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A TEXAS MARINE WHO DREW BEAUTIFULLY AND WROTE AS WELL AS HE DREW BECAME THE LAUREATE OF THE MEN WHO CHECKED THE LAST GREAT GERMAN OFFENSIVE. ALL BUT FORGOTTEN TODAY, HIS 1926 BESTSELLER REMAINS PERHAPS THE FINEST ACCOUNT OF AMERICANS IN THE GREAT WAR.
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
Some twenty-six years later American troops would again have to cross that bridge—this time under fire. That would not have surprised Thomason. He has one of his Marines, marching past silent knots of German children gathered on Remagen street corners, exclaim, “Say—you see all those kids—all those little square-heads! Hundreds of ‘em, I’ll swear. Something’s got to be done about these people. I tell you, these Boche are dangerous! They have too many children—”
Thomason came home in August 1919. He was a captain of Marines with a regular commission—a seasoned veteran and a hero. An honorable career now stretched ahead of him. “I like the job,” he wrote to his mother, “like to handle men, and I like the profession of arms, which is, after all, the most ancient and honorable profession. It stands to a degree between all the other professions as a shield … and we have seen how God can make it His own weapon.” But the world was sick of war; the military was on the back burner, and lean, dull years stretched ahead.
There was, in fact, dissidence in Cuba, and Thomason was almost immediately posted to Camagüey with a mounted infantry company, to reassure (more than protect) American sugar interests in the area. The duties were not onerous, and the Thomasens settled into a comfortable hotel, where in 1920 their only child, John W. Thomason III (always “Jack” to distinguish him from his father), was born. There was time for reading, sketching, and writing. Thomason tried his hand at a few articles and short stories, drawing on his wartime experience and sending them to magazines in New York, but despite several impressed editors, “our readers are not interested in the late conflict.”
In 1921 Thomason was transferred to Hampton Roads; in 1923 to command of the sixty-five-man Marine guard at the Naval Ammunition Depot near Dover, New Jersey. It was (deliberately) located deep in the countryside and extremely isolated. The quarters were good, as were the hunting and fishing, and the duties were not demanding. The Thomasons were easily able to visit friends in New York and take in a monthly show. He was also able to arrange exhibitions of his combat sketches at a couple of galleries; they were much admired but found no buyers.
Laurence Stallings, however, marked the press releases and insisted Thomason bring him his portfolio. After the success of Plumes Stallings had become literary editor of the famed op-ed page of the New York World , reviewing several books a week. He had also tried his hand at a play (typing the entire second act on the kitchen table while Helen was preparing dinner). Maxwell Anderson, with one successful drama already under his belt, joined him, mainly to adapt the script for effective staging, and What Price Glory ? opened on Broadway in 1924.
It was an instant smash hit, introducing the prototypical Old Corps Marines Sergeant Quirt and Captain Flagg to the world and introducing Broadway, for the first time, to hells and damns on the stage, not to mention raucous antics involving a French barmaid. (The character of Lieutenant Cunningham was based on Thomason.) The Navy Department viewed it askance; an admiral tried to shut down the show on the grounds that commissioned officers of the naval service should not be portrayed in public using profane speech or chasing women. (Heywood Broun, in a column next to Stallings’s book reviews, respectfully asked what action the admiral intended to take about Madame Butterfly .) Stallings was by now a charter member of the Algonquin Round Table and a man of weight in literary circles. (Not all were charmed. Dorothy Parker: “I wouldn’t care for Laurence Stallings if he’d lost both legs.”)
Stallings went to Hollywood to work on What Price Glory ?, and when his friend the director King Vidor mentioned his ambition to make a movie about war, Stallings blithely said he had a cracking good war story. But Vidor couldn’t get a script out of him. When the time came to return to New York, Vidor made the travel arrangements; Stallings found himself in a Pullmanette with a case of whiskey and a young unknown, Billy Rose—who just happened to be America’s shorthand champion. Stallings laughed, stripped to his BVDs, swung into the upper berth, hung his willow leg on a hook at the foot of the bed, opened a bottle, and started to dictate. Rose never forgot that stifling compartment; he sat cross-legged on the lower bunk as the train rattled along the grades, scribbling page after page of the .story of a young man who lost his leg in the war—with Stallings’s wooden leg banging against the berths on the curves. The story was finished on arrival in New York, where a typewriter was delivered; Rose stayed aboard to transcribe his shorthand and carry the script back to Vidor.
Stallings’s status shot even higher in 1925, when The Big Parade premiered. The battle scenes were awesome, the humorous touches deft, the production stunning. It coined more money than What Price Glory ? (and more than the play’s film version—there were eventually to be three—which shortly followed).