A little over a year ago I spent a pretty penny for a copy of John Weld’s biography of Walter Huston, September Song, but it just didn’t hook me at the time. I put the book down with my bookmark stuck in Chapter 3.
I dusted off the Weld book a couple of weeks ago when I was getting ready to write about Night Court (1932) starring Walter Huston. Pulled a decent quote from it, but more importantly, beginning this time from the middle, I couldn’t stop reading.
This 1998 title from Scarecrow Press comes with quite a backstory. You see, Weld was 93 at the time of its publication though he had actually begun writing the book in 1938. No, it didn’t take 60 years to write, just to publish. Weld, a former movie stuntman, journalist and eventual author of several books, was told by his '30s-era publisher that there was little interest in film star biographies at that time.
The Huston biography came back to life in the mid-90s when one of my favorite film historians, James Curtis, kept running into Weld’s name while doing research for his biography of James Whale. Upon learning that Weld was still alive Curtis eventually tracked him down.
Beyond that amazing story Weld’s own perspective on his subject, Walter Huston, has to be one of the most unique of any biographer. Weld had a fling with Nan Sunderland, Huston’s third wife, while Sunderland was in Paris awaiting Huston’s divorce from his second wife, Bayonne Whipple.Huston wired Sunderland that the path had been cleared to matrimony and she departed Paris on friendly terms with Weld. The Hustons were married in November 1931. When Weld came to Hollywood to work on a screenplay for Columbia Pictures the former Nan Sunderland introduced him to her actor husband. Huston and Weld became lifelong friends.
“I have two sons, both named John,” Huston would say whenever he had the opportunity to introduce Weld.
Weld later told John Huston that he had never told Walter about the premarital affair he had had with Nan while in Paris.
Now that I have completed September Song I’m honestly quite surprised that I had ever put it down. It begins as more of a traditional biography of Walter Huston, covering his youth, vaudeville days and eventual ascension to Broadway, in those years before Weld knew him. It then transitions to what I could best describe as sort of a second-hand memoir when discussing Walter’s movie career and later days after Weld had come to know him.
But what struck me as the most fascinating tale inside September Song was that of Walter Huston and the birth of the Duke of Crovenay.I don’t know if you can still see it, but a portrait of the Duke of Crovenay, which had one time resided with the Hustons, was donated to the Waveland State Shrine at the University of Kentucky sometime in the early 1960s.
What they knew that you may only be discovering just now is that there was no Duke of Crovenay. No such person; no such title.
The story of the Duke of Crovenay struck me as an equally delightful follow-up to that tale of mystery with, perhaps, an even bigger wink accompanying its practice. Or maybe it calls for a more obnoxious gesture.
I had mentioned Huston’s second wife, Bayonne Whipple, earlier. They had originally been a vaudeville pairing prior to their marrying.
One summer their tour took them through Duluth, Minnesota where a friend of Walter’s, a comedian named Harry Norwood, shared the bill. Harry and Walter were killing time in Duluth after the act had closed and happened upon a tramp on a park bench with his dog at his side.
Harry said to Walter, “I’ll bet you five bucks the dog’s a full-blooded Crovenay.”
Walter, picking up on what his friend was doing, claimed instead that the dog was a full-blooded, seeing-eye whelp.
“He probably got his blood from the euchre strain,” Walter added for extra emphasis and absurdity.
The two vaudevillians carried on this routine until fully capturing the attention of the dog’s owner.
Finally, Walter reeled their victim into the game: “Excuse me, mister. My friend and I have got a bet on the breed of your dog. He says he’s a Crovenay; I say he gets his blood from the euchre strain.”
The man looked down at his dog and patted him on the head, surely feeling proud, before issuing his reply: “Oh, this here one ain’t full blooded, but his ma was.”
In later years Walter explained to Weld, “Where he plucked the name Crovenay only the good Lord knows. But it was just the one for our purpose. It had dignity, a certain amount of sonorousness, as well as an esoteric quality. It sounded authentic and aristocratic.”
“That was the birth of the Crovenay,” Weld wrote. “It’s a gag, a trick aimed at the great weakness in human nature that refuses to acknowledge ignorance.”
Harry and Walter next pulled the routine while heading back to New York on the train out of Duluth. Upon spotting some ducks flying outside the window Harry called over the conductor to ask if he knew their breed. Harry took the firm line that they were Crovenays, whereas Walter disagreed.
“Maybe you can tell us,” said Walter to the conductor. “Are those birds Crovenays or aren’t they?”
“Naw, they ain’t. You don’t find that kind around here. You get ‘em up at the Great Lakes.”
The Duke and Duchess of Crovenay made their first appearance as guests of honor at a party Margaret hosted at her home in Santa Barbara. Guests were not amused to discover that the titled pair were actually a couple of entertainers that Margaret had hired. The Duchess was played by a female impersonator.
While her party flopped, Margaret was not deterred. It was she who had bought the painting of the Duke of Crovenay while in Italy. Weld wrote that she made sure the art dealer could trace neither the artist nor the subject of the painting picturing what the author described as a, “red-coated, belaced gentleman of the period.”
Unfortunately the only copy of the painting I could find online is the rather lousy newspaper reproduction I placed elsewhere on this page.
Margaret had a brass nameplate made to identify the subject as Alastair, Duc de Crovenay and had it tacked onto the portrait. It naturally developed into a conversation piece.
Weld wrote that Margaret had planned on donating the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she died, but it wound up in brother Walter’s possession instead. When Walter Huston died in 1950 his wife Nan gave the painting of the Duke to Dr. Loyal Davis, friend of the family and Nancy Reagan’s step-father.
It was Davis who later donated the painting to Waveland along with a leather-bound book titled Documents et Correspondence de la Societe Duc de Crovenay—yes, a Crovenay Society had sprung up.
If you Google the Crovenay Society today the most prominent results include several copies of Loyal Davis’ 1957 Annals of Surgery Presidential Address: “A Letter to Alastair Crovenay, M.D.”
As succinctly described by Bettye Lee Martin, a Lexington Herald staff writer who covered the Crovenay in a 1982 piece, “The purpose of the Crovenay Society is to trick self-important people into professing knowledge they don’t have.”
Baseball great Ty Cobb was said to be a member of the Crovenays.
The tale doesn’t name names beyond Cobb’s own, but supposedly Cobb got a big kick out of heartily recommending a ballplayer named Dan Crovenay to one baseball owner. He kept enhancing the legendary exploits of this big-time prospect before the owner finally caught on after Cobb went too far and told him that Crovenay couldn’t wear shoes.
Other members of this loose society of pranksters included the writers Richard Connell and Sinclair Lewis; film director W.S. Van Dyke; former heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer, who had co-starred with Walter Huston in The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), and his manager Mike Cantwell; actor Reginald Denny; Walter’s friend George M. Cohan, who had produced Elmer the Great starring Huston on Broadway; and Bing Crosby, who Weld named as President of the Society.Loyal Davis, writing to another doctor in 1965, explained that the Crovenay was basically harmless because the victim’s ignorance is never revealed. Davis also said that he and another doctor, “perpetrated many hoax stories on surgeon friends, getting them to acknowledge their familiarity with imaginary surgical conditions named ‘Crovenay.’”
The Crovenay was invented and mushroomed as a weapon against know-it-alls. Weld wrote that Walter Huston could not stand self-important people. He was very down-to-earth himself and couldn’t tolerate snobs.
Davis wrote a fellow Crovenay member, Robert Jewell, that he pictured Huston, “sitting on a pearly gate with his guitar and harmonica having a great laugh over the perpetuation of the Crovenay Society.”
The lesson of the Crovenay is never be afraid to admit ignorance. Know it all and you might wind up bowing to a Crovenay.
September Song by John Weld was published by Scarecrow Press in 1998. It moved many shelves up my bookcase after my recent reading and I thank you in advance if my praise at all influences you in purchasing a copy through my Amazon affiliate link.
Author John Weld died in 2003. Weld was survived by his wife of 66 years, Katy, a former Wampas Baby Star who had a brief screen career under the name of Gigi Parrish. John Weld was 98.
- Mastin, Bettye Lee. “Dr. Davis Donated Portrait to Waveland.” Lexington Herald 24 Aug 1982. Kentucky Wisdom and Humor. Web. 28 Feb 2013.
- McLellan, Dennis. “Postscript: Friend's Biography of Walter Huston Is on Shelves--60 Years After Being Written.” Los Angeles Times 11 Jun 1998. Los Angeles Times. Web. 28 Feb 2013.
- Weld, John. September Song: An Intimate Biography of Walter Huston. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998.