For our cover story on Robert Ryan, see J.R. Jones’s The Actor’s Letter: A reminiscence from film noir icon Robert Ryan, newly unearthed by his daughter, sheds light on his Chicago childhood – and his family’s connection to a tragic chapter in the city’s history. For more on Ryan’s filmography and an appreciation of his work, see “The Essential Robert Ryan.”
[Following is the complete text of Robert Ryan’s letter. A few spelling and punctuation errors have been corrected, but otherwise this is presented exactly as written. —J.R. Jones]
The Early Years
For Tim, Cheyney and Lisa
The time might come someday to one of you—or all of you—when you become curious about my early life. If that should ever happen, you will have this record to tell you.
I was born on November 11, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois. We lived at 4822 Kenmore Avenue on the first floor in a six-apartment building. Chicago, then, as now, was the second largest city in America and the natives always speak of its three “sides”—north, south and west. There was no “east” side. The business and shopping center of Chicago is called the “Loop” because the elevated railway makes a complete circle around it.
The north side, where I was born, was the most newly settled of the three sides and our neighborhood could not have been very old. I suspect that it would have been called “nice” middle-class. Certainly not wealthy like the Lake Shore Drive section, nor poor like many parts of the west side. Kenmore Avenue was one block west of Sheridan Road which ran along the lake front—and—which was near the beaches of Lake Michigan where I spent so many of my boyhood summers.
Like all middle-western towns and cities, Chicago had very pronounced seasons—it was reported to have its hottest summers—the coldest winters—the wettest springs and the windiest falls of any city in the world—as well as being the windiest city anywhere. This may or not be true but, oddly enough, it is a legend that Chicagoans themselves support. It is a very odd fact that Chicagoans never boast about their city, yet they secretly seem to love it. If you tell a Chicagoan that Chicago is one of the hottest cities in America, he will glare at you and reply that it is the hottest city and a hell-hole to live in. Yet, he seldom moves.
My father, Timothy Aloysius Ryan, was the second of eight children born to John and Johanna Ryan in the little town of Lockport, Illinois, about sixty miles south of Chicago. He was born in June, 1975 and lived in Lockport until he was fifteen or so, when he went to Chicago to live with his uncle. His father and mother were born in Thurles, Tipperary, Ireland and came to America, just after the Civil War. My grandmother’s maiden name was Johanna Ryan. My grandfather was evidently a carpenter who quickly founded a boat yard to supply boats for the Illinois and Michigan Canal which ran through Lockport (hence its name—from Canal Lock). Grandfather at some time during those years was superintendent of that section of the Canal—a position of some importance in a small town. The town seems to have been very largely Irish and Catholic. The Ryans were an extremely devout Catholic family—my father perhaps the least so, (he married a Protestant) although he was a Catholic all his life. The Ryans, by all the standards of civilized society, were a very fine family. They were hard working, devout, honorable, and fine looking. They were not intellectual nor artistic—and would be considered quite conventional in their lives—both private and public. The men were [abstemious] and although my grandfather drank a quart of whisky a day for sixty-five years, he was never drunk or out of control. My father was the only one of the sons who drank and after a rather fast start he stopped entirely when he married—never to drink again. The Ryans did not gamble, loaf, swear, DRINK, smoke, break the laws, cheat or hurt people in any way. (Except my father who did the first five of these things at one time or another.) They worked hard, were very neat and clean, paid their bills and loved their neighbors. In spite of all these presumably dull qualities, they could be a lot of fun and I remember them with great affection. None of them are now living.
My mother, Mabel Arbutus Bushnell, was born in May, 1883 in Escanaba, Michigan, a small town in what is called the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She was the oldest of five children. Her father, Harry Lathrop Bushnell, born in Au Sable Forks, New York, was the descendant of old American families on both sides. Bushnell was a New York name that had been originally English. Bushnell was a portrayal of the home of a family who lied in England in the Middle Ages. The source words were “Buschen,” meaning “bushy” and “Hal” meaning “hillside.” The name was condensed from Buschenhal to Bushnell by the 1400’s. Lathrop was a New England (English) name of some standing. John Lathrop, an ancestor, was a minister of the Old South Church. My grandmother was Ellen Rossiter, born in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Harry Bushnell had evidently passed up the chance to be a favored nephew of [text redacted] and had struck out for himself. He became a tramp printer (the term was not derogatory) and finally—was the editor and publisher of the Gladstone Michigan newspaper at the time my mother was born. Although I recall him as a charming old man who was very fond of me and forever buying me candy and ice cream, it is evident that his own children had no love for him. Even by the stricter standards of the time, he was a somewhat cruel parent. He at sometime became a very heavy drinker and allowed his wife to support the family. Subsequently there was a trip to the Keeley Institute (the cure) and he returned home never to drink again. Through my childhood and in my memory he was a job printer in the town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
I never knew the Bushnells as well because of their living so far away but they were indeed a strangely varied family (unlike the Ryans).
Mother and her brother Sam were extremely capable people and full of energy. Sam later moved to Australia where he lived for twenty some years as engineering head of the Wrigley Chewing Gum Company. Blanche was the gentlest of the children. Helen and Kendall—born much later were quite different—unlike their older sisters they were quite without pride and were of a coarser fiber although great fun and always very nice to me. Kendall had some talent on the violin—I later inherited his instrument and spent several untalented years sawing at it.
The Bushnells were considerably less affluent than the Ryans and over the years my father made several advances to various members of the family. He was pretty good about it but occasionally found it helpful to remind mother of this fact. Of the Bushnells only Mother, Blanche and Helen are now living.
I can’t remember a time when there weren’t some automobiles around—but in my earliest years they were very seldom seen. Almost all heavy hauling was done by horse and wagon—and the alley, which was the commercial thoroughfare, was full of various dobbins hauling ice, garbage, groceries, etc. In the hot summers the horses wore straw hats. The horses got to know the various stops and often would break in a new driver by showing him where to go. I remember my father taking me over to a nearby Fire Station and showing me the white horses that pulled the fire engines—the fire chief’s name was Flavin. At that time, I am sure that every fireman, policeman and prizefighter in Chicago had an Irish name. The Irish at that time were too newly emigrated to be very high on the social scale.
I can never remember when we didn’t have a telephone—the numbers were taken by a lady operator-and one of the most popular phonograph records of the day was called “Cohen On The Telephone”—a comedy bit full of the perils of early telephone talk. Very, very early in my life I remember the lamplighter—a solitary youth who went around lighting the street lamps. We had no automobile in those years and nearby travel was by streetcar and downtown travel (to the Loop) was by the elevated railway. Everybody walked much more than they do now, particularly in Los Angeles were walking is now historic activity.
The center of my childhood life was the alley—it had everything; fences to climb—animals—all the trucks to sneak rides on—it was the social center of the world and the place where all the neighborhood children got together. Also one could wear old clothes—a very considerable blessing in a day when long stockings, high button shoes, knickerbockers and velvet jackets were “Dress up” clothes. For some reason I disliked being “dressed up” and apparently still do.
I wish I could better remember my brother John, but it is all quite dim. I remember a rather solemn, gentle little fellow. He was two years younger than I and died when he was six of lobar pneumonia. I remember the terrible day that he died—and the feeling of my mother and father, that he might have been saved. Certainly, today, he would live.
Evidently we got along very well and he looked up to his “big” brother. We slept together and I remember us both lying awake on Christmas Eve while my father stamped around the back-porch and rang sleigh bells in a convincing (to us) representation of the arrival of Santa Claus.
His death shook up my parents terribly and they decided to move immediately. We left Kenmore Avenue for an apartment at 1408 Winona Street considerably west of Kenmore. The apartment was new but the neighborhood was in some ways less desirable. But nothing mattered. We had to move and we did.
We were up on the second floor in a rather small flat (one bedroom) and I slept in the living room in a pull-down bed known as the Murphy bed—a rather famous invention of the time and the subject of much humor. Chaplin once made a comedy (One A.M.) that featured only him and a Murphy bed. The neighborhood consisted mostly of Swedish-American families and almost all of my playmates were named Larsen, Anderson, Johnson, Hallquist, etc., etc. I went for one year to the Lyman Trumbull School which was all Swedish and then transferred to the Goudy School which was mostly Jewish. The intellectual life was a good deal livelier. At Goudy, I began to be put into plays by the teacher but this meant nothing to me except more work. The actor’s instinct was either extremely latent or non-existent—it was not to manifest itself for another seventeen years.
I don’t recall too much about my scholastic aptitude—evidently it was no great problem to pass things rather easily. I vaguely remember some of my teachers at Goudy and the fact that I had a couple of crushes on the younger ones.
There was nothing much in the way of organized athletics in those schools. A few swings in the playground—some indoor baseball—”gym” once a week—and a lot of running and walking around the streets. I remember that we were continually chasing one another—sometimes for hours. Probably had something to do with an excellent pair of legs that I still find very useful.
I distinctly, indeed, remember one morning of my life on Winona Street—I went to bed in a state of excitement because the next day would be my 9th birthday—it turned out to be a good deal more. At about 5 in the morning a tremendous banging noise was heard—it grew louder and was [entangled] with people shouting and dogs barking. [Thus] was ushered in my 9th birthday, on November 11, 1918—Armistice Day—the end of World War On and one of the most hysterical days in American History. I ran around all day telling people it was my birthday—and must have collected several dollars—most of which I was obliged to return (at my parents suggestion).
The Winona apartment was about three blocks from the Essanay studio—one of the first and most important movie studios in America. During my childhood it had employed such people as H.B. Walthall, Francis X. Bushman, Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson and the immortal Charlie. Most of them lived in our neighborhood and I recall scenes being shot up and down the street. At Winona a bunch of us went on Saturday and worked as extras in Kid Movies starring Mary McAllister—the first child star. For this we got $2.50 a day and I started as a movie actor—a career I was not to pick up again for nineteen years.
During these years my father had been working hard at the construction business and was beginning to prosper.
After leaving Lockport he had gone to Chicago and become a protege of his uncle, Timothy E. Ryan. “T” “E” was one of the very prominent Chicago politicians and was boss of the West Side—in the days when bosses were supreme—and the West Side was an important area in Chicago politics.
Father’s duties have always been somewhat vague in everyone’s mind. In his twenties he seems to have been occupied principally with fancy vests, horse racing, attending prize-fights, and a great deal of social drinking. In short a rather well-known and well liked man-about-town. These entertaining activities were all financed gladly by his uncle. He also seems to have been one of the first men in America to own an automobile. During the years (at the Uncles) he evidently was in the construction business briefly (which he ignored) and ran for political office (as West Town Assessor)—wherein he was defeated. His subsequent stories were all of practical politics as opposed to academic or theoretical politics—about which he knew little. He also worked for the Peoples Gas Company. This job lasted one day and was always good for a one hour story.
Somewhere in here his brother Lawrence went to work for Uncle T.E. as some kind of clerk. His job involved handling some funds and he was ultimately accused by his uncle of a minor embezzlement. Larry was about as liable to have done this as to burn down the Holy Name Cathedral. Father sided with his brother and left his uncle’s bed-board- and generous patronage for good.
On the interim his other brothers, Tom, Joe, and John (J.J.) had formed a construction company called The Ryan Company. My father and Lawrence became partners—and all five brothers remained partners until their deaths about 25 years later. The principal jobs were street paving and large sewer building. They became very prominent in the business, and at the time of the 1929 Crash were probably worth four or five million dollars. Dad’s duties were in the beginning as a superintendent of sewer construction—this finally became the important part of their business. He also was immensely valuable as the contact who knew and was liked by the big Chicago politicians who doled out the jobs. He was a big man (6’4″-250 lbs.) with a radiant personality and strong sense of humor and was idolized by many people. His other side was only displayed at home and was very hard to take.
He was hard working when there was a job at hand but I think now that he was (in the career sense) almost totally without ambition. The company was really run by Tom, a rather cold and shrewd business man.
Dad, I think, would have been content to have enough money to live well, eat well, play bridge, and tell stories to his rather small circle of friends.
He was always generous and kind to me—in a day when father-son relationships were not thought of as they are now.
Mother had come down from Michigan to Chicago in her early twenties. She lived with friends and went to one of the good secretarial schools where she learned typing, shorthand, and clerical work. She was not only capable but very pretty and after one funny experience of innocently landing in a bucket shop (illegal stock sales) she was hired by the Chicago Tribune and quickly became secretary to one of the important executives—one Harrison Parker. Like all young women of the early 1900’s she lived a very restricted social life. Her male associates at the Tribune, reporters of a kind later immortalized in “The Front Page” were not conducive to the good life or a good reputation. A girl friend on the paper introduced her to Lawrence Ryan, who subsequently introduced her to his brother, Tim. The die was cast.
Although cast, it was not immediately forged. Father subjected mother to a 1907 version of the high life—fancy restaurants, champagne, hansom cabs and the theater every night. The two impediments to marriage were Dad’s religion (Roman Catholic) and his drinking (habitual). He finally convinced mother that she was not obliged to become a Catholic—he also quit the bottle for life. They were married sometime in 1908 by a priest and a minister and retired to a very different life that they had been living. Dad was broke and soon I was on the way.
We lived at Winona Street for four years. I went to three schools, (ending at Swift Public) spent long hours at the beach in the summer with the gang, became baseball crazy (I was never much good) and had what I thought was a pretty fine life. In the winter at Christmas time we would usually go to Rhinelander, Wisconsin to visit mother’s parents. They lived in a little house and must have been quite poor—(I guess “modestly situated” would be the phrase). But it meant a train ride on the Chicago, Northwestern, arriving at 4 a.m. at forty below zero. It also meant some [tobogganing] and skiing—and lots of ice cream sodas (with Grandpa) and a few parties—all in all a wonderful treat for me.
We had no car as yet and walked everywhere—I think it was about two miles to the elevated station where we would all walk to go to various parts of the city—principally to the Loop. Every Friday afternoon I would haul myself and violin down to Kimball Hall for a lesson. This was given(?) by a bored Scandinavian named Martinson who played with the Chicago Symphony and practiced dentistry on the side. I may have been the worst fiddler that ever played—but I sharpened two qualities I did have—a good sense of rhythm and a keen ear.
There was a good deal of “gang” activity but it was a far cry from what the word means today. There was no delinquency—no destructiveness—no urge to break laws or windows. We merely stuck together and would occasionally play ball against a team from another neighborhood. Four or five of us would go to the Chicago Cubs Park on Saturday afternoon—or possibly in the winter to a matinee at the “picture show.” A hunger to see movies was just beginning in me—it was later to become occupation No.1.
When it became apparent that we would move—because Father was doing better and the neighborhood was not what my parents wanted for me—I switched to Swift Public School near our new home. A few months later we moved to 5900 Kenmore Avenue—back to the street I was born on but about two miles north. The apartment was somewhat small but I had my own bedroom. Also I was aware that we were entering a new phase of our life. Things were better now—we had our first automobile—nice furniture was appearing in the house—and above all the “Twenties” were getting under way.
You will read and hear a lot about the “20’s”—they have already become somewhat legendary. I will not here recapitulate what now fills history books—but it was an exciting time. Partly because America became the King of the World—partly because the heavy weight of hard work, and hard religion had finally been lifted, and partly because it began when I was ten and ended when I was twenty.
And we had our share of it. We had our first car—not long after followed by Cadillacs and Pierce-Arrows with chauffeurs (unliveried). My parents took a trip to New York and saw all the shows. Somewhere along the way I owned a Ford “roadster”—numerous bell bottom trouser suits—a fur coat and whatever else I needed. Dad and Mother spent their summers at Crystal Lake where they took up golf. I spent most of mine at Camp Kentuck near Phelps, Wisconsin which was populated mostly (the camp) by boys from the Chicago Latin School. In the winter Dad and mother went to a lot of parties and Dad became a patron of the Chicago Opera Association.
I finished Swift Public school in 1923 and entered Loyola Academy that fall. At Swift I had been a better than average student but no meteor. My going to Loyola was not determined by Dad’s Catholic faith—it came from Mother’s desire for a good school for me. The local public high school had attained a rather bizarre reputation even then—short skirts and “petting” parties—a big deal in ’23.
Loyola was reasonably convenient and had a good if not great reputation. Also it was a Jesuit school—and these, if they never rise too high, also never fall too low. Furthermore, it was for boys only. My contact with girls was to remain extremely slight until I was about seventeen or eighteen.
The boys at Loyola came from the upper middle class of Catholics in Chicago—they were mostly Irish, lots of O’thisis and O’thats. The very wealthy went East somewhere. The school probably didn’t have one genuine delinquent in it. I never heard of any of its graduates getting into the tiniest trouble anywhere, anytime. A good number of them became priests. They had an enormous sense of fun, however, and a good deal of wit. This is supposed to be typical of the Irish and based on this one experience with them as a group I would say it is true. Also, remember, that wit in the young is very rare.
I think they were above average in intelligence and I know I was above their average. In my last year I was given the award for combined excellence in scholarship and athletics.
I was bright but not studious—and the results showed it. I was not a “plugger” and I’ve spent my subsequent life trying to become one. Application without talent is worth something—but talent without application is worth nothing.
During my time at Loyola my marks got better and my activities got more numerous. I was on the football team and the track team—the debating society, the literary society and the Loyola Prep (the school magazine). I was very shaky in mathematics—somewhat rocky in Latin (four years required)—and practically led the field in English. I was greatly attached to Father Conroy, our English teacher, and through him had my first brush with Shakespeare—he was madly in love with “Hamlet” and as I recall I knew it by heart when I left his class.
What I may have learned is, of course, very dim and I see now that whole huge areas of a fruitful life were almost ignored. Jesuit education was books and drill and writing and some discussion. One teacher repeated “Repititio est mater studiorum” almost every day. Violations of order were penalized by staying in to “jug” (after school) and writing something out in Latin a thousand times or so. There was no corporal punishment, even then. The Fathers were well seasoned men who had a good deal of authority that they seldom used.
My senior year I was All-City tackle (Catholic)—had the Ford—wore a black bearskin coat. I didn’t drink or smoke. I was (and we all were) much less sophisticated in some ways than boys are today. But we were stronger, harder workers, and in many ways more adult. Our parents said that we were none of these things—and they were right by their standards. (My Uncle Sam, for instance, would arise at 4 a.m. in a Michigan winter, eat a cold breakfast, and walk seven miles in the snow in temperatures from 10 to 40 below zero—start the huge furnaces at the Iron Works—work for 10 hours and then do the seven miles home. Before resting he swept the sidewalk clean of snow and chopped the wood for the next day). It is a truism that parents howl about the younger generation but it is also a truism that succeeding generations are getting physically softer. (The U.S. Army records). This is not a moral but an environmental fact.
When I graduated from Loyola the “boom” was at high tide—the Kingship of America was shared by stock brokers, (Insull), bootleggers, (Capone) and athletes (Babe Ruth). The first two were Chicagoans.
I had very dim ideas about which college I would go to. I was, however, going somewhere. Most of the Loyola boys did, although college education was not the usual thing it is now. Practically all my classmates packed off to Georgetown or Notre Dame or Loyola University. One or two went to Northwestern and a couple to Illinois.
Through my summer associations at Camp Kentuck I was with boys who were bound for Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Chicago. I got the idea of going east because (a) it was snobbish (b) it meant leaving home, which I was anxious to do. I just thought of Princeton for reasons I can’t remember (I think I read a novel about it) and then later switched to Dartmouth. Dartmouth got on the American scene in 1925 by being the national football champs—they were never so before that and have not been since. They also created the passing type of game that exists today. They, were otherwise, known as the source of the “Dartmouth College Case” and the alma mater of Daniel Webster. I was also influenced by the fact that Dartmouth required no examinations (from certain schools) and that two or my closest friends (John Goodwillie and Jack Weisert) were going there.
The summer before I went to college I spent near Missoula, Montana. One of my councillors at the camp had been a Yale graduate named Frank Scully. He came from a wealthy Chicago family and had bought a ranch near Seeley Lake, Montana—in the foothills of the Mission Mountains about 65 miles northeast of Missoula. He had some vague idea of starting a “dude” ranch altho I see now that he mainly wanted to get away from the stock and bond business; the heaven that all good Yale boys went to. He had a partner named Dick Nesbitt (also Yale), so the ranch was called the S/N (S N Lazy Bar).
It proved to be a lovely spread of land with woods, streams, and nearby mountains in profusion. My trip out to it remains one of the high points of my life. I had never seen plains that never ended—where one seemed to be becalmed in a purple ocean. As we got into the foothills of the Rockies and finally saw some of the high peaks I was aware of a lift of spirit that I shall never forget. It was strange to be so far from home for the first time and yet to feel as if I was coming home.
The summer was very exciting—riding horses all the time—doing a lot of hard work—sleeping in a tent—and living in such marvelous country. I fell in love with a girl named Thora Maloney whose father ran “The Stage” (a pickup truck) and I would sometimes ride 10 or 11 miles at night to see her and indulge in what was called “necking.” I can’t remember what she looked like but whatever she had—it caused me to travel 20 miles on horseback, at night, after a long hard days work.
The summer came to an end and I was aboard the Chicago and Milwaukee and homeward bound.
A very brief interlude in Chicago for the great packing-up-for-college and I bade farewell to Mother and Dad. Altho I was an only son (with all that that means) I recall that my Mother was more willing to let me go than was Dad. (and she wasn’t very willing) He didn’t get the point—packing off 1300 miles to the state of New Hampshire when there were five colleges to be had within an hours drive. Mother must have sensed that I should go—though I hope she didn’t know how much I wanted to go.
You can not know the difficulties that attend an only child. Two big grown ups are beaming in on him all the time—even when he isn’t there. It is a feeling of being watched that lingers throughout life. And the feeling it engenders is escape. This, then, was my first breakout.
My first weeks at Hanover remain as a confusion of feelings. The jumble of boys from all over America (mostly New England). The quietness of a small town (the first I had ever really stayed in) and the beauty of the White Mountains which stretched to the east and north of the college. So in one year I had the experience of first absorbing the majestic grandeur of the American west and the quiet beauty of the American north-east.
I made a kind of name in my first year being on the freshman football team and also becoming college heavyweight boxing champion. It was the worst of my 4 years scholastically. The work was, of course, more difficult but mainly I was at my worst beginning something—this has always been true of me. Shyness or fear or both has always inhibited me to the point of non-function EXCEPT in the theater. I have the fear but I also have the function.
Anyhow I got thru my first year—a year that was enhanced by my visit to New York (with the freshman team). I obviously had a thirst for travel that year that I’ve never quite equalled.
I spent the following summer again at Scully’s Ranch and fell in love with a girl named Thula Clifton (I was evidently great for picking names). This romance got no further than the previous one—and ere long I was back at Hanover.
I see no reason to dwell in any detail on the four years at Hanover. There are a few events (outside and in) that perhaps I ought to record, however.
Scholastically I improved throughout my four years. My last two years were of Phi Beta Kappa standard. This, however, is not as remarkable as it seems. In these years I was able to concentrate entirely on English literature, my major, and a subject that I [text missing] always dreadfully difficult and would have lowered my average had I been required to take them throughout.
I lost interest in athletics toward the end of my sophomore year. Altho I was strong and quite fast—I wasn’t particularly good and didn’t have too much interest—found it mostly drudgery. I stuck it out with boxing until the end of my junior year and then stopped all athletics for good.
While I was there we had the CRASH (or start of the depression) and I was hardly aware of it till about two years later. Also there was a terrible fire in one of my father’s tunnel projects and 14 men were killed. I am sure that both of these events caused my father’s early death.
I can only remember reading a lot of books, worrying about the clothes I wore, dating one or two girls fairly steadily, having my first drink, (never too heavy in those years) and not very happily thinking about what lay ahead of me after graduation. I realize now that I wanted to stay in a nice warm atmosphere where I was somebody and not venture into a strange world where I was bound to be nobody. I felt that commencement would be a sorrowful terminus. It was. I still had an awful lot to learn.
I shall stop here because what else there is to be said you already know much about. Such things as have been said and written about me are, in the main, fairly accurate. At least they will serve to satisfy any curiosity you might have.
Read this with my love.