Raymond Chandler and Waterford

Raymond Chandler

This year, 2019, marks the sixtieth anniversary of the death of the great American crime writer Raymond Chandler, creator of the fictional detective Philip Marlowe. Chandler had a close association with Waterford as his mother came from the Irish city and both the mother and her only son spent many summers in the city at the turn of the 20th century.

In his book “Brief Encounters: Meetings with Remarkable People”, Waterford-born author and radio documentary maker Bill Long (who also wrote a history of Irish lighthouses) knew Chandler in London in the summer of 1958. The pair were neighbours. They met several times that summer and became friends largely due to the Waterford connection. On their first meeting, Chandler correctly picked Long’s Waterford brogue which pleased the American greatly as he deemed himself a “great judge of accents”.

Chandler’s mother Florence Thornton was from an old established Waterford Quaker legal family. The Thorntons had offices in Waterford and Raymond inherited Thornton as his middle name. He told Long his mother was one of the Thorntons of Cathedral Square. According to Long he was grinning at the time “with the shadow of a cynical smile and the slightest edge of mockery in his tone”. Chandler enjoyed describing the family with mock pomposity: “I. Thornton and sons, solicitors and notaries public,” he intoned.

Chandler first went to Waterford with his mother after his father deserted the family when Ray was seven. Maurice Chandler was a railway engineer, a lapsed Quaker and an alcoholic. Like the Thorntons, the Chandlers were one of many Quaker families to flee England for Ireland during Oliver Cromwell’s persecutions in the 1650s. They lived in Waterford until they moved to America with the Quaker leader William Penn in 1682.

Maurice worked the prairie lines as a railway engineer. Aged 28 he was in Omaha, Nebraska, when he met and married Irish girl Florence Thornton. Ray was born a year later. The marriage disintegrated quickly. Maurice drank aggressively, the atmosphere was bitter and the couple had no more children. In 1895 they divorced and Maurice Chandler disappeared from his son’s life. Florence refused ever to speak of him again. With no money, she returned to Ireland with her seven-year-old son.

After a short period in Waterford with the Thorntons, they settled in London with a grandmother and aunt. For many pre-teen and teenage years, Chandler and his mother spent every summer in Waterford. “Uncle Ernest – my mother’s brother that is – was the head of the family then, and of the legal practice. Ruled both with an iron hand in an iron glove,” Chandler told Long. “A regular old tyrant was uncle Ernest! Upper middle class Protestants the Thorntons and god-awful snobs! Not just Uncle Ernest but the whole family were god-awful snobs. Full of bloody righteousness. Tension in the house all the time. And every goddamn thing had to be Protestant. The maids, the cook, even the man who worked in the garden.”

Since the early death of Florence’s father, the official head of the family had been Chandler’s “arrogant and stupid grandmother” guided by his uncle Ernest Thornton. The family law firm had offices in Waterford, Cork and Dublin. As Tom Hiney wrote, it was a rarefied Anglo-Irish world of servants and quasi-gentility; quite removed from late-nineteenth-century Nebraska. It was also a world preoccupied with religious and social snobbery. Hiney quoted Chandler, “My grandmother was the daughter of an Irish solicitor. Her son, very wealthy later on, was also a solicitor and had a housekeeper named Mrs Groome who sneered at him behind his back because he wasn’t a barrister. The Church, the Navy, the Army, the Bar. There was nothing else. Outside Waterford in a big house with gardens … lived a Miss Paul who occasionally, very occasionally, invited Mrs Groome to tea on account of her father had been a canon.”

Ireland was ruled from London in 1895 but the Home Rule movement was making life uncomfortable for the Anglo-Irish like the Thorntons. This exacerbated anti-Catholic feeling, an atmosphere Chandler remembered, “An amazing people the Anglo-Irish. They never mixed with Catholics socially. I remember playing on a cricket team with some of the local snobs and one of the players was a Catholic boy who came to the game in an elaborate chariot with grooms in livery; but he was not asked to have tea with the rest after the game. He wouldn’t have accepted of course.”

Chandler admitted the Thornton snobbery rubbed off on him. He hated to be called an Irish American because in his estimation that usually mean “Catholic and working class”. The Thorntons, he said, “saw to it that I grew up with a ferocious contempt for Catholics and to this day, I have a problem with that”. He continued, “the only Irish patriots with any brains came from the professional classes”. To Chandler, this meant being Protestant, but Long thought the real issue was not religion but class and education. Chandler thought it was more important where people came from rather than where they were going.

Despite the snobbery, Chandler was happy on holidays. “I always had a good time in Waterford,” he told Long. Chandler loved to reminisce about the upper-class Waterford families. There was the Dawneys, the Grubbs, the Carews and the Congreves, mostly Quaker or Protestants at whose homes he played tennis and croquet. Long noted Chandler’s childhood experiences in Waterford made an indelible impression. Summers with the Thorntons gave him an appreciation of social distinctions in a society which Long described as “neither urban nor rural but county”.

During his holidays, he enjoyed walking around the Mount Congreve estate just outside Waterford on the banks of the River Suir. The Congreves were upper-class Protestants and clients of the Thorntons. Chandler preferred homelier aspects of the estate. “What I remember best,” said Chandler, “is the smell of the tobacco the old bothy-man smoked in his enormous bent-shank pipe. I remember resolving when I was ten or eleven at Mount Congreve to smoke a pipe when I grew up. And by God, I did and still do!”

The city left an indelible impression. He and Long swapped childhood memories of a long-gone bookshop in Cathedral Square, called Stickyback Power’s. Power is a common Waterford name but neither Chandler nor Long could remember why this Power gained his unusual nickname. Chandler loved the bookshop and told Long about the germ of an idea to set a Philip Marlowe novel using Waterford and the bookshop as locales. The storyline had Marlowe on holidays in Ireland and in a pub on the quays in Waterford. There he witnesses a sailors’ brawl. Later he hears a sailor was murdered in the brawl and his body has been found slumped in the corner of a bookshop. Marlowe agrees to the ship captain’s request to investigate the murder which leads him into the low life of the city and he discovers a vicious prostitution racket.

Having given Long an outline of the plot, he asked him whether there was ever much prostitution along the quays. Long said Chandler wasn’t really interested in the answer and the project never came to fruition. Chandler’s health was poor in 1958 and his workrate was low. Long never met him again and he found out that Chandler died a year later of pneumonia at his villa in La Jolla, California. Chandler never returned to the city of his childhood but never forgot it. “You know of all the places – and I mean all the places – I’ve lived in,” he told Long, “Waterford is the place, that in the mind, draws me back all the time.”