“I used to like this town. A long time ago. 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,” Raymond Chandler wrote, in the voice of his detective hero, Philip Marlowe, in 1949. “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 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.”
Chandler first came to Los Angeles in 1912, a time so distant in the city’s history as to seem almost unreal. The population had only just climbed above 300,000. L.A. was still shaking from the dynamiting of The Times by the McNamara brothers, and Clarence Darrow was on trial for alleged bribery. William Mulholland’s titanic aqueduct was incomplete and no water had as yet come from the Owens River Valley. Speedy, efficient streetcars connected downtown with the recently incorporated city of Hollywood and the distant beach towns. Chandler himself belonged to a little intellectual group, the Optimists, formed by his friend Warren Lloyd and meeting weekly at Lloyd’s house on South Bonnie Brae Street. Music was played, poetry declaimed, literature and philosophy discussed.
At one of these soirees, Chandler first met Julian Pascal, a concert pianist and music professor, and Pascal’s wife, Cissy. “Sexy and experienced, witty and confident, she was everything a young man could want in an older woman,” writes Judith Freeman in “The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved.” “He was sexually repressed and shy, inexperienced with women. Little wonder he found her irresistible.”
And irresistible she was. “Cissy was a raging beauty, a strawberry blonde with skin I used to love to touch,” Chandler would say later. “I don’t know how I ever managed to get her.” It took awhile: Cissy, twice-married, a former New York model who liked to do housework in the nude, kept him at arm’s length at first.
Chandler enlisted in a Canadian regiment and went off to fight in World War I, in no small part, Freeman argues, “because he found himself in the untenable position of being in love with another man’s wife.” He came back, or was drawn back, to Los Angeles in 1919. After much argument and discussion, Julian Pascal agreed to bow out of the picture, but Cissy and Chandler didn’t marry until 1924, when Chandler’s mother -- with whom he’d been living -- died at last from an agonizing cancer. Only then, or a little later, did Chandler learn that Cissy was not eight years older than him, as he’d thought, but eighteen. He was 35, and he’d married a woman of 53.
“All this is the stuff of passion and novels,” noted Patricia Highsmith, whose first book, “Strangers on a Train,” Chandler would help adapt for the 1951 Hitchcock movie of the same name. “But little of the formidable emotional material that Chandler had at his disposal actually found its way into his writing.”
That’s not quite true. All his life, Chandler was a divided soul. He was an American, born in Chicago in 1888, yet he grew up mostly in England and received an education at snooty Dulwich College. He longed to live freely yet had a strict moral code. He was too troubled ever to be truly happy, and too inhibited and mannerly to be a freely autobiographical writer.
And yet, this worked for him, in its own way. His heightened sense of his own pleasures and dismays passed into how he caught the atmosphere and moods of L.A. His marriage to Cissy endured, and Los Angeles became a metaphor for the torture and disappointment he sometimes felt.
“The Long Embrace” is an exploration of these two relationships -- Ray and Cissy, Chandler and L.A. It is a beautiful and original book, in which Freeman becomes a double detective, telling the story of this strange yet loving marriage while also tracking down and visiting everywhere that the Chandlers lived in Southern California. That’s no small task because Chandler needed movement like he needed air to breathe. “I kept the long list of Chandler addresses taped to the wall next to my desk where I could see it every day: Bonnie Brae Angels Flight Bunker Hill Loma Drive Vendome Catalina Stewart Leeward Longwood Gramercy Meadowbrook . . .” writes Freeman. “The list read like a plainsong of wandering, the liturgy of a long search for a home.”
Freeman sits in bars and drinks gimlets, because Chandler claimed a gimlet “beat a martini hollow.” She waits outside apartment buildings in the rain and sun. She spends months visiting UCLA’s Special Collections and the Bodleian in Oxford, going through the Chandler archives. “I felt I was becoming a bit strange to myself,” she tells us. Her quest turns into an obsession, and “The Long Embrace” starts to ache with emotion and loneliness -- her loneliness and Chandler’s, the loneliness of following a trail, of a marriage, of writing itself.
Chandler is so much a part of the furniture that we tend to forget how great he is. The plots of “The Big Sleep,” “Farewell, My Lovely” and “The High Window” are swift and workably complex, but they didn’t bring much that was new to the crime story, even in their own time. He despised the lazy arrogance of wealth and power but lacked the rigor with which Dashiell Hammett viewed social and political corruption.
No, Chandler was a romantic, more like F. Scott Fitzgerald than the worldly Hammett, and through the character of Marlowe he became a haunting poet of place, this place, Los Angeles, whose split personality of light and dark mirrored Chandler’s own. He caught the glaring sun, the glittering swimming pools, the cigar-stinking lobbies of seedy hotels, the improbable mansions, the dismal apartment buildings, the sound of tires on asphalt and gravel, the sparkling air of the city after rain and how the fog smells at the beach at night.
Frank MacShane published the standard Chandler biography more than 30 years ago, and until now, no other book has made us view this great American writer afresh. “The Long Embrace” does. “To take care of Cissy. That was his driving life force,” Freeman writes. Chandler worked in the oil business for Cissy, and he turned himself into a crime writer for his wife, while feeling he never “wrote a book worthy of dedicating to her.” Through booze, he rebelled against this bondage but never really wanted to break free. Freeman speculates, plausibly, that Chandler might have longed for men. “In ‘The Big Sleep,’ ” she writes (she means “The Long Goodbye”), “there’s simply no question Marlowe had loved Terry Lennox -- he moons after him.”
Freeman traces the ups and downs of the marriage and career with utmost delicacy. We spend time with Billy Wilder and John Houseman, although “The Long Embrace” offers much more than a mere retelling. Spurred by Chandler’s restlessness, Freeman writes about L.A. with a tender precision and yearning that borders on the religious. “I headed out Sunset Boulevard, past Hollywood High School and the cheap divey hotels with the leggy hookers out front, past the Chateau Marmont, where Belushi died of an overdose and the gargantuan billboards loom over the strip, the Marlboro man and his horse like gods high in the sky,” she notes, describing a drive oceanward. “The farther you travel the more the air begins to change and become infused with a marine freshness. A mist develops. A faint fog appears, shot through with sunshine. A hazy light that says you’re almost to the beach. You smell the coast long before you see it. You sense you’re coming to the end of the land.”
That’s lovely, a haunting homage to a man whose own end was bleak. After Cissy died, Chandler burned her letters, perhaps wishing to keep her to himself forever. He was lost, and age dumped its garbage on him. He made an unsuccessful suicide attempt and embarrassed himself with younger women.
"[H]e became unmoored -- some might say unhinged,” writes Freeman, who finds herself repeating again and again variants of the sad phrase: “He began drinking again.” In “The Long Embrace,” though, magic has occurred. Freeman’s identification with her subject is so complete we feel we’re there with Chandler too. We even believe her when she enters his dying mind, saying: “I always was a man without a home. . . . Still am.” *