The boy who would one day become famous for playing the Man with No Name did not have a well-defined self-image or a strong role model to follow growing up. In his formative years his father, forever in search of a steady job during the Great Depression, developed a deceptive California suntan, the mark of a hardworking outdoor laborer trying to avoid poverty rather than a man of sun-worshipping leisure and privilege.
Clinton and Francesca Ruth (sometimes recorded as Margaret Ruth, although she only used Ruth as her given name) were two good-looking California kids who met while attending Piedmont High School in Oakland. They dated each other and married young, before the market crashed and took with it their romantic dream of the good life. Ruth's family was Dutch-Irish and Mormon with a long line of physical laborers, including pickup fighters, lumberjacks, sawmill operators, and an occasional local politician. She graduated from Anna Head School in Berkeley, where she had been transferred to from Piedmont just before her senior year—a move that may have been prompted by her parents' concern over an intense relationship she had begun with her high school sweetheart, Clinton Eastwood. Clinton was a popular, well- liked boy with strong American roots; his ancestors were pre– Revolutionary War Presbyterian farmers and men who sold goods by traveling from town to town, their carts bearing inventory samples such as women's underwear and soap used to elicit orders from their customers. In the days before mail-order catalogs, most goods were sold this way outside the big American cities.
Despite Ruth's parents' attempts to put some distance between her and the economically deficient Clinton, upon graduating from high school they were married, on June 5, 1927, in a ceremony held at Piedmont's interdenominational church. Both newlyweds were lucky enough to find enough work to keep them going during the first years of their marriage. Ruth eventually landed a job as an accountant for an insurance company, and Clinton found one as a cashier. When the stock market crashed in October 1929, they clung to these jobs tenaciously.
Almost three years after their marriage, on May 31, 1930, Clinton Jr. was born. The boy weighed a whopping eleven pounds, six ounces, and was nicknamed "Samson" by all the nurses at San Francisco' s St. Francis Hospital.
At about this time Clinton Sr. managed to land a job selling stocks and bonds. At a time when stocks and bonds had been rendered all but worthless, Clinton was following the family tradition; he was now a glorified cart-man, weaving from town to town looking for those few elusive customers with enough cash to invest in their own future and therefore in his. That he got by at all was likely due to his natural charm and good looks.
But even those could only get him so far, and soon Clinton was selling refrigeration products for the East Bay Company, a position whose long-range prospects were little better than those of a seller of stocks and bonds. People had to have enough money to buy food before they could invest in ways to keep it cold. So in 1934, after the birth of their second child, a girl they named Jeanne, Clinton took to a more itinerant life, moving the family by car to wherever he could find pickup work. In a couple of his earliest recollections, Clint later said of those times:
Well, those were the Thirties and jobs were hard to come by. My parents and my sister and myself just had to move around to get jobs. I remember we moved from Sacramento to Pacific Palisades just [so my father could work] as a gas station attendant. It was the only job open. Everybody was in a trailer, one with a single wheel on one end, and the car, and we were living in a real old place out in the sticks?.?.?.
My father was big on basic courtesies toward women. The one time I ever got snotty with my mother when he was around, he left me a little battered.
The attendant job was at a Standard Oil station on Sunset Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway, near a stretch of Malibu beach that was rapidly becoming the suburb of choice for the nouveau riche of the Hollywood film industry—one of the few businesses that actually benefited from the Depression. Films were both cheap and fanciful, the ultimate escape for those who could not afford to live out the American dream themselves but loved watching others do it for them on- screen. Those who lived in this part of town drove big cars that used a lot of gas, so Clinton had plenty of work. For the time being it was a good enough living if not exactly a great life. From the money he made he was able to rent a small house in the lush, hilly Pacific Palisades.
On his off days Clinton and Ruth took their children to one of the public beaches adjacent to Malibu for an afternoon of sun and swimming. One day Clinton, who was an excellent swimmer, dove into a wave with Clint sitting in the saddle of his shoulders. Big Clint came back up but little Clint didn't. After a few heart-stopping moments Ruth saw her boy's foot sticking up and bobbing in the water. She screamed. With some help from alert nearby swimmers, Clinton was able to pull him up. Afterward Ruth sat in the cool muddy turf with her little Clint and splashed him playfully to make sure he wouldn't become afraid of the surf.
A year later, in 1935, the gas station job dried up, and the Eastwoods were once more on the move. They gave up the house in Pacific Palisades and took a smaller one for less rent in Hollywood, a few miles farther inland. Soon afterward they swung back north to Redding, then to Sacramento, then to the Glenview section of the East Bay of San Francisco. Finally they settled back down in the Oakland- Piedmont area, where Clinton worked a series of dead-end jobs. Clint, by now, had attended several schools, necessitated by the family's continual relocations. "I can't remember how many schools I went to," he later recalled. "I do remember we moved so much that I made very few friends." In 1939, after their long loop through the tough times of California, the family settled long enough for young Clint, now nine, to enroll in Piedmont Junior High School.
Following the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America' s entry into World War II brought new defense-driven work. Clinton managed to secure a draft-exempt job in the shipyards with Bethlehem Steel, and Ruth found day work at the nearby IBM center.
On the brink of adolescence, six-foot Clint was the tallest boy in his class; he would reach his full height, six four, by the time he graduated from high school. He was also, by all accounts, one of the best-looking students. He had inherited his father's strong, broad shoulders, rugged good looks, and seductive half-closed eyes. He had a finely shaped, aristocratically turned-up nose and a thick bush of brown hair that fell in a curly dip over his forehead. The look was tough, but he was shy, likely the product of his family's vagabond journey through the Depression years. Being left-handed also made him feel like an outsider, as his teachers forced him to use his right hand.
He enjoyed playing high school sports—his height made it easy for him to excel at basketball—but that did little for his social skills. His teachers warned his parents that he had to be brought out of his shell if he was to make something of himself. One of them, Gertrude Falk, who taught English, had the class put on a one-act play and cast a reluctant young Clint in the lead. He was less than thrilled.
I remember Gertrude Falk very well. It was the part of a backward youth, and I think she thought it was perfect casting?.?.?. she made up her mind that I was going to play the lead and it was disastrous. I wanted to go out for athletics; doing plays was not considered the thing to do at that stage of life—especially not presenting them before the entire senior high school, which is what she made us do. We muffed a lot of lines. I swore [at the time] that that was the end of my acting career.
Clint also didn't do well academically, and his schoolmates and teachers considered him something of a "dummy." Besides sports, the only other subject that held any interest for him was music—not the kind of big-band sound that was popular with the older kids, but jazz. He liked to play it on the piano, something that he correctly believed enhanced his attractiveness to girls. He even learned the current pop tunes that he had no use for but that made them flock around him.
When I sat down at the piano at a party, the girls would come around. I could play a few numbers. I learned a few off listening to records and things that were popular at that era. I thought this was all right, so I went home and practiced?.?.?. I would lie about my age and go to Hambone Kelly's. I'd stand in the back and listen to Lu Watters and Turk Murphy play New Orleans jazz?.?.?. I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole?.?.?. Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner.
And he loved cars. For $25 Clint's father bought him a beat-up 1932 Chevy to help him keep his paper route job. Clint nicknamed it "the Bathtub" because of its missing top. Its best accessory was, of course, the girls. The Chevy, which didn't last very long, was only the first of a long line of his beat-up cars. To pay for them all and the gas and repairs, Clint took extra after-school jobs on top of his paper route. He worked at the local grocery and as a caddy at the golf course; he baled hay on a farm in nearby Yreka, cut timber near Paradise, and was a seasonal forest firefighter. All these jobs were purely physical, the type of work he could forget about as soon as he punched out. But they were time consuming and exhausting, even for a young and strong teenage boy. They left him even less time for his studies at Piedmont High, and when his parents and school authorities realized he wasn't going to graduate with a regular academic degree, he transferred to the Oakland Technical High School, a vocational training institute where he would specialize in aircraft maintenance. This would give him his best chance, upon graduation, to attend the University of California, which had an affiliated program with the high school, or to land a well-paying job.
After school Clint hung with a crowd of tough-looking teens decked out in leather and T-shirts, with greased-back long hair. All strong, tall, and lean, they tucked cigarettes behind their ears and held bottles of beer in one hand while they drove, usually to the local dives where the hottest girls hung out. And they were all into jazz music. Most often they found themselves at the Omar, a pizza and beer dive in downtown Oakland where Clint liked to play jazz on a beat-up old piano in the corner. Whenever he could, he would go to hear Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Flip Phillips, Lester Young, or Charlie Parker. Sometimes they played alone in the small dark clubs that dotted the streets of Oakland; sometimes they performed together at the Shrine Auditorium, where the heavily mixed crowd regularly gathered to see and hear them.
It was Parker, more than all the others, who opened his eyes to the new music's emotional power. As Clint later told Richard Schickel, "I'd never seen a musician play with such confidence. There was no show business to it in those days, and this guy just stood and played, and I thought, God, what an amazing, expressive thing." His cool, aloof sound held great appeal for Clint.
He was nineteen when he finally graduated from Oakland Tech in the spring of 1949. By then, he had grown tired of school and often cut classes to hang out with boys, among whom he was the only one still in school.
Meanwhile the war's end had brought new prosperity, especially along the rapidly growing Pacific coast, where jobs were plentiful, wages generous, and mobility upward. Clinton Sr. found work with the California Container Corporation, was quickly caught up in the flow of automatic promotions, and soon was offered a major managerial post in the company's main plant, in Seattle. Together he and Ruth and fourteen-year-old Jeanne packed up the house and loaded the car for the drive to Seattle.
Clint didn't want to go, and because he had graduated, he said he didn' t have to. Harry Pendleton's parents agreed to let him stay with them for a while. Harry and Clint had been friends since junior high school and long hung with the same crowd. With his family in Seattle, his education finished, and no clear plan for the future, Clint was, in his own words, "really adrift." He found a job on the night shift at Bethlehem Steel, tending the blast furnaces, then moved to the day shift at Boeing Aircraft. For the next two years these hard and charmless jobs kept him in cars, girls, and music, allowing him to roam aimlessly through his early twenties unfocused and unconcerned, the perfect West Coast rebel without a care.
Then, in 1950, border hostilities broke out in Korea, and the United States began a massive buildup of forces in Seoul. Knowing his A1 military status made him a prime target for the draft, Clint's unlikely next goal was to go back to college, to get a student exemption. He moved up to Seattle and in with his parents to enroll at Seattle University. He figured he might major in music, since nothing else held any appeal. But his grades weren't good enough, and he was told he'd have to attend junior college as a nonmatriculated, part-time student, which would not be enough to earn him the draft exemption. He then moved back to Oakland and made a last-ditch personal appeal to his local draft board, to convince them he had every intention of attending college full time.
The board took him the following month.
In the spring of 1951, he spent his last free nights getting drunk and listening to music at the local dives, before reporting, hung over and hell-bent, for basic training at Fort Ord, near the Monterey Peninsula. As far as he was concerned, he didn't need any training. What could the army teach him that at the age of twenty he didn't already know?
Plenty, as it turned out, although not at all in the ways he might have expected.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from American Rebel by Marc Eliot. Copyright © 2009 by Marc Eliot. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, 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.