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I sat in my car at the curb a little longer. Whatever sort of life Ray had led here briefly on Bonnie Brae was long gone, effectively erased by time. The people were dead, the houses destroyed, even the language of the neighborhood had changed. Gone, too, Ouija boards, Madame Blavatsky, and evenings where people entertained one another with songs and poems. Still I could imagine what it had been like at the Lloyds’. The alcohol-infused evenings, the sense of cultured, intelligent guests, a feeling of bonhomie, a young and attractive crowd. A little chess. Music, with Julian at the piano, Alma singing. Dancing later in the evening. Cissy— beautiful and high-spirited, reputed to be very witty and amusing, and theatrical in both manner and dress—effortlessly holding everyone’s attention. She had style. She had class. She spoke in a kind of upper-class faux-English accent, perhaps picked up from her husband. She was newly arrived from New York, enigmatic about her past but leaving no doubt that it was colorful. Her charm was natural, her appeal immediate. She won people over easily, without visible effort. Years later Ray would tell a story about her, how once, when they were in a car and she was driving, she was stopped by a policeman and in the middle of speaking with him, she accidentally ran over the policeman’s foot, and then frustrated, she put the car in reverse and ran over his foot again, and yet the policeman was so utterly charmed by her that all he did was smile and let her off without a ticket.
How appealing she must have been to Chandler, right from the beginning. A woman with a resourcefulness and intelligence to match his. And a cynical attitude toward convention. None of the vulnerability and sadness of his mother—the fragility of an abandoned woman. In her life, it was Cissy who’d done the abandoning, not the other way around. By the time she met Chandler, she was on her second husband.
Later he wrote of her,
When she was younger, she used to have sudden and very short-lived tempers, in which she would throw pillows at me. I just laughed. I liked her spirit. She was a terrific fighter. If an awkward or unpleasant scene faced her, and at times we all face that, she would march right in, and never hesitate a moment to think it over. And she always won, not because she deliberately put on the charm at the tactical moment, but because she was irresistible without even knowing or caring about it.
Sexy and experienced, witty and confident, she was everything a young man could want in an older woman. He was sexually repressed and shy, inexperienced with women. Little wonder he found her irresistible.
Cissy was born in Perry, Ohio, in 1870, as Pearl Eugenia Hurlburt, but she left Ohio at around the age of twenty and moved to New York City. She settled in Harlem sometime in the early 1890s and immediately changed her name to Cecilia, shortened to Cissy. She set about reinventing herself, giving herself a new name, dumping the provincial Pearl for the more modern and snappy-sounding Cissy. In Harlem, she rented an apartment on Lenox Avenue, and she began studying piano. To make money she also became an artist’s model—part of a bohemian high-life set that used opium. Soon she was posing nude for artists and photographers (Ray later owned some of these nude photographs of her— what ever happened to them? I wondered). She was even said to have been the model for a large nude painting of a beautiful blonde that hung for many years in the bar of either the St. Regis Hotel or the Plaza in New York City.
Living in turn-of-the-century Harlem, she was far away from the parents back home in Ohio. She had a sister, Lavinia, who would later come to live in L.A. and with whom she seems to have been close. But in New York she was rather blissfully free of family and her midwestern past (Ohio, as someone once said, was a place made for leaving). During her time in Harlem she had married a salesman with the rather fleabitten name of Leon Brown Porcher. What did he sell—life insurance? kitchenwares? ladies’ undergarments? Seven years later she divorced Porcher and married Julian Pascal, alias Goodridge Bowen, classical pianist and composer, formerly of the West Indies and London, a move that would seem to have increased her social standing, and then later she would leave the older neurasthenic Julian for the much younger Raymond Chandler, and what this told me was she was a woman who seemed to have no difficulty making up her mind about what she wanted in life and going for it, no matter the amount of change involved. If it caused some temporary difficulties—she would still march right in, as Ray had put it, to get what she wanted, and she always won, because she was irresistible. Her appeal for Chandler, their attraction to one another, didn’t happen overnight. It built over a period of five or six years, and it had begun here, on Bonnie Brae, when they both belonged to The Optimists, and she was still married to Julian, and Ray lived with his mother.
Angel’s Flight, c. 1910. Photo: Ashley Van Haeften, Flickr.
Once his mother had arrived from England, Ray rented an apartment for the two of them near Angel’s Flight, in the Bunker Hill area of downtown L.A. I didn’t have an exact address—I just knew they had lived somewhere near the top of the little funicular that used to serve the area and take people up and down the steep hill. It was an area Chandler had described in one of his early stories, “The King in Yellow,” and which he used again, in much greater detail, in The High Window:
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