Friday, February 15, 2013

Dawn at Harbin, 1928

A ragged dawn, yellowish gray, was loping in from Siberia, like a frightened pariah dog, when we finally left the Fantasie. The town recoiled from the lightening streets, huddled miserably in the bitter cold, under a ragged smoke scroll, crouching almost at the top of the lived-in world. A forgotten town, miserable in its licensed existence, no longer defiant over its transgressions.

Somewhere in the distance there was a clack of hoofs – stunted Siberian ponies pulling a tiny droshky. But it was going away from us. And there were no taxis.

Irregular Gentleman, James Warner Bellah


Steve Bodio said...

Makes me want to find and read the book. Tell me more!

Reid Farmer said...

James Warner Bellah is my favorite obscure American writer. He was an immensely talented descriptive writer who has had an appreciable effect on American popular culture and no one knows his name. He also led an improbable life that begs for a full-length biography.

Bellah was born in 1899 to a well-to-do New York family. Like William Faulkner, he couldn't wait for the US to get into WWI, and at 17, went to Canada where he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps. Unlike Faulkner, he made it through training in Canada and was sent to France where he flew combat missions for a couple of years.

After the war he attended and graduated from Columbia and began working as a feature writer for the NY Post. In the 1920s and 1930s he traveled the world, having interesting experiences, doing newspaper work and writing (mostly) action/adventure short stories, many of which were published in the Saturday Evening Post. He also had a few popular novels in this period.

After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted as a private in the US Army infantry, eventually rising to the rank of full Colonel. He served mostly in the China-Burma-India theater, and when the war ended he was serving on the staff of Lord Mountbatten, who was CinC of that theater.

After the war, he went to Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter for John Ford. He and Ford turned some of his short stories into Ford's three famous cavalry movies: "Rio Grande", "Fort Apache", and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." He continued working with Ford in the 1950s and 1960s, also writing screenplays for "Sergeant Rutledge" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." He also continued writing novels and short fiction and a couple of historical works. He died in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s

"Irregular Gentleman" is a memoir he published in 1948, and is set up as a series of vignettes, not in any chronological order or any particular thematic sequence that I can see. The Harbin thing I quoted comes from a retelling of his dealing with White Russian emigrees on a trip there in the 20s. There's also another vignette set in the 20s, where he gets involved in an abortive plot to smuggle arms from Arizona into Mexico and foment another revoluton there. There's descriptions of his RFC flight training in Canada, yacht racing, training missions on 1930s US submarines, various WWI and WWII experiences, droll encounters with movie stars in 1930s New York nightclubs, etc. Very fun and kind of a mix of journalistic Hemingway and Robert Ruark.

I was rooting through "Gentleman" the other night for the first time in years, and that passage just sounded so good I had to put it up. There's lots more like that in there.

I'm sure virtually nothing he wrote is still in print, but you can find lots of used books of his for sale on the web. I have gotten a number of his western cavalry themed novels in addition to "Gentleman."

Oddly enough, I first heard of Bellah in the 1980s, when one of his best cavalry short stories, "Spanish Man's Grave" was included in a collection of military-themed science fiction stories I read. The editor admitted it wasn't science fiction, but said it was so good he wanted to include it.

In recent years, I've come to see Bellah as the upper middle-class WASP version of Samuel Fuller, another adventurous New York newspaperman who loved adventure/action stories, went to Hollywood, but who happened to be poor and Jewish. Fuller left Hollywood after Pearl Harbor, also enlisted in the US Army infantry, and served the entire war as a PFC rifleman in the First Division, in North Africa, Italy, landed In Normandy etc. He returned to movie-making after the war and has never quite gotten the credit he deserves. His autobiography "A Third Face" is worth reading, too.

Jameson Parker had a role in one of Fuller's last movies, and if we ever get a chance at a face-to-face meeting, I long to ask him about the experience.