I often find myself pulling down familiar books during the Christmas season. Some, like the Christmas novels of Charles Dickens, are about the holiday itself. Others, like the superb novel Monte Walsh (1963) by Jack Schaefer, have a Christmas-themed chapter that I find irresistible.
In the latter group I include My Life With Buffalo Bill by the artist Dan Muller. Muller has a somewhat unique place in both Western American art and Buffalo Bill studies because his autobiography has met with controversy since its publication in 1948.
Let’s deal with the controversy first. Daniel Cody Muller (1889-1976) was born in Choteau, Montana. Muller’s father was killed by a horse when the artist was nine years old, and he was adopted by the famous frontiersman and showman, Col. William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody. In his memoir (one of several books written by Muller), he writes of the 18 years he spent with Cody and of his time on both the Cody ranch and working the Wild West shows.
Muller records meeting cowboy artist Charles Russell in 1900, and that his art was influenced by Russell. He served in World War I, breaking horses for the army, and later worked as both an artist and a ranch-hand. (In My Life With Buffalo Bill, he ruefully remarks that he has had more success as a cowboy than an artist.)
Muller painted three 100-foot murals for the Travel and Transport exhibit of the Century of Progress Chicago World’s Fair, and spent the rest of his artistic career illustrating books and magazine covers, and painting as well.
The controversy of all this springs from the fact that there is very little documentation about Muller’s life with Cody, other than his own word. Cody scholars are divided on whether the events happened as described by Muller, or whether Muller was mildly acquainted with Cody and that his powers of invention did not begin and end with graphic art alone.
As someone who has spent the better part of the last 15 years reading about Buffalo Bill Cody, I think that much of Muller's book has the ring of truth. While he gets the occasional fact wrong, Muller almost always seems to get the emotional tenor of the man correct. Cody was open-handed, warm-hearted, an easy touch for any friend in need, and a man of deep compassion and sympathy. Muller would not be his only unofficially-adopted child: Cody also raised Johnny Baker, a sharpshooter with the Wild West, as his own son, and his love for children was nearly legendary.
Muller describes a Christmas morning at the Cody ranch: My presents were first because they were the last added to the pile. Aunt Louisa [Cody’s wife] kissed me when she took off the rough wrapping paper and saw the picture of Irma [Cody’s daughter] I’d drawn for her. Irma, when she opened hers and found the picture of the young man who had hung around the most just before she’d gone off to school, laughed and laughed and laughed. “Dan, you old innocent, you,” she said. “I haven’t even written that young man. But now I see his picture I think I will.”
And Uncle Bill took his picture – it was as big as I could make it – and stood it up on the mantle. “Why, Dan, that sure is scrumptious,” he said, grinning under his moustache. “There’s your Pa, and the Mormon in the tree, and there, can yuh believe it, is me. ‘Course I was younger ‘n that in those days. But it sure ‘nough is me. Look here,” he urged May, “Dan sure ‘nough got a good likeness!”
May [Cody’s sister] looked. She didn’t sniff, but she looked like she wanted to. “It’s pretty crude,” she said.
“Well, he didn’t have much t’work with, May,” Uncle Bill said. “It’ll be different now. Wait a minute, Dan, ‘til I find something here.” He fished around in the pile and came up with a great big package. “There, now, Dan, yuh’ll have all the fittin’s for drawin’.”
I tore off the wrapping in a hurry. Inside was paper, great big sheets of paper much finer than the art paper they gave us to use in school. Uncle Bill dug around some more and fished out two other packages. “An’ here’s some more for yuh, Dan.”
My eyes got big. More than one present for me. I got the wrapping off in a hurry, you bet. Inside were pencils of different kinds, a lot of crayons, some water colors, even some tubes – I later found they were oil paints – and lots of brushes!
I didn’t pay much attention to what other people were getting. I just sat and handled those paints and brushes, thinking what pictures I could make with all those things to make them with!
Then Uncle Bill said loudly, “Dan, here’s something more for yuh.”
It was a great big package at the very bottom of the pile. Uncle Bill spread his two arms wide to pick it up, and set it down in front of me.
“Yuh can’t always be makin’ pictures,” he said. “Here’s somethin’ for yuh t’have some fun with, boy.”
There was an awful lot of wrapping paper around it. I tore it away in great strips. And then I saw what it was – a big red-painted wagon.
“Come spring,” Uncle Bill said, his eyes smiling along with his mouth, “yuh c’n start trainin’ that ol’ billygoat t’harness.”
Gosh! What a Christmas!
There’s nothing in that Christmas morning description inconsistent with the Colonel Buffalo Bill Cody known and loved by many.
As for his art, Muller was a talented draftsman and a painter with a keen eye for composition. Muller had a true gift in his depiction of horses, and managed to draw and paint pictures where rider and horse looked like a single connected unit, rather than poorly fitted-together components of different works.
The Christmas card above comes from the Thomas Sica collection. It was addressed to Buck Burshears, founder of the Koshare Indian Museum. It amply demonstrates Muller’s deft touch and pleasantly illustrative style.
Collectors of Western art, unless they have very deep pockets indeed, can no longer acquire a Remington or a Russell. However, there are many western artists of the second rank who are eminently collectible, and few have as interesting a back story as Dan Muller. People interested in Muller should visit Tom Sica’s Web site, which is a treasure-trove of images and information. It can be found here at: http://www.tomsica.com/index.html.