Between Hell’s Highway and The Big House: Robert Tasker and Those Who Knew Him.
Mystery and myth surround the life and death of ex-con, essayist, novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, Robert Tasker. What one knows about him derives primarily from a handful of books. The first, Grimhaven is by Tasker himself. Though based on the author’s experiences in San Quentin where he was incarcerated on a five-to-twenty-five year sentence for armed robbery, Grimhaven barely mentions the author’s pre-prison life. For those years comprise another narrative, one that Tasker, who was born in North Dakota in 1903 and raised in Canada and Portland, Oregon, preferred to compartmentalise. Following Grimhaven’s publication and the author’s release from prison in 1929, Tasker moved to Hollywood where, for some fifteen years, he pursued a career as a moderately successful scriptwriter and sometime actor. With Grimhaven helping expose prison conditions during the 1920s, Tasker’s life should have been the stuff from which Hollywood legends are made. Yet his name and brief cinema presence has all but been erased from literary and Hollywood history.
Another book that deals with Tasker’s fascinating life is John Bright’s novel It’s Cleaner on the Inside. For better part of a decade, Bright and Tasker were not only friends, but a screenwriting team. Consequently, Bright was an appropriate person to write a novel based on Tasker’s life. Published by Neville Spearman in England in 1961- sadly, it was never to find an American publisher- it’s Cleaner on the Inside begins with Tasker’s ill-fated robbery and moves back in time, to the Tasker-like Peter Jameson’s childhood in the Pacific Northwest. While the similarities between Tasker and Jameson are plentiful, the reader should be warned against relying on Bright’s novel as purely biographical.
A third book relevant to Tasker’s life is Stealing Through Life by friend and fellow San Quentin inmate- though he could also be found at neighbouring Folsom Prison- Ernest Booth. Arguably the more literary of the three books, this account of Booth’s life of crime is of interest because Tasker writes at some length in Grimhaven about their friendship while in San Quentin. Finding themselves in similar circumstances, and with similar literary interests, they struck a bargain: Tasker promised to only write about life on the inside, while Booth would devote himself to writing about life outside their prison walls.
Dissimilar though they might be, these three books challenge the orthodoxy of American cultural and political life during the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, they add to one’s understanding of Hollywood as a place of possibility, where renegades such as Tasker and Booth, or the politically subversive John Bright, could be co-opted and deemed important to the creation of Tinseltown’s extravagant dream machine.
One could add to these books the work of another jailbird writer, Jim Tully. Today Tully’s writing, like that of Tasker, Booth and Bright, has been largely forgotten, yet, in its day, it was widely read and influential. Such was his talent that, when it came to hardboiled prose, Charles Willeford always considered Tully the equal of Dashiell Hammett. Even though Tully did not do much writing for the screen, he certainly wrote a great deal about Hollywood. In fact, during the 1930s, his pen was considered something akin to a lethal weapon. Prior to that, Tully was known for autobiographical books about hoboes, circus life, and boxing. One of the few directors to adapt his work was William Wellman whose Beggars of Life, starring Wallace Beery with Louise Brooks playing a young girl who murders her sexually abusive guardian, was based on Tully’s 1924 book of the same time. Tully would receive a writing credit for the movie. His only other credits would be for Lew Landers’ Poe-inspired The Raven (1935) starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and for Edward L. Cahn Laughter in Hell (1933), starring Pat O’Brien, which was also based on a Tully novel of the same name.
In Grimhaven, Tasker mentions Tully’s visit to San Quentin where, besides Tasker, he interviewed Johnny the Flying Tramp, the boxer Kid McCoy, Paul Kelly, and the renown Tom Mooney. Of these latter names, we know that ex-middleweight boxing champion Kid McCoy was, at that point, serving time for murder, while Mooney was inside for allegedly throwing a bomb into a 1916 San Francisco parade in support of America’s entry into WW1. Mooney was a cause celebre amongst the Hollywood left, who launched a well-publicised campaign to free him. However, the most recognised name at the time was Paul Kelly, who, two years earlier, had been the subject of a major Hollywood scandal. An actor whose speciality was playing cops and criminals, Kelly had been convicted for killing fellow-actor Ray Raymond in a fight over actress Dorothy MacKaye. Though MacKaye had been married to Raymond, she later testified in Kelly’s favour, and even hired a doctor to claim her husband had died of natural causes. Charged with manslaughter, Kelly would spend only two years in San Quentin, subsequently appearing in such films as The File on Thelma Jordan, Springfield Rifle, and The High and the Mighty.
Tully used these interviews in his article, “A California Holiday.” However, interviewing these characters was not his main reason for travelling up the coast to San Quentin. For Tully was there to witness an execution, which would make this one of the most moving essays ever written regarding the barbarity of capital punishment. At one time Charlie Chaplin’s press agent, Tully, who, in his youth, had spent five years behind bars, describes Tasker, at the time, as “twenty-four, tall, good-looking, a sheik type for society girls and stenographers, with black hair carefully combed, doing five to twenty-five years for holding up a crowded dance hall.”
Tasker only began writing while incarcerated, contributing and editing the prison journal, the San Quentin Bulletin. It was during this time that he began corresponding with H.L. Mencken. In one of his first letters to Mencken, Tasker wrote, “I graduated from high school in Portland in 1921. One year later I'm in California, go through a bad patch, buy a gun -- there you have it. I'm now serving a five-to-life sentence in San Quentin for armed robbery… Don't hesitate to call me whatever you want: thief, hood, knockover artist. It's all the same to me. As to where I'm from, I can't really say -- except maybe from here." Mencken, in 1927, published Tasker’s “First Day,” and “A Man is Hanged” in his American Mercury. They would ultimately appear in Grimhaven, which Tasker, in that same year, and to avoid the prison authorities censoring his work, had to smuggle out of his cell. The final paragraph of this autobiographical novel gives a further clue regarding Tasker’s state of mind: “And here in the midst of it I am. I have no certain fault, and I have no certain virtue. My ignorance is neither little nor great. I am neither fortunate nor unfortunate. I would seem to be a bit of a mechanism, responding to certain mechanical impulses, reacting in a mechanical way. I have no certain knowledge at all, except that I am, and that I am here.” On Mencken’s recommendation, Knopf published the book in 1931.
As a thief, Tasker was not so much inept as hell-bent on self-destruction. He had been convicted of robbing patrons at Sauer’s Dance Parlor in Oakland, California, a crime committed less for the money than to embarrass his father, a conservative banker with a puritanical outlook on life. If one is to believe Bright’s fictional account, Tasker’s mother, a preacher’s daughter, killed herself while Robert was still a teenager. Though this might be fanciful on Bright’s part, it has a more accurate ring to it than his claim that his Tasker-like character worked as a bellboy in a San Francisco hotel, where he ran errands for the comedian Fatty Arbuckle up to, and including, the night he allegedly raped and killed Virginia Rappe.
However fanciful Bright’s portrayal, his description of Tasker’s crime is, by all accounts, accurate. On St. Valentine’s Day, 1924, a twenty-three year old Tasker walked into Sauer’s Dance Parlor and mounted the bandstand where Les Hite’s band was playing. Good-looking enough to be mistaken for the band’s master of ceremonies or recently acquired white crooner, he commandeered the microphone, reached into his jacket pocket and produced a revolver. He waved the gun from one side of the dance hall to the other, telling everyone to put whatever paper money they had into a tablecloth that he had provided for the occasion, after which he turned to the band and, in words that, according to Bright, “became astonished gossip in Pacific Coast Harlem for years,” said, “I’m skipping you folks. Coloured people get pushed around enough. Keep your money.” The police had little trouble catching Tasker, who was found sitting on the steps of the dance hall smoking a cigarette, the bulging tablecloth at his side. When a police officer grabbed the gun, he saw that Tasker hadn’t bothered to put bullets in it.
Because it was an era when an assortment of rich young men, like the notorious Leopold and Loeb, were committing “thrill” crimes of supposedly Nietzschian proportions to spite conservative father figures, Tasker was given the stiffest of sentences. The judge did not hide the fact that he was handing out a harsh sentence as a warning to other young men. While in prison, Tasker mellowed somewhat; he even asked Mencken to send the check for an article in American Mercury to his father. “I’m rather fond of the old chap,” said Tasker. Though one could interpret Tasker’s apparent generosity in various ways: perhaps it was to tell his father that literary success was just around the corner; maybe he was trying to pay back money he had stolen from him; or it could even be that he simply meant the gesture as an insult.
Whichever, it looked like Tasker might be on the road to a limited kind of literary notoriety. At the time, thanks to the likes of the crusading Mencken, jailbird writing had become a small growth industry. During Tasker’s tenure in San Quentin at least a dozen inmates were trying to publish their work in periodicals on the outside, while a prison writing competition, organised by Tasker, attracted over 400 entrants. Writing had become so popular amongst inmates that the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, in 1930, issued an edict forbidding Tasker and fellow-inmates from sending their work to magazines and newspapers outside the prison walls. “We are not literary agents,” said Judge C.E. McLaughlin, adding that prison officials did not have time to comb through each manuscript in search of objectionable material. Eight years after it was begun, the San Quentin Bulletin was terminated, said by prison authorities to be catering more to the outside world than to inmates.
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