One of the best-received Los Angeles-themed books of 2007 was Judith Freeman’s “The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s fictional private detective, has captured the imagination of generations of readers, and few writers ever captured the essence of the city so deftly as Chandler.
Tough guy Marlowe operated in an L.A. that was a corrupt sewer, yet kept his sterling moral character intact. Freeman, who will speak about the detective novelist at the Huntington Library on Wednesday, found an important component to the life and work of the much-dissected Chandler (1888-1959): his complex relationship with his wife Cissy.
Chandler scholars had largely neglected that crucial aspect of the bard of hard-boiled fiction. It was a case of mystery hiding in plain sight. When they married in 1924, Chandler thought she was eight years his senior; she was, in fact, 20.
“Cissy’s an enigma,” says Freeman, the author of four novels. “Chandler created this footloose character, but he cherished the domestic routine she created for him.”
If the idea of a contemporary woman fascinated by an author whose work celebrated a macho hero that treated women roughly is curious, Freeman has an answer: “He was a great writer,” she declares from her L.A. home. “And not many women have written seriously about Chandler; Natasha Spender and Delise Powell are the most notable.”
She’s clear on how Chandler’s writing would appeal to a woman. “I think a lot of women always got him,” she say. “Marlowe never underestimated women, and they like that. Also, Chandler detailed things in a way that few male authors ever did: interiors, faces, scents and clothing. He could be quite sensual — to the point of being almost feminine.”
“I sat on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs. Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-lounge with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at.” — Raymond Chandler, “The Long Goodbye,” 1939
Marlowe enjoyed women but was seldom encumbered or beholden to them. “It wasn’t until his last book, ‘Poodle Springs,’ that Marlowe had a girlfriend,” Freeman says, pointing to the novel Chandler began but left unfinished when he died in La Jolla in 1959. (It was completed in 1989 by Robert B. Parker.) “Chandler’s books were mailed overseas during World War II, and a lot of men were turned on by this maverick figure who answered to no one. Marlowe was an extension of the western hero: a 20th century gunslinger who rode into town and took on the robber barons.”
Though born in America, Chandler was educated in England. When he returned and settled in L.A. in 1924, he supported his mother. He worked as an oil executive, a rich source for his later writing, Freeman contends. “He saw firsthand how corrupt this city was,” she notes. “With Hollywood nearby, it was a corrupt American city with the prettiest façade imaginable.”
L.A. in the 1920s was seen as a sleepy provincial village where nothing much of importance transpired, but a 1922 celebrity murder case inspired much of his writing, which Freeman will discuss at the Huntington.
“In 1922,” Freeman points out, “L.A. had a murder rate that was two and three times greater than New York or Chicago. Many of those were marital killings. I think a lot of women escaped the Midwestern moral stricture they’d grown up with when they came out here.”
Why are Chandler and Marlowe important to today’s readers? “I can only direct people to his books, his letters and his perceptions of American culture in a time of enormous change,” Freeman says.
Where: Friends’ Hall, Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
When: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m. Admission to the lecture is free.
More info: (626) 405-2100, www.huntington.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.