Pico Iyer Journeys

Chandler's Women

In all these respects she could not have been more different from a man eighteen years her junior who may have been a virgin when they met and who had grown up living with his mother after his father deserted them when he was just seven. Even at Dulwich Chandler was a “day boy” who returned to his mother’s house every evening, and, only child of a woman he thought of as a “saint,” he brought his mother over to join him when he moved to L.A., and lived with her for four years, while Cissy lived nearby, even after he and Cissy had become a couple (two weeks after his mother died, he took Cissy to the altar). One does not have to suggest, as Freeman does, that Cissy and Flossie bore, in certain photographs, a passing physical resemblance, to see something strange in a young man courting a woman who is almost his mother’s age and even calling her at times “Momma.”

Cissy gave Chandler something to adore–”Marriage is a perpetual courtship,” he wrote toward the end of his life–and every year on their anniversary he filled a room with red roses, while serenading her throughout their years together with flowery poems (“The touch of lips too dear for mortal kisses/ The light of eyes too soft for common days”) that even he could see were “grade-B Georgian.” Almost every evening they listened to classical music on the radio together, and every afternoon they had tea, perhaps even on what they agreed to call the “davenport.” Moving more than 30 times around Southern California in their years together, though never till the very end setting foot outside California as a couple, except for a few day-trips to Tijuana, they all but created and inhabited an out-of-place, out-of-time society of two. Their movements kept them from having many friends and instead of children they had cats and glass animals to whom (Freeman’s research in the Bodleian at Oxford discloses) they gave individual names, such as Snowflake and Violet and Walter.

“You can make all sorts of jokes about sex,” Chandler wrote in characteristic terms near the end of his life, “but at the bottom of his heart every decent man feels that his approach to the woman he loves is an approach to a shrine. If that feeling is lost, as it seems to have been lost (in this country at the moment) all of us are lost with it. The glory has departed. All that is left is to die in the mud.”

Yet the man who repeatedly voiced this creed of stainless romanticism, and who referred to his own “exceptional sexual purity,” was also the man who devoted many of his pages to nymphomaniacs and who all but patented the image of the overwhelming blonde (giving Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake some of their defining roles). Had he remained only fearful and disdainful of the voracious society he saw around him, his books would have had none of their power. It is precisely his ambivalence towards the seductions that confront him, the fact that he is drawn to the fleshly temptations that he goes out of his way to condemn, that gives both Philip Marlowe and his creator their uneasy psychological charge.

Freeman is too thoughtful and agnostic a writer to get lost in Freudian speculations, and though she dutifully investigates the possibility that Chandler was a closet homosexual, she does not claim to come to any answers on the subject. Yet at the same time she does not really explain why it was not the “highly sexed” Cissy who strayed from their marriage but the diffident Chandler. Though he remained courtly and worshipful to the end, it was he who fell prey to adulterous trysts with secretaries while his elderly wife was often bedridden at home. Chandler was 51 when his first novel came out, after all, but she was almost 70, and in a town where, then as now, most men of standing aspired to be seen with girls young enough to be their grand-daughters.

It is the particular strangeness of Chandler’s Victorian code, ultimately–and the source of the books’ moral fury–that it is being advanced in a grasping, unformed new city where morality is regarded as one of those weights that, like history, ought to be committed to the bottom of the ocean. In the 1940s, Los Angeles was so full of murdered young women that it became known as the “Port of Missing Women” and when a former missionary set out to reform a city government already notorious for its rottenness–Freeman describes in some resourceful excavation of local history–his cafeteria was stink-bombed, his home was bombed and then a fellow reformer was blown from his car when he tried to start it up. It was Chandler’s mixed fortune, perhaps, to be born into the very dying of the beau ideal that he had been taught to cherish in school.

Though the end of World War II might have marked the final gasp of British self-confidence, with the dismemberment of Empire, it was really World War I, when so many of the country’s best and brightest died senselessly in the trenches, that killed off its ideals. And Chandler, who had been trained to hold to an old-fashioned gentleman’s code in Edwardian England, found himself, by chance, living in the city that would come to represent both the arrival of a new sovereign power and the invention of a much more rootless and scrambled ethic. He went over to fight in Europe in 1917 with the Gordon Highlanders, a Canadian regiment, and led a platoon that was wiped out by German artillery; later, he would volunteer to serve in the Canadian army again when World War II broke out–though he was in his fifties–and diligently sent food packages to his old classics master at Dulwich. While he was in the trenches, with Cissy’s stepson Gordon, his mother went to live with, of all people, Cissy and her husband.

It is a clash of centuries, as well as of cultures, that Chandler records in his stories of the quixotic, crusading detective–with few friends, no family, no past, really–taking on the dark society around him, and it is one that he witnessed perhaps especially vividly after he got drawn into Hollywood, soon after he began writing novels, in 1943. Where a Wodehouse wrote comedies by keeping his unworldly public-school hero, Bertie Wooster, in a bachelor’s never-never land, a Chandler wrote tragedies–or elegies at least–by placing his in the middle of a painfully real world. You can see where he sets himself by placing Marlowe next to James Bond, only a few years later, the Old Etonian fantasy who picks up available girls and snazzy gadgets without a second thought.

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