Raymond Chandler’s Early Life

On the fiftieth anniversary of his death, Raymond Chandler tributes are everywhere. Of course his books are truly remarkable, but not much has been known about the early part of his life until recently–ancestry.com has made this kind of research a lot easier in the last few years. I’ve been working on a long piece about Chandler for a project unrelated to this anniversary and it seemed appropriate to offer part of it here. I confess this is a bleeding chunk from an unfinished longer piece and that it needs work, but here it is. [Later additions or annotations in square brackets].

Born in Chicago on July 23, 1888, Chandler was the only child of Florence (Thornton) Chandler and Maurice Chandler. His mother was born in Waterford, Ireland around 1863; his father came from Philadelphia in 1859 and is believed to have been an engineer on the Union Pacific railroad. They married in 1887, [probably in Laramie, Wyoming] but the relationship was not a happy one. Maurice drank heavily and worked away from home a lot. It is probably significant that Chandler and his mother are listed as passengers on a Transatlantic crossing as early as 1889, having visited Ireland without his father while Chandler was still a baby. They also spent long periods staying with Chandler’s aunt and uncle in Plattsmouth, Nebraska while his father was away. By 1895 Chandler’s parents had divorced and he and his mother moved to London, via Waterford, where [Added 30/04/2009 Chandler’s biographers insist that he and his mother finally moved back to England in 1895, following his parents’ divorce, but school records uncovered by Loren Latker show that the Chandlers moved frequently between Chicago and Plattsmouth, where Raymond attended the East Fourth Ward School in 1895 and 1896. Chandler and his mother are recorded in the US census in Plattsmouth in 1900 and appear in the manifest for the S.S. Lake Superior, which sailed out of Montreal for Liverpool in June 1900. This would appear to be the moment they moved back to the UK.] They set up home in Upper Norwood with Chandler’s grandmother and an unmarried aunt, Ethel.

Chandler’s mother was not especially welcome in London, since her divorce [or separation from her husband] was considered a disgrace, but she had little choice other than to accept her family’s help. As biographer Frank MacShane explains, Chandler himself quickly came to be considered the ‘man of the house’ and was especially protective of his mother. [Deleted because it now seems unlikely] At first he attended a local school in Upper Norwood and In the autumn of 1900 he began as a day pupil at Dulwich College, a private school in South London. Discussion of Chandler’s early life often emphasises his immersion in English culture during this period, but the family was wealthy enough to make quite frequent visits to the United States. For example, his mother appears to have made a solo trip to the United States, perhaps to visit her sister, in 1903.

Chandler made a success of his time at Dulwich, where he followed both P.G. Wodehouse as a pupil [C.S. Forester, author of the Hornblower novels and The African Queen was a pupil soon after]. He was especially drawn to the classics, but his Uncle Ernest, who had paid for him to attend the school, would not pay for him to study law at university. Instead he prepared to enter the civil service and travelled in France and Germany, studying languages. In 1907 he became naturalised as a British subject and took his civil service examinations, placing third out of six hundred applicants. He began work at the Admiralty soon afterwards. As MacShane suggests, Chandler may have been intelligent enough for the civil service, but temperamentally he was not well suited. He began publishing poetry in the old-fashioned style he had learned at school, then left the Admiralty to work as a reporter on the Daily Express. When that did not work out he moved to the Westminster Gazette and also wrote reviews for The Academy. None of this was enough for him to earn a living—he simply did not write fast enough—and in 1912 he borrowed £500 from his Uncle Ernest and left for the United States. He was also expected to take responsibility for his mother and according to immigration records he sponsored her arrival in the United States in December that year. He later claimed to have paid off his ‘irate’ uncle in full at six percent interest.

Los Angeles, War, and the Oil Business

At first Chandler lived with his aunt and Uncle Fitt in Omaha, Nebraska but by December 1912 he was in the Bay Area of San Francisco and taking a nightschool course in bookkeeping. He was soon working for the Los Angeles Creamery, a job he acquired with the help of Warren Lloyd a lawyer he had met and befriended during his voyage to the United States. The Lloyd family became an important part of Chandler’s life and it was at one of their cultural evenings that he met Cissy Pascal, then married to the pianist Julian Pascal. She later became his wife.

Exactly where Chandler’s mother fitted into all this is unclear, but  in 1917 they were living at 1419 De la Vina Street, Santa Barbara, where Chandler was employed at the Santa Barbara branch of the creamery. He signed his United States draft registration card on June 17th, claiming exemption from the draft ‘on account mother’. However, according to MacShane ‘he told some friends that he had tried to join the American army, only to be rejected for bad eyesight’ (MacShane, 27). In August he joined the Canadian army, perhaps because he preferred to fight in a British uniform, but more likely, as MacShane surmises, because unlike the American army the Canadians paid his mother a severance allowance. He served in France and was later the sole survivor of an artillery attack on his trench, an episode he wrote up in a sketch called ‘Trench Raid’ and more indirectly in his 1953 novel The Long Goodbye.

Chandler was sent back to England and after a brief period in the Royal Air Force he returned to Los Angeles in 1919 to resume his friendship with the Lloyds and the Pascals. Soon Chandler and Cissy Pascal were in love. She divorced Julian Pascal, but she did not marry Chandler until February 6th, 1924, four months after the death of his mother. According to MacShane Cissy gave her age as forty-three but she was in fact ten years older. Chandler’s new wife was only seven years younger than his mother and it is difficult not to see similarities in his relationships with the two women, both of whom came to depend on him.

With the help of the Lloyds Chandler took a job at the Dabney Oil Syndicate and became part of the California oil boom of the 1920s. The South Basin Oil Company, of which the Dabney companies were a part, competed with Shell in the development of Signal Hill, an oil field which at the time produced a fifth of the world’s oil. Chandler proved to be a talented auditor and a brilliant office manager. According to MacShane he held several directorships and was president of three companies.

Chandler was successful in business, but he was unhappy and his personal life was a mess. His relationship with Cissy as she approached the age of sixty became increasingly difficult. She was sensitive about her age and the way she looked so Chandler often attended social events alone. He began to drink heavily and had affairs with women from the office. In February 1930 he and Cissy separated and Chandler’s drinking worsened. It is unclear how long they remained apart, but a ‘memorandum of agreement’ uncovered by Loren Latker was prepared in March that year to protect Cissy’s financial interests following the separation. Chandler continued on his destructive path and it is possible that they remained apart for most of the following two years. By 1932, when he was fired from his job, Chandler had a reputation as an unreliable drunk, but Cissy’s health was deteriorating and perhaps because of that she and Chandler were together again.

The Pulps

Not much has been made of Chandler’s reinvention as a writer. On his army papers he describes his profession as ‘journalist’ but between the war and the 1930s he wrote very little. After losing his job however, he began almost immediately to teach himself how to write fiction. He began by imitating others, including Ernest Hemingway and Erle Stanley Gardner. He created detailed synopses of the latter’s stories and rewrote them in his own words, comparing the two versions to see where Garner had succeeded and he had failed.

As a well paid oil executive Chandler must have accumulated some money of his own, but he was also supported by Paul Lloyd, who offered him $100 a month in his early years as a writer. Chandler had been earning around $1000 a month as far back the early 1920s and must have felt very insecure in these new circumstances, but he persevered. His first story, for the pulp magazine Black Mask was published in December 1933. It had taken him five months to write and earned him $180. In all in a period of around ten years he published 22 stories in magazines including Black Mask and Dime Detective Magazine. He was published alongside writers such as Gardner, Horace McCoy, W.T. Ballard, and Norbert Davis and at Black Mask he was among the most valuable of editor Joseph ‘Cap’ Shaw’s regular contributors.

During his time writing for the pulp magazines Chandler produced some great stories, but he was also learning his craft and developing a style that would become fully formed in his seven completed novels. He introduced description and style to a genre that favoured plot and sensation and succeeded in changing the expectations not only of the audience but of editors such as Shaw himself. By 1938, at the age of fifty, however, Chandler was outgrowing the possibilities offered by the short stories and ‘novelettes’ of the pulp publishers and had begun writing his first full-blown novel, The Big Sleep.

More Chandler:

Marlowe Goes to the Movies at The Rap Sheet. Great summary, with clips of Chandler adaptations.

The Penguin Blog has the tale of tracking down dust jackets from the Chandler first editions (not easy, apparently).

Judith Freeman in LA Weekly.

LA Times tribute.

James Walton in The Daily Telegraph on Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles‘.

Jake Kerridge, also in the Telegraph on the novels themselves.

By me earlier this week in The Rumpus.

And the Baltimore Sun blog Read Street ran a competition to out-simile Chandler.

Websites:

Loren Latker’s Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles (Shamus Town).

Robert Moss’s Raymond Chandler Website and his blog.

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11 Comments on “Raymond Chandler’s Early Life”

  1. […] College Boy adds quite a few new snippets of information to the early Chandler biography as well as looking at his writing from a Dulwich point of view. The college’s ledger of […]

  2. Margo Prentiss, Curator says:

    Actually Loren Latker contacted Cass County Historical Society in Plattsmouth, NE., for information on Raymond Chandler. It was the staff of Cass County Historical Society who did the research and found information about Mr. Chandler’s early schooling in Plattsmouth.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks for the comment. Clearly there are several aspects to research, one of which is actually sitting down with the documents and reading them, which is what the fine folk at Cass County did. Having been been in the same situation myself I know how it feels when a primary researcher is credited for work done by others. I think Loren deserves credit as primary researcher however for knowing which questions to ask and, following discussions with several Chandler aficionados by email, where to look. Thanks to you and others at Cass County we know quite a bit more about Chandler than we did before.

  3. […] My own take on Chandler’s early life is here. […]

  4. […] Link to Shamus Town. More on Chandler’s early life here. […]

  5. […] Chandler’s relationship with Cissy and his detective work helped with putting together my post last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Chandler’s death. Loren has a useful Raymond Chandler […]

  6. […] the ashes of Cissy Chandler moved from a storage facility to the grave of her husband, crime writer Raymond Chandler, has been successful. The San Diego court granted the petition yesterday. Thanks to anyone who […]

  7. […] Raymond Chandler’s Early Life. Putting right a few longstanding errors in Chandler’s accepted biography. […]

  8. Thank you for re-posting this, Chris. Fascinating stuff! It may strange to say it, but I find it hard to imagine Chandler as a young man. I suppose it’s because he’s fixed in my imagination as the pipe-smoker on the cover of Raymond Chandler Speaking…

    Really interesting to look through your other posts too. I’m currently writing my PhD, part of which deals with Hammett, so it’s very useful to read good detective criticism. I hope to blog about Chandler this week too, though I haven’t quite decided my focus yet.

    • Thanks. I agree it is difficult to imagine Chandler walking the streets of London in the same period as Rupert Brooke, E.M. Forster, and the not yet quite established Bloomsbury Group. That long gap in his writing career, and the dramatic change of direction, is one of the many remarkable things about him.

  9. […] The rumpus kicks off today at 11.30 AM with A Coat, A Hat and a Gun, a half-hour feature on the life of Raymond Thornton Chandler (Chris’ blog has a nice piece on this subject here). […]