Namedropping Dept.


Sterling Hayden

If you don't know who that is, there's no blaming you. Somewhere on the web you can even read that nobody knows what his real name is. As too often, it's hard to understand what they base that observation on. For the record: It's Sterling Walter Hayden, born Montaigue Relyea Walter, Alias Buzzy. Or so he writes in Wanderer.

But knowing a person's name doesn't tell you who he is, so here goes. Sterling Hayden was a pretty well-known but, as these things go, at the same time rather obscure movie actor. However, that was not at all what he wanted to be. Like Jan de Hartog he ran away from home to sea. He has been described as a schooner man; loved sail and sailing ships and incited Ernest K. Gann to buy the schooner Albatros in Holland.
Somehow, he made it in Hollywood as an actor, which he detested: A man who at best expresses the yearnings and actions of others. But it does pay rather well, and there you are. He really wanted to write and, while in Hollywood, wrote several screenplays (several were based on works by Jack London). It would be hard to say which movie roles he is best known for, but The Asphalt Jungle, Johnny Guitar, Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather ring a bell with most people. (I myself liked him best in Prince Valiant, and least in some horrible Allied Artists production—all those looked like they were shot on the same 5 acre lot, and stiff!) He kept acting until the end of his life, but did manage to write some what I find very fine books.
Like Budd Schulberg, he sang for the infamous McCarthy commission, which understandably gave him a bad name with many people. But in Shelley Winters' II: The Middle of My Century she relates how Hayden honestly never seemed able to understand why.

Commie Threat

Weird, because in Wanderer he describes this and is very well aware of how dubious his attitude here was.
— Some of the best people were driven out of the industry during the McCarthy period—the writers, producers, directors...
— This abbrogation of constitutional freedom whereby the stoolie could gain status in a land of frightened people.
— I was a real daddy longlegs of a worm when it came to crawling.
Before I forget, he was born in 1916 and died in 1986.
Sterling Hayden

Sterling Hayden and the Steam Tug

All that is nothing but an introduction to one of those events that just happen to you and turn into a lifetime memory. My brother Wim, a Dutch movie director, called me one night in the middle 1970s and asked me to go to Dordrecht for him the next day, as he couldn't make it. Sterling Hayden was there and needed an interpreter to help him out in negotiations with the owner of some boat he wanted to buy. All I knew was, it was no schooner.
Went over there, met in his hotel, walked over to the harbor. Where we found the oldest existing river steam tug of Europe, with the owner aboard. He was one of those guys straight from Jan de Hartog or any good novel about ships you wish to name. Clearly, he loved his tug and only old age was forcing him to sell it. He had been living on it since way back when, in all probability with his wife, now obviously dead.
Sterling (he was one of those guys you get on a first-name base with on right away, so what else to call him?) was very aware of all that. Very cool guy, he. We spent about an hour, much too short, being shown all over the tug, living quarters, bridge, engine room. It all looked very well kept up, but what do I know? Then, we paid some more visits that were more business-like; I hardly remember those, may have involved a notary or a ship's registry office, things like that.

steam tug Antonio
Steam tug Antonio in Curaçao harbor
Photo Soublette, 1918

You have to understand about this man. Many people hate what they're doing, and so do many actors. But they're still actors. Sterling just didn't come across like an actor; he didn't act like one. My guess is he was relieved to run into someone who didn't make a big big big fuss fuss fuss over meeting him, because in the course of that afternoon he really opened up. His intention was to buy the tug, restore it and make a trip with it through the European canals and rivers, from Holland to the South of France. I hadn't read Jan de Hartog's The Inspector then, more's the pity, as that's more or less the route followed in the book. This reminded him of the trip described in Wanderer, about which he started to tell. Upon my remark 'Must have been quite a party' he grew rather pensively wistful. He explained how you look at a tug like that, estimate the costs of repairing and restoring it, double that and you will still come out low. Now ain't that the truth.
Without any prodding, he explained where all that money came from. He had just acted in an obscure western movie in Spain, for which they had paid him $750,000, so he could afford it. He made it pretty clear he thought this was ridiculous. (I checked it out: that must have been Cipolla Colt, directed by Enzo G. Castellari.) After that, he'd toured through Europe (The French? I've ridden with them on their trains—they're bastards) blithely carrying marihuana on his person over all borders. No problems at all; he figured that nobody would hassle a guy his age. Times have changed: I'm about that age myself now and wouldn't dare; and I don't even grow a beard.
King of the Gypsies, 1978

Sterling really liked Dordrecht and talked about settling down there. I was amazed at this, it's a small and, to me, mentally claustrophobic place, even with its physical situation on a broad river. He thought I might understand this better when I'd reached his age: When you find a place you really like, no matter. Well, I understood that all right, but Dordrecht? Note: He never actually went to live there. It was much easier to agree with his remark that, when you want to leave a women, you have to walk out the door, keep on walking and never look back.
We finally went back to the hotel and had a beer on a terrace. For a welcome change, we'd had nice and mellow weather that day. After some deliberation, he took out exactly the right amount to recompense me for my troubles: It was not nearly enough to pay me as if I had taken on a job, but comfortably more than what I'd spent on train fare and all that. So I took it, remarking 'Times are hard all over.'
I never even thought of hinting I'd like to keep in touch, if only to help him out if needed. Typical; I hope he understood. So, we merely said our goodbyes, agreeing it had been a very pleasant afternoon. I've never been able to find out if Sterling did buy that tug and make the trip. I hope so, for him and for the former skipper. I do know that not only he went back to Hollywood and made many more films, but also wrote two marvelous books. Good for you, Sterling Hayden!

Amazing Stories

Auto-biographical; about Hollywood, about his growing up and about the sea. I just re-read it and liked it much better than the first time, which is saying a lot. The story as generally told is, Hayden kidnapped his children from his ex-wife and took them on a trip to the South Seas, but that's wrong: As their custodian he took them on the trip in a schooner, and that was what the court had forbidden, those landlubbers deeming it unsafe.
His description of the on-board library really made me laugh. Could have been part of my bookshelves (much more modest on the subject of the sea, much less so on others); only, Ernest K. Gann is not in his.

Voyage: A Novel of 1896
Very impressive. A heavy, classical, very well constructed novel. I really shouldn't say 'Much better written than Wanderer', because that's apples and oranges; but in a sense it has to be (for the very same reason) and so just is.
About a clipper setting out on her maiden voyage from the US North-East to the South-West via Cape Horn, contrasted with the owner's daughter, luxuriously crossing the continent by train. A masterpiece. Even if Sterling Hayden is not around any more to read this, I'm glad for his sake that he, with this book, made it as one of the really great writers on the sea.

Down to the Sea: The Fishing Schooners of Gloucester
(with Joseph E. Garland)
I haven't read it, but Hayden should be an expert on this subject. And the guy sure can write.
You know what?
Eleven of you guys order the two ones above and I'll spend the commission on this one. Deal?

The Last Grain Race
by Eric Newby
Has nothing to do with Sterling Hayden, except for the subject. If you like Hayden's books, you'll love this one, relatively unknown as it is.
In 1938 Eric Newby signed on for one of the last commercial clipper journeys around the world, to transport a load of grain from Australia to England. Great photographs of his own (they may be in another book, depending on editions—tough) and a fine story.

I crave books

True Life Adventures

how the advent of steam ended the age of sail

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