British-American novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler died 58 years ago today. He took his last breath on March 26, 1959, at 3:50 pm in the Scripps Clinic, La Jolla, CA. Despite what the death certificate states, Chandler drank himself to death. He was 71, unhappy and lonely.
Raymond Chandler will be remembered for many things:
- He was the writer who elevated the lowly mystery into the realm of literature
- He was a writer who mastered the art of repartee and witty remarks
- He was the guy who took street language, American slang, and made it sing
Most of all, he will be remembered as a great American literary stylist, capable of tossing out classic lines such as these:
“I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights.” – The Big Sleep
“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” – Farewell, My Lovely
“The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say goodbye is to die a little.” – The Long Goodbye
“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” – Farewell, My Lovely
“The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back.” – The Long Goodbye
Chandler wrote lean and clean staccato sentences that did not waste a word, but never lacked substance. He had a huge stylistic influence on American popular literature and is considered to be a founder of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. His major creation, Los Angeles gumshoe Philip Marlowe, became the archetypal private eye character.
Born on July 23, 1888, in Chicago, IL, Chandler lived in the USA until his parents separated and his Anglo-Irish mother, Florence, took him to live near London when he was seven-years-old. After being educated at Dulwich College, he was employed by the British Civil Service for a brief stint. He then changed careers, becoming a part-time teacher at Dulwich College and supplemented his income by working as a journalist and writer. Chandler returned to the USA in 1912 where he trained in Los Angeles to become an accountant.
“The moment a man sets his thoughts down on paper, however secretly, he is in a sense writing for publication.”
He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1917 and saw combat in the trenches of France in World War I before being wounded. When the war ended, he was undergoing flight training with the newly formed Royal Air Force.
In 1919, Chandler returned to Los Angeles and began a love affair with Pearl Eugenie (“Cissy”) Pascal, a married woman 18 years his senior. Cissy amicably divorced her husband, Julian, in 1920, and married Chandler on February 6, 1924.
He wanted to rekindle his literary career but instead took a position with the Dabney Oil Syndicate. By 1931, he was a well-paid vice president, but his alcoholism, absenteeism, promiscuity with female employees and threatened suicides all contributed to his dismissal in 1932 – when he was 44.
To ease the financial burden, Chandler taught himself to write pulp fiction by studying Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason stories. His first professional work, an 18,000-word short story “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” was published in 1933 in “Black Mask,” a noteworthy American mass-market pulp magazine. Chandler’s crime stories were also printed in “Detective Fiction Weekly,” “The Fortnightly Intruder” and “Dime Detective.”
Chandler delighted in mystery writing as the pulp magazines’ restrictions on word counts and subject matter obliged him to master the art of storytelling.
“As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. If the formula had been a little less rigid, more of the writing of that time might have survived. Some of us tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and sent back. To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.”
Chandler’s first novel “The Big Sleep” was his most famous. Written at the behest of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Sr., the story took just three months to write – using parts of his short stories “Killer in the Rain” (1935) and “The Curtain” (1936) – and first appeared on bookstore shelves in 1939.
Written in first-person point-of-view, “The Big Sleep” introduced the world to late-1930s Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe. A man of principle, Marlowe – despite his tough exterior and rough manners – followed a code of honor that stood out as earnestly old-fashioned in a corrupt, often vicious, world.
If you are not familiar with hard-boiled detective fiction, “The Big Sleep” is THE novel to read in my opinion.
Excerpt from “The Big Sleep”
Agnes Lowzier: Is Harry there?
Philip Marlowe: Yeah, yeah, he’s here.
Agnes Lowzier: Put him on, will you?
Philip Marlowe: He can’t talk to you.
Agnes Lowzier: Why?
Philip Marlowe: Because he’s dead.
Chandler’s second novel, “Farewell, My Lovely” (1940) again featured Marlowe. Using recognizable Los Angeles locations as settings, Chandler created the fictional town of Bay City as a replacement for Santa Monica – a town riddled with widespread corruption in city government during the Great Depression.
“Farewell, My Lovely” was the first Marlowe novel to appear on the big screen. In 1944, Dick Powell played hard-boiled detective Marlowe in a classic film noir release – alternatively titled “Murder, My Sweet” (USA) and “Farewell, My Lovely” (UK). It would be another two years before cinema-goers saw Humphrey Bogart in his classic portrayal of Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.” In 1975, Robert Mitchum starred in a remake.
“The Falcon Takes Over” (1942), featuring gentleman sleuth Gay Lawrence (played by George Sanders), used the plot of “Farewell, My Lovely.”
“I see [Marlowe] always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated.”
Literary success and film adaptations led to Chandler teaming up with director Billy Wilder to co-write the 1944 film noir “Double Indemnity.” The screenplay was based on James M. Cain’s 1943 novella of the same name, which originally appeared as an eight-part serial in “Liberty” magazine. Starring Fred MacMurray, the movie was praised by critics when first released. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards but did not win any.
“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.”
Chandler’s only original screenplay the 1946 film noir “The Blue Dahlia,” commissioned by Paramount Pictures, starred Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Shooting began in March 1945 without a completed screenplay. It was not until the fourth week of shooting that alarm bells began ringing in the studio when the script girl pointed out that the camera was rapidly catching up the script.
The script’s climax had not been written. According to producer John Houseman, Chandler announced he was suffering from a chronic case of ‘writer’s block’. Paramount offered a $5,000 incentive to finish the script but it was refused.
Chandler countered by saying he would finish the screenplay while working from home and drinking himself into oblivion. His requirements were two Cadillac limousines – to stand day and night outside the house with drivers available – six secretaries and direct lines open at all times to the studio switchboard and to Houseman’s home.
Paramount eventually agreed to his plan and Chandler insisted on Houseman joining him for a celebratory lunch, consuming three double Martinis before the food arrived, followed by three brandies with creme de menthe.
“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.”
When Houseman went to Chandler’s house the following day, he found him passed out. Next to him was a stack of neatly typed pages ready for the studio. For the next eight days, Chandler drank, wrote, and drank even more. The cars sat outside, the secretaries typed and the screenplay was finished with time to spare.
Despite being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Chandler was unhappy with Veronica Lake’s performance as Joyce Harwood and often referred to her as “Moronica Lake”.
“The only times she’s good is when she keeps her mouth shut and looks mysterious. The moment she tries to behave as if she had a brain she falls flat on her face.”
In 1946, Chandler wrote two more Philip Marlowe novels, “The Long Goodbye” and his last completed work, “Playback.” Published in 1953, “The Long Goodbye” was the sixth novel to feature Philip Marlowe. In a letter to a friend, Chandler called it “my best book” and recalled the agony of writing it while his wife was terminally ill. It received the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1955.
“Playback” was first published in Britain in July 1958, with the USA edition following in October. The novel was reworked by Chandler from an unproduced courtroom drama screenplay of the same title which he had written some years before for Universal Studios. It is the first Marlowe novel completed by Chandler set somewhere other than Los Angeles. The setting is the town of Esmeralda, a fictional name for La Jolla, where Chandler lived his last few years. “Playback” is the only Chandler novel never to have been filmed.
He collaborated on the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 movie, “Strangers on a Train.” Hitchcock secured the rights to Patricia Highsmith’s first novel for just $7,500. Chandler described it as “a silly little story” and became a notoriously difficult person to work with.
The working relationship between Chandler and Hitchcock deteriorated rapidly and Chandler became openly combative. At one point, while watching Hitchcock struggling to get out of his limousine, he was heard to remark, “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car.”
Chandler completed a first draft, followed by a second, without receiving any response in return from Hitchcock. When he finally got a communication, it was his dismissal from the project. Hitchcock claimed that Chandler had not ‘written a solitary line he intended to use.’ He then reportedly made a show of pinching his nose, then holding up Chandler’s draft screenplays with his thumb and forefinger and dropped them it into a wastebasket.
“Hollywood has all the personality of a paper cup.”
Cissy died in 1954, after a long illness. Heartbroken and drunk, Chandler neglected to inter her cremated remains. They sat stored for 57 years in the basement of Cypress View Mausoleum. After her death, Chandler’s loneliness worsened his susceptibility to clinical depression. He started hitting the bottle again and the quality and quantity of his writing declined as a result.
In 1955, he detailed his alcoholic routine: ‘I start with a drink of white wine and end up drinking two bottles of Scotch a day. Then I stop eating. After four or five days of that, I am ill. I have to quit and the withdrawal symptoms are simply awful. I shake so that I can’t hold a glass of water. I can’t stand up or walk without help.’
That same year, Chandler attempted suicide. The police were called to his La Jolla home after he called a friend saying he was going to end it all. Officers heard a shot and found Chandler in his bathtub, wrapped in a shower curtain summoning the nerve to push a gun barrel into his mouth. The first shot missed and a second shot failed to fire. He later described it as the ‘most-inept suicide attempt in history.’
Determined to thwart attempts to save him from his drunken decline, Chandler died alone. The official cause of death was pneumonial peripheral vascular shock and prerenal uremia. The sad truth was he had been drunk since Cissy died.
Chandler was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery, San Diego, CA, in an undistinguished grave. His funeral attracted just 17 mourners and was presided over by a pastor he had met once and did not much care for.
“Down these mean streets, a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”
When Chandler died, he left behind an unfinished manuscript titled “The Poodle Springs Story.” The four chapters were transformed into a final Philip Marlowe novel “Poodle Springs,” by Chandler admirer and mystery writer Robert B. Parker in 1989. Parker shares the authorship with Chandler. Parker subsequently wrote a sequel to “The Big Sleep,” littered with quotes from the original novel, entitled “Perchance to Dream.”
Chandler’s final Marlowe short story, circa 1957, was entitled “The Pencil.” It was later used as the basis of an episode of HBO’s miniseries “Philip Marlowe, Private Eye,” starring Powers Boothe.
“I think a man ought to get drunk at least twice a year just on principle so he won’t let himself get snotty about it.”
On this day of tribute to one of the milestone authors of the 20th Century, raise your glass and drink a toast to Raymond Chandler – a common man, an unusual man and one of the best writers in his own world and good enough for any world.
Click HERE for a full Raymond Chandler bibliography.