The subtitle pretty much covers it in this by turns revelatory and frustrating chronicle of tough author Raymond Chandler’s relationship with his much senior wife Cissy. It was a classic case of a most unlikely romance. They met in California soon after the end of WW1. He was working as an oil company executive, in reality little more than a glorified accountant. She was then into a second marriage which she eventually left in 1920. Chandler’s mother, whom he took care of and financially supported, disapproved of Cissy thus Chandler demurred from marrying her until his mother’s passing four years later.
The whimsical, theatrical Cissy was a curious choice for the wafty, über-Anglophile Raymond, who was born in Chicago but raised and educated in England. Cissy grew up in rural Ohio and moved to New York at twenty, where her free spirited ways included modeling for nude photographs, the same impulse of which may have expressed itself later in her fondness for doing housekeeping chores unclothed. Along the way she adopted the more modish appellation ‘Cissy,’ her birth name having been the singularly unstylish Pearl Eugenie Hurlburt. Upon her arrival in California she continued her bohemian ways, and her genuine artistic talents included being a fair amateur pianist. It all made for quite the contrast to the reclusive, rather cool Chandler.
Cissy had the habit of gradually taking years off her age as she got older. Her fetching looks and buoyant energy helped sell the deception. It’s been speculated that Chandler thought her to be at least ten years younger than her actual age at the time of their marriage, and some sources suggest he never knew her real age.
As a result of erratic work habits, among them drunkenness and a roving eye, Chandler was sacked from his plum job in 1933. In a lean but by all accounts happy decade for them in the 1930s he supported himself and Cissy by writing short stories for Black Mask and other magazines. Then Chandler hit the big leagues with the first Philip Marlowe novel The Big Sleep in 1939, after which one success followed another. Curiously, Cissy never much cared for his tales. But no matter. Chandler suddenly found himself a literary luminary, one of the spoils being lucrative if sporadic work as a screenwriter. This led to other rewards, of a type, mostly temptations in the form of secretaries and starlets, temptations to which Chandler sometimes succumbed.
Chandler spent much of the late Forties and early Fifties caring for Cissy, who by that time was in frail health. Their ill-advised trip to London in 1952 only made matters worse. Cissy passed on in December 1953 and in one sense Chandler also died then, even if it took five years of steady drinking for the physical demise to catch up. His final years were an uneasy combination of basking in celebrity status, visits to London, writing what barely passed for a final novel, and half-hearted attempts at liaisons with women, all experienced through a perpetual alcoholic haze. He died in March 1959, and his funeral was attended by seventeen people.
Chandler left instructions that his and Cissy’s letters be destroyed. The lacuna is one of the maddening aspects of Chandler scholarship, and it’s been the bane of biographers to otherwise explain a tough guy’s devoted loyalty – after a fashion – to a woman eighteen years his senior. Freeman offers no definitive explanations but gives us tantalizing glimpses, clues, and most of all, atmosphere, inevitably focusing on the city Chandler/Marlowe loved to hate, Los Angeles.
If I always knew what I meant, I’d be a genius – Raymond Chandler
An avowed Chandler obsessive – she calls him ‘Ray’ in the book – Freeman gives us a portrait that’s more mood piece and meditation than conventional biography, much less literary criticism. She lovingly describes her dutiful pilgrimages to the more than 30 homes and apartments where Chandler and Cissy lived in Southern California. She also recounts more spartan sleuthing at UCLA and the Chandler Archives at the Bodleian Library at Oxford (all 83 boxes).
The Long Embrace’s many pluses include the author’s smooth prose and the well chosen, in many cases not so familiar, photographs, several taken by the author herself. However – lots of sources are tossed about in the text and while there’s the obligatory acknowledgments section we’ve nary a footnote, not even a general bibliography.
Nonetheless Freeman weaves a beguiling, well nigh irresistible tale, presenting her story much like a twisty-turny mystery novel. Her prose is so good we sense the long shadow of Chandler hovering over her and creeping into her writing. This passage, for example, which might have rolled off the pen of the great man himself:
… or do you just make a fantasy world and a man named Marlowe and live with him there for much of the time, looking for that one male friend you never had? It’s a place to go anyway. A place to hide out and be your best self, away from all the needy good women. There you can meet real female foes, and sex sirens, blonde bombshells, ladies who can’t get enough, and you can be the one to tell them to get lost. You can have the bon mot for every occasion.
Then this, albeit less Marlowesque, observation:
Perhaps he may also have had longings for men. Women were so complicated. Men were comfortably simple in comparison, and a man’s world is an emotionally safe world.
In sum, The Long Embrace is a terrific book and Chandler buffs will lap it up like catnip. It gives us greater insight into Chandler’s psyche but in its way also renders him more of an enigma than ever.
Further reading : Michael Dirda, Raymond Chandler, gritty enchanter,Times Literary Supplement 26 Oct 2012 ; Raymond Chandler (the hard-boiled Proust): A Mysterious Something in the Light ; Dilys Powell, “Ray and Cissy.” In: The World of Raymond Chandler. Ed. Miriam Gross. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), 81-87.