Had I not been lucky enough to see William Wellman’s 1928 silent film Beggars of Life years ago, or read the works of Gene Fowler, I might not know about Jim Tully, the scrappy Irish-American who became celebrated for writing about the subject he knew best: the hardscrabble life of an orphan turned boxer turned “road kid.” His most successful book (an autobiography in novel form), Beggars of Life came to the screen with Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen, and Louise Brooks in the leading roles…and ironically, the onetime hobo spent the last twenty years of his life in Hollywood, paying the bills by writing first for Charlie Chaplin, and then for a variety of fan magazines and other publications about the denizens of Tinseltown. (He also wrote one of the earliest Hollywood novels, Jarnegan, inspired by his friend, director James Cruze.)
Now, after twenty years of research, Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidziak have completed their empathetic and highly readable biography, Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler (The Kent State University Press), with a foreword by a fellow student of American letters and lore, Ken Burns. Bauer is the proprietor of Archer's Used and Rare Books in Kent, Ohio and Dawidziak is the longtime television critic and columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I’m sure their labor of love will spark renewed interest in Tully and come as a revelation to many readers. (I’ve been talking to friends about the book for the past few weeks, and no one I’ve mentioned it to has ever heard of him.)
The great essayist and editor H.L. Mencken wrote, “If Tully were a Russian, read in translation, all the Professors would be hymning him. He has all of Gorky’s capacity for making vivid the miseries of poor and helpless men, and in addition he has a humor that no Russian could conceivably have.” Contemporary author and filmmaker John Sayles says, “Jim Tully stands out in American literature as one of the few realist writers who did not just visit the rougher environs of human experience for material, but was fully of those depths… That Tully wrote at all was a miracle; that he wrote so well is a gift to the world.”
The Hollywood connection is a particularly odd and interesting one; reading this book made me want to look up some of the scores of star and director profiles Tully churned out in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. His first sponsor in Hollywood was Rupert Hughes, who introduced him to Chaplin; the comedian kept him employed for about a year doing odds and ends, including ghost-writing some magazine stories and sitting in on script meetings for The Gold Rush. The chapter on this experience offers some fresh insights into Chaplin’s m.o. Elsewhere in the biography you’ll find interesting stories involving everyone from John Gilbert to W.C. Fields.
But the best reason to read Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler is to acquaint yourself with a genuine American original, a man of many facets and flaws, but a fascinating character at every turn.