Two true loves
* The Long Embrace Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved Judith Freeman Pantheon: 354 pp., $25.95
November 04, 2007
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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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
Note: To mark the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler’s death, the
Daily Mirror is revisiting some of The Times’ stories about his life and
influence. We invite the Daily Mirror’s readers to share their thoughts.