The Movie Star and the Missing Totem Pole — The New Yorker

The predominant natives of southeastern Alaska are the Tlingit—the People of the Tides. They are believed to have settled the Panhandle and the Alexander Archipelago more than ten thousand years ago. The Tlingit (pronounced klink-kit) were hunter-gatherers and traders who typically lived on the coastline, moving between permanent winter villages and summer encampments, where they fished, foraged, and stockpiled food. They cremated their dead and marked milestones with lavish ceremonies, until missionaries, in the late nineteenth century, persuaded them to stop.

The Tlingit, at the height of their culture, had about eighty clans, who represented themselves with heraldic crests that almost always featured animals. A crest was considered a clan’s property: the Raven Dog Salmon people could not tell the stories or display the crest of the Wolf Killer Whale people without consequence. Crests were protected to the point of war.

Tlingits placed their crests on almost everything they owned—ladles, blankets, amulets, armor—to express solidarity with their clan and kinship with animals they considered “patrons.” In 1914, Livingston F. Jones, a Presbyterian missionary who spent years among the tribe, wrote that if a Tlingit “puts the image of his patron on his halibut hook, it will help him to have good success; on his paddle, to go safely over the deep; on his spoon, to protect him from poisonous foods; on his house, to bless his family.” Tlingits sometimes depicted clan images on the gabled fronts of their houses, and indoors on decorative wood screens.

They also carved totem poles. First, a carver selected a tall, wide log of Western red cedar, whose soft wood weathers well. He stripped the bark; dried the wood, if it was too damp for carving; and hollowed out one side with fire. The carver then shaped the pole’s face with knives and an adze. Using a brush made of porcupine hair, he painted the pole with mineral-based dyes; Tlingit colors were red, black, and, in moments of extravagance, blue-green. Carvers often sealed the finish with whale fat. A Smithsonian researcher once wrote that Alaska’s totem poles were “as beautiful and interesting as the Parthenon of the old Greeks.”

Poles stood just outside a house. Some rose thirty feet tall. The higher and more ornate the totem pole, the greater the status of its owner—the Tlingit equivalent of a Mercedes in the driveway. Stature was measured in accumulated possessions and in generosity. A Tlingit might spend years gathering pelts, blankets, and weapons, then give them all away in a feast, called a potlatch, which often featured a pole-raising. Before a totem pole went up, the host sometimes had slaves killed and thrown into the posthole. Some poles shamed wrongdoers—a brown bear biting the tail of a killer whale might broadcast an unpaid debt. Others were mortuary monuments holding the remains of the dead.

Totem poles were not objects of religious worship, but Tlingits considered them sacred, because they believed that everything in nature had a spirit, and because the poles commemorated significant people and events. Poles were to be left in place, to weather and eventually return to nature, unless a clan decided otherwise. The Tlingit believed strongly in respecting the landscape. One fable about an island spirit, which a tribal elder shared with Steve Langdon, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, notes, “The island spirit helps those who observe the rules of good conduct and respect for wildlife. Misfortune is sure to come to those who are frivolous. . . . The spirit withdraws his protection from such people, and they are in danger of losing their canoes or their lives.”

It’s unclear exactly when the Tlingit began carving poles. Outsiders first reported seeing them in the eighteenth century, not long after the Haida, skilled carvers from what is now British Columbia, moved into southeastern Alaska. The golden age of totem poles is considered to be the nineteenth century, after Europeans introduced improved iron tools and before whites repressed native customs. By the end of that century, the Tlingit were growing wealthier through fishing and canneries, fur trading, and mining; totem-carving became less dignified as clansmen competed ostentatiously to make ever taller, prettier poles.

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Southeastern Alaska contains hundreds of islands cut by a vast network of channels and fjords. The biggest island, Prince of Wales, had the most totem poles, and the village with the greatest number was Tuxecan. In 1916, a researcher counted a hundred and twenty-five poles there, and described them as strikingly elaborate and diverse in their imagery.

Tuxecan occupied a cove on the island’s northwest coast, backed by an ancient grove of cedar, hemlock, and spruce. Photographs from the turn of the twentieth century show a beach lined with rectangular plank houses and canoe runs, and boardwalks traversing gravel shallows. For generations, hundreds of Tlingit wintered there, but around 1900 they relocated south, to Klawock, where a Presbyterian school and Alaska’s first cannery had opened. Tuxecan remained standing, and clansmen visited occasionally, but without inhabitants the village deteriorated, as did its loose forest of totem poles. Some of the poles were taken to Klawock; others remained at Tuxecan, and as they aged they tilted, in a slow-motion game of pick-up sticks, until they fell. Then they were consumed by moss.

One particularly regal pole loomed over the southeastern corner of a large house on the beach. Nearly thirty feet tall, it had three crests. The topmost figure was a bird with folded wings. Below it was a human, which held a large finned sea creature at the base of its tail. The bottom crest was a fierce, furry animal—a bear or a wolf—sitting high on its haunches. One day, in the nineteen-thirties, the totem pole went missing. All that remained was a sawed stump.

When the Hollywood star John Barrymore wasn’t working, he liked to sail yachts. The sea afforded him the freedom and the peace that he felt he lacked on land. He often sailed using zodiacal charts—according to “Good Night, Sweet Prince,” a biography by his friend Gene Fowler, he was a devotee of astrology and had “an inborn trend toward mysticism.” Barrymore cruised mostly to Mexico, and kept a journal about his impressions, such as the thrill of “strange, fantastic, jagged rocks rearing out of the sea like gnomes’ castles.” He also enjoyed going to Alaska.

In 1929, Barrymore commissioned a new yacht. His second wife, the actress Dolores Costello, was pregnant with their first child, Dede, and they christened the boat the Infanta. A hundred and twenty feet long, and made of riveted steel, the boat typically sailed at thirteen and a half knots, and accommodated about a dozen crew members. Barrymore, who liked to design silverware and flags for his boats, outfitted the Infanta with a dining room, a smoking room, a fireplace, and a piano. Newspapers described the yacht as the finest on the Pacific Coast.

Barrymore drank, which often made him miserable. (“He had a beachcomber’s taste for the cheaper grades of liquor,” Fowler wrote.) But the summer of 1931 was a happier period. He had temporarily sobered up, and had just given one of his most acclaimed film performances, in “Svengali.” Financially, he was having a record year, earning nearly half a million dollars.

The Barrymores set sail for Alaska, to hunt Kodiak bear. The Juneau shipping news noted the Infanta’s presence nearby on the twenty-sixth of June. By July, newspapers were reporting that Barrymore had killed a bear—a photograph that ran in the press showed him posing arm in arm with a massive dead grizzly. “Jack desperately wanted a son,” Carol Stein Hoffman later wrote, in “The Barrymores: Hollywood’s First Family.” “In Alaska, he heard the superstition that a woman who eats the heart of a bear will give birth to a male child.” The Barrymores’ son, John Drew Barrymore, was born the following year.

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Several other photographs from the Alaska trip appeared in Hoffman’s book. One showed the Barrymores on Lemesurier Island—at the top of the Panhandle, near Glacier Bay—with a pioneer couple named Joe and Muz Ibach. The Ibachs, native New Yorkers, had moved to Alaska to prospect for gold. Joe staked a few claims in 1924, just before President Calvin Coolidge declared the Glacier Bay area a national monument. When Joe learned that he couldn’t legally work the veins that he’d been mining, he smuggled out bags of ore and stacked them in his shed. He also worked as a trapper and a guide. Travellers to the Alaska Panhandle inevitably heard about the Ibachs, and often put in at Willoughby Cove, to visit them. The novelist Rex Beach, who found the Ibachs living in a comfortable house with electricity and running water, said of Joe that “anything less than complete independence irked him like a shirt of nettles.” Another photograph in Hoffman’s book showed five unidentified men, four in white sailor caps, using ropes to lower to the ground a carved totem pole: a bird atop a human holding a large finned sea creature, atop a bear or a wolf.

Barrymore’s passions included animals, art, and decorating. As a child in New York City, he became a regular presence at the Central Park Zoo. The keepers eventually allowed him inside the guardrail at the tiger cage—he liked to reach through the bars and pet the animal’s head. (“This cat is in love with him,” a zookeeper once said. “Cries like a dame when he goes away.”) Barrymore later kept Australian parakeets and Chinese magpies, and he lavished attention—including valet services—on a pet monkey named Clementine. His king vulture, Maloney, lovingly groomed his mustache with its enormous beak.

In 1917, five years before becoming famous for playing Hamlet on Broadway, Barrymore, recently separated from his first wife, rented the top floor of a four-story house at 132 West Fourth Street. His collecting habit was evident in displays of items related to the sea, including model ships, a captain’s wheel, a ship’s bell, and vintage ocean charts. Inspired by a trip to Italy, he gave the place a makeover: pink striped wallpaper, mauve taffeta curtains. He draped saffron chiffon beneath the skylight, and hung a lantern shaped like a caravel. To “age” the walls, he smudged them with candle smoke. On the roof, he installed a cedar hedge, wisteria, beehives, and a fountain, and had a carpenter build a small cabin as crooked as “a Nuremberg poet’s home.” Barrymore called the apartment the Alchemist’s Corner.

In the fall of 1927, soon after Barrymore signed on to star in “The Sea Beast,” an adaptation of “Moby-Dick,” he bought an estate, called Bella Vista, on the edge of Beverly Hills. The director King Vidor had built the house at an ear-popping altitude—the views of Los Angeles were grand. Immediately, Barrymore commenced redecorating. He hired a Japanese gardener with “power over plants,” and added four acres and many new buildings to the compound. After he and Costello returned from a honeymoon trip to the Galápagos, where they hunted and fished, Barrymore mounted their spoils in a trophy room. The estate ultimately consisted of sixteen structures, including an aviary, and fifty-five baroquely furnished rooms, among them a rathskeller. There were six swimming pools, a skeet-shooting range, a bowling green, and a treasury of artifacts, which included a pair of Ecuadorian shrunken heads and a dinosaur egg given to Barrymore by his friend the explorer Roy Chapman Andrews. Barrymore wanted to be surrounded by all the riches of the world.

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At Bella Vista, the Alaskan totem pole found a new home, overlooking the Barrymores’ grounds. It had been visibly scarred by its removal: the pole had likely been cut into pieces on Prince of Wales Island, presumably to ease its transport to California on the deck of Barrymore’s yacht. The artifact was impressive enough to be used, in the late thirties, as a prop in “Spawn of the North,” a Barrymore film about salmon fishing in Alaska. Although the actor was photographed posing proudly next to his prize, he wasn’t as delighted with it as one might expect. Fowler’s biography noted that “an American settler on Lemesurier Island” warned Barrymore that removing “such a tribal emblem from its appointed place meant bad luck.” Fowler added, “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.’ ” This seems to be as close as Barrymore ever got to a public confession that he had taken the pole.

Barrymore’s final years were filled with bad luck. By the time he died, in May, 1942, he had divorced four times, and was bankrupt. He was still drinking, he had disabling headaches, and he was in a serious car accident. Dolores had accused him of hitting a member of their staff, and Barrymore, afraid that he would be committed to an asylum, temporarily fled the country. When Dolores left the marriage—they divorced in 1935—she made no claims on the shrunken heads, or the dinosaur egg, or the yacht, which Barrymore was forced to sell. Lionel Barrymore used to say that his brother’s misfortunes started with the totem pole.

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In the nineteen-nineties, a National Park Service cultural-resources specialist named Wayne Howell stumbled upon the story of Barrymore and the totem pole while trying to track down missing Tlingit artifacts from Glacier Bay. Howell, an archeologist by training, became obsessed with figuring out how Barrymore had acquired his trophy. He searched for Barrymore’s sea diaries, which he hoped would provide answers. Had Barrymore seen the pole from the water and headed straight for it? Had Joe Ibach helped him to remove it? Had Barrymore wanted it for mystical reasons, or had he simply thought that it would look good on his lawn?

Howell spent years investigating Barrymore’s acquisition of the pole, before dropping his quest. But the mystery of the sea diaries has lingered. Recently, Hoffman, the biographer, told me that Barrymore’s grandson, John Blyth Barrymore, might have them. Barrymore is the half brother of Drew Barrymore, and their father is the late actor John Drew Barrymore, who, according to family lore, owed his existence to a grizzly’s pan-fried heart.

“Oh, that story is true,” Barrymore told me, when we met in Los Angeles. He is sixty, with blue eyes and bushy white hair. He has the aquiline Barrymore nose and teardrop chin, and within thirty seconds of our first handshake he was quoting his grandfather in an affably mannered st…