Raymond Chandler’s Esmeralda: A ‘reluctant suburb of San Diego’
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Raymond Chandler sought out La Jolla after tiring of living in Los Angeles for several years. He and Cissy lived in their house on Camino de la Costa for the majority of their time there.
Raymond Chandler sought out La Jolla after tiring of living in Los Angeles for several years. He and Cissy lived in their house on Camino de la Costa for the majority of their time there.
To say that Raymond Chandler was a paradox could be construed as a major understatement. Although the author was born in the U.S., he was raised in Ireland and as an English gentleman, and attended some of the finest private schools during his youth. But he had a propensity to exceed his gimlet limit, often becoming boorish and self-aggrandizing as an adult.

He idealized a Puritanical attitude towards the opposite sex, yet philandered during his lifelong marriage. Like most groundbreaking creators, however, the flaws of the man’s private life – though often reflected in his hard-boiled and heavy-drinking gumshoe Philip Marlowe, indefinitely takes a backseat to his pointed, original prose.

From the City of Angels to bejeweled shores

Chandler visited La Jolla with his wife, Pearl Eugenia, or “Cissy” (18 years his senior) in 1939. Prior to this visit, he had achieved some success as a major oil company executive, only to be sacked for drinking and having an affair with one of his secretaries.

According to Chandler historian Loren Latker, one of his buddies from his executive days owned a cabin in Big Bear, a ranch in Palm Springs and a quaint seaside home in La Jolla. Cissy was getting older, and not feeling well, so they were looking to move away from Los Angeles, which was beginning to see shades of the overcrowding known today. While visiting La Jolla, they were actively looking for property to purchase, eventually securing their home on Camino de la Costa in 1946.

In a letter to close friend, George Harmon, dated Dec. 19, 1939, Chandler’s typical tongue-in-cheek manner sheds light on his skewed, yet fond view of the area.

“The literary colony here has undergone a few modifications since we were here last year,” Chandler wrote. “That is, those of the boys who are making money are now playing their tennis at the Beach Club. The old caste system is at its dirty work again. I don’t think that the Beach Club is very expensive, but a few bucks off whisky rations plays hell with a writer’s inspiration.”

For good or ill, this early letter seems to shape Chandler’s often hypocritical view of La Jolla. On the one hand, the Chandlers were by no means poor, but the author seemed to maintain a self-loathing of high societal ways. Somehow, he possessed a disdain for disparity while simultaneously seeking his own substantial wealth, as he would later become one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood.

In another letter from this time, Chandler extolls of La Jolla, “If you come out to the coast to live, you should look at La Jolla before you decide where to live. I think it is a much better place than Laguna in every possible way.”

He continues to tout the schools, hospital and other amenities of the area, quipping “I’m not being paid by the chamber of commerce. I simply feel that La Jolla has the intangible air of good breeding, which one imagines still exists in New England, but certainly does not exist anymore in LA. My idea of perfection would be a home in La Jolla and a cabin in Big Bear Lake.”

Pulp fiction

Like most writers, by this point in his life, Chandler had tried his hand in various forms of the media. Initially working as a bit of a failed poet, he was able to find work as a journalist, publishing a few articles sporadically. It wasn’t until he educated himself on the Perry Mason detective series did he find his niche – the burgeoning, often tough-and-tumble genre of hardboiled detective fiction.

Chandler’s first story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” was published in 1933 in the pulp-fiction mystery series, “Black Mask.” It was the public’s introduction to the quick-tongued, proto-cool noir private investigator Philip Marlowe, who would later be epitomized on the silver screen by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, among countless others.

Arguably his masterpiece, Chandler published “The Big Sleep” in 1938 at age 50, around the time he and Cissy had their eyes on La Jolla. Publication of “The Big Sleep” ultimately cemented Chandler’s well-honed formula for the rest of his collected works, exploring the dark underbelly of post-WWII Los Angeles and Southern California. Back-alley blackmail, often involving the sexually compromising information of the elite, hardscrabble shamuses, stale coffee, cigarettes, whiskey and an overall morbid approach to the mundane are simply a few of the tenets of any successful Chandler mystery.

Marlowe himself maintains chivalrous virtues that Chandler may have possessed to some degree, for as a boy he adored the tale of Sir Galahad, an English folk legend in that field. Throughout his life, this was obviously contradicted by his strong thirst for drink and misogynistic attitude towards women. In Marlowe’s jaded, convoluted reality, where guns and saps are primary tools of negotiation, having much of a heart is dangerous to one’s health.

Chandler’s writing style, unique in its own right, mirrors the gritty, no-nonsense attitude Marlowe carries with him. Some of his most famous lines entail poignant descriptions of the characters he encounters or the fog-drenched streets in which he works.

“It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.”

“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.”

“The subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.”

Working from home

With the success of “The Big Sleep,” Chandler was one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood. In the early 1940s, Chandler would work on such films as “Double Indemnity,” the film version of “The Big Sleep,” and “The Blue Dahlia.” During the time he was working on the “Blue Dahlia,” while under contract from Paramount, Chandler famously demanded that the only way he could finish the script would be to do so “blind drunk,” from his La Jolla home.

Paramount somehow agreed to these strict conditions, and provided him with, by Chandler’s account, "Two Cadillac limousines to stand day and night outside the house with drivers available, six secretaries, and a direct line open at all times to my office by day, to the studio switchboard at night and to my home at all times." Miraculously, Chandler finished the screenplay, complete with a new ending, under these unusual conditions.


After Cissy’s death from cystic fibrosis in 1954, Chandler entered a stagnant period – one of heavy drinking and several erratic proposals to prominent women. Finally completing his last novel, “Playback,” in 1958, it seemed the writer’s hard-living lifestyle had finally caught up with him.

In a 1958 letter to Hamish Hamilton, Chandler expressed his creative frustration.

“The story I am fitfully working on at the moment is laid out in La Jolla, and is more lighthearted than ‘Long Goodbye,’ but I feel I am fed up with the California location.”

While “Playback” received less-than-flattering literary reviews, it does possess flashes of vintage Chandler wit. “Playback” sees Marlowe, in typical fashion, hired out to follow a woman who is being blackmailed. Provided with little-to-no information, he tails the woman from a train station in Los Angeles to Del Mar, where she then procures a cab to “Esmeralda,” at the “Rancho Descansado.”

Mimicking one of his early descriptions of La Jolla found in his letter to Harmon, “Playback’s” early description of Esmeralda (La Jolla) is familiar to the present:

“Esmeralda had one main street. But, unlike most California towns, it had no false fronts, no cheesy billboards, no drive-in hamburger joints, no cigar counters or pool rooms, no street corner toughs to hang out in front of them.

“Not everyone in Esmeralda was happy, not everyone was prosperous, not everyone drove a Jaguar or a Riley, but the percentage of obviously prosperous living was very high, and the stores are far less flashy than Beverly Hills.”

Throughout the novel, which unravels like most Marlowe mysteries, several La Jolla landmarks are utilized as settings. There are a few notable scenes where Marlowe, often observing from a strategic location, tails his subject to “The Glass Room (The Marine Room),” and the “Casa de Poniente (La Valencia hotel).”

Latter years and reunion

Chandler, in a column in the San Diego Tribune, once referred to La Jolla as “a reluctant suburb of San Diego,” which, at times can ring true. Following the column, one resident posted a hand-painted placard at the southernmost point of La Jolla that read: “You are now entering La Jolla, Raymond Chandler’s reluctant suburb of San Diego,” seemingly to both his delight and dismay.

When Cissy passed away, Chandler, over-stricken with grief, let her remains lay idle at Cypress View Mausoleum.

Raymond Chandler died at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla on March 26, 1959 at the age of 70. Since he had alienated most human beings throughout his entire life, his funeral service only saw the attendance of a mere 17 mourners. It wasn’t until Valentine’s Day of 2011, when Los Angeles-based couple Loren Latker and Annie Thiel, with the help of lawyer Aissa Wayne (daughter of John Wayne), were able to convince a judge to allow Cissy to be reunited with Raymond in Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Their memorial site contains a simple, elegant granite marker that reads, “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” a fitting epitaph from “The Big Sleep.”

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