B. Traven – A famous writer’s mysterious origins… on both sides of the Atlantic

It’s a transatlantic mystery. A story of contrary opinions among academics and a topic of literary studies. B. Traven. Name of a writer of some of the most famous books on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of them were adapted by movie directors. Made to Hollywood movies.

The Death Ship: the Story of an American Sailor (1926)
The White Rose (1929)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (from 1927)

The latter, an adventure novel, became famous as a movie – starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston.

But what about the mystery?

Let’s start with what we know. B. Traven, or whatever his real name was, died in Mexico City on March 26, 1969. Presumably it was of suicide after a longer struggle with cancer. Most of Traven’s novels are set in Mexico. Most of his life he lived there.

But why did he keep his real name, birth-date and other personal information like a secret? Traven was born in Germany, that’s what most academics say. And there’s proof. At the end of the 19th century (presumably he was born around 1982) he was a rather unsuccessful actor there. Working at various theaters in Berlin and Düsseldorf. Under the name of Ret Marut.

A man who got reputation as an anarchist, capitalist and socialist. And as the secret publisher of a newspaper focusing on those topics. Same as many of his novels. All focusing on the lives of working class people.

1924 Traven escaped to Mexico. Called himself Traven Torsvan, Hal Croves, said he was born in the United States. Today some people think that Ret Marut was his first fake name. A fake name for Otto Feige, born in Schwiebus/Brandenburg, modern day Świebodzin in Poland.

(Video by BBC)

Traven’s way of writing was very visual, a good starting point to make movies of his books. Both very popular. Most of the novels were published in German, then translated to English. Traven said it was the other way round. Again trying to hide his German origins. And the secret around that made him even more popular. His proletarian adventure novels and books dominated the interwar period and retained this popularity after the war – into the 1970s.

As much as his books were copied, not many photos of B. Traven were ever taken. There are some. One showing him as an old man after a classic concert in Mexico. Another one from the Berlin days. Traven as an Indian on stage. With a lot of makeup. And one showing an inconspicuous man at a Hollywood movie set. But was it Traven? The man introduced himself as a close friend of Traven…

Read all theories of the B. Traven mystery here. Some of them say Traven was in deed two or more persons. Another one marks him as the President of Mexico from 1958 to 1964.

On the day Traven died his wife announced at a press conference that her husband’s real name was Traven Torsvan Croves, born in Chicago on 3 May 1890 – to a Norwegian father Burton Torsvan and a mother Dorothy Croves of Anglo-Saxon. Reading that from her husband’s will which had been drawn up by him three weeks before his death. Traven Torsvan Croves was also the name on the writer’s official death certificate. His ashes were scattered from an airplane above the jungle of Chiapas state. [source]

Additional reading:

Some of our readers (depends on where you are) can watch this recent documentary shown on ARTE Television. Directed by Xavier Villetard. (alternate link).




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