Sterling Hayden: An Appreciation

One of the most influential books in my youth was Sterling Hayden’s autobiography: Wanderer.  For a young writer restless to get out of the confines of college and into the “real” world, his life’s story was an inspiration of boot-strapped pluck, luck, and determination to find some meaning on the deep blue sea. That he was a leading man during Hollywood’s Golden Era, married to starlets, called before the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Committee, then revived in  the 60s and 70s as an actor’s actor in Dr. Strangelove and the Godfather was mere trim and icing on a life spent before the mast on a Gloucester fishing schooner and tall ships. Sterling Hayden was the real deal, a manly man who deserves a revival.

Hayden wrote two books: Wanderer is still in print and a very worthwhile read. His one and only novel, Voyage: A Novel of 1896 is out of print, but worth tracking down from a used bookstore. It is one of the better maritime novels on my bookshelf. As for his films, other than Strangelove and Godfather, his other big contemporary film was The Long Goodbye. His early stuff — beginning in 1941 after he was discovered by Hollywood on the deck of a Gloucester schooner because of some newsreel footage shot at the annual schooner races in Boston — is pretty obscure, B-movie stuff. He hated the studio system which cast him as a pretty boy/beefcake but he put up with it to finance his expensive tastes in wives and boats. Hayden was a self-admitted bad actor.

He spent World War II in the OSS, working behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia with Marshal Tito’s band of resistance guerrillas fighting Nazis. That built some admiration for the Communists which got him into hot water after the war during the Hollywood witch hunts, a period in his life he long regretted after he uncharacteristically named names.

I met him once, in Sausalito, California in the early 80s, shortly before his death in 1986, when I was tending bar in San Francisco and writing as the Bay Area stringer for Soundings, a weekly boating newspaper. I read a profile of his first mate, Spike Africa, in the San Francisco Chronicle, learned Hayden was in Sausalito and tracked him down. I was 22 and the two interviews I had with him were my first experience with true hero worship. I never wrote the profile, the editors at Sounding weren’t interested and I was too flaky to freelance the piece elsewhere, a mistake I kick myself for.

There is a great appreciation of Hayden, the sailor and writer, by Captain Paul Watson at Sea Shepherd International’s blog. I’ll borrow his quote of Hayden’s because it was the kind of sentiment that fired me up as a confused and rudderless young sophmore:

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”

– Sterling Hayden

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

4 thoughts on “Sterling Hayden: An Appreciation”

  1. I spent lots of time at Hayden’s house in Pacific Heights and on Sunday mornings at the BV bar in Fishermans Warf. Some of his friends who were also usually along included Herb Caen and SF police chief Tom Cahill.
    We also spent time at the No Name Bar in Sausalito and at Hayden’s office, an old railroad car in Sausalito.

    Like

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