Smash-and-Grab Press 2021, paper $13, 244 pp., ISBN 978-1-7368333-9-1
Cover: detail of an untitled painting by my uncle Bing—George Lentton Meyers, Jr.—probably based on Josef Muench’s 1952 photograph Sheep and Sand Dunes, as reproduced on the cover of Arizona Highways, July 1952.
When Fielding Yost (1871-1946), American football’s most prominent figure in the first half of the 20th century, retired in 1946 as the University of Michigan’s longtime football coach and athletic director, he was asked who were the best football players he had ever seen play. "Jim Thorpe and Ted Key," he replied.
Jim Thorpe (1887-1953) is still famous, the legendary Native American athlete, two-time All American and Olympic track-and-field gold-medal winner, later stripped of his Olympic medals after his amateur status was contested (they were restored after his death).
Ted Key is not particularly famous today—though in 1935, and for a few years afterward, he was very famous indeed. Part of the problem is that "Ted Key" wasn’t his real name. In actuality he was Clois Francis Key (1910-1970), known to friends and family as Shorty; a son of my grandmother’s favorite brother, he was my father’s first cousin.
Shorty was born and raised in Vernon, Texas, where his father, James Daniel Key (1872-1951), was Sheriff of Wilbarger County, later an oilman and then Vernon’s chief of police. Shorty’s extensive football career began at Vernon High School; after graduating, he joined his older brothers playing at Terrill Prep in Fort Worth as part of Texas’ greatest-ever high-school football dynasty. Later, he played for Weatherford Junior College and then at the Texas School of Mines (and, somewhere in there, apparently also played semi-pro baseball in Mexico). In 1932 he attended the Los Angeles Olympics, liked California and decided to stay. Playing for the San Pedro Longshoremen in their victory over the Fleet, he was seen by one or both of the Janss brothers—Edwin (1882-1959) and Harold (1889-1972)—and recruited for their team at Urban Military Academy in Santa Monica, which they used as a feeder team for the UCLA Bruins.
Thus, by whatever name he arrived on the UCLA Bruins, "Ted Key"'s eligibility was admittedly pretty well shot. But, then, most likely was that of numerous teammates; Edwin Janss, Jr. was quoted in the 1960s in Sports Illustrated as saying (doubtless with a smirk) that his father and uncle had assembled a team of "professional gorillas." But it's best to remember that it was the Great Depression.
The Janss brothers, if forgotten today, were real estate developers of tremendous vision and huge success. Among their projects was Westwood Village, built up around UCLA, whose campus they were instrumental—through an exceedingly generous gift—in bringing to Westwood in the first place. Also they developed Holmby Hills (Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion was originally built as the Janss brothers’ sister's home, part of what used to be a family compound). Their father had started the Janss Investment Company, helping to develop Boyle Heights; the brothers joined him in developing Hancock Park, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Yorba Linda, the San Fernando Valley, and much else.
But football was the Janss brothers’ obsession, if mainly as a kind of loss leader for their Westwood Village development. And they had a mighty rival at USC in the form of the Doheny family, which financed USC's football team—at first in the person of Edward L. Doheny, Jr. (1893-1929) and, after his shooting death, with the largesse of his father, the Oil King himself, Edward L. Doheny (1856-1935).
So that’s the background to That’s My Story. I had the great good fortune to meet my cousin Shorty Key at a 1965 family reunion when I was a kid. He was nice to his kid relatives, even to those of us utterly uninterested in football, and kindly showed us around the landmarks of Vernon. He was a charming man—as charming a man as I’ve ever met—even if his life perhaps hadn’t worked out as he’d hoped, with a career coaching football. Instead, after his 1935 debacle, he was signed to the professional wrestling circuit and for several years toured the nation, a "name" wrestler, still as Ted Key (though my father remembers seeing a poster in Mount Pleasant, Utah promoting him as Killer Key). Marrying a woman from Iowa, he played for several years on a semi-pro football team in Des Moines, and later still worked in Dallas as a heavy equipment operator. We visited his lovely modern house in a Dallas suburb.
The Last Posse
The Southwest’s last great posse, chasing the famous Oklahoma Yeggman Frank Holloway, whose pistols had seven notches, one for every man he'd killed—yeggman being a nonce-word for safecracker—across Texas and Oklahoma, happened to be led by my great-uncle, Sheriff J.D. Key of Wilbarger County, Texas, in 1916. His posse captured Holloway and brought him back to Vernon, Texas for trial. (The Vernon Record, May 30, 1919, p. 1, alludes to this epic event.)
James Daniel Key (1872-1951) was a favorite, much-older brother of my grandmother’s. He served as Sheriff of Wilbarger County from 1911 to 1920, retiring to enter the oil business, later still serving as Vernon’s chief of police. He was a son of Nathan Micajah Key (1851-1890) and of Mary Jane Groves Key (1850-1924), whose father, James Daniel Groves (born 1818 in Kentucky, died after 1880), was head hand on the first iteration of the Waggoner Ranch in Wilbarger County.
The jail in Vernon, Texas seen ca. 1920 with Sheriff J.D. Key standing in front of it, as several of his children look on from the step to the front porch.
Chasing Frank Holloway makes up one of the two main plot strands in The Last Posse. The other concerns the theft of Nathan Micajah Key’s long-buried bones in 1922—all but a shinbone (see Vernon Record, August 27, 1922, p. 1 and Wichita Falls Daily Times, August 27, 1922, part one, p. 6). My book may be said to have started when my Uncle Bing told me his earliest memory, dating to the age of four or five: watching his grandmother try and fail to fit that shinbone into an urn for re-burial, and calling for a hacksaw. Wow!
I suspect the solution I offer in The Last Posse to the mystery of who opened his grave and stole his bones is correct, and that cousins who have clammed up for almost a century know more about it than my branch of the family does. (Tellingly, Della Tyler Key’s family history The Keys in Texas makes no mention of the event.) Whatever. My father, Harold Burton Meyers, whose acclaimed 1989 novel Geronimo’s Ponies likewise draws on Key family lore, explains it thus in his privately printed family history, Plain Folks (Williamsburg, Virginia, 2000, pp. 26-27), from which I quote with his kind permission:
The fantasy our branch of the family called “the Key Estate” was said to consist of 42 to 100 acres or more of choice Manhattan real estate, including Wall Street and Trinity Church, worth billions; some accounts added 7,000 acres in Kentucky. Unfortunately, the Key claim is contested not only by the present owners of the land, who hold titles that every court addressed on the subject has held to be valid, but also by other claimants in related branches of the family who know it as the Bibb or Edwards Estate.
The exact nature of the Key claim on this bonanza can be grasped only by great leaps of faith. Fog rises quickly when one tries to pin anything down. In some versions, the claim rests on a 1640 gift of the Manhattan land by Charles I to one of the ubiquitous John Keys of the time for unspecifed services. In other accounts it involves a sea captain of dubious reputation, Robert Edwards, who is said to have received that generous chunk of Manhattan Island as a reward from a grateful King—possibly a George, but more likely a Charles—for piratical exploits on behalf of the Crown. The old privateer may or may not have been one-legged, a detail that assumed interest for Texas Keys after all of Nathan Micajah Key’s skeleton except one leg was seized by grave robbers in 1922, more than thirty years after his burial.
In one Key version of the Estate story, rights to Edwards’ Manhattan property eventually fell to Nancy (Ann) Bibb, wife of Martin Key, through Nancy’s sister, who married an Edwards heir and died a childless widow. An alternative spin on the story has it that Martin Key—and not his wife—inherited the land, by virtue of being descended from the John Key who may have got the land from Charles I before ever an Edwards appeared on the scene. In any case, all Key accounts agree on two points: Martin and Nancy Key owned the land and had many children.
Before his death in about 1791, Martin Key is supposed to have given a 99-year lease to unnamed parties. By the time the lease expired in the late 19th century (the exact date is up for grabs), all documents pertaining to the case, such as leases and deeds, had been misplaced, leaving no trace in official records. Nancy Bibb’s and Martin Key’s numerous heirs found themselves unable to regain the land. From time to time since then, potential Key, Bibb, and Edwards heirs—now numbering in the thousands—have glimpsed the will-o’-the-wisp, usually with the aid of a sharp-eyed lawyer or private investigator who claims to have a lead on the whereabouts of the missing documents and is willing to produce them for a price.
Since about 1880 potential heirs have periodically formed dues-collecting family associations to claim the legacy. In 1924, when the lost Manhattan acres were said by enthusiasts to be worth as much as $4 billion, such associations were active in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and other states. Texas and Florida Keys seem not to have set up their own associations, but were accepted as members by the Georgia and Alabama associations. I have not been able to determine what proofs of descent were required. Perhaps proof was not needed for membership in associations relying so purely on faith. After all, the more dues-paying dreamers who could be got aboard, the better for the dream’s promoters. As a Greenville, SC, newspaper reported in 1924 about the dreams of would-be heirs: “At the bottom of it all is the same urge that prompts suckers to go up against the gambling devices of county fairs, knowing these devices are crooked, yet always believing sombody is going to give something away.” (Quoted, minus the newspaper’s name, in Della Tyler Key, The Keys of Texas, p. 62.)
Bibb and Key claimants have usually worked together, but the Edwardses dispute the Bibb-Key claim and go their own way. They agree, of course, that such an estate exists, though they know it as the Edwards Estate. They argue that the heirship never left the Edwards line and urge Keys and Bibbs to be fair and step aside. An effort by Keys and Edwardses to join forces, thereby avoiding litigation, came to naught in 1924. Rivalry between the families grew intense, causing some Keys to worry "about what the Edwards are doing." (The Keys in Texas, p. 72.) What the Edwardses were doing, it turned out, was filing suit, to no avail, against Trinity Church, which sits on part of the disputed Manhattan land. (See the Atlanta Journal, Februay 22, 1925: “Edwards Heirs Sue Church for $10,000,000”; cited in Marcus Key, The Virginia Genealogist, Vol 8, No 4, note, p. 179.) . . . .
After my grandfather’s grave was robbed in 1922, Will Key seems to have blamed the theft of Nathan Micajah Key’s bones on an opposing faction in the Key Estate dispute. According to my mother, he and my other uncles developed a theory that a certain soldier, AWOL from Ft. Sill, had been hired by seekers after the Key Estate to produce the skeleton of a one-legged sea captain named Micahah Key. That was the name of our great-great-grandfather as well as of our grandfather, neither of whom was a sea captain. (Mostly likely, neither of them had so much as seen the sea.) Mother didn’t go into the question of how, in those pre-DNA days, a skeleton plucked from a grave on the plains of west Texas, even with one leg left behind, could prove anything about the Estate one way or another. We, of course, didn’t think to ask.
She always ended up with the most gripping tale of all—how her hot-headed brothers, burly six-footers all and one a former sheriff, tracked down the suspected grave robber, a soldier absent without leave from Fort Sill. She refused to say exactly what happened to the fellow, hinting only that neither the Army nor Texas ever saw him again.
The New York Times provides a good overview of the Edwards Estate in its story of January 1, 1991, p.10. (The Edwards Estate also provides the plot for my short novel The Man Who Owned New York (published in New York / Siena)).
My great-grandfather Nathan Micajah Key’s second grave, in Eastview Cemetery, Vernon, Texas, photographed in February 1922 after the burial of his widow, my great-grandmother Mary Jane Groves Key. The marker also commemorates their young daughter, Nellie Key, who died days before her father in 1890. The family legend that whoever opened his grave and stole his bones broke the tombstone, too, is belied by the intact stone, though it was broken later and restored by my father and my uncle Bing.
My grandmother, along with the other schoolchildren of Vernon, was one day mustered to the courthouse square to witness the town’s sole legal hanging; as my father marvels still, "What kind of society wants its children to see a public execution?"
Garden City’s Windsor Hotel was such as I describe, a once-magnificent structure. I stayed there in 1973 to meet my maternal grandfather’s widow, a resident of the town; she recalled my maternal grandfather’s courting her there and his joking that horse rustlers used to be hanged from the upper-story balustrades (she was horrified). It was then almost empty, a TV blaring in the cavernous atrium for its handful of resident pensioners. Truman Capote had made the Windsor Hotel his headquarters while doing research for In Cold Blood. I confess to inventing the railroad from Clinton, Oklahoma to Garden City, Kansas, but I needed it.
I also invented "the Duke" (though happy to steal his name from Mark Twain). He was one of the not inconsiderable number of English noblemen who, following Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1890, decamped to the American West and bought up enormous tracts of land. The Texas Panhandle became home to several such gentlemen.
My great-uncle Reuben Key (1875-1936) had a tragic experience when he was deputy sheriff in Altus, Oklahoma. Patrolling the town on New Year’s Eve, he came upon two young men who were shooting off a gun. They pistol-whipped him and he fatally shot one, who turned out to be the Mayor’s teenaged son. Tried for murder, Uncle Reuben was acquitted, but was said never to be the same again (see Altus Times, December 9, 1909, p. 3, for his acquittal). While awaiting trial, he was reassigned to Elmer, Oklahoma, where he and the jailer one evening thwarted a lynch mob that was demanding a black prisoner arrested for rape be handed over to it (see Altus Times, June 3, 1909, p. 1).
Incidentally, as in The Last Posse, my Uncle Bing was indeed a friend of the great Western actor Ben Johnson’s, whose ranch was just up the road from his house in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Near the end of his life Bing himself happened to appear in a movie, holding his own with the great Javier Bardem in the best scenes of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (Eugene Richards’s Thy Kingdom Come incorporates additional footage of them), an experience he thoroughly enjoyed, affirming the following year in almost his last words that he “would do it again.” His film appearances came about through the chance that he then resided in the same Bartlesville, Oklahoma nursing home as Malick’s mother.
Uncle Jim’s demise is based on a near-escape by my Uncle Bing’s cattleman friend, Frederick F. Drummond, as he told it to me.
Two memories of visiting Vernon: Driving past Archer City, a little ways to the southeast, I was so struck by the clouds looking like cottonballs pressed against glass that I made a note of it, only to remember with disgust that the same image had been used by Archer City native Larry McMurtry in one of his excellent novels. In Vernon I went by Walmart, looking for beer; looked and, not finding any, asked for help from a young man stocking the shelves. “Sir,” he said, his face crumpling with woe, “Wilbarger County’s dry.”
Available from any bookseller. Excerpt (.pdf)
That’s My Story: Two Tales by Steven Key Meyers
Smash-and-Grab Press 2021, paper $13, 244 pp., ISBN 978-1-7368333-9-1