The Reading Life: Happy birthday to me — and Raymond Chandler
Watching the video clip, my heart raced. I’d seen the movie before, of course, but never realized what I was looking at: there, in the background of “Double Indemnity,” was Raymond Chandler. His appearance in the movie he’d help script had gone unnoticed for 55 years, until two separate researchers pointed him out in 2009. And there he was in a hallway as Fred MacMurray walked past, cigarette in hand, reading.
Chandler is one of Los Angeles’ greatest writers, but his death in 1959 came before he was much captured on film — this was the first time I’d ever seen him move. It was like history had opened up and I’d reached through a window of time, seen him alive instead of as a name on the spine of a book. With Chandler, I’m always looking to connect, to create a narrative line — because while it’s both inspiring and intimidating, we have something in common: our birthday, July 23.
Chandler is known for his novels, all featuring hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe saw a city full of both beauty and betrayal, and to survive he followed his own moral code: He lied to cops, took beatings from bad guys and regularly got and/or rejected the most beautiful woman in the room. Chandler wrote with the bitterness of a brokenhearted romantic: tough yet ready to fall in love again. His prose was indelible. “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window,” he wrote in 1940’s “Farewell, My Lovely,” his second novel.
Chandler’s first novel, 1939’s “The Big Sleep,” was made into the classic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart. With director Billy Wilder he co-wrote the screenplay of James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity,” another film noir classic. While Chandler’s other films are less well remembered, he was one of a handful of novelists who benefited from a Hollywood feedback loop: His books did well enough for Paramount to put him on staff for $1,250 a week, then his movies did well enough to help sell his books.
All of this sounds like a pretty decent fate for a writer. I haven’t written a book, although I’d like to. And that’s one way in which sharing a birthday with Chandler is problematic. He was visionary in his characterizations, dead-on in his take on Los Angeles and wrote brilliant prose. What would it take to be that good?
According to Hollywood legend, to finish the script for “The Blue Dahlia” on tight deadline — before star Alan Ladd shipped off to fight World War II — Chandler went on a studio-supported bender at home, boozing and dictating to secretaries around the clock. Depending on whom you ask, this was either a brilliant gambit to soak the studio or a desperate act of risky self-destruction. Because Chandler had a difficult relationship with alcohol: He’d drunk so much of it, in fact, that he’d once gotten himself fired. That was in 1932, when he was an oil company executive, before he was a writer.
Raymond Chandler, one of our most enduring modern writers, got a late start. When he published his first book, he was 50.
Chandler was born July 23, 1888, in Chicago, son of an Irish mother and an American father who soon drifted off. He grew up in the Midwest and then England, dependent on the grudging generosity of his mother’s family; after college, he briefly tried writing. He even wrote a handful of book reviews — hey, I write book reviews! — but found the prospects constraining and returned to America. During his passage he met the Lloyds, a wealthy Los Angeles couple; after stops in Nebraska and San Francisco, their friendship drew him to Los Angeles in 1913. With their help, he landed a bookkeeping job at Los Angeles Creamery that allowed him to take over the support of his mother, who joined him in L.A. But he was restless: At age 29 he decided to join the Canadian forces in World War I.
After returning to L.A., Chandler got a job at the Dabney Oil Syndicate. It was 1920, and oil was at the fresh edge of a long and massive boom, allowing him to quickly rise to the rank of executive. He was quietly dating a friend of the Lloyds, Cissy Pascal, a former dancer and model. As Judith Freeman painstakingly documents in her 2007 biography “The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,” he married Cissy in 1924, thinking she was eight years older than he; she was actually 18 years older, a fact he may never have discovered.
Chandler the-author’s-origin story begins in the cracks of his marriage, when as an oil executive his drinking went from congenial to remarked upon. There were girls, secretaries in the office. Weekends would be spent carousing, and Chandler started skipping work, sometimes not appearing at the office until Wednesday. In 1932, at the blistering midpoint of the Depression, the 44-year-old Chandler was fired.
He was an unemployed, philandering drunk with zero prospects. And without that massive failure, Raymond Chandler would never have become a writer.
If shared birthdays make us look for commonality, this is where that becomes problematic. Like Raymond Chandler, I mucked away my 20s, moved between apartments a lot, enjoy a good drink (not as much as Chandler, of course). But his fall was so drastic, so absolute. If he could look forward to generations of readers, would even Chandler have chosen it?
Of course, he was no Faust, and had no promise of anything. He had only the wreckage of his life around him, and the need to become someone new.
The legend is that he and Cissy, to whom he’d returned, were on a car trip up the coast, Chandler reading pulpy detective magazines. He decided he could, and would, write those stories. He was a little slow to make a living off the pulps, which didn’t pay well, and he got a book deal with Alfred A. Knopf; he earned a decent reputation but sold moderately. He’d published four novels before his publisher allowed a lower-class paperback printing of his first, which to everyone’s astonishment sold 300,000 copies. Chandler the successful writer was on his way. “The only salvation for a writer is to write,” he wrote in 1953’s “The Long Goodbye.”
This in one way is the eternal story of Los Angeles, the city of self-invention. But it is also strange and unique to Chandler. He was too old for this youthful city; he was too different, in his English tweeds and with his fragile wife. He was difficult: When they were working on “Double Indemnity,” he complained that Wilder adjusted the blinds in their office without first asking his permission. Chandler’s path from failed ex-oilman to great writer is one that is almost impossible to fathom, nonetheless follow.
Did Chandler’s talent as a writer come from his mistakes, from his drunkenness and betrayals? Probably not. But it’s hard to imagine Marlowe’s particular blend of hardness and empathy, his weariness and his doomed morality, coming from a younger writer. And I for one find that heartening; I have a birthday coming up, after all. So does Chandler.