When I was nineteen years old, I took off from home, went to Hollywood, and worked in the movies for a year or so. This was back before the war, 1938, 1939. Jobs were still hard to come by in those days, but they were making cheap cowboy pictures as fast as they could churn them out, and I met a bronc rider at the Burns Roundup who told me you could get work down there if you could fall off a horse without breaking any bones. Or, if you broke one, at least not cry about it. He’d been working in the movies himself, but he went back to rodeo because bronc riding was duck soup compared to stunt riding, he claimed, and he wasn’t looking to get killed or crippled.
Well, I was foolheaded in those days, looking for ways to get myself into trouble—carrying too much sail, as we used to say—and all I’d been doing for the past year and a half was picking up ranch work when I could and riding rodeo without ever making much money at it. I figured I might as well get paid for what I was good at, which was bailing off.
When I was a kid I’d had the idea that the cowboys made those two-gun westerns more or less the way we played games, one of us saying, “Okay, you get shot this time.” I had some notion that they’d put me on a silver-trimmed saddle and a flashy pinto and I’d be riding hell-for-leather alongside Ken Maynard or some other cowboy star.
I was still only a half-baked kid, so I guess you could say I didn’t know any better, but when I got down to Hollywood I ran into plenty of men thirty and forty years old who’d come into town with that same idea, fellows hanging around Gower Gulch in their pawnshop cowboy clothes looking to get hired to be the next Tim McCoy. Well, I wound up in a picture with Tim McCoy. I rode in a Ken Maynard movie, met Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson, all those actors, which doesn’t mean much anymore—kids these days wouldn’t know who the heck I was talking about. But back then every kid was cowboy-proud, cowboy-crazy, even the ones like me who’d grown up riding horses and working cattle and should have known better.
I was late coming to understand that the cowboy pictures didn’t show much about real ranching. You never saw a movie cowboy hauling salt up to the high pastures or building fence around a haystack or helping a heifer figure out what to do with her first calf. Those movies were full of bank robberies and stage holdups, feuds, galloping posses, murderous Indians, and claim jumpers—nothing I ever saw growing up. But in the movies it all made sense. A bad guy was to blame for whatever had gone wrong, and at the end everything turned out right. If death came for anybody in the picture, it was always clean, unlingering, unsuffering. If somebody you cared about was dying, they had strength and breath for last words, and that seemed to make it almost okay. I don’t remember actually thinking my life in Hollywood would be like the movies, but some of that must have come into my mind.
The plain truth is, some of those cowboy stars I admired turned out to be sons of bitches, or fakes who couldn’t ride worth applesauce, and what I did for the movies was mostly act like I was shot and fall off horses that were a long way from flashy. There were more than a few days I wondered if it was worth it. I saw men get busted up, I saw horses killed, and I discovered there wasn’t a bit of glory in making those damn movies.
All that picture business was finished for me a long time ago. For that matter, you could say Hollywood is finished with the cowboy. I used to have to cross the street to keep away from whatever hay-burner was playing in town, used to turn off the television to keep from seeing all those horse operas every night of the week—I just knew too much about how they got made. But now I can’t recall the last time I saw a horse on the screen. The movie cowboy has gone downtown and into outer space: now it’s all squealing tires and things blowing up, every picture trying to make a bigger fireball than the last one.
I might be tempted to think the whole country is done with cowboys, except every so often I open up the newspaper to see some Yale or Harvard lawyer who’s gone into politics, posing in his new white Stetson and ironed Levis, sitting on a tall horse and squinting into the camera like he’s spent his whole life in the West Texas sun, and I think, Well, there it is again.
I will say right here that this isn’t the whole story of my life; somebody else will have to take that up after I’m dead. The time I studied with Benton, the work I did for the Autry Center, the frescoes in Santa Fe and Carson City and the Truman Library, the book art for Jack Schaefer—none of it would have happened if I hadn’t grown up the way I did and spent that year riding horses in the movies. When I was starting out as an artist, I thought I would paint what I knew of life in the rural West, a life where people did real work, significant work, and the risk and the suffering were real. But I floundered for a long time, feeling I didn’t have the language to say anything new. It was Lily Shaw, arguing with me in letters that went back and forth between us for thirty years, who helped me see where my Hollywood year fit into things, the intersection where the West I knew growing up cuts across our great mythmaking machine, which is Hollywood. And the way those two things have always bent and shaped each other, have always been so tightly bound together they can’t be untangled. I grew up with Tom Mix as the model for how to be a cowboy, so I know I was tangled in it myself.
What I want to write about is what I saw and did down there in Hollywood and what it meant—what it means—in my life and work.
I am writing this for Lily. And also for my sister, and in some way for my parents, which I guess will become clear elsewhere in these pages.