When the legend becomes fact, print the legend…

The above line is from the John Ford directed film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The point of the quote is that sometimes a legend, or myth, becomes repeated so often that it essentially becomes fact… even if it isn’t true.

My feeling is that often these stories are just so good to the teller/audience that they have no problem accepting them because of that fact, even if a little investigation would result in upending the “legend”.

One of my favorite authors is Raymond Chandler. During his career, he wrote a number of short stories and some seven novels. The novels all featured detective Phillip Marlowe and many of them were subsequently made into films. Perhaps the most famous are the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall film The Big Sleep

Also well known is the Robert Altman directed The Long Goodbye

The Big Sleep was Chandler’s first novel, released in 1939, and it took elements of various short stories he had written before and its a freaking spectacular novel in my opinion. The Long Goodbye was pretty much Chandler’s last Marlowe novel, released in 1953 and is also a spectacular book which shows how the author matured and faced death. Supposedly, the novel was written as his wife was dying and his grief informs much of what happens in the book. Chandler would release one more novel, Playback, in 1958 but it was an odd work, an adaptation of a script and… it doesn’t feel like a full throttled Chandler book. He would start one more book, Poodle Springs, but passed away in 1959 with only four chapters written. Years later Robert B. Parker would finish the novel and… it’s only ok IMHO.

As Chandler’s novels became big successes, audiences and critics noted the stories he presented were often very complex. In fact, that became something of a source of ribbing by some people and critics and, I strongly suspect, some of the ribbing had an edge to it.

See, Chandler was also something of a gruff person. When his works gained prominence and he started writing scripts in Hollywood (his most famous screenplay is probably for the film Double Indemnity), I strongly suspect he rubbed some people there the wrong way. It didn’t help that he was a very heavy drinker and maybe very moralistic and, perhaps, even repressed. Yes, there were rumors he was, despite being married, secretly closeted or possibly bisexual. Interestingly, the novel The Big Sleep did at times present a moralistic view of sexuality… and frowned at deviancies.

One story that has circulated for many, many years now involves The Big Sleep and that story, it seems to me, is the proverbial legend that supplants what are somewhat easily verified facts (you knew I was going to get back to that eventually, no?!).

So it has been noted by many The Big Sleep’s story is so complicated that even Raymond Chandler himself didn’t know who murdered one of the characters, the Sternwood’s chauffeur.

Lauren Bacall, the wife of Humphrey Bogart and co-star in the famous film version of The Big Sleep, at one point stated that while she and Bogart were going over the movie’s screenplay, Bogie supposedly had this revelation and stated “Hey, who killed the chauffeur?” and that this was when the studios -and Lauren Bacall implied people in general- realized the chauffeur’s murder was unsolved in the story.

Actor Robert Mitchum has a curious story, too. He stated that one day he was in a bookstore and Raymond Chandler was there. The store’s phone rang and it turned out the studio was calling for Chandler and Mitchum overheard the phone call. They were, according to Mitchum, trying to figure out who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep and Chandler supposedly said: “I have no idea”.

Cute stories, both of them, but I wonder if either is true.

There have been many others who have echoed the sentiment that The Big Sleep is a great story in spite of the fact that “it is so complicated even Raymond Chandler didn’t solve one of its murders”, referring, of course, to the Sternwood chauffeur’s death. It feels to me many of these stories, as I noted before, have a sharp edge to them. It’s almost like these critics are saying “Raymond Chandler writes so well but gives us such a labyrinthian story to tell that he doesn’t even realize he’s left a murder unsolved! What a bozo… amiright?!


No. That’s not right.

And it takes only a little bit of research, actually pulling out a copy of The Big Sleep novel, to realize this legend is just that.

The following comes directly from The Big Sleep. For those who don’t know, the Sternwood chauffeur is found dead in his car, which had run through a pier, smashing it, and was submerged in water at some point that night. When detective Phillip Marlowe shows up, the car has been found and been brought to the surface and the chauffeur is inside, dead. There are several people/police around, including Bernie Ohls, the D.A.’s chief investigator and a friend of Marlowe’s.

From the book:

The plainclothesman scuffed at the deck with the toe of his shoe. Ohls looked sideways along his eyes at me, and twitched his cigar like a cigarette.

”Drunk?” he asked, of nobody in particular.

The man who had been toweling his head went over to the rail and cleared his throat in a loud hawk that made everybody look at him. “Got some sand,” he said, and spat. “Not as much as the boy friend got— but some.”

The uniformed man said: “Could have been drunk. Showing off all alone in the rain. Drunks will do anything.”

”Drunk, hell,” the plainclothesman said. “The hand throttle’s set halfway down and the guy’s been sapped on the side of the head. Ask me and I’ll call it murder.”

Ohls looked at the man with the towel. “What do you think, Buddy?”

The man with the towel looked flattered. He grinned. “I say suicide, Mac. None of my business, but you ask me, I say suicide. First off the guy plowed an awful straight furrow down that pier. You can read his tread marks all the way nearly. That puts it after the rain like the Sheriff said. Then he hit the pier hard and clean or he don’t go through and land right side up. More likely turned over a couple of times. So he had plenty of speed and hit the rail square. That’s more than half-throttle. He could have done that with his hand falling and he could have hurt his head falling, too.”

So, in a few paragraphs, Chandler offers three theories as to what happened to the chauffeur: 1) He was drunk and ran off the pier. 2) He was murdered, hit on the side of his head and the car run off the pier with him in it to make it look like an accident. Finally, 3) He committed suicide.

Note that Chandler goes into the greatest details with the suicide and further, it makes the most logical sense.

See, cars back in the 1930’s were not like cars today and they required more effort to skillfully maneuver.

The chauffeur being drunk is dispatched almost right away. The car drove “straight” through the pier and at a very high speed. Tire tracks in the rain water indicate this. So… not drunk.

The murder option, based on the explanations offered, would imply the killer would have had to be inside the car driving it very fast and straight down to the pier, then smash through that pier at high speed to then land upright in the water.

The killer would then swim out and leave the chauffeur’s body behind.

Now, this is a very dangerous thing to do, no? The killer could have just as easily gotten him/herself injured when smashing through the pier and falling in the water. Hell, they could have gotten themselves drowned.

So we fall to option three: Suicide.

Now, I will admit this much is true: The Big Sleep novel offers no absolute answer to what happened to the chauffeur. However, Raymond Chandler, far from being befuddled and not knowing what happened to the chauffeur, offers a very logical explanation for how he died… and it likely wasn’t a murder after all.

Within the context of the story, is it possibile he committed suicide? Absolutely. He was infatuated with Carmen Sternwood, one of the two “wild” daughters (Vivian Sternwood was the other daughter and she was played by Lauren Bacall in the movie). Carmen, we find, was being blackmailed and because he couldn’t help take care of that nasty business, he might have been distraught enough to commit suicide.

So, yeah, everything fits.

Going back to my main point, though, the legend turns out to be just that. It’s clear Chandler thought very hard about what happened to the Sternwood chauffeur and offered an explanation as to why he found himself dead.

Rather than the author being befuddled and having “no idea” who did him in, he very clearly had a strong idea of what happened.