The Big Sleep: Raymond Chandler, 50 Years Dead
Raymond Chandler died 50 years ago this week. On March 26, 1959, at 3:50 in the afternoon, he took his last breath in the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, having drunk himself to death, though the official cause of his demise was listed as pneumonia. He was 71 years old, an unhappy and lonely man who’d finally run out on his luck.
He died alone, with no friends at his side, which was pretty much the way he’d lived his life. His beloved wife, Cissy, had passed away five years earlier and ever since, he’d been trying to do himself in, first by taking a loaded gun into the shower and firing off a couple of rounds — what he later called the most inept suicide attempt in history — then later simply turning to gin and Scotch as his weapons of choice. Seventeen people showed up for his funeral, presided over by a pastor he’d only met once and didn’t much care for.
He’s buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, in an undistinguished grave — just a simple, flat headstone set flush with the ground and surrounded by nearly identical markers arranged in long, boring rows. Nobody thought to plant him next to his wife, whose ashes were stored in a crypt not far away. By then nobody really cared what Chandler might have wanted. If you want to pay a visit to his grave, you have to hunt for it. And there it is: Raymond Thornton Chandler, Author, 1888-1959, In Loving Memory. The “author” part nails it in that sublimely minimal way. Still, it’s a pretty lousy little headstone for such a great writer.
We remember Chandler for a lot of things. As the guy who put L.A. on the literary map, along with John Fante and Nathanael West, who published their first novels the same year The Big Sleep came out, in 1939 — a boffo year for L.A. letters. We remember him as the writer who gave the city a lasting identity. As the person who elevated the lowly mystery to the realm of literature. As a damn funny writer who mastered the art of repartee and the bon mot. The guy who took the language of the street, American slang, and made it sing. The King of the Simile. The Bard of Bad Blondes. And perhaps most of all, we remember him as one of the great American literary stylists, capable of tossing off lines like these:
“Cops are like a doctor that gives you aspirin for a brain tumor, except that the cop would rather cure it with a blackjack.”
“A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.”
“The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips.”
“His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish.”
“He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel.”
And, a personal favorite: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”
He said he was the first to write about Los Angeles in a realistic way. To write about a place, he said, you have to love it, or hate it, or both, alternately, the way you do a woman. Vacuity and boredom were futile. L.A. never bored him. He found it banal, maybe, but never vacuous. He both loved it (when he first arrived in 1912) and hated it (by the time he left in 1946), until finally, he said, it became a tired old whore to him. Never mind that he, more than any other writer, helped to turn Our Lady of the Queen of Angels into a woman of the night. He got this city better than anybody else, its rhythms and rudeness, its gas stations filled with wasted light, the houses in canyons hanging in the blackness, the smell of the air, the feel of the winds, the very pulse of the place, which is why his novels never seem dated: He captured the essence of the city, not just its temporal surface.
He also got American culture, foresaw how a certain kind of casual, endemic, everyday violence would become a part of our future, and how money would drive everything. “Big money is big power,” he wrote, “and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system. Maybe it’s the best we can get, but it still ain’t any Ivory Soap deal.”
Americans, he said, were “a big, rough, rich, wild people, and crime is the price we pay for it.” He felt the only difference between crime and business was that you had to have capital for business. As S.J. Perelman noted, Chandler was L.A.’s finest social historian, a cultural critic who could draw a bead on society and let it have it with both barrels.
In Philip Marlowe he created an individual conscience so powerful, nothing could corrupt it. Not money, not women, nor power or prestige. With his combined English and American background, Chandler rolled the myths of the white knight and the American cowboy into one to create a dick with a daunting moral code, who also happened to be one of the loneliest characters in all of American literature, a guy with no friends, no family, no pets, no past, no real future, and, apparently, no desires except the longing for justice and an occasional stirring for a blonde, though women didn’t really interest Marlowe. By and large, he was unavailable to them. Chandler understood how loneliness would become our new modern disease, the condition of a whole culture. It’s the source of much of the controlled, half-poetical emotion that lies at the heart of Marlowe and of every Chandler story.
Chandler liked to believe that he and Marlowe had a lot in common. In some ways they did; in others, nada. Marlowe was the consummate bachelor, while Chandler was tied to his mother, whom he revered, and later to his older wife, whom he adored and kept on a pedestal. He never masturbated as a kid, he said, because he found it dirty and had been told that if you did that, you’d later be disappointed when the real thing finally came along. The truth is, both he and his private eye were enigmas. Marlowe, he said, had an innocence that could seem almost immature, if being in revolt against a corrupt society can be considered immature. He knew that if there was any hope for the future, it rested with the individual, the guy (or gal) who thinks for himself and doesn’t take orders from above.
It’s hard to appreciate just how radical The Big Sleep seemed when it came out in 1939, how it disturbed critics with its portrayal of a world peopled by “moral defectives” (as one reviewer said), how it was a “study in depravity” (according to another), a story populated by pornographers and homosexual blackmailers, mobsters, corrupt cops and rich girls who posed nude in exchange for drugs, bad-seed daughters who killed for vengeful sport and gangsters who controlled politicians. The novel depicted a rapacious midcentury America, where getting and spending, hawking and hustling, corruption and greed and all the rotten little secrets beneath the brash, rude surface of the city signified the death of the Victorian-beau ideal. It’s important to remember that Chandler was as much an English-Victorian writer as a California-American one.
Among the things he liked about L.A. were cars. He loved to drive, loved the freedom encapsulated in the very word automobile. His big green Packard convertible was perfect for migrating to Big Bear for the summers and Palm Springs for the winter. Maybe it was why he moved more than three-dozen times in and around L.A. With an automobile, Chandler could. He embraced the new world of transience and mobility the way a duck takes to migrating, as if it were part of his genes. He liked screenwriters better than novelists: He felt they were more fun and less pretentious. Hollywood eventually beat him down, but he also had some good times when he worked there in the ’40s.
Chandler didn’t create a feel-good world in his books. He gave you permission to feel unhappy about the society you found yourself in. He witnessed the advent of television and mass advertising: Television had possibilities, he felt, though it bred such passivity that watching it was like being mired in the primeval ooze, while advertising was an elaborate scam, a waste of human intelligence, a conning of the public, an inherently dishonest activity guaranteed to make him hate any product being hawked. He didn’t much like the new post–World War II consumer culture either, or the fact that the all-tile bathroom had become the new standard of civilization. He particularly hated the idea of built-in obsolescence — a phrase, regrettably, that’s hardly even uttered anymore.
Toward the end of his life Chandler said, “The story of our time isn’t the story of war or the atomic bomb. It’s the story of an idealist married to a gangster and how their children and home life turn out.” He could be describing The Sopranos.
Only it isn’t The Sopranos. It’s us. It’s the story of our time, just as he said, the unending and timeless tale of America, with its idealists on one end of the ideological spectrum, and its gangsters on the other, be they Wall Street crooks or your ordinary garden-variety thugs. We are the children he spoke of. And we are still waiting, 50 years after Chandler’s death — with ever more urgent concerns filling our minds — to see just how our collective home life will turn out.
No matter how you live, in the end, you die alone, like a dog in the gutter, he wrote to his one-time secretary, Dorothy Fisher, not long after Cissy’s death. It’s a tough statement from a guy who was a romantic at heart. Unfortunately, it came true for him. And yet, his work lives on — those seven remarkable novels and some two-dozen stories in which you can find such exquisite amusement. The astute reader can also find much more. Other writers come and go, but Chandler is forever.
Judith Freeman is the author of The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved. She will moderate a panel, “Something More Than Night: Raymond Chandler, 50 Years Later,” featuring L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan, author Denise Hamilton and USC professor and author Leo Braudy, on Wednesday, March 25, at 7:30 p.m., at the USC University Club. Free and open to the public. RSVP at (213) 740-1349.
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