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Spanning the Ditch to the Past
Spanning the Ditch to the Past

Spanning the Ditch to the Past

Joe De Yong: A Life in the West, by William Reynolds
(Alamar Media, Inc. 2018)

a book review by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

Historians seek bridges to the past, that may over time run from damp footprints just ahead, back to slurred and shifting prints along similar trails bound roughly the same way. If they can’t walk dryshod they will wade what seem to have once been crossings. The clues may mesh, lend trends and hints of direction, but there are often gaps to our knowledge, evidence shot with ambiguities, that warn of gaps in the bridge. We must watch our step, unless the trail is so continuous and well-worn as to be obvious. Still, it seems there are always dubious and weak spots, so always hunches, reaches and leaps.

In William C. Reynolds’ work as an historian of the American West, detailing the life of Joe De Yong, he offers an admirable and compelling subject, and leads readers over a little-traveled but sturdy bridge. De Yong’s life (March 12, 1894 — April 16, 1975) makes connections to the actual cowboy west after the Civil War, with its railheads, cattle drives and range wars before the advent of barbed wire. As a young cowboy Joe learns from older ranchers and riders who spanned those times, and with his riding and roping skills he connects to the mythic and imagined west of rodeos and Wild West shows artfully captured by western artists. From there he moves on to silent films on the silver screen, that will evolve into “horse-opera” and fierce “morality play” dramas full of symphonic sound and colorful vistas, where the natural world functions as another character brooding over the scene. A rider of short stature who favored tall hats, he was usually known as “the Kid” in whatever outfit he rode with. But Joe De Yong’s life and experience is a seamless and unbroken trail leading from his earliest cowboy ambitions to his work as a mature illustrator, artist and technical advisor on some of the grandest Western pictures ever made. His own story holds plenty of quiet drama as well, with a crucial turning point when the young cowboy at 19, while working with Tom Mix and a film-making crew on an Arizona ranch, is suddenly stricken with what was known then as “cerebro meningitis.” Abruptly deafened, lame and cross-eyed, De Yong in his late teens is forced to sit quiet and reassess where he might fit in. His eyes will in time get better, and he will relearn how to walk and ride a horse, though he will remain deaf for the rest of his days.

But his physical recovery is not the greatest leap Joe De Yong will make; it is his discovery of the artist in himself. After months of sketching and painting, what in letters to friends he modestly called “killing time,” that would prove to be anything but, he slowly healed. Then, after sending a letter to Charles Marion Russell, at his request his parents take him to Great Falls, Montana, to meet the artist, then in his heyday. The two quickly form a friendship that will have him working in Russell’s studio for the next ten years, until that master’s death, then working with Russell’s widow Nancy to exhibit and sell his work and cement his legacy. In the nineteen-teens and twenties Charlie Russell was pre-eminent in a movement to focus on the authentic actions and trappings of the cowboy life, which had threatened to devolve into romantic claptrap long on flavor and color but short on accuracy. De Yong painted, sketched and traveled with Russell, a veteran cowboy himself, spending time with friends on Indian reservations, researching historical details, locating the bedrock that would anchor many of the finest works by both artists, that beyond Russell’s death would influence both the art world and western films for the next half-century and beyond.

Reynolds’ book offers a treasure-trove of artwork, photos and letters that show how Joe’s friendly contacts grew into an artistic and historical network. As with his entree to Charles Russell, Joe De Yong would introduce himself in an illustrated letter, and engage the stranger with kindred interests. It was an easygoing, direct and generous approach, offering peeks behind-the-scenes into his workshop, for those who might need or want what he had to offer. Joe De Yong quickly became an inveterate and skilled letter-writer, and his letters were a preferred method because of his deafness, where he could unfold an expert understanding, aided by detailed notes and labeled drawings.

Spanning the Ditch to the Past

It is worth noting that in a West where many ambitious young cowboys (and quite a few older ones) were forever busy reinventing themselves, Joe De Yong stands out for his choice of mentors and models, as well as his gifts of friendship. On the Oklahoma range before his meningitis struck, his parents Mary and Adrian De Yong had moved west from Webster Grove, a suburb of St. Louis, settled in the new town of Dewey in the Indian Territory of northeastern Oklahoma, and started a general store. He had gotten to meet Will Rogers and his crowd of mostly Cherokee cowboys performing in Colonel Cumming’s Wild West Show in St. Louis, and soon also at the Dewey rodeo, one of the four best competitions in the country. He had also met Tom Mix at these gatherings, just as that cowboy was discovering how to make his mark in early motion pictures, performing all his own tricks and stunts.

William Reynolds offers the sophisticated and interlaced work of an historian, adapted to understanding the needs and urges of an artful, modest and all but invisible man. From Charlie Russell, Joe De Yong quickly learned the plains Indian sign language; they could soon carry on running commentaries at social gatherings, powwows and in silent picture shows. Joe also became adept at reading lips from the side, and as he became better known, at parties and soirees he would wear a hand-lettered sign on the back of his neck, to be read by those behind him, signaling that if they wanted to communicate they needed to speak to him from the front so he could read their lips.

It would be hard to find a better example of how western living changed from the early wire fences and wild west shows and rodeos as tests of skill, to the world of TV and the waning of those glorious color and sound Western extravaganzas, than Joe De Yong. He didn’t really change course when meningitis hit him, he kept himself still while he healed as much as he could, then doubled down on his life investment in the cowboy West. His instincts were excellent from the first. Who better to choose as a teacher and mentor than Charlie Russell, who actively researched the subjects for his paintings, and honed his skills with ever more ambitious works in mind. Joe’s contacts with Will Rogers, Tom Mix and many others grew with the years. His unerring drive was for doing the work and the homework, and maintaining genuine friendships along the way. He had a lifelong ride exploring the expansive meaning of the West. In his endless attempts to capture and make hay of its contradictory themes, he never seemed to get bucked off.

In Reynolds’ book the cowboy artists mostly appear to be self-taught, which is an unspoken part of the aesthetic. There is also a connection between their visual works — paintings, drawings and sculpture — and their verbal arts, which are written stories as well as storytelling of a performance kind. There is Charlie Russell holding forth in Great Falls, spinning yarns and tales in the post office or cafe or his favorite watering hole. There is the incomparable Will Rogers, who starts off twirling a rope, then riding Soap Suds onstage to jump through swelling loops, finally sauntering in front of a radio microphone with just the latest newspapers in hand. In the depths of the Depression, he always started his act by announcing “I just know what I read in the papers.” Joe de Yong’s own version because of his deafness is much less a performance, perhaps more studied and concentrated, giving C.B. de Mille or other directors an earful, with sketches and notes to flesh out the scene. But he makes himself “of use” in film’s collaborative artistic effort that can invite all the other arts into its big tent.

After meeting and winning over C.B. de Mille, Joe De Yong would eventually work on 21 feature-length films, including: The Plainsman (1937), Union Pacific (1939), Buffalo Bill (1944), Red River (1948), and Shane (1953). C. B. de Mille had recognized De Yong’s sense of authentic detail and hired him to consult on set design, scenic design and costumes. Joe also did uncredited work on six other films for MGM, Columbia and Warner Brothers, that included story-boarding and consulting on dialogue for Native scenes.

Family was always the glue at the center of Joe De Yong’s life, though his bonds were not always lucky. His father Adrian De Yong died suddenly in 1923 of pernicious anemia, while running a pool hall in Choteau, Montana, where De Yong’s parents had moved in 1914 to help Joe make that connection with Charles Russell.

Joe’s mother Mary had moved into the Russell household to help raise their adopted son Jack, when Charlie Russell’s health failed during business trips in 1926. After Charlie died, she moved to Santa Barbara to be with Joe, close enough to Hollywood and Burbank for regular consultation on Western pictures. He had also moved there to be near fellow Western artists Edward Borein, Maynard Dixon, and other like-minded friends. Mary would be a faithful presence till she died, at 100, only two years before he did. As Joe’s life wound down toward its close, the Western film wound down as well, though Western themes found a new audience with TV series in reruns that have proven remarkably resilient.

William Reynolds’ book is a patient, subtle presentation, coaxing its characters forth into the light, where years-long exchanges and mutual sharing are given their due. Mr. Reynolds begins with the modest statement that he only met the man once, when he was a boy of 11. Which brings time itself into the telling, where cares and concerns deepen with the years, where boys become men, and men at heart might remain boys. In Reynolds’ hands, Joe De Yong’s life seems a thoroughly admirable and generous one. The historian assembles what he can out of snatches and sketches, letters and stories, told as much as possible by the man himself, what he dreams and does, and by those closest to him. It feels myriad and mixed as a twister bedeviling the plains, sunlit one moment, dark the next. And there is always a quiet assertion behind the Western arts that here is something more at stake than nostalgia or posturing for any camera.

Historians often veer wide of studying unique individuals in their search for broader meanings and trends common to a culture, and are content with character types. But William Reynolds’ book follows Joe De Yong faithfully through the innuendoes of a long and fruitful life that, as with most of us, holds limitations and triumphs. But few lives made a more steadfast effort at understanding and portraying the cowboy life that still defines the West. By the book’s end we are led to wonder what it is about the collection of stories and actions that can take hold of someone like Joe De Yong, and never quite let him go. Most cowboys aren’t rodeo athletes or movie stars. the life of a cowhand is strenuous and not well paid, but as the West has filled up with immigrants from other parts of the world, the life in the saddle has never quite dissolved into a vague, dusty past. Everyone in this fine book is part of a vast dreaming enterprise, built of a certain persistence, dignity and strength. No matter that the weather is uncertain and the trails are rough, cowhands still arise to meet the task.

Spanning the Ditch to the Past

Joe De Yong: A Life in the West, ©2018
William Reynolds, Alamar Media, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0989070164