It was the winter of 1966, and I was in a Cuban restaurant on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach, eating a media noche in the middle of the afternoon. By the third cup of coffee, I was down to reading the three-line crime items in the back pages of the Herald, and there it was: “Former Western Movie Star Busted for Vagrancy.” The vagged cowboy turned out to be none other than my very first hero, the man with the bullwhip, the original man-in-black, Lash LaRue.
As a kid in the Fifties, I had seen his B-movies, recycled from the Forties, met his sidekick Fuzzy St. John, and read Lash LaRue comic books. I can still recall the cover of one of them. Lash in the centre of some dusty western boom town street in his black garb with black hat cocked to one side, black scarf, silver studded gun belt and two mother-of-pearl handled revolvers, and the rolled bullwhip in his right hand. As for the movies, even at age seven or eight I realized they were awful at best but redeemed by the man’s presence. What an antidote he was to the others, all those white hats of the Fifties western craze, Hoppy, Gene and Roy. Somehow I knew that life wasn’t like that, that all the guys with the white hats weren’t all good; they weren’t going to turn away from ranchers’ daughters and kiss horses. Those fellows looked like Methodist preachers, Lash like the Dead End Kid who absconded with the collection plate. He often started out as the bad guy, as in The Cheyenne Kid, and ended up the good guy, despite himself.
Sure those were romantic childhood notions. Then I went to the jail to meet him and quickly discovered that my ideas were immature only because they were too restricted to contain the hustler, grifter, conman, womanizer, scandalous gossip and unrelenting scalawag that was Lash LaRue.
As an adult, I would sum him up this way: The French, not having guys like Lash LaRue, had to invent pale facsimiles or mythologize petty criminals. And then there is Camus’ L’Etranger walking the beach in Algiers smoking his cigarette and laying down a mental blueprint for existentialism. Lash would have laughed at his notions, taken the cigarette out of his mouth with a crack of the bullwhip and stolen the dork’s girlfriend.
I went to the jail over in Miami and announced my business. The sergeant looked over his sheet, said, “Don’t know anything about any cowboy named Lash but we picked up a drunken carnie called Alfred LaRue.”
Into the dayroom, the cop led a medium sized guy with thick eyebrows who needed a shave and was dressed in baggy khakis and Hawaiian shirt. Lash looked around warily. The cop pointed to me and Lash came over, sizing me up; he seemed to be considering the angles and his escape route.
I told him I didn’t want anything but that I dug him as a kid and just happened to be in town, etc. He seemed to warm to the part about watching his movies. I said something about there probably having been a lot of people coming by from television and the papers but he shook his head, said there hadn’t been a soul. When I mentioned having worked in the carnivals myself, he told me to sit down and take a load off.
I bought the coffee and he started talking. It wasn’t normal conversation, it was a torrent of words (from him) that didn’t stick to the main channel but leaped the banks and knocked down young trees and the neighbour’s fence and headed for the highway. Me, I was just there to direct the flow when I thought it was safe. But his brook didn’t bubble. His speech might best be described as jivetalk with biblical, scatalogical and criminal content.
Lash had spent a lifetime on the hustle, had probably devoted more years to the carnival than to motion pictures. “You know, I started out in gangster pictures? I was always cast as the bad guy.”
“Gee,” I said. “I wonder why.”
Lash was the kind of guy who when he paid for something in a store, the clerk at the register held the bill up to the light.
He’d done so well in those early films that he was sent to audition for a part in Red River. “I could have had it too but there were certain acts that I wouldn’t perform. And that’s why Montgomery Clift got to be a big star and not me.”
Then he started talking about Maureen O’Hara in salacious detail which reminded him of one of his wives, who was a trick rider, “in more ways than one, son”.
Other wives were brought to mind and Lash referred to them absent-mindedly like they were car keys he had misplaced. At one point, he asked me about my mother. “She must be about my age, right?”
When I told him it was probably true, he wanted to know if I had a picture of her. Coincidentally, I had just been to General Delivery at the post office and found a letter from my mother with a photo enclosed of her and my cousin, at his wedding. I showed it to Lash, who said, “Hmm, nice looking woman. She get along with your father?”
During all this talk, he would quote the bible, and a particular passage might remind him of a pinhead or a half-and-half from one carnival or another.
After the cowboy movie craze and a shortlived television series that consisted of spliced together sequences from his old movies, Lash started working state and country fairs with his whip act. A significant amount of his time was spent avoiding women with whom he had been involved. As the years passed, he was performing the act in carnival sideshows and was eventually reduced to working at the lowliest of carnival jobs, setting up and tearing down tents, and operating rides. During these years, the late Fifties and early Sixties, the bottle had proven a steadier companion than any female.
He was arrested while stumbling down a street, hollering, “Kill me, kill me. Put me out of my misery.”
He talked and I mostly listened for three hours, and Lash would have kept at it and I would have gladly been his audience for three more, except a beautiful woman, a kooch dancer from the carnival, showed up to go his bail.
I never saw him again but was happy to learn that Lash moderated his drinking and got back on the hustle. He even made more movies and earned some money on a circuit of festivals devoted to western movie cowboys. His comeback film was called Hard On the Trail. Lash got a week’s work riding around in black, jumping off and on horses, cracking his whip, and bursting through cabin and hotel room doors. Whether unbeknownst to Lash or not, this turned out to be a porno flick. There was another Lash involved for the sex stuff.
He appeared in a remake of Stagecoach with Johhny Cash who admitted he had gotten the ‘man in black’ moniker from his early hero Lash LaRue.
My mother, whose picture Lash had admired, died on May 21, 1996. While talking to my father the next day, he said, “You’re old pal Lash LaRue died the same day as your mother.”
I looked up his obituary. The reporter called a woman thought to be Lash LaRue’s wife. “Oh, we were married, all right,” she said. “But he had ten other wives, maybe more.”