"No one understands me, Mrs. Loring. I'm an enigma." Thus spoke Phillip Marlowe, legendary tough guy, the creation of Raymond Chandler, who was more edgy and irritable than tough, who both loved and feared beautiful women, who was mother-ridden and possibly a little gay, and who battled two great demons in his life: alcohol, and the complex sorrow of having married a woman much older than himself
(how much older he perhaps never knew) and of loving her obsessively, and of having to watch her grow old and die, slowly, while he was still young enough to write, and, he once boasted, to copulate.
The grand saga that novelist Judith Freeman (The Chinchilla Farm,
Set for Life, etc.) has painstakingly constructed serves up a Chandler who is not Marlowe, a Marlowe who was his fantasy of a real man. Freeman's Chandler is more English than American (he once stated, "in England, I'm an author. In the USA just a mystery writer. Can't tell you why.") Abandoned by his father at age
seven, it was a foregone conclusion that he would stay with his footloose, forever-victimized Irish mother, and perhaps from that it can be foreseen that he would marry a mothering type. But what a mother. Pearl, always known as Cissy, was a pianist, a bohemian who lied about her age even in her
twenties. She had an elegant beauty that lives on in the only four photographs that Freeman was able to locate. Pale and red-haired, Cissy was the unattainable female that haunts nearly all of Chandler's writings. A witch rather than a bitch, she requires homage. Chandler loved Cissy from the day they married until her agonized death in her eighties. She was in her early fifties when they met. He was 18 years younger.
One of the first things Freeman discovered as she delved into the life of Ray and Cissy was that they moved constantly, sometimes as often as three times in a year.
Thirty-six different dwellings in 30 years. They generally rented furnished digs, only once actually purchasing a home in La Jolla by the sea. Ray bought that house for Cissy, declaring that he himself did not like the sea. Marlowesque he stated, "Too much water, too many drowned men." Throughout their relationship, three factors predominated: Chandler's determination to make himself into a writer, at which he succeeded; his inability to live vibrantly without liquor (he made a deal with Paramount to finish the script for
The Blue Dahlia only if he could be allowed to get drunk for the duration); and Cissy's bizarre old-worldly femininity, her pink boudoir and her determination to preserve the glamour of her youth.
The photographs of Cissy that have survived include a dreamy picture of her in younger years, projecting a soft loveliness that, "as Marlowe once said, an old rake dreams of." Then there is a formal softened version of her, a little plump, already in her middle age, one picture that Chandler snapped of her walking away, and a passport photo, remarkably the only portrayal of the two together. At least 80 at the time, Cissy appears pale, slim and undeniably attractive to Chandler's grimace and rough pallor.
This book is an almost too-intimate portrait of two people who loved one another passionately and were bound by need. Chandler had to have a keeper, and Cissy knew that. Cissy had to be worshipped, and Ray was willing, even as he had affairs at times with the chic younger women of Hollywood. He always required that everyone, from his friends to waitresses and other strangers, pay proper obeisance to his charming spouse. Sadly, Chandler destroyed all correspondence between himself and Cissy after her death, so her personality and her possible influence on his writing can never be properly gauged.
Freeman went to the Chandler's many dwellings in chronological order to put this very readable non-biography together. Her own prose is mature and sharp, showing a way with words that Chandler would have recognized. If you admire his books, read this paean to the man.