Raymond Chandler was a complex and talented man, an author, and a Hollywood screenwriter who many consider to be one of the founders of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction, a genre that centers around detectives battling organized crime and a legal system that was often just as corrupt. The detectives frequently grow disillusioned and become antiheroes, performing actions that are considered to be morally correct but only out of self-interest. Chandler, much like those protagonists, was a conflicted individual who bounced between extremes and was described in one of his biographies as "cynical and gullible; reclusive and generous; depressive and romantic; proud and paranoid." (Hiney, 1997).
Chandler found comfort in writing, developing a distinctive style that continues to be held in high esteem by critics and writers. Fellow contemporaries such as W. H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, and Ian Fleming expressed admiration for Chandler's work with Fleming hailing it as "some of the finest dialogue written in any prose today," while Waugh described Chandler in the late 1940s as "the greatest living American novelist." Chandler also took solace in pipe smoking, frequently smoking while creating literary masterpieces and screenplays for iconic films.
Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888 to Maurice Chandler, a Quaker from Pennsylvania who worked as a civil engineer for the railway, and Florence Thornton, an Irish immigrant. Chandler's early life was marked by turmoil and uncertainty as his father was an alcoholic which culminated in a divorce in 1895 and ultimately disappearing from his son's life. It forced Chandler's mother to relocate them back to her native Ireland, and they eventually settled in Waterford, the country's oldest city where her family lived. Soon after, they moved to London where Chandler's uncle Ernest looked after and financially supported the young boy and his mother.
Home of Raymond Chandler, Waterford
Beginning at age 12, Chandler received a classical education at Dulwich College, a historic public school that was close to home, and though he showed great promise as a scholar, he did not attend university. Instead, he spent time in Paris and Munich, studying languages before becoming a naturalized British subject in 1907, eventually taking and passing the civil service examination. He performed exceptionally well, placing third out of 600 candidates and earned a clerkship in the British Admiralty. However, Chandler resigned after six months and pursued a career as a journalist, working for the Westminster Gazette and The Academy.
During his stint in journalism he encountered Richard Barham Middleton, a British poet who was slightly older and was described by Chandler as a "young, bearded, and sad-eyed man." Shortly after this meeting, Middleton committed suicide by poisoning himself with chloroform which had been prescribed as a remedy for his severe depression. His death had a significant impact on Chandler and is believed to have caused him to postpone his writing career for several years, with Chandler recounting, "The incident made a great impression on me, because Middleton struck me as having far more talent than I was ever likely to possess; and if he couldn't make a go of it, it wasn't very likely that I could."
Chandler emigrated back to America in 1912 with his mother joining him later that year. He worked a variety of jobs around Los Angeles before finding steady employment as a bookkeeper and accountant for the Los Angeles Creamy. In 1917, while visiting Vancouver, Chandler enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to join the fight in WWI. After the war, Chandler told friends he tried to join the U.S. Army but was rejected for poor eyesight though it's likely he preferred the Canadian side as he later admitted "it was still natural for me to prefer a British uniform," something his dual citizenship allowed. Also an important consideration was that the Canadian army paid a separation allowance for his mother which ensured she would be financially stable while Chandler was overseas.
Chandler also took solace in pipe smoking, frequently smoking while creating literary masterpieces and screenplays for iconic films.
During the war, Chandler served in France and his battalion frequently saw heavy action, despite their reserve status. In June 1918 a German artillery strike killed the members of Chandler's outfit, leaving him as the sole survivor. The war was brutal and a psychological nightmare that Chandler chose to block out, rarely talking about his service but did remark, "Once you have had to lead a platoon into direct machine-gun fire, nothing is ever the same again." He would later transfer to the Royal Air Force, though his service was cut short when the war ended while he was in training school.
After returning to the United States, Chandler worked a series of jobs before landing a job as a bookkeeper and auditor at the Dabney Oil Syndicate in Los Angeles. It was during this time he would also meet his future wife, Pearl Eugenia "Cissy" Pascal, who was 18 years older than Chandler but offered stability and support throughout Chandler's career. After working at Dabney for a few years, Chandler worked his way up to vice president of their L.A. office and after his mother passed in 1923, Chandler and Pascal wed the following year.
Throughout the late '20s Chandler became a heavy drinker and by 1932 he was fired due to his drunkenness and absenteeism. He resented being fired and would aid friends in suing the company for misappropriation of revenue and he would receive $100 a month from those friends, providing some stability during the Great Depression while he figured things out. He was resilient and later remarked that the most important thing he learned after being fired was how it "taught me not to take anything for granted." Chandler stopped drinking and devoted himself to writing, deciding to write for pulp magazines as it was a format he felt he could master with time and practice.
During his stint in journalism he encountered Richard Barham Middleton, a British poet who was slightly older and was described by Chandler as a "young, bearded, and sad-eyed man."
Often called the pulps, these popular magazines were periodicals that were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper and trace their lineage to the dime novels of the 19th century. Pulp magazines were a primary source of entertainment for Americans during the first half of the 20th century, offering readers thrilling tales of mystery, romance, fantasy, and adventure. Black Mask was the pulp magazine that first published Chandler's first professional work titled "Blackmailers Don't Shoot," for which he was paid $180. It took Chandler five months to write, constantly revising his drafts and adopting a slow, meticulous style that departed from other pulp writers who could finish a story in just a few days so they had a steady source of income. Chandler would write several stories for Black Mask as well as pieces for Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly.
Pipe smoking was frequently referenced in Chandler's short fiction stories. The detective in "Finger Man" smoked a Bulldog pipe and is interestingly the only pipe shape the author specifies in any of his works. In many photographs of Chandler, he's usually smoking other traditional shapes such as Billiards and Apples.
From writing for Black Mask, Chandler became acquainted with other contributors such as authors W. T. Ballard and Cleve Adams, who co-founded a group called the Fictioneers which consisted of pulp and movie writers. They held an informal meeting once a month at an L.A. café and Chandler would attend several meetings, though he was rather reserved and quiet compared to everyone else. Ballard noted, "He was a very retiring person who would sit at the dinners after the table had been cleared, sucking on his pipe and offering very little comment. Most writers like to talk about their own work (which is the only reason for a writers' club). Ray seldom did." Chandler was admired by other writers for his talents and success, but he was unfazed by it all. When attending parties, Chandler would typically drink several cups of coffee and smoke his pipe, showing more interest in spending time with cats than interacting with other guests.
Colonial Theater Ad, The Big Sleep, 1946
In 1939, Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, which marked the introduction of private detective Philip Marlowe, one of the most iconic detectives in literature and the main protagonist of Chandler's novels, with each story told from Marlowe's perspective. Despite being a hard-drinking, wise-cracking, and tough private eye, Marlowe is also described as someone who is philosophical and contemplative, often partaking in poetry and chess. Marlowe is also introduced as a pipe smoker in The Big Sleep, holding it like a gun at one point in the book while a strange man approached him.
In Chandler's subsequent 1940 novel, Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe's pipe smoking enjoyment is interrupted early on: "I had filled and lit a pipe when the telephone rang again." The pipe becomes a crucial element that enables Chandler to further develop Marlowe as a character while also using it as a device for the detective to display his sharp wit: "I filled a pipe and reached for the packet of paper matches. I lit the pipe carefully. She watched with approval. Pipe smokers were solid men. She was going to be disappointed in me ... I didn't say anything. I lit my pipe again. It makes you look thoughtful when you are not thinking." Later in the book, it's revealed that Marlowe uses the large blade of a penknife to clean his pipe.
In Chandler's 1942 novel, The High Window, Marlowe uses his empty tobacco pouch to hide a valuable coin, placing the coin in tissue paper before placing a rubber band around it and filling the pouch halfway with tobacco to hide it. Marlowe also mentions in this book that he keeps a can of tobacco on the desk in his apartment. Unfortunately none of Chandler's novels mention what type or brand of pipe tobacco Marlowe smoked.
Chandler's next novel, The Lady in the Lake, sees Marlowe framed by corrupt cops and temporarily thrown in jail. At one point, Marlowe looks at his watch and musingly thinks to himself: "Nine fifty-four. Time to go home and get your slippers on and play over a game of chess. Time for a tall cool drink and a long quiet pipe. Time to sit with your feet up and think of nothing." Marlowe manages to convince the police captain of his innocence and is ultimately released, but finds himself trying to solve a complex murder case.
Lady in the Lake Dust Jacket
In 1944, Chandler was hired by Paramount Studios to help write a screen adaptation of James M. Cain's crime novel Double Indemnity. Chandler co-wrote the screenplay with director Billy Wilder, earning a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards the following year, losing to Going My Way starring Bing Crosby. Double Indemnity was a critical and commercial success and notably featured prolific pipe smoker and legendary actor Edward G. Robinson.
Chandler received his second Academy Award nomination for the screenplay he wrote for 1946's The Blue Dahlia, the first original script Chandler had ever written. It was a stressful experience for Chandler, who was under pressure from the movie studio to deliver the final script on time, and he had resumed drinking, believing that it was the only way he could finish the screenplay. He also made a list of requirements which included "two Cadillac limousines with drivers available around the clock, six secretaries ready to work for him at any time and a direct phone line open to the studio switchboard at night."
The Blue Dahlia Poster, 1946
Chandler notably collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on the screenplay for Hitchcock's classic 1951 film Strangers on a Train. It was a brief partnership as both men had drastically different personalities and approaches to screenwriting, frequently clashing with one another. Hitchcock preferred to have long, informal meetings where the film would hardly be discussed while Chandler desired structure and wanted to focus on the job. Chandler called the meetings "god-awful jabber sessions which seem to be an inevitable although painful part of the picture business." He wrote two drafts and submitted them to Hitchcock before being dismissed as a result of their rapidly deteriorating and hostile professional relationship.
Philip Marlowe returned in Chandler's novel The Little Sister. Marlowe's pipe smoking is immediately met with condemnation by Orfamay Quest, the little sister of a missing man, who asks the detective for help. Marlowe describes her displeasure in his observation: "I put a match to the pipe and puffed smoke across the desk. She winced back."
Orfamay offers Marlowe $20 for his services while criticizing his pipe smoking, leading to an amusing exchange between the two:
I had let my pipe go out. I struck a match and held it to the bowl, watching her over it."
"Isn't pipe-smoking a very dirty habit?" she asked.
"Probably," I said. "But it would take more than twenty bucks to have me drop it."
In 1953 Chandler released The Long Goodbye, which he considered to be his best book and is his most personal work, containing autobiographical elements from Chandler's personal life and written as his wife was dying. The novel highlights Chandler's awareness of his shortcomings, utilizing characters that represent his struggles with alcohol and self-doubts about the value of his writing. It also received the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel, a prize named after Edgar Allan Poe that celebrates the best mystery and crime works.
The Long Goodbye also features multiple references to pipe smoking. Early in the book Marlowe casually takes out a pipe while having a conversation: "I lit the pipe. The tobacco was a little too moist. It took me some time to light it properly and three matches." Chandler also reveals for the first time the shape of the pipe Marlowe smokes: "I filled a bulldog pipe and lit it."
Marlowe finally finds the time to properly enjoy a pipe while attending a drama-laden cocktail party: "I stretched out on a padded aluminum chaise and lit a pipe and smoked peacefully and wondered what the hell I was doing there." Afterwards, Marlowe notes: "I knocked the ashes out of my pipe and sat holding it, waiting for the bowl to cool before I put it away."
It was during this time he would also meet his future wife, Pearl Eugenia "Cissy" Pascal, who was 18 years older than Chandler but offered stability and support throughout Chandler's career.
Chandler's final novel and the last to feature Philip Marlowe, Playback, was released in 1958. It also contained significantly fewer references to pipe smoking, possibly because Chandler had stopped smoking at pipe at that point and the book was based on an unproduced screenplay that didn't include Philip Marlowe as the main character. Playback is also the only novel Chandler wrote that was never adapted into a film.
Throughout his life, Chandler was frequently seen smoking a pipe and noted, "I smoked a pipe from morning to night when my wife was alive and I loved it. I used to drink a great deal of tea, and my wife loved that, just as she loved to see me smoking a pipe." After Cissy's death in 1954, Chandler never smoked a pipe again, perhaps because it was too powerful an emotional association between the joy of pipe smoking and having his wife by his side. Despite the hardships Chandler experienced throughout his life, he loved his wife and was always devoted to her well-being and cared for her until she passed. Following her death, Chandler fell into a deep depression, began drinking heavily again, and attempted suicide in 1955.
He was inconsolable, writing in a letter, "She was the beat of my heart for thirty years. She was the music heard faintly at the edge of sound. It was my great and useless regret that I never wrote anything really worth her attention, no book I could dedicate to her. I planned it. I thought of it, but never wrote it. Perhaps I couldn't have written it."
After he gave up pipe smoking, Chandler gave his pipe collection to Neil Morgan, a close friend and reporter who worked for the San Diego Tribune. Many years later Morgan mentioned the collection consists of "six pipes in a wooden rack with its little amber glass humidor. One is a Kaywoodie. One is Dunhill. They all have hard-bitten stems." Unfortunately, there's a lack of information regarding what brands or types of tobacco Chandler smoked, but photographs of him smoking a pipe indicate that he preferred traditional, straight shapes.
After Cissy's death in 1954, Chandler never smoked a pipe again, perhaps because it was too powerful an emotional association between the joy of pipe smoking and having his wife by his side.
Chandler remained distraught over Cissy's death during his final years and his drinking worsened throughout the late '50s, causing his health to decline. After returning from a trip to England, Chandler caught pneumonia and was hospitalized. A few days later on March 26, 1959, he passed away at age 70 in La Jolla, California.
In Frank MacShane's 1976 biography The Life of Raymond Chandler, it's noted that Chandler wished to be cremated and placed next to Cissy in Cypress View Mausoleum but was instead buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego because he hadn't left any funeral or burial instructions. However, thanks to the work of historian Loren Latker and attorney Aissa Wayne, daughter of actor John Wayne, Raymond Chandler and his wife were finally reunited on Valentine's Day in 2011 after 57 years with Cissy remains transported to the cemetery in a convoy of 1920s-era cars. Their shared gravestone features a quote from The Big Sleep: "Dead men are heavier than broken hearts."
Raymond Chandler was a gifted writer who was at the forefront of a literary movement that changed the way people viewed crime and mystery works. Following his death, an obituary in the Times of London wrote, "his name will certainly go down among the dozen or so mystery writers who were also innovators and stylists; who, working the common vein of crime fiction, mined the gold of literature." Chandler brought his own distinctive voice to detective fiction, developing a unique style that used sharp and lyrical similes that transported readers to the literary worlds he created. The influence Raymond Chandler had on American popular literature continues to be felt to this day, with his novels, stories, and screenplays testifying to his brilliance.