The Message

The late Dalton Trumbo may be the most famous person to hail from Colorado's Western Slope. But in Grand Junction, where the award-winning novelist and screenwriter was raised, Trumbo has been persona non grata for seven decades because of Eclipse, an often stinging satire of the town and its inhabitants. Although the book's been out of print since shortly after its 1935 release, the hurt lived on and, as a result, G.J. hasn't put up so much as a plaque in Trumbo's memory. The closest thing to official recognition came in 1981, when a county commissioner who'd lost a re-election bid proposed, as his last official act, that the city celebrate Dalton Trumbo Day on December 9, the author's birthday. Few embraced his efforts, and a commemorative cocktail party held at a local restaurant barely drew flies.

At last, however, the wall of resentment appears to be crumbling, and it may be knocked down once and for all when a group of Grand Junctionites, working in concert with Trumbo's family, republish two versions of Eclipse -- a stripped-down paperback and a lavish, deluxe volume -- as a benefit for the local public library district. The books are scheduled for unveiling on, yes, December 9, the hundredth anniversary of Trumbo's birth, and Laurena Mayne-Davis, an instructor at Grand Junction's Mesa State College who's deeply involved in the effort, believes they'll be greeted with fascination, not hostility. "For people who knew Dalton Trumbo, or knew of him, what happened was personal," she says. "But we're taking a step back, and taking an interest in the work. I think there's a new appreciation for his ability to kind of skewer his hometown, but for people now not to take offense at that."

"I'm really glad this is happening," adds Christopher Trumbo, Dalton's son and the California-based author of Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted, a play based on his father's letters. "It's a nice thing for everybody all the way around, and there aren't many events like that."

The accomplishments of the elder Trumbo, who died in 1976, are certainly worthy of note. He continues to be remembered for the 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, which came to the attention of an entirely new audience when Metallica used it as the inspiration for the 1989 song "One." (The "One" video contains clips from the 1971 film adaptation of Johnny, starring Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland, and directed by Trumbo.) He was best known, though, as a screenwriter and onetime Communist Party devotee who was jailed for nearly a year after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the late '40s Red Scare era. Trumbo was subsequently blacklisted by major U.S. movie studios along with the rest of the so-called Hollywood Ten, but by using others to front for him, he continued to get scripts produced, and his work on 1953's Roman Holiday and 1956's The Brave One earned Oscars. Thanks to the stubbornness of actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger, respectively, Trumbo was finally allowed to use his own name in the credits of Spartacus and Exodus, both released in 1960, and he went on to pen cinematic epics such as 1966's Hawaii and 1973's Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.

Yet in Grand Junction, these deeds were overshadowed by Eclipse, which fictionalized real men and women who lived there during the early part of the twentieth century. The blueprint for protagonist John Abbott was William J. Moyer, a merchant and do-gooder who donated a swimming pool (the Moyer Natatorium, which is still in use) after the son of an employee drowned. Trumbo depicts Abbott as a flawed philanthropist whose generosity is forgotten by the shallow citizens of Shale City, his pseudonym for Grand Junction, after the 1929 stock market crash. At the tale's conclusion, Abbott dies broke and alone.

Among the least admirable of Eclipse's players is Harry Twinge, the owner of a shoe store modeled on Benge's, a shop from which Trumbo's father, Orus, was fired. (The business continues to operate on Grand Junction's Main Street under the oversight of Bruce Benge, whose grandfather did the sacking.) According to information gathered by Western Colorado historian Dave Fishell, Orus probably deserved his fate. "The story goes that he would show a lady one or two pairs of shoes, and if she wanted to look at more, or she wasn't going to buy any, he'd get upset and walk out," Fishell says. "He had trouble holding on to a job. That's why the family moved from Montrose," the Western Slope burg where Dalton was born.

After losing his job at Benge's, Orus relocated his clan to California, where his health deteriorated. Fishell thinks his eventual demise may have embittered Dalton toward Grand Junction, but Christopher Trumbo doubts that his dad saw things that way, since Eclipse came out more than a decade after his departure from Colorado, and culminated years of struggle to establish himself as a writer. "The way he put it was, 'I published my seventh novel, and decided to call it my first,'" Christopher says. Whatever the case, the Grand Junction area certainly made an impression on Dalton. As Mayne-Davis points out, Shale City receives idyllic treatment in Johnny Got His Gun, and serves as the setting for Trumbo's 1940 novel, The Remarkable Andrew, and his only play, 1949's The Biggest Thief in Town.

Nevertheless, the Eclipse portrayal is the one that stuck in Grand Junction craws. Rumors of public book-burnings persist, and the few copies that made it to the library were checked out and never returned. (Original editions have become sought-after collector's items, going for prices as high as $4,000.) Moreover, anger continued to flicker across generations. When author Bruce Cook visited Grand Junction to research a Trumbo biography, 1977's Dalton Trumbo, he found "a residue of hostility," he told Westword in 1993. "Just mentioning his name would often bring a negative response."

"One woman had to resign her job with the Mesa County schools because of that book, and she was dead within three years," elderly resident Josephine Biggs told Westword a dozen years ago. "And it upset a good many other people's lives. That story has never been told," she fumed, seconds before hanging up.

Biggs has since passed on, as have a lot of other Eclipse haters, giving admirers an opportunity to examine Trumbo's Grand Junction past with fresh eyes. Last November, Red, White & Blacklisted was staged at the historic Avalon Theater, which dates back to Dalton's days in that town, and Christopher says he was greeted warmly. In January, Mayne-Davis put together a course dubbed "Dalton Trumbo's Legacy," and "in eight crazy days, we watched eight or nine films, acted out his play, and read Eclipse and a book about his screenwriting career," she says. Fishell also took students on a van tour of locations mentioned in Eclipse, as well as to the Trumbo home.

These activities provided momentum for the notion of resurrecting Eclipse, and so did Mayne-Davis's discovery that rights to the book had reverted to the Trumbo family when the London publishing house that issued it went bust in 1937. After Ken Johnson, former publisher of Grand Junction's largest newspaper, the Daily Sentinel, offered to handle the nuts and bolts of printing, Cleo Trumbo, Dalton's widow, gave her blessing. Other Trumbos have promised to pitch in, too. Daughter Nikola will write a forward to the fancier volume, which is expected to include a map of Trumbo's Shale City and background info about the models for Eclipse characters. Daughter Mitzi, a professional photographer, has committed to providing some family snapshots. Christopher is also keeping a hand in; he's in the research stage of what he calls "a personal biography" of his famous father.

As for Mayne-Davis, she's agreed to proofread the manuscript, which is being typed by one of her students at Mesa, and she is also lobbying for the construction of a Trumbo statue. "It's in the idea stage, and we'd have to raise the money," she says, "but I'd love it if a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon."

Oh, what a difference seventy years makes.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts