I just read Sterling Hayden’s 1963 autobiography “Wanderer“. I had heard vaguely of Hayden as a yachtsman and actor and I remember reading his one novel “Voyage”, a book of the month selection in 1976. Still my interest was peaked by his bit part in a Robert Altman flic, “The Long Good Bye” (the movie as a whole is something of a mess) and Jackie picked up his autobiography for me. It’s a classic of the Great Depression – a kid hanging out on the New England waterfront (and hiding out in the public library reading sea stories), missing or expelled from school for years at a time while his mother and deadbeat stepfather dodge creditors. He escapes through jobs in the fishing fleet – as a crewman dory fishing in winter off the Grand Banks, later as crewman and mate on other ships and yachts. He is crew on the Thebaud in her match race against the Canadian Bluenose, he crews with Irving Johnson (featured in one of the Seaport films of square riggers rounding the Horn) on Yankee in a circumnavigation that stops in Tahiti. He lucks into a couple parts in Hollywood movies but with the coming of World War II he signs up under an alias – ultimately with “Wild Bill” Donovan’s covert operations, and smuggles guns to Tito and the Yugoslavian partisans to fight Hitler.
His experiences with the Depression and the War have left him embittered by social injustice and, impressed by the Yugoslav partisans, he joins and supports the American Communist Party. But, no fool and with a strong distaste for social controls – he already finds Hollywood phony and dehumanizing – he similarly rejects the Communists. That helps him not at all with the advent of the 50s and Joe McCarthy and he is called to testify before the House on UnAmerican Activities Commitee. To his lasting self-contempt, to save his career, he names “names”.
The Autobiography is framed by his effort to escape all this – and court orders on behalf of his ex-wife – by sailing an old schooner back to the South Pacific. Through it all, I think Hayden is brutally honest – to his own lights of course – about both the nature of life and his own sometimes less than admirable role. He’s also self aware and receptive to the romance. An excerpt, as Wanderer reaches Tahiti – “The pilot comes over the rail: “Bonjour, Capitaine… so thees is the Wandeureur.” “Bonjour, Pilote,” He looks like a clerk or chemist. “Capitaine,” glancing aloft in dismay, “you have the mo-teur, is it so?” “Oui, Pilote, nous avons la bonne machine.” “Then you weel, if you please, take down these sails right now.” “No Pilote, I am going to sail her in. All the way to the seawall I will sail her. Then, we turn on the mo-teur, and you back her into the quay.” She bores through the pass and the spume feels cool as she takes more wind. “Now strap her down!” and Spike and the gang lie back on the sheets, and the big blocks creak, and the ship bends down to her work, while the kids bounce up and down with laughter, pointing out each new sight.”
So not your same old read. Also to recommend – Adam Hochschild’s new book “Spain in our Heart” – his take on the Spanish Civil War. True, you can, and should, read Hemingway’s and George Orwell’s account. But Hochschild is the best historian out there. His “King Leopold’s Ghost” is both shocking and classic. He gets the balances right and he knows how to write.
And here’s something more no one told you – or at least told me. Before Ian Fleming, or Somerset Maugham, or John Buchan’s 39 Steps, came Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands, a prototypical spy novel (with yachts again in the North and Baltic Seas) warning of Great Britain’s vulnerability to invasion from Germany, written before the first world war. Childer’s was commended by no less than Churchill, served in British Intelligence and at Gallipoli in WWI, then was executed by the British for being too close to the Irish Nationalist movement. Doesn’t seem quite fair.