Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jim Tully, Hobo King of Hollywood

He wasn’t technically the hobo king of Hollywood — the office of hobo king is an elective position that must be ratified by the annual National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa — but Tully went from being the rail-riding son of an Irish ditch-digger to being a Vanity Fair celebrity profiler and Charlie Chaplin’s press agent, which is probably more than could be said for King "Hobo Ben" Benson (reign 1940-45).

I tracked down Tully because Walter Winchell’s otherwise relentlessly acerbic and score-settling autobiography has nothing but nice things to say about him: “Dig up his books. Tully was a writer. . . . His murderous essay on Charlie Chaplin (then the top film star all over the globe) is a classic. Every word of it knocks you out.”

You be the judge:

While on location in Nevada for The Gold Rush, five hundred vagabonds greeted him. Selected to make the trek over Chilcoot Pass, they were blue with cold. “They are cheering for you, Charlie,” I said.

“I know.” His eyes were slightly disdainful under the battered derby. “How’d you like to be back among them?”

“It could be worse,” was my answer.

He shrugged his shoulders in his tight-fitting coat. “I’d rather be me than them.”

[. . .]

The talk drifted to children. He recalled his baby that died at birth. It had been called “The Little Mouse” by its mother, Mildred Harris, who was his first wife.

His eyes narrowed. “The undertaker put a little prop smile on its face.” He stopped a second. “You know, Jim, that kid never smiled.”

A reactionary Irishman, Tully despised celebrity socialists (like Chaplin) — according to him, none of them had any idea of work; it was simply that “they saw human misery as children and decided to remember it.”

But he was never blustery or indignant about it. Consider: It was common in his day for “job sharks” to tell hobos, for a fee, where they could find short-term employment — employment that, as often as not, turned out to be either sheer fiction or a scam where the foreman would lay men off right before payday and they wouldn’t get a dime.

Which makes the second line here, from his profile of Diego Rivera, another celebrity socialist, a hell of an understatement. He has just recounted the famous controversy over Rivera’s left-wing mural for Rockefeller Center, which featured Lenin and which Nelson Rockefeller eventually arranged to have smashed with hammers:

Mr. Rivera was called to the main office, like any other employee, and fired. His check for $14,000, the balance of his $21,000 contract, was paid him in full.

So there I was, reading Tully’s profile collection A Dozen and One and thinking that Winchell for once in his life had been right, when slap-bang on page 197 I realized I’d been had: Of the “dozen and one,” number eleven is Walter Winchell, who was apparently “an artist among journalists, a hornet with a soul.” Logrolling! So that explains it.

Tully’s Winchell profile tells an anecdote that Winchell’s autobiography also covers, one about a dinner party hosted by St. John Ervine, a playwright. Which is funny, because the three of them hated each other: Ervine had denigrated Tully in print as “the loudest of the ‘God damn’ school in American writing,” and Winchell had referred in his column to “St. Yawn Ervine.”

According to Tully, Winchell lifted a joke from him that night. This bit of dialogue led Winchell’s column the next day:

I asked Nathan why a certain politician took himself so seriously.

“Because,” was the instant reply, “he hasn’t yet learned the humor of being beaten.”

Winchell’s autobiography mentions no such joke-stealing.

But the important thing is that Jim Tully was a hobo who could write like Raymond Chandler, and his hobo memoir is here if you want to read it.

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