High life

Raymond Chandler and his contrarian cat Taki

6 March 2021

9:00 AM

6 March 2021

9:00 AM


That’s all we needed in a great year: copyright has expired on The Great Gatsby. Some Fitzgerald wannabe has already cashed in with a prequel, and I’m certain the worst is yet to come. I suppose that the insatiable hunger for fame and celebrity to impress a shallow and scatterbrained blonde across the water made Gatsby a very tragic hero. But he was not as tragic as Hemingway’s Jake Barnes, who had his you-know-what blown off in the war and could only flirt with Lady Brett from afar. Or Scott Fitzgerald’s other tragic hero, Dick Diver, whose talent wasted away while he amused his rich wife’s friends.

At least the Gatsby prequel has, I am told, been written by a very good writer who can create atmosphere. But I hate to think what future copycats will come up with. Do not paraphrase the classics was the first thing I was told back in lower school, and Gatsby is as classic as they get. Can you imagine the horrors Hollywood will now be able to come up with? Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian lolling beside a giant piano-shaped swimming pool, while far out at sea, on his hideous mega-yacht, a lovelorn multibillionaire coke dealer pines away and indulges non-stop in his product, leading him to… no I won’t go on — it’s too horrible to contemplate.

As it happens, I recently met Anthony Horowitz, a man who writes Sherlock Holmes and James Bond novels, and he couldn’t have been nicer. Typically, I had no idea who he was as we lunched with Horowitz’s wife Jill Green and Barry and Lizzie Humphries chez Aliki Goulandris. It was an outdoor lunch in a great garden on a brilliant day and the only hint we got was from Barry, who mumbled something about Horowitz also doing some scribbling. Although he didn’t invent Sherlock and James, I am told that his books remain true to their creators.

I remember well in prep school in America during study hall for recalcitrant boys when a Mister Barrett caught me with a book under the desk while an unsolved algebra problem stuck out like a sore thumb on top of it. ‘Let me see what dirty book you’re hiding down there,’ said Barrett, an extremely good-looking man whose face had been burned and disfigured when his bomber caught fire on crash-landing back in England after a raid. I was reading Tender is the Night and showed it to him. ‘Keep reading it,’ said the master, ‘and screw algebra.’

He was, of course, an English teacher and a Hemingway/Fitzgerald fan, as well as a highly decorated pilot whose hero was the Luftwaffe’s Hans-Joachim Marseille, who shot down 158 Allied aircraft before he died, jumping out of his burning airplane and hitting the tail. Mister Barrett and I had long nighttime sessions about the war, and he used to enjoy listening to my tales of deeds by German soldiers, as told to me by my German nanny. ‘Never saw one, dead or alive,’ he told me. ‘But I sure respected their fighter pilots.’

Marseille was not only a great fighter pilot, he was just as successful with the ladies. He angered Göring when the fat one, after having decorated him, asked him if he would go for 200 kills. ‘I passed that milestone long ago,’ said Marseille, referring to women.

And speaking of the Man in the White Suit, on 14 December 1950, Taki died. Raymond Chandler was his closest friend and both the writer and his wife went into deep mourning. Taki was a tempestuous and contrarian creature who didn’t like people, especially new arrivals he hadn’t met before. For 20 years Taki had accompanied Chandler and his wife on all their travels, and his absence was keenly felt. In fact, the writer went into a depression because it was Chandler who had put Taki to death. Taki was Raymond Chandler’s cat.

I’ve been reading Chandler this week, and I even watched Farewell My Lovely — the 1975 version starring Robert Mitchum as Marlowe and the most beautiful woman ever, Charlotte Rampling, as the moll he plugs. The music is of the 1930s, dark and low. A runaway’s snotty mother has just slipped the private dick a fifty ‘that felt snug against my ribs’. The nightclub is a dive — you know the kind of place: smoky, hookers at the bar, drunks with hats on at the tables, and the band playing slow, moody stuff. It’s what I call real writing: ‘I was having some Chinese food, and suddenly a dark shadow fell over my chop suey.’ Charlotte Rampling, with those hooded bedroom eyes, lures Marlowe close to her. ‘Why don’t you come here and sit beside me?’ she asks him. ‘I’ve been thinking about that for some time. Ever since you first crossed your legs, to be exact,’ he tells her. She slips him a fin and tells him: ‘Buy yourself a new suit, Marlowe.’

‘What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun,’ says Marlowe; all a man needed back in those good old days, says Taki — no, not the cat.

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