If you’re looking for a book that is a biography on Raymond Chandler, this might be a bit too stuffed with extraneous history not about Chandler for your needs. It gives plenty of insight into Chandler’s personal life but Judith Freeman presents her narrative as a person exploring Los Angeles. She visited all of the places where Raymond Chandler lived in the city with his wife Cissy. It’s as if she traveled back in time and was able to see things play out in front of her as if she were an acquaintance of the couple watching and writing about them.
Suzanne Toren’s impeccable performance hooked me and may be the thing that kept me wanting to hear more. Since the book does have a lot of fat about the times and aesthetics of LA rather in between shorter moments about Chandler, I think I made a great choice in getting the audio version of a book I do have at home and hadn’t continued past a few pages.
Chandler’s hard childhood and frequent moving built up my sympathy for him early on. He had a very co-dependent relationship with his mother. When he wanted to marry a friend’s wife, Chandler doesn’t become the wild playboy a famous noir author might be at first. It’s funny that authors rarely become playboys at all. Chandler’s wife Cissy was twice divorced and nearly his mother’s age which is a fact brought up often. He apparently loved her more than anything but as she aged and fell ill with chronic breathing disorders, their marriage fell apart. They managed to stay married even when he began a steady affair with a secretary at his job at the Dabney Oil Syndicate office. Those years of Cissy no longer being the desirable woman in her midlife sexual peak were when Chandler’s drinking was out of control. He would spend days away with his mistress or holed up in a hotel room alone calling all his friends saying he was going to commit suicide. This happened so often they stopped worrying. Eventually the love story continues after Chandler loses his corporate job and financial security; he ends things with the secretary and all the other young women that he would go out with and Cissy took him back.
We don’t get any real look at the mistresses in this narrative until the two significant women at the end of Cissy’s time; one Chandler even wanted to marry but wavered. The women to which the title refers is mostly about his wife and his mother. Even when he and Cissy were only friends, she was his muse. He wrote poems about her and they exchanged steamy love letters. They seemed destined to be together as long as she was willing to go through the lengthy divorce process yet again.
There were so many things about Cissy about I could relate to which is why, I suspect, I was given a copy of the book in the first place. Cissy had been an art model but otherwise didn’t work. Cissy, Chandler and their friends also had spent time exploring the occult world having a strong interest in mysticism. When she fell in love with Chandler, she loved her husband at the same time making the decision of which one to choose painful for her. The three of them would sit down together, as it was explained they were very good friends to begin with, and when asked which she loved more, she couldn’t deny it was Chandler. Cissy didn’t want seem to want to choose, at least not in Freeman’s portrayal of her; and if it had been one man in love with two women, they may have more easily agreed to a quiet polyamorous lifestyle. Too bad that wasn’t something they considered because it would have been a landmark. At a certain point in her age and sickness, Cissy no longer wanted to be photographed. She stayed inside all the time living like a hermit sometimes spending her day in bed entirely.
The author did go off on long tangents which sometimes seemed like the editor could have done a much better job in trimming the story down to keeping the focus on the Chandler relationships. Since it was addressed so often that Cissy was this much older and eventually sickly wife, Freeman went on and on about other May-December romances where famous French women were married to young men. Examples are fine but since Freeman had taken similar detours many times about every little thing from the types of fashion, architecture, and food of the day, it was merely one more time when I wanted to lasso her train of thought back to the point at hand which was supposed to be the life of Raymond Chandler and his relationships. Instead, every detail of Los Angeles, Harlem or other towns of Cissy’s and Chandler’s histories, were explored too much. She often repeated things not as emphasis but more like bad writing. If you explain that Westlake Park was renamed MacArthur Park, you don’t need to explain that again unless there’s a substantial gap since the last time it was mentioned. This author reiterates those kinds of details from one sentence to the next.
Like the men of MAD MEN, mistresses were common. Chandler had an interesting view of this. He said if marriage is not an ideal or sacred thing, then you can sleep with whoever you want and it wouldn’t be any kind of stain on your marriage; however if you did view marriage as an ideal, which he did, then affairs were guilt-ridden and stressful which he tried to overcome by drinking so heavily he would black out. He also didn’t hold a woman’s chastity in high regard. Chandler wasn’t sexually experienced – some say he was repressed – when he met Cissy but he believed women should be sexually liberated. What bothered him wasn’t women having sexual lives, it was when they would cohabitate without being married. Shacking up was far more objectionable and degrading to the woman than enjoying sex. Despite his love and respect of women, Chapter 6 goes into a lot of details about how certain critics believe that Chandler and some of his virile pulp characters were actually homosexual; though according to the research Cissy was not accepting of homosexuality and Chandler was offended that men couldn’t be Platonic soul mates without accusations of sexual desire. I don’t know that Chandler was a very good friend to anyone. His saving grace is how much he loved animals, especially their cat.
Chandler had ordered all of the love letters between him and Cissy to be burned. I’m sure they were the sorts of words to make time stop and hearts skip a beat. How could they be anything else? He was young and used words to express himself long before he became a novelist. I do wonder a lot more about Cissy. I wonder what she was like when her husband began to have affairs and wouldn’t come home. Did she get jealous or was she too tired and weak by then? Did she have anyone besides her sister to talk to when things were that bad? All the medication she took seems to have played a role but did that make her unlovable somehow?
If you are fortunate to be friends with a successful writer and they hand you a book, you read it. That may take 5, 10 or 20 years, but trust someone who knows you well enough to give you a book that reminds you of your own life.