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Sunday, 17 February 2019

Liberty Valance, Donald Trump and Monuments to Myths


Dorothy Marie Johnson, author of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
One of the most disillusioning experiences of my entire life occurred in a movie theatre in my home town in New Zealand, almost 57 years ago. On June 21, 1962, Gene Pitney’s hit (The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, entered the Lever Top 10. With heavy nationwide airplay and its catchy sing-along lyrics, we impressionable young teenagers were pretty soon afterwards able to recite the whole story behind the song. That is, without the benefit of seeing John Ford’s film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (no brackets) or reading Dorothy Marie Johnson’s 1953 short story, contained alongside A Man Called Horse in her collection Indian Country. The key to our justifiable imaginings of Western justice was in the verse:
Everyone heard two shots ring out
One shot made Liberty fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance
He shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all
It wasn’t so much of a disappointment when Ford’s film did turn up in town a few weeks later, and we found Pitney’s song wasn’t on Cyril Mockridge’s soundtrack. (Instead, the main theme is Alfred Newman’s Young Mr Lincoln from another Ford film, made in the 1939 and starring Henry Fonda.) I didn’t give it too much thought at the time, but many years later Pitney, just before he died, explained to me that he was recording the track in the Bell Sound Studios in New York City when told the movie was already in the cinemas. Ford apparently didn’t like the lead-in’s off-key fiddle playing.
But none of that was either here nor there.
What shook me to my core was the revelation that the man who actually shot Liberty Valance wasn’t Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Maitland Stewart) after all, but Tom Doniphon (John Wayne/Marion Robert Morrison). In other words, the “hero” who killed Valance wasn’t an idealistic Eastern stranger toting a lawbook but a craven coward hiding under cover of darkness in an alleyway. The thing that made this SO much worse was that Doniphon shot Valance from side-on, while Valance was looking elsewhere and otherwise completely occupied (as one would be) by someone else (Stoddard) firing a shot at him. Three shots, in fact, had rung out, not two, and the third had taken down a blindsided Valance. Ergo, that immortal line “He was the bravest of them all” was just one large load of cow manure. Far from being courageous, the killing of Valance had been an act of cowardice. And as Westerns had, by 1962, long since been forming many of my core beliefs in life, this despicable deed by Doniphon has haunted me these past 57 years.
Such was the impact on me of the realisation that I’d been fed false news. (Seven years later, as a working journalist, it came as an almost equally devastating shock that public figures and officials were prepared to lie to conceal the truth. Oh, how naïve was I? Truth and justice both out the window, and still just 21. But that’s a story for another time.)
Some years ago I was asked to go on air with the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s then morning radio host Chris Uhlmann to explain why I had not put John Wayne at the top of my list of Top 20 cowboys from the Westerns. The list had appeared in that morning’s The Canberra Times, and my feelings on the Valance killing remained such that I probably ranked Brad Dexter as Harry Luck in The Magnificent Seven way higher than Wayne. As I defended my decision to Uhlmann, I detected in the response a certain discernible sway toward my position. Reuben J. Cogburn was one thing, Tom Doniphon something completely different. Pat Brennan, Shane, Marshall Will Kane and The Man With No Name always faced their foe head-on, never relied on someone hiding up an alleyway to do their dirty work.
But, then, the thing about Dorothy Marie Johnson’s short story The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is that it’s all about the way myths can be created out of lies, and survive because they fulfil a purpose. The first reviews of Johnson’s Indian Country, which appeared in Associated Press newsfeatures by W.G. Rogers wired across the US in early August 1953, stressed The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance is actually about “the man who did and the man who didn’t shoot Liberty Valance”.
There are two telling quotes toward the end of Johnson’s story – or, perhaps more correctly, from the screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck. Reporter Maxwell Scott, on hearing Senator Stoddard's story and realising Stoddard’s reputation is based on a falsehood, decides against publishing the truth. “This is the West, sir,” Scott tells Stoddard. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Stoddard at this point is on the verge of a Vice-Presidential nomination, having already ridden on the coat-tails of his deception to an ambassadorship of Britain and governorship of Oklahoma (or possibly New Mexico – Shinbone’s state is not specified; Johnson lived much of her life in Flathead County, Montana). Later, on the train back to Washington DC, Stoddard is told by the train conductor Jason Tully, “Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!” Nothing, that is, except eternal damnation.
It would be a little ironic if Shinbone’s state was New Mexico, since that’s where, last October 26, US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen unveiled a plaque marking “the completion of the first section of President Donald Trump's border wall”, 2¼ miles of 30ft-tall bollards in Calexico. The wall, of course, is the manifestation of perpetrating myths, a monument to lies.
Yesterday The Independent ran a piece from Caroline Orr in New York under the headline, “Why do Trump's biggest fans still believe him when he lies? The answer is in the human brain”. Orr wrote, “As the president declares a national emergency, let me introduce you to a phenomenon known as the ‘illusory truth effect’.” This is also known as the validity effect, truth effect or the reiteration effect and is the tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure. 
Orr pointed out, “Our brains have limited cognitive resources, and Trump’s constant drumbeat of misinformation quickly overburdens our ability to effectively parse truth from fiction … When Trump tells a lie, he tells it repeatedly.”
Paul Simon in The Boxer put it somewhat differently, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” That is, that Senator Stoddard shot Liberty Valance and that Donald Trump tells the truth.
And where does the Press lie in connection to all this? Why didn’t it have more sway, a more committed allegiance to the truth? More guts? Well, one of the many very interesting characters in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and one not entirely overlooked in cinematic history, is the Shinbone Star’s editor Dutton Peabody. The name comes from Johnson’s own misguided marriage, at age 21, to a no-hoper called George William Peterkin, who had too great a fondness for booze, gambling and leaving behind unpaid debts, but ended up managing to get a job with the Remington arms factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Johnson had got rid of him long before that, and having paid off all his debts had “Paid” inscribed on her tombstone. For Peabody read “pisshead”.
Why Peabody should be portrayed as such a weak, ineffectual individual with a penchant for a highfalutin vocabulary sometimes crippled by his addiction to alcohol – such as when he wants to say he’s “indubitably” afraid of Valance - is anyone’s guess, especially given Johnson’s own obvious passion for the printed word and the truth. Since Peabody survives the assault by Valance and his sidekicks and, with the aid of a walking stick nominates Stoddard for the senate, we must assume he, too, is a party to the perpetration of the Stoddard myth. But Peabody declares he finds courage in a tavern, not a lie. Perhaps, after all, Johnson’s hidden message is a warning against the insidiousness of fake news.
At least Johnson’s love of language shines through in the person of Peabody, a man who can use the word “myrmidon” to describe Valance’s hoods and get away with it. Johnson also has Peabody saying he is a “servant of the public weal” and that “I'm a newspaperman, not a politician! … politicians are my meat - I build 'em up and I tear 'em down … I'm your conscience - I'm the still, small voice that thunders in the night. I'm your watchdog that howls against the wolves! I'm your father confessor!” Yet closing the bar during voting in a territorial convention is “carrying democracy much too far”.
Legends aside, The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance embraces many of the more cherished American traditions – a safe home and new life for migrants (the Swedish couple Nora and Peter Ericson) starting, arguably, with the Pilgrims, the taming of the West and the ultimately presumed triumphs over ignorance, illiteracy, racism and fascism.
The New Yorker's Richard Brody rates Ford’s classic as “the greatest American political movie … The Western is intrinsically the most political movie genre, because, like Plato's Republic, it is concerned with the founding of cities, and because it depicts the various abstract functions of government as direct, physical actions.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times added, “This is all to be seen: The role of a free press, the function of a town meeting, the debate about statehood, the civilising influence of education.”
And yet, for all that, the premise is based on a misconception – the lawman who shunned guns was indeed “the bravest of them all”, not the cowboy who actually killed Valance. And Stoddard might have been misleading in other ways. He asks his reading and writing class about the supreme law of the land, and an African-American, Pompey, correctly answers the Constitution. But Stoddard believes it is the Declaration of Independence, a statement of principles and a justification for the colonies' rebellion, not law. Maybe Donald Trump should get out the DVD, he might learn something too.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Covering the Cuban Revolution With Typewriters

From Westinghouse typist to the Western World's insight into Cuba:
Ruby Hart Phillips covered the Cuba Revolution at her typewriter in an office a block from the Presidential Palace in Havana, with two lit cigarettes on the go, and in the company of a lame cat and a parrot.
It was 60 years yesterday from the day Fidèl Castro took his first official Cuban Government role, replacing José Miró Cardona as Prime Minister. Celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Castro-led Cuban Revolution started in Havana at the beginning of the year and included an exhibition which featured the Underwood standard typewriter used by Agence France-Presse correspondent Jean Huteau to write his dispatches.
Jean Huteau's Underwood typewriter on display in Havana.
 The anniversary has also been marked by the publication of Our Woman in Havana: Reporting Castro’s Cuba, by former British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent in Cuba Sarah Rainsford. The book includes a potted biography of the original “Our Woman in Havana”, the great New York Times correspondent in Cuba at the time of the revolution, Ruby Hart Phillips. Rainsford’s book was reviewed by Literary Review last November, under the headline, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised Without the Proper Permit”. Given Phillips was the real pioneer in Havana, it should, of course, have read, “The Revolution Will Not Be Typewritten Without the Proper Journalists”. After all, Literary Review said “Rainsford weaves Phillips’s story into her own.”

Above are the only two known photographs – at least to me – of the writer known to her American readership by the gender-neutral byline of R. Hart Phillips. At top is her portrait for a Brazilian immigration card issued in November 1961. The other photo shows Phillips in sunglasses, front right, among a group of American citizens and Cuban-Americans with dual citizenship who were left stranded in Havana on January 3, 1961, when the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. They sought help to leave the island nation at the back door of the US Embassy. But it was too late: the Embassy was closed and its staff had been evacuated. Phillips eventually succeeded in leaving Cuba in November 1961, after Castro had cracked down on the foreign press in April. Phillips’s home and office were raided and agency colleagues detained. For a short while The New York Times reported her as being “unaccounted for”. When Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about all this in May, she was still under the mistaken belief that Phillips was a man. Phillips reached Miami through Brazil and the Dominican Republic.
Similarly, there aren’t too many surviving images of Jean Huteau. In this one he is posing beside a downed solid-nosed Douglas B-26 Invader during the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, on April 17, 1961. The jet was clumsily disguised by the CIA and the Cuban Liberation Air Force in the colours and markings of the Cuban Revolutionary Air Force (FAR). Half the US planes masquerading as FAR fighters were shot down by Cuba’s Lockheed T-33 jets and propeller-driven British Sea Fury fighters.

Huteau was born on April 21, 1919, in Orléans and died on July 29, 2003, in Chesnay. A resistance fighter in France during World War II, he worked for the French Army as a public relations officer in Indochina  from 1946-47. He then became the correspondent for du Monde and du Nouvel observateur in Buenos Aires, covering Latin America.
 In 1958 Huteau was recruited by AFP and from September 1, 1959, he was in Cuba, taking over duties from Havana journalism school professor Carlos Tellez, who also worked for Reuters, and AFP’s head of political and diplomatic service, Jean Allary, who died in a plane crash between Bogotá in Colombia and Lima in Peru in June 1959. The next year Huteau opened the agency’s Havana office as bureau chief. He later became directeur de l’information of AFP in Paris.
By contrast, Ruby Hart Phillips covered Cuba for The New York Times for 24 years from 1937. Her deliberately masculined byline topped dispatches about murders, hurricanes, politics and revolutions. She took over in Havana after the death in a car crash in Pomona, California, of her husband, Arkansas-born James Doyle Phillips (1896-1937), Cuban correspondent for The New York Times from 1931. Ruby was badly injured in the accident, which almost also claimed the life of the couple’s then 11-year-old daughter, Martha Jean Phillips. Described as a very brave and foolhardy woman, without good eyesight, Ruby Phillips’s habit of stopping to fix her lipstick before an interview might have infuriated colleagues, but it saved her life when she entered Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar’s presidential palace on March 13, 1957. It meant she escaped a rifle, machine-gun and grenade attack which killed five guards by mere seconds.
 Her office was a block from the presidential palace. There she wrote articles on a typewriter near which was an ashtray in which two cigarettes always seemed to be burning. Among those she shared the office with at one point were a lame cat and a parrot. Phillips arranged the visit of a New York Times correspondent, Herbert Lionel Matthews (1900-77) to Castro in the Sierra Maestra Mountains in February 1957. Almost two years later, just before he was to make his triumphant entry into Havana, Castro paid his respects by sending Phillips an orchid that he had picked and had delivered to her office 700 miles away.
Matthews types on an Olivetti Lettera 22 on the flight home. Readers of The New York Times objected to his fawning writing about Castro.
Below, Matthews gets his just deserts.

Ruby Hart was born to Tennessee parents on December 12, 1898, in a community called Sickle, Dewey County, Oklahoma, but because Sickle was but a speck on the map of west Oklahoma, she always gave her birthplace as Okeene. She also usually gave her birth year as 1900, a date not borne out by 1900 and 1910 census returns. Her father was a cattle merchant. Ruby learnt typewriting at a Dallas business school. In 1923 she went to Havana as a typewriter-wielding Spanish-speaking stenographer for Westinghouse Electric. There she met James Phillips, an Arkansan who owned a modest printing shop and translating office. After The New York Times named James Phillips as its Cuban correspondent, Ruby served as his assistant. Her first book, Cuban Sideshow (1935) was followed by Cuba: Island of Paradox, published in 1959, a personal history of Cuba from 1931 which covered the revolt that deposed the dictator Gerardo Machado, the rise and fall of Batista and the Castro revolution. A third book, The Cuban Dilemma, published in 1962, dealt with the days after Castro took power.
The Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1937
James Doyle Phillips
Ruby Phillips left The New York Times in 1963. She became the Latin American correspondent for Newsday until her retirement. She died on October 28, 1985, aged 86, at the Cape Canaveral Hospital in Cocoa Beach, Florida, having lived on Merritt Island for many years.
Bernard Diederich at his Remington portable.

Another great foreign correspondent wielding a typewriter in Cuba during the revolution was New Zealander Bernard Diederich. On January 8, 1959, TIME magazine gave Diederich the onerous task of finding out what colour pyjamas Castro wore on his first night in Havana. Diederich followed Castro into the capital, riding on a tank with female fighters from the 26th of July Movement. “My Santiago-issued laissez-passer did wonders,” recalled Diederich. “I was introduced to bearded rebel Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos, to whom I explained my challenging assignment. TIME would want a full description of Fidèl’s first night in Havana. Would the 26th of July leader choose to dance, date or dive into bed after his arduous trip up the island from the Sierra Maestra to Havana? Camilo smiled broadly when I also told him that I needed to know the colour of Fidèl’s pyjamas - if he wore them!”

Fidel Castro and the 26 July Movement, with Camilo Cienfuegos (bottom), enters Havana on January 8, 1959.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Happy 50th Birthday, Olivetti Valentine 'Brightwriter' Portable Typewriter

This week - Thursday to be precise - marks the 50th anniversary of the Olivetti Valentine portable typewriter being launched in Barcelona, Spain, on February 14th, 1969. The "brightwriter" Valentine reached America in August and was being heavily advertised - through a campaign clearly aimed at teenage students with a typewriter revolution bent - the next month.
The Valentine arrived in Britain in November (when The Guardian story below appeared) and Australia a year later, just in time for Christmas 1970. It sold here for the RRP of $54.95, in Britain for 18 guineas and in the US for as low as $44.88 (ranging up to $60).
The factory in Barcelona, Spain, where the Valentine
was launched on February 14th, 1969.
The chief designer, Ettore Sottsass, a feat worthy of a book cover:


RIP Albert Finney (1936-2019)

Rest in peace Albert Finney, one of the great actors of the 20th Century. Charlie Bubbles (1968), written by another Salford-born hero of mine, Shelagh Delaney (below), remains one of my Top 10 all-time movies. It was set in Salford, Lancashire.