I look in the mirror and see the faces I have worn. I see the kid with a baseball cap snugged on his head, and the newspaper reporter who grew a beard to look older, and the TV writer who shaved his beard to look younger. The only face I don’t see – the only face I refuse to see – is the one on my driver’s license. I look like someone Winslow Homer might have painted. Though I insist it is nothing more than the product of a bad day at the DMV, I know I will see that face in the mirror, too. But not just yet. Not as long as writing can arm me with a crucifix to ward off the vampire that is old age.
I won’t be so bold as to say writing keeps me young. If it did, I wouldn’t curse technology or struggle to remember the names of new bands or look away in embarrassment when I’m caught staring at women one-third my age. But writing gives me purpose and fills my head with the notion that there are still things to be accomplished: essays and short stories, one novel completed, another taking shape in my imagination alongside a screenplay. Somewhere around here I’ve even got a verse and a chorus written for a country song. Maybe I’ll take my guitar down from the wall and finish it someday. It will be just three chords, but what was good enough for Hank Williams is good enough for me.
This is how I always imagined life on the other side of the rainbow. Writers don’t throw retirement parties. They write, and hope their words find their way before the public. Some will, some won’t. I understand the vagaries of the process. I just need to score often enough to let whoever is out there counting know that I’m still kicking. Otherwise, I might have to answer in the affirmative the next time someone asks if I’m retired. For the moment, however, I’m proud to say hell no.
I may have lost a step or two, but that’s far different than being ready for a sedate game of shuffleboard before I sit down to the early bird special. It’s those codgers I see at the doctor’s office who are retired. I’m just a lad of 66. When Red Smith was this age, he was reviving his career at the New York Times and five years away from winning a Pulitzer Prize. Red wanted to die at his typewriter, the way his hero Grantland Rice did, and damned if he didn’t come within three days of doing it.
I wouldn’t consider changing my position on retirement unless I knew I could go out with the high style that Sheik Caputo did at the railroad. The Sheik has been part of my life since I was 13, as a neighbor, a baseball coach, a proponent of pepperoni and cold beer, and, most of all, a cherished friend. He worked as a Union Pacific machinist for 30 years, crawling inside filthy steam engines and never making as much as two bucks an hour. The day he turned 60, he showed up at the Salt Lake City yards at 7 a.m., just like always, and the foreman said, “Hey, Caputo, you’re eligible to retire.”
“Yeah, if you want to.”
“Goodbye,” Sheik Caputo said, and headed for the golf course.
But there is only one Sheik, and he is 96 and still getting mileage out of that story. I’m happy just to pass it along, which probably underscores the difference between the way he and I look at retirement. He was ready for it, maybe beyond ready, because he had a job he hated. I, on the other hand, am one of the lucky ones. I love my life as a writer, so why would I want to put it behind me? Writing is the one thing I could do with any success. I couldn’t pound a nail straight or sell you a pair of shoes, and I never wanted to revisit a job I had sweeping out a ballpark after the crowd was gone, wading through peanut shells and hotdog wrappers and breathing the smell of spilled beer. I was spared the heartbreak of trying to teach kids who didn’t love reading as much as I do for the deceptively simple reason that I could write a story, be it fact or fiction. Because people would pay me for those stories, I never was a high school coach beset by parents who make more of their kids than they are. I knew the life I wanted, and I got to live it.
Now I am in the process of seeing out what else is out there. I began my search in earnest when I wrote the first two sentences of a hard-boiled novel that had been in my mind for years: “Too bad Barry was from Santa Barbara. Suki would have told him her real name if he’d been local.” Barry is a wandering husband who’s too slick for his own good and Suki is working her way through college in L.A.’s sex trade. In time they will cross paths with a boxer whose career went sideways when he killed a man in the ring. He cares about nothing, least of all his life, until he meets the girl, and then he cares too much, in the way only a noir hero can. Someone out there might be aware of all that if my novel, “A Better Goodbye,” had been published. But the manuscript languishes beside a tall stack of rejection letters.
Still, I reveled in everything about the process from the three-page-a-day discipline to the constant rewriting, and I cling to the hope that my novel will yet be published. A small press has made noises about it, but whether that happens or not, I have another novel in mind and I don’t think I can stop myself from writing it. It’s as if I’m trying to live the life of a starving writer without the risk of going hungry.
I write my fiction in bursts in a time when most literary agents will tell you fiction isn’t selling. But I am fueled by blind faith and the confidence I’ve gained from having two short stories published, one in the Prague Revue (yes, that Prague), the other on a now-defunct website called Thuglit.com. Neither paid anything, but I did receive a Thuglit T-shirt that I treasure too highly to wear. More important I gained just enough swagger to wonder why the hell my best short story has yet to be published. Nothing to do but keep sending it out, I guess.
I beat my head against a different kind of wall when I taught for a semester at my alma mater, the University of Utah, in fall 2004. The wall was constructed in part of the innocence and naivete that reminded me of myself at that age, but there was something more than that at work. There was an unsettling preoccupation with getting a degree instead of an education and, even worse, a lack of basic writing skill. One class in particular – Literary Journalism, of all things – was a wasteland that symbolized for me the parlous state of the language in this age of email happy faces and LOLs. If it weren’t for the hungry minds who made my Art of Storytelling class a joy, I might have staggered off the academic battlefield jabbering like a chimp. Of course my young scholars might tell you I was too demanding. They thought my “Always honest, seldom kind” policy was hilarious only when it didn’t apply to them. Since then, I’ve apologized to the Humanities Department’s guiding lights for being too tough only to be told I should have been tougher. I assume they would have established a bail fund for me.
If I have done anything right as I adapt to geezerhood, it is put books together. Two are collections of my sportswriting, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” and I will leave it to someone else to speak good or ill of them. But you will find pieces of my heart in the other three books that bear my name. When I edited “The John Lardner Reader,” I was doing more than reviving the work of a brilliant and acerbically funny sportswriter out of print for half a century. I was thanking him and all the other press box legends whose work I’d studied – Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, and Jimmy Cannon in particular – for lighting the way for me.
Editing “At the Fights,” a collection of classic boxing writing, proved even more personal because I was working with George Kimball, who stared death in the eye every step of the way. He was as heroic as any prizefighter memorialized in either that book or “The Fighter Still Remains,” the slender volume of boxing poetry and song lyrics that we spun out of it. There were many things that helped keep George alive so he could feel the love and admiration wash over him at the publication party in New York, but I’ll never stop believing it was “At the Fights” itself that gave him the will to battle cancer for the full 12 rounds. Not once did I hear him complain or wallow in self-pity. The book was always foremost in his mind, just the way George is now in mine, four months after his death at 67.
I wish he’d been here the other day when the cable guy walked into my office and saw a blow-up of the cover for “At the Fights.” “I read that book,” he said, and proceeded to tell me what is in it. It was one of those moments that prove both the breadth of the book’s appeal and the populist nature of sportswriting in general. It was, in other words, what George and I hoped for all along. I even know the song that should have been playing in the background. It’s “Too Many Memories,” by the late Stephen Bruton, and there’s a line in it that says: “What makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret.” I think about those lyrics a lot, their wisdom and humanity and how right they are for me at this time of life. I think about them especially now, as I tell you this: Goodbye but don’t call me gone.
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.
Last night, Jon DeRosa and I went to a book party at the New York Athletic Club for “At the Fights.” It was well attended–contributors like Robert Lipsyte, Thomas Hauser, Larry Merchant and Gay Talese were there. Joe Flaherty’s wife showed up, and so did W.C. Heinz’s daughter. Art Donovan, the football legend whose old man was a great boxing ref, was there too. George Kimball and John Schulian, pictured above, gave lovely speeches.
George talked about the relationship between boxing and writing, about how they are both difficult, solitary experiences. He said, ”Writing is hard but editing this book was a complete pleasure.” Sure, the editors had to make agonizing choices–some fine stories like Jack Murphy’s “The Mongoose,” Frank Deford’s “The Boxer and the Blonde,” and J.R. Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ,” didn’t make the final cut–but still, selecting from a wealth of fantastic writing must easier than writing itself.
If you care about good writing, doesn’t matter if you are a boxing fan or not, this is a book to have.
In 1964 my time was not very valuable. I was a utility night rewrite writer and speechwriter at the Times when Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time. The Times, in its wisdom, did not feel it was worth the time to send the real boxing writer. So they sent me down to Miami Beach and my instructions were, as soon as I got there, to rent a car and drive back and forth a couple of times between the arena, where the fight was going to be held in a week, and the nearest hospital. They did not want me wasting any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care. I did that—if any of you ever get into trouble in South Beach, call me, I can tell you how to get there. I did it and drove to the Fifth Street Gym where Cassius was training. He was not there yet.
As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him. They’re being pushed up the stairs, I’m a little ahead of them. When we get to the top of the stairs, Clay’s not there. The leader of the group says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. “ He turned around, but the cops pushed all five of us into a dressing room and locked the door. That’s how I became the fifth Beatle. [laughter]
They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He glowed. And of course he was much larger than he seemed in photographs—because he was perfect. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.”
Finally there is George Kimball, a character from journalism as big and colorful and wonderful as any in this book. I have known him since he hired me at the Boston Phoenix a thousand years ago. Now all this time later, he is a fighter himself against illness. Big George keeps coming, keeps writing for the Irish Times, and his own boxing books such as “Four Kings.” All he did on Warren Street was steal the show.
George writes in “At The Fights” about Hagler and Leonard, and his piece includes this line: “It was Leonard who dictated the terms under which the battle was waged.”
In the late rounds he brings those words to his own life. People saw for themselves with George the other night how much he loves the sport, loves this book he worked so tirelessly to assemble, loves good writing most of all. Saw a boxing writer as tough as anybody he ever covered.
Nice job by Lupica. It was a wonderful night and I’m just sorry that it didn’t go on longer. A lot of the men in the audience, and on the panel, talked about how boxing was a common bond between them and their old men. Friday night fights, golden gloves. Kimball said that during the Vietnam War boxing was the only thing he could enjoy with his father, period. The only thing that was missing from the event was a cloud of cigar smoke hanging over the room.
Arts Fuse: A. J. Liebling is generally considered by critics to be the best American writer on boxing. If he is at the top, who are the runners-up and why?
Kimball: Not Mailer and not Hemingway, although they’d probably think they were. Just off the top of my head, the worthy contenders would include Budd Schulberg and W.C. Heinz for certain, but also Mark Kram and Pat Putnam from SI, Ralph Wiley, all of whom really understood the sport in addition to being wonderful writers.
AF: There are some really rare finds here — for example, pieces by Richard Wright and Sherwood Anderson on Joe Louis. How difficult was the research for the anthology? What are some of your favorite pieces?
Kimball: I wouldn’t describe the research as “difficult,” because it was such a pleasure. We probably read a half-dozen really good pieces for every one that wound up in the anthology. We read some pretty awful ones, too, mostly when we’d been touted by someone who should have known better.
…I’ve been asked that question by several people over the past couple of months and usually manage to duck it by saying “Which of your children is your favorite?” But I will say that John Lardner’s masterpiece on Stanley Ketchel, “Down Great Purple Valleys,” is sort of the cornerstone of the whole book. With all the other changes we went through in compiling At the Fights, that was the one, indispensable story if only because it so exemplified what we wanted to do with the rest of the book –- and that was setting the bar pretty high.
Man, Ralph Wiley is overlooked these days, isn’t he? And since George mentioned “Down Great Purple Valleys,” here again, is one of the greatest openings in the history of American journalism:
“Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”
George Plimpton once wrote, “The smaller the ball used in the sport, the better the book.” But this doesn’t account for boxing, a sport that word-for-word has produced more great writing than any other. For hard evidence, look no further than “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,” an outstanding new collection edited by George Kimball and John Schulian.
All of the heavyweights are here–from Jack London, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer, to A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon. And that’s just for starters. How about Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, George Plimpton, Pete Dexter, David Remnick and Mark Kriegel, not to mention the veterans of the boxing scene like Larry Merchant, Mark Kram, Vic Ziegel, Pat Putnam and Richard Hoffer.
I’m not a huge boxing fan but I adore boxing writing and this is the finest anthology I’ve ever come across.
The wonder shouldn’t be that there are two Liebling pieces, but that there are only two. (He and Schulberg have the only double-barreled entries in the anthology.) If I’d been compiling that list, The Sweet Science would be No.1, and A Neutral Corner, Liebling’s other collection of (mostly) New Yorker pieces No. 2.
Putting At the Fights together was a painstaking, year-long process that was often like a jigsaw puzzle, because sometimes the decision to include a par- ticular piece would, due to subject matter or tone or approach, displace others. John and I made a conscious decision early on to hold Liebling in reserve. We knew whichever of his pieces we wound up using, they were going to work. Our initial inclination, for instance, had been to include Liebling’s terrific account of his visit to Sonny Liston’s training camp, but if we’d used that we probably wouldn’t have been able to include Joe Flaherty’s wonderful “Amen to Sonny,” and if we hadn’t used Liebling’s “Kearns by a Knockout” we’d probably have had to find two more pieces to adequately address Doc Kearns and Sugar Ray Robinson. It was sometimes like playing Whack-A-Mole, because every time you’d hammer one down, three more would pop up somewhere else. But in that respect Liebling was a constant security blanket, our wild-card, because of our unshaken confidence that whatever we wound up using was going to be great.
Anyone who has written about boxing for the last fifty years owes a great debt of gratitude to Joe Liebling, so yes, his influence has been both pervasive and profound, but woe be unto the conscious imitator. Any writer who sets out trying to write his own “Liebling piece”—and there have been a few—is inex- orably doomed to fall flat on his face.
It’s too much to say that the best boxing stories are about losers. That argument is contradicted time and again throughout the book. But losers and eccentrics and guys who never quite made it to the mountaintop have inspired some classic writing. You want to weep for Primo Carnera after read- ing what Paul Gallico had to say about the way he was used as a patsy and a stooge and a pretend heavyweight champion. And then you have Stanley Ketchel and Bummy Davis, two crazy-tough fighters who would have been swallowed by the mists of time if it weren’t for the stories written about them. Was John Lardner’s piece on Ketchel better than the fighter himself? Absolutely. And Bill Heinz’s on Davis? Without a doubt. And the amazing thing is that Lardner and Heinz never met their subjects, both of whom were prematurely dispatched from this life by gunshot. But Lardner and Heinz were intrepid reporters as well as stunning writers, and they proved it with their renderings of the two fighters’ hearts and souls.