Who Is Jackie Brown?
by Rachel Scott
It was Christmastime, four years ago, and we were going through some of grandma’s things. She had been gone for over a decade so my sister and I were delighted that our father let us rustle through her papers for the first time. Round robin of a few pictures of her young and beautiful and then I lifted the cover of a manuscript box.
By: Elmore Leonard
“Elmore Leonard sent your gram that. They were pen pals.”
I fingered the corners of the box, delicately, almost reverentially. Did I deserve to lift the first page?
I obviously had not seen the Tarantino film that shared my grandma’s name, Jackie Brown, nor read Rum Punch, the novel by Leonard that Tarantino adapted for the film. I’ve since read that he didn’t even have to change the dialogue, it was that good. My dad told me this, but beyond correlation, I was still unsure of how a letter from a very famous suspense writer ended up in the mailbox of my grandma in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The moment when you realize that the adults around you have a life that exists beyond loving and tending to you, regardless of when that moment takes place, never fails to throw you off-balance. I had always thought of my grandma as the person who nurtured my literary sensibilities; she taught me to write shorthand then engaged me in abundant correspondence, ordered me a subscription to Stone Soup, a literary magazine written and illustrated by children, and awed me with the astonishing pace in which she would tear through a book, one a day at least, one cigarette butt after another crushed into a nearby ashtray. She was the one adult who, I felt, thought of me as an individual, a person with my own tastes and desires and treated me as such. I had always sensed she was brilliant and possessed a depth unlike other ‘old people’ I knew and witnessed a slew of neuroses only now, as an adult, I can begin to understand. But as a child, I couldn’t think much beyond finding it peculiar that she refused to go in the upstairs of our home or would lock herself in our powder room for half a day.
So even at 24, to imagine that my grandma was close to people beyond our family, albeit famous ones, was incredible to me, if not a little disorienting. Like many details of her life, this fascinating tidbit stayed shrouded in mystery until I decided to take a deep dive into the life of a woman who left me when I was 12. I would attempt to peel back the layers to the answer of the question, “Who is Jackie Brown?”
White Man on Indian Land
My grandma and her family were one of the few families in the United States who didn’t feel the effects of the Great Depression. For the first 13 years of her life, Jackie and her three sisters were some of the only white faces in their hometown of Moenkopi, a Hopi village community surrounded by Navajo land in Tuba City, Arizona. After her sister Shirley and before Lila Pat, Gloria Jacqueline Barnes was born on July 15, 1925 in St. George, Utah while John and Olive Barnes were stationed as Schivwetts as educators for the Indian Service of the Department of the Interior. They were the sole white people on the Piute reservation.
Both Olive and John were born to families of homesteaders in Nebraska. John was one of 24 children, the youngest being Tad Lucas. She was the only one to have any interest in riding and became pretty good at it: she is the most famous female rodeo queen of all time, having ridden a bull in New York’s Madison Square Garden and the only person honored by all three Rodeo Halls of Fame (Lonn 87). You can buy a couple of different children’s books inspired by her life on Amazon.
John, however, chose a different path, taking his young bride Olive with him on service to Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, and Oklahoma before settling in Tuba City as the key educator for the region. Life on the reservation was as unique as the land that it clung to. “Harsh to the untrained eye,” and “isolated from city and suburb and noteworthy for its erratic precipitation and ubiquitous wind,” the Hopi land was as stark and dramatic as the struggles the community faced (Iverson 67). Entirely surrounded by Navajo land, the two groups were in a near constant antagonistic dispute over government allocation of land and its imposing educational system. In addition to his duties as principal of the Navajo Boarding School, John maintained the balance between pushing the government’s policies and fulfilling the needs of the Hopi community, despite their resistance to forceful changes. Jackie and her sisters attended the school where John and Olive taught adults and children, amidst classmates “clothed in little more than rags. Some were nude” (Jacobs 43).
Jackie and her sisters spent a lot of time alone. Several tiny pots that a young Jackie had dug out of the hard earth sit in our home today, relics of her time trying to connect to a land in which she was not necessarily welcome. The family was close and while relatives offered me many details of a warm and loving Olive, not much is said about John. Though he was alcoholic later in life that died before my dad was born, it’s unclear if those problems began on the reservation. It becomes the first fact of the family that I may never unearth.
Daily life on the Hopi reservation was extraordinarily simple for bright, young Jackie while the rest of the country reeled through the Great Depression. The Barnes family remained insulated from the struggles of the era thanks to a steady government check that never left them wanting for food or shelter. A sturdy brick home may have left them better off than their Hopi neighbors, but the three sisters had trouble understanding people’s attitudes about the Depression. The inability to connect to the world outside of the harshness of the barren reservation had taken root in each of their psyches and would have profound effects on the rest of their lives.
In 1938 the Barnes family traded one bleak landscape for another and relocated to Rolla, North Dakota where the Barnes girls attended high school as most Americans knew it then. A slight beauty with dark hair and a dazzling smile, Jackie made an excellent cheerleader, an idyllic all-American girl, when she wasn’t absorbed in books. It’s also there in Rolla that she began her lifelong habit of chain-smoking, another ubiquitous feature of American living in vogue.
After graduating, Jackie left Rolla and headed to California to attend the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse. “She always loved acting and being on her own, experimenting,” my dad, Paul Sult III, tells me over several phone conversations that served as part of my research for this piece. Pasadena, however, proves problematic. My dad, his cousin Ron, even the archives of the Playhouse struggle to find a Jackie Barnes in their records. We all know she got married for the first time while attending acting courses at the alma mater of Dustin Hoffman, Gene Kelly, and Diane Keaton, to name a few, but to whom is the answer to a question still that remains out there in the ether, a faceless and nameless fellow that did little more than to drive her out of Cali and to Forth Worth, Texas. To mark such an intriguing time in her life, I begrudgingly scribble Jackie Somebody into my notes.
It’s the 1940’s and my grandma was assembling guns and bombs. The real world moved in fast around Jackie and her sister Shirley, where days were spent at the civil defense plant in Fort Worth and nights in the home of their famous Aunt Tad. It wasn’t long until Shirley met a handsome military man called Elmer Flickinger from Bern, Indiana. For a family constantly scattered, Flickinger quickly proved to be a most stable force. Like moths to a flame, all of the sisters and their mother gravitated to Indiana where they all settled in Forth Wayne and looked to Flickinger for light.
A light is red for 60 seconds at an intersection in Fort Wayne; another city under boundless sky, flat like the Hopi mesa tops. While most people sit and stare, maybe curse, Jackie scribbled lines of poetry. Despite her talents as a writer, voracious reader and skilled artist, the culture of the times did its best to discount her gifts. “She was the most brilliant person I knew. If she had been born in the 90s or even the 70s, she would have been something,” my cousin Ron Flickinger notes. Relegated to a menial job like the majority of mid-century women who were permitted to work, Jackie was simply a secretary yet a proficient typist for an interior design firm (National Organization for Women 108). She was soon to be demoted to that of a housewife in 1953 upon marrying Paul Sult II.
Paul was Jackie’s opposite in every way, a charismatic and successful insurance man prone to martini lunches, heavy drinking, and womanizing. He never picked up a book. Once my father was born in 1954, the family lived in Indianapolis and Pennsylvania before settling into a beautiful Chicago apartment. As a boy, cousin Ron would visit, enthralled by the lifestyle that was so different from the funeral home in which he lived. “They were so sophisticated, their apartment always contemporary. Paul had this zest for life and Jackie often seemed irritated by it.” Whether she was hosting one of Paul’s many parties or merely attending, after a drink and a hello she could always be found alone in some bedroom with her feet curled beneath her and a book in her lap.
Life proved challenging for Jackie Sult. My dad remembers a woman prone to depression, especially when her husband was gone on one of his many business trips. Lifelong bouts of vertigo soon coupled with intense anxiety- fears of heights, thunderstorms, and food- to control the life of a woman who couldn’t understand why happiness was so elusive and anger and sadness so prevailing. Christmastime was especially hard. Often my dad was alone, holding a baseball glove or some present in the living room, having learned by now to mute his excitement, while Jackie sobbed in a bedroom or under the kitchen table, dismayed by her own tears and hating it all.
Despite her obvious suffering, the era’s ignorance and stigmatization of mental health inhibited any chance that Jackie could learn to cope with a life she had trouble living. In the 1950’s “consulting psychiatrists enjoyed little public endorsement with few people knowing anyone who had consulted a psychiatrist” (Phelan, Link, Stueve, Pescosolido 189). Her sisters suffered too in abject silence: Shirley from what we now know as post-partum depression and both she and Lila Pat from emotional issues that none of my sources could elucidate. Jackie did receive counseling during the eventual break-down of her 16 year marriage, but neither her anxiety, depression, nor eating disorder were discussed in counseling or at home. Instead, Jackie “used reading to escape. Your grandpa never understood it, though he tried to,” my dad told me. “I’m sorry I don’t know more.” I add the pathology of her suffering underneath her first marriage on the list of things I’ll never get to understand.
A Literary Life
Between Jackie’s divorce from Paul in 1969 and her marriage to Don Brown in 1972 stands young Pauls’ favorite stretch of time. They lived in a peaceful home along the bank of the St. Mary’s river, surrounded by animals and nature. The house, built in a flood zone, no longer stands but my dad’s memories of its walls and that time remain sharp. Eventually, Don Brown moved in- a brilliant biologist that Jackie often called the love of her life. Finally, Jackie found her bookish and eccentric match and together they poured over their own studies, Don choosing Shakespeare for downtime while Jackie loved the classics, suspense, and the New Yorker. I often pluck the newest issue out of my mailbox and wonder what she would make of its contents as a lifelong liberal.
Don, also a heavy smoker, never saw the decade close. Having refused to enroll in a life insurance policy because he couldn’t be bothered, Don died from lung cancer and left Jackie with nothing, save a few books. She was never to remarry. Jackie resumed work as a secretary once my dad was grown. Her employer was a lawyer and though she could type up his work incredibly fast, she was a skilled paralegal and my father, Ron, and my mother acknowledge that she advised him on many of his cases.
Cigarettes and endless cups of black coffee punctuated by a half-eaten dish off the kid’s menu, a raspy laugh, eyes wide in animated expression- this is how I remember my grandma as a small child in the 90’s. When she doesn’t come to see us, she sends us things, mostly books to read and letters. From July 1999, alongside a copy of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King she wrote to me: “Gram has never cared for horror stories, and usually doesn’t care about the life of a writer unless she cares very much about what he or she has written. Then, the writer becomes very important because he (or she) will now always be a special friend.”
Retired, Jackie was free for creativity. She was still gobbling down books, creating beautiful chalk portraits, and making silly yet smart collages. My favorites are the ones of my dad in a marathon: a real photograph of his head atop a sketched runners body. Somehow she managed to come visit us in North Carolina despite an extreme fear of flying. She spent time with her sisters, her mother passing in the 1980s, though time spent with Lila Pat was over the phone. Lila Pat lived across town but refused to leave her own house. Jackie hadn’t seen her in 25 years.
My favorite way to connect to my grandma is through her letters, a medium in which her voice comes through naturally. I read a few and the condolence I’d been holding in my chest folds underneath her dry wit, excellent turn of phrase and acute understanding of character. From Elmore Leonard in December 15, 1999 to my grandma: What do you mean you’re not a writer? I can hear your voice in your writing; you use irony like a pro.”
It isn’t merely irony that connected my Jackie Brown to Leonard. She also didn’t have much in common with the money-smuggling Jackie Burke from Rum Punch, besides a slew of husbands and a suppressed status as women: Burke a flight attendant, Brown a secretary, for example. It was, in fact, a movie review of Jackie Brown, written by Jackie Brown in January, 1998 in the Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana that makes the connection, where she noted that “Hollywood seldom does justice to Leonard’s spare, terse style,” but “Tarantino comes closer than most.” How Leonard found the review remains to be seen, but it’s fact that a letter from Leonard turned up in Jackie’s mail.
Witnessing the details of your grandmother’s cancer through correspondence with a stranger is surreal. I knew she had breast cancer and then bladder cancer, a surprising yet common correlation to a smoking habit. In 1999 she tells Leonard about her mastectomy which was “easily corrected by the artful placement of a wadded Kleenex” against her “85 pounds of skin and bones.” She also details the squamous mass found in her bladder, “surely the ugliest word in the English language … appropriately used to describe the ugliest kind of invasion,” that eventually leads to its removal and use of a colostomy bag for urine that she rightfully despised. My shock gives way to jealousy when Leonard calls her a “bag lady” in a subsequent letter. But of course she wouldn’t talk that way to me, I was only 10 in 2000.
My grandma’s last few years are spent in a nursing home. My dad makes many frequent trips up North. Shirley is there at the same time and she remembers my dad despite her dementia, which is nice, even though my dad notes that she doesn’t seem to remember Jackie. Her death, three months after Shirley’s at the end of 2002, was bittersweet for my dad. “She had everything she needed but it was all too arduous, emotionally. She wasn’t happy in this world.”
She didn’t want a funeral. Instead my dad took her ashes to that river St. Mary’s where their happy times once stood. He spread them out slowly and alone.
Rachel Scott is a writer, model, and student in New York City where she has lived for the past decade. She loves to read and travel the world, especially to favorite places like London and Tokyo. This is her first published piece.
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