We Called Him “Smilin’ Jack”

By Rick Seymour

Smilin’ Jack in 1985.  Photo by (photo Susan Gilbert AP)

Evan S. Connell, Jr., was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on August 17, 1924.  His father was a doctor, as was his grandfather.  Evan Jr, was expected to follow the family tradition, and he did enter a pre-med course for two years at Dartmouth College before joining the navy and becoming a pilot in 1943.  After the end of World War II, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to graduate from the University of Kansas in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in English.  As a post-graduate, he studied creative writing at Columbia University in New York and at Stanford.  

Although he did most of his prolific writing at his apartment in San Francisco, he spent most of his social time in Sausalito and at the No Name Bar.  He was a vital member of the town’s literary community from the 1950s through the 1980s, writing and eventually becoming an editor of Contact, the sterling literary quarterly magazine, subtitled “The San Francisco Journal of New Writing, Art and Ideas,” but actually published by William H. Ryan in Sausalito at 751 Bridgeway, upstairs from the venerable Tides bookstore.

We called him “Smilin’ Jack” because of his strong resemblance to the comic book character of that name.  In those days Evan frequently wore his brown leather and fur collared flying jacket and truly looked the part of a World War II Flying Tiger.  In her mid-eighties interview with him in Marin’s Pacific Sun, Eve Pell said, “Interviewing Evan Connell is something like interviewing Gary Cooper.  Connell is a tall, handsome, reserved man who appears completely self-possessed.”  I can’t think of a better description, but would add dedicated and hardworking.  In the course of his life, he published twenty-one books, including novels, poetry, biography and historical travel adventures.  He received national recognition for his 1958 novel, Mrs Bridge, and ten years later for its companion, Mr. Bridge.  Both books were later combined in a movie, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.  He hit the best seller lists again in 1985 with his sweeping biography, Son of the Morning Star:  Custer and the Little Bighorn.  While he spent many hours a day writing in his modest apartment at the base of Russian Hill, most of his spare time was spent with his girlfriend, actress and singer Gale Garnett, or playing chess and mingling with literary friends and associates, such as Calvin Kentfield, Bill Ryan and Christopher Humble, at the No Name.

A group of individuals who knew Evan in his Sausalito days will present a program on the writer’s life and works at Sausalito’s Public Library at 7 p.m. Friday, April 15th.  Part of the Library’s Spring Events Calendar and cosponsored by the Sausalito Historical Society, the show will include a biographical introduction by myself, stories about Evan from Neil Davis, past owner of the No Name, and Bill Kirsch, artist and editor of the book The Sea Lion and the Sculptor, a biography of Al Sybrian.  Local author and thespian Phil Sheridan will read excerpts from Even’s books.  The program will conclude with a reading from Evan’s lampoon of Contact, “Octopus, the Sausalito Quarterly of New Writing, Art and Ideas,” and any memories from the audience.