Braving the Waterfall,
John Huston's earliest memory went back to his infancy in Weatherford, Texas, just west of Fort Worth. He vividly recalled riding at night with his mother, an expert equestrian who had once crossed the Mississippi on horseback. He sat in front of her in the saddle and was mesmerized by the sound of the horse's hooves striking the rough cobblestones. This primal memory-distant, nocturnal, tactile and auditory, riding through the streets in town-had a dreamlike quality. As the horse gently rocked them, his mother held him tight and bound him firmly to her.
Horses would play a vital part in Huston's life. As a young man, he spent a year in the Mexican cavalry and in later life went fox- hunting in Ireland; he owned racehorses and bet heavily on and off the track. He had friendships, love affairs and marriages with those who shared his passion. Horses also played an important role in many of his films: from the wounded gangster seeking refuge on his Kentucky horse farm at the end of The Asphalt Jungle to the terrified heroine being trampled to death by a horse at the end of Under the Volcano. He particularly liked Gulliver's Travels because Swift gave the horses the power of speech and made them far superior to the humans.
His young parents first met in a romantic theatrical setting during the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. His twenty-three-year old mother, Rhea, was a local reporter. His father, Walter, three years younger, had a small part with a touring company in a popular historical tragedy, The Sign of the Cross, where Christian martyrs were thrown to the lions. She recalled that "I watched the show and when I went backstage to interview the star, I ran into this handsome young man._._._._We went to an ice cream parlor. I told him I wanted to write plays and he was very encouraging. After that, while the show was in town, we saw each other almost every day. We went to the World's Fair, we roller-skated, bicycled, visited penny arcades, and had our fortunes told." One was a writer, the other an actor, and both parents had creative lives connected to performance. Even during their courtship, they were always on the move.
Rhea's grandfather, Colonel William Pitt Richardson, had had a distinguished career. He attended Washington College in Pennsylvania, fought against Mexico in the war of 1846-48 and became a lawyer. On May 2, 1863, when the Union forces were defeated at Chancellorsville, Virginia, Richardson was severely wounded in the shoulder and lost the use of his right arm. In 1864 he became attorney general of Ohio and later that year was brevetted brigadier general. Ten days before he was wounded, the men of the 25th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry presented their colonel with a silver-sheathed sword. Huston inherited this sword and proudly used it in his Civil War film, The Red Badge of Courage.
Huston was named after his maternal grandfather, John Marcellus Gore, himself named after a Roman military commander in the Gallic War. Gore "was a genius at riding the crest of a wave and a raise-the-pot gambler._._._._Extravagance was typical of him. When things were going his way, the sky was the limit-and even when they were going against him, the best was none too good." Huston resembled him in his wild gambling, reckless spending and love of luxury.
Rhea (pronounced REE-ah) was named for the mother of Zeus. She was born in New Castle, Indiana, about forty miles east of Indianapolis, in 1881. An only child, adored by her father, she was only five feet four inches tall, but was ambitious, critical, willful and domineering. A youthful photo shows her, slightly horse-faced, in a cloche hat, a long string of pearls and a velvet dress. John Weld, Walter's friend and future biographer, later met her in Paris and found her "rather plain-looking, nobody of any charm or attractiveness. She wasn't pretty and she wasn't dressed particularly smartly, but she was very talkative." Like the American novelist Theodore Dreiser, born in Indiana ten years before, Rhea became a roving reporter. Whether unable or unwilling to hold a steady job, or restless and eager to advance by moving around in the profession, she worked on the St. Louis Star, Cincinnati Enquirer, Niagara Falls Gazette and Minneapolis Tribune. A rather masculine woman by the standards of the time, dowdy and opinionated, fiercely independent and aggressive, she smoked and rode horses, had a career and competed against men in their profession. Huston later recalled that his mother sometimes played the helpless female. Rhea could burst into tears whenever she wished and her reason for crying was as false as her tears. Pausing for emphasis, he described her as "nervous_._._._very active_._._._smoked. When I say nervous, I mean tending toward the neurotic. She was better with animals than with people. She liked excitement. Still, I was closer to her than to my father."1 Like Rhea, John was energetic, a heavy smoker, thrived on excitement and knew how to handle animals.
John's father, Walter Huston, was born in Toronto in 1884. Walter's mother was Scottish, his father an Irish carpenter. The youngest of four children, the restless Walter attended five different schools. But he left school early, against the wishes of his father, who warned him that he'd have to start working immediately. The writer James Agee noted that John inherited Walter's height and good looks: "John is a leathery, ski-nosed man, with hard, arresting eyes, who suggests a hammered-out version of his father." Like Walter, John was incorrigibly restless and wandering, refusing to settle down to anything that resembled a stable existence. Walter's parents thought their twenty-year-old son was too young to marry and disliked Rhea, who seemed to be trying to trap him. But the Hustons' disapproval made no difference. Despite their brief acquaintance, the couple married in St. Louis-secretly and privately-on December 31, 1904. After their wedding, Walter returned to acting, and they set off with a theatrical road company that went as far west as Arizona.
By the summer of 1906 Rhea and Walter had run out of money and were living near her parents. John Marcellus Huston was born on August 5, 1906, in their brick house at 404 S. Adams in Nevada, Missouri-in the same year as the film directors Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger. The town, with a population of 7,400, was located about a hundred miles from Kansas City, in the southwest corner of the state. It was named by a county clerk who'd visited Nevada City, California, after the Gold Rush of 1848. A local historian noted that "agriculture was the major business, though the railroads were big for a time. Also in 1906 there were two huge employers: a lead-zinc smelting industry (two or three firms) with five hundred employees; and the State Hospital for the Insane (originally the Lunatic Asylum)." Assuming a huckster's tone in a rapturous but ironic letter, the Missouri-born Mark Twain portrayed the state as a place of fair promises and false hopes: "Come right along to Missouri! Don't wait and worry about a good price but sell out for whatever you can get, and come along, or you might be too late._._._._It's the grandest country-the loveliest land-the purest atmosphere._._._._I've got the biggest scheme on earth._._._._Mum's the word-don't whisper-keep it to yourself."
Huston's grandfather John Gore, like Twain's father, had run out of luck and come to grief after being lured to Missouri. Ever optimistic, he had "purchased the public utilities after they had been thrown into the hands of the receiver by the St. Louis Trust Company._._._._He started to build a new power house in the railway yards directly east of Union Station and had much machinery purchased and delivered, but was financially unable to complete his plans and later sold out."2 Gore placed these valuable properties in the unreliable hands of his son-in-law Walter, who had some slight training as an engineer.
According to one version of the story, soon after John's birth a fire broke out that tested Walter's grasp of the valves and gauges that adjusted the water pressure. As the far end of town blazed out of control, the fire chief kept screaming for more water pressure. Walter warned him of the danger, but followed the frantic orders and kept raising the pressure until the pistons of the pump exploded with a horrific bang. The water main burst, the street was flooded and the raging fire destroyed a considerable part of the town. The town council wisely refused to extend Gore's franchise and he was driven into bankruptcy. John, heightening the story of his father's epic incompetence and hasty departure, later transformed it into one of his star turns. In An Open Book he wrote that his parents "were living in Nevada, Missouri, because John Gore had won the light-power- and-water company of that town in a poker game. When Mother and Dad arrived, Grandpa made Dad the chief engineer of the company._._._._When a fire broke out in town, the fire chief called for more water pressure and Dad gave it to him. Apparently he shouldn't have, or perhaps he turned the wrong valve, because the water main broke. The entire town on one side of the tracks burned down. We left precipitously in the middle of the night by buckboard- and headed for the state line." These biblical portents seemed to mark the birth of an extraordinary child, but this amusing, oft- repeated story was not true. In a 1950 telegram to Life magazine, which was running an article on Huston, the editor of the local newspaper reported the actual facts: "Local files show two fires in year after Huston was born. Water pressure good at both conflagrations. No record of ruined machinery at water plant. Town didn't burn down. No record of Hustons fleeing community."
The family left Missouri, and Gore, supreme manipulator and con artist, managed to acquire the electric light and power plant in Weatherford, Texas. He once again hired good old Walter to run them. Realizing that he was out of his depth, the impulsive, sometimes irresponsible Walter told Rhea that he wanted to return to the theater. During one of their frequent arguments Walter, aware that itinerant acting and family life were incompatible, exclaimed that "he would have left long ago had it not been for the baby." She angrily replied: "Don't detain yourself on his account!" Realizing that they were hopelessly mismatched, she packed her things, took all their money and left him forever. They parted company in 1909, when John was three years old, and divorced three years later. Emphasizing her youthful innocence, though she was actually twenty-three at the time of her marriage, Rhea later described her feelings in an unpublished memoir. She had a "blind passionate eagerness that swept her off her feet when she met and married Walter, before her hair was up and her skirts down. She had just walked out on Wally because eventually her whole nature revolted at his petty cowardices."3 She felt he was inhibited, weak and feckless, and was furious at his refusal to settle down and take responsibility for his family.
Walter drifted out of his son's life, and they would not be reunited until John moved to New York in 1924. After joining a stock company in Topeka, Kansas, Walter formed a vaudeville team with an oddly named woman, Bayonne Whipple, which lasted from 1910 until 1923. They led a precarious wandering life, often broke and hungry, sitting up all night in rocking trains between brief stops in cheap boardinghouses, dreary hotels and run-down theaters on the muddy streets of provincial towns. Bayonne, seven years older than Walter, married him in 1915; they separated in 1924 and divorced in 1931. John, who had no regrets about his father's divorce from Rhea, wondered why Walter had ever married Bayonne: "I remember thinking: My God, how could my father bear to have this tagging along? She was just dull, narrow. A vaudevillian trying to be a lady. She was full of pretenses. But I must say, the Hustons were extraordinary with her. They treated her as though she was possible. And she wasn't."
After many years of struggle, Walter's stage career finally took off in 1924 when he left Bayonne and appeared as Ephraim Cabot in Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms. Ten years later he acted in the stage version of Sinclair Lewis' Dodsworth, and he became friends with O'Neill and Lewis, both Nobel Prize winners. Walter went to Hollywood in 1929, soon after talkies began. He made his first film at the age of forty-five, and then played the villain, opposite Gary Cooper, in The Virginian (1929). His effective, understated acting got him plenty of work; his other notable appearances included the title role in Abraham Lincoln (1930) and the sex-obsessed missionary in Somerset Maugham's Rain (1932). He worked both in Hollywood and on Broadway and often returned to the stage. He enjoyed a memorable success when he sang the poignant "September Song" in Maxwell Anderson's Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), and his performance became a classic recording.
Walter's eventual success as an actor would later give John enormous benefits, but his parents' separation and financial struggles made for a difficult childhood. He recalled his own precocious stage debut at the age of three, when the family had moved to Texas, in George M. Cohan's patriotic play Little Johnny Jones (1904). In a photograph he wears a red, white and blue satin Uncle Sam costume, with wide- striped trousers, cutaway jacket speckled with four large stars, high stiff collar and black string tie. He looks like an angry midget, with wild curly hair, a scowling expression and his right hand raised in a defiant gesture.
John never experienced a normal family life and had no stability as a child. As Rhea tried to support herself and her son, they wandered-in a curious parallel to Walter's life-from Missouri and Texas to Indiana (where her sister lived), St. Paul, Los Angeles and Phoenix. "When I was a kid I never had a home," John said. "I was always on the [move], living out of dressing rooms and hotels." Though it was difficult to attend new schools and make new friends, he found the constant movement adventurous and exciting: "I never tired of traveling from town to town with Mother. I've always loved trains. I remember so well the smell, look, taste of soot, the sounds of passing over trestles and bridges, walking through the cars, feet braced and struggling for balance"-as in a boxing match. "There was the thrill of sleeping in upper berths and the splendor of the dining cars." Later on, when John tried to put down roots in Ireland and Mexico, he continued to travel for most of the year while making movies all over the world.
A third early memory completed the suite that would dominate John's life: horses, acting and sex. He remembered lying in bed with the nursemaid who'd been hired to take care of him: "Her skirt was up and her behind was bare. I patted it and stroked it and laid my cheek against it."4 He looked forward to further explorations, cheek to cheek, but was keenly disappointed when his mother, suspecting the worst, fired the seductive nursemaid.
Though spoiled, John also felt stifled by the oppressively close connection to his neurotic mother. Rhea, who'd lost her first baby in a miscarriage and had left her husband, clung to her sickly only child.
Excerpted from John Huston: Courage and Art by Jeffrey Meyers. Copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey Meyers. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.