One Book, One Chicago Spring 2008
Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888, the only child of an Irish-born mother and a Pennsylvanian father. He spent many of his early years in Nebraska, but after his father, who had always struggled with alcoholism, left the family, Chandler and his mother moved to Ireland in 1895, then on to England. After receiving an education at Dulwich College, Chandler took civil service exams, placing first in classics and third overall. His reward, a clerkship in the British Admiralty, did not agree with him and he left it to freelance as a journalist.
In 1912 Chandler returned alone to the United States, eventually settling in southern California. His mother would soon join him there and he would care for her for years to come. It was in this period, during a string of dull, poorly paid odd jobs, that Chandler met his future wife, Cissy, who was at the time married to West Indian pianist Julian Pascal. She would eventually leave her husband for Chandler, but they would not marry for over a decade.
With World War I underway, the 29-year-old Chandler journeyed north to enlist in the Canadian army in 1917. Wrote Chandler’s biographer Frank MacShane, “Only the 20th century could produce the scenario of an American-born Anglo-Irishman traveling to Canada in order to join a Scottish regiment to fight Germans in France.” Chandler saw dramatic action in France, where a German artillery barrage killed everyone in his unit except Chandler, who received only a concussion.
Discharged in 1919, Chandler returned to Los Angeles and unsuccessfully tried his hand at poetry. He eventually took work as an accountant for Dabney Oil Syndicate. His interest in the now-divorced Cissy Pascal was rekindled, but they did not marry until after his mother’s death in 1924. Perhaps unbeknownst to Chandler, Cissy was nearly 18 years his senior. Rising quickly at Dabney Oil, Chandler earned $1,000 a month and commanded two cars despite widespread economic hardships during the Depression. Initially quite respected for his work at Dabney, Chandler began neglecting his work, womanizing and drinking excessively, and was fired in 1932 at the age of 44.
The shock of being fired forced Chandler to consider his behavior and find a new means of earning a living. With his marriage on the mend, Chandler gave up drinking and turned his attention once again to writing. Perhaps taking into account the potential to earn money in popular pulp magazines and admiring the work of Dashiell Hammet who had started publishing stories in Black Mask magazine in 1920, Chandler now tried his hand at crime stories. His first story, published by Black Mask in December 1933, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” earned him $180.
Chandler continued to perfect his craft and with each story added depth to his central hero, a private eye variously named Mallory, Dalmas, Carmad and Gage, among others. As a struggling and unprolific writer, Chandler was no longer immune to the economic difficulties of the Depression. In 1938 his work earned him a mere $1,275. Chandler and Cissy moved frequently during this time (they moved roughly 35 times during their 30-year marriage) and as Chandler’s income grew smaller so did their rental homes. Things would soon change, however, when Chandler turned his focus to his first novel, The Big Sleep, published by Alfred A. Knopf in February 1939. The novel sold 10,000 copies in the United States, one sign that paperback novels were rising in popularity. During this rise, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe continued to haunt the streets of a gritty Los Angeles in the novels Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942) and The Lady in the Lake (1943).
It was at this time, during World War II, that Hollywood looked more at the hardboiled detective genre for material for films. In 1943 Paramount hired Chandler to work on scripts. His first was a collaboration with Billy Wilder on the adaptation of fellow novelist James Cain’s Double Indemnity. He received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay and continued successful work in the film industry for the next four years.
Once his work in films faded, he and Cissy retreated even further into their very private life together. Chandler was a shy, lonely man and had difficulty fitting in with his chosen California environment, in particular with Hollywood. The one abiding relationship Chandler had was with his wife, to whom he was, in his own fashion, strongly devoted. In 1946 the Chandlers moved to La Jolla, outside San Diego. There he dedicated himself to caring for Cissy, who had grown quite ill from fibrosis of the lungs. Despite medical problems of his own, including shingles and an eczema so severe that he had to wear gloves to type, Chandler continued to write, and published another Marlowe novel, The Little Sister (1949).
In 1950 and 1951 Chandler worked on a new book, but the old Philip Marlowe bored him. When his own agents rejected the manuscript, Chandler broke his relationship with them, intent on adding depth to his hero. The Long Goodbye (1953) was a landmark. It introduced a flawed Marlowe, lonely and weakened by time, and brought social commentary to the hardboiled genre.
When Cissy died in 1954, Chandler grew depressed, resumed drinking and began traveling restlessly between England and L.A. In 1955 he made a feeble attempt at suicide and in 1958 he published his last novel, Playback, which is still shrugged off by Chandler readers as better off forgotten. He died in La Jolla on March 26, 1959 of pneumonia. Raymond Chandler is widely accepted as a master stylist who transformed 20th century detective fiction.
- “Raymond Chandler, Jr.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 vols. Gale Research, 1998.
- Gardiner, Dorothy and Kathrine Sorley Walker, eds. Raymond Chandler Speaking. University of California Press, 1997.
- MacShane, Frank. The Life of Raymond Chandler. G.K. Hall and Co., 1976.
- Marling, William. “Chandler, Raymond Thornton.” American National Biography Online, February 2000. (Copyright 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press.)
- Valerio, Mike. “The Great Wrong Place: Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles at 70.” BlackMaskMagazine.com.