Charles G. Clarke (1899 – 1983) may not have been present for the settling of the American West, but he sure was present for the building of its mythology. In the course of his life he went from living on the street to being a celebrated cinematographer, as well as an esteemed Lewis and Clark scholar and bibliophile.
A Teenage Runaway
Tired of grubbing out sagebrush on his father’s Antelope Valley, California ranch, Charles Clarke ran away at the age of thirteen with the proceeds from the sale of a calf.
He subsisted on oranges and made a living setting up bowling pins in downtown Los Angeles until one day he walked past a commotion in a vacant lot. It was the set for a feature film. Asking about a job, Charles was told to come back the next day, and he got in on the ground floor of the new movie industry.
Young Charles thrived in the business,and became one of Hollywood’s most distinguished cinematographers, working on such productions as Miracle on 34th Street, The Bride Wore Crutches, and Frontier Marshal.
President of the American Society of Cinematographers
Clarke was particularly known for his ability to work outdoors under harsh conditions. He traveled to China to film The Good Earth, to Tahiti for Mutiny on the Bounty, and to Alaska, where Clarke spent weeks filming the Inuit hunting on the frozen tundra. He was nominated for an Academy Award four times and was twice elected president of the American Society of Cinematographers.
Charles Clarke’s unaccustomed prosperity gave him the means to pursue his other passion: collecting books on the American West. Starting out with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, his interests expanded to include California history: the 1848 Gold Rush, overland journeys West, and a large collection on the history of Los Angeles. Clarke’s energy and determination seem to radiate from the handwritten notes he left all over the margins of his books. A self-taught scholar, he wrote The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1970), which has been reprinted several times and is still prized by Expedition scholars.
The Zamarano Eighty
In 1928, a group of Los Angeles based book collectors formed the Zamarano Club, to “promote interest in artistic printing and beautiful books.” They compiled the Zamarano Eighty, a list of the most significant early volumes on California history. As a club member and an eager book collector, Charles Clarke tried his hardest to get all the Zamarano Eighty in first editions into his collection.
He wasn’t able to; the Zamarano Eighty has only been compiled four times. Only two first edition copies of The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, by John Rollin Ridge, number sixty-four on the list, are known to exist.
Restoring Rare Items
After Charles Clarke’s death, Mary Clarke Hiestand generously donated her father’s collection to the McCracken Research Library. She had become concerned about her father’s collection after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, when some of the books were damaged.
Hiestand’s gift included funds for the restoration of the collection. Interns in the Center’s Conservation Department painstakingly repaired these valuable books, which are available for view and study in the McCracken Library.