Gems of the Backlist: “Shantyboat”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here at the University Press of Kentucky, we recently completed an initiative to digitize all of the books that we’ve published since our founding in 1943. It was a lot of work going through more than 1300 books, but it’s been a process full of fun surprises and astounding discoveries. Best of all, every now and then, there was a book that we just couldn’t put down—a book so good we just can’t resist sharing it with you again:

ShantyboatHarlan Hubbard was born in Bellevue, Kentucky, on the banks of the Ohio River. It was the river and Henry David Thoreau’s writings that inspired Hubbard at an early age to become a simple man, “living on the fringes of life.” Hubbard had a vision which guided him to live on the earth and not of the world—a way of living that he shared with his wife Anna—and which took them on their voyage down the Mississippi River into the bayou country of Louisiana.

In the opening to Shantyboat: A River Way of Life, Harlan Hubbard evocatively explains what it’s like to “shove out into the current, to feel the life and power of the river.” Enjoy an excerpt from this classic work below.

A river tugs at whatever is within reach, trying to set it afloat and carry it downstream. Living trees are undermined and washed away. No piece of driftwood is safe, though stranded high up the bank; the river will rise to it, and away it will go.

The river extends this power of drawing all things with it even to the imagination of those who live on its banks. Who can long watch the ceaseless lapsing of a river’s current without conceiving a desire to set himself adrift, and, like the driftwood which glides past, float with the stream clear to the final ocean?

With me, the attraction of flowing water goes back as far as I can remember. My river is the Ohio, whose channel from the first has borne the dreams of men from the old and known to the new and strange. The early voyages were made in quest of a Golden Fleece which to some meant a new, free land in the west, to others a better market in the south for their homemade and home-grown products. To these men the river was first of all a means of transportation. Some of them must have loved the river for its own sake, or learned to love it, for they made repeated voyages downstream, selling boats and cargoes in the south, and toiling overland back to their starting places, like boys dragging their sleds uphill to coast down again.

These drifting argosies came to an end with the perfecting of the steamboat, which, overcoming the laws of nature, was able to go upstream as well as down. The tradition of drifting was carried into our day by an amphibious race usually called shantyboaters. A shantyboat is a scow with a small house on it. Nearly always a homemade job, it is put together of odd scraps of material and pieces of driftwood and wreckage. The shantyboat may be embellished by any of the appurtenances of living. Yet it is more than a floating homestead: it is an ark which the river bears toward a warmer climate, better fishing grounds, and more plentiful and easier work on shore. The voyage often begins near headwaters, or on one of the river’s tributaries. At one place after another the hopeful boatman lays over for a spell, until disillusioned, he lets his craft be caught up again by the river’s current, to be carried like the driftwood, farther downstream. At last he beaches out for good somewhere in the south, where his children pass for natives.

A shantyboat on its way, drifting slowly along in the swirling current, is a sight to see—colorful and gay, yet, too, of a somewhat pathetic drabness: women and children peek out of windows; dogs bark from the decks, which are draped with lines and other gear; the roof is piled with plunder, a crate of chickens or pigs, fish boxes, and piles of nets; wood smoke from the cookstove in the cabin rises through a crooked chimney; the master guides his clumsy craft with long sweeps, or oars; a collection of johnboats and perhaps a small scow trail along.

Some boats are so neatly constructed, fitted, and kept up, being painted handsomely, with railings to the decks and curtains to the windows, that shantyboat is not a suitable name. Nor will houseboat do: it is too prosaic a term for the unfixed dwelling of water gypsies and nonconformists.

The true shantyboater has a purer love for the river than had his drifting flatboat predecessors. These were concerned with trade or new land. To him the river is more than a means of livelihood. It is a way of life, the only one he knows which answers his innate longing to be untrammeled and independent, to live on the fringe of society, almost beyond the law, beyond taxes and ownership of property. His drifting downstream is as natural to him as his growing old in the stream of time. Away from the river he languishes, as if taken from his natural element.

It is to be regretted that the race of shantyboaters is dying out. Today you are likely to find even an active fisherman living in a house on land, or in a trailer. Those who still live on the water have motorboats to shove their fleet upstream—and down, too—so that the art of drifting is forgotten. The younger generation seem to have interests away from the river. They will never be able to tell the tales their granddads can.

I cultivated the acquaintance of old-time river people whenever possible, and listened to their yarns almost with reverence. The simplicity and naturalness of their way of living fascinated me, and gave a definite shape to the vague longing which the flowing river had inspired.

Other books by or about Harlan and Anna Hubbard:


Harlan Hubbard9780813121895


Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 3.56.29 PM

Gems of the Backlist: ‘Here Comes the Showboat!’

Here at the University Press of Kentucky, we recently completed an initiative to digitize all of the books that we’ve published since our founding in 1943. It was a lot of work going through more than 1300 books, but it’s been a process full of fun surprises and astounding discoveries. Best of all, every now and then, there was a book that we just couldn’t put down—a book so good we just can’t resist sharing it with you again:

Except for a pause during the Civil War, showboats traveled America’s inland waterways for over a hundred years, and the months between the spring thaw and the first frost were their province. They came into existence to meet early settlers’ demand for formal entertainment, reached their zenith a little after the turn of the Twentieth Century, and disappeared when the need was gone.

9780813118628Betty Bryant grew up on her father’s showboat, which plied the many branches of the Ohio River watershed from before the First World War until 1942. In her memoir,  Here Comes the Showboat! she tells her story with the ageless wonder of a child. It is a treasure trove of humorous anecdotes, touching remembrances, and delightful photographs of Betty, the three generations who ran the family showboat, miners, musselers, shantyboaters, farmers, merchants, and actors whose lives intersected along the Ohio River.

Enjoy an adapted excerpt from this charming book below and enter here for a chance to win a copy of Here Comes the Showboat!:

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 4.15.58 PM

Captain Billy Bryant

My father was Captain Billy Bryant and I was raised on his showboat. The floating theater was my home and the river was my backyard.

While other children were learning how to walk, I was learning how to swim, and I knew how to set a trotline, gig a frog, catch a crawfish, and strip the mud vein out of a carp by the time I was four.

Dad called me a river rat.

I always become homesick whenever I hear the song “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” for that’s where I used to live. And it was a place where troubles melted like lemon drops, and where “dreams that you dared to dream” really did come true!

I was born at the tail end of a unique and delightful era and raised on one of the last showboats to struggle for survival against the devastating crunch of progress.

Showboats came formally into being in 1831 when the Chapman family from England launched their first Floating Theater at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Their heyday was in the first decade of the twentieth century when, along with a dozen or more smaller craft, huge boats like the New Grand Floating Palace with a thousand seats, the Sunny South with twelve hundred seats and the Goldenrod with a capacity of fourteen hundred were plying the inland streams.

Featuring a medley of melodrama and vaudeville, they brought laughter and therapeutic tears into the humdrum lives of isolated people who looked forward to their annual arrival as an excuse for an undeclared holiday. As one of the too few bits of indigenous Americana that we have in this country, it’s a pity that the showboat’s image has become so distorted. When thought of at all, it seems to be remembered as a near mythical craft which is part packet, part excursion, and part ferry boat.

It’s surprising to many people that a typical showboat had no power of its own, no stern wheel, side wheel, motor, or engine. It was pushed from town to town by a steamboat tied to the stern. Equally surprising is the fact that it carried no paying passengers or freight. The only people who traveled on board were members of the family, cast, and crew.

A showboat was exactly what its name implies: a theater, built on a flat-bottomed barge for the express purpose of carrying entertainment to hundreds of thousands of river-bottom farmers along our water-bordered frontier. The larger municipalities had theaters, opera houses, and music halls, but between the cities were long stretches of rolling hills and deep green valleys, dotted with little hamlets and surrounding farms where the only social events were barn raisings, quilting bees, and corn huskings. These affairs, which in reality were merely difficult chores made lighter by sharing, were widely separated by weeks of back-breaking labor. Every day, each member of the family rose before the sun and went to bed soon after its last rays left the sky, often to dream, not surprisingly, of the showboat. These lighted giants were glorious interruptions in the monotony of their work-filled lives, and sometimes farmers and their families followed them up or down the river for two or three performances, loath to have the magic slip away.

Eventually, nearly a dozen gigantic, ornate, and costly showboats were in serious competition with each other, and their mad scramble for choice locations and larger audiences resembled nothing as much as a feeding frenzy of sharks. In trying to best each other, they had outpriced themselves. Some of them began playing larger towns to meet their soaring operational costs, but when they met with only modest financial improvement, many of their owners thought the showboat era was over.

They had forgotten one very important fact. The showboat was originally intended for the hinterland, and the smaller ones, like ours, would continue for many more years, floating along at a leisurely pace totally out of tempo with the rest of the world.

Even when radio and motion pictures would begin to compete for audiences, the little boats, being a good ten years behind the times, would continue to exist. They would draw back, like forest creatures, deeper into the sanctuary of weeds and willows that lined the banks of the cool, comforting backwaters.

Mainly family-operated, with low overheads and modest prices, they would go on for some time delivering the wholesome product that they advertised as

“Family entertainment, BY families, FOR families!”

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 3.46.54 PM

The auditorium in Bryant’s New Showboat filled to capacity

Until the end of the nineteenth century, showboat programs consisted mainly of vaudeville offerings which included singers, dancers, comics, and novelty acts. Occasionally, a short sketch would be added, but the pattern of a three-act drama with specialties instead of intermissions was not established until 1900 when E.E. Eisenbarth, at the insistence of his wife, presented two plays on board the Modern Temple of Amusement.

The new policy proved to be such a success that by the end of the year most of the showboats were presenting full-length plays. Sometimes scripts were purchased but more often they were borrowed and copied by hand. Others came from performers. An actor applying for work might write: “Have complete wardrobe for drawing room, western, Rube and Tom. Also have scripts for The Plunger, A Builder of Bridges, and Girl of the Golden West.”

The scripts were usually written on legal size paper, bound in oilcloth with the rough side out and with the title printed in bold letters on the front of the cover.

Most scripts called for a cast of five men and three women. The male parts consisted of a heavy, or villain, a juvenile lead, a comic, a character man, and “General Business,” a heading that covered such parts as partner to the villain, pal to the lead, or brother to the heroine. The women’s parts were leads, ingenues, a soubrette who played opposite the comic, a villainess, and sometimes a character woman. Anything beyond these limits was handled by doubling. That is, one actor doing one part in the first act, then donning a wig and mustache for another character in the second act, and sometimes another in the last act as well.

The plays were extremely moral. Good was good and bad was bad and there were no gray areas. The leading man, after being falsely accused of murder, might temporarily drop from sight at the end of the first act, but he would invariably return with proof of his innocence in time for the final curtain.

In the true spirit of the old ballad “She’s More to Be Pitied Than Censured,” good women were allowed to fall, even so far as to produce an illegitimate child, but only in supporting roles.

The heroine was often forced to struggle through the bulk of the seemingly under a cloud of guilt, but she must eventually be proven pure as the driven snow. Periodically, she would face her accusers and the audience and deliver lines such as,

“I’d rather DIE than say ‘yes’!”

“You would not say that, sir, if JACK were only here!”

“If this be aristocracy, thank GOD I’m a country girl!” and my favorite,

“Rags are royal raiment when worn for virtue’s sake!”

Villains were either city bankers who wore mustaches and carried mortgages or unshaven, brutish clods with uncombed hair and heavy eyebrows.

The leading man was either a parson or a country boy with a slow drawl and broad shoulders bulging under a blue flannel shirt worn open at the throat. Known to actors as a “blue shirt lead,” he would, at the drop of a villain’s sneer, flex his pectoral muscles, draw himself up to his full height, and say, “Sir, you are speaking of the woman I love!” [ . . . ]

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 3.57.48 PM

The sawmill scene in “Jack Dalton’s Revenge”

Most of the showboats tied up for three months during the winter at various protective landings. Point Pleasant, West Virginia, was a favorite spot, as was Paducah, Kentucky. Until 1931, we wintered at West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, and then moved to Point Pleasant.

In November, at the end of the season, the actors would bid us a reluctant farewell with promises to return in the spring. They would go by train to various towns or cities to join stock companies or tab shows. The crew would stay on board long enough to take the boats to winter quarters and then they too would go their separate ways. The family would stay a few weeks and then head for New York or Chicago. Only a watchman remained on board. After a sabbatical of three months, the members of the steamboat crew, last to leave in the fall, were the first to come aboard in the spring. Scrub and paint brushes were brought out, decks were caulked and the roof freshly tarred. Then the actors began to arrive.

They would scramble down the riverbank a week before the opening, waving and shouting. After exchanging greetings with everyone on board they’d head for the steamboat to select their staterooms and unpack. Then, they would gather in the galley to drink the strong, hot coffee that was always available and to talk excitedly of the season ahead.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 3.44.29 PM

A visiting relative learning to use the draw bucket

We carried, besides the family, a leading man, a villain, a juvenile, a character man, and occasionally a man and wife general business team. Single actors lived on the Valley Belle in tiny staterooms. Each room was furnished with a bunk, a washstand, and a mirror. On top of the washstand sat a pitcher and bowl and beneath it was a bucket with a long rope attached to the handle. This “draw bucket” could be thrown over the side and brought up filled with cool, clear and, at that time, unpolluted water for washing. A coal oil lamp was bracketed to one wall, for while a generator furnished electricity for the evening’s performance, it was turned off after the show.

By today’s standards, their accommodations were practically primitive, but the actors were a happy lot. Compared to their lives on shore a showboat season had much to offer. While their contemporaries on land struggled on and off trains carrying props, scenery, and baggage, made sleeper jumps while sitting up in a day coach, and did two to ten shows a day in damp, dirty theaters, showboat performers, by comparison, lived the life of Riley. With no thought to packing or catching a train, they ate, slept, and traveled on board, gliding dreamlike between willow-lined shores to wake each day in a different town, with their theater a stone’s throw from their sleeping quarters.

An actor on the road lived with the ever-present fear of finding himself stranded a thousand miles from nowhere as the result of a show being canceled or an unscrupulous manager absconding with the funds. The showboat actor gloried in the guarantee of a full “play or pay” season, secure in the knowledge that his salary would be waiting in the box office each Saturday with the regularity of a Swiss watch.

Fifteen dollars a week sounds ludicrous, but with no agents’ fees to pay, no traveling or living expenses, in fact, no place to spend money if you wanted to, it was not unusual for an actor at the end of a season to head home with six hundred dollars in his grouch bag, or twelve hundred for a man and wife team. The overland thespian who received much more than that per week rarely found it possible to save anything near that amount.

In addition, the showboat actor enjoyed a minimum of labor and a maximum of love from his adoring fans. One performance a night, never on Sunday and no matinees, a week’s rehearsal in the spring, another in the summer, and the rest of the time was his own.

Afternoons were often spent strolling through the village where they were warmly greeted by the friendly farmers and their families. Other long, lazy days were filled with writing letters and reading. Some went exploring and others swam, but it was a rare actor who didn’t take advantage of the ever-present privilege of casting a fish line off the fantail of the steamboat, over the protective guardrail that ran the full length of the outside of the showboat, or even from the end of a long, cane pole, right out through the door of his stateroom. [ . . . ]

Unlike the actors, cabin boys and deckhands were expendable breeds who seldom stayed for a whole season. They were young, fast-growing farm or shantyboat boys with appetites that prompted Dad to declare, “I’d rather pay ’em than keep ’em.”

One season we were doing a Civil War play which, in one scene, called for a brief and silent appearance by Abe Lincoln. Our deckhand was tall and slender and had high hopes of becoming an actor, so Dad assigned him the part.

The young man became so involved with his first role he spent the entire season perfecting his character. He grew a beard, scrounged a tall hat, foulard tie, and shawl from country stores, and kept old envelopes and a pencil stub in his pocket.

In the afternoon, when his chores were done and any sensible deckhand would curl up for a well-earned nap, our hero would change from his overalls into his costume and stroll up the riverbank and into the village, where he created quite a stir.

One day he left the boat, climbed the riverbank and paused at the top. He took out an envelope and made a notation on it. My grandfather was on the front deck with Dad. He watched in silence as the deckhand strolled toward town. Then he turned to Dad and said, “Billy, that boy isn’t going to be satisfied until somebody assassinates him!”

One summer, Dad bought a trained bucking mule named January from a circus. January was a big gray beast with a short bristly mane and a disposition to match. His tail looked like a rope that was coming unraveled, and, according to his mood, his remarkably long ears stood up like a rabbit’s, drooped like a bloodhound’s, or laid back flat against his skeletal head.

Dad offered a five-dollar prize for anyone who would come up on stage and ride him for thirty seconds. We always held the contest at the end of the show, and Mother, at the piano, would pound out some lively music while the actors struck the set. Props and set pieces were hurriedly taken off to the greenroom, the backdrop was folded, and the wings were leaned against the bare back wall.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 3.50.28 PM

January, the bucking mule

First, our deckhand would demonstrate how gentle the animal was. After unobtrusively giving January’s left ear a twist as a cue to behave, he would mount and ride him around the stage, docile as a lamb. Then, members of the audience would be invited to do the same. Young men, anxious to show off for their ladies, would rush up through the box seats and wait in line. When their turn came, they would leap onto January’s back, only to be tossed high and wide. Sometimes, a particularly lightweight boy would sail clear across the orchestra pit into the first row of seats.

No one ever finished the ride, until we took him up the Monongahela River. Dad had forgotten that mules were used in the mines. The first night seven contenders held on for the full time. It cost Dad thirty-five dollars in prize money. January did his best and he knew a lot of tricks. He bucked and kicked, twisted and turned, sat down, shook his head, bared his teeth and hee-hawed all the way through. He rolled his eyes, spun in circles, tried to bite their legs, and got down on his front knees. But those boys stuck on his back like cockleburs. After that we never held the contest in the coalfields. Those miners sure knew their mules.

As we came off the Monongahela onto the Ohio and headed downstream we moved between walls of apple-green willows, broken occasionally by stretches of pebbled beach. By now, the play was running the actors were settled in their staterooms, and life had taken on the lovely, lazy pattern that could be found only on board a showboat in the spring.

For me, the day began before dawn as I woke to the sounds of shouted orders, running feet, and the creaks and groans of the stage plank, a gangplank that was rolled out to shore at each landing, being hauled aboard. I leaped out of bed, gave my face a token splash of cold water and struggled into my clothes. Then I walked quickly around the guard that ran the full length of the outside of the boat.

The cook always had a doughnut or a hot buttered biscuit ready for me and a little enamel bucket with a lid filled with coffee for my Dad, already in the pilot house. Clasping the handle of the bucket in one hand and wolfing the pastry as I ran, I retraced my steps to the showboat, hurried up the back stairs to the second deck, and gingerly climbed the ladder to the roof.

The pilot house sat close to the front of the boat, and the 120-foot walk over the tar paper roof was always a bit frightening. I never got close to the edge but stayed right in the middle with my eyes glued to Dad’s back where he stood at the wheel.

Seemingly in response to my gaze, Dad·would turn and wave, and as I climbed the four steps leading into the pilot house he would tie down the rudder by slipping a loop of rope, which was anchored to the floor, over one of the spokes of the pilot wheel. Then he would lift me up and set me on the high pilot stool. Putting his captain’s hat on my head, he would take the coffee bucket. Then he would free the rudder and turn the wheel over to me with instructions to “keep ‘er nose right on that point.”

He would turn away with a false air of confidence, to pour his coffee into a mug while I kept a death grip on the wheel and trembled with delight. Then he would turn back to me and “She’s driftin’, honey. Pull’er down right.” He’d walk to the other side of the wheel and with one hand, help me move the giant four-cornered swan.

On the right front corner of the roof, with a flag at its tip, a long pole called a jack-staff stood tall and slender. It was used as a guide in steering. By spotting a landmark on shore, and lining up the jack-staff with it, you could plainly see when you were moving to the right or left. My spine always tingled when I saw the mammoth boat respond to the wheel.

Our trips usually took from two to three hours, but the time spent in that pilot house was never long enough for me. It was my very own magic carpet, my castle, my playhouse, my school. It was there that I first came to grips with arithmetic, learning to count the buoys that floated in the river to mark the outline of the channel and the government beacon lights along the bank. Every now and then Dad would slip me a dose of history, sweetened with a teaspoon of legend. there,” he’d say. “That’s where Chief Blackbird is buried, sittin’ straight up on the back of his horse!” or “We’re comin’ into Ripley, Ohio. That was one of the most important stations of the Underground Railway during the Civil War.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 4.02.36 PM

The Bryant Family (left to right): Josephine, Violet, Sam, Florence, Billy and Betty

Of course, my favorite subject was the river itself. Dad knew every creek, crossing, slough, and sandbar from the head of the Alleghany to the upper Mississippi. He could even read the ripples in the water and tell by its color and waves its depth and rate of speed. Just above Dog Island, at the mouth of the Cumberland River, he’d say, “Now watch, honey. You put your jack-staff on that big sycamore tree and keep your stern on that little red schoolhouse, and it’ll take you right through this Old Maid’s Crossing.” My head swam with names of sandbars and gravel bars like Petticoat Ripple, Sunfish Bar, and Owl Hollow Run.

Twice year we passed Bryant’s Landing, just below Manchester Island, and though I knew it wasn’t named in my personal honor, just having Dad point it out was enough to set my dreamer’s mind afloat and make me beg for stories about our family and how we came to the rivers.

For more delightful tales of a life spent performing on the waterways of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, pick up a copy of Here Comes the Showboat! by Betty Bryant.
Covert Cambodia Header

The Failure of Covert Actions in Cambodia and the Origins of the Second Indochina War

The following editorial has been adapted from William J. Rust‘s presentation, Plausible Denial: Eisenhower and the Dap Chhuon Coup, during a panel on Cambodia and the United States during the Cold War at the 2016 SHAFR (Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations) Annual Meeting.

Rust is the author of three books via the University Press of Kentucky:

Covert Action in Cambodia

Rust Author PhotoMy most recent book, Eisenhower and Cambodia, discusses the failed attempt to overthrow neutralist prime minister Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1959. More specifically, it presents new information and analysis about the origins of US involvement in plotting against Sihanouk and about the role of the US government in the botched attempt to topple him.

The unsuccessful coup is significant for at least two reasons: One, US relations with Sihanouk were severely—if not fatally—damaged not only by the exposure of CIA involvement in the plot, but also by the failure of the US government to provide any explanation for agency operative Victor M. Matsui’s contacts with the rebels. Two, the unsuccessful coup was part of a larger pattern of counterproductive efforts by the Eisenhower administration to overthrow two other Southeast Asian neutralists: Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma of Laos and President Sukarno of Indonesia.

Although a large majority of Cambodians favored Sihanouk’s policy of neutrality, an anticommunist minority was disturbed by the prince’s visit to the People’s Republic of China in February 1956. One member of that minority was Colonel Chhuon Mochulpich, better known as Dap Chhuon. A former dissident who rallied to the government in 1949, he was a regional commander who had thus far ruthlessly suppressed all opposition to Sihanouk. In March 1956, however, Dap Chhuon wrote a confidential letter to Robert M. McClintock, the US ambassador in Phnom Penh, informing the diplomat that he was “awaiting a favorable opportunity to frustrate” Sihanouk’s neutrality policy. The letter to McClintock was the impetus for US deliberations about the possibility of “Sihanouk’s removal.”

As a matter of policy, the Eisenhower administration covertly supported Sihanouk’s anticommunist opposition. Dap Chhuon, with assistance from the South Vietnamese and Thai governments, moved against Sihanouk in February 1959, demanding the installation of a pro-western government and threatening Sihanouk with guerrilla warfare. Apparently hoping that his fierce reputation would encourage negotiations, if not capitulation, Dap Chhuon was surprised when a convoy of armored cars and trucks arrived at his headquarters in Siem Reap to arrest him for treason. His rebellion collapsed without a shot being fired. He fled into the jungle and was killed by Sihanouk’s security forces.

The Cambodian armed forces captured two Vietnamese in Dap Chhuon’s villa, as well as gold bars, documents, and communications equipment. The royal army also seized his brother, Slat Peau. At his treason trial later in the year, Slat Peau testified that he had received the gold bars from a South Vietnamese agent and a radio from Victor Matsui, a Japanese-American who worked for the CIA. The radio, Slat Peau said, allowed Dap Chhuon to communicate with the “American Embassy [in] Phnom Penh” and with the other conspirators. Slat Peau’s testimony, likely coerced and arguably unreliable, nonetheless raises questions about the precise role of the US government in the plot.

Some US officials have claimed that the CIA merely reported on Dap Chhuon’s activities and that the US government tried to stop his coup. Other officials have stated that the United States played an active role in supporting the conspiracy. The conflicting claims about the degree of US involvement in the coup could be resolved by more enlightened declassification of fifty-five-year-old government documents. There is, however, a theory that accommodates the differing accounts: Sometime in early 1959, senior officials in Washington agreed to provide deniable covert assistance—gold bars, radio equipment, and other support—to South Vietnam and Dap Chhuon. Although there is no “smoking gun” document currently available that proves this conclusion, there is evidence that US officials believed Dap Chhuon’s plot could succeed. Moreover, there is a declassified document with the text of a State Department cable to Elbridge Durbrow, the US ambassador to South Vietnam.

Dated February 2, 1959, the cable was transmitted to Saigon via CIA channels, a more secure means for State Department discussions of covert activities. Aware of the disastrous implications of a failed coup, department officials instructed Durbrow to “be prepared [to] approach President [Ngo Dinh] Diem on short notice” if, in the ambassador’s “opinion,” South Vietnam’s “activities [were] endangering [the] situation [in] Cambodia.” Durbrow should then emphasize to Diem, “[The] US cannot see [the] chance for [a] successful coup [in] Cambodia under present conditions.” In other words, in early February Durbrow was given discretionary authority to intervene with Diem and attempt to pull the plug on the coup if it appeared unpromising. Durbrow did not, however, exercise this authority until after “Diem was irremediably committed” to the conspiracy, according to William Trimble, the US ambassador to Cambodia and the official most responsible for damage control after the debacle.

Sihanouk emerged from the failed coup with enhanced prestige, forcing the Eisenhower administration to conclude that covert intervention in Cambodia’s internal affairs had been “an obstacle to the pursuit of our objectives.” Many years later, Trimble summarized this conclusion more bluntly: “The Dap Chhuon operation was stupid, very stupid.” In 1960, the National Security Council policy directive for Cambodia was formally amended “to eliminate language which might provide a basis for further abortive coup plots.” Although acknowledging the prince’s popularity and political power, the new policy did not mean that senior Eisenhower administration officials viewed him with any more sympathy. In a background briefing for the NSC, Director of Central Intelligence Allen W. Dulles said, “We continue to have to deal with Sihanouk who is a difficult character.”

Browse more SHAFR favorites:

SHAFR 2016

SHAFR 2016

New Releases: Studies in Conflicts, Diplomacy, and Peace series

For those lucky enough to be in balmy San Diego this week for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) annual meeting, swing by our booth, say hello to Mack, and browse a few of these great, new titles!

Click here to view all titles in the Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace series.

Aid Under Fire ElkindAid Under Fire
Nation Building and the Vietnam War
Jessica Elkind

“How US nation building morphed into American military intervention is a cautionary example for US policy makers today, and Elkind’s superbly documented conclusions underscore the contribution that professional historical scholarship, if heeded, can make to the creation of sound foreign policy.”—David L. Anderson, editor of The Columbia History of the Vietnam War

In Aid Under Fire, Jessica Elkind examines US nation-building efforts in the fledgling South Vietnamese state during the decade preceding the full-scale ground war. Based on American and Vietnamese archival sources as well as on interviews with numerous aid workers, this study vividly demonstrates how civilians from the official US aid agency as well as several nongovernmental organizations implemented nearly every component of nonmilitary assistance given to South Vietnam during this period, including public and police administration, agricultural development, education, and public health. However, despite the sincerity of American efforts, most Vietnamese citizens understood US-sponsored programs to be little more than a continuation of previous attempts by foreign powers to dominate their homeland.

Elkind convincingly argues that, instead of reexamining their core assumptions or altering their approach as the violence in the region escalated, US policymakers and aid workers only strengthened their commitment to nation building, increasingly modifying their development goals to support counterinsurgency efforts. Aid Under Fire highlights the important role played by nonstate actors in advancing US policies and reveals in stark terms the limits of American power and influence during the period widely considered to be the apex of US supremacy in the world.

Eisenhower and Cambodia Rust Eisenhower and Cambodia
Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War
William J. Rust

“Rust’s brilliant account of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administration’s attempt to leverage a recalcitrant Cambodian leader into a Cold War alliance reveals much about American diplomacy then and now. Extensively researched and exceptionally readable, this groundbreaking book discloses the often shadowy realities of what occurs when government officials from dissimilar cultures endeavor to bend each other to their will.”—Walter E. Kretchik, author of U.S. Army Doctrine: From the American Revolution to the War on Terror

Although most Americans paid little attention to Cambodia during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, the nation’s proximity to China and the global ideological struggle with the Soviet Union guaranteed US vigilance throughout Southeast Asia. Cambodia’s leader, Norodom Sihanouk, refused to take sides in the Cold War, a policy that disturbed US officials. From 1953 to 1961, his government avoided the political and military crises of neighboring Laos and South Vietnam. However, relations between Cambodia and the United States suffered a blow in 1959 when Sihanouk discovered CIA involvement in a plot to overthrow him. The coup, supported by South Vietnam and Thailand, was a failure that succeeded only in increasing Sihanouk’s power and prestige, presenting new foreign policy challenges in the region.

In Eisenhower and Cambodia, William J. Rust examines the United States’ efforts to lure Cambodia from neutrality to alliance. He conclusively demonstrates that, as with Laos in 1958 and 1960, covert intervention in the internal political affairs of neutral Cambodia proved to be a counterproductive tactic for advancing the United States’ anticommunist goals. Drawing on recently declassified sources, Rust skillfully traces the impact of “plausible deniability” on the formulation and execution of foreign policy. His meticulous study not only reveals a neglected chapter in Cold War history but also illuminates the intellectual and political origins of US strategy in Vietnam and the often-hidden influence of intelligence operations in foreign affairs.

Also by William J. Rust:

9780813166407 Enemies to Allies
Cold War Germany and American Memory
Brian C. Etheridge

“This book addresses a compelling and fascinating feature of the Cold War Era, namely the rapid reversal of America’s alliance relationships after World War II. It is an excellent account of this change, highly readable and clear in its exploration of a complex subject.”—Thomas A. Schwartz, coeditor of The Strained Alliance: US-European Relations from Nixon to Carter

At the close of World War II, the United States went from being allied with the Soviet Union against Germany to alignment with the Germans against the Soviet Union—almost overnight. While many Americans came to perceive the German people as democrats standing firm with their Western allies on the front lines of the Cold War, others were wary of a renewed Third Reich and viewed all Germans as nascent Nazis bent on world domination. These adversarial perspectives added measurably to the atmosphere of fear and distrust that defined the Cold War.

From the Holocaust to the Berlin Wall, Enemies to Allies explores the contingent nature of some of the most potent moral symbols and images of the second half of the twentieth century. This groundbreaking study draws from theories of public memory and public diplomacy to demonstrate how conflicting US accounts of German history serve as a window for understanding not only American identity, but international relations and state power.

Other great books in the series:


Father’s Day Books on Dad Written by their Children

Protective. Goofy. Heroic. Hardworking. Stoic. Knowledgeable. Jovial. There are a number of adjectives that can be used to describe fathers and the significant role they play in their children’s lives. But each father has his own unique story –- a story that may never be told.

Below are some of our favorite books written by children about their dads. Whether a father is interested in sports, film, history, suspense, or the military, he’s sure to find some of the subjects (and stories) interesting and appealing.


More information:

My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey through Hollywood

Portrait Of A Father

My Father, Daniel Boone: The Draper Interviews with Nathan Boone

Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical

Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting

Battlefield Surgeon: Life and Death on the Front Lines of World War II

Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder

Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett



Happy Birthday, Keye Luke!


Keye Luke in TV’s Anna and the King (1972). Courtesy of CBS.

Hollywood’s “Golden Age” was never a very hospitable time for Asian American actors, who were seldom called upon to play the lead in any movie—not even those featuring Asian characters.

But Keye Luke, born on June 18, 1904 in China, came to America as a child and went on to have a long run of success in film and TV. Best known as detective Charlie Chan’s “No. 1 son” in the popular Chan series of the 1930s, Luke also had a running role as the assistant to Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) in the follow-up to the Dr. Kildare series of movies at MGM. Then, in the TV series Kung Fu (1972-75), Luke was the memorable Master Po, mentor to David Carradine’s Kwai Chong Caine.

To celebrate Luke’s long, influential career, we’re sharing excerpts from his interviews with James Bawden and Ron Miller from their recent release Conversations with Classic Film Stars: 

The Interview

BAWDEN: How did you get to Hollywood?

LUKE: I was born in 1904 in Guangzhou, China, near Canton and my dad owned an art shop. Growing up I was always painting away, but we moved to Seattle when I was very young. I started out as a local Seattle artist, specializing in murals. I helped on some of the original murals in Grauman’s Chinese theater, working on faux Chinese murals. And I had a gig drawing the art for the King Kong press book in 1933.

MILLER: While you were working in the publicity department at RKO in the early 1930s, I understand you almost had a chance to play a romantic lead in a big new musical. True or false?

LUKE: True. The producers of Flying Down to Rio (1933) wanted to follow it up with a new musical teaming Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to be set in Shanghai. Anna May Wong was set as the second female lead, but they couldn’t find a Chinese leading man for her. Then they remembered this guy who was working in the publicity department: Me. They called me to their office and told me I would be co-starring with Anna May Wong. It was like a bolt out of the blue. I was planning to go to New York to study at the Art Students League, then go to Paris and complete my art education. I knew nothing about being an actor.

MILLER: So what happened?

LUKE: The film was cancelled when the producer was fired. But I was given a consolation prize: I made my “acting” debut in a Leon Errol comedy short subject. I played his Japanese gardener in a scene where I mowed his rug with a lawn mower. I considered it a silly whim and returned to my art work without any regrets.

MILLER: Why did you move from RKO to MGM right after that?

LUKE: Frank Whitbeck, my former boss at Fox, had moved to MGM as advertising director and he asked me to come in for a job interview. That’s when I learned MGM wasn’t interested in my portfolio. They had heard about my near miss at RKO and asked me to test for a role at MGM.  Fortunately, it turned out all right. I got the part — and I started right out at the top.

BAWDEN: So you wound up making your feature film debut in The Painted Veil with the legendary Greta Garbo in 1934.

LUKE: I had the small part of Shay Key Fong (a young Chinese doctor who assisted Herbert Marshall, playing a doctor battling a cholera epidemic.) But I didn’t get billing.

MILLER: Was your test so good that you beat out the real professional actors who were trying for the part?

LUKE: There were very few Chinese actors in Hollywood in those days, so I was practically a pioneer. I don’t think I had any competition for the part.

BAWDEN: What was Garbo like?

LUKE: As if I really met her! She was a true beauty from the neck up. But her body was stocky, her feet long. We rehearsed our dialogue scene (together). She was very kind to me and just moved on. The camera was her best friend. In close ups, she was exquisite. George Brent (one of the two male leads) was after her from the beginning.

BAWDEN: Describe L.A. in 1934.

LUKE: I never went into the big department stores. L.A. was segregated, but not formally. One never saw blacks on Wilshire Boulevard. Parts of the city I avoided–all white areas like Beverly Hills. Even after working with somebody like a big Caucasian actor, I’d be ignored if we met on the street. Asians were invisible, you see. We knew our place: One step back. That’s why the Charlie Chan films were so important. They deflated a lot of the current racial myths. But even the Chan films had rules. Charlie never touched a white woman except as a handshake. I’d never have a white girl friend, not that I wanted one in pictures. Whenever a young, personable “Chinaman” was needed, I’d get the job. But in films like The Casino Murder Case (1935), Oil For the Lamps of China (1935), King of Burlesque (1935), I’m very much in the background and often not listed in credits.

BAWDEN: How did you get into the Charlie Chan movies?

LUKE: The Fox casting director saw my work in The Painted Veil and was looking for a non-threatening Asian actor. At first they wanted to hire a Caucasian, but nobody knew how to act the part, which was of a callow teenager trying to learn the detective business from his dad. I did a test with Warner Oland (who had acted with Luke in The Painted Veil) and he said “hire the kid” and I eventually did a slew of them. In 1935, I did Charlie Chan in Paris and Charlie Chan in Shanghai. In 1936 I was in Charlie Chan At The Circus, Charlie Chan At the Race Track and Charlie Chan at The Opera. which I think the best one of them all. In 1937, I did Charlie Chan at The Olympics, Charlie Chan On Broadway and Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo.


Keye Luke (left) with Warner Oland in Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936). Courtesy of 20th Century-Fox.

[. . .]

BAWDEN: You also played Kato in two Green Hornet serials?

LUKE: I was the chauffeur and they asked me to adopt a Filipino accent, which I obliged, but it was awful. The (first) serial was made super quickly and Universal decided on a second, which was equally popular. But they only had rights to these two stories. Gordon Jones had the lead, a nice guy who wound up in Abbott and Costello stuff.

BAWDEN: In 1940’s Phantom Of Chinatown, you were the first Asian actor to play an Asian detective in a Hollywood film.

LUKE: Boris Karloff’s career really took off and he didn’t want to do any more Monogram Wongs. So they called me in, not as a replacement, but as a bustling new character, Jimmy Lee Wong, a generation younger than Boris’s character. Grant Withers was still the detective and he was mad as a hornet that they didn’t make his character the new lead. The girl was the wonderfully named Lotus Long, who acted under several names. She played Tokyo Rose in that Bogey movie (Tokyo Joe) and suffered from that. She was part Hawaiian and Chinese. The story we had was written by George Waggner, who later directed the first Wolf Man film, but the production values were lower than low and the series was discontinued.

[. . .]

MILLER: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember you and some other Chinese-American actors playing Japanese characters during World War II.

LUKE: That’s true. The best for me was the part of a Japanese spy in Across the Pacific with Humphrey Bogart. Of course, he found me out, we had a fight and he threw me overboard!

BAWDEN: But after the war, I guess parts were scarce and you did what you had to do to survive.

LUKE: That meant TV. I was in multiple episodes of Terry and the Pirates (1953) and The New Adventures of China Smith (1953), not as a regular, but different characters. I even played a Japanese in South Sea Woman (1953)—had to, needed that paycheck, which was $100. I’m uncredited. I was uncredited in Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (1955). The Chinese acting community in L.A. was still tiny. I’m also unbilled in Around the World in 80 Days (1956). I’m an older man at the Yokohama Travel Office. I was a waiter on December Bride (1954) and a professor on Meet Mr. McNutley (1954). Gale Storm remembered me from a day job on My Little Margie and got me on The Gale Storm Show (1957) several times. I was on several times as a suspect on Perry Mason and several times as the same character on Kentucky Jones (1964). With a little help from my friends, I kept going.

[. . .]

Luke kung fu

Keye Luke as Master Po in Kung Fu. Photo via Wikipedia.

BAWDEN: You finally hit Broadway with Flower Drum Song. which you played for almost two years in New York and two years on the road.

LUKE: I remember being in Toronto in the road show of that one. Oscar Hammerstein, who was very nice, auditioned and picked me. Dick Rodgers was not quite so nice. I didn’t get the role in the movie. [Producer] Ross Hunter picked Benson Fong! In a way I felt relieved. There was now a growing community of Chinese actors. We started competing with each other. Previously Philip Ahn and I had divided up the work.

BAWDEN: How do you do it? You’re in Anna and the King and also doing two other series: Kung Fu and the cartoon series The Amazing Chan and the Chan-Klan.

LUKE: Well, I finally got to play Charlie, so how could I turn that down? I’m only voicing the cartoon, so I do that on weekends. Then I split my time between Anna and Kung Fu. I don’t have big parts. On Anna, I’m Siamese, but what the heck! It’s a good paying job. My only concern is we have no music rights so Yul Brynner will not burst into song. The first day he bellowed, “That’s not my throne!” And he was right. They sold his golden throne during the great movie auction. They really had to rummage and they discovered Rex Harrison’s throne from the 1946 movie and Yul has to do with that.

On Kung Fu, I’m in scenes with David Carradine. Knew his dad (John Carradine) at Fox. I think the son eccentric, but has great possibilities as an actor. So I think I’ll continue a little longer at the game.

MILLER: (Years later) You’ve had some juicy roles lately, like the old shopkeeper who sells
the “mogwai” in Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and a Chinese crime boss on TV’s Miami Vice. And I’m happy to discover you still have one of the most imposing voices in Hollywood. How do you maintain that quality?

LUKE: I practice opera to keep my voice in shape—and I’m currently memorizing all the great Shakespearean roles as a mental exercise.

MILLER: You have such a rich history in Hollywood, do you often look back on those years as almost a fantasy life?

LUKE: I don’t live in the past, but I glory in the past. I think it’s beautiful and the memories are golden and fragrant. But I’m more interested in life today. I find it’s still miraculous and full of wonders.


Keye Luke continued to work busily in both television and films until the end of his life. Among the TV shows: Quincy, Hunter, Vega$, How the West Was Won and such flicks as Won Ton Ton, Just You and Me, Kid and his final, Woody Allen’s Alice (1990). He died January 12, 1991, aged eighty-six, at his daughter’s home in Whittier, CA.

If you’re looking for more astounding behind-the-scenes stories from the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, look no further than Conversations with Classic Film Stars by James Bawden and Ron Miller.

Happy Birthday, Belle Brezing!


E. I. “Buddy” Thompson, the original biographer of Belle Brezing, stated that the original of this portrait of Belle stood in a gold leaf frame next to her bed at No. 59 Megowan Street. (Courtesy of The Belle Brezing Photographic Collection, Special Collections, University of Kentucky)

Belle Brezing (June 16, 1860 – August 11, 1940) was a nationally known madam whose story was as enthralling as any movie script. In fact, she was widely credited as Margaret Mitchell’s inspiration for Madam Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind.

Former Lexington Herald-Leader turf writer Maryjean Wall tells Brezing’s tantalizing true story of vice and power in the Gilded Age South with her book, Madame Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel. After years on the streets and in an upscale bordello run out of a former residence of Mary Todd Lincoln, Belle Brezing borrowed enough money to set up her own brothel. She leveraged that first house and her early connections with wealthy patrons to purchase the more suitably ostentatious 59 Megowan Street. Here, on any twilit evening in Lexington, it was common to see fashionable international travelers, horsemen, and civic leaders mounting the five steps to the elegant house.

From the time Belle closed her business until her death in 1940, the once-enterprising madam lived out her retirement as a recluse in her crumbling, ivy-covered mansion. Upon her passing, though, evidence of Belle’s notoriety was made clear when the Lexington Herald’s entire run of nineteen thousand newspaper copies containing its remembrance of Belle sold out by ten that Tuesday morning. News of Belle’s death also reached national levels with an obituary in Time magazine.

Along with Wall’s book, Belle’s presence is still very much felt around Lexington, particularly downtown on Market Street where you could enjoy a nice celebratory bourbon at Belle’s Cocktail House in honor of her birthday.