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By Dwayne Epstein
Schaffner Press Copyright © 2013 Dwayne Epstein
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The Guilty Puritan
IT WAS INEVITABLE that the name Lee Marvin would become inextricably linked with the theme of violence and its culture. During his belated ascent to stardom in 1967, Marvin was a popular media subject for interviews, in which this topic was always on the agenda. In fact, it was his predisposition to aggressive behavior that informed one of his earliest memories. In response to a question put to him by "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson about his childhood, Marvin said: "I remember fighting with my brother. He'd hit me with a leash and I'd hit him with a stick, so we'd fight."
For Lee Marvin, this tendency towards violence would start early. He even recalled the first day of kindergarten as one filled with unchecked emotion and rage. "You've just been deposited here, right?" he would sarcastically state years later. "Boy, Mommy and Daddy are gone, and here's the big world, and it's working on you. And I remember I guess at one point I had to go to the john or something — it was probably down the hall — and when I came back some kid was sitting in my chair. And all I can remember is tremendous anger. I don't know whether I punched that kid, or if he punched me, or if I got into a fight. But I do remember my anger ..."
The roots of physical aggression were genetically set in place long before his very existence. Its antecedents can also be traced among his ancestry, and the characteristic of the violence-prone male would go on to wield a powerful influence over his life and work. The first of his paternal ancestors to come to America from England was Puritan civic leader Matthew Marvin, who went on to lead Connecticut's militia in the 1600s. But, when the farmers wanted to relax after a hard week in the fields, they would drift en masse to the local pub for some ale instead of going to church on Sunday morning. Brandishing his musket, in rode martinet Matthew Marvin and his militia to physically force the transgressors out of the pubs.
On his mother's side there was a distant relation to Revolutionary War general and first President of The United States, George Washington. His mother took such great pride in the lineage that when Lee was sweltering in the jungle islands of the Pacific during WWII, she attempted to rouse her son's spirit by writing, "Maybe blood is thicker than water, and maybe some of the qualities, both good and bad, do come down to us through the generations. In this case, I get a little more of George than you, being one generation closer."
In truth, he had strong feelings about his heritage, as his publicist Paul Wasserman once recalled, "I think he was a guilty puritan. Also, if memory serves, his ancestors were in the Revolutionary War. He was always saying, 'It's my country. We fought for it, we Marvins.' You know, shit like that." Yet, it wasn't so much those ancestors working menial jobs in the fields or factories whom the actor revered, but the valiant ones who fought and often died for glory in nearly every war and skirmish in American history.
The Marvin family first settled in New York after the Revolution when General Seth Marvin moved into the Hudson Valley. The following century, in the War Between the States, both the northern and southern sides of his ancestry suffered terrible losses, and as Marvin himself put it, "During the Civil War we were pretty well shot up and the family is very depleted." With such impressive names as Washington and even Robert E. Lee in his ancestry, Lee himself would often joke that he was "the charcoal gray not quite black sheep of the family."
The actor's maternal great, great grandfather William 'Uncle Billy' McCann became a local hero of sorts in the town of Elmira, New York and was the catalyst of an event that seems right out of a Lee Marvin movie. McCann, who lived well into his eighties, had been the County Under Sheriff in the Chemung County Seat of Elmira. According to The New York Times, "In 1863, while Sheriff McCann was in charge of the county bastille, a jail escape was planned by Leroy Channing Shearer, a soldier who was held for the killing of two comrades at the Elmira Prison Barracks. McCann, single-handed, fought a score of convicts. Shearer alone escaped after McCann had been left for dead [but survived]
But, of his many illustrious and colorful ancestors, none proved to be more symbolic of Lee Marvin's legacy than his great uncle, Arctic explorer Ross Gilmore Marvin. Ross was born January 28, 1880, in Elmira, and was the youngest of Edward and Mary Marvin's six children. His father had been elected "Overseer of the Poor," but died when the boy was only six years old. His mother and older siblings raised Ross and, though small, he made a name for himself due to his determination to take part in school activities and sports.
Early on in his life, Marvin had exhibited a maverick spirit that seemed to foreshadow his great nephew's own outlook on life. Decades after his death, the Elmira Star Gazette wrote glowingly of Ross, "Marvin fought his way into everything. The places hardest to acquire were the places he sought. The things hardest to do, whether the road presented work or danger, were the things he wanted to do. He was that way from a boy."
That legendary perseverance would propel him through Cornell University where he graduated with a degree in civil engineering, as well as a stint on a training steamship for the New York Nautical School, conducting scientific experiments in oceans around the world. The same month of his graduation from Cornell in June 1905, in search of further adventure, Ross contacted Commander Robert Peary in the hope of joining the legendary explorer in his sixth attempt to reach the North Pole.
Peary wrote him back, stating, "I may say that your application is one of two or three which has impressed me very favorably, and though the time is limited, I trust that it may be practicable, in the event that, after personal interviews, my choice should fall on you, that you may be able to arrange your affairs so as to accompany the expedition. I assume that you are familiar with the program of the expedition and my plan of campaign in general." After hearing a short while later of his acceptance to the expedition, Ross Marvin quickly got his affairs in order and spent the next two years in the last unexplored territory on earth in the employ of Commander Peary.
In contrast, Ross's older brother Henry had a much less adventurous existence. He and his wife, Elizabeth, struggled to get by, but were plagued by bad luck. Their son Edward had died six days after being born on January 28, 1895, but a second child fared much better. Lee Marvin's father, Lamont Waltham Marvin was born December 19, 1896, also in Elmira, New York.
Monte, as he was known throughout his life, had a childhood marked by sadness. His father was rather sickly and, on a doctor's advice, moved his young family to Denver for his health where he obtained a job working for Wells Fargo. In spite of this, thirty-five year-old Henry Marvin's health continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate, and three years later, he was hospitalized. As Lee recalled his father telling him, eight year-old Monte, "Went out to Denver to see his father, who was dying in the hospital. It was Valentine's Day, and they wouldn't let him see him because he was already dead. My father slipped the card he had under the door. He never saw him again."
Monte and his now heartsick mother took the train back to New York where they stayed with relatives until they could figure out their circumstances. A single mother at the turn of the century had few options when it came to raising a child, and her own failing health was only making matters worse. Henry's siblings were willing to help out, including younger brother Ross, who, having just returned from Peary's unsuccessful attempt to reach the Pole in 1906, and upon hearing of his nephew's plight, petitioned the court to adopt Monte as his legal ward.
Monte idolized his uncle and with good reason. Uncle Ross had been described in both local and national newspapers as one of Peary's most trusted aides. His cool-headedness during the expedition's perilous retreat after a failed attempt to reach the Pole during an Arctic storm made headlines, and garnered him a teaching position of meteorology at his alma mater, Cornell. Ross relished his nephew's attention, in return filling the boy's head with amazing stories of the frozen North, and lavishing him with gifts of exotic animal pelts.
In 1908, Peary was ready to try for the Pole one more time, and so too was Ross Marvin. While Ross petitioned Cornell for a leave of absence, Monte was sent to Brooklyn in the care of his mother's sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Thomas Wynn. When Ross met up with fifty-two year-old Commander Peary, he was informed that the crew and assistants had all been chosen. However, Peary decided to include Marvin in the 1908 expedition's bulging ranks, later writing, "Quiet in manner, wiry in build, clear of eye, with an atmosphere of earnestness about him, Ross G. Marvin had been an invaluable member of the expedition."
On July 6th Monte, accompanied by his aunt and uncle, bid farewell to Ross on Peary's specially built ship, the Roosevelt, as it prepared to leave New York harbor. Ross made Monte and his aunt and uncle promise that no matter the outcome of the voyage, his beloved nephew would go to school and finish college. Monte and his relatives said their good-byes and watched from the dock as the schooner sailed out of sight on its way to Greenland and into the history books.
The Roosevelt made several stops on its way, picking up supplies and crew until finally all the players were in place: Robert E. Peary (Commander); Robert A. Bartlett (Ship Master); John W. Goodsell (Medical Officer); Matthew Henson (Assistant); Ross G. Marvin (Secretary/Assistant); Donald B. MacMillan (Assistant); George Borup (Assistant), along with 15 ship crew members, 49 Eskimos (22 men, 17 women and 10 children), and 246 dogs. This would become one of the most debated and controversial expeditions in human exploration.
Much has been written over the years concerning the expedition and the individuals involved, especially the rivalry between Peary and former colleague Dr. Frederick Cook, Peary's questionable relationship with the indigenous people of the region, and African-American Matthew Henson's role in the race to the Pole. Largely forgotten amid these debates, however, is the vital part that Ross Marvin played on this expedition.
Never in question was Peary's unique method of travel across the frozen wasteland. He created a system of support teams that spread out on their dog-driven sleds, took readings, and doubled back to the ship as other teams advanced ahead of them. Peary and Hen-son would lead the first two support groups, with Marvin and then Bartlett behind them, each accompanied by two Eskimos. Marvin's Eskimos were two young male cousins named Kudluktoo and Inukitsoq, the latter nicknamed "Harrigan" by the crew for his ability to learn and repeat a popular song of the time.
After wintering on Ellesmere Island, the Roosevelt went up to Cape Columbia at the northern end of the island. Peary and Henson set out from there on the morning of March 1, 1909. They were accompanied by or met up with various advance teams along the way. By March 25th, Peary instructed Marvin and his team to work their way back to the ship. Six days later, Peary and other members of the expedition had arrived at the farthest point in the Arctic any man had reached, about 150 miles from the North Pole. What happened afterwards has been a point of contention for more than a century since Peary and Henson both claimed to have reached the Pole on April 6th. But, without having had the proper documentation as proof, and with possible miscalculations involved in their navigation, they were never able to confirm their exact location.
By the time Peary arrived at Cape Columbia on April 25 with the news, the celebration was short-lived. Captain Bartlett informed Peary that Kudluktoo and Harrigan had returned, but without Ross Marvin. When questioned, the two young men sadly recounted how, on April 10th, they had spread out as Marvin instructed but when he alone came to an area of thin ice, Marvin fell through, and the two Eskimos were too far away to reach him in time. By the time they got to the thin ice, they saw Ross Marvin sink face down and disappear into the current of the icy water. A makeshift marker was left near the site where twenty-nine year-old Ross was believed to have drowned. But, the body was never recovered.
Back in America, the many newspapers of the day wrote daily headlines of Peary's telegraphed progress as the world waited anxiously for any word they could get. Historically, the only thing comparable in recent memory would be the Space Race of the 1960s.
In Brooklyn, thirteen year-old Monte Marvin was more anxious than most; to compound matters, he was being interviewed several times by major dailies concerning his uncle. One journalist even accompanied him that morning on his regular routine to read the local paper. Along the way, several local kids taunted him that his uncle had died. He ran home without the paper and fell on his bed crying, while the reporter chronicled the tale of Monte sobbing to his Aunt Elizabeth about the tragic news he had just learned.
The news of Ross Marvin's untimely death, — the only fatality of the expedition — although reported, was quickly overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Peary's claim of victory. Dr. Cook made a similar claim, but stated he had reached the Pole earlier than Peary. The controversy continues to this day as to which, or for that matter, if indeed, either expedition had actually ever made it to the North Pole.
None of those facts mattered to the family and friends of Professor Ross Marvin, however. Young Monte was inconsolable and the family publicly acknowledged the difficulty in attempting to break the news to Ross Marvin's aged mother. Cornell honored their martyred alum with a memorial and additional plans of remembrance. Until his death in 1920, Peary continued to praise his fallen comrade by writing of Marvin in his memoir: "He who had never shrunk from loneliness in the performance of his duty had at last met death alone."
Monte's maternal aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and Thomas Wynn, made sure their nephew stayed in school as Ross had requested. According to Monte's first son, and Lee's older brother Robert, "Uncle was a big bookie with ties to Tammany Hall. They were Catholics so my father took the name Thomas. So his name was Thomas Lamont Waltham Marvin. He later dropped the Thomas." By the time Monte had turned seventeen, his mother had succumbed to cancer, leaving him a virtual orphan in the care of the Wynns. He was attending NYU as a business major when the United States entered World War I. Ross Marvin's wish that his nephew finish college was dashed when Monte volunteered for active service and left for the Front in May, 1917. He attended Officers Candidate School and went to Europe as a 1st Lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers.
His time in the war provided fodder for great storytelling years later. "As a matter of fact, he said he was out in Leavenworth," recalled his son Robert. "They opened up Officer's Candidate School, and he was surprised they took him in. So, he was commanding officer of I think an all black infantry. They did this work, reinforce the trenches and stuff like that. They didn't do any real fighting. But still, it's military life and it was very strict."
Lee also recalled his father's experience retold to him about WWI: "My father was the classic puritan. Hold the emotions in check. Keep up appearances. Tight-assed. He had feelings but he'd never show them to you. I remember once he told me about a bunch of horses he saw in World War I. They were twisted and dead from mustard gas. He cried talking about them. He had feelings. It took something like that to bring them out."
Hoping to make the army a career after the war, Monte left active duty in 1919 but remained in the weekend reserves until 1925, working as a clerk at a midtown Manhattan branch of the Bank of Montreal during the week. Monte's request for a promotion in the reserves was denied as the Army stated it could not financially afford to approve his request. It was during this time, that, if family history is to be believed, Monte had a life-changing experience. "He said it was in a building in New York City," according to the story he told Robert's wife, Joan. "He was waiting for the elevator and this beautiful young woman walked off the elevator. He saw her and he fell in love with her but didn't know her name. It was love at first sight."
Excerpted from Lee Marvin by Dwayne Epstein. Copyright © 2013 Dwayne Epstein. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
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