The story of Norman Maclean's brother, Paul, remains a mystery despite the fame he earned in 'A River Runs Through It'

"Mystery surrounding the slaying of Paul MacLean, 32, a member of the University of Chicago's press relations bureau, was being investigated tonight by police and university authority."

- Opening of article from the Helena Independent, May 3, 1938.

It's Chicago in early May. The air is warm, the night heavy. A lakeshore breeze spills in through the open shutters on the city's south side, where, as night prevails, a deep silence sets upon the homes along Rhodes Avenue. There, in the late-night silence, a dog stirs from atop an old, alley porch.

Below, a struggle has taken place, coaxing one Edward Miller to his back window. The night is too dark, the shadows too deep to see what the fuss is all about, but within an hour, as dawn breaks across the city, Miller and garbage worker Joseph Tomasy discover a man, alone and unconscious, mortally wounded, his skull fractured - $4 in his pocket.

It was the morning of May 2, 1938, the last for Paul MacLean - a man who Chicago Police Sgt. Ignatius Sheehan said "had battled fiercely with his assailants before being subdued."

"My father was very sure about certain things pertaining to the universe," wrote Norman Maclean. "To him, all good things - trout as well as salvation - come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy. So my brother and I learned to cast Presbyterian-style, on a metronome."

Norman Maclean's novella, "A River Runs Through It," won acclaim upon its release in 1976 before the film version captured a national audience in 1991. And though much is known about Norman's life as writer and professor, the life of his brother, Paul, has remained a relative mystery, including his mysterious slaying in that dark Chicago alley back in 1938.

Paul Maclean was born Nov. 2, 1902, the son of Presbyterian minister Dr. John Norman Maclean. In 1905, the family moved from Iowa to Montana and settled in Missoula. Here, both Norman and Paul would learn that fishing was an art, "performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock."

But as Norman and Paul learned of God, philosophy and fishing, Norman would suggest that Paul, even at a young age, also held a propensity for other things - fishing aside.

"We held in common the knowledge that we were tough," Norman wrote. "This knowledge increased with age, at least, until we were well into our twenties and probably longer, possibly much longer. I was tough by being the product of tough establishments … Paul was tough by thinking he was tougher than any establishment."

With all his toughness, Paul graduated from Missoula High School and attended the University of Montana before going to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

At Dartmouth, Paul was a member of the football team and several social fraternities. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1929 with a major in English, and according to The Associated Press, he showed "a great adaptability in newspaper work."

While Paul was away in college, back in Montana the Maclean family - which included five sisters, according to a family member's obituary - had moved to Helena by 1925.

There, the Rev. Maclean, who had served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Missoula for 17 years, had taken the position as executive of the Montana Presbyterian Synod in Helena, the place where Paul would also begin his journalism career.

"When it came to choosing a profession, he became a reporter - on a Helena paper," Norman wrote. "My brother and his editor wrote most of the Helena paper. The editor was one of the last small-town editors in the classic school… and he and my brother admired each other greatly. The rest of the town feared them, especially because they wrote well."

The paper referred to by Norman was likely the Montana Record Herald - the first paper to employ Paul as a reporter. He soon moved on to the Great Falls Leader, and later, the Great Falls Tribune.

Along the way, he changed the spelling of his last name from Maclean to MacLean. "Now he spells it with a capital L." Paul's father purportedly said. "It's a terrible thing to spell our name with a capital L. Now somebody will think we are Scottish lowlanders and not Islanders."

In December 1932, Paul took a position with the Helena Independent as statehouse reporter and proceeded to cover the legislative sessions of 1933, 1935 and 1937. It was during these years that Norman noticed a change in his brother.

"I ran into him in front of the Montana Club, which was built by rich gold miners supposedly on the spot where gold was discovered on Last Chance Gulch," Norman wrote. "Although it was only ten o'clock in the morning, had a hunch he was about to buy a drink."

Former Helena District Judge Henry Keenan, who now lives in San Francisco, was a 20-year-old student in college when he came to work with the Helena Independent in 1937. With little newspaper experience, Keenan would work under Paul covering Montana's 1937 Legislative session, where lawmakers were debating the legalization of gambling and raising the price of a state fishing license. Keenan remembered those days well, though he was reluctant to talk about them.

"I worked under Paul," Keenan said. "I wouldn't say he was too good of a boss, though. I wasn't too fond of him, either. He was belligerent and feisty and he drank a lot. … But I think I would have to say that he was a decent newspaper writer."

Keenan also knew Paul's brother, Norman, and Norman's future wife, Jesse Burns, who in the movie version of "A River Runs Through It," meets Norman at a Fourth of July festival in Wolf Creek.

And while Keenan didn't like talking about Paul, he said Norman and Jesse were different characters altogether.

"I knew Norman, too," Keenan said. "He was a wonderful fellow and his wife, Jesse Burns - she was my next door neighbor before she married Norman. The Burns family was very, very nice, and so was the Rev. Maclean."

The biggest difference between Norman and Paul, Keenan said, was that Norman did not drink or fight to the extent that Paul did. "Norman wasn't like that," Keenan said.

Drinking and fighting aside, it was Paul's own brother who would lead readers to believe that Paul died over a gambling debt, and when asked if Paul was a high roller, Keenan said that he "probably gambled," although he could not be sure.

"They did have gambling in those days in Helena, but it was illegal," Keenan said.

Terry Dwyer, a former Great Falls Tribune managing editor, took his first job as a daily newspaperman in Helena in 1946. Though he arrived in town eight years after the 1937 legislative session and didn't know Paul directly, thoughts of Paul were still fresh around the newsroom.

"He was a legend when I got there, because he was a character, a drinker. He had a temper. He used to party," Dwyer said, recalling the stories he had been told in 1946. "They said he liked to fight. … But Paul was one hell of a newspaperman, and he had a real, heavy, sharp temper."

While Keenan and Dwyer agreed that Paul was a drinker, a fighter and a good writer, when it came to Paul's death in Chicago, neither man had any answers, only speculation.

Keenan wrote in a 1995 letter to the Montana Historical Society, "When someone told me he (Paul) had been killed in Chicago, I asked how it happened. My information said, 'Paul, in his usual way, got out of line with some Chicago gangsters, and someone parted his hair with a lead pipe."

"The book his brother wrote suggested Paul died in Helena, and the movie made it sound like he was in trouble with the bootleggers and gamblers," Dwyer said. "The story I heard was, he was playing with the big boys back in Chicago. Doc Bowler, who worked at the old Helena paper with Paul, thinks he got too close to those guys. That's what he told me."

However, according to the story regarding Paul's death that ran in the Helena Independent, police failed to say Paul's death was mob related, nor were investigators able to crack the crime or land the perpetrators.

Whatever the motivation behind Paul's death, be it arrogance, a gambling debt or unfortunate coincidence, the impact it had on the Maclean family - especially the father - was made clear in Norman's book.

Like many Scottish ministers before him, (father) had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting," Norman wrote. "My father just looked at me for a long time - just looking at me. So this was the last he and I ever said to each other about Paul's death."

"I had a fish, so I sat down to watch a fisherman," Norman wrote. "This is the last fish we were ever to see Paul catch. My father and I talked about his moment several times later, and whatever our other feelings, we always felt it fitting that, when we saw him catch his last fish, we never saw the fish, but only the fisherman."

Martin Kidston is a writer for the Independent Record newspaper of Helena.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.
You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.