Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre author’s greatest mystery was his true identity

Tim Holt, Humphrey Bogart, and Walter Huston in the 1948 film version of the novel The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
Tim Holt, Humphrey Bogart, and Walter Huston in the 1948 film version of the novel The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
Photo: Warner Brothers (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,181,160-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

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This week’s entry: B. Traven

What it’s about: One of the most mysterious figures in all of literature. Traven (the B may or may not have stood for “Bruno”) was the pseudonym of the author of a dozen novels, one of which was adapted into the John Huston-directed, Humphrey Bogart-starring, Oscar-winning The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. But almost nothing is known about the man behind Traven. His books first appeared in Germany (written in German), and most of his books were set in Mexico, prompting speculation that he lived there. But virtually all of the details of his life are just that, speculation.

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Biggest controversy: The obvious one: B. Traven’s true identity, on which there are many theories. One of the only things we’re largely certain of is that he was a German living in Mexico, largely because his manuscripts were written in German and sent to both German and U.S. publishers from Tamaulipas, Mexico. Traven claimed the English versions of his books were the original and the German ones were translations, but this is widely considered false, given that all of his books were published in German first.

As for further details, Traven himself wrote, “the creative person should have no other biography than his works.” One theory is that Traven was Ret Marut, a German actor, playwright, and journalist who ran an anarchist newspaper before WWI. After the war, he was arrested and officially executed, but the theory goes that he escaped, somehow made it to Mexico, and started publishing books. The name Marut may have also been an alias, as a BBC documentary concluded he was born Hermann Otto Albert Maximilian Feige, and fled Germany for the U.K., before apparently settling in Mexico. The hole in the theory is that Traven’s books are full of convincingly American expressions, and Feige/Marut doesn’t seem to have ever visited the U.S.

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Another candidate is Hal Croves, who’s equally mysterious. When John Huston was prepping to direct Sierra Madre, he arranged to meet the author, and instead a man named Croves appeared, claiming he was a translator to whom Traven had given power of attorney over everything to do with the film adaptation of his book. The film crew came to believe the Croves was Traven, although Huston doubted it, based on his written correspondence with the author not seeming like the same person.

Croves disappeared shortly after filming wrapped, and a Mexican journalist went looking for him and instead found Berick Traven Torsvan, who lived in Mexico from at least 1924 until 1950, and was apparently an American who had studied Mexican culture and history. The journalist claimed Torsvan had royalty payments under B. Traven’s name, and when pressed admitted he was the writer. So the leading theory competing with Feige/Marut is that Torsvan was both B. Traven and Hal Croves. Further confusing things, Croves resurfaced as a literary agent in the ’50s and ’60s, and on his death, his wife announced that his real name was Traven Torsvan Croves, and that he was in fact the author. Shortly afterward, she announced he was also Ret Marut, and that he was born in Chicago—as Berick Torsvan claimed to be—emigrated to Germany—where Ret Marut was from—then escaped a death sentence and moved to Mexico.

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There are plenty of other theories—Traven was the illegitimate son of Emperor Wilhem II; or Jack London, having faked his death; or Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico in 1913 (and would have had to have lived to 127 to have written all of Traven’s books); or Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos using a pen name (his sister, Esperanza López Mateos, was B. Traven’s Spanish translator). As convoluted as it is, the widow’s theory—that Marut, Torsvan, Croves, and Traven were all the same person—makes the most sense.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Traven’s books sound terrific. Sierra Madre is rightly considered one of the best films of all time, largely on the strength of its story, in which treasure hunters first bond and then are driven apart and destroyed by paranoia and greed. In general, Traven’s works were adventure stories, underpinned by class and social consciousness. Without being overtly political, Traven’s heroes are working-class everymen, trying to succeed despite being trampled under the wheels of capitalism. He also calls frequent attention to the plight of indigenous Mexicans, decades before the political left seized on anti-colonialism as a cause. But first and foremost, his books were page-turning adventure stories, with down-on-their-luck heroes traveling the world in search of adventure.

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Thing we were unhappiest to learn: One plausible theory involves Traven stealing his stories. One thing that makes every Traven theory hard to square is that he seems to have done so much in one lifetime. He was a German anarchist, an American who did an in-depth study of Mexican indigenous culture, bohemian actor and playwright, downtrodden member of the proletariat, who managed to pepper his German with American expressions and his English with German ones, despite apparently never having lived in the U.S., depending on which version of the story you subscribe to. So one theory states that Rut Maret, German bohemian, met an American in Mexico who was full of colorful stories of travels and adventure, and took those stories for his books. Gerald Gale, a recurring character in several of Traven’s books, would be a stand-in for this figure, which points to Linn Gale—an American-born Mexican newspaper publisher who was a contemporary of B. Traven’s—as the real-life inspiration for Traven’s stories.

Also noteworthy: Sierra Madre wasn’t Traven’s only book to be adapted for the screen. Between 1954 and 1963, six movies, a TV movie, and an episode of Cheyenne were based on Traven’s novels or short stories. And in 1971, John Huston, who directed Sierra Madre 23 years earlier, starred in another Traven adaptation, The Bridge In The Jungle, of which Wikipedia only gives a one-sentence description: “In a jungle Mexican village, a boy drowns in a river under a bridge.”

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Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Besides Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, B. Traven’s best-known work was The Death Ship, (adapted into a West German film in 1959). Also called a coffin ship, death ships were unsafe watercraft so heavily insured that they were worth more to their owners sunk than afloat. Ship owners would paint over rot, present the vessel as a new ship, and hire desperate men for the dangerous work of either keeping the ship afloat… or netting an insurance payout. Traven’s book uses the portrayal of life on a coffin ship to present a scathing critique of capitalism, and it’s speculated that B. Traven had to sail on such a ship to reach Mexico from Germany, if that’s in fact where he was from.

Further Down the Wormhole: When the Treasure Of The Sierra Madre film premiered, there was a brief but widespread fascination with B. Traven’s mysterious origins. Life magazine even offered a $5,000 reward for info on the man behind the pen name. The venerable Life was perhaps the most prominent American magazine of the 20th century, publishing weekly from 1883 to 1972, and then resurfacing as a monthly from 1978 to 2000. Throughout its run, the magazine was known for its iconic photography and illustrations by the likes of Norman Rockwell. Despite being a general-interest magazine without a hard news focus, Life sent war correspondents into Iraq during the Gulf War, although that was its last such effort, as the magazine began to struggle financially shortly thereafter.

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The Gulf War was the first of two wars waged by an American president named George Bush against Iraq. The first one was considered a smashing success by the American side, largely because the elder Bush limited his efforts to pushing Iraq’s army out of neighboring Kuwait, which it had invaded, rather than trying for a prolonged invasion. The downside: The country remained under the rule of Saddam Hussein. While he may have been a brutal dictator, Hussein also had his sensitive side, as evidenced by the novels he secretly wrote as president. We’ll take a look at a very different pseudonymous author next week.

Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in early 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.

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