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Robert Redford’s early life was dominated by women. They were not the women of New England, but women of the West. His mother, Martha Hart Redford, was, he says, the center of his universe. She taught him to drive when he was eight, taught him to draw, to role-play in games. She connected him with the past, introducing him to Native Americans on Navajo reservations in Arizona and to Yosemite. These conjunctions came naturally to her, because she was the stuff of the West, descended from Texans who were, in spirit, the polar opposite of the Redfords. A century before, the Harts and Greens of the maternal family line lived a frontier life along the Mississippi Valley, religiously random, indulgent, drifting. The Harts were Galway-Irish, the Greens Scots-Irish, and both families came to America through the southern colonies in the mid-eighteenth century. The Harts followed the frontier to Missouri; the Greens followed the money to Boston. While the Harts drifted, the Greens built one of the first large-scale printing presses in Boston in 1790. When a similarly ambitious undertaking in Arkansas failed, George Green set out with his family by wagon train in 1853 to settle lands near Austin, Texas. Along with three partners, he founded a new town called San Marcos. In no time George, a slave owner, had established mining interests and a loan company. His son, Edwin Jeremiah, known to all as Ed, was twelve when they set up in Texas. By the age of twenty he had expanded the family’s businesses into every variety of service provision for miners across the region. He also built Green’s Anglican Church next door to the family bank. During his service in the Confederate army, young Ed’s wife died and he married her sister, Eliza Jane, who bore him six children, including Eugene, Robert Redford’s maternal great-grandfather. As San Marcos’s fortunes grew during Reconstruction, Ed became a legendary figure, a titan of the local business world. Among his social circle was another celebrated ex–Confederate officer, Zachariah P. Bugg, the sheriff of a Tennessee township. Zach’s daughter Mattie married Eugene in 1891. Out of this union came Sallie Pate Green, Robert Redford’s grandmother.
Sallie Pate’s childhood was one of privilege and tragedy. Eugene Green followed his father into mining and banking, but died suddenly at twenty, when his daughter was just months old. Shortly after, his teenage widow, Mattie, died of typhoid. Ed became de facto father to Sallie and rechristened her Mattie, in memory of her mother. She was the apple of his eye. In 1896, when Sallie was three, Ed’s wife passed away. Shortly afterward he married Alice Young Bohan, a recently widowed sister of his former wives. Alice was affectionate but not maternal, and Ed was sixty-five; it was Sallie’s good fortune that the black wet nurse, Nicey, a Green household fixture since her own childhood, became an affectionate substitute mother.
In 1909, as Sallie turned sixteen, America’s fascination with the new automotive culture, started ten years before by Henry Ford, was peaking. That fall, Sallie attended a county fair advertising a race for custom roadsters, one of dozens held across the country. The race was won by the Bluebird, the handiwork of a shoe salesman turned inventor/mechanic, recently arrived from El Paso, named Tot Hart. Having won the attention of Sallie and the rest of the Green family, he was invited by them
Archibald “Tot” Hart was, like the Greens, of a western cut. His father, John Gabriel, was a traveling salesman from Spotsylvania, Virginia, who married an Ohioan, Ida Woodruff, in Missouri in 1885. In 1897, when Tot was eight, his father succumbed to cirrhosis, dying at the side of the road, and two years later his mother lay on her deathbed, urging her sons to pledges of temperance. Foster homes were found for Tot and his brother. Tot was small, but he had the energy of a terrier and liked the notion of risk. As with his father before him, the frontier beckoned. He headed south with nothing but the clothes he walked in, he later told Redford.
In the years that followed, Tot learned the survival skills he would ultimately pass on to Robert Redford. “He was a modern mountain man,” Redford recalls. “He was a child when he hit the road, but it was do or die. He took work wherever he could find it, and learned to live off the land, hunting small game and harvesting berries. He loved the outdoors, but he also possessed a great gift with mechanical devices. Because he had to, he learned to build. He could build anything: furniture, boats, guns, even automobiles from scratch. He followed fifty trades, whatever paid for a crust of bread.”
Tot fell for Sallie. It was the unlikeliest of marriages. Tot was dwarfish beside the mannequin figure of Sallie. His coloring was mousy and weatherbeaten; hers, a pampered tan.He had no education; she had good schooling behindher. Hewasquiet; she was talkative, vain, sociable.But their common bond was ambition. Surviving on the edge, Tot had become foxy and tenacious.
Years of traveling and scheming had honed his ambition: to build houses and cities on the edge of the frontier. The Greens and their connections afforded him a supreme opportunity. Sallie understood this. Rooted in Texas after their 1913 marriage,Tot began to build. With Ed’s help, Tot constructed a Prairie-style home on the shores of Lake Austin at Travis Heights that became the blueprint for a community of homes by the lake built over the next ten years.
On April 12, 1914, Sallie gave birth to their only child, Martha, and their fortunes seemed secure. But almost immediately, through bad partnerships and failing health, Ed Green’s empire began to slide. The properties Tot labored over failed to sell. Sallie began to drink. By the 1920s she was all but incapacitated as an alcoholic, and Tot was seeking comfort in the company of other women. Ed Green’s death in 1924 devastated Sallie, but it was nothing compared with the humiliation of Tot’s relationship with Mary P. Robinson, a well-heeled neighbor who flaunted their affair.
In the midst of her alcoholic despair Sallie experienced a religious conversion. “The doctor said, ‘That’s it, there’s nothing anyone can do for her,’ ” Redford recalls his mother telling him. “Then, at the last minute, someone recommended this Christian Science woman doctor down the street who could work miracles. This woman was summoned, and gave Sallie the literature that changed her world. It was like a light switch. Sallie got out of bed, stopped drinking and swore never to touch liquor again, and she never did.”
After six months’ separation,Tot and Salliewere divorced in June 1928. In search of a newbeginning, Sallie daringly decided on the faraway pastures of California, where some cousins lived. Armed with telephone numbers and a few hundred dollars from the settlement, Sallie and thirteen-year-old Martha headed west.
The Redfords, meanwhile, had also begun the move west. Ten years before, Elisha’s granddaughter Grace, disenchanted with the increasingly anarchist movement headed by her hero Emma Goldman, landed a teaching post in Los Angeles, leaving her sister teaching in the dull confines of a ramshackle school in the heart of the most impoverished area. Elisha was dead by then, but the fabric of security he had sought to weave was rapidly coming undone. Charles had become a deadbeat, preferring his music, or a day at the bar, to barbering. Eventually he would become an insurance salesman. Charles Elijah had drifted into vaudeville. Redford remembers Charles Elijah as “Tiger,” a wry moniker derived from his sandy complexion and grumbling persona. They grew close late in Tiger’s life, and Redford viewed the old man as a stubborn introvert whose emotions never surfaced. For Tiger, Redford believes, vaudeville was not an indulgence, but an escape to a rosier life. Business and industry had variables, but given its scope, vaudeville seemed a sure thing. All across the East, theaters were flourishing. Composers, lyricists and music publishers were rolling in dough. Tin Pan Alley was a boomtown, and the talent-packaging houses of William Morris, Klaw and Erlanger and Keith-Albee could hardly keep pace with audience demand. Tiger’s violin skills were such that a wealthy Westerly patron had offered him sponsorship for the Conservatoire in Vienna, but vaudeville seemed to him like the better bet. “I have a picture in my head,” says Redford, “of the terrible drabness of life for immigrants from Europe, the financial struggles, the political and religious tensions. And then vaudeville comes to town in the painted tent. Suddenly there are people with greasepaint faces and funny hats. Suddenly there is laughter! I have an image of Tiger on his knees, lifting the edge of some circus tarpaulin, peeping into a happier world. No more struggle. No more stress. Freedom!” Tiger easily found a place in the orchestral pits of the B. F. Keith circuit, where he earned $7.50 a week in 1910, the year the Marx Brothers, then billed as theMarks Brothers, set forth on the same circuit.
In 1911 Tiger married Cornish-born textile worker Lena Taylor, whose grandmother came from Kircubbin, County Down, in Ireland. She was six feet tall, a good eight inches more than Tiger, and had a loud Irish manner and a booming voice. But she was no match for Tiger’s stubbornness. The newlyweds settled into a rented wooden home in the Irish-Italian section of neighboring Westerly, across the Pawcatuck River. On November 19, 1914, a son, once again named Charles, was born, followed by David George on March 5, 1918. Now Tiger struggled to keep up. Bigtime success evaded him, and he was an increasingly absent husband and father, chasing the expanding Keith circuit through the Midwest, eking out a few bucks in the pits while a jokey fiddle player named Ben Kubelsky—soon to be rechristened Jack Benny—burned up the center stage, earning $350 a week. When he was at home, his wife’s severe rheumatoid arthritis complicated matters. Travel took its toll, too. In his memoirs Jack Benny described the Keith treadmill as “constant getting on a train, getting off a train, carrying your bags to the cheapest hotel or boardinghouse, running to the theater, running, playing three, four, five shows a day, smiling when you faced the audience, taking your bow and fighting all the time for a better place on the bill.” Sometime in the midtwenties, a couple of years before the end of vaudeville, Tiger retired to part-time violin teaching and occasional silent movie accompaniments at the Garde and Capitol theaters in New London, Connecticut. Five years later he unstrung his fiddles, carefully draped them with burial sheets and never touched them again.
Under Lena’s influence Tiger assumed a Fenian sensibility, humming “Danny Boy” and sharing Lena’s oft- repeated tales of the heroic emergence of the Irish Free State. Much of his neighborhood, however, was immersed in Italian ways. Since the 1890s, floods of indigent Italians from Calabria and Sicily had populated ghettos that overspread the well-established Irish communities. Tiger was happy among the Italians, but he also sought out the Irish drinking community and was at home among the old guard. “Once he settled, all the family became Republican Irish,” says Redford. “I think it was a progression of his personal inbuilt rebelliousness.” Rebellion was certainly apparent in the next generation of Redfords. The young boys, Charlie and David, were good students, but they were intoxicated by the Jazz Age. They stayed out too late too often and were punished for it. David made adjustments, finally kowtowing to a disciplined school life. But Charlie stayed wild, reveling in his natural athleticism and a rapier wit like Tiger’s. In many ways the boys were unalike. David was tall and black haired like Lena; Charlie was smaller and sandy haired. David seemed to make peace with himself early on; Charlie remained irascible. Tiger foresaw trouble, and it wasn’t long in coming. At fourteen Charlie started a relationship with an Italian bargirl that caused controversy in the neighborhood and embarrassment for Lena, who was now wheelchair- bound. Tiger wrote in desperation to his sister in Los Angeles. The only option, he said, was to get Charlie out of town. Grace, now living and teaching at Morocco Junction, just five miles from Hollywood, agreed. Charlie Redford was going west.
On a hot spring Sunday in 1928, fourteen-year-old George Menard, a transplanted Chicagoan, grew bored with morning services at the Fourth Street Christian Science Church in Santa Monica and sneaked out. He spotted a parked Model T on fire, grabbed a garden hose, lifted the hood and doused the engine. “A couple of minutes later,” rememberedMenard, “church let out and this dark apparition sailed toward me, about thirteen or fourteen years old, with an older lady by her side. It was their automobile
I’d rescued, and they were grateful and so began a great friendship.” The pretty girl that Menard admired was Martha Hart, and the woman was her mother, Sallie, just arrived from Texas. Martha had enrolled at University High School in West Los Angeles. Menard’s sister Poofie had enrolled at the same school and would shortly become Martha’s best school friend. George, operating in a different social circle, would coincidentally become best friends with a new arrival from the East Coast named Charlie Redford, who also attended Uni High. “But at that moment I wasn’t thinking what a great match she’d make for someone else,” said
Menard. “I was thinking I’d like her for myself.”
In later years, Redford learned from hismother about her smooth transition into Californian life. “When Texas came to California, it was a big deal,” he says. “Sallie had renewed her health, and she was determined to reinvent herself as a social butterfly.Mymother was naturally fun loving and extroverted, so they were on the right wavelength and in the right place.” Sallie contacted her cousins, theWards and the Giesens—old San Marcos settler families—who were well- heeled regulars in the society columns. Sallie’s uncle Phil, a transplanted Chicagoan who had the Packard dealership in Beverly Hills, became a surrogate father to Martha. Phil’s wife, Marge, was the sister of up- and- comingHollywood actor Robert Young.
Though Tot sent money and maintained a strangely passionate commitment to both mother and daughter, Sallie had met Nelson Bengston, a man who exuded an aura of calm and reserve, the apparent antithesis of Tot. Bengston had turned from defense work to real estate during the Depression, but he was, says Robert Redford, a frustrated artist who was also a recovering alcoholic. The couple met at the Christian Science church: a shared belief in the curative power of religion bonded them, and, says Redford, their harmonious relationship allowed Martha’s confidence to grow.
At Uni High, Martha thrived. She joined the glee club, the drama society, the writers’ club. Judging by her school reports and the memories of those who knew her, she didn’t so much rise to popularity as to reverence. She had the face and figure of a movie star and reminded people of Gene Tierney. She loved poetry and singing. She kept scrupulous scrapbooks, which reveal page after page of theatrical cartoons, jokey clippings about Will Rogers, lists of her many favorite popular songs (“Sweetheart Darling,”
“Secondhand Store,” “Cabin in the Pines”), quotes from Keats and Shelley and her own poetry, bright as Pollyanna. Obviously she had with-stood adversity well, surviving economic hardship, the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and relocation. She remained attached to her father, but the strength of her mother seemed her greatest advantage. She laughed her way, say friends, through the Depression.
After high school graduation, Martha enrolled at Santa Monica Junior College, a transitional education institution hugely popular with well-off Angelenos. Her diaries show her popularity: boys were attracted to her like flies. Her first teenage love had been Zachary Scott, a fellow Texan who’d headed to England as she left for Los Angeles and was now making headway in regional theater. There was no shortage of substitutes. George Menard recalled that “most boys chased Martha from the day she arrived in L.A.” But her eye was on Charlie Redford, who had also transferred to Santa Monica Junior College. According to Menard, Charlie, too, was a magnet for suitors. “They were really both spectacular creatures,” said Menard, “but they were temperamentally totally unalike. Charlie stuttered. She was cheeky. He adored sports but she preferred to read Carl Sandburg. And of course he was a Yankee and she a Confederate.”
“Still, from the moment they met, they were close, like twins,” says another close college friend,Marcella Scott. “Charlie was living at the corner house on Bundy andWilshire with his aunt Grace, who taught at Uni High, but he was restless.He was going through big changes. You detected this terrible insecurity in his stutter and also in his anger a lot of the time. Maybe it was embarrassment about the failures of his family and the poverty back east, which contrasted with the comforts of Los Angeles.” Menard remembered the comforts of Grace’s home, her intelligence, her warmth and her “historic” Boston bean soup. Most of all he remembers the wall-to-wall bookcases. “When Charlie and I weren’t playing football or baseball, we were reading. The atmosphere in Grace’s home was perfect for it, and for Charlie it became a mission of self- improvement.” Menard was almost jealous of his friend’s nimble progress. Charlie was chosen for the prestigious student body commission, then became the leading sportswriter on the college quarterly, The Samojac. The literary spurt, says Scott, was more Martha’s influence than Grace’s. It was Martha the A student who drove him. “Let’s give credit where it’s due: he owed a lot toMartha,” says Scott.
In the winter of 1934, asMartha angled for a career by starting secretarial studies atWestwood’s Sawyer Business School, Charlie’s choices seemed few. Grace worked hard to support him, but she had just a schoolteacher’s pay and a rented home. “It was still the Depression,” saidMenard, “and we were, metaphorically, on a very limited playing field.” The options were low-paid work with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) or the military. Through the winter, said Menard, Charlie was “bothered” about his future. At the same time, he was buoyant in his growing romance with Martha. At Christmas he sent her a card depicting old-timers on a pony cart with a funny caption suggestive of their close relationship: “We can’t go on like this, Martha. We’re just playing with fire!” Martha laughingly showed the card to her friends, then stuck it in her scrapbook beside the playbill for Romeo and Juliet, which they had seen that summer.
Charlie and Menard decided to join the CCC, digging on the Roosevelt (later Pacific Coast) Highway for $30 a month. After a few weeks Charlie converted his junior college academic results—straight A’s in business—into a part-time clerical job at the stock exchange, working for E. F. Hutton of Beverly Hills. In the tight privacy of their relationship, says Marcella
Scott, Martha and Charlie never seemed happier. Then, in February, Martha fell ill with a blood disorder. A critical complication was that she was several weeks pregnant. Christian Science, formerly a tower of strength, became a liability. Under the restrictions of her religion, blood transfusions were not allowed. Martha’s condition worsened. She showed signs of escalating pernicious anemia and it was feared she was dying of blood poisoning.
Beyond Charlie and the doctors, no one knew of Martha’s pregnancy. “There was a sudden change of atmosphere,” says Scott, who was then Martha’s closest friend. “One moment Martha was the footloose fun lover who was everywhere, then she had vanished like a ghost. We had no idea of the severity of this crisis. Looking back, in the context of her health and the judgmental ways of that era, the predicament must have been sheer hell for both of them.”
When Sallie found out, she was torn between her religious convictions and her daughter’s life. The best blood specialist was consulted. Martha entered SantaMonicaHospital, and an obstetrician was called in to supervise the baby’s expected delivery in September. The crisis lasted months, but graduallyMartha’s anemia was brought under control. The pregnancy, however, remained in doubt. In July, Lena sent Martha a warmly reassuring card, signed “from Charles’ mother, father and brother.” Martha was keen on marriage, says Scott, but Charlie initially hesitated. He was genuinely in love, Scott insists, “but had a complete lack of confidence, based on his family’s experience, of his ability to create a stable, prosperous home.” In August, six weeks before her due date, Martha, who had been released from the hospital and was at home muddling through a heat wave while keeping up with the Berlin Olympics on the radio, was rushed back to start a long, difficult labor.
On the evening of August 18 in her third- floor room, Martha delivered a seven-pound, thirteen-ounce boy. Charles Robert Redford Jr., the name Martha had already decided on, was a blue baby, rushed immediately to intensive care. “My mother said it was touch-and-go,” Redford recalls. “There was a serious lack of oxygen in her blood often associated with congenital heart defects. None of this was ever properly diagnosed, because of the background religious conditioning and the restrictions of treatment and medication. It didn’t look like I’d make it. With the medical care available then, very few blue babies survived. She was in the grip of a terrible distress.” After three days the baby stabilized. Martha, ever the resilient fighter, quickly regained her strength and pride. There was no longer any point in covering up. To the Redford and Hart families, she sent out frilled blue cards announcing: “A welcome guest has come to stay. We thought you’d like to know the name, the weight, the day.” The cards were signed “Mr. & Mrs. Charles Redford.” When Martha was released from the hospital, Sallie and Nelson took the baby while the couple drove south to Nogales, Arizona. On November 20, unknown to their closest friends, they tied the knot at a pueblo chapel. Soon after, they were living in suburbia, a pair of happy young marrieds with a bungalow and a baby.