According to statistics, more and more women are the ones asking for the divorces these days. Very different from your generation.
Right, the world today is completely different because the women are successful. A lot of women are more successful than their husbands. And that’s not necessarily good for marriage. It’s wonderful for women, of course, but if they become more successful than their husbands, it can be bad because then the man loses respect for himself. And then the husband becomes the pussycat—and that’s no good. That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong plenty of times in my life.
Do you think the men are more like women these days?
I think so. I think men are much more interested in the way they look. Much more. I think they dress differently than they used to. They go to the gym. Now, the women have to keep up with them!
Would you like to be a young woman in today’s world?
Oh yeah. Because I feel like I could keep up with any man. I’m not being conceited—don’t misunderstand me. But I understand men. I do. My father, he always said to me, “If I was married to a woman like you, I’d own the world.” He used to tell me that. I was the favorite, and I knew it. I could have had anything I wanted. I don’t tell that to my brothers and sisters because I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
For one thing, he’s lovable, professionally so. For another, he leaves nothing to chance. If he can’t win you over with his fame, his charm, and his good looks, he will win you over with preparation. It’s not that he’s needy, like an actor; it’s that he’s competitive, like an athlete. He’s always been good at making people love him; he’s not about to give up his edge now.
Of course, he is not often challenged, and risks the fate of a fighter whose dominance is tainted by a lack of worthy opponents. A few years ago, however, he lost one of his dogs to a rattlesnake. He is a dog guy—a little sign about men and dogs adorns a living-room wall otherwise dominated by signed photographs of dignitaries—and he set about to get another, preferably hypoallergenic. He saw a black cocker-spaniel mix on the Web site of a rescue organization and called the number. The woman who answered said she’d be happy to bring the dog to his house, but then she explained that the dog had been abandoned and picked up malnourished off the street. “He has to love you,” she told George Clooney, “or else I have to take him back.”
At first, he found himself getting nervous—“freaking out.” What if the dog didn’t love him? Then he responded. “I had some turkey bacon in the refrigerator,” he says. “I rubbed it on me. I’m not kidding. When she came over, the dog went crazy. He was all over me. The woman said, ‘Oh, my God, he’s never like this. He loves you.’ ”
He has told this story before. He has even told it to Esquire before. That he tells it again—that it’s the first story he tells—serves to announce what is essential about himself: that he’s a man who will do what it takes to win you over, even applying bacon as an unguent.
I’m seduced and repulsed by charming people. I’m sure Clooney would charm the pants off me like he does with most people. But the turkey bacon story is revealing because it doesn’t just suggest that he’ll do whatever it takes to win you over but that he’s willing to cheat to get there. Beneath the surface there is something desperate about it (“You really like me!”. He wanted that dog and the trainer to like him so much that it was more important than giving the dog the home it needed. What we don’t know is how the dog got along with him after the stunt. Maybe he did give him a good home. Did Clooney bring the dog with him on location? Did a house sitter look after the dog most of time?
We don’t know. The seduction is the thing here not necessarily the reality.
Another gem. Originally published in the June 1989 issue of Esquire. Republished here with the permission of the late author’s son, Mark Kram Jr., a wonderful storyteller in his own right. His postscript follows. For a contemporary, but very different, glimpse of Ali, check out Davis Miller’s story about his day with the champ.
Great Men Die Twice
By Mark Kram
There is the feel of a cold offshore mist to the hospital room, a life-is-a-bitch feel, made sharp by the hostile ganglia of medical technology, plasma bags dripping, vile tubing snaking in and out of the body, blinking monitors leveling illusion, muffling existence down to a sort of digital bingo. The Champ, Muhammad Ali, lies there now, propped up slightly, a skim of sweat on his lips and forehead, eyes closed, an almost imperceptible tremor to his arms and head. For all his claims to the contrary, his surface romance with immortality, Ali had a spooky bead on his future; he never saw it sweeping grandly toward him but bellying quietly along the jungle floor. “We just flies in a room,” he liked to say, moving quickly across the ruins of daily life, plane crashes, train wrecks, matricide, infanticide; then after swatting half of humanity, he’d lower his voice and whisper, as if imparting a secret, “We just flies, that’s all. Got nowhere to fly, do we?”
Images and echoes fill the room, diffuse and speeding, shot through with ineluctable light and the mythopoeic for so long, the glass darkened to a degree no one thought possible; his immense talent, his ring wisdom, his antipathy for chemicals, argued against destructibility; all he would ever do is grow old. For twenty years, while he turned the porno shop of sports into international theater, attention was paid in a way it never was before or has been since. The crowds were a wonder to behold. Kids scaled the wings of jets to get a glimpse of him; thousands, young and old, tailed him in masses during his roadwork. World leaders marveled at the spell he cast over the crowds. “If you were a Filipino,” joked Ferdinand Marcos, “I’d have to shoot you.” The pope asked for his autograph; Sure, he said, pointing to a picture, but why ain’t Jesus black? A young Libyan student in London sat on his bed, kept him up half the night with dithyrambic visions of Muslim revolution. “Watch, one day you will see,” said Muammar Qaddafi. Half asleep, Ali said: “Sheeeet, you crazy.” Leonid Brezhnev once dispatched a note to an official at Izvestia: “I would like to see more on Muhammad Ali. Who is this man?”
The Ali Watch: how absurd that it would one day drop down here on a little hospital on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The nurse dabs his face dry. What is he thinking? Never has his favorite phrase sounded so dismally precise: My, my, ain’t the world strange. If he could root back through the maze of moment and incident, would he find premonitory signs sticking out like dire figurations of chicken entrails? Does he remember King Levinsky, one of the many heavy bags for Joe Louis, in the corridor after the Miami Beach weigh-in? Boldly colored ties draped Levinsky’s neck (he sold them on the street), his synapses now like two eggs over-light, in permanent sizzle, as he tried to move into stride with a young Cassius Clay. Over and over, like a one-man Greek chorus, Levinsky croaked, eyes spinning, spittle bubbling from his lips: “He’s gonna take you, kid. Liston’s gonna take you, make you a guy sellin’ ties… Partners with me kid, ya kin be partners with me.” Does he remember a shadowed evening in his hotel room a day or so after the third Joe Frazier fight, moving to the window, his body still on fire from the assault? He stood there watching the bloodred sun drop into Manila Bay, then took a visitor’s hand and guided it over his forehead, each bump sending a vague dread through the fingers. “Why I do this?” he said softly. Does he remember the Bahamian cowbell tinkling the end of his final, pathetic fight, a derisive goodbye sound stark with omen? What is he thinking?
Ali poses a question, his eyes closed, his lips parting as if he were sliding open manhole covers. “You die here…. they take you home?” he asks. The nurses roll their eyes and smile, struck by his innocence; it has nothing to do, they know, with morbidity. He is not joking either. The practical aftermath of death seems to stimulate his curiosity these days; nothing urgent, mind you, just something that begins to get into your mind when you’re watching blood move in and out of your body for half the day. Though he is very much a mystic, there is a part of Ali that has always found security and a skewed understanding of life in the quantifiable: amounts, calibrated outcomes, the creaking, reassuring machinery of living. The night before in the hotel lounge, with his wife, Lonnie, beside him, bemusedly aghast, he grilled a pleasant waitress until he knew how many tips she got each week, how many children she had, the frequency of men hitting on her, and the general contour of her reality. “She have a sad life,” he said later. The nurse now cracks with a deadpan expression: “You die, we take you home, Muhammad.
Still, a certain chiaroscuro grimness attaches to their surreal exchange and cries out for some brainless, comic intervention. He himself had long been a specialist in such relief when he would instantly brighten faces during his favorite tours of prisons, orphanages, and nursing homes. When down himself (very seldom), he could count on a pratfall from his hysterical shaman, Drew “Bundini” Brown, on the latest bizarre news from his scheming court, maybe a straight line from some reporter that he would turn into a ricocheting soliloquy on, say, the disgusting aesthetics of dining on pig. No laughs today, though.
“Don’t make him laugh,” a nurse insisted when leading a writer and a photographer into the room. “Laughing shakes the tubing loose.” The photographer is Howard Bingham, Ali’s closest friend; he’s been with the Champ from the start, in the face of much abuse from the Black Muslims. Ali calls him ”the enemy” or “the nonbeliever.” His natural instinct is to make Ali laugh; today he has to settle for biting his lower lip and gazing warily back and forth between Ali and his nurses. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Ali had requested that he leave his cameras outside; just one shot of this scene, of Ali on his back, the forbidding purge in progress, of fame and mystique splayed raw, would bring Bingham a minor fortune. “He doesn’t want the world to see him like this,” says Howard. “I wouldn’t take the picture for a million dollars.”
The process is called plasmapheresis. It lasts five hours and is being conducted by Dr. Rajko Medenica. The procedure, popular in Europe, is a cleansing of the blood. Ali is hooked up to an electrocardiograph and a blood-pressure monitor; there is always some risk when blood is not making its customary passage. But the procedure is not dangerous and he is in no pain, we are told. Two things, though, that he surely can’t abide about the treatment: the injection of those big needles and the ceaseless tedium. When he was a young fighter, a doctor had to chase him around a desk to give him a shot, and chaotic mobility to him is at least as important as breathing. Bingham can’t take his eyes off Ali; the still life of his friend, tethered so completely, seems as incomprehensible to him as it would to others who followed the radiated glow of Ali’s invulnerability. The nurses cast an eye at his blood pressure and look at each other. His pressure once jumped twelve points while he watched a TV report on Mike Tyson’s street fight with Mitch Green in Harlem. It’s rising a bit now, and the nurses think he has to urinate. He can’t bear relieving himself in the presence of women; he resists, and his anxiety climbs.
“Ali,” one of them calls. His eyes remain closed, his breathing is hardly audible. The nurse calls to him again; no response. “Come on now, Ali,” she complains, knowing that he likes to feign death. “Now, stop it, Ali.” He doesn’t move, then suddenly his head gives a small jerk forward and his eyes buck wide open, the way they used to when he’d make some incoherent claim to lineage to the gods. The nurses flinch, or are they in on the joke, too? Eyes still wide, with a growing smile, he says to the writer, weakly: “You thought I dead, tell the truth. You the only one ever here to see this and I die for ya. You git some scoop, big news round the whole world, won’t it be?” He leans his head back on the pillow, saying: “Got no funny people round me anymore. Have to make myself laugh.” The nurse wants to know if he has to urinate. “No,” he says with a trace of irritation. “Yes, you do,” the nurse says. “Your pressure…” Ali looks over at Lonnie with mischievous eyes. “I just thinkin’ ’bout a pretty woman.” The nurse asks him what he’d like for lunch. “Give him some pork,” cracks Bingham. Ali censures the heretic with a playful stare. Ali requests chicken and some cherry pie with “two scoops of ice cream.” He turns to the writer again: “Abraham Lincoln went on a three-day drunk, and you know what he say when he wake up?” He waits for a beat, then says: “I freed whooooooo?” His body starts to shake with laughter. The nurse yells: “Stop it, Muhammad! You’ll drive the needles through your veins.” His calms down, rasps, “I’ll never grow up, will I? I’ll be fifty in three years. Old age just make you ugly, that’s all.”
Not all, exactly; getting old is the last display for the bread-and-circuses culture. Legends must suffer for all the gifts and luck and privilege given to them. Great men, it’s been noted, die twice—once as great, and once as men. With grace, preferably, which adds an uplifting, stirring, Homeric touch. If the fall is too messy, the national psyche will rush toward it, then recoil; there is no suspense, no example in the mundane. The captivating, aspiring sociopath Sonny Liston had a primitive hold on the equation of greatness. “Clay (he never called him Ali) beeeg now,” Sonny once said while gnawing on some ribs. “He flyin’ high now. Like an eagle. So high. Where he gonna land, how he gonna land? He gonna have any wings? I wanna see.” Sonny, of course, never made it for the final show. Soon after, he checked out in Vegas, the suspicion of murder hovering over the coroner’s report.
Who wanted to ask the question back then, or even be allowed to examine in depth its many possibilities? It was too serious for the carnival, immediately at odds with the cartoon bombast that swirled around Ali, the unassailable appeal of the phenomenon, the breathtaking climb of the arc. Before him, the ring, if not moribund, had been a dark, somber corner of sports, best described by the passing sight of then-middleweight-king Dick Tiger, leaving his beat-up hotel wearing a roomy black homburg and a long pawnshop overcoat, a black satchel in his hand, heading for the subway and a title fight at the Garden. But the heavyweight champions—as they always will—illuminated the image sent out to the public. There was the stoic, mute Joe Louis, with his cruising menace; street fighter Rocky Marciano, with his trade-unionist obedience; the arresting and dogged Floyd Patterson, who would bare his soul to a telephone pole at the sight of a pencil; all unfrivolous men who left no doubt as to the nature of their work.
With the emergence of Muhammad Ali, no one would ever see the ring the same way again, not even the fighters themselves; a TV go, a purse, and sheared lip would never be enough; and a title was just a belt unless you did something with it. A fighter had to be; a product, an event, transcendental. Ali and the new age met stern, early resistance. He was the demon loose at a holy rite. With his preening narcissism, braggart mouth, and stylistic quirks, he was viewed as a vandal of ring tenets and etiquette. Besides, they said, he couldn’t punch, did not like to get hit, and seemed to lack a sufficient amount of killer adrenaline. True, on the latter two counts. “I git no pleasure from hurtin’ another human bein’,” he used to say. “I do what I gotta do, nothin’ more, nothin’ less.” As far as eating punches, he said, “Only a fool wanna be hit. Boxin’ just today, my face is forever.” Others saw much more. The ballet master Balanchine, for one, showed up at a workout and gazed in wonder. “My God,” he said, “he fights with his legs, he actually fights with his legs. What an astonishing creature.” Ali’s jab (more like a straight left of jolting electricity) came in triplets, each a thousandth of a second in execution. He’d double up cruelly with a left hook (rarely seen) and razor in a right—and then he’d be gone. Even so, it took many years for Ali to ascend to a preeminent light in the national consciousness. In the Sixties, as a converted Black Muslim, he vilified white people as blond, blue-eyed devils. His position on Vietnam—”I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong, anyway. They never called me nigger”—was innocent at first, but then taken up as if he were the provocateur of a national crisis. The politicians, promoters, and sweeping sentiment converged to conspire against his constitutional right to work; states barred him from fighting. He resisted the draft and drifted into exile. Three years later he returned, heavier, slower, but with a new kind of fire in his belly. Though he had defeated heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and defended his title nine times, Ali had never had a dramatic constituency before. Now a huge one awaited him, liberals looking for expression, eager literati to put it into scripture, worn-out hippies, anyone who wanted to see right done for once. The rest is history: the two symphonic conflicts with Joe Frazier; the tingling walk with him into the darkness of George Foreman. Then, the Hegelian “bad infinite” of repeating diminishing cycles: retiring, unretiring, the torture of losing weight, the oiling of mushy reflexes. The margins of dominance compressed perilously, and the head shots (negligible before exile) mounted.
Greatness trickled from the corpus of his image, his career now like a gutshot that was going to take its time before killing. His signing to fight Larry Holmes, after retiring a second time, provoked worried comment. After watching some of Ali’s films, a London neurologist said that he was convinced Ali had brain damage. Diagnosis by long distance, the promoters scoffed. Yet among those in his camp, the few who cared, there was an edginess. They approached Holmes, saying, “Don’t hurt him, Larry.” Moved, Holmes replied: “No way. I love Ali.” With compassion, he then took Ali apart with the studied carefulness of a diamond cutter; still, not enough to mask the winces at ringside. Ali failed to go the route for the first time in his career. Incredibly, fourteen months later, in 1981, his ego goaded him to the Bahamas and another fight, the fat jellied on his middle, his hand-speed sighing and wheezing like a busted old fan; tropic rot on the trade winds. Trevor Berbick, an earnest pug, outpointed him easily. Afterward, Angelo Dundee, who had trained Ali from the start and had to be talked into showing up for this one, watched him slumped in the dressing room, then turned away and rubbed his eyes as certain people tried to convince Ali that he had been robbed and that a fourth title was still possible.
The public prefers, indeed seems to insist on, the precedent set by Rocky Marciano, who quit undefeated, kept self-delusion at bay. Ali knew the importance of a clean farewell, not only as a health measure but as good commercial sense. His ring classicism had always argued so persuasively against excessive physical harm, his pride was beyond anything but a regal exit. But his prolonged decline had been nasty, unseemly. Who or what pressured him to continue on? Some blamed his manager, Herbert Muhammad, who had made millions with Ali. Herbert said that his influence wasn’t that strong.
Two years after that last fight, Ali seemed as mystified as everyone else as to why he hadn’t ended his career earlier. His was living with his third wife, the ice goddess Veronica, in an L.A. mansion, surrounded by the gifts of a lifetime—a six-foot hand carved tiger given to him by Teng Hsiao-ping, a robe given to him by Elvis Presley. Fatigued, his hands tremoring badly, he sat in front of the fire and could only say: “Everybody git lost in life. I just git lost, that’s all.”
Now, five years later, the question why still lingers, along with the warning of the old aphorism that “we live beyond what we enact.” The resuscitation of Ali’s image has been a sporadic exercise for a long time now, some of it coming from friends who have experienced heartfelt pain over his illness. Others seem to be trying to assuage a guilt known only to themselves, and a few are out to keep Ali a player, a lure to those who might want to use his name in business; though the marketplace turns away from billboards in decline. Not long ago, a piece in The New York Times Magazine pronounced him the Ali of old, just about terminally perky. Then, Ali surfaced in a front-page telephone interview in The Washington Post. He appeared to have a hard grasp on politics, current states’ rights issues, and federal judgeships being contested—a scenario that had seemed as likely as the fusillade of laser fire Ali said Muslim spaceships would one day loose on the white devils.
Noses began to twitch. What and who was behind the new Ali, the wily Washington lobbyist who had the ear of everyone from Strom Thurmond to Orrin Hatch? The wife of Senator Arlen Specter even baked Ali a double-chocolate-mousse pie. For a good while, most of these senators, and others, knew only the voice of Ali on the phone. Dave Kindred, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who has known Ali since his Louisville days, concluded that it was most likely Ali’s attorney, Richard Hirschfeld, widely regarded as a brilliant impersonator of Ali, who had made the calls. (Hirschfeld has refused to comment on whether or not he did so.) Hirschfeld and Ali had cut up a lot of money over the years on numerous enterprises (funded by other people), from hotels to cars, most of them failing. Ali’s lobbying seemed to center on a federal judgeship for a Hirschfeld friend, and a federal lawsuit in which Ali sought $50 million in damages from his “wrongful conviction in the 1967 draft evasion case.” He lost the suit but succeeded in getting Senator Hatch and others to explore a loophole that might remedy the verdict. Ali eventually had to materialize (with Hirschfeld hard by his side), and many on Capitol Hill were unable to match the man with the voice. One of Sam Nunn’s aides, noting Ali’s listlessness and Hirschfeld’s aggressive quizzing, wondered: “Is Ali being carted around like a puppet?” Certainly a serpentine tale; but had Ali been a collaborator all along?
At his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan, Ali sits at the end of a table in the living room. The 247 pounds of weight have made him a bit short of breath. He’s battled his appetite (two, three desserts, meals back to back) and sedentary lapses for years. Several months before, he had been almost sleek, thanks to fourteen-mile walks and his wife’s efforts to police him at the table. But what is disturbing is the general profile of his condition.
For a long time now, he had appeared indifferent to the ravages of his problem. But he dispels that notion when asked how seriously he considered a dangerous brain operation in Mexico before his family talked him out of it. “Scale of ten,” he says, “a six.” The answer reflects the terrible frustration that must exist within him, the daily, fierce struggle with a body and mind that will not capitulate to his bidding. He sits there, his hands shaking, his movements robotic, the look on his face similar to what the Marines call a thousand-yard stare.
Why is it, do you think, that after all these years, the dominant sound around Ali is silence? Look at the cataract of noise caught by TV sound men, look at the verbosity that snared some novelists into thinking he was a primitive intelligence capable of Ciceronian insight. Part of the fever of the times; if the Black Panther Huey Newton, posing with a rifle and spear, could be written up as a theoretical genius, and his partner, Bobby Seale, interpreted as a tactical wizard, then how much a symbol was Ali, the first to tap and manifest glinting black pride, to dispute with vigor erosive self-laceration.
The fact was that he was not cerebral; he was a reflex of confusing emotions and instant passions. He did have street cunning, most of it aimed at keeping himself a mystery. “People like mystery,” he used to say. “Who is he? What’s he all about? Who’s he gonna be tomorrow?” To that end, he tossed the media rabble dripping hunks of redundant, rote monologue; his loudness provided a great show and diverted probing questions. By nature, he was gentle, sensitive man, and even in the throes of angry threats against whites it was hard to hide a smile, for he loved what the blacks call “selling wolf tickets,” tricking people into fear. The Black Panthers used that gambit well, and the TV crews followed their presence. Thinking of all of this, how could someone so alien to ideas, and thought, who communicated privately, in scraps and remote silences, be capable of fooling Washington politicians? Absurd, of course, but then the question emerges: Did he allow himself to be used?
“How about all those phone calls,” he is asked.
“What calls?” he responds, vacantly.
“To politicians, this past summer.”
“You can’t believe that,” he says. “Man wrote that, he’s cracker from way back in Louisville. Always hated blacks.”
“I’m signin’ my autographs now,” he says. “This is the only important thing in my life. Keepin’ in touch with the people.”
“Were you used?”
“Spend a hundred dollars on stamps every week. Give ‘em all my autograph that write me.”
“Were you used?”
“To influence your lawsuit.”
“I ain’t worried about money,” he says.
“Maybe you just want to be big again. Remember what you told Elvis. ‘Elvis, you have to keep singin’ or die to stay big. I’m gonna be big forever.’”
He smiles thinly: “I say anything shock the world.”
“You like politics now?”
“Politics put me to sleep.”
“You were at the Republican National Convention.”
“You borin’ me, putting me to sleep.”
“Reagan, Hatch, Quayle, they would’ve clapped you in jail in the old days.”
His eyes widen slightly: “That right?” He adds: “I’m tired. You better than a sleepin’ pill.”
But don’t let the exchange mislead. Ali is not up to repartee these days, never was, really, unless he was in the mood, and then he’d fade you with one of his standard lines (“You not as dumb as you look”). He speaks very, very slowly, and you have to lean in to hear him. It takes nearly as hour to negotiate the course of a conversation. Typically, he hadn’t been enlightening on the Capitol Hill scam. Over the years, he has been easily led, told by any number of rogues what his best interests were. If the advisors were friends who appealed to his instinct to help them move up a rung, he was even more of a setup. Later, Bingham says: “Ali was pissed about that impersonation stuff. He had no idea.” Why didn’t he just say that he didn’t make the calls? “You know him,” he says. “He’ll never betray who he thinks has tried to help him. The idea that people will think less of him now bothers him a lot.”
If there was ever any doubt about the staying power of Ali, it is swept aside when you travel with him. His favorite place in the world—next to his worktable at his farm—is an airport. So he should be in high spirits now; he’ll be in three airports before the day’s over. But he’s a bit petulant with Lonnie, who aims to see that he keeps his date at Hilton Head Island. He can’t stand hospitals. They get in the way of life. He found it hard to ever visit his old sidekick Bundini when he was dying. Paralyzed from the next down, Bundini could only move his eyes. Ali bent down close to his ear and whispered: “You in pain?” The eyes signaled “yes.” Ali turned his head away, then came back to those eyes, saying: “We had some good times, didn’t we?” Bundini’s eyes went up and down. Ali talks about this in the Chicago airport. He’s calmed down now, sits off by himself, ramrod-straight and waiting. He wears a pinstripe suit, red tie, and next to him is his black magician’s bag; he never lets it out of his sight. The bag is filled with religious tracts already autographed; which is the first thing he does every day at 6:00 a.m., when he gets up. All he has to do is fill in the person’s name.
His autograph ritual and travel are his consuming interests. He’ll go anywhere at the ring of a phone, and he spends much time on the road. Perhaps the travel buoys him; he certainly gets an energy charge from people. Soon they begin to drop like birds to his side. “You see,” he says, “all I gotta do is sit here. Somethin’, ain’t it? Why they like me?” He is not trying to be humble, he is genuinely perplexed by the chemistry that exists between himself and other people. “Maybe they just like celebrities,” he says. Maybe, he’s told, he’s much more than a celebrity. He ponders that for a moment, and says: “That right?” By now, a hundred people have lined up in front of him, and a security guard begins to keep them in line. Ali asks them his name, writes, then gives them his autographed tracts. Some ask him to pose for pictures, others kid him about unretiring. “Kong (Mike Tyson), I’m comin’ after you.” Near the end, he does a magic trick for a lady, using a fake thumb. “Where you going, Muhammad?” she asks. He thinks, and then leans over to the writer and asks: “Where we going?” The lady’s eyes fill, she hugs him and says: “We love you so much.” What is it that so movingly draws so many people—his innocent, childlike way, the stony visual he projects, set off against his highly visible symptoms?
That night over dinner, Ali’s eyes open and close between courses. He fades in and out of the conversation, has a hint of trouble lifting the fork to his mouth. His days includes periods like this, he’s in and out like a faraway signal. Sometimes he’s full of play. He likes to swing his long arm near a person’s ear, then create a friction with thumb and forefinger to produce a cricket effect in the ear. Then the play is gone, and so is he. “One day,” Lonnie is saying, “I want someone to catch his soul, to show what a fine human being he is.” Ali says, head down: “Nobody know me. I fool ‘em all.” Lonnie is Ali’s fourth wife. She was a little girl who lived across from Ali’s old Louisville home when he was at the top. She is a woman of wit and intelligence, with a master’s degree in business administration. She plans his trips, is the tough cop with him and his medicine, and generally seems to brighten his life. Ice cream dribbles down Ali’s chin. “Now, Muhammad,” she says, wiping it away. “You’re a big baby.” He orders another dessert, then says: “Where are we?” A blade of silence cuts across the table.
Bingham says: “Hilton Head Island.”
Ali says: “Ya ever wake up and don’t know where you are?” Sure, he is told, steady travel can make a person feel like that for an instant; yet it is obvious that short term-memory for him is like a labyrinth.
Ali’s day at the hospital is nearly over. He will soon be counting down the minutes. Right now, he’s in high spirits. A nurse has secretly slipped him some strips of paper. He has a complete piece of paper in his hands. He crumples the paper, pretends to put it in his mouth, then billows his cheeks until he regurgitates tiny pieces all over his chest. “Ain’t magic a happy thing,” he says, trying to contain his giggling. When Dr. Medenica comes, Ali jokes with him. The doctor goes about examining the day’s results. He looks at the bags of plasma: 15,000 cc’s have been moved through Ali. Floyd Patterson has expressed dismay over the current treatment. “No brain damage?” Floyd has said. “Next you’ll be hearing he was bit by a cockroach. He’s gonna kill Clay…. He’ll drop dead in a year.” Medenica bridles at the comment. “He’s rather ignorant. I’m going to have to call that man.” Ali wants to know what Patterson said. Nobody wants to tell him. “Tell me,” says Ali. Everyone looks at each other, and someone finally says: “Floyd says you’ll drop dead in a year.” Ali shrugs it off: “Floyd mean well.”
It is Medenica’s contention that Ali suffers from pesticide poisoning. Though his work has met with some skepticism in the medical community, Medenica is respected in South Carolina. His desk is rimmed with pictures of prominent people—a senator, a Saudi prince, an ambassador—patients for whom he has retarded death by cancer. He is supposed to have done wonders for Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. Tito was so grateful, he arranged funding for Medenica’s clinic in Switzerland. When he died, the funds were cut off and Medenica was left with bills and criminal indictment by the Yugoslavians and the Swiss. “Don’t ask how Ali got the pesticides,” Medenica says.
Plasmapheresis is a solid treatment for pesticide poisoning, which occurs more than ever these days. The blood cleaning removes the immune complex, which in turns removes toxins. But how can Medenica be so sure that Ali’s problem is not brain damage? Dr. Dennis Cope, of UCLA, has said that Ali is a victim of “Parkinson’s syndrome secondary to pugilistic brain syndrome.” In short, he took too many head shots. Medenica, though, is a confident man.
He predicts Ali will be completely recovered. “I find absolutely no brain damage. The magnetic resonator tests show no damage. Before I took him as a patient, I watched many of his fight films. He did not take many head blows.”
Is he kidding?
“No, I do not see any head blows. When he came this summer, he was in bad shape. Poor gait. Difficult speech. Vocal cord syndrome, extended and inflamed. He is much better. His problem is he misses taking his medicine, and he travels too much. He should be here once a month.”
Finally, Ali is helped out of his medical harness. He dresses slowly. Then, ready to go out, he puts that famous upper-teeth clamp on his bottom lip to show determination and circles the doctor with a cocked right fist. His next stop is for an interferon shot. It is used to stimulate the white blood cells. Afterward, he is weak, and there is a certain sadness in his eyes. On the way to the car, he is asked if the treatment helps. He says: “Sheeeet, nothin’ help.”
The Lincoln Town Car moves through the night. Bingham, who is driving, fumbles with the tape player. Earlier in the day, he had searched anxiously for a tape of Whitney Houston doing “The Greatest Love of All,” a song written especially for Ali years ago. He had sensed that Ali would be quite low when the day was over, and he wanted something to pick him up. The words, beautiful and haunting, fill the car.
Everybody’s searching for a hero,
People need someone
To look up to,
I never found anyone who
Fulfilled that need;
A lonely place to be,
So learned to depend on me.
I decided long ago
Never to walk in anyone’s shadow;
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I lived as I believe,
And no matter what
They take from me,
They can’t take away my dignity;
Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me.
The greatest love of all is easy
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all.
“You hear that,” Bingham says, his voice cracking. “Everything’s gonna be just fine, Ali.”
The dark trees spin by. There is no answer. What is he thinking?
This 1989 Esquire piece by father on Ali in decline is one of my personal favorites. I am not exactly sure what he thought of it; he was the last person to go to for an opinion on any of his work. But I like it immensely. It blends his characteristic impressionistic style with exquisite reporting, grim humor and an undercurrent of compassion born of their long years together. Although my father took some swipes at Ali in his 2001 book, Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, I think he comes at his subject in this piece with his lance sheathed. He had always told me he had been of fond Ali personally and I think that comes across here. It is a tender glimpse at a once extraordinary athlete who has been thrust by age and illness into a state of sad fragility.
Mark Kram covered much of Ali’s career for Sports Illustrated, including all three of his bouts with Joe Frazier. He began his 40 year writing career as sports columnist as The Baltimore Sun in 1959. He spent 13 years at SI (1964-1977), during which he became one of the signature voices of the magazine. He later contributed pieces to Playboy, Esquire, and GQ. Ghosts of Manila, his book on the Ali-Frazier rivalry, was published by HarperCollins in 2001. He died in 2002.
Drew Struzan is responsible for some of the most enduring cinematic imagery of the past thirty years, even if few fans recognize his name. That should be partially rectified by this week’s release of Struzan: The Man Behind the Poster, a documentary that pays tribute to the famed movie-poster artist, whose illustrated one-sheets for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Harry Potter, and countless other film franchises are both instantly recognizable and beloved. Hand-painted and marked by photorealistic portraits and signature scenes in evocative montages, Struzan’s work remains the standard to which most action, fantasy, and sci-fi posters aspire, conveying emotion and excitement with a compelling style far superior to the modern era’s Photoshopped-to-death posters. In honor of his prolific and peerless career, we present a look back at thirteen of his most compelling creations.
I give you Thurman Munson in the eighth inning of a meaningless baseball game, in a half-empty stadium in a bad Yankee year during a fourteen-season Yankee drought, and Thurman Munson is running, arms pumping, busting his way from second to third like he’s taking Omaha Beach, sliding down in a cloud of luminous, Saharan dust, then up on two feet, clapping his hands, turtling his head once around, spitting diamonds of saliva: Safe.
I give you Thurman Munson getting beaned in the head by a Nolan Ryan fastball and then beaned in the head by a Dick Drago fastball—and then spiked for good measure at home plate by a 250-pound colossus named George Scott, as he’s been spiked before, blood spurting everywhere, and the mustachioed catcher they call Squatty Body/Jelly Belly/Bulldog/Pigpen refusing to leave the game, hunching in the runway to the dugout at Yankee Stadium in full battle gear, being stitched up and then hauling himself back on the field again.
I give you Thurman Munson in the hostile cities of America—in Detroit and Oakland, Chicago and Kansas City, Boston and Baltimore—on the radio, on television, in the newspapers, in person, his body scarred and pale, bones broken and healed, arms and legs flickering with bruises that come and go like purple lights under his skin, a man crouched behind home plate or swinging on-deck, jabbering incessantly, playing a game.
Here’s a keeper from Gay Talese. Originally published in the March 1964 issue of Esquire.Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
At the foot of a mountain in upstate New York, about 60 miles from Manhattan, there is an abandoned country clubhouse with a dusty dance floor, upturned barstools and an untuned piano; and the only sounds heard around the place at night come from the big white house behind it—the clanging sounds of garbage cans being toppled by raccoons, skunks and stray cats making their nocturnal raids down from the mountain.
The white house seems deserted, too; but occasionally, when the animals become too clamorous, a light will flash on, a window will open, and a Coke bottle will come flying through the darkness and smash against the cans. But mostly the animals are undisturbed until daybreak, when the rear door of the white house swings open and a broad-shouldered Negro appears in gray sweat clothes with a white towel around his neck.
He runs down the steps, quickly passes the garbage cans and proceeds at a trot down the dirt road beyond the country club toward the highway. Sometimes he stops along the road and throws a flurry of punches at imaginary foes, each jab punctuated by hard gasps of his breathing—“hegh-hegh-hegh”—and then, reaching the highway, he turns and soon disappears up the mountain.
At this time of morning, farm trucks are on the road, and the drivers wave at the runner. And later in the morning, other motorists see him, and a few stop suddenly at the curb and ask:
“Say, aren’t you Floyd Patterson?”
“No,” says Floyd Patterson, “I’m his brother, Raymond.”
The motorists move on, but recently a man on foot, a disheveled man who seemed to have spent the night outdoors, staggered behind the runner along the road and yelled, “Hey, Floyd Patterson!”
“No, I’m his brother, Raymond.”
“Don’t tell me you’re not Floyd Patterson. I know what Floyd Patterson looks like.”
“Okay,” Patterson said, shrugging, “if you want me to be Floyd Patterson, I’ll be Floyd Patterson.”
“So let me have your autograph,” said the man, handing him a rumpled piece of paper and a pencil.
He signed it—”Raymond Patterson.”
One hour later Floyd Patterson was jogging his way back down the dirt path toward the white house, the towel over his head absorbing the sweat from his brow. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the rear of the house, and has remained there in almost complete seclusion since getting knocked out a second time by Sonny Liston.
In the smaller room is a large bed he makes up himself, several record albums he rarely plays, a telephone that seldom rings. The larger room has a kitchen on one side and, on the other, adjacent to a sofa, is a fireplace from which are hung boxing trunks and T-shirts to dry, and a photograph of him when he was the champion, and also a television set. The set is usually on except when Patterson is sleeping, or when he is sparring across the road inside the clubhouse (the ring is rigged over what was once the dance floor), or when, in a rare moment of painful honesty, he reveals to a visitor what it is like to be the loser.
“Oh, I would give up anything to just be able to work with Liston, to box with him somewhere where nobody would see us, and to see if I could get past three minutes with him,” Patterson was saying, wiping his face with the towel, pacing slowly around the room near the sofa. “Iknow I can do better. . . . Oh, I’m not talking about a rematch. Who would pay a nickel for another Patterson-Liston fight? I know I wouldn’t. . . . But all I want to do is get past the first round.”
Then he said, “You have no idea how it is in the first round. You’re out there with all those people around you, and those cameras, and the whole world looking in, and all that movement, that excitement, and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the whole nation hoping you’ll win, including the President. And do you know what all this does? It blinds you, just blinds you. And then the bell rings, and you go at Liston and he’s coming at you, and you’re not even aware that there’s a referee in the ring with you.
“. . . Then you can’t remember much of the rest, because you don’t want to. . . . All you recall is, all of a sudden you’re getting up, and the referee is saying, ‘You all right?’ and you say, ‘Ofcourse I’m all right,’ and he says, ‘What’s your name?’ and you say, ‘Patterson.’
“And then, suddenly, with all this screaming around you, you’re down again, and you know you have to get up, but you’re extremely groggy, and the referee is pushing you back, and your trainer is in there with a towel, and people are all standing up, and your eyes focus directly at no one person—you’re sort of floating.
“It is not a bad feeling when you’re knocked out,” he said. “It’s a good feeling, actually. It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don’t see angels or start; you’re on a pleasant cloud. After Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth toward all the people in the arena after you’re knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody—men and women—and after the Liston fight, somebody told me I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring. I don’t remember that. But I guess it’s true because that’s the way you feel during the four or five seconds after a knockout. . . .
“But then,” Patterson went on, still pacing, “this good feeling leaves you. You realize where you are, and what you’re doing there, and what has just happened to you. And what follows is a hurt, a confused hurt—not a physical hurt—it’s a hurt combined with anger; it’s a what-will-people-think hurt; it’s an ashamed-of-my-own-ability hurt. . . . And all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring—a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people. The worst thing about losing is having to walk out of the ring and face those people. . . .”
Then Patterson walked over to the stove and put on the kettle for tea. He remained silent for a few moments. Through the walls could be heard the footsteps and voices of the sparring partners and the trainer who live in the front of the house. Soon they would be in the clubhouse getting things ready should Patterson wish to spar. In two days he was scheduled to fly to Stockholm and fight an Italian named Amonti, Patterson’s first appearance in the ring since the last Liston fight.
Next he hoped to get a fight in London against Henry Cooper. Then, if his confidence was restored, his reflexes reacting, Patterson hoped to start back up the ladder in this country, fighting all the leading contenders, fighting often, and not waiting so long between each fight as he had done when he was a champion in the 90-percent tax bracket.
His wife, whom he finds little time to see, and most of his friends think he should quit. They point out that he does not need the money. Even he admits that, from investments alone on his $8,000,000 gross earning, he should have an annual income of about $35,000 for the next 25 years. But Patterson, who is only 29 years old and barely scratched, cannot believe that he is finished. He cannot help but think that it was something more than Liston that destroyed him—a strange, psychological force was also involved, and unless he can fully understand what it was, and learn to deal with it in the boxing ring, he may never be able to live peacefully anywhere but under this mountain. Nor will he ever be able to discard the false whiskers and moustache that, ever since Johansson beat him in 1959, he has carried with him in a small attache case into each fight so he can slip out of the stadium unrecognized should he lose.
“I often wonder what other fighters feel, and what goes through their minds when they lose,” Patterson said, placing the cups of tea on the table. “I’ve wanted so much to talk to another fighter about all this, to compare thoughts, to see if he feels some of the same things I’ve felt. But who can you talk to? Most fighters don’t talk much anyway. And I can’t even look another fighter in the eye at a weigh-in, for some reason.
“At the Liston weigh-in, the sports writers noticed this, and said it showed I was afraid. But that’s not it. I can never look any fighter in the eye because . . . well, because we’re going to fight, which isn’t a nice thing, and because . . . well, once I actually did look a fighter in the eye. It was a long, long time ago. I must have been in the amateurs then. And when I looked at this fighter, I saw he had such a nice face . . . and then he looked at me . . . and smiled at me . . . and I smiled back! It was strange, very strange. When a guy can look at another guy and smile like that, I don’t think they have any business fighting.
“I don’t remember what happened in that fight, and I don’t remember what the guy’s name was. I only remember that, ever since, I have never looked another fighter in the eye.”
The telephone rang in the bedroom. Patterson got up to answer it. It was his wife, Sandra. So he excused himself, shutting the bedroom door behind him.
Sandra Patterson and their four children live in a $100,000 home in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood in Scarsdale, New York. Floyd Patterson feels uncomfortable in this home surrounded by a manicured lawn and stuffed with furniture, and, since losing his title to Liston, he has preferred living full time at his camp, which his children have come to know as “Daddy’s house.” The children, the eldest of whom is a daughter named Jeannie now seven years old, do not know exactly what their father does for a living. But Jeannie, who watched the last Liston-Patterson fight on closed-circuit television, accepted the explanation that her father performs in a kind of game where the men take turns pushing one another down; he had his turn pushing them down, and now it is their turn.
The bedroom door opened again, and Floyd Patterson shaking his head, was very angry and nervous.
“I’m not going to work out today,” he said. “I’m going to fly down to Scarsdale. These boys are picking on Jeannie again. She’s the only Negro in this school, and the older kids give her a rough time, and some of the older boys tease her and lift up her dress all the time. Yesterday she went home crying, and so today I’m going down there and plan to wait outside the school for those boys to come out, and . . .”
“How old are they?” he was asked.
“Teen-agers,” he said. “Old enough for a left hook.”
Patterson telephoned his pilot friend, Ted Hanson, who stays at the camp and does public-relations work for him, and has helped teach Patterson to fly. Five minutes later Hanson, a lean white man with a crew cut and glasses, was knocking on the door; and 10 minutes later both were in the car that Patterson was driving almost recklessly over the narrow, winding country roads toward the airport, about six miles from the camp.
“Sandra is afraid I’ll cause trouble; she’s worried about what I’ll do to those boys, she doesn’t want trouble!” Patterson snapped, swerving around a hill and giving his car more gas. “She’s just not firm enough! She’s afraid . . . she was afraid to tell me about that groceryman who’s been making passes at her. It took her a long time before she told me about that dishwasher repairman who comes over and calls her ‘baby.’ They all know I’m away so much. And that dishwasher repairman has been to my home about four five times this month already. That machine breaks down every week. I guess he fixes it so it breaks down every week. Last time, I laid a trap. I waited forty-five minutes for him to come, but then he didn’t show up. I was going to grab him and say, ‘How would you like it If I called your wife baby? You’d feel like punching me in the nose, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what I’m going to do—if you ever call her babyagain. You call her Mrs. Patterson; or Sandra, if you know her. But you don’t know her, so call her Mrs. Patterson.’ And then I told Sandra that these men, this type of white man, he just wants to have some fun with colored women. He’ll never marry a colored woman, just wants to have some fun. . . .”
Now he was driving into the airport’s parking lot. Directly ahead, roped to the grass airstrip, was the single-engine green Cessna that Patterson bought and learned to fly before the second Liston fight. Flying was a thing Patterson had always feared—a fear shared, maybe inherited from, his manager, Cus D’Amato, who still will not fly.
D’Amato, who took over training Patterson when the fighter was 17 or 18 years old and exerted a tremendous influence over his psyche, is a strange but fascinating man of 56 who is addicted to Spartanism and self-denial and is possessed by suspicion and fear; he avoids subways because he fears someone might push him onto the tracks; never has married; never reveals his home address.
“I must keep my enemies confused,” D’Amato once explained. “When they are confused, then I can do a job for my fighters. What I do not want in life, however, is a sense of security; the moment a person knows security, his senses are dulled—and he begins to die. I also do not want many pleasures in life; I believe the more pleasure you get out of living, the more fear you have of dying.”
Until a few years ago, D’Amato did most of Patterson’s talking, and ran things like an Italianpadrone. But later Patterson, the maturing son, rebelled against the Father Image. After losing to Sonny Liston the first time—a fight D’Amato had urged Patterson to resist—Patterson took flying lessons. And before the second Liston fight, Patterson had conquered his fear of height, was master at the controls, was filled with renewed confidence—and knew, too, that, even if he lost, he at least possessed a vehicle that could get him out of town fast.
But it didn’t. After the fight, the little Cessna, weighed down by too much luggage, became overheated 90 miles outside of Las Vegas. Patterson and his pilot companion, having no choice but to turn back, radioed the airfield and arranged for the rental of a larger plane. When they landed, the Vegas air terminal was filled with people leaving town after the fight. Patterson hid in the shadow behind a hangar. His beard was packed in the trunk. But nobody saw him.
Later the pilot flew Patterson’s Cessna back to New York alone. And Patterson flew in the larger, rented plane. He was accompanied on this flight by Hanson, a friendly, 42-year-old, thrice divorced Nevadan who once was a crop duster, a bartender and a cabaret hoofer; later he became a pilot instructor in Las Vegas, and it was there that he met Patterson. The two became good friends. And when Patterson asked Hanson to help fly the rented plane back to New York, Hanson did not hesitate, even though he had a slight hangover that night—partly due to being depressed by Liston’s victory, partly due to being slugged in a bar by a drunk after objecting to some unflattering things the drunk had said about the fight.
Once in the airplane, however, Ted Hanson became very alert; He had to, because, after the plane had cruised a while at 10,000 feet, Floyd Patterson’s mind seemed to wander back to the ring, and the plane would drift off course, and Hanson would say, “Floyd, Floyd, how’s about getting back on course?” and then Patterson’s head would snap up and his eyes would flash toward the dials. And everything would be all right for a while. But then he was back in the arena, reliving the fight, hardly believing that it had really happened. . . .
“… And I kept thinking, as I flew out of Vegas that night, of all those months of training before the fight, all the roadwork, all the sparring, all the months away from Sandra. . . . thinking of the time in camp when I wanted to stay up until eleven-fifteen P.M. to watch a certain movie on “The Late Show.” But I didn’t because I had roadwork the next morning. . . .
“… And I was thinking about how good I’d felt before the fight, as I lay on the table in the dressing room. I remember thinking, ‘You’re in excellent physical condition, you’re in good mental condition—but are you vicious?’ But you tell yourself, ‘Viciousness is not important now, don’t think about it now; a championship fight’s at stake, and that’s important enough and, who knows? maybe you’ll get vicious once the bell rings.’
“… And so you lay there trying to get a little sleep . . . but you’re only in a twilight zone, half asleep, and you’re interrupted every once in a while by voices out in the hall, some guy’s yelling ‘Hey, Jack,’ or ‘Hey, Al,’ or ‘Hey, get those four-rounders into the ring.’ And when you hear that, you think, They’re not ready for you yet. So you lay there . . . and wonder, Where will I be tomorrow? Where will I be three hours from now? Oh, you think all kinds of thoughts, some thoughts completely unrelated to the fight . . . you wonder whether you ever paid your mother-in-law back for all those stamps she bought a year ago . . . and you remember that time at two A.M. when Sandra tripped on the steps while bringing a bottle up to the baby . . . and then you get mad and ask: What am I thinking about these things for? . . . and you try to sleep . . . but then the door opens and somebody says to somebody else, ‘Hey, is somebody gonna go to Liston’s dressing room to watch ‘em bandage up?’
“… And so then you know it’s about time to get ready. . . . You open your eyes. You get off the table. You glove up, you loosen up. Then Liston’s trainer walks in. He looks at you, he smiles. He feels the bandages and later he says, ‘Good luck, Floyd,’ and you think, He didn’t have to say that, he must be a nice guy.
“. . . And then you go out, and it’s the long walk, always a long walk, and you think, What am I gonna be when I come back this way? Then you climb into the ring. You notice Billy Eckstine at ringside leaning over to talk to somebody, and you see the reporters—some you like, some you don’t like—and then it’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the cameras are rolling, and the bell rings. . . .
“… How could the same thing happen twice? How? That’s all I kept thinking after the knockout. . . . Was I fooling these people all these years? . . . Was I ever the champion? . . . And then they lead you out of the ring . . . and up the aisle you go, past those people, and all you want is to get to your dressing room, fast . . . but the trouble was in Las Vegas they made a wrong turn along the aisle, and when we got to the end, there was no dressing room there . . . and we had to walk all the way back down the aisle, past the same people, and they must have been thinking, Patterson’s not only knocked out, but he can’t even find his dressing room. . . .
“… In the dressing room I had a headache. Liston didn’t hurt me physically—a few days later I only felt a twitching nerve in my teeth—it was nothing like some fights I’ve had: like that Dick Wagner fight in ’53 when he beat my body so bad I was urinating blood for days. After the Liston fight, I just went into the bathroom, shut the door behind me and looked at myself in the mirror. I just looked at myself, and asked, What happened? and then they started pounding on the door, and saying ‘Com’on out, Floyd, Com’on out; the press is here, Gus is here, com’on out, Floyd. . . .”
“… And so I went out, and they asked questions, but what can you say? What you’re thinking about is all those months of training, all the conditioning, all the depriving; and you think, I didn’t have to run that extra mile, didn’t have to spar that day, I could have stayed up that night in camp and watched ‘The Late Show’. . . . I could have fought this fight tonight in no condition. . . .”
“Floyd, Floyd,” Hanson had said, “let’s get back on course. . . .”
Again Patterson would snap out of his reverie, and refocus on the omniscope, and get his flying under control. After landing in New Mexico, and then in Ohio, Floyd Patterson and Ted Hanson brought the little plane into the New York airstrip near the fight camp. The green Cessna that had been flown back by the other pilot was already there, roped to the grass at precisely the same spot it was on this day five months later when Floyd Patterson was planning to fly it toward perhaps another fight—this time a fight with some schoolboys in Scarsdale who had been lifting up his little daughter’s dress.
Patterson and Ted Hanson untied the plane, and Patterson got a rag and wiped from the windshield the splotches of insects. Then he walked around behind the plane, inspected the tail, checked under the fuselage, then peered down between the wing and the flaps to make sure all the screws were tight. He seemed suspicious of something. D’Amato would have been pleased.
“If a guy wants to get rid of you,” Patterson explained, “all he has to do is remove these little screws here. Then, when you try to come in for a landing, the flaps fall off, and you crash.”
Then Patterson got into the cockpit and started the engine. A few moments later, with Hanson beside him, Patterson was racing the little plane over the grassy field, then soaring over the weeds, then flying high above the gentle hills and trees. It was a nice takeoff.
Since it was only a 40-minute flight to the Westchester airport, where Sandra Patterson would be waiting with a car, Floyd Patterson did all the flying. The trip was uneventful until, suddenly behind a cloud, he flew into heavy smoke that hovered above a forest fire. His visibility gone, he was forced to the instruments. And at this precise moment, a fly that had been buzzing in the back of the cockpit flew up front and landed on the instrument panel in front of Patterson. He glared at the fly, watched it crawl slowly up the windshield, then shot a quick smash with his palm against the glass. He missed. The fly buzzed safely past Patterson’s ear, bounced off the back of the cockpit, circled around.
He flew easily for a few moments. Then the fly buzzed to the front again, zigzagging before Patterson’s face, landed on the panel and proceeded to crawl across it. Patterson watched it, squinted. Then he slammed down at it with a quick right hand. Missed.
Ten minutes later, his nerves still on edge, Patterson began the descent. He picked up the radio microphone—”Westchester tower . . . Cessna 2729 uniform . . . three miles northwest . . . land in one-six on final . . .” —and then, after an easy landing, he climbed quickly out of the cockpit and strode toward his wife’s station wagon outside the terminal.
But along the way a small man smoking a cigar turned toward Patterson, waved at him and said, “Say, excuse me, but aren’t you . . . aren’t you . . . Sonny Liston?”
Patterson stopped. He glared at the man, bewildered. He wasn’t sure whether it was a joke or an insult, and he really did not know what to do.
“Aren’t you Sonny Liston?” the man repeated, quite serious.
“No,” Patterson said, quickly passing by the man. “I’m his brother.”
When he reached Mrs. Patterson’s car, he asked, “How much time till school lets out?”
“About fifteen minutes,” she said, starting up the engine. Then she said, “Oh, Floyd, I just should have told Sister, I shouldn’t have. . .”
“You tell Sister; I’ll tell the boys. . . .”
Mrs. Patterson drove as quickly as she could into Scarsdale, with Patterson shaking his head and telling Ted Hanson in the back, “Really can’t understand these school kids. This is a religious school, and they want $20,000 for a glass window—and yet, some of them carry these racial prejudices, and it’s mostly the Jews who are shoulder to shoulder with us, and . . .”
“Oh, Floyd,” cried his wife, “Floyd, I have to get along here . . . you’re not here, you don’t live here, I . . .”
She arrived at the school just as the bell began to ring. It was a modern building at the top of a hill, and on the lawn was the statue of a saint and, behind it, a large white cross. “There’s Jeannie,” said Mrs. Patterson.
“Hurry, call her over here,” Patterson said.
“Jeannie! Come over here, honey.”
The little girl, wearing a blue school uniform and cap, and clasping books in front of her, came running down the path toward the station wagon.
“Jeannie,” Floyd Patterson said, rolling down his window, “point out the boys who lifted your dress.”
Jeannie turned and watched as several students came down the path; then she pointed to a tall, thin, curly-haired boy walking with four other boys, all about 12 to 14 years of age.
“Hey,” Patterson called to him, “can I see you for a minute?”
All five boys came to the side of the car. They looked Patterson directly in the eye. They seemed not at all intimidated by him.
“You the one that’s been lifting up my daughter’s dress?” Patterson asked the boy who had been singled out.
“Nope,” the boy said, casually.
“Nope?” Patterson said, caught off guard by the reply.
“Wasn’t him, Mister,” said another boy. “Probably was his little brother.”
Patterson looked at Jeannie. But she was speechless, uncertain. The five boys remained there, waiting for Patterson to do something.
“Well, er, where’s your little brother?” Patterson asked.
“Hey, kid!” one of the boys yelled. “Come over here.”
A boy walked toward them. He resembled his older brother; he had freckles on his small, upturned nose, had blue eyes, dark curly hair and, as he approached the station wagon, he seemed equally unintimidated by Patterson.
“You been lifting up my daughter’s dress?”
“Nope,” the boy said.
“Nope!” Patterson repeated, frustrated.
“Nope, I wasn’t lifting it. I was just touching it a little . . .”
The other boys stood around the car looking down at Patterson, and other students crowded behind them, and nearby Patterson saw several white parents standing next to their parked cars; he became self-conscious, began to tap nervously with his fingers against the dashboard. He could not raise his voice without creating an unpleasant scene, yet he could not retreat gracefully; so his voice went soft, and he said, finally:
“Look, boy, I want you to stop it. I won’t tell your mother—that might get you in trouble—but don’t do it again, okay?”
The boys calmly turned and walked, in a group, up the street. Sandra Patterson said nothing. Jeannie opened the door, sat in the front seat next to her father, and took out a small blue piece of paper that a nun had given her and handed it across to Mrs. Patterson. But Floyd Patterson snatched it. He read it. Then he paused, put the paper down, and quietly announced, dragging out the words, “She didn’t do her religion. . . .”
Patterson now wanted to get out of Scarsdale. He wanted to return to camp. After stopping at the Patterson home in Scarsdale and picking up Floyd Patterson, Jr., who is three, Mrs. Patterson drove them all back to the airport. Jeannie and Floyd, Jr., were seated in the back of the plane, and then Mrs. Patterson drove the station wagon alone up to camp, planning to return to Scarsdale that evening with the children.
It was 4 P.M. when Floyd Patterson got back to the camp, and the shadows were falling on the clubhouse, and on the tennis court routed by weeds, and on the big white house in front of which not a single automobile was parked. All was deserted and quiet; it was a loser’s camp.
The children ran to play inside the clubhouse; Patterson walked slowly toward his apartment to dress for the workout.
“What could I do with those schoolboys?” he asked. “What can you do to kids of that age?”
It still seemed to bother him—the effrontery of the boys, the realization that he had somehow failed, the probability that, had those same boys heckled someone in Liston’s family, the schoolyard would have been littered with limbs.
While Patterson and Liston both are products of the slum, and while both began as thieves, Patterson had been tamed in a special school with help from a gentle Negro spinster; later he became a Catholic convert, and learned not to hate. Still later he bought a dictionary, adding to his vocabulary such words as “vicissitude” and “enigma.” And when he regained his championship from Johansson, he became the Great Black Hope of the Urban League.
He proved that it is not only possible to rise out of a Negro slum and succeed as a sportsman, but also to develop into an intelligent, sensitive, law-abiding citizen. In proving this, however, and in taking pride in it, Patterson seemed to lose part of himself. He lost part of his hunger, his anger—and as he walked up the steps into his apartment, he was saying, “I became the good guy. . . . After Liston won the title, I kept hoping that he would change into a good guy, too. That would have relieved me of the responsibility, and maybe I could have been more of the bad guy. But he didn’t. . . . It’s okay to be the good guy when you’re winning. But when you’re losing, it is no good being the good guy.”
Patterson took off his shirt and trousers and, moving some books on the bureau to one side, put down his watch, his cuff links and a clip of bills.
“Do you do much reading?” he was asked.
“No,” he said. “In fact, you know I’ve never finished reading a book in my whole life? I don’t know why. I just feel that no writer today has anything for me; I mean, none of them has felt any more deeply than I have, and I have nothing to learn from them. Although Baldwin to me seems different from the rest. What’s Baldwin doing these days?”
“He’s writing a play. Anthony Quinn is supposed to have a part in it.”
“Quinn?” Patterson asked.
“Quinn doesn’t like me.”
“I read or heard it somewhere; Quinn had been quoted as saying that my fight was disgraceful against Liston, and Quinn said something to the effect that he could have done better. People often say that—they could have done better! Well, I think that if they had to fight, they couldn’t even go through the experience of waiting for the fight to begin. They’d be up the whole night before, and would be drinking, or taking drugs. They’d probably get a heart attack. I’m sure that if I was in the ring with Anthony Quinn, I could wear him out without even touching him. I would do nothing but pressure him, I’d stalk him, I’d stand close to him. I wouldn’t touch him, but I’d wear him out and he’d collapse. But Anthony Quinn’s an old man, isn’t he?”
“In his forties.”
“Well, anyway,” Patterson said, “getting back to Baldwin, he seems like a wonderful guy. I’ve seen him on television, and, before the Liston fight in Chicago, he came by my camp. You meet Baldwin on the street and you say, ‘Who’s this poor slob?’—he seems just like another guy; and this is the same impression I give people when they don’t know me. But I think Baldwin and me, we have much in common, and someday I’d just like to sit somewhere for a long time and talk to him. . . .”
Patterson, his trunks and sweat pants on, bent over to tie his shoelaces, and then, from a bureau drawer, took out a T-shirt across which was printed “Deauville.” He has several T-shirts bearing the same name. He takes good care of them. They are souvenirs from the high point of his life. They are from the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach, which is where he trained for the third Ingemar Johansson match in March of 1961.
Never was Floyd Patterson more popular, more admired than during that winter. He had visited President Kennedy; he had been given a $35,000 jeweled crown by his manager; his greatness was conceded by sports writers—and nobody had any idea that Patterson, secretly, was in possession of a false moustache and dark glasses that he intended to wear out of Miami Beach should he lose the third fight to Johansson.
It was after being knocked out by Johansson in their first fight that Patterson, deep in depression, hiding in humiliation for months in a remote Connecticut lodge, decided he could not face the public again if he lost. So he bought false whiskers and a moustache, and planned to wear them out of his dressing room after a defeat. He had also planned, in leaving his dressing room, to linger momentarily within the crowd and perhaps complain out loud about the fight. Then he would slip undiscovered through the night and into a waiting automobile.
Although there proved to be no need for bringing disguise into the second or third Johansson fights, or into a subsequent bout in Toronto against an obscure heavyweight named Tom McNeeley, Patterson brought it anyway; and, after the first Liston fight, he not only wore it during his 30-hour automobile ride from Chicago to New York, but he also wore it while in an airliner bound for Spain.
“As I got onto this plane, you’d never have recognized me,” he said. “I had on this beard, moustache, glasses and hat—and I also limped, to make myself look older. I was alone. I didn’t care what plane I boarded; I just looked up and saw this sign at the terminal reading ‘Madrid,’ and so I got on that flight after buying a ticket.
“When I got to Madrid I registered at a hotel under the name ‘Aaron Watson.’ I stayed in Madrid about four or five days. In the daytime I wandered around to the poorer sections of the city, limping, looking at the people, and the people stared back at me and must have thought I was crazy because I was moving so slow and looked the way I did. I ate food in my hotel room. Although once I went to a restaurant and ordered soup. I hate soup. But I thought it was what old people would order. So I ate it. And after a week of this, I began to actually think I was somebody else. I began to believe it. And it is nice, every once in a while, being somebody else.”
Patterson would not elaborate on how he managed to register under a name that did not correspond to his passport; he merely explained, “With money, you can do anything.”
Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, “You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder, too. And the answer is, I don’t know . . . but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you’re alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word—myself—is because . . . I am a coward. . . .”
He stopped. He stood very still in the middle of the room, thinking about what he had just said, probably wondering whether he should have said it.
“I am a coward,” he then repeated, softly. “My fighting has little to do with that fact, though. I mean you can be a fighter—and a winning fighter—and still be a coward. I was probably a coward on the night I won the championship back from Ingemar. And I remember another night, long ago, back when I was in the amateurs, fighting this big, tremendous man named Julius Griffin. I was only a hundred fifty-three pounds. I was petrified. It was all I could do to cross the ring. And then he came at me, and moved close to me . . . and from then on I don’t know anything. I have no idea what happened. Only thing I know is, I saw him on the floor. And later somebody said, ‘Man, I never saw anything like it. You just jumped up in the air, and threw thirty different punches. . . .’”
“When did you first think you were a coward?” he was asked.
“It was after the first Ingemar fight.”
“How does one see this cowardice you speak of?”
“You see it when a fighter loses. Ingemar, for instance, is not a coward. ‘When he lost the third fight in Miami, he was at a party later at the Fontainebleau. Had I lost, I couldn’t have gone to that party. And I don’t see how he did. . . .”
“Could Liston be a coward?”
“That remains to be seen,” Patterson said. “We’ll find out what he’s like after somebody beats him, how he takes it. It’s easy to do anything in victory. It’s in defeat that a man reveals himself. In defeat I can’t face people. I haven’t the strength to say to people, ‘I did my best, I’m sorry, and what not.’”
“Have you no hate left?”
“I have hated only one fighter,” Patterson said. “And that was Ingemar in the second fight. I had been hating him for a whole year before that—not because he beat me in the first fight, but because of what he did after. It was all that boasting in public, and his showing off his right-hand punch on television, his thundering right, his ‘toonder and lightning.’ And I’d be home watching him on television, and hating him. It is a miserable feeling, hate. When a man hates, he can’t have any peace of mind. And for one solid year I hated him because, after he took everything away from me, deprived me of everything I was, he rubbed it in. On the night of the second fight, in the dressing room, I couldn’t wait until I got into the ring. When he was a little late getting into the ring, I thought, He’s holding me up; he’s trying to unsettle me—well, I’ll get him!”
“Why couldn’t you hate Liston in the second match?”
Patterson thought for a moment, then said, “Look, if Sonny Liston walked into this room now and slapped me in the face, then you’d see a fight. You’d see the fight of our life because, then, a principle would be involved. I’d forget he was a human being. I’d forget I was a human being. And I’d fight accordingly.”
“Could it be, Floyd, that you made a mistake in becoming a prizefighter?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you say you’re a coward; you say you have little capacity for hate; and you seemed to lose your nerve against those schoolboys in Scarsdale this afternoon. Don’t you think you might have been better suited for some other kind of work? Perhaps a social worker, or . . .”
“Are you asking why I continue to fight?”
“Well,” he said, not irritated by the question, “first of all, I love boxing. Boxing has been good to me. And I might just as well ask you the question: ‘Why do you write?’ Or, ‘Do you retire from writing every time you write a bad story?’ And as to whether I should have become a fighter in the first place, well, let’s see how I can explain it. . . . Look, let’s say you’re a man who has been in an empty room for days and days without food . . . and then they take you out of that room and put you into another room where there’s food hanging all over the place . . . and the first thing you reach for, you eat. When you’re hungry, you’re not choosy, and so I chose the thing that was closest to me. That was boxing. One day I just wandered into a gymnasium and boxed a boy. And I beat him. Then I boxed another boy. I beat him, too. Then I kept boxing. And winning. And I said, ‘Here, finally, is something I can do!’
“Now I wasn’t a sadist,” he quickly added. “But I liked beating people because it was the only thing I could do. And whether boxing was a sport or not, I wanted to make it a sport because it was a thing I could succeed at. And what were the requirements? Sacrifice. That’s all. To anybody who comes from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, sacrifice comes easy. And so I kept fighting, and one day I became heavyweight champion, and I got to know people like you. And you wonder how I can sacrifice, how I can deprive myself so much? You just don’t realize where I’ve come from. You don’t understand where I was when it began for me.
“In those days, when I was about eight years old, everything I got—I stole. I stole to survive, and I did survive, but I seemed to hate myself. My mother told me I used to point to a photograph of myself hanging in the bedroom and say, ‘I don’t like that boy!’ One day my mother found three large X’s scratched with a nail or something over that photograph of me. I don’t remember doing it. But I do remember feeling like a parasite at home. I remember how awful I used to feel at night when my father, a longshoreman, would come home so tired that, as my mother fixed food before him, he would fall asleep at the table because he was that tired. I would always take his shoes off and clean his feet. That was my job. And I felt so bad because here I was, not going to school, doing nothing, just watching my father come home; and on Friday nights it was even worse. He would come home with his pay, and he’d put every nickel of It on the table so my mother could buy food for all the children. I never wanted to be around to see that. I’d run and hide. And then I decided to leave home and start stealing—and I did. And I would never come home unless I brought something that I had stolen. Once I remember I broke into a dress store and stole a whole mound of dresses, at two A.M., and here I was, this little kid, carrying all those dresses over the wall, thinking they were all the same size, my mother’s size, and thinking the cops would never notice me walking down the street with all those dresses piled over my head. They did, of course. . . . I went to the Youth House. . . .”
Floyd Patterson’s children, who had been playing outside all this time around the country club, now became restless and began to call him, and Jeannie started to pound on his door. So Patterson picked up his leather bag, which contained his gloves, his mouthpiece and adhesive tape, and walked with the children across the path toward the clubhouse.
He flicked on the light switches behind the stage near the piano. Beams of amber streaked through the dimly lit room and flashed onto the ring. He took off his robe, shuffled his feet in the rosin, skipped rope, and then began to shadowbox in front of the spit-stained mirror, throwing out quick combinations of lefts, rights, lefts, rights, each jab followed by a “hegh-hegh-hegh-hegh.” Then, his gloves on, he moved to the punching bag in the far corner, and soon the room reverberated to his rhythmic beat against the bobbling bag—rat-tat-tat-tetteta, rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tat-tetteta-rat-tat-tetteta!
The children, sitting on pink leather chairs, moved from the bar to the fringe of the ring, watched him in awe, sometimes flinching at the force of his pounding against the leather bag.
And this is how they would probably remember him years from now: a dark, solitary, glistening figure punching in the corner of a forlorn spot at the bottom of a mountain where people once came to have fun—until the clubhouse because unfashionable, the paint began to peel, and Negroes were allowed in.
As Floyd Patterson continued to bang away with lefts and rights, his gloves a brown blur against the bag, his daughter slipped quietly off her chair and wandered past the ring into the other room. There, on the other side of the bar and beyond a dozen round tables, was the stage. She climbed onto the stage and stood behind a microphone, long dead, and cried out, imitating a ring announcer, “Ladieeees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .”
She looked around, puzzled. Then, seeing that her little brother had followed her, she waved him up to the stage and began again: “Ladiees and gentlemen . . . tonight we present . . .Floydie Patterson. . . .”
Suddenly, the pounding against the bag in the other room stopped. There was silence for a moment. Then Jeannie, still behind the microphone and looking down at her brother, said, “Floydie, come up here!”
“No,” he said.
“Oh, come up here!”
“No,” he cried.
Then Floyd Patterson’s voice, from the other room, called: “Cut it out . . . I’ll take you both for a walk in a minute.”
He resumed punching—rat-tat-tat-tetteta—and they returned to his side. But Jeannie interrupted, asking, “Daddy, how come you sweating?”
“Water fell on me,” he said, still pounding.
“Daddy,” asked Floyd, Jr., “how come you spit water on the floor before?”
“To get it out of my mouth.”
He was about to move over to the heavier punching bag when the sound of Mrs. Patterson’s station wagon could be heard moving up the road.
Soon she was in Patterson’s apartment cleaning up a bit, patting the pillows, washing the teacups that had been left in the sink. One hour later the family was having dinner together. They were together for two mere hours; then, at 10 P.M., Mrs. Patterson washed and dried all of the dishes, and put the garbage out in the can—where it would remain until the raccoons and skunks got to it.
And then, after helping the children with their coats and walking out to the station wagon and kissing her husband good-bye, Mrs. Patterson began the drive down the dirt road toward the highway. Patterson waved once, and stood for a moment watching the taillights go, and then he turned and walked slowly back toward the house.
A treat from Mark Jacobson. Originally published in Esquire in 1984 and anthologized in Teenage Hipster in the Modern World, a stellar collection of Jacobson’s non-fiction. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Michael Jordan is certainly the greatest basketball player of all time, but Julius Erving, the incomparable Doctor J, is my all-time favorite. No one ever gave me as much pleasure watching any kind of game. Since his retirement, Julius has been the subject of a number of distressing headlines, exactly the sort of stuff he sought to avoid during his career. He acknowledged the tennis player Alexandria Stevenson to be his out-of-wedlock daughter. Later, his son Cory drove his car into a lake in Florida and drowned. These are unfortunate, sad events, but even more so when connected to someone like Julius, who was once so effortlessly perfect. I’ve written numerous articles on sports figures, most of them basketball players, but Julius remains my number one. The fact that he used to pick me up at the Philadelphia train station in his Maserati, nearly unthinkable for a current-day player, is still one of highlights of my career. From Esquire, 1984.
I went for a ride through downtown Philadelphia with Julius Erving in his Maserati the other day, and with each passing block it became more apparent: Julius cannot drive very well. It wasn’t a question of reckless speed or ignored signals. Rather, he seemed unsure, tentative. His huge, famous hands clutched the steering wheel a bit too tightly, his large head craned uncomfortably toward the slope of the windshield. He accelerated with a lurch; there was no smooth rush of power. Obvious openings in the flow of traffic went unseen or untried. All in all, it reflected a total absence of feel.
This struck me as amusing—Julius Erving, the fabulous Doctor of the court, driving a Maserati with an automatic transmission.
Just an hour before, I’d compared the act of seeing Julius play basketball to Saint Francis watching birds in flight. It was my Ultimate Compliment. When a reporter with pretensions meets an Official Legend, especially a Sports Legend, it is mandatory to concoct the Ultimate Compliment, something beyond a plebeian “gee whiz.” Something along the lines of the august Mailer’s referring to Ali as a Prince of Heaven, whose very gaze caused men to look down. Or, perhaps, Liebling’s mentioning that Sugar Ray Robinson had “slumberland in either hand.” Saint Francis was what I’d come up with.
Viewing Doctor J move to the hoop inspired what I imagined to be an awe similar to what Saint Francis felt sitting in a field with the sparrows buzzing overhead, I told Julius. It was as if a curtain had been parted, affording a peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary, a marvelous communication that ennobled both the watcher and the watched equally. What wonders there are in the Kingdom of God! How glorious they are to behold!
“What you do affirms the supremacy of all beings,” I told Julius as we sat in the offices of the Erving Group, a holding company designed to spread around the wads of capital Julius has accumulated during his career as Doctor J. Large gold-leaf plaques calling Julius things like TASTEE CAKE PLAYER OF THE YEAR dot the walls. “Seeing you play basketball has enriched my life,” I finished.
“Thanks, thanks a lot,” Julius said politely. Then again, Julius is always polite. It was obvious, my Ultimate Compliment clearly did not knock his socks off. It was as if he were saying, “Funny thing, you’re the third guy who’s told me that today.”
Every serious hoop fan remembers the first time he saw Julius Erving play basketball. My grandfather, a great New York Giants baseball fan, probably had the same feeling the first time he ever saw Willie Mays go back on a fly ball. There was Julius, mad-haired and scowl-faced, doing what everyone else did, rebounding, scoring, passing, but doing it with the accents shifted from the accepted but now totally humdrum position to a new, infinitely more thrilling somewhere else. Who was this man with two Jewish names who came from parts unknown with powers far greater than the mortal Trailblazer?
Flat out, there was nothing like him. No one had ever taken off from the foul line as if on a dare, cradled the ball above his head, and not come down until he crashed it through the hoop. Not like that, anyway. Julius acknowledges a debt to Elgin Baylor, whom he calls “the biggest gazelle, the first of the gliders,” but, to the stunned observer, the Doctor seemed to arrive from outside the boundaries of the game itself. His body, streamlined like none before him, festooned by arms longer and hands bigger, soared with an athletic ferocity matched only by the mystical, unprecedented catapult of Bob Beamon down the Mexico City runway, or by the screaming flight of Bruce Lee.
Has any other individual in team sports radically altered the idea of how his particular game should be played to the degree Julius has? Jackie Robinson? Babe Ruth? Jim Brown? A more instructive comparison would be someone like Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was impeccable, the nonpareil. He was simply better. Yet there is something hermetic about Joe DiMaggio. He did what everyone else did, but with incomparable excellence. Joe’s exemplariness is to be admired, but it doesn’t offer a whole program of reform. His greatness is a dead end, specific to Joe and Joe alone. Julius, on the other hand, may not have invented the slam dunk, the finger roll, or the hanging rebound—the entire airborne game in general. But he certainly popularized it, and by doing so he announced that others could follow in his footsteps, even surpass him. Seeing Julius fly to the hoop spread the news: it can be done, so do it. Nine years ago Julius appeared alone in his ability to go pyrotechnic at any time. This past year, however, lined up against a gaggle of his poetic offspring, “human highlight film” youngbloods like Dominique Wilkins and Larry Nance, Julius was content to make his final attempt a running foul-line takeoff: the “classical” dunk, a bit of archaeology demonstrated by the father of the form.
Befitting the matter-of-factness of a legend discussing his craft, Julius is not falsely modest about his contributions to the game. In the clinical fashion he employs when delineating the x’sand o’s of his profession, he says, “I’d say I’ve had an effect in three main areas. First, I have taken a smaller man’s game, ball-handling, passing, and the like, and brought it to the front court. Second, I’ve taken the big man’s game, rebounding, shot-blocking, and been able to execute that even though I’m only six-foot-six. What I’ve tried to do is merge those two types of games, which were considered to be separate—for instance, Bill Russell does the rebounding, Cousy handles the ball—and combine them into the same player. This has more or less changed the definition of what’s called the small forward position, and it creates a lot more flexibility for the individual player, and, of course, creates a lot more opportunities for the whole team. The third thing I’ve tried to do, and this is the most important thing, is to make this kind of basketball a winning kind of basketball, taking into account a degree of showmanship that gets people excited. My overall goal is to give people the feeling they are being entertained by an artist—and to win.”
Then Julius laughs and says, “You know, the playground game … refined.”
In Roosevelt, New York, the lower-middle-class, largely black Long Island community where he grew up, there is a playground with a sign that says THIS IS WHERE JULIUS ERVING LEARNED THE GAME OF BASKETBALL. Herein lies Julius’s triumph. He successfully transmuted the black playground game and brought that cutthroat urban staple to its most sumptuous fruition. He, once and for all, no turning back, blackified pro basketball.
He did it by forcing the comparatively staid, grind-it-out, coach-dominated NBA to merge with the old ABA, a semi-outlaw league that played the run-till-you-drop “black” playground game with a garish red, white, and blue ball. Julius was in the ABA, and the older, more established NBA could not allow a phenomenon like Doctor J to exist outside its borders. Most observers feel the NBA absorbed the whole funky ABA, with its three-point shots and idiotic mascots, just to get Julius. Once they did, the entire product of pro basketball was refocused. Surprise! The ABA, comprising many performers from Podunk Junior College and some who never went to any college, had a lot more than Julius Erving. Many players long scorned by the NBA brass became stars, the incandescent “Ice,” George Gervin, and Moses Malone among them. And there was a lot more running. Before the merger there was only one consistent fast-break team in the NBA, the Celtics. Now, with the ABA people around, it seemed as if the whole league was running, playing the playground game, Julius’s game.
This is not to say Larry Bird isn’t great, no matter where the game is, on the back lawn of Buckingham Palace or up in Harlem, but blackification was inevitable. No one will really deny that the majority of black players jump higher and run faster than the majority of white players, and that’s what pro ball, as it’s currently constituted, is all about—running and jumping with finesse.
Many people have wondered if all this running is such a good thing. Since the merger and the takeover by the “black” game, the pro sport has suffered reversals. Attendance is uneven and TV ratings are down; rumors of widespread social evils among the players abound. It is difficult to have any in-depth conversation about the status of the league without coming up against the Problem. A league official says, “It’s race, pure and simple. No major sport comes up against it the way we do. It’s just difficult to get a lot of people to watch huge, intelligent, millionaire black people on television.”
When presented with the notion that by elevating his art he may have served to narrow its appeal, Julius says, “It’s unfortunate, but what can be done about what is?” Well, at least the onset of the playground game has exploded several pernicious myths. If there is one thing Julius and his followers (Magic Johnson comes to mind) have proved without a doubt, it’s that just because you play “flashy” doesn’t mean you’re not a team player. No longer is it assumed that the spectacular is really, at its root, just mindless showboating easily thwarted, in the crunch times, by the cunning of a small man chewing a cigar on the coaching lines. Julius’s teams have always won.
For the hoop fan, though, likely the most treasured item concerning Julius Erving remains in that first cataclysmic moment of discovery, that first peek into the Realm of the Extraordinary. This has to do with the nature of the fan, the hoop fan in particular. All team sports have their cognoscenti, gamblers poring over the injury lists, nine-year-old boys with batting averages memorized, but somehow the variety of fan attracted to pro basketball is in a slightly more obsessive class, sweatier, seedier perhaps, but absolutely committed. This type of hoop fan I’m talking about isn’t much different from the jazz buffs of the 1940s and 1950s, white people digging on an essentially black world.
How Julius, the Official Legend, comes into this is that he approached the beady consciousness as Rumor. He was a secret. He wasn’t a well-publicized high school star like Kareem; he went to the University of Massachusetts (a school with no basketball reputation) and then played two years at one of the ABA’s most remote outposts, the Virginia Squires. There was no hoopla surrounding him, no Brent Musburger hyping the size of his smile. The Doctor was something for the grapevine.
It cuts both ways. Probably, by somehow staying out of the limelight (that was easier in 1970) and by choosing not to go to a “big program” school where a crusty Adolph Rupp might have made it a principle to correct all that boy’s strange habits, Julius was left alone to create his wholly new thing. And by virtue of this anonymity, the hoop fan was able to come upon Julius as a wondrous found object.
Magic Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard—no one is knocking their talents, but they arrived on the scene tied in a bow, sold to anyone within eyeshot of a TV. They will always carry that stigma. Julius, however, remains eternally cool. You had to work to see Julius, seek him out. There wasn’t any cable; maybe you could catch him on an independent station that had been hustled into picking up one of the numerous ABA All-Star games. Even after he came from the Squires to the Nets, then the ABA New York entry, the hoop fan had to ply the forlorn parkways to the Nassau Coliseum to sit with four thousand dour faces expressing regret that they weren’t viewing a hockey game. You had to go out of your way to see Julius. But it was worth it. When you saw that Rumor was Fact, and a far more remarkable Fact than imagined, then you felt like you had your little bond with Julius, that he was in your heart.
That Julius has maintained the quality of play this long is gravy. How do you measure the benefit one gets from seeing beautiful things happen? Sometimes I find myself idly replaying some of Julius’s more astounding moves inside my head. The one against the Lakers in the championship a few years back, the one where he goes behind the backboard and comes around for the reverse layup? Ones like that bring tears to my eyes. Really.
Of course, it can’t last. Last season Julius’s club, the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he’s played since the league merger in 1976, were mangled by the bedraggled New Jersey Nets, transplanted to the Garden State from Uniondale, New York. It was an upset. The year before the Sixers won the title in a near walkover. Of the thirteen games they played in the championship rounds, they won twelve. The Sixers didn’t come close to repeating. Julius did not have a particularly good series. There were several reasons. For one, it had been a grueling season for the Doc. Numerous Sixer injuries forced him to play many more minutes than he might have wanted to at his age. He responded with perhaps his best year in the past three and had his backers for league MVP. By the playoffs, however, he was weary, worn out. In the last moments of the deciding game he made repeated turnovers and missed key shots. Had a b-ball cognoscenti arrived from Mars right then, dumb to the history of the past fifteen years, he could have watched Julius’s play and pronounced it “ordinary.”
So it goes. Athletes get old, and soon they’re too old to play. In the variety of pro basketball Julius helped create, it happens even quicker. There is no DH in the NBA, and right now Julius, at thirty-four, is among the fifteen oldest guys in the league. If he stays another couple of seasons, as he hints he might, he could be the oldest. His Afro, once wild as a Rorschach blot and seemingly a foot high, is now demurely trimmed and flecked with gray. So it goes: a million dudes with the hot hand down in the schoolyard waiting for the Doctor to roll over so they can get their shot. No tears over that. But it’s this driving that’s upsetting, the way Julius is driving this Maserati with the automatic transmission. It’s all so ordinary, how Julius is driving.
“Don’t ask me any questions or I’ll miss my turn,” Julius says, smiling, as if to comment on his competence.
Then he makes this flabby, too-wide turn off Broad Street. What a deal: soon enough Julius is going to retire from basketball, but likely he’ll be driving that Maserati with the automatic transmission for years to come.
“As it came it can go, as it came it most definitely will go,” he says cheerfully, unaffected by his companion’s gloom. “It won’t really be that big a change for me,” Julius says. “I’ve always thought of myself as a very ordinary guy.”
This is a little tough to swallow, the Doctor an ordinary guy. This is not to say Julius Erving is not a regular guy. Sports-page “class”—Julius is the embodiment of it. Probably no athlete still playing has signed more autographs. His marathon sessions are spoken of with awe. Talking about it, Julius gives a look that asks, “Weren’t you ever a kid?” and says, “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Should I accommodate today, or go straight ahead?’ and I usually find myself accommodating.” There is a limit, however. Walking through the icebound streets of Milwaukee, a fat guy accosted Julius, screaming, “Doc! Doc! Where’s the other shoe?” Julius frowned. “I gave that guy one of my sneakers three years ago,” he says, “and now, every time we go there, he asks for the other one. Some people are never satisfied.”
As far as hoop reporters are concerned, Julius is the best. “There is no second place,” says a Philly writer. This means that when deadlines are approaching and sweat is popping out on foreheads, Julius can be counted on to produce the proper verbiage, a smooth rap that, without much time-consuming translation, can be plugged into hastily written stories as “game quotes.” It is something Julius works on, like any part of what he calls “my basketball function.” He knows what reporters need and tries to give it to them.
“A courtesy,” Julius says. Ask the right questions (nothing controversial, if you please!) and Julius will, in a voice that makes Frankie Crocker sound shrill, calmly assess the team’s mood for you. He’ll also say that Denver’s Calvin Natt is among the toughest for him to score against, and that it is difficult to play Dallas’s Mark Aguirre because “his butt is so big you can’t get close to him,” and that George Gervin is his favorite player, and that the Knicks’ Bernard King, considered by many the best forward in the league, “will never get up to the level of the real all-timers like, say, Kareem, or myself, because he looks like he’s working too hard. When you reach a level of greatness, there’s a certain added element that goes into making it look easy.”
Mainly, Julius keeps a low profile. He will often make inquiries about jazz—more out of educational desire than passion, for he prefers fusion. You could call him elegantly laid-back, stylish, though certainly you’d never confuse him with Walt Frazier. He is always the clean-living family man and, while sharp, displays little outward flash. He leaves the five-pound jewelry to the Darryl Dawkinses of the world, although he appears to cop no attitude toward the more flamboyant displays, sartorial or otherwise, of his fellows. He has, after all, been around, and not much raises the Doctor’s eyebrow.
In Milwaukee, however, one John Matuszak, late of the Oakland Raiders football team and the movie North Dallas Forty, came close. The Tooz, as he has been known to call himself, appeared unannounced in the Sixers’ locker room, and he was calling some attention to himself. Even in a world of large men, the Tooz stands out. He goes six-foot-eight, about three hundred pounds. In addition, he sports a mug that resembles the sort of hood ornament Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might have mounted on his ’55 DeSoto to ward off unfriendly spirits. This is not to mention his dress on this particular night, which included a black silk coat, tuxedo pants, patent leather shoes, and a white satin tie over a leopard skin print shirt. He was also affecting a manner that would put him right up there for the Bluto part, should a remake of Animal Housebe made anytime soon.
It was the Tooz’s sworn purpose to have both Julius and Moses Malone, the Sixers’ famously intimidating center, join him at one of Milwaukee’s more stylish wateringholes.
First he invited Moses. “Gonna win this year, Moses?” was Tooz’s opener. Moses, no midget himself, was sitting on a stool stark naked. “Yeah, we’re gonna win, ” said Moses, laying on his usual Sonny Liston-style bale.
Then, like a shot, the Tooz was down on one knee. He clasped his palms together and drove them like a hammer into Moses’ thigh. “Don’t say we’re gonna win. Say we gotta win, Moses!!” the Tooz shouted, startling the few stragglers in the locker room. “Come on, Moses,” the Tooz continued, “repeat after me: WE GOTTA WIN!” And, to the amazement of onlookers, Moses, who had not uttered a word in public since telling Philly reporters, “I’ll be making no further comment for the rest of the season,” repeated this after the Tooz. Moses, however, steadfastly refused to have a drink with the former lineman.
Thwarted, the Tooz went looking for Julius, who was in the midst of taking a shower. Unmindful of the water splashing everywhere, the Tooz confided to Julius how much he loved him. “I love you, Doctor!” the Tooz bellowed. Then he said, “Come on, Doctor. The Doctor and the Tooz must have a drink together. I got some friends, it’ll be a party!”
Julius, never rude, thanked the Tooz for his offer but expressed his regrets, citing a 5 a.m. wake-up call the next morning.
“If you’re worried about people hassling you, forget about it,” the Tooz said with understanding. “No one will mess with you if you’re with the Tooz!”
The football player had now stepped over the edge of the shower, his long hair dripping down over his drenched suit.
Backing into the stall, Julius, seemingly unrattled, said. “You’re getting wet, you know that?”
“A drink, that’s all I’m asking,” Tooz repeated, reaching out to wrap his arms around the Doctor. “People love you, man,” the Tooz said with sincerity, “people live to see you do your thing.” Then, clearly disappointed, the Tooz left.
Several moments of silence ensued, during which Julius began to dress and Moses picked tape off his leg. Then Moses looked at Julius sleepily and said, “See those shoes?”
“What about the tie?” Julius said back.
Later Julius smiled and said, sure, it seemed like the Tooz was something of a boor, but you really had to get to know him better before you could say that unequivocally. After all, The Doc is not what you would call judgmental.
Teammates speak of him with healthy degrees of awe and camaraderie. Marc Iavaroni, a marginal forward cut by a couple of lesser NBA clubs before catching on as a “role player” in the Sixers’ system, says, “Playing with the Doc? Don’t pinch me, please. He looks for me. On and off the court. Can you imagine that! Doctor J looking to pass off to Marc Iavaroni? Know how that makes me feel?”
Nearly everyone close enough to Julius to have personal dealings speaks of some small kindness, a birthday remembered, an appreciated pep talk, a good laugh. League officials, always aware of the “image problem” of the sport, tell you how many young players Julius has done right by, how his example is primarily responsible for the “rehabilitation” of Chicago’s troubled Quintin Dailey. Julius’s community awards appear endless. Last year he got the Father Flanagan Award for Service to Youth at Boys Town; previous recipients include Mother Teresa, Danny Thomas, and Spencer Tracy’s wife. The list of charities supported, youth groups spoken to (he read Peter and the Wolf at a special children’s show of the Youth Orchestra of Greater Philadelphia), and hospital wards visited goes on and on.
“All part of my ‘nice-guy image,”‘ Julius says with a wink. He is aware that all these good vibes add up under the economic heading of “Doctor J”: is proud that the Q ratings of his numerous commercial endorsements show him rating higher in “believability” than in “popularity.” “But really,” he says, “I just try to be decent. I try to do the decent thing in the circumstances. Right now I happen to be a well-known professional athlete, so I attempt to be decent within that context. Being nice is pretty normal, I think. If someone was drowning in the river, you’d assume most people would throw them a life preserver. You’d figure most people would do that, under those circumstances. That would be the normal thing to do. That’s what I like to believe I’d do, being a normal person.”
This led to Julius’s further insistence that, really, he was a very ordinary guy. An ordinary guy dealing with extraordinary circumstances, perhaps, but ordinary nevertheless.
“I’ve never felt particularly unique,” Julius says. “Even within the context of basketball, I honestly never imagined myself as anything special. I remember, back home, when I first started playing. At nine, ten, I had a two-hand shot. Then by twelve and a half, thirteen, I got a one-hand shot. Always went to the basket, that pattern was set by then. Actually, I don’t think I’ve changed much as a player since then. Back then, before I was physically able, I felt these different things within me, certain moves, ways to dunk. It sounds strange, being five feet tall, thinking about dunking in a clinical way, but that’s how I was. I realized all I had to do was be patient and they would come. So I wasn’t surprised when they did, they were part of me for so long. But I didn’t find anything particularly special about it. I assumed everyone could do these things if they tried.”
Julius claims the idea of being a professional basketball player didn’t occur to him until he was among the country’s leaders in both scoring and rebounding at UMass. He wanted to be a doctor. That’s the source of his unbeatable nickname. In grammar school when the kids got up to say what they wanted to be when they grew up, Julius said, “A doctor.” “Doctor!” the kids shouted, and it stuck. Later, when playing in the Rucker League, the deejay types “announcing” games were calling him the Claw, a moniker based on his large hands. Julius, always sharp to the distasteful, objected and, when asked for a substitute, said, “Oh, why don’t you just call me Doctor.” Doctors, after all, Julius felt, were white-haired men with soothing voices, who surrounded themselves with a great air of dignity. They also made a lot of money. These were Julius’s two main concerns at the time. His father had left his mother and brother early on and wound up being run down by a car when Julius was eleven.
“I never really had a father,” Julius says, “but then the possibility that I ever would was removed.”
After that, security, financial and otherwise, became obsessional with Julius. Even today, with a contract that pays him more than a million each year and other lucrative interests (he refers to basketball as “my main business application”), Julius is notoriously parsimonious. Do not expect him to pick up the check. It was this desire for himself and his family (there are four children now, three boys and a girl, living in a mansion on 2.8 acres on the Main Line) that made Julius think of playing ball for money.
“That’s when I started hearing all these people talking about how different I was supposed to be,” Julius recounts. “When a hundred people, then a thousand people tell you you’re different, you just say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m different. … Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. I liked what it got me. I was a young player, I was doing what came easy to me, I was having a good time, so I accepted it as a fact of life.” It was only during the stresses caused by his leaving the Nets (in a protracted contract battle), the subsequent league merger, and his arrival in Philadelphia to less than knock-out notices when Julius began to ponder, “Why am I different? Why, with all these great players all around, guys who play as hard as I do, guys who want to win as badly as I do, why am I Doctor J?”
Quite a picture: the angst-ridden superstar, his piston legs rocketing from the pinewood floor into the glare of the houselights, his seemingly inexorable gaze transfixed on the orange ring, yet, in reality, his leap goes nowhere, for he is lost.
That’s the way Julius paints it. During his first years in Philly it became commonplace to downrate the Doc. In the ABA he’d scored 28.7 points a game and nabbed nearly a thousand rebounds each season; now he was getting 21, 22, and his ‘bounds were way down. Some nodded and said it was true what they said about the old league; it was a circus, after all. In 1978 an unnamed coach was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “[Julius] has been on vacation for three years.”
For his part, Julius complained that his knees were killing him (he has had a tendinitis condition for some time) and that he’d purposely hidden away much of the spectacular side of the Doctor, so as to better mesh with then-teammate George McGinnis, another ABA scorer not noted for his passing skills. Yet, it wasn’t fun. None of it. He let it slip that more than likely he’d be retiring when his contract ran out in 1982. Now, though, Julius says his main problem was a spiritual, not a physical, one. “I felt totally hollow,” he says. “It was eating at me. I started off asking, ‘Who is Doctor J? How did I get to be him? What does being Doctor J mean?’ … then it came down to asking, ‘Who, really, am I?’ I became very frightened when I began to sense that I really had no idea.”
One can imagine the terror Julius felt. He seems a very methodical person, someone who likes everything in its place, not one to rush into things. Perhaps due to his longtime regimen as an athlete, where every day the practice is set for a certain amount of time and the bus leaves at such-and-such o’clock, he is given to compartmentalizing his life and talking of it in terms of small, constantly repeated activities. “I admit to liking the feel of things being in context,” Julius says, “the sense of the familiar waters.” This extends even to the court. Julius contends, “Out of one hundred moves I make in a game, I’ve made ninety-nine before, at one time or another. Sure, that one new one gives me a hit, but actually I get as much or more out of doing the other ninety-nine, because when I do something I’ve done before it means that I’ve compiled this information in my mind and selected the right action for the proper situation. That gives me a lot of pleasure.
“Back then, though,” Julius adds, “I felt completely alone at times. Often, after a game and a late dinner, in one of those cities, I’d be sitting up, three o’clock, four o’clock, after eating a big steak, just watching that TV, with all the phones turned off. I never felt like that before.
“It was finding my faith that pulled me through,” Julius says, leaning back from the desk in his Philadelphia office. In front of him is a rectangular paperweight you’d figure would be made of copper or brass and say, in embossed letters, something like JULIUS WINFIELD ERVING JR., PRESIDENT. But it is wooden and appears to have been made in a junior high school shop class. It says JESUS.
Julius’s conversion occurred during the summer of 1978, at a family get-together in South Carolina. The previous season had been his worst yet. Julius had played poorly, and he was suffering from numerous injuries. The flak was getting intense. “I was feeling a little sorry for myself,” Julius says, “but when I got down there and saw all those people, people I didn’t know, some of whom I didn’t even know existed, yet people who were connected to me in some way, it was really something. Because I was well known, everyone sort of used me as a lightning rod, a common denominator. They used me to get closer to each other. And I felt all that love passing through me. It was a very strange and wonderful feeling.”
At the meeting Julius encountered an uncle of his, Alfonso, a preacher. He told Julius about a blessing that had been laid on the family that, Alfonso said, was now being manifested through Julius. “After that,” Julius says, “things fell into place for me.”
When the subject of Julius-as-Christian comes up, a good portion of the cognoscenti express surprise (it is not well known) and then shake their heads. However, to the reporter with pretensions, it seemed a great boon, a fabulous opportunity. This isn’t to say Julius won’t go Jaycee on you at any moment; no doubt his “Dare to Be Great” speech ranks with the best. He is also given to saying things like “Did I want to open the doors to essential knowledge or did I want to remain on the merry-go-round of nondiscovery?” Primarily, though, here was an intelligent, observant man, who by the vehicle of a mysterious “blessing” had been thrust into the Realm of the Extraordinary. The hope was that he would have the presence of mind to keep his eyes and ears open while in this marvelous land, and that hope was rewarded. I mean, you could enter into a metaphysical dialogue with this man!
On a Milwaukee street we mulled over the notion of the Divine Call. On a bus in Detroit we beat around the dichotomy of true Needs and venal Wants. In a Madison Square Garden locker room we pierced the outskirts of the Spirit of Giving. But it wasn’t until our discussion in his office, during a laborious spiel of mine concerning the duty of the seeker to examine the varieties of religious experience, that Julius began to get pissed.
“I just can’t agree,” he said, “because even if you do manage to synthesize all these systems, what good is it going to do you? Even if you’re the smartest man on earth, even if you’re Albert Einstein, you’ll still only have a thimbleful of all the knowledge in the world. Where does that lead you? Digging and grinding on this unbelievable quest? Is there happiness in that? So it comes down to making concessions … down to knowing you’re not the wisest or the smartest, not the ultimate of anything, but knowing too that you have this powerful need to grasp something meaningful, something purposeful … you want a way, a way that makes sense for you, that you can embrace.”
It was clear what Julius was getting at. After all, he is a black guy in America, the son of a very religious church lady mother. He reached out to what was available to him, and it worked. He found himself capable of faith. But really, was there any other solution for the intelligent, humble man with the nice-guy image? Doctor J has not simply been a great player, he has been the epitome of a player, God’s own fantasy of a player. If Julius meant to “deal with logic, infused by faith,” as he says is his bent, was there any other conclusion but to accept the notion of the involved, controlling presence of a Higher Power? There seemed a profound sanity in Julius’s belief, and the reporter with pretension found it very satisfying.
Julius says he has no fear of life A.B. (After Basketball). “The thing that frightens me is what I heard about spiritual casualties. A spiritual casualty is someone … say a well-known athlete who takes a spiritual stand, and then the focus shifts from looking at that person as an athlete to something else. Suddenly there are all these people who want to put this athlete in the forefront because they assume he can be as significant spiritually as he was athletically. Then this famous athlete uses this forum to talk about what he feels about this new field he’s entered … and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about … like, say, someone might say, ‘Kareem, he’s a superstar ballplayer, so he should be a superstar Muslim.’ A spiritual casualty is someone who falls for that.”
Julius shivers at the mention of Eldridge Cleaver, who did much to make a mockery of himself in his post-Panther days, showing up on The Hour of Power one minute and modeling codpiece trousers the next. Julius is well aware of what went into the creation and maintenance of Doctor J, and he will do almost anything to keep that image from being defiled. “The last thing I want to be perceived as is a flake,” he says warily.
Some suggest that Julius might be a little less cautious. There have been intimations that by stressing his “Christian umbrella,” Julius has demonstrated a degree of naïveté concerning day-to-day life in lower-rent districts. This talk became increasingly intense after Julius’s no-profile stance in the recent Philly mayoral election, which pitted liberal black W. Wilson Goode against neo-Neanderthal Frank Rizzo. Hearing this, Julius gets as close as he does to bristling. “I’m very sensitive to this type of criticism,” he says, “but I’m not going to be pressured by it. My track record in the black community speaks for itself. You know, I’m not blind, I understand how things are. I remember what it was like growing up, and when we go to Boston and Chicago, there’s racism there. We hear what people shout, you know. I understand the danger of getting so far from a situation that you fool yourself and say it doesn’t exist, or get the illusion that because you’re a well-known ballplayer it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not living in a dream world, but I’ll tell you I’d be a fool not to use the advantages I’ve earned through playing in behalf of my family. But I’m not going to invite a potentially hostile situation into my life, into the lives of my wife and children, for just anyone’s idea of solidarity. If I can afford an extra layer of protection, I will exercise it.
“I’ve never been a political person. I’ve never backed a political candidate in my life. When I was with the Nets, a picture came out of me in the newspaper with a local candidate. It was just some function for the team, but this guy was there and he was running for some office, and then all these people were asking me why I was supporting the Republican candidate. I don’t want that to happen again. It would threaten my livelihood. If I backed the Democratic candidate, I’d run the risk of alienating half my public, and the other way around.
“But mostly it comes down to: I’ve played basketball for twenty-five years, almost every situation that can come up has come up. Therefore I’m qualified to sit here and talk to you about basketball. I don’t have those sort of memory cells concerning other areas.”
So, Julius says, he will enter the realm of the ordinary as a businessman. “An entrepreneur,” he says, professing to have always had “a deep yearning” to be such a person. Typically enough, most of his investments have reflected a stolid, blue-chippy side. He is a large stockholder in the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. He makes earnest use of the products he endorses, which have included Coke, Converse, Spalding, and Chap Stick.
Don’t look for Julius dancing in the back row of a Bally’s Park Place Hotel Casino commercial, or any Doc’s Dunkshot Bar opening in the East Sixties. Julius does, however, keep some mad money around for what he calls “risk capital ventures.” One of these ventures was the now-defunct Doctor’s Shoe Salon, a chic fulfillment of one of Julius’s long-cherished fantasies. Throughout his life, especially since he got rich, Julius found it galling that he could not find high-fashion shoes to wrap around his size fifteens. The Doctor’s Shoe Salon assumed there were many others in the same boat and sought to fill that need by offering a wide selection for the hard-to-fit dog, mostly in the two-hundred-dollar range. The shop, poshly appointed and located on Philly’s South Second Street, was slated to be the prototype for a far-flung chain that would eventually take in all the NBA cities. It was not a success. “It caused me untold duress and aggravation,” Julius says sheepishly. “A lot of people expected, because my name was involved, that I’d be there all the time. When I wasn’t, they got mad. And when I was, I couldn’t concentrate on the business. I got bombarded with all kinds of questions, basketball stuff, A to Z. Plus we had a lot of trouble with kids who thought it was a sneaker store.” Kind of humorous—the great Doctor as the harried shoe salesman. But never let anyone say Doc doesn’t learn from experience. Currently his “risk” project is REACH, a camp for gifted and highly motivated children. Nowhere on the brochure will you find the name Julius Erving.
Basically, though, Julius says, his business goal is “to work four hours and rest twenty, as opposed to now, when I’ve got to work twenty hours to rest four.” Until he gets there he has other things to think about. The end of all those hotel rooms and 5 a.m. flights to the next city will mean a lot more time at home, a lot more time.
“One hundred and thirty to 140 more nights,” Julius relates, admitting some anxiety about this. Now, Julius, his wife Turquoise, and their four children (Cheo, Julius III, Jazmin, and Cory) are pretty much your all-American family, as was witnessed at last season’s dunk contest, during which the kids told Dad which shots to make. But 130, 140 nights. “A lot of nights,” Julius predicts, “they’re gonna be saying, ‘Him? Again?”‘ Then he laughs and says, “This is all first-generation problems for all of us, my wife and I, dealing with the circumstances we find ourselves in. There’s going to be a lot of trial and error, that’s for sure.” Then he says he’s thinking of calling up John Havlicek, Jerry West, “some old-timers, people on my level,” to get some pointers on the life ahead. Somehow, you figure, he’ll get over.
Mark Jacobson is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. He is known for his explorations of the seamy side of urban life, both here and abroad, and for his offbeat and witty take on popular culture.His 2000 profile of Frank Lucas formed the basis for the Ridley Scott film American Gangster. He is the author of The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans; 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe; and the novels Gojiro and Everyone and No One. He has been a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Esquire, and New York. You can find more at his website.
Guy walks into the venerable Hollywood establishment Dan Tana’s. Different guy — not Leonardo DiCaprio. But this guy, Rick Yorn, has something very valuable in a place like Dan Tana’s back in 1999 — he has Leonardo DiCaprio, whom he has represented as a client since DiCaprio was a kid. When the kid was just a teenager, he made two movies that announced his talent to a new generation of moviegoers the way, says one of his friends, that The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy announced not just the arrival of an actor named Dustin Hoffman but also a whole new style of acting. The movies were This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and in the first one the kid stands up to Robert De Niro, in the second to Johnny Depp. And then he made Romeo + Juliet and Titanic, which made him, as a very young man, the biggest movie star in the world. So when Yorn goes to Dan Tana’s to meet some friends, he gets summoned to the table of a tanned old man in big black eyeglasses, Lew Wasserman.
Wasserman is the wise old owl of Hollywood, in the sense that he has night vision and talons. He’s a combination rabbi and mobster, pope and Caesar, Darryl Zanuck and Henry Ford — he invented the industry he lords over. And now he wants to speak to Yorn about his client.
“Lew was old and near the end by this time,” Yorn says. “He died a year or two later. But he knew I was Leo’s manager, and he wanted to give me some advice. He said, ‘Only let them see him in a dark room.’ It took me a minute to figure it out. But what he meant was only let people see him in the movie theater. That’s the dark room.”
It’s harder now, Yorn says. It’s harder to live out of the public eye than it was in Wasserman’s day. Every citizen has a camera, and every tabloid photographer has a camera with a telephoto lens. The kid lives in a celebrity surveillance state. Still, he’s done a pretty good job of “maintaining his mystique,” Yorn says — of making his living in the dark. And besides, he’s not a kid anymore. These days, when you call Rick Yorn and tell him you want to talk about Leonardo DiCaprio, this is what he exclaims:
He’s been a pretty good king, as kings go.
No, we don’t know very much about him outside the dark room, by his own design. What we do know is that he’s been doing what he’s doing for a very long time, and that he seems to have created for himself a life of unalloyed advantage. He has meaningful work and meaningful friendships. He has the power to make any movie he wants and a choice of both directors and women. He can go anywhere he pleases and has lately chosen to go where he feels he can do the most good. He’s not only talented but driven. He’s dogged in everything he’s ever done, a largely unschooled man who’s learned the value of doing his homework. If, at times, talking to him about life is like talking about food with someone who’s never done anything but order from a menu — well, the menu has been both expensive and extensive, and he’s learned enough to know exactly what he likes. He is always in ferocious demand, and yet he has always been in equally ferocious control of his own life, from the time he was very young. Is there anything else we can possibly ask of him, other than to lose control of his life, for our benefit? Is there anything else we can possibly ask of any of them, be they Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt or Matt Damon? We have a prejudice about kids who become kings, in that we like to see them earn their crown, preferably by enduring some kind of trial — by going off to battle or taking speech lessons or marrying a tragic queen. But what can we possibly ask Leonardo DiCaprio to endure, to prove himself to us? Can we see him as any less a man because he made the road to manhood look so easy?
Be patient. Impatience is the official language of youth. When you’re young, you want to rush to the next thing before you even know where you are. I always think of the joke in Colors that the wiser and older cop (Robert Duvall) tells his impatient rookie partner (Sean Penn). I’m paraphrasing, but it goes something like: “There’s two bulls standing on top of a mountain. The younger one says to the older one: ‘Hey pop, let’s say we run down there and screw one of them cows.’ The older one says: ‘No son. Let’s walk down and screw ‘em all.’” Now, to counter the profane with the profound, one of my favorite quotes is from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Talent hits the target no one else can hit; genius hits the target no one else can see.” I think the key to seeing the target no one else can see is in being patient, waiting for it to appear so you can do the right thing, not just the expedient thing. Learning to wait is one of my greatest accomplishments as I’ve gotten older.
Listen more than talk. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Being right is not always the right thing to be. Kareem, my man, learn to step away. You think being honest immunizes you from the consequences of what you say. Remember Paul Simon’s lyrics, “There’s no tenderness beneath your honesty.” So maybe it’s not that important to win an argument, even if you “know” you’re right. Sometimes it’s more important to try a little tenderness.
When choosing someone to date, compassion is better than passion. I’m not saying she shouldn’t be passionate. That’s a given. But look for signs that she shows genuine compassion toward others. That will keep you interested in her a lot longer.
Playboy will survive, at least as a company, as a business proposition, as a brand owned and managed by private-equity firm Rizvi Traverse Management. The white rabbit will still be on T-shirts in the Czech Republic and beer bottles in Brazil. The magazine will probably continue to exist in some shape or form, profitably perhaps only in countries like Mongolia, like Thailand, where it still means the things that it doesn’t mean here anymore. There are still places in the world where Playboy represents change, not changelessness. Cooper Hefner might succeed in becoming the company’s new face, which will look so much like the old face that it will take a moment to remember that the party, this particular party, will be over. It’s not just this universe that will collapse when it loses its center. It’s not only these bizarre, beautiful, damaged, openhearted people who will be left homeless, who will be cast adrift absent the anchors of Manly Night and Mexican Train. All of us will lose something. Hugh Hefner is no longer ahead of his time; time has caught up with him. And you can feel, late at night, when the Mansion is quiet, that this place is already a museum, and it isn’t hard to imagine those tourists in the van at the bottom of the driveway lining up for their tickets to Heaven on Earth and being allowed through that gate, and they will look at these rooms, at the bed with its black satin sheets, at all that dusty underwear hanging from the chandelier, and they will smile and shake their heads in wonder. But Playboy, at its best, wasn’t just an artifact of its time. It helped make us who we are. Yes, Hefner’s magazine was a Rorschach test. It was also a stick in your eye. “It had lightning bolts coming out of it,” Jimmy Jellinek says. For sixty years, Playboy has been on the right side of history — on sex, birth control, civil rights, AIDS, gay marriage, war, social tolerance, personal liberty — while also serving as a vehicle for that history. But it wasn’t Playboy, really. It wasn’t the brand or the rabbit. It was him. It is him. And without him, it will be no more.
That’s not a very nice thing to think about. Why even think about it? It’s better to stay here, fixed in time and space, and to escape into another movie, into another Movie Night in a lifetime of Movie Nights. In the interest of time, Hefner dispenses with his usual introductory speech, which he normally reads from notes written by his friend Dick Bann. This further departure from routine is also regarded solemnly, but soon the room rallies, and Hefner receives his customary round of applause all the same. Then the lights go out. The movie starts. Here is our host, only a little behind schedule, with his wife at his side, and his brother behind him, and his friends all around him. Hefner pulls up his blanket closer to his chin, making sure he’s sharing it with Crystal, making sure she’s comfortable and enjoying her piece of cake. Then he sinks back into his favorite spot on the couch, and all things are possible. The place feels warm, and it smells like popcorn.
I play golf, I recommend golf, I celebrate golf—for the exercise. For this I am roundly derided by friends. God knows what my enemies say. But they don’t understand. The exercise has nothing to do with getting winded, making the heart bump-a-whump for twenty minutes, or releasing amino-ketones (or whatever bodily chemical is this month’s Cosmo health trend). I do not mean to join in the national beatification of sweat.
Golf is exercise of the spirit, the trimming away of lumps and rolls that distend the successful psyche. We all have ways of jamming ourselves into contortions that the world rewards: the best lawyer I know has to build up a hard knot of rage at some injustice that threatens his client. I know a woman who cannot entertain without subjecting herself, her home and family, to such ferocious primping that she winds up a total wreck. But her parties are lovely. The point is there are many useful twists of persona, but things unnaturally bent grow brittle if they’re never snapped back into shape. And golf untwists. It’s more than the sun and air, stretching and flexing the body. For those corporeal joys, why not try gardening?
Golf is bodily, sort of. The swing, as anyone who has tried it knows, is such a demanding blend of physics and physicality that any of a hundred different muscles or movements can be cited as the latest cause of failure. But the essence of the game, and the locus of its experience, lies somewhere between the body and the mind, or in their fusion—not in the precision of latinate names with which we label musculature but in that murkier realm where words, if there be any useful words, must come from oriental tongues.
This stems from the nature of the contest: golf may be played with a partner or against an opponent, but the real and relentless competition is the self. Any golfer, even the worst, knows basically what to do: there is the ball—hit it toward the hole. But every golfer, even the most experienced, plays always against the tendency toward deviation and lapse. We play against our own capacity to screw up, against the limit of our imperfection, against the proverbial essence of humanity: to err. It is a solitary struggle, and humbling, trying to make the body do. Strength, speed, or size—none of these will avail; only the gentle coaxing of grace. It cannot be forced. The concentration is yogic.
Compare golf for a moment with some other sports: there are no bulked-up defenders trying to block the next shot. No faster player will thunder up to tackle us on the fairway. There is none of the fishy luck of the angler who can walk away from failure with a shrug and an easy alibi: “They just weren’t biting, today.” And none of the competitive consolation (“That serve of yours is just too quick!”) that tennis allows. In the game of golf, no one hits the ball out of reach—no one but us.
To the extent that we succeed we triumph over self, and when we confront failure we have nowhere to look but within. That accounts for the endless fretting, the golfer’s morose self-absorption. Of course the scoffers, the jokesters, see only the overt unhappiness (a “good walk spoiled,” Mark Twain called the game). And I concede one may not see right away the straight-line links from Aristotle and Aquinas to that overweight accountant speaking foul words as he slams the 3-iron back into his bag and drives his sputtering gas cart over the moribund grass he has just uprooted with his latest errant swipe. But, I assure you, no theologian, no saint, has examined and condemned his own frailty with more sincerity. Yes, the golfer may be ungainly with his tools; yes, he seems wrapped up in his woe; yes, he may talk of it without cease . . . but what can we expect from a being who is wrestling with the mortal mystery, the meagerness of the human will?
Then the miracle happens and something goes right (it always does, though, alas, too seldom). A long putt curves to the hole, slows, and . . . drops. A chip shot arches just over a vicious abyss of sand and . . . settles tractably on the green beyond. Or a drive leaves the tee . . . . Can those scoffers have felt even once such a tee shot? A miracle, nothing less. . . There is the ball: still, small, dimpled, damning our latest failures with an unsightly bruise or two, daring us to hit it again with all our might. Thwack! The driver connects with a glad clap of wood, and the ball is free of earth, aflight, ripping through the air under our fond eyes at a speed that makes a green blur of the ground; and now the ball, a shapely dart of white, rises fast, growing smaller, more perfect ever, as it climbs to its apogee, black now against a vault of blue sky, a speck of pure promise that seems to hang, holding hope aloft, as we hold our breath, until it settles, beautifully, white again, onto the velvet fairway, an eighth of a mile toward the hole.
A fine thing God has made for us! And the feeling it promotes is not one of chesty self-worth but wonder, awed pleasure: we are blessed. Of course, we cannot keep such joy for long. We lose the grace; all too soon we lapse. But oh, just to have had that moment, when we steadied the erring self and found within it the capacity to do right, to do perfectly! If it happens but once and the rest is dross, if we lose the match, if we score like bums, if it rains and our feet squish in our shoes . . . still, we spent a day with our self, and found its best. We exercised it. We are untwisted.
I remember a game last summer with my favorite partner, that ferocious hostess I spoke of before. I had to drag her out. She was facing a breakfast for forty—some cousin’s daughter was getting married—only three days hence…”Just nine holes!” I cajoled her. “You have to get some air. . . .”
She hit the first drive badly. She never bothers to warm up. She always thinks of it as stealing the time, and on the first tee, she still carries all her cares. That day she swung with forty guests on her back. I said: “Want to hit another?” But I knew the answer. “No. Come on,” and she grimly shouldered her little bag and stepped off the tee toward the rough and her ball.
I watched her sink deeper in new troubles through the first hole, then the second. I saw the fretful changes to her swing as she rifled her mental grab bag of tips, teachings, and keys to success: turn on the backswing, hands ahead on the downswing, club head open, club head closed. . . . She duffed two shots on the third hole, then swung so hard she almost fell. “What is it?” she finally cried in despair, as if she’d searched the whole universe for the cause of her troubles.
I mumbled a few truisms—elbow in, shift the weight, keep the head down—and then, as I recall, some of the incantatory stanza that form my personal mantra: “Let the club head do the work, make the swing a slow and beautiful dance….”
Who knows what she heard, if she heard anything at all. She was so downcast, alone with her million mistakes. But something cased within her and her club head drew back in a graceful arc, and thwack! She began to hit the ball, only straight at first, but then hard, and harder, and she stood on tiptoes to see the ball bounding, scurrying over the hills ahead. “Liked that one!” she said as she grabbed her bag and strode on. I caught up and stood behind her as she hit her next shot. She smacked the ball free of the earth, watched it fall and roll, and she turned with a grin. “Feel better?” I asked. She tilted her head up, shook her head, and cried “Oooohhh!” to heaven. She had no words sharp enough for the joy.
Of course, she lost it, too. Just a few holes on, she overswung and pulled her ball sharply to the left, where it settled in a trap. And that one shot broke the spell. She hit some good ones still. But the blessing was off her head. Now she berated herself loud, or clucked in disapproval as a chip shot skittered off the back of a green. But she was smiling at herself, too, mocking her mere humanness (when she knew the divine was in her!). She had only herself to blame, after all, so she had only herself on her mind. Not the weight of the world: she’d been freed of that.
I stood behind her again in her kitchen that evening. She was bent at the sink, polishing silver. It wasn’t the silver she’d serve with that Sunday. Those pieces sparkled already. This was the silver that molders in the breakfront. In case anybody bothered to look, you know. She was thinking of fish. Could she call in her order? Would they pick out the best? Clean them perfectly? No, she would go, pick them out herself. Have them filleted under her exacting eye. Then, back home, she’d clean them all again. Those little bones… Could she get away with buying mayonnaise?…
“How was the golf?” It was her husband coming home. He walked in the back door and casually tossed off the question by way of hello. He didn’t mean much, just, How was your day?
But as she turned, all tightness at her eyes disappeared, her hands unclenched from a polish-smeared bowl, and her smile was of another world, a smile of the Sufis, of the saintly, of the saved.
Cramer spent three months stalking Williams and brought back 15,000 words that ‘couldn’t be cut.’ However, given the exigencies of magazines, even back then, we only had room for 13,500. When the managing editor, a slight but combative woman who just cleared five feet in height, informed Cramer that he needed to trim 1,500 words from his piece, he turned the color of a ripe apple and vaulted over me in an attempt to separate her head from her body. I was able to bear hug him away and usher him out of the office but he was not done with us.
That night I had to attend some black-tie deal with the magazine’s editor Lee Eisenberg, a fact I must have casually mentioned to Cramer earlier in the week. So at 10 p.m. Cramer returned to the Esquire offices at 2 Park Ave. and went to work. His first stop was the copy department where he charmed the culottes off the head copy editor and told her that David and Lee had given him permission to restore the trimmed 1,500 words and that she could call us at home if she liked. She did and, of course, got no answer. Cramer, being a Pulitzer Prize winner and all, had enough journalistic cred to convince her he would take full responsibility for any changes. Next, with the new 15,000 word galleys in hand, he went to the art department and told them they would have to drop a photo of Williams in the opening layout and shrink the type on the jump. When they balked, he told them we had given him permission and they were welcome to check with us. Now came his biggest challenge. In order for us not to see his handiwork the next morning, he would have to convince the production department that the piece would have to ship that night because ‘the printing plant isn’t used to handling pieces of this length and needed the extra day.’
Incredibly, they bought it but not before trying to reach us for confirmation. At 2 a.m., his mission accomplished, Cramer went home to sleep the sleep of the triumphant. Seven hours later, I arrived at the office and noticed three bouquets of roses at the receptionists’ desk. They were addressed to the copy, art, and production departments and all three carried the same note: ‘Thanks for your grace under pressure, Richard Cramer.’
Let’s start the New Year with this gem from our pal Richard Cramer. It first appeared in Esquire (October, 1993) and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
“Know Your Way Home”
by Richard Ben Cramer
In England recently, I learned the real definition of parochial. A law in the time of Elizabeth I restricted you to your own parish. If you did leave, and ran into trouble elsewhere, you were literally whipped home: That is to say, the beadles of each parish between you and your place of birth would flog you through their territory, then hand you over at the boundary to the lash-bearing beadles of the neighboring parish . . . until you were, safely (for them), back in your slot.
I suspect it was success in colonial America (and, perhaps, in other sparsely peopled adventurelands) that spawned the idea of picking your own home—searching it out, as conviction or economy required. It was certainly Americans who turned this innovation into a way of life, first as frontier farmers and ranchers, later as industrial cowpokes—followin’ them fatct’ry dogies where they roamed.
But it was only our own post-war generation (with the meat-ax of sharper American succcess) that cleaved altogether the ideas of Necessity and Home. Now we selected our hometown (wasn’t that our right?) . . . off a menu as wide as the world. Maybe we talked about a job there (not that there weren’t jobs elsewhere)—but it was really about a friend there, or some girl who was nice to us in bar . . . the weather, the way the mountains looked . . . the college community gave it such “tone” . . . or it made us feel cool to say we lived there. We were operating so far from our forebears’ experience that we had to make up lame-brained words like lifestyle. Now everybody had to (you know, uh, like) . . . find his own space!
We got to the point—with our Boogie boards on the crest of the potent baby-boom wave—we thought we could surf over Home completely. If Home was supposed to be wherever we chose to make it . . . well, it was only a small step (and self-regard required it) to say that wherever we were was Home.
We were arrived upon a glorious age: The world was our oyster . . . not necessarily to be eaten (though, God knows, we’ve tried) . . . but we were raised to the conviction that wherever we—we favored grains of sand—lodge our grit, there we become pearls.
And in this all-freedom all-power, I was Homeless.
I DON’T MEAN I slept on a steam grate. I had apartments, I had houses—splendid places, too. By age twenty, at college. l had an old Maryland farmhouse (with acreage!) that would have contented any settler through most of America’s history.
Me, I graduated and moved on. Settling was definitively not the point—it smacked of settling for second-best. It never occurred to me to move back to where I was born. My friends had scattered. That was my parents’ home . . . anyway, what about that oyster world? Home was something dorks like Glen Campbell moaned about. We all lived in a yellow submarine. I made a bet with one girl: The first of us to have two out of the following three—kid, insurance, mortgage—would have to buy the other a sailboat. I knew she’d welsh.
I picked a job that would keep me on the move. Newspapering was about impermanence. You’d never have two workdays the same. The stories would carry you all over the world. I started in Baltimore (two apartments, one house) and Annapolis (a hundred hotel rooms); then Philadelphia (an apartment); New York (one apartment, a storage box); Cairo (an office apartment); London (one flat I barely saw); Rome (un attico). By that time, I didn’t even say I had a home. I had a bureau. In fact, by Boogie-board all-power, I was the bureau . . . until I was out of the newspaper business, and I had to decide where to live.
This was a new concept. Of course, I’d always said I lived somewhere. I lived in Cairo . . . it made me feel cool to say so. But I didn’t really live anywhere, except in the stories—everywhere at once. Now I was supposed to pick a home—for me. There wasn’t even much for me to consult. So I did what any sensible man of my age did. I decided I’d live . . . wherever my girlfriend wanted.
I haven’t mentioned the girlfriend. She was the reason I came back from Rome, and the reason I was faced with this crisis of all-freedom, this question of self, of Home. Not that she was much threat to saddle me with a domestic establishment. This girl didn’t even own a skillet.
But a strong decorating sense she had. So we moved to New York, to a place that was strong on decoration. It was what the French call mignon—though at the time, I didn’t know that word. For example, the bedroom window looked out on a patio with lights that shone aloft through plants from underneath the wooden deck—you could see this semi-Polynesian effect (we called it Hawaii) from the bed . . . which was a decorating coup as there was no room to be off the bed and you couldn’t go out to the patio because it was really someone’s roof and couldn’t take the weight of an actual human. Another example: The living room (which was pretty much the only real room) had a curved wall. This softening of standard form was a decorating coup . . . insofar as it softened (in fact, disguised past the start of the lease) the hard fact that much of this living room had been eaten away for the closet and bath. I also learned there that mirrors are a decorating-coup substitute for light and space. This living room had mirrors. In fact, when I paced it off—continuously for a year—it was the size of an upmarket Japanese car. l think it was in that place l first said, “I want a home.” Understandably, the girlfriend did not react. I talked to myself quite a bit that year.
Or it may have been in out second place in New York—it was bigger, I picked it—I started talking about Home. I brought the word up with the landlord, an Israeli gent…in summer, urging him to scrape the rime off the windows . . . in winter, I suggested the place would be better with heat, “Eli, don’r you understand?” I’d wail into the phone. “This is my home!” His reply was concision itself. “I get tsuris, yourrnt guzzup.” So I’d transfer wailing to the girlfriend: “I want a home!”
“What’s this? she’d say
But Eli had a point—it wasn’t my home. He knew, as well as I did: l’d be gone before the bum who slept in the downstairs doorway. The fact was, the girlfriend and I had no more home than the bum. And no idea what Home was: We kept getting it confused with the best place to live.
“How about Paris?” the girlfriend would say. (She thought Paris had the strongest decorating sense.)
“How ’bout Moscow?” (I still had a lingering confusion between Home and story.)
Said the girlfriend: “Get a life.”
I GOT A BOOK—which maintained the confusion for six years more. We moved around, hauling the book. The girlfriend came along to edit and argue.
“I want a home.”
“Shut up. Finish the book”
We married, had a child. I finished the book. We had to decide where to live. The wife announced: “Paris.”
“Yes, dear.” (Strangely, it turned out, at the end of six years’ labor, I owed.)
She leased an apartment on the basis of a snapshot that showed a gilded mirror. I contracted to pay for this decorating coup by working in Paris for a sixty-year-old magazine. We called movers—we had skillets now, furniture, a million books, and (by the movers’ count) three million four hundred twenty-two thousand articles for child care and entertainment. Those I carried to Paris.
That was January—when I learned the word mignon. It meant cute. Our apartment was mignon. The living room (pretty much—well, you get the idea . . .) featured that gilded mirror because there was no light or space. In fact, when I paced it off . . . well, I couldn’t, because of a Lego castle and a Brio train set. But I knew what to do.
I got an airline ticket to America. After two days in the country, I bought an old farmhouse, with acreage, in Maryland. I took some photos—I hoped they’d display potential for strong decoration. Then I got back on the airplane, to show the photos to the wife. I said: “This is home.”
And when our year in Paris has passed, we’ll go back there—Home. Our place. We’ll stay. We won’t have any choice. After twenty-two years of patient work. I have acquired one-tenth the acreage I had in college, at one hundred times the price. In fact, by my calculation, if I continue working for the sixty-year-old magazine, I will fully own this house three years after my death.
I don’t mind. I look at all those zeros on my mortgage as chainlike between the noble ideas of Necessity and Home.
I tell my wife: We’ll still travel . . . Hey! The world is our oyster! But I’ve no doubt if we do leave, for work, for wanderlust—somehow soon . . . life will whip us home.
John Ed Bradley played football at LSU and was a rising star at the Washington Post in the 1980′s before he left the newspaper business left to write novels. He’s written some fine ones too, including Tupelo Nights, Smoke, Restoration and My Juliet. He also wrote It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, a wonderful memoir about playing ball at LSU. In the meantime, he’s been a first-rate magazine writer, notably for Esquire and Sports Illustrated.
Here’s one of his best Esquire stories, first published in December 1985, and reprinted here with the author’s permission.
“L.T. and the Home Team”
By John Ed Bradley
Out one night last summer in Williamsburg, Virginia—a night that started warm and breezy but quickly turned as hot and rank as old meat—D’Fellas quit talking about local trim for a minute and somebody started on God. Eric Stone, gazing cow-eyed at a sky only half as big as his dreams started on God but soon let Pritchett figure it out. Pritchett was smart and he thought he could figure everything out. Even that outsize belly of his—brought on, everybody said, by the wife’s collard greens and smothered pork chops and whatever fruit pie happened to be in the cupboard—Pritchett liked to figure the extra girth was really only a stretch of “clogged tool,” and he told D’Fellas so. He patted his big gut and hiked up his britches and let his chin multiply into a fleshy mosaic.
“Preacher man,” Lawrence.Taylor had told Dylan Pritchett earlier in the day, “you’re fatter’n Fat Albert…. How much is it you been weighin’ these days?”
And Pritchett had said, “I’m tellin’ you it ain’t fat. It’s an extension of something else. Backed way up my belly…. I’m a gigolo, man.”
Now, at about 1:00 in the morning or a little after, Taylor was working a shaggy pinch of long-cut between cheek and gum, looking off in the direction of town. He started, “You’re just bogartin’ again, Pritchett, Preacher Pritchett runnin’ his head”—and saw it coming, growing way off in the distance, moving at a ridiculously happy clip. There was a single white eye in the head of the machine, a light more yellow, really, than white. Arid the sound was of wild unrest, of steel on steel, dark and real and terrible.
Cosmo, who sometimes went by the name of Glenn Carter, pulled his hand off his crotch, where he’d been working an itch, and pointed for everyone to see. He said, “A coal train, boys. Look at that damn thing.”
And someone else, probably L.T., who had returned home to see D’Fellas and spend one last night on the town before his fifth season with the New York Giants took him away for at least six months, said, “It’s magic, I’m telling you, fellas. It’s like every old thing that ever used to be.”
Besides the single white beacon from the engine, there was another wash of lights, this from D’Fellas’ party van parked in the middle of the dead-end road, and you saw how Taylor stood in it. Farm-boys big at six feet three and 250 pounds, the best player in football wore tight gray gym shorts that made his butt look like two great humps of meat grafted onto legs that can cover forty yards in 4.5 seconds. He wore a white straw hat with an olive-colored linen band, the brim tipped down low over the eyes, and his shirt was cut loose around the belly, giving him room to breathe.
“This is nice,” Taylor suddenly felt inclined to say. “I mean, this is really nice. All it was ever supposed to be.”
Then, with his eyes on nothing at all, down on the pea gravel at his feet: “So many things, mostly the good ones, D’Fellas were part of. It never goes away, either. That feeling, l mean, of being together again. You see that train, and you see all of us, standing here again. l’in telling you, it never goes away.”
L.T.—THERE HE WAS, SAME OLD BOY, running with the same old boys he had run with since second grade—had come home again. hardly seemed to matter that he’d moved way the hell up north and made something of himself, earning in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. He might take home about $85,000 a game, as one of his defensive mates once figured out on a pocket calculator, but after watching him break through a double-team block and dump a quarterback in a great, whining heap, or intercept a pass and take it down the pasture for a touchdown, it was never hard to understand why even his enemies said he was worth every damn penny.
During Taylor’s NFL career more than a couple of coaches have wondered aloud how someone playing on the buck-ass end of the defensive line can so dominate a game. As an outside linebacker, Taylor has been known to chase down running backs, fleeing in the opposite direction, like some hard dog after his own tail. He has put the fear of permanent disfigurement in all offensive people who look too good and smell too sweet, winking at them as he often does from across the line of scrimmage, seconds before the snap of the ball. They have called his game make-do and creative, mainly because he behaves as he pleases out there, sometimes forsaking the coach’s music he picked up in camp for the primal song that makes him go. Coming from the “weak” or “blind” side of the line, he often emerges on quarterbacks preparing to pass like some awful wave of terror. He seems to focus on a point two feet behind his target, blow right through what meat, bone, and heart stand in the way, and come out screaming on the other side.
“We don’t know the difference in L.T.,” Pritchett once professed. “We see a good tackle and it’s a good tackle. But whether he plays well or not, we’re there. We’re still his brothers, man. We’re blood, you know.”
Taylor, D’Fellas back home always said, never forgot where he came from, even though he kept a fancy place in a subdivision in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, a big two-story brick house with a lawn that was more garden than yard, and a gold Mercedes-Benz parked out front. He kept the house, his wife, Linda, said, but you could never keep him in it, not even during the off-season, when he liked to shoot hoops in the sun and play a little golf and take an occasional trip south to Williamsburg, in the southeastern heel of the state, to visit the boys.
There were only six of them in the whole world—D’Fellas—and each founding member owned a plaque proving it. Only three, Cosmo, Pritchett, and Stoney, still lived in the town where they grew up. The one Taylor seemed to miss and admire most, John (J.D.) Morning, managed a seafood place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Eric (Doc) Pruden earned his living making Busch beer in Virginia Beach.
Earlier, driving around with no place in particular to go, somebody had said it felt as if every clock and calendar in the Virginia countryside had been turned over on its face, as if time no longer mattered. Having drunk more than a few bottle of beer at the Green Leafe Café near the campus of William and Mary, even L.T. owned up to finding himself overcome by a flood of lost time. So they had taken a craze of narrow back roads to a place on the edge of town, where a bridge made of creosoted railroad ties had once crossed a great divide and where a freight train still passed every few hours, whining like a pack of rabid wolf-hounds hot for the kill.
The old Mooretown Bridge, directly above, had barely been wide enough for two small cars to pass. D’Fellas had called it the Motown Bridge, because they had come time and again to lean against its rickety railings and sing the blues and talk about God. And about women and football Friday nights at Cooley Stadium and about what it meant to be young and alive and in no great hurry to grow up.
Now, on a rag-ass Sunday night that lent more moon than stars, Taylor stood behind the hurricane fence and heavy iron rail sealing off the short stretch of blacktop that had once led to the treacherous expanse of warped and buckling boards, and remembered the night the bridge burned. Stoney, who works at:the firehouse, had driven out with the water trucks and seen it engulfed in flames. Little orange chips of wood and ash had climbed in the night air, and no one but D’Fellas figured it was a bad thing. Too many people had died on the bridge or thereabouts. And Taylor, who rarely looked back on his days with D’Fellas except to laugh, saw this: the time an old drunk had tried to walk across the bridge with his eyes closed, nursing a bottle of cough syrup. The man had said he was Jesus Christ come down to save tile world. Then, not five minutes after announcing that he could walk on water, the man had lost his footing and fallen. He had fallen all the way down to the tracks and lain there in a silent, unmoving heap.
Taylor told the boys, “Crazy nigger thought he could walk on water. He couldn’t even walk straight.”
And who, L.T. said he wondered, could figure how many people had died trying·to negotiate the curve leading up to the bridge? Seemed like every Friday and Saturday night somebody missed the turn and drove clear into the void. L.T. once joked and said the Motown Bridge killed more poor colored folks than the Klan ever did. But there was good about it, too.
There was this to look back on: that one impossibly cold night when he and D’Fellas stood in the middle of the expanse, huddled against the snow that fell in hard, white sheets. The headlight of a train had appeared up ahead, moving in the direction of the pottery factory. As it drew near, you could see the dark chunks of coal in the open-top cars. dusted over with snow. There was a fabulous blue winter light that seemed to come from no particular source. Years later Stoney would pick a little fleck of something off the tip of his tongue and ask if anything on this earth had ever looked as pretty.
That night, the cold had made their lips feel useless and rubbery; their lungs burned, but they had sung their songs anyway, until about 6:00 in the morning. Taylor provided bass, deep as grubworms in a canna bed, and Stoney was static. He sounded like nails on a chalkboard, and everyone looked for Doc and J. D. to make pretty as choirboys at Sunday service. Sometimes Cosmo got so high, the boys said, he could do it better than a castrated man, but you tried not to hear Pritchett, who this night was moaning like a sick calf on the way to the sale barn. One blow, a pretty one that applied, went:
Gawnna leave all the crowds
Climb to the clouds
Anna look at life the way we use’a doo
Now Taylor wanted to know, “Who was it that pissed on the train as it went by that time it snowed so damn much?” But you could barely make out his voice over the thunder of the train down below.
“This is some serious memories,” Pritchett said. “Some serious memories. I used to ride my bike all around here. I remember how the bridge smelled. It ain’t the same. I’m used to feeling it under me.”
“Was it you that pissed?” Taylor asked no one in particular.
And Stoney started, “You can’t reach out and touch it anymore. There was only four or five feet between the bottom of the bridge and the top of the train cars. You could remember the feeling in your feet—that feeling that what you stood on wouldn’t be there very long and when it went, it would take you with it. And you went to bed at night feeling that feeling, wondering at it like some kind of mystery.”
Then Cosmo, half shouting atTaylor, let on, “I remember how you’d climb down to the tracks and say you were going to stop the train. We believed you could stop it, L.T. ‘That train ain’t nothin’,’ you’d say. And it would get pretty close before you jumped off the tracks. Then we’d all take turns, climbing down the rocks and standing on the tracks. ‘That train ain’t nothin’,’ you’d say. And Pritchett went, ‘Go on and stop it then, Cosmo.’ And I told him, ‘Who do you think I am? I ain’t no L.T.’”
“It might have been me that pissed,” Stoney said finally. “Hey, Taylor. I think it was me that pissed.”
Then Pritchett figured, “It wasn’t only you, man. It was all of us. It was Taylor, too. Shit, it was all D’Fellas. We did everything together.”
D’FELLAS ALWAYS caught L.T.’s games on television when the Giants went national, and the made it up north to New Jersey and the Meadowlands three or four times a year to watch their old friend perform in person, before great crowds that sometimes chanted, “Elllteee! Ellltee! Eltee!” when number 56 came up with a big hit. He always put D’Fellas up at home, in his house, and on Saturday nights before the games, when he had to turn in early, he gave Linda some money and the car keys and insisted she drive the gang to New York, where there were things to do.
The boys flew out to Hawaii for the 1985 Pro Bowl, and L.T., who had been a unanimous all-NFL selection since the Giants chose him first in the 1981 draft, put them up in individual hotel suites with king-size beds, living rooms, and private liquor cabinets. He took care of their expenses and introduced them to strangers on the beach as teammates. Even Stoney, who was built like a tired old catcher’s mitt, signed a round or two of autographs.
D’Fellas were proud of L.T.’s success and read countless reports saying he had emerged as the most dominant player in professional football, if not the very best, but they preferred to remember him as the wild-eyed boy who worked at the Dairy Queen in the summer when he was seventeen, eating all those free sundaes and Dilly Bars and going home to Iris, his beautiful, picture-book mama, and asking what’s for supper. He was just that way when he was growing up: eat anything. As a high school junior he stood only five feet ten and weighed 180 pounds. But coming into his senior year, he grew more than five inches in three months and grew mean in a way that would make him rich and famous and, arguably, the finest linebacker ever to play in the National Football League.
D’Fellas preferred to remember him the night they were going down Richmond Road in Pritchett’s car, Pritchett driving the limit if not a hair more. It was broad daylight when the good preacher man—who really wasn’t a preacher at all, but a supervisor of the black-history program at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation—ran head on into a pair of German shepherds copulating in the middle of the road. Both dogs, worked up, as they were, in primal heat, died on the spot. But what you remembered was Pritchett driving off as if nothing happened and thinking that Taylor, if provoked, could hit you just as hard. He’d take your damned head off, everybody said. He’d take your damned head off and spit in your neck. Then, if further provoked, he’d crawl down what was left of your throat and do a little tap dance on your tonsils.
While at the University of North Carolina, one of only two schools to recruit him out of high school, Taylor spent more than a few nights terrorizing frat boys. He liked to go downtown, into Chapel Hill, and pick fights with people who didn’t look right. He took to chewing tobacco and spitting a lot. He cut classes and hid out in the student union, shooting pool until he ran out of quarters or out of luck, whichever, came first. He once said, “I’m the kind of person who refuses to allow any damn good thing in life to pass me by.”
But during his junior year in college something changed him. The boys said it all started when he met Linda. She was so beautiful, you imagined her picture on some neon board above the city, wearing silk, wearing velvet, and holding a silver goblet to her lips. Looking the way she did, you imagined her drinking a mint julep and saying something like, “Goes down good,” to a world gone bad.
She asked Taylor, “Why do you keep pushing people around?” Then she called him a monster and a bully.
It was not hard to figure why the young man, then only twenty, became love-sick so bad. More than one night, he had sat alone in his dormitory room, waiting for the telephone to ring; the girl on the other end to speak his name. Hi there, baby. Something had changed him, all right. Something had tamed him too. L.T. discovered that the best way to earn someone’s respect was out on the pasture, on the football field, where playing the hoodlum had its rewards. His coaches, aware of his enormous potential as.an outside linebacker, decided to turn him loose. They let him rely on instinct more than any hardline technique that might have come up during a head session, and their thinking paid off.
His junior year, Taylor made eighty solo tackles and caused seven fumbles. The next year, 1980, he made fifty-five solo hits and accounted for sixteen quarterback sacks on his way to winning honors as the outstanding player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He made all-American, easy, and was the second player chosen in the draft, after Heisman Trophy-winner George Rogers of the University of South Carolina.
As a rookie in the NFL, Taylor was so impressive people started comparing him to the finest defensive players in the history of the game, linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, and Ray Nitschke. His contribution on the field was so significant, he helped lead the Giants to the play-offs, their first such trip in almost twenty years. Back home in Williamsburg, D’Fellas had no trouble taking L.T.’s good story in stride. They knew Taylor was bad, but it had always been good to be bad when they were coming up. They liked to remember what L.T. did that day to poor old Nathan Merritt, who might have become one of D’Fellas had he not died in a car crash out on Longhill Road, on the way to school.
It was just something that happened at Lafayette High School one morning, back when D’Fellas indulged in a lawless game of rough-and-tumble called Chester. The way it worked, you walked around campus with your chest exposed, and one of the boys, by right of charter membership in D’Fellas, could lay a hard right hand into your open titty. Whenever the aggressor landed a big hit, he was supposed to say, “Chester’s back in town,” and clear out as quickly as possible, before his victim was able to regain his senses and take retaliatory measures. One day poor old Nathan Merritt opened up on Eric Stone, then only a freshman, and hit him way below the breastbone, nearly knocking him unconscious. L.T., who saw the cheap lick and came running, pinned old Nathan Merritt to a run of lockers and tried to press him through the slats in the louvered door. There was a storm of fussing in the hall, and L.T. started shouting, “Who the hell you think you are, shithead, hittin’ my friend so goddamned hard?”
Taylor was just that way: good to the people he loved and hard on those he didn’t. The kind of love that made him and the boys different, it was fierce and final. They had a time saying it, but D’Fellas were family in a way that ran deeper than any old blood, in a way that would last the sum of six separate lifetimes, and not a day longer. It was forever, but only for now. They often said their children would carry on the line and form their own little clique, the second generation of D’Fellas, but they said this with little conviction. Their children, growing up in different parts of the country, would probably never know how it feL.T. to be shoulder-to-shoulder in somebody’s living room on Saturday night, playing a hand of spades by lamplight and sharing the same tall quart of Miller beer. D’Fellas had created a separate kinship, a new order, and it was a whole lot more than just six good men running the streets together.
“I know a few things,” Taylor often told the boys, “but D’Fellas’ honor is the greatest thing I know.”
Theirs was a democracy, and there were rules. Once, at about 3:00 in the morning, D’Fellas went to the drive-in window at an all-night burger place and ordered twelve dollars’ worth of food. All Taylor wanted was fries, a Coke, and a plain burger, with nothing on it. D’Fellas in the van heard him tell the girl who was working the register that he would not tolerate a burger with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, or mustard and she assured him that she would handle it, there was no reason to worry. L.T. paid for everything, then told Eric Stone, who was driving, to head out for the bridge, he wanted to flush out the silt in his pipes and sing some Motown.
They were less than a mile down the road when Taylor discovered lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard on his burger. He said, “Turn the hell around. i want my food right.” But Stoney said, “I ain’t turning around, home. You should have looked your thing over at the place.”
Taylor felt wounded, then angry. He had told the girl exactly what he wanted and she had said not to worry, she would take care of it for him. She had looked him in the eyes and told him that everything would be okay. Didn’t she know who he was? Shouldn’t she know? He was Lawrence Taylor—L.T., goddammit, the best player in football.
“I can’t eat this shit,” he said. Then he screamed out the window, “and i won’t eat this shit.”
“That’s too bad, home,” Stoney said, digging into a bag of fries.
“If I can’t eat,” Taylor said, “nobody eats,” and took all the food, stuffed it back into the paper sack, and threw it out the window, into the wide, empty street. Some of D’Fellas turned around and watched their supper disappear to the back window. The soft-drink cups rolled down into the gutter, but the burgers looked as if they’ve been blasted by a cherry bomb. Only Eric Stone had managed to save a cup of Coke, and he was sucking it down with a straw. Taylor said, “Excuse me, home,” grabbed the drink from his friend’s hand, and threw it out into the night.
“If I don’t drink,” he said, “not a damn one of us drinks.”
BEFORE L.T. was born, his old man, Clarence Taylor Sr., Worked as a janitor at the college in town. After that played out, he got on as a trucker in the Newport News shipyards, about 40 minutes away, and was on the road each morning by 5:30, glancing back at the place and the people he loved in his rearview mirror. Some days he didn’t return home until after the late-night news, when his three sons had already gone to bed and his wife had cleared the kitchen. Clarence and Iris Taylor had had married in their teens—”too darn young,” he said—and the boys had come one right after the other, quickly filling up their little frame house set off Highway 60. They lived in just another one of those places you see out in the country, with a big, beat-to-hell sign standing on the front edge of the property celebrating the grand opening of some new chicken shack in town, and with moonvine choking every last inch of earth not already occupied by a chinaball tree.
“In those days, you never caught us talking about money,” Mr. Taylor like to say. “Mainly because there was never any money to talk about.”
L.T., muleheaded as he was, always said there had to be a better way. One morning, watching his old man drive off in the half-light of another cheap dawn, he promised his mother he’d be a millionaire before he turned twenty-one and vaguely smiled when she said, “Go on, boy.” To make money, he bought cinnamon toothpicks and packs of Juicy Fruit at Happy Stout’s grocery, then turned around and sold his goods to schoolmates for a big profit.
His father said, “If you want to see the boy do something, tell him he can’t do it.”
When it finally happened, when he made his first million, he was 22. “So what?” He told the folks at home. “I said 21. My timing was a little off. ”
Two years ago Taylor signed a six-year contract with the Giants worth $6.5 million, but only after becoming embroiled in a nasty dispute with club management. Taylor was the most visible and outstanding player on the team, but he was sick of losing; he wanted more money or he wanted out. In 1982 and 1983, his second and third years in the league, the Giants went 4–5 and 3–12–1. Taylor grew sullen and, at times, obstinate. He refused to talk to reporters. Before practice, he spent hours at his locker, mumbling things like, “Get me out of here,” and hiding his face under a cowboy hat. Tired of carrying the load for a team that couldn’t wait, he committed himself to play for the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Donald Trump, the generals owner, offered to pay him $3.2 million over four years, starting in 1988, when his option year with the Giants expired. Trump also threw in a $1 million loan, interest free. But when the Giants came back with an even better offer, Taylor asked to be released from his contract with the Generals. After two weeks of negotiations, Trump gave in and Taylor agreed to return the loan, with a $10,000 interest charge tacked on. The settlement also call for Taylor to pay back $750,000 over the next five years.
“The money,” Taylor said, “I need lots of money. But I’ve also got lots of people hitting me up for it, people I hardly know, some I haven’t seen in years. D’Fellas, they know they can get any damed thing they want from me, and yet they never ask. When I want to give, I’ve almost got to force it on them. You say, ‘Here, home, take this crap. Take it, I said. Take it. Take it because I love you and because if you don’t take it, I’ll break your damn face.’”
L.T. bought his parents house not long after signing with the Giants in 1981. He took great pleasure in knowing it was the biggest house on the street, with a two-car garage, fenced-in piece of backyard for the dogs, “Florida room,” so named by his father, who dressed it up with rose-colored shag carpet and rose-colored blinds and rose-colored bottles of liquor set on glass shelves. You could bet your life savings nobody else in Williamsburg, Virginia, owned the room like it. On top of that, there were plenty of extra bedrooms upstairs for L.T.’s wife and two little babies, and the grass stayed green even in winter, which really tickled Mr. Taylor, who enjoyed pushing a mower.
When L.T. came home last summer, he spent only an hour or so with the new house before borrowing his father’s party van and rounding up D’Fellas. There was so much to come back to, and the last thing he wanted to make sure and see before calling it a night was the crib off Highway 60, the old place. It amounted to only three acres set hard by the road, but a real estate man in town had thrown a money figure at his folks, hoping they’d bite and turn it over for development as a housing subdivision. L.T. asked his parents to hang on to the property; he figured $20,000 or $25,000 would be enough to fix it up. And money, hell, he had plenty of that.
There was a greasy, iron dark about that night when the boys finally rode down the driveway to the old house, running clean over a little chicken tree just setting roots, and around potholes full of mud that looked white against their headlights. Taylor rounded the corner of the house and parked in front of two old heaps, a light blue Maverick with a Mr. Peabody air-freshener hanging from the rearview and a two-tone pickup with four flat tires. D’Fellas, in a hurry to turn the woods into their private latrine, wrestled getting out of the van, and Taylor let the lights wash over the whole back lot, which was overgrown with knapweed and baby sycamores.
“Some serious memories,” Dylan Pritchett said, pulling on the fleshy folds under his chin. “This is some serious damn memories.”
Taylor pushed the brim of his straw hat out of his eyes and ran his hands over the roof of the old Maverick, tearing at the rot of a million leaves. Both headlamps on the car appeared to have been shot out by a pellet gun, and the hood latch was stuck. “If this bitch could talk,” L.T. said, pointing at the car, “we’d all be in trouble.”
Stoney said, “What was the dogs name? You had a dog.”
“It was Kojak,” Cosmos said.
“He lived to be fifteen,” Taylor said. “When I bought Mama and Daddy the new house, he moved to the subdivision and thought he had a big dick. Old Kojak was all right.”
Stoney said, “I remember when those old boys from New Kent—they thought they could shoot hoops with D’Fellas—used to come out here and we’d kick ass all over the place. Everybody used to come. Like I said, we were bad.”
“See that big tree over there?” Taylor said, nodding his head at a brace of giant hardwoods. “I remember when it was little. That one there. Looked like a twig in the ground.”
“Kojak,”, Cosmo said, “he’d bark and never bite. The dog thought he was human. And shit, he was like everybody else. He thought he had what it takes to be one of D’Fellas.”
“I remember that tree and that tree and that tree,” L.T. said. “I even remember that one over there.”
“Goddamn, “Pritchett said. “This is some real shit. I mean, this brings it all back. Brings it all back home.”
“I remember all these trees,” Lawrence Taylor said. “I remember every last one of them.”
Peter Gent was an accomplished college basketball player at Michigan State. Though he didn’t play football he was still drafted by the Dallas Cowboys where he played wide receiver and tight end for a handful of years in the mid-late ’60s. He was great friends with the quarterback, Don Meredith, became pals with writers like Gary Cartwright and Bud Shrake, and was the classic longhaired rebel to Dallas coach Tom Landry’s stern patriarch.
After he retired, Gent started writing and in 1973 published North Dallas Forty a novel based on his experiences with the Cowboys (and his relationship with Meredith). It was a sensation (for more on Gent’s career, do yourself a favor and pick up Steven L. Davis’s wonderful book, Texas Literary Outlaws). Gent continued writing though he never had that kind of success again. However, he did write some terrific magazine articles. Who better to write about the Cowboys than Gent?
So it being Thanksgiving and all, please enjoy this story by Gent on Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson that appeared in the September 1980 issue of Esquire.
“North Hollywood Forty”
By Peter Gent
A FEW days after I got back from Dallas I was sitting at the Dinner Bell café on the square, drinking coffee with J.C. and Sonny, when J.C. the barber wanted to know: “What’s a paranoid?”
“Yeah,” said Sonny, the justice of the peace, “what’s this word paranoid mean? I hear the deputies always saying some guy is paranoid. What does that mean?”
They looked at me for an explanation.
“l’m paranoid,” I replied.
“They mentioned you first,” Sonny the JP said. “What’s it mean?”
“There are two definitions,” I said.
“Take your choice. One defines a paranoid as a chronic psychotic with delusions of persecution and/or grandeur. The paranoid defends his delusions with apparent logic, whatever apparent logic is.”
“What’s the second definition?” asked J.C., sipping his coffee out of the brown cups the café just got.
“That a paranoid is a man in possession of all the facts,” I said, watching Sonny shadowbox across the stone porch of the café. “William Burroughs said that. He was a junkie and writer with a rich Midwest daddy.”
There was a long pause. The only sound was the rustle of the hackberry leaves and the morning traffic through the square. It was a nice central Texas morning.
“You mean like Shaky?” Sonny said. “He was a junkie from Detroit. We caught him stealin’ and sent him back. Paid his way.”
I think the three of us agreed with William Burroughs, although nobody said one way or the other. The next day J.C. called me Paranoid Pete. I hope that name won’t stick.
There is a party going on now down at the low-water bridge, as there seems to be almost every night since summer arrived. It is midnight in central Texas.
I believe in an element of magic in sports. Even professional sports. I think Thomas Wayne “Hollywood” Henderson, the once and former Dallas Cowboy, was one of those magical players, like Cowboys Duane Thomas and Bob Hayes before him. I don’t think Tom Landry, who coached all three men and who fired Henderson last fall, believes in magic or miracles, though he professes belief in a God. Tom believes in statistics and numbers. What it says on paper. Actuarial. Tom cannot conceive of magic on the football field, and Hollywood thinks he is magic. You see the elemental problem, the basic conflict, shaping up here: the struggle between a magical black linebacker from east Austin and a white ex-World War II bomber pilot from the Rio Grande Valley over exactly who is who. And what is what.
The linebacker has magic on his side.
The Bomber Pilot has the Dallas Cowboys and the National Football League.
Any bets on a winner?
THE PROFESSIONAL athlete, like all show biz performers, often finds it necessary to violate one of the primary rules of survival in America: Stay low, move fast. The responsibilities of celebrity require the athlete to stick his nappy little head up once in a while and be a good boy for the crowd. Woe unto the nappy-headed fool who sticks his head up too high or too long—or not high enough for long enough—or to any height and for any length of time, if not with the correct attitude.
On the eighteenth of November, 1979, during the Dallas Cowboys’ loss to the Washington Redskins, Thomas Henderson waved a souvenir handkerchief that was being marketed by one of his teammates—the old attempt at planning for the tomorrow that never comes—into the lens of a live sideline camera. From my living room, the incident, as I recall, seemed no more extraordinary than the usual sideline antics that are hyped by the networks to give the viewer a feeling of being there. Wherever the hell there is.
Also, as I recall, there was sufficient time in the game for an inspired and magical team to rise from the ashes of certain loss, performing miraculously, never giving up until the final gun, and to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And now came Henderson, a linebacker and athlete of phenomenal confidence and matching ability, stepping in front of the camera to flash his friend’s handkerchief and signal that the Cowboys were still number one. There is room to interpret his gestures as inspirational. Maybe not.
The following week Hollywood was called into the offices of the Cowboys organization and told that he was being placed on waivers. In effect, fired. Tommy Landry said that Thomas Henderson was being waived as a result of his antics on the sidelines and added that Henderson’s personality was such that he would be unable to tolerate demotion to the bench—the only other possible punishment, as Landry saw it, for Hollywood’s behavior.
This action, according to the Standard Player Contract and the Collective Bargaining Agreement, as well as a recent arbitration decision (Mitch Hoopes v. Detroit Lions), was illegal in the eyes of the National Football League Players Association. The union felt that Henderson was being denied his rights. Landry was waiving him illegally.
But then Henderson did a very strange thing. At the age of twenty-six, he voluntarily retired, went home, and tore all the phones out of the walls and beat the jacks with a hammer.
Six phones, is what he told me.
Six hundred dollars to Ma Bell.
During the time Henderson’s phones were out, the Players Association was trying to reach him and explain his rights. Thomas doesn’t read the fine print, but Tommy and Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm and vice-president Gil Brandt do.
And they also know how to pull a guy like Hollywood around by his ego like a puppy dog on a leash.
Why not retire? Go out on top?
It was almost a month from the day he was fired before Henderson finally called the NFLPA to inquire about his rights. When lawyer Rick Schaeffer answered the phone, he heard: “This is Hollywood calling from Hollywood.”
Schaeffer knew this case would be trouble. It was. It still is.
Attorney Schaeffer explained to Hollywood that in the judgment of the Players Association, it was improper for the Cowboys to have fired him merely because Landry had objected to his attitude and decided he couldn’t be benched.
“The Standard Player Contract allows a player to be terminated if, in the opinion of the team, he is not competitive with the other players at his position,” Schaeffer says. “However, this was obviously not the case with Henderson. Landry’s feeling was that it would not be psychologically beneficial to Thomas to be sitting on the bench. This is similar to the case of Mitch Hoopes, who, after shanking a punt, was belittled in the press by his coach. The coach later cut him and stated that he was doing so because he had put so much pressure on Hoopes through public statements that Hoopes could no longer be competitive on the team.
“Because he was cut illegally, Hoopes was awarded the balance of the salary due him for the full term of his contract. We would have argued that the same award should be made in Thomas’s case.
“I offered Henderson any help whatsoever that the Players Association could give,” Schaeffer goes on. “And I told him that the first step would be to draft a telegram requesting reinstatement from the retired-player list, which we did immediately and dispatched to the commissioner the next day.”
Meanwhile, Henderson apparently changed his mind. After Schaeffer had begun the necessary procedures on his behalf, Hollywood told the NFLPA people that they, like everybody else, needed him worse than he needed them. That was the last Rick Schaeffer heard from him. The first, of course, being “This is Hollywood from Hollywood.”
Henderson’s behavior has been wonderful theater for those of us who take great joy in the public contradictions of sports as business-as-usual. A man like Henderson is a rare commodity. His actions have been outrageous and, at times, contradictory. But they have never been dull.
During his “retirement,” as Henderson tells it, he went to Landry on his knees and begged the coach to take him back. Hollywood said he’d clean cleats. Hollywood promised to mow the playing field lawn. Landry said no. Henderson then became publicly angry, and the theater continued. He is funny and clever—maybe even brilliant—with a well-developed killer instinct. But he began to demand rights he didn’t have, rights he gave up with retirement.
Now I see from an interview in Inside Sports that I Hollywood has stepped on his pecker again, calling various members of the Cowboys either bisexual, bald, or jealous assholes but conspicuously sparing those guys who said they wanted him back.
“Did you know that [owner] Clint Murchison took away [vice-president of personnel development] Gil Brandt’s wife, married her himself?” Hollywood asked in the interview. “There’s so much going on you wouldn’t believe it.”
I believe it, Hollywood. I believe it.
But, as the old country preacher told the man who came to the altar and confessed to coupling with goats, “Brother,” the preacher said, “I don’t believe I’d ‘a’ tol’ that.”
This could be the moment, as one Dallas fan put it, when Hollywood’s alligator mouth finally overloaded his hummingbird ass.
If it is end game for Thomas Henderson, it’s not because he lacked talent; he just didn’t have the innate sense to cover up the first time he started taking more punches than he was giving. The Bomber Pilot understands that.
My personal opinion, after a longtime acquaintance with athletes and coaches, and specifically with those of the Dallas Cowboys, is that what we saw on TV last November involving the Cowboys organization and Hollywood Henderson was a series of psychotic episodes. They all lost it there for a moment, right in front of everybody.
Psychotic episodes are daily occurrences in a business where the operative phrase is Stick your head in there.
I believe, due to certain of my own biases and a predilection for conspiracy theories, that Mr. Henderson was maneuvered into retirement, which deprived him of his salary and his right to sell his services elsewhere in the NFL. But why get rid of Henderson, a linebacker of exceptional talent? Henderson is quite possibly as good as he claims to be. Why all the fuss over this nappy-headed boy waving at the television camera, when football is, after all, show biz, based on illusion rather than reality?
I went to Dallas to ask around.
I WAS sitting at the window of a ninth-floor room in the Stoneleigh Hotel the week before Hollywood Henderson’s wedding, facing approximately north, reckoning by the Dallas Cowboys tower out on North Central Expressway. The clouds had closed back in after burning off for a while earlier in the day. A new storm was brewing; I could feel it in my joints.
I called Hollywood’s fiancee, Wyetta, who said he was sleeping. Hollywood had promised to talk to me at length but had yet to do so. Wyetta assured me that he’d return my call. No call came.
I spent several days waiting for Hollywood to regain consciousness.
I wanted to talk to him about his bizarre dismissal from professional football because it is the perfect story of what pro football is and where it is going in the 1980s.
The good. The bad. The ugly.
To perform well and earn fantastic sums of money and universal, eternal praise as a professional football player: that is the best. It’s rare, but that is it. The thrill of performing is usually as much as a player can hope for, and even that is wonderful. Athletes are performing artists, and most would do it for free; and that is good. But it also becomes the rub. The fine-print stuff. The Standard Player Contract. The Collective Bargaining Agreement. Owners. Ego. Bad. Ugly. Real.
Yes, pro football is a performing art, all right. And to perform in the National Football League, players need tremendous mental and physical talents. They also need tremendous egos in order to survive. An athlete’s ego is his sword and his shield, and each one uses these weapons differently. Some claim not to have them. Those are the guys not to show your back. No athlete survives without his ego, and it is in the organization’s interest to study each player to determine how best to use that ego—always for the club, sometimes against the player.
The Cowboys organization used to require all new players to take a battery of psychological tests. The test questions were not subtle. Among them you’d find things tike this:
What would you rather do?
A. Kill your mother
B. Jack off
C. Read a book
D. Eat live baby ducks
These tests gave management a personatity profile of each player, and the egos were there, diagramed and ready to manipulate. The organization then counseled each member of the team, interpreting his answers to the questions and telling him how certain psychological techniques would enhance his performance. (After I took my tests, I was never personally counseled, which was always a source of wonder and worry to me. I knew, however, that the correct answer to the question above was “D. Eat live baby ducks.”)
The teams were finally barred from requiring such tests, thanks to the NFLPA, but I don’t believe the psychological profiling of players has really stopped. It’s a basic method for better control of athletes. Coaches and captains from peewee leagues on up do it: psyching up their players and teammates, psyching out their opponents.
When the Cowboys organization decided that Thomas Wayne Henderson had become an opponent, they psyched him out. They hit him right in his monstrous ego and persuaded him to do something contrary to his own best interests.
They certainly pushed the right button: Henderson retired.
It cost him plenty.
A coach once told me that the difference between a coal miner and a football player is that a coal miner actually does productive work, whereas a football player’s job is to keep everybody sitting numbly in front of the TV on Sunday afternoons, tuned to the NFL. In return, the player gets to “feel,” to perform.
It’s the perfect trade-off. Lots of cash changes hands, but only about 20 percent gets to the players in the form of salaries. because deep down we all know they’d do it for free.
AT THE Stoneleigh Hotel the next morning, I ordered from room service and ate breakfast watching the Charlie Rose Show, Fort Worth’s answer to Donahue. Not much of an answer. The guests were local sportswriter Skip Bayless and Jack (They Call Me Assassin) Tatum. Tatum was promoting his book. He was well dressed and mannerly. The camera focused on his Super Bowl ring, and Bayless said. “That’s what everybody wants.”
Tatum, Bayless, and Rose lobbed a few beanbag questions back and forth. Tatum talked quite logically and calmly about the necessity of killing the receiver when he cuts across the middle. The vicious hit that left Darryl Stingley paralyzed and crippled for life was referred to as “an unfortunate incident.” Tatum meant to hurt Stingley; he just didn’t expect to break his neck. He was telling the truth, diluting the horror of what he was saying by discussing it intellectually.
At the end of the show, Tatum said. “You have to keep it all in perspective. After football, I plan a career in commercial real estate.”
Sounds like the old Assassin has it in perspective, all right.
At nine A.M. I called Thomas Wayne “Hollywood” Henderson. I let the phone ring a long time. There was no answer.
“IF I had a resource like Hollywood Henderson, it would be my responsibility to get the most I could out of it in terms of my business, not by insisting that he go to church with me every Sunday.”
I heard than at an elegant Highland Park party the Boomer held that night for an Australian publisher who was touring the United States and who had known the Boomer when he was a high jumper in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne.
I think the Boomer was a 7-foot jumper.
High jumping. Jesus, what an event.
Boomer punted for the Cowboys in the ’60s when I was with them. To me, his greatest moment came at Kezar Stadium after he had kicked a towering spiral. Boomer stood there alone, cranelike, near the end zone. on real grass, shading his eyes against the San Francisco sun, watching the ball soar higher and higher from the tremendous force of his long leg. Suddenly, the treacherous Kezar wind swirled and caught the ball—a treasonous perfidious wind blowing out of the Haight-Ashbury. The ball hung in the air, the force of this tall high-jumper’s leg contending with nature on the Left Coast. The stadium was strangely silent as fate decided. Then, sounding shocked, but with its usual very proper Australian accent, came Boomer’s voice.
“My Gawd “he said clearly “it’s coming back.”
Boomer quickly retreated because the ball always drew a crowd. Boomer avoided the rush.
Jesus, the Boomer could kick that ball. It was also at the Boomer’s party that the amusements editor of one of the Dallas papers asked me what Spanish title the movie North Dallas Forty had played under, saying that Cabaret had been shown in Mexico City as Adios Berlin.
Magic language, that Mexican Spanish.
Returning from the Boomer’s party early in the morning, I saw a headline on the front page of the Dallas Times Herald: LANDRY SEES FILM AS OBSCENE. There was a picture of the Bomber Pilot. The chilling headline froze me in my tracks.
“Coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, summoned by state prosecutors, testified Thursday in the obscenity trial of a local adult bookstore proprietor,” the article began.
“Landry, who appeared as an expert witness on community standards, … had made an earlier trip to the courthouse … to view an untitled 12-minute ‘peep show’ that portrayed sexual intercourse and oral sex.
“Landry testified that he addresses 8,000 to 9,000 people each year … and said he nearly always spoke on the problem of obscenity and pornography.
“‘I speak on the philosophy of humanism which is creeping into our society… ,’ Landry explained.”
Landry is an expert on obscenity.
Community standards by the Bomber Pilot.
Creeping humanism? Nigger, please. Not that.
Tom Landry sees films as ….Tom Landry sees life as…Tom Landry interpets God as … Tom Landry sees Thomas Henderson as … No wonder Hollywood is asleep all the time.
THE COWBOYS always want you to be what they want,” says Hollywood Henderson. “They were always after me to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes—not because I’d want to, but because it would be a good image. Hell, I’m too sincere in my faith to use religion like that. But these God-lovers on the Cowboys think nothing of it.”
In 1964, my first team meeting with the Cowboys was opened by Landry—I believe he held a Bible in his hand—talking about football and God. He had found a connection, and he recommended it to all of us. Landry’s connection escapes me now, but the picture of some gut hammering the hell out of people was the jawbone of an ass always comes to mind. I don t think that was how Tommy connected it at all. He let slip that he was a Methodist.
On the blackboard every Sunday would be a list of cars and buses with times of departure for various churches in the southern California desert they called Thousand Oaks, which would eventually contain thousands of people but had at the time only a bowling alley and an all-aluminum Lutheran college where we trained. The country was so desolate it served as location for Gunsmoke.
That first Sunday, I checked the schedule and rode with Landry and his young son, Tommy Jr. That Sunday I became a full-blown Methodist.
I never went back, but in retrospect I think that by landing that first Sunday punch I gained me a little extra time in the NFL. It was worth it. One Sunday as a Methodist.
I should have gone twice. Apparently Hollywood Henderson didn’t go at all.
At that first team meeting, the Cowboys’ public relations man gave us the best advice of all, though I doubt that many players listened. A heavy man, he gripped the podium for balance and looked out at us with big sad eyes that were watery from emotion or drink or both. He was silent for a moment, gazing at the assembled group of anxious, oversize men in shorts and T-shirts. The very first words out of his mouth told me more about survival in the NFL than all the coaches and exercise programs and life philosophies and team doctors ever would.
“Boys,” he said, “this ain’t football, this is show business.”
The rest of his talk went on to explain each player’s role in the show, from attending photo sessions to granting interviews and presenting proper images.
The next speaker explained how our jocks should be rolled up inside our towels along with our socks. Then the trainers told us about medicine and pills, about which ones to take when, and why.
I never forgot the PR man’s words, and I always wondered what happened to him. The last I heard, he was sweeping out bars for drinks—but who knows? He probably hears the same about me.
“Boys, this ain’t football, this is show business.”
I never forgot those words, and you shouldn’t either. Don’t dismiss them with an oh yeah, sure, or use them without thinking. Realize what those words mean to you, the customer.
Are they really showing you the elephant, or are they just gonna tell you you saw it?
I WAS waiting on the ninth floor of the Stoneleigh for Dave Edwards. He was a Cowboys linebacker for many years, and the man Hollywood Henderson replaced. We were going to lunch at the Mecca Restaurant out on Harry Hines Boulevard.
The TV was on in my room when I called Henderson again. His fiancée told me he was still asleep.
Wake up, Hollywood.
Edwards arrived and paced the room. He has lots of energy, bottled up now without the release of football. We renewed our old friendship while the television provided background and a drain for Edwards’s brimming energy.
“You know,” he said, “we had to stay in this hotel after training camp in 1963. It was the only one in town that would take the black players.”
We left the Stoneleigh to eat lunch and then to see Edwards’s boys, Chris and Mike, play soccer.
“Why did Tom cut Hollywood?” I asked once we were in the car.
“Landry hates someone to go overboard and steal the limelight from the organization,” Dave said. He grinned at me. “I think they had a personality clash.” We both laughed at his understatement. “Show biz,” he went on. “That’s what they used to always tell us, wasn’t it? This is show biz.”
“Was Hollywood good?” I asked.
“You couldn’t control Thomas, but goddamn, he was good,” Edwards said. Dave Edwards played linebacker for the Cowboys for more than a decade, and he thinks Hollywood was good. He continued, “He’s a great linebacker and a great athlete. Linebacker’s a tough position to learn. All those keys and audibles. He picked it right up—fast. And he was funny.”
We were driving along in Edwards’s battered white Ford—the “war wagon”—on Harry Hines Boulevard, searching out the Mecca café.
“He was the first linebacker to return a kickoff ninety-seven yards. right? Goddamn, I say this sumbitch can get on with it. Goddamn. this boy is pretty good. Kinda fast,” Edwards said. laughing. “I chose to play this position because you could be slow and do it. Hollywood comes along. and time for me to get out.” He laughed again.
The construction along Harry Hines was frenetic, and Edwards scanned the neighborhood for the café.
“Thomas’s rookie year, he had a gold star put in one of his front teeth—always smiling, showing the star. Gene Stallings had just come in from A&M and walked into the linebacker meeting, dour and militaristic, and Hollywood was wearing sunglasses—you know the kind, dark at the top and clear at the bottom. Stallings says, ‘Thomas, the sun too bright in here for you?’ And Hollywood grins, showing that gold star on his front tooth, and says, ‘When you is cool, the sun is always shinin’.'”
We missed the Mecca on our first pass, and Edwards continued to talk. “That’s what I try to tell the people about, back then when things was real tough, when Landry didn’t put up with no shit. You remember when he cried in the locker room at halftime? Well, things have changed some. First Duane [Thomas] came along and kind of egoed out, or something like that. Duane didn’t have a hell of a lot of eloquence when he was speaking, and he got really paranoid. I tell you, that Duane was good, though, like Hollywood. He was a natural athlete. He hit the right groove at just the right time.”
Edwards suddenly stopped talking and looked blankly ahead, while inside he looked back:
It was 1974 and Dave Edwards had played pro football for a decade when he went to see his head coach because he was troubled and the coach was a Christian man who worried a lot about obscenity.
Edwards was afraid to tell the coach what was on his mind because of the deeply revealing nature of the story. Finally he said, “Coach, several nights ago I dreamed I killed you.” He had difficulty controlling the pitch of his voice. “I dreamed I pushed you off a cliff.”
Tom Landry looked shocked but had little concern, comment, or advice for Edwards. Later. Mike Ditka, one of the assistant coaches up from the player ranks, got drunk with Edwards. Landry had told Ditka about Edwards’s dream.
Landry’s advice was to forget about dreaming.
“Yeah, in the early years Landry didn’t put up with any shit,” Edwards began again. “You had to hit the floor running to just stay on the team.”
We had lunch at the Mecca: chicken-fried steak, homemade biscuits, three vegetables, and a big iced tea.
“One time l walked up to Hollywood and asked him how he was doing,” Edwards said, “and he spoke in a whiny little voice: ‘Oh, Dave, I ain’t doin’ too good. Look at these little arms, they’re so skinny and all, and I been sick.’ And then he lunges forward into my face and growls, ‘But I’m quick.’
“He was one funny guy, T.W.—l called him T.W. He made up all that Hollywood stuff himself. Knew exactly what he was doing. You would’ve loved Hollywood.”
“You know, I made a mistake back then when I was playing,” Edwards said as we crossed the hot parking lot to the war wagon. “I used to meditate on a tiger for fifteen minutes a day. You know, to get mean … and now … it’s like that tiger is loose inside my head. I can’t cage him up anymore.” His jaw was tight. He looked at me. He was searching my eyes.
Edwards and I passed the rest of the time until his boys’ soccer game at Bachman Lake “watching the animals,” as he called it. They roller-skate and barbecue around Bachman Lake, and generally get down. Dallas sure has changed. We reminisced about the old days when Landrv cried and constantly made errors that he would blame on athletes who had no recourse but to duck their heads and “react like football players.”
I don’t think Hollywood is gonna be ducking his head.
Duane Thomas didn’t.
IF CUTTING Hollywood was a psychotic episode on the part of the Dallas organization, the thing to marvel at is the technique by which the organization recovered enough to remember the fine print and to allow Hollywood to have his psychotic episode, which consisted of refusing waivers and retiring. When he let sixty days pass without challenging the Cowboys’ right to cut him, Henderson deprived himself of his grievance case under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Standard Player Contract.
The organization, having first cited Hollywood’s sideline antics as the reason for his dismissal, later mentioned that his play had not been up to standards. They replaced him with Mike Hegman, who was thereafter seen chasing ballcarriers into the end zone—ballcarriers Hollywood might have caught in the backfield. Yet announcers and sportscasters were soon talking about the poor quality of Henderson’s play prior to his retirement. Wasn’t it a shame?
This ain’t competition. man. man This is war And you can’t hit the comers no more
—”Can’t Hit the Comers”
by Bob Seger
It ain’t even war, it’s just show business. But show business is a kind of war. It is a struggle over who creates and defines the illusions, not who puts the ball in the end zone or the strike zone. You don’t have to hit the comers if you.are the one who defines the corners.
I see in the trades that Cowboys owner Clint Murchison and broadcasting magnate Gordon McClendon have purchased a subscription TV system. McCiendon made his reputation in radio by creating imaginary baseball games, complete with sound effects—crowd noise, crack of the bat—while an associate telephoned the progress of the real game to him. The power to define reality.
You beginning to get the picture yet?
Thomas Henderson was trouble, and besides, he just didn’t have it anymore.
After a while, even Hollywood will begin to wonder.
Duane Thomas did.
I FINALLY get Hollywood Henderson on the phone He sounds sleepy. We make plans to meet at Biff’s on Greenville Avenue. On the phone Hollywood seems to be bobbing and weaving. After the long string of unreturned calls and all the “sleep,” I wonder if he will show up.
Greenville Avenue was all pasture when I was with the Cowboys. Now it is single-swinger city, with discos and all the trimmings. I get this visceral feeling that Hollywood is going to put on a show for me instead of putting out any information. His expected trade didn’t go through during the recent NFL draft. He is beginning to feel the pressure of the fact that the NFL is the only game in town.
I’m interested in the legal aspects of the situation, what his case means to the players’ union, but I’m afraid Hollywood isn’t going to oblige me by acting like Joe Hill or John Herny. At Biff’s my fears arc confirmed. It is Hollywood’s hangout, where he does some of his show business. In addition, it is allegedly on the NFL blacklist.
I am already seated and drinking when Henderson arrives, dressed in tight bells and his jersey from the Pro Bowl. Dallas sports and society experts Joe Miller and Roy Yarrow are at the table; they offer to leave and give Hollywood and me some privacy. Hollywood says no and checks his watch—two bad signs. He wants an audience and isn’t staying long.
It is long enough.
I enjoy all I can stand.
Hollywood is funny and full of jive, dodging and angry; at the slightest push, he explodes into vicious, unthinking tirades. I can see the pressure is on him. Time is running out. “If Landry got down on his knees right here and begged me to play for the Cowboys, I wouldn’t. I’d kick his head in. And he’s a nice guy—I call him Tom. I’m gonna be on the cover of Inside Sports.” He brags of his interview with Inside Sports, glancing restlessly around the room.
“The Forty-Niners want me bad,” he says. “The contract I want is a million for five years.” He holds up five fingers. “They need me.”
I ask Hollywood if the NFLPA has been in contact, and he begins an obscene attack on the union for not helping him.
“Rick Schaeffer said they couldn’t reach you, Hollywood,” I say, “because your phone was out of order.”
I tell him that I’ve heard he ripped his phones out. Hollywood grins.
“Yeah, I tore six phones out of the walls, and then I went around and hammered the jacks flat. Then I threw the phones into the street. The phone company charged me six hundred dollars to put it all back.”
Ma Bell better not mess with Hollywood. She needs him.
“I guess that means you’re negotiating for yourself?” I ask Hollywood admits that he’s cutting his own deal with the 49ers, but when I press him for details, he seems evasive or just ignorant, never answering directly, speaking more for effect or rhythm than for any substance. He keeps talking about the million dollars for five years that he has demanded of San Francisco; but according to the Standard Players Contract, he can’t demand anything. The Cowboys still own him because he retired with three years remaining on his contract. The commissioner has yet to reinstate him in the league. When I point this out, Henderson sloughs it off with “They better not fuck with me or else I’II write a book that makes North Dallas Forty look like a fairy tale.”
He grins his monster grin. “Read what I told that guy from Inside Sports.” he says. ‘Til be on the cover.”
He stands and says he’s got to go to the bank. He has given me fifteen minutes.
I order another drink and watch Hollywood swagger out. He is a handsome physical specimen.
“He’s a good-lookin’ guy, okay,” a Braniff stewardess tells me. “But without football, he’s just another blue-gum from east Texas.”
My drink arrives. It’s sure gonna be tough to make Hollywood’s story into John Henry versus the Chesapeake & Ohio or Joe Hill versus the Southern Pacific.
The waitress says she was born the year I joined Dallas. We were 4-10 that year, and most people had never heard of the Cowboys. The Central Expressway access road ended in cotton fields, and the only blacks in this part of town were carrying tow sacks across the prairieland, not swaggering out of singles bars.
Hollywood Henderson didn’t make the cover of Inside Sports.
MORNING. The ninth floor of the Stoneleigh Hotel in the Oaklawn section of Dallas, my favorite part of town. The air is cool, and there is a haze. I’m sitting with my feet up on the open window sill, watching the jets cruise into Love Field and recalling the ’60s in Oaklawn, when Love Field was the only airport around and the jets would come in bone-rattling low, screaming over the housetops. When Braniff was threatening a strike, their pilots came in extra low and loud, and the dogs howled and ran around in circles.
It is Hollywood’s wedding day.
At 2001 Bryan Tower, high in the Dallas skyline, the wedding is beautiful and classy, the people are gentle. l am sitting with former Cowboys teammates Bob Hayes and Willie Townes and their wives. The groom is wearing white tie and tails, and the highlight of the ceremony comes when the black preacher holds his hand over Henderson’s head and cries, “Bless this marvelous man called Hollywood.”
At the reception I meet Hollywood’s college coach, Big Daddy Nivens from Langston University. Big Daddy says, “At college Thomas used to meet the other team’s bus and ride with them to the stadium, telling them how bad he was gonna whip ‘em. He never caused any trouble.” Big Daddy says, “I knew be was gonna be okay his freshman year. I always give freshmen pants that’s too big for them. They usually tape them up. But not Thomas. He took his to a woman in town and had them tailored. I knew he was gonna be great.”
“Wasn’t that a class wedding?” Hollywood says to me later. “Tell them my groomsmen are worth two hundred million. You think I’ll end up like Duane Thomas or Bob Hayes?” He grins knowingly. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.
All the groomsmen are white except two.
“Who are these white guys?” I ask an old teammate.
“They didn’t get no two hundred million giving it away at a colored boy’s wedding, ” he replies. “All of them supposedly own places that the league put off limits.”
The party moves to south Dallas and the Plush Pup, a black disco on Grand Avenue a couple of blocks from the Cotton Bowl. At the disco, a friend of Hollywood’s tells me he advised him to keep a low profile, get married, and stay away from white women. Seems like good advice for any man.
Willie Townes and I talk about the old days with the Cowboys.
“I knew about the Cowboys from the day Tex Schramm asked me, ‘Willie, how you doing?’ And I said, ‘Tex, my aunt just died, and—’ Tex interrupted: ‘Good, good,’ he says.’And how’s the rest of the family?’” Willie shakes his head. “I figured the rest out from there.”
“Who is advising Hollywood?” I ask Willie. “‘Tell them my groomsmen are worth two hundred million!’ What sort of bullshit is that? He needs the union. All the players do. Does Hollywood understand that nobody else helps you when you begin to sink?”
“He’s scared, Peter, ” Willie says and then tells me how it was after he got cut. “Peter, people would come up to me on the street and say, ‘Hey, ain’t you Willie Townes, that fat guy—the guy on the fat man’s table?’ People really love sticking it to you when you’re back down on their level.” Willie drank another Lite beer. He works for a Miller beer distributor.
“I can’t get a straight answer out of Hollywood,” I complain to Willie. “He’s all bluff. Why?”
“Look, man,” Willie repeats, “he’s scared. Time is short. The questions are coming hard and fast. ‘What are you going to do, Hollywood? Who are you going to play with?’ He is scared, man.”
Who is advising Hollywood? Apparently no one. It hardly seems a fair match. But after all, Hollywood is magic.
“He says he’s asking the Forty-Niners for a million,” I say.
Willie just smiles. “Can’t hurt to ask.”
We watch the party as Hollywood moves about the Plush Pup in his elegant white tails. He seems confident. He looks beautiful. Everyone looks beautiful, but Hollywood is the definite center. Can he hold?
The wedding party moves from south to north Dallas, and Willie and his wife eventually drop me off at the Stoneleigh. Up in my room looking out the open window: the Oaklawn section is quiet now. A night bird sings. I think about Tom Landry setting the standards for this town. I love this town. I came of age in this town. I learned things here, met people from the Northeast and Midwest, people of all colors, all sizes and shapes. A lot of them were athletes, football players. They needed the union then, and they need the union now. It is show business, and they are laborers with public images, and each player is responsible for his own image. Henderson must become responsible for Hollywood—not for the Cowboys or the NFL, but for himself and other athletes like him, men struggling to keep fame from sucking them under. Hollywood and the NFLPA need each other, or soon Landry will be setting standards for the world.
We are just the survivors, Willie. Think about all those guys who sank without a trace.
“Don’t hurt me, now, Pete,” Henderson said when I left. Hollywood was dressed in white tails. We didn’t discuss the union.
It was his wedding day.
Two hundred million worth of groomsmen.
A COUPLE days later I start calling the newly married Henderson, trying to get my promised interview. The phone is seldom answered, and then only after it has rung for a long time. His bride. Wyetta, always answers, and Thomas is always asleep. I leave my name and number in case he regains consciousness. Apparently he never does, for my calls are not returned.
My final morning in Dallas is sunny, cool, quiet. I realize that the haze is not going away. It is constant, as it is in Los Angeles. In the morning paper is a story about Hollywood’s replacement: “Mike Hegman, the Dallas Cowboys linebacker indicted on forgery charges in March and scheduled to go on trial last Monday, has had his trial date moved to Dec. 8—two weeks before the end of the National Football League regular season,” the article begins.
“There have been no special concessions made because he’s a Dallas Cowboy,” the DA on the case is quoted as saying.
“It was just a coincidence that (the new trial date) happened to go into the season,” Hegman’s attorney is reported to have said. “It’s just one of those things.”
It’s also a coincidence, no doubt, that on the West Coast recently, Cowboys defensive back Dennis Thurman convinced authorities that he was only joking when he passed a note to a bank teller saying that he was holding up the bank. “Sorry, y’all, just kidding.”
Yet Hollywood is out. Out cold, apparently.
l start packing. My laundry has not returned, but it is time to leave. I can feel it in my bones.
I try one more phone call to Hollywood. His new bride says he is still asleep.
I guess so.
l finish packing.
I don’t wait for my laundry.
A FEW days after I returned to hill country—the day J.C. the barber and Sonny the JP wanted to know the definition of paranoid—an article appeared in one of the Austin papers: “Thomas ‘Hollywood’ Henderson, the former Dallas Cowboys linebacker whose sideline antics prompted his dismissal from the team, has been traded to the San Francisco 49ers for an undisclosed 1981 draft choice,” the paper reported.
“Cowboy spokesman Greg Aiello said the trade was unconditional, explaining that Dallas would get a draft choice even if San Francisco ‘cut Henderson tomorrow.’”
The operative phrase is undisclosed draft choice—that and unconditional. These are usually the kiss of death, but maybe not for Hollywood, who has his magic and is a great linebacker.
Still, an unconditional, undisclosed draft choice is something that exists only in the realm of the imagination. It is the classic corporate ploy. Now when Henderson wakes up he’ll have another corporation—the 49ers—between him and the Cowboys. If he were to file a grievance over his firing now, which corporation would he file it against? And how?
Run too slow, they fuck you; run too fast, they bite you on the ass.
Call your shot, Hollywood.
IN AUSTIN, my wife phoned with a message to return Hollywood Henderson’s emergency call. The new bride answered, as usual, after a long series of rings. Then Hollywood came on the line and sleepily warned me not to repeat certain things he’d said about teammates and people at the wedding. I guess he’d finally regained consciousness—but a little late, I’m afraid. I was tired of dealing with his ego, but I understood his problem and have been trying to explain it to you.
Now that I finally had Hollywood on the phone, I didn’t want to talk to him. “Look. Thomas, I stayed in Dallas for ten days trying to talk to you. I thought your case was a good one to show how a player’s rights are so easily violated. How his ego is used against him. How they make him look crazy. How badly the players need to support the NFLPA. Have you talked to the union lately? To Rick Schaeffer or Ed Garvey?” I knew he hadn’t. I knew what he was thinking: They need me worse than I need them.
“I’m interested in your legal case, Thomas. I’ve been through all the name-calling bullshit. They can say worse things about you than you can say about them, and they can do it longer. No matter what you call them, they can always call you ‘not good enough.’ You got a new contract with the Forty-Niners? The one-million-dollar one?”
“Yeah, there’s a contract.” His voice was sullen. He was evasive again. No mention of one million. “I negotiated it myself.”
Hollywood paused. “You better not fuck me up, Peter. Everything’s going good.”
“Yeah, sounds wonderful,” I said. “Listen, Thomas, we both got enough paranoia without this.” I hung up.
I don’t know if Thomas understands. I’m not certain I do, either. But then, that’s the idea, after all: Just keep sticking your head in there.
After I hung up, I thought of Willie Townes puffing his cigarettes and drinking his Lite beer and saying, “He’s scared, man. He’s scared.”
Me too, Willie. Me too.
All efforts have been made to reach the rights-holders for this story. If you are the rights holder and would like this story removed, please contact me.—Alex Belth
How civilized the fame game was then, a timid, furtive glimpse for the observer, the observed cordoned off by a dreamlike distance of respect. Worship knew its place; so did greatness. It was caught sharply once by a young American student as he sighted Flaubert suddenly passing his table, their gazes meeting, his eyes like bits of faded blue sky, the huge body looming down, then gone, a magnificent ship of achievement receding in the sunlight like a mirage, leaving behind forever a face, the smell of afternoon wine, and mystery unscarred by any attempt at aggressive familiarity. How easily devotion and curiosity were sated. All that was asked of, say, a Shelley was his ballet of lines, never mind that he was a conniving weasel, an evangelist of free love, a brooder in private about his lack of noisy attention. The exposed colossus was to be the meat of the next century.
No wiser or more wounded authority on that subject exists than Marlon Brando, the tortured exemplar in the age of perfected mythomania. The fame game seems to have eaten him alive, crunched and munched him into a brand-name mythological mush (so many conflicting tales, so many refractions from the light of grinding axes) that repels him, created a dark lore that has fascinated for nearly five decades. The tranquil, public haze that gathered over the likes of Shelley and Flaubert is all he ever seems to have desired, the work dwarfing fraudulent celebrity, the work speaking for the man. To that end, he has gone to dramatic lengths, from playing the imp or the fool when treed for interviews, to coiling into a merciless critic of himself, of the twisted values of the business that spawned him, and of the society that honors him; from the isolation and hermetic gloom of his Beverly Hills remove, to his primitive self-internment in the South Seas.
No matter how inaccessible or contemptuous he is, no matter what he says, nothing seems to diminish the gravity of his name, the wonder, ever since he stood beneath a balcony in A Streetcar Named Desire, an animal in pain, and screamed from the bottom of his being: Stellllaaa! Now, after nearly ten years of chosen estrangement – he seems to use disaffection and distance the way other actors use a false nose – Brando is back to work on the legend again in two films: A Dry White Season, as a South African lawyer for a ten-minute turn well below his price, and the soon-to-be-released The Freshman, in which he plays a Mafia chieftain who crosses paths with a college student (Matthew Broderick) in New York. His choice of these films is instructive.
The South African lawyer appeals to his genuine, almost clinical rage toward injustice. Give him a script and he’ll examine it like a medieval archivist, blowing away the dust of nonsense, looking for villains and saints that correspond to his life views, for themes that illuminate the polished grubbiness of the world. To the ordinary, unobfuscating mind, The Godfather was about people shooting other people all over town, turning blood into marinara sauce, and at its best a well-observed anthropology of a subculture. But to Brando, the Mafia was a metaphor for corporate thuggery in America, Don Corleone the archetype of the man in the Oval Office: humanity masking the capacity for evil. The Freshman would appear to be Brando-proof, free of darkling mirrors, a lap for the money, something that touches the whimsy in him. Except: the director, Andrew Bergman, also wrote The In-Laws, Brando’s all-time favorite film, a threepenny opera about the CIA, the one monolith he despises more than Hollywood and the goonlike media.
But after ten years of absence, it is remarkable that there remains any demand for Brando, and it would be understandable if there were none; he has always carried a lot of unkempt industry baggage. The war stories have traveled down the decades, sure anathema to the new industry, which is sensitive more than ever to a poltergeist loose in their profit line; the very mention of Brando’s name has been known to cause four-star heartburn. The legend, then, the talent, cannot be denied? Would that it were so, but the new executives – who bring to film all the passion they would to a bar of soap – have no patience with historical memory, abominate the heirloom name, except at the Academy Awards, when they gush with soulful treacle. Instant, disposable legends (how many will be around ten, even five years from now?) lashed to flashy, empty vehicles and aimed at the new audience inform the ruling interests; true giants belong to college film festivals, to the art-house movie rats who like to debate the stylistic quiver of a lip into deep revelation.
To the executive mind, Brando might as well be coming back from the dead, doing the Lazarus turn for posterity. Lengthy careers of a singular cut don’t alchemize with the new audience. Orson Welles wasn’t allowed to work for years for many reasons, among them his film sensibility. The same for the great director Elia Kazan, and now Robert Altman. John Huston stayed in action because he was the consummate politician – legend had the powerful Ray Stark clearing the brush for him. Talent needs content, a story and characters to match it, components that are vague to an audience that expects ten-car pileups, orgiastic violence, technological feasts for the eye and comic-book zaps for story, a trend well under way when Brando took a powder. To this audience – say, under forty, certainly under thirty – the Brando name can’t mean much; some fat guy, maybe, sitting around and eating breadfruit on an island.
If they remember him at all, it might be as Jor-El in Superman, to his critics a cynical grab for the money ($3 million for several minutes); to the more sympathetic his effort, perhaps, to catch the new wave, to keep active until the right property showed up. Both views are probably correct; Brando can never be accused of simplicity of motive. If he cared at all – and that can never be certain – the experience had to be unsettling, this glimpse of the possible fate ahead, the actor as harlequin on the make, the queasy recognition that he was doomed to be an Easter Island statue in a cheesy shopping mall. That, of course, grants him a pride to which he has never spoken, a passion for excellence to which he has never admitted, not even at the start of his career, when he disassembled the craft of acting, cleaved at the baroque, when he filled the screen with a ragged, mean diction and projected a humanness stripped of artifice and pretense, flesh and blood all over the place, a soul bared for once, and wriggling in a gauze of light.
The magic is central to the lure of Brando, especially to those over forty, some of whom met him for the first time in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, others who were there when it began, all of them waiting for the voltage to hiss and crack one more time. To his older followers, he has always cast a wider net in his roles; the very life of the times ran through him. Like a sudden slap to the face, he seemed to put young males in touch with their maleness, to replace tentativeness with a code, however primordial. After his performance as the dominating baby-beast Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, urban centers and colleges were filled with young men in torn T-shirts who vowed never to be a pushover for any woman. In The Wild One, he presaged a coming era of rebellion and psychic unrest, made the leather jacket a symbol, and flooded the highways with motorcycles. What was he rebelling against? His character replies: “What have you got?” In On the Waterfront, he struck a resonating twang in many men with a heartbreaker to his double-crossing brother, Charley, lines that are still repeated: I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, an impeccable thrust to the heart of being a man, to all those futures out there in the dark sure to be glutted with dream rubbers like union boss Johnny Friendly; the massive scar tissue awaits, can you handle it and move ahead with dignity?
And the stories, the lore lived up to the screen identity: there was a long-standing intimation that he could never answer a curtain call during Streetcar’s long Broadway run unless he could produce an erection. “The Slob,” Time called the image. Brando didn’t fancy the label much. Yet, offscreen, his behavior obliged. He hated the feel of new clothes, so he borrowed his agent’s old suits; most of the time he was in jeans, adding to his brute sexuality. He was boorish at parties, with crude put-ons. When a woman columnist finally met him, she said, “Why, you look like everyone else.” He looked at her, then walked away and stood on his head. The first words he said to a Chicago publicist, getting off the train with a pet raccoon on his shoulder, were: “Where can I get Russell fucked?” Was he out to startle, to be the celluloid image (quite doubtful), or was it all just an exterior behind which he could hide and probe for a true self that could cope? The quest, along with shrouding depression, led him into ten-year therapy with Bela Mittleman, and after the psychoanalyst died, he still seemed adrift. With resignation, he once confided: “All I want to be is normally insane.”
There are people who, when they cease to shock us, cease to interest us. Brando no longer shocks, yet he continues to be of perennial interest, some of it because of what he did on film, some of it because he resists definition, and maybe mostly because he rejects, by his style of living and his attitudes, much of what we are about as a nation and people. He seems to have glided into the realm of folk mystery, the kind that fires attempts at solution.
When he first came along, there were just lazy gossip columnists and press agents, all like a swarm of mice nibbling at him. Now there are zoom lenses, photographers dangling from helicopters, an editorial derangement overdosing on the star shot or interview, and guys who would hack through a jungle for a chance to discover what he reads in the bathroom. As he returns to public view, how disgusting it must be to him, how cornered and exposed he must feel, with tiers of insensate cameras whirring and recording the decay of a face and body that stopped women’s hearts and made men squirm over their genetic short change, showing what happened finally to Kowalski, Terry Malloy, the smirking, cocksure Johnny on his cycle, revealing to the star-greedy world raw evidence of how ephemeral and mortal even the gods are; Brando lumbering about, hair whitened, face melting, and carrying three hundred pounds; Brando gorging on crab legs, the butter dripping from his chin like raindrops. He never understood the attitude of the late Harold Clurman, whom Brando knew on Broadway. “What an adventure, life,” he was fond of saying. “What fun, this flop.” The flop part devoured Brando; the fun of fame, money, women, and his talent was impenetrable.
Brando has always disparaged the specialness of acting, equating it with some mindless reflex and an ordinariness common to all humans. Duty, art, that’s simply ethereal piffle for a dronish exercise that is no more romantic than drilling teeth. It is an outlook directly at odds with the holy cosmos of theater and movies; a fire hose on the power of illusion, a deterrent to the tunnel-vision ambition that feeds the tradition. But this attitude has not been rate among actors, particularly Spencer Tracy and Richard Burton. Tracy factored out acting to knowing your lines and not knocking over the coffee table. He thought it an immature calling, and when Brando’s wife Anna Kashfi sought his advice, he told her: “Don’t fret about it. Acting doesn’t require brainpower. Look at your husband.” Burton thought the craft diminished the man into fop, and pined for the beery, bloody Welsh rugby fields that had forged him, where a man’s sense of himself could be made palpable. What a paltry ambition, acting, Brando told an interviewer, then asked: “How come you always ask questions about acting? What else you got?”
Stella Adler, the grande dame of acting scholarship, was the first influence on Brando’s career, in 1943. Irrepressible, dominant, she knew how to fill a room. Her approach was to allow an actor to free the irrational in himself. An actor must contend with words, bring imagination to them. Ever since, Brando has used words as keys with which to enter the deep center of a character. Some have thought that he is incapable of remembering lines; they are printed on cards around the set, even on the foreheads of other actors. Odd, for a mind that can quote obscure passages of Shakespeare without effort. Quite simply – and to him like so much about society’s writ of life itself – the discipline of line rote reduces him to a mechanism, imprisons whatever mood or energy he wants to fire out. He needs a lot of room. Adler gave it to him first, and he’s fought with every stentorian director who’s tried to put his talent in irons. It was Adler’s contention that she taught him nothing, that she “just opened the door, and he walked through it.” She added: “He lives the life of an actor twenty-four hours a day. If he is talking to you, he will absorb everything about you, your smile, the way your teeth grow.”
By an infinite number of perceptions he seems to form tacit conclusions about the fate of a picture, about what amounts of creativity it deserves. He can disappear from the screen, or attempt to commit visual suicide, as he did in The Missouri Breaks, trying to con with a pathetic accent, dancing a jig on credibility when he turns the character of a western killer into a dippy overweight drag queen.
He’s walked through a lot of films; so did the titan Olivier, but none of them stuck to him, nobody counted. Being an earnest technician, the gallant professional who doesn’t let the side down, never figures in the mix. As Burton said of himself, Brando cannot pander to a project; it works or it doesn’t. But even Burton, who admired Brando, said that “I [wish I] could take him in my teeth and shake enthusiasm into him.” Above all else a reverential man of the classic stage, he thought that Brando ruined many performances by underarticulation.
The history of his interaction with his peers doesn’t fit the Brando who disdains his work, minimizes its import. Such a man would be above the fray, would not care enough to respond to the threat of competition. But actors, whipsawed emotionally from day one, are poised on the edge of envy all their lives. They are sensitized to the tiniest slight, can turn any incident into a contest of wills. Even so, the idea of those of huge stature childishly mucking about competitively would seem to be too trivial, a fiction devised by the press. In diaries, Burton enlightens on the subject, how the compulsion to win, always there on the inside, is driven from the outside too. A friend back in Wales asks him: “What do you think of this Brando boy?” Burton replies: “Very good, very good indeed.” The friend draws close, and says: “But Rich, can you beat him?” For all his protestations, Brando played the star business like everyone else. His antennae shot up in the arena; it was just that his method of offense (rattling other actors, turning sets into chaos, playing mind games with directors) was more opaque.
Eddie Jaffe, a press agent, of all people, sees much more. Jaffe and Brando were close in the early days, even shared the same psychoanalyst. “All his actions,” says Jaffe, “what made him, drives him, or cripples him come from a monumental, dark lack of self-esteem.” It began early, and was locked up forever in his mind when he told his coarse father that he wanted to be an actor. “What?” asked the father. “Look in the mirror! Who would hire a yokel like you?”
To Brando, authority, any kind, unbalances him. Brando was in awe of Charlie Chaplin, until he worked for him in A Countess from Hong Kong. Brando has never claimed to be handy with comedy, a deficiency he often regretted when he would endlessly watch Laurel and Hardy films; he thought he would learn from the great Charlie. Instead, Chaplin manacled him with punctilious direction, burdened him with minutiae. But it was more than that, Brando related later. “He was a mean man, Chaplin. Sadistic. He humiliated, insulted his son [Sydney, who had a small part].” It infuriated Brando, and when Chaplin tried the same thing with him, Brando told him where he could stick his movie, frame by frame, adding: “Don’t you ever speak to me in that tone of voice.” Chaplin, he said, was a remarkable talent but a monster of a man.
By then, Hollywood was coming to the same judgment about Marlon Brando. Countess was near the end of a long line of ten failures, not only at the box office. There had been aesthetic collapse in his unengaged work. And though all stars make horrendous choices of films (instincts are not infallible, you have to trust others eventually), the constant yelp of Brando’s dogs quelled the roar of his mystique. He had become a hack, a turbulent hack at that. In Hollywood, genius is equated to money rung up: a place run by cultural swine. His ex-wife Anna Kashfi says Brando had noted this from the first, saying that you could defecate on their rugs out there is the price was right; now his career was in slithers. He spurned a retreat to the stage (unlike Burton and Olivier); theater required a grueling attention span, high-octane commitment; he surely hadn’t forgotten how Streetcar had ravished his psyche. As it was, he drifted, leaving behind much animus but a vast indelibility, a model for future actors. As director Lewis Milestone observed, every punk extra with a couple of lines wanted to do and be a Brando.
It has been conjectured over the years that Brando threw himself so intensely into the role of Stanley Kowalski that he became him, a trampler of other people’s feelings, with a porcine sex drive in relentless snuffle. The latter appealed instantly to men (if that was murder one, then most of them would rise for conviction), and women sensed a freeing sexuality in him, a feral quality that recognized no constraints. Back then sex was a murmur bound with restraints and a rigid exterior of decorum. All the great screen lovers were feathery, rakish threats, perfumed, ample with technique and conscious of sexuality’s exterior. Brando was sweat, jungle demands, and there were no rules, only a room and a bed; a kitchen table would do. And he had no conscience; look what he did to haunted, fragile Vivien Leigh in Streetcar. Kowalski was a reality transplant that never let Brando alone.
“I hated him,” said Brando. “People have asked me if I’m really Kowalski. Why, he’s the antithesis of me. Kowalski is a man without any sensitivity, without any morality but his own.”
There is no reason – except for his swirling love life offscreen and some volatile testimony from an ex-wife – not to take him at his word. He has spent his whole life running from “The Slob” tag. The first thing he said after he became a star was, “Now I have to educate myself.” Since then, he has pursued Eastern religions, read philosophers from Lao-Tzu to Schopenhauer to the point of eyestrain, his single goal being to try to understand himself and human beings, to find The Truth from somebody “you think is not a bullshitter,” somebody who has the eyes of a saint and the perceptions of a ghost. He’s never gone along with Stella Adler, who liked to quote to him: “Don’t try to know who thou art. Long hath this idea tormented thee.” Those who have been close to him say that much from the search eludes him, that he is a man going at an iceberg with a pick, the chips flying up brilliantly to him but never forming a unified whole.
Whatever the depth of his intellect, there is a special, pure, childlike wonder in Brando. He does not want to be what Kowalski communicates, that “we are here for one, terrible, gnashing, stomping moment, and that’s all.” He wants to make sense of things, never more evident than when he used to camp out at night while shooting The Missouri Breaks. With the Montana sky ablaze and banging, he sat in the dark, quietly intense and fingering a computer, timing the lightning strikes, which were enough, he said, to make him feel religious. This side has been shown only rarely. Mostly, he has condescended to inquiry with baiting and a weird, oblique gamesmanship.
One of the few interviews of any length was with Truman Capote. The writer first met him in a deserted theater. Streetcar was in rehearsal, and the young Brando was asleep on stage, on his chest an open book, Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. He was in denim pants and a white T-shirt, and Capote instantly saw the sexuality. He wrote: “It was as if a stranger’s head had been attached to the brawny body, as in certain counterfeit photographs. For this face was very untough, superimposing as it did an almost angelic refinement and gentleness.” He went on to talk about his aquiline nose and full lips that had a relaxed, sensual expression. Years later, Capote wrote him off as a dummy. “Maybe,” joked Brando, “because I got my nose broken.”
Brando was passionate about boxing, and before On the Waterfront he spent days studying the middleweight Rocky Graziano. During the run of Streetcar, he liked to spar backstage, hence the broken nose. He was not only pleased at how he got it, he was elated that it made his face more interesting. The producer Irene Selznick agreed: “I honestly think the broken nose made his fortune as far as the movies go. It gave him sex appeal. Previously, he had been too beautiful.” It was an appeal that he dismissed. Women, he said, never stared at him when he walked by. If they did, it was the movie-star gawk.
“You’ve got to have love,” he told Capote. “What other reason is there for living? That has been my main trouble. My inability to love anyone.” He didn’t seem to stop long enough to find out; he had harem taste. And he leaned toward dark, dusky women, usually foreign or of foreign extraction. Light-skinned women, he told Kashfi, derailed him sexually, explaining, “My mother was blond, you see.” The Eurasian beauty France Nuyen was one of the few famous women he romanced. Brando drove her so wild that her weight soared and she lost a role in a movie. Another, so frustrated, put a voodoo doll on his lawn. Another attempted suicide, anything to retain his attention. He tried to understand the impermanence of love: “Nothing lasts for more than a little while. You could love a girl so much you could cut your stomach open. A year later you never want to see her again.” He sought beauty, but was more drawn to lives of odd content. “He was talking to me one day,” remembers Eddie Jaffe, “and he said excitedly that he had just met the most beautiful woman ever. Wow, I thought, he’d had some beauties. I asked him why. And he said, ‘She’s had the saddest life I’ve ever heard.’”
Kashfi attributes this preference to Brando’s need to feel superior to women. Their marriage produced one boy, Devi. He supposedly never lived with Movita, a Mexican actress, yet it was a legal union on paper that gave him another boy, Miko. Since then, he’s had a Tahitian wife, who recently sounded rather impatient with him. But it was the marriage to Kashfi that was a nightmare. According to her, it was rife with violence, torment, kinky sexual compulsions (his, of course), and free-fall neurosis.
In her book, she accused him of being a “clumsy seducer” and a sexual hog, a man who all but lit candles to his penis. Some of her nonsex observations are very revealing, if you can believe them, but when it comes to a man and a woman in their bed, or a battle for child custody, it is best to seek a neutrality of judgment. Besides, what did she expect when he first showed up to court her dressed as a Good Humor man, white shirt, pants, shoes, and rode around Hollywood in a convertible with a trick arrow sticking out of his head. To her credit, she dismissed most of the premarital tales she had heard. But she thought he was capable of bizarre constructions; he relished the yarns when she asked.
And who wouldn’t believe anything after Last Tango in Paris? Here was Kowalski with an education and emotionally vanquished. The critic Pauline Kael correctly called it a stupendous film breakthrough. The director, Bernardo Bertolucci, had wrung Brando dry; he hadn’t been guided, slyly coerced into a performance like this since the days of Elia Kazan.
The film is centered in a vacant apartment, an asylum of crushing fears, of bad memories. An ex-boxer and actor-rebel, Paul (Brando) is an aging reject of society, with the harpoons of life exposing torn emotional flesh. All his life he has been in search of love; now he wants a reality he can understand: no names, no identities, detonated sex without love. “You see,” he says to Jeanne (Maria Schneider), “we’re going to forget everything we knew. All the people, wherever we lived. Everything outside this place is bullshit.” He overwhelms her, pummels her sexually into a mere body, sodomizing her and forcing her to recite a declaration against love and society. Watching one scene, Brando’s dresser said, “Something’s up, he’s taking this seriously.”
An actor friend, Christian Marquand, was astounded: “Forty years of Brando’s life experiences went into the film. It is Brando talking about himself, being himself. His relations with his mother, father, children, lovers, friends – all come out in this performance.” At the end of the shoot, an exhausted Brando said: “I will never go through this again.”
With his career inert in the late Sixties, Brando spent all of his time on a Tahitian atoll he had purchased. He was attracted to the lassitude and openness of the society, to the purity of life, and no doubt to the beautiful women, unimpaired psychologically. There is a lot of Rousseau in him, a back-to-nature idealism that drives him to want to remake the world. It would be startling if Brando had not read him, for much of his social thinking echoes Rousseau’s view that “man’s breath was fatal to his fellow men.” On his island of Tetiaroa – tetia meaning “standing alone” and roa meaning “far away” – it was as if Brando were going about putting Rousseau’s meditations into action. When he wasn’t walking naked in the moonlight, he worked like a slave trying to effect a utopia. He poured millions into the environment, threw himself into a myriad of scientific experiments aimed at creating a simple, highly functional society free of Western values.
The Sixties were also a propitious time for Brando’s instinct for social redress. He campaigned hard for the civil rights movement, fought for the Black Panthers, and championed his favorite cause, the plight of the American Indian. Wrongly, critics saw his activities as a device to revive a failing career. His compassion for bottom dogs went way back. Once, when he had his own film company, he was in a funk over the Chinese, and one of his partners shouted: “Stop worrying about eight hundred and fifty million Chinese! Worry about us, two Jews – your partners.” He agreed later to do the film called Burn! with Gillo Pontecorvo. Shooting took place in the heat of Colombia, and he was quickly at odds with the Italian, the way he treated blacks, who got half the pay of whites and were given slumlike living facilities. “I want to kill Gillo,” he was heard saying. “I really want to kill him.” Questioned why, Brando raged: “Because he has no fucking feelings for people.”
Going into the Seventies, Brando moved out of semiexile and into one of the most protean runs of his career. By now, there was a whole new atmosphere in Hollywood, charged by filmmakers and actors who had grown up on his films. He had always had the adulation of younger actors. James Dean used to follow Brando around like a shadow; he was tepid about Dean, even jarred by his wildness, and he told him that he was “mentally disturbed and should go into analysis.” Jack Nicholson said Brando was a heroic figure to him. When he moved out of Hollywood, right next door to Brando, he still stared with awe at his neighbor. “No telling,” he said, “how many people were trying to emulate his timing, his style.” When Brando walked onto the set of The Godfather, Al Pacino lost his composure. He was in a daze, his face white and his hands shaking. “What’s the matter, Al?” an executive asked. “They want you in there. Go on.” Pacino said: “You don’t understand. Have you any idea what it is for me to be doing a scene with him? I sat in theaters when I was a kid just watching him. . . . He’s God, man.”
Coppola had been vindicated after Paramount studio chief Robert Evans questioned his judgment in wanting to hire Brando. “I’m surprised at you, Francis,” said Evans, shaking his head, filled with visions of chaos and a destroyed budget. Not on firm ground himself, the young Coppola pleaded: “You don’t know what an effect he’ll have, you don’t understand his mystical relationship to actors.”
Robert Mitchum rightly observed some time back that no one ever did a film with Brando. “He’ll take you to hell in a dogsled,” said Lewis Milestone. But these new directors seemed to enter a cobwebbed room of Brando’s mind, they jostled his imagination and creativity. “When people deal with him honestly,” said the late director-actor John Cassavetes, “there’s no one better – ask any actor.” Whatever it was, Coppola freed the giant in Brando with Don Corleone, and did it again later as he pulled out the tenebrous, lost reflections of Colonel Kurtz, in a dim, shadowed cave dwelling at the end of Apocalypse Now. A master of improvisation, Bertolucci had Brando right in his gunsight, won his enthusiasm by encouraging him to shape scenes in Last Tango. “An angel as a man,” said Bertolucci, “a monster as an actor. He is like one of those figures of the painter Francis Bacon who show on their faces all that is happening in their guts.”
So with two new films, Brando is back, slowly closing the circle of his career. Who is Marlon Brando? Is he Kowalski of Streetcar, the rebel in The Wild One, the lost Paul in Tango? Who will he be next, as he feels his way toward the events of aging and death, fumbling for a serenity that has seldom been there in his life?
Extraordinarily, and emblematic of his disarrayed genius, parts of a self-portrait can be found in most of his films; no actor has thrown himself so naked to our voyeurism. Anna Kashfi says his whole life has been this: “Here I am – don’t look at me.” On film, at his very best, he has had nowhere to hide. And you can ponder what gnarled, semiblinking neuron in his brain has motivated Brando to turn himself into a three-hundred-pound remove from a former self; the apogee of narcissism turned like a knife inward. Striking looks and fame made him feel like a geek; growing ugly closes the case out, seals off affection with a releasing finality. As for his work, a powerful argument can be made that he has been the greatest American actor of this century – the single one who will survive well into the next. As Nicholson says: “The man does scorch the earth, right? I mean, for two hundred miles in any direction. Not much leavin’s.” And when Marlon Brando is gone, a wind will gust around an empty throne, and sway the heavy curtains on the wall.
This story is reprinted her with permission from Mark Kram, Jr.
Still, you can’t go wrong with any of his four books:
It’s a shame that much of his magazine work is unavailable on-line, so in an effort to correct that wrong, here is a piece that originally appeared in the October 1974 issue of Esquire. It is reprinted here with Jeanine Flaherty’s permission.
Toots Shor Among the Ruins
By Joe Flaherty
HE DOTH BESTRIDE WHAT’S LEFT OF YANKEE STADIUM LIKE WHAT’S LEFT OF A COLOSSUS
Across the isle of Manhattan these days floats a torch song for the past. The wail seems to be strained through a muted horn or, better yet, siphoned through a derby. What occasions this is the belief that the Apple has turned sour, the Big Town has become just another burg.
The reasons are myriad: political, social, sporting. For a while Lindsay revived some past glories, but his clout was cultural—always a limited bailiwick. Lincoln Center is a haven for scratch hitters, while Jimmy Walker got the kudos of the leather-lunged set in saloons, ball parks, and the Garden. Now City Hall is dwarfed by an accountant.
When future generations walk what was “The Main Stem,” “Dream Street,” “The Great White Way,” they will be as baffled as current-day surveyors of Stonehenge. What do these remains bespeak? Will they believe that such places as the Paramount, the Roxy, the Capitol, the Strand, Lindy’s, Birdland, the Hotel Astor, and Tootsie’s ever existed? Or will they think they were some Runyonesque flight of fancy?
Will they ever believe that Broadway was once a street where a gent sported a derby on his head instead of his lap, and that deep throat was the source of accolades for Ruth, DiMag, Mantle, Mays, Canzoneri, Conn, and Louis rather than the private province of Linda Lovelace?
Contrary to the boast of the Beautiful People, the town has turned tacky. Every freak who scatters glitter on his or her navel and whose sexual persuasion is as dubious as Eisenhower’s syntax (confusion over copulative verbs) is christened a celeb overnight. Even the mob guys have lost their cachet. No more Big Frenchys, Owney Maddens, and “Uncle Frank” Costellos. The current crop, if one is to believe their chroniclers, are Sicilian versions of Robert Young in Father Knows Best.
Sports have seen a better day here. What once passed as a mortal Olympus has been reduced to an anthill. The Dodgers are gone like the trolley; and the Giants, residents of Coogan’s Bluff, went with them westward to California for man’s most expedient reason: the fast buck. The sites where Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds stood are now housing projects, a progression that might brighten the horizons of the Americans for Democratic Action but hardly the hopes of those theologians who thought the teams’ existence in this town was as essential as God or the Devil (depending on your persuasion) and who nightly found biblical or demonic portents in the box scores of the Daily News.
The football Giants are taking it on the lam for New Jersey (the spare-parts capital of the world), so one will feel no longer like a sport on a trek to the Stadium but rather like a penny-conscious housewife on a foray to a suburban shopping mall. The Mets and Jets are sequestered out in Queens, which is as consoling as having a government-in-exile.The Garden is the last real action spot, but most of the championship fights of late have been held out of town or out of the country to beat New York’s huge tax bite.
Of course, there are the Knicks and the Rangers. The Knicks are fine if you can come by the hottest ticket in town and then bear to sit will a collection of unisexuals from Maxwell’s Plum and Thursday’s; while hockey is best left to those whose psyches are haunted by the province of Manitoba and violence on the rocks.
Just pause to think of the glories of another day. During the golden era of sport, the early Twenties through the Fifties, the three New York baseball clubs—the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants—won a combined total of forty-one pennants and twenty-three World Series. There was incestuous joy in those stats. From 1921 to 1956 there were thirteen (!) “Subway Series,” involving the Yankees (participants in all) against either the Dodgers or the Giants. So the navigators of New York knew better than to believe the notion that the world was round. Abundant riches were to be found in the flat shuttling of the subways.
To unearth all these relics, there was only one man to turn to. A man who knew all the bygone haunts, hoods, and heroes. A man who outdrank and outlasted them not because of his spiritual and social worth but through the tenacity of an anointed liver: New York’s premier saloonkeeper, Toots Shor.
If the choice offends contemporary barhoppers, indulge. It’s a forgotten motif we’re seeking. Better yet, try to picture Elaine Kaufman (hostess of the chichi Elaine’s) laying a fin on a down-and-out wino. But like everything that once comprised his world, Shor’s star these days is in descendance. First off, he is a man without a saloon, which to Shor is like being a priest without a pulpit. No longer do the greats serve as acolytes at his boozy altar, accepting both compliment and insult as blessing. In the old days either one sufficed, the only limbo was being ignored. To be called a “creep” or a “crumbum” back them meant you were a member of his liquid church.
Now his only outlet to his world is the telephone on which the congregation call in daily (though check in seems more like it) for a few minutes of patter that has the ancient jocularity of the buck-and-wing. But it is not a one-way street: the voices on both ends of the line seem to need the therapy. So the phone it must be, since Toots is too sick to make house calls.
Shor sits in a small suite in the Hotel Drake, dressed in blue pants and an open-neck shirt. Even the gold wedding band on his finger bows to a more innocent time. The band is a testament to forty years of marriage to the same woman. He is seventy-one, and his once rugged bulk has been whittled away by a combination of age, illness, and nearly a half century of beating the milkman home by an eyelash. Of late, he has suffered two broken hips, has arthritis in his knee, and on this day he is a week away from having a pancreas operation.
But the visitor does not receive a litany of old-age infirmities (that would show “no class” in the Shor cannon). Indeed, his only lamentation is that he has been on the wagon for three weeks on doctor’s orders, and Shor is a man who can make three weeks without sauce sound like the worldly rejection of a Trappist monk.
But to talk of Shor, one must understand a simple fact: a good part of life is the gesture or the front one puts up. Only deadbeats and punks weep about life’s slings and arrows; stand-up guys take it on the chin and order another round, even if they have to put it on the tab. Shor himself was a flat-pocket import from Philadelphia who rose to millionaire status when, in 1958, he sold his fabled spot at Fifty-one West Fifty-first Street to the Zeckendorf real-estate interests for one million, five. But today, his pockets are as close to his ass as the day he blew Philly. His downfall was building his new saloon at Thirty-three West Fifty-second, the site of the old Leon and Eddie’s (where, in his early days, he served as a bouncer) and now Jimmy’s, political drinking trough of former Lindsay aides Dick Aurelio and Sid Davidoff.
Shor took great pride in building his joints from the ground up. He didn’t like taking over someone else’s failed saloon and redecorating it to his taste. The ghosts of someone else’s boozers haunting one of his places would be an unspeakable social breach. Toot’s grounds had to be new and hallowed. After all, you couldn’t 86 some other creep’s ghosts. And besides, he did have a good track record, since the Fifty-first Street place had been a success. But the one-block jump and a few decades’ distance proved a disaster.
His mistakes were many. Adhering to a bygone calendar, he miscalculated the cost of everything from construction to the prices he would have to charge for food and drinks just to keep the place operating. In the Forties he paid off his Fifty-first Street saloon in a year and a half, charging $1.40 for roast beef, with drinks at fifty and sixty cents. Now hooch cost more per shot than the roast beef of decades ago, and steaks were pulling down $7.50. He estimated the construction cost at three million, seven; but according to TheHerald Tribune financial page, the actual cost ended up at $7,500,000.
Moreover, when one looks back at the failure of the new Toots Shor’s, it was touchingly human. Shor is not unlike Lear in old age—unable to accept that men can control everything but time. This is hardly a sin, just a pathetic need in all of us to cocoon ourselves between the parentheses of dates. The old Garden on Fiftieth Street was gone, and the new Garden was downtown on Thirty-second Street. No longer could one saunter over to Toots’s, one had to cab it. And when one was forced to wheels, other options opened: Gallagher’s 33, the bars located in the new Garden itself, or the Lion’s Head in the Village.
Granny Rice and Bill Corum were filing from the other side of the void, and the West Coast had lured away many of the New York celebs that made Toots’s Toots’s. And Shor’s proud claim, “I never ran a dame joint,” which had held him in good stead in the past with hale-hearted fellows, was a stigma invisibly painted on his door to a new breed of athlete and sportswriter who, after an evening of sniffing liniment, yearned for some perfume. In the Sixties, passes and runs at ends were being made at Namath’s Bachelors III, and sexual shagging was the sport in Phil Linz’s Mr. Laff’s.
Depending on your perspective, Shor’s opening such a place smacked of arrogance or an heroic effort by a man who would plug the hourglass to his pleasure. Even simple concessions to another era weren’t granted. In the age of the turtleneck, patrons at Shor’s had to wear a tie (Bill Veeck was the only man excepted from this dictate).
But possibly there is a last, more romantic conclusion to be floated. The new Shor’s was cavernous—spacious beyond any functional worth. So indeed, Toots might have known his time had passed, and like Tutankhamen he decided to build a tomb for himself and his memories, with a curse ensconced for all those who in the future dared to violate the place with broads and turtlenecks.
Make no mistake about it, the allusion to a past potentate is not out of joint. Although Shor is a self-confessed “loudmouth” and “just a saloonkeeper,” he commanded curtsies from the mighty far beyond such deprecations. Not only did the jocks and celebs come to the Fifty-first Street Lourdes for the waters, but also Presidents, princes of the church, financiers, a Supreme Court justice, and a bevy of heavy-between-the-ears writers. He had been lionized in biographies by Bob Considine and John Bainbridge of The New Yorker.
“Somebody once said to me,” Toots growled from his chair, “that I was lucky to have a drink with seven different Presidents, and I said they were lucky to have a drink with me.”
Though the food at his joint was rated Cordon Phoo, it was he who was chosen to cater a luncheon for visiting members of the papal court at the Archdiocese of New York, one of the many “proudest moments in my life” he proclaims. Such stars as DiMaggio and Mantle called him at his saloon every day when they were on the road, and the suspicion here is that it was expected.
The devotion he commanded might best be summed up by a story Bainbridge tells: A Shor regular once met DiMag running west on Fifty-second Street and stopped him to inquire about his hurry. The great Joltin’ Joe answered, “I had to eat lunch with the Yankees at ‘21’ and I want to get over and tell Toots before somebody gives him a bad report.”
This kind of toadying usually is rendered to a vindictive aristocracy, not to the saloonkeeper son of immigrant parents.
To trace Shor’s rise to prominence, one has to shun studies of family heraldry and look to plays by Odets or Abraham Polonsky’s movie Body and Soul. His mother Fanny was born in St. Petersburg. His father Abraham came from Leipzig and had attended the university at Munich. They were both Jews.
This fact surprises, since Shor’s lifestyle of bouncing, boozing, and gambling more appropriately describes the Irish Catholic. It would be fair to assume that a goodly number of people, knowing not the man but the legend, would think Shor was spelled Shaw and that the carouser they read about in Earl Wilson’s column was a roaring boyo. Teddy Brenner, the Garden matchmaker, suffers from the same ethnic confusion. After all, it’s common knowledge—right?—that Jews don’t take up the rowdy professions or carry on in public.
But this canard brings us back to Messrs. Odets and Polonsky. The stage, or scene, is set. Shor’s mother, one of thirteen children, had no time for schooling when she arrived in America. She had to go to work in a Philadelphia factory to support her brothers and sisters. Think of strength. Think of Anne Revere.
His father, even with a higher education, was forced into the shirt-making trade in the new, prejudiced land. Think of the kindly, philosophical dreamer. They opened a cigar and candy store to supplement the father’s meager income. Now we have it: egg creams for education. Add Odets’ Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy or Polonsky’s Charlie Davis in Body and Soul, and the scenario fleshes out. Toots is the Jew John Garfield later memorialized on film. In the hostile gentile environs of South Philly he did not have just to learn but also to master the catechism of the gutters if he was going to make his mark.
Soda jerking was for jerks and schooling for the leisure class or dewy-eyed immigrants who would raise their aspirations one generation at a time. So Toots preempted the script of the Ash Can school of art and mastered the cue stick, as Prospero summoned his staff. Moreover, he etched the parameters of the poor—the con and the hustle—into his psyche.
If one listens to Considine tell it, the script sticks. Toots’s mother was the formidable influence (Garfield had waded into hell only to bring back a fur coat for Anne Revere). “My mother was a little woman, but real strong, God bless her,” testified Shor.
His father comes in for praise, but with a disclaimer: “He was a wonderful, educated man, tall and well built, but like a Mr. Milquetoast. My mother ran our family. She taught me the greatest lesson I ever had—she taught me how to fight.”
There are layers in that quote, and one suspects they get darker as they are peeled off. Toots’s beloved mother died in a horrible accident: she was decapitated by a runaway ambulance; his father committed suicide five years later. His father’s act might explain Shor’s later advocacy of “professional illiteracy.” Perhaps culture and learning, no matter how desirable, were anathema to being a “stand-up guy.” And father or no father, one has to believe that suicide, in the Shor canon, bespoke “no class.”
According to Shor, his love affair with New York was instantaneous. He worked as a bouncer and greeter in a couple of joints before he was able to raise a bankroll for his own spot on West Fifty-first. “When I started to meet guys like Crosby and Sinatra and all those ballplayers,” he related, “I knew this was the place for me.” After a while, he claims, the adoration flowed the other way. “The celebs,” he said, “would come to any joint I was working in.”
Why? once again pops up. Here is Shor, a rube who admits he debuted in the Big Town with “brown shoes, for chrissake,” becoming the mountain to the WHO’S WHO lemmings. A good measure of his success is attributable to the columnist Mark Hellinger, who recorded Shor’s exploits in baroque terms and baptized him “the classiest bum in town.” If providence had granted Shor the right to choose an alter ego, Hellinger would have been it. He was an urbane, witty man who spent like a sailor and drank like an eighteenth-century lord. Shor, who didn’t shake hands with the devil till his early twenties, soon made Mark his Mitty—right down to adopting Hellinger’s “class” drink, brandy-and-soda.
The penultimate Hellinger-Shor story dates back to 1947, when Shor and his wife spent a month’s vacation in Hollywood as Hellinger’s guests. Variety’s account of the trip ran under the headline, “100% Sur-Le-Cuff.”:
“After New York restaurateur Toots Shor recently completed a month’s cuffo stay under Mark Hellinger’s aegis on the Coast, the producer-writer arranged for the stewardess on Shor’s return flight to hand him $5 when he boarded the eastbound plane, with a note explaining, ‘Just to make it 100%—in case you have to tip at LaGuardia.’”
When Hellinger died at the age of forty-four, Shor in reverence to his mentor became the quickest arm in the East reaching for the tabs. That, too, touches. In my experience, only those who have known poverty develop into big spenders. It’s as if a childhood of watching one’s family genuflect to the buck in the most miniscule monetary matters predicates that the only way as an adult to rid oneself of such dread is to have an economic exorcism—in short, to “piss it all away.”
This thesis has been borne out in the personal experience among not only the once poor but also the forever rich. I once interviewed a young socialite, who was running for political office, at a downtown saloon where the food dead-heated with what Toots used to serve. When the bill for cheeseburgers and beer came, he informed me that I had ordered a side of home fries and two beers to his one, thus I was liable for the extra $1.35 on the check.But such psychological meandering would be so much crap to the gruff Toots. A shrink once made the public conjecture that he over-tipped to compensate for his insecurity, and Shor replied, “It’s not possible to over-tip.”
This extravagance, this blatant disrespect for the buck in a society that gingerly sniffs it out like a hound in search of the proper johnny pump had to give Shor, the otherwise bumptious South Philly exile, a smattering of élan. Legend has it that Toots’s was the place where those aspiring to greatness, like the late actor Paul Douglas or Jackie Gleason, or a newspaperman who only had another deadline in his future, could “put it on the arm” when flat-pocketed.
One story is that Gleason tabbed for over a year, and that it didn’t disturb Shor in the least until he noticed “the Great One” was adding enormous tips to his bills. When Shor confronted him with this disturbing dichotomy, Gleason, instead of being contrite, became indignant and replied, “What are you trying to do? Make me look like a bum in front of your help?” Shor, the report goes, never brought it up again.
If you’re a man who likes his sauce, finding Toots is similar to finding the proper analyst—the one who agrees with you. The philistines are teetotalers, since the Shor sermon from the mount is that “whiskey helps you when you’re feelin’ good and when you’re feelin’ bad.” Indeed, when Shor lists the accomplishments and social graces of other men, drinking proclivities seem to outweigh all else. He even has his All-Stars. In the actor category Don Ameche wins hands down. Jason Robards and “that limey actor—what’s his name, Peter O’Toole?—are nothing but Eighth Avenue boozers.” What this geographical slur meant missed me, but a shot in the dark is that Eighth Avenue, with its well-known theatrical pubs, is the guzzling ground for fey drinkers. Pubs, pshaw! Shor’s was a saloon.
In sports—even though his records are passé, asterisk or otherwise—there was only one Ruth, according to Shor, when it came to the Sultan of Swill. “We used to call him ‘the Animal,’” Shor said fondly, “there was nobody like him. He was the greatest personality of his time. He dominated everything. He lit up every room he walked into. That’s what we need today, a hero of that stature who kids could look up to. But he’ll never be replaced.”
The amazing thing about Shor is that he professes never to find the dark side of alcohol. This is not meant as a prudish chastisement, since I’ve blown more kisses to “last call” than I care to remember. But all the heavy hitters I have known in life have had their periods of despair. Then again, they waded in the sea of booze because they were out on philosophical fishing expeditions. A whale of an answer was to be found in the sauce.
Shor sees it differently. He says he has lived a life in which every night was New Year’s Eve.Perhaps this can be attributed to the firm belief that the high-living Toots has never found himself at odds with the Lord. Indeed, aside from his gluttonous liquid intake, Shor has raised huge sums of money for religious groups of all dominations. He regally state, with all the pomp of a teetotaling deacon: “I consider myself a very religious man.” In the old days, around Toots the Lord was chummily referred to as “the Big Guy.” A nice stunt if you can carry it off—the sky as a locker room with Vince Lombardi as the honcho. The “boys” or “regular guys” would always be welcome in such a milieu; and if the real truth were known, God is a chap who probably enjoys his glass.
One suspects this is not guesswork by the reporter, since “all the great ones,” according to Toots, were blessed with this failing. Shor even says it wasn’t the booze that did in Hellinger but some vague infection he acquired while he was in the hospital. And when Rags Ragland died, Shor wrote to Bing Crosby: “The ginger ale [booze] ruined him. The doctor said he should have started taking care of himself fifteen years ago. My answer to that is, Look at the fun he would have missed.”
Bygone memories and booze are beyond dispute in the Shor scheme of things. He defiantly stated: “What is this new breed worrying about? The rat bastards ought to realize you have to die from something. And the ones who are gone, well, I don’t see anybody taking their place.”
Shor, to put it mildly, is not hot on the current crop in any field. But this is not a rarity among men who have outlived their times and many of their contemporaries. A swinger such as Namath is a mere Shriner on a toot when compared to Bobby Layne: “Layne drank more booze and had more broads in one season than Namath will have in his career.” And Eddie Arcaro received the accolade of being “the best hangover jockey of all time.” But such stats are difficult to check unless one is privy to the tales of the confession box.
For all his hard-nose, Shor has a disturbing Dink Stover quality. He speaks of Ruth and Dempsey as if their records shouldn’t be in books, but on the Sistine Ceiling. To him, athletes are the ones who have graced this planet. “People in sport,” he tells you, “are the greatest people in the world.”
To illustrate his point, he cited how he attended a prizefight at the Garden with Averell Harriman, Joe DiMaggio, and Ernest Hemingway, and “nobody noticed Hemingway—only DiMaggio.” He would be better off if he remembered Red Smith’s dictum that baseball, after all, is still a game played by little boys.
A basic flaw in Shor (an abundance of grace to his champions) is his sentimentality. But as O’Neill pointed out, this is part of being a boozer. John Barleycorn turns on the sad music in his adherents. Toots has a vehement distaste for all young sportswriters who look at the seamier side of Olympus. “All they write about is money,” he complained. “Who wants to hear about that? They should be writing about the heroes.”
This seems deliberately naïve, since sports have now bypassed whoredom in greed. But then, Shor deals in absolutes. He will bitch about the decline of New York, but during the course of our conversation was on the phone with Giants president Wellington Mara, who is shagging ass to New Jersey, and they sounded like matched turtledoves. And when I asked him about this obvious contradiction, he gave me a conspiratorial wink and said, “I know you’re right, but you don’t tell another guy how to run his store.”
Of the current irreverent sportswriters, Larry Merchant of The New York Post is the target of much of his ire. Merchant wrote of Mara, “How can you trust an Irishman named Wellington?” and pointed out his penchant for the green.
“He’d like to write like Dan Parker, but he doesn’t have the balls,” said Shor.
Merchant, passing off Shor’s venom, touted him thus: “He’s just pissed off because I never went into his fuckin’ joint.”
But the bull’s-eye of Shor’s ire is ex-Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton, the Joe Valachi of the locker room, who wrote Ball Four. “That bum nearly ruined Mickey’s marriage with his book,” Toots growled.
On the other hand, Shor claims that the young sportswriters “are a bunch of creeps who leave a sporting event and go home and have a milk shake.”
One of them, Vic Ziegel, who also writes for The New York Post and who has been known to curl his fingers around a glass as lovingly as around his typewriter, retorted, “Just tell him I would have been happy to come into his place, but they didn’t even know how to make a good milk shake.”
In a way it’s odd (even conceding old age) that Shor spurns the young, since he sees himself as an all-encompassing father figure. When he speaks of Crosby and Sinatra, he says, “I raised those kids.” And this year, when Mantle and Whitey Ford were inducted into the Hall of Fame, Toots says it was another of his greatest moments. “To see my two kids make it to Cooperstown was the thrill of a lifetime,” he declared. At a party afterward Shor cracked to Mantle that Ford’s pitching arm had added two years to Mantle’s career, and Mantle replied, “You took five years off it.”
That is the nice surrogate-father role, but there also is a tyrannical Big Daddy. Shor proudly related how he “aided” one of the most famous athletes ever to play baseball in New York. The player in question had just been divorced by his first wife. One evening while Shor was attending a prizefight at the Garden, someone told him the player’s ex-wife was flying back to California and taking the couple’s young son with her. Toots immediately left the Garden and cabbed to Idlewild. “I grabbed her at the airport and said, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ and took the kid by the hand and brought him back to his father. The bitch flew to California alone.”
In the Shor canon, this was a consummate act of loyalty; in the legal canon, it might be considered kidnapping.
Yet this, too, must be considered: why Shor commanded power beyond his calling. His daring to act, to be the take-charge guy, to fit Bob Dylan’s memorable phrase “the whole world is looking for a daddy.” Shor served as not only barkeep but marriage broker as well. Infidelity is beyond his scope.
“I can’t understand,” he said, “how a husband and wife could do that to each other.”
But surely, one queried, of the scores of celebs who frequented Shor’s some played around? Big Daddy had a dictate for this, too: “I wouldn’t allow one of my married regulars to come into my joint with another broad on his arm. If he was screwing around, he had better have another guy in his company with the broad to make it look all right.”
Indeed, there were many ways to fall out of Shor’s graces. On a particularly crowded and hot night in Shor’s, the much-lionized Norman Mailer was asked to leave because he took off his jacket. Jimmy Breslin was chastised for his colorful language. And when Charlie Chaplin complained about waiting for a table, Shor told the great comedian to “be funny for about twenty minutes.” The message was that in Shor’s it was Toot’s deck.
If Toots orchestrated the living, he was a maestro over the dead. As a mourner he was (and is) a one-man wailing wall. When a Shor regular died, it was beyond saying that the family would be looked after and the surviving troops commanded by Shor to the bier to assure a classy send-off. When the regular was particularly close to the proprietor, Shor would weep and drink in tandem for weeks. There is an apocryphal story circulated by George Jessel that he once whispered in Shor’s ear, “McKinley died,” and Shor broke out weeping and bought rounds for the house.
So Shor, we have found, is composed of as many ingredients as a complex cocktail: bravado, bathos, loyalty. It is the last that cements his bond with his following.
Red Smith, the dean of New York sportwriters, had this to say: “When I was working in Philadelphia, I once asked Toots what made his place the number-one saloon in the world. You have to remember the old place was more famous than Harry’s Bar in Paris or Shepheard’s in Cairo. Toots simply said, ‘The newspaper guys were always my friends.’ He never realized the place was a mother lode if you were writing a column—a blessed thing to have for material.
“As for Toots, he had an all-embracing affection for the guys who went in there. Bill Veeck once said to me it didn’t matter whether he owned the Cleveland Indians or some bushers in Milwaukee, the treatment he received was always the same.”
Smith recounted a story that highlights Shor’s tenacious loyalty to friends, wherever they might be in the standings: “I was sitting with Toots at a back table on a night that the Yanks won the World Series. That year Joe Page had had a dismal record. I guess it was a combination of old age and too much partying, or maybe his arm was just tired. Whatever, he didn’t really contribute much to the Yanks’ success, and he felt it. That evening the Yankees were having a victory party somewhere else in town. Suddenly, Toots stood up from our table and said,
‘Excuse me, Joe Page is outside.’
“I sat alone for awhile, then a waiter came up to me and said, ‘The boss just gave Joe Page a hero’s welcome.’”
Smith, who is as nifty with a phrase as a professional gift-wrapper with a bow, tied it up: “As a man, you would have to say Toots was enormously loyal and hideously sentimental.”
To others, the magic of Fifty-one West Fifty-first was a happy marriage of the man, the time, and the place. Louis Sobol, the old Broadway columnist for the now defunct Journal-American, opts for the man: “Toots was the last of the old booming hosts. In those days Billingsley at the Stork Club used gimmicks to attract business. He would give perfume to the women or have things like a ‘Balloon Night.’ The balloons would have gift certificates inside for jewelry, cash, puppies—you name it.” Then he added with legionnaire loyalty, “Toots never needed those things. He gave away nothing but the sheer force of his personality.”
For Whitey Ford, the place was unique for a delectable aspect of human bondage: “You would always run into Ameche or Gleason or Graziano. The real charm of the place was that if you went in there at twelve noon you knew you wouldn’t get out for the day.”
For my own part, I, ruefully, was too young to sample the siren call of West Fifty-first, and I found my visitations to Shor’s Taj Mahal on Fifty-second wanting. On my first visit, after a major fight at the Garden, I was denied entrance because I was wearing a turtleneck (but also, I might add, a sport jacket—I personally thought I looked like Max Beerbohm). On subsequent trips, the joint reminded me of a packed convention hall, emitting a single dull roar. But maybe I should have tried a daytime foray. Ford was right about high-noon drinking. It’s like afternoon moviegoing. There is a clandestine camaraderie to be found in such enterprises: to be at play while the rest of the world is toiling in the fields of the Lord.
But what bothered me most about the new Shor’s was that there was no identifiable stamp on it, it could just as well have been run by Restaurant Associates. Once again, Red Smith offered a capper: “The trouble with that cavernous place was that it engulfed Toot’s personality.”
It was now late afternoon, and after watching me back down the better part of a bottle of his brandy, Shor decided—doctors or no doctors—that three weeks dry was enough for any civilized man. He poured a tumbler and pulled hard, and in the same style that black athletes taffy-pull the word “shit” into “shee-e-e-it,” he announced, “Bee-e-yoo-tiful.”
Two hotel employees came into the room to make minor adjustments on his skitterish TV set; and for three minutes’ work Shor peeled a couple of bills from a wad, snapping the money toward himself Broadway style, and dropped them on the grateful repairmen. An old lifestyle never bows to current economic reality.
Some more booze was dropped, and Shor estimated that for nearly a half century he has done a bottle or two of brandy each day. This is a dubious claim to fame, since alcoholism is now the third largest killer in the United States after heart disease and cancer. TIME magazine has given the subject its cherished cover, and there was a television movie, The Morning After, starring Dick Van Dyke (a recovered alcoholic himself).
Shor had watched the special, and it infuriated him. “I never knew any drunk who carried on like that,” he said. “Beating his wife and losing his job and all that shit. My daughter called me the next day, and I told her I should demand equal time. And she said [he was now chortling] that I would need a twenty-four-hour telethon to respond.”
As we bantered, the phone continued to ring. Well Mara again, and to him Shor dropped a line that truly astounded me. He said that he had talked to Randy and told him he was conducting himself like a man—“Randy” was Randolph Hearst!
Pat O’Brien also checked in from the Coast, and there were many I-love-you-too’s. O’Brien dedicated an entire chapter of his autobiography to Shor; it is titled “A Man Called Toots” and is so sentimental it makes Mother Machree sound like something sinister from Sam Beckett.
The drinking continued, and the phone kept ringing. Shor signed off many calls with his comrades-in-arms, “Give your wife a pat on the fanny for me.” One could hear the sisters marching. But again, Shor would be the first to tell you he never ran a dame joint.
As the booze warmed him, Shor became more expansive and perhaps more trusting of one of the “new breed” seated across from him. Men’s boozing always creates that kind of atmosphere—the recalling of episodes, well-worn stories, which have always made me think saloons are the oldest repertory companies in the world.
There was the night he and Pat O’Brien hired a hansom cab to ferry them around town and at daybreak took the driver upstairs to Toot’s duplex for a nightcap. To his irate wife, Shor proclaimed, “You’re lucky we didn’t bring up the horse.” But this is standard college-boy stuff. Some tales indicate that Shor is not the bellowing boozer he would like everyone to think, but a man of agile wit.
The I.R.S. once challenged his return because he had claimed his tickets to baseball games as legitimate business expenses. When the auditor informed Shor that baseball games were pleasure, Toots snorted, “Pleasure! Did you ever see the St. Louis Browns play?” The audit was dropped.
And when his good boozing companion, Ernest Hemingway, went down in a plane crash in Africa and was reported dead by the press, only to emerge a few days later alive and sporting a jug of gin and a bunch of bananas, Shor cabled him a one-word critique: “Showboat!” Then there was the time an old friend spotted Shor talking to Robert Sherwood in his Fifty-first Street joint; he approached Shor and asked what the hell Toots could be saying to a genius. Shor replied, “I was fading him with grunts.” Hardly the quips of a guy who wears brown shoes.
Shor was now in an amber mood, matching the brandy inside and the setting sun outside, and he conceded that a “modern” jock might once again dominate the town like “the Babe.” The Mets’ right outfielder, Rusty Staub, is his choice. Staub has the Shor credentials for canonization: physical presence, talent, he is a bachelor with a bevy of broads and, of course, a man who can handle his jar. On presence alone “O.J. Simpson might make it,” Shor said. “Clay [Ali] could have done it, but he got into that political crap.” The amber turned burnished red.
What of the political Shor? He says he has been a lifelong Democrat. Did he vote for McGovern? Does the pope keep a copy of Martin Luther’s theses on his night table? “If the election was held over again today, I wouldn’t vote for him.” Nixon then? “That s.o.b is paying seven hundred dollars in taxes, and they busted me for a half million.”
Here Shor was referring to the tax assessment on his duplex apartment at 480 Park Avenue and his saloon, which came to $575,000, left him flat-pocketed, and ultimately cost him both his home and his joint. Hedging like hell, like a man who has made a bad tout and doesn’t want to admit it, he refused to commit himself. The tout here is that Nixon, as he did with most of the nation, foxed Shor with his curvy nickel-and-dime philosophy.
It was time to leave. Shor’s wife entered the room and informed him that his private nurse was waiting for him in the bedroom. Mrs. Shor is a petite, pretty woman and a former show girl, Marian Volk (Hellinger had also married a show girl); her public nickname is “Baby.” But to Toots, she is “Husky.” And he obviously puts some credence in his muscular love name for her, since he blamed the empty jug on me.
Jug gone, day done, I now had to frisk why Toots was the genie of the bottle set. New York spits out saloon-keepers with casual distain. Owners and joints fold more often than they succeed and are never heard from again. So why did Shor become sovereign? Why were his legions so loyal? Indeed, during World War II when he had used up his allotment of meat stamps, and the place had to survive for a long period on a menu of omelets and fish, Jimmy Walker announced that Toots was in trouble, and now everybody had to eat there twice a day.
Also consider this: Shor’s food, when meat was plentiful, was summed up by the late Jimmy Cannon in this bit of Michelinian meanness. One night the lights were dimmed at Shor’s for atmosphere, and Cannon cracked, “Thank God, they’ve executed the chef.” So the answer is not to be found in the menu, but definitely in the man.
In an anchorless world, Shor, whose demeanor (by his own account) resembled a bobbing buoy, was a bulwark against drifting values. He was a family man who had raised four children. He was fast with a buck and yet spurned the fast buck. Even now, in financial bushville, when he was approached by a publisher to do a tattle-tale book for big bread on the night life of the gods he had known, he “threw the bum out.”
Through charity he helped line the pockets of the poor and enrich the coffers of heaven. Right or wrong, he was what the Sixties and Seventies aren’t. Though there would never be a McGovern in his life, it would be unfair to indict him for a Nixon. If Shor dealt a monarchial deck, at least it would be a fair one. And if his failing health can’t be revived by science, it might be by nostalgia. After all, if we can’t stand up and sing The Star-Stangled Banner anymore, some sense of solace could be found standing up in a new Toots.
AN EPILOGUE: Weeks later, I talked with Shor by phone to find out about his operation. “I feel great,” he declared. “I was out of the hospital in eleven days. The doctors tell me it takes you young stiffs three weeks to recover. Earl Wilson called me this morning and asked if I was going to give up drinking now, and I told him that at my age it makes no sense.”
I cautioned him that he should at least get back into training for such a venture, and he replied like a man who had just had his flat-pocket spirits inflated, “I’ve been in training all my life.”
What epitaph can be found for an unrepentant Falstaff?
Joe Flaherty and His Muse
Special thanks to Dina C for her transcription skills.
SR: Out of all the different performing arts, stand-up to me is by far the most fascinating — the idea of one human being standing up and the audience saying, “Okay, kill me.” And you have lived that life for years.
SS: I can’t believe how much time has passed. The first time I did stand-up I was 17, and I was really a stand-up once I was 19 in New York, and now I’m 41, and I still feel like I haven’t found myself onstage. Earlier in my career, I was really tight, really together, and knew who I was and I was confident. I kind of feel in between now.
SR: Is that because you’re taking on other jobs and not doing as much stand-up?
SS: I’m doing a lot of stand-up, but not like when you’re living in New York and you can do three sets a night and it’s your life, and you sleep all day and you wake up and you eat with a bunch of other comics and then get ready for the night. I’m doing it a couple times a week at least, but I’m still just finding myself, you know? I don’t think I’ll ever feel done. I’ve realized that being beholden to some sort of character you found success in just makes you a caricature of yourself. I feel bad naming names because it’s not their fault, but there are great, famous ’80s comedians — Dice comes to mind — who found wild success and now still go on the road, and they want to kill and they want to give the audience what they want because that’s inherently a comedian’s desire. So he puts on the jacket, you know? To not grow and change and be so different from 20 years ago, to still be in that place because you’re afraid? It gives the audience what they want, what they’re expecting, but it’s not current. I wish those comics would take the chance to be who they are now onstage. You have to be willing to disappoint the audience for a while.