Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Alvin and Hollywood--what stuck!


My New Years Resolution is to be more consistent with blogs and make them shorter while ranging widely over Josephy material and Josephy interests. I want to do this without being “gee whiz, look what Alvin wrote/did/said/ this time!” But to soberly address narrative history, Western history, Indian history, environmental history—Alvin’s things and the things Alvin leads us to.

But this week his cousin sent me most of a manuscript dated 1952 for a proposed television program about the first man to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and I got an email from a grad student researching a WW II Marine named Peter Ortiz. Turns out there was a movie—“Operation Secret”—and, you got it; Alvin wrote the screen story….

Alvin came home from Iwo Jima to “sell the war.” The public was distressed that we’d lost 7,000 Marines taking a small bunch of rocks in the Pacific. Alvin, Indian flag raiser Ira Hayes, and a few others traveled the country explaining the lives saved, those of airmen flying to Japan on bombing sorties who now had a safe landing strip and fueling station to ease their work. Alvin and company fully expected to be back in the Pacific and part of the invasion of Japan when the Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the course of the war.

So he stayed home, wrote his first book, The Long and the Short and the Tall, a non-fiction account of Marines in battle, abandoned a novel, and went back to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting again (he had spent time there as a “junior screenwriter” in the 30s). Although he picked up a few film credits, there were no major successes, and veterans’ organizations and a gambling scam he uncovered while writing on the side for a Santa Monica weekly were more rewarding. Hollywood was skewed to the entertainment side and he wanted real stuff—he’d just been through a real war.

Time Magazine made a better offer in 1951, and the movie chapter of his life—and Betty’s; she was his biggest Hollywood find—came to an end. In the bibliography he prepared in 2001, Hollywood and the years 1945-51 get this:

"Red Clay,” “Something for the Birds,” Captive City,” part of “Beginning or the End,” and other movie treatments for MGM, Warner Brothers, United Artists.”

I don’t think “Red Clay” was produced—and think it was a disappointment for Alvin. “Something for the Birds” was California Condors and the oil companies. “Captive City” was based on the true story of Alvin and Betty dodging the mob after his gambling disclosures, and “Beginning or the End,” for which I can find no Josephy credit, was the story of General Groves and the Atom bomb. I am somewhat curious at the omission of “Operation Secret,” because this story of an American who spoke 10 languages, fought with the French Foreign Legion, the US Marines, and as a behind the lines OSS operative in France, was a Josephy natural.

“The First Man To Walk Across Brooklyn Bridge”—a TV treatment never produced—is a slower story, but it too grabs a big piece of history—the bridge when completed in 1883 was “hailed as the greatest wonder of the western hemisphere.” Alvin weaves a family story and New York ward politics into the piece—who knows why it didn’t get produced, or how many other treatments he tried out on Hollywood.

What I do know, and have said before, is that when Alvin discovered the Nez Perce Story—the deep history, broken treaties and dramatic War, the miracle of survival and confidence in the long future—he found his true subject matter and life work, the American Indian. His time as a Marine Corps journalist in the heat and heart of war, and the frustrating years at the edge in Hollywood—the dramas chased and the ones Hollywood left behind—honed and shaped the historian and activist he would become.

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Google the movies above for a trip through the mid-twentieth century American drama.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Alvin and Grace: Nez Perce and settlers in the Wallowa Country

Grace Bartlett left Reed College in 1932 to marry a Wallowa Country rancher. She worked on the ranch, raised children, and apprenticed with Harley Horner, the unofficial county historian at the time. With Horner and on her own, she wrote for the Oregon Historical Quarterly, the Wallowa County Chieftain, the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, and once, on the sockeye salmon, for Sunset Magazine.

When Alvin’s big Nez Perce book came out, Grace quibbled with his descriptions of early people and events in the Wallowas. Alvin told her to “write it,” and she did. In the wonderful and, I am beginning to believe, unique, The Wallowa Country 1867-1877, published in 1976, 11 years after The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, Grace detailed the 10-year transition of the Wallowa Country from Indian to white occupation.

We learn about the early “open” winter (much like this one) when the whites first brought stock into the valley. They didn’t feed all fall and early winter and the news went to Union County newspapers and then to the Oregonian and the rest of the West that the Wallowas was a “Stockman’s paradise.” It was the first of many misunderstandings.

The settlers soon did learn from the Indians to move cattle to lower canyon ground in winter months. The Indians were not in the upper valleys in winter months—or even spring months. They generally arrived in August and hunted, fished, and gathered foods through the fall. There were meeting places—the forks of the rivers above present day Wallowa, where Old Joseph was originally buried; Indian Town on Chesnimnus Creek, and Wallowa Lake for the sockeye salmon harvest. They kept their own herds of horses and cows in the canyons, and moved there themselves after their summer-fall upper valley sojourns.

In general, Indians and settlers got along with each other. There were a few “Indian haters” among the settlers, and, according to Grace, they were known by their neighbors and not much appreciated. There was also a rabble rousing newspaper in Union County. But most of the settlers—even as war loomed with a conflict over horses and a white man killing an Indian, with subsequent “councils” of Indians and whites, movements of soldiers from Walla Walla, and meetings of Indians, generals, and Indian agents in Lapwai—were busy planting and harvesting crops, dealing with their livestock, arranging schooling for children, and going to the Walla Walla Valley to work for cash during the earlier harvest time there.

There were attempts to reconcile the treaty of 1855, which left the Wallowa Country to the Indians, and which the Joseph or Wallowa band Nez Perce had signed, with the 1863 treaty, which took away the Wallowas, and which they and several other bands had not signed. These attempts involved Washington D.C. and the Indian agency in Lapwai.

Without going into details, a division of the valley was envisioned, but Lapwai Indian agent Montieth, Washington authorities and the settlers could not seem to pull it off, because they could not get the “roaming Nez Perce,” as they called them, to agree to settle down. In other words, if Joseph and his people had just agreed to “become white” in their culture and
agriculture, they might not have been expelled from the Wallowa Country.

Alvin said many times that from the beginning of the European adventure in the Americas, we killed Indians with war and disease, but, more importantly, we overwhelmed them with Euro-centered culture. Often, it was the best intentioned who tried to assimilate them, and kill what he called “Indianness.”

Grace Bartlett’s book, written with Alvin’s strong encouragement, gives a blow by blow account of the way that played out in the Wallowa Country.