John Kearns Learns About Jim Tully: Boxer, Writer and Hollywood Star

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How It’s New York:   The presentation by Mark Dawidziak and Paul Bauer took place and New York University’ Glucksman Ireland House— one of New York’s treasures, they present lectures, concerts, workshops on all facets of Irish culture and history.
How It’s Irish: The Ireland House event gave a vivid depiction of the life of second-generation Irish-American, Jim Tully, and a passionate and well-argued appeal for the revival of his literary reputation.




 John Kearns learns about the fascinating life of Jim Tully at Glucksman Ireland House:  a writer, boxer, 2nd generation Irishman who worked with Louise Brooks and Jimmy Cagney– he might  be “the missing link between Jack London and Jack Kerouac.”



On Thursday, February 23rd, at Glucksman Ireland House, television, theater, and film critic Mark Dawidziak and Paul Bauer, author and owner of Archer’s Used and Rare Books in Kent, Ohio, gave an outstanding multimedia presentation about the life and works of Irish-American novelist and journalist, Jim Tully (1886-1947) in support of their new biography, Jim Tully:  American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler.    Through stories, photos, film clips, and readings, Dawidziak and Bauer recounted how Jim Tully, a ditch digger’s son and teenage hobo, rose from extreme poverty to become the critically acclaimed author of 14 books , a close friend of movie stars, and, as the industry’s first serious journalist, the most feared and hated man in Hollywood. This former homeless juvenile, the biographers contend, could very well be the missing link between Jack London and Jack Kerouac. He could also be, as Professor Linda Dowling Almeida offered in her introductory remarks, the link in Irish-American literature between Finley Peter Dunne and James T. Farrell.

The remarkable life of the man who in novels such as Emmett Lawler  (1922)
and Shanty Irish  (1928) and in non-fiction works such as Beggars of Life  (1924), and Circus Parade  Circus Parade (1927) would earn fame depicting the lives of the forgotten and the outcast began in St. Mary’s, Ohio in 1886. Tully’s grandfather, Hugh, a refugee from the Ireland’s Great Hunger of the 1840s, had made his way to Ohio, where he and the author’s father dug ditches in the flat Midwestern farmlands. From his grandfather, a raconteur who could make audiences in the local pubs of Saint Mary’s laugh, cry, and buy him drinks, Jim Tully learned the value and the techniques of a good story well told.
  Tully wrote of his grandfather, “Drama came as naturally to him as corn to an Ohio farmer.”

Jim Tully’s mother died when he was six and Jim was sent to an orphanage, where he spent the next six years in what was effectively a prison. While many of the nuns at the orphanage were cruel, others taught him how to read and write, to appreciate good books, and to memorize and recite well-written sermons.

At age 12, he was sent to a work on a farm, which proved worse than the orphanage. He suffered some of the coldest temperatures in Ohio history in threadbare overalls stuffed with newspaper. Tully escaped from the farm and made his way back to St. Mary’s where he soon became acquainted with the underworld brought to town by the railroad: the world of prostitutes, hobos, and their young counterparts known as “Road Kids.” Tully decided to take to the road himself and spent six years, riding in box cars and often “riding the rods” — underneath the train cars. He also worked for a traveling circus and did time on a chain gang in the South.

It was a very dangerous life, explained Dawidziak, where “death literally waited around every corner.”

However, it was these six years that would provide the material for almost all of his later writing.

One place where Jim Tully could get away from danger, the police, and bad weather was the public library. There, Jim could also educate himself about literature. He became enamored with writers who knew life on the road, especially Jack London and Joseph Conrad. Perhaps because of his literary interests and his ability to spin a yarn, both Jim’s sister, Virginia, and a librarian he met in Kent, Ohio suggested to Jim that he could become a writer.

He married a Kent High School girl and in 1912 moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a tree surgeon and a boxer. Standing just five-foot-three, Jim fought as an unskilled featherweight who would take a lot of punishment and dole it out when he got the chance.

At the same time, Jim worked hard on his first novel, Emmet Lawler. In Los Angeles, he managed to meet his hero, Jack London, who got him drunk but gave him no valuable advice. Popular sentimental writer of the day, Harold Bell Wright, advised Tully to change the novel’s point of view from first to third person. Jim made the change and, in 1922, found a publisher.

His literary success did not equal financial success, however. He still needed to find a job to support his family. Through connections made at a Hollywood party, Tully found work at the studio of Charlie Chaplin. He wrote marketing copy and contributed script ideas.

Dawidziak pointed to a photo of Tully with Chaplin costumed as the “Little Tramp” and remarked, “Here is a picture of the ‘Little Tramp’ with the genuine article.”

Mark Dawidziak

Jim’s second book, Beggars of Life (1924), a memoir about his life as a vagabond, sold well and earned him a reputation in the literary world. Beggars of Life was adapted for the stage by Maxwell Anderson as Outside Looking In and was staged in Greenwich Village. Looking for someone to play Tully, a short, red-headed, charismatic, tough guy, the director cast an unknown song-and-dance man from Yorkville, a young fellow named James Cagney. This gave Cagney his first serious acting role.

While Tully was making a name for himself as a literary author writing stunning books about the underclass, he was also becoming famous/infamous as the first journalist to cover Hollywood seriously.

Tully’s third book, a non-fiction work about his life in the circus, appeared in 1927. Circus Parade was perhaps Tully’s most disturbing book and one of two of his works that were banned.
The following year Jim published what was perhaps his most affective book, the novel, Shanty Irish, which depicted the life of his family in Ohio.

Other notable books from this period include Shadows of Men  (1930),a portrait of criminals, addicts, drifters, and other outcasts of society, and Blood on the Moon  (1931),describing Tully’s becoming a writer.


Beggars Abroad (1930) is a travel book about offbeat locations in Europe, perhaps most interesting for the interviews it contains with luminaries such as George Bernard Shaw (who only wanted to talk about boxing) and James Joyce (who had an early manuscript of Work in Progress a.k.a. Finnegans Wake on his Left Bank desk.)

With his literary fame starting to fade in the mid-1930s and 1940s, Tully tried to write himself back into the limelight with The Bruiser(1936) and Biddy Brogan’s Boy  (1942). The comeback never materialized, however. In 1947, Tully, already suffering from arthritis and circulation problems perhaps caused by his hard years on the road, died from a massive heart attack.

As they presented the odyssey of Jim Tully’s rise from “Road Kid” to literary artist and scourge of Hollywood, Bauer and Dawidziak also presented the odyssey that they themselves went through in writing the Tully biography.

In 1992 a friend came into Paul Bauer’s used book store in Kent, Ohio and asked for a copy of The Bruiser by Jim Tully. Bauer didn’t have a copy of the book and knew nothing about its author. He was surprised to learn that Tully had lived and written in Kent.

When he asked Mark Dawidziak about Tully, the TV critic said, “Based on what little I know about him, I think you’ll like him.”

Dawidziak then stopped in a bookshop in Akron and asked for anything by Tully. There
was one copy of Shanty Irish. He took the book home and the writing, he declared, “Took the top of my head clear off.” Tully’s style mixed short, sharp, boxer’s jabs of sentences with passages of Irish lyricism that no other hard-boiled writer had attempted. Dawidziak later learned that Tully considered the hard-boiled prose writer and the dreamy Irish poet within him to be at war with each other.

Instead, Dawidziak argues, they created a “dynamic tension that gives off sparks.”

Next Dawidziak paid a visit to the “morgue,” the storage place for dead copy from the Beacon Journal. It turned out that in 1908 Tully had twice tried to be a reporter for that very paper. He immediately called Bauer with this exciting news — the first link in the chain that they would construct to tell the story of Jim Tully’s life and work. It was also just one of the many serendipitous moments in the authors’ researching and writing Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler.

Their deciding to write the biography was an act of faith: Bauer and Dawidziak didn’t know if they would ever have enough material for a book. Their big break came when a local librarian discovered that a trove of Tully’s personal papers — 100 boxes worth — had been donated to UCLA. Overnight, they had gone from having perhaps too little information to perhaps having too much.

Paul Bauer

In their research, Bauer and Dawidziak uncovered many photos and film clips, some of which they shared with the audience at Ireland House. They showed a sequence about jumping onto a freight train from the movie Beggars of Life, starring Louise Brooks. They also ran clips featuring Tully himself in the movie, Way for a Sailor. In this 1928 film, Tully appeared alongside John Gilbert, a star whose opportunity to replace the late Rudolph Valentino as the reigning male sex symbol was destroyed by an expose of Tully’s. The movie contains perhaps the only footage showing how Tully moved and spoke.

Dawidziak concluded the presentation with a reading from Shanty Irish, a lyrical passage in the voice of a character modeled after Tully’ grandfather, with a photo of Tully’s tombstone projected behind him. It was a fitting conclusion and one that argued strongly for readers to rediscover the work of forgotten prose stylist, Jim Tully.

Dawidziak and Bauer’s presentation was intriguing, informative, entertaining, and funny. It also made an eloquent and convincing plea for the restoration of Jim Tully and his works to prominence. However, their passion for their subject matter did keep their presentation from being as concise as it might have been. They ran out of time before they had a chance to discuss Tully’s disappearance from the public eye and from the world’s bookstores and websites. Unfortunately, this part of the story was only touched upon in the Question and Answer session after the presentation.

I look forward to reading Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler and hope to review the biography for New York Irish Arts.* 

And, because of the fascinating and impassioned case made by his biographers, Mark Dawidziak and Paul Bauer, I am especially eager to read the works of Jim Tully himself.

*Editor’s Note:  YAY!

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Comments

  1. Do you have any contact information for either Bauer or Dawidziak? I’m interested in reviewing their book for The Huffington Post, where I blog.

    You can email me at plwinkler@yahoo.com.