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A Mysterious Something in the Light
The Life of Raymond Chandler
By Tom Williams
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2012 Tom Williams
All rights reserved.
"MY FATHER WAS AN ALCOHOLIC"
Raymond Chandler was born on July 23, 1888, in an upper room of a small, red brick house on Langley Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. A doctor, by the name of Martin Walter, had been called to help but the birth was straightforward and, after a few hours, Chandler arrived in the world. Within his lifetime Ray, as he was known to family and friends, would become associated with another city, Los Angeles, in another state, California, by writing a series of crime novels that feature tough men and even tougher women. At first, though, there was only one tough guy in his life: Ray's father, Maurice Chandler.
Very little is known about Maurice. He appears infrequently in Ray's letters and, when he does, it is with disdain and even shame. He was born on August 15, 1858, somewhere in Chester County, Pennsylvania, into a family that could trace its heritage back to Quaker settlers who had left Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His parents, Amy and John Chandler, were farmers, wealthy enough to send their son to study engineering at the Towne Scientific School at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a good school with a sound reputation and, when Maurice matriculated in 1880, his parents had high hopes for him. Quakers were generally diligent and hardworking; Maurice, though, was not, and his university career was marked by a singular lack of success. He left after only two years, without a degree. The reasons behind Maurice's departure from university are not clear, but we know from his later years that he was a man who shirked responsibility, gave up too quickly, and was easily distracted. No doubt the qualities that made him a bad student also made him a bad father and husband.
He did, however, leave university in 1882 with enough education to achieve a certificate of proficiency, sufficient to get him a job as an engineer working for a Midwestern railway company at the heart of what was, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a rapidly expanding industry. The impact of the railways on the economic shape of America was, for the first time, to link the outlying regions directly to commercial centers like Chicago. In turn, these cities became great entrepôts, with goods being sent to the great cities in the East and then on to markets beyond. Journeys that had taken days now took hours; large amounts of corn, pork, and beef could be delivered quickly, without risk of spoilage; and it was profitable for both rural regions and cities. From the 1840s, corn grown on the plains of Nebraska (then the world's largest cultivated region) was being sold across the world. The American Midwest was so essential to the international diet that it was known as the world's breadbasket. This was a trade only made viable by the railways.
When Maurice Chandler joined the industry, many of the major rail-building projects were complete. The first transcontinental railway had been officially finished thirteen years earlier, on May 10, 1869, when the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines was commemorated by the striking of a golden spike. Nonetheless, in an environment that saw one in every thirty-two Americans employed in the rail industry by 1881, it did not take Maurice long to find work with the Union Pacific company. There were still plenty of smaller branch lines to be built as Chicago continued its expansion and his engineering qualification saw him attached to one of the many teams that planned routes, laid track, and repaired old, worn-out lines. The work was tough and that meant long hours and extended periods away from home. It kept him moving through the Midwest for five years, following the lines that radiated out of Chicago through Illinois, Nebraska, and Wyoming, so that his twenties were essentially nomadic. He measured out his bachelor days in the boarding house rooms in small towns and temporary company tenements.
Things changed for Maurice in 1886. He was working first in Omaha — then famous as a center of debauchery and illicit activity — and later in Laramie, Wyoming. It was a new town — so new in fact that the trees that lined the roads were still saplings — and, compared to the excitement to be found elsewhere in nineteenth-century Omaha, it was a quiet one. There he met the woman who would later become his wife. Her name was Florence Dart Thornton. She had bright blue eyes set in a strong square face and a head of thick brown hair that she would braid and pin into a chignon for formal occasions. She had only been in America for a year but her good looks had already caught the attention of many Laramie men.
Florence was born in Ireland in 1861 to Isaac and Anna Thornton who, like Maurice's parents, were Quakers. They lived in Waterford, which coincidentally was the same Irish city from which Maurice Chandler's ancestors had emigrated two or three generations earlier. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Waterford was a busy port, built on the River Suir, with a reputation for producing much-sought-after crystal and cut glass. For much of its existence it was considered Ireland's second city, and, like the rest of the country, was dominated by an Anglo-Irish elite. The Thorntons, as nonconformist Quakers, were not quite part of this elite but were close enough to rub shoulders with the city's leading families, and ran a successful firm of solicitors with offices in Waterford, Dublin, and Cork. Isaac was head of the firm and oversaw a prosperous business, providing the family with enough capital to live in a large house outside the city and keep themselves in considerable Victorian comfort.
Isaac died suddenly in the late 1870s, leaving Anna to take over the household. She was a tyrant and a bully by all accounts and brought up her five daughters and only son, Ernest, in strict adherence to her moral and religious code. When Ernest reached university age, she forced him to study law, which he agreed to reluctantly. He had no wish to join the family firm, but when it came down to it, Ernest could not resist his mother's will.
The Thorntons, and Anna in particular, were fiercely proud of their Quaker roots, which, she believed, located them squarely in the upper echelons of the British Empire. The flipside of this was that Anna had a great disliking for both Catholicism and for the Irish working class that formed the bulk of the congregation, and she brought her children up to share that prejudice. Anna could often be heard boasting that her family had no Catholic connections, not even by marriage: the Thorntons were pure Anglo-Irish Quakers.
A crisis came upon the Thornton family in the first years of the 1880s, in the person of a boiler inspector called Ernest Fitt. He had fallen in love with Florence's sister, Grace, and the two wanted to marry. Anna Thornton was appalled. She approached the problem of marriage in the same way that she approached Ernest's reluctance to study law: she attempted to bully Grace into giving him up. This time, however, Anna's victim would not be broken down and, when it became clear that there was no hope of compromise, Grace and her lover decided the only course open to them was to emigrate to America.
Twelve months later, at the age of twenty-five, Florence followed. Her motivation for leaving is less clear. She was not involved in any forbidden relationships as far as we know and could probably have looked forward to marriage, children, and security in Waterford had she stayed. But in the wake of Grace's departure, life there steadily worsened. Without her sister, Florence bore the brunt of her mother's wrath and, eventually, it became intolerable. America must have seemed like the answer to her prayers, and in 1886, with all the impetuousness of youth, Florence packed her possessions and left, with hardly a penny to her name save for what she could borrow or had secretly saved at home.
The journey itself was tough. It was rare for young women to travel unaccompanied and rarer still for them to do so without the support of their parents. At Queenstown, she boarded a ship to New York and, like the majority of emigrants, she found her place in steerage. For the ten days or so that it took to cross the Atlantic, she lived in dark, cramped, and dirty conditions, sharing her living space with crowds of fellow passengers, some as filthy as her surroundings. It was a journey for which her sheltered upbringing in Water-ford could not have prepared her.
At first, many passengers would have been sick, unused to the movement of the sea. The stench would have been awful and respite, in the form of a trip to the upper decks, was only occasional. At night, Florence slept in a caged bunk cot with other women above and below her; by day she was ejected, forced to mingle with her fellow passengers while the accommodation was cleaned. Was she shocked by some of the people she met? Stowaways and runaways were not uncommon on the Atlantic crossings and her beauty would have no doubt brought unwanted attention. In her old life, men, other than those in her immediate family, would have remained mysterious creatures. On board a ship, they would be very real and very close.
There was music, at least. Emigrants would have packed fiddles and other musical instruments to help while away the journey, and groups would have gathered to sing hymns and favorite songs late into the night. The food, though, was not good. Old meat and thin soup were the daily diet.
After nearly two weeks of this, Florence landed at New York's Castle Garden, where immigrants were received until 1890 when the more famous Ellis Island opened. This was not the end of her journey, however, and she faced a night in a cheap New York boarding house before taking a train the next morning, first to Chicago, and then onwards to Laramie.
Traveling by train was no more comfortable than by ship. For two days she sat on rough, wooden benches, crammed into a plain carriage with only a stove to warm it, and a single toilet, as the train rocked its way steadily through its almost one thousand–mile journey to Chicago. There was not even a view to alleviate the boredom. Robert Louis Stevenson, who made an identical journey only a few years earlier, in 1879, described what he saw as he passed through the deserts of Wyoming:
To cross such a plain is to grow home-sick for mountains. ... Hour after hour it was the same unhomely and unkindly world about our onward path; tumbled boulders, cliffs that drearily imitate the shape of monuments and fortifications ... not a tree, not a patch of sward, not one shapely or commanding mountain form; sage-brush, eternal sage-brush ... and for sole sign of life, here and there a few fleeting antelopes ... there was not one good circumstance in that Godforsaken land.
Better things did await Florence in Laramie. There, she found her sister happily married to the boiler inspector and preparing to have children. They had made a good life in the town and Florence fit in with them easily. She was glad to have turned her back on Waterford, and in Wyoming she grew into a confident, happy young woman. She spent her days helping Grace at home — doing housework, shopping, looking after baby Muriel once she was born — while Ernest was at work. For the first time in her adult life, she could relax without the mantles of class and religion that had been forced upon her. She lived like this for a year and was content.
In 1887, just as she was finding her feet, her world changed again. How did this pretty Irish girl come to be introduced to a gruff railway engineer like Maurice Chandler? One possible explanation is that they met through her brother-in-law, Ernest Fitt.
Fitt looked to better himself in America and at some point was employed as a draftsman and later as a civil engineer. If he worked in these roles as early as 1887, he may well have come across Maurice Chandler professionally, inviting his new friend to meet his wife and recently arrived sister-in-law, perhaps hoping that the young bachelor might take Florence off his hands. However Maurice and Florence met, there seems to have been an immediate attraction and their relationship moved with surprising speed, hastened no doubt by the knowledge that Maurice's time in Wyoming was limited. When his job finished he would have to follow the work and as this moment drew closer, Florence was forced to make a choice. Would she stay with her sister and brother-in-law, or would she go away with Maurice? In the end, with the same impetuousness that brought her to America, Florence chose Maurice.
The young couple were married at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church. They had known each other less than a year. The ceremony was performed amidst ominous quiet by the Reverend George Cornell and witnessed by a pair of drifters, William and Nettie Comley. The circumstances of the marriage — the hastiness with which it came about and the fact that Ernest and Grace did not attend — raise questions. The relationship may have been a passionate one but was it, in the eyes of Florence's sister and brother-in-law, also a bad one?
Maurice and Florence stayed in Laramie for a couple of months and it was there that Ray was conceived. Ray always thought things might have turned out better had the Chandlers remained in the area but circumstances were against them and Maurice's work took him towards Chicago. Maurice knew Chicago well. He almost certainly lived there early in his career and would have traveled through it often while working. Florence had also visited before, but only briefly, stopping over for a few hours while changing trains on her way to her sister's. It was all new to her and certainly very different from the kind of environment to which she was accustomed.
There were six rail termini in Chicago, with trains from Wyoming ending their journey at Union Station. It was there that Florence disembarked. The first thing she would have noticed would have been the smell: the stench of rubbish and manure, mingling with the foul odor of the out-of-town stockyards,* blown in on the prairie winds.
Trains also made Chicago noisy and dangerous. Around a thousand a day came into the city, traveling along tracks that carved through the city. Since 1857, Chicago's railway network had been the largest in the world, and city authorities had little or no control over its expansion. It was the product of pure, unbridled capitalism. Tracks crossed major roads and intersections, blocking traffic and pedestrians while the iron monsters, tugging behind them innumerable wagons, belched their way to the station. It is hardly surprising that the accident toll was high in this environment and, in the year of Raymond Chandler's birth, an average of two Chicagoans were killed every day by trains.
Perhaps most shocking of all for Florence would have been the city's sheer size. She had never fully experienced a place like Chicago but, after all, cities like it had not existed for long. Chicago was built on a different scale, to a different template, and, unlike older settlements, it had expanded not just outward but upward.
When Florence arrived in Chicago, it was already home to some of the most famous and innovative tall buildings in the world. In the past, urban skylines had been dominated by the spires, crosses, and domes of churches, mosques, and synagogues, but Chicago's skyline was characterized by capitalist rather than spiritual devotion. Each new building had to be bigger and better and Chicago soon became a perpetual building site. Mark Twain wrote,
Chicago [is] a city where they are always rubbing a lamp and fetching up a genii and contriving and achieving new possibilities. It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try and keep up with Chicago — she outgrows her prophecies faster than she can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.
Buildings like the Montauk Block (Burnham and Root, 1882–1883) and the Rookery (Burnham and Root, 1888) changed the way that Chicago's inhabitants looked at the city, and not always in a good way. People began to fear that the buildings were getting too tall — so tall, in fact, that they risked blocking out the sun itself, creating canyon-like streets never touched by natural light. These fears were not realized, but it goes to show quite how little these architectural developments were understood and how intimidating they could be.
How strange Chicago must have appeared to Florence, who was familiar with the three- and four-story buildings of Waterford's industrial area. Buildings with ten, eleven, and even more stories would have seemed quite awesome and daunting.
Maurice and Florence set up their first home on Langley Avenue, close to the lakefront in Chicago's southeastern suburbs. Meanwhile, Maurice's job had not changed very much. Despite his new wife and the imminent arrival of his first child, he was still working out of and around the Midwest, and Florence often found herself alone. This made life very difficult for the expectant mother. She had no family in the immediate vicinity, and whatever support she needed had to come from her new neighbors.
Excerpted from A Mysterious Something in the Light by Tom Williams. Copyright © 2012 Tom Williams. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 "My Father Was an Alcoholic" 1
2 "I Was Raised on Latin and Greek" 17
3 "A Man Without a Country" 29
4 Welcome to Los Angeles 51
5 Raymio 69
6 Making a Start 99
7 A Pulp Writer 111
8 Writing The Big Sleep 125
9 "A Few Drops of Tabasco on the Oyster" 139
10 Hollywood 173
11 "No Job for Amateurs" 197
12 "The Limitations of a Popular Art" 225
13 "Subdued Magic" 257
14 "Sit with Me While I Dream" 293
Select Bibliography 357