Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Raymond Chandler

A Biography

by Tom Hiney

“A skillful treatment . . . of the frequently muddled life of the writer who elevated crime fiction to widely acknowledged eminence.” –The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date July 20, 1999
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3637-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

Raymond Chandler is an uncensored look at the tortured man who wrote the classic mystery novels The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. Using recently uncovered archival materials, including personal papers and correspondence, biographer Thomas Hiney vividly evokes Chandler’s early years in Nebraska, his education in England and on the corrupt streets of Los Angeles, and his later years as a novelist and screenwriter in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system.

Along the way, he provides illuminating insights into the writer’s inspirations and work—as well as accounts of Chandler’s battles with alcohol addiction and his friendships with Howard Hawks, “Lucky” Luciano, S. J. Perelman, and Alfred Hitchcock. Hiney’s biography is also the first to fully detail the significance and complexities of his thirty-year marriage to Cissy, a woman seventeen years his senior. Raymond Chandler is a personal portrait of a vulnerable and brilliant author, who was as extraordinary as the fiction he created—a body of work that has sold more than five million copies, been translated into twenty-five languages, and inspired countless imitators.

Tags Literary


“A discerning portrait of the creator of Philip Marlowe, the archetypal American private eye.”—Newsweek

“A skillful treatment . . . of the frequently muddled life of the writer who elevated crime fiction to widely acknowledged eminence.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Tom Hiney’s Raymond Chandler fills a major gap, if not in American literature, then in American popular culture. . . . Hiney, relentless as Marlowe, rifts through the myths of Chandler’s life, many of them created by Chandler himself.”—San Francisco Chronicle


Chandler was named one of Time magazine’s The 50 Greatest Crime Writers: The most profound of pulp writers (April 2008)


Chapter One



From Chicago to Bloomsbury

The swans of our childhood were probably just pigeons (Letter, February 1954)

Raymond Chandler had different ways of remembering his childhood but the villain of the story was always the same. His father, Maurice Chandler, was a railway engineer, a lapsed Quaker and an alcoholic. He had been born to farmer parents near Philadelphia in 1859. The family was of English stock — although the word `Chandler’ is originally old French for candle maker — and had lived in the state of Pennsylvania since the 1680s.

The Chandlers had been one of several Quaker families to flee England for southern Ireland during Oliver Cromwell’s persecution of the sect in the 1650s. They were among the very first of these emigrants to move on to America with the Quaker leader William Penn. Like the majority of Penn’s earliest followers, they had been living as part of the Anglo-Irish Quaker community in County Waterford before sailing for the New World in 1682.

At the time of Maurice Chandler’s birth, Pennsylvania was still dominated by a strong Quaker presence, even if some of the religious zealotry among members of the sect had diminished. They were the oldest group of settlers in the state and also the most prosperous. They were distinct in appearance, business methods and dynastic pride. William Penn had left his followers with stern but also openly commercial instructions:

Be plain in clothes, furniture and food, but clean, and the coarser the better; the rest is folly and a snare … diligence is the Way to Wealth: the diligent Hand makes Rich. Frugality is a Virtue too, and not of little Use in Life, the better Way to be Rich, for it has less Toil and Temptation.

Maurice Chandler was a lapsed Quaker from the start. His parents had a farm outside Philadelphia, but at the age of nineteen he moved to the city. He took a room in a boarding house there and studied engineering. The University of Pennsylvania, which he attended, had been open since 1749, and was one of the few secular colleges in America. Education was not a priority for Quakers: Penn had gone as far as warning his followers that `reading books is but a taking off the mind too much from meditation’. Maurice studied at the university’s science school for two years but dropped out in 1880 before finishing his course, receiving only a certificate of proficiency. Instead, aged twenty-one, he moved out to Chicago to find work on the railroads that were being built in the Midwest.

As a contract engineer, Maurice Chandler based himself in Chicago and followed the railroads wherever work was needed, chiefly in Nebraska, Kansas and Wyoming. The prairies were still considered frontier territory at this time: Nebraska had only become a recognized state in 1867 and Oklahoma was officially still `unsafe’ for settlers because of hostile Indians. The lines Maurice Chandler began work on were linking these prairies to Chicago, transforming the city into a rich grain depot and slaughterhouse. They were consequently enriching the prairies too, turning rural settlements into rail towns and speculators into local tycoons. Only a decade before Maurice Chandler arrived in the area, `Buffalo Bill’ Cody had earned his nickname after killing 5,000 buffalo as part of a contract to supply the Kansas Pacific Railroad workforce with meat.

The railroads were huge ventures, each employing up to 40,000 workers and each with its own history of speed, efficiency and unscrupulousness. Their collective effect on the region was enormous; Maurice Chandler arrived at a time that historians consider the height of American modernisation:

Railway building created and sustained hundreds of thousands of new jobs; new coal and iron mines; new coking plants; new iron and steelworks; new towns, which were also new markets; new skills; and new forms of financial and industrial organization. This was the epitome of the Industrial Revolution. It was this which began to turn the Americans into a nation of town-dwellers, and then city-dwellers; it was this which, by the demands it created, stimulated the amazing growth in production and wealth that, before the end of the century, had entirely outstripped anything the Old World could show.

For seven years, Maurice worked the prairie lines as a bachelor engineer. At the age of twenty-eight, he was working in Omaha, Nebraska, when he met and married an Irish girl called Florence Thornton. Small, dark-haired and extremely pretty, Florence was in America staying with her elder married sister at a nearby town called Plattsmouth. She and her elder sister Grace were two of five daughters from a prosperous family in southern Ireland, all but one of whom had `escaped’ from what had been a claustrophobic home. Like Maurice Chandler, Florence was a lapsed Quaker — her parents lived in the very same Waterford Quaker community from which Maurice’s own family had originated. She and Maurice were married that summer at an Episcopalian church in Laramie, Wyoming. Twelve months later Florence had a child. Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago, on 23 July 1888.


Chicago was a boom town at the time of Chandler’s birth. Thanks to the railroads, the city had sprung from being a city of minor significance at the time of the Civil War into a metropolis of international renown. Heavy industry had added to the wealth already created from agricultural broking. Socially, the city was caught in the flux of its sudden success; though its agricultural and industrial moguls were commissioning architects to show off Chicago’s importance, the power of these tycoons had not gone unchallenged. Two years before Chandler’s birth, there had been vicious pitched fighting between police and strikers after a bomb killed a policeman during a union rally. Chicago’s breakneck growth was turning the city into a political battleground. It was the moguls, nonetheless, who continued to hold the upper hand. In defiance of its embattled reputation, the city held a World Exposition in 1893 in order to reveal its extravagant new wealth. Twenty-eight million people visited the Exposition, which included a demonstration of the world’s first petrol-run tractor.

It was not an optimism that infected the house rented by Maurice Chandler. The itinerant nature of his job meant that mother and infant son were soon spending most of their time alone. Maurice had become a hard drinker and was, according to his son, `found drunk if he was found at all’. Alcoholism among contractual workers was a familiar problem in industrializing America. It was as a reaction against the growth of mass male alcoholism that the American Temperance Movement came into force. In 1880, the year Maurice Chandler had left Pennsylvania, the Temperance-backed Prohibition Party fought its first Presidential election.

The marriage very quickly disintegrated. Even when he was home, Maurice was drinking aggressively. The atmosphere became bitter and the couple had no more children. It was precisely the kind of marriage which, by the 1890s, was prompting an alliance between the Prohibition campaign and the Women’s Suffrage Movement in America. Though there is no indication that Florence Chandler participated in any of the several rallies, petitions and campaigns in Chicago at this time, she would have known that she was not the only `drink widow’ in Chicago. And although organized crime would not emerge as a force there for another thirty years, it was already a tough city in which to be vulnerable. Chandler certainly had few romantic memories of it: `When I was a kid in Chicago,’ he later wrote, `I saw a cop shoot a little white dog to death.’

Florence began to spend more and more time in the town of Plattsmouth, Nebraska, with her sister Grace and Grace’s Irish settler husband, Ernest Fitt. The Fitt clan became a surrogate family for Florence and her son. Ernest Fitt was a boiler inspector and `doubtfully honest’ according to Chandler. Harry Fitt, Ernest’s brother, ran a hardware store and drank: `Liquor was a family vice. Those who escaped it either turned religious or went in for duck pants.’ Another Fitt was a local politician and was, in Chandler’s memory, `also crooked’.

There were other Fitts in Plattsmouth to whom the young Chandler was introduced, including one who had once ripped off a bank he had worked for in Ireland. He had escaped to Europe with the help of the Freemasons, only to be robbed himself in a hotel: `When I knew him, long after, he was an extremely respectable old party, always immaculately dressed, and of incredible parsimony.’ Another of Chandler’s Nebraska uncles invented a machine which could load mail on to a train without the train stopping. He held a grand public demonstration; `but somebody beat him out of it and he never got a dime’. In the absence of a father, Chandler enjoyed a lively and maverick wardship from the male Fitts. He was also made aware of their — and to a lesser extent his own — Irishness.

Despite its new commerce with Chicago, Nebraska was still an extremely remote place in the 1890s. Rail was the only thing that made the city, 400 miles east of Plattsmouth, seem at all close. Without the later inventions of the motor car, telephone and radio, the state was stuck firmly at the heart of a silver-and-farming northern Bible Belt. The most famous Nebraskan at the time of Chandler’s boyhood was the blunt-speaking Senator William Jennings Bryan, who campaigned throughout his political career for a return to the `plain’ values of pre-industrial small-town America. He was nominated as the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 1896 after winning the support of his party by criticizing city amorality and the implementation of a gold standard. Failing to beat the Republican candidate, William McKinley, in 1897, Bryan went on to devote himself to a number of `Old America’ causes, a platform which included an attack on secular education. He was later counsel for the prosecution in the infamous `monkey trial’ in Tennessee, in which a teacher was prosecuted for teaching Darwinism in breach of the state’s anti-evolutionist law. Bryan was an important figure in Nebraska, and even as a small child Chandler knew who he was:

I remember the oak trees and the high wooden sidewalks beside the dirt roads and the heat and the fireflies and walking sticks and a lot of strange insects … and the dead cattle and once in a while a dead man floating down the muddy river and the dandy little three-hole privy behind the house. I remember Ak-Sar-Ben and the days when they were still trying to elect Bryan. I remember the rocking chairs on the edge of the sidewalk in a solid row outside the hotel and the tobacco spit all over the place.

Compared to the progressive, if embattled radicalism of Chicago, Nebraska was a social throwback to old farming America. The boy Chandler was the exact contemporary of a fictional girl who lived in the neighbouring state of Kansas, and who also lived with her uncle and aunt. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, would be published in 1899 and begins in the type of pre-modern setting that as a young child Chandler knew well:

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with uncle Henry, who was the farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles.


By the mid-1890s, the Chandlers’ marriage was effectively over. They had given up all pretence of a permanent address, and the lease on the Chicago house had been abandoned. When Raymond Chandler caught scarlet fever in 1895, he and his mother were living in a hotel. In the same year, a divorce was obtained in Chicago and Maurice Chandler disappeared from his son’s life entirely. Florence refused ever to speak of him again. With no money of her own, she decided to return to Ireland with her seven-year-old son.

The Midwest would always have a peculiar significance for Chandler. It intrigued him later in life to think what might have happened to him had he and his mother stayed there. He could not help but imagine what might have been his prospects on the prairies. The Fitts tried to persuade Florence to bring the boy up in Plattsmouth. Had they stayed on, Chandler later realized, his life would have made a very different story:

I would have stayed in the town where I was born and worked in a hardware store and married the boss’s daughter … I might have even got rich — small-time rich, an eight-room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday, and the Reader’s Digest on the living-room table, the wife with a cast-iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement.

This thought recurred to Chandler throughout his life and in his fiction. He tried to picture what it might have been like if his father and mother had settled unhappily in the Midwest:

… mother drumming on the edge of the dinner table when father tried to promote himself a second piece of pie. And him with no money any more. No nothing. Just sitting in a rocker on the front porch there in Manhattan, Kansas, with his empty pipe in his mouth. Rocking on the front porch, slow and easy, because when you’ve had a stroke you have to take it slow and easy. And wait for the next one. And the empty pipe in the mouth. No tobacco. Nothing to do but wait.

Instead, it was to Ireland that Chandler and his mother returned in 1895. They took the train to New York and a steamer to Dublin. The Chicago Chandlers had not lasted a generation.


It was a dishonourable return to Waterford for Florence Thornton, whose impetuous American marriage had been even more unpopular there than her sister’s unglamorous emigration with a boiler inspector. Since the early death of Florence’s father, the head of the family had been Chandler’s `arrogant and stupid grandmother’, guided by his uncle Ernest Thornton. Like most males in the Thornton family, Florence’s father had until his death helped run the family law firm, which had offices in Waterford, Cork and Dublin. 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 both religious and social snobbery:

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.

The reception Florence received from her family was as stiff as she had expected. The large home in Waterford presented an atmosphere of conservatism and anti-Catholicism that left Chandler, even as a boy, with a nostalgia for Nebraska. As in Pennsylvania, the Quaker community in Waterford was an established and tight one. It was also one that shared the anti-Catholicism of other Anglo-Irish communities there; a sectarian prejudice that had outlasted the tolerant vision of the community’s Quaker forefathers. There was a famous Quaker school in Waterford — `famous to Quakers anyway’ said Chandler — but Florence was insistent that her son should not be raised a Quaker. Though she was as careful in appearance and speech as any of her stock, she was no longer interested in their other ideas of propriety.

Ireland was still British in 1895, but equivocation in London over the country’s constitutional future was making life extremely uncomfortable for the Anglo-Irish who lived and worked there. Despite the strongly colonial leadership of Robert Cecil, Marquis of Salisbury, the Conservative government in London was continuing to flirt with Parnell’s Irish Home Rule Movement. The status and rights of Anglo-Irish communities in the southern Irish counties, including the Quaker community in Waterford, was a matter both of debate and of confusion, and would continue to be so until the 1920s. This uncertainty served to exacerbate anti-Catholic feeling among English families like the Thorntons, an atmosphere Chandler remembered clearly:

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.

Nor was the young Chandler immune to this religion-fuelled hostility. `I should not like to say that in Ireland Catholicism reached its all-time low of ignorance, dirt and general degradation of the priesthood,’ he later said, `but in my boyhood it was bad enough. It does the Irish great credit that out of this flannel-mouthed mob of petty liars and drunkards there has come no real persecution of the non-Catholic elements.’ It would rile Chandler when journalists later presumed that his Irishness denoted Catholicism. `I grew up with a terrible contempt for Catholics’, he explained in 1945, `and I still have trouble with it now.’

Nevertheless, the experience of having the affable chancers of the Fitt family replaced by the self-conscious Thorntons also induced in Chandler an early suspicion of middle-class respectability. This stuffy arrogance seemed to be personified by his wealthy Thornton uncle, Ernest:

Sometimes when the dinner did not suit him he would order it removed and we would sit in stony silence for three quarters of an hour while the frantic Mrs Groome browbeat the domestics below stairs and finally another meal was delivered to the master, probably much worse than the one he had refused; but I can still feel the silence.

The Quakers were not the only proponents of British snobbery at this time. It was the neurotic self-aggrandizement of the Empire’s middle classes at the turn of the century that had inspired another Anglo-Irishman, Oscar Wilde, to write his satire The Importance of Being Ernest. The play was first performed in 1895, the same year that Florence and her son returned to Ireland from America:

Cecily: When I see a spade I call it a spade. Gwendolen: I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different. (Act III)


Unable to face the prospect of staying in Waterford, Florence took her son to London, where Chandler’s uncle Ernest — who worked there for much of the year — had agreed to look after them. They were temporarily installed at a house in genteel Upper Norwood, in South London, which Ernest had originally rented as a base in the capital for his mother as well as a home for his unmarried sister Ethel. Connected to Central London by a regular train service, the area was beginning to lose its leafy exclusivity and was slipping gradually down market. Ethel Thornton was scornful of Florence’s intrusion and the new atmosphere was scarcely an improvement on Waterford. There were also intermittent visits to the house from Chandler’s grandmother, who would humiliate Florence at every opportunity: at meals, for instance, Florence would pointedly not be served wine. The effect of this treatment from her own family and the memory of the rejection she had endured from a drunken husband was almost too much for Chandler’s mother. A natural fighter, she became, more and more, a subdued presence around her son. Chandler would always be more influenced by having seen the effect of his father’s neglect on his mother than he was by Florence herself. He would make little mention of her in his own adulthood, other than to say how much he wished she had remarried in London:

I know that my mother had affairs — she was a very beautiful woman — and the only thing that I felt to be wrong was that she refused to marry again for fear a step-father would not treat me kindly, since my father was such a swine.

It was a frustrated suburban atmosphere for the boy to grow up in. Florence’s initial anger at having been abandoned by her husband turned into a passive unhappiness at her fate, as she and her child grew older. Ernest’s guardianship was purely financial and often grudging even in that. A successful solicitor, and a bachelor, he spent most of his time mixing with London’s wealthy Anglo-Irish set. Like many of that set he commuted seasonally between his interests (and residences) in Ireland and England. For all his reluctance, however, he was a crucial benefactor for Chandler. Most importantly, he now agreed with Florence that he would pay for her son’s education. It was settled that when Chandler reached the age of twelve, he would go to Dulwich College, a good public school, not far from the house, which Chandler would be able to attend as a day boy. Until then, the boy would go to a local church school and spend his summers in Waterford.

There is little doubt of the coldness felt and displayed towards Florence and her offspring on their return from Chicago, for divorce was no more a Quaker institution than it was a Victorian one. In the case of Ernest Thornton it was a coldness — as Chandler later discovered — which was at least partly tempered by the knowledge of his own impurity:

The rather amusing development in my uncle’s case was that he took unto himself a Jewish mistress in London, raised her son who was an illegitimate get of a couple of Sassoons, had two illegitimate children himself, and then married her. But he never took her to Ireland. I could write a book about these people but I am too much of an Irishman myself ever to tell the truth about them.


The flux of life in Chicago, Nebraska, Waterford and London (and the uncertainty that lay behind that flux) propelled Chandler into early emotional maturity. Physically, he was small yet handsome, with his mother’s dark hair and bright blue eyes. But there was already an unhappy side to him — the only child among three adults, he now acquired a loathing for Sundays and Christmases that would last throughout his life. He did not read more than most children, but his structureless and nomadic childhood had left him with an early understanding that life was `today a pat on the back, tomorrow a kick in the teeth’.

The monotony of being an only child in Upper Norwood was made worse by the fact that Chandler was not encouraged to bring friends back to his uncle’s house. His strange and reclusive upbringing was in danger of making him feel odd. In both suburban South London and Quaker Waterford, Chandler was an anomaly — an American-sounding boy with a pretty Irish mother about whom people, including her own family, gossiped. He was a boy raised in what other boys imagined was the Wild West, but who was now reliant on the charity of severe Quaker relatives. If dawning self-consciousness was making other pre-pubescent boys of his age feel out of step with their surroundings, then for Chandler it was not a new sensation. In late Victorian England, he was without a clear social class, nationality or male role model. Even at home, he and his mother were made to feel different.


School came as a relief. Dressed in Eton collar and black coat, Chandler joined Dulwich College as a day boy in September 1900, the penultimate year of Queen Victoria’s sixty-four-year reign, at the age of twelve. His school number was 5724. Dulwich College had been founded in 1619 and is five miles south of Central London, situated near the homes of middle-class families whose sons made up the majority of the school’s fee-paying register. Socially, it was not in the league of Eton or Harrow, but it had a very strong academic and sporting reputation, producing middle-class boys to serve the British Empire. When Chandler joined the school it was turning out a continuous and impressive stream of scientists, generals, lawyers, academics, admirals, bishops and sportsmen.

It was a patriotic school, and particularly so during Chandler’s days there. Many Old Alleynians (as former Dulwich Boys are known) were fighting in the Second Boer War when Chandler matriculated, and everyone at the school followed the campaign keenly. The fighting continued until May 1902, and was the first colonial war to be given daily and comprehensive coverage by the modernized British press. War correspondents, including Rudyard Kipling, were filing their reports by telegram. Chandler recalled there being a daily toast at Dulwich: `To my country, right or wrong.’

Matthew Arnold had described Dulwich shortly before Chandler’s arrival there as the type of school he had `long desired, and vainly desired, to see put at the disposal of the professional and trading classes throughout this country’. The architecture echoed the school’s growing reputation. Having outgrown its original Elizabethan site by the mid-nineteenth century, the school had been resited on Dulwich Common, within a comparatively giant, brand new building of red brick and white stone, designed in a hybrid of Palladian and Gothic styles by the younger Charles Barry, whose father had built the Houses of Parliament. There was a Great Hall, a Chapel, the boys’ Houses, classrooms, a clock tower and playing fields — with the capacity to take 750 pupils. It was after seeing the impressive grounds from a train window that P. G. Wodehouse’s father had decided, five years before Chandler’s own arrival, to send two of his sons to the school. When Chandler joined in 1900, Dulwich was famous for two things: the fact that most of its boys lived at home, as opposed to boarding which was the case in most British public schools; and its charismatic headmaster, A. H. Gilkes, who, by coincidence, shared Chandler’s Quaker roots.

Gilkes had been headmaster at Dulwich since 1885 and was unusually central to everything that happened there. He was a talented, ascetic character who had taken a Double First at Oxford and won a Soccer Blue, and who had then deliberately rejected worldly success by working for ten years as an ostensibly lowly junior Classics master at Shrewsbury School, where he himself had been as a boy. His presence there as a teacher had been such, however, that Gilkes had effectively started running Shrewsbury from his classroom, and he had been a figure well enough known outside the school for Dulwich to appoint him Master in 1885. By the time of Chandler’s arrival, Gilkes’s influence on the day-to-day atmosphere of Dulwich was enormous.

An angular giant (he stood 6 feet 5 inches) with a long grey beard and a family life to which he had come only lately — he had married the sister of a Dulwich boy shortly before Chandler’s arrival — Gilkes endorsed the priorities of Thomas Arnold as an educationalist. As with Rugby’s famous Headmaster, morality was foremost for Gilkes; followed by Englishness; followed by intellect. He was a notorious figure both within and beyond the school grounds. `He had a power of merciless chaff,’ recalled one Old Boy, `which I have never seen equalled in any other man … he was not the type of headmaster who sits apart in Olympian dignity. There can never have been a headmaster who was seen more often and more regularly by all the boys.’

For the many boys at Dulwich whose fathers were overseas working within the Empire, Gilkes filled the vacuum of male authority and wisdom. This impression of patriarchy rather than tyranny was helped by the fact that Gilkes did not believe in rigorous corporal punishment. He cut a ridiculous figure among many of his masters, but appeared to command the genuine loyalty of his boys. At the turn of the century, headmasters of Britain’s large schools were often public figures, quoted and referred to in the national press. Gilkes avoided such exposure, but as a published novelist he had a certain reputation; indeed H. G. Wells once attacked what he saw as a dangerous form of moral nostalgia in Gilkes’s novels. These novels were dramatizations of their author’s vigorous theories about tradition, gentlemanly conduct and education. Dulwich was the crucible in which Gilkes aimed to produce his distinct vision of decency and honesty. He was driven by a moral purpose that was, according to one contemporary, `more marked in him than in any other man I have ever known’. He had, another said, `a childlike simplicity, and a fundamental serenity of soul’:

He said such simple things with grave sincerity and opened windows to the soul. So it was, when we were reading Aeschylus or Sophocles, he would exclaim to our astonishment, `What! Kill a King! And such a King!’ or tell us how `tine Queen is very beautiful, you see, as well as wicked.’ And we did see. Somehow or another he awoke our wonder, kindled our imagination, set us free for the enjoyment not of Greek and Latin only, but of many other things in later life. In all his teaching he seemed to be finding out, afresh for himself as much as for us, the beauty and the interest of what we were learning.

Gilkes’s relentless sense of integrity could at times be excessive. P. G. Wodehouse, who left Dulwich in the year of Chandler’s arrival, remembered the Master as the sort of man who would approach him after a good cricket performance and say `Fine innings, Wodehouse, but remember we all die in the end.’ P. W. Bain, who was Captain of Athletics in Chandler’s third year, confirmed that for most Dulwich boys, Gilkes’s genius was only apparent after they had left: `I think that in our youthful ignorance and arrogance we were inclined to belittle his powers as a teacher. [But Gilkes believed that] education is to supply a boy with other and better things to think of than himself — for example great men or nations or Nature — and to fit his mind properly to appreciate them … A schoolboy doesn’t think deeply enough. But later in life, realization comes.’ Though Chandler would himself never make much later mention of Gilkes (nor of Dulwich in general, other than to say that he enjoyed his time there), the accounts of his contemporaries at the school suggest that Gilkes’s was a presence which no boy could ever entirely shake off. Especially those pupils who had had no father figure at home. `In my early days,’ recalled one boy who arrived at Dulwich in Chandler’s third year:

… he was to me an awe-inspiring figure who reminded me both by his stature and his appearance of the mythical figure of Zeus, at whose nod the heavens were supposed to thunder. As I gradually ascended the School, my awe decreased and gave way to a feeling of respect and admiration, which can be best described by the late Bishop of Zanzibar who, in a letter, said that ever since he had left Dulwich he had `thought Gilkes and preached Gilkes’.

Soon after Chandler started at Dulwich, his mother and his aunt moved in order to be nearer the school. Their new address was 77 Alleyn Park, a detached house (no longer standing) next to the college grounds, large enough to have previously housed the junior school. It was bought for them by Ernest Thornton, who was using his forced guardianship of his sisters, mother and nephew as an opportunity to invest in the fading grandeur (and prices) of South London property.

Whatever the oddities of his home life, Dulwich College offered Chandler a structure that he needed and a tradition of which he was proud. He would later join both the Public Schools Club in St James’s and Dulwich’s Old Alleynian Society. He would also correspond, throughout his life, with his Classics master at Dulwich, H. F. Hose. As a pupil Chandler was bright and interested — records show he ranked regularly within the top three of his class in all subjects. With the talent, but without the money, to go on to university, he followed an unusually mixed curriculum. There were two channels at Dulwich, and Chandler alternated between the two:

In my time they had two `sides’, a Modern Side intended mostly for boys who expected to go into some kind of business, and a Classical Side for those who took Latin and Greek and expected to go to Oxford or Cambridge.

The syllabus he took in his first year at Dulwich was typical in its central tenet: that the monuments of human achievement worthy of study were Athens, Rome, the Bible and the British Empire. `English Subjects’ involved a term learning about Africa and a term on Australia. `Classics’ meant Euripides, Horace, Livy, Plato, Aristophanes, Ovid and Virgil. Chandler had no intention of being a writer while at Dulwich (he planned to be a barrister), and according to the ledgers from the Boys’ Library for the time, his extracurricular reading was not extensive; the only novel he took out was a melodrama called Last of the Barons. But even if he did not imagine writing as a career for himself, Chandler would always maintain in later life that the Classics had taught him how not to write:

A Classical education helps you from being fooled by pretentiousness, which is what most current fiction is too full of. In this country [America] the mystery writer is looked down on as sub-literary merely because he is a mystery writer, rather than for instance a writer of social significance twaddle. To a classicist — even a very rusty one — such an attitude is merely a parvenu insecurity.

Sport was important at Dulwich. `I played rugger a bit,’ Chandler recalled, `but was never first chip, because temperamentally I was the furious type of Irish forward and I hadn’t the physique to back it up.’ His nose was broken during one house rugby game, a fracture which in adulthood would give his face a tough look. In house cricket matches he was a bowler, but Dulwich had a fierce sporting reputation and Chandler never made the school teams. Public school sports results were extensively covered by the national press at this time and team places went only to serious competitors. Large crowds would turn up to watch Saturday games and top school players competed for places in Britain’s international sides. Gilkes, never far from anything happening at the school, watched each game dressed in his frock coat and top hat.

In his marathon tenure at Dulwich, Gilkes led a crusade against all forms of pretentiousness; to the extent of publicly reprimanding masters for that sin in front of boys. He had other obsessions. A punctual man, he one night walked a mile in the rain in order to return a boy’s essay to his parents’ house, having been unable to keep a prearranged appointment. His boys were expected to show similar dedication. `There are other things a man could marry’, Gilkes once wrote, `besides a wife.’ It was Gilkes who personally instructed the boys in preparation for their Confirmation vows, and in the Senior years, promising boys (including Chandler) wrote essays for him on specified themes. These essays were on general subjects such as `Superstition’ or `Courage’, and Gilkes would return them to each boy personally in his study. These were gruelling sessions for those involved, since any wordy sophistry or posing, was demolished; P. G. Wodehouse described them as being `akin to suicide’.

For all this, there was an abiding broad-mindedness about Dulwich. As primarily a day school, it had little of the infamous despotism of boarding public schools. Nor did Gilkes encourage undue rivalry within the school; indeed, he once banned the choir from performing treble solos lest it encourage hubris among soloists. Prizegiving at Dulwich was a similarly restrained affair under Gilkes’s rule, to the extent of sometimes causing offence. His termly reports on the boys invariably concerned their characters rather than their achievements. Although Chandler’s no longer survive, Gilkes wrote one report for P. G. Wodehouse in 1899 which, apart from being rather prophetic (given Wodehouse’s later career), suggests that he was looking for integrity in his boys rather than conformity:

He is a most impractical boy … often forgetful, he finds difficulty in the most simple things and asks absurd questions, whereas he can understand the most difficult things. He has the most distorted ideas about wit and humour; he draws over his books in a most distressing way, and writes foolish rhymes in other people’s books. One is obliged to like him in spite of his vagaries.

Each summer term during Chandler’s time at the school — on the Saturday nearest to 21 June — Dulwich would celebrate Founder’s Day. There was a typically Gilkesian and public school atmosphere to these affairs, as recorded by the school’s annals. The day would begin with a roll call in the Victorian form rooms, followed by school prayers in the Great Hall where the lesson, `Let us now praise famous men’ from Ecclesiasticus would be read by the Captain of the School. The Founder’s Day hymn, `All people that on earth do dwell’, would then be sung. At 11 am the First XI would start that week’s cricket fixture, umpired by Gilkes himself and watched by the whole school. After lunch, the staff and boys would assemble in the Great Hall for Gilkes’s speech:

Just before 2 o’clock the Master with Mrs Gilkes would leave his house. Lining the pathway was B Company, acting as guard of honour. Buglers and drummers sounded a fanfare to herald the Master’s approach.

The School Song, `Pueri Alleynienses’, was sung after which a Greek play, usually by Aristophanes, would be performed in its original language and set to music. The leading role was traditionally played by the School Captain.

After the speeches, the school would return to watch the First XI play cricket. Those with invitations would go to Gilkes’s gardens: `Here refreshments were provided — strawberries and ices’, record the annals, `and the School band, who won golden opinions for themselves.’ From dusk onwards, the garden was thrown open to everyone, and the School Choir would perform:

The last event of all was the Master’s Supper in the Great Hall — for the Choir and the teams. This was a merry occasion and would close with songs, and on occasion the Master would be persuaded to sing his one song, `Simon the Cellarer’.

Copyright ” 1997 by Tom Hiney. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.