In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of a new oral biography of Robert Altman , an ambiguous portrait emerges of the renegade director. Depending on who’s testifying, Altman comes off as expansive and moody, generous and chiseling, an exacting artist, a freewheeling stoner, a skirt-chasing husband, and a painfully indifferent father. But one sentence of Maslin’s review rings out with unequivocal clarity: "He tattooed Harry S. Truman’s dog." First of all, let it be stipulated that every eulogy should contain this sentence. Who among us can honestly say that at one time or another, we haven’t tattooed a president’s pet? And secondly: Huh?
Michael Zuckoff’s 500-plus-page brick of a book could use some editorial pruning, but it does serve as an adequate clearinghouse for all of your Altman-anecdote needs. (Just how well did Bob's aunt Annette play the harp, anyway? His sister has your answer: "Beautifully.") But when Altman himself speaks (he collaborated with the author before his death in 2007), the quality of the storytelling radically improves. The dog-tattooing tale appears on Page 58: After serving as an Army pilot during WWII, Altman found himself back in the United States with no prospects for work. He hooked up with "a guy named Skimmerhorn," who sold him a bulldog and then recruited him into a three-person dog-IDing operation—a low-tech predecessor of today’s pet microchipping.
We would shave the area on the inside of the right hind leg, up near the groin … then I would write in these numbers. … We got through to someone who knew Truman. Truman had this dog he didn’t even care about, a little dog of some kind. They sent it over to us and we tattooed it. That was part of our promotion of Identi-Code.
There’s so much of Altman the future filmmaker in that story: his ability to talk his way into anything, his disdain for authority (love the dismissive detail about Truman’s attitude toward his pet!), and his matter-of-fact approach to trying something new (Inscribe digits on a dog’s inner thigh? Sure. Open a movie with an
eight-minute-long, logistically astounding tracking shot
? Why not?) Just as the Identi-Code business was about to go big-time with an endorsement from the ASPCA, one of Altman’s partners disappeared to Ireland with the company’s entire earnings. It was then, Altman says, that "I went to California and declared myself a writer."
In this interview at the British Film Institute in 2001, Altman reminisced about his youthful foray into canine tattooing. "Do you regret having given that up for filmmaking?," asked the interviewer, Geoff Andrew, no doubt sure he was being very British and wry. But Altman’s response was a topper: "Well … they’re both about the same."