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KPBS Commentaries

Raymond Chandler

Thirteen steps lead up from CAMINO DE LA COSTA to the front door of the white stucco cottage that his readers and neighbors still call Raymond Chandler's house. He lived here from 1946 until soon before his death in 1959.

Now its white paint is mottled and crumbling.

Everything has grown.

A shameless purple bougainvillaea soars above Chandler's roofline.

Twisted junipers are shoulder high out front and around to the side, where Camino de la Costa turns east.

Forty-five years after his death, the City of San Diego has stapled a notice for a public hearing on what has become an everyday La Jolla makeover: 1500 square feet of remodeling, including a second story.

Chandler described a house like this in his last big novel, The Long Goodbye.

In that book, a reporter named Lonnie Morgan drove Philip Marlowe home one night. In all his life, I guess, Chandler never forgot a scene.

I hauled the real Chandler up these thirteen steps one night and into bed.

He was one of the most literate writers I have ever known, and the most difficult one. When he was old and alone, I sat and listened. I never thought to have him sign some first editions. I just loved the guy.

I had been blessed to know a more sober Chandler earlier when he typed and chewed his pipes in the shelf-lined back room. He faithfully nursed his ailing wife Cissie until she died, and then drank himself to join her in death.

One night, Chandler lifted Cissy from her bed like a crystal vase, and set her down at her Steinway grand. She played Chopin waltzes. For me, the scene still wafts lavender and magnolias.

"Anything else I did in life,? Chandler once wrote, "was just the fire for her to warm her hands at.?

With such memories, I read a five-line notice in the morning paper that Chandler had attempted suicide. I went to old County Hospital to try to spring him. A startled superintendent unlocked the white iron door of the drunk tank and nodded me inside.

It smelled of puke, and the eyes behind the heavy wire mesh were like those of caged animals.

Chandler stood among them like a wet puppy that had been bad. He had written of such places, but his ashen face betrayed his terror at waking up in one.

I checked him into a Chula Vista sanitarium and five days later drove him home. He said he was sorry to trouble a friend. We didn't talk much. It was the kind of moment between people that is too revealing to risk small talk and too unsettling to permit much more.

The holes in the shower were soon patched. He began traveling compulsively, and we exchanged letters. (Some are on display now at La Jolla Library, along with his pipes.)

"Don't give me up,? he wrote in one of them. "I need friends.?