Wallace Beery — My Life Until Now — Part 1 (1934) 🇺🇸
The first authorized true life story from the man who has been the hero of one of the most remarkable careers in the films.
by Wallace Beery
as told to Eric I. Ergenbright
Wallace Beery says: “I’ve been so poor that I couldn’t buy half-soles for my worn-out shoes — and I’ve had nearly a million dollars salted away.” In this unusual life story he tells you the intimate facts of the ups and downs that he has known.
My life’s been a lot like a scenic railway ride — one continuous succession of ups and downs.
Four years ago, just before I played “Butch” in “The Big House,” I couldn’t have sold my screen prospects for a plugged nickel. Today, with a contract that pays me the biggest salary I’ve ever earned, I may be excused if I find life very agreeable. As far as that’s concerned, I always have, no matter what my situation has been.
Lady Luck’s been very kind — and I thank her for her socks to the jaw as heartily as for her smiles.
I’ve been so poor that I couldn’t buy half-soles for my one pair of worn-out shoes — and, by contrast, I’ve had nearly a million salted away. I’ve been a screen failure twice — and I’ve been a star three times. I’ve swung a pick with a railroad section gang — and to my sorrow, I’ve been a bank director. Ups and downs. A failure today and a success tomorrow! That’s the show business — and that’s life at its best, no matter what a man’s job happens to be.
I’ve been in pictures more than twenty years, which is just about four times as long as the average screen actor lasts — and I believe the reason I’ve survived so long is that I’ve never taken myself very seriously. I have a good “rebound.” I’ve always taken things as they come, made the best of them and never wasted any time wailing over spilled milk or lost opportunities. After all, it isn’t what a man owns that counts; it’s how much he enjoys living! What makes a difference whether a man’s a screen star at $2500 a week or a ditch-digger at thirty cents an hour, provided he gets his share of belly-laughs every day?
I’ve had more than my share of laughs, just as I’ve had more than my share of ups and downs. No matter what happens, I can never be poorer than I have been — so why worry? It’s the downs that place a premium on the ups. Life’s like a screen drama; it needs sharp contrasts to make it interesting and enjoyable.
When I was a kid, my folks were as poor as church-mice. My father was a cop, pounding one of the toughest beats in Kansas City, Missouri, for less than a hundred dollars a month — hardly enough to keep the family in food, let alone clothes. We knew all about poverty — and we knew all about laughter. The Beerys, dirt poor as they were, were a mighty happy family.
Until I was old enough to earn money of my own, I never had a suit which was bought especially for me. My father’s cast-off uniforms furnished his sons’ wardrobes. They were cut down, first for Bill, my oldest brother, then for Noah and finally, in a decidedly threadbare condition, for me.
I’ve always been glad that I was born and raised in a “tough” neighborhood, that my parents were unable to give me spending money and that I learned the necessity of work while I was still a youngster. I’ve always been glad that my father was unsentimental enough to deal in hard-boiled facts instead of in theories
I learned, almost before I’d cut my baby teeth, that this is a fighter’s world, a place where a man must make his own way, take it on the chin if he has to, and never whimper. My father was a kindly, understanding man, in spite of his gruff ‘front,’ but Lord, how he despised a whiner! He gave Bill and Noah and me more love than any one of us deserved, he was ready to sympathize with us in all our troubles, but he wouldn’t tolerate any evidence of self-pity. And he never allowed his love to interfere with his sense of duty and justice. If he promised us a thrashing, we got it. We learned that a man has to pay the price for his own mistakes and that last-minute pleadings and repentance won’t lighten the penalty. That’s a lesson which is better learned as a kid than as an adult.
Thanks to our poverty, I also learned the value of a dollar — another lesson I’ve never forgotten. It’s unjust, perhaps, but nevertheless true that the world measures a man by his bank account — even here in Hollywood where half of the population is perpetually ranting about “art for art’s sake.”
Most important of all. I learned that the easiest way to get money is to work for it.
It’s only by accident that I’m a successful actor. A man’s life road is so cut up by intersections, forks and by-paths that Chance invariably determines his destination. But no matter where he eventually arrives or what the nature of his work may be, he’s mighty apt to be happy if he’s learned never to shirk a fight. never to whimper if he’s whipped and never to cheat on his job.
The one gentle influence in my boyhood was my mother. She was happy enough with her own lot, but she was determined that her sons should have “advantages.” She wanted us to be refined, cultured, in short, to grow up as gentlemen. I’m afraid I must have been a terrible trial to her, it was a rare day that I came home from school without torn clothes or a black eye to prove that I’d been in a fight.
She wanted all three of us to have fine educations, and all three of us disappointed her. Bill didn’t do badly ; he finished high school. Noah finished the seventh grade. I managed to race through the third grade — in eight years — before my hatred of everything connected with school got the best of the promises I’d made to my mother.
I played hookey for nearly three months before my folks found it out. Every morning I’d leave home with the rest of the kids, and every evening I’d come home at four o’clock. But, in the meantime. I was “riding the rods” on the Santa Fe and the Chi Milwaukee and St. Paul trains from Kansas City to their roundhouses in Sheffield, twenty-five miles away. A policeman, one of my father’s friends, saw me and recognized me one day. Naturally he went to my parents and they started an investigation that soon revealed all the facts. I realized that I was in for trouble, and, for the only time in my life, I tried to dodge the issue. I ran away.
I rode the rods to St. Louis. Chicago and, finally to Mobile, Alabama. I slept in hobo jungles, pan-handled and did odd jobs whenever I could find odd jobs to do. I remember stopping early one morning at an Alabama farm house to ask for a hand-out. A tall hatchet-faced woman came to the door, gave me one sour look and pointed to the wood shed. I got the breakfast, all right — but not until after I’d sawed enough firewood to last that family for the rest of the year.
In all, I bummed for nearly two months. I was a big, overgrown kid, tough as they come, and I think I’d have enjoyed it if it hadn’t been for thinking about my mother. I knew how deeply I must have hurt her and how worried she must be.
One night in Mobile I went into a little restaurant to see if I could wash dishes for my supper. The woman who owned the place was standing with her back to the counter, talking to one of her waiters. I was startled out of a year’s growth when I heard her voice, for it was like my mother’s.
I didn’t wait for supper. An hour later I was riding the rods on a fast freight, headed for Louisville and Kansas City. I was anxious to get home and face the music.
And I had to face it. Father and Mother were delighted to see me. They bought me a new suit and showered me with proofs of my welcome — but not until my father had given me the soundest thrashing a kid ever received. Having upheld the inevitability of the “law,” he then felt free to prove his own understanding and mercy. He asked me to explain just why I hated school and just why I should not go back to it. I did — as eloquently as I could. He listened very patiently, said that he would talk to my teachers and promised to give a decision within a week. Evidently my teachers confirmed my own opinion of my ability as a student, for his deliberations ended with the verdict I’d been hoping for. I didn’t have to go back to school if I could find a job.
Employment was plentiful in those days, and I landed work on my first application— an engine wiper’s job in the Sheffield roundhouses. I felt at home there, but I didn’t keep the job long, for the wages were too low. I was determined to make money.
My next job was with the Sheffield Nut and Bolt company, feeding blast furnaces. Then I landed a job with a Santa Fe section crew, at a man’s wages. I felt that I’d “arrived” and was perfectly satisfied with my estate until letters began to arrive from my oldest brother, Bill, who was working with the Ringling Brothers Circus and had been promoted to manager of concessions.
My imagination ran wild. Bill could undoubtedly get me a job with the circus! Travel, excitement, adventure and millions somewhere in the offing! The more I thought about the circus, the more I grew to despise my routine job on a section gang.
I talked it over with my folks, wheedled them into giving a rather reluctant consent, and then wrote Bill a plea that would have melted the heart of a stone image. I waited for a month the longest month of my life — before his answer came.
Two weeks later I joined the show as chambermaid to the elephants, at three-fifty a week and my board, plus a bonus of a dollar and a half a week if I stayed the entire season. In my estimation, then, that was a princely fortune. Since then I’ve made more than a thousand times that salary, but I’ve never felt as rich. And I’ve never been happier or more convinced of my own importance — which all goes to prove that the value of everything in life depends on the point of view.
I was with the circus for three seasons, and I wouldn’t take a lot for the experience.
A circus crew is “hard and wastes no sympathy on weaklings. A man has to fight or foot-race— and if he runs he can’t come back unless he’s willing to crawl.
As a kid, running with one of the toughest gangs in the Kansas City “Bottoms,” I’d learned to use my fists; traveling with the circus, I learned to fight with my head as well as my fists. I learned that while it’s fatal to dodge a fight, it’s folly to pick one. A circus crew, like the world at large, despises a coward, yet has no use for a bully, and loses no opportunity to put him in his place.
Another lesson I learned was that the world never gives a sucker a break. In those days, every circus crew listed its pickpockets, short-change artists and shell-game men — and they sneered at the “yokels” while they robbed them. They considered that their superior “cleverness” gave them the right to loot wherever they could.
Of course I’ve modified most of the hard-boiled philosophy that was pounded into me then — but a few experiences with genteel stock brokers, big business men and modern philanthropists have convinced me that the circus “grifters” were graduates of the same world-wide school.
From Ringling’s, Bill and I went with the Forepaugh-Sells circus. We spent our summers traveling from coast to coast and our winters strutting around in Leavenworth, Kansas, where my father had gone into business. I was still a punk kid and you can imagine how much pride I took in bragging to stay-at-homes of my own age about my adventures with the big-top.
The bubble of my self-importance was rudely exploded by a letter from my brother Noah. He was in New York and announced that he’d gone on the stage. He’d landed a job as a chorus boy, at the almost unbelievable salary of eighteen dollars a week. And I was making only three-fifty, a small bonus and my board.
I decided that I was going to be an actor! And by the end of my next season with the circus, which I finished in order to collect my bonus, my decision was strengthened by a second letter from Noah, telling how his singing voice had lifted him from the chorus to a small “bit” and a seven-dollar raise.
If Noah’s voice could earn that much money, mine could! Thanks to my mother’s insistence on culture, I’d had some musical training. I could sing as well as Noah — and at least twice as loud! I caught a train to New York.
Noah welcomed me with open arms and escorted me on a tour of the booking offices.
Lady Luck was kind! Within a month I was rehearsing with the chorus of “Babes in Toyland.”
Wallace Beery as he is today and as he looked at the age of eleven, from a picture in the old family album.
From the album of the Wallace Beery family. When the aunt of Mrs. Beery died, three children were left, whom Wally decided to raise. Reading from left to right, they are: — George, Carol Ann, and little Wallace.
Next month Wallace Beery tells of his rise from chorus boy to leading man, of his debut in the early-day movies and his first stardom — of his marriage to Gloria Swanson and his tips and downs in the pioneer studios of Hollywood. Watch for the continuation of his intimate life story.
Source: New Movie Magazine, March 1934