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The Mean Streets of Bay City:

In Raymond Chandler’s murder mysteries, he portrayed Santa Monica in the 1930s and early 1940s – Bay City, he called it in his stories and novels – as a corrupt, crime-ridden town, home to water taxis from the Pier to gambling ships anchored in the Bay, doctors feelgood, and establishments such as “a gambling hall in Ocean Park, a sleazy adjunct to Santa Monica” as he described it in a 1944 letter.

Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe remarks in Farewell My Lovely that in a big city like Los Angeles gangsters can only buy selected cops and politicians – a piece of the city – but in a smaller community like Bay City they could buy the whole town.

That Bay City was the subject of a bus tour on Saturday afternoon, March 8, conducted by the Esotouric tour company, which operates a wide range of tours in the greater Los Angeles area themed on literary, crime, and architectural history. The inaugural run of the “Raymond Chandler’s Bay City” tour was narrated by Esotouric’s Richard Schave and featured some knowledgeable passengers as well as historic sites.

The tour included readings from Chandler’s works, historic photos displayed on on-board video screens, film clips from movies based on the Philip Marlowe stories, and contributions from the passengers. Fred Brown, now 87 years old, recalled his mother taking him out to the gambling ship S. S. Rex in Santa Monica Bay. Water taxis, he recounted, took passengers from Santa Monica Pier to the ship – anchored just beyond the three-mile limit – and the passengers would sing songs on the taxi trip to the Rex. “Avalon” was a favorite, he said.

Also on the bus was Chandler scholar Loren Latker, who added information and commentary throughout the afternoon. He had documented, for example, 36 addresses for Chandler and his wife Cissy; they liked to move a lot.

After a drive-by of the apartment building in the 400 block of San Vicente Boulevard where Chandler and Cissy lived in 1940 and 1941, the tour stopped at the Georgian Hotel on Ocean Avenue, in the basement of which was the Red Griffin Room, a speakeasy when the hotel opened in the early 1930s. It became a legitimate operation when prohibition ended in 1933 and was closed to the public when the building became a retirement home. Although the Georgian is again a hotel, the room is now used only as an employees’ break room. But, according to the tour, the furnishings and appointments have not been changed since at least the early 1950s.

The tour took a walk from Casa del Mar hotel at the end of Pico Boulevard north along the beachfront path to the site on the ocean side of Appian Way where Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford had beach houses. Nothing remains of them but a gardener’s shed overgrown with shrubbery. One of the tour passengers, Scott Smith, had lived in the Pickford house with several roommates before it was torn down and related his recollections of that time.

A trip up Pacific Coast Highway took the tour to the building that had been Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café and the site of the mysterious death of the actress who was sometimes publicized as “The Ice Cream Blonde.” Tour Director Schave explained that the case, considered by many as one of Hollywood’s greatest unsolved mysteries, was the basis for an important plot element in Chandler’s novel The Lady in the Lake.

The afternoon provided a window on Santa Monica’s past and gave context and texture to Chandler’s works. One could feel the import of Chandler’s observation in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder”: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…. If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”

Information on Esotouric tours is available at esotouric.com or at 323.223.2767.

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