Long before, I had made two interesting connections in the persons of Stephen Longstreet of Beverley Hills and Robert Olney Easton of Santa Barbara, both of them accomplished writers with personal histories and memories that were, for want of a better term, unique. One takes a chance when one writes to accomplished scribes. One should not guess at why they do not reply, but if and when they do, as I have found, one feels honoured at the courtesy and the opportunity to share the friendship of a someone who has made his or her mark on literature and society. Receiving invitations to visit, I looked forward to the meetings with some trepidation but more than enough eagerness.
Stephen Longstreet had invited me to "drop in on our mountain top and taste the martinis and watch the deer eating our lemon trees and roses". When I met him at his comfortable home, Longstreet (1907-2002), born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, was on the telephone, heavily-involved in the recovery of Mayan artifacts from the Yucatan. Martinis and deer were not on his immediate agenda, however, but he took a few hours off to break bread and chat about his life and passions. He was, like me, captivated by jazz, and in his busy career chummed with Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. It is likely that at some point he also knew Henry and June Miller, Anais Nin, John Dos Passos or our own Morley Callaghan, but theirs and Callaghan's names somehow never came up.
He also made the acquaintance, in Paris, of an American, W. W. Windstaff (an alias), an adventurous Royal Flying Corps officer. Windstaff (whose name I thought Longstreet might reveal but did not) was one of those Yanks from wealthy or prominent families, who deplored Woodrow Wilson's studied intransigence and could not wait to get into the War and whip the Hun. Until his death in a car accident he was forever unable to conquer his alcoholism and go straight. As the sometime kept man of an older woman, Windstaff later bounced between London, Paris, Rome and New York but would not live to see his MS in print, the editor having dropped dead while shovelling snow. It was decades later that Longstreet would edit and publish it as Lower than Angels. Elliot Paul, hailed for his loving memoir The Last Time I Saw Paris, who had marvelous memories of that city and the Balearic Islands, and was well-known in Left Bank circles, called the book "the best version yet done on an American in WW1 and the 1920s".
Longstreet trained as an artist in Paris, knew and/or sketched Stein and Joyce and Hemingway, and he wrote of them later in New Orleans where his passion for jazz led him to record the images and memories of various black jazzmen. Later, he carpooled with William Faulkner in California, where he wrote screenplays for Ronald Reagan and Humphrey Bogart, as well as for The Greatest Show on Earth. In Stallion Road, Longstreet played a veterinary surgeon after Bogart dropped out and was replaced by Zachary Scott. Longstreet despised Reagan for his lack of integrity and when I suggested he do an in-depth autobiography, he reacted with the thought that his revelations would bring a lot of notoriety to a large number of Hollywood icons. It was something he could not do.
He wrote to me in November 1985, "As for Cornel Wilde – I got him the part in Greatest Show. We shot it first with a French actor – but in the dalies (sic) we couldn’t understand a word he said – and I told C. B. [DeMille] to test Wilde – and he got the part. C.B. called him “yellow” for not risking his neck on the high wire – like Betty Hutton did. He was too smart to fall for C.B.’s sadistic streak. [Longstreet had intimated when we met that DeMille would have made millions if Wilde had fallen to his death during the filming]. I haven’t seen Wilde for years. He is one of those great actors, good looks, who somehow never make it as great stars. It is something the camera does. Take a second-rate actor like Reagan -- a lump -- yet he faces a camera and a nation of yahoos kiss his a-- and cheers."
Longstreet's wife Ethel, a university professor and mother of his two children and whom he married in 1935, was herself a member of the Communist Party when it appeared the only hope for the world's downtrodden millions. After McCarthy and the second “Red Scare” and the onslaught of the Extreme Right, there remained dozens of his close friends who might be hurt as a result of his revelations. Longstreet had written me, "Having been around for some time I have known most of the con men, glory-seekers, and freaks from the 1920s on. They are the salt and pepper of life, and often [have] a touch of TNT loaded in their secret parts. I live by the idea of Kafka - in your battle with the world - bet on the world. Cordially, Stephen."
Longstreet was one of the two people I have ever met who knew Ernest Hemingway. Despite the adulation given to "Papa" by millions and for decades, Longstreet was not impressed. After a brief put-down of ex-hobo tough-guy Hollywood PR man and writer Jim Tully, whom author Irving Stone had noted in a letter to me that he admired and with whom he had shared family picnics, Longstreet added that "...Hemingway was another facade I knew - a touch of early genius - and a slob in the end. Under each macho I've found a trace of lavender". Carlos Baker's mammoth Hemingway biography is likely the best warts-and-all study of Hemingway. Whatever Longstreet's impressions, I had a wonderful time in his presence, and I regret that I did not see him again before his death.
I left Longstreet's late in the afternoon, hoping to reach Bob Easton's Santa Barbara home on the rocky coast before the sun went down, but I was disappointed. The Pacific was swathed in fog and night but there is a wild, romantic feeling in just experiencing it, as I did from a car slipping along the main highway. It was almost nine when I reached his home but he was cheerful and most gracious in his welcome. I had made several errors in my route, turning at the wrong mission, and getting lost in a series of roads leading into the coastal Sierras, but a phone call to him from one of his neighbours' homes got me on track. Shortly after my arrival, sensing that I was both tired and hungry, Bob fetched Triscuits, a brick of Monterrey Jack and a bottle of imported dry sack and we had a delicious feed. This while we toasted our ladies and his father-in-law and got up to speed on our main item of conversation, the same man, the incredible Max Brand.
More correctly, Brand was born Frederick Schiller Faust and nicknamed "Heinie" owing to his German roots. Faust had joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in the First World War, and, bored at the time it was taking to get into the fight, deserted his unit after only a few months. He bummed his way across New England to New York City, failed to pass the medical for the British Army, but finally worked his way into the U.S. Army Engineers. Even then, he had a marvelous talent for words and later became a prolific writer.
Indeed, his Destry (portrayed on the Silver Screen by Tom Mix, James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich and finally Audie Murphy, the latter of whom was the most decorated US soldier of World War II) stories made him wealthy. Doctor Kildare, which greatly multiplied his wealth and popularity, supplanted Destry as the basis for thousands of medical/hospital stories and series, but he is rarely credited with the idea which has reaped millions in profits for those who do not even know his name. A prolific pulp-writer under a dozen aliases, he owned a marvelous 22-room villa near Florence, close to such neighbours as Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence and he and his wife Dorothy (nee Schillig) raised four daughters in great luxury. That was until World War II, when Fred Faust hired on as a war correspondent attached by Harper’s Magazine to the US Army and died during the fight for Montecassino.
Jane Faust Easton, Bob's wife, was asleep upstairs, in view of a medical procedure the next morning, so I missed meeting the child of one of America's more prolific men of letters. Nonetheless, we shared many fine thoughts, including Faust's career in the Canadian Army. Faust had been in the machine-gun squad, in Toronto, of the 97th Battalion of Sir Sam Hughes' monstrous 250-battalion CEF. The commander of the unit was Tracy Custer Richardson, badly wounded earlier with the Ottawa-born Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and credited both with capturing Managua in his late teens during a dirty little "banana war", and years later in El Paso, sticking a gun in Pancho Villa's ribs and forcing a grudging apology for an insulting remark about American womanhood.
So popular was Faust that The Fabulous Faust Fanzine was created in his memory, and writing a chapter in it entitled Faust’s Military Interlude, fellow ex-gunner Gilbert J. McClennan, who later designed props for Cecil B. DeMille, wrote, “Tracy Richardson was one grand fellow. A one time buddy of Jack London and a companion of the latter on several jaunts, particularly ‘the Voyage of the Snark’, TR was our idol and we were his ‘chosen people’ We had to pass a pretty stiff appraisal from TR before we were allowed to qualify as members of ‘Tracy’s Boys.” Another member of Tracy's little cadre was one George Winthrop ("Dixie") Fish, an aspiring medic.
It was years later when Tracy's adventures had been supplanted by a decent if not lucrative new career as a pulp writer in New York, that a lot of his old war-wounds had become very bothersome. It was Dixie who, on the urging of Faust (who mailed some significant funds from Italy), cured Tracy's ills. Dixie, it should be added, was a full professor of uro-genital surgery at Columbia University and the precursor for Doctor Kildare. Faust could not have made a better choice for a model for his immortal character.
Bob (1915-1999) himself had had a stellar career. Along with Kitchener/Los Angeles writer Kenneth Millar (Ross McDonald) he championed the cause of the near-extinct California condor, and through their efforts much progress was made toward improving habitat and breeding potential for a beautiful wild creature every bit as important to Californians as the American eagle.
We shared stories of Bob's pal Millar and his character Lou Archer and how he, and his wife Margaret Millar, added so much to the hard-boiled detective genre, California style. Remember the Harper character played by the incomparable Paul Newman? It was a screen version of Archer, part of the Hustler/Harper/Hud triad of Newman films. In one scene, Harper (who later phones his “ex”, played by actress Janet Leigh, calling himself Schwarz-Marmaduke), orders a drink. "Keep the change!", he adds. The bartender replies: "There isn't any change!" Newman/Harper retorts, "Awwwwright! Keep it anyway!" McDonald was not an old man when he died, but he was a noted scholar and penman, and among those we remembered, those who would be missed.
Born in San Francisco, educated at Andover, Stanford and Harvard, Bob was a vaquero on the Mexican border, later an engineering field-man, magazine editor, artillery officer 1942-1946, editor of the Harvard Lampoon, naval engineer, radio station manager and college professor at various times. Like his father-in-law, Bob loved the American West and its history, and his biography of the man and role-model Fred Faust is among the best of his works, which also include a biography of his dear pal Fred Schroder, who had been an adventurer in China, Alaska and California.
It was midnight by the time Bob suggested we shut down for the day. I thanked him for his hospitality and promised to keep in touch, which I did for years afterward. I headed back to Los Angeles, on the one hand sad that I had to break off one of the more memorable meetings I had ever enjoyed, and with one of a handful of people who had extended their friendship to a fellow scholar of their own art or craft, and on the other to have carried away some happy memories and a wonderful trove of information from two of the great writers in their fields.
Life often provides one with truly memorable experiences. I hope that I have succeeded here in recapturing two of them.
Allan E. Levine is a librarian, teacher and freelance writer. He lives in Ottawa.