Drinking with the Ghost: Raymond Chandler at Musso and Frank’s

By Katie Orphan 

Welcome to “Drinking with the Ghost,” a recurring feature in which I seek out a bar (or other drinking establishment) to commune with the spirit of a late author. It won’t be supernatural, and I won’t be using a Ouija board or séance; instead, I’ll be using the author’s written words to connect with them and to bridge the distance of time between us in the space we share. My hope is that you won’t just visit these bars and drink vicariously through me, but that you’ll take yourself out for a visit with an author in their favorite watering hole.

Stepping out of the bright sunshine on Hollywood Boulevard, I take a seat at the bar in the “New Room” of Musso and Frank Grill, a place where 1955 counts as new. I’m here, chasing the ghost of Raymond Chandler, and this feels like the most appropriate place to find his spirit and share a drink with him. The New Room replaced the “Back Room” where Raymond Chandler did most of his drinking at this Hollywood institution, along with much of the literary elite of Los Angeles in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

My bartender makes me a martini (gin, of course) after some deliberating on my part. In The Long Goodbye, the book that keeps me company this day, Philip Marlowe visits Musso and Frank’s, but doesn’t drink. Instead, he and his dinner companion at Musso’s regularly meet up for gimlets at another bar. I’ll follow my martini with a gimlet for maximum authenticity. It’s a decision that Marlowe himself makes at one point in The Long Goodbye: “I wasn’t feeling sentimental enough [for a gimlet]. I went to Lowry’s and had a martini…” I didn’t fully replicate his decision, as I stayed at Musso’s for the entirety of my encounter with Chandler, but my drink choices found their source and inspiration in Marlowe’s.

Reading Chandler in preparation for my date with his ghost, I’ve been reminded me how much I love his dialogue and descriptions. I’m too far removed from the era in which he lived and wrote to know if people actually spoke like that, but I like to pretend they bit off clever one-liners and threats like Chandler describes.

I’ve also been reminded of the freedom white men had to be casually racist, a freedom which, as much as we hate to think so, has not gone anywhere. Farewell, My Lovely is full of reminders of how language can be built to denigrate people. The language used to describe African-American people, or my own ethnic group, the Japanese, is hurtful and jarring to a modern reader, and I have to wonder whether it is simply reflecting his time, or shaping it.

Seated one stool over from me is another person with a Chandler novel in tow; he and I both brought The Long Goodbye with us to Musso and Frank’s, a move that feels serendipitous. The spirit of Chandler is alive and well in this Hollywood haunt.

I read The Long Goodbye as I sip my martini, and find myself slipping deep into the world of 1940s Los Angeles. Hollywood then is a vastly different place than it is now. Walking to Musso and Frank’s, I pass restaurants catering to tourists, souvenir shops, and the stars that now line the sidewalks. I prefer to picture Hollywood as it was in the time of Raymond Chandler and his Philip Marlowe. Marlowe’s office is nearby, and it’s easy to see both Chandler and Marlowe, fictional though he may be, walking through the doors of Musso and Frank’s, and bellying up to the bar.

Terry Lennox, the acquaintance of Marlowe’s who is at the center of The Long Goodbye, says:

I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his ties is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening band put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar — that’s wonderful.

That description feels like a prescription from Chandler himself as to how I should enjoy this time at a bar that he himself frequented, so I visit Musso and Frank’s before the dinner rush. It’s not quite the time at which the bar opens, but it is the beginning of the shift for a few of the bartenders.

I watch the bartenders set up their bottles the way they’d like, and adjust their trademark red-jacketed uniforms, readying for the rush of people who will come. In my time at the bar, I encounter life-long Los Angeles residents who love the history of Musso and Frank’s, and tourists who made a point of stopping at Hollywood’s oldest restaurant while they’re in town.

It is easy to imagine Chandler sitting between me and my fellow reader of The Long Goodbye. I imagine him telling me the story of Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox as I read. Enjoying Chandler anywhere has its merits, but I feel a special sense of reverence as I hook my feet around the rungs of my barstool and listen to Chandler from across the 50-plus years that divide us in that moment.

Chandler writes about Marlowe thinking and listening in the night in a way that reminded me of my own efforts to hear the voice of Chandler as I sit in a place he frequented. “I… lay on my back listening, as if far off in the dark I might hear a voice, the kind of calm and patient voice that makes everything clear.” Marlowe doesn’t hear that voice as he listens, but I am in luck. I have Chandler’s own words to keep me company.

After finishing my martini, including the extra portion that they provide in a small carafe, I move on to a gimlet. Terry Lennox complains about the way that the bar he and Marlowe frequent prepares gimlets, “What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.”

Unlike Lennox, I don’t see how my gimlet is made, nor do I drink enough gimlets to understand whether the one I had at Musso’s was Chandler and Lennox approved. I’d like to imagine that their gimlet is the standard to which Chandler’s character is comparing the subpar gimlets at Victor’s, the bar Lennox and Marlowe visit regularly.

Sipping my gimlet, I dive deeper into The Long Goodbye, getting caught up in the cases that are unfolding in front of Philip Marlowe. Marlowe eventually returns to the bar at which he and Lennox drank, and finds the woman sitting down the bar is also drinking a gimlet. It calls to mind the coincidence of my neighbor and I both reading The Long Goodbye at the bar. Unlike Marlowe and the woman at the bar, my neighbor and I do not provide insight to each other about a criminal case in which we’re both involved. Instead we discuss why we brought Chandler with us to the bar: me, to take the text to a place where it had its origins; and him, because he missed what was abridged when Elliot Gould read the audiobook. It is as if the ghost of Raymond Chandler has provided for me a gift, a way to reenact more of his book than I had expected.

Chandler’s writing is fast-paced and surprisingly funny for something so dark it’s called noir. Marlowe has a sly, sardonic, cynical view of those whom he encounters, and his observations often make me snicker as I read. A man Marlowe briefly encounters at a restaurant merits this description: “I was looking at the profile of a broad-beamed crowd-pleaser in an overdraped oxford flannel. He had the outstretched arm of the popular character and the two-by-six grin of the guy who never loses a sale.” In two lines, Chandler creates an evocative and humorous image of a man who bumps into him. Reading these descriptions, I wonder how Chandler would have described me and my fellow bar patrons.

It crosses my mind to try to write descriptions of myself and the others at the bar in an effort to capture Chandler’s voice, but I do not trust myself to do it justice, nor to do it kindly. Chandler’s descriptions can cut to the core of characters, and I am afraid I will just sound mean if I try. Having Chandler’s words is enough for me, I don’t need to try to recreate them.

I leave the bar, glad that I visited when “It was just about the right time of day for the bar to be quiet, the way he would have liked it himself, if he had been around to go with me.” Chandler wrote of Lennox’s appreciation in Marlowe’s voice, but I think that Chandler approved of my visit and its timing. I step back out into the still bright sunshine of Hollywood, with Chandler tucked under my arm, and his ghost still sitting at the bar where he and I drank together. As he wrote, “In Hollywood, anything can happen. Anything at all.”

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