Who was Jim Tully?

In the 1920ies and ‘30ies, Jim Tully was one of America’s best-read and most-admired authors. Today, however, his name is forgotten by contemporary readers, and all of his books are out of print. Together with Dashiell Hammett, Tully was one of the founders of the hard-boiled school of writing in the United States. Tully wrote about hoboes, petty criminals, dope addicts and other society misfits, based on the people he had met and the life he had lived during his own hobo days.

Charles Willeford describes Jim Tully as

a short stocky man, without much neck. His arms and shoulders were powerful, and he was physically strong from driving tent stakes, making chains, fighting, and hanging on to the iron ladders of fast intercontinental freights. His kinky red hair, too thick to be combed, resembled Elsa Lancaster’s electrified hair in the awful movie, Bride of Frankenstein. A cheerful, cynical stoic, he believed in nothing - or so he claimed - and in no one other than himself. Like Jack London, Jack Black, and Josiah Flynt, Tully was a road kid who found a way to get off the road. He learned how to write.

Jim Tully was born near St. Marys, Ohio, June 3, ca. 1886. It is not known when exactly he was born, but it must have been some time between the years of 1886 and 1891. His father, a ditch-digger, and his mother, a country schoolteacher, were of Irish descent.  Both families, the Tully’s and the Lawler’s, immigrated from Ireland to the United States in the 1850ies. They both moved to St. Marys, Ohio, the place where Jim Tully’s parents, James Dennis Tully and Marie Bridget Lawler, finally met. On February 8 1875 his parents married and some 11 years later Jim Tully was born. His mother died at age 35. She had given birth to eight children, six of whom survived infancy. After his mother’s death, Jim and his brothers Tom and Charlie were taken to a Catholic orphanage in Cincinnati, where Jim spent six years of his boyhood. It was there that he started reading books of Charles Dickens, Oliver Goldsmith and others, and he is said to have read to the nuns while they sewed and knitted. After six years, his sister Virginia and brother Hugh took him from the orphanage and he went to work for a farmer called Soloman Boroff, where he stayed for a year and a half. His formal education had stopped when he left the Cincinnati orphanage at the age of eleven. Tully once wrote about his family and himself:

I had none of the illusions of youth. I knew that I would never become president of the United States. I came, on both sides, from drunken barbarians who groveled in superstition and were as illiterate as geese. All the vast realms of knowledge and beauty were closed to me. Nearly all of my mother’s brothers were half mad. Most of my father’s people were witty Irish morons. My mother had moods which lasted for days. . . I inherited her moods and silences along with the wild blood which flowed in two rivers of half insane Irish.

At the age of 11 he ran away from the Boroff farm and worked in various factories. He was about 13 when he took to the road. From 1901 to 1907 he traveled the country as a “road kid” and a hobo, spending time as a carnival worker and learning the chainmaking trade.  He also became a “library bum”,  frequenting libraries in almost every town he stopped at. He read everything and he was possessed by the dream that some day he would become a writer himself. It became one of his habits to steal books from libraries, which he then read on his trips. During these seven years on the road he was twice arrested for vagrancy, sentenced to 38 days the first and 10 days the second time.

Jim Tully at the King's Road House in Los AngelesTully in his studyTully at a Hollywood party

In 1907 he began a professional boxing career as a featherweight in Ohio. In a newspaper print shop, Tully faked some newsclippings that “proved” a record of thirty winning fights without a single loss. Armed with these clippings, he began to fight professionally. Three years later, in 1910, he married the high school student Florence Bushnell in Kent, Ohio, mother of his son Thomas Alton (born in 1911) and his daughter Trilby (born in 1918). The same year be began publishing poetry in local newspapers.

Florence, Tully's first wife and mother of his two children, in 1909Florence, Jim, Trilby and Alton, 1919, Los AngelesMarna, Tully's second wife

In 1912 the Tully family moved to California, where Jim worked as a tree surgeon and continued to take boxing matches. In 1915 he took his last boxing match in San Francisco against Eddie Doran, who knocked him out in the fourth round. Jim remained unconscious Former boxer Jim Tully climbs into the ring with two men who hold the heavyweight championship until the next afternoon and when he awoke he decided to quit the ring forever. A few years later Tully and his family settled permanently in Los Angeles and he soon began working as a Hollywood journalist and columnist, writing articles on Hollywood stars of the day, including John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, to name but a few. Between 1924 and 1944, he contributed literally hundreds of articles on movie stars and directors for magazines and newspapers. Tully was called the most feared man in Hollywood. He was both feared and hated as an interviewer because he was the first writer who dared to be realistic, or even to hint at the real stories behind the publicity lavished on the stars. But he was never turned down because it was prestigious to have an article by Tully published in a national magazine. As a result of a lingering heart ailment Jim Tully died on June 22 1947 in Hollywood.

Mark Dawidziak and Paul Bauer write in their biography of Jim Tully:

In the parlance of the boxing ring, Jim Tully was "a bruiser." His straight-ahead style meant that he would absorb more than a little punishment in order to land his own vicious punches. A relentless warrior from the small western Ohio town of St. Marys, he kept moving forward - often when more cautious men would have retired from the field. Although certainly less skilled than many of his contemporaries, he was always dangerous.

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