Tombstone Cocktail

2 oz Rittenhouse Rye
1 tsp Rich Simple Syrup
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass
Shake well with cracked ice and strain into a coupe
Garnish with a lemon twist

* * *

Is there anything more American than the cowboy?  As young boys, we assumed the personas of idealized gunslingers – The Lone Ranger, Marshal Dillon, The Man with No Name – and stomped across the neighborhood fields, extended index fingers and cocked thumbs replacing six-shooters.  Even the girls got Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane.  Together, we tamed the frontier of our suburban landscape, defending a romanticized American ideal which had preceded us by many generations and which, in truth, may never have existed at all.

As an adult, I live in the cowboy suburbs of Los Angeles.  The ghost town of Mentryville, where some say oil was first struck in the state, lies but a brisk walk away.  William S. Hart’s mansion, replete with a small herd of bison, is a short distance in the opposite direction, and Melody Ranch Studio, which has provided the backdrop for every tough hombre from Gary Cooper and John Wayne to the Machiavellian folk of Deadwood, rests just over the railroad tracks.  Since 1915, Melody Ranch, once owned by Gene Autry, has been dressed as every great western town real or imagined, and because it sits at the edge of Hollywood’s “30-mile zone”, I guess you could say that my neighborhood, in a way, represents the physical border of the cowboy mythos.

This mythos has now passed from father to child.  Just recently, my toddler son proudly acquired his first pair of cowboy boots and matching 1950s-esque red-and-white hat.  He earned these by putting in the good works that can be expected of a two-year-old:  going to bed without argument, picking up after himself when requested, and taking steps towards potty training.  For each successful accomplishment, he earns a sticker, and after twenty-five stickers, he can cash in his diligence for a reward.  “Black boots like Papa,” was the most recent request.  And so, over the last few weekends and long evenings, when the sun still hovers above the horizon well past his bedtime, I’ve found myself exploring the romance of the West once again.  But, when filtering this symbolism to a child, I inevitably pause, having to deconstruct and re-examine my relationship with wranglers, gunslingers, and desperadoes.

Of course, deconstructing the romance of the cowboy is nothing new.  From John Ford onward, storytellers have sought to teach us that the men who bravely stood in the OK Corral, and those like them, were no less human than you or I.  Whether it’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s Ransom Stoddard living with a reputation built upon a lie or Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men asking its characters – and us – “How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?” the ponderous, melancholy West has replaced the archetypal white hat versus black hat of old.  Along with McCarthy, one of the leading voices of this perspective is Larry McMurtry.

In his early works, particularly Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show, McMurtry draws a picture of the vanishing West of yore.  In Horseman (made into the strikingly beautiful film Hud), the world of the noble rancher of the old school, Homer Bannon, slowly slips away to the modern contrivances of his stepson, Hud.  Horses are replaced by convertibles, the majestic silence of the plains is pierced by howling transistor radios, and respect for the land succumbs to contempt for it.  In The Last Picture Show, the world of Thalia, Texas is further encroached upon by the specter of the Korean War.  Not even on the quiet plains of northern Texas is a man truly his own anymore, it would seem.

McMurtry paints his backdrops with a majestic, allegorical brush, as seen in the prologue of Horseman, Pass By:

When I rode out with him on Saturdays, Granddad would sometimes get down from his horse, to show me how the grass was shooting out its runners over the droughty ground; and he told me that nature would always work her own cures, if people would be patient enough, and give her time.

But McMurtry’s landscape is populated by imperfect people, and many of his central conflicts derive from this unsolvable tension.  It comes as no surprise that Horseman – along with McCarthy’s No Country – takes its title from W. B. Yeats, a man himself caught between traditionalist ideals and ever-encroaching modernism.  But as much as McMurtry may have alluded to Yeats, a far stronger influence on his work were the Beat writers of the day, in particular Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

AFOOT and light-hearted, I take to the open road, 
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune; 
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,

Strong and content, I travel the open road.

Cowboy poetry or Beat poetry?  Actually, it’s neither – yet, in a sense, both.  The lines belong to Walt Whitman, a seminal influence on both the cowboys and the Beats.  Literary critics have found it almost impossible to dissect Allen Ginsberg’s epic work Howl without comparing it to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  In the lines above, taken from the Leaves poem Song of the Open Road, Whitman clearly establishes two themes that anchor both the Western and Beat genres – the majestic landscape and the individual.  Kerouac’s Beat classic On the Road, a modern cowboy tale if ever there was one, is certainly bound by them:

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was — I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds.”

In Ginsberg’s work and life, I also find a love of the cowboy – quite literally.  Kerouac and Neal Cassady, with whom Ginsberg had an affair, were the core of On the Road, and both men were ruggedly handsome charmers, if only on the surface.  For Ginsberg, ultimately a shameless romantic like Whitman before him, I think Kerouac and Cassady represented Marlboro men ideals – talent, looks, and an unfettered sensibility.  They wandered the West like a counter-culture Butch and Sundance, who were, in their own day, a far cry from the norm.   Consider, for a moment, the final lines of Ginsberg’s Howl:

in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night

As with Kerouac and Whitman above, this is unabashed, mythic sentimentality, placing the Beats – some of them, at least – as much in the camp of McMurtry as it does McMurtry in theirs.  It should come as no surprise that McMurtry notes Kerouac as one of his greatest influences (On the Road and Horseman, Pass By were published just four years apart), nor that while at North Texas State College, McMurtry contributed a study of the Beats to the school magazine, Avesta.   As luck would have it, in 1960, McMurtry was on his way out west to Stanford University, having won a fellowship to study under Wallace Stegner.

By this time, Ginsberg had made something of a name for himself due to the 1957 obscenity trial over the publication of Howl.  Of course, like Whitman before him, Ginsberg was just freely expressing his naked homosexuality and the sexual act in general, which didn’t sit well with many in a country where the shadow of McCarthyism still loomed.  Fortunately, the Howl case was decided in favor of Ginsberg’s publisher, and a new era of expression began to emerge.  Even so, in 1961, Lenny Bruce was still arrested for uttering obscenities in his act at a San Francisco Beat club.  Whether it was by choice or happenstance, McMurtry saw little of the Beat culture while living in the Bay Area.  But he did form a lasting friendship with fellow classmate and future Beat/Hippie star Ken Kesey.

Whether it was time on the West Coast or just a fondness for Kerouac, Ginsberg, and friends, McMurtry would go on to embrace Beat aesthetics in his early work, particularly in Horseman, Pass By.   Horseman’s Hud Bannon would actually be more at home on the road with Kerouac and Cassasdy then trapped within the confines of small town Texas.  McMurtry offers this further insight:

“I grew up just at the same time when rural and soil traditions in Texas were really, for the first time, being seriously challenged by urban traditions… Out of this challenge comes the kind of conflicts that are perfect for a novelist to deal with… The conflict of the generations is an eternal theme that novelist after novelist—poets—have always dealt with.  But when the conflict of the generations, which is natural, can be joined with such a structural and stylistic difference as exists in Texas between the country life and the city life as it developed in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, then you have something very rich, something that is often very painful to the people that are in the process of making the transition from one way of life to the other…”

So, perhaps it’s just that the Beat style provided the greatest possible conflict for McMurtry – a vision of a world to come which would tear down the very fabric of the old Texas ways.  More than stylistically, however, McMurtry embraced the shocking levels of sexuality depicted by Ginsberg and Kerouac.  His young cowboys and ladies aren’t John Ford caricatures – no, they’re drinking and screwing everything in sight, including the livestock.  I think it’s this level of sexual frankness that ultimately brought McMurtry to co-adapt Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain, into a film.  When co-screenwriter Diana Ossana gave McMurtry Proulx’s story to read, he exclaimed that “Only twice in my life have I read something that I wish I’d written.”

Over the years, McMurtry and Allen Ginsberg would go on to meet as members of PEN, a global writers’ group advocating free speech.  McMurtry, who saw a lot of Ginsberg in those years, has said that he liked the man a great deal.   When I watched the film adaptation of Brokeback, set during the Beat heyday, I couldn’t help but see Ginsberg in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist and Kerouac/Cassady in Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar – at least in what I interpret as Ginsberg’s fantasy cowboy version of his friends.  Perhaps adapting Proulx’s work allowed McMurtry to complete his exploration of Beat ideals – of brazen honesty and open sexuality – and to envelop them in the comforting, healing landscape of big skies and endless optimism.

I won’t take the time today to try and explain the manipulated fit between the drink and the story, as I don’t think it’s merited here.  Suffice it to say that the Tombstone, David Wondrich’s contribution to his own Imbibe!, is a beautiful re-imagining of the classic cocktail – one which is both traditional and wholly modern.  It’s a place where we all find ourselves some days, yearning for the clarity of the past while acknowledging that our duty is to nurture our children and their ever-churning future.  Ultimately, we must accept the change, even if it makes us howl.

Happy Birthday to both Larry McMurtry and Allen Ginsberg, both born today, June 3rd.


2 responses to “Tombstone Cocktail

  1. I must say… one of my favorites, David. Jim Arness must be smiling somewhere… although he may not have approved of the brilliant skip to beats and Brokeback. The loner is such an American idea… all that space to be away from THEM to be able to do what you will~~!

    • Thanks, Deana. I wanted to try something different on this one. It’s a much bigger argument than a simple blog post can contain, and a good deal of what I wrote got edited out. I found the McMurtry-Beat connection fascinating, though, and it really clarified a lot of his early work for me.

      The Ponderosa theme park was a familiar site to me growing up in northern California — it was on the was the way to Lake Tahoe from my hometown of Sacramento. Can’t say that Bonanza was my favorite Western though.

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