The Secret Life of Raymond Chandler
Researching Raymond Chandler’s life was not always easy. I came to Chandler as a fan first, having fallen in love with his writing at university. I devoured the novels in a few short weeks and I burrowed into the biographies, the criticism, and the rest shortly after in an effort to learn as much as possible about the man behind Philip Marlowe. When I decided to write my own biography of him, I was aware that it would neither be straightforward nor would it always be a comfortable experience.
Raymond Chandler was not always a likable man. Even his most stalwart supporters thought him prickly. At Paramount Studios in 1943, rather than confronting his co-writer Billy Wilder, with whom he was generally annoyed, he presented a typed list of grievances accusing Wilder of talking on the phone for too long—one conversation clocked in at twelve and a half minutes—and not saying “please” when asking Chandler to lower the blinds. In the early ’50s, he had a falling-out with Alfred Hitchcock, which, depending on whose account you believe, ended with Chandler calling the director a fat bastard. And, when an agent had the temerity to criticize an early draft of The Long Goodbye, Chandler sulked for weeks, complained to friends, and sacked the agent shortly after.Then there are the letters. Sitting in the library at UCLA or Oxford University, poring over the duplicates of Chandler’s letters printed on thin, yellow, or yellowing paper, I would occasionally be brought up short by a phrase or a comment that, to modern ears, would be quite inappropriate. I haven’t even mentioned his behavior when drunk, which was at times beyond difficult. Once, in the ’20s, he threatened to kill himself when the wife of a friend was so unwell that her husband had to cancel his tennis match with Chandler.This, though, is the nature of writing a biography. Examine any life closely enough and you will discover aspects of it that you don’t like. How many of us have lived blameless, unblemished lives, unmarked by negative comments or impolitic statements? Viewed from a narrow angle, we can all appear to be unpleasant. Raymond Chandler was no different. He did not always say or do the right thing and, sometimes, said the wrong thing entirely. But this was only a small part of Raymond Chandler and should not overshadow his other achievements.Chandler was a great writer, and his novels are among the finest in the English language. His ability to conjure up Los Angeles, in all of its mixed brilliance, remains astonishing even today. He could be a warm and encouraging mentor and, at Paramount, would happily talk to young writers starting out in their careers, providing them with advice and encouragement.He could also be very self-aware. When selling the television rights to his books in the 1950s, he was happy to do so but told his agent to warn the buyers to expect him to complain about everything—always—fully aware that they would ignore him and do what they liked anyway.Chandler was also a loving husband. His marriage to Cissy Chandler was by no means easy. She was eighteen years older than he was (it’s not clear whether he knew this or not) and suffered for most of it with painful lung problems. But even with all this—and despite claiming to have had affairs—Raymond Chandler loved Cissy very much indeed. When she died, he was undone and descended into a spiral of depression and drunkenness that would contribute to his death six years later. His letter, written shortly after she died, stands as some of the most moving he wrote.
“…she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at.”
In the end, this conflict of an individual’s innermost core forms the nature of both biography and novels. We are complicated , made up of composites that are fractured and reformed, depending on who is looking at us and when. In writing A Mysterious Something In The Light, I chose not to shy away from Raymond Chandler’s less salubrious views but rather to present them set against the rest of his life. Philip Marlowe is an enduring hero who will continue to captivate readers across the world. And his creator himself was a man who loved, who hurt, who fought, and who felt deeply. He wasn’t always right and he wasn’t always good either. But who among us can say any better?