The Bare-Faced Messiah Interviews

Interview with Robert MacDonald Ford,
Olympia, Washington, 1 Sept 86


Robert MacDonald Ford, a former member of the United States Senate, was a close personal friend of L. Ron Hubbard during the 1930s and 1940s and helped Ron to get his long-sought commission in the US Armed Forces in 1941. (Ron had been applying, unsuccessfully, for six years.) Ford was interviewed in September 1986 by the British writer and journalist Russell Miller for his biography of Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah. The following is a transcript of that interview, which sheds some interesting light on Ron's character and rather convoluted private life. As his regular contact with Hubbard had pretty much ended before the war's end, without a falling-out with Hubbard or Scientology - a rare event for Miller's interviewees - his account can be regarded as free of any biases which might have arisen as a result of a grudge or ill-feeling.

Note the reported claim that Ron wrote John Wayne's classic Western, Stagecoach! This is one which, for some obscure reason, has not been repeated in recent years...

Interview - 1 Sept 86

We first met about 1938. I had an insurance agency in Bremerton, Washington. Ron's father was a supply officer in the US Navy Yard and one of my policy holders ran into his mother's car and did $15 worth of damage. We issued a draft and I delivered it to her. I thought she might know someone who needed insurance. She thought Ron should insurance - he didn't have any - so I called him on the phone. He says he should take some basic insurance and she would pay for half. I figgered if his mother was going to pay half I'd be able to get the premiums. They were pretty hard up. Ron was always in fairly dire straits at that time. We wrote it over the phone.

My in-laws lived at South Colby a mile or so from where he was living. One weekend when I was visiting the in-laws, I wandered up there to see them [the Hubbards]. Polly was up and invited me in for coffee. Ron had been up all night working so he was sleeping. Polly invited my wife and I up for dinner that night when Ron was going to be up. We went up and had dinner. Just a couple of days before, he had bought this 30ft boat, an old [inaudible] hull gaff-headed ketch, so we were talking about that. Polly had been making some ballast bags for the boat and so Ron and I went down to the County gravel pile and got enough off the pile to fill the ballast bags. There wasn't that much but we had no damn business taking it.

We hit it off because Polly and my first wife Nancy were very good friends, were both avid gardeners and were excellent cooks. We had a son and daughter of the same age and used to see them off and on until the war years. I went in the service in the spring of '42 and I only saw him once after that. He had come back '45-'46 just to see the kids and was taking them to a show and I ran into them. I don't think he was supposed to be in the state because I don't think he was divorced from Polly and had married someone else.

At that time he was writing science fiction. As matter of fact Street and Smith had started a magazine called Unknown to feature a novelette by Ron every month. I knew this because I'd seen the correspondence with Street & Smith. He'd write a novelette and as soon as the grocer was satisfied and wasn't pressing him he'd play for a while. We both liked to sail and play with boats. They were getting along financially but the grocer would press him. The place they had wasn't of too much account. He had a little studio in the back. It was at South Colby, a little community, just a post office and store a mile from Harper ferry that ran to Seattle. It was just an unincorporated little community on Yukon Harbour opposite Blake Island. Ron kept his boat in Yukon Harbour.

The first thing he did when he got the boat was get some letter heads printed - Ron was good at getting letter heads printed - and he always used the best Bond paper. The heading was Yukon Harbour Marine Ways. There was a harbour but no ways, but using this letter head he could buy stuff for the boat at wholesale prices from ships' chandlers.

It was a 30ft Libby hull - Libby was a food processing company packing salmon in Alaska, which at that time had to be caught from the boat without power, so they had 30ft double ended hulls used to catch salmon. He got it and had an engine put in it and changed rigging. It was nice and comfortable, a rugged well built boat. It was called Magician, also known as Maggie. It had a cabin, which could get four in at a squeeze. It was not luxurious living. He was a pretty good sailor. He'd been sailing on the East coast. When he was at Georgetown he'd organised some kind of a cruise and got a bunch of fellows from school, chartered a boat and got stranded some place - a standard operation. He'd sailed and been flying gliders and a guy-wire had snapped one day smoothing off the ends of his fingers which left them very sensitive. He had to use an electric typewriter - this was in the days when they were hard to come by.

He was a pretty good sailor and I expect he was a pretty good pilot. He got me sailing, I'd had couple of small boats but I didn't sail much until met Ron. I don't know how he got the money for the boat but he'd just had a book published, Buckskin Brigades, and I presume he got some money for that. He'd been doing some screen writing in Hollywood, because we'd been to see the movie Stagecoach, the original one with John Wayne, and he told me he'd worked on that script. That's what he told me, I didn't the see his name on the credits, but I don't disbelieve it at all.

They weren't living very high on the hog and boats weren't too expensive in those days.

Hudson Bay Company had sent him a case of scotch, which was very good of them because he had been very critical of Hudson Bay Company in his book Buckskin Brigades - it was about mistreatment of Indians by the Company - but they'd sent him a case of scotch and the Blackfeet Indians sent him a beautiful beaded bag. I saw the bag and drank some of the scotch. He was never very flush but they ate and he had credit from grocers to a certain point. He'd turn out one of these novelettes in 2-3 days, mostly nights. He was a night person, he liked to work at night. I used to go over and play chess with him by candlelight drinking oriental tea. It was lot of fun. He had a beautiful oriental chess set with carved pieces, the pawns were all warriors holding swords. He was a good chess player - he was a sharp guy. He was fascinating to be around, very stimulating.

We got started thinking about different ideas for boats. The problem with a small sail boat is that when heeled over, the keel is at an angle and you're slipping sideways. What would happen if you made a very shaped keel, and got little more drag but an approximately vertical keel when you heeled over? We made one and put it on a small boat although it was difficult to know if we'd improved it or not. We tried it out with models in a washing machine, but it was difficult to measure the drag. (My first wife's name was Nancy.)

We decided we'd do something about the sails of the Maggie because they were mounted on hooks, we didn't have track in those days. There's dead air space 3.5 times diameter of the mast before the wind starts to take effect on the sails. We tried to figure out what we could do about it. We finally conceived the idea of putting sleeve on the sail, sewing it on around the mast, about three quarters of the way round the mast and a short sleeve on the other side. Then we wrote to a zipper company and they sent us some zippers - they thought it was an interesting idea. When you hoisted the sail you just held the zipper and hoisted it up. You had a uniform pull on the mast. The only problem we had was that it tended to stick to the mast, but then we found out by running a light line inside it, it would break the seal and give enough motion. Here again we couldn't measure it.

The one we had most fun with was making a sail boat with wheels, to get rid of the skin friction. I thought it was a very good idea but our experimentation was very crude. We made a framework with three axles and six wheels, we made drums out of wood and we got truck inner tubes and blew them up. One night we wanted to see how far you could blow one up before it burst. We went round to a service station, holding it around the corner of a wall blowing this damn thing up. Then we discovered we had to make casings to keep the inner tubes in shape. We made them out of burlap sacking. We'd spent a fair amount of time on this. We took the mast and sail off a small boat we had there and towed it out, to try it out. Ron was in his seal boots and hat. Ron was a poseur, liked costume, which was fine. I'd take sneakers any day. We tow this thing out, he gets on it and the damn framework wasn't strong enough and it split and he was getting a little wet. It couldn't sink, you had six inner tubes holding you up. He wanted me to take him off, and I thought I'd never seen anything so funny in my life, and I'm down in the bottom of the rowboat roaring with laughter, and the more I laughed the madder he got. He had red hair and had a real temper. Finally I rowed ashore and let someone else go and get him because he would have killed me if he'd got his hands on me at that time. I sure as hell wasn't about to let him catch me when he had his temper up like that. He was mad, no question of that. But I just stayed out of sight for a couple of hours and we had dinner that night.

We had used 2 x 2 notched out - too good a job - so we didn't have enough strength. We should have just laid one across another. This was in Yukon harbour and several people on beach were watching the operation. We let it go at that.

He lived at South Colby all the time. He went back east occasionally and did some writing back there. Polly and the kids were there all the time. He had a little cabin in the woods about 100ft from his house. It was a nice little cabin of knotty pine - you could buy knotty pine then for $25 a 1,000 ft. He had his books there and we'd play chess. He had a little air pistol and would shoot at a carton at the other end of the room as a target. Mostly he worked at nights.

I got elected to the legislature and had my own business to run, but I saw a fair amount of them. We both joined the Bremerton Yacht Club and had ourselves made advisers to the junior yacht club. This was good - we took the kids out on the boat and got them to do some work. They were getting sailing and he was getting work done on the boat. It was a good arrangement.

We were having a dance one night, when Ron shows up in his boat and Polly drives over in her car. They are not speaking to each other. It took me a while to find out what had happened. Ron had written a couple of letters to girls in New York and had put them in their rural mail box to be picked up. Polly had gone out to pick up the mail, saw envelopes and transfers letters and doesn't tell him until after they'd been picked up. He took a dim view. Polly was a great girl. We loved her and the kids.

After Ron left Polly was working and supporting the kids and married an older fellow. He died not too long after they were married. That helped Polly - she was getting aid from social security, she had a nice home overlooking the bay in Bremerton and later on she went back east and took a cruise to Everglades and met a fellow from Pennsylvania and got married and moved there.

In 53 I was teaching school in Alaska and Nibs and Henrietta rented my house in Seattle.

Polly was from Maryland, I don't recall where they met. I think they met in the East. Maybe Katie was born in San Diego. She had a problem with a birthmark on her face. She was a lovely girl, I loved her. I think she was in love with my son but he couldn't see her for sour apples. I think when Katie was born they were in San Diego. He [Ron] worked in a radio station in Washington for some time, as I recall, while he was at Georgetown, and he'd been out in Guam and acquired malaria out there. He had a recurrence later on - he was in naval hospital in San Diego and my wife and I and Polly drove down to see him. He'd come up to LA. I'd bought a clipper ship octant and we were taking sunsights out on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. He was trying to find a record of circus music. We spent 2-3 days there with him - I think it might have been '39, at the time of the invasion of the lowlands [Low Countries, i.e. Belgium & Netherlands, June 1940]. We'd taken Polly down with us from Washington.

He and Polly had made a trip to Alaska in the Maggie, the L. Ron Hubbard Expedition. Oh shit, there were letter heads for that too with the Explorers Club flag on it. He got into a lot of things and went to their meetings in NY; it's possible he exaggerated his exploits a little but he is a writer and had a fertile imagination. He promoted a certain amount of equipment. He got two radio direction finders which he got free from different companies. He was going to photograph all headlands between Seattle and Alaska. He had borrowed a lot of photographic equipment from Fletcher Pratt, the naval historian, who was a friend of his, and I'd insured it. They lost a little piece - we had to pay a loss on it. They took a trip up there. He put a new engine in the boat to get up to Ketchikan, but didn't have any money and couldn't get a defective crankshaft replaced. He had a friend with a radio station [Jimmy Britton of KGBU Alaska] so he was doing some announcing and getting a place to live. Ron's throwing in these tit bits on the air - "the L. Ron Hubbards are still in Ketchikan because the Regal Company refuses to replace their defective crankshaft" - and eventually he got it replaced.

They came back and I remember talking to Ron about the war and he foresaw the war with Japan. He figured they would drive us as far back as the Rockies.

Polly and Ron were on pretty good terms. She was an independent sort of gal, wouldn't take a lot of crap from anybody. They had their arguments, yes, but by and large it wasn't that bad. She particularly liked gardening, and went up to Victoria [with Nancy Ford] one time out to Mouchard's garden - she came back and they had bras filled with cuttings they'd got there. She had a nice garden at the house. I doubt if she was an alcoholic. I never thought of her being alcoholic. She'd take a drink but never much. We didn't drink too much in those days. Most time we were playing chess we were drinking oriental tea.

Their in-laws lived on beach at Yukon harbour and Ron's boat was anchored half a mile out. I don't think he had a water view from his house. It was on a hill overlooking a meadow, they drove down the hill through a couple of pastures.

His mother was a little dried up, wrinkled woman - maybe too much sunshine? She was called Mum. When Harry [Ross Hubbard] retired he ended up in Kitsap County and was manager of Kitsap County Fair. They lived in Bremerton, just a couple of blocks from the navy yard.

My impression that he went out after Pearl Harbour as an executive officer. He got a commission in the Navy. He was already in when I enlisted. It was an old passenger ship. He had a recurrence of malaria and that's when we saw him in LA.

One night we met after the war at a theatre in Bremerton. He was taking kids to a show and we were talking in the lobby while the show was on.

Letter of introduction??? I suspect that what happened was that he wanted a letter and I gave him a letter head and said, "If you want a letter write it." There are couple of words in there that are not my style. The signature is not at all like my signature today but I can't remember what my signature was like 45 years ago. "Most brilliant" - that was really laying it on. I'm not above laying it on but not that much. I don't recall writing it. I don't know why he wanted it. I can't imagine my saying that ["most brilliant" etc.]. He'd not written anything about political economy as far as I know. I'm not above B-sing a bit, but it doesn't sound like my style. "You want a letter? Hell, you're the writer, you write it." My signature later copied my father's - big R, little M - can hardly read them - Ford. But when I started that I'm not sure. It might be my signature - I wouldn't guarantee it and wouldn't disown it completely.

He liked to give himself the benefit of the doubt. He'd say something and you'd think, "what kind of a line is he feeding me?" and then you'd find out it actually happened. Like his gliding experience - I know he had his fingers smoothed off by a guide wire and I assumed that had actually happened. The ends of his fingers were very tender and sensitive. I don't know if he had an electric typewriter here but I know he had one in NY because he talked about the problem of using it in a hotel because it worked on direct current.

Ron was probably my closest friend at that time.

He did tell me one time he had a manuscript in his trunk that was going to revolutionise the world. It was called Excalibur, but that's all I know about it. I never saw it. We were both born in 1911.

The grocer would let him charge, but when the bill got so high the grocer's going to start pushing a little. Charging grocers was standard. He did go and buy to Bon Marche in Seattle and bought a record player and had it delivered. It was a hard place to find and then he couldn't make payments on it, and they had a hell of time finding him and took about six months before they could find him and take it back. I don't think he ever made any payments on it.

He never talked about the workings of the mind or psychology or anything like that. He was interested in a lot of things. He was well read and pretty well informed.

He figgered the Japs were going to attack and we were not going to be able to resist on the West coast and would be driven back to the Rockies, at which time we would develop a proper defence.

He went back east and, I think, through Senator Magnusson's office helped him get a commission. This is my impression, I don't know it for a fact but I 'm quite sure this is what happened. He had some experience and talked a good fight. Magnusson was my congressman at that time and I think Ron went to his office. Magnusson and Henry Jackson were the two most influential senators they had. Ron was using the people of Magnusson's office to do whatever he was trying to do.

His house had a little side porch and a low farm-style kitchen. He would have coffee in there with Polly. It was a wooden house, probably built 1910.

Notes by Russell Miller:

PO Box 39623 was Ron's private address at time of San Luis Obispo [1980-86], reserved for friends and family.

Ford has never heard of the Blackfoot blood brother story. He suspected when he met Hubbard after the war that Hubbard had married again. He's not quite sure of the circumstances but knew Polly was not divorced and that Ron had mentioned something about remarrying. Ford couldn't have written the letter because he never knew that Hubbard had written on "political science".

Hood Canal is a wide placid stretch of water full of shrimps, oysters, fish. Heavily forested.

Colby: Very heavily wooded, banks of laurel shrubs, largely conifers and pines, lots of little wooden houses on a hillside sloping down to the water. Otherwise nothing. It looks across the water to Seattle. A very nice quiet place. Possible to glimpse water through trees. It looks out over Puget Sound to Black Island and Seattle.

The Naval yard at Bremerton spreads for miles along the shore. The sound must be very deep because aircraft carriers are moored there.


Last updated 2 Jan 1997