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Two true loves

The Long Embrace Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved Judith Freeman Pantheon: 354 pp., $25.95

November 04, 2007|Richard Rayner | Richard Rayner's new book, "The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California," is due out in January. His column Paperback Writers appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

"I used to like this town. A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the inter-urban line," Raymond Chandler wrote, in the voice of his detective hero, Philip Marlowe, in 1949. "Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good-hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America."

Chandler first came to Los Angeles in 1912, a time so distant in the city's history as to seem almost unreal. The population had only just climbed above 300,000. L.A. was still shaking from the dynamiting of The Times by the McNamara brothers, and Clarence Darrow was on trial for alleged bribery. William Mulholland's titanic aqueduct was incomplete and no water had as yet come from the Owens River Valley. Speedy, efficient streetcars connected downtown with the recently incorporated city of Hollywood and the distant beach towns. Chandler himself belonged to a little intellectual group, the Optimists, formed by his friend Warren Lloyd and meeting weekly at Lloyd's house on South Bonnie Brae Street. Music was played, poetry declaimed, literature and philosophy discussed.

At one of these soirees, Chandler first met Julian Pascal, a concert pianist and music professor, and Pascal's wife, Cissy. "Sexy and experienced, witty and confident, she was everything a young man could want in an older woman," writes Judith Freeman in "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved." "He was sexually repressed and shy, inexperienced with women. Little wonder he found her irresistible."

And irresistible she was. "Cissy was a raging beauty, a strawberry blonde with skin I used to love to touch," Chandler would say later. "I don't know how I ever managed to get her." It took awhile: Cissy, twice-married, a former New York model who liked to do housework in the nude, kept him at arm's length at first.

Chandler enlisted in a Canadian regiment and went off to fight in World War I, in no small part, Freeman argues, "because he found himself in the untenable position of being in love with another man's wife." He came back, or was drawn back, to Los Angeles in 1919. After much argument and discussion, Julian Pascal agreed to bow out of the picture, but Cissy and Chandler didn't marry until 1924, when Chandler's mother -- with whom he'd been living -- died at last from an agonizing cancer. Only then, or a little later, did Chandler learn that Cissy was not eight years older than him, as he'd thought, but eighteen. He was 35, and he'd married a woman of 53.

"All this is the stuff of passion and novels," noted Patricia Highsmith, whose first book, "Strangers on a Train," Chandler would help adapt for the 1951 Hitchcock movie of the same name. "But little of the formidable emotional material that Chandler had at his disposal actually found its way into his writing."

That's not quite true. All his life, Chandler was a divided soul. He was an American, born in Chicago in 1888, yet he grew up mostly in England and received an education at snooty Dulwich College. He longed to live freely yet had a strict moral code. He was too troubled ever to be truly happy, and too inhibited and mannerly to be a freely autobiographical writer.

And yet, this worked for him, in its own way. His heightened sense of his own pleasures and dismays passed into how he caught the atmosphere and moods of L.A. His marriage to Cissy endured, and Los Angeles became a metaphor for the torture and disappointment he sometimes felt.

"The Long Embrace" is an exploration of these two relationships -- Ray and Cissy, Chandler and L.A. It is a beautiful and original book, in which Freeman becomes a double detective, telling the story of this strange yet loving marriage while also tracking down and visiting everywhere that the Chandlers lived in Southern California. That's no small task because Chandler needed movement like he needed air to breathe. "I kept the long list of Chandler addresses taped to the wall next to my desk where I could see it every day: Bonnie Brae Angels Flight Bunker Hill Loma Drive Vendome Catalina Stewart Leeward Longwood Gramercy Meadowbrook . . ." writes Freeman. "The list read like a plainsong of wandering, the liturgy of a long search for a home."

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