Essay: Two Fingers and a Thumb, by Dan Bessie

by Rebeca on June 4, 2009


With just those three digits my Pop (we never called him Dad, Father, or Alvah), pecked out, during his 65 year writing life, six novels, three book length works of non-fiction, several translations from the French, dozens of shorts stories, perhaps a dozen screenplays, hundreds of articles, poems, theater pieces, speeches (to be delivered by himself and others), and countless book, theater and film reviews, flyers, leaflets, essays and newspaper copy. And he edited two anthologies. In a career that began during high school with indignant letters to the New York Times, blasting hunters who callously shot American eagles, to an affectionate piece on his pet Iguana Jaime (written a few years before his ancient typewriter was stilled), Pop’s literary output dealt almost exclusively, as does that of many writers, with what he knew, or what intimately concerned him.

He had initially hoped for a career dealing with reptiles and amphibians. But when a departmental head at New York’s Museum of Natural History let him know- after he’d spent weeks misclassifying 7,826 specimens of Hyla crucifer (the spring peeper), that “You don’t a scientific mind, Alvah,” he gave it up. And went on to author, among so much other writing:

A first book, of which writer and editor Whit Burnett (who he met in Paris in 1928) said, “That was a novel. Full of humor and young love which became, we think, slightly contaminated due to the indiscretions of the young protagonist’s merry old aunt.” Pop never did tell me what caused him to finally burn the manuscript instead of submitting it to a publisher. Was it because he passed out from the immense “glass washtub” of Spatenbrau he downed at the CafĂ© Balzar one evening? Or perhaps he decided that since he himself was the young protagonist, and his cousin’s mother, Ella, the model for the merry old aunt, he’d be revealing too many purple family secrets?

Dwell in the Wilderness: his first published novel (and best in my view), tracing the life of a Michigan family from 1876 to 1925, was culled from my mother’s memories during a long Vermont winter that she and Pop spent “gracefully starving to death” (as he once put it), and closely details my mother’s early life and those of her parents and brothers. (Some in her family were not too happy with the portrait.)

Men in Battle / Alvah Bessie’s Spanish Civil War Notebooks (the latter published posthumously, and on which Men in Battle is based), detail his 1938 experience, along with other American and international volunteers, opposing Franco’s revolt against the Spanish Republic. Gritty and honest, the memoir and notebooks reveal his hope to return alive, and his eagerness to shed himself of a privileged early life by submerging himself in a body of ordinary men championing a cause. Hemingway, who Pop (as both a foot soldier and as a front line reporter) met in Spain, called Men in Battle “A true, honest book … Bessie writes finely of all that he could see of it and he saw enough for one man.”

Bread and a Stone: once again drawing on my mother’s life, this time Pop, who appears in the novel as brother-in-law Bill Hogan, recounts a Pennsylvania case in which Mom’s new husband (she and my father had been divorced for three years) is tried for a murder committed during a muddled armed robbery, carried out in an effort to keep our family’s head above water during the last days of the Great Depression.

Objective Burma: an original story for Warner Brothers, for which Pop received an Oscar nomination, the film finds Errol Flynn leading a troop of American soldiers on a search and destroy mission against a Japanese radar facility. The character of a middle-aged journalist clearly represents Pop. (Shown in London, the audience pelted the screen with rotten vegetables, because it was well known that Allied activity in Burma was strictly a British operation.)

The Heart of Spain: an anthology of writing about the Spanish Civil War. This fine collection, edited by my father, and introduced by Dorothy Parker, includes work by such writers as Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, Martha Gellhorn, Frederico Garcia Lorca and Lillian Hellman – as well as by many veterans of the war, including Pop. Significantly, Hemingway isn’t included; because at that point the American vets who had volunteered for Spain felt that his For Whom the Bell Tolls was a dishonest view of the war.

The UnAmericans: drawn from his experience in Spain and that during the witch-hunt period, this somewhat didactic work (as I consider it retrospectively) melds several former Communist Party comrades (among them, CBS correspondent Winston Burdett), with non-communist individuals Pop knew (such as journalist Vincent Sheean) into the fictionalized informer Frances Xavier Lang. Ben Blau, the novel’s protagonist, combines several veterans my father knew (principally Joe Hecht and Aaron Lopoff) with aspects of his own personality.

Inquisition in Eden: a straightforward, often amusing, sometimes revealing and always colorful account of Pop’s two year internment as a screenwriter at “Warners concentration camp,” followed by his ten-month incarceration at the Federal Correctional Institute in Texarkana, Texas, for Contempt of Congress, following his appearance before the House Committee on UnAmerican activities.

The Symbol: though not terribly successful at marriage, Pop often had an uncanny knack of getting into the minds of women for whom he had great sympathy. In this case Marilyn Monroe is the thinly disguised subject, in the person of movie star Wanda Oliver. Trashed by several reviewers, writer and journalist Martha Gellhorn nevertheless felt that “Bessie has accomplished a superb feat of the imagination by inventing a woman who is not a man-made puppet; she is a breathing female, alive on her own. That is a magical achievement and cannot be explained. It has happened.”

One for my Baby: the Night Box stands in for San Francisco’s legendary hungry i. Headlining comedian Dr. Sour is a composite of the hungry i’ mainstay, “Professor” Irwin Corey – along with Aaron Sussman, an aesthetic young man Pop had known as a youth. Jose “Pepe” Gonzales, the proprietor, is loosely modeled on hungry i owner Enrico Banducci. And the character of Dan Noble, a blacklisted actor who announces the acts, is Pop himself. (He later wrote an excellent screenplay based on the novel. It has never been filmed.)

Alvah Bessie’s Short Fictions / The Serpent Was More Subtil (that’s the Biblical spelling), comes full circle, combining my father’s youthful and often hysterical misadventures as an aspiring herpetologist, with several of his early short stories. Fictionalizing himself as Julian Leonard, the thinly disguised Serpent memoir also reveals a great deal about life in the Bessie family, including Pop’s dislike (that’s too mild a word) of his stuffy and conservative father.

With the exception of a few comments herein, I don’t feel it’s my job to analyze Pop, my relationship with him, or his writing. But I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed his work, and found him to be an unusually skilled and often perceptive writer. (And once in a while a less than adequate one.)

In spite of our occasional differences, the angst that crops up now and then between fathers and sons (or mothers and daughters), I’m enormously proud of the part he played in the drama of our times; of his standing shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish people in their fight against fascism, and for the courageous and self-sacrificing position he took against our own native reactionaries. Not too many sons can say that. It pleases me that I can.

And that the vast majority of his creative life was accomplished with just two fingers and a thumb is something I find quite astonishing.

dan-and-jeanne1About Dan Bessie
Dan Bessie began his film career in 1956, with MGM’s animation department. Later staff and freelance assignments saw him contributing to TV cartoon series such as Spiderman, Lineus the Lionhearted, and Mr. McGoo, Moving on to educational films, he wrote, produced and, or, directed more than 125 titles, including several award winners. In 1973 he co-produced Executive Action (Burt Lancaster), a dramatic feature dealing with the assassination of JFK. From 1979 until 1995 he was a partner in Shire Films of Santa Cruz, California, writing and directing the feature Hard Traveling (New World Pictures, 1986), and Turnabout: the Story of the Yale Puppeteers (PBS,1993)., along with Peter and the Wolf, The Ugly Duckling and Beware the Jabberwock (all starring Ray Bolger), which appeared on CBS, HBO, Showtime and the Disney Channel. Author of the family memoir Rare Birds (University Press of Kentucky, 2000) and Reeling Through Hollywood (Blue Lupin Press, 2006), detailing his 40 years in film, Dan also critiques and consults on screenplays and novels, and takes freelance assignments as a writer and cartoonist. With his wife Jeanne Johnson, also a writer, he lives in southwestern France.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jason W Smith, Ph.D. May 14, 2011 at 10:10 pm

I was looking for Dan Bessie. The purpose being to find someone who would like to make a movie about my adventures in South America. I set up a website to promote this at
Jason W. Smith
310 266-9380

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