Robert Altman: "I Tattooed Truman's Dog"

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 19 2009 1:46 PM

Robert Altman: "I Tattooed Truman's Dog"

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.

Advertisement

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."

 

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:03 PM Kern Your Enthusiasm: The Ubiquity of Gotham
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.