Rediscovered: The Life of Jim Tully

If you’ve got about an hour and twenty minutes free, the above video will give you a great crash course in Jim Tully. It features cover images of his various books, lots of still photos, even film clips of the legendary Louise Brooks in a movie version of Beggars of Life and Tully himself in an early talkie, if you want to hear what he sounded like.

However, let’s say you have no real interest in Tully — but you have a general interest in the art of biography. Why someone suddenly would decide to dive into research that lasts for years. How one discovery leads to another, and you tumble to stuff you’d never have expected. Mark Dawidziak and Paul Bauer bring the inspiration and act of biography to life in their presentation, and I think it’s worth watching just for that angle.

It’s kind of like reading a book while seeing the book being written, at the same time.

And then you could also read the book, which is what I did. I’ve been aware of Tully since the early 80s, and one of the things I discussed with Charles Willeford when I visited him in Miami in 1987 was the biography of Tully he wanted to write, but never did — Willeford even had a title for it: The Underworld Years. I think of reading the Bauer and Dawidziak bio of Tully as kind of like reading a lost Willeford. He really wanted to do a book on Tully.

Although I was conversant with Tully’s life riding the rails as a young hobo and becoming one of the bestselling writers in the 20s and 30s, lots of details got filled in. I was under the vague impression that the biography Tully wrote about Charlie Chaplin — he worked with Chaplin’s production company in the period they were prepping The Gold Rush — had seen print, not that Chaplin had sued and forced it into permanent limbo. Of course, Tully drew on his knowledge for one magazine article after another on Chaplin after that, as he became known as an expert on “old” Hollywood. As the biographers point out, a genuine little tramp — Tully was five foot three — and the Little Tramp. In a photo of them taken together, Chaplin appears to be a few inches taller than Tully.

Without thinking much about it, I figure Tully must have met Hammett when both were at a peak of fame in Hollywood in the 30s, but the only time their names meet in these pages is when both turn up on an October 1938 list of “suspected Communists.” And I’d have liked to read any anecdotes on Tully’s friendship with the senior Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff — but I know it’s quite likely nothing specific can be found today. A ton of other famous faces make more of an appearance. Wallace Beery. Dempsey. Barrymore. I hadn’t realized that the young James Cagney got his big break by playing a character based on Tully in a Broadway play, one redhead playing another.

From birth to death, this book covers every aspect of a writer’s life you’d expect. All the books, including the censored — and subjected to book-burning — Ladies in the Parlor. Early life. Marriages. Affairs. I also had no idea that Tully’s son turned out to be a serial rapist and finally committed suicide.

And I particularly enjoyed the rediscovery angles that keep popping up, as the authors ponder how someone so famous — Tully made national headlines by knocking out actor John Gilbert with one punch in the Brown Derby — could have disappeared so completely from the cultural scene for so long. I suppose my best guess is that it is because Tully, while observing the underbelly of the American scene firsthand, never became a crook, and so never had the allure of a life of crime to draw people to his writing, like fellow hobo writer Jack Black.

One of Tully’s pals did become a member in good standing of Dillinger’s bank-robbing crew, though.

All told, a completely satisfying biography — and written in a style meant to be read. Even though the publisher is Kent State University Press, Dawidziak tells me they wanted this book to be accessible, modern — not one of the ponderous doorstops of a biography of yesteryear, not bogged down in academic jargon. If you like their presentation in the video, that’s the way this book reads, too.

Finally, I must plug this biography purely as a physical item. Solid boards, Smythe-sewn signatures, great design. I was reading along, and I’d stop to admire the actual book — thinking, this is one nice-looking book. Finally, after years of neglect, Jim Tully gets some of his due.

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