In Philip Marlowe’s Footsteps: A Raymond Chandler Tour of Los Angeles
By Bill Scheller
Photos by the Author
“The house was on Dresden Avenue in the Oak Noll section of Pasadena, a big solid cool-looking house with burgundy brick walls, a terra cotta tile roof, and a white stone trim.”
The house you see here isn’t burgundy brick, but then again, there isn’t a Dresden Avenue in the Oak Knoll (it’s spelled with a “k”, Mr. Chandler) section of Pasadena. But the houses here are big, solid, and cool-looking, and when I went looking recently for a house that could have belonged to Mrs. Elizabeth Bright Murdock, the crafty battleaxe with something to hide in Raymond Chandler’s novel The High Window, this one fit the bill. I was on a Chandler location hunt in and around Los Angeles, and The High Window was the book I’d chosen as the source for the coordinates on my map. Less well-known than Farewell My Lovely or The Big Sleep, The High Window is nevertheless populated with the master’s usual gallery of people you’d as soon not meet in real life: the battleaxe, the useless leech of a son, the tough broads, the mobster night club owner … and, of course, the man you wouldn’t mind meeting at all if you were in a tight spot, private detective Philip Marlowe. I’ve always found it interesting that two of the greatest practitioners of the most plot-dependent of all literary genres excelled just as much at setting as at plot. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of course, limned late Victorian London so exquisitely that you feel as if you could go there and hail a hansom cab. And Raymond Chandler is the other genius of setting, portraying the Los Angeles of the Thirties and Forties every bit as convincingly as he portrayed his knight-errant Marlowe. As my friend the literary scholar Harry Orth recently observed, Chandler pulled an even neater trick than Conan Doyle. He points out that while the London of Sherlock Holmes, with its damps and fogs and perpetually crepuscular atmosphere, looked like a place where half the population was up to no good, it was harder to summon up that much malevolence out of sunny LA. But summon it Chandler did. It might seem as if noir fiction ought to all happen at night, but that’s because directors seldom shot noir movies in broad daylight. In Chandler’s novels and stories, plenty of creeps crawl out from under their rocks when the sun is shining.
I started my search for places that figure in The High Window in Hollywood, where Marlowe had his office. That I couldn’t find; his building, like his apartment, are on fictitious streets. But I did track down the block where George Anson Phillips, the hapless shamus whom Marlowe confronts after Phillips has been clumsily shadowing him, has his office, at 1924 North Wilcox Avenue. There is a Wilcox Avenue in Hollywood. It crosses Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, but the maps never show it with an “N.” So I simply drove north on Wilcox, watching the numbers. It’s a tired street with two-story stucco apartment buildings and a couple of fleabag hotels, the addresses of which grew closer to 1924 as I continued. Best of all, the signs on the corners of the last block or two said “N. Wilcox.” The number I was looking for would have been in that last block, if the whole even-numbered side of the street didn’t contain just one building, looking like it was either new or being rehabbed; I wasn’t sure. No office for Phillips here – but I did get the booby prize. Parked across the street was a ’48 Dodge, a car made just six years after The High Window was published.
There was a Freeway entrance a block from the end of North Wilcox, so I hopped on and headed downtown to find the Hotel Metropole, corner of Seventh and Spring, where Marlowe confronted Phillips. Now, downtown Los Angeles may seem like a bad place to look for a building – especially a hotel – that was there in 1942. But the funny thing about LA is that it’s not as up-to-date as it would like you to believe. They must have torn down a lot of old buildings to put up the new downtown skyline, but just a few blocks away is the old downtown skyline, all heavy brick-and-granite ten-story buildings that could double for mid-century Milwaukee, presided over by the snowy white Art Deco tower of City Hall.
I parked (with more difficulty than Marlowe, who always seemed to find a downtown space right away when he paid a visit to police headquarters) and walked over to Seventh and Spring. There was no hotel, under Metropole or any other name, but there were a couple of buildings that might once have been hotels – and, one block up on Sixth, the Hotel Hayward, looking for sure as if it dated back to Marlowe’s day and beyond. I didn’t go into the lobby, but I could picture it having those big earthenware jugs of sand to snuff out cigarette butts in. Not now, of course. They’d have plants in them now.
From downtown I drove over to the Bunker Hill neighborhood, just across the 110 Freeway. “Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town,” Marlowe remarks at the beginning of a chapter in which it lives up to just such a reputation. The neighborhood – city signage now calls it part of “Historic Filipinotown” – is built on a hill, but the nasty things Marlowe said about it no longer seem to apply. It’s a quiet little quarter of one- and two-story houses, with a few of the big old Victorians Marlowe said once marked it as “the choice residential neighborhood of the city.” My problem, though, wasn’t that the character of the place had changed – I was just as glad it had – but that the house numbers on Court Street, where I was looking for an apartment building at number 128, seemed to start in the quadruple digits. But the numbers hardly mattered anymore when I got to the crest of the hill where Court intersects with Union. The three-story apartment house faced Union, not Court, but I didn’t care. It was easily of Marlowe vintage, and – respectable as it looks today, standing opposite a Catholic grammar school – it might easily have once harbored the crumbbums Marlowe encountered when he went looking for the dopey gumshoe Phillips, who had given it as his home address.
A few dozen blocks south of Bunker Hill, not far from the Staples Center, I found Toberman Street – “A wide, dusty street, off Pico,” as Marlowe described it. It was wide, but not particularly dusty, and I wondered if a street this close to downtown might still have been unpaved in 1942. Here, at number 1354B, lived an unscrupulous dental technician named Teager, a minor character in The High Window but one of the perpetrators of a pivotal crime that went haywire, as such crimes must in the noir canon. I got as close as 1362 to a 1354B that didn’t exist (in the book, 1354A and B were flats in the same house), and neither it nor its neighbors looked like the kind of place where a dental technician with his own practice would live, especially if he rented only half of it, especially if the street wasn’t paved. But this was a small-time mope of a dental technician, with an office in a dingy building downtown, which of course explains his turning to crime. If he was a big-time dental technician, he’d be living in the Oak Knoll section of Pasadena. And that’s where I ended my day, looking for a house like Mrs. Murdock’s, hoping that one of the gardeners wouldn’t run inside and tell some 2008 Mrs. Murdock that a guy in a Hyundai Sonata with his front window rolled down was taking pictures of houses. Some cheap shamus, they’d probably figure. Of course I knew, as I drifted around Los Angeles that day, that Raymond Chandler probably would have thought I was nuts for taking the addresses literally, as if he himself had traipsed from Toberman Street to Pasadena looking for locations. He didn’t have to. He had a mental image of all those places that served him well, even if he never left his desk while he was writing The High Window .
I had the mental image, too, after reading and re-reading so much of his work; now, I was after the visual image, using the addresses as touchstones. I haven’t decided when to head off to the Devonshire moors, where I understand there are the footprints of a gigantic hound.