Jim Tully: Hobo Writer Gone Hollywood

This short biography of Jim Tully appeared in the 1933 edition of “Authors Today and Yesterday, A Companion Volume to Living Authors”.

JIM TULLY, American author, was born in a log cabin near St. Mary’s, Ohio, on June 3, 1888, the third son of James Dennis Tully and Marie Bridget Lawler Tully. “My father,” says Tully, “was a drunken ditch digger who came from Ireland when he was ten years of age. My mother was a country school teacher who also came from Ireland as a child. These two people and many others who were a part of my miserable background are depicted in my books.”

In his seventh year, Tully’s mother died, and he was sent to the St. Joseph Orphan Asylum in Cincinnati, Ohio. At eleven he left the orphanage and went to work on a farm fifty miles north of his birthplace, where he was “kicked about” for three years.

When he was fourteen he ran away and became a tramp. For seven years he “rode the rods,” drifting from town to town (he crossed the country three times) occasionally working as a laborer, chainmaker, dishwasher, circus hand, or newsboy. He sojourned at intervals in five jails.

“He became an inveterate library bum,” writes Sara Haardt, “ducking in and out of public libraries from one end of the country to the other. He read everything: biography, history, fiction; Dostoievsky, Carlyle, Olive Schreiner, Balzac, Dumas, Mark Twain, Conrad, the files of the old Smart Set.”

At twenty-one Tully became a pugilist and might have gone to the top, he says, save that he “was not stolid enough.” He was a featherweight, fighting at about 122 pounds. After winning a number of bouts, he was knocked unconscious for nearly twenty four hours in San Francisco. The ring, he decided, was not his vocation. He became a salesman–”and succeeded,” earning $20,000 a year. In later metamorphoses he was a traveling tree surgeon and a reporter on the Akron Press and Beacon Journal.

Tully began to write. His first verses –something about Keats–appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1911. In the same year he married Florence Bushnell, who bore him two children, Thomas Alton and Trilby Jean. They were divorced in 1924. The first thing Tully sold to a magazine was “A Declaration” to Smart Set.

Thru countless vicissitudes, which took him into government service as chain inspector during the World War, Tully labored for nearly eight years, in painful ignorance of the simplest rules of grammar, on his first book, Emmett Lawler, which he finished in Los Angeles. In its original version it was a single paragraph of 100,000 words. Rupert Hughes read the autobiographical novel in manuscript, encouraged Tully, and helped him. The book was published in 1922; Tully began to receive orders for magazine articles; his career was under way.

But Tully says today: “My first book was bad, and is now forgotten. I found myself, I think, in Beggars of Life, which I wrote in six terrifying weeks, while living with a bootlegger. . .” The book was “intended as a compilation of dramatic episodes in the life of a youthful vagabond, which I was for seven years.” Published in 1924, Beggars of Life was the first of five autobiographical works which, tho interrupted in publication, he regards as a single group, the “Underworld Edition.” The others in the group, which appeared between 1927 and 1931, were: Circus Parade, “a series of none too happy and often ironical incidents with a circus”; Shanty Irish, “the background of a road-kid who becomes articulate”; Shadows of Men, “the tribulations, vagaries, and hallucinations of men in jail”; and Blood on the Moon, “the period which led to social adjustment. . . With it I bid farewell forever, I hope, to that life, the winds of which equally twisted and strengthened me for the sadder years ahead.”

Between the first and second books of his autobiographical series, Tully published Jarnegan, one of his best known works. It is the story of a he-man who kills a man in a fight, spends some time in jail, begins life anew on regaining freedom, drifts into Hollywood and becomes a successful movie director. When it appeared in 1926 H. L. Mencken praised the book extravagantly and Clayton Hamilton said: “This man is gifted with sincerity, with earnestness, with elemental power. He is afire with a passion for expression which, every now and then, purifies itself into poetry.” A dramatization of the novel was produced in New York in 1928 with Richard Bennett in the title rôle, but was only moderately successful.

When a novel called Laughter in Hell appeared in 1932, the New York Times said: “A writer of Jim Tully’s stature and one with his following, both popular and critical, cannot afford to let us down after this fashion.”

Associating himself, meanwhile, with the motion picture world, Tully interviewed “stars,” did publicity work, and wrote dialogue for the talking pictures. For eighteen months he was with Charlie Chaplin as one of his ghost writers and his biographer. Today he is known as the most hated (because of his frankness) and at the same time the highest paid interviewer in Hollywood. His work has appeared in thirty four American periodicals, ranging from Scribner’s to True Confessions and the movie magazines. He has been translated into Russian, French, and Scandinavian.

“I have tried, however futilely,” Tully wrote to the editors of this volume, “to get away from all the namby-pamby trends of American literature. My reward has been misunderstanding. I am considered a roughneck because, as an artist, I seek to lay bare the broken hearts of the people from whom I sprang.

“My introduction to Blood on the Moon gives you more or less my writing creed. . . I have no whine at fate. I began with nothing and have ended with more money than is good for one. . . I write because I love to. . . I have perhaps less academic training than any man who has ever succeeded at writing in America. . . I will never be the artist I thought I would. Words are not elastic enough. . . I have done as nearly that which I set out to do as any American writer ever has. . .

“I live alone in a large nine room house on a large piece of ground in Hollywood. To my door come now and then the wanderers of other years. My friendship for them is no pose with me. I said in my introduction to Blood on the Moon, ‘I was of them. I am still of them. I can taste the bitterness of their lives in the bread I eat today.’”

George Jean Nathan, friend of Tully, says: “When his house is full of his old hobo friends . . . and when a half dozen pairs of feet are on the diningroom table, and when there is not a collar in sight and the liquor is flowing, he is for the nonce a Feinschmecker of mundane contentment. . . His second wife had to stand a lot from him because he would often bring hoboes into the house and give them both his wife’s and his own bed. . .” She was Margaret Rider Myers of Los Angeles. They were married in 1925 and divorced five years later.

In Tully’s spacious study on the second floor of his Spanish-type house are numberless books, a square desk with swivel-chair, an unabridged dictionary on a brass tripod, an old beer table, two mountainous armchairs, and small framed pictures of Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Madame Le Brun, Madame Recamier, and Rose Aylmer (“Landor’s girl, you know”).

Sara Haardt has pictured Tully “sitting in the far corner of the room, a crumpled felt hat held loosely in his hand, his heavy shoulders drooping and an abstracted look in his misty blue eyes. His head was tilted to one side, and as he raised it, it seemed to me that it was literally on fire. His hair is a tangled wiry mop of flaming red curls, so thick and so unruly that, with his muscular shoulders, it gives him the appearance of being top-heavy and possessed of an enormous strength. And like most red hair it creates a strange, almost startling impression of youth. . . There is a challenge in his manner, and a marvelous swagger; however gnarled and weary he grows, it will always be difficult to think of him as old.”

Jim Tully’s books: Emmett Lawler, 1922; Beggars of Life, 1924; Jarnegan, 1925; Life of Thomas H. Ince, 1925; Life of Charlie Chaplin, 1926; Twenty Below (with Robert Nichols) 1926; Black Boy (with Frank Dazey) 1926; Passing Strangers, 1926; Circus Parade, 1927; Denis Darel, 1928; Shanty Irish, 1928; Shadows of Men, 1929; God Loves the Irish (with Charles Beahan) 1929; Beggars Abroad, 1930; Close Ups, 1930; Adventures in Interviewing, 1931; Blood on the Moon, 1931; Laughter in Hell, 1932.