Tough Guys and Sentimental Gumshoes
* SELECTED LETTERS OF DASHIELL HAMMETT 1921-1960 Edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett; Counterpoint: 650 pp., $40
* THE RAYMOND CHANDLER PAPERS Selected Letters and Nonfiction 1909-1959 Edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane; Atlantic Monthly Press: 268 pp., $25May 6, 2001
By DICK LOCHTE, Dick Lochte writes the regular "Mysteries" column for Southern California Living
"Hammett was the ace performer," wrote Raymond Chandler in his frequently quoted 1944 essay, "The Simple Art of Murder." "He did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." Chandler's appraisal of Dashiell Hammett's influence on American crime fiction is unassailable. With numerous short stories and five novels, of which "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man" are probably the best known, Hammett moved the mystery story from a celebration of over-educated amateur sleuths who solved improbable crimes (exemplified by S.S. Van Dine's playboy-genius Philo Vance, whose arrogance compelled poet Ogden Nash to pen: "Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pants") to a study of professional detectives who used street smarts and shoe leather to get their jobs done. Still, it was ingenuous of Chandler to mention it, since, at the time, he'd been tapped by the critical establishment and mystery fans as the heir apparent to the no longer productive Hammett.
Chandler and Hammett occupied roughly the same period: Hammett was born in 1894, six years after Chandler, and died in 1961, two years after him. They were not friends. According to all accounts, they met only once, in 1936, at a Hollywood dinner for contributors to Black Mask magazine. But they will be linked forever as the men of letters who, in Chandler's razor-edged words, took "a cheap, shoddy, and utterly lost kind of writing and ... made it into something that intellectuals claw each other about."
Much of the clawing was reserved for Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon," a lesson in avarice in which archetypal private eye Sam Spade searches for the murderer of his partner and a jewel-encrusted statue worth millions, and "The Glass Key," on the surface a whodunit involving the murder of a senator's ne'er-do-well son, but actually a study of power politics and male bonding. A segment of the literary establishment, led by Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker, considered Hammett to be a major novelist. The opposition was led by Edmund Wilson, who ranked "Falcon" on a par with "newspaper picture-strips." Wilson was a bit more positive about "Farewell, My Lovely," one of Chandler's more tightly woven novels, a mixture of mayhem and romanticism in which detective Philip Marlowe is hired by an ex-convict named Moose Malloy to locate his lost lady love, an auburn-haired club singer as "cute as lace pants." What the literati said about them was important, of course, but as Chandler indicated, being discussed at all was a major accomplishment for writers of crime fiction.
Both men were fiercely private, lending an air of mystery to their lives. The more shadowy areas of Chandler's history have been illuminated by well-researched biographies and two generous books of letters: "Raymond Chandler Speaking," edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker, and "Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler," edited by Frank MacShane. Hammett's life is a different matter. Though it has been examined in books, motion pictures and television dramas and documentaries, major questions remain. Why did he suddenly stop writing fiction in 1934 at the height of his career? What was his relationship to the wife and daughters whom he had seemingly deserted? How much of his decades-long affair with Lillian Hellman was real and how much the product of her imagination? (Gore Vidal once wondered wickedly if anyone had ever actually seen them together.)
"Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-1960" was harvested from more than 1,000 existing letters by biographer Richard Layman ("Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett") and the author's granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett. Presented chronologically, with annotations and trenchant biographical fill-ins, the letters depict a life if not in full then at least in focus. There's not much here to add to the accumulated information about Hammett's professional affairs. The key revelations are personal: self-portraits of the author as doting father, unremitting drunk, self-educated intellectual, committed Marxist, patriot, soft touch, seducer and romantic.
Hammett's earliest entries date from just after World War I, when tuberculosis put his career as a Pinkerton operative on hold. They're unabashed love songs sung by an infirm 26-year-old to Josephine Dolan, the pretty nurse he'd left behind after moving to another hospital. "I may have done a lot of things that weren't according to scripture," he wrote to his future wife on March 9, 1921, "but I love Josephine Anna Dolan -- and have since about the sixth of January -- more than anything in Christ's world." Tempering his ardor somewhat, he added a line meant to be playful: "Some day I may partially forget you, and be able to enjoy another woman, but there's nothing to show that it'll be soon."
On a November night in 1930, at a party hosted by Darryl Zanuck, Hammett was introduced to Lillian Hellman, at the time the wife of screenwriter Arthur Kober. As the book's editors describe it, they "left the party together and were companions for the rest of his life." Since he would complete only one more novel, "The Thin Man," the general assumption has been that Hellman was the reason for a writer's block that lasted for three decades. But his letters indicate that she was only one of a wide range of impediments. There were other women. He maintained a continuing, if long-distance, relationship with Josephine and his two daughters. He drank heavily and was in and out of hospitals. He was active in socialist politics. He wrote screenplays. And, while on the West Coast, he wrote letters to Hellman in the East. By then he was starting to sound like his blase "Thin Man" hero, Nick Charles. "I've been faithful enough to you," he informed her from Hollywood, "but I went back on the booze pretty heavily until Saturday night -- neglecting studio, dignity and so on."
In 1942, at age 48, in a patriotic, anti-fascist fervor, he enlisted in the Army. He was stationed on Adak Island in the Aleutians, a ruthlessly cold and desolate location that offered little by way of hedonistic pleasure. But as is clear from his wartime correspondence -- more than 250 pages of letters, predominantly to Josephine, his daughters, Hellman and another paramour, Prudence Whitfield -- Hammett relished his military duty, particularly his main assignment, the creation and editing of a daily camp newspaper.
The final letters were addressed primarily to his younger daughter, Jo. They are relentlessly upbeat, no matter how dreary the circumstance. After numerous failed attempts to jump-start his fiction career, he wrote her, "... it's swell having a new novel not to do: I was getting pretty bored with just not working on that half a dozen or so old ones...." After his imprisonment for refusing to aid a federal court in locating bail-jumping Communists, he seemed almost jaunty. "Dear Jo, This is the first letter I've written since I've been in the clink ... it's getting kind of fallish down here, with frosty nights, mostly foggy mornings and sunny afternoons ...." At liberty again but in failing health, he continued to put on a game face, responding with genuine-seeming warmth and grandfatherly pride to news of her children. His last letter, penned just 15 days before lung cancer claimed him, was a paean to his chance meeting with Hellman 30 years before. He described that event as "the beginning of everything."
But as compelling and informative as many of these letters are, there is an overabundance of them. Those addressed to his wife after their parting are repetitious enough to take on the aspects of a litany: My health is improving, my weight is increasing, the weather here is (fill in the blank), a check is in the mail and kiss the girls for me. And it's unclear who or what is served by the inclusion of several bits of sappy esoterica, such as Hammett' s toe-curling "Love Poem" to Hellman: "I am silly/About Lily./Without Lily,/I am silly/Willy-nilly."
In comparison, "The Raymond Chandler Papers" is much leaner. And definitely meaner. There's a genial quality to most of Hammett's letters. Even in his rare flashes of waspishness, he pulled his punches. The Chandler letters, on the other hand, are the work of a hypercritical past master of the use of sarcasm, irony and bitter wit. In his introduction, Tom Hiney mentions newly resurrected material, but there's not much of it, other than a gleefully vicious description of an Academy Award celebration that appeared in a 1948 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, a rather feeble 1958 interview with Lucky Luciano that the London Sunday Times commissioned and then discarded and a few scattered excerpts from business letters. But even though the book is essentially a trimmed-down version of the "Selected Letters" edited by the late MacShane, the new offering is jampacked with shimmering invective aimed in every direction, including inward.
Hiney has not been scrupulous in indicating every minor edit or in researching his annotations (he seems to think that Studs Lonigan was "a pseudonym of James T. Farrell"), but he has been careful to include many of his subject's more harshly humorous observations. An example, written to critic and novelist Lenore Offord: "Most writers have the egotism of actors with none of the good looks or charm." And to Charles Morton, associate editor of Atlantic Monthly: "Talking of agents, when I opened the paper one morning last week I saw that it had finally happened: somebody shot one. It was probably for the wrong reasons, but at least it was a step in the right direction."
The "Chandler Papers" covers much of the author's adult life, beginning with samples of poems and essays written in his early 20s for several British literary magazines; a brief, crisp account of a day in the trenches during World War I; and a maudlin poem to his wife, Sissy. The letters start with his association with publishers Alfred and Blanche Knopf regarding the 1939 debut of his first novel, "The Big Sleep," then move through the good, productive years of the '30s, '40s and '50s, when he wrote his remaining six novels and assorted screenplays.
After Sissy's death in 1954, they describe a sort of aimless decline, during which he reportedly attempted suicide. In a letter to British publisher Roger Machell, he suggests that the "suicide" may have been an accident. "I couldn't for the life of me tell you whether I really intended to go through with it or whether my subconscious was putting on a cheap dramatic performance. The first shot went off without my intending to ... the trigger pull was so light that I barely touched it ...." Though drinking heavily and traveling back and forth from London to La Jolla in search of a "comfortable home," he managed to write what many consider to be his best novel, "The Long Goodbye," and arguably his worst, "Playback." The last letter in the book, to British detective novelist Maurice Guinness, discusses the pros and cons of Philip Marlowe's taking a wife. Chandler neglects to mention his own plans to marry his agent Helga Greene, Guinness' cousin (an event canceled by his fatal episode of pneumonia).
The letters offer few glimpses into his private life (except for some strikingly unpleasant examples of his anti-Semitism and misogyny). It's as if, by railing against everyone and everything from desert weather to American justice, Chandler were trying to deflect attention from matters too painful or too personal for him to discuss. The nearest he comes to self-revelation occurs just after the death of Sissy, in a letter to Roger Machell. "All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart," he wrote. He was speaking of himself, of course, but he could just as easily have been speaking of Hammett too.
Note: To mark the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler's death, the Daily Mirror is revisiting some of The Times' stories about his life and influence. We invite the Daily Mirror's readers to share their thoughts.
Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
Los Angeles Times file photo
Update: This is Sharon Lynn. Please congratulate Nick Santa Maria, Dewey Webb, Gregory Moore, Annie Frye, Mary Mallory and R. Ahuna for correctly identifying her. Nick, who was first, explains that he's a big Laurel and Hardy fan.
This photo is from "Sunnyside Up," 1929.
Just a reminder on how this works: I post the mystery photo on Monday and reveal the answer on Friday. To keep the mystery photo from getting lost in the other entries, I move it from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday, etc., adding a photo every day.
I have to approve all comments, so if your guess is posted immediately, that means you're wrong. (And if a wrong guess has already been submitted by someone else, there's no point in submitting it again). If you're right, you will have to wait until Friday. There's no need to submit your guess five times. Once is enough. The only prize is bragging rights.
The answer to last week's photo: Pauline Garon.
Check back next week for another mystery photo!
Here's another picture of our mystery woman. Isn't she great?
Update: This is Sharon Lynn in "Happy Days."
OK, here's the mystery woman with a companion.
Update: Frank Albertson and Sharon Lynn in "Wild Company."
Hey, look! It's one of those weird foreign compacts they used to sell in the 1950s. Of course, for $2,195 you could get a Chevrolet Biscayne with money left over.
The Western Hockey League hoped to move teams into San Francisco and Los Angeles and the Coliseum Commission seemed to welcome the idea, even boosting the minor league as an eventual equal to the National Hockey League.
WHL president Al Leader, in Los Angeles for a news conference with Coliseum Commission officials, had big plans.
"With larger arenas and larger crowds the owners would be in a position to pay the salaries needed to attract the top stars of ice hockey and keep them," Leader said. "Within five to seven years we could become a major hockey league and if that comes the National Hockey League would welcome a playoff world series of hockey."
Progressive PainsThat noise you hear down Santa Monica way is not another hunk of palisades sliding toward the ocean, it's the indignant uproar over progress, with our without quotes. With the opening of Pacific Ocean Park last year, the city of Santa Monica launched a modernization program.
A Redevelopment Agency was appointed with the power to condemn property, and a master plan was created which would replace the so-called slum areas with handsome new multiple dwellings, some 20 stories high.
first step was to acquire more and more beachfront property for parking space. An immediate complaint was heard from small-business men along the waterfront who said chasing away the bathers was hurting business. Streets also have been closed off and rerouted, confusing visitors.
TO COMBAT the Redevelopment Agency, residents have formed the Santa Monica Property, Homeowners & Tenants Assn. They claim skulduggery is afoot. They call the procedure a land grab. It is claimed also that there is oil in the 36-acre strip just north of the amusement pier, the section in dispute, making it very desirable.
The homeowners agree, perhaps belatedly, that their property needs a face-lifting, and they say they are willing to improve it, if given the chance. They point out also that other areas in the city are more blighted than theirs. Why, they ask, is the city so eager to dispossess them? They call it a political squeeze.
In short, they like it there. They don't want to sell their property, especially under pressure.
As elsewhere, the matter doubtless will have to be settled in the courts.
A HISTORY teacher at a nearby college recently conducted a class discussion on the collapse of the French government and the resultant rise of De Gaulle.
A principal reason for it, he said, was there were so many parties which couldn't agree on issues and became dissident, obstructionist groups.
On an examination paper a week later a student who apparently hadn't been listening attentively wrote, "The French government collapsed because of too many parties."
Let this be a warning to the cocktail crowd in Washington.
DURING THE Elizabeth Duncan trial in Ventura, defense attorney S. Ward Sullivan showed reporter Roy Ringer a letter from a 16-year-old L.A. high school boy asking for a transcript of the entire trial. He wanted to write a play based on the trial, he stated, for his drama class. Sullivan still was shuddering -- the transcript has about 660,000 words --- when he came to the final sentence: "If you can't comply that's all right. I'll just do a Perry Mason, but I don't think my teacher will let me put that on, either."
PUBLIC AT LARGE -- Bill Gooch tells people one of his greatest joys is holding Lily Pons on his knee. When he has them hooked he builds it up, relating how she gazes wistfully into his eyes. Then he confides Lily Pons is a neighbor, almost 3, and her father, Tony Pons, is an Air Force sergeant ... A man with a mustache ordered a beer in a downtown pub and sure enough, as it foamed while being poured, Dick Hunt, who knew him, remarked, "Ah, a drinking man's filter."
AT RANDOM -- The Rosarito Beach hotel, scene of a sensational gambling raid recently, has Mexican federal flags over every door, signifying it is closed by government decree. So reportsDarr Smith, who stopped for a look on the way home from Ensenada ... Sy Korman , Chicago Tribune correspondent here, whose play, "A Year of Waiting," will be given a reading by the Original Only group tonight in Hollywood, has mingled feelings. He hopes it clicks but he fears he faces more rewrite ... W.R. Scott of Reseda had a horrible nightmare. He dreamed his phone bill arrived and he was charged with the message units for that call to Venus and back.
Dogs Often Nicer Than Their OwnersOn Jan. 29, 1958, the state of California began enforcing a law which commands that every dog be vaccinated against rabies.
I applauded. Long and loud.
And I sat back to wait. I waited to see if those dire predictions made by a small, but extremely vocal group of fanatic dog lovers would come true.
I am happy to report to you that they didn't.
Our streets were not overrun by a stampede of vicious animals foaming at their mouths. Nor were our hospitals overwhelmed by an epidemic of rabies among humans.
State authorities tell me that nothing but good has come of the vaccination program.
And everybody's benefiting from it.
But apparently man-made law isn't the whole answer.
My telephone rang yesterday and the male voice on the wire emphasized for me another terrifying aspect of the rabies problem.
"Mr. Coates," the voice began, "I want to ask you a favor."
I asked what I could do.
"Mr. Coates," he said, "two of my children were bitten by a dog. And the public health people tell me that the kids have to have the Pasteur treatment. That's mighty painful, isn't it, Mr. Coates?"
I acknowledged that it was.
"It's all so unnecessary," the man said bitterly. "This woman won't tell me where the dog is."
"What woman?" I asked.
"The woman who owns the dog that bit my kids," he answered. "I know she knows where the dog is, but she won't tell. She won't even talk to me. And she told the people from the Animal Regulation Department that she doesn't even know anything about a dog.
"Mr. Coates, that woman is lying.
"My kids told me that the dog was in her yard for at least two weeks before they got bit. Some of the other kids in the neighborhood told me that she's taken the dog away--to the country, or something.
"Mr. Coates," he said pleadingly, "I don't want to cause the woman any harm. I just want to find the dog so my kids won't have to take that painful treatment.
"I've got seven kids and I've never lost one. I don't want to lose one now."
If the dog can't be found, treatment is recommended almost immediately.
So today, two young children begin a painful experience.
Let's Hope We Can Get Help
"I know it's probably too late to spare my kids," the caller told me helplessly. "But, maybe if you'd write something about them and about the woman, maybe somebody will do something so other parents can get official help in finding dogs that bite their kids."
So I am writing something because this is no isolated incident. Too frequently I hear about these strange people who, for whatever psychotic reason, refuse to turn their pets in for quarantine after they have bitten children.
It may come as a surprise to some of you that I like dogs. In fact, I own a couple of arrogant Prussian dachshunds named Friendly and Crown Prince Otto.
But no matter how much I like them, it would strike me as the most incomprehensible cruelty to place their comfort before a child's life.
9:37 AM | March 26, 2009
“The streets were dark with something more than night.”
-- Raymond Chandler on Los Angeles
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler’s death.
To celebrate his work, a small group of fans and scholars gathered at USC on Wednesday night to discuss the works of the author who elevated the detective novel to an art form and who, perhaps more than any other writer, is identified with Los Angeles, a city he loved to hate.
The panel of speakers included moderator Judith Freeman, a novelist and Chandler biographer, Kenneth Turan, a film critic for the Los Angeles Times, Leo Braudy, author and film critic, and Denise Hamilton, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and author of the Eva Diamond crime novels.
The discussion ranged from Chandler’s difficulty with plot lines to similarities between the author and detective Philip Marlowe, a loner and failed knight in an increasingly corrupt city.
Frank MacShane; Raymond Chandler Biographer
November 27, 1999
By JON THURBER, TIMES STAFF WRITER
After Frank MacShane moved to Berkeley to teach at the University of California, a friend gave him a bit of advice. "If you want to know what California is like," he said, "read Raymond Chandler."
So MacShane read Chandler's hard-boiled novels like "Farewell, My Lovely," "The Big Sleep," "The High Window" and "The Lady in the Lake," with their tough-guy hero Philip Marlowe; he read the poetry that Chandler wrote as a youth in England; and he read Chandler's letters, which the novelist proclaimed were "more penetrating" than any of the other forms of writing he had tried.
MacShane became an expert on the work, and then the biographer of what one observer called an "exceedingly complex and obviously deeply unhappy man."
Chandler would arguably be the most famous author that MacShane would study in his long career as a teacher, scholar and biographer. He wrote well-received biographies of Ford Maddox Ford, James Jones and John O'Hara, writers that MacShane called "the stepchildren of literature."
"Who needs another Hemingway biography?" he once said. "One of my motives in writing literary biographies is to look at a writer whose position is not set and try to place him, give him an evaluation."
But by the time of his death Nov. 15 in Gloucester, Mass., of Alzheimer's disease at the age of 72, MacShane was most closely identified with Chandler.
"The Life of Raymond Chandler," published in 1976, received generally favorable reviews. Larry McMurtry, writing in the Washington Post, called it "virtually a model of what literary biography should be."
Leonard Michaels, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called MacShane an "extremely polite biographer," adding that the work "gives an immensely detailed portrait of Chandler the man."
That portrait, painted largely in his own words from letters and other correspondence, was less than flattering. Chandler was an alcoholic, a hypochondriac, a philanderer, a man given to bouts of nerves and extreme depression. He suffered from painful skin allergies, including one that spread over his chest and neck and could be relieved only by the use of morphine. Other allergies, including one that caused the skin between his fingers to split, made simple tasks like shaking hands extremely painful.
Chandler started writing pulp fiction stories in 1932 at the age of 44.
A year later, his stories began to appear regularly in Black Mask magazine. "The Big Sleep" appeared in 1939, sealing Chandler's success as a writer. He died of bronchial pneumonia at 70 in 1959, the same year that MacShane started working at the University of California.
Chandler seemed to take his letters, which could be biting, funny and often penetrating, most seriously.
Of Graham Greene's work he once wrote: "Am reading 'The Heart of the Matter' . . . which has everything in it that makes literature except verve, wit, gust, must and magic . . . There is more life in the worst chapter Dickens or Thackeray ever wrote, and they wrote some pretty awful chapters."
But he had extreme respect for Dashiell Hammett, writing to an editor at Atlantic Monthly: "I reread the [Maltese] Falcon not long ago . . . by God, if you can show me 20 books written 20 years back that have as much guts and live now, I'll eat them . . . "
In commenting on writing in a letter to Erle Stanley Gardner, Chandler clearly described the qualities that characterized his own literary success. "When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea. . . . It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball."
MacShane continued to take on difficult issues after Chandler, moving on to Ford, O'Hara and Jones.
MacShane's most difficult time, however, would come in the mid-1990s, when he developed Alzheimer's. He recognized its progression and in conversation would often pause in mid-sentence to grope for words he could not find.
"It's this damned disease, you know," he explained.
MacShane was the son of a journalist who became publisher of the New York Journal American, then the Hearst flagship paper. Born in Pittsburgh, MacShane studied literature at Harvard, Yale and Oxford, where he received his doctorate in 1955. After teaching at Berkeley, MacShane landed at Columbia some years later and founded the graduate Writing Division of the university's school of the arts.
For the always courtly and professorial MacShane, biography was more than a chronicle, and he disagreed with fellow biographer Ted Morgan, who believed that "biography is just journalism."
MacShane dropped projects on Ezra Pound and Edward Dahlberg after developing a hostility toward them, saying, "If I'm going to spend three years on someone, wake up every day with him, make that kind of investment, it better be someone I like."
Note: To mark the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler's death, the Daily Mirror is revisiting some of The Times' stories about his life and influence. We invite the Daily Mirror's readers to share their thoughts.
No, it didn't get built, and The Times didn't elaborate on the project. We can simply add the "Island House" to the long list of plans that were never pursued.