Greatest thriller of them all: How Raymond Chandler was driven to madness by his love for an opium smoking nudist
23:01 GMT, 20 July 2012
Raymond Chandler was a difficult man who could be scathing about those he worked with
Even by Hollywood’s standards of decadence and excess it was an outrageous demand.
In April 1945, just weeks after the Paramount film studio had commissioned him to pen the script for The Blue Dahlia, a thriller starring Alan Ladd, the legendary crime writer Raymond Chandler announced that he was suffering a chronic case of writer’s block.
The only way he could finish the screenplay, he explained, was to do so while blind drunk.
Paramount expected its writers to turn up at 10am and put in a full day’s labour, like other members of the studio workforce.
But Chandler wanted to work from home, drinking himself into oblivion with a team of secretaries ready to take dictation whenever inspiration struck, and two Cadillacs on stand-by day and night to run errands and ferry notes to and from the studio.
Paramount found it hard to refuse.
The author of the highly successful Philip Marlowe detective novels including The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely, had become a hot commodity in Hollywood after writing the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated classic Double Indemnity the previous year.
He was also a difficult man who could be scathing about those he worked with, including Veronica Lake, The Blue Dahlia’s female lead, to whom he referred contemptuously as Moronica Lake.
When Paramount eventually agreed to his plan, Chandler insisted on producer John Houseman joining him for a celebratory lunch, consuming three double Martinis before the food had even arrived, and three brandies with creme de menthe afterwards.
Houseman must have wondered what he had agreed to.
But when he visited the author’s house the next day he found him passed out in the living room with a stack of neatly typed pages next to him, ready for the studio.
For the next eight days, Chandler drank and wrote, the cars sat outside, the secretaries typed and the screenplay was finished with time to spare.
It was exactly the kind of behaviour fans might have expected of the writer whose best-known character Philip Marlowe is no stranger to alcohol.
But as revealed in the fascinating new biography, Raymond Chandler: A Mysterious Something In The Light by Tom Williams, which draws on many of his previously unpublished letters, a love of liquor was far from their only similarity.
They also shared an uneasy attitude towards the opposite sex — Chandler remained a virgin until his 30s.
When he eventually met his future wife, her penchant for naked housework and smoking opium belied the fact that she was 18 years his senior.
His unconscious search for an older lover grew out of his unusually close relationship with his mother Florence.
Raymond Chandler was the author of the highly successful Philip Marlowe detective novels including The Big Sleep
She was a pretty young Irishwoman who emigrated to America in 1886 and married Chandler’s father Maurice, a railway engineer from Pennsylvania.
Their son, Raymond, was born in Chicago in July 1888, into a marriage soon cracking under the strain of his father’s increasingly violent drunken rages.
If Florence argued with him, he beat her until she was quiet.
Though only four or five when this started, the young Chandler cannot have missed the bruises on his mother’s body or the changes in her manner.
In 1900, when he was 12, Chandler’s mother finally left his father and brought him to London, where her brother Ernest was a solicitor.
She was frightened to pursue other relationships for fear that, like the brutal Maurice, a new man might harm her or her son, and Chandler seems to have absorbed her idea that sex inevitably leads to violence or abuse.
In developing a desire to protect his mother and, later, the other women in his life, his role model was the mythical knight Sir Galahad.
The knight’s painting hung in the library at Dulwich College, where Chandler’s uncle paid for him to begin a private education in the autumn of 1900.
There, in the cloisters of an English public school, Chandler developed the morals and sense of fair play later reflected in Philip Marlowe, that denizen of a corrupt and crime-ridden Los Angeles so far removed from the leafy suburbs of South London.
Years later he would describe Marlowe as a ‘shop-soiled Galahad’ and while the detective is frequently the recipient of kisses, he rarely initiates them.
In Chandler’s novels it is often the women who instigate sexual contact.
In his own life, too, Chandler seems to have embraced the principles of chastity and purity which made Galahad such a chivalrous protector of women.
At school he found any discussion of sex awkward, and years later he would write that he regarded it as ‘a delicate and almost sacred thing.’
He and his mother remained close long after he left school at 16 as he tried out various careers as a civil servant, newspaper reporter and poet.
When he moved back to his native America in 1912, Florence soon joined him.
Mother and son were invited to live with the Lloyds, a wealthy family from Los Angeles who befriended Chandler on the boat coming over.
He found work as an accountant and one of the Lloyds’ social gatherings was to change his life.
At a soiree for local musicians and intellectuals, he met pianist Julian Pascal, his wife Cissy and their son Gordon. Gordon Pascal and Chandler became friends, and when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917 they both signed up.
At Chandler’s insistence they opted to join the Canadian Army which, unlike its U.S. counterpart, offered to provide for soldiers’ dependents back home if they were killed.
As always, Chandler wanted to protect Florence.
But in 1919, soon after his return from the battlefields of France, their relationship was strained by his realisation that he had fallen in love with Cissy Pascal, his best friend’s mother.
At the time Cissy was 49, a striking and intelligent redhead who had modelled for artists across the city.
It was said she made a nude appearance in a painting hanging in a New York hotel and had indulged in opium at wild parties.
All this certainly chimed with her bohemian lifestyle, which included an enthusiasm for the Mensendieck System, a fitness regime based around everyday tasks like ironing and vacuuming.
To ensure maximum freedom of movement women were advised to carry out these chores-cum-exercises while naked, and Cissy was a committed practitioner.
She began divorce proceedings against Julian Pascal, her second husband, after she started seeing Chandler, but was unable to marry him because his mother was so furious about the relationship.
Only after Florence died from cancer four years later in 1923 did they dare wed.
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One of Raymond Chandler's script, The Blue Dahlia, the 1946 film starring Alan Ladd
Now sexually experienced to a degree, he was increasingly aware of the attractions of younger women.
‘You know how it is with marriage,’ he would later have a character say in his third novel, The Lady In The Lake.
‘After a while, a common, no-good guy like me wants to feel a leg. Maybe it’s lousy, but that’s the way it is.’
The leg he felt in those early years belonged to one of his secretaries and, in 1930, Cissy finally tired of his drinking and suspicious absences from home and demanded a legal separation.
His response was to go to a local hotel, get drunk and threaten to jump from a window, until Cissy, summoned by a phone call from him, managed to talk him down from the ledge.
They had an emotional reconciliation, shortly before Chandler was ousted from his oil job in a coup orchestrated by a rival. So, aged 43 he decided to pursue his lifelong ambition to become a writer.
He hoped that churning out crime stories in mass-produced ‘pulp’ magazines would help fund his becoming a serious novelist, and soon he was making a good living.
Too good. For once he had introduced Philip Marlowe to the world in his first novel The Big Sleep, written in 1938 when he had just turned 50, he never seemed able to leave the detective genre behind.
Forever afterwards, even as the Marlowe books became best-sellers, Chandler lamented being unable to move beyond the public’s love of his most famous creation.
In the coming years, his creative frustration contributed to his continued heavy drinking, as did the news in 1948 that Cissy had fibrosis, a potentially fatal lung disorder.
While he remained devoted to his wife, his Hollywood years saw him surrounded by young women whose beauty and energy highlighted her age.
At one point he again sought solace in the arms of a secretary, complaining to a colleague that while things were far from perfect with Cissy he could never ask for a divorce because she was too old.
And in the end it was not divorce which ended their marriage.
Then in December 1954 Cissy finally succumbed to her illness, aged 84. And Chandler who, for all his infidelity, had loved her indescribably, felt truly alone.
‘She was the light of my life, my whole ambition,’ he wrote to Jamie Hamilton, his British publisher in January 1955.
‘Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at. That is all there is to say.’
His relationships with men were always difficult: cutting off those he felt had behaved badly and forming intimate correspondences with men he barely knew.
The film director Alfred Hitchcock never forgave Chandler for calling him a ‘fat bastard’ yet Chandler seemed impervious to the fact they were no longer friends.
A month after Cissy’s death, police were called to his home in La Jolla, a small town south of Los Angeles, after he telephoned a friend and said he was going to kill himself.
An officer heard a shot and found Chandler in the bath, wrapped in a shower curtain and trying summon the nerve to push the barrel of a gun into his mouth.
The first shot had missed, and a second had failed to fire, leaving the question of whether he had really tried to kill himself or whether this was just a cry for help.
Whatever the case, Chandler seemed determined to resist all attempts to rescue him from the drunken decline of his final years.
Writing from London in 1955, he recorded 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.’
When he died in a La Jolla Hospital in March 1959, the official cause of death was pneumonia, but in truth he had been almost constantly drunk since Cissy had died.
It was simply too much for his body to bear.
His funeral was attended by only 17 people, a sad but in some ways appropriate end for a man who had never gone out of his way to make friends.
‘I have been raised in that English tradition which permits a gentleman to be almost infinitely rude if he keeps his voice down,’ he once said, and this was certainly something he shared with straight-talking Philip Marlowe.
He had thought about Marlowe right to the end, musing in one of his last letters that he thought the character should never be allowed to get married.
‘I think he will always have a number of affairs . . . but no permanent connection,’ he wrote.
In contrast, of course, Chandler did eventually find his own ‘permanent connection’ in Cissy — but ultimately it proved his tragedy; her death robbing him of his life.
Raymond Chandler: A Mysterious Something In The Light by Tom Williams is published by Aurum at 20. To order a copy for 15.99 (incl p&p) call 0843 382 0000.