It was the early Sixties when Norma Ashby, Great Falls media star in a purple cowboy hat, showed up at the Scriver Studio in Browning. In the next half-century I’ve been and gone and returned again, but she has stayed at her post, never flagging in her efforts to keep things moving and improving. Stopping through the other day, she was as full of plans and ideas as ever, but we also had a little time to review the past in the ongoing attempt to understand what happened. Some people would say that was pounding sand down a rat-hole, but for a writer, even that enterprise can be a subject.
So reflecting on jealousy, which I’ve been doing since her visit, might not seem an entirely masochistic thing to do. She, like everyone else, is always interested in my relationship with Bob Scriver, that warm, woman-embracing, flirtatious, driven man, partly because of the age difference between Bob and I. Also, at the time Bob was hailed as the New Charlie Russell. But the personal -- even secret -- life of Bob and I was based on jealousy that had nothing to do with art -- just sex, what else? I was 21, entirely innocent -- he was 47, quite experienced but not as sophisticated as he thought, mostly informed by his time in Alaska and Edmonton with a collection of randy musicians during WWII. No regrets about this on either side.
Mary and Bob Scriver
The regret was on Bob’s side and not about me. His second wife, Jeanette, had left on her departure a space that was briefly occupied by a little blonde ringer for Brigitte Bardot. Badly abused since childhood, she got from Bob much-needed respite and protection. Nearly young enough to be jail bait, she was tough and desperate but had such a strong hold on him that he gave her money, bought her clothes, built a room for her in his studio, tolerated her other relationships, and finally married her off to another artist. That didn’t work out. Continuing her long story of abuse, she had to be rescued from that guy. But she wouldn’t stay in Browning and she wouldn’t marry Bob. She just dive-bombed us with an emergency now and then. When I was working on the bio of Bob, his second wife send me reams of email, but I couldn’t find the Bardot-clone.
Tenacity is my strong suit. I lasted five years without marriage, four years with marriage and then a few years in an ambiguous state before leaving. (Norma asked.) During this time period, mostly in Bob’s fifties, he worked ferociously hard and I tried to keep up. By the time he was really beginning to be famous (and exhausted), his second wife’s sister showed up -- so fond, so French, so elegant, so eager to renew old relationships. She trilled, “Oh, Marié, you’re so WHOLESOME ! Like a peasant!” I reverted to being a sullen twelve-year-old. Finally, I gave it up and left. But she wouldn’t live in Browning or marry Bob either. The alcoholic wife of a neighbor moved in and is counted as the fourth wife.
Bob working on the Fort Benton monument
Her jealousy of my shadow and her desperation as an alcoholic to be secure, have messed up a lot of what should have happened to Bob’s estate. (Norma asked.) She was easy to confuse and turned out to value the money much more than the reputation of the New Charlie Russell. She only lived a few years after Bob died.
So now we come to the last exhibit: a curator with a wife who saw me as a threat, assuming that my life is motivated by sex and that her husband was irresistible. That derailed another line of development of the reputation of Bob Scriver. It’s a madness.
So I’ve fought jealousy from both sides now, less so as time goes on and I have less attachment to the past, less interest in old wars, and less respect for fancy profit-making schemes. If people can’t see the value in Bob Scriver’s work -- and I grant that it’s been obscured by a lot of pirating and exploitation -- then that’s too bad. Now I begin to see how much any creative person is at the mercy of relationships both personal and cultural. How much is the Old Charlie Russell a product of mythologizing and promoting? And why do I have to be defined by fifty-year-old events that weren’t about me anyway?
Bob Scriver made a bust of that original little blonde, a little icon of an innocent and pliable child/woman (which she was not), and gave her a hydrocal casting of it as his great tribute and honor. Only a few years ago I got a query about it: she had given it to a boss of hers on the West Coast before leaving and the boss had died. The widow suspected there had been an affair and wanted to know what I knew. And could the bust be sold for a lot of money? When I researched the bio of Bob, I was surprised to realize that the girl was only three years younger than me.
So I played the “if” game for a while. “If” I had stayed with Bob, would he have become more famous? Would he have avoided some of what I see as major pitfalls from where I am now? I don’t think so. Would I have been a better writer sooner? Not. Jealousy served the purpose of keeping me attached a lot longer than I ought to have been, but it wasn’t dwindling until I left. It was a madness. An obstacle. He kept trying to tell me that one human relationship has nothing to do with any other but I didn’t believe him. Maybe I do now.
When Bob had a stroke in 1987, I came back briefly because the fourth wife was blotto and holed up, not dealing with it. They both needed help. If he had asked me, I’d have stayed, but he didn’t. I did move back to the rez and teach for a few more years. Things got a little better for him for a while, seemed stable and then after I left, got worse. Too late. This was more rathole than I had sand for. I got back in 1999 when I bought this house, just months after he died. What I really bought was time. People think I’m poor, but that’s because they are time-poor in order to have money. I’ve turned the bargain the other way.
The Aesop story of the dog-in-the-manger who won’t let the cow eat hay because the dog thinks it belongs to him, is matched by the story of the dog crossing a bridge with a bone in its mouth who sees in the water his reflection and thinks it’s another dog with a better bone. When he grabs for it, he not only loses his own bone but also falls in and nearly drowns. Madness.
Bones come and bones go. But time? Time is beyond price. Norma wanted to know when I’d write my autobiography. I’m not sure there’s time. Anyway, she left me a copy of her own autobiography, nicely dedicated. “Movie Stars and Rattlesnakes: The Heyday of Montana Live Television” by Norma Beatty Ashby. Bob’s in it. I’m not. That’s okay. Norma and I remember and we know that not everything can be put into a book.