Wanderer – Sterling Hayden
What might be considered classic about a memoir by a not-terribly-well-known Hollywood actor?
Sterling Hayden seems fiercely honest. Honesty is timeless. Honesty is a model. So that is why I consider this a classic not only with a one-word title but a classic written by non-writer, up there with James Webb’s Fields of Fire and Albert Ellis’ A Guide to Rational Living.
Probably best known as mad general in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Sterling Hayden (1916 - 1986) was also in The Asphalt Jungle, Kubrick’s The Killing, the noir Suddenly, and played a bent cop in The Godfather. Knowing full well that he had all the acting chops of, say, George Raft or Robert Stack, Hayden wasn’t really at ease with his image as the hunky, strong, stolid type. When Paramount Pictures signed him up in 1940, they dubbed him ''The Beautiful Blond Viking God. '' Hayden wasn’t easy with that but he said “the money was good.”
He married a Hitchcock ice queen Madeleine Carroll. But they didn’t see much of each other because he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps under an assumed name. He didn’t want to be seen as just a Hollywood actor poser. As John Hamilton, he earned both the Silver Star and Bronze Star. He served with the ur-CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, in Yugoslavia, Italy and Germany – one of the very few Marines not in the Pacific for WWII. He knew Wild Bill Donovan, founder of the OSS, and had dinner with FDR.
War affects different people in different ways (see Suddenly). War solidified Hayden’s belief in nonviolence, civil disobedience, and his identification with poor and the oppressed people. War also briefly made him a Communist. He joined the Party but was not active because politics interfered with dating and romance. In 1951, after being summoned by the House of Un-American Activities Committee, he named names of Hollywood friends who had naively dabbled in communist / left groups after WWII.
If I have any excuse, and it's not a good reason, the FBI made it clear to me that if I became an "Unfriendly Witness" I could damn well forget the custody of my children. I didn't want to go to jail, that was the other thing. The FBI office promised that my testimony was confidential. And they were very pleasant. So I spilled my guts out, and the months went by, and I was on some shit-ass picture, and I got a subpoena. The next thing I knew I was flying to Washington to testify. The worst day of my life. They knew it already, and there is the savage irony.
The government knew it already but wanted to humiliate him, just like they wanted to torment Edward G. Robinson into saying he was a dupe even when he never acted out of being duped. Stories like this make me amend the Irish invocation, “God between us and evil” to “… us and the goddamn government.” After the HUAC, Hayden lost his lefty buds and had a B-movie career though John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle keep him in the public eye.
Hayden writes in a unique style, to produce a sprawling hodge-podge of a book. Over the course of 400+ pages, though some memorable passages are well-realized, the melodramatic tone takes patience, parts in need of strict editing a time-pressed reader just has to skim. But as I said above, without being embarrassing, he is honest and the parts about sailing would really appeal to a sailor.