Raymond Chandler

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 990

Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888. He was the only child of Maurice Benjamin Chandler, a railroad worker, and Florence Dart Chandler (né Thornton), an Irishwoman who immigrated to Plattsmouth, Nebraska. Maurice was an alcoholic, and he and Florence were divorced when their son was seven years old. Raymond and his mother moved to London to live with his severe grandmother and his unmarried Aunt Ethel. His uncle, Ernest Thornton, an Irish solicitor, reluctantly supported this entire household. Chandler felt abandoned by his father and so developed a strong loyalty to his mother and a sense of justice that manifested itself later in his novels.

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Chandler attended Dulwich College, a typical English public school. There he studied the Bible and the Greek and Roman classics, a course of study designed to teach a strict Victorian moral code emphasizing honor, public service, and self-denial. This code profoundly affected Chandler’s personality, and it formed the basis for the character of Philip Marlowe, the hero of Chandler’s best-known works.

In 1905, when he was seventeen, Chandler graduated from Dulwich near the head of his class. He wanted to go to a university to study law, but his uncle refused to pay his tuition, deciding instead that Chandler should seek a career in the government. Chandler spent a year studying in France and Germany and became a British citizen to qualify for the civil service examination, which he passed easily. Yet, after six months in his job as an accountant for the navy, he quit to become a writer, much to the chagrin of his Uncle Ernest.

Chandler spent the next few years writing for newspapers and submitting articles and reviews to literary magazines but made very little money from his writing. In 1912, when he was twenty-three years old, he borrowed five hundred pounds from his uncle and sailed to the United States. Chandler went to St. Louis, then to Nebraska. He soon moved on to Los Angeles, however, to stay with a family he had met on his passage to America. Warren Lloyd, the father, was a Ph.D. in philosophy who became moderately wealthy from his dealings in the oil business. He found Chandler a job, and Chandler joined his social circle. There Chandler met Cissy Pascal, who was then married to one of Lloyd’s friends.

Chandler’s mother joined him in Los Angeles in 1916. In 1917, he went to Canada to join the army to fight in World War I. He was the only member of his unit to survive a German artillery barrage in France in June, 1918. By 1919, he was back in the United States. He felt rootless, and he wandered up to the Pacific Northwest, then to San Francisco, where he worked in a bank. He soon returned to Los Angeles, however, and began his affair with Pascal. She was divorced from her husband in 1920, but she and Chandler did not marry until 1924, after his mother died. At this time, Chandler was thirty-five years old; Cissy was fifty-three, although she looked younger. Their marriage was often troubled, but they remained together for thirty years, until she died.

By this time, Chandler had taken a job with the Dabney Oil Syndicate, of which he eventually became vice president. During his years in the oil business, he developed a problem with alcoholism that eventually led to his dismissal. He was now forty-five years old. He gave up drinking and began to write for the pulp magazines, contributing his first story to Black Mask magazine in 1933. He supported his family this way for six years. Finally, in 1939, when he was fifty years old, his first novel, The Big Sleep, was published.

Although the book sold well, Chandler made only two thousand dollars on it. His second book, Farewell, My Lovely, published in 1940, received good critical reviews but sold sluggishly, as did his third novel, The High Window (1942). He achieved his best sales with his fourth book, The Lady in the Lake, published in 1943. Now he had established himself as a novelist, and he had attracted the attention of Hollywood.

In 1943, he went to Paramount Studios to work with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for the novel Double Indemnity (1936) by James M. Cain. Both this script and the script Chandler wrote for The Blue Dahlia in 1946 were nominated for Academy Awards. The years in Hollywood were profitable for Chandler, but they were also destructive. In the sociable studio atmosphere, he began to drink again, and he had several affairs. His screenwriting career ended in a series of bitter, petty quarrels.

Chandler escaped Hollywood in 1946, when he and Cissy moved to La Jolla, California. He gave up alcohol again and wrote two more novels: The Little Sister, published in 1949, and The Long Goodbye, published in 1953. Although he finally had fame and enough money to be comfortable, he could not be happy. He became ill with shingles and developed a skin allergy that caused the tips of his fingers to split open. It was so painful that he had to wear gloves to read and bandage his fingers to type. When this allergic rash spread over his chest, he required morphine to withstand the pain. Cissy’s health also deteriorated, and she died of fibrosis of the lung in 1954.

Cissy’s death drove Chandler to despair, and he began drinking again in earnest. He attempted suicide early in 1955. During the last four years of his life, he divided his time between London and La Jolla. Under the influence of his literary agent, Helga Greene, he remained sober long enough to publish one last novel, Playback, in 1958.

In February, 1959, the Mystery Writers of America elected him president, and he flew to New York to accept his office. He caught a cold there and returned to La Jolla alone. He secluded himself and began drinking heavily. His cold developed into pneumonia, and he died at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla on March 26, 1959.

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