By Sybil Anne Davis
Guest ContributorMarch 26 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Raymond Chandler, a former resident of La Jolla who, since his death, has become an icon of American literature.
Chandler took the genre of mystery writing out of the rose garden and put it back where it belonged, the mean streets of Los Angeles. His books were published in many languages, made into highly successful movies, and and his original screenplay, “The Blue Dahlia,” starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1946.
Urban legend has it that because Chandler’s film was playing at a movie theater near the scene of the gruesome (and still unsolved as of today) real life murder of Elizabeth Short, she was given the nickname “The Black Dahlia.” A movie of the same name about that murder was released in 2006 starring Hilary Swank.
In the 1940s Chandler was the highest paid screenwriter on the Paramount Studio lot, earning a then unheard of $100,000 for a single script.
Before I graduated from La Jolla High School, I knew Chandler, or Ray, as he preferred to be called. My mother worked for him as his executive personal secretary, and he dedicated his last book, “Playback,” to her.
I was present on the day of his funeral when he was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego in 1959. I was a child of 13, mourning not the loss of a great author but the loss of a gentle 70-year-old man who had become my surrogate grandfather. He had no children; I had no living grandparents. It was a good fit. We adored each other.
Once Chandler’s death became known, the TV networks wanted to film his funeral, offering to have it held at a cathedral, with cameras placed in the choir loft so as to be less intrusive.
One network promised that all the actors who had starred in his films, and the films’ directors, would be invited, as would the outstanding writers of the time. The guest mourner list was to include Alfred Hitchcock, Erle Stanley Gardiner, Ian Fleming, John Steinbeck, Billy Wilder, John Houseman, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, Edward G. Robinson, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lauren Bacall, to name a few.
Ray had not wanted a fuss made over him. His last concession to public notoriety was when he appeared in New York only weeks before his death to be installed in the honorary position of president of The Mystery Writers of America. In a letter to his lawyer, he had said:
“I desire ... that there be no religious ceremony, since I am an agnostic. I am quite sure that there must be some power in this vast universe, but any idea of God as a nice old gentleman with a long white beard is ridiculous to me.”
Chandler’s wishes were followed. There was no previous church ceremony, no viewing of the casket, just the ritual of the burial. There were less than a dozen mourners at the grave site, among them Neil Morgan, a columnist from the San Diego Union and a representative of The Mystery Writers of America. I placed a white rose on his casket as I said my final goodbye.
Eighteen years earlier, in his first novel, “The Big Sleep,” Chandler wrote:
“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.”
Sybil Anne Davis graduated from La Jolla High School in 1962, then attended UC Santa Barbara and the USC School of Law. Now retired after 30 years in private practice, she is writing a book of her memoirs about Raymond Chandler. This is an excerpt from that book.