Here’s my Introduction to Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacific, available now.
When he went off to cover the war in the Pacific in January 1943, John Lardner was twenty-nine years old and, thanks to his weekly column in Newsweek, already a major figure in sportswriting. Nothing at Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium, however, could match the lure of what awaited him overseas. “The war was everything,” he said. “I was glad to be in it, speeding along with it.”
Lardner’s first stops were Australia and New Guinea, and what he wrote there became the backbone of the book you hold in your hands, Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacific. Originally published seventy years ago, this was a buried treasure in Lardner’s considerable body of work as a reporter during World War II. It’s blessed with Lardner’s unmistakable humor, and it captures the immediacy of what was then, to Americans, a new theater of war.
“There was more to be seen, heard, and felt in this war, of course, than the fighting of it,” he wrote. “It took Americans to a strange world, with a strange flavor, and gave many of them a long time to look around between bullets.”
Lardner crisscrossed Australia for four months, piling up ten thousand miles as he filed dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance and Newsweek. A lesser writer may have sought to dramatize what he saw, but Lardner pared away the extraneous with impeccable reporting. In the opening chapter, Lardner writes, “I want to tell the story with as few profundities and earth-shaking conclusions as possible.” It’s this unpretentious approach to reportage that keeps Southwest Passage fresh for us today.
Shortly after he arrived, Lardner observed an American soldier opening diplomatic relations with an Australian in a bar in Sydney.
“Well, boy,” said the American, “you can relax now. We’re here to save you.”
“Ow is that? I thought you were a fugitive from Pearl Harbor.”
About the locals, he wrote: “There can hardly be people in the world more fiercely and fanatically independent than Australians. The notion that the Yanks had come to ‘save Australia’—well, some of us had it, sure enough, and there was no quicker way of tasting the quick mettle and genial scorn of the fellow we came to save.”
No wonder Orville Prescott of the New York Times called Southwest Passage “as personal, informal and chatty a book of war correspondence as has yet come along. Mr. Lardner has the happy faculty of taking the war seriously without taking himself seriously.”
Lardner’s equanimity came naturally. He was, after all, the son of Ring Lardner, who was America’s most famous sportswriter before he became its most famous literary wit. Like his father, the son was serious about writing. As he said in a letter home: “It seems pretty plain that the best thing to do during the war is to work hard at whatever work you have to do, wherever it may be. Working is the only way I’ve ever found of being happy in a bad time.”
Lardner had been witness to the pitfalls of being labeled a sportswriter. His father never fully escaped being typecast as just a sportswriter. But John wasn’t just a sportswriter; he was one of the best. His reputation was cemented when he began a True magazine piece about a hell-bent prizefighter with these words: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Lardner’s fellow sportswriting legend Red Smith called it the “greatest novel ever written in one sentence.”
Like his contemporaries W. C. Heinz and A.J. Liebling, Lardner was a war correspondent, and if he didn’t enjoy their longevity or the lasting renown of Smith or Jimmy Cannon, he was every bit their equal. Heinz, in fact, is on record as calling Lardner “the best.”
“Time has a way of dimming the memory and achievements of writers who wrote, essentially, for the moment, as writers writing for journals must do,” Ira Berkow, a longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me. “But the best shouldn’t be lost in the haze of history and John Lardner was a brilliant writer—which means, in my view, that he was insightful, irreverent, wry and a master of English prose.”
John was born in 1912, the first of Ring and Ellis Lardner’s four boys. Their father was a study in reserve, a poker-faced observer of human folly who ushered his sons into the family business, although not by design. When his third son, Ring Jr., sold his first magazine piece, the father said, “Good God, isn’t any one of you going to turn out to be anything but a writer?”
The Lardners moved to the East Coast from Chicago in the fall of 1919. Early on, they lived in Great Neck, Long Island, the model for the fictional West Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (for a time, Fitzgerald was one of Ring’s closest friends). Another friend was Grantland Rice, who succeeded Lardner as the most celebrated sportswriter in the country. Whenever Ring took his sons to Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig always came by to pay their respects.
In his memoir, The Lardners: My Family Remembered, Ring Jr. wrote about the striking similarities he and his brothers shared with their father: “Intellectual curiosity with a distinctly verbal orientation, taciturnity, a lack of emotional display, an appreciation of the ridiculous. It was a matter of course that you mastered the fundamentals of reading and writing at the age of four, and by six reading books was practically a full-time occupation.”
John was all of ten when he broke into print with this ditty for the New York World:
Babe Ruth and old Jack Dempsey,
Both sultans of the swat
One hits where other people are,
The other where they’re not.
Ring Jr. claimed that John, more than any of his brothers, patterned his life on his father’s. John was bright and restless, and perhaps he pushed himself because he didn’t want to be known only as Ring’s son. He wasn’t given to talking about his motivations, but it is no stretch to assume that his father’s considerable talent gave him something to shoot for.
“John grew up in the shadow of a father who was a great writer,” Liebling wrote. “This is a handicap shared by only an infinitesimal portion of any given generation, but it did not intimidate him.”
As for himself, John wrote, “In the interests of learning to read and cipher, I made the rounds at a number of schools, my tour culminating in Phillips Academy, Andover, and Harvard University (one year), where I picked up the word ‘culminating.”‘
He went to Paris for another year to study at the Sorbonne, worked for a few months in Paris on the International Herald Tribune, then returned to New York in 1931 and landed a job with the New York Herald Tribune. He covered local news and quickly earned bylines—no small achievement at what was considered the city’s best-written paper. “We are all swollen up like my ankles,” his father boasted.
At twenty-one, John left the Herald Tribune to write a column for the North American Newspaper Alliance. It was the Depression, and he was pulling down an impressive $100 a week, but his father would not live long enough to see him cash any paychecks. Ring died in 1933 after suffering for years from tuberculosis and alcoholism. He was forty-eight.
In the late ’30s, John began his transition to magazine writing. He published a story for the Saturday Evening Post on the Black Sox scandal and launched the Newsweek sports column that would run for eighteen years and establish his reputation. And yet, for all of that, the rumblings of the coming war were impossible to ignore.
Finally, in 1940, he wrote a letter to John Wheeler, his boss at NANA:
A year or so ago you suggested—not at all in a definitive way, but simply as something to think about—that in case of real action abroad, perhaps involving this country, you might consider sending me to do some work there instead of, or in addition to, the people that usually do the stuff of that kind for you and the Times. The idea stuck in my mind, naturally, but I haven’t given it any serious thought until recently. I think I can do other work as well as or better than most newspaper men and writers, and that a time may be coming shortly when that work will be more important and valuable to both you and me. This sounds swellheaded—but if I didn’t feel the way I do about writing, I wouldn’t give a damn about being a writer.
John got his wish not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During his voyage to Australia he wrote to his wife, Hazel: “I have now stated for the 143rd time that I don’t think Billy Conn can beat Joe Louis. This opinion is not censorable, and I will pass it along to you, too, for what it is worth, though you probably knew it all the time.”
Lardner traveled with four other American reporters during his twelve weeks in Australia. All proved more than happy to break up their considerable downtime by arguing about the following: “Food; Russia; women; the Louis-Schemling fights; the art of Michelangelo; the Civil War; religion; the Newspaper Guild; Cornelia Otis Skinner; tattooing; the best place to live in New England; William Randolph Hearst; war production; venereal disease; the Pyramids; walking-sticks; dining out as opposed to dining home; the private life of Hedy Lamarr; marriage; For Whom the Bell Tolls; prizefight managers; education for children; Enzo Fiermonte; Paris; this war and all others; Leopold and Loeb; San Francisco restaurants; Greek and Roman architecture; Seabiscuit; the comparative merits of Cleopatra and Mary Queen of Scots. And several hundred others.”
As consistently amusing as Lardner is in Southwest Passage, he strives for more than comic effect in his dispatches. Take his description of Darwin, the ghost town “at the topmost pole of the dusty road across Australia, brooding over its scars”; or his account of the nurses who survived brutal air raids in the Philippines with “their hard-bought shell of resistance.” Nothing showy, nothing fancy—just a world-class observer at work, as Lardner was when he encountered a swing band performing for a U.S. Army outfit near Darwin a few days after Easter. “The night, following a day without bombs, was moonlit, and the Southern Cross blazed above. The musicians brought their guns as well as their instruments.”
Lardner downplayed any personal jeopardy he faced, but as Liebling said, “John was naturally brave. When he saw blinding bomb flashes by night, he used to move toward them to see better.” Lardner himself might have chalked that up to poor eyesight, but his courage is evidenced by his trip through hostile waters to Port Moresby on a freighter dubbed the “Floating Firecracker,” whose cargo consisted of bombs and drums of gasoline. On another occasion, after successfully bombing their target off the north coast of New Guinea, the plane Lardner was aboard stopped to refuel at a barren little base. The men ate bread and marmalade in the mess shack while Lardner talked to one of the soldiers about the ice hockey playoffs for the Stanley Cup.
We got our last thrill of the day then, thrown in for good measure and absolutely unsolicited. Doggedly the Zeros [Japanese fighter planes] had trailed us south, and with them carne bombers. The alarm sounded, and the crews on the ground beelined for their planes, for there is nothing more humiliating, useless, and downright impractical than to be caught on the ground, in the open, with your aeronautical pants down.
There is nothing more scary, I should add, because something always goes a little wrong when you try to take off under the condition known as “or else.” One of the engines missed. Then the door failed to shut tight . . . but we did get off, after sitting there for what seemed like a couple of minutes longer than forever.
Given his natural reticence, there is little to be found in Lardner’s papers revealing his feelings about Southwest Passage. In letters home he didn’t much talk about himself or the content of his work, just the conditions under which he produced it. “As far as I know the stories I’ve been writing have not been done by others,” he wrote to his wife. “The main trouble with being frontward and one of the reasons I’ll have to spend more time here is communications and censorship. You can’t be sure how fast your stuff is getting to headquarters and clearing from there, and you have no way of knowing what’s being taken out of stories. It’s like writing in a void.”
Lardner came home to resume his sports column in the summer of 1942, but by the end of the year he was a war correspondent again. His first stops were North Africa and Italy, then it was back to the Pacific, where he went ashore at Iwo Jima only a few hours after the first wave of marines. By the time he covered the invasion of Okinawa, now also writing for the New Yorker, he was haunted by the deaths of two of his brothers: Jim was the last American volunteer to die in the Spanish Civil War, in 1938, and David was killed in 1944 by a landmine in France. You can practically feel the shadow of mortality on him in the letter he wrote to his wife after filing his dispatch from Okinawa: “That was the last one, baby. During the last few days I was there, I got one or two small and gentle hints, much more gentle than the one at Iwo Jima, that my luck was beginning to run out and I had better quit while I was still in one handsome, symmetrical piece. By the time I get home it will be practically three and a half years since I started covering the war which I guess will be enough.”
Like his father, John had considerable health problems for much of his adult life: TB, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis. Undeterred, he worked hard and steadily as he gave up his syndicated newspaper column to write long magazine pieces for True and Sport as well as the New Yorker. Along the way he published two collections of his columns, It Beats Working and Strong Cigars and Lovely Women, and a history of the golden age of boxing called White Hopes and Other Tigers.
A certain mystique rose up around Lardner. He was forever described as someone who could stay at the bar all evening, nursing a Scotch, smoking, and scarcely saying a word. “He was as easy to like as he was hard to know,” said Liebling. And yet he was far from morose. “I’d like to fend off at least a few tragic overtones in the account of John Lardner,” his daughter Susan once wrote. “Those of us who knew my father . . . remember him as a song-singing, piano-playing, butter pecan ice cream-eating cat rancher and driver of Buick convertibles, who drank more milk than whisky and who often and rightly referred to himself as Handsome Jack.”
John had always told friends he wouldn’t outlive his old man, and he was right. He died of a heart attack in 1960 six weeks before his forty-eighth birthday. That day, he was writing an obituary for an old family friend, Franklin P. Adams. “F.P.A. was always a poor poker player and often a bore,” he wrote before collapsing with chest pains. When the family doctor arrived, he took Lardner in his arms and said, “John, you can’t die. John, you’re a noble human being.” Lardner looked at him and said, “Oh Lou, that sounds like a quotation.”
In September of 1943, Lardner sat down in a stone house in southern Italy to compose his latest dispatch from the war. He had written in less commodious surroundings as he bounced from Australia to New Guinea to North Africa, but he neither complained about them nor reveled in this rare taste of comfort. Usually he was glad for mail call, too, even if it came in midsentence. But not this day.
Lardner was hoping for a letter from his wife and instead received a legal notice from the midwestern law firm of Duffy, Claffy, Igoe & McCorkindale. The letter concerned a column he had written about a former outfielder from St. Louis named Bohnsack, who seemed not to have been memorable except that he once threw an umpire off a moving train. Lardner, who knew something worth writing about when he saw it, happily included the incident in his column. Now Bohnsack’s lawyers were claiming the anecdote was “false and misleading,” and they urged Lardner to settle out of court. Then as now, there was nothing like a little moola to ease a fellow’s “grievous social and mental damage.”
Lardner seethed: “Bohnsack annoyed me because he showed me that his world, which had also been my world, had great vitality, and that it took considerably more than a global battle to kill its self-preoccupation,” he wrote. It wasn’t just that Bohnsack had told Lardner personally that he’d thrown the umpire off a train, or that the first piece of mail he had received in the battle zone was not from his wife. “It was most of all that now, in the midst of the great and bloody planetary adventure of war, these barristers chose callously to call me back to the world of petulant outfielders and remind me that I was a sports writer.”
In fact, Lardner wrote about a variety of topics: lexicography, jury service, and New York history; for the New Yorker he contributed occasional film, theater, and book reviews and in the last three and a half years of his life wrote a column for the magazine on TV and radio. “Sportswriter” was a label that he, like his father, would never escape. This slim volume of his war reportage proves that Lardner was a quick-witted and assured writer no matter the subject. As Stanley Walker, the Herald Tribune’s city editor, said, Lardner “came close to being the perfect all-around journalist.” Never were those skills put to a stiffer test than on the battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. In the thickest drama, the unflappable man remained unflappable, at his best writing what Red Smith called novels in a single sentence.