Members of a tribal government in Southeast Alaska hope to bring home a historic totem pole apparently removed during the Great Depression by the late actor John Barrymore, a taking that has raised questions about a possible curse and whether it led to the movie star’s fall from Hollywood grace.
The kooteeyaa, as the Tlingit call a totem pole, was once one of dozens that stood along the coast at the old village of Tuxecan on Prince of Wales Island. It’s now stored at the Honolulu Museum of Art, a gift in 1981 from horror legend Vincent Price and his former wife, Mary Price, who acquired it shortly after Barrymore’s death in 1942, according to museum records.
For decades before that, the 25-foot-tall pole graced the two actors' respective Beverly Hills homes, including Barrymore’s famous Bella Vista estate. It was a towering Alaska trinket and beloved patio ornament adored by both men, according to historical accounts.
Barrymore, one of the greatest actors of his day and grandfather of "Big Miracle" star Drew Barrymore, took the pole in 1931 during a trip to Alaska on his 120-foot yacht Infanta, said Steve Langdon, University of Alaska Anchorage anthropology professor.
Langdon began tracking the pole’s fate after learning about it in the 1990s while sifting through photos at a museum in the Southeast Alaska city of Ketchikan. In one black-and-white, he recognized Vincent Price in front of the totem pole, California cactus visible, Langdon said during a talk this spring at the University of Alaska Anchorage, available in two videos on YouTube.
With help from Jonathan Rowan, a carver and cultural instructor at the school in the Southeast village of Klawock, Langdon identified the same pole standing prominently in other photos near the waterfront at Tuxecan, a village abandoned at the turn of the last century. The pole first appears in a photo from approximately the 1890s with dugout canoes nearby, and was likely erected not long before that, Langdon believes.
The actor Price wrote fondly of the red cedar pole in an autobiography: “… its lovely warm browns and reds still glowing on the three great figures which compose its height. At the bottom a great bear-like creature, paws pleading; and on his head, a pale lean man who holds before him a gigantic fish which reaches from his shoulders to his toes; and on his head, hawk-nosed and savage, crouches a great bird, his tail behind him abristle with red feathers made of shingling.”
The pole was “sculptural and dignified and beautiful,” unlike other totem poles Price had seen that he said were little better than carved telephone poles. “Being a burial post, it was sculpted in the round so that the three creatures retain their separate identity as completely realized forms.”
Judging from photos, Rowan said he’s not certain the image at the bottom is a bear. Based on the ways its ears look, it may be a wolf. The bird on top, with its hooked beak, is likely an eagle, Rowan said. The fish is in fact a whale, perhaps a killer whale.
The crest images on kooteeyaa are important because they explain family history, tying the living to ancient family groups, Rowan said. Which clan it belongs to is something of a mystery that might be cleared up with firsthand inspection, he said.
“We know it belongs to us, but getting it down to brass tracks” will require a closer look, he said. Langdon, on behalf of the tribe, has visited the pole in Honolulu, but tribal members have yet to make that trip.
Tuxecan, where people lived in large cedar-planked houses and spent winters after stockpiling wild food in summer, once had more than 100 totem poles. For the most part, they appear to have all been mortuary poles, created to honor the dead, the ashes of nobles stored in bentwood boxes in the back, Rowan said.
No evidence exists that the pole in the Honolulu museum was a mortuary pole, though it may have been.
Tuxecan had long been abandoned when Barrymore arrived, explaining why the actor was able to take the pole, Rowan said. The residents had relocated south to Klawock -- a village of 800 today -- after a cultural leader had urged clans to consolidate at the site that was home to the state’s first cannery and a church, said Rowan.
The original poles no longer stand at Tuxecan. But replicas were made and erected in Klawock starting in the late 1930s, thanks to funding from the Civilian Conservation Corps, the federal work relief program during the Great Depression.
Those copied totem poles also deteriorated and are being replaced, said Rowan, 50. He said he’s made it his life’s work to carve a third generation of totem poles, in part using photographs and help from youth in the village located 800 miles southeast of Anchorage.
Today, more than 20 totem poles stand at a totem park in Klawock. But there are dozens of additional ones yet to carve, he said.
“The park means a lot,” he said. “You can take any family around here and go in the park and there’s a connection to that pole. They can say ‘This is from my clan’ or ‘This is from my grandmother’s clan.’ It has deep, spiritual significance.”
Of the original poles from Tuxecan, only two survive in Klawock. The pole in the museum would be a third. “That’s why (the pole) is so important,” he said.
The village has not yet launched a formal process to bring the pole to Klawock under federal repatriation law. Those steps need to be taken, said Archie Demmert III, president of the Klawock Cooperative Association, a tribal organization that could pursue the repatriation.
“It’s something that belongs to this area,” Demmert said.
Was it theft?
Barrymore made more than one trip to Alaska. Langdon believes it was in May of 1931, during a trip on the Infanta from the Galapagos Islands to Kodiak Island, that Barrymore had the pole removed.
One photo in a book about the Barrymore family shows a handful of crew from the Infanta ready to pull down the pole with ropes, Langdon said. At some point, before the pole went into the Honolulu museum, it was cut into three pieces.
In another book, written two years after Barrymore died, the actor’s friend and journalist Gene Fowler suggests that Barrymore feared the theft of the pole would lead to a curse. Fowler wrote that an Alaska settler who Barrymore befriended told the actor that removing a “tribal emblem” was bad luck. On the voyage home, Barrymore began to worry, according to Fowler’s book, “Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore.”
“Barrymore said that he halfway believed that the tribal gods, in whose behalf the pole had been erected, ‘might take a notion into their whimsical noggins to wreak vengeance on the thief, ’” Fowler wrote.
That line, apparently a direct quote from Barrymore, shows that the actor thought of his act as stealing, Langdon said.
Citing a 2007 book called “Hollywood’s Hellfire Club,” Langdon said the actor’s brother, Lionel Barrymore, had learned that John Barrymore believed remains of Alaska Natives had been entombed in the totem pole. Years later, Lionel blamed the downfall of his brother’s acting career in the late 1930s on a curse related to the pole’s removal, after Barrymore lost the ability to remember his lines -- and eventually his fortune, Langdon said.
Langdon said he has found no evidence the pole had held remains. If it had, its taking and treatment would have been "deeply troubling." Those remains would have been placed in niches in the back of the pole. But Barrymore had the backside hollowed out to install a metal “backbone” to hold the pole upright on his estate, Langdon said.
Rowan wouldn’t say much about the potential curse: “That’s all speculation.”
At any rate, it appears the pole’s odyssey to Hollywood and then Honolulu provided a measure of protection it would have lacked in Alaska. At the Honolulu museum, the pole has largely remained in safe storage for more than three decades -- the museum doesn’t have the space to display the 25-foot-tall relic fully reassembled.
The upper third of the pole showing the bird was carefully “stabilized and conserved,” then put on display for many years. It was removed from view about 12 years ago at the time galleries were renovated, said James Jensen, the museum’s curator of contemporary art.
The museum opened a new gallery for art from the Pacific, Africa and the Americas earlier this year, but all three sections of the pole remain in storage, said Jensen. “My feeling was that it is important to respect the integrity of the original concept for the pole by showing it in its entirety, but since that is not possible, we have not put the top section back on display,” he said.
Asked if the museum would be open to seeing the pole turned over to Klawock, the director said he was grateful for the attention Langdon has brought to the item. “We suspect we’re at the beginning of a process that will determine the future of this important work of art,” said museum director Stephan Jost. “There are cultural and legal issues involved, but I expect that it will be an open and collaborative process which results in a positive outcome.”
Rowan said he has plans for the pole. He wants to carve a replica for the totem park in Klawock. And if the pole returns, he said it will be housed safely indoors at a cultural center the village plans to build.
“It will be a pretty awesome occasion when it comes back,” he said.