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LITERARY LANDSCAPE

Tracking Chandler's every move

Why was the writer so restless, moving from one L.A. residence to another? It's something of a mystery.

December 23, 2004|Judith Freeman | Special to The Times

Raymond Chandler has been called the major social historian of Los Angeles, and perhaps one reason he wrote about the city so well is that he knew it from so many different angles: He lived in more than 30 rented houses and apartments in and around L.A. in as many years.

Reading his letters, one can't help noticing how often the addresses atop them changed. Recently I decided to track down all these places as part of the research for a book I'm writing on Chandler and his wife, Cissy. I wanted to see if I could discover any trace of their lives, but I also wanted to answer two questions: Why did they move so often -- sometimes two or three times a year? And what effect did those moves have on his writing?

One thing we know is that Chandler and his wife were very fussy people. It was easy for them to find something wrong with wherever they lived. More to the point, Chandler was a restless person whose many childhood moves with his mother -- first from the Midwest to England, and then to various residences in London -- set an early pattern of restlessness.

"I've always been a gypsy at heart, accustomed to a more nomadic lifestyle," he once wrote to English novelist W. Somerset Maugham. "I seem to require an ever-changing scene and new people.... I'm constantly seeking new places to stimulate me."

He wrote so perceptively about all segments of L.A. society -- cops and crooks, starlets and chiselers, the rich and the poor -- in part because he'd moved so freely around the city. And he used the locales in his stories.

However, many of the places where Chandler lived in L.A. don't exist anymore. At least half have been replaced by something else. It seemed to me that in my search, I was discovering how Los Angeles is a city of architectural disposability, forever in the process of erasing its rather recent past.

Chandler's frequent moves were not the only unusual aspect of his life. Another was his unconventional marriage to a much older woman. He was 35 when he wed the newly divorced Cissy Pascal in 1924. Cissy was 53, although she listed her age as 43 on their marriage certificate, and it's generally believed that only later did Chandler discover he'd married a woman not eight years older, but 18.

Over the years, the couple grew increasingly reclusive and moved to places near downtown (many along the Wilshire corridor near the old Ambassador Hotel) and to Santa Monica, Brentwood, Redondo Beach, Hollywood, Pacific Palisades, the Fairfax district, Arcadia, Monrovia, mid-Wilshire and Silver Lake, plus Riverside, Big Bear, Idyllwild and Cathedral City.

Chandler began his life in L.A. in 1912, on Bonnie Brae Street, as the houseguest of the Warren Lloyd family -- wealthy Angelenos he'd met on the boat that brought him to America at the age of 24. The Lloyds convinced him that L.A. was a thriving city and suggested they'd help him get settled. Eventually Chandler took them up on their offer, and Warren found him a job as an accountant at the Los Angeles Creamery.

The Lloyds occupied a large house at 713 Bonnie Brae St., not far from MacArthur Park. What was once a fashionable neighborhood has become a hard-core urban residential area, with only a few Victorian-era mansions still standing. Where the Lloyds lived are now three small storefronts -- a Latino market, a hair salon and an evangelical church.

Chandler eventually moved to an apartment of his own, at the top of Angels Flight. His mother, Florence, came from England to live with him. The Angels Flight apartment is long gone, a victim of downtown redevelopment. So is the little bungalow court at 311 S. Loma Drive, where Chandler and his mother moved next. It's been replaced by a large low-income housing project.

But their next residence is still there, at 127 S. Vendome St., just east of Vermont between Beverly Boulevard and 2nd Street. This is where Cissy and her then husband, composer-musician Julian Pascal, were living when Chandler met the couple at a musical evening at the Lloyds' and fell in love with Cissy. It's also where his mother stayed while Chandler was away in France fighting in World War I, and where he lived for a while upon his return.

Shortly after he came back from the war, Chandler and Cissy declared their love for each other and Cissy divorced her husband. Chandler's mother did not approve of their relationship, however, and so they lived in separate apartments -- Chandler and his mother in Redondo Beach, and Cissy in nearby Huntington Beach, until Chandler's mother died four years later and they were able to marry. They moved back to the city center, to a double house at 2863 Leeward St., near Hoover and 8th streets -- a house that no longer exists.

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