In Memoriam: Melvin Dummar

I’ve just learned of the passing of Melvin Dummar, the one-time Utah gas-station owner who claimed to have run across a hypothermic old man on a cold night in the Nevada desert and given him a lift to the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. You all know this story, or at least you ought to, as it truly is the stuff of urban legend: The old man supposedly was Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire, and not long after Hughes’ death in 1976, a handwritten will turned up that named Dummar as one of the inheritors of Hughes’ immense fortune, in gratitude for his act of kindness. Sadly, a probate court determined the “Mormon Will” — so-called because it also named the Mormon Church as a beneficiary — was a fake, and Dummar spent the rest of his life drifting from job to job, and place to place, trying to live down his reputation as either one of the most inept forgers in history or a complete crank. He eventually landed in Pahrump, a town on the Nevada/California border not far from Vegas, where he died last Saturday at the age of 74.

I’ve written about Dummar on this blog a number of times. He was something of a legend in these parts when I was a kid… if not exactly a hometown hero, at least a local character. One of ours, if that makes sense. But in addition to the local-interest angle, I’ve always been drawn to tales of the little guy standing up to the establishment, and Dummar’s tale fit perfectly into that category that includes pirates, eccentrics, and renegades of all stripes. The fact that the establishment crushed the little guy in this particular tale only made it all the more compelling for me. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Paul LeMat, the actor who played Dummar in the 1980 film Melvin and Howard, has always reminded me of my dad.

For what it’s worth, I believe Dummar’s story.

Not just that he gave Howard a lift, but I also believe that the Mormon Will was the real deal, likely one of many that Howard produced toward the end of his life as drugs, mental illness, and neglect took their toll on him. I further believe that Hughes’ inner circle of advisors, bodyguards, lawyers, and sycophants took advantage of their boss’ mental condition to fatten their own wallets, that they were responsible for the appalling conditions in which he evidently spent his final years, and that they weren’t about to allow any gas-station attendant from Willard, Utah, to have a slice of their pie. In my opinion, they pulled out all the stops to discredit Dummar and the will, and sadly, Dummar helped them through several naive blunders of his own. This is all far more into the realm of conspiracy theory than I usually like to venture… but it is what I am convinced of. The tale of Melvin Dummar is a tragedy, in my opinion, a rags-to-riches story that would’ve been the end-all, be-all of that genre if it hadn’t been strangled in the crib by a gang of craven villains.

Not that any of it matters now, forty years down the road. And not that we’ll ever really know, since everyone who was there is now dead. I only hope that Melvin Dummar had found some peace of mind in the end.

Howard Hughes and Melvin Dummar, both pictured in their younger days.



The Work Goes On

The votes are still being tallied around the country as I write this, but it appears that the Democrats have at the very least retaken the House of Representatives and scored a few gubernatorial wins.

Over on social media, some of my liberal friends are lamenting that this isn’t good enough, that we needed that legendary “blue wave” to decisively show that this country isn’t what Donald Trump represents, and they’re disappointed it didn’t happen at the scale they hoped for.


Their negativity is irritating the hell out of me, to be honest.

Considering how gerrymandered so many states are, a blue wave was never likely. Perhaps it wasn’t even possible. But we did pretty damn well winning the House in this environment. The House is a start. The House means investigations, and it means applying the brakes to Trump and the Trumpist GOP’s corrosive agenda of undoing everything progressives have fought for over the past century.

Look, the ugly reality is that America is a land of bigots and know-nothings, and it always has been. Also, this nation was founded on blood and cruelty and it has never lived up to the ideals of its founding documents. That’s just the way it is. The mistake that progressives keep making over and over is believing that a single big win is somehow all it takes to overcome that reality. Remember how many people honestly believed that electing Obama meant we were now a “post-racial society?” Such naivete now seems heartbreakingly quaint.

The last two years — not to mention all the nasty bullshit Obama endured during the preceding eight years — have been a slap in the face to remind us that the work must go on. It will go on, and it is going on. Because the ideals we haven’t managed to live up to are as baked into the American makeup as the cruelty. Yin and yang, constantly struggling with one another, rocking back and forth but slowly, bit by bit, rolling forward. This country is about the aspiration, not a finished thing in itself. At least that’s how I’ve come to see things over the past decade.

It’s worth noting that many of those new representatives who will be seated come January 2019 are women, and many of them represent “firsts”: the first Muslim woman, the first Native American woman, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. And all of them were elected tonight, in 2018, with Donald Trump in the White House. That’s America.

That’s the work going on…



The Kind of Fiction We Need Right Now

I’ve never read David Foster Wallace and have only peripheral awareness of who he even is, but based on this quote (from a book called Conversations with David Foster Wallace), I like the cut of his jib:

Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

(Thanks to my friend Karen for this little ray of light against the grimdark… )


On my birthday a year ago, I wrote about the noise of construction equipment demolishing the homes across the street to make way for a road expansion project. Now that project is nearly completed, and the workmen and their machines have moved on down the way, and I’ve been enjoying a few weeks of relative peace and quiet before traffic is unleashed onto the newly added lanes in front of my house. Meanwhile, here on the eve of this year’s birthday, my main sensory impression isn’t auditory, but olfactory: The air is thick with smoke from a wildfire burning out of control in the next county south of mine.

As I did last year, I’ve been straining to find some metaphor in all these impressions and coming up with nothing. If there is any meaning to be found in sparkling new concrete and hazy air, I’m not sharp enough to find it. And maybe that’s my metaphor right there, the encapsulation of exactly what it feels like to be only one planetary orbit away from the half-century mark. I’m just not quite sharp enough. Not anymore.

I can feel you rolling your eyes and muttering, “Oh boy, here he goes,” but it’s okay. I’m really not depressed about my birthday this year, at least not to the extent I have been in previous years. And I’m not feeling particularly old either, at least — again — not as much as I have in years past. But I have become keenly aware in the past twelve months of how very young many of the people around me are, if that makes sense, and also just how much the world no longer seems to be geared toward me and my preferences and priorities. I keep thinking of that scene in The Last Jedi where Yoda tries to get it through Luke’s thick head (and those of a significant percentage of Gen-X Star Wars fans) that the story is no longer centered on him. It’s about those new characters, now, and the best Luke can do is help them in their own hero’s journey. “We are what they grow beyond,” he says with that impish chuckle in his Muppety voice.

Or something. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the late hour and the scotch talking. As I said, I am surprisingly un-depressed this year. But damn, I can’t help feeling like summer is winding down before I even really noticed it had arrived, you know?


Friday Evening Videos: “Kids In America”

Every now and again, something bubbles up out of the depths of my trusty iPod that I haven’t thought about in a very long time, and I’ll remember how much I used to like that song, and — with any luck — how much I still like it. The most recent example of this phenomenon is “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde (who, despite the title of her signature tune, is English, not American).

“Kids in America” was released in the U.S. in 1982 (it had already been out for about a year in Europe at that point), whereupon it became a solid but not a tremendous hit in the States, peaking at number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, the song’s accompanying video got a fair amount of airplay on MTV, and I’d daresay the song became something like a theme for a certain slice of Generation X. The idea that that particular cohort is closing in on the half-century mark — and that Wilde herself is now 57 — is difficult to wrap my head around. Because in my heart, we’re still the Kids in America, searching for the beat in this dirty town. I imagine we’ll still be searching when we’re in our nursing homes.

Anyhow, that’s it. No special occasion, no particular associations… just I song I remember liking back in the day. And as it happens, I still like it. Hope you enjoy it too, as we head into the weekend…


Nice Bit of Writing

Nothing much to say here, I just liked something I read during my morning commute. One of the most common scenes in any Star Wars-related novel is, of course, an enemy fighter getting pasted by the Millennium Falcon‘s mighty quad-mounted laser turrets. I’ve read countless variations on that theme over the years, and I imagine it’s an immense challenge for a writer to find some way of making it fresh and interesting. But I thought this particular instance was done with a lot of panache:

The enemy wriggled off the hook once more, but this one made an error, too: he got sore. Veering in a wide, angry, predictable loop, he came back to have his vengeance. Instead, he got four parallel pulsed beams of raw fusion-reactor output straight in the helmet visor.

And exploded, showering space with incandescent atoms.

That’s from Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon by L. Neil Smith… kudos, sir!



Debunking Hollywood Babylon

If you’re at all interested in Hollywood history — by which I don’t mean the nuts-and-bolts of how any given classic film was made, or the ups and downs of the business, but rather the stories of the people behind the films and the business, the ones we revere, sometimes the ones we deplore, and especially those we’ve forgotten — then you owe it yourself to check out a podcast called You Must Remember This. I’ve been following it for about a year and a half now after first learning about it from Wil Wheaton, and I find it endlessly fascinating.

The podcast’s host, film journalist Karina Longworth, does two cycles or “seasons” per year, and each season is themed around a single topic that reveals “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” to borrow from the show’s prologue. These histories can range from a comparison of the lives and careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, to the evolution of Jane Fonda from a sex kitten to a political lightning rod, to the McCarthy-era blacklist. (Personally, I started listening during a season called “Dead Blondes,” about all the blonde sex symbols who’ve met untimely and sometimes horrific endings.) The show is very well researched and documented, with source notes and photographs available for each episode on a related blog. It truly is a treasure trove for dedicated movie buffs, or even just people who enjoy a good story.

The current season is of particular interest because I have a personal connection to the topic.

Way back in my teens, I stumbled across a tattered paperback book called Hollywood Babylon in a thrift store. Its author is a guy named Kenneth Anger, which is an apt name considering the book turned out to be 200-some pages of someone grinding a very large ax. Babylon is one of those works that seeks to destroy plaster idols and press hot buttons, and it does that very effectively as it recounts some of the saddest and most sordid tales of Hollywood lore in the cruelest manner possible. It was in the pages of Hollywood Babylon that I first heard the tale of washed-up Peg Entwhistle hurling herself off the “H” of the Hollywood sign… of Lupe Valez’ ignominious suicide (according to Anger, the Latina star had wanted to die in a beautiful, carefully staged scene on her bed, but became sick to her stomach and ended up drowning in her toilet after vomiting)… of va-va-voom girl Jayne Mansfield being decapitated in a car accident and permanently traumatizing the policeman who found her head… of Errol Flynn’s trial for statutory rape and the rumors that he was a Nazi spy (Timothy Dalton’s character in The Rocketeer is based on this version of Flynn, if you didn’t know)… and most shockingly to me, at that time anyhow, of silent-era comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s trial for raping a woman with a Coke bottle, causing so much internal damage that she subsequently died. (I don’t know why the Coke bottle thing troubled me more than the gory mental images of Valez or Jayne Mansfield, but I remember that it did.)

Hollywood Babylon outraged me when I read it. Not because its stories were taboo or breaking down the glamorous facade of the movies’ golden age, but because it was just so damn mean-spirited. Something about the tone of the writing suggested that Anger was having a good laugh at the thought of all those pretty people being cut down to size, and he wanted the reader to have one too. And if you were shocked instead of amused, well… Anger struck me as the sort of smirking asshole who would just laugh harder and louder. I’ve never had much use for the provocateur types who get off on riling people up just to see if they can.

Moreover, I had a hunch that a lot of what I was reading in that book was horseshit. Even in my teen years, when I was admittedly naive about, well, everything, Babylon smelled off to me. And yet I knew that many of the stories Anger told were out there in the culture, accepted by people who either didn’t know better or wanted to believe the worst about all those immoral movie folk. And that made me angry, too.

The whole experience of reading that book was highly unpleasant, and I very quickly got rid of the damn thing, after which I took a long shower.

Now, getting back to You Must Remember This, the latest season of the podcast, titled “Fake News,” is dedicated to refuting Hollywood Babylon, or at least pointing out the places where Anger exaggerated or insinuated things that aren’t supported by facts, and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s weirdly vindicating to hear this stuff, as if some great injustice is finally being corrected, even though the urban legends promulgated by Anger have been debunked before in various places. Besides, like I said earlier, these stories, the real stories, are just plain interesting.

You can listen to You Must Remember This yourself through the official website or iTunes, or I imagine any place else you go to hear podcasts, and I highly recommend you do so. It’s a great show.

And no, Fatty Arbuckle did not rape Virginia Rappe with a Coke bottle. The autopsy showed no evidence of a sexual assault, and Arbuckle was acquitted. Not that that saved his career, sadly…


“Let Me Tell You What I Believe”

“We now stand at a crossroads — a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world. Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be. How should we respond?

“Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with [Nelson Mandela’s] release from prison, from the Berlin Wall coming down — should we see that hope that we had as naïve and misguided? Should we understand the last 25 years of global integration as nothing more than a detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history — where might makes right, and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions, and nations compete in a zero-sum game, constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out? Is that what we think?

“Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good. That’s what I believe.

And I believe we have no choice but to move forward; that those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell. And I believe this not just based on sentiment, I believe it based on hard evidence.

“The fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards and the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal that we talk about and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens.

“The fact that authoritarian governments have been shown time and time again to breed corruption, because they’re not accountable; to repress their people; to lose touch eventually with reality; to engage in bigger and bigger lies that ultimately result in economic and political and cultural and scientific stagnation. Look at history. Look at the facts.

“The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial or religious superiority as their main organizing principle, the thing that holds people together — eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war. Check the history books.

“The fact that technology cannot be put back in a bottle, so we’re stuck with the fact that we now live close together and populations are going to be moving, and environmental challenges are not going to go away on their own, so that the only way to effectively address problems like climate change or mass migration or pandemic disease will be to develop systems for more international cooperation, not less.

“We have a better story to tell. But to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win. Because history also shows the power of fear. History shows the lasting hold of greed and the desire to dominate others in the minds of men. Especially men. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who look different, or worship God in a different way. So if we’re truly to continue [Mandela’s] long walk towards freedom, we’re going to have to work harder and we’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to learn from the mistakes of the recent past. … ”

— Barack Obama, speaking in Johannesburg, South Africa, to honor the late Nelson Mandela, July 17, 2018

(italics mine; complete transcript here)

This was President Obama’s first major speech since leaving office. As usual, he articulated the same vision of the world and of the future that I have, the one that I’m trying very hard not to lose faith in.

I really miss this man.





Ow, Quit It…

My recent joyful reaction to the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story not only reinvigorated my attitude about the whole damn Star Wars franchise, it also inspired me to revisit the original early adventures of Han and Lando: the Han Solo novels by Brian Daley, and the Lando Calrissian adventures by L. Neil Smith.

The Daley books are old favorites of mine, as I’ve surely mentioned before. I’ve read them many, many times, especially the first two — Han Solo at Star’s End and Han Solo’s Revenge. The Lando books, on the other hand… I’m not sure I even got around to reading all three of them back in the day. I want to say I only got through the first two in the trilogy, and I’m certain I’ve never gone back to them in all the decades since. And looking back now, I can’t really say why. I have a vague memory of thinking they didn’t feel very much like Star Wars to me, as if they were pre-existing works that the author had simply retrofitted with new character names. But I think it’s far more likely that it was simply bad timing. They were published the same summer that Return of the Jedi was first released in theaters, 1983, and it really felt back then as if the whole thing was just… over. Factor in my age at the time — I was thirteen going on fourteen — and I think there’s  a good chance I was simply ready to turn my attention to, shall we say, other things. (I’m talking about girls, if that’s not obvious.)

It’s a bit of a shame, really, as I find I’m enjoying the Lando books perfectly well this time around. They’re as “Star Wars-y” as any of the other tie-in novels I’ve read, and I can easily visualize Donald Glover — the young Lando we see in the Solo movie — having these adventures a couple years prior to the events of that film. (It probably helps that Glover’s Lando explicitly references a couple things from these books during the movie, a deliberate Easter egg for old-school fans like myself.) There is, however, one aspect of these books that’s bringing me down a bit, and that’s L. Neil Smith’s tendency to insert really awful jokes based on 20th century Earthly consumer goods. In the first volume, Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, there’s a throwaway line about “Lyme’s rose juice,” which would’ve gone right over my head when I was 13 but now instantly clicks as a play on the Rose’s lime juice I use to make cocktails with. I know, right? As bad as that is, though, Smith tops it in the second book, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon.

The Flamewind is a natural phenomenon in the star system Lando is visiting in this book, an effect caused by the local solar wind interacting with magnetic fields to fill the space between the system’s worlds with brilliant colors, something like the aurora borealis here on Earth. Neat idea… but tell me this doesn’t make you want to groan:

Outside, a braid of raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange twisted through the heavens, across a constellation locals called the Silly Rabbit.

Now, maybe that doesn’t mean anything to Millennials and Gen-Zs, but for we Xers who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and all the junk food that was advertised in between them…

Silly Rabbit indeed. Sigh.