Judith Freeman | Pantheon Books | December 2007 | 38 minutes (9603 words)
Judith Freeman traces Raymond Chandler’s early days in Los Angeles and his introduction to Cissy Pascal, the much older, very beautiful woman who would later become his wife. This chapter is excerpted from Freeman’s 2007 book The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, which Janet Fitch described as “part biography, part detective story, part love story, and part séance.” Freeman’s next book—a memoir called The Latter Days—will be published by Pantheon in June 2016.
The first place where Raymond Chandler had lived in L.A., 613 South Bonnie Brae, was only a few blocks from my own apartment on Carondelet Street, near Alvarado and Third, and this made it seem even more appropriate as a starting point. I would start where Chandler had begun, in the old neighborhoods near downtown. I found the leather notebook in which I had made my initial notes many years earlier and put it in my bag, and then I quietly left my apartment, hoping to escape the notice of my neighbor.
Toward the end of his life, Chandler came to feel that L.A. had become a grotesque and impossible place to live. It was a “jittering city,” sometimes dull, sometimes brilliant, but always depressing to him. By then, he had lost it as a locale, both as a place to live and to set his fiction; he had also lost the affection he’d once had for the place. He disliked what the city had become. I looked at the dusty, dead shallow-planted palms that rose out of little squares of dirt cut out of the sidewalks running down Alvarado Street. This was a hard neighborhood—the area around MacArthur Park—and it only looked harder on a dreary and gray winter day. Sometimes I wondered if the prevalent grayness was smog, or fog—what the weather forecasters liked to call the marine layer—or perhaps some deadly combination of the two, a damp, particulate soup of pollution. Not that it much mattered. It was dirty. It was gray. It was L.A.—a poor neighborhood on an overcast day.
Still I was fond of the city. I thought of Los Angeles as the place where America existed in its most completely realized incarnation. (Wallace Stegner once referred to California as “America only more so.”) Perhaps this is why people despise it so. It was raw with longing and need, an unbridled exercise in exploitation and hype, a city with only the barest historical context, centerless, as people are so fond of saying, and dominated, like no other city in the world, by the cult of personality and the body—a shape-shifting city you could make into anything you wanted. L.A. was to America what America was to the rest of the world, a place viewed with an extraordinary mixture of envy and contempt.
In his later years, Chandler commented that he felt L.A. had completely changed in the years since he’d arrived. Even the weather was different. “Los Angeles was hot and dry when I first went there,” he said, “with tropical rains in the winter and sun shine at least nine-tenths of the year. Now it is humid, hot, sticky, and when the smog comes down into the bowl between the mountains which is Los Angeles, it is damned near intolerable.”
He first arrived in the city in 1913, a well-dressed and elegant young man, twenty-four years old. Though he had spent most of his youth in England, he was actually born in Chicago in 1888. He once said that if he were ever to write a nonfiction book, it would probably turn out to be the autobiography of a split personality. He was a man of opposites: a staid accountant and a purveyor of crime stories. A man of two continents, two centuries, two languages. Drank himself out of a job as an accountant. In his forties taught himself to write. He was both social and antisocial, kind and acerbic, friendly and aloof. A man who held to his English public school manners while writing about the sordid world of L.A. Above all, two contradictory tendencies struggled in him: an inclination to reject the world in favor of solitude and a deep longing to escape the often overwhelming sense of loneliness that plagued him for much of his life.
His father was American, his mother Irish, both from Quaker backgrounds. He was conceived in Laramie, Wyoming, then a raw frontier town. His father worked as an engineer for the railroad; he was an alcoholic and a womanizer who abandoned the family when Chandler was only seven. At the time, Chandler and his mother were living in a residence hotel in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. He never saw his father again.
His mother returned to Ireland and cast herself on the mercy of her dour and disapproving relatives, moving in with Chandler’s grandmother and aunts. Later they moved to London, where his uncle Ernest owned property, and he gave Chandler and his mother a flat to live in, though they often had to change residences to accommodate other renters. Uncle Ernest agreed to pay for his education at a very good private school, Dulwich College, where Chandler excelled in the classics. It was from all accounts a lonely childhood. His mother never remarried. And Chandler always seemed to understand that once he left school he would be forever responsible for her.
After his graduation from Dulwich, in 1906, he spent a year abroad, studying languages in France and Germany. His uncle pushed him to become a civil servant, and upon his return from the continent he found work as an accountant with the admiralty, a job he hated and quit after a few months. He tried his hand at writing, producing some unremarkable poems and essays, and then, in 1912, he decided to leave England and come to America. Why? As Chandler himself put it, “America seemed to call to me in some mysterious way.”
On the boat that brought him to America, he met the Warren Lloyd family from Los Angeles, who were returning from a year abroad. The Lloyds were wealthy and cultivated, just the sort of people Chandler liked. Warren Lloyd was a graduate of Yale, his wife, Alma, a singer and sculptor. They were traveling with their two children, Estelle and Edward. Warren was trained as a lawyer, but he also had an interest in the occult and the new field of psychology: he was a devotee of Madame Blavatsky and had recently published a book called Psychology Normal and Abnormal. The Lloyds encouraged Chandler to come to Los Angeles, where they promised to help him find work and introduce him to society. Had he not met the Lloyds, it is unlikely Chandler would ever have ended up in L.A., but as it was, after months of working his way across the country, he arrived in the city and took the Lloyds up on their offer of help.
L.A. was a brand-new metropolis when Chandler arrived, attracting people from all over the country but particularly from the Midwest with claims of a climate so healthful it could cure any ailment. It was the first city in America to be packaged and sold like a commodity, marketed to the people of the United States just like automobiles or cigarettes or toothpaste through the cleverest of advertising campaigns. Referred to as a tropical paradise for Americans, it was said to be a place so sublime it was billed as “the American Italy” or “Italy closer to home.” An Italy, in other words, without a troublesome foreign language. No strange money, either, or unfamiliar food, but rather an incredibly alluring new metropolis, a place where the rank growth of fruit and flowers and the strange golden light and gentle climate (“Sleep under a blanket all summer! Wear only a sweater in the winter!”) created a sense of paradise on earth.
Into this paradise came Raymond Chandler. Los Angeles really was a kind of Eden when he arrived, just waiting for the one item to make its allure total and complete and usher in what J. B. Priestley once described as our “brand-new busy world.” When Henry Ford began mass-producing that item, and when the railroads finally connected L.A. with the rest of the country, there was no stopping the influx of people who swarmed to Southern California to take advantage of its perfect climate and myth of easy living.
I drove down Alvarado, heading south past MacArthur Park with its two halves divided by Wilshire Boulevard. I was thinking about how few parks were ever made in Los Angeles, how the city fathers hadn’t felt that kind of common public space was necessary, certainly not after the automobile arrived. The automobile made parks (what one urban planner had called the lungs of a city) obsolete—made walking and common public space quite unnecessary. With a car, the whole glorious space of Southern California, with its ocean and beaches and deserts and mountains, became one vast personalized recreational area. But MacArthur Park—then called Westlake Park—was established before the automobile took complete hold of L.A., when the electric trams provided excellent public transportation for the city’s citizens and the borders of the metropolis had not yet been extended to include single streets that were sixty miles long.
I was trying to imagine how this park must have looked to Chandler when he moved into this neighborhood compared to how it looked now. In recent years it had become a sadly degenerate public space, a tattered and shabby expanse of bare dirt and worn grass and neglected trees, with a boarded-up little boathouse overlooking a small polluted lake, where out-of-work men and newly arrived immigrants slept rough beneath the rattling palms. Not long ago I had walked through the park and stopped to read a sign posted near a tunnel running beneath Wilshire Boulevard:
Welcome to MacArthur Park
There is a “No Tolerance” policy in MacArthur Park and the Alvarado Corridor. If you choose to conduct criminal activity, you will be caught and prosecuted. The following is outlawed: illegal possession of hypodermic needles, possession of shopping carts, open containers, possession of controlled substances, including cocaine base, marijuana, methamphetamines, or narcotics paraphernalia; no loitering for narcotics, no graffiti, littering, prostitution, or uncertified highway carriers of persons; no throwing substances at vehicles, no sitting, lying or sleeping on public sidewalks, no panhandling, gambling or dicing or being present at gambling, no violating curfew, no indecent exposure in park, removing recyclable material; no swimming in lake, no diving, camping, or lodging; dogs must be on leash, no bicycles, no skating, no skate-boards, no open fires, no littering, no amplified sound.
The sign gave you a sense of the place. What would prompt authorities to outlaw the possession of shopping carts? What were uncertified highway carriers of persons?
The truth was you could buy anything around here, and pretty much do anything you wanted, because the police had more or less given up on MacArthur Park. The park was often the first stop on the immigrant path to assimilation. Only poor people lived in this neighborhood now, and who cared about them?
The fetid little lake in the southern portion of the park gave off a rank smell, and the fountain in the middle ejected a limp plume of spray that drifted away as it descended. I remembered how once, years ago, when the lake had been drained for cleaning, I took a walk around its perimeter and observed the years of junk that had built up on the bottom—grocery carts and baby strollers, clothing, shoes and bottles and cans, layers and layers of trash, amid which I half expected to see a body or two. It had become a violent place, this park. At one point the Rampart Police Division had established a permanent substation in the old boathouse to deal with the crime, but, overwhelmed and facing budget cuts, the police simply disappeared after a while, and the park went back to being the province of pushers and thugs. The homeless once again arranged themselves in bedraggled lumps on broken benches, and anxious-looking young men stood at the curbs surrounding the park, flipping elaborate hand signals at passing motorists, advertising the availability of everything from crack to crank, weed and prostitutes, fake IDs—whatever you needed or wanted. I used to walk my dog in the park when I first moved to the neighborhood twenty years earlier, but I rarely walked there anymore. It wasn’t so much that it didn’t feel safe, at least in the daylight hours. It just felt depressed and neglected. And filthy. I found it hard to enjoy a dirty park where everywhere you looked you saw a decaying world.
When Chandler moved to this area, MacArthur Park was the western edge of the city where major development more or less stopped: Hollywood was nothing more than a cluster of little houses and Beverly Hills a country village—but Westlake Park, as MacArthur Park was then known, was a thriving upper middle-class urban neighborhood populated by wealthy families who had built nice big houses with money made in real estate, oil, and the movie business. The leading men of the city lived here—men like Warren Lloyd. MacArthur Park was new and green and graceful, a place to stroll on Sundays and show off your kids and your well-dressed wife. You could rent a canoe and paddle around the lake and get an ice cream cone from the refreshment stand. The boat-house was a grand affair; the trees were lush and beautiful, and there were graceful walking paths and cactus gardens. The park had not yet been desecrated by city planners who decided to route a major thoroughfare—Wilshire Boulevard—right through the middle of the park and cut it in two. L.A. had just become the first city in America to be illuminated by electric lights, and the interurban system of all-electric trams—the “Red Cars”—provided excellent public transportation. The First Los Angeles Aqueduct had been completed in 1913, the year Chandler arrived, and the water from distant rivers and lakes had been successfully diverted—stolen, really, under the most devious circumstances— for the new metropolis, presented to its citizens at the opening ceremony by the waterway’s chief architect, William Mulholland, a man of few words, who pointed to the gushing water and said, “ There it is . . . take it.”
There it is, take it. A mantra. A capitalist credo for the sensibility that had created this city.
There it is. Take it.
It was now possible to get a Coke and a haircut, and pray, all on the same spot where Chandler had started out in L.A.
Now the red cars were gone and that “brand-new busy world” ushered in by the automobile was in full flower. Now the city’s public transportation—a system of lumbering and polluting buses—was used mostly by the elderly, the workers, and the poor. In L.A., that’s how you knew you were really poor, if you couldn’t even afford a car. MacArthur Park had become one great outdoor homeless and immigrant encampment, a sad and shabby place. The big houses in the neighborhood had all been torn down, or boarded up, or divided into dilapidated apartments owned by indifferent landlords. It was all different now. As Chandler noted, even the weather seemed to have changed.
I wondered what I’d find at 613 South Bonnie Brae, whether the large house the Lloyds had once occupied (and where Chandler lived when he first arrived) would still be standing. As I turned onto the street, I noted the atmosphere of poverty and decay—the yellowed lawns in front of little houses with peeling paint, the apartments with bars on the windows, the buckled sidewalks and trash blown up against fences and trees. I had a hard time even locating the address: there didn’t seem to be any 613 South Bonnie Brae, and then I realized that on the lot where the Lloyds’ house had once stood there were now three little businesses—Cuscatlan Latino market, Clarita’s Unisex Beauty Salon, and a little storefront evangelical church, Centro Misionero Belhem y El Amor de Cristo, a white wooden building with a red bleeding heart painted above the door. It was now possible to get a Coke and a haircut, and pray, all on the same spot where Chandler had started out in L.A.
I pulled up to the curb and parked across from the market and watched the owner come out and stand on the sidewalk and light a cigarette. He looked up and down the street and then his eyes fixed on me as he continued to smoke, very slowly and deliberately. Some boys were kicking a soccer ball around in the street. It was hard to imagine what this street had looked like in 1912. Everything seemed to have changed. Yet down the way I could see one large house, a lone three-story Victorian with turrets covered in scallops and ornate woodwork, and a deep wraparound porch with carved pillars. Once this street had been lined with grand houses, similar to the house I could still see—a house that must once have been very beautiful but now looked like a decaying relic, ruined grandeur. Had the Lloyds’ house looked anything like that?
For a while after he arrived in L.A., Chandler lived with Warren and Alma Lloyd and their two children. Fourteen-year-old Estelle had a crush on Chandler. Later there would even be talk of Estelle perhaps marrying him, when he’d returned from World War I and Estelle had become a young lady. For now she was simply part of a vibrant household, presided over by artistic parents who attracted like-minded people to their weekly Friday night musical and literary soirees, a bohemian set that Warren Lloyd had dubbed The Optimists, of which Chandler soon became a part.
The Optimists. I could not imagine a more inappropriate label for Chandler. It seemed equivalent to calling Philip Marlowe sunny. But maybe the term wasn’t so inappropriate for the young Chandler, the pre-Marlowe Chandler, the handsome, elegant, and well-dressed young man with the public school accent and polished manners who fit so easily into life on Bonnie Brae and the Lloyds’ Friday night parties.
It was at one of these soirees that Chandler met Cissy and Julian Pascal. Julian Pascal was a pianist and composer, born in the West Indies as Goodridge Bowen. He had taught music in London and then moved to New York, where he met Cissy Hurlburt, whom he had married in 1907. Like so many people, Julian Pascal had been drawn to L.A. for its climate—his health was poor and he was hoping for a cure—and also by the burgeoning music life in the city. When the Pascals first moved to L.A., Cissy seems to have had theatrical aspirations, which she soon gave up for the role of housewife: she also played the piano—not as well as her husband but well enough to have for a while considered a career as a pianist. Both Julian and Cissy entertained at the Lloyds’ musical evenings. The men often played chess early in the evening. There were poetry recitations, and sometimes they read aloud the poetry that Warren and Alma and Chandler had collaborated on. Often Warren presided over sessions at the Ouija board where, with guests gathered around him, he would consult the spirits.
The man who owned the Cuscatlan market finished his cigarette and went back inside. For a while there was nothing but the sound of the wind in the palms and the kids playing in the street.
I took out my notebook and looked at some notes I had made under the heading of “Chandler, Personality. Excerpts from letters.”
My wife tells me I have a beautiful character. Have you a little liar in your home? I am one of those people who have to be known exactly the right amount to be liked. I am standoffish with strangers, a form of shyness which whiskey cured when I was still able to take it in the requisite quantities. I am terribly blunt, having been raised in that English tradition which permits a gentleman to be almost infinitely rude if he keeps his voice down.
I’m strictly the background type, and my character is an unbecoming mixture of outer diffidence and inward arrogance.
At times I am extremely caustic and pugnacious; at other times very sentimental. I am not a good mixer because I am very easily bored, and to me the average never seems good enough, in people or anything else . . . I am not only literate but intellectual, much as I dislike the term.
I was looking for the voice of the young Chandler . . . but I didn’t find it there in those passages. The letters in which I might have discovered that voice had all been destroyed—if they ever existed at all. This was the older Chandler, the world-weary, introspective, nothing-to-lose-by-being-honest Chandler. And yet it was just this bluntness, this honesty and ability to look at things squarely that was part of what had drawn me to him in the first place. Chandler, who existed largely apart from the world, had not cultivated the desire to be liked and instead found it better to be frank.
Honesty had become a critical part of Marlowe’s character as well: “Are you honest?” a woman asks him at one point. “Painfully,” he answers. “I heard you leveled with customers,” says another client. “ That’s why I stay poor,” Marlowe replies.
It may also have been why Chandler stayed rather friendless for much of his life. I wondered if his bluntness had been there from the beginning. I suspected it had. Yet in the early photographs of him, taken when he was in his twenties, he’s usually smiling and his boyish good looks lend him an air of appealing lightness. In a photograph taken in southern Germany in 1907, during the year of his grand tour, five years before he arrived in L.A., his gaze is direct and almost disarmingly natural. He looks not at the camera but at some distant point to the left: he sits in a chair and holds an open book in his hands, and his mouth is drawn into the most subtle and winning little smile, like a little masculine replica of the Mona Lisa.
A few people dressed in white and all clutching bibles approached the church across the way, and one older woman took a key out of her purse and unlocked the door. They all went inside, leaving the door open. I could see into the stark, bleak-looking little room where metal folding chairs were lined up on either side of an aisle. Churches like this one had sprung up all over L.A. in recent years, especially in the poorer neighborhoods. I was always noticing them now, so many little churches occupying small storefronts where previously there had been a donut shop or a café or a vacuum store—some failed business of one sort or another that had been replaced by the business of God. Everywhere I looked I saw these little churches, on every street. There was the Abundant Mission Church and Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo Rey and Light Mission Center and Praise Christian Fellowship and Foursquare Gospel Church and the World People Church, Our Lady of Loretto and the Salon Del Reino de Los Testigos de Jehova and many, many more—I had made a list of dozens of such places in my neighborhood alone—which catered to different races, from Filipino to Korean, and many Latino groups. For a newly arrived family from El Salvador or Guatemala or Mexico these little churches were like a life raft in a stormy sea of change, places where you could worship with your own kind, in a language you understood, and with the bible in his hand maybe the husband wouldn’t succumb to drink, and the kids could avoid drugs, and the wife could feel hope, and nobody would have to feel alone. That’s how I sometimes thought of it, anyway, when I thought of it at all.
As I sat looking into the interior of Centro Misionero Belham y El Amor de Cristo, it occurred to me that Chandler had understood this city in a way no other writer had, how it was a place of extremes and addictions, cults and corruption, hedonism and a strangely virulent puritanism. “I was the first to write about Southern California in a realistic way,” he once said. “Now half the writers in the country piddle about in the smog. To write about a place you have to love it or hate it or do both by turns, which is usually the way you love a woman. But a sense of vacuity and boredom—that’s fatal.” Los Angeles, he said, was just a tired old whore to him now.
But it must have been beautiful when he first arrived. It must have seduced him, as it would so many others.
Reina de la Ciudad de Los Angeles: Queen of the City of the Angels, a tired old whore. In the sun-drenched streets of the New American Paradise, Marlowe found his own heart of darkness.
The church across the way seemed emblematic to me of something that had always been a part of L.A., something Ray must have seen firsthand from the moment he arrived, and that is what a fertile ground L.A. was for the many forms of religious fervor that took root here—what Edmund Wilson, in a 1930s essay on L.A., called “all the little god boxes.” When Ray arrived in 1913, L.A. was overrun with militant moralists and reform-minded preachers and health-nut gurus, body-worshippers, yogis, cultists of all stripes, but it was also exquisitely corrupt, with gambling and prostitution and graft and greed rampant everywhere, a city where every kind of chiseling flourished. By the time Aimee Semple McPherson established her Angelus Temple in 1919 and began drawing worshippers by the thousands to watch her preach, dressed in her flamboyant costumes (Mayan princess, Greek goddess, vestal virgin), the reformers and preachers and moralists could hardly keep pace with the con artists. It had always been a two-tiered city, Los Angeles, pretty on the outside, rotten underneath, a place where the cops and politicians were as crooked as the crooks, and nobody would come to understand this better than Raymond Chandler.
But it must have been beautiful when he first arrived. It must have seduced him, as it would so many others.
Not long after Ray arrived, Warren Lloyd found him a job working for the Los Angeles Creamery as an accountant. The offices were on South Olive Street in downtown L.A. Chandler sent for his mother, Florence, who came from London to live with him. That must have been the plan: He would go to America and get settled and then she would come to live with him and they would get an apartment and set up house together, just the two of them, as they had done so often in the past. It did not mean an end to his friendship with the Lloyds or his attendance at the Friday night soirees with The Optimists. Florence fit easily into this circle, made up, as it was, of people of varying ages, and soon she was taking part in the musical evenings and poetry readings and the sessions at the Ouija board, with Warren and Alma and Estelle and Edward, and Cissy and Julian, to whom she took a special liking because not only was Julian close to her own age but he had once lived in London.
Sometimes Ray and Warren would go to the movies together. The big picture palaces were just opening then—like the ornate Million Dollar Theatre on North Broadway and the Rialto and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. They liked melodramas, in part because Warren often liked to conduct a little experiment with the audience, as part of his fascination with human psychology. He and Ray would sit on opposite sides of the theater and, at a certain point in the movie, always during a particularly serious or sad moment, one of them would begin laughing and then, from the other side of the theater, the other would join in. The object was to see how many people in the audience they could get to laugh with them at an inappropriate moment. Often they were successful. The point must have been to prove how sheeplike people can be. How they could be led into ignoring their own sensibilities in favor of some kind of groupthink. Just the opposite of how a man like Philip Marlowe would behave. The loner, suspicious of humanity and its motives. Always holding himself apart, outside the mainstream, marching to his own tune.
I sat in my car at the curb a little longer. Whatever sort of life Ray had led here briefly on Bonnie Brae was long gone, effectively erased by time. The people were dead, the houses destroyed, even the language of the neighborhood had changed. Gone, too, Ouija boards, Madame Blavatsky, and evenings where people entertained one another with songs and poems. Still I could imagine what it had been like at the Lloyds’. The alcohol-infused evenings, the sense of cultured, intelligent guests, a feeling of bonhomie, a young and attractive crowd. A little chess. Music, with Julian at the piano, Alma singing. Dancing later in the evening. Cissy— beautiful and high-spirited, reputed to be very witty and amusing, and theatrical in both manner and dress—effortlessly holding everyone’s attention. She had style. She had class. She spoke in a kind of upper-class faux-English accent, perhaps picked up from her husband. She was newly arrived from New York, enigmatic about her past but leaving no doubt that it was colorful. Her charm was natural, her appeal immediate. She won people over easily, without visible effort. Years later Ray would tell a story about her, how once, when they were in a car and she was driving, she was stopped by a policeman and in the middle of speaking with him, she accidentally ran over the policeman’s foot, and then frustrated, she put the car in reverse and ran over his foot again, and yet the policeman was so utterly charmed by her that all he did was smile and let her off without a ticket.
How appealing she must have been to Chandler, right from the beginning. A woman with a resourcefulness and intelligence to match his. And a cynical attitude toward convention. None of the vulnerability and sadness of his mother—the fragility of an abandoned woman. In her life, it was Cissy who’d done the abandoning, not the other way around. By the time she met Chandler, she was on her second husband.
Later he wrote of her,
When she was younger, she used to have sudden and very short-lived tempers, in which she would throw pillows at me. I just laughed. I liked her spirit. She was a terrific fighter. If an awkward or unpleasant scene faced her, and at times we all face that, she would march right in, and never hesitate a moment to think it over. And she always won, not because she deliberately put on the charm at the tactical moment, but because she was irresistible without even knowing or caring about it.
Sexy and experienced, witty and confident, she was everything a young man could want in an older woman. He was sexually repressed and shy, inexperienced with women. Little wonder he found her irresistible.
Cissy was born in Perry, Ohio, in 1870, as Pearl Eugenia Hurlburt, but she left Ohio at around the age of twenty and moved to New York City. She settled in Harlem sometime in the early 1890s and immediately changed her name to Cecilia, shortened to Cissy. She set about reinventing herself, giving herself a new name, dumping the provincial Pearl for the more modern and snappy-sounding Cissy. In Harlem, she rented an apartment on Lenox Avenue, and she began studying piano. To make money she also became an artist’s model—part of a bohemian high-life set that used opium. Soon she was posing nude for artists and photographers (Ray later owned some of these nude photographs of her— what ever happened to them? I wondered). She was even said to have been the model for a large nude painting of a beautiful blonde that hung for many years in the bar of either the St. Regis Hotel or the Plaza in New York City.
Living in turn-of-the-century Harlem, she was far away from the parents back home in Ohio. She had a sister, Lavinia, who would later come to live in L.A. and with whom she seems to have been close. But in New York she was rather blissfully free of family and her midwestern past (Ohio, as someone once said, was a place made for leaving). During her time in Harlem she had married a salesman with the rather fleabitten name of Leon Brown Porcher. What did he sell—life insurance? kitchenwares? ladies’ undergarments? Seven years later she divorced Porcher and married Julian Pascal, alias Goodridge Bowen, classical pianist and composer, formerly of the West Indies and London, a move that would seem to have increased her social standing, and then later she would leave the older neurasthenic Julian for the much younger Raymond Chandler, and what this told me was she was a woman who seemed to have no difficulty making up her mind about what she wanted in life and going for it, no matter the amount of change involved. If it caused some temporary difficulties—she would still march right in, as Ray had put it, to get what she wanted, and she always won, because she was irresistible. Her appeal for Chandler, their attraction to one another, didn’t happen overnight. It built over a period of five or six years, and it had begun here, on Bonnie Brae, when they both belonged to The Optimists, and she was still married to Julian, and Ray lived with his mother.
Once his mother had arrived from England, Ray rented an apartment for the two of them near Angel’s Flight, in the Bunker Hill area of downtown L.A. I didn’t have an exact address—I just knew they had lived somewhere near the top of the little funicular that used to serve the area and take people up and down the steep hill. It was an area Chandler had described in one of his early stories, “The King in Yellow,” and which he used again, in much greater detail, in The High Window:
Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.
In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.
Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.
It’s an acute portrait of a neighborhood, of downtown L.A. during a certain period of decay, which has lasted now for many years, and when it was written, in the 1930s, it was an accurate description. It reflects one of the things Chandler did for the mystery novel, which was to imbue it with extraordinary detail and create an atmosphere so thick and rich that the landscape really comes alive—and it includes also his trademark of style, the brilliant similes, so evident here in this passage: Old men with faces like lost battles. Women who should be young but have faces like stale beer. People who look like nothing in particular and know it.
When I arrived at Bunker Hill, I noticed the funicular was still there, though it was the only feature of the landscape that seemed not to have changed, and even it was rusted and no longer in use following an accident a few years earlier that resulted in the death of a tourist.
Tourist. I had read somewhere that the word was invented in L.A. to describe the throngs of Middle Americans who flocked to Southern California in the winter months for the domestic equivalent of the European Grand Tour, some of whom wrote laudatory accounts of their sojourns, such as the one published in Nebraska in 1912 called Uncle Jim and Aunt Jemimy in Southern California. Chandler had also lived in Nebraska and thus could be thought of as having certain midwestern roots himself, though certainly not as deep as the Uncle Jims and Aunt Jemimys, the so-called hog-and-hominy crowd who flocked here by the tens of thousands.
The Midwest would turn up in more than one of his stories and novels, however, as if he knew that the exotic taproot of Southern California extended a thousand miles or more to the plainer heartland of America, like a gardenia growing out of a spud.
When I moved to L.A. in the late 1970s, my first impression of the place was that it was one big garden, flowered and perfumed, full of luscious blooms—trees studded with huge creamy magnolia blossoms and pink and yellow frangipani, jacaranda trees with their clouds of exquisite flowers lining entire streets and creating extraordinary canopies of lavender. Everywhere there were bushes loaded with yellow and red hibiscus, and camellias and gardenias, and the almost sickening odor of night-blooming jasmine hung on the air—everywhere this almost funereal smell and garish beauty. It all seemed so untamed to me, as if these plants didn’t actually belong to anyone but were part of some natural and rampant floral disorder, a special endowment, like a native birthright instead of being transplants from the Old World and the South Seas. Having moved to L.A. from the rather monochromatic world of the Great Basin, I couldn’t quite fathom such a lurid landscape or understand why anyone would actually go out and buy flowers at a florist shop when there were so many everywhere for the picking. But I quickly realized that once you picked these exotic flowers, they almost immediately began to lose their beauty: they drooped and wilted, they shriveled, darkened, and soon died—the camellias and magnolias that turned an ugly rusty color, lantana that dropped yellow dust and smelled like cat piss, frangipani that simply withered, flowers that seemed to perish more rapidly than other cut blossoms. I learned you couldn’t take this beauty inside: it was if it was meant to be admired from afar— say from the window of a passing car.
The other thing I realized about L.A. was how everyone created their own little private paradise within this greater garden, a refuge that, if you were lucky, you didn’t have to leave too often. I remember meeting a well-known screenwriter at a party a few months after I settled in and how, when someone asked how she was doing, she answered she’d had a terrific week because she hadn’t had to leave her house for five straight days.
The flowers didn’t want to come inside, the people didn’t want to go out. L.A. had its own measures. Rhythms. Quirks. Every thing was always moving . . . or else it became very, very still.
When Ray and his mother lived on Bunker Hill, the big houses he described in The High Window had already been broken up into apartments. Perhaps they had a haggard landlady like the one he described, and Ray went off to work each morning, to his job at the Los Angeles Creamery on South Olive Street and balanced the ice cream accounts for which he was responsible, while Florence walked down the hill to Central Market, the great collection of food stalls that is still there between Broadway and Hill, and did the marketing and then went home and cooked dinner and they ate together, just mother and son, as they had done Ray’s whole life. She was not an old woman then, Florence. She couldn’t have been more than fifty—just a few years older than Cissy—a woman who might still have made a match for herself, freeing her son to move on and lead his own life. But she never did that. She never remarried. Later Chandler said he wished that she had. His mother was a beautiful woman, he said, and she might have married: there had been a few suitors, but he felt she had been too concerned for him. After his father’s disappearance she never wanted to take a chance on another man, a stepfather who might end up disappointing him again.
There’s a picture of Florence from this time. In this photo there is about her an air of melancholy, or disappointment, a rather nakedly sad look most evident in her eyes and the set of her mouth. She’s not unattractive, but neither is she beautiful. It’s interesting to compare this picture with one of Cissy, showing her at a very young age. Cissy is exquisitely lovely. Her face is shown in three-quarter profile and she wears a white dress, pulled off her shoulders and revealing a graceful neck and the sort of skin, as Chandler once wrote, that an old rake dreams of. Her features are classically perfect—a beautiful mouth, fine nose, large soft eyes with shapely brows. Her hair is a mass of soft curls, a style she would maintain throughout her life. She’s movie-star beautiful and yet the pose is anything but glamorous. She looks incredibly soft and gentle, very natural and lovely.
The two women were in fact of opposite temperament—one a victim who never overcame her husband’s abandonment, the other a survivor who never minded abandoning a situation if her own welfare demanded it. And yet in later photographs showing both women at about the same age, what is striking is how much they resemble each other in a certain way.
There was no place for me to park near Bunker Hill, and nothing of the neighborhood where Chandler had lived left to see. I realized at that moment, and not for the last time, what a city of architectural disposability L.A. really was, how quickly one thing was turned into another, buildings torn down, replaced by something else. The rather short history of the city was constantly being erased, like a throwaway metropolis, ensconced in happy amnesia. The house on Bonnie Brae was gone. Ditto the dilapidated old mansions on Bunker Hill. As I turned onto Third Street and headed west I wondered what I’d find at 311 S. Loma Drive, the place where Ray and his mother had moved next.
This was no longer an attractive area of the city, these neighborhoods close to downtown. Though once an area of beautiful houses, the hard-core urban center had been increasingly neglected over many decades, shunned by those with money in favor of the ever-expanding suburbs and beach communities. And yet one could still find pockets of beauty and gracefulness. I knew that on the corner of Loma Drive and Third Street, very near the address I had for Chandler and his mother, there stood a magnificent old YWCA building, the Mary Andrews Clark Memorial Home, which had a stately feeling and pretty shaded gardens, a place that in recent years had been turned into low-income housing. Once, when I was looking for inexpensive office space, I’d investigated the possibility of renting a room there only to discover it was run like a lockdown facility where everyone had to sign in at a security desk, and the bathrooms were shared with other residents, many of whom were recovering addicts or on parole. I decided to pass on the place.
Ray had rented a bungalow court apartment a half a block from the Mary Andrews Clark Memorial Home; the home, built in 1912, would have been just a few years old when he and his mother moved to the neighborhood and was filled with young ladies who’d come to the city for adventure or to seek their fortune. The Chandlers’ apartment would also have been within easy walking distance of the trolley lines that served downtown.
I wasn’t surprised, somehow, to find that the bungalow court apartments at 311 S. Loma had also been destroyed. A huge new low-income housing project, called Casa Loma, occupied the whole block. I parked the car anyway and got out and walked down the street. Casa Loma was covered with scaffolding, and workmen were repairing cracks in the stucco. Even though the place didn’t look more than a few years old, it appeared very cheaply made, as if it were already falling apart. I noticed an old bungalow court complex across the street—the Loma Garden Apartments—now cordoned off with chain-link fencing, and I wandered over and looked into the courtyard. This was the sort of bungalow court complex where Ray and his mother would have lived, of the same vintage as the one that had been torn down across the way. The bungalow court was a style of apartment housing unique to Southern California: separate little units, often of vaguely Spanish design. There were, however, also Tudor bungalow courts, and mini–French château bungalow courts, and thatched-roofed English cottage bungalows, and Seven Dwarfs bungalows—the idea easily accommodating various styles because this, after all, was L.A., where no architecture was considered inappropriate or outlandish, and set designers who worked in the film business began influencing the architecture of the city, realizing their fantasies on a domestic scale. Bungalow court units were joined by common walkways and little garden areas, which allowed a sense of living not so much in apartments as in separate little houses. The idea was that in L.A. everyone should enjoy the outdoors, have a bit of garden, a little private paradise. But again the neighborhood was so changed that I could not feel, standing there in the late afternoon light with a homeless man diving through a dumpster nearby, anything of Chandler or the life he and his mother might have led here. It had become a run-down neighborhood, infused by a feeling of decay and an air of dispirited poverty.
I got in my car and drove back to Third Street and turned left, heading west into the fading sun. I felt like making one more stop before going home. I was curious to see the place where Julian and Cissy Pascal had lived. If it was still there. The Pascals had lived close enough that Ray and his mother could easily have visited them by taking a short trolley ride. Maybe they even owned a car by then. It’s not known when Ray got his first automobile, but what is known is he developed a lifelong love of cars.
Warren Lloyd had a big convertible, and often he organized driving trips with various members of The Optimists. They’d take dirt roads through the unpopulated regions that lay between downtown and Beverly Hills, sometimes heading over Cahuenga Pass to the San Fernando Valley, which was then still farmland dotted with citrus groves. Sometimes they’d make a day of it and take a picnic—Warren and Alma, Ray and his mother, and Cissy and Julian—or they’d stop at the roadside inn at the base of Cahuenga and order a meal. Clearly Ray took to this aspect of life in Southern California—the world of cars and driving and motion, the possibility of moving oneself (caught in the very word automobile) from one place to another with unprecedented ease, under one’s own control and powers, unlike the earlier conveyances, the horse-drawn carriages or even trains whose frequency and destination were beyond one’s control. It’s hard for us now to imagine the freshness of this idea for that first generation of drivers, the excitement the automobile must have engendered, and also the sense of freedom and pleasure it imparted to its owner, especially in a climate like Southern California’s where in an open car, motoring beside the sea or through the hills and sur rounding desert, you could so easily feel yourself an intimate part of the sunny and balmy world that encircled you.
But Chandler must also have sensed how there was an elusive quality here, something about the climate that cheated the senses by the very evenness of it all—the weather, the lack of pronounced seasons, the people who all walked alike and worked as if in a dream with no awareness of the passage of day, that peculiar lack of time and season, days and nights so alike in warmth and bright ness and beauty. One day Chandler would subvert all that brightness, making it dark, and turn L.A. into a city of rain-slicked avenues and dark banked canyons, where a powerful undertow of corruption ate away at everything, a kind of airless underworld composed of, in his own phrase, mean streets. The lovely drives in the sunny convertible with Warren and The Optimists would, in time, become excursions to run-down roadhouses or shacks on half-made roads at the city’s edge where drugged and helpless women awaited rescue by Philip Marlowe, and by then even the ocean would have turned ugly, like a fat washerwoman trudging home. But when the city was still new to him, it was immensely alluring, a city of imagination that could be reinvented with each dawning day.
At what point during those first five years that they knew each other, before Ray went off to war, when Cissy was still married to Julian and Ray was still living with his mother, had they realized they were in love and there was no turning back? Cissy made the decision to leave Julian for Ray during the time she lived in the house on Vendome, sometime early in 1919. It was a decision that upset Florence Chandler very much. She did not want Cissy to leave Julian Pascal, and even more, she did not want her to marry her son.
The Pascal house at 127 S. Vendome was still there, a small stucco place painted a rather festive shade of yellow. It was an ordinary-looking house of very modest proportions. Somehow I expected something grander. Almost all the houses on the street were small one-story cottages and bungalow-style dwellings with little lawns or gardens and cluttered yards, the kind of houses that were built by the hundreds of thousands in this city. The street was lined with skinny palms that seemed outrageously tall compared to the squat little houses and afforded no shade at all, just fantasy and drama. There was a sign for some kind of income tax business affixed to the house next to where the Pascals had lived. Vendome looked like any one of a hundred streets in L.A., any one of a thousand. It looked like a kind of nothing neighborhood that you would never notice or think about unless you happened to live there yourself.
In 1917, with war still raging, Ray had made the decision to enlist in the Canadian army, and along with Gordon Pascal, Julian’s son (and Cissy’s stepson), he joined the Gordon Highlanders and was sent to France to fight. Florence, who by then had become very close to the Pascals, moved into this house on Vendome with Julian and Cissy. With their sons heading off to Europe to fight, it must have seemed natural for them to wait out the war years together. Never mind that one of the sons was no doubt already in love with his pal’s stepmother.
I couldn’t help wondering if one of the reasons Ray enlisted and went off to Europe to fight was because he found himself in the untenable position of being in love with another man’s wife—and not just any man, but a man who had befriended him and whom his mother was very fond of.
Ray and Cissy wrote to each other while he was away, initially perhaps under the guise of exchanging news about Cissy’s step-son, Gordon, but over time the letters became more intimate. They could confide feelings to each other in print that they had perhaps been too reticent to express in person, and it was through the exchange of letters that the relationship began to deepen. Chandler saw action in France, as the leader of a platoon that was wiped out by German artillery—he was injured and sent to England to recover and then be discharged. He would never write about his war experiences, nor did he speak about that time except to say that “Once you’ve had to lead a platoon into direct machine-gun fire, nothing is ever the same again.” As a result of his correspondence with Cissy, he seems to have felt more confident in pursuing his interest in her once the war was over.
He did not return immediately to L.A., however, but lingered in Seattle with a friend from the war and then found a job in San Fran cisco working for an English bank. He did come home for Christmas that year, in 1919, to the Pascal house on Vendome. He found his mother was ill and spending increasingly long periods of time in bed. In a short poem he wrote at this time he spoke of “the secret and silence and perfume . . . in the quiet house of all the dead.”
Was the secret he alluded to an affair that he had begun with Cissy before going off to war, or perhaps the feelings they had revealed to one another in letters while he was away? And was the silence that of his mother, who may have already begun to suspect that her son and Cissy were falling in love?
Later Ray would claim that he rescued Cissy from a very unhappy marriage, but it’s not clear just how true this is. We have only Ray’s word that she was unhappy, and other evidence suggests that she took her time making up her mind as to whether or not to leave her husband and that she agonized over the decision.
He wrote many poems at this time, some of them clearly love poems for Cissy, including one that contains this verse:
The touch of lips too dear for mortal kisses
The light of eyes too soft for common days
The breath of jasmine born to faintly lighten
The garden of ethereal estrays.
One wonders just what sort of ethereal estrays he was speaking of. Perhaps he and Cissy met in the garden of this house when others were sleeping or away. Ray was an immensely handsome young man: in one photograph, taken just after the war, he exudes a kind of suave Fitzgeraldian elegance, and it’s not hard to see why Cissy was attracted to him.
In another, more humorous poem, also written for Cissy at this time, he becomes more playful. It begins:
I bowed down to your feet with reckless words
Sipping the tea, sipping the goddamned tea,
And no one heard but you, and no one smiled,
They were not there. They died before their deaths.
One can imagine the scene that inspired the poem—an afternoon gathering in the living room of this little house on Vendome—with Julian and Cissy, and Florence and Ray, all taking tea, a polite exchange, and Ray subversively courting Cissy with his reckless words, which no one hears but her. The others are simply not there. In the eyes of the lovers, they have already begun to die.
From the book The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, by Judith Freeman. Copyright © 2007 by Judith Freeman. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.