Archive for the ‘The West’ Category

Another Redirect…

September 8, 2013 3 comments

To a small slice of history from my home of Santa Fe, originally posted on my personal blog. Hope my faithful readers–all six of you–enjoy it.


A Slice of History


No Kidding

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

A Robin Hood of the West.  And a punk cop-killer.

An Irish American who sided with an Englishman in a turf war—against other Irish Americans.

An East Coast urbanite who quickly adapted to the rural ways of the Hispanic Southwest.

Who are these people? No, actually, not plural; we’re talking about a single he. But not just any figure from America’s past. He’s Henry McCarty. And Henry Antrim. Also William H. Bonney.

But you may know him as Billy the Kid.

And if you don’t know much about his story except the outlaw ways, the death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett, and the larger-than-life legacy, you might not know how much New Mexicans have embraced him as part of the state’s Wild West past.

Or at least some of them.

The stuff of legends, despite the somewhat goofy expression.

Billy the Kid (or BTK, as the History Nerd will sometimes refer to him for brevity’s sake), is something of a historical icon here in the Land of Enchantment. Visitors stopping at the I-40 tourist center just over the Texas border are greeted by a life-sized cut-out of the Kid, a blow-up of the only photo of him known to exist. BTK was the subject of sensational newspaper accounts during his lifetime and pulpy dime novels after, and the star of countless books and films since. The 1973 Sam Peckinpaugh version of his life might be the best-known movie, though hardly the most accurate. That title would have to go to Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. (Ha ha, despite what you may have heard, the History Nerd does have a sense of humor.) Now there’s another contender for the definitive story—as definitive as a legend’s life gets: the American Experience documentary Billy the Kid.

Apropos of BTK’s life and death in New Mexico, filmmaker John Maggio turned to several scholars and writers based here to try to get at the heart–and soul–of this orphaned youth-turned-coldblooded killer. Maggio and American Experience executive producer Mark Samels then came to Albuquerque and Santa Fe last week to give a sneak preview of the film and take part in a panel discussion of the work and its mythic subject.

To Samels, one intriguing part of the Kid story is its international scope. Henry McCarty, as he was known at birth, was the son of an Irish immigrant, Catherine McCarty (father unknown). Later in life he was befriended by the Englishman John Tunstall, and he blended easily with the Hispanic population of his adopted home of New Mexico, where he settled with his mother and stepfather. There, he quickly learned Spanish, favored wearing a sombrero, and took at least one Hispanic girlfriend. (He also won the support of the Hispanic community for challenging the Anglos who had stolen their land.) Once the legend spread, BTK became a symbol of the American West for many foreigners. His obituary appeared in a London newspaper, and Lincoln, NM, the site of his last days, is a popular tourist attraction with European visitors.

To Maggio, BTK was an underdog, an actual kid who was dealt bad breaks and made some mistakes. By 15, he was on his own, with his mother dead and his stepfather casting him off. Henry/Billy turned to petty theft, was arrested, and escaped. During his time as a fugitive he tried to go straight—briefly—but soon turned back to a life of crime. He became a murderer when a card game turned violent, though the killing might have been in self defense.

BTK killed again as he took part in the Lincoln County War, a bloody affair that pitted John Tunstall against “the House,” a local outfit that controlled the county’s politics and economics. Dozens–hundreds?–of  people died during the war, which began with Tunstall’s death in 1878 and lasted, on and off, until 1884. By then, Billy was in the ground, shot down by Pat Garrett after one more escape from the law.

Gardner's book. And he's a musician too!

Billy once joked that despite his reputation, he was not responsible for all the murders that occurred during the war. His actual death toll was in single digits. But as Mark Lee Gardner pointed out, there’s no escaping that some of those victims were officers of the law, merely trying to do their duty. In Santa Fe, Gardner joined Samels, Maggio, and writer Hampton Sides for a discussion of the film and BTK. Gardner, author of a book on the Kid, was one of the consultants for the film. He called Billy smart and passionate. He had a way of ingratiating himself with people that put them at ease. Though territorial governor Lew Wallace was not impressed when the Kid wrote to him from jail, seeking a face-to-face meeting. BTK told the governor in 1879, “I have no wish to fight again.” Wallace—a former Union general and author of Ben-Hur—made a deal with the Kid, promising him his freedom if the outlaw informed on other participants in the Lincoln County War. Billy kept up his end of the deal, but Wallace didn’t. Despite Billy’s obvious local popularity, the governor put a $500 bounty on the Kid’s head.

If Wallace was a contemporary unswayed by the growing BTK legend, Hampton Sides considers himself a modern-day Kid “contrarian.” Sides stirred up local controversy in 2010 when he came out against the idea of departing New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s granting him a pardon (Richardson eventually demurred). Sides ran up against the many New Mexicans—and other Americans—who see BTK as a lovable antihero, or at least a symbol of part of America’s Western heritage. And of course, Sides also inflamed the folks in these parts who make money off the tourists who embrace the symbol.

Me and the Kid...

The American Experience film premieres on January 10. I’ll watch to see how the rest of this revisionist look at the Kid plays out. I think Maggio worked extremely hard to be as accurate as he could be, given the limitations he faced—only a few letters and the one, just one, photo of the Kid. But legends do have a way of transcending historical sources, and a cowboy cash cow like Henry McCarty will surely spark more books and films. Me, I can’t wait for the sequel to BTK vs. Dracula.

Take Me Back to Taos

December 17, 2009 4 comments

A recent conversation turned to traveling, and destinations in the Southwest came up. I don’t recall if someone mentioned Arizona or New Mexico, but I quickly offered my opinion that Phoenix is a hellhole I could easily never visit again, and that one of my favorite places in the world is northern New Mexico, specifically Taos.

On the High Road from Santa Fe to Taos

One of my tablemates had never heard of Taos, which I guess is not surprising if you’ve never been to the region. Home to barely 4,000 souls, it probably only registers for culture mavens, students of US history, and skiers.

The pueblo

For most tourists, the main attraction is the Taos Pueblo, just a few miles out of town. Some times when I’m relaxing, I imagine taking that drive from the center, bearing right, heading past the tiny “casino,” and pulling into the parking lot. To your left is a cemetery and ruins of a church (more on that later), while the center is filled with the original adobe pueblo. Behind it is part of the Sangre de Christo Mountains and the unseen Blue Lake, a sacred site said to be the birthplace of the Taos Indians. To the right is another part of the pueblo. The pueblo’s claim to fame: It has been continuously inhabited for 900 or so years, longer than any other spot in the country. About 150 people live in there year round, eschewing electricity and other modern conveniences as they remain true to their culture. Other tribal members live near the pueblo and spend time there during the summer.

The people of Taos are sometimes called Pueblo Indians, along with the other Indians of the region. They trace their roots to the Anasazi and Mogollon of centuries past. The native New Mexicans speak three different but related languages; Taos and several other pueblos nearby use Tiwa. The Taos and tribes from the other pueblos nearby greeted the Spanish when they explored the region in 1540. Unfortunately for them, the Spanish were looking for more than just a hearty welcome. Gold topped the list, along with converts to Catholicism. Suffice to say, as in Florida and just about everywhere else the Spanish came ashore in North America, the visitors did not bode well for the Pueblo Indians.

And again

The Spanish largely ignored New Mexico until 1598, when the first settlers trekked north from Mexico. Under the leadership of Juan de Onate, they subdued various Pueblo tribes. By 1680, the Indians were feeling less hospitable, and Taos and the other pueblos united in a successful, though short-lived, rebellion. The leader, a shaman named Popé, lived for a time in Taos. The people there had shown their resistance to foreign rule even earlier, killing a missionary decades before. But after the Spanish reconquest of northern New Mexico, the Taos and their neighbors remained under Spanish rule for almost 150 years. Only to see another bunch of white-skinned outsiders seize power during the Mexican War.

The remains of the mission church

Among many US leaders of the 1840s, taking Mexican lands, especially the much-coveted California, was part of America’s grand “Manifest Destiny,” a mission from God much less entertaining than the one Blues Brothers undertook. In 1846, soon after the Mexican War began, US forces quickly took control of northern New Mexico. Charles Bent, an American trader who lived in Taos, was named the governor. Local Indians and Spanish New Mexicans joined forces to resist their new rulers, killing Bent and other Americans. The rebel leaders, along with civilians, holed up in the Taos Pueblo mission church, where a much-better armed American force carried out a retaliatory attack. The remains of the church and the graves nearby still remind the Taos of their introduction to US rule.

In later years, another American who lived in Taos, Kit Carson, did his part to endear the Americans to the Native Americans of the region. He carried out bloody attacks against the Navajo, as the US government tried to force them onto reservations. You don’t often hear as much about that as you do his exploits as a frontiersman. His house is in downtown Taos (such as it is) and serves as a museum.

New Mexicans, whether Spanish or Indian, were not too respected by the incoming Anglos. That’s one reason why it took so long for New Mexico to become a state, as American leaders doubted their ability to practice democracy. But finally, the territory joined the Union in 1912, and soon artists discovered the natural beauty of northern New Mexico. Socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan built a home in Taos and invited artists to work there. Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams were just two who accepted the offer, drawn to the light and the mountains and allure of the high desert. D.H. Lawrence came too, and he later bought land outside Taos (of course O’Keefe became the most permanent transplant of all, settling down in not-too-distant Abiquiu).

Taos sunset on my last visit

Today Taos still has its cultural scene and a counterculture feel. The three influences – Pueblo, Spanish, and Anglo – live side-by-side, if not always comfortably. I’m drawn to the region because of that blending, because of the history, and because of the spiritual sense I feel as I look at the mountains or watch the sunset. After my first visit, travelers’ Stockholm syndrome took hold: I was ready to sell most of my possessions and move there. I didn’t, but I still think about it. In the meantime, I visit whenever money allows, And when I meet people who have never heard of Taos, I quickly tell them of all its splendors.

Stars Over New Haven

October 27, 2009 Leave a comment

For a few hours in September 1969, New Haven was Hollywood East.

I’d like to say, “And New Haven has never been the same since,” but that would be a lie. One thing remains true: New Haven functions as a semi-interesting city, exists at all, only because of Yale. And it was Yale that offered a 40th anniversary look back at the star-filled night in ’69, when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came to town.


Click for a larger view of the pic


No need to say who is who, right?

The 1969 event was the film’s premiere, attended by the two stars, Paul Newman (bearded and almost hippie-ish above) and Robert Redford, along with Joanne Woodward (bottom right) and Barbra Streisand. Thousands of people lined the street outside the old Roger Sherman/Palace Theater, hoping to catch a glimpse of Hollywood’s glitterati (decades before the phrase was coined). The opening event was captured on film, and some clips from it were shown before the anniversary screening of Butch Cassidy last week. The man responsible for the ’69 premiere, and the subject of the tribute that included the recent screening, was filmmaker George Roy Hill. A Yale graduate, Hill had arranged the New Haven opening as his own tribute to his alma mater.

(Yale tidbit: Newman also graduated from the university, the Drama School, and said after the premiere that he was “the campus drunk who made it.”)

At the anniversary event, scriptwriter William Goldman spoke, saying he was watching Butch Cassidy for only the second time since its release. The creative team of Hill and Goldman represented some of the cinema world’s elite. Hill had made his name directing live TV dramas before moving to Hollywood (and after two stints as a Marine pilot). He made a few movies before his iconic western, but Cassidy was the one that launched him into the stratosphere of filmmaking. He was nominated for an Oscar for that film, and finally won for The Sting, the even-more successful (at the box office, anyway) reuniting of Newman and Redford.

Goldman has written in just about every imaginable genre, always finding success, though he’s best known for his film scripts and two memoirs about life in Hollywood. He won an Oscar for Cassidy and a second for adapting All the President’s Men for the big screen. With Cassidy, it’s claimed, he invented the “buddy pic.” Goldman also shook up the conventions of the Western film. Heroes who run from conflict? Who (spoiler alert, if there’s actually someone who has not seen the film) die in the end? Hill’s direction was just as original, with the montage of photos during the New York sequence – a technique borrowed from documentaries – a contemporary pop song plunked into the middle of a Western, and the freeze-frame and pull-back on the last shot.


The real Butch, bottom right, and some of his gang in one of their nattier moments.

Goldman spent eight years researching the lives of his two heroes and Etta Place, the woman who joined them on some of their adventures. The specially hired posse to track them down, Sundance’s unerring accuracy with a six-shooter, the trip to Bolivia – all true. (Though Goldman, of course, took some license; somehow I doubt every moment of the bicycle scene is from life…) Goldman also offered tidbits about the history of the making of the film. Newman signed on first. He read an early draft of the script and told Goldman to let him know if/when he revised it. Newman, for a time, considered the role of Sundance, with Jack Lemmon (?!) as a possible Butch. Then Steve McQueen was suggested for Sundance, with Newman taking Butch. The deal fell apart, as the respective agents could not agree on billing.

It’s hard to imagine McQueen in either role, delivering the humor or subtle facial gestures Newman and Redford do, and which provide much of the film’s delight. On the whole, it stands up well after 40 years, with the amazing location scenery a huge plus. Less so is Katherine Ross. Goldman raved about her beauty (yes) and her acting (ummm….). She had already made a name for herself in one of the other great ’60s movies, The Graduate. Newman, too, was already an A-list actor before Cassidy. For Redford, the movie shot him off to stardom.

Goldman was effusive about Newman, as both an actor and humanitarian. Of course, Newman’s signature philanthropic effort, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, takes its name from Butch’s gang in the movie. (For more on the ongoing charitable efforts funded by Newman’s Own, Inc., go here.)

The weekend’s tribute to Hill also included a showing of the documentary, The Making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In another bit of history perhaps not widely known, it was the first “Making Of…” film. The work is an award-winner too, having copped an Emmy for Best Television Documentary, and it’s now packaged with the DVD, allowing easy access to a great moment in film history.

[While doing some research for this post, I came across an Internet rumor from earlier this year: Tom Cruise plans to remake Butch and Sundance with him and John Travolta in the lead roles. Sweet Jesus, in the name of the nine Muses and all that is good and true, let this just be a rumor! We still have Hill and Goldman’s film, Newman’s and Redford’s performances, and that’s all we need.]