The Grey Fox of Hollywoodby Todd McCarthy
“Spectacular . . . McCarthy’s thick, rich biography . . . chronicles in vivid detail how perhaps the last great popular artist in the movies worked.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
Howard Hawks is now regarded as one of the greatest directors ever to work in Hollywood. His career stretched from the silent era through the seventies and left an indelible stamp on American cinema. A filmmaker of incomparable versatility, he made the landmark gangster film Scarface, aviation classics (The Dawn Patrol, Only Angels Have Wings, Air Force), several of the best screwball comedies (Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), an immortal war story (Sergeant York), two sizzling Bogart-Bacall melodramas (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep), a dazzling musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and several towering Westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo, El Dorado).
He was Hollywood’s leading star-maker, having discovered or given important roles to Lauren Bacall, Montgomery Clift, Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth, Frances Farmer, Jane Russell, Paul Muni, Joan Collins, James Caan, and Angie Dickinson. He was the most modern of the great masters and one of the first directors to produce his own movies and declare his independence from the major studios. His work has exerted a powerful influence on such contemporary directors as Martin Scorcese, Brian DePalma, Robert Benton, John Carpenter, Walter Hill, and Quentin Tarantino.
Howard Hawks was the filmmaking partner of Howard Hughes; the drinking buddy and working colleague of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway; cofounder of Hollywood’s first elite motorcycle gang; an inveterate gambler constantly in trouble with gangsters; and a self-styled ladies’ man whose second wife was to become the celebrated Slim Keith. This first biography of Hawks penetrates the persona he so carefully constructed for himself and reveals one of the most formidable, complex, and enigmatic figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
“Spectacular . . . McCarthy’s thick, rich biography . . . chronicles in vivid detail how perhaps the last great popular artist in the movies worked.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A fluent biography of the great director, a frequently rotten guy but one whose artistic independence and standards of film morality never failed.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Hawks’s life, until now rather an enigma, has been put into focus and made one with his art in Todd McCarthy’s wise and funny Howard Hawks.” –The Wall Street Journal
“Excellent . . . a respectful, exhaustive, and appropriately smartass look at Hollywood’s most versatile director.” –Newsweek
“McCarthy does a good job of distilling not so much a style as an unflinching philosophy of life. . . . He gives us the stoic, comic essence of Hawks and his films.” –Entertainment Weekly
“McCarthy shrewdly identifies the peculiar kind of auteur Hawks was. . . . McCarthy does an excellent job of evoking the backgrounds to Hawks’s life. . . . McCarthy gives lucid and balanced accounts of all the films too . . . and only occasionally loses patience with Hawks’s boasting.” –The New York Review of Books
“There had always been a mystique around Hawks the man . . . a WASP Monroe Stahr, Fitzgerald’s Last Tycoon. Todd McCarthy . . . quietly dismantles much of this picture. . . . In area after area Hawks, skilled at inflating his achievements, made himself his most carefully constructed artifact. . . . As McCarthy breaks through Hawks’s protective shell of misrepresentations, this golden figure takes on a poignant quality–all that effort to be what he was not.” –The Atlantic Monthly
“Todd McCarthy has been engaged in this, the first biography of Howard Hawks, a long time. Every Hawksian is in his debt: There is never going to be a fuller record of the external life and work of Howard Winchester Hawks. . . . We see and feel the director on set, rewriting as he goes, coaxing his actors to extend and improvise, building scenes and fun–and keeping it all in balance. . . . As a working portrait of a great director and contriver, this book is beyond compare. Time and again, the detail adds to our pleasure with the films.” –L.A. Weekly Literary Supplement
“McCarthy . . . provides Hawks with the major biography he deserves, exhaustively researched, judiciously written and full of wonderful stories. . . . Informed by an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, by respect for the films and by compassion for a difficult man, McCarthy has created a biography that will be essential for anyone interested in the history of the movies.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood] . . . does not shy away from Hawks’s lying or vanity, but it is appreciative of his large talent.” –The Antioch Review
“[McCarthy] doesn’t hold back, in content or enthusiasm. . . . The beauty of his writing often lies in his ability to side with Hawks’s detractors . . . yet still make a case for Hawks as a key figure in American cinema. . . . A valuable book.” –Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
“Todd McCarthy’s hefty, detail-filled biography of the genre-hopping director does a great job separating fact from myth.” –Boston Sunday Herald
“A thorough and thoroughly readable biography.” –Los Angeles Times
“Intelligent . . . illuminating.” –The Boston Phoenix Literary Section
“McCarthy focuses with great and admirable detail on Hawks’s films. His life was rowdy and colorful, and McCarthy . . . portrays in wide-screen format a life until now presented only in sketches.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“McCarthy . . . has ably captured a frequently off-putting man . . . [and] is particularly good on directorial technique.” –The Washington Post Book World
“[A] scrupulous landmark biography of the great American director . . . Like its subject, McCarthy’s prose is admirably chiseled.” –Time Out New York
“A major contribution to film literature [which] should lead to a renewed appreciation of Hawks.” –Library Journal (starred review)
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Settle your father and your brother in the best of the land; let them dwell in the land of Goshen. –Genesis 47:6
The big news in Goshen, Indiana, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1896, was the melee at August Fausch’s saloon. Things got so out of hand that at 8:30 that Saturday night Marshal Rigney shot and killed the chief perpetrator, Richard Van Tassel, commonly known as Dick Simmons, a hulking man who was considered “prone to drink.” The tempers that night at Fausch’s merely matched the weather, however, as a heavy storm was ripping through central and northern Indiana, the wake of a major cyclone that had hit St. Louis, killing more than four hundred people.
In a quieter part of town, in a stately, handsome house on the corner of Fifth and Jefferson, there was big news of a happier, more intimate nature: a first child was born to Frank W. Hawks, the thirty-one-year-old scion of Goshen’s most prominent and successful family, and his wife, the former Helen Howard, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of one of Wisconsin’s leading industrialists. Given his mother’s surname and his father’s middle name, Howard Winchester Hawks represented the joining of two affluent, business-minded, British-blooded Midwestern families of similar traditions, each of which had made its fortune in local industry in the second half of the nineteenth century.
If you did business in Goshen in 1896, you had to do business with the Hawkses; they had basically made the town, and they virtually owned it. The mainstay of the local economy, the exceedingly profitable Goshen Milling Company, had been incorporated, and was controlled, by four Hawks men, including Frank’s father, Eleazer, who had owned an earlier incarnation of the firm, C. & E. Hawks, with his brother Cephas. If you wanted to buy or rent a house, you had to go to the real estate office of Hawks Bros. & Co., downtown at Lincoln and Main. If you then wished to furnish your home, you headed up to Jefferson to see Edwin Hawks at the Hawks Furniture Company. If you needed some financing, you could make an appointment with City National Bank Vice President Frank E. C. Hawks, who might also be able to help you out with your heating problems, as he doubled as president of the Hawks Coal Company. If you developed indigestion or a headache from worrying about how you were going to afford your new home, Dwight Hawks, the town’s leading pharmacist over at Hawks & Egbert, might be able to assist you. Anything you might need to fix the place up could be found at the magnificent Hawks, Messick & Company hardware store, and you could supply it with all the latest items from Chicago and New York at Joel P. and William H. Hawks’s well-stocked dry goods and notions store on Lincoln. And if you didn’t know how much postage it would take to send that box of Hawks buckwheat to Mom back in Michigan, you could have a word with Ida Hawks, the assistant postmaster at the main post office over on Pike.
Having been in the area for precisely sixty years before Howard was born, the Hawkses were among the founding families of the Elkhart County area, and they played the critical imaginative and economic role in putting Goshen on the map. But the family had been in North America for more than 260 years before the birth of its most famous member.
Early in 1630, ten years after the original Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, the brothers John and Adam Hawks were among a Massachusetts Bay Company expedition of six hundred settlers to the New World. After landing on June 12 at Salem, they eventually settled on the Shawmut Peninsula, where Boston soon grew. Like many of the new colonists, the Hawks brothers had arranged to pay for their voyage through an indentured work agreement. After four years of labor in the Boston settlement of Dorchester, the Hawks brothers were declared free men at the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on September 3, 1634.
Adam disappeared from history at this point, but John moved on to the Colony of Connecticut, to the settlement of Windsor. He married Elizabeth Brown, a niece of Nathaniel Ward, with whom he had several children, including the sons Eliezer and Gershom. As adults the two brothers were caught in the thick of the first war between the English colonists and the native Indians. Eliezer Hawks was one of the few whites to escape unscathed from one major battle, at the Falls, in 1676.
Shortly thereafter, Eliezer moved about twelve miles north of Hadley to the new settlement of Deerfield, where he married Judith Smead. The couple’s son, named after his father, was born on December 26, 1693, and grew up to marry, in 1714, Abigail Wells. Eliezer Jr. moved down the road to Wapping and began a family that grew to at least four sons. In 1743, he bought five hundred acres of land at Charlemont, about sixteen miles northwest of Wapping on both sides of the Deerfield River. In the early 1750s, his first three sons, Gershom, Joshua, and Seth, built separate homes in this densely forested section of the Berkshire Mountains, which lay directly on the Mohawk Trail and was the scene of considerable skirmishing with Indians as well as with the French. To protect their new homes, the brothers built a stockade, which was dubbed “Hawks Fort.” Looming above Charlemont, immediately west of the modern Berkshire East Ski Area, is Hawks Mountain.
Taking over his father’s farm at Wapping was a younger son, Paul, who had served in the French wars and was married to Lois Wait. Their large family included the sons Eleazer, Joseph, and Cephas. After the Phelps and Gorham purchase opened up land in western New York, these three sons were among the many New Englanders who decided to move west in the 1790s, settling in Ontario County, midway between Syracuse and Rochester.
Moving away from the farming that the family had traditionally practiced, Cephas partnered with two other settlers in building a gristmill in about 1799. Ten years later, he constructed a large woolen factory at White Springs, near Geneva, and made a great deal of money very quickly. However, prices plunged and the economy bottomed out after the War of 1812, wiping out his profits.
In the meantime, Cephas Hawks had married Chloe Chase and started what was to become a family of eleven children. Remarkably, the first six kids–Frank, Albert, Dwight, Cephas Jr., Eleazer, and Joel–were all boys, while the next five–Eliza, Calista, Sarah, Mary, and Harriet, who died as a child–were all girls. With prospects in the area unlikely to improve, Cephas moved the family in the early 1820s to the growing village of Ypsilanti, Michigan, fifteen miles east of Ann Arbor. Trying a new field, Cephas opened a distillery there in 1826 with four other men. Over time, he also became quite successful in the cattle business, accumulating enough capital to consider other enterprises. In 1835, he and his son Cephas Jr. undertook a prospecting tour of neighboring areas and bought two hundred acres of land near Middlebury, Indiana, just south of the Michigan line, about 125 miles southwest of Ypsilanti.
The state of Indiana had been created just nineteen years before, in 1816. As of 1822, the southern half of the state had been settled and carved up into counties, but the northern third was still owned by Indians; the peaceful mound-building Pottawattomi tribe occupied what became Elkhart County. By coercive treaty, the Indians were forced to give up their land in 1828, at which time it was opened up to homesteaders. The first settlers in what became Goshen put down stakes that year, Elkhart and St. Joseph counties were established in 1830, and the first industry at what became Waterford, on the Elkhart River about fifteen miles south of the Michigan line, as well as on the Goshen-Logansport Road, came into being three years later.
Cephas and Cephas Jr. had been so impressed by the potential they saw in Indiana that they promptly moved the entire family to burgeoning Waterford in early 1836. Cephas found 99.4 acres of land, including a gristmill and ample water power created by a dam the previous owner had put up across the Elkhart River. After a series of transactions, in March 1836 the land ended up in the hands of Cephas, Cephas Jr., and a friend from Ypsilanti named David Ballentine, and in 1838 they officially founded the town of Waterford.
The gristmill Cephas bought was the first frame mill in the county and quickly became known for making the finest flour in the region. So successful was C. Hawks & Sons that in 1847 Cephas, Cephas Jr., and the latter’s younger brother Eleazer built a much larger mill on the same site along the river. This mill had a vastly increased capacity over the old one, able to process fifty barrels of flour per day.
Well before he had spent a decade in the area, Cephas Hawks, with the help of his sons, had turned Waterford into quite a thriving little manufacturing center. The family owned a sawmill, a woolen mill, a brewery, and the town’s main store, which had such a varied and plentiful stock of merchandise that citizens of much larger towns, such as South Bend and Elkhart, came to Waterford to trade. Cephas Hawks also ran a tannery and an ashery in the bargain, and, in the judgment of an official record of Elkhart County, “the family whose interests most completely identified them with the early history of Waterford was that founded here in the thirties by Cephas Hawks Sr.”
No matter how industrious the Hawks men were, however, or how superior was their mill, Waterford was fighting a losing battle with Goshen for economic and political dominance in the area. Established as the seat of Elkhart County, the four-by-five-block town of Goshen had just been poking along until 1852, when the first railroad line, the Lake Shore & Michigan, came through. This spelled Waterford’s doom just as it signaled Goshen’s future. Three years later Cephas Jr. and Eleazer opened a hardware store, and the Hawks family began shifting its base to the bigger town.
Well before this, it had become clear that of all of Cephas’s ten surviving offspring, these two boys were the ones best suited to carry on their father’s smart business ways and ambitious thinking. The fourth-born son, Cephas Jr. always worked closely with his father and in all ways was the natural heir apparent to the family businesses. He married a Vermont native, Dalinda B. Bliss, in 1841, and over the next twelve years they had six children: Calista C., Frank E. C., Eveline, who died as a child, Mary E., Edwin W., and Harriet, who also died very young.
Cephas Sr.’s next son, Eleazer, also followed easily into the family business ventures. Eleazer, however, experienced repeated tragedy in his domestic life. His first wife, Margaret Thomas, after at least eight years of marriage, died suddenly at the age of thirty on March 16, 1857. Three years later, Eleazer wed a woman known only as Eliza Ann, but within a year she too was dead, at thirty-five. The circumstances of both women’s deaths are nowhere recorded. Then, on October 1, 1863, Eleazer tried a third time, marrying thirty-one-year-old Jennie L. Goff. Little more than one year later, on October 16, 1864, at the advanced age of forty-five (for then, at least), Eleazer became a father for the first time when Jennie gave birth to Franklin Winchester Hawks, who was to become Howard Hawks’s father. In 1868, a daughter, Grace L., was born, while a subsequent daughter died in infancy.
In 1844 Cephas Sr.’s sixth and final son, Joel P., at age twenty-two, married Sarah J. Brown of New York State; her father, Ebenezer Brown, became sheriff of Elkhart County. They had a son, Dwight, in 1851, but the following year, in hopes of striking it rich in the Gold Rush, Joel left for California and was gone for three years. Like most other prospecting hopefuls, Joel failed to make his fortune, but the agreeable climate did improve his health. In short order, Joel and Sarah had five more children–Joel P. Jr., Alice and Minnie, both of whom died in childhood, and Emma and Mabel.
While Joel was away, his mother, Cephas Sr.’s prim, charitable, Godfearing wife, died, on Christmas Day 1853, three days short of her seventy-third birthday. By the time Joel returned home in 1855, his father was eighty-one, still energetic and involved in business, but comfortable and proud to see his sons so capably following in his footsteps; ten years before, he had signed official ownership and control of the mill over to Cephas Jr. and Eleazer. Cephas Sr. essentially represented the prototypical success story of his generation, having been born before the birth of the nation, pushing westward several times before settling upon his chosen place, building that into a thriving mercantile community, then leaving behind many descendants to further what he had made into a respected name. He died on May 18, 1859, at eighty-five, having decidedly made his mark in the world.
The year their father died, Cephas Jr. and Eleazer constructed the biggest building yet seen in Goshen, a three-story commercial structure into which they moved the hardware store and gradually installed many of the major Hawks concerns, including the dry goods operation in 1865, the grocery store soon thereafter, the real estate office, the Hawks Coal Company, and the Hawks Electric Company.
Looking ahead in the mid-1860s to how he could further enhance the economic outlook for the little Midwestern empire his father had founded, Cephas Jr. realized that improved transportation in and out of Goshen could considerably expand his pool of potential customers. Opening Goshen up to year-round boat transport seemed the best bet, and to do this meant building a hydraulic canal. He encountered a surprising amount of opposition from other local businessmen, but he promoted the idea tirelessly until he not only won approval but secured a contract from the city to build it himself.
So it came as little surprise when, after the canal was completed, Cephas and Eleazer announced that they would move their milling operations from Waterford to Goshen. More than ever, due to the increased capacity and improved transportation, the Hawks mill thrived: the facility was greatly enlarged, the latest equipment was continually replacing the old, and the company cranked its capacity up to five hundred barrels of flour every twenty-four hours, making it one of the biggest operations of its type in the country. As one local historian put it, “No other concern in Goshen contributes more to the prosperity of Goshen than does the Goshen Milling Co.”
By this time, the other dominant family industry was the Hawks Furniture Company. Established in 1873 by Cephas, Eleazer, Joel, and partner Daniel Fravel, the operation started small, with eight employees, making inexpensive, unfinished bedstands and tables. But it grew quickly into the second most important business in Goshen, turning out ornate chamber suites of mahogany, bird’s-eye maple, and quartered oak that went out to customers worldwide.
As the century was drawing to a close, the Hawkses so completely dominated Goshen life and business that writers of the city’s history could barely contain themselves paying them homage. The Manual of Goshen proclaimed that the Hawks brothers’ talent for business was so great that “one almost believes they have a perpetual royalty on doing things at precisely the right time, which largely accounts for their bags of golden sheckels…. The historian, like sensible people generally, will join in the refrain, `Pass up more Hawkses if you would supplant poverty by plenty.’”
* * *
The year 1891 was a year of wrenching personal loss for the Hawks family. On May 19, Grace, the only surviving daughter of Eleazer and Jennie, who had lost a later daughter in infancy, died suddenly at the age of twenty-three. Exactly a week later, on May 26, Eleazer passed away, at seventy-two. This double loss left Jennie devastated and, with time, increasingly irrational and difficult; it also left Frank Winchester Hawks a very wealthy twenty-six-year-old. Although involved in the family businesses since graduating from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Frank had not yet shown either the zeal or the traditional Hawks industriousness to integrate himself into the inner circle of management. With Cephas now seventy-eight, and as involved with his voracious reading as he was with business, control of the Hawks industries was falling into the hands of Cephas’s eldest son, Frank E. C. Hawks, who was now forty-three.
With his father dead and living with his grieving, inconsolable, unreasonable mother at the large frame house on Fifth and Jefferson, young Frank Winchester Hawks was at sixes and sevens throughout 1891, faithfully tending to his mother as best he could but increasingly looking for a place for himself in the Hawks’s well-built, well-to-do, insular universe. Destined to become the first Hawks to leave Goshen, he would meet the woman who would give him a way out the following year.
The leading lights of young society in Neenah, Wisconsin, in the early 1890s were unquestionably Theda Clark and Helen Howard. Theda, born in 1871, was the daughter of Charles B. Clark, cofounder, in 1872, of Kimberly, Clark & Co., which was on its way to becoming one of the most successful paper companies in the United States and, as the inventor of Kleenex, certainly the most famous. Helen, born the following year, was the daughter of Charles W. Howard, also from impoverished origins, who had similarly worked his way up to an exalted position in the paper business. In east-central Wisconsin at the southern, upriver end of the Fox River and the northwest tip of Lake Winnebago, Neenah was one of the economic miracles of the 1890s, a town with a local industry so strong that it barely felt the terrible depression of 1893-97. During this period, there were twenty large paper mills along thirty-seven miles of the Fox River–all successful. Like the city-building pioneers of New England, the founders of the factory towns of the Fox River Valley used as their models the industrial giants of Great Britain, Birmingham and Manchester. When their communities didn’t reach those proportions, they scaled back their ambitions, settling for contented, Republican, enormously profitable, immensely comfortable stability at a time when–before the sweeping democratic reforms of Governor Robert La Follette in the 1900s–power in Wisconsin was completely in the corrupt hands of the few men at the top of the state’s leading industries.
Charles W. Howard arrived at this growing community in 1862, when he was seventeen. The son of Charles Howard, a native of the Isle of Man, and Hannah Hopkins, of Maine, he was born in Gardiner, Maine, on May 7, 1845. No other information has come down about his parents or early life, perhaps by his own design, as he set the style his famous grandson was to emulate in the fabrication of tall tales and outrageous lies that everyone knew were phony but no one dared challenge to his face. In 1866, he married Euphemia Brown, who was born March 10, 1844, to Scottish natives. During his twenties, Charles ran a harness shop, one of several catering to the extensive horse-and-buggy trade and located on the working-class western end of Wisconsin Avenue, a world away from the affluent eastern section of the avenue, to which he would eventually rise. As of 1870, the Howards still lived at 19 Boarding Street, and the value of their personal estate totaled a mere three hundred dollars.
But Charles kept saving and looking for angles, and by 1874 he was able to become a partner in the A. W. Patten Mill, where he learned the business and reaped the benefits of the mill’s unique system of using old paper stock for its raw material; for a while, its capacity of three tons of paper every twenty-four hours bested by fifty percent even what Kimberly-Clark’s Globe Mill was producing. In 1877, Charles bought Patten’s flour mill and started up a new business with John R. Davis Jr., called Howard & Davis. Through the 1880s, Charles’s mills were so successful that he emerged as one of Neenah’s leading industrialists, building a large, three-story Victorian house sporting gray shingles, three gables on the roof, a porch stretching across the entire front expanse, and enormous picture windows, from which he could see bits of the Fox River peeking out from behind the even more enormous mansions of his neighbors across the street on East Wisconsin Avenue: John A. Kimberly Sr., John A. Kimberly Jr., and perhaps the area’s most powerful individual, the lumberman and politician F. J. Sensenbrenner.
Money was the sole arbiter of social standing in this boom town, and if Charles Howard, now known as C.W., could afford a grand home on Park Row, the most fashionable strip of East Wisconsin Avenue, facing the park and lake, he was entitled to it. Nevertheless, C.W. was something of a pariah even among this city’s generation of nouveau riche. By one local account, he “was unfavorably known as a braggart, drunkard, and bully. A habitue of the Russell House barroom, C.W. was prone to wild exaggerations and fistfights. On more than one occasion he publicly announced that he had made more than $500,000 buying and selling a single Menasha paper mill. After a trip around the world he also informed the local residents that the world was flat: “This idea that the world is round,” he told lumberman Henry Sherry, “is all damn nonsense.”
Unlike his more fastidious neighbors, C.W. also had a taste for the stage, and he sometimes starred in local theatricals, where he could bellow away to his heart’s content in the most extravagant Victorian-era fashion. His reputation for pulling hoaxes reached its peak in 1883, when “he shattered his office window with a marble, lodged a bullet in the soft plaster of the opposite wall, and then excitedly told the police [his wife’s brother, J. W. Brown, was chief of police] that some mysterious assassin had nearly killed him while sitting at his desk, leaving the sleepy little town in a complete uproar for more than a month.” (Charles Coburn comes to mind as the actor who most ideally could have played C. W. Howard.)
But his wife tolerated her husband’s excesses, and C.W. doted on his daughters Helen, born in 1872, and Bernice, born four years later. A first child had died in infancy, and although it was never discussed, there was almost certainly another daughter, Emily, who died very shortly after her birth in 1873. The tragedy that most marked the family, however, was the accidental death of the couple’s only son, Neil. Born in 1879, Neil was just four or five when he drowned in Lake Winnebago.
Helen and Bernice were both smart and curious, and Helen and Theda Clark became best friends very young when they began attending the tiny Point School, the last of the city’s one-room country schoolhouses. Still renowned locally because of the outstanding Theda Clark Medical Center and other facilities bearing her name, Theda was Neenah’s golden child, a bright, high-minded princess of wealth and refinement whose noble goals were to cultivate her mind and help others. As Theda and Helen hit their teens, they began organizing elaborate socials and dinners, and then decided to attend college together, thus becoming part of the first generation of American women to pursue advanced education rather than “finishing schools.”
Henry Wells, who had made his fortune with his Wells Fargo Stagecoach Lines, founded Wells College in 1866 in Aurora, New York, intending it to offer women an Ivy League–level education, on a par with what men received at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. The school never grew large enough to become a significant force, but in 1888, when Theda and Helen enrolled as freshmen, Wells was still one of the most desirable, exclusive schools young American women could consider. It was also about to enjoy a particular cachet as the alma mater of Mrs. Grover Cleveland, the new First Lady. Their graduating class in June 1892 consisted of seven women, and the commencement address was entitled “Free Individuality, the Goal of Civilization,” which promoted “a desire for higher ideals and for characters free from selfishness and contaminating vices which lead to divorce, suicide, and often living death.”
For quite some time after graduation, the Wells women traveled to visit one another at their homes around the country. These visits often lasted for several weeks apiece and involved a continuous succession of parties and dinners. Theda and Helen naturally went to stay with their friend Helen Curtenius, who lived in Goshen, Indiana, where they met the young men Will Peters and Frank Hawks. Helen and Frank fell in love and got serious very quickly, while Theda and Billie, a young journalist, took considerably longer to work out their relationship.
Helen was far from the most attractive woman in Neenah, or even in her small class at Wells. With dark curly hair, wide-set eyes, and a prominent jaw, she had an undeniably horsey look that was overcome by her quick intelligence and adventurous enthusiasm. Frank Hawks, on the other hand, was tall and handsome in a distinguished way, and certainly one of the most eligible bachelors in Goshen at that time. With its shady streets and slow, comfortable way of life backed up by reliable industry, Goshen felt very familiar to Helen, and she and Frank pursued their romantic, traditional courtship by mail as well as in extended stays in the each other’s hometowns; Frank, for example, spent New Year’s Eve that year in Neenah, where Theda and Helen’s party was so minutely planned that all the women were dressed so as to present a history of feminine fashion in American history, from colonial days to the present. Compared to the warmth and liveliness to which she was accustomed at home, however, Helen confessed to finding “a little strain of queerness” in the Hawks family, and had to suppress her natural zest and outspokenness to get along with Frank’s moody mother. By contrast, C.W. instantly adored the affable Frank and began treating him like the son he had only so briefly had.
For Neenah society at the time, the mere idea of a long-distance romance was decidedly unusual, and for a girl of Helen’s standing to marry an out-of-towner caused no end of talk. But everyone agreed that the match of these two wealthy, bright, well-principled young people seemed ideal, and their wedding, at the Howard home in Neenah on June 5, 1895, was the social event of the year, and the account of the event in the Neenah Daily Times the next day was placed at the top and center of page 1.
By August, the bride and groom were settled at his mother’s home in Goshen. With Frank halfheartedly working at the mill and obliged to look after his mother, Helen agreed to stay there, and almost immediately discovered that she was pregnant. When Howard Winchester Hawks was born, the fact was promptly noted in the newspapers of both Goshen and Neenah. Six weeks later, in mid-August 1896, Helen and Frank brought the baby to Neenah for the first time and, in a letter to Helen Curtenius, Theda Clark provides a unique portrait of Howard Hawks as an infant:
Helen Howard Hawks and her flock have been home a week; the baby is a dear. If you can imagine Frank reduced to a pygmy, then you can see the child in your mind’s eye; they are so alike.
The baby cries much with colic, and Helen is most devoted. I often sit with the lady when she rocks her “little man” to sleep at night. The whole family is wildly devoted and grandmother, mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins and dogs gather about to watch the miniature breathe.
C. W. Howard lavished attention on his grandson and spoiled him from the very beginning. In every way, Frank, Helen, and little Howard were more comfortable in Neenah than in Goshen, but they kept their primary residence in Indiana. Just before Christmas in 1896, barely six months after Howard was born, an event of some note took place in Goshen: “The first motion picture ever shown in Goshen was brought to town by Frank Irwin. Kinematographe was promoted by the Trans-Oceanic Star specialty company and was touted as `the scientific wonder of the world.’ The Irwin Theater was packed Dec. 10, 1896, when the film was shown the first time, but the audience was disappointed and business began to dwindle after the first showing.”
Despite the fact that her family came to visit frequently, after three years in Goshen, Helen had had enough of living under the same roof with her mother-in-law. So after Kenneth Neil–his middle name a tribute to Helen’s brother, who had died so young–was born on August 12, 1898, Frank moved the family to an apartment in a local hotel. This was just an interim step before the inevitable move to Neenah. C.W. had made a standing offer for Frank to join him in his business, and it was clear that Frank–who had so much money he didn’t need to work anyway and was somewhat resented by his cousins Frank E. C. and Edwin for his less-than-total commitment to the family businesses–would never amount to much more than a name on a brass plate at the Goshen Milling Company. So the move was made, beginning in late 1898. By early the next year, the family was finally installed at 437 Wisconsin Avenue East, just up the street from C.W.’s dark, Queen Anne style house at 409, and Frank was named secretary treasurer of the Howard Paper Company.
By the turn of the century, when Howard Hawks was four years old, Neenah, Wisconsin, was a town dominated by fourteen churches, including the First Presbyterian, to which the Howards belonged. There were more churches than there were paper mills, hotels, and restaurants. There were seven hotels, seven horse shoers, six restaurants, four dentists, four cigar manufacturers, four harness makers, three newspapers, three wagon makers, three hardware stores, three ice cream parlors, two banks, one bowling alley, one telephone company, a flour mill, a brewery, and Sam Wing’s laundry. Within the next couple of years, two billiard parlors opened up, as did two gun-and-ammo shops.
From the beginning, the Hawks boys were pampered like American royalty. All their clothes were of the finest material and cuts, their hair was groomed daily and slicked down in the current fashion, and C.W. outdid himself in finding the most elaborate and expensive toys to give them. This wasn’t at all surprising, in that by the standards of the day he had also displayed an indulgent attitude toward his daughters, encouraging and delighting in their adventurous streaks. Helen and Bernice were the first girls in town to ride bicycles and, later, to drive automobiles, and when the early aviator C. P. Rogers came through the Fox Valley, Bernice reportedly paid him five hundred dollars to take her up in his rickety early plane. One doesn’t have to look far to find the models for what later became known as “the Hawksian women”; they were Howard women.
Two years older than Kenneth, little Howard was close to and protective of his younger brother. But it was a different story when the family’s next son, William Bellinger Hawks, arrived in 1902. The oft-repeated family story had it that to get him out of the way, six-year-old Howard was sent to the home of a friend, Judge Cleveland, the day William was born. Resenting his new brother, Howard offered to sell the baby to the judge, sight unseen, for ten cents.
Theda Clark’s letters provide a few little snapshots of the young Howard Hawks, including one of a traumatic event he was never heard to speak about as an adult. On June 14, 1900, just after Howard’s fourth birthday, Theda wrote that a little playmate of Howard’s had drowned in the Fox River right across from his house, and that Howard had apparently witnessed it. With the boy’s heavy German mother lumbering in hysterics toward the scene, Howard ran up the sidewalk to Theda and said, “Aunt Theda–Aunt Theda–a little boy drowned!” The tragedy deeply depressed Helen, since her little brother had died the same way.
The following year, after having made a very Henry Jamesian tour of Europe and having begun her very active philanthropic career, Theda finally married Will Peters of Goshen after an up-and-down six-year romance that did not enjoy the unqualified enthusiasm of Theda’s mother. The correspondent for the Chicago Chronicle couldn’t help but mention that “disparity in the conditions, however–an heiress to millions and a comparatively poor newspaperman–engendered complications which prevented the marriage for over six years.” In other words, the Clark-Peters romance had the making of a perfect screwball comedy, thirty-five years before Howard Hawks helped pioneer the genre. At the ornate wedding at the Clark home, Frank was the best man, while the bridesmaid “preceded little Howard Hawks, who was dressed all in white and carried a massive bouquet of American beauty roses.”
As had Helen, Theda settled initially in Goshen. But since Will, having left his job as managing editor of the Goshen Times, was on the road a great deal in his new, better-paid position as a salesman for the Philadelphia wallpaper company Cresswell & Washburn, Theda still spent much of her time in Neenah. She would very often have Howard and Kenneth over for lunch, and she wrote to a friend that “such great, dirty, freckled, rowdy boys you never saw and all out at the knees.”
Theda was unstinting in her charity work. Her hero was Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago, and she donated the land and a great deal of money for the construction of a superb, Roman-style library in Neenah. Theda and Helen each became pregnant at virtually the same time early in 1903. On October 17, Helen gave birth to her fourth child and first girl, Grace. But the very next day, Theda, who had experienced an increasingly difficult pregnancy, was unable to deliver normally, and the baby girl had to be “taken with instruments.” But the hemorrhaging could not be stopped, and the next day, with her sister, Will, Helen, and a Dr. Barnett attending her helplessly, she bled to death. Theda, who had just turned thirty-two, had the largest funeral Neenah had seen since her father died. In her will, she had designated a large sum of money for the construction of Neenah Menasha’s first hospital, which was shortly built and has operated ever since right across the river from her former home.
During his wife’s preoccupation with Theda’s illness and death, Frank Hawks busied himself with the countless details pertaining to the family’s new home. If not quite a mansion, the house–at 433 East Wisconsin Avenue, three lots west of the Howard abode–was certainly grandly imposing, a three-story structure with fifteen rooms, built at a cost of $20,000 (more than $400,000 by 1990s standards). Frank even imported an architect from Boston, the first time an outsider had ever been brought in to Neenah to design a building. A large, rambling house, elegant in brown gray shingles and fieldstone and exceedingly well built, it had a backyard stretching an entire city block north to Doty Street, a dream for young boys. There were two bay windows on either side of the front door, an east-facing porch, a grand front staircase, and dark wood beams and appointments on the first floor. Four bedrooms, one with a sitting room, took up the second floor, while the third had two bedrooms and a ballroom. Six fireplaces helped heat it. When Howard made Ball of Fire years later, he noted the similarity of the professors’ home to the one in which he spent part of his youth, saying, “I know what this kind of house is like.” Across the street and down a house was a small landing for boats, while 150 yards further east was beautiful Riverside Park, dotted with many trees. About a half mile further east was the shore of Lake Winnebago. It was, in all ways, one of the half dozen most impressive private homes in Neenah, and an idyllic place for children to grow up.
But by the time the family moved in, in 1904-05, the first signs were appearing that the Hawkses wouldn’t be staying in Neenah much longer. Already rather debilitated after delivering William and Grace, and devastated by the loss of Theda, Helen was brought to the limit by the birth of a fifth child, and second daughter, also named Helen, in 1906. After having borne so many children, she became “professionally ill,” in the opinion of a friend, and needed to find a way to recapture her health. Helen’s doctor advised her to leave Wisconsin, particularly during its brutal winters. Frank didn’t have to work, so they spent the winter of 1906-07 in Pasadena, California, a town northeast of Los Angeles that had recently caught on as a popular destination for well-to-do families from the East and Midwest. Initially, the Hawkses returned to Wisconsin during the summer, but by 1910 they left Wisconsin behind for good. C.W., who took to wintering in Pasadena himself, said, “It was too damn bad they didn’t know this before they built the house,” but they shortly rented it to C. B. Clark Jr., Theda’s brother, who later became mayor of Neenah. In 1912, Frank finally sold the house.
In the early 1900s, the ranks were thinning in Goshen as well; Frank’s very successful uncle Joel P. Hawks died on April 8, 1905, at the age of eighty-three, while his aunt Sarah died a little more than a year later, at eighty-two.
As for old C. W. Howard, he finally sold, at great profit, his interest in what had become the Island Paper Company; retired from active work; made investments, such as one in a hotel across the river in Menasha; devoted considerable time to the Winnebago Humane Society and the Mason Lodge; traveled extensively in Europe with his wife; and gave his eldest grandson whatever he wanted. When Howard, barely old enough to drive legally, showed an interest in auto racing, C.W. bought him a Mercer race car. And just as he had indulged his daughter Bernice’s interest in flying, C.W. arranged for the teenage Howard to take flying lessons in California so that he could qualify as a pilot; Kenneth soon followed suit. Partly because of his family’s wealth, but even more because of the way his grandfather catered to his every whim from the earliest age, Howard was accustomed to getting what he wanted. C.W. always told him he was the best, that he could do anything, and why shouldn’t the boy believe him? Howard also learned the art of the tall tale from his grandfather: if you told it often enough with a straight face and didn’t permit contradiction, it became part of your personal lore, if not simply taken as the truth. America, at that time, was made for an adventurous young boy of privilege like Howard Hawks, and his family’s position gave him the means to take advantage of it. At the same time, every man on both sides of the family as far back as anyone could trace had been engaged in very traditional business; they had pioneered, worked hard, been good farmers, fighters, cattlemen, millers, builders, and furniture makers. Except for C.W.’s amateur theatrics and Helen’s interest in music, no one in the family had ever shown the slightest inclination toward the arts, for branching away from the practical into the realm of the imagination.
In the early-morning hours of Wednesday, January 5, 1916, the temperature in Neenah reached 12 degrees below zero, a record low for the winter. The west wind bit fiercely, but by that afternoon, as C. W. Howard walked to the Neenah Club downtown for a couple of drinks and some chat with the boys, the thermometer nosed slightly above zero. In the dark of the late afternoon, he boarded the 5:30 P.M. streetcar for the short trip east on Wisconsin Avenue. Euphemia had not been well of late, and C.W. went directly up to his wife’s bedroom to check on her. It was there that he suffered a stroke. He was semiconscious at first, with his right side paralyzed, but he “soon lapsed into a stupor from which he never emerged,” according to the front-page story in the next day’s Neenah Daily Times. “Death came quietly and without the least suffering according to those at his bedside.” C. W. Howard died at 2:30 A.M. on January 6, 1916, at the age of seventy. The official cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage, with a secondary cause of arteriosclerosis.
As befitting a man of his stature, C.W. had a large funeral. In ill health already, suffering from cancer of the uterus, Euphemia could not easily absorb the shock of her husband’s sudden death. She died just three months later, on April 13, also at seventy.
In the distribution of C.W.’s estate, which finally took place in October 1918, it was revealed that his net worth, after the sale of his home, other property, and stocks, came to $264,090; this would have made him a millionaire many times over in 1990’s adjusted dollars. The great bulk of it went to his already very comfortable daughters, with Bernice receiving a lump sum of $115,315 and Helen getting $57,657 immediately and an equal amount to be apportioned out in stages to her monthly. Helen’s children each received $5,736 (about $120,000 in current dollars), perhaps not enough to set them up for life, but plenty to send them into their adultlives in high style and without need of mundane employment.
The story of C. W. Howard had a bizarre postscript. Some years later, after his daughter Helen had become a confirmed, perhaps even fanatic, Christian Scientist and adherent of cremation, she returned to Neenah. She had her father, mother, and brother Neil dug up and cremated (in Milwaukee, as no one closer by would do it). After mixing the ashes in an urn, she went out to Riverside Park and threw it in the river, where it was discovered decades later, with the names and dates still legible, by scuba divers. The grave marker, a big red marble ball six feet in diameter that C.W. had bought for himself at the 1896 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Helen sold to the Abenschein family, whose grave it still marks today.
©997 by Todd McCarthy. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.