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The Full Text of Ryan's Letter

"It is a very odd fact that Chicagoans never boast about their city, yet they secretly seem to love it."


For our cover story on Robert Ryan, see J.R. Jones's The Actor's Letter: A reminiscence from film noir icon Robert Ryan, newly unearthed by his daughter, sheds light on his Chicago childhood - and his family's connection to a tragic chapter in the city's history. For more on Ryan's filmography and an appreciation of his work, see "The Essential Robert Ryan."

[Following is the complete text of Robert Ryan's letter. A few spelling and punctuation errors have been corrected, but otherwise this is presented exactly as written. —J.R. Jones]

The Early Years
For Tim, Cheyney and Lisa

The time might come someday to one of you—or all of you—when you become curious about my early life. If that should ever happen, you will have this record to tell you.

I was born on November 11, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois. We lived at 4822 Kenmore Avenue on the first floor in a six-apartment building. Chicago, then, as now, was the second largest city in America and the natives always speak of its three "sides"—north, south and west. There was no "east" side. The business and shopping center of Chicago is called the "Loop" because the elevated railway makes a complete circle around it.

The north side, where I was born, was the most newly settled of the three sides and our neighborhood could not have been very old. I suspect that it would have been called "nice" middle-class. Certainly not wealthy like the Lake Shore Drive section, nor poor like many parts of the west side. Kenmore Avenue was one block west of Sheridan Road which ran along the lake front—and—which was near the beaches of Lake Michigan where I spent so many of my boyhood summers.

Like all middle-western towns and cities, Chicago had very pronounced seasons—it was reported to have its hottest summers—the coldest winters—the wettest springs and the windiest falls of any city in the world—as well as being the windiest city anywhere. This may or not be true but, oddly enough, it is a legend that Chicagoans themselves support. It is a very odd fact that Chicagoans never boast about their city, yet they secretly seem to love it. If you tell a Chicagoan that Chicago is one of the hottest cities in America, he will glare at you and reply that it is the hottest city and a hell-hole to live in. Yet, he seldom moves.

My father, Timothy Aloysius Ryan, was the second of eight children born to John and Johanna Ryan in the little town of Lockport, Illinois, about sixty miles south of Chicago. He was born in June, 1975 and lived in Lockport until he was fifteen or so, when he went to Chicago to live with his uncle. His father and mother were born in Thurles, Tipperary, Ireland and came to America, just after the Civil War. My grandmother's maiden name was Johanna Ryan. My grandfather was evidently a carpenter who quickly founded a boat yard to supply boats for the Illinois and Michigan Canal which ran through Lockport (hence its name—from Canal Lock). Grandfather at some time during those years was superintendent of that section of the Canal—a position of some importance in a small town. The town seems to have been very largely Irish and Catholic. The Ryans were an extremely devout Catholic family—my father perhaps the least so, (he married a Protestant) although he was a Catholic all his life. The Ryans, by all the standards of civilized society, were a very fine family. They were hard working, devout, honorable, and fine looking. They were not intellectual nor artistic—and would be considered quite conventional in their lives—both private and public. The men were [abstemious] and although my grandfather drank a quart of whisky a day for sixty-five years, he was never drunk or out of control. My father was the only one of the sons who drank and after a rather fast start he stopped entirely when he married—never to drink again. The Ryans did not gamble, loaf, swear, DRINK, smoke, break the laws, cheat or hurt people in any way. (Except my father who did the first five of these things at one time or another.) They worked hard, were very neat and clean, paid their bills and loved their neighbors. In spite of all these presumably dull qualities, they could be a lot of fun and I remember them with great affection. None of them are now living.

My mother, Mabel Arbutus Bushnell, was born in May, 1883 in Escanaba, Michigan, a small town in what is called the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She was the oldest of five children. Her father, Harry Lathrop Bushnell, born in Au Sable Forks, New York, was the descendant of old American families on both sides. Bushnell was a New York name that had been originally English. Bushnell was a portrayal of the home of a family who lied in England in the Middle Ages. The source words were "Buschen," meaning "bushy" and "Hal" meaning "hillside." The name was condensed from Buschenhal to Bushnell by the 1400's. Lathrop was a New England (English) name of some standing. John Lathrop, an ancestor, was a minister of the Old South Church. My grandmother was Ellen Rossiter, born in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Harry Bushnell had evidently passed up the chance to be a favored nephew of [text redacted] and had struck out for himself. He became a tramp printer (the term was not derogatory) and finally—was the editor and publisher of the Gladstone Michigan newspaper at the time my mother was born. Although I recall him as a charming old man who was very fond of me and forever buying me candy and ice cream, it is evident that his own children had no love for him. Even by the stricter standards of the time, he was a somewhat cruel parent. He at sometime became a very heavy drinker and allowed his wife to support the family. Subsequently there was a trip to the Keeley Institute (the cure) and he returned home never to drink again. Through my childhood and in my memory he was a job printer in the town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

I never knew the Bushnells as well because of their living so far away but they were indeed a strangely varied family (unlike the Ryans).

Mother and her brother Sam were extremely capable people and full of energy. Sam later moved to Australia where he lived for twenty some years as engineering head of the Wrigley Chewing Gum Company. Blanche was the gentlest of the children. Helen and Kendall—born much later were quite different—unlike their older sisters they were quite without pride and were of a coarser fiber although great fun and always very nice to me. Kendall had some talent on the violin—I later inherited his instrument and spent several untalented years sawing at it.

The Bushnells were considerably less affluent than the Ryans and over the years my father made several advances to various members of the family. He was pretty good about it but occasionally found it helpful to remind mother of this fact. Of the Bushnells only Mother, Blanche and Helen are now living.

I can't remember a time when there weren't some automobiles around—but in my earliest years they were very seldom seen. Almost all heavy hauling was done by horse and wagon—and the alley, which was the commercial thoroughfare, was full of various dobbins hauling ice, garbage, groceries, etc. In the hot summers the horses wore straw hats. The horses got to know the various stops and often would break in a new driver by showing him where to go. I remember my father taking me over to a nearby Fire Station and showing me the white horses that pulled the fire engines—the fire chief's name was Flavin. At that time, I am sure that every fireman, policeman and prizefighter in Chicago had an Irish name. The Irish at that time were too newly emigrated to be very high on the social scale.

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