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Farewell, My Lovely Landmark

August 09, 2004|Steve Chapple

LA JOLLA — I am reading "The Long Goodbye" on the flagstone patio outside the room where it was written, the back study of Raymond Chandler's old home, 6005 Camino de la Costa, overlooking Bird Rock. A friend of mine leases this 1941 adobe-style ranch house with its ringside view of paradise and its sterling literary pedigree.

"I'm a licensed private investigator," the book explains, "have been for quite a while. I'm a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged and not rich. I've been in jail more than once and I don't do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and few other things. The cops don't like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with."

That's Philip Marlowe talking, of course, Chandler's creation, the "culminating American hero," as Robert Parker once wrote, "wised up, hopeful, thoughtful, adventurous, sentimental, cynical and rebellious."

Chandler launched a noir industry, creating the very fabric of L.A. as we know it, an operating myth of lust and corruption redeemed by style and occasional acts of kindness. His writings were once considered "hard-boiled fiction," just knocking on the door of the great tomb of Literature. He turned out to be the Camus of the Southland, with maybe a better moral compass.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 12, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Raymond Chandler -- In a commentary Monday about preserving Chandler's La Jolla home, the proximity of his death to a suicide attempt was incorrect. He died five years later, in 1959, not months later as stated.

"Chandler wrote like a slumming angel," said Ross Macdonald, "and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence." But for the last decade of his life, Chandler lived and wrote here in La Jolla, in a place that has its own romantic presence -- for now.

In early September, the Chandler house is scheduled to be remodeled -- on a grand scale. A Chicago concern, Glen Eagle Partners Ltd., owns the place and created plans to add a contemporary second story, a room on the ground floor, new windows, new siding -- to "make it bigger and make it fancier and then sell it for a lot of money," Barry Katz, chief financial officer of Glen Eagle, told a reporter a couple of weeks ago. The owners, who apparently knew nothing of the Chandler connection, had no plans to preserve any part of the house as a cultural landmark.

But cultural landmark it is.

"We have moved to La Jolla permanently," Chandler wrote his editor in 1946, "or as permanent as anything can be nowadays." Later he wrote another friend: "Our living room has a picture window which looks south across the bay to Point Loma, the most westerly part of San Diego, and at night there is a long lighted coastline almost in our laps. A radio writer came down here to see me once and he sat down in front of this window and cried because it was so beautiful. But we live here, and the hell with it."

In addition to "The Long Goodbye," Chandler wrote "The Little Sister" in the house, and "Playback," and a few major screenplays. Then, after 10 good years, his emotions went south with the birds after his wife, Cissy -- Pearl Cecily Chandler, the love of his life and 18 years his senior -- died. Chandler got out a pistol and phoned the La Jolla cops, who revered him. Two shots went off in the front-hall bathroom. Chandler called it "the most inefficient attempt at suicide on record," but he wasn't long for this world anyway, dying months later of pneumonia at the Scripps Clinic.

I've morbidly searched the bathroom ceiling for bullet holes, and smiled at the rock posters on the wall of Chandler's study, still lined with the original bookcases but now a teenage girl's boudoir for my friend's daughter. Every once in a while, fans and soft-boiled young writers knock on their front door; it's as close to a shrine as they will ever get.

And it should stay that way. It's not too late. The Chandler house could still be designated a historic site in San Diego. At the very least, it could get a brass plaque. Better yet, the city's historic resources board, or even Glen Eagle, could see to it that the study is preserved, along with the heavy wooden front door, the patio between the two horseshoe-shaped wings, the period rafter tails, the details that conjure up Chandler's world.

Best of all it might receive full preservation treatment, like Steinbeck's house in Salinas or Hemingway's in Key West. But that would no doubt require a non-slumming angel, or flock of angels -- Glen Eagle reportedly paid $2.7 million for it last year.

"Shouldn't any remodel respect Chandler's years here, years filled with success and despair?" Katz was asked.

The CFO deferred to his boss: "Seeing as how he's not a fan of film noir nor literature noir, I kind of doubt it," said Katz. "That's not the kind of thing that would go to his soul."

I can almost hear Chandler's laugh. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to save the house.

*

Steve Chapple grew up in La Jolla and Montana. His last book was "Confessions of an Eco- Redneck" (HarperCollins, 2002).

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