04 January 2010

Major Andre: Soldier, Lover, Spy

John Andre or possibly his brother
Andre sketched this self portrait the morning of his execution

The execution in Tappan, NY

12 years ago today I had an agent at William Morris.

When people talk about letting go of the prior year - - It will come as no to surprise to anyone that I have a problem letting go of 1986 much less last year. I was flipping through some old diaries when I came across notes of a phone call with a production executive at United Artists in early December of 1997. I can see how excited I was by the writing on the page. Clear, easy to read and very detailed. Unlike any notes I had taken before or since.

There was interest in a screenplay I had written about Major John Andre. A man who came very close to winning the American Revolution for the British. And had it not been for some very bizarre twists of fate and two bumbling yokels right out of a Laurel & Hardy comedy - - he would have pulled it off. And we would be a very different country today. Probably one with a national health care system.

John Andre (1750-1780) was always the British spy in American history who was snotty, rude and probably a homosexual sleeping with his boss, General Henry Clinton. While preparing a National Park Service presentation on the American Revolution from the British point of view...I found someone else.

A man of social graces to be sure but also a man who was well liked by almost everybody who met him. No small task when he was making a meteoric rise up the British Army's chain of command. By the age of 30, he was a major and head of Intelligence for Clinton in New York. The position carried the rank of colonel but he was held back due to lack of funds to pay for the commission.

To make a long story and a 155 page screenplay short - - That's poor Major Andre you see up there hanging from the gibbet. He made the unfortunate error of traveling behind American lines dressed as a civilian and hiding plans to West Point in his sock. These two mistakes were at the insistence of Benedict Arnold who was selling his services to the British for roughly $3,000,000 in today's currency and a general's commission.

I even have some sympathy for Arnold. A pushy loyalist wife, Peggy Shippen and a congress who refused to reimburse him for out of pocket expenses. That alone would piss me off to no end not to mention he was, hands down, Washington's best general on the field.

I started the story in 1988. I followed Andre and Arnold everywhere. I have boxes of tapes, photographs, music of the period, books on the culture and graces...It was my passion for years. Sadly my development executive was fired. I was told I'd hear from Lindsay Doran who was running UA. Sadly, she was fired. Soon afterwards, very sadly, William Morris fired me. They never did like it was 155 pages.

I had passion for the writing, the period, the music, the art. Passion for the people who were long gone but were in my heart everyday. And I remember that passion when I see those notes that were written 12 years ago. I reckon five...maybe six people read, "Major Andre: Soldier Lover Spy" Last month 45,000 of you read The Trad. I just wanted to say thank you for keeping the passion going.


James said...

No thank you! I wait each week for Friday belt

M.Lane said...

That is what it is all about. I have to write and post, good or not so good.

Have a great 2010!


Local said...

Most of the Americans who were involved in his trial had very nice things to say about him, Hamilton especially if I recall.

I'm sure you've been to the Old Reformed Church in Tappan. Hell of a building.

Scott said...

G-Dammit, don't quit. Re-write it as a historical novel. F- Hollywood. They'd only screw it up anyway. A book would be all yours. Thousands of people still mourn Patrick O'Brian (I'm one). There is a market for this stuff, especially if you get the details right.


RandyLuvsPaiste said...

"... who was snotty, rude and probably a homosexual sleeping with his boss..."

Anyone who reads your blog on a regular basis knows you are certainly not homophobic. The above line does not reflect the live-and-let-live sorta guy we know you are.

The Ancient said...

This is very interesting. I had always thought that Andre was an ex-squeeze of the very Tory Mrs. Arnold, and that she was susceptible to his charms and arguments and suggestions therefore.

I hope your screenplay would have been mildly counter-factual, at least for Washington's sake.

He ought to have resisted that feigned hissy fit she staged on the floor by the bed and hanged her from the nearest tree.

Women's sufferage, etc.

tintin said...

James- I'm runnin outta belts!

Scott- Thanks. I'm tryin.

Randy- Andre was intrepreted by most 'American' history books as, "snotty, rude and a homosexual..." I found someone else in my research who really interested me and who I thought was an innocent caught up in a event of history.

Sorry I didn't make that clear.

Andre paid the ultimate price only to be trivialized by American historians and history books as an effeminate snob. He was neither. As a wise man once said about another officer many years later, "I don't care if he fucked Coke machines.
...he was a good man."

Sandra said...

This book - with which you must grace us - is one that I would absolutely love to read. Stay the course! This kind of quality is so needed.

Anonymous said...

Hey Big Dog; I agree with Scott. this needs to be a book. Look how popular "the Scarlett Pimpernell" was in its day! This sounds similar. Go forward. Go go go!

GSV JR said...

Who's got time for reading - much less writing - anymore?

Turn it into a tweet. Then, and only then, will UA cower at your chunky ankles.

I'll finish my book if you promise to do the same. But I'm thinking of rearranging the 5,000+ wrd chapters into seperate haiku. What's the formula again? Three numbers, right?

ADG said...

Andre....was in the champagne or Cold Duck bidness too ... right?

Happy 2010

Julia said...

I believe you are keeping the passion alive . . . I think you're too young yet to craft out the book, even tho' it sounds like you're more than half finished. Save it for retirement.

I don't know how I'm gonna do it, but somehow in 2010 I will find the right audience where I can say the words "I don't care if he fucked Coke machines.
...he was a good man" because I love this . . . a lot.

tintin said...

Local- I think an interesting relationship was that between Benjamin Tallmadge and Andre. Both were heads of their respective armies intelligence gathering and both men hit it off.

When the 3 men who captured Andre in Tarrytown petitoned congress to increase their pensions years later - Tallmadge argued against it portraying their actions as highwaymen and not soldiers.

Ancient- The Shippen / Andre relationship in Philadelphia sounds good but the history just isn't there. Andre had a thing for another woman (Becky) but he also had a thing for his career and he wasn't about to get involved. Knocking up a local was a quick way to end your career and more than a few did.

Preppy 101- Time. I need time and belts.

Anon- See above and thank you.


White wig and Red Coats
Crusty colonists
Where the hell is the Vulture
I got caught doing this?

ADG- It was served at your wedding.

edgertor said...

can we read it anyway? it sounds fascinating!!!

Snidely said...

Hello from Raleigh. I read your blog with envy and sadly live vicariously through your words. You bring a little joy to a somewhat drab existence.

Charles said...

Excellent post, old shoe.

Brummagem Joe said...

Andre is an interesting character but he was a bit player because the British were never going to win the Revolutionary war once the French put their weight behind the insurrection.......an almost limitless interior, the ability of the American insurgents to live off the land, divided opinion in Britain itself, and a British supply line over 3000 miles long that was subject to interdiction by what was still the second naval power in the world meant the British had no real chance of prevailing......Washington was a poor general but like the hedgehog he understood one big thing......all he had to do was keep his army in existence in the field until ultimately he wore the Brits down or they lost local naval supremacy which in fact is what happened at Yorktown......paradoxically the Brits did have the potential to snuff out the new Republic after the defeat of Napoleon if they were so minded......total global naval supremacy meant they could have imposed an effective blockade that would have strangled US commerce......then put ashore 75,000 Peninsular veterans led by seasoned British officers (maybe the Iron Duke himself) and the new Republic would have been in trouble........happily they decided to leave us alone

tintin said...

Had Andre made it back to NYC, a British assault was to be made on West Point (w/ Andre leading a force)the next day. G Washington and Lafayette were both there. So if the British captured GW what then? Probably a negotiated peace which is all Howe ever wanted.

Paul said...

Thank you for this blog, this post, all the one previous! I've always enjoyed your writing. Best wishes.

Tin-tin's phred/dad said...

As one of the few who has read the script. (Three drafts as I recall.)
I concur with those who would recommend it as a historical novel.
It was crammed with historically accurate material. Was extremely well written in your most excellent style that people often comment on. Full of the details that raise it above the common Hollywood shlock.
Proof that it's of real quality? I still have my copy in a manuscript box after all this time.
It's a "keeper."

initials CG said...

Unfortunately, a great story isn't enough. It needs a great pitchman. Go to hollywood. Spend a few weeks trying to pitch it. Who do you see playing Andre, Arnold, Mrs. Arnold? Is it like Pretty Woman, only with wigs? Something like that. You'd have a blast. At least some great material to keep us unimaginative historians entertained in blog land!

Brummagem Joe said...

tintin:"So if the British captured GW what then?"

......The congress would simply have appointed a new general......they had some good alternatives.....Washington would have gone down as another McClellan......George III and the North tory administration would never have negotiated a compromise peace.....what Howe wanted was irrelevant he was just a general in the field......The Americans lost battle after battle but it didn't matter as long as they could maintain an army in being.....something that Clausewitz, Grant and Mao understood.....you can only defeat an enemy by destroying his warmaking capacity and in this context this meant the ability of congress to maintain armies in the field which they could have done even had Washington and his entire force been captured.

Anonymous said...

arnold was one of the best field generals on either side. he got repeatedly screwed by congress.
i don't blame him, he saw himself as a lord fairfax and saw the revolution going sour the way cromwell's had.

tintin said...

Paul- Thanks. You're a man of amazingly good taste.

Dad- Thanks. You're a man who's my father so there's some prejudice ...although you never liked anyting I did when I was growing up.

cg- I cast it, scored it, designed it and costumed it. I pitched it and still...close but no cigar. Then I wrote four more. I am clearly a moron.

Joe- I think you underestimate GW's value in 1780. Still, you make a good argument and any infantryman will tell you that replacements, regardless of rank, must happen. But who would they have replaced GW with? I have a sense it would have been Knox or Wayne. They were both in way over their heads. And what would other general officers have thought if Arnold pulled it off? Who knows but it's a lot of fun to speculate.

Brummagem Joe said...

"Who knows but it's a lot of fun to speculate."

.....Sure it is, there's a whole literary and cinematic genre built around what if scenarios......oddly enough I don't find the Revolutionary War very interesting although I am fascinated by the French and Indian war which only ended 10 or 12 years earlier......indeed there's an argument to be made that it was British success in the Seven Years War that paved the way for the War of Independence because the colonists no longer needed protection from the French by Momma Britain.......I take it you are aware that there has been a film made about Andre and Arnold.....as I recall Andre was played by Michael Wilding

tintin said...

Joe- The Seven Years War put England in the poor house. When the British taxed the colonies to pay for the war that defended them -- the colonists got uppity about it and dressed like Indians and threw tea off boats.

I'm not saying the English handled the colonies well. But there was a lot of arrogance on both sides. Interesting tid bit. George III and Lord North never thought there would be a revolt because the colonists were always suing each other. Out litigious ways are nothing new.

Not familiar with that movie. I'll have to check it out. There was a 2003 piece of crap called, Benedict Arnold- A Question of Honor with Kelsey Grammer as GW. Horrible as you can well imagine a movie with Grammer cast as George would be.

Another movie I actually liked was Al Pacino's, Revolution. It has it's problems but was beautifully shot and gives you a real sense of being in the time. Donald Sutherland does an amazing British Sergeant Major. Worth watching just for that.

I don't think an American production company will ever do the Revolution justice. But for me the very best films of the period are Barry Lyndon and The Duelists. Had them in mind when I worked on Andre. My hope was to convey that same sense of being there through correct language and historical accuracy and a lot of interesting characters.

Brummagem Joe said...

tintin said...
Joe- The Seven Years War put England in the poor house.

......Sorry to disagree but you couldn't be more wrong about the the seven years war.....it was financed relatively easily by the British (even though they had Prussia on the payroll too) because of their sophisticated financial/economic system while it reduced the French to near bankruptcy.....it was also without question the most successful major war in British history in terms of additions of territory, domestic economic stimulation and the country's elevation to principal naval power in the world........The Wilding movie was made about 45 years ago and I can't remember it's title although I've seen it.... some judicious googling would probably turn it up....I thought the Pacino film was awful I'm afraid and it was panned by the critics at the time although Sutherland was memorable and I also concur about Barry Lyndon which imho is one of the best and most beautiful movies ever made....also agree about the duellists......the Russians also did a wonderful version of War and Peace directed by one Sergei Bondarchuk who also did the battle scenes for Waterloo in which Michael Wilding also appeared (as a British cavalry commander ridden down by Polish lancers)

Brummagem Joe said...


The Wilding Andre movie was called "The Scarlet Coat," (how original) and was made in 1955....Andre emerged as the hero of the movie as mentioned in this summary


Aint Google wonderful!

tintin said...

I found the movie last night on imdb. The Scarlet Coat directed by John Sturges in '55, it focuses on Andre but Netflix does not have it so the hunt is on. Thanks for the rec.

There are 5 schools (or were in 1985) of interpreting the American Revolution: Whig, Neo Whig, Imperialist, Progressive and I can't remember the last. If the British were not put in the poor house by the F&I war they certainly had the right to charge the colonies for some of it.

Much has been made of popular icons like Sam Adams whose, 'stirring the pot' was motivated by personal economics rather than politics. He and many others were in debt to creditors in Britan and a succesful revolution erased that debt. There're some books that focus purely on the economics of the revolution. "Follow the money" is a reporters 1st rule. Historians do it enough.

You and I may be putting a lot of folks to sleep here which is another problem the AR has had with the US audience. Even Pacino admitted that Revolution stunk but he has said that he'd like to give it another go. I thought Revolution was 10 x's better than The Patriot and it's gung ho black and white descriptions but DD Lewis certainly hit a home run with Last of the Mohicans.

Sorry to drag this on but there's only so much you can write about clothing.

Brummagem Joe said...

tintin:"Sorry to drag this on but there's only so much you can write about clothing."

......The DDL Mohicans is a wonderful movie.....in fact it was watching some Hollywood version of this Fenimore Cooper story in the early fifties that first sparked my interest in history.....surely there's no limit to what what can say about clothing particularly when you tie it in with movies.....I recently got a Netflix double header of the two versions of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937 and 1953) and the costumes in the earlier version were infinitely superior being much more true to the Hapsburg/Ruritanian "look".....but then I think think the Hapsburg Monarchy had much the best looking uniforms in the pre 1914 period.....if you're interested in good in depth movies about historical subjects you might like Colonel Redl which is set in this period and available from Netflix

tintin said...

I'll check out Redl. I love this kinda stuff. I don't know how many times a movie or book has instilled a passion and consequently economic hardship while I buy every book I can find on the subject. It's great fun but terribly expensive.

Brummagem Joe said...

tintin said...
I'll check out Redl. I love this kinda stuff.

.....It seems we're somewhat like minded.....Redl with Klaus Maria Brandauer is brilliant.....on the uniform front my daughter bought me a wonderful book a few months back on British naval officers uniforms from 1748(when official uniform was first introduced) to the mid 1850's.....their elegant simplicity is very pleasing

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Have you run across the mezzotint titled "The Taking of Major Andre, by the Incorruptible Paulding, Williams and Vanvert/ Philada Published by T.W. Freeman July 4, 1812"?

I have an original of it on my office wall, which I picked up from a little shop in Princeton in the fall of 1986.