Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Our Norwegian Boys Move On After the 1926 Rose Bowl

Rose Bowl Poster Art, 1926
Tournament of Roses
This is the second essay of two about the 1926 Rose Bowl, the game that brought southern football to the national stage, when the so-called ‘Tuscalosers’ took the train out to Pasadena and beat the powerful Washington Huskies for the national championship.  It is also about the Norwegian immigrant Guttormsen family of Everett, Washington and one of their sons, George, who played on the Everett High School team that lost one game in a decade and who followed his coach, Enoch Bagshaw, to the University of Washington and the big game in 1926.

Johnny Mack Brown
Encyclopedia of
George is a kind of Forrest Gump figure who connects with several big events and larger than life personalities in Seattle.  Last week we recounted the high school national championship game in Ohio and the big game in Pasadena.  Now, we’re moving on, as we do after every New Year’s Day, to the rest of our lives, and theirs. 

Each side in the 1926 Rose Bowl had a future movie star on the field.  Alabama’s star halfback, Johnny Mack Brown, whose football handle was the ‘Dothan Antelope,’ signed a movie contract a few weeks following the Rose Bowl game.  He appeared in nearly 200 movies, mainly westerns and many short reel westerns, and became a bigger star in Hollywood than anything he was in worshipful Alabama.  On the field, he was pretty good.  He scored two of the three touchdowns Alabama scored in the decisive third period of the ‘26 Rose Bowl, both on long passes.

The other was Herman Brix, the Huskies’ left tackle.  He came from a wealthy timber family in Tacoma and was just two years from winning a silver medal in the 1928 Olympic shot put competition where he set a world’s record of 51’9” on his last throw.  After receiving a pep talk from Brix, teammate and Kansan John Kuck then stepped into the ring threw the shot 52’ for a new world record and the gold. 

Brix become an actor after meeting Douglas Fairbanks Junior, who had a gym in his Beverly Hills home.  Fairbanks would invite US athletes to train there prior to the Los Angeles games of 1932.  Just 25, Brix was reaching his prime, was still reliably world class and fully expected to medal once again. 

Brix was an economics major at the UW and inclined to business and, when not training for the Olympics, was selling insurance and other products, assuming his life would change after the Olympics and he would turn to a life in business, like his father.  Fairbanks thought he could be successful in the movies and, and perhaps looking at the economic realities of the time, Brix put his skepticism aside and relented.  He soon was in the running for the role of Tarzan and was MGM’s favorite for the role of the ape man.

But in 1931, in the movie “Touchdown,” Brix broke his shoulder and MGM by-passed him and cast Johnny Weissmuller as the star of the first Tarzan movie, “Tarzan the Ape Man.”

Lord Greystoke nee Herman Brix
Brian's Drive-in Theater
Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the Tarzan books, did not like the guttural, monosyllabic man child MGM had turned the role into. He loved Brix because he was the essence of the nobility he saw in the character he made, articulate, athletic and thoughtful.  So, in 1935, Burroughs made his own version of the Tarzan movie with Brix in the starring role.  The more sophisticated Tarzan showed his upper crust stuff when found by explorers in the Burroughs movie version:

“Yes, I am Tarzan, also known as Lord Greystoke.  How may I help you?” 

Burroughs didn’t have the distribution muscle that MGM had, but the Burroughs version – and Brix -- became highly popular in Europe.

“The New Adventures of Tarzan” was followed three years later by “Tarzan and the Green Goddess” and Brix’s movie career was solidly underway.  By this time, however, Brix wanted fewer adventure roles and more dramatic, serious ones and decided he needed to distance himself from his by now-typecast self.  He changed his name to Bruce Bennett and mostly succeeded for two decades in higher end films like “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Mildred Pierce” and “Dark Passage.” 

He truly did take after his businessman father, leaving the movies in the early sixties to start several businesses. He also had a keen eye for real estate when we all wish we had such an eye at such a time in California.  He died a rich man at 100 years in 2007.

KOMO Broadcast Team
Walter Reseberg, Arthur Lindsay and George
Guttormsen graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in December of 1930.  He had been making money on the side as a broadcaster of UW football games and in 1930 radio was really kicking in, making Guttormsen a familiar voice in local sports broadcasting.  Then, several radio stations shared the extensive costs of remote radio broadcasting. KJR, KOMO and KOL together acquired the rights for Husky Football but each had their own broadcasters. KOMO’s guy “in charge of the KOMO’s remote control microphone” was Guttormsen. 

George was also listed as an instructor in 1930 at the brand new Lakeside School, then under construction in the north end of Seattle.  An announcement in the Seattle Times reported that he was a teacher in mathematics and was its ‘physical director.’ 

Mary McCarthy met George Guttormsen at a party given by Broussais Beck, the manager of the Seattle Bon Marche department store, at Beck’s Three Tree
Mary at Annie Wright School in Tacoma, 15 years
Point summer home south of the city.  Beck was one of the many men in Seattle who tried to get into Mary’s pants when she was in high school.  He failed, but apparently was not overly put off by the rebuff and she visited the summer home often.  That summer, 1931, was just after her sophomore year at Vassar College, when she had returned to Seattle to visit her grandparents, Frank and Augusta Preston.  They had raised Mary and two other children after their parents had died in the influenza epidemic in 1918.

When you think of McCarthy, you tend to think of sex, perhaps because of her book, “The Group” a best seller in the early 1963 that was full of particularly frank and detailed descriptions of sex.  It is about eight women who leave Vassar and make their way in the world and not always with their step-ins on.  Think “Sex in the City,” only better.  She also authored one of the most depressing depictions of losing her virginity in her memoir How I Grew.  An LA Times review of the front-seat-of-the-roadster description provided by McCarthy said: 

“It suggests abdominal surgery with a local anesthetic.”

You will also remember her because she remembered Seattle so frequently once she moved to New York and became a national literary figure. Seattle started popping up in the New Yorker, Mademoiselle and many other publications from the forties to the eighties.  Her time in Seattle had formed her sexuality and her independence and she thrilled to recall her clandestine explorations of the city as a very young woman and adventurous girl, sneaking out for sex with artist Kenneth Callahan and the Russian bohemians on Queen Anne Hill and creating elaborate lies to cover her many transgressions from her over-protective grandparents and the Catholic Church she had by then largely abandoned. 

You might also remember her feud with playwright Lillian Hellman and her words in an interview with Dick Cavett.  “Everything she writes is a lie,” she said.  “Including the words ‘a’ and ‘the.’”

Frank Preston was a founding partner of a law firm called Preston, Thorgrimson, later Preston Gates and Ellis and today among the largest firms in the city, K&L Gates.  Mary lived with her grandparents along the ridge above the Leschi neighborhood and Lake Washington at 712 35th Avenue, a great street then and now.

She would start and end many of the adventures at 34th and Union trolly stop, a favorite corner of mine, my first home in Seattle and home today to a lovely neighborhood renaissance.

She loved the memoir form and returned to it again and again.  This was her genre, in large part, because it couldn't fail to be all about her.  

In How I Grew, published in 1987, she writes from the date she calls the ‘birth of my mind,’ the year 1925 when she was 13, until she is out of school at 21, in New York and focused on her growing intellectual life and a series of bad marriages.   In 1931, six years after the birth of her mind and 19 years after that of her body, she met Guttormsen, just out of law school and, she writes, headed for work in Harold Preston’s law firm.  (I don’t think Guttormsen ever worked at Preston, but who’s counting?)
KOMO Publicity Photo, about 1931

Guttormsen has a small but important role in How I Grew.  She remembers him as the person she might have married had she decided to stay in Seattle rather than set off for New York and the considerable literary life and many heartbreaks awaiting her.

"Once I even made love with a man I met at the Beck's summer place.  He was an intelligent young man, a sort of intellectual, even, a freak case of a football player who was Phi Beta Kappa (I don't think George was Phi Beta Kappa either) and good looking as well."
"But I was at the end of my last summer when we met and excitedly made love, so that I never saw him again…In an alternative life, I hope, he could have been mine." 

George had a busy year in 1934.  He was handling a high-profile divorce case on behalf of a University of Washington champion swimmer and was frequently mentioned as participating in several weddings.  One wedding was of his sister, Agnes, to a Seattle newspaperman, Ted Crosby.  He was also an usher in the wedding of Mary Bard to Dr.  Clyde Reynolds Jensen.  Mary was an accomplished writer like her more famous sister, but didn't have a book that took off like the rocket ship that was Betty MacDonald's The Egg and I, an account of living on a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in the twenties with some low brow, low rent next door neighbors Betty named Ma and Pa Kettle.  

Universal Pictures
The Kettles were big hits in the 1947 movie made from the book starring Claudette Colbert as Betty and Fred McMurray as Bob Heskett, Betty's husband who, in real life, she left at the farm to head back to Seattle.  The book would be published long after she had married Donald MacDonald and created a completely happy life in Seattle, on Vashon Island, where she still kept chickens and in Carmel, California, where she presumably did not.

Hollywood loved the Kettles and made nine movies featuring their fictional, but believable self-destructions, mishaps and malaprops. Marjorie Main played Ma, the much put upon matriarch herding her inept but usually well meaning family, most of whom had a tough time crossing a paved road without dropping the milk bottle.

As the year closed, George Guttormsen and Miriam Herington, an Oregonian and graduate of Reed College who was running the YWCA in Seattle, drove up from her home in Madison Park to Bellingham where they quietly married. 

Universal Pictures
That whole thing about that Heskett woman and her writing that book made life pretty awful, complained the Bishop family, the real life next door neighbors in Chimacum. First off, there were all those visitors coming at all hours, blocking the road, taking pictures of the Heskett farmhouse and the Bishop place. Sometimes they would take pictures of Bishop family members, pointing and laughing as they did. They had to put up all those no trespassing signs, hand coloring in “And that means you!!”

Trips into Chimacum, their non-fictional town, turned into many small and sometimes major humiliations. People remembered that the Bishop barn had burned down once, but they were not aware that one of the Bishop boys, as told in The Egg and I, when asked to burn the trash, piled it up against a wall of the barn and lit the fire.

So, in 1951, the Bishops sued MacDonald, along with the publisher, Lippincot and the Bon Marche, where the book was sold. They asked for damages of $925,000, claiming that MacDonald had used stories from their own lives for her book and publication had caused them great pain and suffering, loss of sleep and continuing humiliations in and around Chimacum and the whole damned Olympic Peninsula! George Guttormsen was part of the defense team hired by MacDonald.
Seattle Times

It was a tough ticket and there was always a line outside Judge William Wilkin's court. Ma was dead and Pa was sick -- I mean Mrs. Bishop had passed and Mr. Bishop was sick and couldn't make the crossing of Puget Sound to attend the trial, but the trial was still as entertaining as anything in town. Copies of the book were all over the court room and Betty MacDonald found it difficult to leave without signing a bunch of books.

Her defense was that The Egg and I truly was a work of fiction and the similarities with the real Bishops were mere coincidences, like the barn burning down or the story of the Bishop boy who was working as a traffic flagger where blasting was going on and he let a US Mail delivery truck go right through just as the highway crew blew up a rock face, breaking all the windows in the truck and scaring the hell out of its driver. “I’ve always learned that the Yew S Mail must go through,” he said in the book and also, in his testimony in Judge Wilkins' court.

The Bishops had a difficult case to make. To win, they had to show they were really as stupid as they appeared in the book. Judge Wilkins perhaps had that it mind when the jury ruled in favor of MacDonald and the judge said if he had been hearing the case without a jury he might have found for the plaintiffs and offered a nominal award, like a dollar.

George keeps up his relationship with the University of Washington as President of the Alumni Association and through the periodic rehashing of that great 1925 season, a reason why he is chair of homecoming every so often and organizing the occasional Bar Association or alumni golf tournament. He and Miriam adopt George Geberg Guttormsen after his sister Caroline dies a few weeks after childbirth and it is clear that her husband will be unable to care for the boy. They name him George G. Guttormsen, not a Junior. Our George is a George C. It was a careful, lawyerly choice, yet a loving one. 

UW Collections
The Guttormsens have captured me fully and I need to find some way to sign off and say goodbye to them and their friends and loved ones for now. That requires a bit of a sum up so you know what I know of what happened to some of these people.  We know that Zioncheck, Guttormsen's campaign manager flew out of the window of the Arctic Building in 1936, but you may not know he came down headfirst 20 feet in front of his car where his wife, Rubeye,  was sitting.

It ended poorly for George Wilson.  Today he would be signing a $35 million contract for three years, the first two guaranteed, but then the NFL was really an exhibition sport and paid little money except to stars like Red Grange who played out of a real media market in Chicago.  Before he died of a pulmonary embolism walking to work as a cargo checker on the San Francisco waterfront in 1963, he must have relived a couple of moments among the many he had in the bank.  Like the time he played against Grange a handful of years after the great game against Alabama and racked up 150 yards to Grange's 30.  He also may have thought how cool it was the UW Rose Bowl team of 1960 made such a fuss over him when he visited the locker room and posed for pictures with one young man after another.  He is one of only three Huskies who have had their jerseys retired.

Everything doesn't end badly in this story.  Bruce Bennett, nee Herman Brix, made plenty of money, was a critical success not only as Tarzan but in other films he made and was a financial smash in California real estate, living to 100 years.  

George’s brother,  Andrew, the Swarthmore student, was a wonderful car mechanic and ran “Tip’s Super Service” in Everett with his brother, the little boy in the picture, Leonard. The brother who never found his potential as a UCLA football player, Harold, worked for the school district there, then had a bookstore with his wife, Jean and worked as a salesman for a small publishing company.

Gunnar came back from the Navy to become an Everett Police Officer. Geberg suffered a stroke in 1937 and died in Everett. Agnes, the matriarch, stayed on another 10 years at 1801 McDougall.  

The twins, Ethyl and Esther both found their way to southern California and lived out their lives there. We know that Caroline died after childbirth, leaving George and Miriam with their only child. Little Eleanor lived in Everett her entire life and Agnes met a Tacoma man and moved to Seattle.  Both died in their early eighties. Little Leonard died a young man in 1966. 

Betty MacDonald had such a fine sense of humor. Her book about spending a year at Firland Sanitarium in Seattle while recovering from tuberculosis, she titled “The Plague and I.” She died way too young, in her fiftieth year. Bob Heskett, her thuggish former husband, was murdered in Oakland, California.  

Her sister, Mary, always a teacher, should have had more time to work on racial issues in Seattle. A testament to their rich lives and important contribution is that both are fully alive on the Internet.  

Mary McCarthy finally divorced that jerk Edmund Wilson and continued writing and scolding America and Lillian Hellman until 1989.  

Coach Bagshaw at Everett High, 1920
Nesika Yearbook
Enoch Bagshaw’s last year at the University of Washington was 1929 when alums and students who rejoiced at the Rose Bowls turned against him, forcing him out despite yet another winning year. That darned Tea Party governor, Roland Hartley, hired Bagshaw to run the transportation department of the state. Like everything Hartley touched, it went bad. Bagshaw was found near his office in Olympia, lifeless, at 46 years.

In 1975, there was a reunion in Tuscaloosa of the two teams who played in as good a Rose Bowl game as any. The UW and Alabama were scheduled to play a game of football in early October, 1975. The game was a few weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of the great 1926 Rose Bowl game. Miriam and George planned on being there, but it turns out only Miriam attended. George died that Spring.

Historylink historian Paula Becker frequently writes about women in Washington state and has written extensively about Betty MacDonald and Mary McCarthy.

Betty MacDonald material at

Paula Becker's Essay on Mary McCarthy

Egg and I Trailer

34th and Union in Madrona

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