Mea Culpa to Woody Strode

“The Professionals’

When Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode (July 25, 1914 — December 31, 1994), married Princess Luukialuana Kalaeloa, a distant relative of the last queen of Hawaii, “You’d have thought I was marrying Lana Turner, the way the whites in Hollywood acted,” he was quoted as saying.

The record is silent as to whether anyone beyond Tinsel Town even noticed, in those antediluvian times before the rise of “social media.”

Woody Strode was born in LA after his parents moved there from New Orleans. His biography says his grandmother was a “Black Cherokee,” his grandfather a “Black Creek.” Cherokee and Muskogee (Creek) antecedents suggest an Oklahoma connection. From my own distant Oklahoma antecedents, I recall both tribes made common cause with blacks in the bad old days of Manifest Destiny. Free peoples dragooned onto a “Trail of Tears must have experienced a fierce empathy for any “three-fifths” of a male who sought refuge in Indian Territory. Propinquity inevitably leads to liaison. Restless offspring of every generation are lured away from the sheltering hills of home by the promised excitement of bright lights far away. The Big Easy and then LA seem a logical progression for the Strode line.

(In the case of my own father, it was not big-city allure. He was exiled to the U.S. Cavalry by a cranky judge, for the crime of stealing a Tin Lizzy for a joyride. Fort Smith calaboose or Seventh Cavalry patrols along the Mexican Border? He chose boots and saddles. Stayed in too long, was caught up in “mechanization,” and wound up in the Fourth Division preparing for D-Day. My earliest memories of him include his soft hillbilly croon: “Those Oklahoma Hills Where I was Born.” While he fought his way from Normandy to the Hurtgen Forest, every time I heard Ernest Tubb on the radio I would run into the room shouting “Bill sings! Bill sings!”)

Every family, every individual, has a back story. I found the tenuous link between Woody Strode’s and mine for the most embarrassing of reasons: I didn’t have any memory at all of Woody Strode the Hollywood actor. So I “canceled” him from a sixties movie I really liked. I called him Godfrey Cambridge when I wrote about The Professionals, starring Claudia Cardinale, Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, and Robert Ryan. Strode was the fourth horseman, with Marvin, Lancaster and Ryan, attempting to rescue Claudia from “Mexican bandit” Palance.

In my novel, my protagonist was dreaming of the movie and the delectable Claudia. His subconscious had assigned himself Palance’s role since in the movie she didn’t want to be rescued, and had the serious hots for big, plug-ugly Jack. The sentence listing the stars — and misidentifying Strode — was essentially a throwaway line. Not germane to my story. My casual confidence in my superior memory betrayed me. Nobody ever called me out on this; not surprising. Damn few ever read my book. The foolish mistake just sat there unnoticed.

Then I was telling my well-read lady-love a short story from a whole other book. I came to the part quoting H. L. Mencken of Baltimore: “Consistency is the Hobgoblin of small minds.” Her brow furrowed. “I don’t think that’s correct. Somebody much earlier than Mencken said that.” Ego inclined me to defend my published work. But I recalled my embarrassment years ago in publicly citing Mark Twain instead of Benjamin Disraeli. Still stings when I think about it. And the internet was right there in front of me. So I “Googled.” One of her earliest favorite writers, self-reliant Ralph Waldo Emerson said it. (He said “little,” not small, according to the reports, but still.) My “self-reliant” trust of my memory had led me astray. Again.

So I was feeling a little gun-shy when I went to excerpt one of my book’s chapters, containing the Cardinale dream, for a Medium post, “The Playboy Photographer and The General’s Daughter.” As noted, the Cambridge mistake was a throwaway line; could have easily been edited out when I wrote it. But I didn’t. And when I consulted Mother Google, up popped Woody Strode. Two failures of memory discovered in one day. Can’t blame Alzheimer’s or dementia; I made those mistakes a lot younger than I am now. As a sort of act of contrition, I read about Strode. The Oklahoma inference made it worse, somehow. As if I disrespected a countryman.

Just this week I had been reviewing color slides from a Fort Smith family reunion in 1973. My father, returned as a successful Kentucky businessman, was happy as I had ever seen him. I met my paternal grandmother, whose strong features and impressive Roman nose hinted Indian Territory, validating family legend my grandfather found her while hiding out there following an unwitnessed double shotgunning homicide for which he feared he’d swing in Fort Smith. (A U.S. Marshal finally tracked him down and relieved his mind; the two dead men were known road agents. My grandfather, a teamster, had been defending his wagon full of supplies.)

I’d been told, and believed, she was Comanche. But in 1973, it was impolitic to suggest the family ran to Indian blood. I also met Nip, universally regarded as the linchpin upon which two large, interconnected families relied. Tall as me, erect as a British sergeant-major at age eighty, black as coal. Nip farmed prime bottom-land and sent all his kids to college, and was always there to shore up the two white families. He taught my father to fish and hunt, and the widowed descendant of the related family said “of all of us, Nip loves your dad the most.” Given my desultory studies of Mendel, I saw cranial and other suggestions of family ties closer than affection; the trademark ears, for instance. Another highly impolitic thing to suggest in 1973.

The acknowledged history was strong enough: Nip’s father was a freed slave and lifetime sidekick of my grandfather, who opened a blacksmith shop. When customers irate about a bill attacked my grandfather, Nip’s dad pulled a black-powder Colt on them and said one at a time. My grandfather, a notorious brawler, damn-near killed the first. Was ready for the next. They chose discretion and left town. Not one word about the societal outrage of a black man holding a gun on white men. The two were salt and pepper in “just alike shakers,” as the locals might have said.

I was immersed back then in tales of those Oklahoma hills my father sang to me about when I could barely walk. I’d bet a pretty that Woody Strode’s family had tales of its own from those rude frontier days. Seeing a tenuous connection to my own roots, as noted, made me feel worse about my writing mistake. Fortunately his fame and fortune didn’t rest on me as spokesperson. He was a decathlete and football star, one of the first black players in the National Football League after the Second World War. (Which he spent mostly playing football for the Army, not unlike my own Army sergeant’s career as an Army baseball player with a .340 batting average.) After a winning season in Canadian football, and injuries, Strode did the LA thing and went into acting. Was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Spartacus in 1960. A movie I never saw.

He was Jackie Robinson’s backfield teammate for the UCLA Bruins, and they were famous then. Yes, that Jackie Robinson. (Strode tried out for the Dodgers too, but didn’t make the cut.)The record is silent on whether his nude portrait in a famous collection of athletic nudes, shown at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, caught the eye of Hawaiian royalty. (Nazis shut the exhibit down, outraged blacks and Jews were included.) Of his first road-trip exposure to racism while with the NFL, Strode said it was something he had never been aware of growing up in LA. Another personal connection: I bunked with a Santa Monica black in Basic Combat Training in Georgia who was utterly bewildered when he encountered racial prejudice.

(Strode was quoted as saying “We were unconscious of color. We used to sit in the best seats at the Coconut Grove…If someone said, ‘there’s a Negro over there,’ I was just as apt as anyone to turn around and say ‘Where?’…As we got out of the LA area we found these racial tensions. Hell, we thought we were white….”

His movie and TV credits are long and varied from the fifties forward to Spartacus. He became a lifelong friend of John Ford after starring in a Korean War movie. Ford gave him more, prominent roles: “John Ford put classic words in my mouth…You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne…And I did it….” Speaking of the Duke, Ford cast Strode with Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where his character recites the Declaration of Independence. And apologizes for forgetting the phrase “all men are created equal…” Potent dialogue for the sixties.

His marriage to Hawaiian royalty produced two reported children, and lasted until her death. A hard death, Parkinson’s. He married again, to a woman half his age. That one lasted until his death at age eighty. A man who kept his promises. Before that, as his friend Ford’s health failed, Strode slept on the director’s floor for four months, taking care of him, and was with him when he died. A man of iron loyalty.

A remarkable man. An actor the equal of Marvin, Lancaster, Palance. And I went and called him Cambridge. Not an insult by any means. But a stupid mistake. Mea culpa

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.