As I entered my local pharmacy, I again noticed a sign on the glass doors that said, “Heroes Work Here.” The word hero is bandied about a lot today, much as it was in 2001 and for years afterward, at least in America, often in ways that cheapen the word as well as the myth of the hero.
When I started writing this essay, I intended to criticize politicians, the military, and commerce for rendering the word hero meaningless, but I quickly realized that what I want to write about is how we create heroes and why we need them. I want to write about the heroes of my youth.
From the time of tales told around a campfire, humans have created heroes. These stories became Greek myths, Roman myths, Biblical myths, Celtic myths, Hindu myths, Nordic myths, and so on. But my boyhood heroes were not Odysseus, Odin, or Beowulf. My heroes were Shane and Will Kane.
The invention of the movie cowboy hero is America’s major contribution to the hero myth, and this myth shaped the early years of my life. I am old enough, barely, to remember the dying days of radio and the beginning of TV. But mostly what I remember are the movies. In our house my father determined what we would watch on the tiny black and white screen TV, and there was never any doubt that when my father said he was taking us to see a movie that he meant a western.
My first memory of going to the movies was when I was four years old. We lived in St. Louis at that time. My father worked at a factory called Chevrolet Shell. During World War II it employed 35,000 workers and made small arms ammunition. When my father worked there, the plant made Howitzer shells. This was during the Korean War. We left St. Louis for rural Missouri in 1953.
No doubt the theaters where my dad took us are long gone. Tickets must have been cheap because we went often, and we were poor throughout my childhood, often very poor. Nor do I remember seeing a movie other than a western. Of course, there were many genres: comedy, romance, mystery, horror, historical, adventure, and so on, but westerns were dominant. In 1951, Hollywood released 76 western movies. In 1952, the number rose to 81, and in 1953, 70 westerns screened in theaters. While westerns were a weekly staple, the genre was in transition. The previous western stars: Tim Hall, Rex Allen, Allen “Rocky” Lane, Whip Wilson, Gene Autry, and many others were soft characters, as likely to whip out a guitar as a gun. The 1950s saw the rise of tougher cowboy heroes, darker stories, and more bang-bangs for your bucks.
My celluloid heroes were Randolph Scott, Kirk Douglas, James Steward, Audie Murphy, Robert Mitchum, Glen Ford, Robert Ryan, Willian Holden, Henry Fonda, Alan Ladd, Gary Cooper, and a handful of others. But the king of western movies was John Wayne.
The reader will notice the absence of women. Women did not star in westerns in the 1950s although many actresses had successful careers that owed at least a nod to westerns: Maureen O’Hara, Barbara Stanwyck, Julia Adams, Virginia Mayo, Rhonda Fleming, even her royal highness, Grace Kelly.
I don’t remember the titles of most of the westerns I saw with the exception of movie classics: “High Noon,” “Shane,” and “The Searchers” to mention a few. I do remember my first 3-D movie experience. It must have been in 1952. I tried to research westerns of that period to jog my memory. I recall that the movie had lots of Indians (Native Americans), and that I spent a good deal of time ducking my head as a spear or arrow appeared to come out of the screen toward me. I remember wearing cheap cardboard 3-D glasses, one lens blue and one lens red. I believe the movie might have been titled “Conquest of Cochise.” A white actor named John Hodiak portrayed Cochise. There were few Native American movie actors. The cast of “Conquest of Cochise” includes one actor, Rodd Redwing, that claimed to be a Chickasaw. In truth, he was born in India and raised in England.
Not only was I too young to know anything about the personal lives of the cowboy heroes, it was also a time when actor’s lives were carefully managed by the studios. It was only years later that I knew Robert Mitchum had done jail time, that Barbara Stanwyck was a lesbian, or that John Wayne was a right wing radical. I encountered the John Wayne legend when I moved to Beverly Hills in 1997.
I left Boulder, Colorado in 1995 with a broken heart and the name and address of one person in Los Angeles. I drove an old Saab 911 to California, taking only what would fit in the car. The one woman I knew gave me a couch to sleep on and introduced me to her contacts. I was a short story writer and a wanna-be screenwriter with a master’s degree in writing, a few sample screenplays, and no credits. I also was over 45 the day I arrived. I knew so little about Hollywood that I didn’t realize that my chances of breaking in as a writer at my age were non-existent.
Through the Shambhala Meditation Center in Los Angeles I met another woman, a producer, who reluctantly agreed to read my sample scripts and to her surprise liked them. She then introduced me to the executive producer of a new TV series to be filmed in Queens. The head writers liked short story writers and novelists. With the help of my Buddhist friend, a line producer on the series, I auditioned for a job as staff writer by writing a sample script in 72 hours. I was hired and moved to New York. I wrote four scripts out of twenty, but the TV show was killed off before production began when the head of the TV division was fired. TV executives, like dogs, need to mark their territory. Anything in development when they take over is mostly pissed on.
When HBO hired me to co-write a prison riot movie, I moved back to Los Angeles, and in 1997 I rented an apartment on North Hamilton Drive in Beverly Hills, a block from the intersection of La Cienega and Wilshire Boulevard. On the south corner of the intersection was a bank where I had an account, Washington Mutual. It would be involved in some financial scandal a few years later and was reborn as Citibank, but in 1997, Washington Mutual was an “A” list bank in Los Angeles. The bank had the ground floor of a tall, smoked glass building. The top floor or perhaps top two floors were home to Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine empire. Outside the entrance of the bank was a large bronze statue of John Wayne dressed in western garb and sitting atop a life-sized horse.
The first money I ever made as a writer was writing for Hustler, not the flag-ship magazine, but some lesser rag Hustler also published. I wrote erotic letters to the editor, supposedly true stories, under the female pen name, Erin Love. I doubt if John Wayne read Hustler magazine. But then neither did I.
I sometimes wondered how “the Duke” felt about his statue outside Larry Flynt’s dirty-magazine empire. Did he scowl at the girls clattering by on tall wedges, dresses showing lots of leg and their tops lots of breasts or did he get a bronze woody? I still admired Wayne as an actor but not as a person. I liked Clint Eastwood as an actor, as well, but I didn’t want to know him. Meanwhile, right wingers hated Jane Fonda and dozens of other actors I admired, both for their talents and politics. Today, we are flooded with information, gossip, and personal details. These are kryptonite to the hero myth. I gladly do not know the details of the doctors and nurses that travel the world for Doctors Without Borders and risk their lives treating infectious diseases like Covid-19. I’m glad I don’t know if they cheat on their spouses or drink too much or hold political views that I find inconceivable. This way I can admire them, they way I once admired my cowboy movie heroes.
I still enjoy the rare western movie, and though I outgrew cowboy heroes long ago, I fondly remember them. They were celluloid giants. That’s the way we like our heroes.
– In Memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg –
I finished a draft of this essay in the early morning on September 19, 2020, awakening before 4 a.m., checking my iPhone to see the time, and seeing a news scroll announcing the death of RBG. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a reminder that there are true heroes, even now, when so many are intent on degrading the world. RBG forever.