Via Test Pressing, here’s Norman Mailer’s 1974 Esquire article on graffiti.
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
Next up is this insightful essay by Mark Kram on Marlon Brando (originally published in the November, 1989 issue of Esquire). Kram, a beautiful stylist, was a master of the long form takeout piece:
Though he is chiefly known as a former boxing writer for Sports Illustrated, and in particular for his coverage of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy, Mark Kram, my late father, aimed his prodigious talent at a wide array of other subjects that he said enabled him to stretch out. On example of that is the lengthy Esquire essay below, which will be included in a collection of his work that I have edited and hope to publish under the title, Great Men Die Twice.–Mark Kram, Jr., author of Like Any Normal Day.
By Mark Kram
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.
Do yourself a favor and read Kram Jr.’s beautiful memoir piece about his father, “Forgive Some Sinner.”
Joe Flaherty was a wonderful writer. He may be best remembered as Mailer and Breslin’s campaign manager but his work for the Voice, Esquire, Sport and many other magazines holds up today. It is smart, irreverent, and funny. Unfortunately, Flaherty died of cancer in 1983 at the age of 47.
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 The Herald 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?
Special thanks to Dina C for her transcription skills.
Over at Esquire, our pal Scott Raab interviews Sarah Silverman:
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.
Bruce Jenner has taken it upon himself to rescue his ridiculous extended clan by doing what none of its other members will ever do: He has elected to lose. The person in the house who has most earned his fame has chosen to accept the least of it. “I’m done with competition,” he says. He says that in response to a question about his helicopters, whether he might fly them in the professional events that have been cropping up around the country, but he means it about everything. Jenner has made decisions, now, here, during his own second life. He has made up his mind once again. His singlet is in storage because he wants it to be. He’s the one who locked his medal away in the safe.
“Going through what I went through,” he says, “being that obsessed, is not what I would consider a good, well-rounded life. You’re selfish with your time. You’re selfish with your thoughts. You don’t have to grow up. All you’re concerned with is scoring points.”
Jenner has learned that perfection comes in many forms. He has learned that a private mastery is just as satisfying as a public one. He has learned that a curse isn’t a curse if it’s a choice. And he has learned that there may be no greater love a father can give his children than to accept that his life really didn’t begin until theirs did.
Last year Esquire reprinted this terrific 1984 profile of William Donald Schaefer by Richard Ben Cramer.
It’s well worth your time.
We’re proud to present a classic magazine profile by Richard Ben Cramer. “The Ballad of Johnny France” first appeared in the October, 1985 issue of Esquire and it is reprinted here with permission from the author.
The Ballad of Johnny France
Listen to the story of the lonesome lawman who went hunting in the mountains for Don and Dan Nichols, and who finally got ‘em, right there, by the campfire
By Richard Ben Cramer
You probably heard of the case, the young woman from Bozeman, Montana, who got kidnapped by Mountain Men. Her name was Kari Swenson. She was a world-class biathlete. Last July, as she was training, running a trail near the Big Sky resort, two men jumped out of the woods, grabbed her, and chained her up to a tree. These were Mountain Men, father and son. Turned out they were hunting a wife.
Well, they couldn’t have picked worse. Not that Kari wasn’t good-looking, or strong enough, or able to teach them a thing or two about social graces. She was all that and more: twenty-three, a graduate of Montana State U, tops at skiing and shooting, friendly in better circumstances. In fact, you could call Kari Swenson a proper belle of Bozeman, the perfect flower of the New West. Just happened the New West and these Mountain Men didn’t have much in common.
Did they mean to woo her with the squirrel they served? The boy so proud: he’d caught dinner with his cunning snare. And the old man, clever, careful; tending his crusted skillet on a smokeless squaw-wood fire. But Kari wouldn’t eat their mess. When the father left the campfire, she pleaded with the son: “You could let me go. I wouldn’t tell anyone.” The young man seemed to consider this. He said: “No, you’re pretty. I think I’ll keep you.”
Did the old man think they might win her over? “Just stay three days and you’ll start to love it….” But his mountain-wife dream wouldn’t last that long.
By dawn, there were fifty people on the trail or on their way: her parents from Montana State U, all hangs from the dude ranch where she worked, dogs, helicopters, lots of lawmen, Sheriff Onstad from Bozeman. This was tough country, steep and wild, and you couldn’t see ten yards through the timber. Sure enough, two searchers from the dude ranch would have walked right past Kari and her captors. But then they heard the shot.
They busted in on the campsite. Kari was chained up and bleeding. The young Mountain Man was crouched near the campfire, holding a gun, crying: “Oh, God, I didn’t mean to shoot her. Oh, God…” Kari had taken a .22 slug through her lung and out her back.
One of the searchers, Al Goldstein—he’d been in Montana only two years—circled around the campsite, dug in a pack, came up with a pistol. He yelled: “Put down your guns. You’re surrounded by two hundred men.” But the old man had a rifle. He wheeled and shot. Goldstein went down hard, on his back, the pistol in one loose hand, a walkie-talkie in the other, with one eye open and the other shot away, his mouth full of blood to the top.
The other searcher ran for his life. Father and son took the chain off Kari, left her to die. They said they’d kill anyone who came after them. They took off through the timber, and so began a five-month hunt for two men in the wilds of America.
But first there’s Kari Swenson, bleeding in the woods back up on the ridge. And below at the trailhead, there’s her father, Bob Swenson, chairman of the physics department at Montana State U, screaming at the sheriff from Bozeman: “DO SOMETHING!” And there’s Sheriff Onstad, trying to explain that he is doing something, that his men are searching in the air, on the ground, and anyway, there’s a problem: he has looked at a map and it’s not his county, not a case for Bozeman, or even Big Sky. They’re over the county line, off his turf. In fact, Kari’s six-mile run took this case right out of the New West.
Onstad explains that it’s Madison County, and that’s Sheriff Johnny France, and…Where is Johnny?
Well, Johnny does get there, at least in good time for the rescue. He’d stopped to commandeer a helicopter from an oil business near Ennis. As a matter of fact, it’s Johnny’s chopper that winches down an aluminum basket to hoist Kari off to the hospital. But when they lift her into the basket and flash the high sign and the chopper swings up, damn if they don’t mash that poor woman right into a dead lodgepole pine. “Yuh, almost dropped her,” recalls Johnny France. “Didn’t, though.”
Johnny gets busy at the crime scene: borrows a camera, takes the pictures himself. Mostly, they’ll just come out blank. He picks at the campsite for clues on the killers: a bit of flour and a few shell casings. Maybe some computer can match the shells—but that‘ll take time. Deputies with dogs want to get on the trail. Sheriff Onstad is setting up roadblocks already. Word has spread to Big Sky and back to Bozeman. The men of the New West are taking up guns. Women are locked in their houses. Maniacs loose in the woods! And where is Johnny?
Well, Johnny comes out of the woods pretty late. He’s thinking, doesn’t hurry. Drives the others nuts. “You know,” he tells a deputy, “there’s a fellow used to stay near the power plant, up the Beartrap. Had a son. Have to check, but, uh, his name mighta been Dan….”
Turns out he didn’t have to check—not for names, anyway. Search and rescue men with chain saws were already cutting on a pine tree at Ulery’s Lake. They carried out a three-foot stretch of log, emblazoned with a careful, curly print:
Once, when the boy was only nine and didn’t come home from summer in the woods with his daddy, the mother called Madison County, set the sheriff to hunting father and son. Old Roy Kitson was sheriff then. He and Deputy France had to hunt ten days to find Don and Dan up Beartrap Canyon. The mother drove down from White Sulpher Springs the following day. Meantime, Kitson took the boy home to give him a meal, maybe a bath. The boy had only his dirty clothes, a sleeping bag, and heavy field glasses that hung from his neck. Kitson’s wife, Minnie, tried to make conversation: “Oh, Danny,” she said, “where’d you get the big binoculars?” The boy didn’t seem to understand. Minnie reached out to touch the field glasses: “These…” But the boy twisted away. “No,” Dan said, “those are my people watchers.” He wouldn’t say much more.
Back in those days—that was ten years ago—Don only had summers to teach the boy in the woods. Come fall, it was hard to give him up. Don adored that boy: “I’d lay down my life for him,” he used to say, and no one who saw them together could doubt it. They’d come off the mountains, get to a store, and the topic was always, What does Dan want? More soda pop? Candy to take back to the woods? Nothing was too good for him. Don went without to give him presents, or money if he had any. But mostly he wanted to give Dan teaching: that’s what he’d missed.
Don Nichols’s father worked the mines around Norris, until he died in a car wreck. Don’s mother raised the kids, cleaning houses or doing other little jobs. Don never seemed to have a good coat, or the right shoes for the snow. He was a quiet kid, a hiker and hunter, smart enough to graduate at the head of Harrison High. But when his mother remarried, Don never got on with the new man or the new rules. He went off to the Navy, and no one in Norris saw him much after that, though they knew he’d come back—Montana was the only home for him.
Don left the Navy on a Section 8, mental instability. He talked like he’d put one over on the Navy, and he did seem straight enough. He found a wife in West Virginia, got a job there for Union Carbide. He made good money, they had Dan and a daughter, and another man might have been happy. Not Don. More and more, he talked about Back to Montana. He’d build them a cabin in the mountains. Well, Verdina, the wife, came from the mountains. She knew what hauling water was, and she liked her washer-drier. She’d come along to Montana, all right, but as to mountain life—“Living like the Indians,” Don said—no, there she drew the line.
We’ve linked Gay Talese’s famous Joe Dimaggio profile for Esquire several times in the past but it’s worth mentioning again now that the story is the latest installment of Grantland’s fine “Director’s Cut” series.
Here’s another gem from Pete Dexter.
The Old Man and the River
By Pete Dexter
Early morning, Seeley Lake, Montana. The sun has touched the lake, but the air is dead still and cooler than the water, and the fog comes off the surface in curtains, hiding some of the Swan Range three miles to the east. And in doing that, it frames the rest. It is the design here, I think, that nothing is taken without compensation, except by men and fires. They leave all the holes.
On the lake a cutthroat trout breaks the surface; pieces of it follow him into the air. He breaks it again, falling back. The water mends itself in circles; the circles disappear. You could never say exactly where, but that’s how things mend; it’s how you get old, too. Not that they are necessarily different things. The place is quiet again. The sun has touched the lake, but the lake still belongs to the night. To the night and to the old man.
He is in the main room of the cabin putting wood on the fire. I hear him humming—a long, flat note, more electric than musical. I think it is a sound he makes without hearing it. He moves from the fireplace to the kitchen wearing a fishing hat, runs lake water out of the spigot into a dented two-quart pan, puts that on the stove to heat. He starts a pot of coffee, leaves it on a counter, and pushes out the door to urinate in the yard. He and his father built the cabin in 1922 as a retreat from whatever civilization there was in Missoula, and they didn’t do it to come down off the mountains and have to look at an indoor toilet.
He comes back in, humming, and surveys the kitchen. He scratches his cheek, remembering where he is. He locates the coffeepot, checks to see what is inside. Part of him is somewhere else. Probably not so much of him that he’d piss in the fireplace and throw the wood out the door, but it isn’t impossible.
The guess is that the part of the old man that’s not in the kitchen is someplace tangent to August of 1949, Mann Gulch, Montana, where thirteen of sixteen smoke jumpers were killed in the first hours of a wildfire that got into the crowns of the trees there. He is in the last chapter of that story now—the jumpers have become his jumpers, he looks at tall trees and imagines fire in their tops, sucking the oxygen out of the air, and feels how helpless a man is in its presence—and while it’s still three hours until he sits down and puts himself back in Mann Gulch to confront it, he is headed there already, feeling his way over what has already been done, measuring what is left.
As far as I know, that’s the only pleasure there is in writing—until something’s finished, anyway. And the old man works carefully and is entitled to his time alone with what he’s done. I stay in bed looking out the window, waiting for him to call me for breakfast.
Here is a compelling essay Pete Hamill wrote in 1996 for Esquire–“Blood on Their Hands: The Corrupt and Brutal World of Professional Boxing”:
On the night of the Tyson-Bruno fight, I went to a place called the Official All Star Cafe in Times Square. There was a huge private party to honor the twentieth anniversary of the first Rocky movie, and crowds packed the sidewalks for a glimpse of Sylvester Stallone and the celebrities he might draw. One of those celebrities was Muhammad Ali.
Ali was already there when I arrived, dressed in a dark-red long-sleeved shirt, seated at a table with his wife and young son. To his right was a movie-size screen on which the preliminary fights were being broadcast from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The room was crowded with citizens of the fight racket: Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis, Ray Leonard and Willie Pep, managers and promoters, wives and girlfriends. Everybody tried to avoid looking at Muhammad Ali.
His head was bowed and he was trying to eat. But his right hand was shaking so hard that he could not get the piece of chicken to move two inches to his mouth. His wife, Lonnie, put her hand over his to quell the shaking and gently guided the chicken to its destination. Ali chewed diligently but did not raise his head.
Across the evening, people came over to the table to lean down and speak to the ruined fifty-four-year-old man. Sometimes he smiled. Sometimes he whispered a reply. Sometimes he rose to pose for pictures. But then he would be back in the chair, the once lithe and powerful body sagging, the eyes wide and wary, a plastic strew clenched in his mouth, all of him shaking with the Parkinson’s disease, with the damage caused by the fierce trade he once honored.
The disease, caused in Ali’s case by repeated blows to the head, is insidious, degenerative, humiliating, a thief of will and memory. I know: My mother, who was hit in the head by a mugger in 1979, is now eighty-five and trapped in its silent prison. I’ve fed her, as Lonnie feeds Ali.
Only when the fight started and Mike Tyson came down the aisle in Las Vegas did Ali’s eyes focus intensely. We’ll never know what now moves through his mind. But he had made that same walk so many times, with entire arenas and stadiums roaring the chant Ah-lee, Ah-lee, Ah-lee, Ah-lee…. When young, he had been among great throngs where half the audience hated him, and had stayed long enough to convert them all. For Ah-lee, Ah-lee wasn’t about celebrity or even success; it was about excellence and heart. And it was about personal defiance: of odds, of skeptics, of racists, of the American government, and of pain. Along the way, Ali became myth; most myths, alas, are also tragedies.
Over at Esquire, Tom Chiarella profiles the hard luck and beautiful life of Liam Neeson.
[Photo Credit: WVS]