A missing totem pole in the golden age of Hollywood

Yachts historically were, and still are, a common sight in Juneau, but it’s not often that they’re carrying world-famous actors aboard. When the famed 20th century actor John Barrymore took his family on a yachting trip to Alaska and stopped in Juneau, the local press was thrilled. Barrymore made several trips to Alaska, and each time the newspapers ran front-page articles about Barrymore’s stay. They even went so far as to provide information on his vacation plans, the dimensions and amenities on his yacht, and the films he had been working on recently.

Newspaper clipping titled "Barrymore are in Juneau" with a photo of John Barrymore and his family and details about their yacht.
Daily Alaska Empire, 8/9/1933
Newspaper clipping with title "Film Stars in Juneau Aboard Private Yacht" and details on their yacht and plans in Juneau and Alaska
Daily Alaska Empire, 8/10/1933

About half a year after Barrymore’s 1933 visit, a photo was published in the Daily Alaska Empire showing him posing in front of a large totem pole. At first glance, it’s a neat photo that shows some of the exceptional craftsmanship as well as the size of the totem pole, but what’s strange is that the photo was not taken in Alaska but at Barrymore’s Beverly Hills mansion. The caption explains that on his latest trip to Alaska, Barrymore had “acquired” a totem pole and taken it back to his home.

Newspaper clipping with a photo of John Barrymore posing in front of a totem pole and caption "totem pole marks home of Barrymore" it also says that he acquired it on a recent trip to Alaska
Daily Alaska Empire, 3/20/1934

The totem pole taken by Barrymore had originally been located on Prince of Wales Island at the village of Tuxecan. Selling a totem pole was not allowed among the Tlingit and Barrymore called himself a thief in a diary entry about the totem pole, implying he too considered it improperly acquired. Barrymore had the totem pole cut into three pieces and sailed with it back home. At his estate, he kept the pole as a lawn ornament and installed piping so that it could be used as a fountain. Upon his death, the totem pole eventually made its way into the hands of Vincent Price, famed horror movie actor. Price kept the totem pole as a lawn ornament as well until donating it to the Honolulu Museum of Art in the 80s. When the museum received the totem pole it was heavily damaged and bore numerous traces of clumsy attempts to fix cracks in the wood. Without room in their museum to display it fully, the pieces of the totem pole were kept in the basement for over three decades.

A photo of the yacht Infanta sitting at dock in Juneau
John Barrymore’s yacht, Infanta, in 1931. This yacht carried the totem pole south from Alaska. Alaska State Library, Lloyd Jarman Photograph Collection.
A photo of Tuxecan village
Photo of Tuxecan village from the early 20th century. Alaska State Library, Case and Drape Photograph Collection.

Steve Langdon, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, saw a photo of Vincent Price next to the totem pole and recognized how out of place it was. Upon doing further research, including talking to a Tlingit carver, Langdon confirmed the totem pole was Tlingit and belonged to the village of Tuxecan. Moreover, by some accounts the pole was a mortuary pole and may have held remains of Tlingit people. Armed with strong evidence, and after conferring with Tlingit leaders, Langdon presented the case to the Honolulu Museum of Art, requesting the totem pole be returned to Tuxecan, to which the museum quickly agreed. Over 80 years after local press reported ambivalently on Barrymore taking the totem pole, Alaska was able to celebrate the pole’s return in 2015 to its rightful place.

Written by Christopher Russell

Sources:

Williams, Page. “The Tallest Trophy,” The New Yorker. 4/13/2015. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/20/the-tallest-trophy

“Alaska tribal members to get back totem pole taken by actor,” Juneau Empire. 10/22/2015. https://www.juneauempire.com/news/alaska-tribal-members-to-get-back-totem-pole-taken-by-actor/

DeMarban, Alex. “For Tuxecan totem, a long road home from Hollywood,” Anchorage Daily News. 9/28/2016. https://www.adn.com/culture/article/tuxecan-totem-long-road-home-hollywood/2014/05/25/

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