When Cissy Chandler died in 1954, Raymond Chandler was almost unmanned by his grief. A suicide attempt followed, as did drinking. Lots of drinking. She was the pole to which Raymond Chandler’s compass was set and without her he spun out of control. Had he never met and married Cissy he may never have become the novelist he did.
She had stuck by him through good times and bad and there were certainly plenty of bad times. They had met before the First World War, through mutual friends. Cissy was married to a pianist by the name of Julian Pascal and had a stepson called Gordon who Ray became firm friends with. She was a beautiful woman, with red hair that framed a handsome face and, in her youth she had worked as an artist model in New York where, according to rumour, she attended opium parties. She was exotic, glamorous and, to a sexually sheltered man like Ray, impossibly alluring. Unfortunately she was 18 years his senior and, anyway, Ray was shy when it came to women -- particularly glamorous ones.
Perhaps to avoid his feelings for Cissy, Ray chose to fight in Europe, joining the Canadian army in 1917. But the war did nothing to cool his tender affection for her and, on his return to America in 1919, he declared he was in love. She must have expected something like this, certainly she managed to divorce Julian swiftly, but what neither could have anticipated was the objection of Chandler’s mother, Florence. She had lived with the Pascals through the war and could not believe that her son could love a woman closer to her age than his.
Despite Florence’s objections, the couple courted. Ray wrote poetry, much of it addressed to Cissy, and they chastely waited for Florence to change her mind. In the end, they held out until 1923 when Mrs Chandler died, allowing Ray to make Cissy the second in February the following year. By now he was working in the oil industry and, though he continued to write poetry for his wife, his other literary ambitions were put on hold.
Ray and Cissy’s marriage was never straightforward. Ray, damaged by the war, drank heavily throughout the twenties and starting chasing secretaries, managing to conduct a drunken affair with one. Cissy left him briefly and Ray threatened suicide. She came back eventually. In 1932 he was sacked – drinking, again, probably the cause – and Ray, unable to find another job, turned to writing pulp crime fiction, reigniting an old ambition to be a writer. Cissy stood by him throughout all this. She forgave him his drinking, his affair and, beset by financial worries, she supported his ambition to write, reading stories, suggesting similes and adding her own comments in his notebooks.
It worked out and Ray’s career went from strength to strength. The short stories turned into novels; the novels took him to Hollywood and he became quite rich. And through it all, Cissy was his motivation, his muse. Theirs was a traditional marriage and Ray cast himself as a knightly hero with Cissy as the damsel in distress (Cissy, a willing participant in this, nicknamed her husband Raymio and Gallebeoth, in a nod to his courtly, romantic ways). Ray knew that if he did not write he could not support her and pushed himself harder to write better books. After her death in 1954 her wrote to a friend: ‘…she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at. That is all there is to say.’
From then on he spent much of his time either drunk or trying to get over being drunk. He wrote one more novel, Playback, but it did not have the vivacity or the life of his earlier work. Without Cissy, he just didn’t have the same motivation.
Raymond Chandler’s greatest regret was that he never dedicated a book to Cissy. He never thought them good enough. Reading The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, we might know better. But it was his desire to write one that was ‘good enough’ that pushed him on and helped him create the wonderful novels we know and love.
Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams, is out now, published by Aurum.