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Jim Tully, father of hardboiled fiction, was the 'most hated man in Hollywood'

by Chris Greenspon | Off-Ramp®

Jim Tully on the MGM lot. Courtesy Mark Dawidziak

In the '20s and '30s, Jim Tully was a national celebrity, known as a pioneering novelist, Charlie Chaplin's wingman and publicist — and for punching a major movie star in the face at the Brown Derby. Tully was a top contributor to "Vanity Fair" and H.L. Mencken's "American Mercury," but by the late 1940s, he was forgotten.

"I lived in many a brothel where the dregs of life found shelter. I fraternized with human wrecks whose hands shook as if with palsy, ... with degenerates and perverts, greasy and lousy, with dope fiends who would shoot needles of water into their arms to relieve the wild aching."

— Jim Tully

In 1992 in Kent, Ohio, a man walked into bookseller Paul Bauer's shop and asked for a book by Jim Tully, "the father of hardboiled fiction." Bauer was abashed. He'd never heard of Tully, and so he called his friend Mark Dawidziak, then a columnist at the Akron Beacon Journal.

Dawidziak found Tully's book "Shanty Irish" in another store for $2.50, then searched out all 12 of Tully's novels and scoured libraries for any mention of Tully. In his own newspaper's archives, Dawidziak discovered that Tully had been a reporter for the paper. It was a sign, and the two men decided to write Tully's biography.

READ TULLY'S BIOGRAPHY: "Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler," by Bauer and Dawidziak

A librarian informed them that Tully's personal papers were at the UCLA library.

(Credit: UCLA Jim Tully archive)

They flew out to Los Angeles and found 117 boxes of letters, articles and newspaper clippings. "That really was the treasure trove," they say, that let them piece together Tully's incredible life.

(St. Mary's, Ohio, in the late 1880s. Credit: ridertown.com)

Tully was born in 1886 in St. Mary's, Ohio. His father was a ditch digger, and his mother died when he was 6. Tully's childhood was spent in an orphanage — then, at 12, his father gave him to an abusive farmer as a farmhand.

At 13, Tully escaped back to St. Mary's, where he heard road stories from hobos. At 14, Tully  joined them, becoming a "road kid," or "junior hobo," says Dawidziak. The rest of his adolescence was spent jumping trains and in the company of hobos, prostitutes and carnies.

UCLA archivist Alisa Monheim says, "One of the few things that you can do in that situation, places you can go to get out of the heat or out of the cold, is go to libraries." That's where Tully apparently taught himself to read and write.

In 1906, at 20 years old, Tully took up boxing as an occupation.

"I staggered from an overhand right and rattled the teeth in Tierney's jaw in return. I tried to get under the eaves. Tierney was wise. His rigid arm met my attack. Our gloves were now blood-and-water soaked. My kidneys ached with pain."

— Jim Tully on his bout with Chicago Jack Tierney.

"He was an untrained boxer, to be sure, but he was fearless," Bauer says. "He was willing to take punches, to take punishment, all to get inside and score hits." Despite having some success, "He had seen men die in the ring. He had seen 'em blinded in the ring. And I think he realized that this was not a career he was going to carry into middle age."

Tully married his first wife in 1911. They had two children, Alton and Trilby, and moved to Los Angeles.

(Tully and family in L.A.)

He spent 10 years traveling as a tree trimmer and working on his first novel, "Emmett Lawler." He also submitted poetry to newspapers and articles on hoboing and boxing to various magazines.

WATCH: The documentary "Road Kid to Writer — The Tracks of Jim Tully"

Recognition for Tully's work grew among writers and editors he sought out for advice: Jack 

London, Upton Sinclair and H.L. Mencken. When Tully came to L.A., he made notable friends,  including Lon Chaney and Erich von Stroheim.

One of Tully's best friends was Paul Bern, a producer at MGM, who invited Tully to a party, knowing Charlie Chaplin would be there, and that they'd hit it off. In 1923, Charlie Chaplin made Jim Tully his all-purpose PR writer.

During this time, Tully started his second novel, "Beggars of Life."

"Beggars" was published in 1924 to great success, giving Tully the means to leave Chaplin and write more articles, novels and a series of movie star profiles.

"He was known as 'the man Hollywood most loved to hate,' because he was one of the first reporters to ever cover Hollywood as a beat," says UCLA's Monheim. "He really didn't care who he pissed off in the slightest."

Bauer says Tully's profile of former silent film icon John Gilbert was "so harsh that, reportedly, when Gilbert read it, he threw up." In 1930, Gilbert called Tully out at the Brown Derby.

Dawidziak breaks down the scuffle: "Tully is up, and he is in a boxer's stance. Gilbert comes at him, and he throws two wild punches. Misses with both. Tully, a trained boxer, steps into the gap and snaps a right uppercut. Knocks him cold with one punch."

(Gilbert v. Tully at the Brown Derby. Courtesy Mark Dawidziak)

Tully's career was declining by the mid-to-late '30s. He attempted comebacks with "The Bruiser" (1936) and "Biddy Brogan's Boy" (1942), but neither were successful in his lifetime.

On June 22, 1947, Tully's heart failed. He was 61 years old. He's buried at Glendale's Forest Lawn, on the same hill as John Gilbert. A last ignominy for Jim Tully, whom Dawidziak calls "the missing link between Jack London and Jack Kerouac": His grave marker gets his birth year wrong.

Chris Greenspon thanks: Voice actors Jennifer Miller and Christopher Murray, documentary filmmaker Mark Wade Stone for clips from "Way for a Sailor," and WKSU's Joe Gunderman.

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