Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
For me, stumbling across Jim Tully is one of those wonderful accidental discoveries that are a byproduct of research. He’s as obscure and forgotten today as he was famous in the 1920s. (His name has appeared exactly once in The Times in the last 20 years).
An Irishman with a natural gift for storytelling, Tully was almost entirely self-taught, which gave him a spare, unpretentious style that translates well to modern times, unlike the stale, artificial constructions of his more literary contemporaries.
Describing himself as former “farm laborer, link heater, tramp, circus roustabout, chainmaker, professional pugilist and reporter on the Akron Press and Beacon-Journal,” he published his first novel in 1922, the mostly autobiographical “Emmett Lawler.” Other books followed quickly, including Beggars of Life” in 1924 and “Jarnegan” in 1925, sometimes considered the first Hollywood novel. In addition, he wrote regularly for the Los Angeles Times and the American Mercury.
He also worked as a publicist for Charlie Chaplin and several of his books were made into movies, including “Beggars of Life,” which starred Wallace Beery and Louise Brooks.
Hedda Hopper noted that Tully always had good things to say about bootleggers, and he certainly traveled in fast company: Gene Fowler and his circle of literary boxers like Jack Dempsey (he once knocked out actor John Gilbert in a fight at the Brown Derby). He was married twice. Tully also had an extremely troubled son, Thomas A. Tully, a serial rapist who finally committed suicide along with his wife, Margaret Tully.
Here’s the opening of “A California Holiday,” published in the American Mercury in 1927, on the execution of Earl J. Clark, who was convicted in the “Red Rose Murder” of sailor Charles Silva in San Pedro:
“San Quentin stretches drab and sun scorched along the blue waters of San Francisco Bay. Majestic clouds seem always to be riding the heavens on the watery horizon. Boats glide, far out on the bay, as if fearful of drawing too near the crowded castle of the doomed.
“Originally built for less than two thousand prisoners, it now houses thirty-six hundred, about one hundred of whom are women. The roads are graveled. There is a detour sign two miles from the prison upon which is printed in large black letters beneath a hand pointing prisonward:
THIS IS THE RIGHT ROAD”
His widow, Myrtle, a secretary for Judy Garland, eventually donated his papers and books to UCLA.
Told by Irving Thalberg “your attitude in Hollywood has cost you $500,000, Jim,” Tully replied: “That may be true, but a man must have an attitude.” He is buried at Forest Lawn.
I didn’t even know the film version of “Beggars of Life” was based on a novel! Thanks for the info.
My goal is to present a journey of discovery. 🙂
Oooh, that sonofabitch wrote the meanest article on John Gilbert for Vanity Fair. That story about him knocking out Jack at the Brown Derby is probably apocryphal, but I wish Jack had crowned him with a bottle of champagne.
I thought the name sounded familiar! I was hoping it wasn’t the same guy.