Clues to Chandler
Few writers have ever been so singularly and indelibly identified with a city as Raymond Chandler is with Los Angeles. One thinks of Dickens and London, or Balzac and Paris -- other novelists who have laid claim to a place so completely that their work is not just inseparable from it, but imparts it with a lasting identity. Chandler portrayed L.A. as a dark place, beset by corruption, greed and loneliness, and his noir vision of this sunny city in many ways still sticks.
One of the reasons Chandler wrote so well about L.A. is that he knew the city from so many different angles. Born in the Midwest but raised in England, he moved to Southern California at the age of 24, in 1912, just as the newest city in the world was springing into existence. Over the ensuing years, he rented more than 36 apartments and houses in and around Los Angeles. By the time he left the city in 1946, decamping with his wife, Cissy, for the distinctly unmean streets of La Jolla, he had lived all over, from the beaches to the mountains to the desert, and in dozens of areas of the sprawling metropolis.
Why did he move so often? There are multiple answers to this question, from his fussiness (it wasn’t hard for him to find a reason to move) to the fact that he claimed to be a gypsy at heart. “I suppose it’s my Irish blood,” he once wrote, “but I can never settle down to a placid life.”
In truth, Chandler’s existence was marked by placidity in every other respect, especially in his quiet reclusion and devotion to his much older wife. Chandler was 35 when he married Cissy Pascal in 1924, two weeks after the death of his possessive mother. Cissy was 53, though she listed her age as 43 on the marriage certificate, and it wasn’t until later that he realized she was much older. Still, it was his reclusive life with Cissy that grounded him and enabled him to transform himself from an accountant for an oil company in the 1920s into the writer he became a decade later.
Chandler published his first novel, “The Big Sleep,” in 1939, the same year that two other great L.A. novels came out -- John Fante’s “Ask The Dust” and Nathanael West’s “Day of the Locust.” At the time, Chandler was 51; his wife was almost 70, and they had already established their pattern of moving once or twice a year.
What I think Chandler really meant when he said he could never settle down was that he could never stop moving his placid life around with him. A lot of writers are restless, constantly seeking new stimulation. But the remarkable thing about Chandler is what a small geographical patch he continually circled, absorbing with each new move another little part of the segmented, horizontal city that is L.A., a place that he called “lonely and beaten and full of emptiness.” During all the years he and Cissy were married and living in Los Angeles, they never left California except for day trips to Tijuana.
Loneliness was very much a part of Chandler’s life, as it was his fictional private eye Philip Marlowe’s. Marlowe exists in nearly unbelievable isolation within the nonsociety of L.A. He is a man without roots or a past; he has no family or friends and no history to encumber him. He occupies small, rented rooms where the feeling of masculine presence precludes admission to females. He is a private eye, living in an extremely private space, in an indifferent metropolis where the private space of the automobile and the little dream house cut people off from a more public life.
Marlowe’s Los Angeles is an intensely lonely city, its populace alienated and beset by an unease that found its perfect expression in noir. What Chandler chronicled, in part, was how a particular kind of loneliness was born in L.A. among the largely Midwestern population who settled this city, attracted by the sublime climate and the huckster claims of health and happiness. They left everything behind for paradise, but paradise in truth proved to be rather empty in the deepest existential sense.
So lonely were these early Angelenos that they began to form “lonely societies,” based on the state from which they came, which met in low-cost cafeterias like Clifton’s. The sense of alienation was exacerbated by the sense that one had chosen this life not because another was intolerably poor or oppressive, as in the case of earlier European emigration, but out of a wish to trade an already good life for what was perceived as a perfect one. Chandler understood how their emptiness felt all the more acute because of the languorous world in which they found themselves. “We are so rootless here,” he once complained.
Almost 70 years after his first novel was published, for many of us, it’s a feeling we can still understand. In many ways, L.A. is still the lonely place portrayed in his fiction, as segmented as ever, where staying home, in the privacy of one’s house and garden, and driving, one person to a car, is our ultimate need and pleasure.
A few years ago, I set out to track down every place where Chandler had lived in L.A. I kept the long list of his addresses taped to the wall next to my desk: Bonnie Brae Angels Flight Bunker Hill Loma Drive Vendome Catalina Stewart Leeward Longwood Gramercy Meadowbrooks Hayes Westlake West 12th and so on. I wanted to see whether I could find Chandler at his old addresses. I wanted to discover how L.A. had changed, if the city of his fiction still existed, and how he had lived here. Armed with a list of the three dozen addresses and a Thomas Bros. guide, I set out to solve a mystery -- which was in part the mystery of how the city had changed.
And changed it has. There can be few cities on Earth that turn over more rapidly than L.A. Few places where the sense of history is more fragile, or shorter, or more blatantly ignored in favor of the elusive ever-present and the anticipated future. What I discovered in tracking down Chandler’s residences is that about half of the apartments and houses where he lived have been destroyed, torn down and replaced by something else.
Gone, for instance, is the first place where Chandler lived in L.A., a large house on Bonnie Brae, between 7th and 8th streets, not far from MacArthur Park, a street once lined with great Victorian houses but now an area populated mostly by poor immigrant families. The house belonged to Warren Lloyd, whom Chandler had met on the boat that brought him to America. Chandler had intended on settling in the Midwest, but the Lloyds talked him into coming to L.A. and offered him a place to stay. I had a difficult time even finding the location. I eventually realized that on the lot where it had once stood there were now three businesses -- the Cuscatlan Latino market, Clarita’s Unisex Beauty Salon and a little storefront evangelical church, Centro Misionero Belhem y El Amor de Cristo.
Gone, too, is the place where Chandler lived next, a boarding house in an old Victorian on Bunker Hill, where he lived with his mother, who came from London to be with him. The whole residential neighborhood has been destroyed -- Bunker Hill, once an area for the city’s richest citizens, later abandoned to the poorest of the poor, who were then displaced when the area was razed in the 1960s as part of downtown redevelopment.
It was the same story for the bungalow court apartment on Loma Drive, near downtown, now also torn down, replaced by low-income housing. Perhaps not surprisingly, I discovered that many places closer to downtown were gone, while the apartments and houses in the tonier parts of the city -- Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica -- have survived.
Unlike Balzac, whose residence one can visit in Paris, or Dickens, whose house in London has been preserved, there is no commemoration of a Chandler residence in L.A, no house one can visit where the author once lived. It’s understandable. How to preserve a place when the author had no real home in L.A.?
In truth, Chandler made the whole city his dwelling place. We don’t need a marker on a house to remember him: The city itself is Chandlerland. You can drive through many neighborhoods and feel yourself moving through the landscapes of his stories. He captured this city -- the wasted light of gas stations, the dark banked canyons, neon signs glaring across rain-slicked boulevards, windows glowing on hillsides, gray mornings with high fog, shadowed mansions, the drift of wind from the sea -- he made it all his own.
“Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck,” he wrote in “The Little Sister.” “L.A. has Hollywood -- and hates it. It ought to consider itself damned lucky.” What he was saying was, the myths we make here are in reality our bones.
By the time he left L.A., he had turned against the city, which in his eyes had become paradise despoiled. “To write about a place,” he said, “you have to love it or hate it or both, like a woman.” L.A., he added, was just a “tired old whore” to him now. Ironically, it was he who had helped create the lady of the night by portraying her dual nature, and though he left her, he never found another he loved as well.
To the end, he remained lonely and rootless. Cissy died in 1954, after which Chandler began drinking heavily and attempted suicide. “I always was a man without a home,” he wrote shortly before his death in 1959, and then added wistfully, “Still am.”