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Robert Redford: The Biography (Abridged)by Michael Feeney Callan
America bloomed on a dream, consolidated in the pages of the Democratic Review in 1845 when journalist John O’Sullivan wrote that it was “our Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Prior to then, “America” existed in a huddle of sparsely populated states that were outgrowths of the East Coast Dutch and British settlements. Across the Appalachian divide was limbo, and the travelers who first set out on the Oregon Trail wrote wistfully of “going home to America.” Within two centuries, the wilderness was taken from the Native Americans, but its settlement was mythologized in blithe imaginings wrought by the stories of Owen Wister and the paintings of Frederic Remington. In truth, there were few cowboys, fewer than ten thousand at their peak, and the pioneers who trekked west traveled not in Conestoga wagons, but on draylike prairie schooners hauled by oxen. Fantasies are inherent in human nature, and much of the American landscape, unchanged for millennia until the great drive west in the nineteenth century, provoked heaven and hell.
California, especially, inspired heaven. It was huge, its very geography offering a multitude of opportunities for exploitation. Gold had been sprinkled there by the gods. Starting in 1849, the influx began, filling the twin ramshackle metropolises of San Francisco and Los Angeles with their various dreamers. In 1800 the California population measured a few thousand. By 1853, after the gold rush was finished, the population was a quarter of a million. The entrepreneurial energies of great financiers, including Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, made San Francisco the Paris of the West. Los Angeles, in competition, boomed by nurturing its reputation for blue skies and perfect, balmy breezes. The mission Spaniards, set on sanctifying paradise, persevered with Spanish orange and Portuguese lemon crops, which took hold when the early cattle kings dispersed. These Californian delicacies caught on back east and gave the environs of Los Angeles a bedrock export economy.
Still, California was no easy sell. To the recent immigrants settled on the East Coast—Irish folk like Redford’s maternal great-grandfather, John Hart, or the English Redford clan—the industrial options of the more established towns were more desirable. As the gold rush subsided and the Civil War ran its course, the fledgling Los Angeles chamber of commerce commissioned books like Charles Nordhoff’s California, which sold the southern part of the state-to-be as a sanitarium. “California college girls are larger by most every dimension than are the college girls of Massachusetts,” wrote naturalist David Starr Jordan in an act of shameless boosterism. But it was William Mulholland’s extraordinary irrigation scheme
at the start of the twentieth century that finally put Los Angeles on the map. Greenery suddenly spread out to envelop the San Fernando Valley, and the city was repackaged as a year-round tourist destination. The succeeding tourist boom fueled helter-skelter residential growth from Santa Monica to Van Nuys and, ultimately, nourished the invention of a dream factory called Hollywood.
Robert Redford was a first-generation Californian, born in Los Angeles as the citrus era ebbed and Hollywood hit flood tide. In the mid-1930s realities clashed as the Dust Bowl casualties came west, only to be stopped at the gates of the city by local police patrols while Angelenos hosted Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper. The Redfords were within the city limits, but poor; neighborhood friends hanged themselves in the Depression. Still, proximity to dream weaving, and the perfect climate, provided powerful distraction. Across the country, movie theaters saw their best business during the Depression years: such was the potency of the dream. For Redford, as for many of his childhood friends, the division between reality and fantasy was blurred. It wasn’t unusual, if you were born within five miles of Sunset Boulevard, to see Charlie Chaplin or Betty Grable on your street, or at a store, or driving by. When Redford was a baby, the first person to hold him was the actor Robert Young, a cousin of his mother’s; Cesar Romero carpooled him to school; John Steinbeck courted his future wife Elaine before his eyes in a neighbor’s home; Redford played on the lawns of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executives.
Redford remembers that for a child of five, with a stressed father working fourteen-hour shifts as a milkman, Los Angeles was a place of magic, fragrant with night-scented jasmine. “There was this ritual,” he recalls. “At dusk I would cycle to the very edge of the sidewalk and roll the lead wheel onto the curbstone, balancing it, as if I were poised on a chasm. From there I’d wait for the sunset—and the air was so clear in L.A. at that time that those sunsets were amazing. I’d watch the dark come up from the east. And then, bit by bit, the stars appeared. It was mesmerizing just to contemplate it. The hugeness of this sky. The beauty. What could it mean? Where did it begin?” Redford loves this first childhood recollection: it represents for him the incessant curiosity that has ensured him a life of movement.
Los Angeles was a dawdle from his birth until Pearl Harbor, but it was populated, he decided, with faces and personalities that didn’t belong in the idyll of the endless summer. There was Grandma Sallie Hart, a faded southern belle with the troubles of the world etched in her beauty. And vaguely behind her was Grandpa Hart, a prairie pirate who lived “down south.” Back east there was Grandpa Redford, a ghost whom Redford’s father alternately grumbled and laughed about. And then the mysterious Grandmother Redford, who wrote to her grandson almost daily and irritated the noncommunicant’s conscience with a tone of terrible foreboding. Who were these people? Like Uncle David, his dad’s bright-eyed military-uniformed brother who blew in and blew out, none of them belonged to Los Angeles. In 1944, Redford started asking questions about his family origins; at Grandpa Redford’s deathbed in 1964 he was still asking. “I never got answers,” says Redford. “We were all just horse dealers, dope addicts and dropouts. None of my grandparents wanted questions and answers. But they were all storytellers. Who was my dad’s dad? Just some failed musician, I was told. Who was my mom’s dad? When I visited, he was more interested in teaching me to hunt than in talking about the past. To me, he was just a frontiersman. Only later did I make the connections to a big, rich story of several different cultures blending into one life in L.A.”
The story that fed both branches of the family, the Redfords and the Harts, was one of rebels and outcasts. The factions arrived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and clung to the East Coast and the ideals of pluralism and liberal democracy that had been established there. Freedom was the quest of both families. By the late fourteenth century the Redfords, Saxon in origin, had split into branches centered in Berkshire and Manchester. Prominent in the Berkshire branch was Henry Redford, a merchant who became Speaker of the House of Commons. He was to be the last celebrated Redford for six hundred years. The other branch, predominantly Catholics, fared less well in Manchester, striving to establish themselves as farmers just as the Church of England Tudors laid siege on Catholic power. Through the 1600s the Catholic Redfords lost their lands, intermarried with the Scots and became reformist Presbyterians at war with the Crown. In 1849, Presbyterian Elisha Redford married Irish Catholic Mary-Ann McCreery in Manchester Cathedral and signed his occupation as “unemployed spinner,” meaning a garment industry worker. Other Redfords had already made the journey to Massachusetts under the Puritan flag, and apparently seeking to improve his lot, Elisha and his bride sailed for New York in the summer of 1849. Elisha and Mary-Ann immediately settled in the seaport trading town of Stonington, Connecticut, on the point of land that juts into Little Narragansett Bay. Elisha was a “jickey,” the name ascribed to the many Englishmen who came every year to labor at the loom, and he worked hard in constant employment, striving to improve his family in a house shared with two other families. In 1851 the first of the American Redfords arrived when Mary-Ann gave birth to Charles, Redford’s great-grandfather. Charles was educated to grade school level, and in adolescence opted to work as a barber in the heart of Pawcatuck, a census-designated section of Stonington then known for its poverty. As a teenager, Charles quickly showed a flair for entertainment and formed a singing quartet to entertain customers. He took up the mandolin, the musical rage of the time, and was suddenly in demand for local recitals. By the 1870s, his virtuosity had seduced a Scots Episcopalian girl from Aberdeen, Jane Archie, ten years his junior, who became his wife. They settled not far from his parents, who, though no more than modestly secure, financially helped Charles to leave Pawcatuck and invest in a barbershop partnership, Hepworth and Redford, across the river in upmarket Westerly.
Charles and Jane’s first child, Charles Elijah, born in December 1880, would become Robert Redford’s grandfather, and a major influence in his life. Twin sisters, Grace and Claribel, followed. The family was close-knit and restive. The girls were intelligent, and Charles Elijah, even before his teens, evinced a musical skill that surpassed his father’s. He mastered cello, bass and piano, but his instrument of choice was the violin, on which, at twelve, he excelled.
By century’s end, Elisha was not much better off. He was still in a clapboard house in Stonington, still laboring as a spinner. If he dreamed of a better life for his children, there must have been fulfillment in his son Charles’s joy with his barbershop and his music. Charles’s children, too, seemed intent on moving up. Like his father, Charles Elijah longed for a career in music. And the sisters Grace and Claribel had brains to burn. The only shadow on Elisha’s vision of their future was the apparent rebelliousness his grandchildren displayed. Charles Elijah wanted faraway shores, and though the girls planned on solid careers in education, they, too, were restless and difficult. In Claribel he found an obstinate, politically minded reactionary, and in Grace a freethinker who embraced communism.
Robert Redford’s early life was dominated by women. They were not the women of New England, but women of the West. His mother, Martha Hart Redford, was, he says, the center of his universe. She taught him to drive when he was eight, taught him to draw, to role-play in games. She connected him with the past, introducing him to Native Americans on Navajo reservations in Arizona and to Yosemite. These conjunctions came naturally to her, because she was the stuff of the West, descended from Texans who were, in spirit, the polar opposite of the Redfords. A century before, the Harts and Greens of the maternal family line lived a frontier life along the Mississippi Valley, religiously random, indulgent, drifting. The Harts were Galway-Irish, the Greens Scots-Irish, and both families came to America through the southern colonies in the mid-eighteenth century. The Harts followed the frontier to Missouri; the Greens followed the money to Boston. While the Harts drifted, the Greens built one of the first large-scale printing presses in Boston in 1790. When a similarly ambitious undertaking in Arkansas failed, George Green set out with his family by wagon train in 1853 to settle lands near Austin, Texas. Along with three partners, he founded a new town called San Marcos. In no time George, a slave owner, had established mining interests and a loan company. His son, Edwin Jeremiah, known to all as Ed, was twelve when they set up in Texas. By the age of twenty he had expanded the family’s businesses into every variety of service provision for miners across the region. He also built Green’s Anglican Church next door to the family bank. During his service in the Confederate army, young Ed’s wife died and he married her sister, Eliza Jane, who bore him six children, including Eugene, Robert Redford’s maternal great-grandfather. As San Marcos’s fortunes grew during Reconstruction, Ed became a legendary figure, a titan of the local business world. Among his social circle was another celebrated ex–Confederate officer, Zachariah P. Bugg, the sheriff of a Tennessee township. Zach’s daughter Mattie married Eugene in 1891. Out of this union came Sallie Pate Green, Robert Redford’s grandmother.
Sallie Pate’s childhood was one of privilege and tragedy. Eugene Green followed his father into mining and banking, but died suddenly at twenty, when his daughter was just months old. Shortly after, his teenage widow, Mattie, died of typhoid. Ed became de facto father to Sallie and rechristened her Mattie, in memory of her mother. She was the apple of his eye. In 1896, when Sallie was three, Ed’s wife passed away. Shortly afterward he married Alice Young Bohan, a recently widowed sister of his former wives. Alice was affectionate but not maternal, and Ed was sixty-five; it was Sallie’s good fortune that the black wet nurse, Nicey, a Green household fixture since her own childhood, became an affectionate substitute mother.
In 1909, as Sallie turned sixteen, America’s fascination with the new automotive culture, started ten years before by Henry Ford, was peaking. That fall, Sallie attended a county fair advertising a race for custom roadsters, one of dozens held across the country. The race was won by the Bluebird, the handiwork of a shoe salesman turned inventor/mechanic, recently arrived from El Paso, named Tot Hart. Having won the attention of Sallie and the rest of the Green family, he was invited by them
Archibald “Tot” Hart was, like the Greens, of a western cut. His father, John Gabriel, was a traveling salesman from Spotsylvania, Virginia, who married an Ohioan, Ida Woodruff, in Missouri in 1885. In 1897, when Tot was eight, his father succumbed to cirrhosis, dying at the side of the road, and two years later his mother lay on her deathbed, urging her sons to pledges of temperance. Foster homes were found for Tot and his brother. Tot was small, but he had the energy of a terrier and liked the notion of risk. As with his father before him, the frontier beckoned. He headed south with nothing but the clothes he walked in, he later told Redford.
In the years that followed, Tot learned the survival skills he would ultimately pass on to Robert Redford. “He was a modern mountain man,” Redford recalls. “He was a child when he hit the road, but it was do or die. He took work wherever he could find it, and learned to live off the land, hunting small game and harvesting berries. He loved the outdoors, but he also possessed a great gift with mechanical devices. Because he had to, he learned to build. He could build anything: furniture, boats, guns, even automobiles from scratch. He followed fifty trades, whatever paid for a crust of bread.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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