Jim Tully and Robert E. Howard Beggars of Life
by Brian Leno
Robert E. Howard is oftentimes famously quoted as remarking that of all the writers living and working in his time, he felt there were only two whose work would endure—H. P. Lovecraft, and Jim Tully.
In Lovecraft, the gentleman from Providence, he was proven right. HPL has attained a cult following, movies have been adapted from his works, the Library of America has published a collection of his stories, and mainstream writers like Joyce Carol Oates have taken notice of the talents of this eccentric author. Fittingly, Lovecraft has been labeled as the greatest writer of horror since Edgar Allan Poe.
Jim Tully has not been so fortunate. Attaining best-seller status in his lifetime, he moved to Hollywood, became press secretary for Charlie Chaplin, and soon started to write about Tinsel Town. America, then, just as now, had a love affair with the gossip surrounding wealthy performers, and Tully was able to deliver what the readers wanted. Sara Haardt, wife of H. L. Mencken, wrote in an article published in the May 1928 issue of The American Mercury that Tully with his “fierce denunciations of the movies and the movie folks” had become one of “the most hated men in Hollywood.” Yet, she continues, “the stars themselves would rather be unflatteringly noticed by him than not at all.” Tully’s most remembered book, Beggars of Life, was made into a movie that starred the talents of Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks. H. L. Mencken sent him to San Quentin to report on the execution by hanging of a young man—Tully euphemistically titled the piece “A California Holiday,” and delivered a very critical assessment of capital punishment. He was an important literary figure who, at that time, was being compared to literary greats like Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser.
Now he’s almost forgotten.
So what drew Howard to Tully—how could he be so right on picking Lovecraft to flourish, and so wrong on his prediction dealing with the author of Circus Parade, Shanty Irish, and other books that dealt with the hardships of the times?
There are similarities between the two that probably made Howard feel intellectually close to Tully, perhaps, at times, almost seem like he was reading something he had written himself. Both men experienced the tough times of life. Tully, at a very young age, became a road-kid, a rider of the rails, and he saw firsthand the castoffs of society, the beggars of life, those who would rather wander the country, begging for bread, instead of planting roots somewhere and growing a home and financial stability. Some of these men were murderers and thieves, but it was among these hard cases that Tully found friends and even, perhaps, a sort of home life that he had never had.
When he was four his mother died and it was a scene that Tully remembered for the rest of his life. “As my clothes were not fit to be worn to my mother’s funeral, I stood in the middle of the mud road and wept while the hearse took her away,” he wrote, and soon after this terrible event he was sent to an orphanage even though his father, who evidently suffered from wanderlust mingled with a desire to drink, was still alive. The one rock, in all his troubled times, that Tully was able to anchor to in life was his sister, Virginia, and he wrote lovingly of her in his article, “Gypsy Sister,” penning “her kindness was like sunlight.”
But life would continue to not come easy for the man known as “the vagabond king,” even after he became famous and wealthy.
In her article “Collecting Jim Tully” for the magazine Firsts, Maura McMillan tells of the ordeals that Tully’s son, Alton, put the family through. Arrested for the rape of a 16-year-old girl, Alton was sent to San Quentin and, unfortunately, it would not be the last time he would be incarcerated. Tully died in 1947, but trouble continued to follow his son, and so in 1950, facing another rape charge, Alton and his wife committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Robert E. Howard was no stranger to the sordid side of life either. He once wrote to Farnsworth Wright that his “boyhood was spent in the oil country,” and then added “I’ll say one thing about an oil boom; it will teach a kid that Life’s a pretty rotten thing about as quick as anything I can think of.” In that same letter he writes, “like the average man, the tale of my life would merely be a dull narration of drab monotony and toil, a grinding struggle against poverty.” In a revealing letter to his friend Lovecraft he describes, almost Tully-like, of the hardships he has witnessed. “I’ve seen old farmers,” he writes, “bent with toil and ignorant of the feel of ten dollars at a time, become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers. And I’ve seen them blow in every cent of it and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil wholesale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope fiends, drunkards, gamblers and gangsters in a matter of months.” And who can forget his letter to HPL where he complains of the misery of his days in the tailoring business? He tells of the harlots who brought him their dresses to be cleaned—“Beautiful silk and lace…but disgustingly soiled…bright as dreams, but stained with nameless filth.” Tending for his sick mother, and not being able to help as much with medical care as he would have liked, due to Wright’s Weird Tales not paying money owed him, were without doubt the over riding concerns of the last years of his life, and it is impossible to not feel, when reading Howard’s letters, that life had not given him a fair shake.
Their writing is sometimes eerily similar. Oklahoma Red, a yegg, and a modern day Conan-type, is described in very Howardian language. “He was heavily built. His hands were large, like hams, and they reached nearly to his knees. His face, once good looking, was now stamped with a vicious leer. His mouth was firm, and slanted downward at the left edge. His eyes were shot with blood, and the lids were red. His hair fell in straggly red masses over his ears and neck. His coat was torn and gaped like wounds under his armpits. A lighted cigarette was in the left corner of his mouth. The upper lip did not seem to touch it, and it hung down, the lighted end nearly touching the red stubble of his beard. His short neck bulged under his ears. They looked strangely white in the tangled mass of red hair around them. There was decision and mastery about him. Boy lover of raw strength, I watched him.”
All Conan fans are familiar with the scene in “The Phoenix on the Sword” where Conan is attacked by Ascalante and his gang of assassins. Bloodied, the barbarian places his back against a wall and glares down at them, halting their mad rush, and asks which of them wants to die first.
There is a scene in Tully’s Circus Parade that is reminiscent of this defiant stand of Conan’s. Slug Finnerty, a one-eyed quick-change artist, fleeces a man out of some penny-ante cash, and this angered character returns with some of his buddies to teach Finnerty a rough lesson. Slug yells the famous “Hey Rube” and soon a battle ensues between the cheated customers and Finnerty and the circus hands. It’s a tough match and at one point Finnerty rises off the floor and drops one of the battlers and then he stands and confronts the rest of his attackers. “Finnerty stood,” Tully writes, “like a one-eyed immense gorilla about to spring and snarled between oaths, “Come on you goddamn rubes, and meet your master!””
He had a despairing view of life that Howard would have understood. In Beggars of Life he writes of the dying of “an ancient harlot” and says that when they buried her “a heavy gold wedding ring was on her third finger. The bauble of romance was going to the grave with her for the worms to crawl through.”
This dark mood of life is further shown by an article, written in 1930, titled “Jim Tully—The Vagabond King.” It informs us that his life philosophy was “What the hell—the grave ends everything.” It can also bring to mind characteristics of Howard when the essay further tells us that Tully “is very moody. Has intense fits of melancholy and terrible laughter,” and that “He easily recognizes his own ability and is annoyed by those who don’t.”
In a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith Howard expresses without hesitation the faith he had in his own ability, while not caring too much what his fellow townspeople thought of him. “I’m not highly intellectual, but I realize that I have so much more brains than the average fool…Let these swine stare and snigger. Curse their empty skulls; I’ll be a national figure with more money than they ever saw….” And he freely admitted that dark moods descended upon him—witness what he says in a letter to Lovecraft. “I want to begin this letter by an apology,” he starts, “The fact is, I wrote while in the grip of one of the black moods which occasionally—though fortunately rarely—descend on me.”
Tully’s love of reading and books was so great, that, just as Howard once admitted in a letter, he stole volumes from libraries. One of the books he took was The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner. This is noteworthy because Harold Preece, in his article “The Last Celt” which appears in Glenn Lord’s book of the same name, tells us that upon first meeting Howard he noticed that REH had purchased Ms. Schreiner’s volume earlier in the day, and was carrying it with him.
Had Howard ridden the rails with Tully they would have had much in common and plenty to talk about.
Howard’s love of boxing and boxers is well known—he wrote many stories, serious and humorous about the sport, and traveled miles to watch live, though basically minor, bouts, and even engaged in amateur matches at the ice house in Cross Plains.
Jim Tully rubbed elbows with some of the great fighters of his day, and was, for a time, also a boxer.
During one fight in California Tully was knocked out and it took him 24 hours to regain consciousness—a hard story to believe, although this encounter was reported in at least two contemporary articles. This defeat made him realize he’d never be a champion and so he quit the sport, but the love of it remained.
Sara Haardt reports that the boxer Johnny Kilbane, a friend of Tully’s, once bragged to him “you may get to be a writer…but by God I’m going to be featherweight champion.” And Kilbane did achieve his goal by beating Abe Attell, one of the greatest to ever hold the title, although Attell later fell into disrepute for his part in the Black Sox Scandal.
Jack Dempsey, one of Howard’s favorite boxers, was a personal friend of Tully’s, and Tully’s boxing novel The Bruiser is dedicated to him. There is also a photograph of Dempsey playfully holding Tully by the arms while Max Baer, another heavyweight champion, is preparing to send the author to sleep with a wicked right. Tully in 1933 traveled to New York with Damon Runyon to see the Max Baer-Max Schmeling fight which Baer won, stopping the German in the tenth. Imagine how much of a high point this would have been for Howard—to see in person an ex-heavyweight champ and a future one, plus to be present with the famous sports writer Runyon as his companion.
The renowned Henry Armstrong—who in 1938 was the only man to ever hold three titles at the same time, featherweight, welterweight, and lightweight, once graced the table for dinner at Tully’s. With Armstrong was Langston Hughes, the man who wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” which evidently was liked enough by Howard for him to have made a typewritten copy of it, as related on the REHupa web site. Imagine Howard and Hughes discussing poetry—and Howard and Armstrong discussing boxing—what that would have meant to REH!
Tully once even got into a fistfight with the actor John Gilbert. It didn’t last long, Gilbert swung and missed, but Tully didn’t and knocked the performer out. This, with a very public reconciliation, generated enough media interest to land Tully a bit role in the movie Way For a Sailor, which starred Gilbert and Wallace Beery, another good friend of Tully’s.
It can only be guessed how much Robert E. Howard would have liked to have been on a speaking basis with the great fighters of his time, and with movie stars like Beery, who he regarded highly, once listing him in a letter as a member of a “gang of hardboiled hairy-chested eggs.”
Hollywood directors knocked on Tully’s door and soon a movie was made of his ‘autobiography’ Beggars of Life. After viewing the picture it’s very difficult to see any similarity between the road-kid’s story and the one presented on scene. It only bears any resemblance to Tully’s book by the fact that there are hoboes in the silent movie, and that one of them is called ‘Oklahoma Red,’ with Wallace Beery performing admirably in that role.
It’s too bad that no movie was ever made of Howard’s characters during his lifetime, although some have been made since, with production costs soaring into the millions. Most REH fans have very few good things to say about how Hollywood has treated the prolific Texan, so it’s interesting to note how Tully felt about books made into movies, perhaps helping some of Howard’s readers come to terms with the filmmakers of today.
“It amuses him,” Sara Haardt writes in her article about Tully, “to hear outraged writers crying out that the films have ruined their stories. How can pictures ruin anything—when they are what they are? The only person who can hurt a story is the author himself. The picture version—poor or good—of any story is unimportant; if the story itself is worth anything it will endure in the end.” Perhaps this is something to bear in mind with the upcoming Solomon Kane film.
Some parts of Tully’s life have conflicting reports, and turning once again to Sara Haardt we can discover how many in Hollywood felt about Tully and his stories. “I had been in Hollywood,” she writes, “less than forty-eight hours, but I had already heard the common town story that Tully had never been on the road at all, or in the ring, that he had faked his tramp and circus stories, that he was a most capital liar.”
Tully, liar or not, is slowly making a comeback. Charles Willeford, author of The Burnt Orange Heresy, wrote a very informative and entertaining essay titled “Jim Tully: Holistic Barbarian,” which is must reading for any Tully fan. There is also an interesting website maintained by Maura McMillan, author of the Firsts magazine article, that is a captivating look for any reader of Tully’s, and publisher Dennis McMillan was slated to run a biography of Tully written by Mark Dawidziak and Paul Bauer. This book was scheduled to be published in 2002 but obviously has been delayed for some unknown reason, but it is to be hoped that it will finally get back on track.
Whether Howard ever saw the film version of Beggars of Life is a question that can’t be answered, as his letters don’t give us the solution. He had the book in his library, Tully was one of his most admired writers, and Wallace Beery and Louise Brooks were in the list of his favorite actors and actresses, so it’s obviously a movie he would have seen, had he been able. In a letter circa July 1928 he even mentions that he’s starting to like Richard Arlen more than he had previously, and upon first reading I had hoped this was because he had seen the movie, and enjoyed Arlen’s performance. But, alas, the movie didn’t come out until September 1928, so obviously the letter was written before any possible viewing. Perhaps, in July, he had heard that a movie was being made of the book and so held out hope that Arlen’s performance would be a good one—it’s something we’ll probably never know.
The best lines of the movie come when Richard Arlen, at ease with Louise Brooks in a makeshift haystack bed, wistfully states “Ain’t it funny when you think of the millions of people in warm houses and feather beds, an’ us just driftin’ round like the clouds? But I guess it’s about even when you boil it down. Even them people in feather beds ain’t satisfied—we’re all beggars of life.”
And he’s right. We are beggars of life, all of us—some want wealth, good health, or maybe just a new car. We beg for life to furnish us with these items that’ll make our life a little easier.
What did Howard and Tully beg for? Something we’ll never know exactly, but one can feel that Tully probably wished more than once to hop a freight car and get back to his tramping days and forget the glare of hostile media that accused him of making up his stories, of the newspaper men that reported on the criminal antics of his son Alton.
Robert E. Howard probably wanted just to be able to live his life without anyone having control over him, as he wrote more than once in his letters. He worked long hours to get the money which was needed to take care of his mother, hoping for her to get well, and not to die—these were important things, items worth ‘begging’ for.
Sad thing is, after reading the writings of Robert E. Howard it’s easy to see that he wouldn’t be the type to beg for long. Too much will power, too much determination, and it all boiled over on the dawn of a hot June morning when he figuratively got off his knees and decided to quit begging, and take matters into his own hands.
Published in TGR #12. copyright 2008 Brian Leno. All rights reserved.