William Zantzinger

I noted the other day the passing of William Zantzinger. What did William Zantzinger do, you might ask. Well, every Bob Dylan fan knows the answer to that — "William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll, with a cane that he twirled ’round his diamond-ring finger." "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is the high-water mark of Dylan’s "protest songs" era, a compelling, crushing indictment of careless racism and social injustice (Zantzinger was sentenced to a mere six months for killing Carroll in a drunken rage).free stats

I mention the lonesome death of Mr. Zantzinger here because, a few years back, I was listening to a version of "Hattie Carroll" from one of Dylan’s many live albums, and I suddenly thought "Wait — this is a real guy." William Zantzinger is a real guy." Dylan recorded this song practically on the day the events unfolded, but he’s still singing the song in concert thirty, forty years later. In the song, Dylan paints William Zantzinger in all shades of ill repute, presents him in terms of lofty wealth and political connections, the better to contrast him to his victim, poor Hattie Carroll, who lived a simple, spare, selfless life of servitude and motherhood.

And it hit me: Jesus, what must it be like to be William Zantzinger? Just imagine, everywhere you go, you introduce yourself, and in the mind of every person of a certain age, a little song starts playing.

YOU: "Hi, I’m William Zantzinger."
GUY: (thinks, humming) "William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll…"
(GUY slowly backs away, giving you a vaguely disgusted look)

This obsessed me for months, so much so that I even co-wrote (with gazblow ) a screenplay informed by the subject. What happens to someone like William Zantzinger? Set aside the facts of the case; let’s say everything Dylan reports is 100% accurate, that Zantzinger did everything that Dylan says he did, exactly in the manner described. That was still over forty years ago, what happens to someone like that? He killed someone, got a six month sentence, and then what? What did he spend the rest of his life doing? What do you do when, wherever you go, no matter what else you might try to accomplish, the only thing anyone thinks of when they hear your name is "William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll…?" Does the song roll around in your head for forty-five years? Do your employees and business associates take up humming it when they want to get your goat? What happens to you if you piss off a talented artist so much that they write a devastating, life-defining song about you? Do you say "Well, I’ll show him, I’m going to go out and be the opposite of the guy in that song," only to find that no one will let you do that? Or do you say "I’m not going to let this song define me," only to find out later that, yeah, the guy pretty much nailed you? Or do you say "Okay, fine, I’m that drunken, racist creep, who cares," and end up fulfilling everyone’s expectations of you? Does the song define you, and thus destroy you, or does it merely haunt you for the rest of your life?

(This is not an idle question. Edie Sedgwick is purported to be the subject of many Dylan songs, including "Like a Rolling Stone," and she didn’t make it six years past her popular portrayal as a directionless sybarite — she died in 1971 of an overdose.)

What happened to the sad, suicidal, lovestruck girl in Elvis Costello’s "Alison?" And what about the spoiled rich girl of the Rolling Stones’ "19th Nervous Breakdown?" What is it like to be David Coulier, erstwhile mid-level TV star, now forever known as the subject of Alanis Morissette’s "You Oughta Know?" Coulier could fly to Mars in a homemade rocketship and discover the cure for cancer but would still be known forever as that creep who dumped Alanis even after she’d fellated him in a theater.

I did some research into Zantzinger, and learned that — guess what! — Dylan had re-shaped some of the facts of the lonesome death of Hattie Carroll to make for a better song. Yes, Zantzinger struck her and yes, she died the next morning, but in fact she had a history of hypertension, which was most likely a contributing cause to her death. The cane with which he struck her was a toy that he had picked up at a fair earlier in the day, a weapon unlikely to kill anyone. Six month sentence or no, it appears manslaughter was a reasonably reduced charge — Zantzinger was drunk enough to strike several hotel employees that night, but only already-ill Hattie Carroll had the misfortune to die. He didn’t walk (or stagger) into the hotel that night thinking "Oh that rotten Hattie Carroll, I’m gonna murder that bitch tonight," he was a drunken ass who was looking for a fight — a common enough type, unlikely to inspire deathless songcraft, but for the sad coincidence of his victim’s pre-existing medical condition. But "William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll, who already had a pre-existing medical condition" does not scan as well as "William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll with a cane that he twirled ’round his diamond-ring finger," and so we form a picture in our head of some kind of monocled blue-blood aristocrat (well, okay, as it happens Zantzinger was wearing a silk top hat that night, but still) bludgeoning an elderly woman to death on the spot while hurling racist epithets.

I don’t know what Zantzinger did with the bulk of his life, but in 1991 he was convicted of charging rent on run-down shacks that he did not, in fact, own — a slumlord who didn’t even own the slum for which he was overcharging. Which, to say the least, does not indicate a man striving to outlive his popular reputation as a racist asshole. But who knows? Maybe he was a good father, a loving husband, a dedicated philanthropist, an enthusiastic bird-watcher and a not-bad Sunday painter — I have no idea. The point is, a Maryland judge gave him six months but Dylan gave him life, in both senses of the word. Whether either sentence was earned is another question.


32 Responses to “William Zantzinger”
  1. curt_holman says:

    “Just imagine, everywhere you go, you introduce yourself,”

    After a few years, you probably begin saying “Hi, I’m Willie Zantz!”

  2. laminator_x says:

    I felt a similar sense of “Wait, that was a real guy?” when I learned that not only was Stagger Lee an actual person, but that he comitted his notorious murder in my home town of St. Louis.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    This line of thinking can easily be applied to just about any media, including of course, film. Though movies don’t always have quite the immediacy of music and sometimes television because of the length of time require to produce them, they still do sometimes tackle real-life events, occasionally even going so far as to involve people who are still alive. I’d wager there’s been more than one movie that has presented a not entirely accurate account of real world events which the general public now regards as fact. (A really great example escapes me at the moment, though I know Schindler’s List did receive a little criticism for oversimplifying its protagonist a bit.) You’ve said that you think a screenwriter adapting a work of fiction is first required to make a good movie and the concern of being faithful to the original is secondary, but what about when the source material is fact rather than fiction? Basis in fact is still no excuse for a crappy movie, but is the writer a little more responsible for keeping it accurate when the story being adapted really did happen, especially if some of the people involved are still around?

    • Todd says:

      I think so, but most of all I think the artist bears some measure of responsibility when the events being discussed weren’t necessarily history-making, or even particularly newsworthy. Or, in the case of “You Oughta Know,” intensely private, personal matters. Alanis, in her defense, does not name Dave Coulier in her song, but it seems to me that William Zantzinger wasn’t a prime villain of the civil rights movement until Bob Dylan made him so. It’s one thing to distort facts when you’re writing about someone famous, like Dylan did in “Hurricane” and “Joey,” something else again when they’re essentially private citizens.

      Martin Scorcese’s Casino is interesting in this regard — here’s a movie that sticks relatively close to history, presenting a remarkably complex story in incredible, vivid, detail. Casino is about real-life people who really did do all the things depicted in the movie, and in the book the movie is based on, they’re all named by their own names. For the purposes of the movie, all the names were changed, and I wondered why for a while, before I realized that Scorsese probably felt that, well, a book is one thing, but once you put movie stars up there on the screen playing someone, and you show them doing this, that or the other thing, it’s just not fair any more.

      • greyaenigma says:

        I was a member of an online community that had a couple of books written about it, and oddly enough, the pseudonyms people used online were changed for the book. Even more oddly, when I was thanked in one book, I was thanked by pseudo-pseudonym, so I had to guess whether I was myself.

        Even Casino had that “all these characters are fictional and no resemblance is intended” warning at the end of the movie, didn’t it? I’m sure there’s some bizarre legal logic to it, but it always gets to me.

    • johnnycrulez says:

      I think Lawrence of Arabia is probably a good example of a movie that has sort of defined how a lot of people think of a historical event, for better or worse.

      • stormwyvern says:

        The film did briefly cross my mind while I was trying to think of examples, but (proving the point) I don’t know enough about the real historical events to say definitively how wrong the movie is or isn’t. (Except that I’m fairly sure the real Prince Feisal didn’t look like Alec Guinness with makeup on.)

        • johnnycrulez says:

          Lawrence’s memoirs tell a closer version of the truth. It’s still a great story, but there is nothing so dramatically compelling as the attack of Aqaba.

    • noskilz says:

      My least favorite words to see in conjunction with any film is “based on a true story”, because I tend to assume, unfairly or not, that films given the choice between “interesting” or “accurate” tend to go with “interesting.” It just doesn’t occur to me that if I want to know more about something, I ought to catch the movie. How widespread this negative bias is, I have no idea, and there is research that claims people will often cling to the the first version of a story they encounter, even if later information contradicts it (although I wonder if that research factors in whether the person in question wishes to believe a particular version of events as opposed to trivia of no personal interest.)

      Not that I’m trying to downplay the possible consequences of unwelcome popularization ( suddenly, everyone knows your name, and they think you’re an ass.) Although I don’t think many have actually killed someone, there are probably more than a few youtube sensations that would prefer to have done without their 15 minutes, and youtube doesn’t have the stature or reach of conventional popular media. That said, not hitting people without some incredibly compelling reason still sounds like a good plan.

  4. There’s a quote, but I forget who it is from. Maybe Pratchett — Google is failing me. But the quote is something like, “Do not piss off a musician, for they will turn your corpse into performance art.”

    • Todd says:

      Or there’s the old joke about the drunk at the end of the bar, who grouses: “You sail the world single-handed but do they call you ‘Joe the sailor?’ No. You start a church in sub-Saharan Africa but do they call you ‘Joe the Missionary?’ No. You write a best-selling book that limns the American experience but do they call you ‘Joe the novelist?’ No. But suck one cock…”

  5. Anonymous says:


    He’s fine. The same generation that grew up listening to Jagged Little Pill probably remembers him better as Uncle Joey who did that silly Cut It Out thing and the woodchuck voice.

    Which is its own level of hell, I imagine, but that’s another story altogether.

    • marlowe1 says:

      Re: Coulier

      Is it even him? I only heard rumors that it was him but never confirmed.

      Besides that would be the one thing that he could have done to get away from that show. Bob Saget already took the “you see me as the well meaning cute dad so here I’m going to disgust the hell out of you with my stand up” routine.

      I don’t think “You Oughtta Know” would really brand anyone since it’s just a little too crazy and angsty to take seriously. Sure, we’ve all been there but once we get over our agner and our grievance for the ex-, most of us just move on and realize that it wasn’t right for either of us. Very rarely do we actually end up with people that deserve that kind of anger directed their way.

      • notthebuddha says:

        Re: Coulier

        Wikipedia said Coulier copped to it last year.

        The song takes on a new dimension when you look at the dates and ages and realize it’s a barely-legal teenage girl hacked off when the thirty-year-old man starring in a family show she blew comes to his senses and stops exploiting her.

        • laminator_x says:

          Re: Coulier

          Yeah, I always sort of thought that “the mess you left when you went away” has probably been a bit messy before he got there, whomever “he” was.

    • stormwyvern says:

      Re: Coulier

      Heck, the whole thing may have elevated him in some people’s minds. I’ve seen more than one person express surprise that Coulier could inspire such feelings in Morrisette, even if they were largely shortly post-breakup, drunk phone call at 2:47 in the morning kind of feelings.

      Unlike the case of William Zantzinger, this is an incident that even those interested in finding out will likely never know the particulars of, so most people will never be able to say for sure what’s true, what’s merely artistic license, and what (or who) exactly went down in that theater.

    • Re: Coulier

      He haunts my dreams with that woodchuck voice. I think the song is just desserts for creating that travesty of a character.

  6. mr_noy says:

    I even co-wrote…a screenplay informed by the subject.

    I would see that movie.

  7. blagh says:

    Warning: approaching tangent

    Three Panel Soul touched on him a while back. The game in question was called “City of Villains”, but the thought of using a real-life person in a game still makes me leery.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Re: Warning: approaching tangent

      Arguably, there’s something wrong with anyone that plays City of Villains*.

      Frankly, it’s nice to see some thought going into a character. And he was, at least, a real life villain.

      * Which I do frequently

      • lupa says:

        Re: Warning: approaching tangent

        I LOVE City of Villains. It’s great sublimation, and marvelous for a horror writer. ;D

  8. lupa says:

    Art as appropriation of life

    They say to write what you know, and we get inspired by life around us. But art burdens the source, to a certain extent; I wonder whether Erin Brockovich gets “you’re nothing like Julia Roberts” in real life. I keep wanting to write a memoir of my grandfather but I know there will always be the family members who will want me to change or edit my impressions over theirs. I can ignore them, or I can ignore myself. It’s easier for me to do the latter and write about people I don’t know personally – people I can research, rather than experience.

    I don’t know how Dylan felt about Edie Sedgwick, but I find it telling that many artists don’t name the people they know personally, but feel free to name people they only see from a vast distance. Carly Simon is another perfect example. I’d be curious, since you were very invested in Zantzinger’s personal being, what you thought about that.

  9. Anonymous says:

    My mind drifted to a sitcom with Coulier, Dylan and Morisette. (As Dylan appeared on Dharma&Greg, there’s no telling….) Dylan and Alanis are maybe Cash/Carter like… Coulier is the neighbor, brother-in-law, manager…the rest just writes itself.

  10. Wow! I love the early Dylan albums and had never thought about what happened to William Zantzinger – sounds a bit spicy his name…But what a song…Now is the time for your tears.

    But wait! I had no idea about the origins of “You Ought To Know”, and must tell my sister. The two of them made it onto a Canadian TV show called “You Can’t Do That on Television”, but sadly my family chose that moment to move back to Australia. Only one of the two went onto to sell 60 million records….