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Robert Redford: The Biography [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Michael Feeney Callan
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews


“Revealing . . . An unusually well-written movie-star biography . . . What emerges is a comprehensive portrait of a man beset by colliding tides of ambition and hesitation . . . Robert Redford is as fascinating . . . as its subject.”
            -Scott Eyman, The Wall Street Journal
“Relentless and first-rate . . . A layered portrait of one of the most famous—and elusive—faces in pop culture.”
            -Chris Foran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Bracing . . . A fascinating study . . . of fame and our uneasy relationship with it.”
            -Maureen Callahan, New York Post
“Deeply researched . . . Give Callan credit for letting in dissident voices and for allowing Redford’s less Galahadian qualities to shine forth: the opportunism and narcissicism, the scattershot management style, the absentee fathering. Best of all, Callan’s book begins and ends exactly where it should: with that quadrant of Utah soil christened by its owner ‘Sundance.’”
            -Louis Bayard, The Washington Post
“Genuinely insightful . . . Michael Feeney Callan remains keenly aware of his subject’s larger-than-lifeness, even as he tries to chip away to reveal the person underneath.”
            -Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly
“Carefully crafted . . . Callan is clearly on his game when it comes to dissecting Redford’s film career.”
            -Daniel Bubbeo, Newsday
“A candid, accessible portrait that makes for perfect summer reading . . . Callan’s meticulous research and obvious respect for the actor are evident in this crisply written book.”
            -Larry Cox, King Features
“Revealing . . . Intriguing . . . An all-American beautiful jock with a brutal iron will and the soul of a visionary tyrant, Redford, under Callan’s gaze, emerges as a sui generis American figure. A gripping, intimate treatment of one of cinema’s last great iconic stars.”
“Comprehensive . . . Callan reveals the complex man beneath the Hollywood persona. Absorbing and remarkably well documented; readers will enjoy losing themselves in this long-awaited biography.”

About the Author

Michael Feeney Callan is the author of a collection of short stories, for which he won the Hennessy Literary Award, two novels, and several plays, as well as biographies of Anthony Hopkins, Richard Harris, Julie Christie, and Sean Connery. He has worked for the BBC, Ireland’s Ardmore Studios, and PBS as a writer, producer, and director of television dramas and documentaries. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Robert Redford’s early life was dominated by women. They were not the women of New England, but women of the West. His mother, Martha Hart Redford, was, he says, the center of his universe. She taught him to drive when he was eight, taught him to draw, to role-play in games. She connected him with the past, introducing him to Native Americans on Navajo reservations in Arizona and to Yosemite. These conjunctions came naturally to her, because she was the stuff of the West, descended from Texans who were, in spirit, the polar opposite of the Redfords. A century before, the Harts and Greens of the maternal family line lived a frontier life along the Mississippi Valley, religiously random, indulgent, drifting. The Harts were Galway-Irish, the Greens Scots-Irish, and both families came to America through the southern colonies in the mid-eighteenth century. The Harts followed the frontier to Missouri; the Greens followed the money to Boston. While the Harts drifted, the Greens built one of the first large-scale printing presses in Boston in 1790. When a similarly ambitious undertaking in Arkansas failed, George Green set out with his family by wagon train in 1853 to settle lands near Austin, Texas. Along with three partners, he founded a new town called San Marcos. In no time George, a slave owner, had established mining interests and a loan company. His son, Edwin Jeremiah, known to all as Ed, was twelve when they set up in Texas. By the age of twenty he had expanded the family’s businesses into every variety of service provision for miners across the region. He also built Green’s Anglican Church next door to the family bank. During his service in the Confederate army, young Ed’s wife died and he married her sister, Eliza Jane, who bore him six children, including Eugene, Robert Redford’s maternal great-grandfather. As San Marcos’s fortunes grew during Reconstruction, Ed became a legendary figure, a titan of the local business world. Among his social circle was another celebrated ex–Confederate officer, Zachariah P. Bugg, the sheriff of a Tennessee township. Zach’s daughter Mattie married Eugene in 1891. Out of this union came Sallie Pate Green, Robert Redford’s grandmother.

Sallie Pate’s childhood was one of privilege and tragedy. Eugene Green followed his father into mining and banking, but died suddenly at twenty, when his daughter was just months old. Shortly after, his teenage widow, Mattie, died of typhoid. Ed became de facto father to Sallie and rechristened her Mattie, in memory of her mother. She was the apple of his eye. In 1896, when Sallie was three, Ed’s wife passed away. Shortly afterward he married Alice Young Bohan, a recently widowed sister of his former wives. Alice was affectionate but not maternal, and Ed was sixty-five; it was Sallie’s good fortune that the black wet nurse, Nicey, a Green household fixture since her own childhood, became an affectionate substitute mother. 

In 1909, as Sallie turned sixteen, America’s fascination with the new automotive culture, started ten years before by Henry Ford, was peaking. That fall, Sallie attended a county fair advertising a race for custom roadsters, one of dozens held across the country. The race was won by the Bluebird, the handiwork of a shoe salesman turned inventor/mechanic, recently arrived from El Paso, named Tot Hart. Having won the attention of Sallie and the rest of the Green family, he was invited by them 
to dinner. 

Archibald “Tot” Hart was, like the Greens, of a western cut. His father, John Gabriel, was a traveling salesman from Spotsylvania, Virginia, who married an Ohioan, Ida Woodruff, in Missouri in 1885. In 1897, when Tot was eight, his father succumbed to cirrhosis, dying at the side of the road, and two years later his mother lay on her deathbed, urging her sons to pledges of temperance. Foster homes were found for Tot and his brother. Tot was small, but he had the energy of a terrier and liked the notion of risk. As with his father before him, the frontier beckoned. He headed south with nothing but the clothes he walked in, he later told Redford. 

In the years that followed, Tot learned the survival skills he would ultimately pass on to Robert Redford. “He was a modern mountain man,” Redford recalls. “He was a child when he hit the road, but it was do or die. He took work wherever he could find it, and learned to live off the land, hunting small game and harvesting berries. He loved the outdoors, but he also possessed a great gift with mechanical devices. Because he had to, he learned to build. He could build anything: furniture, boats, guns, even automobiles from scratch. He followed fifty trades, whatever paid for a crust of bread.”

Tot fell for Sallie. It was the unlikeliest of marriages. Tot was dwarfish beside the mannequin figure of Sallie. His coloring was mousy and weatherbeaten; hers, a pampered tan.He had no education; she had good schooling behindher. Hewasquiet; she was talkative, vain, sociable.But their common bond was ambition. Surviving on the edge, Tot had become foxy and tenacious.
Years of traveling and scheming had honed his ambition: to build houses and cities on the edge of the frontier. The Greens and their connections afforded him a supreme opportunity. Sallie understood this. Rooted in Texas after their 1913 marriage,Tot began to build. With Ed’s help, Tot constructed a Prairie-style home on the shores of Lake Austin at Travis Heights that became the blueprint for a community of homes by the lake built over the next ten years.

On April 12, 1914, Sallie gave birth to their only child, Martha, and their fortunes seemed secure. But almost immediately, through bad partnerships and failing health, Ed Green’s empire began to slide. The properties Tot labored over failed to sell. Sallie began to drink. By the 1920s she was all but incapacitated as an alcoholic, and Tot was seeking comfort in the company of other women. Ed Green’s death in 1924 devastated Sallie, but it was nothing compared with the humiliation of Tot’s relationship with Mary P. Robinson, a well-heeled neighbor who flaunted their affair.

In the midst of her alcoholic despair Sallie experienced a religious conversion. “The doctor said, ‘That’s it, there’s nothing anyone can do for her,’ ” Redford recalls his mother telling him. “Then, at the last minute, someone recommended this Christian Science woman doctor down the street who could work miracles. This woman was summoned, and gave Sallie the literature that changed her world. It was like a light switch. Sallie got out of bed, stopped drinking and swore never to touch liquor again, and she never did.”

After six months’ separation,Tot and Salliewere divorced in June 1928. In search of a newbeginning, Sallie daringly decided on the faraway pastures of California, where some cousins lived. Armed with telephone numbers and a few hundred dollars from the settlement, Sallie and thirteen-year-old Martha headed west.

The Redfords, meanwhile, had also begun the move west. Ten years before, Elisha’s granddaughter Grace, disenchanted with the increasingly anarchist movement headed by her hero Emma Goldman, landed a teaching post in Los Angeles, leaving her sister teaching in the dull confines of a ramshackle school in the heart of the most impoverished area. Elisha was dead by then, but the fabric of security he had sought to weave was rapidly coming undone. Charles had become a deadbeat, preferring his music, or a day at the bar, to barbering. Eventually he would become an insurance salesman. Charles Elijah had drifted into vaudeville. Redford remembers Charles Elijah as “Tiger,” a wry moniker derived from his sandy complexion and grumbling persona. They grew close late in Tiger’s life, and Redford viewed the old man as a stubborn introvert whose emotions never surfaced. For Tiger, Redford believes, vaudeville was not an indulgence, but an escape to a rosier life. Business and industry had variables, but given its scope, vaudeville seemed a sure thing. All across the East, theaters were flourishing. Composers, lyricists and music publishers were rolling in dough. Tin Pan Alley was a boomtown, and the talent-packaging houses of William Morris, Klaw and Erlanger and Keith-Albee could hardly keep pace with audience demand. Tiger’s violin skills were such that a wealthy Westerly patron had offered him sponsorship for the Conservatoire in Vienna, but vaudeville seemed to him like the better bet. “I have a picture in my head,” says Redford, “of the terrible drabness of life for immigrants from Europe, the financial struggles, the political and religious tensions. And then vaudeville comes to town in the painted tent. Suddenly there are people with greasepaint faces and funny hats. Suddenly there is laughter! I have an image of Tiger on his knees, lifting the edge of some circus tarpaulin, peeping into a happier world. No more struggle. No more stress. Freedom!” Tiger easily found a place in the orchestral pits of the B. F. Keith circuit, where he earned $7.50 a week in 1910, the year the Marx Brothers, then billed as theMarks Brothers, set forth on the same circuit.

In 1911 Tiger married Cornish-born textile worker Lena Taylor, whose grandmother came from Kircubbin, County Down, in Ireland. She was six feet tall, a good eight inches more than Tiger, and had a loud Irish manner and a booming voice. But she was no match for Tiger’s stubbornness. The newlyweds settled into a rented wooden home in the Irish-Italian section of neighboring Westerly, across the Pawcatuck River. On November 19, 1914, a son, once again named Charles, was born, followed by David George on March 5, 1918. Now Tiger struggled to keep up. Bigtime success evaded him, and he was an increasingly absent husband and father, chasing the expanding Keith circuit through the Midwest, eking out a few bucks in the pits while a jok...
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