competently, my company will fight it.” “At your own expense?” “Of course not. We’ll sue you for what it costs us, unless you pay without that necessity.” He walked out of the office. 3
Drunkenness, however, became Chandler’s personal nemesis. “At the annual oil and gas banquets of 1,000 rollicking oil men at the Biltmore,” said one Dabney executive, “Chandler was a shadowy figure, stinko drunk and hovering in the wings with a bevy of showgirls, a nuisance.” 4 He began to disappear from work, took up with a secretary and eventually threatened suicide. In 1932, the cellar of the Depression, Chandler was fired. He was forty-four, with a sixty-two-year-old wife and a drinking problem. Fleeing to Seattle, he lived with army buddies, and then “wandering up and down the Pacific Coast, I began to read pulp magazines,” he wrote: “This was in the great days of Black Mask and it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect. I decided that this might be a good way to try to learn to write fiction and get paid a small amount of money at the same time.” 5
Chandler enrolled in a correspondence course (receiving As and Bs) and listed himself in the L.A. city directory as a writer; he lived on a small allowance from friends whom he aided in a lawsuit against Dabney Oil. He read the pulps studiously and later wrote to Erle Stanley Gardner: “I learned to write a novelette on one of yours about a man named Rex Kane…I simply made an extremely detailed synopsis of your story and from that rewrote it and then compared what I had with yours, and then went back and rewrote it some more, and so on. It looked pretty good.” 6
Never facile, Chandler spent five months producing his first story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” which “Cap” Shaw bought for Black Mask for a penny a word. Soon Chandler’s rate of pay rose to a nickel, but he wrote so slowly, reconceiving entire scenes rather than editing them, that even in 1938, when he also sold three stories to Dime Detective, he earned only $1,275. As an oil executive he had made $10,000 and driven a big company car.
Chandler thought he could bring something new to the genre — his education, his literary background. Charles Dickens and Henry James, as well as Ernest Hemingway, were strong stylistic models for him. The Los Angeles that he took for his setting was undergoing changes prophetic for the rest of the nation. From 500,000 people in 1912, when Chandler arrived, the population shot up to 2.2 million in 1932. Where the first immigrants had been white Midwesterners, often retired farmers (like the Iowans whom Chandler often caricatured), later immigrants were Dust Bowl Okies, or Chinese and Mexicans and blacks, whom realtors cordoned off into specific neighborhoods. In 1909 L.A. had more churches per capita than any other large U.S. city, but by 1930 the boom in the movie industry, since “talkies” were in, attracted aspiring starlets, cowboy crooners, village Lotharios and small caliber Eastern Mafiosi. Orchards disappeared under tract housing and highways replaced village lanes. 7
The changes were wrenching for Chandler, who created settings that were unmistakably Californian even in his earliest stories. He used Santa Ana winds or the Santa Monica coast, and he bathed his characters in a translucent light. In actuality, however, the Chandlers moved from apartment to rented apartment, as the writer objected to noise or rent or décor. They hovered on the edge of poverty. Even so, when “Cap” Shaw was fired from Black Mask in 1936, Chandler quit the magazine out of loyalty. But even with the higher rates paid by Dime Detective, he made only a few thousand dollars a year. Knowing he needed to write a book, Chandler combined the plots of “Killer in the Rain” and “The Curtain,” his fourth and tenth stories for Black Mask. It took three months to rewrite them as The Big Sleep, which he sold to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., publisher of Hammett and Cain and the prestigious Borzoi mystery series (link here to read about the novel). It sold well, went paperback, and then sold to Hollywood. Chandler earned $2,000 and turned his back on the pulps. 8
Chandler (back row, second from left) met fellow hard-boiled writers and picked up writing tips through The Fictioneers, who included Erle Stanley Gardner and W.T. Ballard. The latter recalled Chandler as “a very retiring person who would sit at the dinners after the table had been cleared, sucking on his pipe and offering very little comment.” 9 Dashiell Hammett attended one dinner and Chandler, who no longer drank, described him as “very nice-looking, tall, quiet, gray-haired, fearful capacity for Scotch, seemed quite unspoiled to me.” 10
Chandler’s second novel and perhaps his finest work, Farewell, My Lovely, took shape at a confusing time. He and Cissy moved constantly, though they had discovered their eventual home of La Jolla. He was already writing The Lady in the Lake, and he disliked Farewell: “Tragic realization that there is another dead cat under the house,” he wrote his editors. “More than three-quarters done and no good.” 11 World War II distracted him as well, and Chandler volunteered for service. Rejected, he rewrote Farewell. He and Mrs. Knopf argued over various titles alluding to Shakespeare, but he prevailed with his second choice of Farewell, My Lovely. When the novel appeared in August 1940, sales were disappointing and Chandler was downcast. . He returned to The Lady in the Lady, but laid it aside to write The High Window, published in 1942. This novel also had disappointing hardcover sales, but paperback and movie rights to Chandler’s earlier work began to sell, and he was hired in Hollywood.
To his astonishment, Chandler earned $750 a week for thirteen weeks. This was several years’ pay for him. His first job was to turn James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity into a film noir for Paramount. Producer Billy Wilder, a detective novel fan, had tracked Chandler down through Knopf. The neophyte took his project home on Friday and on Monday returned with an almost complete script, including lighting directions and camera angles. Wilder had only written a few pages. Eventually they rewrote most of Cain’s tough dialogue, which they found spoke to the eye rather than to the ear. Chandler did not like Cain’s treatment of sex, referring to him as “a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk.” 12 He also muttered about Wilder’s Malacca cane, even as Wilder groused about Chandler’s drinking. But the upshot of this celebrated collaboration was an Academy Award nomination, for which Wilder (below) gave all credit to Chandler, whom he called “one of the greatest creative minds” he had met.
Chandler had exhausted himself, however, and with his wife moved to the desert near Palm Springs to recover and to write. Money began to roll in, but Chandler was fifty-six, his wife in her early seventies. When he next returned to the studios, he was not nearly as productive, but he enjoyed the Writers’ Building, where coffee, liquor and food were freely available. “At the writers’ table at Paramount I heard some of the best wit I’ve heard in my life. Some of the boys at their best when not writing.” 13
His new contract called for Chandler to help on scripts in progress. He assisted Frank Partos on And Now Tomorrow and Hagar Wilder on The Unseen, but a producer strong-armed him into Lucy’s, a famous bar across the street, and got him drunk. Chandler’s earlier demons returned. He mourned his lost youth increasingly, and there were a bottle in his drawer and a young woman to help him. During one affair he disappeared for several weeks; as a make-up present he bought his wife a Lincoln sedan too big for either of them to drive. 14
By 1945 Chandler was earning enough that he paid $50,000 in income tax. 15 It was also the year that Alan Ladd, Paramount’s star, was due to enter the service, and the studio wanted him to star in a big movie before he left. Chandler, paid $1,000 a week for 26-weeks a year on his new, three-year contract, was to write the story, and in less than two weeks he did. But turning it into a production script was different. Director George Marshall and producer John Houseman grew nervous because Ladd was leaving in ten days. Chandler was called in and offered a $5,000 bonus to accelerate; he considered this a “bribe” and almost quit, but he didn’t want to put English public school compatriot Houseman on the spot. 16
In the most bizarre incident of his life, Chandler arranged to finish the shooting script in an alcoholic siege. Paramount had two limos standing by at his house, six secretaries in teams of two for dictation and typing, and a doctor to give him glucose injections, since he wouldn’t be eating while he drank and wrote. The limos took script to the studio, brought the doctor for Cissy, and took the maid shopping. When Houseman arrived he would find the writer passed out at the table and waken him. Chandler wrote another page and drank. Eventually he finished the screenplay of The Blue Dahlia, as well as all revisions required by the producer. The movie brought him more fame (an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay) but doctoring of the final script had reduced Chandler’s touch to a few sections of dialogue. 17
What Chandler really wanted was out of the movie business, but after years of poverty he couldn’t bear to part with the cushion. He denounced “Writers in Hollywood” for the Atlantic, which had featured his earlier “The Simple Art of Murder” but he enjoyed consulting on Howard Hawks’ version of The Big Sleep in 1946. William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett were the script-writers, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall the stars. The Chandlers made their last move that year, to a new house at 6005 Camino de la Costa, overlooking the Pacific in La Jolla. 18
Here Chandler settled into a routine of writing mornings, joining Cissy for lunch, then driving into La Jolla to do afternoon chores. He took tea with his wife at four, ate what the maid prepared for dinner, listened to Cissy play piano or to recorded music, and went to bed early. He played a bit of tennis and socialized with a few writers, but he was generally retiring. Few people saw the inside of his house. Even as he completed The Little Sister in 1948, he wrote his agent that Marlowe “is too valuable to let die out. But I find myself spoofing more and more.” 19 Sales of this book were respectable and the rights sold well, though the novel was bitter about L.A., especially Hollywood.
Encroaching illnesses restricted the Chandlers’ lives in the early 1950s. A chronic lung condition enfeebled Cissy, while Chandler developed a skin allergy that split his fingertips and a rash that, when it spread over his chest and neck, he needed morphine to withstand. He had to bandage his fingers to type and wear gloves to read. In 1951 Chandler put down his new novel, tentatively titled Summer in Idle Valley, to work at Paramount for $2,500 a week on Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. The two disliked each other, Chandler referring to “that fat bastard” within Hitchcock’s hearing. Hitchcock assigned an assistant to rewrite the script.
When he finished his novel, now titled The Long Goodbye, it was longer and more socially conscious. His agents objected: “We feel that Mr. Marlowe would suspect his own softness all the way through and deride it and himself constantly.” 20 Chandler was shocked. “I knew the character of Marlowe had changed…. But I did not realize [he] had become Christlike.” 21 He rewrote immediately and extensively. “There is no doubt that Chandler intended to put all of himself into The Long Goodbye,” writes biographer Frank MacShane, “He knew it was his last chance to do so.” 22
An immediate critical and sales success, The Long Goodbye(1953) launched a new era in hard-boiled fiction – that of the socially, politically, racially, sexually, or environmentally conscious detective. Chandler did not revel in his success, however; after a long-planned trip to England with Cissy, her health declined – fibrosis of the lungs was the diagnosis – and she died in December 1954. She had been his one true love and an enduring chivalric ideal in his life; without her, there might not have been a Philip Marlowe. There was a void in Chandler’s life, which he filled with drink, an attempted suicide, and more travel.
He returned to England, where he became a “literary personage,” meeting Ian Fleming, Sonia Orwell, wife of novelist George Orwell, and attaching himself to poet Stephen Spender and his wife. The similes once uttered by Marlowe popped from his own mouth. “You go to luncheon with eight people and the next day five of them invite you to a dinner party…. So dine, drink and drab is about all you do.” 23 Back in the U.S. Chandler had to dry out in a New York hospital, but a new agent established him in Palm Springs, where he finished a new novel, Playback, in 1958. After this inferior work he shuttled between England and southern California, imagining himself Sir Galahad to a series of younger women. His grief, the travel, and the drink took their toll. His agent re-established him in a La Jolla cottage, but alcoholism impaired his resistance to even minor illness. He came down with pneumonia and died at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla on March 26, 1959.
1 Details on Raymond Chandler’s life from Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: Dutton, 1976), and William Marling, Raymond Chandler (Boston: Twayne, 1986) 2 Marling, Chandler, 12-13. 3 Raymond Chandler, Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Ed. Frank MacShane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 445. 4 John Abrams in MacShane, Life, 36. 5 Chandler, Letters, 236. 6 Chandler, Letters, 8. 7 Marling, Chandler, 28. 8 Marling, Chandler, 21-24, 28-30. 9 Ballard in MacShane, 74. 10 Chandler in MacShane, 75-76. 11 Chandler, Letters, 282-83. 12 Marling, Chandler, 37; Chandler, Letters, 23. 13 MacShane, Chandler, 110. 14 MacShane, Chandler, 114. 15 Nolan, Black Mask Boys, 228. 16 Marling, Chandler, 39; Chandler, Letters, 46. 17 MacShane, Life, 116. 18 Chandler, Letters, 79; Marling, Chandler, 41-42. 19 Chandler, in MacShane, Life, 148. 20 MacShane, Chandler, 194. 21 Chandler, Letters, 315. 22 MacShane, 197. 23 MacShane, Life, 234.