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Robert Mitchum Baby, I Don't Care
By Lee Server
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Lee Server
All right reserved.
The Ferret-Faced Kid
His father was a tough son of a bitch, he would say proudly.
The blood of early Scots-Irish settlers and American Indians ran in the veins of James Thomas Mitchum. He hailed from the town of Lane in eastern South Carolina, a small, slim young man with a lean, handsome face and sly, expressive dark eyes. People who knew him remembered a man of much charm and humor, physically strong out of all proportion to his slender frame. He liked a good fight. His fierceness was legendary among those who gathered together to pass around a bottle. The wildness that came with the drinking, people ascribed, as per the prejudicial thinking of the time, to his Indian heritage. Indians, even half-breeds, everybody knew, were drawn to liquor even though the stuff made them lose their minds. Only a fool would challenge Jimmy Mitchum to a fight, but there were always fools to be found in the backcountry of South Carolina as in every other part of the world. When he was seventeen--the first son would speak of this--he was said to have killed a man in a brawl in a place called Hellhole Swamp.
He went into the service, leaving the rural South for the first time in his life. A private in the U.S. Army, he came to be stationed in Connecticut, and it was there, in the port of New London, that the young man met a girl, a pretty, sad-faced Norwegian immigrant named Ann Harriet Gunderson. She was the daughter of a sea captain. Gustav Olaf Gunderson of Christiania, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, nearly three hundred pounds, had sailed the merciless waters of the North Atlantic and the Barents Sea far above the Arctic Circle. Among the ocean fishermen of Norway there were weird tales told about this giant, powerful man. Once, long ago, a ship he skippered had gone down in a terrible storm. The captain and four crewmen had escaped on a lifeboat, but only Gunderson was still aboard when a rescue ship found him weeks later, looking little the worse for his ordeal. A court of inquiry said that questions remained unanswered. A lurid rumor followed Gunderson--that he had survived by consuming the flesh of his own shipmates.
The captain had a wife, Petrine, a tiny but strong-willed woman, a refined and learned mate for the tough sea rover. Without help for much of each year while Gustav roamed the world, it was Petrine who brought up their three children: son, Charles, daughters Gertrude and Ann Harriet. From the time she was a little girl, Mrs. Gunderson daydreamed of a life on the stage, and she would nurture in her kids a great appreciation of music and books and paintings, a love of art, of beautiful things. Petrine's girls sang, played musical instruments, drew, and painted. And son, Charlie, too, built like his father and like him to become a merchant sailor, loved music and performing and as a boy hoped to grow up to be a song-and-dance man.
Early in the new century the Gunderson family joined the great wave of European migrants crossing the ocean to America. They settled among their fellow "squareheads" in coastal Connecticut, first in New London and then in Bridgeport, a thriving manufacturing center along Long Island Sound at the mouth of the Pequonnock River, a short rail journey north of New York City. In the new homeland the Gundersons resumed a life not so different from what it had been in Norway. Papa returned to the sea, a merchant sailor, gone for weeks and months at a time, and Petrine was left to run the house and raise the family. Young Ann Harriett knew no English when she arrived at Ellis Island, but she had a good mind and studied hard and graduated from high school with honors. One weekend, not long after graduation, she went with her sister to the annual regatta in New London, and there, in her prettiest summer dress, she met a young man. Jimmy Mitchum was handsome and funny and strong. She fell in love. It was the inescapable impulse of the genteel, intelligent Gunderson women to fall for strong, simple men. Sister Gertrude was the same--she had found her own beau, an itinerant wrestler from Quebec.
In the spring of 1913, twenty-year-old Ann and twenty-two-year-old James were wed, and in July of the following year the couple had their first child, a girl they named Annette. The young family lived a life of no special concern. They were happy. Jimmy was a restless, vital character but without any particular ambition in life. He moved them all down to South Carolina for a time, but soon they were back in Bridgeport, living in the big East End house at 476 Logan Street. Sister Gertrude by now had married her own peripatetic scrapper, Wilfred Jean Tetreault. Her new husband had not been able to make a living as a wrestler, and he had not been able to do much else, but Gertie adored him. Jim and Bill became pals, roistering comrades in the watering holes of Connecticut. The pair had a standing challenge at every tavern--they would take on any three comers, any time, any place. Sometimes, when there were no challengers, they went ahead and found them anyway.
On August 6, 1917, at the house in Bridgeport, Ann gave birth to her second child, a blond-haired, hazel-eyed boy. Baptized by the minister from the Newfield Methodist Church, the boy was named Robert Charles Durman Mitchum. He was a taciturn baby--unsmiling in all family photos--and with somber, torpid eyes that attracted much comment. He fell on his head as a small child, and a doctor told the mother her boy showed signs of brain damage. "You can see it in the eyes," the doctor said. "No, that's the way they've always been," said Ann.
Soon the young Mrs. Mitchum was expecting again. "One day when my mother was pregnant with John," Robert would recall in years ahead, "she was on a trolley car and this conductor was harassing her, pushing her to the rear, and my father picked him up and threw him right through the window, jumped out after him and stomped his brains out. He had to leave town."
James Mitchum took his family and returned to the South. They settled in Charleston and he found a job in the port at the military railhead. The end of World War I and the return of personnel and equipment from Europe had put a considerable strain on these transportation centers. There was unending activity in the navy yard where James Mitchum did wearying labor, coupling and uncoupling and helping to shunt the steady streams of heavy freight cars. It was dangerous work. Hardly a day went by without a man mangling a foot or breaking a finger or an arm disentangling those big wooden cars, wrestling the heavy metal couplings with their slivers like tiny daggers that entered the flesh even through thick gloves. Many times, heading off for work, Jimmy Mitchum would tell his wife, "One of these days, Annie, they're going to bring me home in a box."
One February night in 1919, at the Charleston navy yard, Mitchum was standing on a track siding between two boxcars, completing the manual operation of disconnecting one from the other. He had shouted the all clear to a brakeman who had signaled the engineer to haul away. There was no explanation for what happened next. Mixed signals, mechanical error, stupidity. No one would ever be held accountable. It was simply a tragic mistake, an inevitability when men worked among giant, inexorable machines. The train engine started, the boxcar jerked to life. Jimmy Mitchum thought it was pulling forward as expected and he glanced away. But the engine was in reverse and the cars suddenly rolled back. A foot to the left or right and another moment to realize what had happened and there might have been space and time to escape the impact of one car rolling against another. Instead he stood there, caught directly between the solid iron couplers, taking the full weight on flesh and bone. His skeleton shattered. His insides burst and their hematic content exploded from mouth and nose and eyes. The brakeman screamed for help, and men in the yard rushed over to drag him clear, and they carried him indoors and someone went for a doctor, and someone else went to find the injured man's wife. He was still alive when she got there. Ann cradled the broken form in her arms and, weeping on his bloodstained body, she held him like that for some time after he was gone.
A widow at twenty-five. Two children, another on the way. In compensation for her husband's death, the government awarded Mrs. Mitchum an eighteen-dollar-a-month pension. Ann stayed for a time in Jim's hometown of Lane, then, uncomfortable among the small town strangers, gathered her possessions and kids and returned to her own family in Connecticut. The baby was not yet two years old, but he had perceived the sadness all around him. On the train ride north he was inconsolable, cried all the time, mother and sister would remember. He had been just old enough to feel the imprint of his father's presence and then to feel his absence, and he would carry a sense of loss and abandonment into childhood and beyond.
Ann nursed her grief through the spring and summer. On September 6 the widow gave birth to a boy she named John Newman Mitchum.
She began her life again. Family members did what they could to help out. Some relatives offered more than Ann desired. "Uncle Bill Tetreault, the wrestler, Gertrude's monster," Annette recalled, "he was not a scholar and a gentleman. He made passes at Mother, always putting his hands on her. She told him to stop. We all told him to stop. One time she emptied a full coffeepot with grounds all over his head. That stopped him for then, but he came back and started with the hands on her again. Once she grabbed up a big wad of flypaper and plastered it onto his balding head."
The simpleminded chauvinism of the day painted a widow with much of the same scarlet color attached to a divorcée. A single woman who had experienced sexual relations--the fact of it alone was enough to provoke certain men. Finding a new husband seemed a good idea. She met a man, a jaunty New York Irishman named Bill Clancy. He worked as a newspaper reporter, though as Robert would recall it, the man had other pursuits. He remembered Clancy and some tough guys meeting in the kitchen after midnight, muffled voices. Bootleggers, said Bob. It was a growth industry in any port in those Prohibition days. One way or another the man was not unacquainted with the illegal liquid. On his good days he was a funny, happy fellow with a talent for writing lighthearted and sentimental verse, but he was a drunkard, and the drink turned him angry and violent. One night he went berserk, tearing their house apart and then turning his rage on Ann. "One of my earliest remembrances," wrote John Mitchum, "was coming home with Bob to a dark and empty house, its windows broken out, its doors shattered. Neighbors talked in subdued whispers of Clancy's attempt to kill Mother, who had fled for her life."
They never saw their new stepfather again.
This was Ann's last attempt to create for her children anything like a traditional family environment. From now on tradition was out the window. They were all--mother and kids--just going to have to make it up as they went along.
There was in Ann Gunderson Mitchum Clancy an instinctually unconventional, almost bohemian outlook on life that had lurked beneath the surface of the proper Scandinavian lady. She was intellectually curious, spiritually adventurous. She devoured books, magazines and--it would be a trait Robert would inherit--retained everything with a near photographic memory. She carried the family's genetic predisposition toward the arts, was a talented representational painter, self-taught musician, could read and play music, read and wrote poetry. She encouraged the same love of art and literature in her children. "When she came across poetry that captured her," said Robert, "she would show it to me and read it in cadence. We had a lot of books, a library, and I had the run of it. She really was a great woman."
She was a free thinker, not rebellious but a natural, quiet iconoclast. In a time when conservative narrow-mindedness was the norm and bigotry a commonplace, Ann was independent, nonjudgmental, without racial or ethnic prejudice. She paid at best lip service to the Protestant Church of her forebears. Years later, with typical unconventionality, she--along with her daughters--would become a devoted follower of an Asian-based faith some labeled a mystic sect. An unusual woman. She would raise unusual children.
Robert's independent streak seemed fixed from the cradle. When he was four he walked out the front door of the house and past the front gate and kept going. It took most of the day to find him. He had walked to the edge of town. A woman brought him over to a policeman who took him home. Ann was frantic. Tears in her eyes, she held him and begged him not to do it again. He had just wanted to see what was out there, Robert would recollect.
Sometimes it seemed to Ann that Robert, and then John, too, when he could crawl out of the crib, were just magnets for trouble and disaster. Other mothers' children got scraped knees or bumps on the head. Bob and Jack were always coming home half-murdered. One day, seven-year-old Robert took his little brother with him for a stroll down busy Stratford Avenue. John ran straight before the wheels of a speeding vehicle, his body thrown sideways directly into the path of a second car. As a horrified crowd gathered and an ambulance rushed the unconscious boy to the hospital, Robert turned and ran home to report the news.
"Where is your brother?" asked Ann.
"He's been run over by two cars ... but I don't think he's dead yet.
John's head had been nearly twisted off. His jaw had to be reset and wired into position and a steel plate inserted above the neck at the back of his skull."
One evening, middle of a Connecticut winter, the boys sat with some neighborhood kids on the Bridgeport dock. Bob lost his balance and fell into the icy waters, nearly drowning. A Portuguese fisherman came almost too late, dragging the boy out on a wooden pike. Convulsing with cold, the water on his face and clothing turning to ice, Robert staggered home. His mother found him coated in a layer of frost like a snowman. His skin underneath was blue. He became inflamed with fever. His chest swelled up till he could barely breathe. The doctor said he had pleurisy, and the boy lay in bed for weeks.
When the youngest was old enough to go to school, Ann went out and got a job, first assisting in a photographer's shop and then as a linotypist in the composing room of the local newspaper, the Bridgeport Post. With no father and his mother often not home, John stuck ever closer to his older brother. "They were like twins, inseparable," remembered sister Annette. "A real team, and together they would march out the door, off to get into mischief, as boys will do. I can still see them coming down the street after one of their adventures, all scuffed up, one pants leg up, one down."
Robert was a different person at home with his mother, quiet, a reader from the age of four, devouring books by the hundreds. Mother and sister never did know the other boy who grew up and got into fights and talked all the four-letter words. All their lives, when Bob became famous and they would read the articles in the newspapers, they would never quite recognize the person being written about. "This uncouth ruffian, the one in the papers," said his sister, "that was not him! He was a brilliant person, very self-conscious and with an extremely painful shyness."
It was clearly Ann's secret desire that her children might become artists, as she had once dreamed of becoming. "She nurtured it in all of us," Annette would remember. "She gave us music and books and pictures to look at. She inspired us to think great thoughts, to express ourselves, to dream wonderful dreams." Robert as a child pored over illustrated storybooks and magazines, sometimes drawing his own words and pictures on the blank pages and spaces, continuing the adventures in the books. Doris Dickerson, a young girl whose family later came to live in that Logan Street house, would remember finding some of these books left behind, with their handmade additions, scenes of adventure and travel. In one, on the inside cover, was a bright drawing in colored pencil, a self-portrait: a boy with cowboy hat, six-guns and boots, astride a horse, and below in red block letters the words "THIS IS ME, BOB MITCHUM."
Sister Annette, a beautiful little girl with a head of golden curls, as the oldest child was the first to pursue her artistic impulses in a public sphere. She danced and sang on the street and in the park, whenever the urge took her. A man told her she should be on the stage. "I went to Mother and stomped my foot and said I wouldn't eat my dinner if I couldn't go on the stage. I didn't know what a stage was. Mother told me. She said if that was the case she would send me to get dancing lessons. And she did, and she could hardly afford it. The teachers I went to had a vaudeville act in the season. A song-and-dance act. They liked me and eventually, when I was thirteen, fourteen, I went on the road with them and did my own dance act."
Robert expressed his creativity primarily in words, by the time he was six and seven spending much of his spare time penciling couplets and rhymes and short stories. He wrote things on little pieces of paper, saving some and tossing others to the floor and under the bed. He created his own newspaper he called The Gold Streak, writing short news items interspersed with poems and limericks. Ann took notice of these writings and, pleased and excited, began collecting them, prowling the bedroom for the discarded works as well. One piece of verse she found folded into a tight square holding up a window. She went to her mother: "My son's a writer!" One day she put a sheaf of Bob's verse together and brought it down to the newspaper. There was a children's department at the Post, a page for the young ones appearing every Saturday. The editor of this page was known as Uncle Dudley. Uncle Dudley was an Englishman, a former soldier in the British army named Hugh Cunningham Morris, a dapper middle-aged man with a formal bearing and a thickly plummy accent. Ann told him about her wonderful son and showed him the poems. The Englishman listened and looked, charmed by the young mother, finding her sweetly feminine yet very dignified and self-effacing in the way of the shy Scandinavians. He was so taken by the lovely Norwegian widow that it is probable he would have been kindly disposed toward Bob Mitchum's poems had they been written in drool. But the things Morris saw as he scanned the penciled sheets were dashed good for a little beggar in short pants. He read "The Holy Star" and "Waiting for Dawn" and something called "War Poem" in which the little tyke "caught the grim spirit of the horrors of the battle." Morris told Ann he would like to publish some of her boy's creations and would run as well a brief profile about the lad and his devoted mom. The page ran, with the selection of poems and the sympathetic story and a photo of Robert in overcoat and cap intently scribbling on a pad. Overnight Ann's boy became Bridgeport's most famous, certainly youngest, poet--the "male Nathalia Crane," they called him, after a then famous nine-year-old girl who toured the nation reading her work in a little pinafore. Teachers at the McKinley Grammar School fawned over the youthful literary wonder. People would point at him in the street after the story came out; strangers would come up and want to shake his hand. Robert did not enjoy the public exposure. "He hated people to know how sensitive and vulnerable he was," said his sister. "He didn't express himself because he wanted attention or money. Bob wrote for the same reason that you breathe in and out." He read a book by H. G. Wells and began to wish that, like the character in the story, he could take a drug that would make him invisible.
Ann was delighted by the newspaper story and so grateful to the man who was Uncle Dudley that she asked him to the house for dinner. "He was a beautiful, wonderful man," said Annette Mitchum. "And we hoped that he and mother would see much more of each other."
The newspaper man hoped so too. Ann's admirer was Major Hugh Cunningham Morris, from Landsend, England, late of His Majesty's, slipped into America across the Canadian border. A character seemingly sired by Talbot Mundy out of Rudyard Kipling, Morris had roamed the world, fought in colonial uprisings in strange-sounding countries (young Winston Churchill had been a comrade in the Boer War). His body had sustained the wear and tear of shrapnel wounds, stabbings by irate natives, imprisonment, explosion, shipwreck. His health was far from tip-top, his glory days were behind him now, and he had been just scraping by in the world the last few years. But still a man of great pluck and charm. Sister Annette adored him at once and hoped he would stick around, but the boys were more ambivalent. They treated him as an interloper, paying little interest or respect.
With an ally at the paper putting in a good word, Ann was able to get a better job there, moving over to the editorial department as a proofreader. As Annette had hoped, Mother and Major Morris became quite devoted to one another. They strolled about Bridgeport side by side and he spent much time at the house, though no more than was decent. He understood the boys' initial resentment and applied his great store of charm toward winning them over. He would sit among them after dinner and tell some well-worn stories--they made Annie roll her eyes with embarrassment, some of them, but he did it to tickle the lads. There was the time in Egypt, for instance, leading the Camel Corps back to headquarters after a long, dangerous mission, with the commanding officer and the troops lined up to greet him. He'd stopped his weary mount directly before his nibs the CO and the bloody beast had picked that moment to unload his ballast of water, and the Major had to sit there aloft in the saddle while below him the camel sprayed the commander and forced up a cloud of dust all over the officers and men.
Once Morris arranged to take Robert up in an airplane--his first flight, in goggles and leather helmet, sitting in the tiny open portal behind the Major as they buzzed the farmhouses and skimmed along the riverbank. It was a thrilling adventure but Robert kept his enthusiasm under control. "I'm afraid we kids didn't give this one much of a break for a long time," he would recall.
The brothers remained undisciplined, prone to finding trouble whenever they left the house. It was a boyhood, said Robert, "of broken windows and bloody noses." One of their pals ended up getting an eye shot out with a BB-gun blast. Another time they were playing behind the local ice cream factory when John started a bonfire that swept to the building and burned it to the ground. People stopped chucking Bob under the chin and calling him the new Nathalia Crane. In their East End neighborhood, said John, they came to be known as "them ornery Mitchum boys." They were tough little urchins roaming the streets of Bridgeport. Both of them--just like their father--enjoyed using their fists. Robert was rail thin, with bony arms, but he wasn't afraid of anyone. There was a miserable satisfaction in giving a beating to some of those kids who had things that Robert didn't have. He could understand what that was about years later, looking back. He was jealous of boys whose dads were coming home after work, whose dads carried them on their shoulders or threw a baseball to them or took them fishing.
Papa Gunderson had put a down payment on a farm property in rural Delaware, and it was decided that Petrine (as John would remember it, his grandmother had been dissatisfied with her life in Connecticut and often talked of returning to Norway) along with daughter Gertrude, her husband, and their three children would move out there and try to make a go of it. Bob and Jack learned that they would be going, too. The boys' frequent delinquency and their behavior toward Major Morris doubtless influenced Ann's decision to pack them off with the relatives while she stayed behind in Bridgeport. Ann promised to write and visit them as soon as she could, but it was hard for Robert not to see what she was doing as a second parental abandonment. It only increased his inherent feelings of aloneness and a growing desire to become self-reliant.
In the 1920s, the region of the Gunderson farm in the small mid-Atlantic state was still largely unchanged since the nineteenth-century. There were expanses of virgin forest, horses remained a primary means of transportation and mechanical power, and telephones, radios, and various modern conveniences were not yet commonplace items as they were in Bridgeport. The farm was twenty acres or so of wooded and cultivated land, with an old clapboard main house, a tiny barn, peach and apple trees, forest. They kept a cow for milk and butter, a few chickens provided eggs on a good day, a swayback horse pulled a harrow. Oil lamps gave them light. Water came from a hand pump adjacent to the kitchen door. A sometimes muddy path led across the yard to the outhouse. In the winter the outhouse door would freeze shut and you had to go get a hammer and spike or else go squat in the frozen woods.
Life began at dawn. Uncle Bill, eagerly and for the first time in his life assuming an executive role, banged through the halls yelling, "Rise and shine!" and rousting them all out to begin the day's chores. The kids--the Mitchums and Louise, Patty, and Gil Tetreault--milked the cow, fed chickens, gathered and chopped firewood. Bill was a taskmaster and at times a brutal disciplinarian. Once, Annette recalled, eight-year-old Louise did not jump to when her father barked an order and he knocked her clear across the room. But Bill never touched the Mitchum boys, John would remember. It was part of a sentimental vow he had made to the memory of their father. Their cousins would look on with envy as Jack and his brother often got away with murder.
Robert's life on the farm was a new and exotic adventure. He liked being around the animals, picking fruit off trees, and wielding an ax to chop firewood. He could go swimming in a wooded pond or hike to Jones Beach on Delaware Bay and swim and fish and catch soft-shell crabs (they would bring them back in a sack for Aunt Gertrude to fry). He liked to tramp the woods, walking beyond the pathways into the deep overgrown wilderness so far from any sign or sound of people that he could pretend he had gone all the way to darkest Africa or the jungles of South America. At night in his bunk with the white light of the moon coming through the bedroom window, the dead silence of the farm freed his mind of distractions and he would conjure things from his imagination, images and stories. Some nights he would lie in bed and write rhymes in his head, jotting them down by the moonlight if he thought it worth the effort. In the night, in his bed, he would sometimes hear the keening whistle of a freight train hurtling by somewhere in the distance and he would imagine himself on board, on his way to strange places he had read about in books and dreamed of one day visiting.
John would write that Delaware taught them "about bigotry and red-neck perverseness." The local toughs would come to harass the new city kids but soon found that Robert and Jack were hardly the Connecticut Buster Browns they had imagined. "Bob and I had to fight constantly ... [but] the country boys fought with no style or grace. Their swings, although prodigious, were not exactly championship style." Robert's dangly arms were skinny as toothpicks but he fought with a cold-blooded decisiveness that managed to send most of the yokel attackers running in retreat.
When school opened in the autumn, the brothers hiked a dirt path to the main road and boarded the school bus to Felton High. Seventy years later, surviving schoolmates remembered young Bob Mitchum, skinny, very smart, and from the start bound and determined to get up to something.
"He was so thin then, you couldn't believe how big he got as a man," said seventh-grade classmate Margaret Smith. "His hair was kind of blond, and the face was just all bones, very narrow. They said he was part Indian and he looked like it with very high cheekbones. He was not handsome then! His little brother was the good-looking one." Robert agreed--"I looked like a goddamned little ferret ... my head was one big cowlick."
"Skinny. Long skinny arms, bony face," said Virginia Trice, another Felton schoolgirl. "And that prominent dimple in his chin--that was not something everybody had back then."
"Nice, friendly, nothing uppish about him--of course his family had no money," Emma Warner recalled. "The boys never had anything."
"He wore old clothes, must have been secondhand," said Smith. "They hung off him. A big man's belt that was too big."
"He was a character," said Warner. "Always looking to get into trouble. He was bright. Didn't have to study. I guess that's how come he had time to get into stuff."
"The thing about Bob Mitchum," said Margaret Smith, "he was very, very intelligent. He knew more than the teachers, and he wasn't afraid to stand up and contradict them. And the teachers didn't know what to say, because he would turn out to be right. They just looked embarrassed. He'd stand up and explain the way it should be. He was so advanced--makes our teachers sound kind of dumb, don't it? He was the smartest one in the class that was for sure. But the strange thing is he never took any books home. I never saw him take a book home in his life and yet he knew everything. He was so advanced that it sort of disrupted the class."
"Personally, I thought an awful lot of him," Virginia Trice would say about the boy who became a movie star. "I always got along with him. Most of the kids liked him and ... I think ... even some of the teachers liked him because he had a good personality. A very bright fellow, didn't have to work at school like some of the rest of us. But he was ... ever' once in a while a little mischievous."
Excerpted from Robert Mitchum by Lee Server Copyright © 2002 by Lee Server. Excerpted by permission.
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