“All of that”—the death of the New York club scene in the early ’90s, the Pootie Tang debacle—”has helped me form what I call my 70 Percent Rule for decision-making.” C.K. then describes a practical application of a worldview laced into many of his best routines—that “everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” If we just wrest our eyes, literally and figuratively, from our digital gizmos and the shitty, spoiling impatience they instill, we’ll see that this life, this planet, is amazing. That it is something just to be in the world, seeing and hearing and smelling. That for trillions of miles in every direction from earth, life really is blood-boilingly, eye-explodingly horrific.
“These situations where I can’t make a choice because I’m too busy trying to envision the perfect one—that false perfectionism traps you in this painful ambivalence: If I do this, then that other thing I could have done becomes attractive. But if I go and choose the other one, the same thing happens again. It’s part of our consumer culture. People do this trying to get a DVD player or a service provider, but it also bleeds into big decisions. So my rule is that if you have someone or something that gets 70 percent approval, you just do it. ‘Cause here’s what happens. The fact that other options go away immediately brings your choice to 80. Because the pain of deciding is over.
“And,” he continues, “when you get to 80 percent, you work. You apply your knowledge, and that gets you to 85 percent! And the thing itself, especially if it’s a human being, will always reveal itself—100 percent of the time!—to be more than you thought. And that will get you to 90 percent. After that, you’re stuck at 90, but who the fuck do you think you are, a god? You got to 90 percent? It’s incredible!”
Here’s more baseball-related fun for you, Pat Jordan’s 1989 GQ profile of Tom Selleck.
Tom Selleck is faced with a dilemma. He is being forced to make a decision that will annoy at least one of three people.
“Well, I don’t know, Esme. What do you think?”
His publicist, Esme Chandlee, who is seated beside Selleck on a sofa in his office at Universal Studios, folds her arms and says, “If it’s what you want, Thomas!”
“We could maybe try it, Esme,” Selleck says.
“I don’t know why,” she says. “I’m not bothering anyone.”
Selleck now looks beseechingly at me. “What do you think? Esme really hasn’t interfered.”
“It inhibits me,” I say. “I’ve never interviewed someone with their publicist sitting in.”
Selleck now looks beseechingly at Chandlee. “Gee, I feel comfortable with him, Esme. Maybe we could try it. Just him and me.” Chandlee stands up and glares at me. Selleck adds quickly, “If you don’t mind?”
“All right, Thomas,” she says. “If that’s the way you want it! But give him just ten more minutes. Do you hear Thomas?” Selleck nods like a chastised youngster as Chandlee leaves the room.
“Gee, l hope I didn’t offend her,” he says. “That’s the way she’s always done it with me.”
Esme Chandlee is in her late sixties. A savvy, schoolmarmish woman with rust-colored hair. She has been a Hollywood publicist for more than thirty years. She remembers Ava Gardner as a teenager in a halter top and tight shorts. “She breezed into the studio without makeup or shoes,” says Chandlee, “and every head turned.”
That was a time in Hollywood when actors were not actors, but stars. The stars deferred to their publicists, who kept a tight rein on their careers and lives. They built their stars’ careers less upon acting talent than on a distinctive, unwavering persona that satisfied their fans’ needs. These fans went to the movies to see John Wayne play John Wayne, not some fictional character.
It was also the publicist’s job to make sure that the John Wayne seen in the movies was consistent with the John Wayne seen in the press. Publicists often selected the magazines their stars would appear in, even setting the scene where an interview would take place (“Thomas will take batting practice with the Dodgers this afternoon,” says Chandlee. “You can watch.”) and writing the script (“Tom always hits a few home runs in batting practice,” she adds). When the scene didn’t quite play as written (Selleck swings through the first twenty pitches thrown him, hangs his head and says, “This is humiliating!”), they simply stuck to their script (“Thomas! What are you talking about? You hit some good ones.”).
They also determined the questions to be asked and not asked, and just to make sure their rules were followed, they sat in on each interview, nodding, smiling, frowning, pointing a long finger at the reporter’s notebook (“Come on! Come on! We don’t have all day!” says Chandlee) and even, on occasion, interrupted their star with a clarification (“l don’t think Tom said he was opposed to abortion. Did you Thomas?”).
Most of Esme Chandlee’s stars are now dead, like John Cassavetes, or semiretired, like Vera Miles. She still has Selleck, though, and, to a lesser extent, Sam Elliott. Her boys. She fusses over their careers, both of which were based more on masculine images than on acting ability and were established in television rather than in feature films. Television is the last bastion of the old star system. Careers are founded there—stars are made there—by forging a captivating persona that never wavers from week to week. TV stars are so closely identified with their characters (Magnum, Rockford, J.R., Alexis) that fans often refer to them by those names.
Which is fine for TV stars as long as they remain on TV, as Tom Selleck did with Magnum, P.l. for eight years. But Magnum is gone now, at Selleck’s request, and he is trying to build a film career from his new home near L.A.
“L.A. has changed a lot in the eight years I was in Hawaii,” says Selleck. “L.A. jokes are more valid now. There are a lot more people full of shit here. I don’t mean to get into L.A.-bashing, but I was lucky to be isolated in Hawaii. It was the most wonderful experience of my life. I just worked.”
As a TV actor in the hinterland, Selleck was removed from the pressures and critical scrutiny of Hollywood. Television also afforded him the luxury of not needing the press, since his face appeared onscreen weekly rather than in a movie once a year. “In films, you can get a career-ending momentum from one film,” he says. Which is why movie actors make themselves accessible to the press: to keep their public presence alive in between screen appearances. Now that Selleck is solely doing films, he finds himself in the same position. “It’s new to me,” he says. “In-depth interviews. I don’t know how to do them yet.”
Selleck’s success in film has been limited. Of his nine movies, only Three Men and a Baby, in which he shared the spotlight with Ted Danson and Steve Guttenherg, was a critical and financial hit. Much of the criticism leveled at the failures (Her Alibi, Lassiter, Runaway, High Road to China) centered upon Selleck’s insistence on playing himself, or, rather, the self he had created with Magnum. Amiable. Jocky. Bumbling. Insecure. Unthreatening (to men and women). And disbelieving of his very substantial physical charms.
The problem is that Selleck’s characters in Lassiter and High Road were each supposed to have had a certain hard edge: In High Road, for instance, Patrick O’Malley was a drunken, conniving mercenary who exploits women in a way not dissimilar to that of Burt Reynolds’s film persona. (Burt and Tom are good friends. Selleck is listed as executive producer of Reynolds’s ABC-TV series, B. L. Stryker, and he is probably the only actor alive who will lower his eyes modestly and say “Thank you“ when compared to Reynolds as an actor.) But Selleck didn’t totally mask his Magnum amiability in those roles. Like Reynolds, Selleck is of the acting school that insists that no matter what character he portrays onscreen, he must never let the audience forget the image he has off-screen. “I think it’s a compliment if the audience only sees me,”he says.
It just goes against Selleck’s nature not to be amiable. “I don’t see any reason not to be nice,” he says. “It can be one way, and an effective one, of achieving certain ends. Still, it bothers me when people equate niceness with being dull and wishy-washy. It makes me sound like a wuss.”
Even the success of Three Men and a Baby was predicated on his playing… an amiable, bumbling, love-struck architect—the one twist being that rather than a 25-year-old female in a bikini his love interest was a 6-month-old female in diapers.
The Boston Globe once wrote that Selleck was the only actor who appeared big on the small screen and small on the big screen. Actors who get away with playing the same character type in movie after movie (Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford) do so because they have developed compelling personas that are bigger than life, which is what moviegoers demand. More intense, passionate, mysterious, heroic, screwy, even threatening. It was precisely Ford’s nutty quirks that elevated the seemingly normal professor into the obsessed adventurer Indiana Jones. Selleck, originally offered that part, had to turn it down because of Magnum commitments.)
But Tom Selleck is mercilessly normal, either unable or unwilling to take the risk not to be. For a human being, that’s admirable. For an actor, it can be fatal. TV viewers are drawn to the normal for their heroes (Selleck/Magnum, Cosby/Huxtable) because it reassures them about their own everyday lives. TV heroes are comforting because they are not bigger than life, which is why TV actors often have difficulty taking the leap to film. Those who do either create memorable characters, like Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” or simply learn how to act, like Steve McQueen and James Garner.
In his new movie, An Innocent Man, Selleck is still playing “normal,” an ordinary guy wrongly accused and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.
“As an actor, Tom’s underrated,” says Bess Armstrong, his costar in High Road to China. “l don’t feel the material he’s chosen is up to his ability. I believe there’s a lot of potential there that hasn’t been tapped. Maybe he’s biding his time. Tom is aware of every step, aware of staying in power. He’s very savvy. Tom always has a plan.”
* * *
Tom Selleck’s dilemma, then, is obvious. How far would he distance himself from Magnum—at the risk of losing his fans—in order to succeed in film? Rather than make that painful decision, Selleck is doing what he usually does. He is trying to maintain a precarious balance.
“My biggest fear,” he says, “is not to be wanted. I don’t know if I’ll want to act in five or ten years, but I’d really like for people to want me to work. You can be loyal to your fans without pandering to them. But you also can’t take them for granted. I’ve always felt it was easier to get women fans than men. But you have to have the guys to be successful. I’ve never liked guys who pandered to women fans.”
Many women swoon over Selleck/Magnum’s good looks and nonthreatening sensitivity, while others echo the sentiments of one of his leading ladies, who says, “What was lacking for me was a certain messiness, a certain passion. Everything with Tom is in its box.” It was Magnum’smale viewers who made the show a success; they identified with Magnum’s flaws, not his strengths. It was significant that the red Ferrari he drove was his boss’s, not his own. What was even more significant was that Magnum’s pursuits of beautiful women more often than not ended in failure, just like those of his male viewers. Selleck sustained an eight-year TV run out of those weaknesses, ultimately earning almost $5 million a year, and he is loath to lose that career now.
“Every actor gets put in a box,” Selleck says. “It’s not a curse if you’re working. If it’s a small box, though, I don’t think you can buck it. I’d just like to make my box a little bigger. I try not to approach my career as if I’m some mythical personality; because that personality changes with people’s perceptions of it.
“I like to think that every film part of mine has been a stretch. I’m very happy with them. No matter how safe people thought my choices were, they were a big risk for me. I just have to balance those stretches with my limitations. I can’t ever play Quasimodo just to prove something, but I can push my parameters or else there will be a sameness to my work. I have to be willing to fail. You can’t have it both ways. Still, I can’t do a movie without thinking of my career. I wish I could, but I can’t. That’s the trap. When you start calling what you do ’a career,’ that’s when you start feeling the pressure.”
Selleck relies a lot on Chandlee to protect his career. He is loyal to her, he says, because she did a lot of free work for him thirteen years ago, when he was a struggling actor known more for his modeling (Salem cigarettes, Chaz cologne) than for his thespian exploits (he played a corpse in the film Coma). Selleck is ashamed of his modeling past and tries todistance himself from it by denigrating talk of his being a sex symbol. “I hate that!” he says. “I hate to work out with weights just to stay in shape. I never did like to throw it around. Too much muscle takes away from your character onscreen.”
Like many actors, Selleck is more than a little embarrassed by what he does for a living. He considers it unmanly. “It’s easy to stare someone down with a gun when you know that after they shoot you dead you can get up again. Now, a big left-handed pitcher throwing me curveballs, ouch! That’s real!”
Selleck, at six feet four, 210 pounds and 44 years of age, is proud of his athletic ability. He is an Olympic-caliber volleyball player and claims his greatest achievement was recently being named to an all-American team for men 35 to 45. He also likes to talk about his college basketball days, and how he could really leap. “l didn’t have white man’s disease,” he says. “In one episode of Magnum, we ended the show with me dunking a basketball. It was really important for me to do that without camera tricks.”
It’s important, too, for Selleck to take batting practice at least once a year with a major league team. He has done so with the Orioles (“l hit a few out at Memorial Stadium“) and with the Tigers (“A few players were screwing around in the outfield. When I hit one between them, they just looked.”) and, this past season, with the Dodgers. This time, it did not go well.
Selleck stood behind the batting cage with the pitchers, waiting to take his swings against the easy lobs of one of the team’s older coaches. The pitchers kidded around, occasionally including Selleck in their jokes. He laughed nervously. This was obviously an important moment for him. He had spent the previous day at a batting range in preparation and did not want to look foolish.
Steve Garvey, the former Dodgers first baseman, walked onto the field accompanied by his latest wife, a striking cotton-candy blonde. Garvey, dressed in a navy blazer and tan trousers, looked less like a ballplayer than an actor. One of the Dodgers said to another, “Who’s that with Garv?”
“His new wife.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s the one who’s not pregnant.”
Selleck went over to talk to Garvey. They chatted under a bright sun, two men who have embellished their careers by being “nice.” Finally, it was Selleck’s turn to hit. For the next hour he struggled, sweating and lunging, foul-tipping or just missing pitch after pitch. There was a lightness to his swing. He didn’t attack the ball, driving toward it with his shoulders, but swung only with his arms.
“You swing pretty good,” said one pitcher, “…for an actor.”
Selleck tried to smile.
When batting practice was over, Selleck heard a stern voice calling him from the seats behind home plate, “Thomas! Thomas!” He went over to Chandlee, who was seated alongside Selleck’s elder brother, Bob.
“That was humiliating!” Selleck said.
“Oh, Thomas!” Chandlee said. “That pitcher was throwing hard.”
“He was,” Selleck said. “Wasn’t he?”
“Pretty hard,” said Bob, who had been a pitcher in the Dodgers organization years ago. Bob is a boyishly tousled, Alan Alda sort of guy, who stands almost six feet six. Selleck is close to his brother, and to all of his family, whom he refers to as his best friends. He also has a younger brother and a sister; they, along with their father, Bob Sr., and mother, Martha, make a strikingly beautiful family. “Heads just turn when they all enter a room,” says Chandlee.
* * *
Born in Detroit, Selleck moved with his family to Sherman Oaks, California, when he was 4. His father was a real estate executive and president of the Little League. His mother was a den mother for the Cub Scouts and Brownies. There was a tradition in the family that if the children did not drink, smoke or swear until the age of 21, they would be given a gold watch. Selleck got his, although he claims he did lapse a few times.
Selleck excelled in sports and won a basketball scholarship to USC. He mostly sat on the bench, but when Pepsi was looking for a basketball player for an ad, he landed his first modeling job. He began pursuing acting after that, doing a little modeling on the side, until he received his draft notice. This was in 1967—the height of the Vietnam war. After taking his physical, Selleck was told that within three months he’d probably be sent overseas. Although Selleck “firmly believed in my military obligation,” he wanted to continue acting. So his father helped him get into the National Guard. He claims it was a very scary time to be in the Guard, given all the student riots across the country. Meanwhile, he appeared on the TV program The DatingGame twice. He wasn’t chosen either time, but he was noticed by executives at Twentieth Century Fox and given a studio contract. The rest is history. Salem. Chaz. Magnum. An Emmy. People’s Choice Award for favorite male TV performer, four times. A film price that is now in the millions. In 1986, his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And in August, a multi-picture deal with Disney similar to those of Bette Midler, Tom Hanks and Goldie Hawn.
It is not clear whether Selleck truly defers to Chandlee in decisions about his career or just wants to give the impression that he does. When Chandlee sits in on interviews, Selleck insists it’s her demand, not his. Yet when he did a Playboy interview some years ago, he told the reporter that a CBS publicist had to sit in because the network insisted. He didn’t want to offend them, Selleck said, because they had been so nice to him. Afterward, he called the writer a number of times to clarify a few points he had made. Selleck likes to make these personal follow-up calls. It’s his way of softening his various refusals to writers during interviews. No mention of his family. No talks with his wife. No visits to his home. No questions about his salary.
Such passive aggressiveness seems to be the way he conducts every facet of his life. “Eventually, l guess l got to know Tom,” says Laila Robins, who plays his wife in An Innocent Man. “I just didn’t feel he wanted to schmooze with me. I felt bad, because I’m a professional and know enough not to cross that personal line. He just didn’t trust me enough to let me not cross that line on my own. He always had people around to protect him, to serve as buffers. I’d go our to dinner with him and his makeup man and driver/bodyguard. I never felt they shut me out. It wasn’t that blatant. I just felt there was a point when he didn’t want to go that extra step.”
“Actors need buffers,” says Selleck. “We need people to say no for us.” Chandlee says no a lot for Selleck. It takes the burden off him so he won’t have to sully his image not being “nice.” Then, too, Tom Selleck is truly a “nice“ man who does have trouble saying no to people. Even when he does, he will do it in a way that appears so painful for him, it doesn’t really seem like a no. Back in the late Seventies, as his marriage of ten years to Jacquelyn Ray was collapsing, he couldn’t bear to go through with the actual divorce for four years. “It’s one of the great sorrows of my life that we won’t be together,” he said at the time. “We’ve worked out an agreement to live separately, but we haven’t made any moves toward divorce.”
When Selleck goes out to dinner with his second wife, actress Jillie Mack (they’ve a 10-month-old daughter, Hannah Margaret Mack), he refuses to sign autographs while eating. But he takes great care to explain to his fans his reasons for saying, “Sometimes, it would just be easier to sign them,” he says. “Then when they left, I wouldn’t feel guilty.”
Selleck also felt guilty when he announced he was leaving Magnum after his seventh year. He felt he, personally, was pulling the plug on his crew’s careers. So he signed for an eighth and final season (at a considerable salary increase) just to give the crew one last big paycheck, and to give himself peace of mind.
Selleck loves to smoke cigars. “Obscenely large ones from Cuba,” he says. His favorite poem, by Rudyard Kipling, tells the story of a man forced to choose between the two great loves of his life: his fiancee, Maggie, and the beloved cigars Maggie demands that he give up. He wavers, debating the pros and cons of each love, until finally he makes his choice:
And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a Smoke.
Light me another Cuba—I hold to my first-born vows,
If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!
It is ironic that Selleck’s favorite poem is about a man who makes a painful decision in a decisive way. Despite his own love of cigars, Selleck won’t smoke them in public for fear of offending his fans. When he is offered a cigar while seated in the crowded Dodgers bleachers, where no one has recognized him, he looks around quickly before saying, “I’d better not.”
In his political convictions, Selleck is equally equivocal, though they are of a conservative bent. He believes that socialism is a failed economic concept that limits wealth, while capitalism breeds it. “I benefit a lot of people by making a lot of money,” he says. “It doesn’t make me feel guilty. I can afford to be principled now because of my wealth. If you’re struggling with a family and you sell out, it’s understandable, but if you have wealth and you sell out, there’s something wrong.”
Selleck feels that women’s lib is “just an excuse for women to get even” and that abortion is not only a woman’s issue but a man’s, too. “It takes two people to have a baby,” he says. “And since there’s been no national consensus on it, one way or another, l don’t think the federal government should fund abortions. I would never encourage anyone to have an abortion, but you won’t see me pounding the streets one way or another about it. I don’t think I belong out there just because I did Magnum for eight years.”
Selleck also resents the fact that white Americans are often given the blanket label of racist, held responsible for sins committed 200 years ago. “I’m not responsible for slavery,” he says. “When that poor girl was raped in Central Park this year, Cardinal O’Connor said we were all responsible. I’m not. O’Connor said that God forgave those kids who raped the girl. God might have forgiven them, but I don’t think He forgave them right away.”
When Robert Bork was rejected by the Senate in his attempt to become a Supreme Court justice, Selleck thought it such an outrage that he sent a letter to each of the congressmen who had voted against Bork. Selleck never made that letter public, for the same reason he refuses to campaign for conservative political candidates. As he once said, “Flat out from a business point of view, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get involved. Yet at the same time you don’t want to compromise.”
* * *
It is the seventh inning of the game at Dodger Stadium, and Selleck has yet to be recognized as he sits in the home plate bleachers. It has been a rare treat for him to watch a game without fans assailing him for autographs. The last time he went to the stadium, he sat down below and was immediately spotted. He had to sign so many autographs that he never saw the game. He debated this time whether he should sit in the Stadium Club, where his privacy would be respected. But he rejected that possibility because looking through a glass partition is not like “really being at a game.”
“I’ve always been a private person in a public job,” he says now. “If I give all my privacy away to the public, l won’t have any left as an actor. l won’t have anything to show in my work. Still, I want to be able to do normal things, or else you get isolated and lose touch with reality. I miss all the rudimentary things other people do, like going to the beach and reading a book. I force myself to do these things sometimes, like this game. If I don’t, then privacy becomes the ability to lock yourself in your home, and you’ll never experience reality.”
Suddenly he stops talking and taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, look at that girl!” He points down below to a beautiful girl in a tight sweater returning to her seat behind home plate and whistles like a schoolboy. “That’s all right!” he says. There is something of the schoolboy about Selleck when he talks about women. He claims he is “painfully shy with girls“ and often had to be set up on blind dates. When he asked Jillie out for the first time, he sat in an upstairs bedroom, sweating and hesitating before finally mustering the nerve to dial her number. He was so tongue-tied that eventually she had to say, “Do you want to ask me out?”
“Gee, I hope she gets up again to go for popcorn,” Selleck says, still staring down at the girl. Then he catches himself. “Isn’t that silly?” Despite his adolescent ogling, Selleck is almost prudish about sex. When he’s told that one of his favorite actresses, Kim Basinger, gave a magazine interview recently in which she talked brazenly about wearing a see-through skirt without underwear, Selleck just shakes his head. “That’s too bad,” he says. When his brother Bob tells him an off-color joke that ends in oral sex between two men, Selleck slinks down in his seat, scrunches up his features and mutters, “Yuck!”
The ultimate impression Selleck gives is of a man either physically unable to let himself go or of a man hiding some terrible secret. In either case, he’s still so nice that it seems a waste of his energy to be so protective. He’s the kind of guy who would probably be even nicer if he just stopped acting that way and let himself be naturally so.
Selleck sits back now to enjoy the rest of the game. He looks around. It dawns on him that the fans’ attention is glued to the action on the field. “Hey, this is great!” he says. “Nobody asked me for an autograph. I’m escaping…. Oh, my God! Maybe they forgot me already! Maybe I should stand up or something. Turn around, let them see me.”
Muhammad Ali “shocked the world” 50 years ago today when he beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Since then Ali has been written about more than any famous athlete. He’s what the Madonna was to Renaissance painters—every writer has to take his shot. Fortunately for them, Ali was the gift that kept on giving.
This profile by Peter Richmond, first published in the April 1998 issue of GQ (and reprinted here with the author’s permission), is a classic lion in winter piece. It shows Ali dealing with Parkinson’s but still sharp, charismatic, and more revered than ever.
Muhammad Ali in Excelsis
By Peter Richmond
He is in mellow middle age now. Parkinson’s disease has silenced the voice once full of preening, arrogant poetry. But in his stillness he has become the god he always wanted to be.
On the table in front of him sit a copy of the holy Koran and a plate holding three frosted raspberry coffee cakes, and when he leans forward on the couch and reaches out it is not for enlightenment. It is for a piece of pastry. With his right hand wobbling just this side of uncontrollably, he guides it, slow inch by slow inch, toward the mouth that once yapped without stopping but that now, largely mute, chews slowly, as the eyes stare straight ahead, seeing nothing; only the patter of a cold rain splashing the leaves of the trees outside the window mars the silence. Flecks of frosting tumble in slow motion to light on his belly, which gently swells beneath a black sweater. I am sitting next to him. Close enough to see the tiny scar on his eyelid that looks like a birthmark. Close enough to hear him chew. Close enough to taste the cake as he tastes it. The look on his face is the fat and happy near smile topping the fat and happy body of all the renderings of Buddha you’ve ever seen. It is an expression of bemusement and contentment and wonder at the beauty to be found in the simplest things.
As I watch him eat, I have never been more sure of a man’s inner contentment. Except maybe when he eats the second piece.
It’s not supposed to be Buddha. It’s supposed to be Allah, because it is Allah who has ruled his life since even before Liston, and Allah who controls it now more than ever before. The contents of his briefcase say so. He is carrying the briefcase as he enters the room, so still even in walking that he does not disturb the air around him. He opens the briefcase to reveal hundreds of well-thumbed sheets of paper filled with typewritten words. It is the briefcase a man would carry if he were to knock on your screen door to convert you to his faith, and on this day, dressed in black, shoulders slumping toward his paunch, gray sprinkling his temples, he looks like such a man.
He shuffles through the papers, finds one, hands it to me.
“First Chronicles 19:18,” I read aloud while he listens. “‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel. David killed 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 foot soldiers of the Syrians.’ Second Samuel 10:18: ‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen of the Syrians.’ Was it 700 or 7,000? Was it foot soldiers or horsemen?”
“The Bible has contradictions,” he says to me, the voice sandpapered raw by the disease. “Not in there,” he says, nodding at the Koran. His briefcase also holds a black-and-white photograph of three boxers—Ali, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson; it looks like a snapshot from the turn of the century—but most of the case’s contents are there to do Allah’s work.
It’s easiest for him to talk about Allah, although it is not easy for him to talk, because the muscles of his face don’t work as well as they once did. His wife, Lonnie, has asked if I want her to sit with us so she can tell me what he is saying. Lonnie is a strong woman who walks through a room like a beautiful storm approaching. But right now I ask her if Ali and I can be alone and if she could close the door, which she does, leaving the two of us in silence in a small room in the suite of offices on Ali’s southern Michigan farm. The farm used to belong to AI Capone’s bookmaker. A workman doing renovations recently dug some bullets out of the floorboards from back in the days when people were shooting one another here. Now it’s just about the quietest place on earth.
After he hands me several more tracts, I tell him I’m pretty much a nonbeliever, and at this his eyebrows arch up and the words come quickly.
“Do you believe that phone made itself?”
No, I say.
“Do you believe the chair made itself?”
“Do you believe the table made itself?”
“Do you believe the sun made itself?”
“The Supreme Being made it.”
The Bible’s inconsistencies don’t persuade me, nor do the sermons. It’s when he levitates that I start to come around. Well, not when he levitates—when he pretends to. His levitation trick is like his handkerchief-in-the-fake-thumb trick or the trick where he rubs his fingers together behind your ear and what you hear sounds like a cricket. He’s been playing pranks since he was a kid, to complement his verbal trickery, but now his pranks are the currency with which he communicates.
It’s when he’s pretending to levitate that I figure out what’s happening with Ali now, and it sounds an awful lot like something involving divine intervention. At the very least, it sounds like the sort of parable that ought to be typed up and carried around in the briefcase of someone trying to convert you.
“For decades,” it would read, “Allah had Muhammad Ali doing Allah’s work. Ali was the most remarkable young black man the nation had ever seen, unafraid to take on the mightiest of the white man’s institutions, speaking out, yes, for the black man, but even more for Allah, in a fashion that Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad never could have.
“But the older the disciple grew, the more he began to lose fights to people like Trevor Berbick. And the more he began to lose fights, the more he threatened to fall into the black hole wherein reside all the great athletes who tried to hang on too long. Allah knew that the closer Muhammad Ali got to the ultimate indignity of punch-drunkdom, the less use he was for Allah as an emissary on earth. Yes, a million faithful would line the airport runway in Malaysia, and he could move the masses in Syria and in Algeria and in Turkey, but it wasn’t working in America, where the enemy lived.
“So Allah hit upon a plan. Where Ali’s voice once moved mountains, Allah struck him mute. Where Ali’s swift fists once rained upon opponents with the precision of a surgeon, Allah struck them with terrible tremors so that they struggled to hold a piece of cake. Where Ali once had more physical vibrancy than any athlete the world had ever known—a face like a thousand different masks, a dancer’s body, all of it always in motion—Allah wrapped him in an invisible cloak of paralysis, and he had to labor to move any muscles at all.
“And this is how Allah made sure that Muhammad Ali would be doing his work again. Tenfold. For in infirmity, Ali came to mean much more than he ever had before.”
“I can levitate,” he says, and he tries to get up from the couch, but he cannot. The couch is too deep, and he is growing heavier; he will be Buddha-like in girth at some point soon. I reach out to help him, but he dismisses me with a gesture of his left hand; the closed fist that sits rocking back and forth at his side opens slightly and motions me away. He speaks with his hands now, even though they are constantly trembling and not much good to him. It has taken me a full hour in his presence to begin to recognize the nuances in his shaking fingers, and it has taken me equally long to understand the nuances of his facial expressions, from the eyebrows shooting straight up in true surprise to the rare half smile to the flat, expressionless expressions that are differentiated by the degree to which the eyes and the eyelids move.
All the gyrations and the mugging and the shouting have been distilled into a thimbleful of expressions, but it is a bottomless thimble. So when with a single slight crook of an index finger he tells me not to help him, it’s as if a healthy person had slapped my hand away. Then he tries again, rocks against the back of the couch and vaults himself up. He walks over to a corner of the room, where he turns away and, with his back to me, slowly rises off his feet.
His body appears to levitate—his left foot is off the ground. I cannot see his right foot. Maybe he is levitating. This sounds absurd, but it would make more sense if you were in the room with him and could feel the otherworldliness his utter stillness and oddly detached gaze now impart. In the lasting silences between long questions and short answers and magic tricks, as he stares straight ahead, I begin to feel a mounting sense of disorientation. It’s as if the room is growing smaller or he is growing bigger, as if the space is too little to hold whatever he is becoming now. It’s as if Euclidean rules are being bent.
I’d expected the disease to have robbed him of the vitality that once exploded from him. I’d expected the disease to represent the ultimate cruel triumph of the world that had always wanted the black boy from Louisville, Kentucky, to shut the hell up.
But up close, I am discovering that his affliction has taken nothing away, none of the energy, none of the wit, none of the pride; it has only bound all of it, captured and constricted it, with the entirely unexpected result that, as an aeon of geologic forces can compress a large vein of coal into a very small diamond, whatever was the essence of Muhammad Ali is now somehow magnified. He is at last what he always pretended to be but never was: the Greatest. For it must be axiomatic that if someone calls himself the Greatest, as Ali did for years, he cannot possibly be; the Greatest would never have to label himself as such. Only when he was forced to stop proclaiming his greatness did it become possible.
Never has he been more mortal—struck dumb and slow, crumbs spilling down his shirt—and never have we deemed him more godly.
On the afternoon prior to the kickoff of the Louisville-Penn State football game at Cardinal Stadium on the Kentucky fairgrounds, he was sitting alone in a golf cart behind the grandstand next to the locker room, waiting to be driven to midfield for a pregame ceremony. Suddenly, a few feet away, there stood Joe Paterno leading his team out of the visiting locker room door, dozens of huge, young Pennsylvania mountain men lined up snorting behind the little man in khakis and a sweater and thick glasses, stamping their feet behind Paterno, his energy bubbling out of his body—a game to play!—oblivious to anything else, even to the dozens of folks who had turned around in the top two rows of the bleachers to look down at the man in the golf cart just a few yards away from the football team, oblivious even to the several hundred more fans who had quietly filed out of those bleachers to form a line on each side of the golf cart, like sidewalk crowds at a parade.
Standing directly behind the golf cart, I saw the world as he must always see it, looking straight ahead, looking out through the tunnel of his illness: people crowding to be in his field of vision, chanting his name, some smiling, some shouting, some staring with mouths agape.
Joe Paterno, something of a god himself, saw none of it; he was minutes from the kickoff. When an official signaled for him to enter the stadium, he began to jog, the general leading his infantry, past the golf cart, glancing over his shoulder—and then he stopped. The Penn State players behind him ran into one another like confused cattle. Now shaken from his reverie, stunned, Paterno walked over to the golf cart and crouched and shook the hand of the champ. Then he rose and led his team onto the field.
The golf cart followed. “Ladies and gentlemen,” rang the public address voice, “at the 50 yard line, please welcome the heavyweight champion—” But the announcer didn’t get to finish his sentence; the swell of the roar blotted out the words. Forty thousand people were on their feet singing his name in a two-syllable mantra. Finally, he waved—a quick flip of his right hand—and the cart wheeled around, the beery bleachers still chanting “A-LI!” as the cart disappeared behind them.
In the first half, I sat next to him in the front row of the stadium. We could not watch the football game because we’d been seated behind the Louisville bench and the players blocked our view. Even if Ali could have seen the field, he could not have followed the game, because his head does not move back and forth quickly. So he sat there looking pretty much straight ahead while people such as the former governor of Kentucky came and sat on his other side and called him champ. We did not speak at all. I spent the half handing him peanuts. He would take each one out of its shell and deliberately raise it to his mouth and chew until finally, with a motion of his right hand, he signaled that he didn’t want any more, and he reached out for his soda, which sat on top of the concrete wall in front of him, and very carefully guided the cup to his mouth. The liquid in the cup roiled like a sea, but none of it spilled.
In the limousine back to town, he did not speak, either, except to say, as he threw a left jab and looked out the window, “Gonna make a comeback. Exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Twenty million dollars. Champion of the world at 55.” It was the only time I heard him voluntarily refer to the man he had once been, but it was enough to confirm what I had suspected—that if he were not hindered by disease, he would indeed be trying to make a comeback at the age of 55, and he would be humiliated and pummeled. Frazier tried; Holmes tried. Tyson will try. And while Muhammad Ali was smarter and better than any of them, he is still a boxer.
When the limousine pulled up at his mother-in-law’s house in the suburbs of Louisville to disgorge its passengers—Ali; his best friend, Howard Bingham; his attorney Ron DiNicola; another attorney; and me—l was surprised to see that they all walked quickly up the driveway, leaving him behind to take baby steps up the asphalt toward the house. No one who’s around him a lot treats him as if he’s infirm, because they know he isn’t.
“Oh yeah, he’s all there; he gets it all,” Bingham told me, a little wearily and a little impatiently, as if he were surprised I had to ask.
Then Ali’s wife came out and saw him.
“There he is,” she said softly and went to his side.
That night 11,000 people filled Freedom Hall at the fairgrounds to see an entertainment-extravaganza tribute to Muhammad Ali, starring Natalie Cole and Jeff Foxworthy. After the gospel choir sang, a boxing ring was wheeled to the front of the stage and a series of embarrassing boxing exhibitions ensued, including one in which former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis faced Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum and took a dive as an expressionless Ali watched from a mezzanine seat.
Then a 13-year-old-boy bounced into the ring—a thin kid with gloves as big as his head, his face, nearly in shadow, framed in the padding of the protective headgear. But I could see the eyes and the mouth; they were the features of a boxer before a fight. It turned out he was the youth boxing champion of South Carolina, and he was going to fight Muhammad Ali. I do not think that the youth boxing champion of South Carolina had the slightest idea of the significance of the man who was going to join him in the ring.
I glanced at a man seated next to me, and the look he cast back mirrored the anxiety in my eyes. Then someone raised the ropes for Ali, and as he slowly ducked to climb into the ring the applause swelled, but it was a worried ovation. The bell rang, and the kid charged, fists flying out like misdirected darts; he wanted to kill the old fool. But before anyone could wince, Ali was dancing to one side and then dancing back the other way—not the Ali of 1965, but not a cripple either: It was the dance of an overweight former athlete who was perfectly healthy. The kid could not land a punch.
Then, as the cheers of relief started to rise, he did the Ali shuffle. I’d forgotten about the Ali shuffle. This was not the shuffle of 1966 but the shuffle of an overweight former athlete in perfect health. Ali did not do one dance and one shuffle. He kept it up for a full minute.
Finally, he reached down and grabbed the kid in a bear hug and smiled the best smile he could, although it was just a wink of a smile, and that was the end of it.
When I found him a few minutes later in a room behind the stage, dining on fried chicken, he did not resemble the man in the boxing ring, except for the face. He was surrounded by friends and family, and women—one was fetching him a piece of cake. There was an inordinate number of women in the room, watching him avail himself of the post-event spread, making sure he got enough to eat, wearing expressions that seemed quite maternal. They were not the expressions I’d seen on the women at the black-tie banquet the night before. After Louisville’s high society had grazed its way through a two-hour open-bar cocktail party, Ali had slowly made his way to the dais, and I saw on the faces of the pearled women with low-cut gowns and bustiered girls in impossibly high heels the distinct expression I’ve come to recognize as the one women wear when they’re looking at a man they want.
The boxing match was the last official event of Muhammad Ali’s weekend, but the last unofficial event took place at midnight in the bar at the Seelbach Hotel. It is a historic place, often cited in those stories about great old bars in the great Old South. Natalie Cole and her band were lounging at the bar. I was with one of Ali’s counsel and her boyfriend when Howard Bingham, sloe-eyed and cool, slid a chair up to our table and ordered a beer. Bingham, a photographer, has been by Ali’s side from the beginning, and he is the only one who never left it.
I waited until Howard was halfway through his beer before I asked him what had happened at Freedom Hall that evening.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
The dancing, I said. The shuffling.
“Oh yeah, he can do that; he does that sometimes.”
He can? Then why doesn’t he do it more often?
Bingham had no immediate answer. He was not looking at me or at anything when a moment later he took his right arm and started to windmill it, like an old Ali punch. Then he stopped, and the hand wrapped around the mug of beer.
“Sometimes,” Bingham said, “I just want to…” But he did not finish the sentence. He said something else: “He could be 100 percent better.”
And he could. If he spent more time in boxing rings. It turns out that only when Muhammad Ali is in a boxing ring can he, or does he choose to, turn back the clock. It’s only a boxing ring, fittingly enough, that moves him to movement. Perhaps he believes that if some of us are now finding divine inspiration in his metaphysical majesty, his real power will always derive from his ability to outwit, outpunch, and overpower everyone else.
What Parkinson’s disease does is make you brittle. Ali’s version of the disease is a slow one, but it’s making him brittle nonetheless. The way to fight being brittle—to keep the disease at bay—is to work at being limber. And the only time he feels like working at being limber—at fighting the disease—is when he’s in an environment where he’s always been accustomed to fighting.
“He won’t exercise in a regular gym or do the Nautilus or a StairMaster; he will not do it,” says Lonnie. Her voice is exasperated, because she is exasperated. “I have bought him state-of-the-art equipment. He won’t use it. He says it’s for sissies. That’s why I’m building him a gym on the farm, with a ring and mirrors and a heavy bag. Because that’s what he knows. And that’s how he wants to do it.
“Sometimes Muhammad, unfortunately, might use this illness. Don’t get me wrong, but Muhammad knows when to turn it on and off. And sometimes I think he does it deliberately. Turns it off. He’s a master manipulator; I’m not going to kid you. He will look more fragile than he actually is. Why he does it, I don’t know.”
Perhaps I do. Perhaps if I were being worshiped by flocks of followers, my every whim attended to, and all I could see from behind the smoked glass was legions shouting my name and feeding me cake, well, I would have stopped trying to get better a long time ago, too. Especially if the crowds were finally affirming what I’d been saying for 40 years: that in me you see a god.
“I began to suspect that he was a special vessel that might be ordained for special things,” a writer named Mort Sharnik once said of Cassius Clay as the writer tried to come to grips with the essence of this strange new champion.”Esse est percipi,” an eighteenth century bishop named George Berkeley said many years earlier as he tried to figure out what it meant to exist, to be. After a lifetime of considering the notion, Berkeley decided that to be is to be perceived. And so it must be now with Muhammad Ali. If he is a vessel, it is not only his own self that fills it; it is filled up by all of us, filled with whatever it is we need to find in him. He is what we perceive him to be.
What we see in him is purely an individual matter. It might be something in the eyes, which seem particularly expressive because everything else on the face has shutdown—a sense in his eyes of not only the playful jester but also the kind and compassionate man whose clowning and belittling of opponents often obscured the goodness of the soul within. It might be forgiveness: of him, for adopting a racist religion or acting like a self-centered showman at so many people’s expense—like the cruelty he showered on Joe Frazier (“See how ignorant you are?”); or forgiveness of ourselves, for not realizing how special he was beneath the bluster and the lunacy. For not sensing what we had in our midst.
It might be reverence for the physical embodiment of the greatest man ever to fight, and for the greatest athlete we’ve ever known: The title of heavyweight champion, before its devaluation, was a kingly title. And no one has ever ruled the sport as gracefully, or as magically—although his crowning triumph, his victory over Frazier in their third fight, in Manila, was the most brutally beautiful heavyweight championship fight in history, a battle won not with wits but with soul. If the disease came on while he was fighting—if it was not inherited, as his wife insists—then this is the fight during which it must have taken root.
It might be simple awe at the survival of a man who had the balls to stand up to white America and risk its wrath when most of us would have shut up and joined the damned army. In 1967 to be a young black man from Kentucky who refused induction—one year before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, three years after three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi—was to be made of a singular fabric.
And it might be pity, although if it’s pity, he neither merits it nor wants it. When l ask him, after he levitates, if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and slumps hack against the couch in a manner that l recognize as meaning he will have more to say on the matter in a moment. This happens only three times in our two hours in that room: There are three questions he wants to answer slowly, not reflexively. This is not to say that some of his quick answers aren’t honest ones. When I ask if he misses boxing and he quickly answers, “No”; when l ask if he’d want his son to be a boxer and he quickly says, “No”; when l ask, “Are you a happy man?” and he quickly answers, “Um-hmm.” But three times when l ask him questions, he slumps back on the couch and closes his eyes, then opens them and speaks.
Sometimes he gets only the first three or four words out and then has to stop and try again before uttering a complete thought—like a car turning over several times before catching on a cold morning.
So when l ask if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and then a few moments later he says, “Everything… everything… everything has a purpose.”
Another time I ask if he’d change anything in his life. After several seconds, he says, “I wouldn’t change nothin’. It all turned out to be good.”
The third time, l ask how he wants history to remember him. This is the one he takes the most time to think about. He closes his eyes and slumps against the back of the couch for what seems to be a very long time. Then he opens his eyes, leans forward, and says in quick bursts of words, “I want people to say, ‘He fought for his rights. Fought for my people. Most famous black man in the world. Strong believer in God.’”
I have a million more questions, but he is tired, and I am not going to get the answers I want. When I ask what lessons he has learned on his long and troublesome journey—when I lean in and, in tones drenched with meaning, ask him what we should know—he says, “Do a lot of running; eat the right foods.”
And when I tell him l think that it was the third Frazier fight, not the Foreman fight, that was his best, he looks at me and rasps, “You’re not as dumb as you look,” which makes me laugh in delight—how sharp he is—until I remember that this is exactly what he said to the Beatles when he met them in Miami Beach in 1964.
We shake hands—it’s a soft handshake but not a sickly one; it’s like a gentleman’s handshake—and he picks up the briefcase and rises to walk down the hall to say goodbye to his wife, who is working in another room, before he walks over to the main house. I take a tour of the rest of the office suite. One room’s windows overlook an expanse of emerald green grass bordering a river, and stacked against the wall beneath the windows are 13 translucent plastic cartons with the words PROPERTY OF THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE printed on the sides. Each is overflowing with letters and envelopes. Perhaps a thousand pieces of mail.
“A week’s worth,” says a woman whose job is to open them and answer them: the well-wishers, the autograph requesters, the charity seekers. Most of Ali’s life is given over to good works now. Last fall a Roman Catholic nun who cares for Liberian children at a missionary center in the Ivory Coast wrote Ali to ask for his help.The next month, she was surprised to see him there in person, giving out food.
In another room sits a woman who presides over the memorabilia being packed up to be shipped to the nascent Ali museum in Louisville: the autographed Golden Gloves, the photograph of Ali standing over Liston’s prone body in Lewiston, shouting at his defeated foe. Glass trophies and engraved plaques line walls, huddle atop tables, rest on floors—too many to examine any particular honor; the cumulative effect of the glittery clutter says enough.
My tour has taken 10 or 15 minutes, and as I turn down the hallway toward the door that will take me outside, I see that Ali is standing exactly where l saw him last; he hasn’t moved an inch. He is standing in a doorway looking at his wife, who is sitting in front of a computer wearing a telephone headset. She is a woman with discernible soft and humorous sides, but she is also a no-nonsense person, and right now she is talking to a lawyer in tones as authoritative and sure as those of a general commanding troop placement from a bunker, discussing some award Ali will be receiving in New York next month; she is running the business of Muhammad Ali.
He leans down to whisper something in my ear. By now l know not to expect anything profound.
“I like my office,” he says, and I nod, understanding instantly what he means. That he likes standing and watching people testify to his power and his goodness. That he likes all these tangible testaments to how important he has become. Also, I think he likes the women.
He escorts me down the stairs, out the door, and we stand for a moment beneath the outstretched arms of the giant elms. This is where I leave him, surveying his kingdom. As l walk to my car, he is still standing there, and as I drive away down the long, winding driveway toward the iron gates, I have no doubt that as soon as I’m out of sight he will turn around and go back upstairs to eat the last piece of coffee cake.
They were drinking their dinner in a joint outside Chicago. It was just Mike Royko and his pal, Big Shack, and whatever their bleary musings happened to be that night three years ago. They probably never even gave a thought to the fact that they were in Niles, Illinois, which qualifies as a suburb and therefore should have been treated by Royko as if it were jock itch. But Niles is where a lot of the Milwaukee Avenue Poles he grew up with fled when they started finding themselves living next door to neighbors named Willie and Jose. So this was shot-and-a-beer territory after all. The only thing it lacked was a DO NOT DISTURB sign.
“Hey, you’re Mike Royko!”
It happens to him all the time even though newspaper guys are supposed to be bylines, not recognizable faces with bald heads, crooked smiles and ski-jump noses. How Royko, who is a baggy-pants character no matter what he wears, cracked the celebrity lineup is no mystery, though. Nor is it a tribute to the tiny picture of him that has decorated his column in each of the three Chicago papers he has worked for. The secret is words. The words that in 1971 paid off with a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper commentary and a best-selling book called Boss, in which he dissected Mayor Richard J. Daley. The words that now appear, via syndication, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, and 223 other papers. The words that always have originated in his hometown, Chicago, five times a week, year after year after year.
“I’ve read you all my life.”
Royko’s admirer was male, white, crowding 40, with a pretty wife who quickly made it known that she was a more voracious reader than her husband. Soon the three of them were so wrapped up in one another that they failed to notice Big Shack, all 220 pounds of him, lumber off to the can. But Big Shack is important to this story, first, because he is the source of it, and second, because he returned just in time to save Royko.
“The guy was choking Mike,” Big Shack says. “I guess his wife had gotten a little too friendly, and Mike, well, you know Mike. So there I was, peeling the guy’s fingers off Mike’s throat one at a time.”
Big Shack can laugh about it now.
“What can I tell you? In ten minutes Mike went from hero to bad guy.”
Here’s a keeper from Scott Raab. “The Hit King,” originally published in GQ back in 1997 and reprinted here with the author’s permission.
If you grew up in Cleveland, rooting ten, twenty, thirty years for what was then the most drab and futile team in baseball, you loathed Pete Rose for at least three reasons. You despised him for his skill and for his frenzy to win. You scorned him for being born, reared and revered in Cincinnati, a fussy, gooberous river burg, half Kraut, half hillbilly, buried so far downstate that it essentially was, and is, the capital of north Kentucky. Above all you hated him for July 14, 1970, when he scored the winning run in that year’s All-Star Game by maiming the Tribe’s finest rookie in decades, a toothy, well-muscled 23-year-old catcher named Ray Fosse. Fosse was planted a stride or two up the third-base line, blocking the plate; Rose wracked him knee to shoulder at full speed. Bruised, Rose missed three games. Fosse dislocated his entire career.
I didn’t care that this was not a cheap shot, that it was just the way the game is played. I didn’t care that Rose and Fosse had huddled at Rose’s home the night before—the game was in Cincy that year—talking baseball until 3 A.M., or that they kept in touch for years thereafter. I watched season after season as Ray Fosse fought to find his stroke, fought and failed, while Rose and his team became the Big Red Machine. I never forgave Pete Rose.
I never forgave Pete Rose, but on August 1, 1978, I discovered that I had ceased merely to loathe him. Having hit safely in forty-four games straight—second only to DiMaggio’s untouchable fifty-six in 1941—Rose went hitless that summer night. Feeling strangely bereft, I opened The Baseball Encyclopedia to DiMaggio’s name and saw that in ’41 he had been 26, in the heart of his glory. Rose was already a wondrous, ageless 37, and I understood then that this brick-bodied motherfucker would dog me forever. Without quite knowing it, I had come to regard him with that same mixture of emotion inspired in cave dwellers by earthquake and eclipse: terror, awe, powerlessness, and surrender. Beyond explanation or entreaty, he simply was and always could be. Even when he stopped playing, in 1986—he was the Reds’ player-manager then—Rose refused to officially retire, and I fully expected him to climb out of the dugout at any moment, bat in hand.
He never did. In 1989 Rose was tossed out on his ear, eighty-sixed like a drunk who had pissed on the jukebox. I took no pleasure from it, not even relief; whether he bet illegally or bet on baseball or bet on his own team, he was railroaded, denied due process in a vermin-infested, star-chamber investigation. I felt only wariness, certain he would sue and come back, until the almighty IRS, a force beyond even nature, pinched him for failing to report racetrack winnings and income from memorabilia sales. Pete Rose was finally done for. Before his sentencing, he read a statement asking for the court’s mercy—he’d paid the government, plus penalties and interest—his voice choked and quaking, too shamed to lift his head from the page. The judge, a Reds fan, gave him five months, plus a $50,000 fine to cover the cost of his upkeep in the federal prison in—I scarcely could believe it—Marion, Illinois. Ray Fosse’s hometown.
If you’re a Cleveland Indians fan, that’s how it goes: no justice, only irony.
“Lemme tell ya, I love Joe DiMaggio,” Pete Rose says, chugging coffee at four in the afternoon. We’re at a table near the back bar of the Pete Rose Ballpark Cafe. He’s 56, rock hard and proud of it. His jeans are light blue and jock tight; his white ribbed cotton pullover is tucked in at the waist; he has a thick gold chain around one wrist and a battered Rolex around the other. His hair is short, receding—he keeps a ball cap on his head—and bottle-brown. His pugish brow and nose have thickened; the whole face has grown a bit heavier, more coarse; but his eyes, flat brown, still burn, and his voice is the same tough-guy bark. “I went to Vietnam in 1967 just so I could meet Joe DiMaggio. They asked me to go on a goodwill trip. Joe and me went south; the other three guys went north. We had to carry cards that said we were colonels, because if we got captured and we didn’t have a card, we’d be considered spies. I was in awe of this guy. I mean, this guy was one of my heroes. I couldn’t believe I’m ridin’ in helicopters with Joe DiMaggio.”
I try to picture them—the 26-year-old hick, crew-cut and knot-faced, five whole seasons in the Bigs under his belt, and the Yankee Clipper, 53 then, an authentic pinstriped deity, silvering, aquiline, regal—squatting flank to flank in a Huey, skimming treetops, skirting enemy fire, Colonel Charlie Hustle’s incessant chatter ack-acking above the roar of the chopper and the bullets’ whine and the Phrygian silence of Colonel Joltin’ Joe.
Then Pete Rose says this: “I gave Joe DiMaggio a shower one night. I gotta be the only guy in the world ever to give Joe DiMaggio a shower.”
Say WHAT? It is as if an unearthed Hemingway letter recounted a lazy afternoon in Paris when Papa gave Scott Fitzgerald a foot rub.
“We’re down in the Mekong Delta. And it’s . . . it’s . . . it’s a jungle. It’s hot. I mean, it’s so goddamn hot ya can’t sleep. All you can hear goin’ off is boom-BOOM, boom-boom-BOOM. It’s a war out there. And we’re tryin’ to sleep. And Joe says, ‘I can’t sleep.’ He says, ‘I gotta take a shower.’”
Just then a paunchy white-haired man in a beige zippered jacket wanders over to the table, clutching a photo. Rose takes it from him without a glance, signs it, and hands it back. “Thanks, buddy,” Rose says.
The man stands gaping at the glossy in his hands, perplexed. “What’s that number there, uh, forty-two fifty-six?” he asks finally.
“That’s my prison number,” says Rose, poker-faced. Then he returns to the Mekong. “The way you take a shower, you got this big bamboo thing up here, like a pocket.” Rose cups his thick, square hands, lifting his forearms above his head. They are massive, tight as tree trunks, covered with dark hair. “You gotta get up on a chair, and you gotta feed the water. Then you pull a string, and the water comes through. So I’m the feeder; Joe’s takin’ the shower. I’m up on the thing feedin’ the water, and he’s takin’ a shower. Joe DiMaggio.”
Rose grins like a schoolboy. He pushes his cap, black leather with a gator-skin bill, back on his head and clasps his hands behind his neck. A large gold pin dangles from the center of the crown of the cap, formed of two letters: HK, for “Hit King.” I eye those oaken arms and see Ray Fosse somersaulting backward and coming to rest facedown in the dirt, his left shoulder torn from its socket.
“Joe was the most humble guy I ever seen. We got to sit in a meeting of fighter pilots who were goin’ on a mission over North Vietnam. Now you imagine Joe DiMaggio walkin’ in. ‘Hi, I’m Joe DiMaggio, old broken-down ballplayer,’ he used to say. And Joe goes up, and he gets the chalk, and—you know the bombs on the fighter planes? Joe writes ‘Fuck Ho’ on one. And this one guy came back [after the mission] and told Joe, ‘I got an ammunition dump with that thing.’ Joe was happy as he could be. ‘Fuck Ho,‘” Rose repeats, snorting at the memory, shaking his head with delight.
Truly, it is almost more exquisite than I can bear to hear Rose tell about the great DiMaggio in Vietnam. Just then, though, something happens to Pete Rose, something visible and ugly. His face, from brow to chin, turns hard; his eyes go cold; his lips, shrunk to a miser’s frown, barely part as he speaks. “Joe DiMaggio don’t sell bats,” he says, biting off the name. “They’re forty-nine ninety-five. That’s $4,995. Joe thinks everybody’s tryin’ to fuck him.”
Ray Fosse hit .307 in 1970, .307 with good power, and never again came close. He played out his enfeebled string, built a pension, found a broadcast job. DiMaggio, wealthy and still worshiped, is an ice-hearted, reclusive old man. Something worse happened to Pete Rose. Something odd and slow and subtle, something that swallowed him up and took him drifting down into nothingness, into a pale nearly beyond remembrance. Go figure. Had Rose simply croaked or grown doddering, we might have pondered how this brash hayseed colossus bestrode and embodied, like Elvis or Ali, an entire era, spoke with his rough art to the soul of a nation. Instead people hear the name, pause, and say, “Oh, sure. Hasn’t he got a restaurant somewhere?”
The Pete Rose Ballpark Cafe looks like any other edifice in Boca Raton, Florida, which is to say that it has a blank exterior of pinkish tan stucco. To find it, you should know that it is joined to the side of a tannish pink Holiday Inn, whose clover green marquee is one of a very few clues that the entire length of Glades Road from the freeway to the turnpike is not simply a palm-dotted, lizard-infested, pinkish tan strip mall erected to service the needs of an army of frosted-blonde women wielding scarlet talons, silver Lexi, and platinum Visas.
You may be tempted to order the Hall of Fame Chicken Scallopini. Don’t. Irony is no substitute for flair in the kitchen. Stick with a burger.
Your chef is Dave Rose, Pete’s younger brother. Except for Dave’s stringy, shoulder-length hair, the basketball-sized gut beneath his grease-spattered apron, and the slack derangement of his eyes, he and Pete look much alike. Something happened to Dave Rose, too: Vietnam. He didn’t go with DiMaggio.
The staff wears tags with their hometowns printed under their names. Everyone is young, trim, female, and from New York or New Jersey. Pete’s customers are more typical Boca dwellers: fat old men from New York or New Jersey. Pete’s afternoon routine is coffee, the sports page, and banter with the staff about fellatio technique, but today he’s also doing business with Marty. Hoarse, fat, and fiftyish, Marty hails from Boca via New York’s Upper West Side. His business is marketing sports memorabilia.
“I’m gonna throw out a name,” Marty says, “a very, very dear friend of mine. I’ve got very few friends. Marv Shapiro. Dr. Marv Shapiro.”
“Marv Shapiro,” Rose says. “I don’t know who that is.”
“Marv Shapiro is an ear, nose, and throat guy. He has, and I’ve seen it, your jersey from when you broke Cobb’s record.”
Rose shakes his head.
“No?” Marty rasps, his eyes wide. “He swears he paid you twenty-five grand for it. No?”
“I said I was gonna use three jerseys,” says Rose. “I only used one. I used that one right over there. Marge Schott’s got one. I gave one to Barry Halpern for that Ty Cobb bust up there. Did he say he got it from me?”
“Yeah, and he’s not a bullshitter. Great guy. Tremendous guy. Very successful guy.”
“He might be a great guy,” Rose tells Marty, “but he’s a goddamn liar.”
Marty sighs, crestfallen, searching for the right tone, the right words. When he speaks, his voice is heavy with sorrow. “The fraud that is running rampant in this business is perpetuated daily,” he says.
While I wonder if Marge Schott and Barry Halpern know that Rose snookered them—an unworn game jersey is not a game jersey—Marty recovers nicely. “My idea,” he tells Rose, “is to put out something that you authorize. I’ll do all the promoting. I’ll go to every show. It won’t interfere with you at all. To me it would be a privilege to work with you.”
Rose sips the coffee. “I think you could really sell bats with ‘Charlie Hustle,’” he muses. “I’ve never signed ‘Charlie Hustle’ on a bat.” Marty beams at me, radiant, and begins squeaking with joy. “Ooooh, that coy little, sly little fox. He’s Charlie Hustle. They call me ‘Marty Hustle.’ Ooooh. When—not if —he gets put into the Hall of Fame? Right to the moon. He knows it, too. Ooooh, is he good. And he’s young; he could be signing for the next thirty years.”
At the Pete Rose Ballpark Cafe Gift Shop, a signed copy of the black Mizuno that Rose used in the later years of his career goes for only $250. For $75 less, you can get a copy of his old Louisville Slugger. Take it from Pete, though: “I wouldn’t even look at that Louisville. I broke the record with a black Mizuno.”
The record. Rose mentions it often, just as he adds it as a coda to his signature: “4256,” more career hits than anyone in the history of baseball. He harps on this because he knows that despite “4256″ he never reached the Yahwehvian stature of Mays and Mantle and, yes, DiMaggio; unbeloved, he was not even, like the demigods Clemente and Kaline, much admired. Not only did Rose lack the supple arrogance of grace, the titanic strength and propulsive speed, even the innocent exuberance of an aw-shucks kid—he had none of the stuff that drops jaws and warms hearts—but also, and crucially, the little boy inside Pete Rose came off as a runtish bully, the outer man as an imperious lout.
What made Rose a great player was an invincible physique coupled with a monomaniacal fervor unseen since the demise of the baseball god most closely linked to him, the shiv-wielding madman whose record Rose chased for twenty-three years: Ty Cobb. Rose grew so obsessed with Cobb that he named his second son, Tyler, for him, and on the night Rose broke the record in 1985, he saw Cobb above the stadium lights, sitting in the clouds. Dead since 1961, Cobb has no bats to hawk, but a huge copper bust of him sits rooted upon a waist-high railing just past the Ballpark Cafe’s hostess station, where the Georgia Peach glares out from eternal captivity into the cafe’s enormous, glassed-in game room. Like Rose, Cobb departed the game not long after he was investigated by the league for wagering on the team he played for and managed. No finding was announced; he simply retired and was in the first group of players voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame at its inception in 1936.
Something far worse happened to Pete Rose. The agreement reached in 1989 with Commissioner Bartlett Giamatti—six months of inquisition had yielded a 2,000-page report based mainly upon the sworn word of two felons—stated plainly that there was no finding that Rose had bet on baseball games and that he could seek reinstatement in a year without prejudice. But at Giamatti’s press conference announcing the agreement, he was asked if he thought that Rose had bet on baseball. “Personally,” Giamatti replied, “yes.”
Rose, gagged by edict of the commissioner throughout the entire ordeal, unable to defend himself, forbidden to question his accusers, saw this on television in his lawyer’s office in Cincinnati and nearly shat his pants. He had spent a million and a half in lawyers’ fees negotiating the agreement Giamatti had just trashed the day after it was signed. The IRS was sniffing at his door. His career was kaput; his endorsements were gone. He was fucked, and he knew it.
Something worse than all of that—something closely resembling justice—happened to Bart Giamatti, ex-president of Yale, wooed from the Ivy League to reign over baseball, qualified for the job only by having had the sort of love affair with the game unique to fey, pristine intellectuals. “Reconfigure your life,” the commissioner told Rose at their last meeting, sending Rose out from the only life he had ever known. Then, after his press conference, Giamatti repaired to Martha’s Vineyard for a week of rest and recovery, nodded off in a hammock, and never woke up.
Rose has yet to apply for reinstatement. Giamatti was replaced by his pudgy steward, Fay Vincent, whom Rose blames for keeping him off the Hall of Fame ballot. “That lying son of a bitch,” Rose calls him. Vincent was ousted by a club owners’ uprising in 1992; the chair has been empty ever since, the game itself nearly consumed by its cannibal kings. Meanwhile, Rose wanders through his horse-hide diaspora, Kafka in cleats. He may buy a ticket to see a game, but visiting old mates in the broadcast booth is off-limits. When a Cincinnati bakery designed a poster to commemorate the Big Red Machine’s last championship, baseball informed it that an action photo of Rose was verboten. A group pose including him was okey-dokey.
I phoned the offices of Major League Baseball to ask what happened and what might happen to Pete Rose; my calls were not returned. I phoned Rose’s former lawyer, who negotiated the Giamatti agreement; he had his secretary call back to say that he wasn’t interested in talking. I also tried Rose’s current attorney. He rang back and answered all my questions, each with the same words: “No comment.”
I ask Rose what Bart Giamatti had meant by telling him to re-configure his life.
“He never said. I assume that means be very selective of the people that I’m hangin’ around with, and no more illegal gambling.” He still bets, he says, but only at the track. He lives in Boca; his second wife, Carol, and their two children live in Los Angeles. Rose says he gets out to see them as often as he can. “I talk to my kids every day,” he says in an aggrieved tone, as if he feels accused of yet another crime. “You have to do what you have to do.”
Weeknights he does the syndicated, two-hour “Pete Rose Show” from a radio studio adjacent to the kitchen. Rose’s on-air partner—Rose is neither glib nor focused enough to work alone—joins in on a phone hookup from Vegas. There is much talk of point spreads and odds, and a total of three phone calls are taken during the entire show. Through the Plexiglas window, customers gape and take snapshots of Rose yapping into the mike. In the booth, I can smell the potatoes frying, then hot cheese, as brother Dave weaves his culinary magic.
During one five-minute break for ads and a news update, Rose signs five dozen baseballs. While a producer and Rose’s fan-club president open the boxes for him, he autographs the sixty balls in four and one-half minutes, digitally timed.
“I can’t read this one,” the producer says, winking at me.
“They’re all the same,” says Rose, pen gripped tightly, hunched in concentration, unsmiling, not looking up. After signing each ball with a smooth stroke that seems to be one careful, continuous motion, he rolls it away, down the table, toward me. The tail of each final e in Pete lifts to cross the t before it. Each curlicued R flows into the combined os in an almost floral kiss. He’s absolutely right: they are all the same.
Late January in West Texas beneath a warm, high, blue noon sky, and the place is blasted, bleak. It’s the land, skillet flat and dust brown, punctured by bobbing, creaking, sucking metal; it’s the enormous, yellowing Space for Rent placards pleading from every oil tower and the ground-floor windows of every bank and most of the other buildings on the twenty-mile stretch from downtown Midland to the Ector County Coliseum in Odessa; it’s the late-morning Saturday caravan of pickups moving sluglike down the road, each with its own wizened, check-shirted driver, lip bulging with either a pinch of snuff or a mouth tumor, each with his ten-gallon hat pulled down to his furled eyebrows. One weekend a month, sometimes more, Pete Rose hits the road for a card show. Today he’s here.
Except that it turns out to be a boat show, not a card show, and the Ector County Coliseum is not a coliseum at all but a beehive of separate metal outbuildings surrounded by a chain-link fence. The main edifice, which might pass for a coliseum to people whose entire lives are spent dangling from oil rigs, is filled with gap-toothed salesmen fondly stroking big-ticket water vessels that seem exactly as useful here in the Permian Basin as a Psalter in hell.
Chaperoned by two skinny Odessa cops, his eyes shaded by the bill of his “Hit King” cap, shod in off-white ostrich-skin half boots and sporting a diamond-dusted Piaget on his meaty wrist, Rose sits behind a long table on a small wooden stage in Barn G. Behind him hangs a huge poster, blue with silver stars and marked with the cramped John Hancock of Dallas Cowboys defensive-tackle emeritus Jethro Pugh, yesterday’s big draw. Ed “Too Tall” Jones was scheduled earlier this morning, but he didn’t show. Former Cowboys safety Cliff Harris is due in two hours.
Rose is not grinning. “You don’t have one guy charging money for an autograph and two or three other guys signing for free,” he crabs. “I’m not used to doing shows where I don’t sell out. The only way you don’t sell me out is if you fuck it up.”
The West Texas Marine Dealers Association has indeed fucked it up. It has paid Rose $18,000 for 1,000 autographs—below his standard twenty grand but enough to get him here—and it’s charging the public only fifteen bucks per signature, five less, Rose says, than his own floor. So it has guaranteed itself a $3,000 loss, minimum, undercut the value of the only meal ticket Pete Rose has left, and just for humiliation’s sake, it is trotting out these retired Dallas Cowboys—each of whom, however obscure, is the local equivalent of the Lubavitcher rebbe—into the same barn where the “Hit King” is enthroned.
About fifty people wait behind a roped-off set of stairs for Rose to begin signing; in addition to the $5 admission fee at the main building, they’ve forked over the extra $15 at a small booth marked by a spray of balloons near the entrance and received a hand-numbered slip of paper good for one Pete Rose autograph. First in line is a woman cradling the generic bat she has brought for a colleague dying of cancer. Rose’s policy is name only, no personalization, but he adds “To Don, Good Luck” above his signature. He offers the boys his hand to squeeze, calls all the men “buddy” and lets folks snap his photo as they please. He seems downright cheerful now, until he realizes that the policeman flanking him isn’t collecting the $15 slips.
“You gotta keep the tickets, buddy,” Rose instructs in deliberately calm, measured tones, as if speaking to a toddler, “or they’ll get back in line again.”
The officer peers at him with knitted brow, and vacant eves. “Oh, raaht,” he says, finally, flushing. “Raaahht.”
With the first rush of business over, Rose is alone onstage with two hours left to sit, visited occasionally by a few treasure hunters and, just as often, by men his age or older, their faces weather-lined and boyishly shy, who want only to shake his hand and speak their awkward piece.
“When you gonna make your comeback?” asks one, a rangy gent in newly pressed Levi’s.
“This is my comeback.” Rose, seeing nothing to sign, looks down at the table.
“But when they gon’ putcha in the Hall of Fame, Pete?’
“I’m waitin’.” “Well, we are, too.” “It’s not up to me,” Rose reminds him. “Yeah, ah know.”
Like Rose, he has nowhere to go, nothing to do. Later he will climb behind the wheel of his pickup and plod home. For now he is content to stand a spell in front of Pete Rose and shift his cud from cheek to cheek. Rose fiddles with his pens, lining them up on the table, capping and uncapping them.
‘Well, so long, Pete,” the guy says after a long silence, ‘jest ain’t a Hall of Fame ‘thout you innit.” He heads slowly toward the stairs.
Rose turns to me. “People receive me, don’t they?” he asks. He sounds tired, plaintive. I have no idea what he means.
“People receive me, don’t they?” he repeats.
“Yes, I suppose they do.”
“Not only here, but where you been. They recognize me.”
They do the only justice left to him now, these old men who share the obliquity of their love in return for the singles and doubles he stroked back in 1965. Sitting in a tin shed with his silly cap, his $40,000 watch and gold bracelet, his police armada, his plane ticket back to Boca in his leather satchel, he can’t grasp the irony, although his eyes betray the sadness of it.
What happened to Pete Rose his 4,256 hits can’t undo; they can’t shake his naked craving for assurance, not only that he still exists but that he will never not exist. Whatever befell him, I can imagine nothing worse: to grow old 2,500 miles from wife and children, hungry for the passing love of strangers.
With an hour to go, he has signed exactly 227 autographs, and a marine dealers’ rep starts to haul up cases of balls and stacks of pictures for him to ink. They have paid him his fee, and, by God, they are going to get their 1,000 Pete Rose signatures.
Studio City, California. Here Pete’s wife, Carol, lives with 12-year-old Tyler and 7-year-old Cara. It is a fine house on a high-priced hill two turns off Ventura Boulevard, but nothing grand. The living room is enormous and completely devoid of furnishings. There is a pool out back, of course: this is L.A., where everyone outside of Compton and Pacoima has a pool out back. The most impressive thing about the Rose home is its landlord, Alex Trebek, who lives next door. “When something breaks, Alex comes over in work clothes and a Jeopardy! cap to fix it himself. Pete says Alex Trebek’s mother also lives on the block, in the house on the other side of Alex.
We are gathered before a sixty-inch television to view tapes of the golden-tressed Cara, a fetching and adorable survivor of the Jon-Benet Ramsey pageant circuit. Cara is a pro now: guest shots on Ellen, an Amtrak commercial, agent, acting coach, voice coach, fax machine on the kitchen counter to receive her scripts. She sits next to me on the ivory leather couch as we watch footage of her as a rouged and lipsticked 4-year-old Miss Tiny Tots contestant, slowly, slowly, slowly doing full splits in her silver spangles and white leotard. Her lush chestnut tresses frame a small, satin apple of a face; she has a sweet, easy smile and dewy, knowing angel’s eyes. She is, in short, terrifying. She is not jailbait; she is castration bait, Depo-Provera bait, short-eyes-gets-eviscerated-in-the-shower bait.
Snub-nosed, spike-haired Tyler also acts, and he plays catcher on his Little League team. He has a ring from Cooperstown, where his team won some kind of tournament. “He beat me there.” Pete says. “Can you believe that?” He sounds more miffed than proud.
As for Carol, she is tawny haired and leather booted, her spandex workout clothes packed top and bottom by the hand of God himself. She doesn’t scare me; I am drinking her in and wondering what happened to Pete Rose that makes him want to live 2,500 miles away in Boca Raton.
After the children go to bed, Pete inserts a tape of himself on Larry King Live. It is every bit as incisive and interesting as any of Larry King’s oeuvre. In the final segment, Tyler and Cara appear at Pete’s side, which, he tells me now, was the whole point of his appearance. “That helps me,” he says, “when people see my kids, how talented they are and how down-to-earth they are and how nice they are. And how confident they are.”
They are all that and more, and I silently forecast harrowing futures for them both. What happened to Pete Rose—his life and dreams, his present and future, all mortgaged to the past—is happening to his children, who haven’t lived his cursed, infamous life yet are the means of its redemption in his eyes. Like most of us, he does not, cannot, see the brutal, common imprisonment of legacy. His own father was a bank clerk who played semipro football into his forties and drove Pete to focus every fiber of self on making the major leagues. Pete’s own first-born son, Pete Junior, 27, has labored in the minor leagues for the past nine seasons in four different organizations without giving anyone reason to offer him a single at-bat in the majors. What happens to us, all of us, is, first of all, what happened to our fathers.
He bet, bet big, bet often, bet illegally, partnered with steroid-crazed gym rats, coke dealers, and ratfuck scum. Down $34,000 on college hoops in the winter of ’86, he left town on business; his runner switched bookies while Rose was away. A snafu ensued over the debt and its payoff, followed by a rebuffed blackmail threat directed at Rose—and that, according to Rose, is how the whole thing blew up. A runner took his tale—that Rose had bet on baseball, on his own team—to Sports Illustrated and to a new scholar-commissioner who wanted to earn his spurs.
Rose says he never bet on baseball—not on the Reds, not on any team. Did he? I don’t fucking know; no one will ever know. Which is why he must be presumed innocent until proved otherwise in a court of law where his accusers aren’t also his judge and jury; precisely why he has no burden of proof to meet. Rose could have taken another route, tested Giamatti’s mettle and the strength of his case and the power of his office; instead he signed the agreement. It was all he could hope for, he says now: no finding that he bet on the game and a shot at reinstatement.
“Three days later, the son of a bitch dies,” Rose growls. “The son of a bitch dies, and everybody forgets all about the agreement.”
Even if you don’t believe him, don’t love baseball, don’t like Pete Rose, it’s a sour thing to hear him say that he goes to Cooperstown each summer on the weekend of induction to sign autographs for the pilgrims on Friday and Saturday and skips town before the ceremonies on Sunday. Even if you don’t believe in justice, it’s agony to hear him tell about the halfway house—he spent three months there after the five in Marion—where he bunked with paroled rapists and murderers and found himself taunted and pushed around, even by the house staff. They even stole his clothes.
“I kept my mouth shut,” he says, each word a drop of lye. “I didn’t complain. I didn’t bitch. But I shouldn’ta went. It was wrong.”
It was wrong, what happened to Pete Rose. But there is no justice, only irony. Which brings us, finally, to what happened to young Fosse.
“I started to go headfirst,” Rose begins, rising from his chair, coming at me, big and fit and strong, the cask of his chest and his arms hewn of oak, “but he had home plate blocked. So I’m comin’ in from third base, and this is home plate, and I’m comin’ this way, and he’s standin’ like this”—he turns and crouches, Fosse was waiting for the throw, his legs astride the base line. “Now why in the hell am I gonna slide into home plate? My knee hit his shoulder, here. If I go headfirst, I’m gonna break both my collarbones. People don’t know that. All they know is they think I ruined his career.”
Ach. Something happened to Pete Rose, a man as hard as a spear of boned ash: he gambled and lost, came to bat more often than anyone in baseball history, and never once connected with another human being. He has a restaurant somewhere.
Originally published in the October 1992 issue of GQ, here is a classic from Peter Richmond.
(A postscript from the author follows.)
Nighttime in Los Angeles, on a quiet street off Melrose Avenue. An otherwise normal evening is marked by an oddly whimsical celestial disturbance: Baseballs are falling out of the sky.
They are coming from the roof of a gray apartment building. One ball pocks an adjacent apartment. Another bounces to the street. A third flies off into the night, a mighty shot.
This is West Hollywood in the early eighties, where anything is not only possible but likely. West Hollywood shakes its head and drives on by.
But if a passerby’s curiosity had been piqued and he’d climbed to the roof of a neighboring building to divine the source of the show, he would have been rewarded by a most unusual sight: a man of striking looks, with long blond hair, startlingly and wincingly thin, hitting the ball with a practiced swing—a flat, smooth, even stroke developed during a youth spent in minor-league towns from Pocatello to Albuquerque.
This is not Tommy Lasorda Jr.’s, routine nighttime activity. A routine night is spent in the clubs, the bright ones and dark ones alike.
Still, on occasion, here he’d be, on the roof, clubbing baseballs into the night. Because there were times when the pull was just too strong. Of the game. Of the father. He could never be what his father was—Tommy Lasorda’s own inner orientation made that impossible—but he could fantasize, couldn’t he? That he was ten, taking batting practice in Ogden, Utah, with his dad, and Garvey, and the rest of them?
And so, on the odd night. On a night he was not at Rage, or the Rose Tattoo, he’d climb to the roof, the lord of well-tanned West Hollywood, and lose himself in the steady rhythm of bat hitting ball—the reflex ritual that only a man inside the game can truly appreciate.
“Junior was the better hitter,” recalls Steve Garvey. “He didn’t have his father’s curveball, but he was the better hitter.”
“I cried,” Tom Lasorda says quietly. He is sipping a glass of juice in the well-appointed lounge of Dodgertown, the Los Angeles baseball team’s green-glorious oasis of a spring-training site. It’s a place that heralds and nurtures out-of-time baseball and out-of-time Dodgers. A place where, each spring, in the season of illusion’s renewal, they are allowed to be the men they once were.
On this February weekend, Dodgertown is crowded with clearly affluent, often out-of-shape white men, each of whom has parted with $4,000 to come to Dodgers fantasy camp. In pink polo shirts and pale-pink slacks—the pastels of privilege—they are scattered around the lounge, flirting with fantasy lives, chatting with the coaches.
“I cried. A lot of times. But I didn’t cry in the clubhouse. I kept my problems to myself. I never brought them with me. I didn’t want to show my family—that’s my family away from my house. What’s the sense of bringing my problems to my team?
“I had him for thirty-three years. Thirty-three years is better than nothing, isn’t it? If I coulda seen God and God said to me ‘I’m going to give you a son for thirty-three years and take him away after thirty-three years,’ I’d have said ‘Give him to me.’”
His gaze skips about the room—he always seems to be looking around for someone to greet, a hand to shake, another camper to slap another anecdote on. Tom Lasorda floats on an ever-flowing current of conversation.
“I signed that contract [to manage the Dodgers] with a commitment to do the best of my ability,” he says. “If I’m depressed, what good does it do? When I walk into the clubhouse, I got to put on a winning face. A happy face. If I go in with my head hung down when I put on my uniform, what good does it do?”
These are words he has said before, in response to other inquiries about Tommy’s death. But now the voice shifts tone and the words become more weighted; he frames each one with a new meaning.
And he stops looking around the room and looks me in the eye.
“I could say ‘God, why was I dealt this blow? Does my wife—do I—deserve this?’ [But] then how do I feel, hunh? Does it change it?” Now the voice grows even louder, and a few fantasy campers raise their eyebrows and turn their heads toward us.
“See my point?”
The words are like fingers jabbed into my chest.
Then his eyes look away and he sets his face in a flat, angry look of defiance.
“You could hit me over the head with a fucking two-by-four and you don’t knock a tear out of me,” he says.
“Fuck,” he says.
The word does not seem to be connected to anything.
He was the second of five sons born, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a crowded little city-town a half-hour north of Philadelphia, to Sabatino Lasorda, a truckdriver who’d emigrated from Italy, and Carmella Lasorda.
By the age of twenty-two, Tom Lasorda was a successful minor league pitcher by trade, a left-hander with a curveball and not a lot more. But he was distinguished by an insanely dogged belief in the possibility of things working out. His father had taught him that. On winter nights when he could not turn the heat on, Sabatino Lasorda would nonetheless present an unfailingly optimistic face to his family, and that was how Tom Lasorda learned that nothing could stomp on the human spirit if you didn’t let it.
Tom Lasorda played for teams at nearly every level of professional ball: in Concord, N.H.; Schenectady, N.Y.; Greenville, S.C.; Montreal; Brooklyn (twice, briefly); Kansas City, Missouri; Denver; and Los Angeles. Once, after a short stay in Brooklyn, he was sent back to the minors so the Dodgers could keep a left-handed pitcher with a good fastball named Sandy Koufax, and to this day Lasorda will look you in the eye and say “I still think they made a mistake” and believe it.
The Dodgers saw the white-hot burn and made it into a minor-league manager. From 1965 to 1972, Lasorda’s teams—in Pocatello, Ogden, Spokane, then Albuquerque—finished second, first, first, first, second, first, third and first. Sheer bravado was the tool; tent-preaching thick with obscenities the style.
In 1973, the Dodgers called him to coach for the big team, and he summoned his wife and his son and his daughter from Norristown, and they moved to Fullerton, Calif, a featureless sprawl of a suburb known for the homogeneity of its style of life and the conservatism of its residents.
In 1976, he was anointed the second manager in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ nineteen-year history. His managing style was by instinct, not by the book, and his instincts were good enough to pay off more often than not. In his first two years, the Dodgers made the World Series. In 1981, they won it. In 1985, they didn’t make it because Lasorda elected to have Tom Niedenfuer pitch to St. Louis’s Jack Clark in the sixth game of the playoffs, against the odds, and Jack Clark hit a three-run home run. In 1988, though, he sent a limping Kirk Gibson to the plate and gave us a moment for history.
From the first, Lasorda understood that he had to invent a new identity for this team, the team that Walter O’Malley had yanked out of blue-collar-loyal Brooklyn-borough America and dropped into a city whose only real industry was manufacturing the soulless stuff of celluloid fantasy. His clubhouse became a haunt for show-business personalities, usually of distinctly outsized demeanor—Sinatra, Rickles—and he himself became the beacon of a new mythology, leader of the team that played in a ballpark on a hill on a road called Elysian, perched above the downtown, high and imperious. Because, really, aren’t there too many theme parks to compete with in Los Angeles to manage your baseball team as anything other than another one?
In sixteen years, the tone of the sermon has seldom faltered, at least not before this year. This year, through no fault of Tom Lasorda’s, his fielders have forgotten how to field, in a game in which defense has to be an immutable; and if this is anyone’s fault, it’s that of the men who stock the farm system. His pitching is vague, at best. So the overwhelming number of one-run—is, in fact, testament, again, to Lasorda’s management. No one has questioned his competence.
His spirit has flagged considerably, but his days, in season and out, are as full of Dodger Blue banquet appearances as ever, with impromptu Dodgers pep rallies in airport concourses from Nashville to Seattle. Unlike practitioners of Crystal Cathedral pulpitry, Lasorda the tent-preacher believes in what he says, which, of course, makes all the difference in the world. Because of his faith, Dodger Blue achieves things, more things than you can imagine. The lights for the baseball field in Caledonia, Miss.; the fund for the former major leaguer with cancer in Pensacola: Tom showed up, talked Dodger Blue, raised the money. Tom’s word maintains the baseball field at Jackson State and upgraded the facilities at Georgia Tech.
“I was in Nashville,” Tom says, still sitting in the lounge, back on automatic now, reciting. “Talking to college baseball coaches, and a buddy told me nine nuns had been evicted from their home. I got seven or eight dozen balls [signed by Hall of Fame players], we auctioned them, and we built them a home. They said, ‘We prayed for a miracle, and God sent you to us.’”
Nine nuns in Nashville.
In the hallway between the lounge and the locker room hang photographs of Brooklyn Dodgers games. Lasorda has pored over them a thousand times, with a thousand writers, a thousand campers, a thousand Dodgers prospects—identifying each player, re-creating each smoky moment.
But on this day, a few minutes after he’s been talking about Tommy, he walks this gauntlet differently.
“That’s Pete Reiser,” Tom Lasorda says. “He’s dead.” He points to another player. He says, “He’s dead.” He walks down the hallway, clicking them off, talking out loud but to himself.
Back in his suite, in the residence area of Dodgertown, I ask him if it was difficult having a gay son.
“My son wasn’t gay,” he says evenly, no anger. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin’ monkey, too. That’s not the fuckin’ truth. That’s not the truth.”
I ask him if he read in the same paper that his son had died of AIDS.
“That’s not true,” he says.
I say that I thought a step forward had been taken by Magic Johnson’s disclosure of his own HIV infection, that that’s why some people in Los Angeles expected him to…
“Hey,” he says. “I don’t care what people…I know what my son died of. I know what he died of. The doctor put out a report of how he died. He died of pneumonia.”
He turns away and starts to brush his hair in the mirror of his dressing room. He is getting ready to go to the fantasy-camp barbecue. He starts to whistle. I ask him if he watched the ceremony on television when the Lakers retired Johnson’s number.
‘”I guarantee you one fuckin’ thing,” he says. “I’ll lay you three to one Magic plays again. Three to one. That Magic plays again.”
As long as he’s healthy, I say. People have lived for ten years with the right medication and some luck. Your quality of life can be good, I say.
Lasorda doesn’t answer. Then he says, “You think people would have cared so much if it had been Mike Tyson?”
On death certificates issued by the state of California, there are three lines to list the deceased’s cause of death, and after each is a space labeled TIME INTERVAL BETWEEN ONSET AND DEATH.
Tom Lasorda Jr.’s, death certificate reads:
IMMEDIATE CAUSE: A) PNEUMONITIS — 2 WEEKS
DUE TO: B) DEHYDRATION — 6 WEEKS
DUE TO: C) PROBABLE ACQUIRED IMMUNE
DEFICIENCY SYNDROME — 1 YEAR.
At Sunny Hills High School, in Fullerton, Calif.—”the most horrible nouveau riche white-bread high school in the world,” recalls Cat Gwynn, a Los Angeles photographer and filmmaker and a Sunny Hills alumna—Tommy Lasorda moved through the hallways with a style and a self-assurance uncommon in a man so young; you could see them from afar, Tommy and his group. They were all girls, and they were all very pretty. Tommy was invariably dressed impeccably. He was as beautiful as his friends. He had none of his father’s basset-hound features; Tommy’s bones were carved, gently, from glass.
“It was very obvious that he was feminine, but none of the jocks nailed him to the wall or anything,” Gwynn says. “I was enamored of him because he wasn’t at all uncomfortable with who he was. In this judgmental, narrow-minded high school, he strutted his stuff.”
In 1980, at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Cindy Stevens and Tommy Lasorda shared a class in color theory. Tommy, Stevens recalls, often did not do his homework. He would spend a lot of his time at Dodgers games or on the road with the team. At school, they shared cigarettes in the hallway. Tommy would tell her about the latest material he’d bought to have made into a suit. She’d ask him where the money came from. Home, he’d say.
“He talked lovingly about his father and their relationship—they had a very good relationship,” Stevens says now. “I was surprised. I didn’t think it’d be like that. You’d think it’d be hard on a macho Italian man. This famous American idol. You’d figure it’d be [the father saying] ‘Please don’t let people know you’re my son,’ but it was the opposite. I had new respect for his father. There had to be acceptance from his mom and dad. Tommy had that good self-esteem—where you figure that [his] parents did something right.”
In the late seventies, Tommy left Fullerton, moving only an hour northwest in distance—though he might as well have been crossing the border between two sovereign nations—to West Hollywood, a pocket of gay America unlike any other, a community bound by the shared knowledge that those within it had been drawn by its double distinction: to be among gays, and to be in Hollywood. And an outrageous kid from Fullerton, ready to take the world by storm, found himself dropped smack into the soup—of a thousand other outrageous kids, from Appleton, and Omaha, and Scranton.
But Tommy could never stand to be just another anything. The father and the son had that in common. They had a great deal in common. Start with the voice: gravelly, like a car trying to start on a cold morning. The father, of course, spends his life barking and regaling, never stopping; he’s baseball’s oral poet, an anti-Homer. It’s a well-worn voice. Issuing from the son, a man so attractive that men tended to assume he was a woman, it was the most jarring of notes. One of his closest friends compared it to Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist—the scenes in which she was possessed.
More significantly, the father’s world was no less eccentric than the son’s: The subset of baseball America found in locker rooms and banquet halls is filled with men who have, in large part, managed quite nicely to avoid the socialization processes of the rest of society.
Then, the most obvious similarity: Both men were so outrageous, so outsized and surreal in their chosen persona, that, when it came down to it, for all of one’s skepticism about their sincerity, it was impossible not to like them—not to, finally, just give in and let their version of things wash over you, rather than resist. Both strutted an impossibly simplistic view of the world—the father with his gospel of fierce optimism and blind obeisance to a baseball mythology, and the son with a slavery to fashion that he carried to the point of religion.
But where the illusion left off and reality started, that was a place hidden to everyone but themselves. In trying to figure out what each had tucked down deep, we can only conjecture. “You’d be surprised what agonies people have,” Dusty Baker, the former Dodger, reminds us, himself a good friend of both father and son, a solid citizen in a sport that could use a few more. “There’s that old saying that we all have something that’s hurting us.”
In the case of the son, friends say the West Hollywood years were born of a Catch-22 kind of loneliness: The more bizarre the lengths to which he went to hone the illusion, the less accessible he became. In his last years, friends say, everything quieted down, markedly so. The flamboyant life gave way to a routine of health clubs and abstinence and sobriety and religion. But by then, of course, the excesses of the earlier years had taken their inexorable toll.
As for the father, there’s no question about the nature of the demon he’s been prey to for the past two years. Few in his locker room saw any evidence of sadness as his son’s illness grew worse, but this should come as no surprise: Tom Lasorda has spent most of four decades in the same baseball uniform. Where else would he go to get away from the grief?
“Maybe,” Baker says, “his ballpark was his sanctuary.”
It’s a plague town now, there’s no way around it. At brunch at the French Quarter, men stop their conversations to lay out their pills on the tables, and take them one by one with sips of juice. A mile west is Rage, its name having taken on a new meaning. Two blocks away, on Santa Monica Boulevard, at A Different Light, atop the shelves given over to books on how to manage to stay alive for another few weeks, sit a dozen clear bottles, each filled with amber fluid and a rag—symbolic Molotovs, labeled with the name of a man or a woman or a government agency that is setting back the common cause, reinforcing the stereotypes, driving the social stigmata even deeper into West Hollywood’s already weakened flesh.
But in the late seventies, it was a raucous, outrageous and joyous neighborhood, free of the pall that afflicted hetero Los Angeles, thronged as it was with people who’d lemminged their way out west until there was no more land, fugitives from back east.
In the late seventies and the early eighties, say his friends and his acquaintances and those who knew him and those who watched him, Tommy Lasorda was impossible to miss. They tell stories that careen from wild and touching to sordid and scary; some ring true, others fanciful. Collected, they paint a neon scar of a boy slashing across the town. They trace the path of a perfect, practiced, very lonely shooting star.
His haunt was the Rose Tattoo, a gay club with male strippers, long closed now. One night, he entered—no, he made an entrance—in a cape, with a pre-power ponytail and a cigarette holder: Garbo with a touch of Bowie and the sidelong glance of Veronica Lake. He caught the eye of an older man. They talked. In time, became friends. In the early eighties, they spent a lot of time together. Friends is all they were. They were very much alike.
“I’m one of those gentlemen who liked him,” says the man. “I was his Oscar Wilde. He liked me because I was an older guy who’d tasted life. I was his Marne. I showed him life. Art. Theater. I made him a little more sophisticated. [Showed him] how to dress a little better.”
They spent the days poolside at a private home up behind the perfect pink stucco of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Tommy lacquering himself with a tan that was the stuff of legend. The tan is de rigueur. The tan is all. It may not look like work, but it is; the work is to look as good as you can.
He occasionally held a job, never for long. Once, he got work at the Right Bank, a shoe store, to get discounts. His father bought him an antique-clothing store. He wearied of it. Tommy, says one friend, wanted to be like those women in soap operas who have their own businesses but never actually work at them.
Tommy’s look was his work. If there were others who were young and lithe and handsome and androgynous, none were as outre as Tommy. Tommy never ate. A few sprouts, some fruit, a potato. Tommy spent hours at the makeup table. Tommy studied portraits of Dietrich and Garbo to see how the makeup was done. Tommy bleached his hair. On his head. On his legs. Tommy had all of his teeth capped. Tommy had a chemabrasion performed on his face, in which an acid bath removes four of the skin’s six layers. Then the skin is scrubbed to remove yet another layer. It is generally used to erase scars or wrinkles. Tommy had two done.
But he smoked, and he drank. Champagne in a flute, cigarette in a long holder, graceful and vampish at the same time: This was Tommy at the Rose Tattoo. His friend also remembers how well Tommy and his father got along. His friend would drive Tommy to the Italian restaurant where he’d meet his father for Sunday dinners.
“He loved his father, you know. They got along perfectly well.” His friend was never his lover. Only his friend. That was all. That was enough. “He was very lonely.”
On occasion, the nighttime ramble led him far from the stilted elegance of Santa Monica Boulevard. In the punk dubs, amid the slam-dancing and the head-butting, Tommy parted the leathered seas, a chic foil for all the pierced flesh and fury, this man who didn’t sweat. This man who crossed himself when someone swore in public.
Penelope Spheeris met him at Club Zero. She would go on to direct the punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and, years later, Wayne’s World. They became friends. They met at punk clubs—the blond man in custom-made suits, the striking woman in black cocktail dresses and leather boots. In 1981, she interviewed Tommy for a short-lived underground paper called No Mag.
PENELOPE: Have you been interviewed very much before?
TOMMY: No, but I’m very…oral…
PENELOPE: People who would see you around town, they would probably think you were gay.
TOMMY: I don’t care.
PENELOPE: What do you do when you get that reaction from them?
TOMMY : I like all people. And it’s better having comments, be it GOOD, BAD or WHATEVER. I don’t mind at all, but I dress quite…well, I wouldn’t say it’s FLAMBOYANT because it’s not intentional. It’s just intentionally ME.
PENELOPE: O.K., but you understand, when somebody looks at a picture of you, they’re going to say, this guy’s awfully feminine.
TOMMY: I’m there for anyone to draw any conclusions.
PENELOPE: Are you?
TOMMY: Well, I mean, I’ve done different things…of course…I have no label on myself because then I have restrictions. I would really hate to state anything like that.
PENELOPE: When you were young did your dad say, “Come on, Tommy, Jr., let’s go play baseball”?
TOMMY : Never. They always allowed me to do exactly what I pleased. I don’t know how they had the sense to be that way. As parents they’re both so…well, very straitlaced and conservative. I don’t know how I was allowed to just be ME, but I think it was because I was so strongly ME that I don’t think they thought they could ever STOP IT…
PENELOPE: Do you feel like you should be careful in the public eye?
TOMMY: I feel like I should, but I don’t.
PENELOPE: Do you think the press would be mean to you if they had the chance?
TOMMY: I’m sure they would, but I’ll take ANY PUBLICITY.
TOMMY: Because that’s what I want…I do everything TO BE SEEN.
“I found him totally fascinating. He was astoundingly beautiful, more than most women,” Spheeris says now. “I became interested in…the blatant contrast in lifestyles. Tommy Lasorda Sr., was so involved in that macho sports world, and his son was the opposite…”
“I was astounded at how many clothes he had. I remember walking into the closet. The closet was as big as my living room. Everything was organized perfectly. Beautiful designer clothes he looked great in.”
Often in the early eighties, when fashion photographer Eugene Pinkowski’s phone would ring, it would be Tommy. Tommy wanting to shop or Tommy wanting Eugene to photograph his new look.
When they went shopping, they would fly down Melrose in Tommy’s Datsun 280Z, much, much too fast, Tommy leaning out of the driver’s window, hair flying in the wind, like some Valley Girl gone weird, hurling gravelly insults (“Who did your hair? It looks awful”) at the pedestrians diving out of the way.
He was a terrible driver. Once he hit a cat. He got out of the car, knelt on the street, and cried. He rang doorbells up and down the street, trying to find the owner.
Tommy would call to tell Eugene he was going to buy him a gift. Then Tommy would spend all his money on himself. Then, the next day, Tommy would make up for it. He would hand him something. A pair of porcelain figures, babies, a boy and a girl, meant to be displayed on a grand piano—very difficult to find, very expensive.
Then the phone would ring. It’d be Eugene’s mother, saying she just got a bracelet. From his friend Tommy.
“He was a character,” Pinkowski says at breakfast in a Pasadena coffee shop. “He was a case. He was a complete and total case.”
Then he looks away.
“He was really lonely,” Pinkowski says. “He was sad.”
When he was being photographed, Tommy was always trying to become different people.
Eugene captured them all. Tommy with long hair. With short hair. With the cigarette. Without it. With some of his exceptionally beautiful women friends. Tommy often had beautiful women around him, Pinkowski recalls—vaguely European, vaguely models. Sometimes Tommy had Pinkowski take pictures of them.
Mostly he took pictures of Tommy. Tommy with a stuffed fox. Lounging on the floor. In the piano. Sitting in a grocery cart.
In red. In green. In white. In blue. In black and gray.
His four toes. Tommy had four toes on his right foot, the fifth lost in a childhood accident. He posed the foot next to a gray boot on the gray carpet. Then he posed it next to a red shoe on the gray carpet. The red looked better.
Tommy and his foot were a regular subject of conversation, often led by Tommy.
“Tommy was a great storyteller, and he’d tell you stories of his dad in the minor leagues,” Pinkowski says. “Everybody’d like him. He was very much like the old boy. He could really hold his own in a group of strangers. And he’d do anything to keep it going. To be the center of attention. He’d just suddenly take his shoe and sock off at dinner and say ‘Did you know I was missing my toe?’”
One day, Tommy wanted to pose wrapped in a transparent shower curtain. Tommy was wearing white underwear. For forty-five minutes they tried to light the shot so that the underwear was concealed, to no avail. Tommy left, and returned in flesh-colored underwear.
There was nothing sexual about Tommy’s fashion-posing. Tommy’s fashion-posing was designed to get Tommy into fashion magazines. Tommy was forever bugging the editors of Interview to feature him, but they wouldn’t.
“As beautiful as he was, as famous as his father was, he thought he should be in magazines,” Pinkowski says now. “He was as hungry as Madonna. But Bowie and Grace [Jones] could do something. He couldn’t do anything. He could never see any talent in himself.”
The closest Tommy came was when he bought himself a full page in Stuff magazine, in 1982, for a picture of himself that Eugene took.
He would pay Eugene out of the house account his parents had set up for him. On occasion, Eugene would get a call from Tommy’s mother: We don’t need any more pictures this year. Still, Tommy would have several of his favorites printed for his parents. One is from the blue period.
At the Duck Club, down behind the Whiskey, in 1985, Tommy sat in a corner drinking Blue Hawaiians. To match his blue waistcoat. Or his tailored blue Edwardian gabardine jacket. This was during his blue period. In his green period, he was known to wear a green lamé wrap and drink crème de menthe. But the blue period lasted longer. The good thing about the blue period was that on the nights he didn’t want to dress up, he could wear denim and still match his drink. And, sometimes, his mood.
“He walked around with a big smile on his face, as if everything was great because he had everything around him to prove it was great,” Spheeris says. “But I don’t think it was…When you’re that sad, you have to cover up a lot of pain. But he didn’t admit it.”
The nature of the pain will forever be in debate. Few of his friends think it had to do with the relationship with his parents. “The parents—both of them—were incredibly gracious and kind to everyone in Tommy’s life,” says a close friend of the family’s.
Alex Magno was an instructor at the Voight Fitness and Dance Center and became one of Tommy’s best friends. Tommy was the godfather of his daughter. “We used to ask him, ‘You’re thirty-three, what kind of life is that—you have no responsibilities. Why don’t you work?’” says Magno. “You lose your identity when you don’t have to earn money, you know what I mean? Everything he owns, his parents gave him. I never heard him say ‘I want to do my own thing.’ When you get used to the easy life, it’s hard to go out there. I don’t think he appreciated what he had.”
He loved the Dodgers. He attended many games each season. His father regularly called him from the road. In his office at Dodger Stadium, the father kept a photograph of Tommy on his desk.
Tommy loved the world of the Dodgers. He loved the players. To friends who were curious about his relationship with his father’s team—and all of them were—he said it was great. He told Spheeris they were a turn-on.
“He was a good, sensitive kid,” says Dusty Baker, now a coach with the San Francisco Giants. “There was an article one time. Tommy said I was his favorite player because we used to talk music all the time. He loved black female artists. He turned me on to Linda Clifford. He loved Diana Ross. He loved Thelma Houston.
“Some of the guys kidded me. Not for long. Some of the guys would say stuff—you know how guys are—but most were pretty cool. That’s America. Everybody’s not going to be cool. Most people aren’t going to be. Until they have someone close to them afflicted. Which I have.”
Baker spent last Christmas Eve distributing turkey dinners with the Shanti Foundation, an AIDS-education group in California.
“There are a lot of opinions about Tom junior, about how [his father] handled his relationship with his son,” says Steve Garvey, who more than anyone was the onfield embodiment of Dodger Blue. “Everyone should know that there is this Tom [senior] who really loved his son and was always there for him. The two loving parents tried to do as much for him as he chose to let them do…Junior chose a path in life, and that’s his prerogative. That’s every individual’s right.”
Garvey attended the memorial service for Alan Wiggins, his former teammate on the San Diego Padres, who died of an AIDS-related illness last year, after a seven-year career in the majors.
“He was a teammate, we always got along well, he gave me one hundred percent effort, played right next to me. I think the least you can do, when you go out and play in front of a million people and sweat and pull muscles and bleed and do that as a living, when that person passes away, is be there. It’s the right thing to do.”
Garvey was the only major league baseball player at Wiggins’s service. I ask him if he was surprised that he was alone.
“Not too much surprises me in life anymore,” Garvey says.
In the mid-1980s, Tommy’s style of life changed. It may have been because he learned that he had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus. According to Alex Magno, he knew he was infected for years before his death. It may have been that he simply grew weary of the scene. It may have been that he grew up.
He entered a rehabilitation program. He became a regular at the Voight gym, attending classes seven days a week. Henry Siegel, the Voight’s proprietor, was impressed by Tommy’s self-assurance and generosity. Tommy moved out of his West Hollywood place into a new condo in Santa Monica, on a quiet, neat street a few blocks from the beach—an avenue of trimmed lawns and stunning gardens displayed beneath the emerald canopies of old and stalwart trees. “T. L. Jr.” reads the directory outside the locked gate; beyond it, a half-dozen doorways open onto a carefully tiled courtyard. The complex also features Brooke Shields on its list of tenants.
He was a quiet tenant, a thoroughly pleasant man. He had a new set of friends—whom he regaled, in his best raconteurial fashion, with tales of the past.
“Tommy used to tell us incredible stuff about how he used to be…everything he’d done—drugs, sleeping with women, sleeping with men,” says Magno.
“He went through the homosexual thing and came out of it,” Magno continues. “Gay was the thing to be back when he first came to L.A. Tommy used to tell his friends he had been gay. He didn’t pretend. He let people know he had been this wild, crazy guy who had changed. He was cool in that. When you got to meet him, you got to know everything about him.”
Including that he slept with guys?
“Yes. But…he didn’t want to admit he had AIDS because people would say he was gay.”
This apparent contradiction surfaces regularly in the tale of Tommy Lasorda.
“I think he wanted to make his father happy,” says his Oscar Wilde. “But he didn’t know how to. He wanted to be more macho but didn’t know how to. He wanted to please his dad. He wished he could have liked girls. He tried.”
No one who knew Tommy in the seventies and the early eighties recalls him having a steady romantic relationship. Pinkowski remarks on the asexual nature of the masks his friend kept donning—and about how his friend kept some sides of himself closed off. “He’d never talk about being gay. He’d never reveal himself that way. He’d never say anything about anybody that way.”
“Of course he was gay,” says Jeff Kleinman, the manager of a downtown restaurant who used to travel the same club circuit as Lasorda in the early eighties. “No, I never saw him with another guy as a couple. [But] just because a man doesn’t have a date doesn’t mean he isn’t gay! To say he wasn’t gay would be like saying Quentin Crisp isn’t gay. How could you hide a butterfly that was so beautiful?”
“Please,” says his Oscar Wilde. “He was gay. He was gay. He was gay.”
“Gay,” of course, is not a word that describes sexual habits. It speaks of a way of living. No one interviewed for this story thought that Tommy wasn’t gay; reactions to his father’s denial range from outrage and incredulity to laughter and a shake of the head. Former major league umpire Dave Pallone, who revealed his own homosexuality in an autobiography two years ago, knows the father well, and also knew his son.
“Tommy senior is, as far as I’m concerned, a tremendous man,” says Pallone. “I consider him a friend. I have a lot of empathy for what he’s going through. [But] as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think he ever accepted the fact that his son was a gay man. I knew him to be a gay man, and I knew a lot of people who knew him as a gay man.
“We don’t want to be sexual beings. We just want to be human beings.”
“If nothing else, his father should be proud that he repented,” Alex Magno says. “He’d come a long way—denying what he used to be, so happy with what he’d become.”
I tell him his father denies the illness.
“He died of AIDS,” Magno says. “There’s no question. But what difference does it make? He was a good man. He was a great man. You shouldn’t judge. He had had no sex for a long time. We didn’t know how he could do that. I mean…but he was incredible. He gave up everything. That’s what he said, and there was no reason not to believe him. He was totally like a normal man. He was still feminine—that gets in your system—but there was no lust after men.”
In the last two years of his life, Tommy’s illness took its toll on his looks. He was not ashamed. though. The surface self-assurance remained. One night, he made an entrance into Rage—thinner, not the old Tommy, but acting every bit the part. He still showed up at Dodger Stadium, too, with his companion, a woman named Cathy Smith, whom Tom senior said was Tommy’s fiancée. When he did, he was as elegant and debonair as ever: wide-brimmed hats, tailored suits.
“Nobody in their right mind is going to say it’s not difficult—I know how difficult it is for them to try and understand their son,” Dave Pallone says. “And to accept the fact he’s not with them and what the real reason is. But…here was a chance wasted. The way you get rid of a fear is by attacking it…Can you imagine if the Dodgers, who are somewhat conservative, could stand up and say, ‘We understand this is a problem that needs to be addressed…We broke down the barriers from the beginning with Jackie Robinson. Why can’t we break down the barriers with the AIDS epidemic?’”
A close friend who was with Tommy the day before his death vehemently disagrees.
“If his father has to accept his son’s death right now in that way, let him do it,” she says. “If he can’t accept things yet, he may never be able to..but what good does it do? [Tom's] world is a different world. We should all do things to help, yes, but at the same time, this is a child who someone’s lost. Some people have the fortitude, but they simply don’t have the strength…There comes a point, no matter how public they may be, [at which] we need to step back and let them be. You can’t force people to face what they don’t want to face without hurting them.”
“There’s something wrong with hiding the truth,” Penelope Spheeris says. “It’s just misplaced values. It is a major denial. People need to know these things. Let’s get our values in the right place. That’s all.”
“I’m in a position where I can help people, so I help people,” Tom Lasorda says. We are strolling through the night in Dodgertown, toward the fantasy-camp barbecue. “You don’t realize the enjoyment I got with those nuns in that convent. I can’t describe how good that made me feel.”
I ask him what his dad would say if he were alive.
“I think he’d have been so proud of me. My father was the greatest man.”
He tells me that his winters are so busy with appearances that “you wouldn’t believe it.” I ask him why he doesn’t slow down.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I like to help people. I like to give something back.”
On Valentine’s Day, 1991, Eugene Pinkowski’s phone rang. It was Tommy. His voice was weak.
“He was typical Tommy. He was really noble about it. He was weak, you could tell. I was so sad. He said, in that voice, ‘I’m sure you’ve read that I’m dying. Well, I am.’
“Then he said, ‘Thank you for being so nice to me during my lifetime.’ He said, ‘I want to thank you, because you made me look good.’”
On June 3, 1991, with his parents and his sisters at his bedside, in the apartment on the cool, flower-strewn street, Tommy Lasorda died.
His memorial service was attended by Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles. Pia Zadora sang “The Way We Were,” one of Tommy junior’s favorite songs.
Tom Lasorda asked that all donations go to the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, a charity that helps former ballplayers in need.
In the coffee shop in Pasadena, it is late morning, and Eugene Pinkowski is lingering, remembering. His Tommy portfolio is spread across the table. Tommy is smiling at us from a hundred pictures.
I ask Eugene if Tommy would have wanted this story written.
“Are you kidding?” he says. “If there’s any sort of afterlife, Tommy is looking down and cheering. This is something he wanted. To be remembered like this. He’d be in heaven.”
First, the obvious answer to the obvious question: Yes, Tommy was livid when it was published. Tracked me down in a motel in Indiana, screamed over the phone, talked of how he thought we were friends, although our relationship had consisted of a half-dozen interviews over the years in which I quoted him and presented him in my newspaper exactly as he wanted to be presented, which did not cleave to my idea of friendship. On the other hand, as a father, I was torn. Did I have a right to go against a father’s wishes? To display for all of the world to see a part of his son he didn’t want seen? Especially since the more I reported, the more obvious it became that this was a love story about a father and a son? But ultimately, on balance, I had no choice. I had to adhere to what Penelope Spheeris had referred to: values.
The first time I saw Tommy Jr. was a decade earlier. He was on the field during BP. Assuming he was a woman, I asked a writer, “Who’s that?”
“That’s Tommy’s son,” he said.
“Really? That’s incredible. Who’s written the best piece about this?”
No one had. Not a single Los Angeles writer, seeing the diaphanous beauty on the field, talking to his father, Mister Baseball, had seen fit to explore it. By the time I joined GQ‘s staff, the plague had blown up. I had visited a friend at St. Vincent’s who was in the terminal stages of an HIV-related illness, and smuggled in a chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s for him, and fed it to him, but he couldn’t keep it down. I could never get the image out of my mind. Then I reported, and reported, and wrote and rewrote—and took note that all Tommy Sr. had spoken of was how the son’s death had affected him and his wife, and not of his kid, and how difficult it must have been to be one thing to himself, and something else to please his dad—and waited, and waited, and finally, the death certificate I’d asked for from the county arrived in the mail, and I knew what I had to do.
There was a plague, and it was gutting the arts world in my city, and it needed to be cured, and quickly. Expecting the father to ask that donations go to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis? That would have been too much. But what if Tommy Sr., one of the most highly visible men in all of professional sports in those days, had simply acknowledged his son’s sexuality and his cause of death? It could have saved more lives than we can ever know.
Ultimately, I wrote the piece confident that it would advance the cause. I was wrong. Two decades later? No vaccine. More locker-room enlightenment about gays in sports? Despite current events, ultimately, no. In corporate sportsworld, talking the talk is very different from walking the walk. As a for-profit goliath, fed by young men who learn homophobia at an early age, governed by men who were themselves raised in a primitive society, Big Sport’s seeds of gender-preference bias have been sown very, very deeply, and uprooting them is going to take more than a story or two and more than a handful of men who come out every few years. It’s going to take loud voices and even louder fury. It’s funny that Tommy cites Magic, isn’t it? The man who earlier this month spoke so wonderfully of his pride in his gay son? I couldn’t help wondering what Tommy Sr. thought when heard about how Magic was so supportive of his son. I wonder if he even listened.
Another one from the vaults by our man Peter Richmond. This one from GQ, reprinted with the author’s permission.
By Peter Richmond
It’s not that a ’70 BMW 2800 CS Coupe isn’t the most magnificent machine ever designed by man. It is. Or that I wouldn’t orchestrate a major drug deal to own one—or even drive one, just once, along an autumnal Vermont mountain road, en route to a fire-placed inn, with a case of ’85 Canon Saint-Emilion in the trunk, next to a Crouch & Fitzgerald valise stuffed with Thomas Wolfe first editions. I would. These are a few of my favorite things.
But they do not constitute the good life. I find the good life a little farther off the beaten path, in a world full of unsmiling figures, brooding tenements and shadowy streets-although the sunsets are pretty nice. Edward Hopper could always paint light. Hopper’s light is a corporeal thing, heavy and tangible, illuminating a quiet, unhurried place unbeset by the swarm of the modem species—a place where time has stopped,
My idea of the good life wouldn’t be to own a Hopper; it would be to live in one. Maybe in Gas, with its darkening road to unknown destinations, and its overwhelming sense of stillness in the forest of pines through whose needles wisps a wind making music that cannot be heard in my world. Or High Noon, in which a woman wearing only a bathrobe stands in the front door of a clapboard house. In the fashion of all Hopper’s solitary figures, her mouth is closed; her face is passive and yields no clues. It’s a mask of mystery. Unlike her modern-day counterpart, she feels no need to spill her secrets, to yammer endlessly on daytime television about the bad luck that has befallen her. She is at rest.
This stillness must be what people are trying to find when they spend enormous amounts of money vacationing at remote Caribbean resorts or buy whole islands in the South Pacific. I’ve found it a little closer: In 1978, before a minor league hockey game, in an art museum in Rochester, New York. In 1992 in an art museum in Cincinnati. In 1973, in a library in Massachusetts, I even held some Hopper etchings. The curator of the collection made me wear gloves, but I felt the calm just the same.
Does my consideration of a Hopper painting feel as good as the night I persuaded my tenth grade girlfriend to flee her prep school on an interstate bus to meet me in my older brother’s college dorm in Boston, where we fell asleep on the bare wooden floor in front of the fireplace and she slept on her side with her back to me and I awoke to sputtering firelight to find the palm of my right hand resting in the valley of her soft waist between the top of her jeans and the bottom of her ridden-up blue sweater, and it felt as if all of the currents at the heart of the universe were flowing beneath her skin? Does looking at a Hopper feel that good?
Well, no. But the two have something in common. In the contemplation of both (and that’s more or less what my tryst entailed—contemplation), there is something being stirred and stoked that physical pleasures can’t fuel: the imagination, with its promise of the infinite. Of anything you might want. Just beyond the frame of a Hopper, there’s always something more.
Take the country road in Gas: It’s a road to nowhere in particular, but wherever it’s going, things are probably better there. Or the faceless city in Manhattan Bridge Loop: You’d think it nothing but a cold pile of brick. But I know better. I know that inside the buildings, there is more to be found; there’s the soul of a city. And when I spend time in front of the canvas, I find it.
Or take High Noon. The woman’s bathrobe has fallen open, but shadows demurely cloak her. She is turning her face to the sun. Upstairs, behind waving curtains, her bedroom is dark. There might be someone in it. There might have been someone in it not long ago. There might be someone in it soon. Me, maybe.
You may remain unconvinced. You may find it a preposterous notion that the good life could be made up of windows into a state of mind. You may insist that the good life must comprise the sensory pleasures and the sensual ones. But when your Mondavi Cabernet is drained down to the sediment, your Jag needs new valves and your woman has dismissed you like an empty can of cat food lobbed into the trash, I’ll still have this place where, even if the sun reveals a world that’s haunting and bleak, it’s a sun that never sets.
This one here is a beaut. “The Last Swinger,” Tom Junod’s 1996 Tony Curtis profile for GQ (April). It appears here with the author’s permission.
Dig in and enjoy!
“The Last Swinger”
By Tom Junod
SO THERE’S THIS TREE OUTSIDE SPAGO, the restaurant in Los Angeles where Tony Curtis eats almost every night of the week. It’s a lemon tree, or a lime tree, something like that, with dark, shiny leaves and a peppery smell that softens the shrill air off Sunset, and it’s so beautiful that when I walked underneath it, my hand jumped automatically into its branches and clutched a hard green ball of fruit. I had just finished my first meal with Tony, and he was walking behind me with his girlfriend, Jill Vanden Berg, this strapping 25-year-old triumph of a blonde whom he had addressed, back in the restaurant, as “you goddess of love, you twin tower of desire, you two tons of vanilla ice cream, you.”Jill was having some trouble navigating the inclined sidewalk in the five-inch spike heels that made her roughly the size of a power forward, so I didn’t think Tony was watching me, but the second my fingers closed around that piece of fruit, and I mean the very second, I heard his voice, and it said, “Take it.”
Well, of course. He is Tony Curtis, after all, a man who pronounces his own name in italics, and he is alert to any instance of appetite, however idle, and now, with Jill on his arm, he came tilting and listing down the concrete and stopped in front of the tree. He indicated the fruit with a feint of his chin and shrugged with a quick, smarting grimace of impatience and indulgence. “Take it, take it,” he said again, with a heavy click of his consonants, and when I had done it, when I had broken the fruit from its branch and stashed it in my pocket, he sang the little tune, “Hey bop a rebop,” that strays to his lips whenever he’s happy or just wants to get things moving or wants to show the world that he, Tony Curtis, still has something to say about desire, and what a man’s obligated to do with it.
“I LIKE YOU,” TONY SAYS TO me at the bar at Spago. “You don’t want to know how big my dick is, and you don’t want to know who I fucked and who I didn’t fuck.” Then he changes his voice into the hoarse, booming whisper of a man in the habit of exchanging public confidence and adds, “Although just between you and me, my friend, I fucked them all!” Then he sips from the glass of vodka and Diet Coke he uses to wash down his various and sundry medicines, and slurps the silvery meniscal top off his shot of Patrón tequila, and laughs his great silly, twisting laugh, which always seems to start out as a gambit, a challenge of some sort, and then just keeps going, rising into one thing giddy and wild, a high hacking whinny that mines the mirth from his very bones—”Ha! Ha ha! Ha ha hee hee hoo hoo hoooooo….”
And why not? You were him, you’d laugh, too. Tony Curtis! He’s fucked them all; he’s fucked everybody, and here we are, another night on the town with old T.C., because guess what? He still fucks! He’s 70 year old, and he should be fucking dead, so virtuosic has he been in pursuit of his own corruption, and he still gets laid! “Am I not a fucking miracle?” he says. “Look at me! Look at the scars I got! I am a motherfucker, aren’t I?”
You can’t really see the scars, of course, because right now he’s in his black Armani suit, and his scooped-neck T-shirt that displays his floury ascot of chest hair, and his green suede shoes with the two-inch heels, and his long gray scarf swung rakishly around his neck, and his gold Chevalier medal from the French Ministry of Culture pinned heroically to his lapel—but they’re there, my friend, they’re there, all pink and shiny where they dug out his cancerous prostate…where they cracked open his sternum and garlanded his heart with the vein snatched from the length of his leg…where for ten years he ransacked his nose with all the major pollutants, cocaine, heroin, the works…where his crazy mother put his balls through the wringer…where his beloved little brother got run over by a truck…where his other little brother went nuts and wound up picking garbage off the street of Hollywood…and where, dear God, he lost his son, his son, his beloved son. Hell, the list is long: the list is endless; Tony’s a freaking amalgam of his wounds, and yet here he is—enjoying himself! Having fun! Offering the world instruction in the art of celebrity! At Spago, which he pronounces with a long, dawdling stress on the first syllable! With Jill, that gadzookian dish!
“Why, hello, darling,” he says to Jill, in a voice insinuating the thrill of discovery, even though Jill walked through the door with him, in a white fur that made her look like some exotic winter game, and even though for the past five minutes he has been standing next to him at the bar, drinking from a tulip glass of Champagne. “Hello, tateleh. Oh, you lovely creature. You look so beautiful tonight. So fresh! So young!”
“I thought you said I was getting older looking,” Jill says. She is on the long side of five-eleven in bare feet and six-five in her heels, and when she slips out of her fur, she is wearing a skintight dress of pearlescent vinyl whose high hem continually gooses her epic ass and make her legs loom like the pillars astride the gates of an ancient city. She has hair of Harlowesque platinum, and a beauty mark dabbed on her cheek, and lips surrounded by a dark border, and small, perfect sandblasted features, and skin of such powdery phosphorescent pallor that she seems to walk forever in the blanching nimbus of a flashbulb.
“Younger!” Tony says. “I said you were looking younger.”
“I thought I was getting too old for you,” Jill says, and although she is large, her voice is small and sad, a fretful coo that issues from a face as still as sculpture.
“You’re only 25!” Tony says. “Now, maybe when you’re 35, maybe then—but c’mon, darling, let’s enjoy it while we can! We have a lot of good years left!”
No, not for him, not for T.C., some old broad on his arm with nothing left in her eyes but forever. “Can you imagine me with a woman old enough to be my wife?” he once told me. “No, really. I’m serious. Can you imagine me walking into Spago with a 70-year-old woman? Forget it. Fuck that! I don’t have that spirit. My girlfriend is 25 years old—perfect.” See, there’s something about a woman just making her way in the world—”the smell, the taste: There’s a juice there that’s very important”—and these days when Tony walks into Spago with Jill on his arm, man, heads fucking swivel. Yeah, sure, they’re looking at Jill, but they’re looking at him too, because “you got to be something to walk with Jill. Shows you the kind of courage I got. And women love me now more than ever. They look at that fucking girl I’m with—’Look at that 25-year-old girl with that old fucking guy. Whoo! What does he do with his dick?’”
And that’s Tony Curtis for you: Not only does he still fuck—he still wants to show ‘em; he still wants to own the room; he still wants. He’s the Last Swinger. The rest of them—that race of men who understood in their guts that the Big War had broken the world wide open and that America was going to stand up and applaud the guy with the balls to make a show not only of his talent but of his appetite—have either been killed off, like Sammy and poor Dino, or appeased, like Sinatra, an honored and honorable geezer at last. Tony’s the only one left, the only one clinging to dishonor, an embarrassment of carnality—the sly old satyr, unsated. You know how much more living he’s done than anyone else? Well, you can add it up. He’s made 112 movies—a lot of them shit but a lot of them an amplification of his experience, all of the life, as in “When you’re making Some Like It Hot and Marilyn Monroe sticks her tongue in your mouth all the way down to your navel, that’s not moviemaking, my friend, that’s life.”
He’s painted something like 1,500 paintings. He’s had four wives. He’s had six children—and now five. He’s had enough lovers to qualify him, in his own estimation, as “the greatest cocksman to ever come down the pike, man.” There’s no story he hasn’t heard, no lie he hasn’t told, no body buried in Hollywood he doesn’t know where, no vice he hasn’t afforded himself. You’d think he would be full by now, but no…look around. Tony’s everywhere; he’s as current as any of the trash celebrities: He’s showing up at Cannes, he’s out dancing with Jill, he’s mugging for the paparazzi, he’s hanging out with porn stars, he’s going to the birthday parties for Timothy Leary and Richard Pryor (“I love the guys who are gonna check out soon; they make me feel better”), he’s crashing parties, he’s telling people off…and now, at Spago, down two tequilas and his medicinal vodka and Diet Coke, he’s making his way from the bar to a table, his table, and offering his check to the crones and cronies who populate the place, “Kiss, kiss, dahlink.”
Then he sits down and orders “corn on the cob with the truffles, Caesar salad and a half order of sushi tuna, no avocado and bring it all out at once. Yes, yes, that’s how you eat, isn’t it? Everything on the table. Yes! Entrée the same time as the appetizer!” The waiter brings him another shot, and Tony starts talking about the dream he had a few nights earlier, a dream in which he goes to some posh party and is crucified in front of Jack Lemmon, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Robert Wagner, et al. Thing is, all those guys, they’re all smiling and laughing at the spectacle of Tony on the cross—”They thought it was a good idea, and so did I.” Then Tony’s corn comes, along with the salad—”Now bring the entrée! Good! Good!”—and a strange thing happens, the kind of thing that happens to Tony all the time: He looks up and purses his Cupid’s lips into a cagey smile enfolds his arms across his chest like a stricken fan and says, “As I live and breathe, if it isn’t R.J. Wagner.” And it is—fresh from the crucifixion, it’s Robert Wagner, whom Tony had called R.J. for forty-some-odd-years, and he’s wearing his president-of-the-Protestant-frat-circa-1962 getup, turtleneck and tweedy jacket, and he leans over and smiles and shakes Tony’s hand, but he doesn’t stop, not really, not long enough to talk, and when he is gone, I say, “My God, does that man ever age?”
And Tony, wiping a crumb from his lips, says, “No, he’s the same old man he was when he was 24.”
Then Jill St. John walks by, in Wagner’ wake. “Hi,Tony,” she says.
“Hi Jill,” Jill St. John says to Jill Vanden Berg.
Then she sits down at another table, and Tony’s face goes sour. “Jill St. John,” he says. “What a sack of shit.”
And Jill straightens up and pats Tony’s hand and says, “Now, Tony, be nice.”
But Tony is not nice. He can he generous and kind and charming, but he is not nice; he has never been nice, because from from the start he has been involved in the act of creation, and from the start he has understood that in order to create, you have to he willing to destroy.
HE CREATED HIMSELF, OF COURSE. He created Tony Curtis. He wanted to be Tony Curtis, but he was not Tony Curtis, he was Bernie Schwartz, a Hungarian Jew living in the back of his father’s tailor shop on the East Side of Manhattan and later in the Bronx. He had a mother who beat the shit out of him, and a little brother, Julie, who followed him around, and an awareness that not only he, Bernie Schwartz, was beautiful, but that his beauty was somehow incompatible with Bernie Schwartz in the place where Bernie had to live. “All the beautiful people leave their neighborhoods,” he says now. “And you know why? Because they don’t have to stay there! Beauty is America’s lottery, and celebrity is America’s royalty. That’s just the way it goes, just the way it is, and there’s nothing anyone can do to deny that.”
He began taking his leave one day when he was 13. He was out running around with his buddies, and Julie was tagging along. “Get the fuck out of here,” Bernie Schwartz said. “Go find your own friends.” Julie walked away, and on his way home, alone, he walked in front of a truck. He was 9 years old. His mother demanded that Bernie be the one to go to the hospital and identify him. Julie was still alive, in a coma, and Bernie whispered in his ear and told him he loved him. He died the next day, and so Bernie started going down to the East River to pray, to beseech God to allow him to see his brother, just once, just for a moment, their little secret, their little deal. But no, Julie Schwartz—perhaps the only person Bernie had ever loved enough to stay for—was gone, and so Bernie Schwartz was free to go.
He went out to Hollywood after the navy, after the war. Sure, he was still legally Bernie Schwartz, and he still had a mouthful of Bernie’s rotten teeth—but he already had Tony Curtis’s hairstyle, and he was already wearing his shirts just the way Tony Curtis would, with the open collar…and pretty soon he got his teeth capped, each and every one…and pretty soon Universal put him under contract…and pretty soon, when he went back to New York after his first movie, he told the limo driver to go by the theater where he had taken some acting courses. And there he saw Walter Matthau standing in the rain, and he rolled down the window and he shouted, “Hey, Walter! I fucked Yvonne De Carlo!”
What a benediction! But was it Bernie Schwartz who fucked her? No, it couldn’t have been. It had to have been Tony Curtis, because that’s who he was now—and it was Tony Curtis who married Janet Leigh; Tony Curtis who was voted the biggest box-office star four years in a row; Tony Curtis who made nearly four movies a year, “movies that were made for $200,000, that grossed 2½ million each, on tickets that cost a quarter. I was fucking King Kong! I could’ve eaten the world!”
Tony Curtis never got away from the Schwartzes, though. They followed him. His mother, his father and Bobby, the brother born after Julie’s death—they followed him to Hollywood, and they lived there, and his mother demanded that Tony take care of Bobby and get him into the movies. Oh, poor Bobby, he was crazy from his schizophrenia—but his mother, she was crazy from rancor, from malice. Nothing satisfied her—nothing. “Those were miserable fucking days,” Tony says. “My marriage to Janet started to deteriorate. I mean, give us a fucking break! Why wouldn’t we at the end of the day’s shooting close the doors and the windows, put up a sign: NOBODY BOTHER THEM. Why couldn’t I just say, ‘Hi, Mom. How much money do you need, Mom? Thirty-eight dollar for new suit? Then buy it. Leave me the fuck alone! Leave me the fuck alone! Leave me the fuck alone!’”
He couldn’t do it—stay in his marriage, take care of his bother, any of it. Tony wasn’t built for endurance, you see; he was built for escape. He’d tried, in his fashion, to take care of Bobby, but often that meant farming him out—to friends; to other, lesser actors; to a guy like Nicky Blair. Yeah, that’s what Tony would do—he’d give Bobby to Nicky, and he’d be sure to get Nicky a part in the next Tony Curtis feature. Sometimes, though, Bobby would do some crazy thing, like leaving the hospital, living in the streets like a bag man, just to make Tony find him, just to make Tony prove that he loved him. “I felt bad about Bobby; I still feel bad about Bobby. But he’s one of the victims. You know? One of the victims. One of the ones that didn’t get away. Some get away; some don’t. Every family has that.”
And when Bobby Schwartz died, in 1993, Tony Curtis hadn’t seen him in five years.
“YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPINESS is?” Tony says. “I’ll show you what happiness is!”
He opens the door of his garage. He is wearing what he usually wears when he isn’t wearing his black suit–white shorts and a white muscle T-shirt and Birkenstocks, and of course, the accoutrement he is never without, his armature of hair, fashioned out of some spun silver alloy. He’s looking good, Tony Curtis is. He’s looking healthy, vital. He has thick, strong arms and thick, strong legs—one of them striped ankle to groin by his scar—and a body that bespeaks abundance, like a sack used in the plunder of a rich man’s house. He is no longer beautiful. His face is atavistic. His blue eyes have turned milky, and his nose is fat, and he no longer looks like the perpetual boy, the charmed and charming tagalong, but at last like a man who wears his life right on his kisser—and who has earned the right to tell me what happiness is.
There are two cars in the garage—a silver Camaro Z28 with a black convertible roof, and a white Firebird Trans Am with a blue convertible roof. They are both limited editions, and on the dashboard of each is a brass plaque that say, BUILT ESPEClALLY FOR TONY CURTIS. “Look at these fuckers!” Tony says. “Hee hee hee hee! Fuck Cadillacs! Happiness is having these two cars—it’s freedom!” He puts on a black leather jacket and a pair of leather driving gloves—he never drives anywhere without gloves—and a flat-brimmed Stetson, and we get in the Trans Am, whose passenger seat is littered with loose compact discs. (“Tony what kind of music do you listen to?” “Rap, man.”) Then we go. Tony likes to go. He likes to drive fast. He’s had eighty cars, “every car anybody would ever desire…Buick convertible, Dynaflow drive…Facel Vega…Ferrari…Aston Martin…that small Bentley…the Rolls and the Bentley…Maserati…all the Mercedes…every Firebird ever made”—and now here he is, on the freeway, eighty, eighty-five, ninety miles per hour, in a car without license plates, but what does he care? The cops stop him all the time, but they don’t give him tickets, once they see who he is, once they see that he’s Tony Curtis. “I’ve been privileged, I know. Do you know what kind of life I’ve had? And I still can’t get enough of it! I can’t get enough of it, my friend! The living, everything. Just what I’m doing with you now. I love it. I love driving down the fucking freeway!”
Do you know what kind of life he’s had? A few year ago, he was standing at a urinal, in France, and a man asked him if he was Tony Curtis. Tony said yes, he was. The man asked if he had fucked Marilyn Monroe. Tony said yes, he had. Then the man asked if he could kiss his dick, because he wanted to kiss the dick that had been inside Marilyn Monroe. “I said, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’ So he says, ‘Well, can I touch it then?’” That’s the kind of life he’s had. You know, people think that back in the ’50s. the Beats, Kerouac and all them were the pioneers. Well, fuck the Beats! When the Beats were off playing bongo drums, Tony was fucking starlets at the Château Marmont at 5:30 in the morning! Tony was the pioneer! He did eat the world! Tony was a Face Man of America! What, you never heard of the Face Men? Well, they were a group of guys—a club of sorts, consisting of Tony and Sammy and Frank and Dean and Jerry Lewis, guys like that, yeah, Nicky Blair, him too—dedicated to the art of eating pussy. “We were the harbingers of the future. I’m sure going down on girls was passed on and on and on, but we brought it to a new height of elegance—nobody was ashamed of it anymore. We had dinners. We had cards: ‘This is to certify that Tony Curtis is a member of the Face Men of America. ‘Yoo-hoo! I love it! I fucking love it!”
He used to dress up in costumes, like a sheikh or something, with sword and turban, when he made love to women. He used to hide in the closet and leave tape-recorded instructions for his lovers on his dining room table—”‘Hello, Gladys. I’m glad you made it. Lock the door behind you, dear. Go into the bedroom; put on something comfortable.’… Listen, they loved it! I’d laugh them into their orgasms.” He had his share of starlets, of course, but he preferred secretaries, strippers, porn stars. Then he began living with Jill, and he simplified. He didn’t want to squander himself, because his potency…well, his potency is hard-won, if you want to know the truth. See, when he had his prostate removed he learned that “with this operation, 50 or 60 percent of the time men will become completely impotent. I was not in that group, but I still had difficulty with erections. But then as time went on, I found I was becoming stronger and some of the women I went with excited me…and then they came up with some shots you could give yourself to the penis which will give you an erection. The doctor told me, ‘This injection will give you an erection for two hours.’ I said, ‘Doctor, that will be one hour and fifty-seven minute longer than I’ve ever had!’”
He starts to laugh. We are driving down the freeway as he tells me this—for as it happens, we are driving down the freeway whenever we talk about sex, or rather, we talk about sex whenever we are driving down the freeway—and his foot is on the gas, and he starts to speed, and what I hear above the Trans Am’s mad chatter, is this: “Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha! Yee-hee-hee-hoooo!”
AN ETERNAL ERECTION! WELL, WHY NOT? With the way he takes care of himself, and the medicines they have these days, maybe he’ll get away with it, all this giddy venery—maybe he’ll just go on forever—with the prostaglandins for his putz and the Prozac for his psyche, and the Percocet for his aches and pains, and the Patrón for his overall sense of bonhomie. Moderation in medication: That’s what Tony practices now, and some nights, when it’s late and he’s out dancing, he’ll drain another shot of Patrón and tell you that he’s finally found what he’s been looking for, and that secret is perpetual inebriation—a way of drinking all night long that neither violates his elegant equilibrium nor means that he is an alcoholic on his way to the abyss he once called home.
Yeah, the abyss, man, the gutter: Tony lived there, or pretty damned close to it, for nearly ten years. And do you know why. Because he got scared. He got desperate. He started hating everything, hating life itself. It happened in the ’70s, when Tony was closing in on 50, and that milestone, he says, “was like something obscene. It was like something that should be killed, that should be put away…My fucking looks went; everything went. My hair was falling out in handfuls. I was sick; I lost all my humor, I had no sense of myself, reality, anybody—I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I was so fucking mean and arrogant, because I was losing it, and I knew I was losing it, and I didn’t want to share that loss with anybody.” So he did cocaine. It made him feel like himself again, like Tony Curtis, omnipotent, unable to make a mistake, beyond consequence—he couldn’t possibly foresee that he would wind up stumbling around Hollywood, fainting in his own spittle, sleeping in the backseat of his Trans Am, as lost in his own way as his poor crazy brother Bobby was in his. He couldn’t possibly foresee that he would start freebasing. He couldn’t possibly foresee that he would start snorting and smoking heroin, the ultimate death drug, although he never shot it, thank God….
“Heroin?” I say, the first time he tells me all this. “I have, hard time believing that Tony Curtis did a drug like heroin.”
“Heroin!” Tony says. And then, suddenly, “That’s what killed my son! That’s what killed my son! That’s what killed my son!”
WE DRIVE TO HIS STUDIO, in an industrial park somewhere in the Valley. He wants me to see it because it moves him, this place where he stores most of his paintings and most of the shadow boxes he has obsessively and compulsively assembled. Imagine: You walk into an enormous windowless room, and the first thing you see are his paintings, dozens, maybe hundreds of them, big, quick, color-crazed still lifes—a goblet on a table, with a bottle of wine and a bowl of fruit—in the style of Matisse. Then you see his boxes, hundreds of them too…then his hooks, and his photographs, and the statues he’s collected, and the paintings he’s bought from other artists, and a genuine Warhol Marilyn, and an assortment of memorabilia from his movies and a show box of old colognes, and a jar of old toothbrushes, and some tape measures, some crystal goblets, some pipes, an old box camera, a shoe-shine kit, albums of press clippings, bowls of balls, books of cocktail recipes, hairbrushes, paintbrushes, pens, screws, shot glasses, thread, flashlights, pieces of quartz, pieces of flint, cigarette lighters, playing cards, scales, shoehorns, starfish. Scotch tape, eyeglass cases, watches, watch straps, luggage, locks, old shaving kits and marbles, marbles everywhere, like crumbs in a neglected kitchen. And none of this stuff has just been tossed here, either—no, what makes the place haunting is Tony’s proprietorship of it: the fact that, as he says, “there’s nothing in here I haven’t touched; there’s nothing I haven’t arranged, personally.” Indeed, as he walks around now in his muscle tee and his white shorts and his black leather jacket, that’s what he starts doing with this infinity of artifacts: he starts fiddling with them, adjusting them, rearranging them, a half inch here, a quarter inch there, until everything within reach of his pale and mottled hand is just so… “My boxes, this studio—I like them to happen the way the universe happened,” Tony says. “You know? Out of the big bang, everything flew away, and it’s like I’m trying to put it all back together…perfect, just the way it was.”
The big bang! Tony is his own big bang. Wherever he goes, he brings the blast with him….and then he tries to gather everything he has scattered, chasing the ash that falls from the sky. He has had four wives, and he severed himself from them with childlike concision: “I don’t like you. I don’t want to be married to you anymore. You make me mad. You displease me.” He has, or had, two children from each of his first three marriages: first Kelly and Jamie Lee, then Alexandra and Allegra, and then his sons. Benjamin and Nicholas…but nothing can be made completely whole once it has been blown apart; nothing can be just the way it was, unless of course it is something that Tony can catch, collect and place wherever it pleases him. He loves objects, you see. He believes in them, and when Tony is lonely, he does not often depend on the messy solace of human contact—no, he’d rather come here, to the studio, to find succor in the detritus of the lives he’s led, and the lives he’s left.
“C’mere,” Tony says. “I want to show you something.” We go into a little side room where he keeps some of his best boxes and his best marbles. He has been collecting marbles since he was a child; they are his Rosebuds, he says, these pieces of glass he took from his playmates because he was better at the game than they were and because that’s the way it is with Tony, and has alway been: Whatever it is you’ve got, he wants, and whatever it is you want, he’s got. l pick up a fat one, one of the shooters, an “immie.” It is radiantly blue—as blue as sapphire, as blue, perhaps, as Tony’s eyes were when he won it—and when Tony sees it, he says, “The guy who owned this marble is probably 80 years old. And yet the marble looks as though it’s never been used. See? An object can defy time, if it’s perfect.”
Then he closes my hand around it. “I want you to have it,” he says. “Happiness is a blue immie.”
NICHOLAS CURTIS WAS NOT PERFECT. “There was,” Tony says, “something unfinished about Nicholas—unfinished perhaps in his brain, that only in the high of cocaine and heroin did he achieve that moment of omnipotence, that moment of ‘Shit, man, I’ve got it all together—I can paint now; I can play my music now.’” An artist and a dreamer, he did not have what Tony has—the survivor’s carapace of selfishness and moxie—and in the summer of 1994, he shot himself in the arm, and just like that, he was one of them, one of the victims, and his father was now one of them, too: one of those forced to make a passage through the world of grief. Oh, sure, Tony had experienced loss before, but when Nicholas died, “that was a devastation. It was more than just a shock; it knocked me out from under my feet.”
His grief enfeebled him. He went to bed after the funeral, and he couldn’t get up—until, of course, one day he got hungry and went out to eat, and he had, he says, a bad experience with Billy Wilder: “We were having dinner one night at Spago. And as I came in, I saw him and I knelt down by him for a moment, and he said, ‘How are you, Tony?’ I said, ‘Billy, my son died. My son Nicholas died.’ This was just a week or so after. ‘He died of an overdose of heroin.’ Billy said to me, ‘He learned it from you.’ I just—it took my breath away. My breath was taken away. I felt terrible. Maybe I felt that it was my responsibility and I didn’t fulfill it, and my son is dead, and I was responsible for it.”
THE SECOND TIME I WENT TO SPAGO with Tony, we met his son Benjamin at the bar, and Tony put his hand on both our shoulders and said, “My sons, my two good sons. He drank three or four shots of Patrón and offered one in toast to Benjamin, a 23-year-old man whose wife is pregnant with a child whose name will be Nicholas.
When we sat down at his table—Tony and Jill, Benjamin and his wife, Nancy, and me—Tony said, “Look at us! We’re in the highest-priced piece of real estate—the most coveted piece of real estate—in the city, the country, the world!” He ordered the corn with truffles and the sushi tuna with no avocado and asked the waiter to bring everything to the table at the same time. And then he talked about Dean Martin and how Dean, after the death of his own son Dino, “lost interest in living”—and how when Dean ate at the same restaurant every night in Beverly Hills, it was not so much for a meal as it was for a nightly exhumation. Dean Martin, Tony said, “was a third-rate singer” who understood that the key to success was not talent but presentation: “His whole act was to make people think he didn’t care about anything, when in reality he cared too much.”
How much did Tony care? What kind of man chooses to die after the death of a son, and what kind of man chooses to live, furiously, impudently, with a Trans Am and a Z28 and a medal from the French government? Did his miraculous rebirth after Nicholas’s overdose signify a warm man or a cold man, a man full of life or a man who is, in some fundamental way, deficient? I asked this question of his first wife, Janet Leigh, and she answered that Tony “can absolutely bury something, so that it doesn’t exist,” and by something she meant almost anything—a marriage, a friendship, a memory, a misgiving, the past itself. And while I did not think that he could so easily bury his sense of culpability in the death of Nicholas, I began to wonder if whatever it was inside him that enabled him to walk away from his families in the first place—whatever gave him an almost unrivaled capacity to disappoint the people who loved him—was precisely what enabled him to go on living with such profligate force and now, as we got up to go, deliver a birthday cake to a table of strangers and kiss the elderly celebrant’s hand before helping her blow out the candles.
IT IS MY LAST NIGHT WITH HIM, and his heel is killing him. He does not know why, he didn’t even do anything, but the pain is such that when he pulls up to the restaurant—it’s not Spago tonight; it’s Drai’s, Tony’s other place—he can barely get out of the Z28, and he has to lean against Jill to get to his table, which is no problem, because Jill is so fucking big, so fucking strong, she could carry him to the table if she had to. And doesn’t Jill look wonderful tonight? Look at her, in her spike heels, and her white fur, and her blue vinyl dress, and her night sky of costume jewelry. She grew up in San Diego, dreaming of being glamorous, and that’s what Tony has encouraged her to be, allowed her to be, and when they sit down at their table—Jill sitting as always on Tony’s left, next to his good ear; Jill wiping crumbs from Tony’s lips—he says, “Oh, I love you much. You’re such a friend to me. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Do you know that? I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re so up-to-date! You’re ’96—in your mind, your body, your heart, your soul! Your saliva gives me strength to live!”
She answers him as she alway does: by exhibiting a light flush, by whispering, “Oh, Tony,” by giving her shoulders a tiny shake, by squeezing her lips into a pout, by searching Tony’s eye with a look of flickering and wary belief. Oh, she is so vulnerable, Jill is, and that is why she reminds Tony of Marilyn, and that is why Tony goes nuts when people laugh at her. That’s right: Sometimes Jill will stand up in a restaurant, and certain Hollywood people, like Jackie Collins and her fiancé, that fucking Frank Calcagnini, will laugh, right out loud, practically to Jill’s face, the way people used to laugh at Marilyn. Of course, they’re laughing at him too—they’re laughing at Tony, the way they’ve always laughed at Tony, behind his back. But you know what? He used to take it. Now, thanks to Jill and the courage she gives him, he walked right up to Collins and Calcagnini and said, “Fuck you.” And it felt good! He liked saying it—liked it so much that he says it all the time!
“People magazine put me on their Ten Worst Dressed List. I wrote them a letter. ‘Dear People magazine: Fuck you. Tony Curtis.’ They gave Sinatra a party not too long ago; we weren’t invited—I took it as a personal affront. Then I ran across her one day, the woman who gave the party. ‘Hi, Tony!’ I didn’t acknowledge her; I didn’t even pay attention to her. On the way out, she says, ‘Tony, aren’t you going to say hello?’ I said, ‘Fuck you! You give a party for Sinatra; you don’t invite me?’ Can you believe me saying that? But Jill says, ‘Good for you. Good for you.’”
He is free. He does not have to worry about damaging his career, because he damaged his career, irreparably, long ago. He does not have to worry about sabotaging friendships, because Hollywood friendships are something he disavows: “I hang with nobody. Fucking nobody!” Let’s face it: He’s never been accepted in Hollywood, he’s never gotten his due. Maybe because he was too pretty, maybe because he was too arrogant, maybe because he was too Jewish in a town full of “Jews who want to be Aryans”—who knows why, but he can name them all, all those who slighted him all those who treated him like a little fucking boy: Henry Fonda, Peter O’Toole, Laurence Harvey, oh, the Brits especially those grand, godlike Shakespeareans…. But fuck it. Fuck them. They used to bother him, but they don’t anymore, because he’s never going to be what this town wants him to be: He’s never going to be the elder statesman, he’s never going to be respectable, he’s never going to golf at the Hillcrest Country Club, he’s never going to walk into Spago with some brave old broad on his arm, and he’s never going to be given some Academy Award for lifetime achievement, although if he were, you know what he’d do! He’d turn it down. “I’d say, ‘You didn’t give me one for Sweet Smell of Success, you didn’t give me one for Some Like It Hot. You think that just because you decided to recognize the little Jewboy he’s going to come running! No fucking way!’”
HE IS NOT BITTER. No, not Tony. He just wants to disconnect himself from the past, because Tony Curtis cannot be about the past—he must be about the present and the future. “Have you noticed something about my life?” he asks me. “The way I live and everything? Because I’m like that kid again in New York—all I need is one good break. I’m due, double due and overdue. I’m always waiting for that next picture, that next thing.” He doesn’t stop, because he can’t stop. He is the Man Who Ate the World, and for his pleasure, this is his penance, his curse, his sentence: to keep going, to keep eating, drinking, dancing, working, fucking, living, because once he stops, all that’s left is the cost, all that’s left is the reckoning, and he’s faced enough of that already to know he doesn’t want to face it again.
This is what they usually do; this is their ritual three or four times a week: They eat, and then they go to a club off Sunset, and they dance. Tony steps onto the floor alone, and the girls, they just flock to him, strippers especially; he dances in a thicket of them, five or six at a time, until at last Jill stands before him and starts bumping and grinding, doing a dance that is an announcement of erotic intention, and then they go home, Tony says, and they play. Tonight, though, tonight Tony can hardly walk and is limping around in his green suede shoes; tonight Tony has lost his magical equilibrium somewhere between the Patrón and the Percocets; tonight they get to the club early, and it is empty and black, and when Tony goes out to dance, he dances alone, with little, tottering steps, with his eyes big and open and blind, and under the lights he is powdery and ghostlike, an effigy of his appetites. And yet he doesn’t stop; no, of course not. He keeps going; he travels a circuit of the empty floor until at last he reaches its center, and with slow, eerie concentration he points his finger to the disco ball hanging from the ceiling and starts opening and closing each of his hands in the spotlights, snatching at something that always drains away, like a child trying to steal the rain.
Then he comes back to our booth and finds a white napkin and draws a picture of a hand pointing to a slivered moon, with some kind of gem squeezed between its thumb and forefinger, and the stain of a woman’s lipstick imprinted above the cuff. He signs his name and hands me the napkin, and then I pluck from my pocket what he gave me earlier in the week and hold it before his eyes: the blue marble. “An immie!” Tony says, in a kind of startled moan, and then tells me a story: about how when his brother died and he went to the East River to cut his deal with God, he brought his twelve blue immies with him as barter. Just one more time, he asked God—allow him to see Julie just one more time and he would give up his immies; he would throw them in the river, without question or remonstrance. Of course, he never saw his brother again, and now, when “Beast of Burden” comes on and Jill says, “Oh, l love this song!” and stands in from of the the booth to do her bump and grind, Tony has his hand over his eyes, and he is talking to himself or, for all I know, to the God who refused his sacrifice, and he cannot see her.
He is driving home in the Z28. It is another night—because isn’t that the point: that there is always another night? He is wearing his driving gloves; he has found his equilibrium, and when he looks at Jill, he can tell that when they get home they’re going to play. They stop at a traffic light on Sunset, and another car pulls up, a white Trans Am convertible, limited edition, only 250 made in this whole world, the same one Tony has, back in the garage, built exclusively for him. And the kid behind the wheel, he’s wearing driving gloves, and he’s got his shirt open just so, and so Tony rolls down his window and says, “Hey, I got the same car!” And the kid looks at him and says, “Tony Curtis!” And Tony says, “Yeah, but I got the same car!” And the kid says, “I’m gonna be an actor, too!” And Tony says, “Well, you got the right car!” And when he drives away, it is with a feeling of elation, sure, but also of regret, because if only he had been driving his Trans Am, then this meeting with his mirror would have been more than coincidence—it would have been what Tony Curtis lives for, a fucking miracle.
“You know, I woke up this morning in a wimpy mood,” he says. “Men don’t like to be wimps. But I have reached the point, it’s really sad to mention, I have reached the point where… They always say you’ll know when it’s time. Speaking of the place in your life when you finally say: Do you want to die on a highway or do you want to die in bed? I’m tired of it. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of singing ‘Okie from Muskogee.’ I’m tired of the whole gig. Somewhere around my age, people begin to feel insignificant and small and unnecessary and not so much in demand.” There is plenty of work out there for him, but its attraction is waning. “I guess I’ve come to a point in my life where…I hate to admit fear. I hate to even admit fear’s part of my reasoning. But I have some dementia that’s coming around, and there’s a bit of a nervous tic—I don’t know what that’s about; I guess it’s growing old. And I don’t feel as bulletproof as I should feel…. I’ve traveled all over the world without a seat belt for forty-two years. Forty-three. And I’m a bit of a gambler and have a feel for odds. The odds are really against me.”
…There’s a steel and sadness in his face, a proud combination of force and frailty; whatever the gracious opposite of serenity is, that is what Merle Haggard oozes. He smiles. “There comes a time when you can’t do it anymore. It’s a double-edged sword: if I can manage to get over the wispiness and continue to go, I’ll probably live longer and probably enjoy it. But I’m at that pivot point in my life where I can swing that way and give my last bit of strength to the music of my life, or I can give it to my little family here.” He gestures toward the open kitchen, empty now, but through which his wife and children are constantly flowing, past the post on which their heights over the years have been marked. “And music has supported my little family; my little family knows what music means to me. I am music. Music is me, and I am music. But which one is which? Which one do you favor in the latter moments?”
I was the assistant film editor on a forgettable gangster movie called “Belly.” It featured Nas and DMX and was directed by Hype (aka Harold) Williams. D’Angelo came in to watch a screening once at 1600 Broadway. He and a few pals excused themselves to smoke L’s in the stairway while the projectionist threaded the movie.
Shame, guilt, repentance—D’Angelo knows them well. To say that he was raised religious doesn’t begin to capture it. He’s the son and the grandson of Pentecostal preachers. To D’Angelo, good and evil are not abstract concepts but tangible forces he reckons with every day. In his life and in his music, he has always felt the tension between the sacred and the profane, the darkness and the light.
“You know what they say about Lucifer, right, before he was cast out?” D’Angelo asks me now. “Every angel has their specialty, and his was praise. They say that he could play every instrument with one finger and that the music was just awesome. And he was exceptionally beautiful, Lucifer—as an angel, he was.”
But after he descended into hell, Lucifer was fearsome, he tells me. “There’s forces that are going on that I don’t think a lot of motherfuckers that make music today are aware of,” he says. “It’s deep. I’ve felt it. I’ve felt other forces pulling at me.” He stubs out his cigarette and leans toward me, taking my hand. “This is a very powerful medium that we are involved in,” he says gravely. “I learned at an early age that what we were doing in the choir was just as important as the preacher. It was a ministry in itself. We could stir the pot, you know? The stage is our pulpit, and you can use all of that energy and that music and the lights and the colors and the sound. But you know, you’ve got to be careful.”
What makes Harper far more anticipated than your typical phenom is a sense that he not only recognizes the vastness of his potential but also feels plenty comfortable telling you about it. One minute he informs me that “baseball needs more superstars.” The next, while discussing Albert Pujols signing with the Angels, he offers thoughtlessly, “Albert and I know each other and respect each other.” In a sport in which “paying your dues” is practically in the job description—an institution that once made Michael Jordan ride around in a bus for five months—Harper seems to have emerged fully formed to piss off the baseball establishment.
On his way up, he didn’t shrink from his sometime moniker, the LeBron of baseball. He poured vats of eye black on his face to make himself look like a professional wrestler. In a minor league game last year, after hitting a home run, he blew a kiss to the opposing pitcher. (Harper tells me, “It was an ‘eff you’ from the mouth.”) That’s the sort of business that will get a major leaguer a fastball in his ear. As Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt put it: “I would think at some point the game itself, the competition on the field, is going to have to figure out a way to police this young man.”
In other words: Harper is awesome—exactly what baseball needs. He’s essentially a throwback: a cocky, ornery cuss who can back it all up. Ty Cobb minus the racism and chaw, Lenny Dykstra before the bankruptcy. He tells me Pete Rose, a.k.a. Charlie Hustle, is his favorite player and that “I want to play the game hard. I want to ram it down your throat, put you into left field when I’m going into second base.”
What I don’t know is why I ended up in Philadelphia.
The Daily News, home of one of the truly great sports sections of the last half of the Twentieth Century, already had three stellar columnists, Ray Didinger, Stan Hochman, and Mark Whicker. Bill Conlin was covering baseball with idiosyncratic fervor, conducting a running feud with the Phillies, delivering history lessons in his game stories, and flirting with scatology every chance he got. Long before I hit town, he set the standard for blue wordplay by quoting Dusty Baker, who had dropped a fly ball, as saying, “I had the motor faker right in my glove.” The quote only lasted one edition, but Conlin was the one guy in all of sportswriting capable of getting away with even that much.
None of the other beat writers came close to him in terms of sheer outrageousness, but each was an intrepid digger: Phil Jasner on the 76ers, Jay Greenberg on the Flyers, Paul Domowitch and the young Rich Hoffman (not long out of Penn) on pro football, Elmer Smith on boxing, and the inimitable Dick (Hoops) Weiss on college basketball. These guys were passionate about what they did. And smart. And aggressive. And competitive. I realize that the Boston Globe was regarded as the gold standard for sports sections back then-–and I know what a joy it was for me to read the Globe–but I still think the Daily News gave it a run for its money.
The Daily News certainly didn’t need me to do that. Even with a hole in its lineup after Tom Cushman, who was so solid on boxing, college sports, and track and field, left for San Diego, the paper still had all the talent–and all the egos–it needed. The Daily News hired me anyway.
No matter how good a sports columnist I was, I was hardly a marketable commodity after my inelegant departure from the Sun-Times. It was pretty much what I expected. There are more than a few newspaper editors who love to have a reason to think they have the upper hand on the talent. In my case, they could go tsk-tsk and say I was a troublemaker or that I was out of control. On the other hand, there was the reaction my blow-up got from Pete Dexter, who was a city columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and whom I had yet to meet. Pete told our mutual friend Rob Fleder, a world-class magazine editor, “I don’t know Schulian and I don’t know exactly what happened, but I know he was right.” Which, of course, earned Pete a place in my personal hall of fame.
But guys like Pete don’t run newspapers. Guys unlike him do. And the hell of it was, I couldn’t argue with them, even though I’d been provoked and maybe set up. I was wrung out. Getting fired and divorced in a four-month span was all I could handle. I didn’t write a word for the first two months after I left the Sun-Times. I just rode my bike and ate pizza and watched the Cubs on TV. As if to spite me, they almost had a great season, but their muscle memory finally kicked in and they fell apart in the playoffs.
I didn’t put words on paper again until Eliot Kaplan, GQ’s managing editor, called because Vic Ziegel, may he rest in peace, told him I was massively available. Eliot was looking for someone to profile Mike Royko and I convinced him that I was his man. In the course of conversation, Eliot told me he’d read me when he was a kid. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear, but the truth was, he really was a kid. He couldn’t have been more than 26 or 27 when he became Art Cooper’s right-hand man at GQ. As for Royko, he couldn’t have been a more cooperative subject, right down to musing forlornly about the death of his first wife and dancing with the woman who would become his second wife on the sidewalk outside the Billy Goat Tavern.
Just like that, I was a made man at GQ, which was becoming a home for first-rate writing and reportage instead of pretty boys in clothes guaranteed to get their asses kicked. I wrote for the magazine whenever I could for the next 20 years, until Art got forced out. He died not long afterward, while having lunch at the Four Seasons. The man had style.
Looking back, I wonder if I should have lobbied for a three-story deal with GQ that would have allowed me to stay in Chicago. John Walsh, when he was running Inside Sports, told me he thought I was a natural magazine writer, and he may have been right. Magazine work certainly was a better fit for the way I approached writing than a four-times-a-week column was. The column chewed me up, and yet, when the Daily News called, I threw myself back in the meat grinder. It was partly because I was afraid let go of the identity a column gave me and partly because I was infatuated with the history of the sports section that Larry Merchant had built for glory 20 years earlier.
I saw myself joining a parade in which George Kiseda, Sandy Grady, and Jack McKinney had marched. Merchant had made them the Daily News’ pioneers in trenchant reporting, salty prose, and raucous laughter. Stan Hochman, who was there at the beginning with them, once told me about the old warehouse the paper had called home when it was known as the “Dirty News” for its emphasis on crime and cheesecake. The building wasn’t air conditioned, and one sweltering summer day, with huge floor fans shoving hot air around the newsroom, some genius got it in his head to open the windows. The fans proceeded to blow every piece of paper that wasn’t weighted down out the windows and to hell and gone.
I should have been smart enough to realize there was no recapturing those days or the spirit that infused the Merchant era. Instead, I acted according to Faulkner’s theory that the past is never really past. Faulkner didn’t play in Philly, though, and soon enough I was a man out of time, out of place.
Conan’s not the only one to use Shandling as a sounding board. For the past five years especially, the 60-year-old comic, who counts both George Carlin and Johnny Carson as mentors, has devoted himself to mentoring others. A generation of people at the top creative rungs of Hollywood credit Shandling with shaping both their material and their careers.
“There are so many people who lean on him to be their sage in these matters of what’s dramatic—not just what’s funny, but what’s effective, and what’s real, and why what’s funny is what’s real,” says Robert Downey Jr., who compares Shandling to “a Jewish E.T. He’s kind of vulnerable while at the same time very probing. And he’s got serious opinions.”
Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau dubs him “the Godfather.” Baron Cohen sought Shandling’s advice on both Borat and Brüno. Silverman says Shandling has taught her how to embrace the silences during her stand-up act. And Apatow still counts the night Shandling hired him to write jokes for the 1991 Grammy Awards show as “the biggest break of my career.” Apatow later wrote for The Larry Sanders Show, and their collaboration continues: Shandling often attends table reads of Apatow’s films and gives notes on the scripts. (Apatow says Shandling had a “monumental” effect on The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) “There’s nobody better in the world than Garry at telling me what’s working and what’s not,” Apatow says. “I’m just very lucky that I’ve had his input.”