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Category: 3: Interviews

Bronx Banter Interview: Levi Stahl

getawaycar

Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) was one of our most prolific and entertaining writers. Now, we’ve got this posthumous treat: The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, published by the University of Chicago Press and edited by Levi Stahl. The book is a ton of fun. I recently had the chance to catch up with Stahl. Hope you enjoy our chat.

Q: When did you start reading Donald Westlake?

Levi Stahl: I first encountered Westlake via Hard Case Crime: they published Lemons Never Lie, one of the novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark about the heister Parker’s associate Alan Grofield. I was impressed by it, but in that way that happens when you read a lot, I just kept moving and didn’t dig deeper.

Then on the day before Thanksgiving in 2007 I was at the office—and if you’ve ever been in the office the day before Thanksgiving (and don’t work for Butterball), you know that absolutely nothing happens. You’re there just in case something catches fire. That day, nothing was even smoldering, so at lunch I went browsing at my local bookshop, 57th Street Books, and plucked from the shelves what would end up being the penultimate Parker novel, Ask the Parrot. Back at my desk, I set to reading, and two hours later when my wife arrived for the long drive downstate to my parents’ house, I had to apologize: I had promised to do the driving, but now there was no way I could do any driving until I’d finished this book and found out what happened.

I was hooked. By Christmas I’d read ten or so Parker novels, all harvested from the used book market, and was making the case to colleagues at the University of Chicago Press that we should try to bring the series back into print. Now, almost seven years later, I’ve read all 100 of Westlake’s books—the Westlakes, the Starks, the Samuel Holts, the Tucker Coes, and the one-shots from Timothy Culver, Judson Jack Carmichael, Curt Clark, and even “The Vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.” And almost all have been worth reading—even the couple that I would regard as truly weak offer some elements of interest.

Q: Damn, Westlake wrote 100 books? And you read them all? Man, that’s daunting. Okay, before we even get to the collection you’ve assembled, what Westlake titles would you recommend for someone who’s never read him before?

LS: The two series are an obvious starting point: trythe first Parker book, The Hunter, and the first Dortmunder, The Hot Rock. Neither is necessarily the best in the series, but they’re both quite good, and they give a clear sense of what these books are up to and whether you’ll like them.

From the standalones, I tend to recommend Somebody Owes Me Money, a hilarious first-person narrative from a put-upon cabby that opens, “I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent”; Killing Time, an early, hardboiled work that is clearly in thrall to Hammett and Red Harvest but satisfying on its own terms; 361, a crime novel that was written deliberately with no explicit emotional signposts; God Save the Mark, a brilliantly funny collection of cons and nonsense; and The Ax, a 1997 hardboiled crime novel that is also a dissection of contemporary economic pain, as a laid-off print shop manager decides to kill the competition for the job he’d like to land. It’s so unrelenting it can be hard to read at times.

Q: Also, for the uninitiated, can you talk about the difference between Westlake’s two most famous protagonists?

LS: What may be more interesting about Parker and John Dortmunder is a relatively underappreciated quality that they have in common: they’re both extremely good at their jobs, yet their well-laid plans always go spectacularly wrong. The difference comes in how they respond to that. Parker, while remaining utterly emotionless, is bothered when a job goes sour, and he then takes whatever measures are necessary, up to and including extreme violence, to extricate himself from the problem, preferably with the loot. Dortmunder reacts to problems with an unsurprised shrug of his shoulders. Everything has always gone wrong for him, so why should this time be any different? Parker is an existentialist, Dortmunder is a fatalist.

Dortmunder actually emerged out of those very differences: Westlake started writing what he thought was another Parker novel, in which Parker and a gang have to try multiple times to steal a giant diamond. When he got to the third or fourth time the gang tried to steal the diamond, however, he realized he couldn’t keep going: Parker would have already cut his losses and moved on. But he liked the concept enough that he created a heister who would just keep plugging away at it, and with that, The Hot Rock started really rolling, and John Dortmunder was born.

The other big difference is that Dortmunder actually likes and cares about his gang. They’re almost as much friends as colleagues, and it shows in his willingness to continue to put up with their irritating, silly quirks. Parker, on the other hand, sees his colleagues as mere tools, useful yet, like all tools, prone to failure. So the one time he does truly extend himself for a fellow heister—risking his life, and the job, to save Alan Grofield in Butcher’s Moon, it astonishes not just the other guys on the string, but the reader, too. The Parker novels are popcorn, or shots of whiskey; the Dortmunders are chicken soup, or a PB&J. You go to them on different days, for different reasons, and they deliver what you’re looking for.

Q: Okay, to the collection that you’ve edited. How did this project come about?

LS: I discovered Westlake the nonfiction writer via Trent Reynolds’s excellent Violent World of Parker site. He had posted a scan of an Armchair Detective article from the early 1980s that reproduced a talk Westlake had delivered at the Smithsonian about the history of hardboiled private eyes in fiction. That piece revealed Westlake to be a serious thinker about and critic of the crime genre, and it made me wonder what else he might have written. Quick searching turned up enough to build a book proposal, deeper library research fleshed it out nicely, and—best of all—a trip to the Westlake house to go through his files, courtesy of the endlessly gracious Abby Westlake, turned up a bounty of little-known and never-before-published pieces.

Q: With a guy as prolific as Westlake, how did you decide what to choose from—not only single pieces—but categories?

LS: The categories actually came last, when I looked at my giant stack of papers and realized, belatedly, that I would need to put them in some sort of sensible order. But once I started doing that, making stacks of pieces on Westlake’s own work, of pieces on other writers, of letters, etc., the very act of sorting helped me figure out whether I wanted to include the couple of pieces that were on the bubble. For example: you could probably do a whole book of Westlake interviews, but once I gathered what I had, it became obvious that the two I should include were the ones that focused largely on his film writing career, as most of the other topics that come up in interviews (his life and his books) were covered elsewhere.

My early readers, Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime and Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, were also extremely helpful: seeing what pieces interested these two genre experts most, and which were less effective, helped to transform the early manuscript into something more compact and potent. The only piece that I knew from the very start had to be in the place it is was the final letter. The moment I read it, pulled from Westlake’s filing cabinet, I knew I had the last words of the book.

Q: Westlake’s generosity toward his peers—Rex Stout, Charles Willeford, even a review of a George Higgins novel come to mind—is admirable. He seemed not motivated by professional envy but professional admiration. I like the note he tacked up at his desk, NO MORE INTRODUCTIONS, but the truth is, he was very good at writing them, wasn’t he?

LS: He really was an astute and generous critic of other writers. His essay on Peter Rabe, whom he greatly admired and acknowledged was a huge influence, is the perfect example. In the book that section opens with a letter from Westlake to Rabe telling him he’s going to be writing about his work and asking some questions; the letter is appreciative, funny, and generous, and Rabe responded enthusiastically. However, knowing that Rabe would eventually read the essay clearly didn’t stop Westlake from offering strong criticism of his weaker books—but at the same time, the admiration for Rabe’s achievement is so strong, clear, and well grounded in detailed analysis that the overall effect is to make you come away wanting to read more of Rabe’s books. Ultimately, that’s the effect of all of Westlake’s introductions: it’s the job of the person writing the introduction to make you see what’s special about the writer being presented, and Westlake was spectacularly good at that.

Another example of his ability to analyze and offer criticism of crime fiction is the letter to David Ramus. Ramus had—I’m not sure through what channel—sent Westlake the manuscript of what would become his first novel, On Ice. I don’t know what he was expecting, but what he got was a detailed examination of what did and didn’t work in the book, with suggestions of how things could be done better—suggestions given, explicitly, not to say that Westlake’s way was right, but that another way was possible. The letter, and the investment of time it represents, is an act of stunning generosity. The most entertaining moment in that letter? “Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no.”

Q: Can you describe how he used humor in his books? His wife said he wasn’t jolly in real life, but witty, loved to laugh and loved making people laugh.

LS: In his foreword to this book, Westlake’s friend Lawrence Block takes issue with my characterizing Westlake’s writing as being filled with jokes. It’s wit, rather than jokes, says Block, and I think he’s basically right. Perhaps the biggest thing I took away from my time researching this book was that Westlake hardly ever wrote a full page of anything—be it fiction or a business letter—without finding a way to get some humor into it. He just seems to have seen the world that way: everything is a tiny bit ridiculous, because, well, look at us? We’re not really very good at this living stuff, are we? Yet we have the audacity to make plans and think we’re in control. That illusion is the source of so much of Westlake’s humor. Everything is always going wrong, and that in and of itself is funny, if you look at it the right way. As he put it in his piece on Stephen Frears, “If we aren’t going to enjoy ourselves, why do it?” He really seems to have written, and lived, with that motto in mind.

Q: The most delightful surprise in the book is the chapter on the Goon Show, the British radio comedy hit that was the precursor to the Pythons and Beyond the Fringe.

LS: Wasn’t that unexpected? Westlake was a comic writer, obviously, but like you I was still surprised to find him writing about the show, and weaving his appreciation of it into a short autobiographical essay. I’d thought a lot about his genre forebears and influences, but I’d never given the same thought to the influences on his comedy.

Q: What did you find that surprised you?

 

LS: For me the biggest surprise was more structural: I knew that Westlake had written for Hollywood, but it wasn’t until I was going through his files that I realized what a big part of his work, and income, it was. Even as he was writing 100 books, he was also turning out screenplays, and treatments, and pilots, and rewrites, most of which never made it to the screen. That was a big reason why I wanted to include the two interviews that focused on film, and the piece on Stephen Frears: it’s a side of Westlake that I think even those of us who are big fans don’t necessarily know about. (My only regret with the book, meanwhile, is that I couldn’t find a way to work in even a single reference to Supertrain!)

Q: What were Westlake’s experiences with Hollywood like? Several of his books were made into movies, some of them good—The Hot Rock, Point Blank. I didn’t know it at the time but I first remember seeing his name in the credits for The Grifters and a very good, creepy movie, The Stepfather.

LS: He worked hard with Hollywood and drew a substantial part of his income from there throughout his life. But he always seems to have held it at arm’s length. You get the feeling that the loss of control and independence that working with Hollywood, even in the relatively isolated role of screenwriter, required sat awkwardly with Westlake’s lifelong iconoclastic, individualistic, rebellious streak. There’s a reason that he didn’t like, and didn’t stick in, the Air Force; that same reason seems likely to be why Hollywood never truly seduced him.

Q: In a letter, Westlake described the difference between an author and a writer. A writer was a hack, a professional. There’s something appealing and unpretentious about this but does it take on a romance of its own? I’m not saying he was being a phony but do you think that difference between a writer and an author is that great?

LS: I suspect that it’s not, and that to some extent even Westlake himself would have disagreed with his younger self by the end of his life. I think the key distinction for him, before which all others pale, was what your goal was: Were you sitting down every day to make a living with your pen? Or were you, as he put it ironically in a letter to a friend who was creating an MFA program, “enhanc[ing] your leisure hours by refining the uniqueness of your storytelling talents”? If the former, you’re a writer, full stop. If the latter, then you probably have different goals from Westlake and his fellow hacks.

But does a true hack veer off course regularly to try something new? Does a hack limit himself to only writing about his meal ticket (John Dortmunder) every three books, max, in order not to burn him out? Does a hack, as Westlake put it in a late letter to his friend and former agent Henry Morrison, “follow what interests [him],” to the likely detriment of his career? Westlake was always a commercial writer, but at the same time, he never let commerce define him. Craft defined him, and while craft can be employed in the service of something a writer doesn’t care about at all, it is much easier to call up and deploy effectively if the work it’s being applied to has also engaged something deeper in the writer. You don’t write a hundred books with almost no lousy sentences if you’re truly a hack.

Q: I loved the piece that Westlake’s wife wrote about his working habits.

 

LS: Isn’t it great? In her tongue-in-cheek, yet insightful essay “Living with a Mystery Writer,” Abby Adams Westlake talks about the differences she would see in her late husband depending on which of his many personas he was writing as. In discussing his Timothy J. Culver pen name, she describes his writing set-up:

“His desk is as organized as a professional carpenter’s workshop. No matter where it is, it must be set up according to the same unbending pattern. Two typewriters (Smith Corona Silent-Super manual) sit on the desk with a lamp and a telephone and a radio, and a number of black ball-point pens for corrections (seldom needed!). On a shelf just above the desk, five manuscript boxes hold three kinds of paper (white bond first sheets, white second sheets and yellow work sheets) plus originals and carbon of whatever he’s currently working on. (Frequently one of these boxes also holds a sleeping cat.) Also on this shelf are reference books (ThesaurusBartlett’s1000 Names for Baby, etc.) and cups containing small necessities such as tape, rubber bands (I don’t know what he uses them for) and paper clips. Above this shelf is a bulletin board displaying various things that Timothy Culver likes to look at when he’s trying to think of the next sentence. Currently, among others, there are: a newspaper photo showing Nelson Rockefeller giving someone the finger; two post cards from the Louvre, one obscene; a photo of me in our garden in Hope, New Jersey; a Christmas card from his Los Angeles divorce attorney showing himself and his wife in their Bicentennial costumes; and a small hand-lettered sign that says ‘weird villain.’ This last is an invariable part of his desk bulletin board: ‘weird’ and ‘villain’ are the two words he most frequently misspells. There used to be a third—’liaison’—but since I taught him how to pronounce it (not lay-ee-son but lee-ay-son) he no longer has trouble with it.”

In an interview conducted by Albert Nussbaum, Westlake went into a bit more detail about his approach:

“If I work every day from the beginning of a book till the end, my production rate is probably three to five thousand words a day–unless I hit a snag, which can throw me off for a week or two. But if I work every day I don’t do anything else, because everything else involves alcohol; and I don’t try to work with any drink in me, so in the last few years I’ve tended to work four or five days a week. But that louses up the production two ways; first in the days I don’t work, and second, because I do almost nothing the first day back on the job. This week, for instance, I did one or two pages monday, five pages Tuesday, five Wednesday, fourteen Thursday, and three so far today.” He went on to say that he used to complain to his second wife, “I’m sick of working one day in a row!”

Q: Craft was central for Westlake. In some ways, his Parker books are an appreciation of craftsmanship, aren’t they?

 

LS: When I first started reading the Parker books, what struck me was that they were essentially books about work. In the first one I read, Ask the Parrot, Parker sets up a hidey-hole in an empty house, carefully sawing off some screws in the wood that’s boarding it up so that he can get in and out easily without being detected. The activity is described in detail, and I’m pretty sure Parker doesn’t ever end up needing the hideout. But it was part of doing the job (in this case, the job of staying alive after a failed heist), so Westlake included it. (I wrote a bit about the Parker novels as books about work on my blog way back in December of 2007.)

Luc Sante, in his foreword for some of Chicago’s Parker editions, put the same point this way:

“Westlake has said that he meant the books to be about ‘a workman at work,’ which they are, and that is why the have so few useful parallels, why they are virtually a genre unto themselves. Process and mechanics and troubleshooting dominate the books, determine their plots, underlie their aesthetics and their moral structure. . . . Parker abhors waste, sloth, frivolity, inconstancy, double-dealing, and reckless endangerment as much as any Puritan. He hates dishonesty with a passion, although you and he may differ on its terms. He is a craftsman who takes pride in his work.”

There’s a passing line in The Man with the Getaway Face that has stayed in my head for seven years now: “When the mechanic came in at seven o’clock, he looked at the truck in disgust. He got interested, though, being a professional, and worked on it till nine-thirty.” That’s what a professional, a craftsman, is: a person who actually cares about, and becomes deeply engaged with working his best at, the job at hand.

[Photo Credit: Pictures of Westlake via Omnivoracious and Grantland; Drawing by Darwyn Cooke]

Bronx Banter Interview: Pete Dexter

Bronx Banter Interview

“The truest thing in the world was that you showed who you were writing a column. He said that at his lectures, and they always took that to mean politics or how you feel about the death penalty. Which had nothing to do with it. There were as many dick shrivelers that wanted to ban nuclear sites and love their brother as there were that wanted to bomb Russia. It was almost incidental, what you had for issues. But how you saw things, how physical things went into your eyes and what your brain took and what it threw back, that told who you were.”
—From Pete Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (1983)

Our man Dexter was a legendary newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and then in Sacramento from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, but unless you lived in those towns at the time or unless you hung out in the microfilm room of your local library, it was nearly impossible to track down his work. Dexter has written seven novels—the third one, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award—and they are all in print. But until Dexter’s old friend, Rob Fleder, a longtime magazine (Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated) and book editor, had the notion to compile Dexter’s journalism, some of his greatest work remained unavailable to us.

First published in 2007, Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage gives us what we want—a sampling of Dexter’s work as a columnist. The good people at Ecco Press have now published a paperback edition, thus giving me an excuse to call up Pete and get him talking about his days in the newspaper business.

I got to know Pete when his last book, Spooner, was published, and I interviewed him then as part of a long-running Bronx Banter Interview series. (Last year, I interviewed Fleder for a collection he put together for Ecco, Damn Yankees. And here is an excerpt from an essay Pete wrote in that book about Chuck Knoblauch.)

What follows was put together from several recent phone conversations with Pete.

Enjoy.

Bronx Banter: What kind of reporter were you when you began?

Pete Dexter: I didn’t have a specialty or anything. I was kind of looked on as a guy who could write. I was a careful writer and a careless reporter. Reporting is a talent but it’s also just a matter of rolling up your sleeves. A guy like Bob Woodward didn’t get where he is by being charming or having a way with people I don’t think. He just did it by following all the rules and taking things as far as they could be humanly taken. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that early on. I didn’t get any satisfaction out of breaking a story. It just didn’t appeal to me.

BB: You started in the Watergate Era when Woodward and Bernstein made the whole idea of being a reporter something else, a star.

PD: Yeah, all of a sudden kids were going to journalism school so they could take down a president. It was a passing fad, I guess, but it lasted ten years anyway. You used to call them “serious young journalists.” You sign up for that, and…if you don’t have your heart in it, if that’s not compulsive in you, if you don’t feel like you have to do it, you’re probably not going to be much of a reporter. Early on I recognized that I was going to have to come from some other direction. On the other hand, I loved being part of the newspaper, I loved that feeling when big stories were breaking, though it wasn’t me that broke them.

BB: And you didn’t have a need to be that guy.

PD: No, I never wanted to be Hoag Levins, who worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hoag would put on black face and army fatigues and crawl up to Mayor Rizzo’s house and come away with how much the doorknobs cost and then try to figure how a guy who’d made a living as a police chief and mayor could afford an expensive house. He was wildly ambitious and he was a really good guy. But eventually he made a couple of mistakes and then something got him tripped up—I can’t even remember what it was now—some story he got wrong. They had to fire him. And that would not have been done easily cause you couldn’t help but like him and admire his energy.

BB: Was there a part of reporting, even before you had the column, the part where you’d just go out and talk to people, that you liked? Were you interested in people?

PD: Yeah, not so much for the newspaper. I used to drive around a lot in this old Jeep and I’d see somebody doing something interesting and I’d always pull off the road and go talk to them. That’s been something I’ve always done. And sometimes you hear some real strange stuff. Other times people just won’t talk to you, and that’s OK.

BB: So your natural curiosity helped you.

PD: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I’ve always loved stories. If you’re patient enough there are more people than you’d ever guess that have stories. It wasn’t deliberate but that’s what my stuff’s always been about: It’s about stories.

BB: Had you thought about wanting to have a column even before Gil Spencer arrived at the paper?

PD: That had been in my head. It was the only job outside of running the paper that I wanted. And they were not going to let me run the paper, that was pretty obvious.

BB: Did you get along with your editors?

PD: All the problems I’ve had with management, and they have been legion, were with people that feel the necessity to control you or put their two cents in. This started when I was a reporter. There’s that city editor, assistant city editor, sometimes the managing editor, that certain class of people, as part of their job they feel an obligation to change things just so that they have their own imprint on it somehow. And that’s where the rub comes because if you say, “That’s silly, that doesn’t make sense and here’s why…” you are no longer questioning their editing but you’ve confronted their power, their position. And once that starts, once you let them know you’re not just on their side, that’s where the problems always come from. At least with me. I never enjoyed the confrontations, certainly not as much as I’ve been given credit for, but that’s what it always was about. Power. My thought was you can be the nighttime assistant city editor for the rest of your life and I don’t care, you don’t have anything I want, just leave me alone.

BB: They weren’t about making the piece better necessarily.

PD: I never worked for anybody I looked up to as a writer but I worked for a lot of people that I looked up to as a newspaper guy, and if those people said something, I listened. But the ones who knew what they were doing knew enough to leave me alone in what I did, and if I stepped over a line in their world then not only was I glad for the criticism—if they’d caught some mistake that kept me from being embarrassed again—I was always grateful for that. I didn’t have a sense that if I wrote it it has to be right.

BB: Before you started a column, what columnists did you read, either in Philadelphia or around the country? Not so much that you wanted to emulate them necessarily but who got you interested in the form.

PD: This is hard to explain but when I came to Philly I was in my early thirties. I came out of Florida and had been in the newspaper business on-and-off for about two years and I didn’t know what a newspaper column was. I hadn’t read Breslin or Pete Hamill or Mike Royko. I didn’t know what they did. There were two columnists at the News when I got here, Tom Fox who wrote a column on Page Two, and Larry McMullen, who recently died. McMullen would go out in the street, hear these stories, and write them. He was from South Philadelphia and he was of that time and of that place and of that paper and I’ve never seen a better fit for a paper. When I saw that he was writing stories, that’s when I wanted to do it. He was writing five times a week and when I started I was doing that too—went to four and then to three.

BB: Did you get to know McMullen well?

PD: Oh, yeah, McMullen and I were old friends. I never felt any rivalry. The other guy, Tom Fox, was one of these little guys who walks around … someone called him the best columnist in the country—someone is always saying something like that about you—and he believed it. He’d write about some shooting and he was throwing in tough guy talk like, “He blew the faggot away.” I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor and said, “Who’s really the faggot?” And some criticism of Fox came in that letter. He was just outraged. That was pretty funny to see, at least to me. Those are two perfect examples for someone who wanted to be a columnist—I saw exactly the kind of columnist I wanted to be and the kind I didn’t want to be. It’s good to have one of each.

BB: Did Spencer give you the columnist job or did you have a test run, first?

PD: There was a little time there that I wrote one or two a week when I was still a reporter. That was a short period of time, I can’t tell you how long, a couple of months. But once he gave me a taste of it I was even harder to deal with on the city desk. There was this guy Zach Stalberg who later ran the paper and who is really a good guy, the kind of guy you’d want running your newspaper if you couldn’t have Spencer. Gil made Stalberg the city editor and a couple of months later he became the managing editor. But his present to Stalberg was giving me the column so I was no longer his responsibility. When I started the column if anyone had any problems with me they went straight to Spencer and that was good for everybody. Yeah, I think everybody was happy the way that worked out.

BB: Was it a big transition for you?

PD: It was an avalanche of sudden work. You go from the city desk where someone tells you, “Go interview the widow of this guy who just got shot,” and so you go to the movies and come back and say, “She wasn’t there,” to having to do a story every day. It was more than a small change. If you are a reporter and you’re not a good reporter there are places to hide. You can do all kinds of stuff to avoid producing. But if that column space is yours and you’ve got to fill it by definition you’ve got to fill it. That was good for everybody, too. First of all, it made me a better reporter.

BB: How so?

PD: You come to realize when you’re writing a column that the best columns—the very best ones come off your head—but if you are going to do it three times a week, some of those days you go talk to real people and by the time you get back the column writes itself. I’m thinking about that column in the book [Paper Trails] about the guy in Camden who found the head in the bag. You drive 10 minutes over to Camden, talk to this guy for half an hour, and yeah, I got lucky that day, but that was exactly what a newspaper column is supposed to be. And it was just handed to you. By that time I could write well enough the words were just there, the story was there. And that sort of thing, when it worked, was what a column was about. Most of my better columns were about that, going to actually talk to somebody.

BB: The great sport columnist Red Smith didn’t think of himself as a columnist but as a reporter.

PD: Yeah, that’s right.

BB: You said earlier that you’d drive around, stop the car, and talk to a guy. When you were doing the column, did you force yourself even more to do that because you thought, hey, I’ve got to have something to write about today?

PD: When you’re writing a column, your first question when you look at things are: Is this a column? But if I saw something interesting I’d still want to go ask about it. I’m still like that. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve talked to who are on skateboards. Just ask them how they do what they’re doing and stuff like that. In a way, I kind of believe that thing of, there are no stupid questions, although God knows I get asked a lot of them. But to me, if you don’t know something and you’ve wondered about it, why not find out?

BB: Did you ever come across something that you found interesting but felt was too big to be a column?

PD: Yeah, but you could usually turn it into a three-part column or write about the same thing for three days. Sometimes that couldn’t be done and yeah it’d be a size you couldn’t handle.

BB: Did you talk to Spencer or anyone else about what you were going to write about beforehand?

PD: No. Good Christ. No.

BB: Did you ever junk one? Or just go with something you didn’t think was that good?

PD: You can write a letters column, you can find something else to do when it’s not going your way but that didn’t happen very often. What you really need is your voice being there three times a week.

BB: How long did it take to develop your voice or style?

PD: The voice was there from the get-go. That goes back to basic writing. If you’re thinking about developing your voice you’re thinking about the wrong things. That should just be—

BB: Like your speaking voice—

PD: You don’t want to be conscious of it. It just happens, at least that’s the way I think. Jeez, I’m looking at my dog outside and he’s taking like the third crap of the last two hours. … Probably shouldn’t have given him that pork chop. We have a rule against giving them pork. Shit.

BB: Kosher, huh?

PD: Yeah.

BB: What about subject matter? Did you ever think, Oh, I’ve written three heavy pieces so far this week; I want to change it up with something light?

PD: No. Whatever came. Once, early on in my column writing, I wrote a piece, I can’t remember what it was about exactly, a guy’d lost his cat and I talked to him for a little while. A guy from one of the neighborhoods. When you write a column you get your detractors. And I got a letter from someone who said that I ripped off a Hemingway short story, where that was a line, something “and the fact that cats that can take care of themselves was all he had.” And I had. Christ knows it wasn’t conscious. I went back and looked at the story. It absolutely looked intentional and it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough on the nose where anyone could say it was plagiarism or anything but the idea of it, I sure could see why the guy said what he said. That’s the only time something like that ever happened to me. And I don’t to this day know … I know that it wasn’t intentional. I really can’t say much more about it but it was there and the idea was behind a short story that Hemingway had written and one that I’d read in college.

BB: Did you write back to the guy?

PD: Probably talked to him. I called people, I didn’t write letters much. There wasn’t much to say, really. But he did have a point. So when years later I heard that Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism … I guess all I’m saying is that I’ve got some sympathy. When you’re writing enough, when you’re writing everyday something like that can creep into your stuff without knowing you’re really doing it. I know it was only once and nobody ever mentioned anything else. But it bothered me.

BB: Did you read the letters that were sent to you by readers?

PD: Read them? Sure.

BB: Did you enjoy them?

PD: Eh, when they were funny. Twenty a day was a big day, six letters a day was predictable. Some were funny. Sometimes they had stories and that could be valuable. But most of the time they were either agreeing with you and disagreeing with you and who cares?

BB: You ever wake up and say, “I got nothing?

PD: No. There’s always something. I took it fairly seriously but I was always doing enough stuff. If something funny wasn’t going on or something interesting wasn’t going on I could usually do something bad enough that I could write about it the next day.

BB: In your own life?

PD: Yeah. I ended up with an FBI guy at a bar one night and I bet him that I could throw a case of beer across Pine Street. The cops showed up. So you had the cops and the FBI guy and me and everyone from Dirty Frank’s out there in the street and it looked like a riot … and that makes a nice little column.

BB: You said earlier that other than running the paper writing a column was the only job you wanted. After two or three years of doing the column, did you feel like you’d found your calling, were you happy with it?

PD: Yeah, I was happy but I didn’t feel like that was it. I would have been probably a lot better off, if you call what I did a career—whatever this is—if I’d devoted myself entirely to that space in the Philly Daily News or gone to New York or stayed with newspapers. I would have definitely been a better newspaper columnist. And who knows, you have to do what makes you happy at the time. I don’t regret any of that. I don’t regret not being in newspapers but there are sure days when I miss it.

BB: The immediacy of it?

PD: I don’t know. I just liked being in the city room, I liked the people I worked with—some of them anyway. It was just nice. You’re—

BB: Part of something.

PD: And an important part of it and that makes a difference.

BB: Writing a column sounds a whole less solitary than writing novels.

PD: Oh, yeah. There’s no comparison.

BB: Did you write the column at home or go in to the paper?

PD: No, I went into the paper every day. If I didn’t have a column the next day, I went in anyway just to see what was going on.

BB: So it was a social thing, then.

PD: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t help it.

BB: Was it like a locker room?

PD: Yeah. I was always kind of working. I mean, I didn’t write a column every day but I always went in to see what’s going on and that’s work in a way. Yeah, I just liked being around those people, I liked to see what people were doing. Some of them I still think about to this day and wish I had contact with. There were a bunch of real good reporters.

BB: Do you keep in touch with any of them?

PD: There was a guy named Bob Fowler at the Inky [the Philadelphia Inquirer] that I still talk to once in a while and when I go back there I look up a guy named Gehringer, Dan Gehringer, he’s a real good writer, who I knew from back in Florida. But for the most part, no. No, I really don’t, that’s the truth.

BB: Did you hang out and have drinks with copy editors and reporters?

PD: Eh, not too much. Once in a while, a drink with somebody. For most of that time I wasn’t in the bars at all once that thing happened in South Philadelphia, that’s when I started writing novels and I didn’t have the time or inclination for the bars anymore.

BB: When you were doing the column did you then start to read other guys like Breslin or Hamill?

PD: I’d see Breslin’s stuff and Hamill’s stuff once in awhile. A guy like Breslin, he was a columnist. And that was in spite of the The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. That’s what he was. And he never was much good at anything else that I know of.

BB: You’ve said before that you never had ambition to write novels, but after the first three, you were still writing the column. Did writing fiction inform the nature of how you wrote the column?

PD: No, I don’t think so. I’d just sort of get up and do what was in front of me that day.

BB: Did you ever go to the office to work on a novel?

PD: No, I couldn’t do that there. That’s a separate deal. I was never conscious of anything going on intentionally. It’s a funny thing to say. Every place I ever went I stumbled into accidentally. Maybe one thing led to another but not intentionally.

BB: So you didn’t have a grand plan?

PD: At some point I decided I was done with newspapers but …

BB: Yeah, before that: What was it like leaving Philly and going to the Sacramento Bee?

PD: Oh, fuck, it was the worst thing I ever did professionally. I went there because the guy that ran the paper was an old friend of mine. I’d rather not get into that, but the whole place smacked of an office environment, a business environment. I wasn’t there that long, but when I left they asked me to continue to write up in Washington State where I lived but you can’t be a local columnist and not be local. And the truth is when you’re writing well, the only columnists are local columnists. National columnists are something different. There aren’t as many stories. It’s more reports and views. Where the best columns are just there, they’re just stories. For me, anyway.

BB: In order to be a good columnist to you need to have a basic sense of outrage about things?

PD: I think different guys do it different ways. It’d just wear me out to go in the office every day outraged. And you shouldn’t do that now that I think about it because that ruins the taste for when something real comes along. You can’t go at it like one of these television guys who every night has some breaking news about how bad Obama’s fucked up or something. When you’re always outraged, it’s like the boy that cried wolf and it’s too much. It can be entertaining for someone who is reading the paper for the first time but if all you get from that space is outrage pretty soon nobody believes it, I don’t think. And if it does it appeals to people who are outraged by nature and want to be outraged more.

BB: So everything changed for you as a columnist once you Philly.

PD: It was never the same. I mean, Philadelphia is probably the best place of them all to write a newspaper column. The place is so rich. I missed that. And the paper was so open to what I had to offer, way more than any other paper in the country would have been. And Spencer was such a good guy about it. I don’t think there was a better place to work than the Philadelphia Daily News. And I left it … for reasons that don’t make any sense to me now. I left it ’cause it was time to do something else, I guess. But if I was going to stay in newspapers I’d made a terrible mistake.

BB: You were a columnist for about a decade. Are there guys that get better after 15 years or do they create a persona and then there’s a cap for how far you can go?

PD: Oh, no, you can get better. If you have initiative, if your interest is in the paper and the stories themselves, if you’re a newspaperman in your heart, you continue to get better and love it. I think at the center of things, as much fun as it was for me, I wanted to do something else.

BB: Why does it sound like you have regret about it?

PD: I’m just sorry because it was so much fun. There’s good things and bad things about anywhere but there was an awful lot of good things about that place, Philadelphia. And in that way I’m sorry we left.

BB: When you go back, is it a different place?

PD: No. The paper’s not the same, I’ll tell you.

BB: It’s funny, you could have stayed at the paper and then you’d be going through all these cutbacks and changes.

PD: Oh, I’d be way more unhappy. I mean I get sad about it, I get melancholy about it, but don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back and change it.

BB: There are a few longer magazine piece in Paper Trails. You had a column at Esquire for a few years but also wrote takeout pieces for Inside Sports. Did you enjoy writing for magazines?

PD: Not really. That’s an awful lot of writing for—it was an awful lot of work and in the end all you have is a magazine story. As much as I like stopping along the road and talking to somebody I don’t like invading their lives, which is what you need to do. You have to spend a couple of weeks around Jim Brown to begin to get anything. I’ve been on the other side of it, having a guy hanging around me taking notes, and I don’t like it. And I don’t like doing it to someone else for that reason.

BB: How is newspaper reporting different?

PD: You can’t hang around them at all, really. I mean, Christ, I don’t know how many columns I wrote about Randall Cobb and his quest to be the champion of the world but Cobb and I would have been friends anyway. That was a sure-fire column at least once a month, sometimes more than that.

BB: There’s a funny Cobb story about a rental car in Paper Trails. The four columns you wrote on Cobb during the week he fought Larry Holmes in Houston for the heavyweight championship aren’t in the book but I really like them. They were so emotional.

PD: Yeah, it was a sad time.

BB: Because of the Holmes fight?

PD: Yeah, it’s hard to watch somebody realize the dream of his life is never going to happen and he’s doing everything he can and it’s … you know, you really have to set your mind to do something like that. In the first place, you have to lie to yourself all the time. And then to see it all spilled out in front of you like it was, that it wasn’t going to happen … it was sad. He really tried hard.

BB: Did you feel guilty at all?

PD: No. Why?

BB: Because he’d broken his arm in the bar fight you’d been in together the previous winter in South Philly.

PD: No, that went beyond … that wasn’t guilty. I felt bad about it but he and I’d been through so much other stuff, and it just, um, what was going on between me and Randall was a lot closer to—I don’t want to say brotherhood, exactly—but we’d been … no, I didn’t feel guilty about it. But I wasn’t one of the guys … I mean, there was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they’re Randall Cobb’s best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he’d told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night.

BB: What exactly was that?

PD: No, it’s too complicated. I can’t go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there’s something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again. He’s just so … like I said, those were such sad times in the way that I mentioned. What you’re asking about is going into a place that I don’t talk about with anybody. It’s private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn’t lend itself very well to words.

BB: Shit, I’m sorry if I made you uneasy even asking about it.

PD: No, it’s alright. I’d gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It’s just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I’ve not, something I can’t revisit easily, let’s put it that way. But don’t feel bad about asking me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.

BB: Did you guys stay close after the Holmes fight?

PD: Yeah. I mean, he’d started moving away before he fought Holmes. About a month before he fought Holmes he disappeared for a while. I don’t know where he was training but I couldn’t get through to him. He got rid of his manager and his trainer and showed up with a different guy at the fight. And those people were … I mean, everybody was after Cobb as a meal ticket. Money was what they all wanted. He’d been carrying a hundred people around on his back forever, y’know, being everybody’s best friend. If he had $10 and somebody asked him for it, he gave it to them. Whatever he had they could have and he was always like that. And it finally, I think it got to be too much. Christ, he didn’t care what he signed, contracts and shit like that, he never paid any attention to that. He and I kind of lost touch for a while but you don’t give up what you feel about somebody like that.

BB: So when you and Rob Fleder went through the material for Paper Trails did you read tons of columns that you’d forgotten about?

PD: Oh sure. And I’m sure there were tons more than Fleder passed on I still haven’t seen or remember. You got to remember it’s more than a thousand columns, at least. It’s kind of like finding an old diary or something.

BB: Did you enjoy reading through them?

PD: Uh, sort of. Fleder did the work. Fleder’s the guy that read them all. He’s the reason the book is there. He’s absolutely as much a reason that book exists as I am. It’s a funny thing that makes you smile when you look at it. It was such a nice thing for him to do. It wasn’t like we were going to get rich or anything. God, it’s just the nicest thing you can do for somebody in a way. When I look back on the book, I think about Fleder and what a great thing that was to do for me.

BB: In Yiddish they call that a Mitzvah. A blessing.

PD: OK.

BB: A nice thing to do.

PD: And that’s what this is, I guess. A mitz-vah.

You can buy Paper Trails here or download it for to your phone or tablet here. Source photo by Marion Ettlinger, from the back cover of Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love. Background photo via Getty.

Bronx Banter Interview: Mickey Herskowitz

Head on over to Sports on Earth and check out my Q&A with Mickey Herskowitz about Jock, his short-lived but wonderful magazine.

Here’s Mickey talking about Woody Allen and Paul Simon:

Q: I like the non-sports-writing celebrities you featured in the magazine, like William F. Buckley and Woody Allen.

A: I called Woody Allen’s agent, [Jack] Rollins and [Charles] Joffe. I don’t know whether I talked to Rollins or Joffe. I told him I was running a magazine called Jock and wanted to know if Woody would be available to write a piece about what it was like growing up playing stickball in New York. He said, “I doubt it, but I promise you I’ll mention it to him.” An hour later I got a call from Rollins or Joffe, and he said, “Yeah, Woody would love to do it. He’s doing a play, ‘Play it Again, Sam,’ and does two shows on Sunday. Come between the matinee and the evening performance, bring a photographer and you can get your story and your pictures.”

Q: So it was ghostwritten by you?

A: No. I went there and Woody dictated it to me, it wasn’t ghostwritten. And he said, “What are you doing to do for photographs?” I told him I thought we’d just take a couple of shots of him there in his dressing room. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, “not if you’re doing a story on stickball. I know a perfect brownstone about four or five blocks away, let’s go down there.” So about six of us walked down past Eighth Avenue to this brownstone. I had two of my kids with me, they were like 10 and 11, and two of their friends, and they were the rest of the teams. Woody had a stick and a ball, and one of the kids pitched to him and the others played in the field. And that’s where we got the pictures.

Q: All-schoolyard.

A: Now, we did this shoot before the Mets had won the pennant, and after they won I get a call from one of Woody’s managers. He said, “Woody wanted to know if he could ask you a big favor?” I said, “Sure.” “Can you get him four tickets to the World Series?” Honest to God I had to bite my tongue. Are you kidding me? You don’t think that Woody Allen would mean more to the Mets than Mickey Herskowitz from Houston, Texas? For some reason that didn’t occur to him. So I called the Mets PR guy and got him tickets to every home game. Next week I got a handwritten “thank you” note from Woody.

Q: You also had an encounter with Paul Simon, right?

A: I sure did. I was thinking of stories, and it dawned on me that Rollins and Joffe also managed Paul Simon. “The Graduate” had come out, and the song “Mrs. Robinson” was everywhere. So I called up and asked if they thought Paul would be willing to do a story for me on what it was like growing up as a Yankee fan. And Rollins or Joffe said, “Well, I don’t know. I didn’t think Woody would do a story and he did. We’ll ask Paul.” The next day I’m sitting in my office … the secretary put a call through and the voice said, “Mickey?” I said, “Yeah.”

“This is Paul.”

“Paul, who?”

“Paul Simon.”

I was stunned that Paul Simon called. I said: “Paul, jeez, terrific of you to call, and call back so quickly. And to call back yourself. Everybody usually goes through three or four layers of gatekeepers, I’m really impressed.” He said, “Well don’t be. It’s an everyday courtesy.” He talked about what I had pitched and said, “I think it’s a groovy idea and I’d love to do it.” And so I explained what I wanted but also said I’d love it if he could talk about the Joe DiMaggio line, which everyone was so touched by. It took everybody back to nostalgia in their lives.

Q: What did he say about it?

A: He said the line just came to him. He hadn’t had DiMaggio in mind, but his name came to him; he had to have a long enough name to fit the melody. It was funny because he told me that a month or so after the song hit big he was on a TV show with Mickey Mantle and Mantle said, “How come you used DiMaggio’s name in your song and not mine?” Simon said he had to explain to him that it had to do with the melody and not the name.

Q: That’s funny that Mantle asked him. Because he was also a player of Simon’s generation more than DiMaggio.

A: That’s right. Anyhow, we didn’t talk long, maybe about 10 minutes. I was out of things to say. But I was so flattered and grateful for the call, I felt like I had to say something. So I told him that “Mrs. Robinson” was my favorite song. I made it up; it was such a dumb, bulls— thing to say, but I felt I had to say something complimentary to him for calling. There was a pause on the other line. And the next thing he said was: “You didn’t like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’?” You talk about the insecurity of an artist?

Q: He was straight, he wasn’t joking?

A: I said, “Oh, no, no, no. ‘Mrs. Robinson’ was my favorite sports song. I love ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters.’” And the truth is, I didn’t know what he was talking about. I had been hearing it for weeks but didn’t know the name of it.

Here’s more on how Jock came to be.

Bronx Banter: Before we get to Jock magazine, let’s talk about your early career in Houston.

Mickey Herskowitz: I don’t need to exaggerate what a sports-nuts state Texas is. In fact, the most famous line I ever wrote was when one of the Super Bowl’s came here, I tried to explain Houston and one of my stories started, “We never knew how important Religion was in Texas until people started comparing it to high school football.”
And so way back, I was with the Houston Post.

BB: This was before Wells Twombly, right?

MH: Well before Wells, about ten years before he came along and then he was at the Houston Chronicle. The funny thing is I hired Wells to write for Jock and then had to renege when we started running out of money. He was really hurt. I couldn’t tell him that we were going broke at the time so I had to make up some sleazy excuse. Years later, he asked me about it and I told him the truth. So anyway, I was at the Houston Post and a couple of guys came to me and wanted to have a magazine about sports in Texas. This was the year Elvin Hayes was leading the University of Houston to prominence in college basketball. So a couple of advertising guys came to me and they had a little bit of money.

BB: You were a columnist at this time for the Post, right?

MH: I was in my twenties but a columnist.

BB: You’re younger than Dan Jenkins then.

MH: I was the next generation. Blackie [Sherrod], Dan, a wonderful writer in Fort-Worth named Jim Trinkle, Orville Henry in Fayetteville and Dave Campbell in Waco, Dan Cook in San Antonio, a named Jack Gallagher in Houston, those were the top-rated writers in the state as far as sports went. Bud Shrake came a little later. Gary Cartwright came after that. I don’t know if I was their mascot but they all looked after me.

BB: And you grew up in Houston?

MH: I was born there in the late 1930s. I remember Blackie never missing a chance to pay me a compliment. And years later when Dan was at Sports Illustrated he actually referred to me in print as the best baseball writer in America. Dan told me that on Mondays or Tuesdays when the out of state newspapers came into the office there’d be a scramble to get the Houston Post to see what my ledes were on the Astros ballgames. He really told me that. They brought me up there and offered me a job and I reluctantly turned it down because I was doing a TV show and a radio show in Houston along with the column and the money couldn’t match the three jobs I had back home. The three jobs in Houston were probably easier to handle than one in New York because of the cost of living.

BB: This was before Jock?

MH: Yes, and getting back to Jock, I had these advertising guys come to me about doing a magazine about sports in Texas and if it made sense to do something about sports anywhere that’s where you would start. It was called Sport Folio. I didn’t have any literary figures but I had all the top sports writers in Houston and Dallas, Austin. It was a monthly.

BB: Did you model it after Sport magazine?

MH: No. I stayed at the Post, this was a part-time job. Truth is, I modeled it after Esquire, which is what I did with Jock, as well. Sport Folio lasted about a year. Par for the course, ran out of money the second year. Then about a year after that I got a call from Chris Schenkel. Some money people out of Dallas were going to put out a magazine out called Chris Schenkel’s Sport Scene. Chris was the Bob Costas of his day, the go-to-anchor of his time. Did the Olympics forever, a lot of golf, was a terrific football play-by-play announcer, basketball too. SI did a great cover story on him. At one time he was the biggest name in sports broadcasting. He was the anti-Cosell. Totally factual, understated, non-dramatic. And a golden voice. So Chris called and asked if I would commute to Dallas an edit the magazine. And I did. I had Blackie and Jenkins and Steve Perkins who was a fine writer from Dallas and been in New Orleans.

BB: SI would let Jenkins moonlight for you?

MH: I say I had Jenkins, he maybe did one story for me on TCU but he did it under the radar. He wasn’t freelancing for anyone else.

BB: Did you have Gary Cartwright?

MH: No. I want to put this the right way so it doesn’t seem like a criticism but at that time Gary was still young and he was fourth or fifth in line behind Dan, Blackie and Bud Shrake. Thing about Gary is that he just got better and better and he’s still around of course. But we only had four or five big stories per issue so I didn’t have a big line up. Sports Scene was in mind a success because it was really classy. The people who owned it put a lot of money into it. It was glossy. We could go anywhere and write about anything. I covered the Olympics for that magazine in ’68. And what happened was an advertising guy in New York saw Sports Scene. Keep in mind New York magazine had just made a big splash and was a big success. There may have been city magazines at the time but they were small. In Houston, you had one that strong-armed ads for dentists and doctors and lawyers. Had little fashion stories, luncheons.

BB: They were provincial.

MH: Right. They were not for reading. They were beautiful and glossy but no content. New York was the first real city magazine unless I’m overlooking something in Boston of Philadelphia. So this advertising guy saw Sport Scene and compared it to New York, which was showing a profit after three years, which if you know magazines, is rare. You are lucky to show a profit after three years, hell, you are lucky to still be in business after three years. The stock market had had a real go-go run from about ’66-’68 and he thought he could take the model of Sport Folio and Sport Scene and get a Wall Street company to back it. And that’s exactly what we did.

BB: Did you move to New York?

MH: I did. Had an apartment in the same building with the mayor though he didn’t live there. John Lindsay played tennis with Hank Greenburg outside my window on Sundays. I was at Sutton Place. Cost me about $295 a month to park my car and a luxury apartment in Houston at the time cost about $350.

BB: Did the deal happen quickly?

MH: I flew to New York and met with their key sales people. It was like Alice in Wonderland. I’m almost embarrassed. It was so easy because so many people love sports. The only people they invited to the business meeting were the ones that were nuts about sports. Why wouldn’t they want to take this company public? I called coach Paul Bear Bryant, Jimmy Demerit, AJ Foyt, Cosell, Curt Gowdy, that was my role.

BB: You wanted them to invest in the magazine?

MH: No, no, they agreed to be on the board of directors and each got 10,000 shares. They did it as a favor, nobody asked for anything. But it was a marquee lineup. We went public in June of 1969, just as the recession began. In July, the Mets were 9 games out of first place. I came up with the idea for the first cover. It would be 4 or 5 Met players raising the flag on Iwo Jima except it was on the pitcher’s mound. That was on the inaugural issue, must be worth a pretty penny today. Cleon Jones, Tom Seaver, Ed Kranepool and those guys.

BB: This was after the Jets had already won the Super Bowl.

MH: The same year. And the Knicks had lost to the Bullets in the playoffs but they won the championship the following season, in June of 1970.

BB: New York hasn’t seen a banner year like that since.

Stayed tuned. All week,  we’ll be featuring a different article from Jock.

Trudy, A Message to You

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Glenn Stout, a longtime favorite here at Bronx Banter, is most famous around these parts for his historical writing, particularly Yankee Century and Red Sox Century. Stout also serves as the series editor for The Best American Sports Writing; his oral history Nine Months at Ground Zero is one of the most fascinating and devastating things I’ve ever read about 9.11.

Stout has a website as well as a blog, and his latest book, Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World,  may be the most interesting project of his career. It is the story of Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel (read an excerpt here).

I had the chance to talk to Stout about the book. Here is our conversation. Enjoy.
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Bronx Banter: I know you are comfortable writing about history, especially in the first part of the 20th century.  What drew you to Ederle?

Glenn Stout: Her story is seminal, as central to the story of American sports in this century as that of Red Grange, Babe Ruth, Jack Johnson or Jackie Robinson, yet to most people Trudy, aka Gertrude Ederle, is unknown.  I wanted to change that. In many ways she was both the first modern female athlete and one of America’s first celebrities.  Had she not done what she had done, which is not only to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, but in the process to beat the existing men’s record by nearly two hours, the entire history of women’s sports would be radically different.  You can, I think, break down the history of women’s sports in this country into “Before Trudy” and “After Trudy.”   Before Trudy female athletes were anomalies, and their accomplishments, with just a few exceptions, primarily took place out of the public eye.  Many early female athletes, like Eleanora Sears, and Annette Kellerman, were sometimes seen as publicity hounds who performed stunts, and not serious athletes.  The question of whether or not women were either psychologically or physically capable of being athletes was still a topic of debate – at least by the men who ran sports.  Although there would still be some who would stubbornly cling to that belief, by swimming the English Channel and shattering the existing men’s record, Trudy answered that question quite definitively.

She was the answer.  One can argue that had it not been for her women would not have been allowed to compete in track and field and many other sports as early as they did – women competed in track events for the first time at the Olympics in 1928.  It may have been another generation – until after World War II – before there was any acceptance of female athletes.  I am old enough to remember when women could not play little league, or run marathons, and when school sports were pretty much limited to gymnastics and basketball.  Now of course, women can and do play everything.  Without Trudy that happens much later than it did.

Trudy also has a compelling personal story that I think resonates with any reader.  She grew up in New York, the daughter of German immigrants and overcame anti-German prejudice in the wake of World War I to become arguably the most famous woman in the world.  At the same time, she was partially deaf, and was able to overcome that challenge.  Swimming the English Channel, while perceived to be somewhat commonplace today, is still extremely difficult – it was the first “extreme” sport.  More people have climbed Mount Everest than have swum the Channel, and most of those who try to swim the Channel fail.  In most years more people will succeed in climbing Everest than in swimming the Channel.   When I first began to research the book, that really, really surprised me, and made Trudy’s story even more compelling.

 ederledoll

BB: Why isn’t Ederle remembered like Grange, Thorpe, Ruth and the other greats of the first great era of sports? For someone who had such a profound impact, why has her legacy faded?

GS:  Hopefully, my book will help rectify that, but there are several reasons.  Trudy herself soon discovered she just wasn’t cut out for the spotlight.  Within 48 hours of her return to the United States, where New York gave her an enormous ticker tape parade, she was in the fetal position in her bedroom, completely overwhelmed.  She was both slow and reluctant to “cash in” on her achievement.  Her attorney mis-managed her career, turning down easy money for a grueling vaudeville tour.  By the time that got going a male swimmer had broken her record, and a second female swam the Channel, which stole some of her thunder – the public began to think that swimming the Channel was far easier than it is, something that holds true today.  She also had increasing trouble with her hearing – she was partially deaf since a bout with the measles as a child, and that made her less comfortable in the public eye.  And few years after the swim she fell and was virtually bed-ridden for a time. And let’s face it, swimming simply isn’t a big spectator sport like football or baseball.

BB:  What is Ederle’s reputation in the world of women’s swimming? Is she properly recognized?

GS: Swimming historians certainly recognize her as one of the all-time greats, but in a sport like swimming, records have been broken so many times that it is difficult for any swimmer from her era to remain in the public eye.  Her only contemporary recognized b y the public today is Johnny Weissmuller, and that’s because of the Tarzan films.  But in the world of swimming, she has to rank as one of the top seven or eight swimmers of all-time.  No one else combined her success at shorter distances with open water success, and in the world of open water swimming, I think she’s right at the top.  Anyone who has ever swum the Channel, or thought about it, knows about her.

BB:  How did Ederle manage to beat the existing time of swimming the channel by such a great margin? That seems almost inconceivable.

GS:  There are a couple of reasons.  For one, she used a stroke known then as the “American Crawl” essentially what most people recognize as the “freestyle” today.  Her coach with the Women’s Swimming Association was one of the strokes pioneers and its greatest advocate. And although it had been used for about two decades, no one believed it could be used for long distance swimming – it was thought to be too demanding, physically.  Long distance swimmers usually used the breast stroke at the time, with occasional use of the side-stroke and trudgeon.  The crawl was much faster, and Handley recognized that women in general, and Trudy in particular, although not as strong as a man, had just as much stamina.  She was the first swimmer to use the stroke in the Channel, and proved the superiority of the stroke.  Secondly, her trainer for the Channel swim, William Burgess, was a real student of the Channel currents and tides, and he found a somewhat new route across that was something of a breakthrough.  Also, before Trudy most of the people who tried to swim the Channel simply were not great swimmers.  They had great stamina, and desire, but as swimmers were rather pedestrian.  Trudy was world class at every distance from fifty yards on up.  She was simply a far, far, far better swimmer than anyone else who had swam the Channel before.  For a swimmer of her ability to take on the Channel would be the equivalent of Michael Phelps to do so today – if he had her stamina.  And lastly, while Trudy was growing up she spent summers in Highlands, New Jersey, where she spent hours and hours swimming in the ocean.  She developed a very special relationship with the water, once saying “To me, the sea is like a person – like a child that I’ve known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there.”  When she was swimming, she was in her place, right where she wanted to be, and where others found only torture, she found joy, and when you love what you do, well, there are no limits.

 trudy

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver