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. 

Coppola, 1970s
"I wish I'd never done the Godfather," he said. "I always wanted to be known as a auteur film director, known for his screen gems, rather than a blockbuster machine," he said, not so convincingly. 

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,
Littlefeather joined the staff of a San Francisco radio station as one of her first jobs as she started building on her dream of an acting career and began getting parts. While the Brando incident brought her instant -- if brief fame -- there was a cost in that it exposed the budding actress to ridicule and resistance fueled by ugly, culture-wars bigotry, much of it unacknowledged in the film industry in deep denial of the obvious. A new documentary, Sacheen: Breaking The Silence  recreates the incident and its aftermath up close. “I was blacklisted – or, you could say, ‘redlisted.’ I was ostracized everywhere I turned," Littlefeather says.. "No one would listen to my story or give me a chance to work.” 

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
Sacheen had other fish to fry, meanwhile, and other challenges with which to deal. Serious health problems had led her into a career medical service, concentrating on the needs of indigenous people. This had begun at age 29 when her lungs had collapsed. Upon her recovery, she earned a degree in health and a minor in Native American medicine. Her health pursuits took her far from California and our memoir project. She spent time in Stockholm, Sweden traveled around Europe studying nutrition and the food of various indigenous  cultures. Later, she taught at St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson, Arizona, and worked with the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Meanwhile she continued her interest in the arts. She co-founded the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry, which later helped several actors join the production of Dances with Wolves.

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.


Watch for Umberto Tosi's latest: Hollywood noir detective thriller: The Phantom Eye (a Frank Ritz Mystery) set for summer release next month as a paperback and an ebook from Light Fantastic Publishing. It's already garnering rave reviews!

 "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.



Griselda Heppel said…
Wow, what stories you have, Umberto. I've never heard of Sacheen Littlefeather, or her extraordinary Oscar moment. Not sure how I can have missed this, considering what a dramatic protest it was, braver and more selfless (on both Littlefeather's and Brando's part) than most political stands that don't cost the protester anything. How unfair that it affected Littlefeather's career but what an amazing person to achieve far more in the longterm.

And you worked for Coppola! I'll now always see you nonchalantly tossing a solid gold Oscar in one hand as you muse on the plot of your next book.

Did your memoir for Littlefeather ever find a publisher? Maybe now its time has come. I can see why you didn't want it to be all about the Oscar moment but boy, is that a great starting point. Especially now, with candidates from diverse backgrounds at last getting recognition in all fields of the competition.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Griselda! Sacheen Littlefeather's moment lasted less than 60 seconds, easy to miss despite the fuss it churned up among defensive Hollywood types. "Who, us, stereotype Indians? Hollywood isn't racist," goes the litany now as well as then, although there have been improvements. We never got a formal offer for the memoir. I had copies (carbon copies in those days) long lost among my boxes of manuscripts and notes that I tried to cart with me over my restless years, moving here and there. Who knows where it all is now, if extant at all? Anyway, many thanks.
Marsha Coupé said…
Lives like yours and Littlefeather are worlds more interesting than the lives of the rich and famous. I much prefer to read about your life and Littlefeather's life than Brando.

Fame and great wealth blunt people. They ultimately become parodies of themselves, while you and Littlefeather have lived big, hungry lives.

Our appetite for real stories, versus hollywood sanctioned stories, is evidenced in Nomadland winning the Oscar this year. While you're right to intimate the Oscar has lost it's place of importance in our lives, Nomadland might well have been a documentary. No glamour. No big story. Just life for millions of us. Bleak, but not joyless.

Looking forward to your new book, Umberto.
Peter Leyland said…
A fascinating story Umberto. I started off thinking, Oh, Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness and all that, but your story became much more about Littlefeather and was the more interesting for that. What lives we all lead and this part of yours is beautifully told here. I have co-incidentally just been reading Thomas Hardy's 'He Never Expected Much'!
Andrew Crofts said…
This is why ghosting is such a great way to spend your life. Meeting the most interesting people on the planet.
Aliciasammons said…
Wise musings on fleeting nature of fame. In the end, what counts is a life well-lived along whatever road you have chosen to travel. And it is the privilege of the writer, to pay tribute to and to document those who have done just that. Once again, you have done this with insight and compassion.
Wendy H. Jones said…
What a fascinating post. I learned so much and spent a pleasant ten minutes taking it all in. Thank you
Umberto Tosi said…
Many thanks for your engaging comments, Wendy, Alicia, Andrew, Peter, Marsha amd Griselda. The Guardian just published this piece about Scheen Littlefeather that also might interest you all.

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