Sunday, February 10, 2019

Growing up with ASARCO, EL Paso, TX

The University of Oklahoma Press recently released a new book that certainly caught my attention.  Copper Stain, by Elaine Hampton and Cynthia C. Ontiveros, should be an excellent read.  I was raised on El Paso's northeast side but moved near ASARCO (the west side) after I turned 18.  The smelter's community plays a small role in my book Frank Little and the IWW:  The Blood That Stained an American Family.  I thought I would share an old blog post from my Frank Little website, though Copper Stain should tell a broader, poignant story about the people who suffered the most from ASARCO's legacy.  I congratulate its authors!  The old posting begins below:

When I was an aspiring college student at the University of Texas at El Paso back in the early seventies, I had to park my car in a designated area beyond some low sand dunes and navigate a beaten trail just south of the dorms before my feet hit pavement.  Immediately to my left was I-10, and beyond that, railroad tracks, the border fence, a corralled Rio Grande, and Mexico. On many occasions, my mouth immediately filled with a metallic taste—ASARCO was emitting fumes on these days. While I understood that the dingy-colored boulders and buildings next to I-10 and the university were due to these emissions, I, like many other students, had no idea that the fumes were laden with toxins. The discolored landscape and leaden taste just came with attending UTEP. I also had no idea that my uncle, Frank Little, had arrived near ASARCO over fifty years prior and barely escaped with his life. He likely was targeting Mexican workers who lived in Smeltertown, a poor community on the United States side of the river, that supplied labor for the American Smelting and Refining Company.

When we students parked on a "scenic" overlook above I-10, just below Sun Bowl stadium, we observed the dismal living conditions of Mexicans who occupied an area called "las colonias," just on the other side of the interstate.  Some families lived in ancient adobe buildings, others in shacks, constructed of cardboard boxes, or plywood, if they were lucky.  We watched families bathe and get drinking water from the muddy river.  In winter months, since wood was scarce, these families burned tires for warmth, sending black plumes of smoke upward. Before anyone seriously talked about pollution, El Paso’s winter inversion was astounding—and it made for spectacular sunsets.  

We could also see ASARCO’s Smeltertown, with its plastered-adobe housing, elementary school, and cemetery. Many had died in Smeltertown. The Texas Historical Association reports that by the time the city of El Paso and the state of Texas filed a $1 million suit against ASARCO, charging the company with violations of the Texas Clean Air Act, the county health department found that the smelter had emitted more than 1,000 metric tons of lead between 1969 and 1971. In 1972, tests found that seventy-two Smeltertown residents, including thirty-five children who had to be hospitalized, were suffering from lead poisoning. A 1975 study found levels indicative of "undue lead absorption" in 43 percent of those living within one mile of the smelter and projected abnormal lead absorption in more than 2,700 local children between the ages of one and nineteen years old.  Thus, the elementary school was shut down.

“El Paso sought to evacuate Smeltertown, which a local newspaper described as ‘a grimy feudal kingdom spread beneath the Company Castle,’ but many residents resisted. In May 1975, an injunction ordered ASARCO to modernize and make environmental improvements, which eventually cost some $120 million. Against their wishes the residents were forced to move; their former homes were razed, leaving only the abandoned school and church buildings to mark the site of El Paso's first major industrial community.”  Also remaining is the cemetery.

Despite all the attention to ASARCO and Smeltertown, in the 1970s UTEP’s athletic program provided its athletes summer jobs at the refinery.  Go figure!

But what about Frank Little?  He had arrived in El Paso likely between November 1916 and March 1917, prior to an IWW meeting. Gunmen, company-hired thugs, had jumped Frank, violently kicking him in the abdomen, the cause of a hernia that almost incapacitated him. By the time of the spring Chicago meeting, he was in great pain. Whether Frank just happened to take the El Paso route after visiting my great-great-grandmother or to agitate El Paso’s ASARCO plant and meet with Mexican agitators there is unknown.  

In January 1916, Pancho Villa’s raid on a Chihuahuan ASARCO plant sent workers to El Paso’s refinery for protection. The Mexican Revolution had been raging since 1909 as various leaders (Díaz, Madero, the Magóns, Villa, Zapata, etc.) “ate their own.”  The IWW had tried to organize labor against American-owned companies in Mexico but also disliked Villa. In Arizona, site of ASARCO’s corporate headquarters, the IWW was about to organize a strike of metal mine workers, and Frank was in charge.

Paid detectives also could have had information regarding Frank’s itinerary and sought him out for their own reasons. A network of spies operated throughout the mining districts. To facilitate encrypted messages, mining companies had implemented code books that spies and operators used when wiring warning of radical activities among camps and the locations of radical organizers. Could ASARCO’s management have received notice of Frank’s whereabouts?

As for ASARCO, the landmark smoke stacks were demolished on April 13, 2013. Crowds of El Pasoans arrived to view the historic event from the UTEP side of I-10. To many, ASARCO’s demise was long overdue. For me, I now feel slightly discombobulated driving on I-10 since the tallest concrete stack was my point of reference for the west side, aside from the Franklin Mountains. But for many Mexican and Mexican-American families, its destruction marks the end of a poverty-filled era, characterized by illness and death during the tenure of an American-owned corporate giant.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Jane Street and the Rebel Maids: Sex, Syndicalism, and Denver's Capitol Hill

Moving along quickly on my new book, that is what I can tell you.  Hence my absence from the blog!  This is what I can share with you:

In the course of my research for writing Frank Little and the IWW:  The Blood That Stained an American Family, I came across Jane Street, a “feisty, little housemaid” who uniquely and successfully organized domestics, many immigrant women, in Denver, Colorado, in 1916.  Just before he was murdered in Butte, Montana, in 1917, Frank Little had tried to help her negotiate a new charter with Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Secretary-Treasurer Bill Haywood and an all-male General Executive Board.  Jane had been ostracized due to internecine, even misogynistic, reports regarding her mishandling of the IWW’s Domestics’ Industrial Union, her American patriotism, and her morality. Two years later, during a sweep for IWW radicals, the Bureau of Investigation arrested Jane for criminal syndicalism.  Surprisingly, she was not indicted because she was an American woman, despite her apparent criminality according to the 1918 Sedition Act. [Check it out here - unbelievable law that was later repealed.] In addition, my own Danish-immigrant grandmother had been a house servant in a Boulder, Colorado, mansion in 1916, the same time Jane organized the housemaids on Denver’s Capitol Hill where the elite resided.  

Intrigued for personal reasons, I discovered that in IWW history, Jane was almost nonexistent, an “aberration in a masculine organization in its least adulterated and most radical region (the West),” as one contemporary historian wrote.  In books on women’s studies and labor history, with the exception of Meredith Tax’s the Rising of Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917, Jane’s story had been largely marginalized.  In 1980, Tax used the tools that were available to her at the time, a 1917 letter that Jane had written another organizer and various newspaper stories.  I have been able to delve much more deeply in conveying Jane’s story.  My primary research includes Jane’s personal papers and writings   (Yes, I have her personal papers!), various family members’ information (not just the Street family), Bureau of Investigation files, periodicals, photos, and other documents, along with an abundance of scholarly research on domestic labor history written during the last twenty-five years.

This book is not a purposeful study of feminism, the Industrial Workers of the World, or domestic studies although these subjects are surely present.  Instead, the book traces the life of a woman who was not even a maid, her indoctrination into the IWW, her remarkable success organizing the “unorganizable,” and her downfall due to sex.  Real life characters include Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Jane’s role model, and charismatic scoundrels and lovers, including a one-legged bicycle daredevil, who inspired or influenced many of Jane’s decisions. Historical context includes Colorado’s Ludlow Massacre and social and political unrest leading up to World War I.

Themes involving sexual exploitation, violent assault, misogyny, and “virile” syndicalism permeate Jane’s story.  In the book’s periphery, Western women, with their unique spirit and backgrounds, strive to bring independence to all classes of women except for the housemaids.  Jane Street, who originally supports the IWW’s fight as a class war and not a gender war, evolves into an organizer for female domestics in a battle staged against some of Denver’s well-known suffragists and club women, even as she fights her male counterparts along the way.  Both groups betray her.  

Are you interested?  The book should be available to the public early 2020.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Anniversary of the Everett Massacre

Today is the anniversary of a horrific incident (which seems too mild of a word to use), where innocent men lost their lives at the hands of vigilantes who disagreed idealogically.  The Everett Massacre reminds us Americans how we have a capacity to turn thoughtless,  ugly, really, when it comes to our divisions.  Today, we still have not learned lessons from our past.

The University of Washington has a wonderful archive on the Everett Massacre, also known as "Bloody Sunday," here:  On this site are photos, stories, faces of the people involved.

The following is a repost from my "Chasing Rabbits" page at

On November 5, 1916, about 250 Wobblies boarded the steamers Verona and Calista bound for Everett, Washington, to protest harassment and censorship at the hands of law enforcement, vigilantes, and armed strikebreakers supporting the local lumber and milling companies. Their employers and AFL-affiliated labor councils wanted “open shop.” Forty IWWs had already been arrested, stripped, and made to run a gauntlet of several hundred vigilantes, who beat them with guns, clubs, and whips, near Seattle a week earlier.

When the Verona glided into Everett’s dock first, armed vigilantes and law enforcement met the boat. Other men, some drunk, waited in tugboats that began surrounding the steamer in a semicircle. On a hill above, a crowd formed to watch the anticipated violence, and some could hear the IWWs singing “Hold the Fort.” While a member of the steamer’s crew tied the boat to the dock, a sheriff and his deputies approached and began a heated exchange with some of the men on board. Then one shot rang out.

Gun shots opened immediately—a crossfire—with the Veronatrapped between vigilantes in the tugboats and law enforcement and other vigilantes on the docks. Deputies, hidden in a warehouse along the docks, also opened fire.  Men panicked in the boat, almost capsizing it, and some dove into the water while many others, who could not swim, fell overboard. Quick to act, a Wobbly cut the ties to the dock, ordered the engines reversed, and the Verona made her escape backing out of the area.

Afterwards, four men lay dead on its decks, one was dying, and thirty-one were wounded. At the dock, one deputy was killed, another was dying, and twenty wounded. An unknown number fell overboard, some wounded, and their bodies never found. What was to be called Bloody Sunday was immediately known as the Everett Massacre to workingmen. No one knows who fired that first shot.

Was Frank Little there as some have written? Not likely. In Michigan during August 1916, Frank had been kidnapped, mock hanged, and beaten senseless. In fact, some of his injuries were still evident when he was hanged for real on August 1, 1917. By mid-November 1916, an ailing Frank Little was in Chicago, involved with the IWW’s general executive board, preparing for the upcoming IWW convention. No doubt, the recent Everett Massacre was certainly on the board members’ minds.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

La Bruja de Calle Piedmont

This morning I had one of those rare moments, reveries really, when I was back in El Paso. Perhaps it’s because today is Halloween, or because I am working on Jane Street family anecdotes, threshing the chaff from tiny story-seeds. I recalled sitting in Dr. John O. West’s American folklore class at the University of Texas of El Paso. Such a perfect mesh of courses—part history and part English. Well, not exactly factual history, but more like searching out El Paso lore, deciphering the spinning from the historical context. This course probably benefited me more than my nine hours of Shakespeare did in the long run. If Dr. West were still alive, I would hug his neck! I fell in love with collecting American oral history.

I collected all sorts of local stories for this class, some superstitions, quite common in a border town such as El Paso, as well as personal narratives about past events including Pancho Villa’s various forays into El Paso and Juarez. The UTEP campus sits just above the Rio Grande, not far from where Villa attacked US forces and a dense Mexican American neighborhood existed, where family narratives are rich with information and detail. I could imagine Villa’s battles, just below my classroom in the Liberal Arts building, where bullets, losing velocity, rolled off old roofs near where I parked my car, before hiking through sand dunes to the campus; where a secret, decaying wooden door, also below an old house near campus, with a tortuga (turtle) painted on it, when opened, took smugglers and gun runners under the river between Juarez and El Paso.

I had been a guest of honor, along with golfer Lee Trevino, singer Bobby Goldsboro, and the governor of Chihuahua in the Juarez mayor’s reception room in 1971, a year before I took West’s course. There were bullet holes peppered all over the ancient adobe city buildings still. Later, when we tore down an old adobe barn on a property my parents owned, we found shell casings mired in the clay. These tangible experiences enhanced my collection of old narratives and their descriptions of the Mexican Revolution. I also had learned that the seeds of truth in some tales were buried so deeply that the lore and superstitions surrounding them were made up in order to keep the curious from learning the truth.

That brings me to la bruja de Calle Piedmont, or the witch on (of) Piedmont Street.

When I was a teenager in El Paso, Texas, I recall excitement at lunch one day, as some upperclassmen recounted their experiences of the night before, trying to get close to an infamous “haunted house” we all knew about. In fact, no matter which of the thirteen high schools one attended in El Paso in 1967, everyone knew of this house. On one side of Franklin Mountain, in an old neighborhood that I now understand was the 3000 block of Piedmont Street, supposedly lived this ancient hag in an ancient adobe, a formidable witch who practiced Satanic arts. She allegedly had no electricity and lit up the house by candlelight each evening, enhancing her black magic within. These boys had lived to tell their stories, though one claimed that the witch came at him with a butcher knife when he brazenly stepped on her porch and looked through the window! Whispers between classes and at lunch further developed this story, and it was decided that my group of friends should try the same thing—that is, try to touch the Witch-on-Piedmont-Street’s house, even ring her doorbell, if she had one.

That Friday night, six of us loaded into what I recall was an old rambler, certainly not quick but safe with our bodies crammed within. All were boys except for my best friend and I who knew better than to go on such a fool’s errand, including driving on Scenic Drive over the mountain to the west side of El Paso. We were northeast El Paso kids, mainly military brats who could find plenty to do near our 1950s box houses and a shell-strewn military range. There we felt fairly safe. But this was crazy. 

I recall the boys knew where to drive in the dark neighborhood near Piedmont Street. We rolled up to a “T” where our street dead-ended and Piedmont Street loomed before us and parked dead center in the street. It was pitch-black, my eyes blind to the infamous house and any details of other homes on either side of us. No street lights, no moon or stars to break the black nothingness. No, we had not been drinking, but our adrenaline was pumping with fear and excitement. I knew I was NOT going to touch her house, but I wanted to see if the witch really would come out as the boys approached. My girlfriend and I, like two-peas-in-a-pod, snuggled against each other, crouching and giggling with nervousness, behind the others.

BOOM! BOOM! The sound of a shotgun blasted twice. I couldn’t make my legs move fast enough before we dove behind what must have been an arborvitae bush, so dense it was. My friend crowded underneath its branches with me, and I felt my bladder lose control. Humiliating. At about the same time, the rambler began reversing back down the street, all four doors wide open, with screams of “Get in! Get in!” reverberating in the old mountainside neighborhood. We ran, jumped into the moving vehicle, and tried to slam the doors shut as we heard yet another BOOM! Miraculously, no one fell out.

At the bottom of the hill awaited El Paso’s finest, his patrol car’s light revolving red and blue. “Are you ok?” the officer asked. Incredibly no one had been hit. And while we indignantly wanted to point fingers at the witch uphill, we were more afraid of being hauled off to jail and having to call our parents. I recall sitting in my wet pants, realizing that beyond my “accident” possibly having been witnessed by boys who would tell all at school the next day, I would probably be grounded “for life,” as I had been several times before. Stupid, stupid.

“Do you realize how dangerous your stunt was?” demanded the cop. Indeed, we did. 

 “Last night, two boys had to be taken to Thomason (hospital) to have buckshot taken out of their butts! You were lucky. Her daughter lives down the street, and she reported you as soon as she saw your taillights. She also warned her mother that you were on your way. You kids need to stop harassing the old lady!”

With that, we were let go.

The bruja had a daughter? I remember letting that fact sink in. She was human, after all, and I began to feel both pity and curiosity for her. In 2005, an El Paso newspaper picked up the story of the haunted house on Piedmont Street. A married couple had disappeared from the residence in the 1950s, and some believed that they had been murdered and buried beneath the floorboards of the house. The disappearances had widespread publicity and much speculation, from espionage to murder to UFO abductions. The house became known for its ghosts. An old city patrolman later complained that he “would get a hundred calls…all these kids would stop by the house because they thought the house was haunted, and they would scare this poor old lady who (once) lived there.”

So, we kids had made a crime scene, its particulars long forgotten, part of El Paso’s folklore. No witch, but a morbid story for certain.

I was teaching English to a bunch of El Paso freshmen seventeen years later. I assigned them to collect various types of El Paso folklore. One student Billy, whose father was a UTEP quarterback years before I was at UTEP myself, shared the witch-on-Piedmont-Street story. After all, his father claimed to have been up to the house and seen the old lady in person. Young Billy excitedly shared that the witch still inhabited Piedmont Street, and that he, too, would touch her door. I smiled at him as I told him my story too.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Bindle Stiff (Hobo), from Chasing Rabbits,

When I was a kid at Halloween in El Paso, Texas, I often resorted to the easiest costume I could put together, short of cutting two holes in a white sheet and trick-or-treating as a ghost. While many of my peers often dressed as beatniks, my friends and I would dress as hoboes. Easy. Ragged clothes, smudged cheeks, holey tennis shoes, a bag on a stick, and voila! We didn’t intend to be cruel. After all, some schools had Hobo Day where everyone dressed up. With Roger Miller singing “King of the Road” on our transistor radios, we were inspired! Going door to door, we begged for our handouts, Halloween treats.

I also had no idea that part of the ‘60s lexicon originated from the original hoboes, or bindle stiffs (called thus because of the bag or bindle they carried on their backs). My friends and I used their words, including tramp (hobo), ditch (to get rid of something), can (police station), fink (or in our case, a “rat fink,” a person who snitches), flop or dump (place to “hang.”) Who knew? I certainly didn’t.

Not until I was deep into my California research of Frank Little did I realize the significance of the hobo culture, how it originated, its connection to me, and, of course, my famous hobo-agitator uncle. I must admit—I had hated this historical period, that is, early twentieth century with its industrial growth, labor unions, and robber barons. When I taught US history many years later, I was still uninspired to dig deeply in the era. Until Frank.

Just like Frank, I grew up in an anti-establishment period. The United States was experiencing an unpopular war in the 1960s, in contrast to years between 1914 and 1917, when Americans were deeply divided about getting into World War I. Many American workers had found themselves displaced during Reconstruction, families often struggling to start all over again after the Civil War. Their children and grandchildren, faced with family debt and hopelessness, often tramped, becoming part of a temporary labor force across the country. Throw in two economic panics (1893 and 1907), a heavily-enlisted immigration force to fuel the American industrial revolution, mechanization, and labor unrest, and a growing population of unskilled migratory workers hit the road seeking work.

Many of these men had left homes in the East or were recent immigrants who found the American dream out of reach. If one were to ask for an inventory of skills in a hobo camp or “jungle,” a diversity of trades would be found. American economic conditions between 1907 and 1914 had compelled even skilled men to search for seasonable jobs, their homes and families often lost. Some preferred drifting with no responsibilities and required little to satisfy their needs. However, walking was not their preferred method of drifting from job to job.

A recent television car advertisement shows a dreamy-faced young woman traveling in an open box car, her Labrador retriever beside her. Freedom. Then her daydream cuts to reality, sitting in a wonderful car that can take her on an open road deviating away from the train’s tracks. While this scene is enticing, riding the rails was a dangerous endeavor for Wobblies who often became hoboes. 

Freeloading train travel had inherent dangers. Because railroad workers were unionized, a paid-up union membership card usually protected men, including IWWs, and provided them with free passage. Brakemen otherwise booted off freeloaders without union affiliations. But trains also carried bootleggers and hijackers who stole hoboes’ small valuables at gunpoint. Later, railroad detectives patrolled to make sure “stiffs” could not board idle trains. Jumping on and off slow-moving trains was dangerous in itself. Some men died or lost limbs. As an example, in 1913 my uncle miscalculated a jump onto a Western Pacific train and badly sprained his ankle.

Like Frank, hoboes were typically apolitical and rarely stayed in one place long enough to vote. While AFL’s Samuel Gompers asserted that the lot of the migratory worker was worse than slavery, the AFL did little to help migrants who did not vote. Thus, the Industrial Workers of the World—which did not discriminate ethnicity, creed, color, or gender—captured their memberships.

When hoboes did stay in one place, it was a “jungle” or camp, often near railroad tracks and water, where a fluctuating population could find the most basic needs for survival or quickly board a train for work. In describing the migratory farm worker, Frank once wrote, “When you see one tramping along the road, he generally has a load on his back that the average prospector would be ashamed to put on a jackass. In fact, most of the jackasses would have enough sense to kick it off.” During harvest season, he added, a steady line of these bindle stiffs “tramping down the highway” begged for the “right to work to earn enough to buy a little grub, take it down to the jungles by a river or beside an irrigation ditch, and then cook it up in old tin cans which their masters had thrown away.”

Recently, as we drove through Fresno’s downtown streets, I wondered about this new generation of bindle stiffs, the homeless we saw living in an enormous tent-and-cardboard colony, its blue-and-tan tarps fluttering in soft warm breezes. Were they workers, or “occupiers”?

Just a hundred years earlier, a poster hung in a Fresno's IWW hall. A drawing of a bindle stiff walking down a railroad track with his bundle over his arm read: “He built the ROAD with others of his CLASS, he built the road and now for many a mile he packs his load and wonders why the H--ll he built the road. The "Blanket Stiff.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Woodie Guthrie, Another Life Cut Short

I'm busy preparing my presentation for the High Plains Book Festival so no new post. Since today is the anniversary of American folk singer and writer Woody Guthrie's death, I honor him, reposting a blog from my "Chasing Rabbits" page:

I first came across Woody Guthrie while researching another lyricist, IWW Joe Hill, whom Guthrie had honored through verse. Both men composed lyrics for working class audiences, though a generation apart. But unlike the Swedish-born Hill, Guthrie was an American product, born in Okemah, Oklahoma, the son of a cowboy-politician and musical mother. And like my Oklahoman uncle Frank Little, he witnessed his family’s economic collapse; Frank’s, after the Panic of 1893 and years of drought, and Guthrie’s, after Oklahoma’s oil boom collapsed. So, it is no surprise that all three men—Guthrie, Hill, and Little—preached populist sentiments that appealed to workers.

The second time Woody Guthrie’s name popped up was during an academic review of my manuscript, Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained an American Family. An Oklahoma historian strongly supported its publication stating, though he personally was a “left wing” kind of guy, he was reminded of a story about Woody Guthrie when Guthrie was accused of being too far left-wing. Guthrie had responded in his best Okie drawl, “Aw, left-wing, right-wing, chicken wing, it don’t make no difference to me, I just support programs that help my people.” I loved that. The professor went on to say that thoughtful readers of any point on the ideological spectrum could see the importance of my book in modern day when “red state” Oklahoma means conservative Republican, but during Frank’s life, it meant far left, as in “reds” or socialists.

This analysis got me to thinking. Guthrie’s reminder that no matter our philosophical differences or our political perspectives, most Americans want the best for their brothers and sisters. Frank Little was no different, and his passion for helping workers and their families was sincere. It is the context in which he lived that colors his historical prominence, thus requiring an informed, educated mind to evaluate his contributions in American history.

Like Frank, Woody Guthrie was a hobo during a period of his life. He had headed west looking for work during the Depression, riding freight trains and walking the open road, all the while observing folk he encountered daily in tent jungles. Also like Frank, Guthrie found native antagonism toward these same itinerant farm workers who had invaded the Golden State looking for any type of work. 

Ultimately Woody Guthrie found his soapbox—on a radio show. A Guthrie family organization states that, through radio airwaves, Guthrie “developed his talent for controversial social commentary and criticism. On topics ranging from corrupt politicians, lawyers, and businessmen to praising the compassionate and humanist principles of Jesus Christ, the outlaw hero Pretty Boy Floyd, and the union organizers that were fighting for the rights of migrant workers in California’s agricultural communities, Guthrie proved himself a hard-hitting advocate for truth, fairness, and justice” []. Later Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and others from his circle, were targeted for their activist stances on such issues as the right to unionize, equal rights, and free speech. Sound familiar?

We all know Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land is My Land.” But I find that his “Dust Bowl” ballads best liken his views to Frank Little’s:

Wherever little children are hungry and cry
Wherever people ain't free
Wherever men are fightin' for their rights
That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma
That's where I'm a-gonna be 

From “Tom Joad” 

Another life cut short, Woody Guthrie died from Huntington’s Disease in 1967 at the age of 55.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

David Street, Hollywood Actor

I just returned from interviewing Jane Street’s grandson and gained a wealth of information.  He had already destroyed some of her work, and I was prepared to find little. Imagine my excitement to discover about a 1 ½” stack of her type-written writings. Poems, short stories, jokes, protest articles.  Who knew there would be so much more to Jane Street—artist, musician, author. Oh my! 

Last year when I was beginning my early research in Denver, I looked for Jane in the Colorado History Center archives and Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection.  I was able to investigate Denver’s strong women’s suffrage movement, even holding original Susan B. Anthony letters. Yet I discovered Jane was a ghost—all knew of her presence, some details about her work—but no physical evidence remained.  Thrilling and disappointing at the same time.  Where was Jane’s DNA, remnants of her work?

Now I am holding her papers in my hands.  I have begun reading them and will likely read them dozens of times before I can fully assess what she wanted the reader to know.

One strand I will have to address in my final manuscript is her motherhood.  Without a doubt, she loved her children dearly, so much that some individuals criticized her devotion to the children over the cause of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), affecting her profoundly. With all the turmoil in her life, her children certainly bore the scars, despite her care.  As a result, Jane’s sons and daughter traveled similar life-paths as their mother, enduring tragedies of their own.  In particular is her youngest son, Charles Patrick Devlin, stage name David Street.

David Street is an unmemorable individual that some of you may have actually seen on the big screen.  You wouldn’t have noticed much since David Street was a “B” actor in Hollywood from 1949 until 1962.  Yet, the paparazzi followed his activities intently, furnishing black and white glossies for Hollywood rags, generally because he was usually in the company of well-known, glamorous leading ladies, including Jayne Mansfield, Ava Gardner, and Marilyn Maxwell.  Though David inherited his mother’s musical talent, he also bore her self-destructive proclivities. 

“Tall, dark and handsome singer David Street seemed to have all the necessary credentials for musical film stardom in the 1940s, but his career fell drastically short and today is better remembered, if at all, for his tabloid-exposed private life.  From IMDb.

Actress Mary Beth Hughes, One of David Street's Many Starlet-Wives

He was married seven times to starlets of incredible beauty—Sharon Lee; Marilyn Maxwell; Mary Beth Hughes; Mary Francis Wilhite; Cathleen Gourley, stage name Lois Andrews; Elaine Perry; and probably the most famous of his wives was Debralee Griffin, stage name Debra Paget.  Some of these marriages lasted mere days, some divorces due to addiction and/or spending problems.  Jane's grandson reported that spending $300 on shoes definitely caused stress in one marriage when David was not earning enough to support his lavish lifestyle.  Yet he loaned Jane money when she needed it.

Did Jane’s personal relationships and care differ among her children, perhaps because of her life experiences?  Possibly.  How much impacted the lives of her children? Her papers reveal much.  I will have to see what Jane tells me.