Sunday, July 23, 2017

Birthday: “I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”

Bogie reading Chandler.jpg
Humphrey Bogart, reading The Big Sleep on the bookstore set of The Big Sleep (1946)

“Who is this Hemingway person at all?”

“A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.”

“That must take a hell of a long time,” the big man said.

-Farewell My Lovely (1940)

Raymond Thornton Chandler (1888-1959)
Author and screenwriter
President, Mystery Writers of America (1958-59)

Born in Chicago, Raymond Chandler grew up in the British Isles. After his father- a drunk- left them, his mother took him back to Ireland, where her well-to-do relatives took them in and saw to Chandler’s prep school education.

He figured on staying there, and became a naturalized Brit in 1907; passing the civil service exam, he worked at the Admiralty for a year. Then, bored, he quit and went into journalism. After a few years of at best middling success, he borrowed money from an uncle- who charged him interest- to return to America.

He settled briefly in San Francisco, then- after his mother joined him- in Los Angeles.

After some aimless, poverty-stricken years picking fruit, stringing tennis rackets, whatever paid the rent, he got a steady job in an LA creamery. He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Army in 1917 and was completing training as a pilot when the war ended.

He returned to LA, got on with an oil company, and started an affair with a military mate’s mother, eighteen years his senior. His mother disapproved; it was not until her death in 1923 that he was free to marry Cissy Pascal.

By 1931 Chandler was a well-paid vice president at Dabney Oil, but the rest of his life as shambolic. He drank too much, missed work, chased women when he did show up for work, and experienced depressions so deep he threatened suicide. The company fired him in 1932.

Out of work in the depths of the Depression, Chandler studied Erle Stanley Gardner’s pulp fiction stories and decided to become  a writer. His first story was published in 1933. His first novel, The Big Sleep, came out in 1939.

Chandler was an overnight sensation, if not universally so; his style was easy for parodists, and his genre- detective stories- was dissed by the highbrows:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.

Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off.

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.

When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.

The streets were dark with something more than night.

If my books had been any worse, I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been any better, I should not have come.

When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.

But his critical reputation has endured and grown as the hardboiled style of his work was translated into the classics of film noir.

Farewell My Lovely was published in 1940, and Chander’s hard-bitten style attracted notice in Hollywood. He collaborated with Billy Wilder on the 1944 screenplay, Double Indemnity; with Hitchcock- bitterly- on Strangers on a Train, and- with himself- on The Blue Dahlia. He collected two Oscar nominations during his fifteen-year arc of success.

His wife died in 1954, plunging Chandler into drinking and depression again. He tried to kill himself, then embarked on ludicrous romantic pursuits of his agent, his secretary, Orwell’s widow, and Stephen Spender's wife (the last two thought him a repressed homosexual).

Drunk more often than not (leaving The Blue Dahlia screenplay unfinished, he agreed to write the ending only if director John Houseman supplied him enough booze the stay drunk until he finished it), Chandler forgot to have his wife’s ashes interred.

Leaving no burial instructions for himself, Chandler was buried in another memorial park while her remains were stored in the original one. It was not until 2011 that they were both, finally, buried together. “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” reads the tombstone.

Related Sites:

Joyce Carol Oates, “The Visionary Detective,” The New York Review of Books, June 20, 2013
Facebook, “The World of Raymond Chandler in His Own Words”

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