By Michael Aushenker
For a fleeting moment in the early 1940s, Raymond Chandler, pillar of the crime fiction genre and lion of the Los Angeles literature movement, lived in Santa Monica – a community he fictionalized as a corrupt and amoral cesspool.
Now, author Tom Williams chronicles the novelist’s story, including the intersection of Chandler’s life and fiction with L.A.’s Westside, in the just-released “A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler.”
“He certainly moved quite a bit between the coast and the mountains,” Williams told The Argonaut.
The primary reason for Chandler’s peripatetic life was not that he was as restless as his celebrated imagination. His wife Cissy, 18 years his senior, had bad lungs, so they reportedly gravitated between the ocean and the mountains, depending on the season, in search of dry air.
Aside from his brief association with Hollywood, where he substantially boosted his income as a screenwriter on such films as director Billy Wilder’s noir masterpiece “Double Indemnity,” Chandler wrote novels. His most popular creation, private detective Philip Marlowe, first appeared in novel form in 1939’s “The Big Sleep” and went on to inhabit eight more books, including “Farewell, My Lovely,” “The Long Goodbye,” and the unfinished “Poodle Springs” in 1959, the year Chandler died. Along the way, Chandler used his fiction to convey feelings he harbored about the area’s largest coastal city.
“He saw Santa Monica as particularly corrupt,” Williams told The Argonaut. “And Santa Monica was a good microcosm of the whole Los Angeles.”
After literary agent Williams decided to make the crime fiction author the subject of his debut book, the 32-year-old Englishman flew from London to Los Angeles in order to get to know the fabled streets on which Marlowe walked, engaged in fisticuffs, and dodged bullets. Stationed in West Los Angeles, Williams’ February-May 2009 sojourn included Westwood, where he did much of his research at UCLA, and Santa Monica.
“It’s very nice, I loved it,” Williams said of the latter. “I lived between Santa Monica (Boulevard) and Sepulveda (Boulevard). I would meet friends in Santa Monica to go out.”
There have been many biographies already written about Chandler. However, Williams believes his work goes the extra mile.
“The previous biographies have missed something,” Williams said. “They tend to focus more on the end of Chandler’s life, particularly the final six years when he was drunk and in a downward spiral (after Cissy Chandler died in 1953). That’s the most gossipy part of his life. I just wanted to show that there was more to him. I try to uncover more about his earlier life.”
Born in Chicago to a violent, alcoholic father, Chandler spent his teen years in England before returning to America. Chandler’s arrival in Los Angeles coincided with the City of Angels emerging “from some small West Coast town to a global city,” Williams said, with the Los Angeles Aqueduct bringing water to its 100,000 residents. “Los Angeles was at its most corrupt. He sees this all and he’s at the heart of it,” Williams said.
Chandler worked as an executive at the Dabney Oil Company in downtown L.A. as the industry was booming. In 1917, he fell in love with and married Cissy Pascal, his best friend’s stepmother. When Chandler was eventually fired because of his drinking problem, he decided, at 44, to become a writer. Serialized in magazines, his famed gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, caught on. Marlowe was famously portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the 1946 film “The Big Sleep,” as well as actors including Robert Mitchum and Elliott Gould.
In “Mysterious Something,” Williams also hones in on Chandler’s fictionalized view of Santa Monica: “‘Farewell, My Lovely’ was outlined as ‘the corrupt alliance of police and racketeers in a small California town, outwardly as fair as the dawn,” but the novel that resulted was much more than that, Williams said. To give the book a backbone, he wove together elements of his stories ‘Mandarin’s Jade,’ ‘The Man Who Liked Dogs,’ and ‘Bay City Blues,’ setting the bulk of the novel in Bay City, a thinly veiled avatar for Santa Monica.
One of the cops in “Bay City Blues,” whom Marlowe nicknames “Hemingway,” sums up the ersatz Santa Monica culture this way: “A guy can’t stay honest if he wants to… You gotta play dirty or you don’t eat.” Meanwhile, the private detective deems Santa Monica “a nice town. It’s probably no crookeder than Los Angeles. But you can only buy a piece of a big city. You can buy a town like this all complete, with the original box and tissue paper.”
Williams views this as Chandler culturally sizing up the sum of L.A.’s parts rather than specifically Santa Monica, writing: “Incidentally, though it has been said that Ray hated Santa Monica, he moved there shortly after the publication of ‘Farewell, My Lovely,’ so this seems unlikely. Ray’s intention appears to have been to explore that relationship between the police and racketeers, but what started out as a book about a corrupt town became one about how a town corrupts.”
Indeed, Chandler moved frequently, living all over Los Angeles before finally buying a house in La Jolla. A few of the addresses he and Cissy occupied were on the Westside, where they resided briefly in Santa Monica at 449 San Vicente Blvd.
“It’s changed so much,” Williams said of Santa Monica. “It’s much more sanitized.
“It was the hypocrisy of it that Chandler objected to,” he continued. “It was this idea that Santa Monica was sold as this clean, uncorrupt (neighborhood) when actually it wasn’t; it was as corrupt as everywhere else. It wasn’t the gambling ship, it was the pretending that he objected. He doesn’t see gambling or alcohol or drugs itself as a corrupting influence.”
The oddest detail regarding Chandler’s Santa Monica was his pseudonymous description of the coastal community as “Bay City,” since the author otherwise used real location names, Williams said.
“I’ve never found a satisfactory answer for it,” Williams said.