It is nearly 2 o’clock in the morning, and the coyotes are howling in the mountains of the 2,500-acre ranch. The eleven ranch dogs of all sizes and breeds answer, their chorus of voices both joining and taunting the coyotes.
Storming out of the ranch house door strides a 6-foot figure of a mature man in pajamas, rifle in hand. He yells at the dogs to be quiet and then fires a shot toward the nearest mountain top. Absolute silence follows. Both coyotes and dogs are stilled. Then, Harry Carey, Sr., the old-time Western movie hero who received an Oscar for his performance in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” walks back into the house, his mission accomplished one more time.
Harry was a good friend of my father’s for many years before we went to live on his ranch in 1936-8 in an adobe house past a swath of wash, a sweep of alfalfa fields on the right hand side as one follows the narrow dirt road to the main ranch house. The hills and mountains and flat land canyons surround it.
I remember Harry and his wide, warm, wonderful smile, the gravely voice, and the cowboy clothes. As a child of ten and eleven, I can see him sitting in his favorite arm chair by a window, a book always in his hands, next to a table on which sits an original bronze statue of horse and rider by Remington.
I see him riding out on his buckskin horse, Sonny, the one he used in motion pictures, usually quiet, just observing. The only time he chastizes his teenage daughter and me is when, tired and in a hurry after a long day’s ride,we leave our saddles on the corral fence. “You can’t do that!” he tells us sternly. “Always put your saddles in the tack room where they’re protected and where they’re out of the way of the horses in the corral.” We never do it again.
In the early morning, he meets with the Navajo ranch hands, giving them orders for the day, plus a shot of sherry for each one. There are six Navajos; three men, two women, and a child. They usually laugh at me when I run past the men sitting on the rail on the way to feed my horse in the morning. Why would anyone run unless she was being chased?
Guests come to the ranch: Gary Cooper, Paul Fix, John Wayne, Eddie Marr,John Ford, Mark Hellinger, plus other show business people. Harry is a genial host. However, the gate to the ranch is kept locked on weekends when strangers drive up to it. Harry, looking the quarter of a mile away with his binoculars, announces, “Here, they come. The spoilers,” referring to the lookie-loos. When we expect guests, the gate is opened.
In the summertime, because it is an oven every night and day in Saugus, on the ranch, the Careys and my family rent a house together on Balboa Island for the season. Harry spends a lot of the day sitting on the dock next to the sailboat, reading or just watching his daughter and teenage son, Harry Carey, Jr., and me go about our daily affairs, swimming or sailing or biking or playing beach games with the neighborhood kids.The Navajos are driven down from the ranch occasionally. The women wear their full Navajo clothing into the water as no Navajo lady never reveals her body for viewing.
My family returns to New York for four years, and then back to California. Harry, at the instigation of his wife, sells the ranch and moves to another one, not as large, in San Diego County. Ollie, his wife, admits it is a mistake, that Harry is not really happy away from the old ranch. They have sold the cattle and all the livestock, including some 30 horses, save Sonny and Brother. Harry’s new horse joins them in a small stable on the Water Mountain Ranch.
When I am 18, I spend a week there, and just Harry and I ride together so he can show me the new land and the small waterfall on it. It is beautiful, but it isn’t his old stamping grounds and it shows in his wistfulness for the old ranch. One day, Harry isn’t feeling well.”I can’t ride today,” he tells me, “but you take any horse you want and go explore.” I saddle up his new, handsome horse and spend hours riding around the new ranch and waxing nostalgic for the old one.
In 1947,I am living in South Dakota, married and with a daughter born that June, It is later that year and Harry is dying of cancer. My parents visit him,and Harry tells my mother, “Oh, Virgie, I’m so sick.”Shortly after, when my parents are spending the day with Lucy and Desi Arnaz on their ranch, they receive a phone call from Ollie. “Harry just died.” When they call me the next day, it is as if a part of my childhood has died, too.
His star is on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but it is John Wayne who pays him the ultimate tribute in the film “The Searchers.” Harry’s signature gesture in films was to hold his left forearm with his right hand.
Wayne, who said that Harry was “the greatest Western actor of all time” used that gesture in his final scene in that picture. John Ford, in his film “Three Godfathers,” dedicates it “To Harry Carey- bright star of the Early Western sky.”
Harry was a fine actor and a gentleman of his adopted West. His son, Dobe, under his real name of Harry Carey, Jr., carried on the tradition. He will be the next actor I write about.