One of the movies' greatest actors and most colorful characters, a real-life tough guy with the prison record to prove it, Robert Mitchum was a movie icon for an almost unprecedented half-century, the cool, sleepy-eyed star of such classics as The Night of the Hunter; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; Cape Fear; The Longest Day; Farewell, My Lovely; and The Winds of War. Mitchum's powerful presence and simmering violence combined with hard-boiled humor and existential detachment to create a new style in movie acting: the screen's first hipster antihero-before Brando, James Dean, Elvis, or Eastwood-the inventor of big-screen cool.
Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care" is the first complete biography of Mitchum, and a book as big, colorful, and controversial as the star himself. Exhaustively researched, it makes use of thousands of rare documents from around the world and nearly two hundred in-depth interviews with Mitchum's family, friends, and associates (many going on record for the first time ever) ranging over his seventy-nine years of hard living. Written with great style, and vividly detailed, this is an intimate, comprehensive portrait of an amazing life, comic, tragic, daring, and outrageous.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
Lee Server is the author of the critically acclaimed Danger Is My Business; Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground; Over My Dead Body; and other works on cinema history and popular culture.
Lee Server is the author of several books on film and fiction, including the Danger Is My Business, Sam Fuller: Film Is A Battleground, Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don’t Care” and Over My Dead Body! He lives in Red Bank, NJ.
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"Baby, I Don't Care"
By Lee Server
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Lee Server
All rights 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 divorcee. 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."
Excerpted from Robert Mitchum by Lee Server. Copyright © 2001 Lee Server. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Ferret-Faced Kid,
2. Boxcar to the Promised Land,
3. In a Dead Man's Hat,
4. The Man with the Immoral Face,
5. The Snakes Are Loose,
6. Occupation: Former Actor,
7. Phantom Years,
8. Our Horseshit Salesman,
9. The Story of Right Hand/Left Hand,
10. Foreign Intrigue,
11. Gorilla Pictures,
12. The Smirnoff Method,
13. Poet with an Ax,
14. Baby, I Don't Care,
15. ... I Used to Be Handsome,
16. Big Sleep,
17. Guys Like Me Last Forever,
Also by Lee Server,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This story is something else! "Baby, I Don't Care" is my second selection of reading by this author during the last six months. "Love is Nothing", his biography on Ava Gardner, like "Mitchum" held my intrigue with these two as much as I would ever want. Some readings can slip to boring at least in parts. These two books never went that way. Mitchum pretty much was a day to day liver. Mentally busy with a secure IQ. Some things did not matter to him but his focus and work ethic were commendable for the most part. Unabashed to a degree that should have been better controlled. Though not an example of a Hollywood insider he was still there, and deep in it. There are laughable moments throughout the book, some big eye-openers. If you have a little curiosity about Robert Mitchum, this book is a good choice, one I would recommend. I certainly recommend this one.
I need to clarify that I really enjoyed this book, but I could have done without all of the details about so many things. He was quite a character, so I waded through all of the boring details to finally reach the end.
Probably the best bio I have ever read.Mitchum certainly was his own man.Kudos to Lee Server.
This is a 'MUST READ' book for anyone that feels badly about their childhood, the life they live, and what they want to do 'in spite of'. Many remember him from the 'drug, women,drinking' 'image'. This author has finally brought part of the 'Rest of the story' into 'perspective'. There is more... Robert Mithcum always LOVED his WIFE. He LOVED his CHILDREN. This would make a great movie.....
Knew he was original but didn't realize just how original he really was. Full of great movie and actors history for that time period. Good read.
The book has its slow sections, and the author has sympathy & admiration for his subject. The book is very well wruitten for the most part, and the author spends alot of time describing how talented, intelligent and well read Mitchum was. But, he doesn't really explain why Mitchum insisted on being viewed as...well to be frank..a big dope.