The number of people who actually knew Raymond Chandler and who are still alive can pretty much be counted on one hand. Chandler died 50 years ago last week, on March 26, 1959, at the age of 70. Among his surviving friends are Natasha Spender, wife of the late poet Stephen Spender (now in her 90s), and the writer Neil Morgan, who, as a young journalist at the San Diego Tribune, met the writer.
A few other less-well-known individuals still survive and, through an unusual circumstance, I met one of them a little over a year ago. Her name was Dorothy Fisher -- née Gruber. In the fall of 2007, she wrote me a letter after reading a review of my book "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved" in this newspaper. She said she'd enjoyed the review very much and was anxious to get my book -- especially, she said, because she had been Chandler's secretary in the 1940s at Paramount Studios. "I have many stories I'd like to tell you, if you're interested," she wrote. "You may not be interested, but if you are, give me a call," and she included her phone number.
Needless to say, I was very interested and I made an appointment to see her the following week. And then I began to worry. Because something else had come with Dorothy's letter. She had sent a photograph of her and Chandler, taken in 1942, showing an attractive, dark-haired young woman standing next to the older writer, taking dictation. In my book I had used a variation of this photograph I'd found in the Bodleian Library, where a part of Chandler's archive is housed. On the back of the Bodleian photograph was written, "Chandler with Secretary, Paramount Studios." The woman in the picture wasn't named.
Now here she was, living in Studio City and inviting me to visit. How would she feel about me using her photograph in my book? Particularly since her picture appears below a paragraph that begins, "When his secretary refused to have an affair with him, Chandler didn't give up. He pursued someone else . . . and began having an affair with another secretary at the studio." Was Dorothy Fisher the secretary with whom he had the affair? I had no way of knowing.
Looking back 65 years
The next week, when I arrived at her home, I was greeted by an attractive, well-dressed woman who looked younger than her 85 years. She lived in a modern house with glass windows overlooking the San Fernando Valley. As we sat down to talk, it became clear to me that Dorothy was a very open-minded and intelligent person with a wonderful sense of humor. I liked her immediately. I had brought a copy of my book as a gift, and when I gave it to her and pointed out her picture, hoping she'd be pleased, to my great relief she was. What touched her most deeply was that Chandler had kept the picture all those years, and that it was now a part of his permanent archive.
Without much prompting from me she began describing her relationship with Chandler. She said she had adored Mr. Chandler, as she called him, but they had never been anything more than friends. When she met him, she was only 17: He was 54. "I was a timid little nothing," she said, "and he was a famous writer. I'd heard he'd had an affair with a secretary at the studio and she had left, but he never made any kind of advance toward me, I think because I was so young. He respected me for my work."
She described Chandler as an exceptionally kind and thoughtful man who, after her first week of working for him, insisted on giving her an extra $10 a week because he knew she was taking care of her mother, just as he'd taken care of his. They developed a close relationship and he became more dependent on her, insisting that she come with him when he left Paramount, on loan to MGM. When she went away for a week to take care of her sister, he wrote to her, "Come home, I miss you."
Dorothy continued to work for Chandler for several years, sometimes at his house on Drexel Avenue in the Fairfax district, where occasionally she would encounter his wife Cissy, who she said was always very abrupt and cold with her. I pointed out that Chandler's history of having affairs with secretaries -- he had done the same thing 20 years earlier when he worked as an accountant at an oil company -- made it understandable how Cissy might have felt threatened, particularly since Cissy was then in her 70s while Dorothy wasn't yet 20.
As Dorothy had suggested in her letter, she did have stories to tell, some very charming and funny. She said that once Chandler had insisted on giving her a ride to his house, even though he was very drunk. "People weren't so worried about drinking and driving back then," she added. On the way home he stopped at a store to buy a dozen eggs and then put the eggs on the car seat and accidentally sat on them. "Neither one of us said anything," she said. "We just drove home with him sitting on the eggs."
Another time she had to have some dental work done which required sedation, and when she came around she found Chandler hovering over her. "He'd left work to make sure I was OK. He was like that," she said, "very sweet, and yet he never made a pass at me." One day, however, she found a note on her desk which said, "I long to press my lips to your soft cheek, Ray." "At first I was worried," she said. "I thought Mr. Chandler had left me the note. And then I realized it was Ray Milland, who'd been flirting with me in the elevator."
Dorothy died last December. I spoke to her a few days before her death. By then we'd become friends, occasionally meeting for lunch. She was no longer simply Chandler's secretary: She was someone I admired very much and whose company I enjoyed. "I'm dying," she said during that last conversation, "but I don't want you to worry. I'm OK with it."
I didn't worry, but I did mourn. She'd had a long life, and a good one. I think her last year was enhanced by the attention she received from me and other Chandler aficionados. "It was a thrill for me to work for a man I respected as a great writer," she told me. I thought of the copy of "Farewell, My Lovely" she had once shown me that Chandler signed to her, using her maiden name: "The Author Respectfully Presents his Compliments to Miss Dorothy Gruber, and Requests Her to Accept this Trifling Token of His Great Esteem, Sincerely, Ray." Clearly theirs was a mutual admiration.
Freeman is the author of several novels, including "Red Water," as well as "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times