On Wednesday, at the USC event to mark the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler’s death, Judith Freeman wittily pointed out that when she found Cissy Chandler’s death certificate at the Bodelian Library in Oxford, even that document got her date of birth wrong. It gives her birth date as 1886 making her sixty-eight at the time of her death. She was, in fact, eighty-four.
There has been a lot of speculation about whether or not Chandler knew how old Cissy was. When they married in February 1924 the marriage certificate lists Cissy’s age as forty-three when she was a whole decade older and the assumption was that Chandler didn’t, at the time, know there was a difference. I have been going through various records relating to Cissy recently, some at the Bodelian, some in America and some online, and it has made me think about the mis-truths about her age.
Firstly, the source for her date of birth is Frank McShane – I have yet to dig out her birth certificate which will be in Ohio (if anyone lives there and can help, do get in touch) – and he writes that she was born on October 29th 1870. He was an assiduous researcher and I don’t doubt his accuracy. Cissy first appears in a census in 1900, during the period she spent married to Leon Porcher, a clerk who she wed in 1897 and whom she lived with in New York. In this census her date of birth is listed as around 1875. When the next census interview her, this time in 1910, she still lived in Manhattan (but was divorced from Porcher) her birth date is again listed as around 1875 again.
Cissy moved to California after she married Julian Pascal, in 1911, and she appears in that sate’s 1920 census. This time her year of birth is noted as being 1881. The following decade by which time she has become Pearl E Chandler, her birth year is given as 1877. No wonder Chandler was so confused when her date of birth is continuously mis-represented in official. Though it does seem that she got a little better with age. In 1952 when the couple visit England together, the immigration records show that her date of birth was 1876, only six years off the date given by McShane.
Census records can often by a year or two out – Chandler’s date of birth is sometimes 1888 and sometimes 1889 – but they are rarely so wild. It seems clear fromt his information that Cissy was very uncomfortable about admitting her age, particularly to official interviewers, and, in that, she would not be unusual. But the fact that she did it so much and of such a long period of time does make us wonder about her. Why was she so uncomfortable when all reports suggest that she was a beautiful and youthful looking woman? Why did the date change so wildly – would it not have been easier to stick to one date and keep the lie at that? And, of course, we will always question how much Raymond knew himself. For my part, I suspect he had no idea when they married but that, over time and as she became more ill, he began to suspect that she was older than she had told him. It must have been an odd to slowly realize that your wife was older than you thought and, as Judith Freeman points out in The Long Embrace, this may have been a contributing factor to the tensions in their marriage that led to a separation in 1930. When he filled out her death certificate in 1954 he performed one last act of generosity in mis-dating her birth yet again. It may raised a wry smile in our author, that, in death, his wife still managed to cheat official records listing her age correctly.