Raymond Chandler’s La Jolla: Walking tour showcases local places described in famed writer’s novel ‘Playback’

This house in La Jolla provided the setting of a death in "Playback" by Raymond Chandler.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Late novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler’s last book, “Playback,” is set in the fictitious town Esmerelda, but those who read it will find some striking similarities to La Jolla.

Esmerelda, described as a “quiet beach town,” has a main street called Grand Avenue with shops and recreational offerings. The community’s seaside resort, called Casa del Poniente, is much like La Jolla’s La Valencia Hotel. And much like La Jolla’s The Marine Room, a seaside restaurant in Esmerelda called The Glass Room has wall-size windows.

Chandler spent the last 10 years of his life in La Jolla and died here in 1959.

Chandler — known for writing the novels “The Big Sleep,” “Farewell, My Lovely,” “The Long Goodbye” and the movie “Double Indemnity” — was already famous when he moved to La Jolla, and “he had a very ambiguous attitude about La Jolla,” according to La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten.

“He liked living here and he disliked living here,” Olten said. “He said of La Jolla Cove, ‘The waves don’t break, they slide in politely.’”

In an interview, he called La Jolla “a nice place for old people and their parents” and said the area is so quiet, “it’s like being already dead.”

Olten led a guided walking tour Dec. 1 of La Jolla locales described in “Playback” and other local places that were personally and professionally significant to Chandler.

La Jolla historian Carol Olten leads a walking tour of places significant to late writer and La Jollan Raymond Chandler.
While reading from “Playback,” La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten leads a guided walking tour of places significant to late writer and La Jolla resident Raymond Chandler.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Among the sites were Chandler’s last home on Prospect Street, a corner that once housed his favorite movie theater and a house in which a critical plot point in “Playback” takes place.

“We have this image of Raymond Chandler in La Jolla in the late years as being kind of a reclusive writer, a heavy hand with the bottle … very despondent [since the death of his wife, Cissy] and drinking a lot of gimlets,” Olten said. “He dressed very dapper and liked to wear tweed suits with golf cufflinks.”

He was known to frequent the bar at the La Valencia Hotel, and in stopping there on the tour, Olten said the “La Valencia plays a major point as a meeting place in ‘Playback.’ ... In the story, a detective is tracking a murder suspect ... and the murder suspect is coming to places like La Valencia.”

In the book, Chandler describes a dress shop in a building on the corner of Girard Avenue and Silverado Street where the Bluemercury skin-care business now operates, as well as a hardware store inspired by Meanley & Son.

Perhaps most notably, a mysterious death in the book takes place in a house inspired by one of the oldest homes in La Jolla. It was once on Girard Avenue but in the 1930s was moved and rotated to face Drury Lane.

“This house is one of the oldest that still remains in La Jolla in usable condition,” Olten said. “It was built in 1894 … by the widow of a sea captain who came out here from Maine.

“Raymond Chandler spends a lot of time describing this house; he must have been fascinated by it.”

During his free time, Chandler was a big movie fan and frequented a theater called the Granada on the corner of Girard Avenue and Wall Street, Olten said. The theater was shut down in 1952 and converted to a department store.

Chandler and his wife also frequented local restaurants, including one where La Jolla United Methodist Church now stands.

The tour also stopped at the site where Chandler lived out the last of his days, though the home no longer stands. The tour also passed the former location of a mural honoring Chandler and the town of Esmerelda.

The La Jolla Historical Society offers guided and self-guided walking tours with different themes. Learn more at ◆