“I have been under the lash of alcoholism since birth.
“I was born in Wisconsin. My grandfather died on Main Street, in front of the office of a doctor called White Beaver by the Indians, while carrying the first buck deer of the season over his shoulders.
“My father built levees, docking areas for steamboats, and dykes against floods. He built colleges, creameries, whorehouses, cathedrals and breweries. Before he was 21, he was the contractor for the construction of one of the first churches on the northern Mississippi. He married his first wife in the church. He divorced her, and was ex-communicated. He joined the Masons and married my mother, a Norwegian Lutheran. I was born when he was 50, my mother, 39. In my most vivid memories of their relationship, they slept in separate bedrooms. My mother was fond of saying, “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.” Who cared when there were so many younger lips?
“All during my childhood and Prohibition there was booze in the house, and on the street. At home it was for stealing; I stole my first pint at ten. On the street it was for buying — grain alcohol mixed with sugar and hot water — with money stolen from home. One day a schoolmate downed a bottle of grain alcohol and died horribly. We held a drunken ritual in his honor. Years later in Hollywood the head grip on my crew reached behind the darkened set for his stash of gin and drank from a bottle of carbon tet. He was carried offstage dead.
“During Prohibition where I grew up there were twenty-one saloons and speakeasies on one street. I learned to drive when I was 13 so I could get my father home safe from his nightly rounds of speakeasies and bootleggers. Sometimes I’d wait for him in the car and masturbate. At the age of 14 I learned of his mistress, and found her in a speakeasy across from a brewery my father had built. She lead me to a hotel room. He was lying in sweat and puke, with puke pans on the floor at the side of the bed. I took him home and nursed him through the night.
“In the morning Doc Rhodes came. He was a dope addict. Before I left for school I watched him heat a substance in a spoon and draw it into a hypodermic. In Latin class I alternated between dozing off and hypertension. I asked to be excused. I went to the S&H Pool Hall and practiced three-cushion billiards. There was a phone call. My mother had tracked me down. My father was dying.
“He was dead when I got home. I had never been in a Catholic church, but I genuflected at his side, kissed him, and spent the night in a Turkish bath.
“Six months later my mother and I got the doctor into court, but I was so pissed on home brew I couldn’t testify, so we lost. The next day I saw the doctor walking on Main Street. I was driving a new Oakland Cabriolet. I was drunk. I ran the car at him across from the cathedral my father had built. A fire hydrant got in the way. Doc Rhodes left town. I got my first ticket for reckless driving.
“I learned about Aqua Velva long before I started shaving. No, I didn’t drink it. I poured it on the sheets or into the bathtub to clear the smell of my puke.
“The pool hall was important, especially on Sundays at noon, after church. I got kicked out of high school seventeen times.
“A boy needs a father at certain times in his life so he can kick him in the shins, so he can fight for the love of his mother. The boy misbehaves at one point, runs away at another, while his father remains constant, a gauge against which the boy can measure himself. Take that away and the spine is lost.”
~ from I Was Interrupted, Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, edited and introduced by Susan Ray.
Ray’s autobiographical sketches have the same dynamism, raw emotion, concision and avoidance of sentimentality found in his best films. And his story is an incredible one — the odds would seem to have been against him from the start, yet he left an indelible mark upon cinema.