22 March 2012

a/k/a Frank Tarbeaux

Tarboe: The Story of a Life
Gilbert Parker
Toronto: Copp Clarke, 1927

Imagine how old fashioned a fellow Sir Gilbert must have seemed when Tarboe first hit the bookstores. In 1927, the bewhiskered baronet had been a member of His Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council for nearly a decade. While he'd begun his career in fin de siecle London, the author had had nothing to do with Oscar Wilde, the Decadents and The Yellow Book. In the Jazz Age, Tarboe fought a losing battle against Men Without Women and To the Lighthouse for the reader's dollar.

Published late in the author's life, just five years before the end, Tarboe stands alone in a bibliography dominated by adventure romances and historic novels. What is meant to be "the story of a life" –  another man's life – is in reality nothing more than accounts of encounters Parker shared with a man named Frank Tarbeaux. Like the knighted Canadian novelist, the American Tarbeaux is pretty much forgotten today, but in his time he appeared with some regularity in English-language newspapers.

The New York Times, 21 April 1913
A colourful character, "The King of the Card Sharks", Tarbeaux's portrait is painted here by an unnamed journalist in the 10 August 1895 edition of the Auckland Star:
He is uneducated and quite illiterate, but he is as clever as a monkey at what is called, in thieves' slang, "faking the broads," bunko steering, slim gambling, the gyp game, three-card monte, and is a proficient horse-shark, and an expert in green goods.

Nearly every mention I can find of Tarboe describes the book as a novel. The title – Tarboe, not Tarbeaux – more than hints that liberties have been taken. Parker has changed names to protect the innocent, the not-so-innocent and, I expect, the litigious. Of those we see touched by the card-shark's hand, only three, Hawai'i's King Kalākaua, Prince Consort John Owen Dominis and author George W. Peck are accurately recorded.* I think it no coincidence that all were long dead at time of publication.

Tarboe is not a novel; the proof lies in its structure. Parker was far too fine a craftsman to have composed so a rambling story. Here he is constrained by fact, limited by both what he had witnessed and what he had been told by his subject.

The drama takes place far away from the restaurants, art galleries and Parisian streets in which Tarbeaux tells his tales. It's in a comfortable Melbourne hotel room that he claims to be the sole survivor of Custer's Last Stand. His adventures with bounty hunters in the Transvaal are related at the Bodega on the rue de Rivoli.

The years go by and, as Parker notes (with some boasting, I think), encounters become less frequent:
The interests of my life grew wider and I entered the British Parliament but I had travelled before that in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Greece, Turkey, Austria, Italy, Germany, and nearly all the European States, and since then in America, South America and elsewhere. I met many distinguished and notorious people, but never one with such interest for me as Frank Tarboe.
The final encounter, at a New York restaurant, takes place only through Parker's persistent pursuit of his old acquaintance. "I was called Arizona Frank", says Tarboe, launching into a story of how he once performed with Buffalo Bill.

Parker makes it plain that he has great admiration for the card shark. I'll join in. As portrayed by Sir Gilbert, the Frank Tarbeaux of Tarboe, though a crook, seems a stand-up guy:
Here was a man capable of great things, now a gambler by lack of moral courage, a menace to society while he could have been its benefactor, criminal now though he might have become a saint.
These words, coming early in the book, are followed by this passage in the final pages:
I would sooner have gone to Frank Tarboe in trouble than any relative of mine, or any friend I ever had. I'm not ashamed to have known him, to have liked him much, and here I have put upon record some of his sins, and his folly; but if we would count sins and folly, how many would stand the test? 
Three years after the publication of Tarboe, Frank Tarbeaux told his story to Donald Henderson Clarke, a writer of risqué novels. The resulting "story of a life", published as The Autobiography of Frank Tarbeaux, is much more fanciful than Tarboe. Unlike Parker, Clarke transcribed, he did not question.

In the autobiography, Tarbeaux says this about a man whom he claims was his cousin: "I shot Bob Ford, got him through the right lung down in the Gunnison County, in Southern Carolina."

That's right, Frank Tarbeaux was the man who shot the man who shot Jesse James.

Don't you believe it.

Object: An attractive book in moss green cover with gilt lettering, the Copp Clarke edition features four woodcuts by American illustrator Harry Cimino.

My copy, bought a few months ago from a London bookseller for $3.00, once belonged to the Rodney Public Library. To be honest, I'm not at all sure that it's not their property still; there is no discard stamp. The library card indicates that it was last checked out in 1933.

Access: The Copp Clarke Canadian first is joined by editions published in England (Cassell) and the United States (Harper). I see no evidence that any but the English enjoyed a second printing (peut-être). Very Good copies of the Copp Clarke edition, sans dust jacket, begin at $12.00. While Tarboe is easily found in our universities, patrons of public libraries will have real problems.

* Well, kinda. Parker slips up in recording Peck's name as "James Peck".


  1. Absolutely fascinating. Some good investigative work. Btw I recently read your end page in the Concordia alumni mag, good stuff.

  2. Thank you for the kind words, zybahn. As you might have imagined, the Concordia piece was something of a labour of love. As for Tarboe... well, there's much more to explore. I might just return to it one day.