Raymond Chandler and the woman he loved

Judith Freeman and I are trying to conjure up Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles. We want to see the city as the world-weary private investigator saw it more than a half-century ago but we’d like to avoid well-known joints like Musso & Franks and The Pacific Dining Car. Can we do it merely by walking through her neighborhood, or is such literary alchemy beyond the powers of two girl sleuths in 2007 L.A.?

It’s a cool fall evening as we leave Freeman’s 1930s persimmon bungalow near MacArthur Park and head west along a gritty stretch of Third Street toward Rampart.

Freeman stops to point out the Mother Trust Superet Light Center. I’ve driven past it a zillion times without really noticing the two-story, white-columned brick building with its adjacent church and rose garden. It’s quaint, modest and also timeless, something right out of Carey McWilliams. Freeman says it dates to the 1920s, the era of evangelical cult personalities like Aimee Semple McPherson.

A little tingle comes over me. The Superet is a fenced-off jewel-box of a mystery, serene amidst the grime and gritty commerce of Third Street. I picture it weathering almost a century of change, watching the neighborhoods turn from wealthy and white to working class, then Latino and now Korean. When I Google Superet a few days later, I’m delighted to learn it was founded in 1925 by Dr. Josephine C. Trust, S.A.A.S., “the only Chartered Superet Atoms Aura Scientist of the Superet Science in the world.”

We continue our walk, past Latina mothers hurrying along with children and groceries and young men talking on the sidewalk. Cars and buses whiz by, leaving trails of exhaust. We turn south on Lafayette Park, and Freeman points out the corner where an ornate, three-story mansion used to stand when she first moved to the area in 1989.

Lafayette Park was a gracious, affluent neighborhood a century ago, home to the city’s movers and shakers. Chandler and his wife Cissy lived in various apartments all around here, as did Chandler characters like the District Attorney in “The Big Sleep,” Freeman points out.

Then, one by one the historic homes were torn down. A few years ago, Freeman walked by and was stunned to see the last remaining mansion being demolished to build a school. Freeman says they didn’t even save the gorgeous doors, windows or fixtures. It made her feel sick, the way the city’s history was trampled under without a care.

We walk past the school – built in a nondescript institutional style – and pass boxy, graceless apartments that squat like linebackers where graceful architectural treasures once stood. Chandler wouldn’t recognize the neighborhood, it’s solidly middle-class Korean.

In her book, “The Long Embrace, Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,” Freeman examines her obsession with Chandler, his reclusive, much older wife, old Los Angeles, love, longing and the passage of time. They became Ray and Cissy to her. She felt their physical presence, imagined the world through their eyes.

She also visited the dozens of places in Southern California where they lived – the couple moved every two to six months. Many are gone. Others are shabby and rundown. Some of the current residents had never heard of Raymond Chandler. Often, Freeman had to cast her eyes upward to catch glimpses of Marlowe’s city.

“It was in the trees that I felt the history of the landscape, the only continuity connecting my age with Ray’s,” Freeman wrote. “Looking at them I thought, I am seeing what he saw – trees. And everything else is different.”

It’s a terrifically sad commentary on L.A.’s disdain for its past. Still, it’s in this Mid-Wilshire neighborhood where we’re now walking that Freeman most feels the author’s presence. In the book, she writes:

“If there was such a thing as Chandlerland this was it, and each day I felt surrounded by a kind of shabbier version of that era, a strangely eviscerated ghost of the world I was trying to imagine. When you constantly change a landscape, you erase the collective memory of a city. How can you live without memory?”

We walk some more, and Freeman points out the elegant pre-War apartment buildings that have recently been restored or are slated for renovation. The El Royale on Wilshire, the Ansonia on Sixth and Carondelet, the Asbury, the Rampart Arms, the Gaylord, the Talmadge.

Chandleresque buildings, every one, ritzy places that once boasted liveried doormen and house dicks and glamorous residents.

Our destination is the old Wilshire Royale Hotel, a 12-story Art Deco beauty built in 1927 near MacArthur Park, back when the area was known as the “Westlake district.” After falling onto hard times in the 1980s, the Royale became a Howard Johnson Hotel, then lower-income housing. Taking advantage of the area’s up-and-coming trendiness, new owners have converted the historic hotel to apartments with an au courant restaurant bar on the ground floor.

The Royale’s white Deco architecture evokes old LA, as do the palm trees swaying in front, the huge rooftop sign that might once have been lit in neon. We step inside the “Royal” bar where a dreadlocked DJ is spinning loud dance versions of top 40 hits at 5:30 p.m. Here too, the past has been wiped clean in favor of designer John Sofio’s minimalist style that is “trendy and contemporary, yet warm and unpretentious.” Only the original bar of carved oak and white Italian marble remains.

Freeman orders a martini and though it’s really not fair, I ask the waitress for a rye. Her nose wrinkles in bewilderment. Rye whiskey, I say. With a professional smile, she asks for my second choice, in case the bar is out. Oh well, never mind.

On the walk back, the night is brightly lit. A warm breeze kicks up. More people throng the sidewalks. We stop in front of Freeman’s stucco apartment, next to a pleasantly overgrown empty lot. Halfway up the stairs, three pairs of eyes glint and we make out the bandit faces of raccoons, which scuttle off into the night.

Freeman says she’s never seen raccoons in all the years she’s lived here. But there they are, proof that wild and unexpected grace survives, even in the midst of our urban sprawl.

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