By all accounts – and, to be honest, I’d read hardly any until recently – Wilbur D. May was something of a loveable rogue, a swashbuckling world traveler who spurned his family’s department-store empire to hunt big game on African savannahs, pilot fighter planes in two world wars, tramp through Amazon jungles, write hit novelty songs, paint landscape art and, later, become a celebrated Nevada rancher.
Given that résumé, I expected that my first glimpse of May, who died in 1982 at age 84, at his eponymous museum of cultural curios would show a rugged, weather-beaten visage of an alpha male, a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway.
Instead, I was greeted just inside the lobby by a bronzed bust of a pencil-necked, bespectacled and follicly-challenged man who looked more like an accountant than an adventurer. Next to the bust was a photographic triptych of May as a young man standing ramrod straight in uniform, as an older man gamely astride a horse and, in the center, in a business suit with round, rimless glasses and a mousy mustache.
Is this Wilbur D. May or the late actor Wally Cox?
When I expressed my surprise at the nebbish figure the man cut, Wilbur D. May Museum assistant curator Samantha Szesciorka just smiled.
“Yeah, he might have looked a little nerdy,” she acknowledged, “but Wilbur was really an amazing guy. You can’t make up anything better. It’s like a movie. Ridiculous.”
Being an heir to the May Co. department store chain afforded him certain privileges, of course, but the young May also carefully crafted a persona that was part Hemingway macho man, part cultivated Fitzgerald swell. Later, he morphed into something of a wizened Steinbeck scion, raising champion horses and livestock.
Artifacts culled from May’s colorful life are enshrined at the museum, set back from a main thoroughfare on Rancho San Rafael Regional Park land.
The museum’s layout strives to re-create May’s Double Diamond Ranch with a “living room” dedicated to an overview of his myriad passions (aviation, music, painting), a “tack room” boasting ribbons and trophies and silver saddles from his horse- and livestock-breeding, and a “trophy room” displaying the skins and taxidermied heads of animals ranging from leopards and lions to bears and buffalo. The rest of the museum gallery is reserved for the folk art (African masks, Eskimo scrimshaws, Italian amulets, Venetian glass and Chinese Tang Dynasty pottery).
It’s an awful lot to take in, especially if you’re on your way somewhere else and can only spare an hour.
You must budget wisely, because you might wind up like me and spend most of the time gawking, absolutely slack-jawed, at the trophy room. Whether you think it’s fascinating or disgusting, or some of both, you will not be able to look away.
Animal skins and carcasses line the walls, drape the floors and cover almost every stick of furniture. Their taxidermied eyes seem to stare at you, imploringly. Their bared teeth gleam menacingly, though that one lion needed some dental work. Tusks frame mounted heads like parentheses marks, and the tanned, lion-skinned coffee table looks almost animated, due to the four lion’s paw ashtrays hung off each corner.
Try as I might, I could not tear myself away from what looked like an elephant’s foot, severed at the shim and hollowed out to and shellacked to be used as, what, a waste basket?
“No,” Szesciorka said, “it’s a pot (to hold) the giraffe-skinned lamps.”
Oh, of course. I see that now.
To many modern sensibilities, of course, the hunting of big-game animals can be seen as wildlife genocide. Animal-rights activists have condemned the public showing of “trophies” as barbaric, and Szesciorka admits, “Occasionally, we do get people who complain.”
The museum’s justification for the display?
Hunting played a huge role in May’s life and eliminating the trophy room would be telling an incomplete story of his life.
“I always emphasize that this is antique taxidermy from the 1930s and ’40s,” Szesciorka said. “That was a very different era, and there was a difference in the way people perceived the conservation of big game animals. That said, we have a little over 200 pieces of taxidermy (in the trophy room). Three (of those) animals (on display) are critically endangered, three are endangered, but there’s nothing extinct. The rest are (categorized) ‘vulnerable’ or at least ‘concerned.’ I monitor the conservation status of all of our animals here for people that complain.”
Text of a plaque outside the trophy room also makes pains to justify the killing, stating that in the 1930s and ’40s, “Hunters on safari in Africa were welcomed by local peoples because the trophies they collected provided food for hundreds of people.”
To add further context, especially for tour groups, Szesciorka said, “For the kids we talk a lot about biodiversity and conservation and the idea when Wilbur was doing this, conservation wasn’t really emphasized.”
Eventually I was able to tear myself away from the trophy room to ogle other captivating items.
“Have you seen the shrunken head?” Szesciorka asked. “This is one of our classic artifacts. It’s from Ecuador. A lot of people, if they know the museum, that’s what they know.”
There, behind plexiglass, was a shriveled human head impaled on a stick. The information card said it was obtained from a tribe called the Jivaroans, who would “sever the whole head. The skull was removed and the skin shrunk by boiling it or packing it with hot sand and then dehydrating.” Their purpose, according to the placard: “… used in elaborate cannibalistic rites.”
Szesciorka speaks of the shrunken head as if it is the museum’s mascot. “We call him Fred, but Wilbur called it Susie,” she said. “Rumor has it he paid ranch hands an extra five dollars a month to keep the hair brushed. We don’t brush it now.”
Lest you think May only wallowed in blood sport, he also had his refined side. Post-World War II, he dabbled as a lyricist, his best-known work, “Pass a Piece of Pizza Please,” becoming a novelty hit for comedic crooner Jerry Colonna. He collected art, from Picasso to Pollock, and even tried his hand at scenic Impressionism. On the Nevada ranch, he bred several champion quarterhorses and a thoroughbred or two that ran in prestigious stakes races such as the Kentucky Derby.
When I expressed amazement that I had known nothing of this renaissance man before setting foot in the museum, Szesciorka nodded and said, unlike flashier Nevada millionaires such as William F. Harrah, May kept a low profile.
May’s ranch now has been turned into a subdivision, and Szesciorka says many residents drive their cars down Wilbur May Parkway not knowing the origin of the street name.
“They have no idea what we have in here,” she said. “When they come, they are amazed.”