Collecting Rare Books and First Editions: The Letters of B. Traven
By Matt Histand
One of the great things about working for a bookseller is you get to see some very cool items. One of the best in recent days is a collection of letters from the writer B. Traven - best known for his novel The Treasure of Sierra Madre - sent to the model and actress Ruth Ford. If you’re only familiar with the classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart, you’ve been missing out because B. Traven was a man of mystery worthy a movie all his own.
B. Traven, a.k.a. Ret Marut, Traven Torsvan, and Hal Croves, published the aforementioned Treasure, as well as over a half dozen more books, most notably The Death Ship and Bridge in the Jungle. While today we know the aliases are all that of the author, no one is absolutely sure of his origin. While he was most likely German, some say he may have been Swedish or possibly the child of American immigrants. This murky past has been ripe ground for speculators over the years who have suggested he was at different times: a seaman, an actor/director, or even the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II. What seems most likely is that he was the German-born editor of an anarchist journal who fled the country to avoid incarceration, and eventually settled in Mexico, where many of his books are set. He eventually surfaced in 1946 as Hal Croves, B. Traven’s literary agent, during the filming of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where he acted as on-set advisor to director John Huston.
It’s while under the guise of Hal Croves that Traven met and fell in love with Ruth Ford. For her it was not the first time a writer had taken a shine to her. She had a long friendship with William Faulkner, who was openly smitten with her, and who wrote the play Requiem for a Nun, a sequel to his early and controversial novel Sanctuary, with her in mind. Ford’s apartment in the Dakota in New York City was a salon for authors such as Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Terrence McNally, and Truman Capote. It was chance encounter between Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents in her Manhattan living room that led to their collaboration, with her Dakota-neighbor Leonard Bernstein, on West Side Story. Similarly, she brought together Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight to create the celebrated stories of Eloise, the little girl who lived at the Ritz.
The 21 letters Traven sent to Ford posing as Croves date from 1947 to 1961, though most were written during the first year of their acquaintance. While a majority of the correspondence can certainly be characterized as love letters, references to the production of The Treasure of Sierra Madre are many, from location hunting and principle shooting in Mexico to final pickups back in California. Traven makes several comments about his contribution to the settings, music, and staging; his optimism for the production; and his mixed opinion of John Huston, who he viewed as both a hardworking, dedicated, and receptive director, particularly to the cast and crew, but also a man of questionable behavior off-set, most notably in his motivation for adopting an orphaned native boy who worked on the set.
How Ford and Traven first met is still a mystery. The fact that Ford had most recently starred on Broadway in Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit under the direction of Huston, can’t be overlooked. But how and if that played into their meeting is still inconclusive. What can’t be denied is Ford’s knowledge of Hal Croves’ real identity as Traven. Several of the letters have notes next to the “H.C.” signature that reads “B. Traven” in a hand that is likely Ford’s. Additionally, the letters come with Ford’s copy of Will Wyatt’s The Secret of the Sierra Madre: The Man Who Was B. Traven with an inscription by film critic Rex Reed that reads: “No wonder B. Traven loved you.”
This group of letters is an amazing collection of documents that gives a rare window into the private life of the mysterious and enigmatic writer, B. Traven; a glimpse of the enchanting affect Ruth Ford had over him (and a generation of important and influential writers and artists); and insight into the making of an American film classic.
This collecting tip was published by Between the Covers Rare Books. It is presented here by permission of the author.