Introduction from Larry Len Peterson
Welcome to the first installment of “Remembering Russell’s West.” It’s appropriate that we start with the first issue and feature Brian Dippie, authoring an article “Letters Home” about the correspondence Russell sent his friends back home while he was on the road with his wife Nancy as they chased fame and fortune. At times, she had to drag him out of Great Falls.
Many of you are familiar with Brian Dippie’s unparalleled scholarship on the life and times of Charles M. Russell. However, you may not know that Brian is an expert in the fields of United States cultural-intellectual history, nineteenth century American history, Western American literature and art, and United States Indian policy and racial stereotyping. After receiving a B.A. with honors in history at the University of Alberta, Brian went on to earn a M.A. in American Studies at the University of Wyoming. He eventually was awarded a Ph.D. in American Civilization from the University of Texas, Austin in 1970.
The love affair started early for Brian when he bought his first Russell print in 1949 when he was six years old. He was on a family vacation traveling from his home in Edmonton, Alberta to Great Falls where he made the purchase. He returned on September 4, 1954 and visited the C.M. Russell Gallery—aka the Trigg-Russell Gallery, which had been open for about a year. So began his sixty-five plus year association with the Museum.
After authoring a number of classic history books, Dippie turned his impressive craft in the direction of Russell. The small format “Paper Talk”: Charlie Russell’s American West (1979) provided biographical commentary on a collection of some of Russell’s illustrated letters. When he published the ground breaking book on other artists who influenced Russell’s art, Looking at Russell (1987), he found some “Russell Nuts” were slow to warm to that thesis, but in time he won them over.
Still, the pinnacle of his achievements in Russell’s world was Charles M. Russell, Word Painter: Letters 1887-1926 released in the fall of 1993, a collection of hundreds of illustrated letters published in full color and accompanied with enlightening text. He hand-typed the entire manuscript that ran over 700 pages, but the publisher edited it down by several hundred. Wish that hadn’t happened. I believe it is the most endearing and informative book ever published on Russell’s life. Brian’s day job was a much honored professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada for almost forty years. Can you imagine having Professor Dippie as your teacher? Sign me up. In his spare time he served as president of the Western History Association in 2002-2003. What makes him even more special is that he is truly pleased when others enter his world and is more than eager to share his knowledge and photographic mind.
This article was published before any of us saw what was coming that fall. The Russell world would never be the same. For sure, after you read it you will thirst for more. Don’t worry. This is just the first taste. You haven’t heard the last from Brian “Word Painter” Dippie.
Brian W. Dippie
Russell’s West, Vol 1, No 1
Fame changed the pattern of Charlie Russell ‘s life, taking him away from Great Falls with growing frequency and for longer periods of time. In 1926, he spent three months in Southern California, nearly a month in Rochester, Minnesota, and two months at Lake McDonald before death claimed him on October 24. Nancy’s ambition was the engine that drove it all. She recognized early on that Charlie‘s work could never command a larger audience-or a better price-if he stayed at home. He would have to travel, meet new people, exhibit widely, make contacts in the world of art.
Since arriving in Montana in 1880, Charlie had never been out of touch with his family in St. Louis. He visited often, sometimes for pleasure, other times on the occasion of family deaths-an all too common occurrence in the 1890s. But one visit to St. Louis, in the fall of 1903, developed into something unexpected. Nancy hoped to combine business with pleasure by arranging to have examples of Charlie‘s work displayed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition the next year. The Russells were scheduled to return to Great Falls after spending Christmas in St. Louis. But at the invitation of two established illustrators Charlie had met a few months before, John Marchand and Will Crawford, the Russells turned their faces eastward instead and continued on to New York City. Nothing would ever be the same again. With Nancy pushing hard, Charlie spent January and part of February, 1904, meeting writers, editors, publishers, gallery owners, and a gaggle of commercial artists who spoke his language and earned his lasting friendship.
As things worked out-and they worked out just as Nancy planned them-Charlie’s reputation spread. Scribner‘s featured a portfolio of his paintings in color the next year, and book publishers and magazine editors began using him as an illustrator. He had some of his models cast in bronze. Annual trips to New York altered his comfortable Great Falls routine, and vacations in Florida following his father’s remarriage in 1907 kept him away even longer. A major one-man exhibition at New York’s Folsom Galleries in 1911 led in quick succession to exhibitions at the Calgary Stampede in 1912, the Winnipeg Stampede in 1913, and the Dore Galleries in London in 1914, the Russells‘ only trip abroad. Subsequent shows across the United States and in Canada further broadcast Charlie‘s fame.
Nancy was assiduous in cultivating contacts and attracting publicity. She hired press agents to make certain that stories appeared in the papers to accompany each new opening. Art was a business, she liked to say, and nothing was left to chance. At her bidding, Charlie did his part, granting interviews (often of the “yup” and “nope” variety), charming reporters by his frankness, his Western mannerisms, and his very reluctance to be lionized. Beginning in 1920, the Russells spent several months each spring in California (excepting 1925, when Charlie bowed out). By then they owned a lot in Pasadena, and Nancy was masterminding a permanent move from Great Falls when Charlie died.
All the traveling separated Charlie from his friends at home even as it expanded his acquaintances. He met celebrities and millionaires, and enjoyed hobnobbing with Hollywood stars. But he remained fiercely loyal to old friends and old Montana. He drew a telling distinction in 1917 when he said of John Matheson, the pioneer freighter whose services he immortalized in The Jerkline (1912), “I have maney acquaintances who I shake hands with in pleasant places today but fiew friends lik Johnnie our friendship was the kind that bad wether and wet cold camps make I have fiew of his kind left.” Charlie’s motto was, ”No man is important enough to feel important,” and he lived by it. He drew his friends in Great Falls from across the social spectrum, and he kept in touch with them all, from the barkeeps, cigar store owners, gamblers and other “sporting types” who made up his downtown crowd to the doctors and ministers and businessmen who had Nancy‘s approval.
Few crossed the line, though Albert Trigg was one. An Englishman of Falstaffian proportions and considerable refinement, he had come to Great Falls by way of Canada and Michigan about 1891 and operated the Brunswick Bar for years. His daughter Josephine became Nancy‘s intimate after the Russells settled in Great Falls where, in 1900, they had a home built on the same block as the Triggs. Charlie kept in touch whenever they were out of town. He wrote funnier letters to George (Cut Bank) Browne of The Maverick, Sid Willis of The Mint, and Bill Rance of the famous Silver Dollar. These tavern owners had their letters framed and on display for the amusement of patrons. Charlie’s letters to Albert Trigg were of a different sort. Often long and descriptive, they told of the places Charlie visited, and of his desire to be home. They are rich in sentiment, even pathos, and exude the feelings of loneliness Russell experienced on his travels. He told Trigg of a caged coyote he saw in St. Louis that licked his hand: “I guess I brought the smell of the planes with me I shure felt sorry for him poor deval a life sentence for nothing on earth but looks an general princepales… If he could make hair bridles it would bee a hol lot easier but with nothing to do but think of home its Hell that[s] all.”
Russell also spoke longingly of the old days in his letter to Trigg, for his sense of isolation always related to time as well as place. His world was in the past, and his nostalgia increasingly pronounced. He wrote to friends about the Montana of his youth, before the farmers plowed it grass side under and the “morilests ” reformed what was left beyond recognition . As he commented to Great Falls‘ founder Paris Gibson in 1902, “we still have the gambler but like the cyote civilization has made him an outlaw.” Thus he was delighted a few years later to tell Gibson‘s son Theodore, co-owner of the Park Hotel on Central Avenue and a man familiar with the city‘s backroom and upstairs gambling parlors, that the action was wide–open and main floor on the Flathead Reservation. Prohibition was another modern nuisance. Charlie had long since quit drinking before it became the law, but he argued that the West was not won by men with‘‘ Co Co Cola” on their breath, and he was convinced that the only thing an “honest” Prohibitionist farmer would not take was a drink. He expressed similar sentiments in a letter to Tom Kirwin, a gambler, barkeep and cigar store owner, after Prohibition closed down the saloons. It was sent to Kirwin care of The Mint, which operated in the 1920s with a new menu of drinks including soda pops , phosphates and malted milks. The Mint’s owner, Sid Willis, might adapt to changing times, but Charlie Russell chose to remember the past. He recalled when Cut Bank Browne sold trade whiskey to cowboys and Indians that was “rough stuff made for outside men,” but was lemonade compared to the bootleg whiskey “the whites are getting now.” So much for the reformers‘ victory.
The Russells’ regular visits to California in the 1920s provided a fund of new topics for letters home. On his first trip, Charlie commented on car-crazy Los Angeles, movie capital of the world, where the artificial crowded out the real and even the flowers were liars. He stressed the deceptive nature of California sunshine for the benefit of Bemers B. Kelly, a coal dealer in Great Falls, and repeated it often to winter-bound friends as an assurance of his continued loyalty to Montana . Assurances were necessary, because the California papers by 1923 were claiming the Russells as residents, to the considerable annoyance of the Great Falls papers. Russell never wavered on the issue. “Take the roses oringes palm trees and earth quakes away and California is the same as aney other country,” he wrote Great Falls merchant Mose Kaufman near the end of his last visit there, “and Id rather be broke in Ulm than Los Angles.”
Had Charlie Russell lived longer, he would have moved down to Pasadena with Nancy and their son Jack. Instead, he was buried in the city he had called home since 1897, in the state where he had sunk his roots forty–six years earlier. His letters make it clear that this was just as he wanted it. “Here I am in the orange belt,” he wrote from Los Angeles to an old Lewistown friend six months before he died. ”This is a nice country but like any other old hoss I like my old range best.” For once, death had provided a happy ending.
Brian W. Dippie is Professor of History at the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia. He has authored a number of books on Charles M. Russell including “Paper Talk”: Charlie Russell ‘s American West, Looking at Russell, and Remington and Russell, a catalog of the Sid Richardson collection. He has just finished work on a comprehensive collection of the letters of Charles Russell entitled Charles M. Russell, Word Painter: Letters 1887-1926, which will be published by the Amon Carter Museum and Abrams Publishers this fall.