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Channeling Raymond Chandler

With dogged detective work, USC College’s Judith Freeman uncovers the mystery of the enigmatic novelist’s life.

By Pamela J. Johnson
March 1, 2008


Channeling Raymond Chandler
Video by Mira Zimet

In her new book, author Judith Freeman imagines herself slipping into the living room of her protagonists Raymond and Cissy Chandler.

“I could close my eyes and be with them,” Freeman writes in The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (Pantheon Books, 2007).

Freeman envisions Cissy reclining on a couch, filing her nails, listening to Mozart and gazing out a window at the sea. She sees Raymond doting on her. Taki, the couple’s black Persian cat, is commanding their attention, amusing them, curled up between them on the sofa, which they do not call sofa, but a davenport.

In The Long Embrace, Freeman, an instructor in USC College’s Master of Professional Writing (MPW) Program, presents a remarkably intimate, vivid picture of arguably America’s greatest crime fiction writer and his otherworldly marriage to a woman 18 years his senior.

Reading the 337-page book feels almost like bellying up to the bar with the enigmatic Chandler himself and getting to know him over a few gimlets straight up — one of Chandler’s favorite cocktails.

We learn Chandler preferred gimlets when Freeman begins haunting Los Angeles cafés, bars and hotels described in Chandler’s fiction. She wants to taste what Chandler tasted and begins ordering gimlets.

“A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else,” Chandler once wrote. “It beats a martini hollow.”

Written in an engaging, almost gonzo journalism style, Freeman’s book takes readers on an intense ride filled with slice-of-life L.A., detailed descriptions, and even scents and tastes exposing Raymond Chandler’s psyche.

Author Janet Fitch, also an MPW instructor, said it best when describing the book as “part biography, part detective story, part love story and part séance.”

Freeman was able to speak with such authority because of her unrelenting, gumshoe reporting.

With the tenacity and zeal of the morally upright Philip Marlowe, the private eye hero in Chandler’s novels, Freeman tracked down, visited and photographed the 36 or so residences where the constantly-moving Chandler once lived in Southern California, mostly in Los Angeles.

She even spent time in a room at the Mayfair Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where Chandler lived briefly during a split from Cissy. In the book, Freeman describes gazing out the window at the same view Chandler must have had when he threatened to jump during that turbulent time in his life — one of the alcoholic crime author’s few suicide threats or attempts.

“I looked down,” Freeman writes. “It was a very long way to the sidewalk.”

She probed Chandler’s imagination by visiting many of the vestiges of Los Angeles where Chandler set his stories.

To gather more insight into Cissy, Freeman traveled to New York and tracked down the address where Cissy lived when she was a young woman working as a nude model for artists. Freeman spent time in Cissy’s old neighborhood in Harlem.

Understanding the thrice-married Cissy and her ironclad bond with Chandler was not an easy task for Freeman.

Chandler met Cissy shortly after he left London at age 24 and arrived in Los Angeles in 1913. The fair-haired beauty and classical pianist was “irresistible,” as Chandler put it, “without even knowing it or caring much about it.”

She was also married to her second husband, a good friend of Raymond and his mother’s. When Chandler enlisted in the Canadian military and took off to fight in World War I, the two wrote each other, presumably impassioned love letters.

They eventually married in 1924. He was 35 and Cissy was 53, although she deducted 10 years from her age in their marriage certificate. Freeman argues that Chandler likely did not know Cissy’s true age until many years later.

Before Chandler died in 1959 at age 70, about four years after Cissy’s death, he burned all her letters.

Freeman gained more insight about Chandler and Cissy by traveling to England and conducting research at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Working in the Chandler archive, she examined 82 boxes filled with thousands of letters, notes, poems and other papers.

So when Freeman writes of her daydreams that gave her the “feeling of being in [Raymond and Cissy’s] presence,” the images and conversations she describes are largely based on fact.

“I’ve read about their lives,” began Freeman, who speaks with the kind of grace and warmth that one imagines the world-weary Chandler would have found soothing. “I’ve been to the archive at the Bodleian. I have many, many details.

“I know what color Cissy’s dressing gowns were,” she continued. “I know that she awoke at midnight often, and that Chandler would always stay up just in case she wanted a cup of tea. I know that she was languorous. I know that she didn’t have a great deal of energy as she aged. I know of all their little rituals of listening to the same classical music program every night. I know that they had tea every afternoon.

“So even though it seems as though I am making up a life for these people, in fact, that reverie is really rising out of a great deal of factual information,” Freeman said.

With The Long Embrace, Freeman, who moved from Idaho to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, has also produced a book chronicling the development of L.A., a new metropolis when Chandler arrived.

“It was such a wonderful landscape to explore,” Freeman said. “And I think Raymond Chandler was kind of an explorer at heart. Because he moved over three dozen times in and around L.A., I really believe this is part of the reason that he captured the city so well in his fiction.”

But most of all, Freeman said, the book was an exploration of the complexities of marriage.

“I was struck by Chandler’s phrase that what’s really important is a loving presence in the home,” Freeman said. “The key word is ‘loving.’ That’s what Chandler and Cissy had. And it’s what carried them through some really hard times.”