by Jill Amadio
A disturbed grave. Wrenching separation. An unfulfilled desire. A literary detective’s discovery of a “hidden truth,” the granting of a wish after death, and gin gimlets to finalize the deal.
A murder mystery? Hardly. Instead, the real-life granting of Raymond Chandler’s fervent wish for his beloved wife, Cissy, to be buried with him. Since she died in 1954, her ashes have lain in storage in a mausoleum that abuts the Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego where Ray is buried.
For decades, Ray has waited for her to join him. Were it not for Chandler historian Loren Latker whose delving into the Chandler archives revealed the writer’s intention for him and his beloved to share the same grave, the historic event would never have taken place. Before he died in 1959, five years after Cissy’s death, Ray expressed his wishes regarding burial but he never completed the legal paperwork.
A court order was needed to move Cissy’s ashes. Attorney Aissa Wayne, John Wayne’s daughter, took up the challenge, and on the sunny morning of Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2011 Ray and Cissy were reunited in a ceremony presided over by Reverend Randal Gardner.
I drove down from Dana Point, California vowing not to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be present at one of literature’s most poignant moments. When I arrived at the cemetery, which sprawls over a hundred and ten acres, many of the hundred or so invited guests were already seated on folding chairs beneath a canopy of trees facing a podium. It was a gloriously sunny day, the kind Ray longed for when he lived in rainy England.
Chandler’s grave is located in a semi-isolated spot among the rolling hills and marked by a humble plaque in the ground next to a small evergreen bush. After I expressed disappointment that no impressive headstone marked the icon’s final resting place Pastor Gardner said plaques are for the convenience of those riding lawnmowers. Then I remembered how private a person Chandler always tried to be and how self-effacing. He would have approved.
I also mused that there was plenty of burial space all around him and wondered if any local writer would have the temerity to request to be his neighbor when the time came.
After being directed to parking areas we were handed a program and a sheet printed with The Lord’s Prayer and Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy. Everyone, it seemed, preferred to honor the man in a sartorial manner. Several gentlemen wore 1920s- and 30s-era pinstriped suits, fedoras, Oxfords-style black and white shoes, and to top it off, a pipe clenched between the teeth. The women were splendid in authentic crepe dresses, a few wearing split skirts and black stockings with seams running up the back. Platform shoes were the order of the day and many wore plate-shaped hats of the era tilted saucily to one side. Others favored crushed velvet and felt Robin Hood caps. In The Big Sleep Chandler wrote: “Her black hair was glossy under a Robin Hood hat that might have cost 50 dollars and looked as if you could have made it with one hand out of a desk blotter.”
Three classic 1920s roadsters and sedans arrived, their drivers attired in vintage suits and straw boaters. In one of the cars, a 1929 Graham Paige, was Chandler historian Loren Latker bearing the urn that contained Cissy’s ashes. As Loren walked over to the small table next to Ray’s grave, the Crown Island Jazz Band played Dixieland music. I didn’t get emotional about any of the goings-on until they struck up “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It was a seminal moment, the New Orleans funeral procession music bringing home that this was a jubilant occasion.
After a prayer and a singing of Beethoven’s “Hymn to Joy,” we were welcomed by Dr. Annie Tiel-Latker who, with Loren, had arranged the reuniting of Ray and Cissy. It took two years of courtroom pleadings, finding Ray’s will and codicil, and filing petitions before Chandler and his wife would finally be laid to rest in the same burial plot.
As Marine helicopters from Camp Pendleton droned overhead Powers Boothe, the actor who played Philip Marlowe in the HBO television series brought to life excerpts from Chandler’s writings, especially his masterful metaphors and similes that stopped you cold and forced you re-read them: “[he} was as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake.” Los Angeles “had the personality of a paper cup,” and many, many more. Boothe’s performance was so exciting his publicist called him shortly after dawn the next day with congratulations.
Judith Freeman, who wrote The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and The Woman He loved, read movingly from her 2007 book about Ray and his wife. She wrote: “Cissy… kept him sane. She watched over him, cared for him, worried about him,” and remarked on the fact that Ray burned all of Cissy’s letters to him after she died, probably to keep their love private.
It was time for Raymond’s wish to be with his wife, even in death, to be fulfilled. A rectangular hole three feet deep and measuring 8 x 14” had been cut from the middle of the grave. Rev. Gardner took the small, square casket that held the ashes and placed it in the space. The deed was done.
Two TV crews covered the event, two documentary filmmakers, the local PBS station reporter, and several still photographers. Boothe concluded the ceremony with, “I’m not going to say goodbye. In the tradition of Raymond I’m going to say, ‘I need a drink and I’m going to have one.’”
Chandler’s favorite gimlets were served at a hotel reception afterwards and at a gala dinner. I was so wiped out by the entire day I drove home in a daze, determined to read more of the master Chandler. “What a man wants and needs,” said Chandler, “…is the tangible and ineffable sense that a life is shared.” In death, it is now also shared.
More mystery reviews, short stories, articles and giveaways can be found in this issue, and those and others can be found in our mystery section.