First there was a dainty artistic bird-like woman married to a dairyman in Quebec, a little town named “Clarenceville.” She had two sons, happily, but then there was trouble and she had several miscarriages. Finally, she gave birth to a premature baby so small her wedding ring could fit his wrist as a bracelet. He was kept warm in a cotton-liked shoebox on the warming shelf over the wood stove because this was long ago before isolettes and special treatments. He survived, a small tough baby who grew into a small tough man.
The mother’s name was Mary Scriver, but she and I are no relation. People who knew that woman loved her very much and she was Bob Scriver’s grandmother. The baby was Thaddeus Emery Scriver who grew up and came West.
TE’s oldest brother had come to Minneapolis and bought land that turned out to be under the growing city. He made a lot of money and hired his next brother younger to be his bookkeeper, but there was no job for T.E. who continued West until he came to the Blackfeet Reservation at the end of the still extending Great Northern Railroad. After almost a decade during which he founded the Browning Mercantile, it was time for him to find an heir. He knew he needed someone bigger and healthier than his mother, so he went back to Clarenceville and married “Wessie”.
This was Ellison Westgarth MacFie, healthy and cheerful, boisterous daughter of “Major” Macfie, who combined a military identity with running a prosperous farm next to the Scriver dairy. It was a very long journey on the train back to Browning. Her new home was a shock. The first baby, the heir, was Harold Thaddeus Scriver who ran the Merc all his life though he would rather ranch.
The second baby, the spare, was Robert MacFie Scriver. Harold was said to be his father’s boy, and Robert was his mother’s. They were very different. Robert was a failure in the Merc since he didn’t pay attention. Put to cutting the eyes out of potatoes in storage to keep them from sprouting, he was caught carving them into little figures. His best friend was the father of James Welch, same name as son/novelist. The two of them endangered their lives by flirting with the railroad. (I interviewed Jim the father and a while later attended his graveside service in Dupuyer.)
The big problem with Robert, aside from his ungovernability, was figuring out what he could do for a living. In high school he was in band and was friends with the band leader, who suggested Dickinson State Teacher’s College where he himself was headed. Thus Robert came back home to teach in the high school. His mother played the piano and approved of bands. She was determined to keep Robert with her. When he impregnated his first wife, also his student, and honorably married her, going up to Cardston which is the local practice in such a case, Wessie built them a little house with a white picket fence across from the school. But it was so close that when Robert went home for lunch, he claimed, there was a male guest who hadn’t been watching the clock.
WWII intervened and Harold joined. At first Robert didn’t and he had a small daughter so maybe he didn’t have to, but then came the son, and all the Brit tradition kicked in about hero-fathers. When he joined, Harold advised him on how to be interviewed for placement: “ Do not say you hunt big game, do not say you ride horseback, do not say you’re a crack marksman — though not as good as me.” He was assigned to the Army Air Corps band in Edmonton. The marriage ended.
I knew that first wife briefly when the daughter died and we all convened in Anacortes where her family were. The second wife, Jeannette, was French-Canadian — NOT Métis, she said — the daughter of a pool hall owner who ran a barbershop in one corner while Jeannette ran a beauty shop in another. When I began to write “Bronze Inside and Out,” she became an unreliable informant via email.
After she left Bob she ended up in California and remarried the owner of a specialty foods store where she became friends with celebrities and lived in a very nice retirement community. The husband died and then she fell, breaking her pelvis. She was not expected to survive so her house contents were auctioned off. It was months before she came home to an empty house. Finally she became so ill that her nephew took her up to Oregon to a nursing home where she died.
An unreliable witness tries to twist events to make herself look good, but there are undeniable ways that Jeannette contributed to Bob Scriver’s career. She supported the transition from teaching to taxidermy, she helped cast and market an extensive line of cute tourist animals that Bob modeled and airbrushed to sell for a few dollars, and she fought hard to keep Wessie away. (No success.)
This was “modeling” as Bob defined it, not “sculpture” which didn’t begin until about the time Jeannette left and “Western sculpture” began to take form as a genre. The first by Bob were five equestrians ordered for window display by a haberdashery and sports store. “Lone Cowboy” caught hold and quickly sold.
Also at about that time, the Blackfeet became oil entrepreneurs and a few of the Tribal Council who had been Bob’s students began to collaborate on a series of portraits of real Blackfeet to be made into monuments to celebrate the People. These included “No More Buffalo” and “Transition” as well as “Return of the Blackfeet Raiders” and others never made.
“No More Buffalo”
When I arrived in Browning in 1961 to teach, I walked up to the Scriver Studio, not expecting anything of a modest building with slightly corny signage. Then I saw these sculptures and was deeply impressed. Already I was a fan of the Western hero myth, but now I discovered another dimension.
After graduation from Dickinson, Robert went on to Vandercook School of Music in Chicago, which was for master teachers. While there, he discovered the Field Museum of Natural History, the same as I did a decade later, and we were both deeply struck by Malvina Hoffman’s Hall of Man, portraits of people from all over the world. We could talk about individual portraits and both knew the books she had written. In fact, her book about bronze casting was soon our guide. By 1965 we went to her mews complex in Manhattan where she was close to dying, and knelt by her “lit de repose” with our arms full of roses for her.
The relationship between Bob and I was strong at that moment, but over the years his life has become a ground for learning about human life, how accidents of birth, location, parentage, DNA vitality, socioeconomic forces can string together into a sequence that seems at once surprising and inevitable. There’s much more to Bob’s life that I still explore even as I speculate on the same principles in my own life.
This means that I look at these events from a distance, as theory. Going there as relived experience seems risky. But his approach to being famous, supported by people making money off him, was suppression of anything he thought was negative. This meant losing much of the reality. I recover it now, when I’m feeling brave.
In the end Harold, who did everything respectable and expected of him, died of cancer, quietly without fanfare. His daughter dispersed the Browning Merc. Robert who mixed conformity with rebellion, left more than a thousand bronzes now owned by the Montana Historical Society. His little empire, ranch and museum, was sold by his widow, wife number four, who took the millions to Canada and soon died. Her name is on the headstone in the Cut Bank cemetery, but her body was cremated and thrown into the sea, the same as his first wife.