Twenty years ago, Judith Freeman became "obsessed," as she puts it, with Raymond Chandler, whose novels featuring the private detective Philip Marlowe still make up the most iconic literary portrait of Los Angeles. When, in 2003, Freeman began writing "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved," she found herself on a quest leading in many different directions.
The author of a short-story collection and four novels, Freeman was raised in Utah. She had moved to Los Angeles in the late '70s and was living in one of Chandler's old neighborhoods when she began reading his letters. She became captivated by Chandler's wife Cissy. A fey, ethereally beautiful sophisticate with a past as a nude model in New York, Cissy was living with her second husband on South Vendome when she and Chandler met around 1913. Their affair began after he'd returned from the Great War, and they married in 1924. At the time, Chandler was 35 and thought his bride was 43. Only gradually did he learn she was 18 years his senior.
It was the absence of information in Chandler's letters and Frank McShane's 1976 biography that made Cissy an enigma in Freeman's eyes and prompted her decision to "possibly bring her to life." As she tried to fathom the nature of the Chandlers' 30-year marriage -- which incorporated elements of courtly love and withstood his alcoholism, philandering, and her long decline into invalidism -- she was confronted with the couple's itinerant lifestyle.
They changed addresses over 30 times in Los Angeles and Southern California. They lived downtown and in Hollywood, in Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, San Bernardino, Monrovia, Idyllwild and Cathedral City, in the mountains and the desert, sometimes changing residences twice a year. They were as restless as an alley cat on a velvet cushion.
Why they couldn't stay put is a mystery that might have baffled Marlowe, at least temporarily. Without donning a trench coat, Freeman had a crack at solving it.
"I think Ray was constantly searching," she said, "but they also liked this idea of mobility, the fact that you could get a new car and go to Big Bear for the summers, to the desert for the winters, and if, you didn't like it, to Santa Monica or Arcadia, Brentwood or Silver Lake. This possibility was introduced not just by the automobile, but by their sense of general detachment from any kind of past family."
Asked if she feels there was a neurotic element in the Chandlers' nomadism, Freeman said "there is something deeply unsettled about it. In A.A. meetings they use the term 'going geographic' of an alcoholic personality to describe that idea of constantly moving, running, probably trying to escape and find at the same time."
"I don't know if Chandler was running from something," said David Thomson, who wrote a monograph on Howard Hawks' film of Chandler's "The Big Sleep." "Maybe he was a kind of hotel writer -- a little like Nabokov -- in that he never had much need to be 'at home.' He had a hero who seems to live in a very plain room and waits to be invited out by fate. I think of him as someone who found his dream and so inhabited it as much as he could."
The Chandlers nearly parted in 1932 when Ray's persistent drunkenness and workplace affairs cost him his executive job at Dabney Oil.
"This was the major disruption in his life," said Alain Silver, the coauthor of "Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles." "His peripatetic lifestyle became more urgent. The simplest reason he was constantly moving was that the rent would go up. By the time he could support himself and Cissy with his writing, the moving had become a habit. It maintained the displacement he'd known as a youth." He and his mother had been abandoned by his father when he was 7.
The marriage was threatened again when Chandler was lured to Hollywood in 1943 to write "Double Indemnity" with Billy Wilder. But over the long course, Freeman said, husband and wife sustained each other. Freeman says Chandler was "very conscious" of his knightly code. "I think it was forcibly instilled in him at Dulwich College in England. Then Cissy gave him the wonderfully strange nickname of Gallibeoth" -- redolent of Galahad-- "when they were still having an affair. This was a persona he adopted and that she completely embraced and reaffirmed, 12 years before he wrote his first short story. She became the enabler of his vision of the private eye who functions as a rescuer of humanity."
Freeman asserts that Cissy provided Chandler with a haven from the corruption, vice and brutality he considered endemic to Los Angeles -- and which fueled his finest writing. "They created this little island of civility within this wacky crackpot capital of the world, as Chandler called it. I think he must have been seduced by the city at first, but by the time he got through the studio system he was sick of it.