The Fickle Feather of Fame - Umberto Tosi
|Sacheen Littlefeather, 1973|
My greatest Walter Mitty moment, in a lifetime of them, came when I held Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar for Best Picture in my hand and pictured waving it over my head to a cheering audience - probably longer than I should have. "It's heavier than I imagined," I told Coppola.
He grinned indulgently at me as I put the famed statuette back in its place among others on a fireplace mantle. "Solid gold," he said.
At the time, I worked for Coppola as senior editor on City of San Francisco, a weekly arts-and-politics tabloid. Coppola often hosted staff parties at the splendid Victorian mansion he owned atop Presidio Heights in the city overlooking the Bay and Alcatraz Island. This was well before he relocated to his Coppola Family Winger estate in Geyserville, Napa Valley north of the city. It was 1975, and the redoubtable Francis was at the apex of his wealth and fame having pulled off a Godfather films Trifecta of artistic and commercial showbiz success.
I've probably been more Zelig than Mitty through most of my life, a nobody fading into grandstands where I found myself among the glittering world of the rich, famous and powerful, as fleetingly as a neutrino with no atomic mass or pull.
A familiar fantasy of my youth, spawned by Hollywood biopics, is that of the struggling writer who breaks through to fame and fortune. It happens, but seldom, and proves to be thin gruel for the creative soul.
My job with City ended when Coppola began bleeding money filming his big-screen, Vietnam-Conrad epic Apocalpyse Now and divested all of his nonessential projects. I turned to working through a string of ghost writing jobs of varying success at the time.
Only a few of the projects bore my secondary byline - including the most successful one, the cold war spy saga, High Treason, Revelations of a Double Agent, by Vladimir Sakharov, about which I wrote in my March, 2017 AE post here..
I had only disdain for "famous" ghost writers -- more gossip columnists than writers in my mind. Anonymity was my ideal as one -- other than achieving some necessary professional standing in book publishing circles. The art called for the writer to be transparent and invisible, allowing the truest possible image and voice of one's subject to emerge on paper.
During that time I met Sacheen Littlefeather. I forget the circumstances other than that it was through a former colleague at the Coppola organization. She hired me to ghost a memoir that had drawn interest from an agent and a New York publisher. It drew my interest as well, as she had a lot of compelling material.
|Littlefeather 71, back in the Bay Area |
Probably the least compelling -- in my view -- was the incident that had made her semi-famous to millions around the world. Littlefeather is remembered as the young Native American woman who came forth at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973 to refuse an Oscar for Best Actor on behalf Marlon Brando for his role as Don Corleone in The Godfather (It was the year Coppola won that best picture award for the same film.)
She explained in a brief, rather mildly worded statement from our 21st century perspective, that Brando rejected the Oscar in protest of Hollywood's long, sorry history of stereotyping and denigrating indigenous people. The audience greeted her statement with jeers and boos along with applause. It was during the time of the 73-day-long occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota by native American activist. Littlefeather's famous gesture is credited with renewing interest in the then-stalemated occupation in which two lost their lives in clashes between federal troops and protestors.
Littlefeather grew up as an urban kid of mixed Apache, Yaqui-Pueblo and Caucasian descent. Like many indigenous-blooded children, she was segregated from her native heritage and reared as Maria Cruz in the San Francisco Bay area by white foster parents. She attributes the flowering of her Indian consciousness to the famous, 1969 occupation of San Francisco Bay`s Alcatraz Island by native America activists.
|Coppola at his Napa vineyard today,|
That seems corroborated by what I observed as the would be ghost-writer of her memoir. I spent many months interviewing, shadowing and drafting with Sacheen, helping her develop what we felt was a credible, moving manuscript. It was about her growing up and coming into her heritage. As such it reflected the experiences of millions of Native American growing up in white America. As she directed, we included little about Marlon Brando, the Oscars, celebrity, television and movie industry gossip. Those had not been important in her life, and would have taken away from the insights and revelations provided by her experiences.
Our would be publishers didn't see it that way, however, as we encountered stiff winds of resistance from New York. They persisted in pressing us to create one more sensational showbiz celebrity book, it seemed to me. Time wore on as we batted the submission back and forth, struggling to keep its integrity while hopefully offering the editors tid-bits of what they wanted, to little avail.
|Brando, Il Padrino, 1972|
Looking back, memoir or no memoir, Littlefeather has accomplished as much or more for native Americans and the greater good than if she had never set foot on that Oscar stage in 1973. Although said to be battling stage four cancer, she continues her long history as an esteemed member of the Native American Community. She was known for leading prayer circles for Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Catholic saint. She worked with Mother Teresa helping AIDS patients in hospice care during the 1980s and founded the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco. She has campaigned against obesity, alcoholism, and diabetes among the indigenous population, to name a few of her accomplishments over the years.
She had met Brando casually during a period when they both lived nearby each other in 1970s San Francisco. Arguably, she might have been better off if she never performed that bit of Oscar theatre on his -- and native Americans' -- behalf. It was an intoxicating moment, during a period when millions more people watched the Oscars on national network TV -- and held them much more important that we do today. The impact was pronounced, if debatable. The long term lesson is that one does not have be a "success" in conventional terms to be successful in life -- certainly not necessarily famous.
Umberto Tosi's books include Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published widely, most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction has been published widely in print and online. He began his career as a journalist for Los Angeles Times and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West, and as editor of San Francisco Magazine. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago.
"Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Portable Veblen.
"... reminds me of Chandler's The Little Sister, and The Big Sleep of course." - Actor playwright Gary Houston.