L.A., Through Raymond Chandler and a Lens Quietly
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.
—Raymond Chandler, The High Window
It is the sort of passage you can only marvel at — the sort you transcribe simply for the pleasure of transcribing, to feel the sensation of the language through your own suddenly humbled hand. Lots of people have written about Los Angeles, but none quite as sharply, richly, deliciously or bitterly as Raymond Chandler at his best. Novelist and recent Chandler biographer Judith Freeman is convinced it stems from the fact that he saw the city from no less than three dozen different vantage points, having moved 36 times in the 46 years he spent in Southern California.
“Each writer has a different sort of connection to L.A.,” says Freeman. “With Nathanael West you really think of Hollywood, with John Fante you think of downtown. But the thing about Chandler is you think of everywhere — he covered the whole city, and sometimes in one book. The Lady in the Lake goes from Santa Monica all the way through Hollywood and downtown L.A. to Riverside and San Bernardino and Big Bear. It goes from the mountains to the ocean, and that’s essentially where Chandler lived — all of those places.”
Both Freeman and her husband, the photographer Anthony Hernandez, have just published L.A. books: both historical, both with maps, both, as she puts it, “with dots” — that is, addresses, street corners, specific pinpoints of placeness buried in the city’s all-too-anonymous landscape, in and between which stories once unfolded. Whether as banal as that of a young woman waiting for the bus with her purse on her lap (200 West Pico Boulevard, in Hernandez’s book) or as romantic as a young accountant falling in love with a dashing redhead 18 years his senior and married (613 South Bonnie Brae, in Freeman’s), these stories layer colorful tapestries over an ever-changing topography.
Freeman’s book is The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved — actually less a biography than a personal investigation into the life of a literary hero, charting his accomplishments, his foibles (of which there were many) and his passion for said redhead (Cissy Chandler, née Pearl Eugenia Hurlburt, his wife of 30 years) across a map of the couple’s many addresses. Hernandez’s book is Waiting, Sitting, Fishing and Some Automobiles, a handsomely bound coffee-table compendium of the artist’s street photographs from 1979 to 1982, which involves four individual series: pictures taken at bus stops (hence, “Waiting”), in public spaces (“Sitting”), around local bodies of water (“Fishing”) and outside mechanic shops (“Some Automobiles”).
The timing of the two publications wasn’t intentional. It doesn’t take long, however, in talking with the couple, whom I visited in their small but very refined MacArthur Park–area apartment, to see that their thoughts on the subject have been closely interwoven for years.
Hernandez, a native Angeleno who describes himself as very much a street photographer, has spent most of his career mining the city for material. “I think of L.A. as my big studio,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and I go off to this little corner, then I come back and then go to another section of the studio, so to speak.”
Neither his process nor his approach has changed much since he switched from a 35 mm camera to a 5 x 7 in the late 1970s and took the pictures that are included in the book: He gets up, leaves his apartment, drives, if necessary, to the neighborhood he’s interested in, gets out and walks — and walks, and walks. Lately, he’s been exploring South-Central, photographing the landscape as seen from various homeless encampments (say, from a bed fashioned beneath a bridge, looking up).
“I photograph places where most people don’t want to go,” he says, “but I think the reason they don’t want to go there is — well, you have to be a little careful, for one thing. But the other thing is they don’t think there’s very much there. But there really is a lot there, you just have to show up every day and find out what it is that you’re interested in, and that takes a lot of time. You just go back and forth again and again, covering the same area, and then things begin to happen. It’s almost like you’re peeling off layers. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years, photographing in South-Central.”
“I think that’s what you’ve been doing for 30years,” Freeman corrects him. “Peeling off the layers of L.A.” She turns to me: “I’m always surprised that he goes out with such enthusiasm every day. Sometimes you have to look very hard, in these hard areas. He’ll take his film to get it developed and we’ll look at it together in the light box and I’m astonished at what he’s seeing. It’s like a gleaner who goes out and just picks over a landscape that everyone thinks is already stark, that there’s nothing there.”
It is easy to see how Hernandez’s process fed into Freeman’s approach to the Chandler book, which begins in the couple’s own apartment and proceeds on a tour through each of Chandler’s addresses, with biographical details, literary analysis and personal speculation woven in. The apartment happens to be located only a few blocks from Chandler’s first address on Bonnie Brae — map it on Google and the line between the two is just a short zigzag around the northeast corner of MacArthur Park — which was clearly part of the draw. “Every day, I would be moving past streets where he lived,” she says. “And so I felt like, you know, this is my landscape. I could start where he started, and then I could radiate out and look at the city the way that he did.
“I really didn’t think in the beginning, oh, this is going to be like detective work,” she says, “but about halfway through the book, I realized it was replicating that activity. In all of Chandler’s books, Marlowe’s always driving everywhere — Marlowe never walks anywhere. Chandler loved to drive, he loved cars. So on several levels, it seemed to me there was this mirroring thing going on, where I was following in Chandler’s footsteps, I was trying to decode the city, I was looking at how the city figured into his fiction and how his life figured into his fiction.”
Certain remnants of the author’s world remain — at one address, Freeman discovered a mailbox labeled “Chandler,” presumably written in the author’s own hand — but just as many have been swept away,
replaced by strip malls and newer apartment buildings.
“There were moments of real excitement,” she says, when I ask about her reaction to these discoveries, “where I could just feel Chandler’s life in a particular place, and there were moments — not so much of disappointment as resignation. This is what L.A. is: It’s constantly erasing itself, it’s constantly transforming itself, and so much gets lost. I think that there’s almost a higher quotient of nostalgia in this city than in cities like Boston, where you think there would be more, because there’s so much past. But I think here, people really get nostalgic because it’s so fragile, that sense of connection to history.”
Hernandez himself is something of an anomaly in this regard, and a striking contrast to the virtually nomadic Chandlers: Not only does he live within five miles of the neighborhood where he grew up, in what was then the Aliso Village housing project, but he’s been in the Carondelet Street apartment for an astonishing 37 years. Freeman, who moved in when they married in 1986, came from Utah and Idaho (where they now spend part of every year) in search of “the place where I might become a writer,” she says. When I ask about her first impressions of the city, Hernandez laughs. “She didn’t like L.A.,” he says.
She shakes her head. “I didn’t like it. I thought it was big and loud and dirty and noisy and confusing.”
“Very hard-edged,” she agrees, “and very, very hard to figure out what the attractions were. I couldn’t understand why people lived here. I mean, if you were born here and trapped and couldn’t get away, that was one thing, but why would you come here? It just seemed unfathomable to me.”
Clearly, she came around.
“I think it’s a city that reveals itself,” she says, “and charms and seduces you only if you’re willing to suspend your idea of what a city should be. If you can do that, and accept the anomalous idea of L.A., then it’s so exciting, and it’s so interesting, and there’s so much going on. But it takes a while. And when I meet people who’ve just moved here and I say, How do you like it? And they say, I don’t get it, I don’t know if I’m going to make it, I don’t know — I don’t like it. I want to say: Just give it time, you know, because it will reveal itself.”
THE LONG EMBRACE: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved | By JUDITH FREEMAN | Pantheon Books | 368 pages | $25.95 hardcover
WAITING, SITTING, FISHING AND SOME AUTOMOBILES | By ANTHONY HERNANDEZ | Loosestrife Editions | 264 pages | $125 hardcover
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