By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
Mexico’s Most Mysterious Man
At the height of his fame in the 1940’s, with his novels known in nearly every corner of the world, no one knew his real name. Some thought he was Ret Murat, a communist rabble-rouser in pre-Hitler Germany, others thought him the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and some speculated he might be the famous American writer Ambrose Bierce, who had disappeared into Mexico in 1913. What he called himself was B. Traven. On several occasions, he also claimed seven different nationalities, and had entered Mexico in 1914 under an assumed name and with a questionable passport.
What is beyond dispute is that he was a novelist of substantial power, having written The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Death Ship, The Cotton Pickers, The Rebellion of the Hanged, The Bridge in the Jungle, and La Rosa Blanca, most of which were set in Mexico. Through his work and in his life, he was a passionate defender of what he called “the beaten man,” and in Mexico he found many of them.
The mystery of Traven’s identity snapped into focus in 1948, when the legendary film director John Huston came to Mexico to make The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, bringing with him a world-class roster that included Humphrey Bogart and Huston’s father, Walter. Soon afterward, the director was awakened in the pre-dawn hours by a small, scrawny-looking man standing by his bed. Sporting a pith helmet, the little man solemnly introduced himself as “Hal Croves, Translator for B. Traven.” Insisting that he had been sent by Traven to assist Huston, “Croves” was hired and Huston set off into the wilds of Mexico to make what later was acknowledged as one of the best movies ever made. Throughout the filming, Huston suspected that the little man was actually Traven himself.
Many years later, Huston, then living in Puerto Vallarta, offered a theory on a masquerade that by now had become one of the world’s most fascinating literary enigmas. Huston felt that the novelist, (whatever his name) was deeply embarrassed by the disparity between his rather silly physical appearance and bashful personality and—the muscularity of his prose and hard-bitten philosophy behind it.
Years earlier, Traven himself had offered another explanation for his elusiveness. Asked by a reporter for the New York Times to explain his phobia of publicity, the author said that only the work mattered, not the writer. To illustrate, he spoke of a time when he was living in the jungles of Chiapas, and whenever he had completed a book, would telegraph Mexico City to send someone to pick it up and hand-carry it back to the proofreaders. For years, it was always the same young man, who never failed to safely return with the only copy (this, before Xeroxing machines) of the manuscript. Then the elderly proofreaders would expertly do their work, after which the ms. would be sent to Traven’s publisher (the esteemed Alfred Knopf) in NYC who would invariably find the right market for the book. Hence, the writer, Traven would aver, was but one factor among many in the success of any novel.
(This humble attitude was not shared by Ernest Hemingway, who had stage-managed to his advantage most of the major events in his life—with the possible exception of his birth.)
As for the mystery of Traven’s real identity, it was finally solved many years after his death in 1969 by a BBC film unit that initiated an investigation that commenced in a Chiapas jungle and ended in a small Polish border town. Traven’s real name was Otto Feige, born in Poland toward the end of the 19th century to working-class, utterly prosaic parents. It was only when he came to Mexico that Traven took on a “Walter Mitty” personality.
Here at Lakeside, we call such shenanigans “border promotions.”