Monday, March 21, 2011

Mark Thompson, American Character

Charles Lummis (1859-1928) was a corker, a Los Angeles resident who became a household name, long before there was a Hollywood. He achieved that honor by walking from Cincinnati to LA in 1884, and writing it up for the newspapers as he went. A blogger without a blog.

A while ago, I wrote up his account of that trip, A Tramp Across the Continent (1892). Today is a review of a Spur Award winning biography of the man by another LA writer, Mark Thompson.

Character. The early western, as I’ve come to understand it, was a story about American character. It emerged in the Progressivist Era of the Teddy Roosevelt years. It found in the already mythic West the conditions that produced men and women of moral strength and physical stamina.

The word “character” has another almost opposite meaning. We use it for someone whose behavior is so out of the ordinary, it’s comical. Whether you laugh or not depends on how highly you regard true eccentrics.

Charles Lummis, 1897
Charles Lummis seemed somehow to exhibit both kinds of character. He had the courage to take on bureaucrats and corporate interests in the fight for Indian rights and the preservation of the historical Southwest. It helped that Teddy Roosevelt was a personal friend, but Lummis would have gone on fighting anyway. He had the tenacity of a pit bull.

He was also something of a clown, dressing in a Spanish-colonial style outfit and sombrero. He built his own house, El Alisal, out of the boulders from a dry arroyo that runs between Pasadena and what is now downtown Los Angeles. He entertained there with dinner parties that drew folks as varied as John Muir and Douglas Fairbanks.

A man who seems to have had a vast appetite for public attention, he commanded the center ring of a self-made three-ring circus. Married more times than most people knew of, he was also a flagrant philanderer. He kept a life-long diary that included a record of sexual congress with each of his wives and countless mistresses.

A hopeless workaholic, he rarely slept, driving himself until he was physically too ill to go on. He was also a voluminous letter writer and editor of Out West, a magazine with Chamber-of-Commerce aspirations when he came aboard. Then under his guidance it became a high-pitched screed for his preservation projects and ongoing battles with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Rancho Camulos, Ventura County, photo by Charles Lummis
The fighter. In a word, he loved a good fight. Through his efforts, he was able to push back racist policies in Washington, and he fought for fair treatment of tribes forced off their ancestral lands by commercial interests.

He also fought for preservation of Spanish colonial culture in the Southwest, which he considered superior to American culture. Like many western writers, he lamented the materialist, profit-driven flood of commerce from the East. He waged a war of words against the open contempt of Mexican Americans, freely referred to by whites as “greasers.”

Yet in his personal life, like many other public men before and since, he was arguably a scoundrel. Women were drawn to him and wives tolerated his excesses. Their attitudes toward him say much about how he used his apparent charisma to indulge more than his appetite for the spotlight.

In personal matters, he seems to have had no shame. On the one hand, he persuaded a grown illegitimate child of his to live with his own family. But when a long-suffering wife left him and wanted a divorce, his threats should she go public with her charges against him were vicious and ugly.

Los Angeles, 1900
The times. I picked up this book hoping to learn something of the social history of the period. However, Lummis was by choice so much the exception to every rule, what I learned of social history was mostly incidental.

His story does provide a chapter of New Mexico history. After a short time in LA, he traveled there for a while as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. His job, which thrilled him, was to cover the U.S. Army’s pursuit of the Apache chief Geronimo. Returning there, a short time later, to recover his health after a stroke, Lummis got in over his head when he publicly challenged a local corrupt political boss.

After being shot at outside his home one night, he removed himself to the Indian pueblo of Isleta, near Albuquerque. There he met and courted a young woman who became his next wife. (Somehow he persuaded his current wife to provide her a home in Los Angeles, where they lived for a time under the same roof. Such was the man’s way with women.)

In Isleta he became embroiled in efforts to retrieve children from a government-run Indian school. Based on an official belief in the natural savagery of Indians, the school was an attempt to begin stripping them of their native culture. Lummis was successful in bringing an end to these policies – and as a result, forever made enemies in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

During his later years, the movie industry was born and boomed in his adopted hometown. Yet he was largely untouched by it, except to be appalled by the inaccuracy of western movies – especially in their portrayal of Indians. It was typical of him to regard movie-making as an enterprise in the hands of not just idiots but willful idiots.

Charles Lummis in later years
The end. His last years went badly. For a time he was appointed as the bracingly colorful head of the Los Angeles Public Library. His revolutionary policies there won him few friends among the staff, apparently. He was finally ousted for attempting to run the library without leaving home.

Never a rich man, the loss of that job left him bereft of income. He got a modest stipend from the Southwest Museum, which he had helped found but no longer controlled. There were substantial efforts to have him named director of the Los Angeles County Museum, but by now his reputation had become too questionable for the respectable city fathers.

In his last years, he resumed a writing career that he’d long ago surrendered to his many public projects. Novelist Henry Herbert Knibbs helped put together a selection of his poems. His health failing, he died at El Alisal, the home he built. For his funeral, he was placed by his own direction between two slabs of redwood and wrapped in an Indian blanket. He remained a “character” to the end.

American Character is available at amazon and Abebooks.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Robert Olmstead, Far Bright Star


  1. What an interesting fellow. He certainly lived his life as he saw fit.

  2. Some men have that kind of charm with women, some men don't. I'm in the latter category.

  3. Leah, he's also proof that there's a price you pay for every choice you make.

    Charles, a person wouldn't guess that considering the following you have at your blog...