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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Why “The Crying Indian,” cried

Note the tear falling from his right eye

Iron Eyes Cody was the perfect movie Indian. He appeared in over 200 of them, back in the days when no one called Indians Native Americans. The first New World explorers were looking for a westward passage to India and thought they’d found it, so the natives of this new continent were called Indians. That’s that, so Iron Eyes was an Indian and he didn’t mind being called one. He was quite successful at being one.
Marshall McLuhan, the media whiz, once said, “We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” Once the New World invaders had killed most of the indigenous Indians with bullets, diseases and the heartbreak of broken treaties, a wave of artistic nostalgia for the lost frontier arose. On the stage, in music, and especially in the newly developed art of moviemaking, the Winning of the West became an extremely popular subject. For the most part, movie Indians were depicted as savage, treacherous, stubborn and bloodthirsty obstacles to White Progress. There were a few good ones, though. They were proud, courageous, and trustworthy. Iron Eyes Cody was usually one of that kind. He played the Noble Indian over a hundred times.
When asked, Iron Eyes Cody told folks he was born on April 3, 1912, near Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. His mother was Cree. His father was mostly Cherokee, he said, and was known as Thomas Longplume. Through time Iron Eyes ancestral name changed to Codey and then Cody.
Iron Eyes Cody entered the movie business around 1925 thanks to his father’s role as technical adviser to a Howard Hughes western. The boy could recite the Great Spirit prayer, do rope tricks, knew sign language and could speak parts of five Indian languages. The family still lived in Oklahoma at the time, but soon moved to California to work with the movie industry. At first Iron Eye’s father operated a business renting Indian props and costumes to the studios. With time the boy acted in bit parts.
From the very beginning, he said, he tried to convince the studios to avoid cliches about Indian life and present the story of his people with accuracy and dignity. They wouldn’t take his advice, he said, being more interested in making money with bloodthirsty stories. He stayed for the paycheck, but vowed to keep trying to be a positive influence, which actually happened over time.
In one one of his three memoirs, “Iron Eyes Cody: The Proud American,” 1988 (with Marietta Thompson): he appears in publicity stills with such well known people as Tim McCoy, Gene Autry, Lucille Ball, Roy Rogers (making sign language together), Jimmy Cagney, Jane Russell (whom he taught to shoot bow and arrow for “Paleface”), Bela Lugosi, Bing Crosby, Jim Thorpe, Jay Silverheels, Abbott and Costello, Polly Bergen, Howard Keel, Ronald Reagan, Tom Ewell, Fess Parker, Wally Cox, Stubby Kaye, Mickey Rooney, Dan Blocker, Lee Van Cleef, Ben Johnson and Errol Flynn, to name but a few.
For his unstinting promotion of American Indian causes he was named to nearly every important Indian affairs committee in the United States. His writing describes his meetings with such luminaries as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Walt Disney, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.
Cody was often asked if had posed for the Indian Head U.S. nickel. No, he answered, but that was my uncle, Chief John Big Tree, who also posed for James Earle Fraser’s famous statue “End of the Trail.”
To most Americans Iron Eyes Cody might have remained an obscure cinema footnote, his not having ever had a starring role, but for one famous television commercial. A public service campaign, Keep America Beautiful, emerged to fight the increasing problem of highway litter. The ad agency decided that nothing could be more iconic of a pristine American way of life than an American Indian. And no one looked and acted that role more than Iron Eyes Cody. There was a huge print campaign, including billboards, but nothing made the point as famously as an anti-pollution TV commercial, timed to coincide with the first Earth Day in 1971.
In the commercial (easily seen on YouTube) a solitary Indian paddles his canoe through polluted waters to come ashore on a waste-strewn beach. He takes a few steps just as someone throws a plastic bag of trash from a passing automobile. It lands at his feet. He looks down and then looks up and around at the smoggy, messy American landscape, his noble aboriginal face the only unspoiled sight in this man-ruined environment. The camera delivers a sudden close-up as he turns his gaze to look directly into the camera, a tear falling from his right eye. “People start pollution. People can end it,” solemnly intones the narrator, William Conrad.
The ad was a sudden overnight sensation. And thus, so too was Iron Eyes Cody, the actor hired to play what people began calling “The Crying Indian.” He became America’s best-known American Indian. The demand for public appearances by him never stopped for the rest of his life.
Oh, there was one small hiccup for a while, but just a little while: In 1996 a half-sister blew his cover. She claimed that Chief Iron Eyes Cody was actually Espera Oscar de Corti. He was born, she said, in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, in 1904. He was the second son of Antonio de Corti and Frencesca Salpietra, recent immigrants from Sicily. As a teenager he anglicized his name to Corti and it was but a short hop from there to Cody, after Buffalo Bill Cody. Modern biographies now treat the sister’s claim as true.
The reaction to this big reveal? Not much. De Corti avoided the subject, continued his American Indian ancestry claims and pronounced his sister mistaken. The public appearances continued. He was over 90 at the time and few people felt a need to call him out about it. He’d played the role for so long he had absorbed it deep in his psyche. Perhaps it was the other way around.
Either way, people need heroes with good stories more than they need more tales of ethnic identity theft. Cody died in 1999 and was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Later that year a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.

Written for the August 5, 2015 issue of The Chestnut Hill Local

Politics 2016: Yes, Virginia, there is no Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker nor John E. Hollister

 Woe and double woe, as William Wordsworth used to say after a hard day of daffodil worship. “The world is too much with us; late and soon,” he’d add, watching his shot glass sink into his beer mug. Mumble, mumble, mutter-mutter, then stumble home from the pub for succor from this dissembling world. Small wonder he turned away from human commerce and sought the world of nature, where things always are what they seem to be.
(Except for Angler fish, one must admit, they whose tongues look like worms to unsuspecting smaller fish; plus certain kinds of carnivorous flowers (e.g. the Venus flytrap), or camouflaged insects that sneak up on their prey, and so on. And that’s not to mention all the cases of aggressive mimicry found in nature, where a plant or creature appears – like a politician – to be some other species.)
But why quibble? Let’s grant Wordsworth his due: Nature is grand, but People are not always whom they seem to be.
A few examples. The first comes from – gosh this is so trivial, but examples must be chosen – a recent Dave Eggers New Yorker article on Hollister, California. Turns out that the town of Hollister
has nothing to do with the Hollister line of clothing offered by Abercrombie and Fitch. Mostly jeans, sweat shirts and sweat pants, A&F have sold close to two billion dollars worth of this brand.
With each purchase comes a story that goes like this: the eponymic John M. Hollister was born around 1895, spent his summers in Maine and graduated from Yale in 1915. Rejecting the New York business world, he set sail for the Dutch East Indies, purchased a rubber plantation in 1917, fell in love with a woman named Meta, and bought a fifty-foot schooner. Hollister and Meta sailed around the South Pacific for a while but eventually settled in Los Angeles, in 1919. They opened a shop in Laguna Beach that sold goods from the South Pacific. John Jr., a surfer, added surf clothing and gear of such spirited quality that the business became a globally recognized brand. The Hollister story, Abercrombie proudly tells us, is one of “passion, youth and love of the sea,” evoking “the harmony of romance, beauty, and adventure.” Buy the product, you’re buying into the lifestyle. You’re telling the world who you are. Stand back!
Hate to tell you this if you’re wearing their gear, but none of this is true. Most of Abercrombie & Fitch’s brands—including the now defunct Gilly Hicks and Ruehl No. 925—have fictional backstories, said to have been conceived by Mike Jeffries, the company’s former C.E.O. Abercrombie & Fitch pulled the name Hollister out of thin air.
don’t know about you, but I was heartbroken. After all, I’m just getting over learning that the wine cooler guys, Bartles and Jaymes, were phony people invented by an ad company. Those two folksy-nitwit wine merchants sometimes stood in a bog to demonstrate the elusive concept of “fresh fruit.” From 1984 to 1991 two actors portrayed these fictional underdogs who ended their pitches with the slogan, “Thank you for your support.” The underdog company that offered Bartles and Jaymes (a made-up ad name) wine coolers was E & J Gallo Winery.
There’s a long list of other fictive commercial icons. For example, Betty Crocker. Created by taking a popular woman’s first name, Betty, and combining it with the last name of the retiring Washburn-Crosby CEO William C. Crocker. Betty was introduced in 1921 as spokeswoman for Gold Medal flours.
Another example: Aunt Jemima’s pancake fame began when her name was taken from a minstrel show song back in the 1889 by a fledging pancake company. Various images of the fictive “plantation mammy” were used over the years by pancake manufacturers. In a Saturday Evening Post ad of 1920 she appears with a fictional bio that tells, among other things, a story of how she once entertained a Confederate general back in 1864 with a giant heap of fragrant pancakes. Not even remotely true, but oh so reassuring to white folks. Gosh, the ur-version of “Why can’t we all get along?”
Like Burt Shavitz, from Burt’s Bees, (another misrepresentation), Aunt Jemima appeared as a living trademark for years. Her image was updated in 1989 by the removal of her bandana and the addition of a pearl earring.
Speaking of selling things through fiction writing, consider the world of politics and the upcoming TV commercials coming our way. Each candidate will struggle for the next two years to create a persona and fable meant to tell us who to vote for. Or against. Joe McGinness’ “The Selling of the President 1968” remains the classic in this field. McGinness describes life backstage as Roger Ailes’ (now president of Fox News) “packaged” Richard Nixon, using all the tools and techniques of Madison Avenue. It was a bit shocking to read at the time, though most folks now take such maneuvering for granted.

                        Written for the July 22, 2015 issue of The Chestnut Hill Local

If you thought you were being attacked, do you have anything you would use to defend yourself with?

We almost laughed at the Customs Officer’s questions as we waited for clearance to enter Canada, en route to Montreal. He’d started by asking us – two seniors and our peaceable 28-year-old son  – if we were carrying firearms.  “No,” we said.
Not this arch, but darned near

But he rephrased his question: “No weapons?” No, we said again.
“Nothing to defend yourself with, if, say, you thought your were under attack?”
 “No sir.”

A little more of this and we were let in to roam in Canada at will, Americans on the loose. My goodness, we thought as we drove away, is that what the Canadians think of us: Americans are a nation of violent psychos? How unfair.

We had a great time up there and then returned to begin playing catch-up on mail, work and so on, as one must do after vacation. At the end of the week, we went to Maria’s Ristorante in Roxborough, our favorite place to eat and unwind. We sometimes run into people we know from Chestnut Hill there. 
For example, I often saw 85-year-old Regina Brunner Holmes and her male companion there at Maria’s. Though our paths had crossed only occasionally over the years, I was a “fan” of hers, you might say, so I always went over to her table and said hello for a while.  
I was her fan for several reasons. First, because I buy and sell old books, she once mailed me a list of books she owned, wanting my opinion. From looking at the list I could see she loved literature and considered her books to be old friends. After that I felt a warm affection for her, the kind one feels for a fellow book lover.
Next, I was her fan because two Valentine’s Days ago, she showed up at a “Read A Love Poem Aloud” party sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Book Festival. She wowed me that night. Where the other, younger, women of the audience stood up and recited cute poems about how much they loved their dogs, she got up and read some hot poems about a man she’d once loved. The poems were passionate and sensuous. People were amazed that a gray-haired lady should be reading such personal paeans to a physical and emotional love she’d once felt. She didn’t hold anything back. How daring, I thought. A vivid demonstration that old people’s feelings are not merely the ashes left from yesteryear’s fire.
So, I looked for her at Maria’s on Saturday a week ago, but she wasn’t there. Her 87-year-old male friend had had to go into a rehabilitation center, so she was home alone that weekend. And murdered, probably the next morning. In a very personal way – fists and a knife.
How terribly repulsive and nauseating that news was. The shock waves shook the community on Monday. The few details made known by the police and press were frightening. Who would do such a thing? Why? And how?  
On Tuesday, June 30, Regina’s two sons held a press conference to raise awareness of how vulnerable the elderly are. Regina’s car, presumably stolen by her murderer, was reported found in North Philadelphia. So was a wiped-down knife. As the week progressed, little bits of information were released at a pace the police hoped would raise hopes, but not hinder their investigation: Three people were being questioned. Also, her laptop, credit cards, and bankcard were removed from a house in West Oak Lane.
Friday was a quiet news day. Nothing in the newspapers and the online information remained unchanged. Then, on Saturday morning the police arrested a man named Leroy Wilson and said he’d been charged with Regina’s murder. Wilson was known to Regina and folks in her neighborhood as a man who did odd jobs for people. “Leroy the handyman.” One of the oldest motives in the world, the police said: somebody wanting someone else’s money. We probably won’t learn much more about this crime until Wilson’s trial begins.
In the meanwhile: just in the past week in Philadelphia almost a dozen people were killed on the streets by gunfire and Chestnut Hill’s TD bank was robbed. What an environment we live in, with street crimes occurring all around us, all the time as we try to live out our own personal lives in a peaceable way.
Regina’s sad, dignified memorial service was held yesterday, Sunday. Now we survivors are left once again with the task of making sense of the contemporary American world we live in. Perhaps the Canadian Customs Officer’s questions weren’t as strange as they seemed to us when we crossed the border two weeks ago.
            Written for the July 8, 2015 issue of The Chestnut Hill Local