Novelist Born 100 Years Ago : Raymond Chandler’s L.A. Joins in Celebrating Him
Los Angeles was founded by Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s. But some believe that the idea of Los Angeles was not crystallized until 150 years later, by a Chicago-born, English-bred detective writer--Raymond Chandler.
This year, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, the literary world is paying tribute to Chandler, who so adeptly captured the fading physical splendor of his adopted home’s canyons and flatlands while slicing through its social underbelly with sword-like similes.
In bookstores, a uniform soft-cover series of Chandler’s seven novels, all featuring his sardonic but noble private eye, Philip Marlowe, is newly available. So is a hard-cover collection of 23 fresh Marlowe stories penned by leading contemporary writers.
Also on the market is a lavishly illustrated $425 limited edition of “The Big Sleep,” a photographic volume of “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles” and a colorful $5 Chandler mystery map of the city, highlighting the dozens of still-standing structures in which Marlowe stumbled upon corpses, conferred with clients or was struck with saps.
Later this week, an exhibit of Chandler’s personal correspondence will open at the UCLA University Research Library, which along with Oxford University houses one of two major collections of Chandler’s papers.
And on Sunday, the UCLA Friends of English sponsored a centennial birthday commemoration in Pacific Palisades, featuring some of the leading lights of Los Angeles literature, including Roger L. Simon, Robert Campbell, Kate Braverman, Eve Babitz and Carolyn See. More than 200 guests, many garbed in ‘30s attire, listened to actor Walter Matthau read a passage from “The Big Sleep,” and author Wanda Coleman read a poem she wrote in memory of Chandler titled “The Big Bleep.”
All of this for a shy, cranky, alcoholic former oil executive, who did not complete his first novel until he was 51 and whose 1959 funeral in La Jolla drew a mere 17 mourners.
“Raymond Chandler has lived beyond his grave much better than most authors of his time,” declared detective novelist Simon, who heads the North America chapter of the International Assn. of Crime Writers. “I think it’s pretty clear that Chandler’s descriptions have become the official descriptions of Los Angeles for the world, and his impact on writers inside and outside the crime genre has been tremendous.”
Said UCLA English Department Chairman Daniel G. Calder: “Chandler created the idea of Los Angeles--what it’s like, how it feels to be here. . . . Sort of a paradox of great comfort and ease but corruption at the same time. A spoiled paradise.”
Chandler’s writings revealed an intense love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, where he lived from 1912 to 1946, excluding a stint in the Canadian Army during World War I.
At times, he displayed a wistful, affectionate attitude through Marlowe, one of America’s first great anti-heroes.
“I used to like this town . . . a long time ago,” Marlowe reflects in “The Little Sister,” published in 1949. “There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the inter-urban line. Los Angeles was just a big, dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good-hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum, either.”
Chandler’s ever-pithy dialogue was not always so romantic.
The City of Angels, he once wrote, was in some senses “a mail-order city. Everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else.”
Hollywood fared no better. “The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure,” Chandler, who wrote five screenplays, stated in a 1945 essay. “It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.”
Chandler would never have received a commission from the local Chamber of Commerce. Yet with little question his work cast a curious sense of glory on even the most seedy aspects of urban life in Los Angeles and the human condition in general.
“He made corruption and vice extremely attractive,” contends novelist/ critic See. “He made it so glamorous--his hideous little boarding houses, those gambling boats. You never think, ‘Oh, how disgusting!’ You think, ‘Gee, I wish I could get on one of those gambling boats. I’d like to meet an ice-pick murderer.’ ”
Moreover, there were his terse, evocative descriptions--of “wide shallow house(s) with rose color walls,” of “jacaranda trees beginning to bloom,” and of “the violet light at the top of Bullock’s green-tinged tower"--which have forever seared the Los Angeles of the 1930s and ‘40s into the nation’s consciousness.
“There’s one street I call the Raymond Chandler Memorial Parkway-Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena,” notes novelist Babitz. “You get that strange feeling of Raymond Chandler. It’s just sort of like decadent East Coast gentility smashed up against the orange groves.”
Chandler was an unlikely candidate to become the bard of Los Angeles.
Born in Chicago on July, 23, 1888, he moved to London with his Irish-English mother at age 7 after his father deserted the family. Upon his graduation from college, Chandler sporadically sold poems and essays before moving here in 1912. He labored briefly on an apricot ranch and in a sporting goods shop before entering the oil business.
Chandler, who changed addresses almost as often as a criminal on the lam, eventually rose to the position of director for eight small, independent oil firms. But he was fired during the Depression, at age 44.
Another Try at Writing
At that point, he made a final stab at writing, seeking to emulate such contemporary hard-boiled mystery novelists as Dashiell Hammett and Horace McCoy. Chandler, who was married to a woman 17 years his senior, quickly sold several short stories to the pulp magazines Black Mask and Dime Detective. His first novel, “The Big Sleep,” was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1939.
Throughout Chandler’s life, the detective genre was sneered at by the literary establishment.
“You make Mr. Chandler sound like a very interesting detective story writer indeed,” New York Times chief book critic Orville Prescott wrote to a Chandler devotee in 1943. “Unfortunately, I never have time to read them, preoccupied as I am with books of more general interest.”
Such attitudes embittered Chandler, who believed, as the world eventually would, that his work was far more than simple-minded entertainment.
In a 1944 letter to the same fan, now stored in the UCLA collection, Chandler railed, “Once in a while a detective story writer is treated as a writer, but very seldom. . . . However well and expertly he writes a mystery story, it will be treated in one paragraph (reviews) while a column and a half of respectful attention will be given to any fourth-rate, ill-constructed, mock-serious account of the life of a bunch of cotton pickers in the deep south. The French are the only people I know of who think about writing as writing. The Anglo-Saxons think first of the subject matter, and second, if at all, of the quality.”
Plots Called Convoluted
Not that Chandler’s writing was above criticism. Some have complained that his range was limited or that his plots were far too convoluted.
For example, during the filming of “The Big Sleep,” which starred Humphrey Bogart, director Howard Hawks sent a telegram to Chandler asking who killed a certain character in the script. Chandler wired back, “I don’t know.”
“What that shows is that it doesn’t matter,” contends Hollywood author David Freeman. “The issue isn’t clarity of plot but depth of character, the range of emotion and the sense of place. That’s why we go back to Chandler over and over again.”
During his 20-year career, Chandler completed seven Marlowe novels, including “The Long Goodbye,” “The Lady in the Lake” and “Farewell, My Lovely.” Six have been turned into movies, with Marlowe played by Bogart, Robert Mitchum, James Garner and Elliott Gould.
With his acerbic wit, the real-life Chandler was to some degree similar to his hero, Marlowe. But in other ways, Chandler was far different from his intrepid investigator: A retiring man, at times a near recluse, the pipe-smoking, owlish Chandler exuded the air of a slightly batty English professor.
After the death of his wife, Cissy, in 1954, Chandler nearly disintegrated, turning increasingly to alcohol, and frequently contemplating suicide.
When he died on March 26, 1959, Chandler left a friend and literary agent, Helga Greene, his entire estate, which amounted to $60,000 and any future earnings from copyrights.
The rights, as it turned out, have proven extremely lucrative.
Although no public figures are available, Chandler’s novels have remained steady sellers, and four movies and a Marlowe TV series have been produced since his death.
Plans are currently in the works, says film agent Robert Bookman, for yet another Philip Marlowe film, this one based on “Poodle Springs,” a novel that Chandler failed to complete before he died.