Rediscovered: Tully and Hammett and Chaney (Oh My!)

Finally got back from PulpFest, finished shaking the flakes of rotting wood-pulp dust off my traveling gear, and guess it’s time to jump back into the blogosphere. To reboot the action, how about some comments from Mark Dawidziak, the Jim Tully biographer, on the recent review of that book and the post about the biography of Tully that Charles Willeford wanted to write?

(Plus we get a swell snap of Mark doing his Hammett impersonation, and he looks a lot more like Hammett than most people I know.)

Here’s Mark:

Many thanks for the many kind words about the Tully biography. They were greatly appreciated, particularly coming from someone so familiar with this territory.

I also enjoyed the follow-up piece about Willeford. I suspect you’re absolutely right about the type of book he would have written on Tully. Without doubt, it would have been fascinating to get a book-length Willeford take on Tully. But that fascination would have been overshadowed by regret if the price of that full-scale biography included unwritten Willeford novels.

I, too, yearned for proof of a Hammett-Tully encounter. Nothing has yet surfaced. The best we could find was a late-’30s solicitation letter signed by Hammett, asking for a donation. The signature looked like those you see of Hammett’s, but, in all ways, this had the feel of a form letter. Tully, not being active in political groups, would seem to have moved in other Hollywood and Manhattan circles.

I also was looking for an encounter with another Irish-American author, Eugene O’Neill. That apparently never happened, although Tully expressed interest in having a sit-down with O’Neill (and it could have been arranged by their strong mutual friend, George Jean Nathan). Physically, they would have been the Mutt and Jeff of Irish-American literature: tall, lean O’Neill, short, squat Tully.

The London story (the one about Tully saying he was turned away from the ranch) sounds apocryphal, if only because the timing seems all wrong. London died in 1916, well before Tully had started writing for Mencken or The American Mercury (which Nathan and Mencken got rolling in 1924). Not that Tully was above embellishing. A good deal of Shanty Irish is borrowed or, let us say, extrapolated. And not that he didn’t take some shots at London in the 1920s. But if someone complained about anything Tully wrote about London in the 1920s, clearly it wasn’t London.

Also on the wish list, I hoped we’d find a manuscript-length account of Tully friendship with Chaney. That, obviously, would have been some find. It’s difficult to chart how deep some friendships went with Tully. The Chaney friendship certainly seems to have been important to him. But while the mentions of Chaney are frequent, they don’t run all that deep.

The best Tully account we have of Chaney is the February 1928 Vanity Fair profile. There’s a nice Chaney passage in one of his 1939 “Tully-Grams” columns:

Lon Chaney, Sr., the son of a deaf and dumb Irish barber from Colorado, was a colorful figure now gone with the tide. He was a great enough personality to remain simple. Generally seen in the distortions of screen make-up, he was seldom recognized on the street.

Attired in a blue suit, soft shirt and cap, he would often wander about Los Angeles with me.

Tully told the story of introducing Chaney, thus attired, to a lawyer. When the lawyer asked his name, he said, Lon Chaney.

The lawyer shot back, “Well, my name’s J.P. Morgan.”


And back to me for an end note. Mark is correct that Jack London could not have objected to anything published in The American Mercury because of his death date, but in the book on Willeford I just let the story slide as Willeford told it. Without checking back issues of the Mercury, my guess would be that Tully indeed may have written such an article (he seemed to have had a little grudge going against Jack in the 20s) and that London’s widow Charmian would have been the one who wrote in to protest that no hobo had ever been turned away hungry from Beauty Ranch. But whether the story is completely apocryphal or is rooted in some sort of truth, Willeford thought that it was great that Tully would have just made something like that up to mess with people.

One road kid appreciating a gag by another road kid.

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