John Schulian is one of our most gifted storytellers and a wordsmith who has been compared to Red Smith and A.J. Liebling. He came of age as a newspaper reporter and sports columnist in the 1970s, part of a generation of young turks that featured the likes of David Israel, Leigh Montville, Mike Lupica, Jane Leavy, Tony Kornheiser and Tom Boswell. Then he left sports behind and went to Hollywood where he wrote for “L.A. Law,” “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy,” “JAG,” and numerous other series–including “Slap Maxwell,” the short-lived Dabney Coleman show about a sportswriting hack. He was also the co-creator of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Before, during and after his foray into show business, Schulian wrote long-form articles for Sports Illustrated and GQ. His work has been collected in “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists,” “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” and the forthcoming “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand.” Schulian has been featured in “The Best American Sports Writing,” and, on ten occasions, the old “Best Sports Stories” series. He also edited “The John Lardner Reader” and co-edited (with George Kimball) “At the Fights: American Writers of Boxing.”
Last fall I sat down with John to talk about his career and what came out was more than just an interview but an oral history of the newspaper business, of the sporting scene and of Hollywood. So I am proud to present John’s story, in his own words, “From Ali to Xena,” which will be posted in column-like segments twice a week.
You are in for a treat.
From Ali to Xena
By John Schulian
Good things have happened to me all my life, whether I deserved them or not, and “At The Fights”is the latest of them. When George Kimball and I started working together, we had nothing more in mind than a modest book of stories by writers who had won awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America. The way we looked at it, no sport has inspired more wonderful prose than the Sweet Science. But for every great piece we found, there was another one that even a generous critic would have had a difficult time calling mediocre. I won’t say we were ready to give up, but the bloom definitely was off the rose.
Then, out of nowhere, George’s literary agent, Farley Chase, called and said the Library of America was interested in having us edit an anthology of great boxing writing. “The same Library of America that does Twain and Poe and Raymond Chandler?” we said. “That’s the one,” Farley said. So we wrote a proposal and talked to LOA’s big cheeses and lobbied like a couple of Tammany Hall politicians. And we got the gig.
It turned out to be an incredible amount of work that was definitely pleasurable. You don’t have to ask me twice to read Heywood Broun, W.C. Heinz, and Carlo Rotella, and I know George feels the same. But there was also more than a little pain in the process because we didn’t have room to include all the pieces we love and all the writers we admire. The book we wound up with, though, is one we believe in wholeheartedly. “At the Fights” reflects both our personal tastes and the importance of boxing in American nonfiction. Just think of the big names whose work we’ve showcased: Mailer, London, Baldwin, Schulberg, Plimpton. Maybe George expected to be to sit in judgment of them at some point in his career, but it’s a complete surprise to me.
Honestly, I never expected any of what has happened to me over the last four decades. Not the big-city sports column or the magazine work or the books, not Hollywood and the modest success I had in TV, not the fascinating projects that still fall in my lap as I enter my golden years. Sure, I dreamed about it when I was a kid, but dreaming is far different than expecting. There were guys I met on newspapers who fairly radiated their expectation of success and became wet-behind-the-ears sensations. I, on the other hand, moved at a far slower pace, forever unsure of what lay in store for me.
I don’t mean to be disingenuous. That’s just a natural fact. I knew I wanted to be a newspaper reporter and columnist, but I thought I might just as easily wind up as a copy editor. (I can hear the copy editors I worked with saying, “You never could have cut it.”) If I saw myself doing anything, it was bouncing around to a lot of different newspapers — but not papers in glamorous cities and not papers with glowing national reputations. I was thinking more along the lines of Toledo for a couple of years, then maybe see what was available in Portland or Albuquerque. The only thing I was sure of was that I had a shot at an interesting life.
1. THE WANDER YEARS
Moving was a tradition in my family. We were never afraid to pull up stakes, we just did it, because my dad was either helping out a friend or he’d found a new job. If he hadn’t been so footloose, he might never have come to America. He was born in Copenhagen and worked his way here by way of, if I remember correctly, Paris and Montreal. He worked in hotels and restaurants, where there always seemed to be jobs for him and the Frenchmen who were his best friends. The trunk he brought to this country in 1926 sits next to the desk where I’m writing this. His first stop in the U.S. was New York, and then he worked in Miami and Chicago. He was drafted when he was 37, soon after World War II erupted, but was injured in basic training and returned to civilian life as a milkman in Los Angeles. Don’t ask me how he landed there. It’s just one more gap in my parents’ story that they never filled in for me.
What I do know is that in the late Thirties my dad had a brief marriage in Chicago that ended in divorce. When he got to L.A. he put what was essentially an ad for a wife in a Danish language newspaper. That’s where the woman who became my mother entered the picture. She was a farm girl from Minnesota who had never seen any brighter lights than the ones in the Twin Cities, where she cleaned houses for $4 a week during the Depression. She read my dad’s ad, and the next thing her brothers and sisters knew, she told them she was going to Los Angeles. I seriously doubt she told them why.
She certainly didn’t tell me. “We don’t talk about that,” she said. So I didn’t hear the story until she had followed my father to the grave and I asked my right-wing uncle Art if he knew how my parents met.
They were married Feb. 1, 1944 and I was born Jan. 31, 1945, and that was it for them when it came to baby-making.
Maybe they were just too busy moving. We moved from one house to another in L.A. Then, after I finished kindergarten, we moved to Chicago, where my dad worked for a year with one of his French buddies and I repeated kindergarten because the local school district thought I was too young to be in first grade.
We returned to an L.A. suburb called Inglewood, which was then renowned as the home of Hollywood Park Race Track, the Chicago Cubs’ Hank Sauer, and such Pacific Coast League favorites as Gene Mauch and George (Catfish) Metkovich. I went to a Lutheran elementary school that was run by a stern German minister who seemed to regard laughter as a sin. I’m not sure where the other kids lived, but I don’t recall ever walking home with any of them or playing with any of them after school.
When I was in the middle of the fifth grade, I transferred to a public elementary school three blocks from home. Daniel Freeman Elementary, to be exact. (Years later, Reggie Theus, the Chicago Bulls’ gunner, told me he went there, too, long after I’d moved on.) I’m not clear on why I left the Lutheran school, but it may have been because the tuition was too steep for my parents. My dad was going through a tough stretch then, running his own little restaurant and working for Helms Baking Company. What was tough for him, however, was a godsend for me. Daniel Freeman had an after-school sports program, and there were kids to play with, and I could even walk home for lunch and watch a couple innings of one of those Yankee-Dodger World Series games while I ate.
Anyway, I was at Daniel Freeman for part of fifth grade and all of sixth. Then I went to Monroe Junior High School for seventh grade. Then my dad got a job in Salt Lake City as the catering manager of the Newhouse Hotel; a husband-and-wife team from San Francisco had bought it, and they liked his Old World charm and polish. But that meant another junior high, Irving, in the eighth grade. When my parents bought a home after eight or nine months of renting, I moved to yet another junior high, Roosevelt, for ninth grade. And then it was on to East High School.
Six schools in six years. I know that Army brats have it a lot tougher, but that was all I could handle. I was toast. Though I was a reasonably bright kid, I barely got on the academic scoreboard in the tenth grade. I had friends because I started playing baseball as soon as I got to town, but they were all guys. Figuring out girls, which would have been a chore for me under the best of circumstances, was out of the question. I was almost pathologically shy around them. Bad complexion, couldn’t dance, tongue-tied -– I had all the tools. It’s a good thing the University of Utah had cool basketball teams and Salt Lake City had funky old pool rooms where I could soak up the atmosphere. Otherwise, I might have turned into the world’s youngest hermit.