Iron Eyes Cody’s Secret
Katherine Yamada, longtime columnist for the Glendale News Press, does a wonderful weekly Glendale history column called “Verdugo Views.” I’ve been reading her column faithfully for years now, as I hope you have. She and I have collaborated many times, even before I started this column, exchanging info about local history.
I recently asked her about the famous American Indian actor Iron Eyes Cody. I knew he had lots of dealings in both Glendale and the Crescenta Valley, and had even been in the Montrose Christmas Parade. Thinking I might do a column on him, I was curious if she knew where he lived. She did some research and found he lived in Atwater, which put him squarely in Katherine’s turf. So I wasn’t surprised to see a Verdugo Views column last week entitled “Iron Eyes Cody Was Active in the Scouts,” profiling the Glendale actor’s good works with the Boy Scouts.
Now Katherine is a real lady and would never write anything denigrating about anyone. However, I’m not that way and I rarely hesitate to air “dirty laundry” about people or places in local history. I apologize to you, Katherine, but I must reveal Iron Eyes Cody’s dark secret, which I know you purposely avoided.
Iron Eyes Cody was best known for a commercial he did in 1971. In the public service announcement, Cody, dressed in traditional Indian garb, paddles his canoe up a polluted stream past smokestacks belching smoke. He walks to the edge of a littered highway and narrator William Conrad intones, “People start pollution, and people can stop it.” The camera zooms to Cody’s face as a single tear runs down his cheek. It became one of the most famous commercials in TV history.
Cody from that moment on was known as “The Crying Indian” despite hundreds of other acting roles playing Indians on TV and in movies in a career spanning over 60 years.
Locally, Iron Eyes was, as Katherine has written, very involved in Scouting activities. At Camp Bill Lane, a huge Boy Scout camp in Big Tujunga Canyon that ran from the ’40s through the ’60s, Cody often officiated at the Order of the Arrow ceremonies and instructed the boys in the traditions of the American Indian. His home in Glendale became a small museum and educational center for Indian culture. He was constantly promoting American Indian causes, and educating the public on their ways of life. He wore his Indian heritage with dignity and pride. Near the end of his life, the American Indian community honored him for his work in promoting the plight of Native Americans.
The problem was – he wasn’t an Indian.
He was born Espera Oscar Di Corta to Italian immigrants in Louisiana in 1904. According to one of his sisters, as a child he was constantly dressing as an Indian and leading the neighborhood kids in outdoor games. She said he always wanted to be an Indian and that he was obsessed with the new movie industry. With those two interests, it was natural that he moved to Hollywood as a teenager, promoted himself as an Indian, and never looked back on his Italian heritage.
He married a Native American woman and they adopted Indian children. He lived his life as an Indian, and never dropped the guise. When the truth surfaced in 1996, Cody was pretty old, and said simply, “All I know is that I’m just another Indian.” His awareness of who he really was may have slipped away. The Indian community that had honored him could not have cared less what his origins were, stating that his charitable deeds were what counted.
It’s yet another surprise, another twist and turn in the narrative of our local history, another example of a man who came to California to re-invent himself, in this case to the benefit of society. As well, I think that it is one of the beauties of American culture that a man, like Iron Eyes Cody, should be judged not on his ethnic origins but for his good works and achievements.