On this day in 1953 Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye was published. Many say it is his best novel, and the biographers trace many connections to Chandler’s personal life, none of them happy ones. Nor would any of them have been encouraged by Chandler:
Yes, I am exactly like the characters in my books…. I do a great deal of research, especially in the apartments of tall blondes. I am thirty-eight years old and have been for the last twenty years. I do not regard myself as a dead shot, but I am a pretty dangerous man with a wet towel. But all in all I think my favorite weapon is a twenty-dollar bill.
Chandler gave a similar warning to those who looked for the literary craftsman in the writing: “It just happens, like red hair.” But The Long Goodbye did not just happen. One letter to his agent in 1952 explains his three-year struggle with the book this way: “My writing demands a certain amount of dash and high spirits – the word is gusto – and you could not know the bitter struggle I have had in the past year to achieve enough cheerfulness to live on, much less to put into a book.” In the novel, such despair has Marlowe so low that he beds women he dislikes; for Chandler, it was caused by the last, long illness of his wife, Cissy. While reworking his final draft Chandler slept on a couch outside her room, gave up drinking and had to punch two new holes in his belt. She died a year after The Long Goodbye was published, at the age of eighty-four – she was eighteen years older than Chandler – and eight weeks short of their thirty-first wedding anniversary. “I have said goodbye to my Cissy in the middle of the night in the dark cold hours many, many times,” Chandler wrote to a friend. “For thirty years, ten months and four days, she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at. That is all there is to say. She was the music heard faintly on the edge of sound.”
Chandler’s last years without Cissy were spent more or less in breakdown, the drunken suicide attempts of the months after her funeral turning to five, eventually fatal, years of alcoholism. In his last months he was having desperate, disinterested affairs and drinking gimlets again, now all too much like Marlowe in The Long Goodbye: “Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.