The secret of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was written by a German author under the pseudonym B. Traven. Who was he? We don’t know.

British Authorities (London, 1923) / Public domain

I know of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre through John Huston’s 1948 film adaptation. It’s a great little film, and includes both the notorious “I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges” scene:

And the grizzled prospector doing a little dance upon discovering gold:

Yup, that’s Humphrey Bogart being told that he’s dumber than the dumbest jackass. A classic. Anyway, Huston’s film was based on a book of the same name, first published in Germany in 1927. It was one of several written by the author B. Traven – many of them set in Mexico – that were extremely popular in the interwar period. And this is the thing that’s really fascinating: we don’t know for sure who B. Traven was.

His book deals were all negotiated by mail; his publishers claimed to have never met him in person. When John Huston was filming his adaptation he was going to meet Traven, but instead of Traven a man named Hal Coves showed up and claimed that he was the author’s translator and representative, and would make any decisions on his behalf.

So who was he? The most popular theory is that B. Traven was actually a German anarchist named Ret Marut who had fled the country in 1919 – which would explain the use of a pseudonym, as he still had an outstanding arrest warrant in Germany. A related theory suggests that Ret Marut was itself a pseudonym, and the writer was in fact born Otto Feige. Then there’s one grainy photo of a guy in a pith helmet who was a photographer on an archaeological dig in 1926, identified as Berick Traven Torsvan. And that supposed agent of his, Hal Coves… many people believe that he was author himself, operating under yet another fake name.

Are all four of these people the same person? Hal Coves, the “agent” of Traven, re-emerged in Mexico in the 1950s and negotiated on Traven’s behalf for several years before dying in 1969. His widow announced that his real name was Traven Torsvan Croves and that he was in fact American and not German. But then later she also announced that he had also been Ret Marut…

Confused yet? It gets better. Given this flurry of fake names, many people think that there’s more to find out. Journalists and conspiracy theorists have put forward names such as: Adolfo López Mateos, at one time the President of Mexico, or his sister Esperanza López Mateos, who was a translator and representative of Travens; an illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II; Jack London; Ambrose Bierce; and several authors collaborating together.


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