Becoming Raoul Walsh
Becoming Raoul Walsh
Abstract and Keywords
When Albert Edward Walsh was 18 years old, he left home for the adventures he so craved—the fantasies movies are made of. Yet the stories that the soon-to-be renamed “Raoul” Walsh would write and direct were already taking shape around him. Thomas Walsh married Elizabeth Brough in 1886 in a ceremony at St. Patrick's Cathedral. One year later, their first child, Albert Edward, was born. His brother, George, was born in 1889, and a sister, Alice, was born two years later. Walsh always recalled his childhood as being a magical time. But all his childhood fantasies, real or imagined, came crashing to a halt in 1902, when his mother, Elizabeth, only 42 years old, died of cancer. He got a job in 1907, which turned out to be for a traveling show of The Clansman. Most of the films Walsh made for the Pathé brothers were westerns. Frustrated with them and the company's operation, he knew there was a better way to meet the dream he had set out for himself. Little did he know that he was about to take a giant step toward it.
There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.
That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another ….
—Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
When Albert Edward Walsh was born on March 11, 1887, in New York City, the moving-picture business was little more than a flicker in the country’s collective consciousness. George Eastman would not produce or market celluloid film for another year, and the earliest known film on record, W. K. L. Dickson’s Fred Ott’s Sneeze, was still four years away. So was Thomas Edison’s move to file patents for the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope, neither of which would be displayed until the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. By the time the first nickelodeon opened in Pittsburgh in 1905, Walsh would be eighteen years old, having left home for the adventures he so craved—the fantasies movies are made of.
Yet the stories that the soon-to-be renamed “Raoul” Walsh would write and direct were already taking shape around him. In New York City, the Bowery that he later put on film was already a sprawling tenement full of lower-class concert halls, brothels, and flophouses, an area Walsh soon relished as a childhood hangout. The ships and schooners that he spent hours sniffing out as a kid and that billowed into huge proportions in his films Captain Horatio Hornblower and Blackbeard the Pirate already stirred his imagination—there they were, docked at New York’s Peck’s Slip, a romantic neck of the city that Walsh and his younger brother, George, loitered in regularly. Even the gangs on the Lower East Side were taking over Hell’s Kitchen and adjacent neighborhoods that Walsh later re-created on the “New York” streets of Warner Bros. for The Roaring Twenties, his Cagney-Bogart gangster picture.
(p.7) Out West, mythic heroes had already made a place for themselves somewhere in Walsh’s imagination. Just seven years before his birth, Wyatt Earp, whom Walsh later claimed to have met on a Hollywood back lot, had just joined his brothers at the OK Corral and gunned down the Clanton boys. Buffalo Bill Cody, whom Walsh said used to stop by his family’s brownstone when he was a kid to sample his father’s fine wines, had just set up his first traveling show in 1883. Sitting Bull had surrendered his rifle to General Alfred Terry, who five years earlier had directed the campaign that ended in the Lakota chief’s victory over General George Custer at Little Big Horn—a battle no one would reimagine as romantically as Walsh did when he later directed They Died with Their Boots On at Warner Bros. studios.
Fiction and myth followed Walsh so closely throughout his life that it almost seemed as if he’d forged himself from them. If he was not creating a story for the big screen, he was creating one for his own life—a way to explain himself to himself and to others so as to weave his life inexplicably into legend. The line between what was fiction and what was fact would always be blurred in his imagination; he would be the last one to find a distinction between them. Speaking to reporters and to his myriad of film-buff followers, Walsh loved to tell a good story; no one ever knew whether it was truth or embellishment. Although it was well-known that he was raised in New York City, Walsh thought nothing of changing that story for dramatic effect. Sometimes he was born in Montana, at other times in Texas. Even better than the “stretchers” that escaped the lips of Huck Finn—in a novel published, serendipitously, just two years before Walsh’s birth—Walsh’s stories could be taller and wider. No one loved a stretcher more than he did.
“I’m not a Mortimer,” Cary Grant yelps to a cabbie at the end of Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace, “I’m the son of a sea captain!” “I’m not a cab driver,” the cabbie yelps back, “I’m a coffeepot!” Walsh could have easily joined the choir, himself yelping, “I’m not just the son of a man named Thomas Walsh of New York City; I’m a fiction of my own making, and I’ve slipped off the page, off the screen, and into the public eye.” This might be the defining quip about Raoul Walsh’s life; the stories constantly changed, the identity tipped slightly to the left or to the right. One layer of self slipped away in the telling to reveal a new one. These are very much like his fictions that hit the movie screen: one (p.8) character is a gangster, another a cowboy, a third a Navajo Indian. They are in his blood; they coalesce into the narratives that Walsh unleashed during his years in Hollywood and that he gathered for his well-received autobiography, Each Man in His Time, published in 1974, when Walsh was eighty-seven years old. The stories amaze. Did Walsh’s father really get wind that Samuel Clemens was on his deathbed and take his young son to meet the dying author? Is it fact that, later on, when Walsh was a well-respected Hollywood director, the gangster Bugsy Siegel asked him to take a suitcase full of money to his friend William Randolph Hearst, to bribe the publisher to stop trying to scotch Siegel’s plan to open a dog-racing park in Culver City? Did Walsh truly look Siegel in the face, say, “Nothing doing,” and walk out the door without even looking back? For Walsh, all these things happened the minute he voiced them.
Lost in History
The truth is that fiction may always be on Walsh’s side when it comes to knowing the details of his early life. Walsh will always have the last word on the way the story plays out simply because very little of what he concocted in interviews and in his autobiography can be proved or disproved. There is scarce historical record to shed light on his ancestors before they landed in the United States or to allow us to know how many arrived and created new lives once they came to the United States. Walsh’s version of his ancestors’ arrival, told in his autobiography, will always reside in the fortunate province of myth—that imaginary narrative that takes over when historical fact recedes or becomes lost. The landscape of his past lay wide open and waiting for him to walk into and fill with his own stories by the horse load.
“In the late 1870s,” Walsh wrote in his autobiography, “Thomas Walsh, my father, emigrated with three brothers from their native Ireland, bound for America by way of Spain. The roundabout route was necessary because the four, in company with my grandfather, had staged a breakout from a Dublin jail, where the British had sent the senior Walsh for subversive activities; a Spanish ship was the only available means for their reluctant flight from the old sod. As my uncle Matthew told it, Grandfather was the rebel and his sons, using a stolen laundry van, contrived to release the old man from jail after shooting it out with the (p.9) guards. He was wounded during the escape and died at sea before the ship reached Spain …. According to Uncle Matthew, the ship’s Spanish captain, Don Raul Almendariz, took a liking to my father, and my first name (somehow or other with an added ‘o’) was one of the results of this remembered friendship.”1
This narrative, sounding not unlike one of Walsh’s 1950s sea pictures, is easy to like and difficult to dispute, even if Walsh’s first wife, the D. W. Griffith ingénue Miriam Cooper, refuted one part of it: the way Walsh picked up the name Raoul. According to Cooper, while Walsh was working as an actor on the New York stage during his early twenties, his friend Paul Armstrong thought the name Albert could be improved on. The two men came up with Raoul, thinking it sounded more romantic.2 The truth is slippery.
A few facts about Walsh’s ancestors are known. His paternal grandfather, George Walsh, was born in County Waterford, Ireland, probably in the 1820s. The family soon moved to Sheffield, England, where George grew up, meeting and marrying Walsh’s grandmother, Elizabeth Short-land, around the year 1850. George became a journeyman blacksmith (as written on his son’s birth certificate)—or, according to family legend, a master tailor for the British army. In his autobiography, Raoul Walsh claims that there were four sons born to his grandfather. But Walsh’s brother, George, later said that there were, in fact, three.3 Walsh’s father, Thomas, was born in Sheffield in 1856. In a 1900 New York City census, he indicated that he arrived in the United States in 1870; he would have been fourteen years old.
Raoul Walsh’s Irish ancestry seems just as likely linked to his mother, Elizabeth Brough, as to his father. That same 1900 census indicates that Elizabeth’s parents were both born in Ireland, although their whereabouts is untraceable after that. Walsh’s story that Elizabeth’s family arrived in the United States well before the American Revolution seems untrue. The story he gives of her grandmother being a staunch member of the Daughters of the American Revolution also seems unlikely. Yet it is fact that Elizabeth’s father’s surname was Brough. An 1870 New York census has thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Brough and her ten-year-old sister, Briedget, living in New York City with an Anne and James Scanlon, both approximately ten years older than Elizabeth. Most likely they were family members since George Walsh, Raoul’s brother, often (p.10) used the last name Scanlon when he first followed his older brother into the movie business. It may also be true, as her sons later claimed, that, when she was a young girl in New York City, Elizabeth was considered by many men to be the belle of the ball.
When Walsh’s father, Thomas, arrived in New York, he found work in a men’s clothing store. Not long after that he found employment at the prestigious firm of Brooks Bros., where he carved out a successful career. Family hearsay has it that Thomas was a driving force in the design department of Brooks Bros. and almost single-handedly put the company on the map in the years he worked there, helping design military uniforms for famous clients such as General George Custer and, much later on, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
Thomas married Elizabeth Brough in 1886 in a ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. One year later their first child, Albert Edward, was born. His brother, George, was born in 1889, and a sister, Alice, was born two years later.
It Was an Enchanted Childhood
Walsh always recalled his childhood as being a magical time. “All of us adored our mother,” he wrote in his autobiography, “though we stood in awe of Father’s muscular six foot two frame.”4 He looked back at his parents through a romantic gaze, bathed in nostalgia. In fact, the children had lived an enchanted childhood, even as Walsh recalled (with great affection) the way Thomas and Elizabeth handled his unfortunate years as a student. First, he and George were deposited in the rough New York City public school system; then Walsh lived through a short stint at Seton Hall Preparatory School in New Jersey. His stay at Seton Hall was brief as he was soon expelled. This suited Walsh fine as he had little interest in any kind of classroom education. George, on the other hand, was blessed with a voracious appetite for knowledge and soaked up as many books as he could. Walsh was always more rough-and-tumble and daring than George. In complete contrast, George attended Fordham University in the Bronx and, later on, Georgetown University, intending to become an attorney. He also developed into a world-class athlete and later made a stab at entering the Olympics. He was disqualified, however, after accepting money for sports exhibitions. “This was either (p.11) ignorance or shortsightedness on his part,” his son, George Jr., later said, “and it was a shame, because the only man who ever outran him was Jim Thorpe—and it was just by a couple of inches.”5 Mythmaking ran in the family.
When the children were still quite young, Thomas went into partnership with Carl Lange, a German Jew, and the firm of Walsh and Lange was born, giving young Walsh a worldview that the Jews and the Irish were clearly in synch, simpatico. Later, when he worked for Warner, Walsh always banked on the combination of Warner’s Jewishness and his own Irish roots to be the glue that held them together through a thirty-year friendship and successful business relationship. Whenever Walsh wanted to borrow money or get an advance from the studio, he wrote Warner a memo peppered with misspelled Yiddish phrases that he hoped would show his boss his warm affection for him. “The Jews and the Irish carry the troubles of the world on their backs,” he told Warner repeatedly.
Walsh and Lange opened its wholesale garment business at 596 Broadway in New York and became successful with little trouble. Following the example of his brother, Matthew, who, as Walsh claimed, ended up in South Dakota defending the rights of the Sioux Indians, Thomas became an impassioned supporter of the tribe after a visit to the state, and at one point Walsh and Lange were supplying the Sioux with the warm clothing he thought they desperately needed and that the U.S. government shamefully failed to supply. Thomas’s philanthropic vein marched on, and later, when Walsh was still a young boy, Thomas and Lange became active in aiding Jewish families wishing to leave Canada for the United States. The firm would finance their passage and help them settle and find employment. As gratitude for this kindness, the Jewish community gave Thomas a gold medal with the Star of David engraved on it.6
Walsh recalled that, when he turned eleven, the war with Spain broke out, and Walsh and Lange, “already busy with their long list of customers, received a windfall in the guise of a government contract to make uniforms for the U.S. Army.” Later, Walsh also recalled, “It was Father who designed the outfits for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, cocked hat and all.” This fact is true, as Walsh’s nephew later corroborated, although Walsh did give the story a Hollywood western sheen by (p.12) injecting, “A lot of his uniforms went up San Juan Hill and some of them stayed there.”7 Walsh wrote that Roosevelt himself pulled some important strings to make certain his Rough Riders were outfitted with khaki uniforms designed exclusively for them by Brooks Brothers (Walsh no doubt confused the time Thomas worked for the firm and the time he opened his own).
Dinner parties were likely a frequent event in the Walsh household, even if Walsh’s eighty-four-year-old imagination embellished them somewhat for his autobiography. Guests included Edwin Booth (the brother of John Wilkes Booth), John L. Sullivan, and the Barrymore clan (the only documented guests), who lived across the street. When Walsh was a teenager, the family moved to larger quarters on Riverside Drive, a very posh part of the city (the address was actually 141 W. Ninety-Fifth St.). Walsh remembered a guest list that grew in his imagination: “I remember ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody stopping by to sample the champagne of which he had become a connoisseur during his stay in England.” He also recalled a great singer: “I was not sure what line of work Enrico Caruso was in until he threw back his head and hit high C to my sister Elizabeth’s accompaniment. Fresh from her first piano recital at Carnegie Hall, Liz had the grace to blush when the great tenor dropped to his knees in the middle of our parlor carpet and crossed himself while humbly thanking God for giving him a voice.”8 No sister named Elizabeth ever existed, of course. She was born only in the pages of Walsh’s autobiography—no family member ever recalled her.
As Walsh grew older, the parties and the guests arrived more often—at least in Walsh’s mind. “‘Diamond Jim’ Brady brought Lillian Russell and I fell madly in love.” The list of guests grew to embrace Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and President McKinley. Walsh fantasized that Roosevelt talked politics with Thomas Walsh and felt much better about the world when he left their house. As Walsh also says, no doubt unaware of the irony, memory, like luck, can be a fickle jade.9
Walsh spent his days wandering around New York City with boundless energy, visiting his favorite haunt, Peck Slip, where he would watch steam tugs berth the clippers and square-riggers. He dreamed that he was in the China Sea repelling pirates. There were many other experiences that stayed with him. Wandering around the Bowery provided (p.13) him with memories that would influence his expression of the area’s atmosphere and flavor when he later directed, for one, The Bowery for Twentieth Century Pictures in 1933.
Walsh and his younger brother were handsome young men, Walsh the more slender of the two, just under six feet, with wavy, almost curly brown hair, and George, more solidly built, just slightly taller, with a heavier face and dark brown hair that looked almost black. Both were athletic and more than willing to take advantage of any sporting activity their father taught them. Thomas Walsh had a great love of horses and often raced Thoroughbreds, and he took Walsh to the tracks and to horse auctions. He told his son that there was only one good horse in every three hundred. The equestrian life was easily had, given the family’s wealth and upper-middle-class lifestyle in New York City. Both boys were born riders.
Walsh obviously listened to his father about horses—and looked for that one good horse, triggering a family story passed down for decades. By the time he was ten years old, so the story goes, Walsh had saved enough money to buy an old horse along with a Mexican saddle and bridle. His parents thought he was crazy. One morning he saddled up, took the ferry across the Hudson, and took off. But he got only as far as Virginia when the horse went lame. Walsh sold the animal and returned home. This adventure was never substantiated but, nonetheless, still lives in the imagination of Walsh’s family.10
But all Raoul Walsh’s childhood fantasies, real or imagined, came crashing to a halt in 1902, when he was fifteen years old, and his mother, Elizabeth, only forty-two years old, died of cancer. “Life up to now had been reckless and exciting …. So I was quite unprepared for the sudden blow that left me motherless at fifteen …. We were all stunned, desolated by the slowly growing awareness of our loss.”11
Thomas Walsh’s reaction to his wife’s death was to appear as if his life changed little for him. But he froze Elizabeth in time to keep her with him permanently. He stayed in the family home for the rest of his life and kept his wife’s room exactly as she left it the day she died. Her silk dresses still hung in her closet, her shoes stayed on their racks, and her cut-glass perfume bottles and silver toilet articles remained on her (p.14) dresser until Thomas Walsh gave them to Miriam Cooper some years later. The maid cleaned and aired the room every week, but the rest of the time Thomas allowed no one to enter it but himself.
Elizabeth’s death left the young Raoul devastated. Years later he wrote, “The terrible thing was she had gone and I was only half a person.”12 It would make sense, then, that Walsh would create a sister named Elizabeth as a replacement for his mother. This is something a child would do as a way to hold on to a lost parent. He could have left home after his mother’s death, although this cannot be substantiated. But Elizabeth Walsh unwittingly left her son a legacy that would mold his personality and urge him toward becoming a storyteller in the century’s grandest public arena—the movies. The way to survive his loss, and the way to hold on to the mother he loved, the only way he knew how, was to replicate her being by becoming a storyteller himself. He would occupy the landscape of his mother’s soul by leaping into the greatest escape he could mount: stories of adventure and romance designed to be rendered as perfectly as she would have told them. He might then relive the moments he had with her and the Americana she gave him. Where Elizabeth ended, he began.
The Stuff that Dreams are Made of
“My family moved to Texas [around Del Rio, near the Mexican border] soon after I was born,” Walsh told the British journalist James Child in 1971. “Was brought up down there, went to several schools, and lasted a couple of weeks in each.” He added:
Then my family finally sent me up to that Jesuit school at Seton Hall.
Incidentally, that’s where I met Jack and Lionel Barrymore. When the three of us got together, we were out in a week …. I was soon back in Texas. Postgraduate course. So I never graduated from college. Christ! I never even graduated from grammar school. I stayed on the family ranch, grew up on a ranch. Worked part of the time in Montana, then I went back to Texas and got a job with the government breaking horses: “topping” horses. The government was out buying horses for (p.15) the cavalry and the ranchers were supposed to run in horses that were broken. Every now and then they’d send in a bronc to sell. When the colonel overseeing the operation saw a horse that looked a little like an outlaw, we’d top it. I got twenty-five cents for topping a horse.13
Walsh told a similar story to Kevin Brownlow a few years earlier, not long after talking about his childhood with other journalists as well. Miriam Cooper read one of these stories in the paper and responded in her autobiography, “He’d tell the wildest tales. He never bored you with the truth. Though we’d been divorced for forty-five angry years, I couldn’t help chuckling when I read an article on him in The Los Angeles Examiner early in 1972 … how he’d grown up on a ranch in Montana [sic] and tested broncos for the United States Cavalry. I’d never heard that one before. Oh, that Raoul!”14
The stories about a Texas or Montana childhood fall into the soup of Walsh’s grand gestures of fiction making—small oddities in the larger pot of stories Walsh concocted and circulated for years about different periods of his life. The story changes, or the family names change, but in the end the details come together to create a necessary fiction for Walsh. In fact, none of the stories that he told about the period from his mother’s death until he landed in Texas at the age of twenty can be documented or substantiated. They are partly truth, partly fiction—and they add up to a tale not unlike the heavily fictionalized truth telling about General George Custer that Walsh directed and partly concocted in 1942’s They Died with Their Boots On.
For example, Walsh claims in his autobiography that, after his mother’s death, his father gave his consent for him to sail with his uncle Matthew on the Enniskillen and that the two soon headed for Havana. There are numerous versions even of this story, however. He told Peter Bogdanovich in the early 1970s that he headed off without his “family’s” consent and wrote to them once he and Matthew reached their destination. Still other versions have fifteen-year-old Raoul running away from home, not to return for at least a decade, or even not at all.
These stories reached their zenith in the early 1970s when Walsh attended retrospectives and students and historians looked up at him, taking in his wild tales. Also at this time Walsh was writing his autobiography (p.16) and working on two novels. One would be published in France; the other he envisioned as a movie that he himself might direct. One is a love story, the other an adventure yarn. In his mind, there could hardly be a difference between either of these texts. Either could have become the other.
Walsh was looking back over his life, stirring up memories of his mother’s death, and reliving the adventures he either took or imagined. It is clear, then, that he thought again about his bereavement over his mother’s death. His escape from that grief was to run away and travel—throughout the United States (the landscape of the tales his mother told him) and even beyond, around the globe. Sooner or later, even in the pages of his autobiography and in the stories he gave to the press, Walsh would have to land. But every story he told, no matter how altered and retold, nonetheless contains a kernel of truth, if not more, and should be viewed as the truth. The stories had meaning for him, and by that token they are true—even if the characters and events are fiction.
His grief was a fact of his life and often shaped and determined the avenues Walsh took. That grief would follow him in some fashion not just on his adventures but even later as he created characters on the big screen. There would be no adventure Walsh would create on the screen where a character did not attempt a grand, dangerous escape, did not attempt to right a wrong from the past, or did not try to do it all for love of a woman (or a woman as his country). The past would be ominous, the future unclear.
Walsh penned many of the one and two reelers he directed under D. W. Griffith’s instruction at Biograph Studios in the early 1910s and throughout the 1920s at Fox Studios. But the story of his schooner ride to Havana, where he and Matthew were subsequently shipwrecked, which eventually was extended to travels in Mexico, the Southwest, and other U.S. environs, is, in a necessary and fundamental way, one of his earliest and finest fictions. All the fictional conceits he would eventually commit to film—from high seas adventures in Captain Horatio Horn-blower and The Sea Devils to espionage tales and Western yarns—are foreshadowed in the romantic narrative he concocts to extricate himself from his motherless childhood and the grief he thought he might leave behind him. If his adventure story were a psyche wrapped in a narrative, (p.17) Walsh would look like a kid imagining and cooking up the grandest tale he could possibly find.
On the Road
In Walsh’s predominant narrative of his teenage years, he and his uncle Matthew headed out on the Enniskillen and reached Havana in eight days. Walsh’s joy in being at sea was profound, and he could hardly take in enough of the sea air. But, while on a shipping lane between Havana and the coast of Mexico, horrific weather damaged the schooner. The ship’s repair took a long time, and, while on land waiting to sail, Walsh began to grow despondent and wondered why he did not ask his uncle to put him back on a ship bound for New York. But he remembered, “I had no home now that Mother was dead. My family were [sic] little more than grieving shadows among the memories she had left with us. No, I would go on.”15 These stabs of grief grew smaller and less frequent as Walsh grew into manhood, but they also took on a different guise, lodging themselves in the movies he would direct. Often, they took shape as one of his characters’ poignantly sad moments, say, the moment Roy Earle realizes he will never have Velma for his own or, just as poignant, the moment in Silver River when Plato (Thomas Mitchell) realizes that Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) set up Georgia’s (Ann Sheridan) husband and caused his death at the hands of the Indians. At this young age, however, those expressions lay far off in the future.
Walsh found great excitement in the days following the grand shipwreck. The Enniskillen was towed into San Juan de Ulua “hard up the Vera Cruz harbor.”16 It would be five months before the ship could be repaired. Walsh wrote in his autobiography that he had just turned seventeen when they pulled into Vera Cruz. Somehow he lost two years in his narrative. But, whatever his age at the time, he recalled that he could not fathom staying in one place that long a time. Luckily, he met a horse trader named Ramirez who changed the course of his life when he taught Walsh the art of rope twirling and horsemanship. Walsh practiced both nonstop and believed he had hit on his first passion.
An attentive student at last, Walsh quickly learned to jump inside his own loop of the rope and catch a running steer by either its front or its (p.18) back legs, this despite getting one good throw from a steer that left him dazed but resolved to continue. When Uncle Matthew decided to sail on to Galveston, Texas, once the Enniskillen was repaired, Walsh declined to accompany him and jumped at the chance to join a cattle drive to the Rio Grande. Though the experience was a good one and, if it truly did happen, gave him the psychological muscle to direct westerns later on, the drive also taught him the difference between the romantic notions of the West he had learned from reading westerns and the harshness of the drive itself: “I also found that, although I could fork a horse, throw a rope, roll a cigarette with one hand, and cuss with the best [these actions could easily describe Walsh on the set of all his movies; it is hard to know which came first, the actual experience or its recall after a lifetime behind the camera], I knew nothing about trail-driving. Knowledge came the hard way …. In addition to keeping the herd moving, there was scouting ahead to find water and graze, side trips into towns along the way to haggle over supplies …. Looking back on that drive, I still wonder why more cowmen did not lose their reason.” But, by the time he saw the Rio Grande, Walsh considered himself a seasoned cowhand who could hold his own with the best riders. He could “ride anything with hair on it.”17
Walsh stayed on for a while in South Texas, among other adventures getting mixed up with a Mexican woman who betrayed him early on in their romance; he found himself in this episode hightailing it out of town after being accused of cattle rustling. The year, said Walsh, was 1904, and South Texas was a tough place that had not moved out of the rough-and-tumble years of the Old West. He saw a man killed for the first time just before he joined up with another man named Hans Cotton (a liar, Walsh said, which bothered him very little) to help ship a couple of carloads of horses to Butte, Montana. Walsh found himself one of three men who had to handle, water, and feed sixty head of half-broken horses overland by train. Horse wrangling was not for him.
Though Walsh planned on heading back to South Texas after the gig, his fortunes changed once again when he hired on to break horses for a six-foot-five Kerry man named “Colonel” Sarsfield Scanlon who ran a livery stable and owned an undertaking parlor. Scanlon was an even bigger liar than his last boss, but Walsh did not realize it right away. Scanlon put him to work breaking horses and also put him in charge of (p.19) two Cree Indians and appointed him head gravedigger for his business. Money was scarce, and Scanlon “often cut the overhead still further by dressing the deceased in shirt and coat but no pants. The mourners, when there were any, never knew the difference.”18
After working for Scanlon for a while, Walsh shifted gears and became a driver and then the anesthetist—no training necessary—for the area’s new doctor, a Frenchman named René Echinelle (Walsh switches the story, sometimes saying the doctor had the same first name as he—Raoul—an interesting fact of storytelling that could suggest how close Walsh’s characters are to himself). He noted how interesting it was that, while the good doctor was performing surgery on his patients, ashes from his cigar often fell into the body on the table. Walsh seemed to have great affection for the doctor and felt sad when he died of lung disease not long after his tenure with him. Walsh then decided he had had enough of Butte and pulled out, heading back to San Antonio. Once there, he found a notice at the local post office issued by the U.S. Cavalry Remount Service that the federal government was looking for “thoroughly broken four- to six-year-old brown or bay geldings.” The government also needed “toppers,” experienced riders “to gentle any fractious ones.” Walsh found the U.S. government to be a generous employer and was satisfied with the job, until a mishap occurred one day in an area called Kerrville. Walsh got on top of a “bad buckskin” at one of the ranches, the horse reared backward, and Walsh fell off before he could get out of the saddle.19 By that time, the horse had rolled over him and broken his right leg. Walsh landed in a San Antonio hospital to mend. He found a room at a cheap motel for a few days, once again not knowing the turn his life was about to take.
It was 1907, and Walsh was about to turn twenty. Sitting on the porch of the Lone Star Hotel in San Antonio, his good leg displayed, his injured one hidden for no good reason except that it was the most comfortable way to sit, serendipity visited Walsh and changed the course of his life. A stranger happened to walk by and see the good-looking Walsh sitting, sporting a cowboy hat. “Do you want a job, cowboy?” the man yelled up to him, telling him to show up at the town’s theater that evening if he (p.20) was interested. He was, and later on he limped over to the theater. But he was using a cane and caught the man by surprise, who asked Walsh how in the world he was going to ride a horse with that bad leg. Walsh just asked where he could find the horse. When he found it, he climbed on a chair, then climbed on the horse. After that, he was asked to ride a treadmill. He did, and from here on out we see the true events in Raoul Walsh’s life unfolding, no matter how much he tried to embellish them.
Walsh got the job, which turned out to be for a traveling show of The Clansman, a popular play just adapted for the stage by Thomas Dixon from his novel that was published that same year. The book, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, was the second volume in Dixon’s Reconstruction trilogy, a piece of out-and-out racism that called for the maintenance of white supremacy in America. While this view of racial inequality was prevalent in America in the first decade of the twentieth century, it still managed to cause controversy, but not enough to dampen the popularity of the play, which toured the country in 1905.
The play’s racism and inherent message to northerners was plain and clear: racial segregation should be maintained because blacks turned savage when freed from slavery. The message seemed to have escaped Walsh during the time he performed in The Clansman (and, later, during his involvement with D. W. Griffith’s adaptation of part of Dixon’s original novel for The Birth of a Nation). It never occurred to him to question any of Dixon’s belief system; at the time, that system was firmly entrenched in the nation’s popular consciousness.
Walsh learned that he had been hired because, ironically, the cowboy originally scheduled to perform busted a leg (or broke his neck) and could not go on. Walsh was handed a Ku Klux Klan outfit and, after getting on his horse, was also handed a cross on fire. Stagehands pulled him and the horse across the stage while the audience whistled and cheered. That was when he got the stage bug, he said years later. He stayed with the show until it reached St. Louis.
The play’s leading man, Franklin Ritchie, tried to find more for Walsh to do in the play and told him to study everyone’s part so that he could go on at a moment’s notice should anything happen to one of the actors. No one became ill, however, and Walsh never got his chance. But a fellow character actor took notice of him: Walsh sincerely enjoyed acting. (p.21) The friend was about to head off to New York to try to find an agent and asked Walsh to join him. The two men went back East, and Walsh made the rounds, signing with at least five agencies. He considered himself an actor now and managed to get one job in a show with the director Al Parker. He went off to Chicago with the show, even though it lasted only a brief time, and then he was back in New York looking for work.
The young Walsh was especially happy to see his family again as he took up residence in the big house on Riverside Drive. “I proudly told [Father] that I was an actor and played the part of the leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and that I rode a horse across the stage, carrying a fiery cross,” Walsh wrote later in his autobiography. “My father said, ‘You should not feel proud of portraying the part of an infamous bigot, whose organization is anti-Catholic, anti-Jew, and anti-Negro. But as sure as there is a God above us, these hatemongers will one day fade away like leaves falling from trees in autumn.’“20 The statement serves Walsh the writer in multiple ways in the autobiography—as a comment made to heroicize his father in his nostalgic look back at him; possibly a statement to let himself off the hook for what in old age he may have perceived as a slip in conscience. It could also have been a nod to his readers to acknowledge a sensitive subject at the time his autobiography was published, 1974. He could firm up a fact that he believed of himself: he had been a lifelong defender of Native Americans in this country. Whatever meaning it has, the memory (created in the moment of writing or not) carried great import for Walsh.
Now calling himself Raoul, Walsh slept in his childhood bed and came to terms with more memories of his mother. He sought solace in the world and got on with the business of finding acting work. He truly believed at this juncture in his life that being on stage was his destiny, and he put all his energies into pushing the dream forward. In his view, fate intervened at this very moment. One day, he entered the office of the agent Bill Gregory. Though Gregory was out at the time, his secretary took notice of Walsh and asked whether he would mind acting in the movies—something most actors she encountered refused to do, considering it more demeaning work. But Walsh said no he wouldn’t, and she sent him across the river on the ferry to Union City, New Jersey, to meet two brothers by the name of Pathé. They could speak only bad English but through an interpreter embarked on the rocky road of communicating (p.22) with Walsh. They asked him whether he could ride a horse, he said yes, and just like that he was a movie actor—at least in his eyes.
The Pathé Frères (Bros.) company was founded in France in 1896 by the four Pathé brothers—Charles, Emile, Theophile, and Jacques—as an adjunct to Charles’s Paris gramophone shop and factory. They first began to make film equipment and then branched out into making films, exporting them to New York, where they were shown in the Vitascope Theater. By 1904, when the Pathé Company opened in New York, it owned a catalog of twelve thousand titles, and between 1905 and 1908 it accounted for about one-third of the films distributed in the United States.
Walsh said he began working for Charles and Emile Pathé late in 1909 and stayed with them until early 1910. But, in the narrative of his days with Pathé, he may have mixed them up with the Melies brothers, both of whom were in America, while only one of the Pathé brothers, Charles, was actually in the United States during the time of Walsh’s account. As Kevin Brownlow has reported, James Young Deer, a Native American, was the person in charge of Pathé’s West Coast studio and directed many of the company’s films.21 The beginning was inauspicious, as the brothers were interested in Walsh mainly because he could ride a horse. When he showed up for work the first day, he was taken to the livery stable up the street from the “studio” where he saw ten horses or so that he immediately termed “jugheads” because of their heavy heads. Not thrilled—but determined to be an actor—Walsh picked one of the jugheads, climbed aboard, and galloped down the street, did a stop, got off, and did a flying mount back onto the horse again. The next thing he knew he had signed a six-month contract for three pictures with the brothers playing heavies and romantic leads with a few historical figures such as Paul Revere thrown into the pot.
Walsh always said that his first picture for Pathé was called The Banker’s Daughter, a film in which he was featured with the exburlesque queen Dolly Larkin and whose plot involved bank robbery and mistaken identity. He actually played in that film after he left Pathé for Reliance and briefly became an actor under Griffith’s Biograph banner. Still, he could tell a good yarn about his months working for the Frenchmen. “‘You kees the girl—kees the girl, grab, kees, kees, kees,’ (p.23) they would yell. They’d be yelling at you all the time. ‘Give another kees.’ I’m running out of kisses, you bastard.” The Frenchmen would talk over the director. “One time a girl was in love with me and I was dying and the camera was in close—she was kneeling down and this roughneck bastard director was yelling: ‘Cry, cry, cry, you son of a bitch, cry, will ya?’ And I was lying on the ground dying. It was a helluva place.”22
Walsh said his second film for Pathé was a sentimental story called A Mother’s Love, even though a record of the film does not exist. Faul Revere’s Ride, which Walsh said was his third and last film for Pathé, put him on a horse again. But the French director, Emile Couteau, who had directed a couple of his Pathé pictures, called for trolley tracks to be included in the Paul Revere story, at which point Walsh reminded him that there were no such things in 1775. When Couteau confronted him, reminding him who the director was on the movie, Walsh thought seriously that maybe it was time he became a director himself.23
Walsh still lived at the big family home on Ninety-fifth Street and Riverside Drive, only now the household was shy one more female when Walsh’s nineteen-year-old sister, Alice, secretly wed the billiard champ Willie Hoppe, who was two years her senior, on December 15, 1910. The couple had met three years earlier when Alice went for a swim in the beach at Atlantic City and nearly drowned. Hoppe was swimming nearby and fished her out of the water, saving her life. He courted Alice for three years, most of the time behind Thomas Walsh’s back. When he could no longer wait to get married, he phoned her from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and told her to meet him at the corner of Forty-second Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Alice, whom the newspapers called one of the wealthiest and most beautiful girls in New York City, did what Hoppe asked, and the two were married at a nearby church that day. On learning of his daughter’s elopement, Thomas admitted that he was dumbfounded and furious, but he put on a good show for reporters (starting a Walsh family tradition). He told them that he was certain the family could work things out, and he welcomed the couple into his home. Too busy working, Walsh never attended the ceremony.
Most of the films Walsh made for the Pathé brothers were westerns. “But there were others.” Walsh played bank robbers, prizefighters, and ne’er-do-wells. But Walsh became disenchanted with this form of operation. (p.24) It seemed unrealistic and redundant in the worst way. There was hardly an adventure here. Frustrated with Pathé and its operation, he knew there was a better way to meet the dream he had set out for himself. Little did he know that he was about to take a giant step toward it.
(1.) Walsh, Each Man in His Time, 3–4.
(2.) Miriam Cooper, Dark Lady of the Silents: My Life in Early Hollywood (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), 116.
(3.) George Walsh to Kevin Brownlow, April 20, 1972, courtesy Kevin Brownlow.
(4.) Walsh, Each Man in His Time, 5.
(5.) George Walsh Jr., personal communication with author, June 2009.
(6.) Walsh’s third wife, Mary, held on to the medal for many years, passing it on to a good friend in 2007.
(7.) Walsh, Each Man in His Time, 10.
(10.) George Walsh Jr., personal communication with author, June 2009.
(11.) Walsh, Each Man in His Time, 17.
(13.) Raoul Walsh, interview by James Child, Sight and Sound, Winter 1972–1973.
(14.) Cooper, Dark Lady of the Silents, 114.
(15.) Walsh, Each Man in His Time, 25.
(21.) Information sent to author by Kevin Brownlow, who also suggests that the Pathé westerns may not have been as “god awful” as Walsh reported they were. Brownlow further suggests that Georges and Gaston Melies may have been the models for Walsh’s story here, as they had a studio, the Star Film (p.448) Ranch, in Texas, where they made westerns. Whether Walsh ever met the Melies brothers is unknown.
(22.) Raoul Walsh, interview by Peter Bogdanovich, in Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It? Conversations with Legendary Film Directors (New York: Ballantine, 1997), 147.
(23.) Walsh, Each Man in His Time, 67.