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The Write Stuff

Posted By Alex Belth On February 21, 2008 @ 5:25 am In Bronx Banter,Magazine Writers,Newspapermen,Sportswriting | Comments Disabled

Over at Yankees for Justice, Todd Drew writes about going to see Jimmy Breslin [1] speak at the Barnes and Noble on 66th street, across the street from Lincoln Center, and just a few blocks north from where bar-restaurants like The Ginger Man and Saloon and O’Neal’s Ballon used to stand (bars where guys like Breslin, and my father, drank):

“Would you be a newspaperman if you were just starting out today?” I ask.

“That’s a good one,” he says. “The game’s changed and there’s probably no room for a guy like me.”

He pauses for a moment and then really gets rolling.

“Pick up any newspaper in the morning,” Breslin says. “Count the words in the lead sentences. There will be at least 25 in all of them: Guaranteed. The writers just want to tell you how many degrees they have from this college or that university.

“Steinbeck would use 12 words in the first sentence,” he continues. “Mailer 15 words. Hemingway five. That’s because they had respect for their readers. It may sound like I’m being hard on colleges and that’s because I am. None of them have any idea how to teach people to write. They have wrecked the business.”

The business has certainly changed. And it is still changing. Here is Frank Deford [2], who along with Dan Jenkins was the most celebrated of the old Sports Illustrated writers, in an on-line interview:

Given the flux in the whole journalism industry, I’d be presumptuous to advise any young student quite what to do. It’s too fluid right now. All I could safely say is that if you have talent, you will succeed, but in what venue I have no idea. You got to be quick on your feet now and be instinctive in choosing the right journalistic path for you. And then it will probably require a switch somewhere down the road.

Nothing stays the same–the nature of business, art, the city. But that shouldn’t stop us from appreciating the great tradition of newspaper and magazine writing. The Star-Ledger has a wonderful, eight-part tribute to Jerry Izenberg’s 55 years in the business [3]. Video clips are included along with Izenberg’s memory pieces. In the second installment, he talks about his mentor, Stanley Woodward, the famed sports editor for the New York Herald Tribune. (Woodward wrote a wonderful memoir, Paper Tiger [4], introduced by John Schulian. Roger Kahn devotes an entire chapter to Woodward in his recent memoir, Into My Own [5].)

Also, in case you missed it when it ran late last summer, here is Mark Kram’s poignant memoir piece [6] about his father, also Mark Kram. The elder Kram was a gifted but troubled star writer for SI in the sixtes and seventies–his piece on the “Thrilla in Manilla” is widely anthologized:

What I remember now is his back, the way it dampened with an enlarging oval of perspiration as he sat with his big shoulders crouched over the typewriter. Steeped in piles of newspapers and assorted coffee cups corroded with tobacco ash, he labored amid a drifting cloud of pipe smoke in Room 2072 wrapping up a piece on the National Marbles Tournament, which would later be included in The Norton Reader. I remember him chasing away a young woman that day who’d come early for his copy. Even at 17 I had to laugh, because he used every second allotted to him by a deadline, be it an hour or weeks. He’d get up, jam his pipe into his pocket, and pace, up this corridor, down the other, light his pipe and end up back at his office, where his typewriter remained with the same piece of paper in it on which 12 words had been written. His editor Pat Ryan refers to this as “stall walking” — what jittery thoroughbreds do to calm down – but eventually that sweat and tobacco paid off in prose that was like slipping into a velvet boxing robe.

Managing editor Andre Laguerre unlatched whatever raw abilities Dad possessed. The legendary Frenchman did not care if he had been to Georgia for three years or even three hours; in fact, a “Letter from the Publisher” in March, 1968 played up the phony telegram he concocted at The Sun as the act of a resourceful imagination. Laguerre divined in him a deep reservoir of moody sensitivities that could swell into uncommonly seductive prose. That became abundantly clear as his work developed in the ensuing years in an array of sharply observed pieces, none better than his 1973 profile of the forgotten Negro League star Cool Papa Bell called “No Place in the Shade.” That story begins: “In the language of jazz, the word gig is an evening of work: sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, take the gig as it comes, for who knows when the next will be. It means bread and butter first, but a whole lot of things have always seemed to ride with the word: drifting blue light, the bouquet of leftover drinks, spells of odd dialogue and most of all a sense of pain and limbo. For more than anything the word means black, down-and-out-black, leavin’-home black, gonna-find-me-a-place-in-the-shade black.” Dad would come to think of that piece as his finest effort at SI.

But it would be his work on the boxing beat that would bring him acclaim. Down through the years, few in that Ruyonesque galaxy of unrepentant rogues were spared the sharp point of his critical lance, including Ali, his entourage, the new Madison Square Garden, and rival promoters Bob Arum and Don King. “Boxing is a world of freebooters,” says Mort Sharnik, who covered boxing with Dad at SI. “And in that realm Mark was looked upon with much apprehension.” And yet as cynical as Dad could be, I think Sharnik is on to something when he says that he was oddly naïve. “Whenever you told him something, he would draw on his pipe and cock his eye in this skeptical way,” says Sharnik. “But a true cynic would not have allowed himself to be drawn in by some of the questionable characters Mark did. In that way there was always some rube in him.”

Speaking of the old days, Bob Ryan edited The Best of Sport [7] a few years ago, a good introduction to guys like Arnold Hano, Myron Cope and Ed Linn.

If you like that sort of thing…


Article printed from Bronx Banter: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com

URL to article: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2008/02/21/the-write-stuff/

URLs in this post:

[1] Todd Drew writes about going to see Jimmy Breslin: http://yankeesforjustice.blogspot.com/2008/02/characters.html

[2] Frank Deford: http://zachls.blogspot.com/2007/08/interview-with-frank-deford.html

[3] eight-part tribute to Jerry Izenberg’s 55 years in the business: http://www.nj.com/sports/ledger/izenberg

[4] Paper Tiger: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A40114-2003Dec29.html

[5] Into My Own: http://www.amazon.com/Into-My-Own-Remarkable-People/dp/0312338139

[6] here is Mark Kram’s poignant memoir piece: http://www.thesmartset.com/article/article08060706.aspx

[7] The Best of Sport: http://www.amazon.com/Best-SPORT-Classic-Writing-Golden/dp/1894963431

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