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|Santa Monica "AKA Bay City" Celebrates Raymond Chandler||
By Melonie Magruder
February 2, 2012 -- Raymond Chandler, the celebrated master of noir, was intimately familiar with Santa Monica. He immortalized the seaside town in his series of short stories set in “Bay City,” a shabby gambling burg that was heavy on speakeasies and debauchery and light on police scrutiny.
In fact, Chandler and his wife Cissy lived in Santa Monica in 1940, at 449 San Vicente Boulevard. At the time, he was working on his novel, “The Lady in the Lake.”
From February 22 to March 31, Santa Monica Citywide Reads celebrates its tenth anniversary by featuring Chandler's fourth full-length novel, first published in 1943 by Alfred A. Knopf.
"The Lady in the Lake" once again featured wisecracking private detective Phillip Marlowe, who is hired for a fairly standard missing-persons case that quickly becomes more tangled as the hard-as-nails detective discovers a series of dead bodies and crooked characters along the way.
To prepare readers for the Chandler celebration, The Lookout interviewed Loren Latker, a historian on Los Angeles in general and Raymond Chandler in particular who lives in Malibu. His appreciation of Chandler’s oeuvres is such that he has spent years researching Chandler’s life and how it is reflected in his work.
Chandler, who began writing detective fiction after being fired from his position as an oil company executive when he was 45 years old, was fascinated with the corruption that seemed to run through city hall and its police department, Latker said.
“Chandler set a lot of his short stories in Santa Monica and referred to a lot of businesses then running in the area,” Latker said. “He would disguise the names and sometimes move the location a little, but everyone knew what he was talking about.”
Santa Monica, where there were “lots of churches and almost as many bars,” offered rich fodder for details in Chandler’s short stories.
In 1935, actress Thelma Todd was found dead at a home on Pacific Coast Highway in a car belonging to her lover’s ex-wife, not far from where Chandler was writing his Black Mask stories. The death was ruled a suicide, but there were plenty of rumors of foul play.
According to Chandler biographer Tom Hiney, the writer was intrigued with another local murder mystery. In 1940, a Santa Monica doctor named George Dayley was tried for the murder of his wife five years after she was reported to have committed suicide. Witnesses claimed they heard Dayley brag about committing the perfect murder.
But no evidence was found and Dayley was acquitted. Chandler filed away the story and eventually worked it into a plot point in “Bay City Blues” and then further in “The Lady in the Lake.”
From 1920 through 1933, when Prohibition was in place, gambling ships would cruise just far enough away from the Santa Monica Pier as to be operating in “international waters” and, therefore, untouchable to local authorities.
The giant “floating houses of sin” attracted plenty of notoriety, dubious money sources and the harassed attention of federal agents, who wanted to shut down the floating casinos.
Finally, then-California Attorney General Earl Warren sent about 250 state officers to board the ships and shut them down. The ensuing standoff (which Warren eventually won) was dubbed “The Battle of Santa Monica Bay” by newspapermen.
Chandler reveled in these tawdry stories so easily collected in Santa Monica then. They helped turn the city into another great character in his work.
In his 1938 short story collection, “Bay City Blues,” Chandler writes of the ships twinkling in the distance from the pier. The chauffeur in “The Big Sleep” famously was driven off the Lido Pier (actually, the Malibu Pier), just up the highway. And City Hall and a waterfront hotel on Appian Way were regularly featured in his stories.
“When Chandler became a detective writer, he would usually use local newspapers as source material,” Latker said. “There was a lot of corruption running through the Santa Monica police bureaus then.
"But it was endemic in the Los Angeles departments as well. Chandler set most of his police corruption in Bay City, maybe to avoid ticking off any sources he had at the L.A. Police Department.”
While living in Santa Monica, Chandler enjoyed partying with certain Hollywood celebrities. Chandler, Cissy and actor John Houseman would haunt the hotel bars along the city waterfront.
But Chandler never stayed in one place too long (“He would end up getting in arguments with neighbors,” Latker said). He tried a place in Brentwood and spent some time in the Pacific Palisades.
But Santa Monica – or Bay City - inspired some of Chandler’s best metaphorical prose, including lines like Moose Malloy looking “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
Next year, the fundraising nonprofit for Doctors Without Borders, Malibu Global Awareness, will be throwing a Chandler-esque fundraising party at the Casa del Mar Hotel. If you look closely enough there, you might find the kind of gal that appealed to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: “smooth, shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin.”
Those who already belong to a book club and are interested in reading and discussing "The Lady in the Lake" with their group are also encouraged to use the Citywide Reads Resource Guide, available from late January through March 31, 2012 at all Santa Monica Public Library locations and on the Citywide Reads web site at www.smpl.org/Citywide_Reads.aspx.
The Santa Monica Public Library is wheelchair accessible. For special disabled services, call Library Administration at (310) 458-8606 at least one week prior to the event. For more information, call the Santa Monica Public Library at (310) 458-8600 or visit www.smpl.org.
More information on Chandler and his Santa Monica connections may be found at Loren Latker’s website on all things Chandler: www.shamustown.com
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