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Jim Tully, Father Of Hardboiled Fiction, Was The 'Most Hated Man In Hollywood'

Two men in sailors caps stand over another man and a woman sitting at a table in a bar.
A still from "Way for a Sailor." L-R: Wallace Beery, Jim Tully, John Gilbert, Leila Hyams
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Editor's note
  • This story originally ran in November 2014. We're bringing it back as part of our Off-Ramp podcast, which is highlighting the best of a show that ran on 89.3 KPCC for nearly 600 episodes.

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.

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.

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Listen to this week's Off-Ramp podcast: Jim Tully, forgotten hard-boiled detective pioneer.

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.

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
A yellowed newspaper article has the headline "Once a Tramp — Now a Literary Genius
(UCLA Jim Tully archive )

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

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.

A book cover for "The Bruiser" shows a boxer down for the count

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.

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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.

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.

A poster for "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.

A grave marker for Jim Tully lists his years of life as 1891-1947
About this story
  • For 11 years and over almost 600 episodes, Off-Ramp explored Southern California on the radio at 89.3 KPCC. The show explored the people, places, and ideas that make up this "imperfect paradise" we call home. Now, every week on the Off-Ramp podcast, from LAist Studios, host John Rabe is dipping into the archives to bring these stories to a new audience.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

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