Sunday, December 30, 2007

A rough and ready hotel, a boarding house, and a masked man with a cactus in Tucson

Tucson was my grandfather's first stop after leaving Kansas in 1929. Indeed, it sounds like he got in his car in Little River, Kansas, his hometown, and didn't stop until he hit the Tucson landmark, the Willard Hotel. He writes in Pulp Writer of his arrival:

"Tucson was crowded, for the annual fiesta and rodeo would soon be held, but luckily I found a room off the patio at the old Willard Hotel, across from the library and two blocks from Congress Street. I made the place my headquarters, finding friendly people in charge (the Andersons), and installed my typewriter not far from the horsiest and cowiest lobby in Pima County. Most of the professional ropers, riders, and bulldoggers roomed there while waiting for the rodeo (pronounced ro-DAY-o in the Southwest) to get under way. In addition, ranchers and stock buyers used the Willard for a rendezvous, and it was there I met the late Ted Smith, Ed Ryan, and other well-known Tucsonians."
Tucson seems to have been a lucky place for my grandfather, for later on that year, he created his most popular character for Wild West Weekly, Sonny Tabor.
When I visited Tucson in October this year for two library presentations, I had the opportunity to meet writer Larry Cox, who wrote a fantastic column about Pulp Writer for the Tucson Citizen that appeared on October 11. Larry was gracious enough to do some preliminary detective work for me before I arrived, and tracked down my grandfather's residence on Sixth Street while living in Tucson. I had the address because it was one of many that appeared in the letters from Street & Smith, Wild West Weekly's publisher, found in Grandpa's personal papers. We also had a suspicion that the great photo of Grandpa's second wife, Mary, sitting on a stoop (it's reproduced in Pulp Writer, at the beginning of Chapter 12) was taken at that house. Larry emailed me before I arrived and said, yep, it sure looks like the same house.
Larry, by the way, is a Tucson historian and wrote a fascinating book, The Book of Tucson Firsts published by Javalina Press in 1998, a collection of the first-time events and appearances of everything in Tucson from baby carriages to the red light district. The blurb on the back of the book says that Larry is "a member of the arizon Historical Society and is the only known Democrat living north of River Road." Larry has his own hilarious story of his decision to move to Tucson: "One evening, while watching the late-night news on television in a Tucson motel, I heard a local story that changed my mind about the Old Pueblo. A drunk had robbed an adult bookstore. The masked bandit had been armed with a cactus. Where else could that have happened? I knew, after hearing that story, Tucson was, indeed, my kind of town."
So, Monday afternoon after my noontime presentation at the main Library, I wandered around old town Tucson. In what is called 'old town Tucson,' a few blocks from the main business district, a large section of what used to be the dilapidated part of town has been revitalized and there are now several restaurants, a great book store, a food co-op, among other things. I saw little evidence of chain stores or fast food outlets, which is nice.
I then drove to Sixth Street and checked out the house that we think was my grandfather's residence in 1929. It's been beautifully maintained. It's a two story home, Edwardian style, and a size that could be either a large home or small apartment building. It's hard to tell which one it was in 1929, although Larry seemed to think it might have been a boarding house at the time. In any event, I was pleased that it has been kept up. Across the street is a large Baptist church with a classic Roman facade - amazing the diverse architectural styles that cropped up during that time. People weren't as concerned then with building homes and buildings that were "in sync" with the landscape.
By the way, what ever happened to the Willard hotel? Well, my mission for the next few blogs is to find out.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Pulp Writer named Top Pick

I have to share this great news. My grandfather's book, Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street, was named a Top Pick by the Friends of the Pima County Library's Southwest Books of the Year competition. They had a lot of nice things to say about the book on their website. I'm very proud and happy; I just wish my grandfather could be here to enjoy the accolades.

I spoke at two Tucson libraries in October this year: the main branch downtown and the Bear Canyon Branch Library about 15 miles from downtown. I enjoyed the trip tremendously, and will write more about it soon.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Bisbee, Arizona

In the current version of the film "3:10 to Yuma," the home base of the rancher played by Christian Bale is Bisbee, Arizona. A lot of screen time is spent in or around Bisbee, shown as a flat and dusty landscape, not unlike many other westerns that feature an "outpost" town. Think of John Ford and Stagecoach and the landscape in that movie, and that's how Bisbee is depicted in this film.

As much as I love this movie, (my grandfather, Paul Powers, was a pulp Western writer, after all, who wrote for Wild West Weekly magazine from 1928 to 1943), I have to take issue with the visual depiction of Bisbee. It's not accurate. Anybody who's been to Bisbee knows one thing for sure: it ain't flat. On the contrary: Bisbee is a town perched on hills, nestled amongst the Mule Mountains. It began as a mining stake in 1880 and eventually became known for having some of the richest deposits of lead, copper, silver, zinc, and yes, gold. It eventually earned the title as the "Queen of the Copper Camps." A devastating fire in 1908 that nearly wiped out the entire commerical district didn't dissuade the townfolk, who quickly rebuilt. By 1910, 25,000 people lived in Bisbee, and in 1929, the county of Chocise changed the county seat from Tombstone to Bisbee. Even though the mining operations shut down in the mid 1970s, Bisbee lives on as a thriving artist's community.

Bisbee was one of the first places I visited when researching my grandfather's life, before "Pulp Writer" was published. I had no idea where or what Bisbee was about; all I knew was that it was in the far southeast corner of the state, close to the Mexican border. It sounded colorful and slightly off-center, like my grandfather. After being at Smith College in Massachusetts and surviving another winter there, spring in Arizona - late spring nonetheless - sounded blissful and bucolic. So after I flew home to Los Angeles in June of 1999 for summer break, I dropped my suitcases at my friend Barbara's apartment and took off for Bisbee and Tombstone.

Here are my notes from that trip in May, 1999:

It is now one o’clock in the afternoon, and the temperature in my car is well over the one hundred degrees outside. Even with all of my preparation before leaving Los Angeles, somewhere around Tucson, hot air started to blow out of the air conditioning vents. The water jug in the seat next to me, efficiently loaded with ice cubes this morning, is now nothing but hot liquid. I open the windows, push my little car and try to cool myself, but the hot wind whipping through my hair doesn’t help. Six hours into this drive, I realize that I’m only halfway to my destination, Bisbee, on the far southeastern corner of Arizona.

The giant cactus that greeted me when I first passed the state line on the road to Phoenix, bordering the highway like stately emblems of a bygone era, have disappeared. The road slices through relentless dust and rock, interrupted only by stubby brush and short cactus and a occasional dust devil whirling off the ground for a few seconds, then dissipating as quickly as it arrives. Hours pass between exits, and when they arrive, they tempt the driver with a fresh new road that winds off into the horizon like a shiny ribbon.

While doing my research, I envisioned Grandpa and Mary living in Arizona in a desolate weatherbeaten house, in a grim border town, in a flat landscape void of color, like an old black and white Western. Now I steer through small canyons that are turning from yellow gold to rust and orange with the setting sun. I hit the crest of the ridge between Tombstone and Bisbee, and I instantly know why my grandfather had lived here.

Spread out, hundreds of miles wide, is a valley that is the most heart stopping landscape I have ever encountered. It is flanked by mountain ranges on the western and eastern sides. Down in the valley, dark green clusters of trees surround tin roofs that briefly glitter in the sunset. The basin could be thousands of miles or could be ten – the breadth of it and the clear air makes perception totally askew. Grandpa knew exactly what he was doing when he moved here.

I continue up the road. It turns and leads me up into a canyon until the rocky walls sandwich the road so tightly that I flinch as I pass by jutting boulders. The pass winds down again. The sun is starting to set. I worry: will I make it before dark? I drive through a tunnel, turn another corner, and there, gently rising on the hill to the left of me, is Bisbee, sparkling like a Mediterranean villa. Grandpa talks about Bisbee being a "spectacular little city," and that was in 1933. He was right.

The town is safely insulated from the rest of the world, sealed in by high rust-colored hills covered with yucca cactus and sagebrush. I still have a few minutes before darkness settles, so I stand outside and survey the town, which isn’t hard to do. Neighborhoods teeter on both sides of a canyon, a mixture of old shacks with paint peeling and little architectural dignity and homes well preserved and complemented by meticulous gardens. The streets are deserted. Everyone is at the high school, the woman at the Bisbee Inn explains as she escorts me to my room. This is graduation night. Everything is so close here that I can hear people chatting on a hill across town as they climb the stairs to their home, as if they were next door. A dog barks in the back of a pick-up truck speeding on Main Street below, his bark reverberating between the hills. This would not be a good town to have a talkative pet. Or a loud family, for that matter.

In the morning, I lean against the railing and look at the business district below. Downtown buildings are solid brick, constructed after the first Bisbee was destroyed in a fire. A saloon, a restaurant, a pizza parlor are opening up for the day. I listen to the sounds of doors slamming, pots banging, an occasional curt remark from a worker. There is a coffee house with chairs outside; it will have the best view of the tour buses that will start rolling into town in a few hours, because Bisbee isn’t immune to the gradually increasing trickle of tourism that seeps in from Tombstone.

I walk down the main street; it is still early and the stores are not open. A man, who seems not to have realized that the bars closed hours ago, leers at me with blurred eyes before swinging around and staggering across the street to join another man who also seems to have lost his barstool. I know from reading my grandfather's memoirs that he lurked around these saloons while Mary stayed at home with the three kids. In fact, he admits that he acquired a "sinister reputation" here. Part of that might be because he fratnerized with the Chinese population, many of whom were transported to the area to work in the mines. He even smoked opium with them once, an event that he describes in detail in "Pulp Writer."

In the late nineteenth century, mining flourished in Bisbee, and so did hangings, gunfight, drunkenness and prostitution. But Bisbee suffered mightily later in the dark years of the Great Depression. Even though it was one of the richest copper districts in the country, it was practially a company town because the main employer, the Phelps Dodge Company, owned the largest hotel in town, the hospital, department store, library, in addition to other businesses. After the stock market crashed and banks closed, mining also took a dive. The local economy foundered, pushing the town to its limits. Businesses faltered and workers languished, waiting for work that never came. Eventually townspeople moved away, abandoning their little homes on the hills, never to return.

I walk down the narrow Main Street to the Chamber of Commerce. Where can I get information on the town during the 1930s? The woman there directs me to the library and the town museum. We start to chat about the town. By World War II, the town had recovered, and the area continued to prosper after the county seat was moved to Bisbee. Lucky new residents snatched up the empty houses that previous owners had abandoned. Now, many people from Tucson come down to Bisbee to escape the summer heat of their part of the desert. The new power group in Bisbee, however, is a citizenry of artists and musicians who fiercely ward off any threats of commercialism that may sneak into the city. The town is doing fairly well now, she says. There are a lot of retirees and vacationers. “But there is still an element here,” she says slowly. An element. Was my grandfather was considered an “element” when he was here?

My last morning in Bisbee, I look down at an entire town that has been frozen in 1880. The residents have done a good job of refusing to succumb to franchise frenzy. The books that are sold in town discuss the old mining days. The locally owned businesses are thriving. I haven’t been able to find out much about Bisbee during the Depression, however, because most of the information immediately available to visitors discusses the town’s mining days prior to the turn of the century. Anything that happened after the nineteenth century apparently isn’t of much interest to tourists. I’ve visited in the wrong time era; I’ll have to wait until the 1930s come into vogue. As long as the legend of the Wild West captivates people's imagination, these towns will pay homage to that era one way or another, either in capitalism as in Tombstone, or in preservation as in Bisbee. I give up, get in my car and head towards Tombstone.

Next....returning to Bisbee in 2007.... Tombstone......Tucscon.....

Monday, December 17, 2007

Driving through the Wild West

One of the great experiences that I've had in researching my grandfather's life and getting Pulp Writer ready for publication has been the opportunity to visit some of the places he's lived. Over the past few years, I've visited Bisbee, Flagstaff, Tombstone (although he didn't live there, but visited frequently when he lived in the Bisbee area), Tucson, Santa Fe, Long Beach, Laguna Beach, the city of Orange, Oakland and Berkeley. Those are just the ones that I can think right now! And what has been really interesting is trying to track down the houses that he's lived in and seeing what they look like now. Some have disappeared and a few aren't in such great shape now. A few are still intact and are just lovely. I've also visited the store that was his bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I'm going to revisit some of these areas, and the houses, for you over the next few months.

Some people might wonder why bother. But when you're a student of history and you like writing about history and your family, nothing can prepare you for the task of writing history more than visiting the area, checking out the town, driving down the streets. You can let your imagination do the rest.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What is this Blog About?

The answer is....I'm not quite sure yet. I have plenty of interests and life experience, and I screw up a lot, so I will probably have lots of subjects that I can touch on. I will jump around a lot, depending on my mood. Based on the past year, some subjects might be the history of pulp fiction, writing, writing memoirs, writing history, getting family histories published, getting a book published, dealing with the realities of book marketing. Pulp Writer. The Wild West. Wild West Weekly, the magazine my grandfather wrote for from 1928 to 1943. I'll probably be writing a lot about the trials of looking for a job, especially if you're 50 and over. Whee! What fun!

I might write about other life experiences, musing that may eventually turn into a memoir or a collection of essays: things like working in the Beverly Hills real estate industry during the crazy 80s, learning to scuba dive, becoming a scuba diving instructor, running away to Hawaii, running back home and starting over, going back to school mid-life.

I'll post other informative blogs as I go, if it helps. Anyway, stay tuned....

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Day at the Autry

Today my friend Ann Parker and I sat with a dozen other authors and waited for people to show up at the Autry Museum (officially known as the Museum of the American West, but always known as The Autry for us die hards) in Los Angeles. Not a bad day overall - we thought it was going to be freezing, but it was a beautiful day and we ended up indoors rather than the outside patio.

Ann, by the way, is the author of two historical novels, Silver Lies, and Iron Ties, set in 19th Century Leadville, Colorado. Fantastic reading for those who love a good mystery.

For the past several months, I have been touring libraries in New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California, and giving presentations on the history of pulp fiction, pulp Westerns, and my grandfather's life as a pulp fiction writer during the Great Depression. All in all, it's been a wonderful experience. Some times, only a half dozen people will show up, other times there will be as many as 25 or 30 people, which is, according to the librarians, a phenomenal turnout. I might only sell a few copies of my grandfather's book, "Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street." Other times I might sell a few more. It will never make me rich. But I still do it, if only to stay in practice. It's easy to forget the material -- if you don't use it, you lose it, even if you have written a book on the subject! - and everyone always seems to be appreciative and engaged in the presentation. People hang out afterwards and talk, and offer stories of their own and suggestions for places to find more information on what you're researching. At one presentation in Tucson, I met a gentlemen who actually read my grandfather's stories during the Depression and remembered one of his characters, Kid Wolf, and the fact that Kid Wolf carried a bowie knife in his jacket.

You can't ask for much more when you're trying to sell a book, and it certainly beats sitting at a table at a book store for hours on end. I don't know about you, but I'm too restless to do that on a regular basis.

Which was the case today. But, hey, as they say, you never know. It's always good to make contacts, however ephemeral they may be at the time. Besides, the museum has a pretty mean bookstore for Western scholars and is not to be missed when you're in the area.