“But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade.
The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.
Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?” page 24.
The quote is not from Thoreau.
Most of us of a certain age – if we know the name at all – know the actor Sterling Hayden (1916-1986) as that corrupt cop, Captain McCluskey, who broke Michael Corleone’s jaw and whom Michael kills in Jack Dempsey’s bar. The punch would give Michael Corleone a distinctive speech pattern, lips clenched and words on edge, with anger and impatience. The killing scene is the conscious act that propels young Michael from civilian to mafioso. Cue: the Nino Rota music for The Godfather.
It was not until many years later after I had developed a fondness for noir films that I learned that Sterling Hayden played in several notable noirs: Asphalt Jungle, Crime Wave, Johnny Guitar, and The Killing. The fourth of those films I just listed was Kubrick’s first full-length feature and commercial success. Stanley Kubrick would later cast Sterling as General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.
Fewer, I hazard, would know that Hayden was also an author. He wrote a semi-autobiographical novel The Wanderer (1963) and then Voyage (1976). Both books read like Conrad and Melville with Hayden living the life of an adventurer before and after Hollywood. He is both Melville and a character from Melville. Hayden ran away from home at fifteen to sail the Great Banks of Newfoundland: sailed around the world the first time at twenty-one, captained a square-rigger from Gloucester to Tahiti at twenty-two, and he was the navigator for the schooner Gertrude L. Thebaud in the Fisherman’s Cup the following year. News coverage of the race had led to Hollywood calling the sailor west, but he refused initially. He would sail around the world a second time before he reported to Paramount Studios in 1941. He married and seemed to settle down to a staid but secure income and life. Paramount awarded him a seven-year contract starting at $250 a week, which was very good money then. He would break his contract in less than a year. He felt the wind and left the shore. Wanderer.
Hayden was not a man easy to miss in the crowd: at six-five, with rugged good looks that earned him the moniker “The Beautiful Blond Viking God,” he managed to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, see action, earn both the Silver Star and Bronze Star and other combat decorations, get on a first-name basis with “Wild Bill” Donovan of the OSS, precursor to the CIA, and run numerous covert gun-running and rescue operations into Yugoslavia before it had become known that he was some two-bit actor from Hollywood. In other words, Hayden had enlisted using a false name. He had dined with FDR as John Hamilton. That’s acting. Hayden’s missions for the nascent CIA were not declassified until 2008.
In Wanderer, Sterling does a fair amount of handwringing. Why? It all depends on how you read the text and the man. I suspect it is another testament to the man’s incredible acting ability. One version goes like this: Hayden had developed an admiration for the Communists when he infiltrated the Communist Party in the Balkans and briefly flirted with ‘un-American’ political ideals; and later, when on the verge of divorce, without a job, with child support to pay, and incensed by the judicial system’s treatment of fathers or, frightened by the burgeoning witch hunt that had blossomed under Senator Joe McCarthy, he named names and forever hated himself for doing it. Another version, depending where you read online, has this to offer: Hayden had infiltrated the Party, admired them for their social idealism, but never became a Communist either by oath or by paying dues, that he disliked what civilians were doing to each other when he had come home from the war, but he kept gathering intelligence after returning to the U.S. The distinction here being that he admired the Yugoslav partisans even though he disagreed with them politically; it was military action with an objective, but Americans turning on Americans was a violation of everything American to Hayden. There is yet another twist: the psychoanalyst, Dr. Ernest Philip Cohen, to whom Hayden later aired his mental laundry was an FBI informant. Students of the early days of American intelligence know that the CIA and the FBI competed in the spy game, since J. Edgar Hoover wanted full control of all law-enforcement agencies. The CIA would get its directives after the OSS was disbanded. J. Edgar Hoover would remain an American institution from Prohibition to the Nixon administration.
Either way, Hayden was an interesting man. As an author he, like another actor who loved the sea, Humphrey Bogart, knew his Conrad, London, Melville, and Stevenson inside and out. Wanderer, in typical Haydenesque style, began as an open act of defiance. Defying a court order, he took his four children and sailed for the South Seas. He set sail with no radio. Wanderer is not a celebrity rendition of life on the lam with all the posh accoutrements; it is literary fiction drawn from living the hard life at sea with children; and Hayden demonstrates the breadth of his maritime knowledge and the depth of his reading, for the book opens with a pivotal incipit from Walter de la Mare. Substitute Wanderer for ‘Traveler’ and you see Sterling Hayden, the author and man, who loved his children and the sea. He was both Ishmael and Ahab.
Voyage reads like Whitman and Melville in a drinking contest, recognizing the attraction and dangers of the sea, the highs and lows that come with living on your own terms. Hayden had lived most of his life on a boat. When he lived in France, he lived on a boat in various docks. His love for the sea began at Long Wharf in Boston and Sausalito is where Hayden set his last anchor. NY-born and patrician Bogart had a schooner named Santana, and Hayden had his schooner Wanderer. There is no doubt that Hayden was a flawed man of Lear contradictions: he drank, railed against many things, but it seemed that he distrusted the things that came easy to him…such as acting. He disliked the Hollywood factories for creating illusion; politicians, for perpetuating other illusions and; railed against what he was seeing America become. He was outspoken about his political activism, his drinking and occasional drug use in his interviews with Tom Synder, where he looks like the future Keith Richards, but betrays himself as a writer. Hayden lived his life at odds with the ‘American dream,’ climbing up and down the ladder of success several times over. He was a nonconformist who believed in the examined life. It is impossible not to notice the pattern that just as he was about to touch the brass ring he would walk away; but in the writing he is simply majestic, poetic, and provocative. I’d argue that his prose rivals with the best of the twentieth century’s best writers.
“Shortly after midnight she came to the end of the road and, with Venus Point Light bearing due south, three miles distant, we hove her to till dawn. And the ship slept under a blanket of stars and so did most of her crew. But not the one in command. He paced alone, alone and lost in memories of the time…” Wanderer, page 247.