An entertaining yarn
Clifford Irving (1930 – 2017) became especially famous in the early 1970s when he was about to publish a life of Howard Hughes supposedly recounted to him by the reclusive billionaire but which turned out to somewhat less autobiographical than that. It earned Irving seventeen months in federal prison. In the 1980s Irving wrote The Hoax, his account of the Hughes book saga, and this was adapted into a 2006 movie starring Richard Gere as Irving – which, however, Irving characterized as a clichéd distortion of the story and “a hoax about a hoax”.
But he had an interesting life apart from this, the son of a Collier’s cover artist and the creator of the syndicated comic strip Pottsy, graduating in 1947 from Manhattan’s famous High School of Music and Art and working in a humble capacity on The New York Times. He published his first novel in 1956, and traveled the world, living on a houseboat in Kashmir and in Ibiza and Mexico. He was the friend of Graham Greene, Robert Graves and Irwin Shaw.
His novel Tom Mix and Pancho Villa dates from 1981 and, Irving said, “is my best book.”
Villa has always exercised a fascination on the American mind. Even while he was still alive, there was huge interest in his doings, especially after the Villista raid on US soil at Columbus, NM in 1916. Early silent movies were made about him (though much of the footage has now been lost) and Villa even agreed to refight some of his battles if the cameras missed them. The story is very well recounted in HBO’s And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (see index for that and other Villa books and films). Many Mexicans did not care for the characterization of Villa by Wallace Beery in 1934 but MGM’s movie Viva Villa! was hugely popular in the US.
Whether Pancho Villa books and films belong on a Western blog may be open to debate but many movies classified as Westerns have been set south of the border, and especially if they opted for the ‘gringo in Mexico’ plot, were Western enough.
Various American actors played the gringo in Mexico. Johnny Sykes took the role in 1934. Van Heflin in Wings of the Hawk (1953), Rory Calhoun in The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955), Clint Walker in Pancho Villa (1972) and pretend-American Lou Castel in A Bullet for the General in 1967, aka various titles, all followed. But the gringo was usually Robert Mitchum. He loved Mexico, spoke passable Spanish and appeared in a variety of ‘American gun-runner in Old Mehico’ type roles such as Villa Rides, Bandido! and The Wonderful Country. I suppose having a gringo participate in the revolutions was a way of making the story more accessible to Yanqui audiences.
Irving definitely went down that road and he didn’t just have a made-up gringo but none other than Western star of the silver screen Tom Mix.
One awkwardness of the book is that Irving evidently swallowed the quite common misconception that Mix grew up in El Paso, Texas, and thus was well placed to get involved in the revolutionary fervor. In fact Mix was born in 1880 in a frame house located between the Pennsylvania Railroad line and Bennett’s Branch of the Susquehanna River, and grew up in Pennsylvania, attending elementary, then high school in Dubois. It was there that he saw Buffalo Bill’s Wild West spectacle when he was ten. When the Spanish-American War erupted in 1898 Tom enlisted and was assigned to guard duty at the DuPont powder works in Delaware. So El Paso had nothing to do with his upbringing.
The confusion came from the fact that in 1905, at least according to Paul E Mix in his The Life and Legend of Tom Mix, Tom signed up with Company B of the Texas Rangers in Austin, TX and gave his birthplace as El Paso. When he became a Hollywood star, publicists there told all sorts of ‘biographical’ stories about him, such as that he had been an Old West sheriff, and one of these tall tales was that he had grown up in El Paso, which probably sounded more ‘Western’ than his real background.
It doesn’t matter much because the hero of Irving’s novel is just a generic young American, and not really ‘Tom Mix’ as we know him at all. Apart from a few token remarks about young Tom in Mexico thinking he’d quite like to become an actor one day, there’s nothing truly Mixian about the character. In the story he could be just any gringo in Mexico.
And in fact when Villa seriously abandoned banditry and launched his revolutionary efforts, joining Madero’s revolt in 1910, Tom Mix wasn’t exactly a boy anyway. He was already 30 by then. So the chronology doesn’t match either. Still, as I say, these are quibbles; it’s a novel after all, not a factual biography.
Irving does claim that several books mention Mix’s role as a young volunteer with the Villistas.
Early in the book Tom meets Villa across the river in Juarez and is captivated by the leader’s charm and charisma, joining him in the revolutionary struggle and remaining a staunch ally, even when, later in the book, he is recruited into Black Jack Pershing’s punitive expedition against Villa.
There’s definitely something Zelig about the book because like Woody Allen’s mockumentary character, Tom is there whenever anything of note happens to Pancho or the people around him. It is he, for example, who has to load Rodolfo Fierro’s pistols when El Carnicero took such pleasure in murdering captured federal troops in the corral at Torreon, and of course he is also present when in October 1916 Fierro sinks into that quicksand. He meets Patton and Pershing and also Von Papen. Irving has no qualms about altering history, however. Mix saves Fierro from death by quicksand, and himself kills Fierro later. In Irving’s account, Villa himself did not attack Columbus in March 1916. It is true that Villa always denied it, and several authorities have questioned it.
There is always a temptation for a novelist who mixes real historical characters with a fictional hero (for Irving’s Mix is essentially that) to fall into the Zelig trap. I’ve done it myself.
Irving’s Mix falls for three women, the fictional Hannah, who is the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant in El Paso, the equally made-up Rosa, a very youthful camp follower, and in Parral the factual Elisa Griensen (1888 – 1972).
Actually, Irving’s descriptions of the serial lovemaking with these beauties were a bit too graphic for my tastes and I could have done without them, in the same way that I much prefer a suggestive fade-out in a movie to explicit sex scenes. But there we are.
Irving’s Mix rises to become a colonel in the Villista forces and a close friend of Pancho.
Irving writes in an author’s note, “This is a historical fantasy, although I prefer the word romance.” He claims: “For the most part I have tried to be faithful to the facts of the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa’s life.”
True or not, and I fear largely not, it all does make an interesting and enjoyable read, I must say, and the Pancho Villa who emerges from the story is indeed a fascinating figure.
All in all, though, in my view James Carlos Blake’s 1996 novel The Friends of Pancho Villa (also reviewed) does in the end make a better book.