20 Dec 2007
“The Long Embrace” is not a conventional biography of Raymond Chandler. Instead, Judith Freeman embraces the writer’s right to tell her story the way she wants to, and focuses instead on the marriage between Chandler and Cissy Eugenie Pascal, and a quest to visit all of the places they lived in. Both prove to be daunting journeys.Cissy is an enigma. Little is known about her. As a young woman, she was an artist’s model who sometimes posed nude. She was a concert pianist, twice-married, and after her marriage to Ray, she vanishes. They did little socializing and she rarely let herself be photographed. The only picture of the two of them consist of their passport photo, taken near the end of her life. As if to finish the job, Ray burned their letters. We know so little about her that one wonders if she were fated to bind herself to the English-raised oil company executive with ambitions of writing.
Ray, on the other hand, is easy to figure out. He had a thing for taking care of women, a trait he passed on to his detective hero Philip Marlowe. He took care of his ailing mother, until she died. Two weeks later, he married Cissy. He was 35. She said she was 43, but she was actually a decade older. Ray may not have known her true age, but as the years passed, he probably guessed.
Still, he stuck by her, and the marriage had its ups and downs, the latter due to Chandler’s developing alcoholism, which oscillated like a sine wave. He went down in the early years of their marriage, neglected his work, carried on affairs, and got himself fired. He dried himself out and worked at becoming a writer. He kept himself to himself, and to Cissy, and for the next ten years, turned out the short stories and most of novels on which his reputation rests.
His life took another turn when MGM hired him to write scripts. The money was great, and he won an Oscar for co-writing “Double Indemnity” with Billy Wilder. His return to socializing also reignited his drinking problem, which led to more affairs and put a severe strain on his marriage.
As marriages go, it had its ups and downs like most. That he was deeply attached to his wife, there’s no doubt. After she died, he lasted only five sad years without her, as he drank and searched for another woman to succor.
In her own way, Judith Freeman seeks to protect Chandler. She admits she grew besotted with him, to the point of preferring his favorite drink, vodka gimlets. And in describing his life, describes situations and incidents in his life, then pirouette on the logic, and the resulting flux in space-time logic creates a pretzel bend in the narrative.
During the long section dealing with his sexuality, she quotes incident after incident that indicates an abiding attraction for men. He disdained homosexually (“They are sick people who try to conceal their sickness. My reaction may be uncharitable: they just make me sick.”), yet he pegged the gaydar of those who would know, such as Natasha Spender, wife of the poet Stephen Spender.
Then there’s his prose, describing men who, in the words of Kinky Friedman, could become secretly, frequently, fond of each other. Take this section from “Farewell, My Lovely,” in which Marlowe is describing Red Norgaard:
He had the eyes you never see, that you only read about. Violet eyes. Almost purple. Eyes like a girl, a lovely girl. His skin was as soft as silk. Lightly reddened, but it would never tan. It was too delicate … he was not as big as Moose Malloy, but he looked very fast on his feet.
Or Chandler’s description of a fight between a naked white man, wet from a shower and a black burglar in “Pickup on Noon Street”. It’s one of several stories in which, Freeman writes, “the whiff of homosexual attraction hangs … like a cloud of cheap aftershave.” She writes:
in the ensuing struggle, the two men grapple and fight for the gun, which “slides” over Pete’s flesh in a blatantly erotic manner until, bodies still entwined, Pete manages to shoot The Smiler, then “let him down on the floor and stood panting … and put his underclothes and socks and shoes on.”
But when it’s time for Freeman to reach a conclusion, she pulls out: “What difference did it really make if he was a repressed homosexual, or the red-blooded male he had believed Marlowe to be?”
“The Long Embrace” is a labor of love. Freeman trolls through the two collections of Chandler’s papers, split between California and Oxford, and comes up with some evocative items, among them the passport photo and the list, in Cissy’s writing, of the animal knick-knacks they collected, with their cute names.
As part of her research, she follows the Chandlers in their frequent moves. Except for one period, when they spent eight years in a house overlooking the sea in La Jolla, outside of San Diego, they moved yearly among a series of furnished apartments. The list of addresses reads like an atlas: Redondo Beach, Santa Monica, Silverlake, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Big Bear Lake, Cathedral City.
“The Long Embrace” includes a wonderful map of L.A. that pinpoints the Chandlers’ known residences. It’s a beautiful piece of graphic design, and it raises some questions about Chandler’s knowledge of L.A. For example, 19 of the 35 locations form a neat band running across northern L.A., from Silver Lake to Santa Monica on the Pacific. Except for a few scattered outposts inland, and several sites in La Jolla, that’s it. Why so many, and why so concentrated? Freeman couldn’t begin to locate an answer, and her one comment — “I felt quite sure that finances had played a pretty big part in the Chandlers’ moving so often” — makes no sense and is not backed up by any evidence.
Not surprisingly, time has not been good to the Chandler residences. Some have fallen to the bulldozers. Others were occupied by people who never heard of Chandler and wanted nothing to do with this strange white woman with her camera. But she comes across the house in LaJolla, the only one they bought, just before it was destroyed. This was the one they stayed in the longest, the one in which Cissy died, and miraculously it had changed little since then. Here, Freeman’s quest was worthwhile.
But with that exception, it’s not the houses that tell us something about the Chandlers, it’s the fact that they were never willing to put down roots. Ray blamed L.A., but he was never much for companionship, except when drunk, and when he wasn’t, willingly spent living a quiet life with Cissy. Because he never seemed happy with either state, his criticism seems more like projection.
This is the sort of discussion “The Long Embrace” generates. I read this book more than a month ago, and I still catch myself reflecting on Ray and Cissy’s peripatetic life. In her roundabout way, Freeman created a very human Raymond Chandler, who knew that life was 6 to 5 against, but placed his bet anyway.