An abridged book excerpt of Lee Marvin: Point Blank by Dwayne Epstein
As a civilian, mustered out from the Philadelphia Marine Barracks on July 24, 1945, Lee Marvin could not shake off the intense mixed feelings he was experiencing: anger, frustration and worst of all, survivor guilt as the war stubbornly wore on. On the bus ride back to his parents’ Manhattan apartment an old woman angrily tapped his shoulder with a cane and asked why such a healthy looking young man was not in the military fighting for God and country. Acting on reflex, Marvin turned and barked at her that he was physically unfit. Years later he told a reporter, “I won’t repeat exactly what I said to her. Hell, I wanted to drop my trousers and show her exactly what I did for a legitimate 4-F classification!”
Lee’s celebratory homecoming was short-lived, at least as far as his family was concerned. His mother, Courtenay, was extremely glad her son was home safe and sound, but his war experiences made it extremely difficult to talk to him. She wrote in a letter to Robert, “Your brother is quite a man…. I hear many strange and some horrible stories about his adventures, and at first it took a strong stomach to sit quietly and listen.” As for Monte, Lee quickly discovered his father was finding the adjustment to civilian life even more difficult than he was. If Lee was damaged by the war, he said of Monte years later, “It ruined him. He came home from that half dead, totally broken. He was never the same.” During the war, First Sergeant Monte Marvin received a military citation from the British Government. However, as a civilian, he was unable to find gainful employment.
After another disheartening day of job hunting, Monte entered his 79th Street apartment building barely able to muster a businesslike smile for the doorman. He went in and ran hot water for a bath. The family maid found him. She immediately dressed his sloppily cut wrists and called the police. The police then contacted Bellevue, where he was transported in a siren-blaring ambulance for several days’ observation. Unable to afford a private room, he was placed in a public ward where the rest that Monte desperately sought was impeded by the screams that went on through the night. He survived the suicide attempt and the family never spoke of it while he was alive.
Through an old friend Monte secured a sales job with the Chicago Tribune and the entire family moved to the ‘Windy City.’ At his father’s urging, Lee enrolled in night school to get his high school diploma, but his heart was clearly not in it. He still had no plan for his future as the following excerpted letter to his older brother Robert illustrates:
Boy just wait until you get out and see all the shit they hand you.
Well, as you know I am now going to school and brother, that is a task, and I don’t mean maybe. At the present I am taking English, Geometry, Physics and History. I just don’t have any interest in the stuff but I am doing it for Pop.
Funny thing, my feet are getting itching again and I want to be on the move. Where I don’t know but just some place that I haven’t been before, like the Yukon or some other desolate place.
I just want to strike out and do something constructive with myself. In fact, I have often thought about going back into the Corps but I know that is just a way of trying to get back with the real friends I had. I mean real, because as you know when death is close at hand you don’t do anything that you don’t want to and the same with your friends. Boy, that was a real crowd and their only thought was to be happy while they could. So here I am still trying while the rest of them are dead. The main thing that I regret is that there is no longer any frontier to work on which is just my speed. Therefore I must conform to convention which I have a very deep-set distaste for.
Lee struggled with his classes, but said years later, “It made no sense. After committing murder, it was hard to find sense in peace. How could a guy all mixed up in murder get an education? The two didn’t make sense…I had to do something, though. They gave me a typing test and I couldn’t spell half the words. I looked around and saw all those frivolous chicks and guys…what was I doing there? So, I quit.” Forty years later “The Sergeant,” his character in The Big Red One (1979), would tell one of his charges, “We don’t murder. We kill,” a distinction that was not yet clear in young Lee’s mind.
The day he quit class, he walked right into a Marine Recruitment Center. The officer in charge sympathetically responded, “Thank you for your offer and prior service, son, but due to your disability status…” Lee shook the officer’s hand and proceeded to laugh it off at the nearest watering hole. As to his disability, a physical later that fall spoke the final word as only the military could: His sciatic wound disabled him exactly 20%. He received a check of $27.80, and would continue to do so each month for the rest of his life. Monte’s job in Chicago was short-lived, forcing the entire family to move back to New York. When the family returned to New York, the postwar housing shortage made it impossible to find worthy accommodations in the city. The Marvins decided on the Woodstock area since they had summered there often when Lee and Robert were boys. They purchased a home, and Monte eventually found work nearby with the New York and New England Apple Institute. He periodically attempted other employment, but, like an over-the-hill athlete dreaming his time would come again, he never saw the better employment materialize and stayed with the Institute until retiring in 1965. Through it all, Monte got by on the two things he could always rely on: his undiminished Puritan ethic and large quantities of alcohol.
Nestled in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, the Woodstock community had long been a sanctuary for many of the colorful avant-garde artists and intellectuals of the day, decades before the eponymous historic rock concert that would take place in a nearby town. The small community even maintained three legitimate live theaters at the time: The Woodstock Playhouse, The Valetta Theater and the 1,000-seat Maverick Theater.
Lee took classes at Kingston High School to finally get his diploma around the time that Robert mustered out of the service. As he had done many times as a child, Lee frequently cut class to fish or hunt. Monte had hoped Lee would get his diploma and use the G.I. Bill to become an engineer. Lee had contemplated several other careers, including forest ranger and car salesman, but when requirements like geometry became insurmountable, he again disappointed his father by dropping out of school altogether.
In Woodstock, Lee could often be found at a favorite hangout: The S.S. Seahorse. One longtime resident referred to it as “The greatest dive I’ve ever seen in my life. People used to line up in the summer just to get in to it.” The oddly shaped tavern resembled a landlocked ship, complete with appropriate decor and portholes for windows. The local artisans and bohemians welcomed Lee as the most popular reveler in their midst. The music and laughter offered only a fleeting refuge from the nightmares. According to Robert, “When Lee would come home, he was a little disturbed at night. He had a lot of nightmares. He wasn’t exactly yelling but the poor guy would go through all kinds of convulsions.” In rare moments of candor, Lee confessed to his brother he saw snipers in the trees just as he drifted off, or that he had relived the battle that decimated his outfit.
On occasion, he would drink at home with his family. The evening would start innocently enough, but would spiral out of control at the slightest provocation. Courtenay would sneak off to safer grounds when the dark clouds began forming. Inevitably, as the night and alcohol wore on, Monte would declare, “You Marines are a lot of bullshit!” or “My outfit in the artillery can do anything the goddamned Marines can do!” Sometimes Lee would be the provocateur, making the same pronouncements about the Army. Whoever started it, the end result was often physical. Even though Monte and Lee were both dealing with the same issues, the men were too polarized to reconcile with each other. The guilt Lee suffered the morning after a family brawl often kept him away for days at a time.
Sometimes he would inexplicably find himself in a bar somewhere in Brooklyn. Other times he’d wander down to Greenwich Village and hang out with the bums that drank through the night. They would string a rope across a building and hook their arms on to it so they could sleep standing up without getting arrested. The next morning, someone would untie the rope and send everyone sprawling. Marvin would then join the denizens in a concoction known as “smoke,” a powerful mixture of illuminating gas blown into a jar of water that resulted in a high akin to LSD. Whatever he did, Lee could never travel far enough or drink enough to escape his war-induced or domestic trauma.
When he would return, dutifully apologetic, the cycle would start up again, often at Courtenay’s subtle instigation. Her attempts at maintaining the facade of domestic bliss would result in Lee and the other Marvin men having to sit through meaningless social teas or Sunday afternoon art lectures. On one such occasion, the entire family made an appearance on local radio for a show based on “Thanksgiving in Strange Places.” The Marvin men discussed their war experiences while a Girl Scout Choir sang in the background. Unfortunately, no tape of the show exists, or of the drive home.
Monte had become fairly well known in the rural community, to the point he could get jobs for both of his sons. By early 1946, Robert was working for a printer and saving for college, while Lee became a plumber’s apprentice under the tutelage of Adolph Heckeroth.
To anyone willing to look, Bill Heckeroth–who now runs his father’s business–will gladly point out a treasured memento carved in the wood of his father’s wall-hung toolbox: “This is Adolph’s. Help yourself.” The engraver was, of course, Lee Marvin. Bill was just a child when Lee worked for his father, but he remembers with great affection the oversized young man with the booming voice who’d put his feet up on his father’s desk and tell fascinating stories to anyone within earshot.
Lee’s work consisted of digging septic tanks and hand-threading pipes for $1.25 an hour. Hard as it was, this work proved therapeutic. “A guy digging ditches or a plumber wiping joints, it solves problems, you know?” Marvin later said. “You have to dig this hole so wide, so long, so deep. You dig it and that’s it. You climb out and say, ‘Boy, I don’t know what it was, but I solved it today.’ Good therapy for my back.” Marvin found such comfort in this work that he maintained his union card even after his rise to cinematic stardom, and often worked on the plumbing in his Hollywood agent’s house.
Adolph Heckeroth genuinely liked Lee, who impressed the veteran plumber with his natural prowess for the job. Once, when Heckeroth wanted Lee to help him measure the depth of a well, Lee told him not to bother with the old knotted string and weight device. Lee boasted he would merely drop a pebble and could tell by its acceleration the exact depth of the well. Heckeroth was astonished when Lee’s measurement proved to be exactly what Heckeroth’s string registered. He never knew Lee had measured the depth the night before.
Lee’s off-hour pursuits in Woodstock were often spent in the company of another local, David Ballantine. The diminutive Ballantine may have seemed an unlikely partner in Marvin’s revelry, but the two shared many common interests. Ballantine had met Lee after his own discharge from the service in June of 1946. “I fought WWII in the Zone of the Interior, which is a euphemism for the United States. When I met Lee, I was in Woodstock on the 52/20 Club, the unemployment thing,” he jokes today. “He was quite strong, too. He would do things I think sometimes to show everybody he was Lee Marvin and they were not, like carrying Heckeroth’s big pipe-cutting tripod one-handed, or lifting up the front end of a car. When people ask me what was he like, I usually say, ‘Try to imagine a non-effeminate Clint Eastwood!’”
Studio biographies have said the Ballantines and the Marvins were good friends. “I knew Monte and Courtenay very, very slightly,” corrects David. “Children now will invite friends in for dinner and such. In those days, there was a separation. I was Lee’s friend, really. Not that they weren’t friendly to me. Courtenay was pleasant enough and Monte had a dignity to him. Lee told me, if someone went in a bar to give everyone shit, they’d walk a wide circle around Monte. Monte was pretty tough.”
David Ballantine did not often share his friend’s penchant for what he called “the gargle.” As he recalled, “A couple of times Lee was just snot-flying drunk. I remember many years later, when he came to visit, he was just causing shit in a bar. I took him aside and said, ‘You know what’s going to happen one of these days? You’re going to walk around the corner and there’s going to be a younger Lee Marvin and he’s going to pound the shit out of you. Stop pushing your luck!’ He understood. He wasn’t stupid.”
On a cool March night in 1946, Lee was sleeping off one such episode on a bench in the village green. At sunrise, children familiar with the sight of him in this condition as they passed him on the way to school, knew that even prodding the unconscious giant with a stick was a dare not worth taking. One local resident, either not aware or braver than most, disregarded the danger and proceeded to talk to the prone figure. When Lee’s vision came into focus and the buzzing in his head had sufficiently dulled, he saw a very proper young woman beside him discussing the virtues of community services.
Scanning the area and realizing she must be talking to him, Lee smirked at the irony when she asked him to appear in an amateur Red Cross Benefit at Woodstock’s Town Hall, titled “Ten Nights In a Barroom.” He had been in school productions as far back as grade school and, figuring it might be a similar kick, he shrugged his shoulders and proceeded over the next several weeks to rehearse the farce with his young fellow amateurs.
“Lee’s performance was the most hilarious I’ve ever seen,” a proud Monte recalled in 1966. “The mustache kept falling off. Everybody in the cast forgot their lines and Lee’s hands were very much in evidence pushing out scripts from the wings. Even then, he left them in the aisles.”
Like the tales of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, the story of Lee’s professional acting debut has become the stuff of legend that begins with a kernel of truth and grows with time into larger-than-life proportions. Marvin told several interviewers that it was while he had his head in the Maverick Theater commode that he heard his destiny beckon. As he recalled many times over the years, “The director needed a tall loudmouth to play a Texan. The actor who played the part was sick. I was standing in the wings after fixing the head, eyeing this redheaded actress. Later, the director looked at me and figured I was made for the part.”
When told of this, Monte Marvin later commented, “Nothing could be further from the truth since the theater had no toilet, only a one-holer outside.” David Ballantine also concurs on this point. However, the event that actually catapulted Lee Marvin into acting was just as good a story.
When David Ballantine turned twenty-one, his family held a celebratory birthday party in his honor. Lee always looked forward to any party but especially enjoyed the Ballantine family. David’s brother Ian was publisher of Ballantine Books and his mother Stella was a founder of Lee’s progressive school, Manumit. David’s father, E. J. ‘Teddy’ Ballantine, had an illustrious theatrical history, which included membership in Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Players and, most impressive to Lee, drinking bouts with the great John Barrymore. Teddy was also an integral part of the aptly named Maverick Theater. Also in attendance was Ian’s wife, Betty. A petite woman known for wearing long flowing dresses, even in the muggy summer, she eventually became a confidante to the young Lee Marvin.
Lee himself recalled the events that transpired that night when his tale-spinning talent was still in its infancy: “I got swocked. I was dancing with a girl named Joy, which is what she was: 145 pounds and all of it pink and beautiful. At the party I found out the leading man of the local theater had run out on an upcoming production.” It was just this fact E.J. Ballantine was discussing with the director when he noticed Lee jumping for Joy amid the other revelers.
“He was a very impressive character even then,” recalled Betty Ballantine. “First of all, there was his voice. His voice was absolutely amazing. Then, he had a real gift for telling stories with a great sense of humor. He used body language, since Lee had an extraordinary control of his physical presence. He was the kind of a person who comes into a room and you damn well notice him. The play they were preparing was called ‘Roadside.’ They wanted a loudmouth Texan. Teddy said, ‘We got a loudmouth right here. Hey, Lee! Come over here!’ Of course, we were all feeling no pain. Lee with that wonderful voice he had, read for the play. He got the part and Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday, I sat with him. Teddy and I both walked him through it. Well, he never really learned the script. How could he? He only had a day and half.”
When Lee heard his cue opening night, “It grabbed me just like that!” he would say with a snap of his fingers. “Suddenly I felt…Expression!” After years of rebellion, masked fear and uncertainty, Lee stepped out on to the stage that rainy summer night and made it his own. Lee’s powerful voice rumbled through the Hudson Valley like a small earthquake to let one and all know that he had discovered his true calling.
The summer of 1947 saw Lee devoting all of his considerable energy to the Maverick Theater’s summer stock productions. He later reasoned, “It was the closet thing to the Marine Corps way of life I could find at the time–hard work and no crap.” The camaraderie was key, but acting also did something else for the combat veteran: it gave him an outlet to express his inner demons that had been frustrating him since the war. He quit his job at Heckeroth’s the very next day.
Lee no longer questioned what he was going to do with his life and decided to tell his parents. Monte’s reaction was swift and decisive. “Lee told my father he wanted to be an actor,” recalled Robert, “and my father almost went through the ceiling, naturally. My father told my brother, ‘If you become an actor, don’t expect any help from me. You’re on your own.’” Lee would have preferred his father’s blessing but the lack of it made him just as determined in his pursuit. As far as Lee was concerned, the war ruined his father, and he refused to accept the same fate. Acting was no foolhardy dream to him. “Acting is a search for communication,” he said later. “This is what I’m doing — trying to communicate and get my message across. I can play these parts, these horrible animal men. I do things on stage you shouldn’t do and I make you see you shouldn’t do them.”
Although many actors enter the profession as a means of expressing their sensitive nature, Lee Marvin chose acting to explore something infinitely more challenging: The cauldron of violence that simmered beneath the surface and was capable of erupting at the slightest provocation. When he did depict this darker side on stage and screen he did so in such a fashion as to change the face of modern American screen violence. This, above else, would make Lee Marvin one of the most consistent and fascinating actors of postwar American cinema.
Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank was published earlier this year by Shaffner Press. It’s available as a hardcover, softcover, and as a NOOK. And be sure to visit his website: http://pointblankbook.com/