For thirteen years, from 1946 to 1959, famed mystery writer Raymond Chandler lived and wrote in La Jolla, the small community that proudly juts outward into the Pacific. He had a love-hate relationship with the locale. “All I ask,” he once said in a letter, “is a quiet corner with deaf and dumb neighbors.” Which is exactly what he got in La Jolla, except when he needed help, and then help was always there.
Chandler didn’t fully master his craft until he was fifty. Though he had spent several years in London as a journalist for the Spectator and Westminster Gazette, the Chicago-born Chandler actually spent most of his years in the oil business in Southern California. He didn’t write his first fictional story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shout,” until he was 45. And he was acutely sensitive about his late start as a writer. “I’d rather my age were kept confidential,” he told a friend. “I’m not ashamed of it, but I look a good ten years younger, and I think it’s bad publicity to be middle-aged and a beginner.” When he and his wife Cissy moved from Los Angeles to La Jolla in 1946, the 59-year-old Chandler was hardly a beginner. He had four successful mystery novels to his credit — The Big Sleep, Farwell, My Lovely, The High Window, and The Lady in the Lake — and with Dashiell Hamemtt, he ranked high in the pantheon of established mystery writers.
In each of the books, the central character is detective Philip Marlow, a rarely errant knight who roams unafraid down the “mean streets” of Los Angeles and who derives his code of values from a vanishing moral universe. Each book reads like a diary — a detailed, often hour-by-hour recounting of events in the day of a private eye who is “puzzled but never quite defeated” by the fallen world around him. But whereas Marlowe wouldn’t think twice about racing into dark, isolated areas or confronting suspicious individuals, Chandler’s life was far less adventuresome. During his first nine years in La Jolla, Chandler was practically a recluse.
The Chandlers lived at 6005 Camino de la Costa, a large, one-story, three-bedroom house located on the corner lot where the road makes a sharp right turn as it heads north from the Bird Rock area. The off-white structure, flanked by a flagstone retaining wall, sits on a promontory and commands a panoramic view of the coastline to the south. “It was really his dream house,” says Juanita Messick, who was Chandler’s personal secretary for five years and who still lives in the Bird Rock section of La Jolla. “He had made enough money writing screenplays in Hollywood to live on, and he wanted to five Cissy the home he thought she deserved.” The place became a Sherwood Forest for the Chandlers, a private refuge apart from the Nottingham-like existence they had lived elsewhere in Southern California.
There was another motive for the privacy. Just as Chandler was touchy about his age, he was double so about his wife’s. Cissy — who pronounced her last name “Chond-lah,” with a theatrical, patrician flourish — was 76 when they moved to La Jolla, 18 years older than her husband. A pale woman with delicate features and fastidious manners, Cissy traditionally wore canary-yellow clothing, a pastel hue that matched the color of her fading blond hair, which she owre in ringlets, a style reminiscent of the Twenties. She was of another era, recalls Juanita Messick, one of the few people who had any contact with Cissy, and she chose to abide in a refined, though bygone, past. “A conversation with Cissy,” recalls Messick, “was like being in 1910.”
Although she felt initially that La Jolla had retained the lost elegance she yearned for, while she lived in the small community, Cissy rarely went out. Neil Morgan, editor of the Tribune and a long-time friend of Chandler’s, was told that Cissy would even go to her hairdresser under an assumed name.
One of the few guests invited to the house was mystery writer Jonathan Latimer, who continues to live in nearby Muirlands, and who speaks today of Chandler’s literary achievements in the same breath with those of Ernest Hemingway. Once or twice a year at most, Latimer and his wife would have tea at the Chandlers’. The author of Headed for a Hearse and Lady in the Morgue recalls these gathering with wry humor. “Very English, very dull affairs,” he says. The conversation was soft-spoken and polite — never louder than the clinking of the silver teapot on the silver tray before them — and it usually centered on a small concerns: where to buy the best vegetables or how the locally dense fog affected one’s sinuses. “They were awfully formal, those parties. God! If you brought a teabag up there, they’d probably drop dead! Finally I had to fortify myself with a couple of stiff shots before I showed up.”
Save for an occasional movie at the Cove or the Granada theater (now Walker Scott’s) in La Jolla, the Chandlers rarely went out together. They would go, however, to dinner at La Plaza restaurant, just up the street from their home. An L-shaped, Spanish-style building, located on Mira Monte Street, just off La Jolla Boulevard north of Bird Rock, La Plaza was once the end of the line for the old San Diego trolley. In 1947 Moe Locke leased the buildings — a former station and a storage/repair room for the trolleys — and ran what became a haven for writers and artists such as Jonathan Latimer, Max Miller (author of I Cover the Waterfront and a neighbor of Chandler’s), and movie director Billy Wilder, when he visited from Hollywood. “This is a town that cherishes lousy restaurants,” says Jonathan Latimer. “La Plaza was the only good one La Jolla ever had.”
Geared toward relaxation, time itself was deemed unimportant at La Plaza. A logo above the fireplace claimed as much: El tiempo no importa, it read, and Locke used the expression in the philosophical sense — time doesn’t matter — and also in a practical sense when patrons would gripe about dilatory service. People would often go there, planning to catch a movie later on, only to stay until it closed, chatting across cramped dining room tables that were designed, it seemed, to encourage group rapport.
As one entered the restaurant through a large door one’s first sight would be Washington, a tall, thin black man with silver-gray hair, charring meat on an open grill that faced toward the dining room, where 20 tables with modest white linen tablecloths and napkins were bunched together under an open-beam ceiling. Against one wall were seven small booths, padded in red leather, and behind them were paintings and wood carvings Moe Locke had brought back from hisfrequent visits to Mexico, in particular, the Rosarito Casino
Helen Hernandez, who worked as he head waitress at La Plaza during the eleven years it was in business, distinctly remembers the visits of the Chandlers. “The waitresses would be terrified of them,” she recalls, indicating admiration for the couple, “since both he and his wife liked things done properly — the way they should be done — all the time, like making sure all the dinner dishes are removed before you bring in the dessert menu.” Unlike some of the other writers and dignitaries who frequented the restaurant — and who would become, in her words, “well-ploughed” — the Chandlers were always “a class by themselves: polite, well-groomed…. We never had to pour them into a car afterwards.”
The Chandlers usually sat in one of the booths — apart, as always, from the crowd. They behaved like a dignified London couple vacationing in California and watching it warily from afar. Chandler was impeccable dressed in brown tweeds, a tie, horn-rimmed glasses, and white gloves, which he wore to protect his hands from a skin allergy. Of medium height and build, Chandler is best remembered in those days for his stern look, which forbade easy acquaintance. “People didn’t get too close to Mr. Chandler because of his manner,” says Hernandez, though she concedes that this imposing façade may have misled people; Chandler, she says, was actually a friendly man.
J. Edgar Hoover would have found that last statement difficult to believe. One evening the late director of the F.B.I. (and an outspoken fan of Chandler’s) was dining at the restaurant. When he heard that the author of The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely was seated just a few tables away, Hoover told a waiter to invite Chandler to his table. “Tell him he can go to hell,” gruffly replied the creator of Philip Marlowe. According to Chandler’s biographer, Frank MacShane, “Hoover fell into a rage, saying he would have Chandler investigated by the F.B.I.”
At La Plaza, the Chandlers would usually speak politely with friends at adjoining booths and tables, though the author never talked shop and would often duck out of a conversation the minute it no longer interested him. One topic, however, about which he marshaled an armada of acerbic opinions, was his place of residence. When the subject of La Jolla rolled around, Chandler would stuff the bowl of his curved-stem pipe with Dunhill tobacco, would ignite it with a silver Zippo lighter, would send thin slivers of smoke out across the room, and would hold court.
The La Jolla Chandler saw from Hollywood in the late Thirties had “an intangible air of good breeding,” he said in a letter. “In theory, one may not value very much that quality. One may like a fere and easy neighborhood where they smash the empty bottles on the sidewalk on Saturday night. But in practice, it’s very comfortable.” After he lived in the community for a while, though, his low threshold of boredom became irritated. As if La Jolla were allergic to such things, the place had few apparent tensions and literally lacked drama. Instead, it was a closed society of regulated habits and routines, and it stood apart, on the periphery of San Diego, away from the growing congestion downtown. The aorta of Ardath Road had yet to be built, for example. And one reached the shops on Girard and Prospect streets by capillaries — La Jolla Boulevard to the south and Torrey Pines Road to the north. Chandler soon became dumbfounded by the somnambular streets, and he began to miss the sound of shattering glass.
With the exception of La Plaza, everything else about the area lacked vitality to him, even scenic La Jolla Cove — where, he said, “the waves don’t’ break; they slide in politely, like floorwalkers.” Sundays were “shut up as tight as a bank vault,” so quiet, “it was like you were already buried.” And the occasional cocktail parties he attended were all right, he claimed, I you could stomach puce dinner jackets and “skin like burnt oranges…. If you didn’t forget your earplugs,” he added, “you may have a rather nice time.” In response to a community that, to his mind, considered childbearing to be “too sexy,” Chandler often threatened to run naked down Girard Avenue at high noon, “shouting four-letter words” In no time, La Jolla became for him “too dear, too damp, too elderly. A nice place,” he remarked, quoting a visitor to the area, “for old people and their parents.”
“Ray thought La Jolla was the dead end of the world,” says Jonathan Latimer, “but I think it was his stock-in-trade to be unhappy. Hell, he’d go to Hollywood, even to his beloved London, and he’d come back grumping about this or that.” Juanita Messick agrees. “Ray was always disillusioned by the people an dplaces he thought were so terrific,” she says. “I don’t think he and Cissy ever really and truly understood this area. I think he was disappointed in not feeling part of the community, and yet he rebuffed every effort people made to involve him here.” Despite his interest in tennis, for example, he wouldn’t join the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club because at the time the club excluded Jews.
That’s one part of the picture: the public image of Chandler as a spectral hermit, railing away at this hometown like a lone wolf howling at a fertile prairie from atop a forlorn knoll. But there is another part as well. Educated in England at Dulwich College, Chandler never fully adapted to California’s aggressive pace and mercurial systems of value. He was also extremely shy. His raspy, cantankerous exterior was a means of warding off unwanted acquaintances — and surprises, which he detested — and it was also a front that concealed an essentially sentimental nature. Because of these traits, combined with his desire to shield Cissy from the outside world, Chandler was like a door to people: to the majority he remained absolutely shut; to less than a handful he could be quite open. “After I got to know him,” Juanita Messick recalls, “I found him easy to get along with Down underneath, Ray was a very kind person and loyal to the few real friends he had.” These included Messick, Neil Morgan — who served as the model for Lonnie Morgan, the young reporter in The Long Goodbye — and Albert Hernandez. Chandler’s friendships with Messick and Morgan are well documented in MacShane’s biography and through Chandler’s personal letters, both individuals being especially helpful to him late in his life; his relation with Hernandez, however, is less well known.
Last things don’t often seem so at the time. In the period between 1952 and 1954, however, Chandler confronted daily the imminent death of his wife. Cissy had become stricken with fibrosis, an incurable hardening of lung tissue. “Of course, in a sense I had said good-bye to her long ago,” he said in a letter. “In fact, many times during the past two years in the middle of the night I had realized that it was only a question of time until I lost her. Saying good-bye to your loved one in your mind is not the same thing as closing her eyes and knowing they will never open again.”
As he watched his wife die “by half inches,” Chandler was at work on a book that for him was different, a departure of sorts, by far his most ambitious work, which he originally entitled Summer in Idle Valley. In it, Philip Marlow abandons his hardboiled mask and becomes more human and three-dimensional, and allows sentiment to influence his reasoning. Chandler once told Juanita Messick, who typed the manuscript, that the book contained the summation of his views. The revised title of the book mirrors the period in which it was written. It was published as The Long Goodbye.
In its present form, The Long Goodbye reads like an encyclopedia of Marlowe’s world. It is filled with cynical ruminations about Los Angeles — all of it; police, the decadent rich, quack doctors, mind derailers such as television and drugs, American food, jails, the publishing industry, bars, organized crime, and so on. It is also an extended meditation on the subject of farewells. And the book, more a work of literature than detective fiction, was a continual struggle to write. Between 1952 and 1953, as he was writing and revising the novel, Chandler would come to La Plaza alone, often late in the evening. He was still well dressed, though his tie was usually loosened and his collar open. When he entered the door, he would make a right turn, away from the dining area, past the smell of slightly charred steaks, and would enter the bar. Bu then his white gloves ere off.
The room was cantina-like: a wooden bar padded with red upholstery, and ten stools, beneath which was an antique brass footrail. The small room also had three tables, with old wine barrels used as chairs. Albert Hernandez, then in his midthirties, was the bartender.
“Albert is a very special person,” says Esther Gwynne, at the time a reporter for the Tribune who made frequent visits to La Plaza with her husband Tom, also a writer. “He knew everybody, and they all admired him greatly.” Hernandez had the reputation of being a first-rate listener, a capable conversationalist (when asked), and one tight-lipped customer when it came to the countless secrets disclosed to him in the bar. Though he was well-versed in a variety of subjects, the talk was usually about tennis, since his son Albert, Jr., began to achieve national prominence in the early Fifties.
Hernandez, who now runs Hernandez’s Hideaway in Del Dios with his wife Helen, also has another distinction. In the mid-Forties, Moe Locke made several trips to Mexico, especially to Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada. When Locke opened La Plaza in 1947, he said he had a new drink that might catch one. He gave Hernandez the ingredients and told him what to do. Hernandez performed his task and may have poured the first margarita in San Diego.
Chandler wouldn’t touch that flashy new concoction. His entrance into the bar would signal Hernandez to mix a vodka gimlet, up — half vodka, half Rose’s lime juice, no ice — a drink Chandler discovered in 1952 while aboard the luxury liner Mauretania on a trip to England. Chandler wouldn’t sit at the tables or on one of the stools. He would pace from one end of the bar to the other, stopping occasionally for a swig of his gimlet. He was never boisterous, just intense. He had a lot on his mind, and the rarely crowded room became another Sherwood Forest for the author. It was also his confession booth.
“I was not in his business,” Hernandez says, “so he would open up to me without feeling threatened, I guess.” Hernandez listened to detailed accounts of the current state of Cissy’s illness, as well as literally hour0by-hour retellings of the event sin Chandler’s day — the number of words he wrote, how badly the book was going, troubles with character and mood, possible titles, and what he was thinking of doing next. Shop talk, in other words, in which Chandler supposedly never indulged.
On May 14, 1952, Chandler submitted The Long Goodbye to his New York literary agent Bernice Baumgarten, along with a letter that claimed she may find it “slow going.” “Alas,” he said in the letter, “as one grows up one becomes complicated and unsure, one becomes interested in moral dilemmas, rather than who cracked who on the head. And at that point perhaps one should retire and leave the field to younger and more simple men.” Baumgarten and Carl Brandt, his other literary agent, read the manuscript and wrote lengthy, almost caustic, replies. Marlowe had become soft, they said, and “too Christ-like.” And the ending of the book was too sentimental.
After a long evening of pacing in La Plaza’s bar, Chandler went home and wrote his own caustic reply. “God knows,” he said, “I’ve had enough worry to drive me off the beam. Being old-fashioned enough to be deeply in love with my wife after 28 years of marriage, I feel the possibility that I have let emotion enter my life in a manner not suitable to the marts of commerce … of course, there is also the possibility — faint as it is, I admit — that you could be a little wrong.”
Chandler said essentially the same things to Hernandez in the bar. “He would go over all the different things he had to do. He said his publishers were pushing him, that they didn’t want his book to end a certain way, that he had to change this and that. Mr. Chandler got so angry one night he said he was going to tell them to ‘shove it.’”
Eight months and many miles of pacing later, Chandler was revising the final paragraphs of The Long Goodbye when an unexpected ending occurred. Hernandez’s son, Albert, Jr., died of cancer. In the midst of all of his own troubles, Chandler would come to La Plaza not to bereave his own fate, but to listen; he was there to walk Albert and Helen Hernandez through their personal tragedy. “He helped us immensely,” Albert Hernandez recalls. “He knew how to talk as much as he thought I should hear, and he knew when to be quiet. He was one of the people who stayed with us every step of the way.”
It is difficult to determine what generates a work of literature, what behind-the-scenes factors go into its making. Linda Loring, a character in The Long Goodbye and Playback, for example, could hae derived her last name from a street in Pacific Beach. And the title of Chandler’s masterpiece, The Long Goodbye, could refer as much to the slow death of his wife as it does to the declining camaraderie in the book between Marlowe and Terry Lennox whom Marlowe had impulsively befriended. The novel is about friendship and loss, which Chandler experienced first-hand at home, with Cissy, and in the bar of La Plaza, with Albert Hernandez. Chandler’s life was filled with sad farewells.
Cissy died December 12, 1954, and Chandler afterward remained homeless for the rest of his life.
After an all-night bash that did the place proud, La Plaza closed New Year’s Eve, 1958. It is now the fellowship hall of the La Jolla United Methodist Church. Chandler might have enjoyed that irony; Marlow would have rued the loss of a good saloon.
Raymond Chandler's grave
Chandler died of pneumonia on March 26, 1959 at Scripps Clinic. He is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, in Southeast San Diego, where a sign at the Market Street entrance issues a warning: “Do not visit isolated areas alone” and “Beware of any suspicious individuals.” Chandler rests in peace, though. The specter of Philip Marlow, which hovers over his grave, knows damn well how to handle both situations with commanding ease.