"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: mark kram

BGS: Great Men Die Twice

MUHAMMAD-ALI

Another gem. Originally published in the June 1989 issue of Esquire. Republished here with the permission of the late author’s son, Mark Kram Jr., a wonderful storyteller in his own right. His postscript follows. For a contemporary, but very different, glimpse of Ali, check out Davis Miller’s story about his day with the champ.

Great Men Die Twice

By Mark Kram

There is the feel of a cold offshore mist to the hospital room, a life-is-a-bitch feel, made sharp by the hostile ganglia of medical technology, plasma bags dripping, vile tubing snaking in and out of the body, blinking monitors leveling illusion, muffling existence down to a sort of digital bingo. The Champ, Muhammad Ali, lies there now, propped up slightly, a skim of sweat on his lips and forehead, eyes closed, an almost imperceptible tremor to his arms and head. For all his claims to the contrary, his surface romance with immortality, Ali had a spooky bead on his future; he never saw it sweeping grandly toward him but bellying quietly along the jungle floor. “We just flies in a room,” he liked to say, moving quickly across the ruins of daily life, plane crashes, train wrecks, matricide, infanticide; then after swatting half of humanity, he’d lower his voice and whisper, as if imparting a secret, “We just flies, that’s all. Got nowhere to fly, do we?”

Images and echoes fill the room, diffuse and speeding, shot through with ineluctable light and the mythopoeic for so long, the glass darkened to a degree no one thought possible; his immense talent, his ring wisdom, his antipathy for chemicals, argued against destructibility; all he would ever do is grow old. For twenty years, while he turned the porno shop of sports into international theater, attention was paid in a way it never was before or has been since. The crowds were a wonder to behold. Kids scaled the wings of jets to get a glimpse of him; thousands, young and old, tailed him in masses during his roadwork. World leaders marveled at the spell he cast over the crowds. “If you were a Filipino,” joked Ferdinand Marcos, “I’d have to shoot you.” The pope asked for his autograph; Sure, he said, pointing to a picture, but why ain’t Jesus black? A young Libyan student in London sat on his bed, kept him up half the night with dithyrambic visions of Muslim revolution. “Watch, one day you will see,” said Muammar Qaddafi. Half asleep, Ali said: “Sheeeet, you crazy.” Leonid Brezhnev once dispatched a note to an official at Izvestia: “I would like to see more on Muhammad Ali. Who is this man?”

The Ali Watch: how absurd that it would one day drop down here on a little hospital on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The nurse dabs his face dry. What is he thinking? Never has his favorite phrase sounded so dismally precise: My, my, ain’t the world strange. If he could root back through the maze of moment and incident, would he find premonitory signs sticking out like dire figurations of chicken entrails? Does he remember King Levinsky, one of the many heavy bags for Joe Louis, in the corridor after the Miami Beach weigh-in? Boldly colored ties draped Levinsky’s neck (he sold them on the street), his synapses now like two eggs over-light, in permanent sizzle, as he tried to move into stride with a young Cassius Clay. Over and over, like a one-man Greek chorus, Levinsky croaked, eyes spinning, spittle bubbling from his lips: “He’s gonna take you, kid. Liston’s gonna take you, make you a guy sellin’ ties… Partners with me kid, ya kin be partners with me.” Does he remember a shadowed evening in his hotel room a day or so after the third Joe Frazier fight, moving to the window, his body still on fire from the assault? He stood there watching the bloodred sun drop into Manila Bay, then took a visitor’s hand and guided it over his forehead, each bump sending a vague dread through the fingers. “Why I do this?” he said softly. Does he remember the Bahamian cowbell tinkling the end of his final, pathetic fight, a derisive goodbye sound stark with omen? What is he thinking?

Ali poses a question, his eyes closed, his lips parting as if he were sliding open manhole covers. “You die here…. they take you home?” he asks. The nurses roll their eyes and smile, struck by his innocence; it has nothing to do, they know, with morbidity. He is not joking either. The practical aftermath of death seems to stimulate his curiosity these days; nothing urgent, mind you, just something that begins to get into your mind when you’re watching blood move in and out of your body for half the day. Though he is very much a mystic, there is a part of Ali that has always found security and a skewed understanding of life in the quantifiable: amounts, calibrated outcomes, the creaking, reassuring machinery of living. The night before in the hotel lounge, with his wife, Lonnie, beside him, bemusedly aghast, he grilled a pleasant waitress until he knew how many tips she got each week, how many children she had, the frequency of men hitting on her, and the general contour of her reality. “She have a sad life,” he said later. The nurse now cracks with a deadpan expression: “You die, we take you home, Muhammad.

Still, a certain chiaroscuro grimness attaches to their surreal exchange and cries out for some brainless, comic intervention. He himself had long been a specialist in such relief when he would instantly brighten faces during his favorite tours of prisons, orphanages, and nursing homes. When down himself (very seldom), he could count on a pratfall from his hysterical shaman, Drew “Bundini” Brown, on the latest bizarre news from his scheming court, maybe a straight line from some reporter that he would turn into a ricocheting soliloquy on, say, the disgusting aesthetics of dining on pig. No laughs today, though.

“Don’t make him laugh,” a nurse insisted when leading a writer and a photographer into the room. “Laughing shakes the tubing loose.” The photographer is Howard Bingham, Ali’s closest friend; he’s been with the Champ from the start, in the face of much abuse from the Black Muslims. Ali calls him “the enemy” or “the nonbeliever.” His natural instinct is to make Ali laugh; today he has to settle for biting his lower lip and gazing warily back and forth between Ali and his nurses. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Ali had requested that he leave his cameras outside; just one shot of this scene, of Ali on his back, the forbidding purge in progress, of fame and mystique splayed raw, would bring Bingham a minor fortune. “He doesn’t want the world to see him like this,” says Howard. “I wouldn’t take the picture for a million dollars.”

The process is called plasmapheresis. It lasts five hours and is being conducted by Dr. Rajko Medenica. The procedure, popular in Europe, is a cleansing of the blood. Ali is hooked up to an electrocardiograph and a blood-pressure monitor; there is always some risk when blood is not making its customary passage. But the procedure is not dangerous and he is in no pain, we are told. Two things, though, that he surely can’t abide about the treatment: the injection of those big needles and the ceaseless tedium. When he was a young fighter, a doctor had to chase him around a desk to give him a shot, and chaotic mobility to him is at least as important as breathing. Bingham can’t take his eyes off Ali; the still life of his friend, tethered so completely, seems as incomprehensible to him as it would to others who followed the radiated glow of Ali’s invulnerability. The nurses cast an eye at his blood pressure and look at each other. His pressure once jumped twelve points while he watched a TV report on Mike Tyson’s street fight with Mitch Green in Harlem. It’s rising a bit now, and the nurses think he has to urinate. He can’t bear relieving himself in the presence of women; he resists, and his anxiety climbs.

“Ali,” one of them calls. His eyes remain closed, his breathing is hardly audible. The nurse calls to him again; no response. “Come on now, Ali,” she complains, knowing that he likes to feign death. “Now, stop it, Ali.” He doesn’t move, then suddenly his head gives a small jerk forward and his eyes buck wide open, the way they used to when he’d make some incoherent claim to lineage to the gods. The nurses flinch, or are they in on the joke, too? Eyes still wide, with a growing smile, he says to the writer, weakly: “You thought I dead, tell the truth. You the only one ever here to see this and I die for ya. You git some scoop, big news round the whole world, won’t it be?” He leans his head back on the pillow, saying: “Got no funny people round me anymore. Have to make myself laugh.” The nurse wants to know if he has to urinate. “No,” he says with a trace of irritation. “Yes, you do,” the nurse says. “Your pressure…” Ali looks over at Lonnie with mischievous eyes. “I just thinkin’ ’bout a pretty woman.” The nurse asks him what he’d like for lunch. “Give him some pork,” cracks Bingham. Ali censures the heretic with a playful stare. Ali requests chicken and some cherry pie with “two scoops of ice cream.” He turns to the writer again: “Abraham Lincoln went on a three-day drunk, and you know what he say when he wake up?” He waits for a beat, then says: “I freed whooooooo?” His body starts to shake with laughter. The nurse yells: “Stop it, Muhammad! You’ll drive the needles through your veins.” His calms down, rasps, “I’ll never grow up, will I? I’ll be fifty in three years. Old age just make you ugly, that’s all.”


Not all, exactly; getting old is the last display for the bread-and-circuses culture. Legends must suffer for all the gifts and luck and privilege given to them. Great men, it’s been noted, die twice—once as great, and once as men. With grace, preferably, which adds an uplifting, stirring, Homeric touch. If the fall is too messy, the national psyche will rush toward it, then recoil; there is no suspense, no example in the mundane. The captivating, aspiring sociopath Sonny Liston had a primitive hold on the equation of greatness. “Clay (he never called him Ali) beeeg now,” Sonny once said while gnawing on some ribs. “He flyin’ high now. Like an eagle. So high. Where he gonna land, how he gonna land? He gonna have any wings? I wanna see.” Sonny, of course, never made it for the final show. Soon after, he checked out in Vegas, the suspicion of murder hovering over the coroner’s report.

Who wanted to ask the question back then, or even be allowed to examine in depth its many possibilities? It was too serious for the carnival, immediately at odds with the cartoon bombast that swirled around Ali, the unassailable appeal of the phenomenon, the breathtaking climb of the arc. Before him, the ring, if not moribund, had been a dark, somber corner of sports, best described by the passing sight of then-middleweight-king Dick Tiger, leaving his beat-up hotel wearing a roomy black homburg and a long pawnshop overcoat, a black satchel in his hand, heading for the subway and a title fight at the Garden. But the heavyweight champions—as they always will—illuminated the image sent out to the public. There was the stoic, mute Joe Louis, with his cruising menace; street fighter Rocky Marciano, with his trade-unionist obedience; the arresting and dogged Floyd Patterson, who would bare his soul to a telephone pole at the sight of a pencil; all unfrivolous men who left no doubt as to the nature of their work.

With the emergence of Muhammad Ali, no one would ever see the ring the same way again, not even the fighters themselves; a TV go, a purse, and sheared lip would never be enough; and a title was just a belt unless you did something with it. A fighter had to be; a product, an event, transcendental. Ali and the new age met stern, early resistance. He was the demon loose at a holy rite. With his preening narcissism, braggart mouth, and stylistic quirks, he was viewed as a vandal of ring tenets and etiquette. Besides, they said, he couldn’t punch, did not like to get hit, and seemed to lack a sufficient amount of killer adrenaline. True, on the latter two counts. “I git no pleasure from hurtin’ another human bein’,” he used to say. “I do what I gotta do, nothin’ more, nothin’ less.” As far as eating punches, he said, “Only a fool wanna be hit. Boxin’ just today, my face is forever.” Others saw much more. The ballet master Balanchine, for one, showed up at a workout and gazed in wonder. “My God,” he said, “he fights with his legs, he actually fights with his legs. What an astonishing creature.” Ali’s jab (more like a straight left of jolting electricity) came in triplets, each a thousandth of a second in execution. He’d double up cruelly with a left hook (rarely seen) and razor in a right—and then he’d be gone. Even so, it took many years for Ali to ascend to a preeminent light in the national consciousness. In the Sixties, as a converted Black Muslim, he vilified white people as blond, blue-eyed devils. His position on Vietnam—”I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong, anyway. They never called me nigger”—was innocent at first, but then taken up as if he were the provocateur of a national crisis. The politicians, promoters, and sweeping sentiment converged to conspire against his constitutional right to work; states barred him from fighting. He resisted the draft and drifted into exile. Three years later he returned, heavier, slower, but with a new kind of fire in his belly. Though he had defeated heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and defended his title nine times, Ali had never had a dramatic constituency before. Now a huge one awaited him, liberals looking for expression, eager literati to put it into scripture, worn-out hippies, anyone who wanted to see right done for once. The rest is history: the two symphonic conflicts with Joe Frazier; the tingling walk with him into the darkness of George Foreman. Then, the Hegelian “bad infinite” of repeating diminishing cycles: retiring, unretiring, the torture of losing weight, the oiling of mushy reflexes. The margins of dominance compressed perilously, and the head shots (negligible before exile) mounted.

Greatness trickled from the corpus of his image, his career now like a gutshot that was going to take its time before killing. His signing to fight Larry Holmes, after retiring a second time, provoked worried comment. After watching some of Ali’s films, a London neurologist said that he was convinced Ali had brain damage. Diagnosis by long distance, the promoters scoffed. Yet among those in his camp, the few who cared, there was an edginess. They approached Holmes, saying, “Don’t hurt him, Larry.” Moved, Holmes replied: “No way. I love Ali.” With compassion, he then took Ali apart with the studied carefulness of a diamond cutter; still, not enough to mask the winces at ringside. Ali failed to go the route for the first time in his career. Incredibly, fourteen months later, in 1981, his ego goaded him to the Bahamas and another fight, the fat jellied on his middle, his hand-speed sighing and wheezing like a busted old fan; tropic rot on the trade winds. Trevor Berbick, an earnest pug, outpointed him easily. Afterward, Angelo Dundee, who had trained Ali from the start and had to be talked into showing up for this one, watched him slumped in the dressing room, then turned away and rubbed his eyes as certain people tried to convince Ali that he had been robbed and that a fourth title was still possible.

The public prefers, indeed seems to insist on, the precedent set by Rocky Marciano, who quit undefeated, kept self-delusion at bay. Ali knew the importance of a clean farewell, not only as a health measure but as good commercial sense. His ring classicism had always argued so persuasively against excessive physical harm, his pride was beyond anything but a regal exit. But his prolonged decline had been nasty, unseemly. Who or what pressured him to continue on? Some blamed his manager, Herbert Muhammad, who had made millions with Ali. Herbert said that his influence wasn’t that strong.

Two years after that last fight, Ali seemed as mystified as everyone else as to why he hadn’t ended his career earlier. His was living with his third wife, the ice goddess Veronica, in an L.A. mansion, surrounded by the gifts of a lifetime—a six-foot hand carved tiger given to him by Teng Hsiao-ping, a robe given to him by Elvis Presley. Fatigued, his hands tremoring badly, he sat in front of the fire and could only say: “Everybody git lost in life. I just git lost, that’s all.”


Now, five years later, the question why still lingers, along with the warning of the old aphorism that “we live beyond what we enact.” The resuscitation of Ali’s image has been a sporadic exercise for a long time now, some of it coming from friends who have experienced heartfelt pain over his illness. Others seem to be trying to assuage a guilt known only to themselves, and a few are out to keep Ali a player, a lure to those who might want to use his name in business; though the marketplace turns away from billboards in decline. Not long ago, a piece in The New York Times Magazine pronounced him the Ali of old, just about terminally perky. Then, Ali surfaced in a front-page telephone interview in The Washington Post. He appeared to have a hard grasp on politics, current states’ rights issues, and federal judgeships being contested—a scenario that had seemed as likely as the fusillade of laser fire Ali said Muslim spaceships would one day loose on the white devils.

Noses began to twitch. What and who was behind the new Ali, the wily Washington lobbyist who had the ear of everyone from Strom Thurmond to Orrin Hatch? The wife of Senator Arlen Specter even baked Ali a double-chocolate-mousse pie. For a good while, most of these senators, and others, knew only the voice of Ali on the phone. Dave Kindred, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who has known Ali since his Louisville days, concluded that it was most likely Ali’s attorney, Richard Hirschfeld, widely regarded as a brilliant impersonator of Ali, who had made the calls. (Hirschfeld has refused to comment on whether or not he did so.) Hirschfeld and Ali had cut up a lot of money over the years on numerous enterprises (funded by other people), from hotels to cars, most of them failing. Ali’s lobbying seemed to center on a federal judgeship for a Hirschfeld friend, and a federal lawsuit in which Ali sought $50 million in damages from his “wrongful conviction in the 1967 draft evasion case.” He lost the suit but succeeded in getting Senator Hatch and others to explore a loophole that might remedy the verdict. Ali eventually had to materialize (with Hirschfeld hard by his side), and many on Capitol Hill were unable to match the man with the voice. One of Sam Nunn’s aides, noting Ali’s listlessness and Hirschfeld’s aggressive quizzing, wondered: “Is Ali being carted around like a puppet?” Certainly a serpentine tale; but had Ali been a collaborator all along?

At his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan, Ali sits at the end of a table in the living room. The 247 pounds of weight have made him a bit short of breath. He’s battled his appetite (two, three desserts, meals back to back) and sedentary lapses for years. Several months before, he had been almost sleek, thanks to fourteen-mile walks and his wife’s efforts to police him at the table. But what is disturbing is the general profile of his condition.

For a long time now, he had appeared indifferent to the ravages of his problem. But he dispels that notion when asked how seriously he considered a dangerous brain operation in Mexico before his family talked him out of it. “Scale of ten,” he says, “a six.” The answer reflects the terrible frustration that must exist within him, the daily, fierce struggle with a body and mind that will not capitulate to his bidding. He sits there, his hands shaking, his movements robotic, the look on his face similar to what the Marines call a thousand-yard stare.

Why is it, do you think, that after all these years, the dominant sound around Ali is silence? Look at the cataract of noise caught by TV sound men, look at the verbosity that snared some novelists into thinking he was a primitive intelligence capable of Ciceronian insight. Part of the fever of the times; if the Black Panther Huey Newton, posing with a rifle and spear, could be written up as a theoretical genius, and his partner, Bobby Seale, interpreted as a tactical wizard, then how much a symbol was Ali, the first to tap and manifest glinting black pride, to dispute with vigor erosive self-laceration.

The fact was that he was not cerebral; he was a reflex of confusing emotions and instant passions. He did have street cunning, most of it aimed at keeping himself a mystery. “People like mystery,” he used to say. “Who is he? What’s he all about? Who’s he gonna be tomorrow?” To that end, he tossed the media rabble dripping hunks of redundant, rote monologue; his loudness provided a great show and diverted probing questions. By nature, he was gentle, sensitive man, and even in the throes of angry threats against whites it was hard to hide a smile, for he loved what the blacks call “selling wolf tickets,” tricking people into fear. The Black Panthers used that gambit well, and the TV crews followed their presence. Thinking of all of this, how could someone so alien to ideas, and thought, who communicated privately, in scraps and remote silences, be capable of fooling Washington politicians? Absurd, of course, but then the question emerges: Did he allow himself to be used?

“How about all those phone calls,” he is asked.

“What calls?” he responds, vacantly.

“To politicians, this past summer.”

“You can’t believe that,” he says. “Man wrote that, he’s cracker from way back in Louisville. Always hated blacks.”

“But the piece had the goods.”

“I’m signin’ my autographs now,” he says. “This is the only important thing in my life. Keepin’ in touch with the people.”

“Were you used?”

“Spend a hundred dollars on stamps every week. Give ‘em all my autograph that write me.”

“Were you used?”

“For what?”

“To influence your lawsuit.”

“I ain’t worried about money,” he says.

“Maybe you just want to be big again. Remember what you told Elvis. ‘Elvis, you have to keep singin’ or die to stay big. I’m gonna be big forever.’”

He smiles thinly: “I say anything shock the world.”

“You like politics now?”

“Politics put me to sleep.”

“You were at the Republican National Convention.”

“You borin’ me, putting me to sleep.”

“Reagan, Hatch, Quayle, they would’ve clapped you in jail in the old days.”

His eyes widen slightly: “That right?” He adds: “I’m tired. You better than a sleepin’ pill.”

But don’t let the exchange mislead. Ali is not up to repartee these days, never was, really, unless he was in the mood, and then he’d fade you with one of his standard lines (“You not as dumb as you look”). He speaks very, very slowly, and you have to lean in to hear him. It takes nearly as hour to negotiate the course of a conversation. Typically, he hadn’t been enlightening on the Capitol Hill scam. Over the years, he has been easily led, told by any number of rogues what his best interests were. If the advisors were friends who appealed to his instinct to help them move up a rung, he was even more of a setup. Later, Bingham says: “Ali was pissed about that impersonation stuff. He had no idea.” Why didn’t he just say that he didn’t make the calls? “You know him,” he says. “He’ll never betray who he thinks has tried to help him. The idea that people will think less of him now bothers him a lot.”

If there was ever any doubt about the staying power of Ali, it is swept aside when you travel with him. His favorite place in the world—next to his worktable at his farm—is an airport. So he should be in high spirits now; he’ll be in three airports before the day’s over. But he’s a bit petulant with Lonnie, who aims to see that he keeps his date at Hilton Head Island. He can’t stand hospitals. They get in the way of life. He found it hard to ever visit his old sidekick Bundini when he was dying. Paralyzed from the next down, Bundini could only move his eyes. Ali bent down close to his ear and whispered: “You in pain?” The eyes signaled “yes.” Ali turned his head away, then came back to those eyes, saying: “We had some good times, didn’t we?” Bundini’s eyes went up and down. Ali talks about this in the Chicago airport. He’s calmed down now, sits off by himself, ramrod-straight and waiting. He wears a pinstripe suit, red tie, and next to him is his black magician’s bag; he never lets it out of his sight. The bag is filled with religious tracts already autographed; which is the first thing he does every day at 6:00 a.m., when he gets up. All he has to do is fill in the person’s name.

His autograph ritual and travel are his consuming interests. He’ll go anywhere at the ring of a phone, and he spends much time on the road. Perhaps the travel buoys him; he certainly gets an energy charge from people. Soon they begin to drop like birds to his side. “You see,” he says, “all I gotta do is sit here. Somethin’, ain’t it? Why they like me?” He is not trying to be humble, he is genuinely perplexed by the chemistry that exists between himself and other people. “Maybe they just like celebrities,” he says. Maybe, he’s told, he’s much more than a celebrity. He ponders that for a moment, and says: “That right?” By now, a hundred people have lined up in front of him, and a security guard begins to keep them in line. Ali asks them his name, writes, then gives them his autographed tracts. Some ask him to pose for pictures, others kid him about unretiring. “Kong (Mike Tyson), I’m comin’ after you.” Near the end, he does a magic trick for a lady, using a fake thumb. “Where you going, Muhammad?” she asks. He thinks, and then leans over to the writer and asks: “Where we going?” The lady’s eyes fill, she hugs him and says: “We love you so much.” What is it that so movingly draws so many people—his innocent, childlike way, the stony visual he projects, set off against his highly visible symptoms?

That night over dinner, Ali’s eyes open and close between courses. He fades in and out of the conversation, has a hint of trouble lifting the fork to his mouth. His days includes periods like this, he’s in and out like a faraway signal. Sometimes he’s full of play. He likes to swing his long arm near a person’s ear, then create a friction with thumb and forefinger to produce a cricket effect in the ear. Then the play is gone, and so is he. “One day,” Lonnie is saying, “I want someone to catch his soul, to show what a fine human being he is.” Ali says, head down: “Nobody know me. I fool ‘em all.” Lonnie is Ali’s fourth wife. She was a little girl who lived across from Ali’s old Louisville home when he was at the top. She is a woman of wit and intelligence, with a master’s degree in business administration. She plans his trips, is the tough cop with him and his medicine, and generally seems to brighten his life. Ice cream dribbles down Ali’s chin. “Now, Muhammad,” she says, wiping it away. “You’re a big baby.” He orders another dessert, then says: “Where are we?” A blade of silence cuts across the table.

Bingham says: “Hilton Head Island.”

Ali says: “Ya ever wake up and don’t know where you are?” Sure, he is told, steady travel can make a person feel like that for an instant; yet it is obvious that short term-memory for him is like a labyrinth.


Ali’s day at the hospital is nearly over. He will soon be counting down the minutes. Right now, he’s in high spirits. A nurse has secretly slipped him some strips of paper. He has a complete piece of paper in his hands. He crumples the paper, pretends to put it in his mouth, then billows his cheeks until he regurgitates tiny pieces all over his chest. “Ain’t magic a happy thing,” he says, trying to contain his giggling. When Dr. Medenica comes, Ali jokes with him. The doctor goes about examining the day’s results. He looks at the bags of plasma: 15,000 cc’s have been moved through Ali. Floyd Patterson has expressed dismay over the current treatment. “No brain damage?” Floyd has said. “Next you’ll be hearing he was bit by a cockroach. He’s gonna kill Clay…. He’ll drop dead in a year.” Medenica bridles at the comment. “He’s rather ignorant. I’m going to have to call that man.” Ali wants to know what Patterson said. Nobody wants to tell him. “Tell me,” says Ali. Everyone looks at each other, and someone finally says: “Floyd says you’ll drop dead in a year.” Ali shrugs it off: “Floyd mean well.”

It is Medenica’s contention that Ali suffers from pesticide poisoning. Though his work has met with some skepticism in the medical community, Medenica is respected in South Carolina. His desk is rimmed with pictures of prominent people—a senator, a Saudi prince, an ambassador—patients for whom he has retarded death by cancer. He is supposed to have done wonders for Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. Tito was so grateful, he arranged funding for Medenica’s clinic in Switzerland. When he died, the funds were cut off and Medenica was left with bills and criminal indictment by the Yugoslavians and the Swiss. “Don’t ask how Ali got the pesticides,” Medenica says.

Plasmapheresis is a solid treatment for pesticide poisoning, which occurs more than ever these days. The blood cleaning removes the immune complex, which in turns removes toxins. But how can Medenica be so sure that Ali’s problem is not brain damage? Dr. Dennis Cope, of UCLA, has said that Ali is a victim of “Parkinson’s syndrome secondary to pugilistic brain syndrome.” In short, he took too many head shots. Medenica, though, is a confident man.

He predicts Ali will be completely recovered. “I find absolutely no brain damage. The magnetic resonator tests show no damage. Before I took him as a patient, I watched many of his fight films. He did not take many head blows.”

Is he kidding?

“No, I do not see any head blows. When he came this summer, he was in bad shape. Poor gait. Difficult speech. Vocal cord syndrome, extended and inflamed. He is much better. His problem is he misses taking his medicine, and he travels too much. He should be here once a month.”

Finally, Ali is helped out of his medical harness. He dresses slowly. Then, ready to go out, he puts that famous upper-teeth clamp on his bottom lip to show determination and circles the doctor with a cocked right fist. His next stop is for an interferon shot. It is used to stimulate the white blood cells. Afterward, he is weak, and there is a certain sadness in his eyes. On the way to the car, he is asked if the treatment helps. He says: “Sheeeet, nothin’ help.”

The Lincoln Town Car moves through the night. Bingham, who is driving, fumbles with the tape player. Earlier in the day, he had searched anxiously for a tape of Whitney Houston doing “The Greatest Love of All,” a song written especially for Ali years ago. He had sensed that Ali would be quite low when the day was over, and he wanted something to pick him up. The words, beautiful and haunting, fill the car.

Everybody’s searching for a hero,

People need someone

To look up to,

    I never found anyone who

Fulfilled that need;

A lonely place to be,
 

So learned to depend on me.

I decided long ago

Never to walk in anyone’s shadow;

If I fail, if I succeed

At least I lived as I believe,

And no matter what

They take from me,

They can’t take away my dignity;

Because the greatest love of all

Is happening to me

I found the greatest love of all

Inside of me.

The greatest love of all is easy

To achieve,

Learning to love yourself 

It is the greatest love of all.

“You hear that,” Bingham says, his voice cracking. “Everything’s gonna be just fine, Ali.”

The dark trees spin by. There is no answer. What is he thinking?

portraits-de-muhammad-ali-en-1977-au-cours-de-3-matinc3a9es-c3a0-chicago-john-stewart


Postscript

This 1989 Esquire piece by father on Ali in decline is one of my personal favorites. I am not exactly sure what he thought of it; he was the last person to go to for an opinion on any of his work. But I like it immensely. It blends his characteristic impressionistic style with exquisite reporting, grim humor and an undercurrent of compassion born of their long years together. Although my father took some swipes at Ali in his 2001 book, Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, I think he comes at his subject in this piece with his lance sheathed. He had always told me he had been of fond Ali personally and I think that comes across here.  It is a tender glimpse at a once extraordinary athlete who has been thrust by age and illness into a state of sad fragility.

–Mark Kram Jr., author of Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion, the winner of the 2013 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. See more at www.markkramjr.com.


Mark Kram covered much of Ali’s career for Sports Illustrated, including all three of his bouts with Joe Frazier. He began his 40 year writing career as sports columnist as The Baltimore Sun in 1959. He spent 13 years at SI (1964-1977), during which he became one of the signature voices of the magazine. He later contributed pieces to PlayboyEsquire, and GQGhosts of Manila, his book on the Ali-Frazier rivalry, was published by HarperCollins in 2001. He died in 2002.

The Banter Gold Standard: Brando

Next up is this insightful essay by Mark Kram on Marlon Brando (originally published in the November, 1989 issue of Esquire). Kram, a beautiful stylist, was a master of the long form takeout piece:

Though he is chiefly known as a former boxing writer for Sports Illustrated, and in particular for his coverage of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy, Mark Kram, my late father, aimed his prodigious talent at a wide array of other subjects that he said enabled him to “stretch out.” On example of that is the lengthy Esquire essay below, which will be included in a collection of his work that I have edited and hope to publish under the title, Great Men Die Twice.–Mark Kram, Jr., author of Like Any Normal Day.

Please enjoy:

“Brando”

By Mark Kram

How civilized the fame game was then, a timid, furtive glimpse for the observer, the observed cordoned off by a dreamlike distance of respect. Worship knew its place; so did greatness. It was caught sharply once by a young American student as he sighted Flaubert suddenly passing his table, their gazes meeting, his eyes like bits of faded blue sky, the huge body looming down, then gone, a magnificent ship of achievement receding in the sunlight like a mirage, leaving behind forever a face, the smell of afternoon wine, and mystery unscarred by any attempt at aggressive familiarity. How easily devotion and curiosity were sated. All that was asked of, say, a Shelley was his ballet of lines, never mind that he was a conniving weasel, an evangelist of free love, a brooder in private about his lack of noisy attention. The exposed colossus was to be the meat of the next century.

No wiser or more wounded authority on that subject exists than Marlon Brando, the tortured exemplar in the age of perfected mythomania. The fame game seems to have eaten him alive, crunched and munched him into a brand-name mythological mush (so many conflicting tales, so many refractions from the light of grinding axes) that repels him, created a dark lore that has fascinated for nearly five decades. The tranquil, public haze that gathered over the likes of Shelley and Flaubert is all he ever seems to have desired, the work dwarfing fraudulent celebrity, the work speaking for the man. To that end, he has gone to dramatic lengths, from playing the imp or the fool when treed for interviews, to coiling into a merciless critic of himself, of the twisted values of the business that spawned him, and of the society that honors him; from the isolation and hermetic gloom of his Beverly Hills remove, to his primitive self-internment in the South Seas.

No matter how inaccessible or contemptuous he is, no matter what he says, nothing seems to diminish the gravity of his name, the wonder, ever since he stood beneath a balcony in A Streetcar Named Desire, an animal in pain, and screamed from the bottom of his being: Stellllaaa! Now, after nearly ten years of chosen estrangement – he seems to use disaffection and distance the way other actors use a false nose – Brando is back to work on the legend again in two films: A Dry White Season, as a South African lawyer for a ten-minute turn well below his price, and the soon-to-be-released The Freshman, in which he plays a Mafia chieftain who crosses paths with a college student (Matthew Broderick) in New York. His choice of these films is instructive.

The South African lawyer appeals to his genuine, almost clinical rage toward injustice. Give him a script and he’ll examine it like a medieval archivist, blowing away the dust of nonsense, looking for villains and saints that correspond to his life views, for themes that illuminate the polished grubbiness of the world. To the ordinary, unobfuscating mind, The Godfather was about people shooting other people all over town, turning blood into marinara sauce, and at its best a well-observed anthropology of a subculture. But to Brando, the Mafia was a metaphor for corporate thuggery in America, Don Corleone the archetype of the man in the Oval Office: humanity masking the capacity for evil. The Freshman would appear to be Brando-proof, free of darkling mirrors, a lap for the money, something that touches the whimsy in him. Except: the director, Andrew Bergman, also wrote The In-Laws, Brando’s all-time favorite film, a threepenny opera about the CIA, the one monolith he despises more than Hollywood and the goonlike media.

But after ten years of absence, it is remarkable that there remains any demand for Brando, and it would be understandable if there were none; he has always carried a lot of unkempt industry baggage. The war stories have traveled down the decades, sure anathema to the new industry, which is sensitive more than ever to a poltergeist loose in their profit line; the very mention of Brando’s name has been known to cause four-star heartburn. The legend, then, the talent, cannot be denied? Would that it were so, but the new executives – who bring to film all the passion they would to a bar of soap – have no patience with historical memory, abominate the heirloom name, except at the Academy Awards, when they gush with soulful treacle. Instant, disposable legends (how many will be around ten, even five years from now?) lashed to flashy, empty vehicles and aimed at the new audience inform the ruling interests; true giants belong to college film festivals, to the art-house movie rats who like to debate the stylistic quiver of a lip into deep revelation.

To the executive mind, Brando might as well be coming back from the dead, doing the Lazarus turn for posterity. Lengthy careers of a singular cut don’t alchemize with the new audience. Orson Welles wasn’t allowed to work for years for many reasons, among them his film sensibility. The same for the great director Elia Kazan, and now Robert Altman. John Huston stayed in action because he was the consummate politician – legend had the powerful Ray Stark clearing the brush for him. Talent needs content, a story and characters to match it, components that are vague to an audience that expects ten-car pileups, orgiastic violence, technological feasts for the eye and comic-book zaps for story, a trend well under way when Brando took a powder. To this audience – say, under forty, certainly under thirty – the Brando name can’t mean much; some fat guy, maybe, sitting around and eating breadfruit on an island.

If they remember him at all, it might be as Jor-El in Superman, to his critics a cynical grab for the money ($3 million for several minutes); to the more sympathetic his effort, perhaps, to catch the new wave, to keep active until the right property showed up. Both views are probably correct; Brando can never be accused of simplicity of motive. If he cared at all – and that can never be certain – the experience had to be unsettling, this glimpse of the possible fate ahead, the actor as harlequin on the make, the queasy recognition that he was doomed to be an Easter Island statue in a cheesy shopping mall. That, of course, grants him a pride to which he has never spoken, a passion for excellence to which he has never admitted, not even at the start of his career, when he disassembled the craft of acting, cleaved at the baroque, when he filled the screen with a ragged, mean diction and projected a humanness stripped of artifice and pretense, flesh and blood all over the place, a soul bared for once, and wriggling in a gauze of light.

The magic is central to the lure of Brando, especially to those over forty, some of whom met him for the first time in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, others who were there when it began, all of them waiting for the voltage to hiss and crack one more time. To his older followers, he has always cast a wider net in his roles; the very life of the times ran through him. Like a sudden slap to the face, he seemed to put young males in touch with their maleness, to replace tentativeness with a code, however primordial. After his performance as the dominating baby-beast Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, urban centers and colleges were filled with young men in torn T-shirts who vowed never to be a pushover for any woman. In The Wild One, he presaged a coming era of rebellion and psychic unrest, made the leather jacket a symbol, and flooded the highways with motorcycles. What was he rebelling against? His character replies: “What have you got?” In On the Waterfront, he struck a resonating twang in many men with a heartbreaker to his double-crossing brother, Charley, lines that are still repeated: I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, an impeccable thrust to the heart of being a man, to all those futures out there in the dark sure to be glutted with dream rubbers like union boss Johnny Friendly; the massive scar tissue awaits, can you handle it and move ahead with dignity?

And the stories, the lore lived up to the screen identity: there was a long-standing intimation that he could never answer a curtain call during Streetcar’s long Broadway run unless he could produce an erection. “The Slob,” Time called the image. Brando didn’t fancy the label much. Yet, offscreen, his behavior obliged. He hated the feel of new clothes, so he borrowed his agent’s old suits; most of the time he was in jeans, adding to his brute sexuality. He was boorish at parties, with crude put-ons. When a woman columnist finally met him, she said, “Why, you look like everyone else.” He looked at her, then walked away and stood on his head. The first words he said to a Chicago publicist, getting off the train with a pet raccoon on his shoulder, were: “Where can I get Russell fucked?” Was he out to startle, to be the celluloid image (quite doubtful), or was it all just an exterior behind which he could hide and probe for a true self that could cope? The quest, along with shrouding depression, led him into ten-year therapy with Bela Mittleman, and after the psychoanalyst died, he still seemed adrift. With resignation, he once confided: “All I want to be is normally insane.”

There are people who, when they cease to shock us, cease to interest us. Brando no longer shocks, yet he continues to be of perennial interest, some of it because of what he did on film, some of it because he resists definition, and maybe mostly because he rejects, by his style of living and his attitudes, much of what we are about as a nation and people. He seems to have glided into the realm of folk mystery, the kind that fires attempts at solution.

When he first came along, there were just lazy gossip columnists and press agents, all like a swarm of mice nibbling at him. Now there are zoom lenses, photographers dangling from helicopters, an editorial derangement overdosing on the star shot or interview, and guys who would hack through a jungle for a chance to discover what he reads in the bathroom. As he returns to public view, how disgusting it must be to him, how cornered and exposed he must feel, with tiers of insensate cameras whirring and recording the decay of a face and body that stopped women’s hearts and made men squirm over their genetic short change, showing what happened finally to Kowalski, Terry Malloy, the smirking, cocksure Johnny on his cycle, revealing to the star-greedy world raw evidence of how ephemeral and mortal even the gods are; Brando lumbering about, hair whitened, face melting, and carrying three hundred pounds; Brando gorging on crab legs, the butter dripping from his chin like raindrops. He never understood the attitude of the late Harold Clurman, whom Brando knew on Broadway. “What an adventure, life,” he was fond of saying. “What fun, this flop.” The flop part devoured Brando; the fun of fame, money, women, and his talent was impenetrable.

Brando has always disparaged the specialness of acting, equating it with some mindless reflex and an ordinariness common to all humans. Duty, art, that’s simply ethereal piffle for a dronish exercise that is no more romantic than drilling teeth. It is an outlook directly at odds with the holy cosmos of theater and movies; a fire hose on the power of illusion, a deterrent to the tunnel-vision ambition that feeds the tradition. But this attitude has not been rate among actors, particularly Spencer Tracy and Richard Burton. Tracy factored out acting to knowing your lines and not knocking over the coffee table. He thought it an immature calling, and when Brando’s wife Anna Kashfi sought his advice, he told her: “Don’t fret about it. Acting doesn’t require brainpower. Look at your husband.” Burton thought the craft diminished the man into fop, and pined for the beery, bloody Welsh rugby fields that had forged him, where a man’s sense of himself could be made palpable. What a paltry ambition, acting, Brando told an interviewer, then asked: “How come you always ask questions about acting? What else you got?”

Stella Adler, the grande dame of acting scholarship, was the first influence on Brando’s career, in 1943. Irrepressible, dominant, she knew how to fill a room. Her approach was to allow an actor to free the irrational in himself. An actor must contend with words, bring imagination to them. Ever since, Brando has used words as keys with which to enter the deep center of a character. Some have thought that he is incapable of remembering lines; they are printed on cards around the set, even on the foreheads of other actors. Odd, for a mind that can quote obscure passages of Shakespeare without effort. Quite simply – and to him like so much about society’s writ of life itself – the discipline of line rote reduces him to a mechanism, imprisons whatever mood or energy he wants to fire out. He needs a lot of room. Adler gave it to him first, and he’s fought with every stentorian director who’s tried to put his talent in irons. It was Adler’s contention that she taught him nothing, that she “just opened the door, and he walked through it.” She added: “He lives the life of an actor twenty-four hours a day. If he is talking to you, he will absorb everything about you, your smile, the way your teeth grow.”

By an infinite number of perceptions he seems to form tacit conclusions about the fate of a picture, about what amounts of creativity it deserves. He can disappear from the screen, or attempt to commit visual suicide, as he did in The Missouri Breaks, trying to con with a pathetic accent, dancing a jig on credibility when he turns the character of a western killer into a dippy overweight drag queen.

He’s walked through a lot of films; so did the titan Olivier, but none of them stuck to him, nobody counted. Being an earnest technician, the gallant professional who doesn’t let the side down, never figures in the mix. As Burton said of himself, Brando cannot pander to a project; it works or it doesn’t. But even Burton, who admired Brando, said that “I [wish I] could take him in my teeth and shake enthusiasm into him.” Above all else a reverential man of the classic stage, he thought that Brando ruined many performances by underarticulation.

The history of his interaction with his peers doesn’t fit the Brando who disdains his work, minimizes its import. Such a man would be above the fray, would not care enough to respond to the threat of competition. But actors, whipsawed emotionally from day one, are poised on the edge of envy all their lives. They are sensitized to the tiniest slight, can turn any incident into a contest of wills. Even so, the idea of those of huge stature childishly mucking about competitively would seem to be too trivial, a fiction devised by the press. In diaries, Burton enlightens on the subject, how the compulsion to win, always there on the inside, is driven from the outside too. A friend back in Wales asks him: “What do you think of this Brando boy?” Burton replies: “Very good, very good indeed.” The friend draws close, and says: “But Rich, can you beat him?” For all his protestations, Brando played the star business like everyone else. His antennae shot up in the arena; it was just that his method of offense (rattling other actors, turning sets into chaos, playing mind games with directors) was more opaque.

Eddie Jaffe, a press agent, of all people, sees much more. Jaffe and Brando were close in the early days, even shared the same psychoanalyst. “All his actions,” says Jaffe, “what made him, drives him, or cripples him come from a monumental, dark lack of self-esteem.” It began early, and was locked up forever in his mind when he told his coarse father that he wanted to be an actor. “What?” asked the father. “Look in the mirror! Who would hire a yokel like you?”

To Brando, authority, any kind, unbalances him. Brando was in awe of Charlie Chaplin, until he worked for him in A Countess from Hong Kong. Brando has never claimed to be handy with comedy, a deficiency he often regretted when he would endlessly watch Laurel and Hardy films; he thought he would learn from the great Charlie. Instead, Chaplin manacled him with punctilious direction, burdened him with minutiae. But it was more than that, Brando related later. “He was a mean man, Chaplin. Sadistic. He humiliated, insulted his son [Sydney, who had a small part].” It infuriated Brando, and when Chaplin tried the same thing with him, Brando told him where he could stick his movie, frame by frame, adding: “Don’t you ever speak to me in that tone of voice.” Chaplin, he said, was a remarkable talent but a monster of a man.

By then, Hollywood was coming to the same judgment about Marlon Brando. Countess was near the end of a long line of ten failures, not only at the box office. There had been aesthetic collapse in his unengaged work. And though all stars make horrendous choices of films (instincts are not infallible, you have to trust others eventually), the constant yelp of Brando’s dogs quelled the roar of his mystique. He had become a hack, a turbulent hack at that. In Hollywood, genius is equated to money rung up: a place run by cultural swine. His ex-wife Anna Kashfi says Brando had noted this from the first, saying that you could defecate on their rugs out there is the price was right; now his career was in slithers. He spurned a retreat to the stage (unlike Burton and Olivier); theater required a grueling attention span, high-octane commitment; he surely hadn’t forgotten how Streetcar had ravished his psyche. As it was, he drifted, leaving behind much animus but a vast indelibility, a model for future actors. As director Lewis Milestone observed, every punk extra with a couple of lines wanted to do and be a Brando.

It has been conjectured over the years that Brando threw himself so intensely into the role of Stanley Kowalski that he became him, a trampler of other people’s feelings, with a porcine sex drive in relentless snuffle. The latter appealed instantly to men (if that was murder one, then most of them would rise for conviction), and women sensed a freeing sexuality in him, a feral quality that recognized no constraints. Back then sex was a murmur bound with restraints and a rigid exterior of decorum. All the great screen lovers were feathery, rakish threats, perfumed, ample with technique and conscious of sexuality’s exterior. Brando was sweat, jungle demands, and there were no rules, only a room and a bed; a kitchen table would do. And he had no conscience; look what he did to haunted, fragile Vivien Leigh in Streetcar. Kowalski was a reality transplant that never let Brando alone.

“I hated him,” said Brando. “People have asked me if I’m really Kowalski. Why, he’s the antithesis of me. Kowalski is a man without any sensitivity, without any morality but his own.”

There is no reason – except for his swirling love life offscreen and some volatile testimony from an ex-wife – not to take him at his word. He has spent his whole life running from “The Slob” tag. The first thing he said after he became a star was, “Now I have to educate myself.” Since then, he has pursued Eastern religions, read philosophers from Lao-Tzu to Schopenhauer to the point of eyestrain, his single goal being to try to understand himself and human beings, to find The Truth from somebody “you think is not a bullshitter,” somebody who has the eyes of a saint and the perceptions of a ghost. He’s never gone along with Stella Adler, who liked to quote to him: “Don’t try to know who thou art. Long hath this idea tormented thee.” Those who have been close to him say that much from the search eludes him, that he is a man going at an iceberg with a pick, the chips flying up brilliantly to him but never forming a unified whole.

Whatever the depth of his intellect, there is a special, pure, childlike wonder in Brando. He does not want to be what Kowalski communicates, that “we are here for one, terrible, gnashing, stomping moment, and that’s all.” He wants to make sense of things, never more evident than when he used to camp out at night while shooting The Missouri Breaks. With the Montana sky ablaze and banging, he sat in the dark, quietly intense and fingering a computer, timing the lightning strikes, which were enough, he said, to make him feel religious. This side has been shown only rarely. Mostly, he has condescended to inquiry with baiting and a weird, oblique gamesmanship.

One of the few interviews of any length was with Truman Capote. The writer first met him in a deserted theater. Streetcar was in rehearsal, and the young Brando was asleep on stage, on his chest an open book, Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. He was in denim pants and a white T-shirt, and Capote instantly saw the sexuality. He wrote: “It was as if a stranger’s head had been attached to the brawny body, as in certain counterfeit photographs. For this face was very untough, superimposing as it did an almost angelic refinement and gentleness.” He went on to talk about his aquiline nose and full lips that had a relaxed, sensual expression. Years later, Capote wrote him off as a dummy. “Maybe,” joked Brando, “because I got my nose broken.”

Brando was passionate about boxing, and before On the Waterfront he spent days studying the middleweight Rocky Graziano. During the run of Streetcar, he liked to spar backstage, hence the broken nose. He was not only pleased at how he got it, he was elated that it made his face more interesting. The producer Irene Selznick agreed: “I honestly think the broken nose made his fortune as far as the movies go. It gave him sex appeal. Previously, he had been too beautiful.” It was an appeal that he dismissed. Women, he said, never stared at him when he walked by. If they did, it was the movie-star gawk.

“You’ve got to have love,” he told Capote. “What other reason is there for living? That has been my main trouble. My inability to love anyone.” He didn’t seem to stop long enough to find out; he had harem taste. And he leaned toward dark, dusky women, usually foreign or of foreign extraction. Light-skinned women, he told Kashfi, derailed him sexually, explaining, “My mother was blond, you see.” The Eurasian beauty France Nuyen was one of the few famous women he romanced. Brando drove her so wild that her weight soared and she lost a role in a movie. Another, so frustrated, put a voodoo doll on his lawn. Another attempted suicide, anything to retain his attention. He tried to understand the impermanence of love: “Nothing lasts for more than a little while. You could love a girl so much you could cut your stomach open. A year later you never want to see her again.” He sought beauty, but was more drawn to lives of odd content. “He was talking to me one day,” remembers Eddie Jaffe, “and he said excitedly that he had just met the most beautiful woman ever. Wow, I thought, he’d had some beauties. I asked him why. And he said, ‘She’s had the saddest life I’ve ever heard.’”

Kashfi attributes this preference to Brando’s need to feel superior to women. Their marriage produced one boy, Devi. He supposedly never lived with Movita, a Mexican actress, yet it was a legal union on paper that gave him another boy, Miko. Since then, he’s had a Tahitian wife, who recently sounded rather impatient with him. But it was the marriage to Kashfi that was a nightmare. According to her, it was rife with violence, torment, kinky sexual compulsions (his, of course), and free-fall neurosis.

In her book, she accused him of being a “clumsy seducer” and a sexual hog, a man who all but lit candles to his penis. Some of her nonsex observations are very revealing, if you can believe them, but when it comes to a man and a woman in their bed, or a battle for child custody, it is best to seek a neutrality of judgment. Besides, what did she expect when he first showed up to court her dressed as a Good Humor man, white shirt, pants, shoes, and rode around Hollywood in a convertible with a trick arrow sticking out of his head. To her credit, she dismissed most of the premarital tales she had heard. But she thought he was capable of bizarre constructions; he relished the yarns when she asked.

And who wouldn’t believe anything after Last Tango in Paris? Here was Kowalski with an education and emotionally vanquished. The critic Pauline Kael correctly called it a stupendous film breakthrough. The director, Bernardo Bertolucci, had wrung Brando dry; he hadn’t been guided, slyly coerced into a performance like this since the days of Elia Kazan.

The film is centered in a vacant apartment, an asylum of crushing fears, of bad memories. An ex-boxer and actor-rebel, Paul (Brando) is an aging reject of society, with the harpoons of life exposing torn emotional flesh. All his life he has been in search of love; now he wants a reality he can understand: no names, no identities, detonated sex without love. “You see,” he says to Jeanne (Maria Schneider), “we’re going to forget everything we knew. All the people, wherever we lived. Everything outside this place is bullshit.” He overwhelms her, pummels her sexually into a mere body, sodomizing her and forcing her to recite a declaration against love and society. Watching one scene, Brando’s dresser said, “Something’s up, he’s taking this seriously.”

An actor friend, Christian Marquand, was astounded: “Forty years of Brando’s life experiences went into the film. It is Brando talking about himself, being himself. His relations with his mother, father, children, lovers, friends – all come out in this performance.” At the end of the shoot, an exhausted Brando said: “I will never go through this again.”

With his career inert in the late Sixties, Brando spent all of his time on a Tahitian atoll he had purchased. He was attracted to the lassitude and openness of the society, to the purity of life, and no doubt to the beautiful women, unimpaired psychologically. There is a lot of Rousseau in him, a back-to-nature idealism that drives him to want to remake the world. It would be startling if Brando had not read him, for much of his social thinking echoes Rousseau’s view that “man’s breath was fatal to his fellow men.” On his island of Tetiaroa – tetia meaning “standing alone” and roa meaning “far away” – it was as if Brando were going about putting Rousseau’s meditations into action. When he wasn’t walking naked in the moonlight, he worked like a slave trying to effect a utopia. He poured millions into the environment, threw himself into a myriad of scientific experiments aimed at creating a simple, highly functional society free of Western values.

The Sixties were also a propitious time for Brando’s instinct for social redress. He campaigned hard for the civil rights movement, fought for the Black Panthers, and championed his favorite cause, the plight of the American Indian. Wrongly, critics saw his activities as a device to revive a failing career. His compassion for bottom dogs went way back. Once, when he had his own film company, he was in a funk over the Chinese, and one of his partners shouted: “Stop worrying about eight hundred and fifty million Chinese! Worry about us, two Jews – your partners.” He agreed later to do the film called Burn! with Gillo Pontecorvo. Shooting took place in the heat of Colombia, and he was quickly at odds with the Italian, the way he treated blacks, who got half the pay of whites and were given slumlike living facilities. “I want to kill Gillo,” he was heard saying. “I really want to kill him.” Questioned why, Brando raged: “Because he has no fucking feelings for people.”

Going into the Seventies, Brando moved out of semiexile and into one of the most protean runs of his career. By now, there was a whole new atmosphere in Hollywood, charged by filmmakers and actors who had grown up on his films. He had always had the adulation of younger actors. James Dean used to follow Brando around like a shadow; he was tepid about Dean, even jarred by his wildness, and he told him that he was “mentally disturbed and should go into analysis.” Jack Nicholson said Brando was a heroic figure to him. When he moved out of Hollywood, right next door to Brando, he still stared with awe at his neighbor. “No telling,” he said, “how many people were trying to emulate his timing, his style.” When Brando walked onto the set of The Godfather, Al Pacino lost his composure. He was in a daze, his face white and his hands shaking. “What’s the matter, Al?” an executive asked. “They want you in there. Go on.” Pacino said: “You don’t understand. Have you any idea what it is for me to be doing a scene with him? I sat in theaters when I was a kid just watching him. . . . He’s God, man.”

Coppola had been vindicated after Paramount studio chief Robert Evans questioned his judgment in wanting to hire Brando. “I’m surprised at you, Francis,” said Evans, shaking his head, filled with visions of chaos and a destroyed budget. Not on firm ground himself, the young Coppola pleaded: “You don’t know what an effect he’ll have, you don’t understand his mystical relationship to actors.”

Robert Mitchum rightly observed some time back that no one ever did a film with Brando. “He’ll take you to hell in a dogsled,” said Lewis Milestone. But these new directors seemed to enter a cobwebbed room of Brando’s mind, they jostled his imagination and creativity. “When people deal with him honestly,” said the late director-actor John Cassavetes, “there’s no one better – ask any actor.” Whatever it was, Coppola freed the giant in Brando with Don Corleone, and did it again later as he pulled out the tenebrous, lost reflections of Colonel Kurtz, in a dim, shadowed cave dwelling at the end of Apocalypse Now. A master of improvisation, Bertolucci had Brando right in his gunsight, won his enthusiasm by encouraging him to shape scenes in Last Tango. “An angel as a man,” said Bertolucci, “a monster as an actor. He is like one of those figures of the painter Francis Bacon who show on their faces all that is happening in their guts.”

So with two new films, Brando is back, slowly closing the circle of his career. Who is Marlon Brando? Is he Kowalski of Streetcar, the rebel in The Wild One, the lost Paul in Tango? Who will he be next, as he feels his way toward the events of aging and death, fumbling for a serenity that has seldom been there in his life?

Extraordinarily, and emblematic of his disarrayed genius, parts of a self-portrait can be found in most of his films; no actor has thrown himself so naked to our voyeurism. Anna Kashfi says his whole life has been this: “Here I am – don’t look at me.” On film, at his very best, he has had nowhere to hide. And you can ponder what gnarled, semiblinking neuron in his brain has motivated Brando to turn himself into a three-hundred-pound remove from a former self; the apogee of narcissism turned like a knife inward. Striking looks and fame made him feel like a geek; growing ugly closes the case out, seals off affection with a releasing finality. As for his work, a powerful argument can be made that he has been the greatest American actor of this century – the single one who will survive well into the next. As Nicholson says: “The man does scorch the earth, right? I mean, for two hundred miles in any direction. Not much leavin’s.” And when Marlon Brando is gone, a wind will gust around an empty throne, and sway the heavy curtains on the wall.

This story is reprinted her with permission from Mark Kram, Jr.

Do yourself a favor and read Kram Jr.’s beautiful memoir piece about his father, “Forgive Some Sinner.”

Bronx Banter Interview: Mark Kram Jr.

Mark Kram Jr. is one of the finest practitioners we have of long form newspaper journalism, better known as the bonus or takeout piece. He has been with the Philly Daily News since 1987 and his work has appeared in The Best American Sports Writing six times (here’s a selection:  “The World is Her Cloister” 1994; “Joe’s Gift” 2002; “I Want to Kill Him” 2003; “A Lethal Catch” 2005).

Kram has a clean, almost invisible style that doesn’t call attention to itself. It is in the fine tradition of Gay Talese’s fly-on-the-wall approach. With Kram you don’t notice his technique because you are immersed in the story. Now 56, Kram has written his first book, “Like Any Normal Day.” It is published today.

Like Any Normal Day looks piercingly beyond the moment the when the lights dim and the crowds go home in any young athlete’s life,” writes Richard Ford.  “Kram’s acuity and sympathies stretch far beyond his sportswriter’s practiced gaze — indeed, all the way to the realm of literature. It is not a happy story he has to tell us. But it seems to me–perhaps for that very reason–it  is an essential and cautionary one.” 

I wrote a short piece on Kram in the Scorecard section of Sports Illustrated last week and was fortunate enough to chat with him recently about his book and his father, who himself was a celebrated magazine writer.

Enjoy.

Bronx Banter: I’m a huge fan of “Forgive Some Sinner,” the uncompromising article you wrote about your father. It must not have been easy to write that story. How did it come about?

Mark Kram: Frank Deford planted the idea with me. He and Dad had been colleagues at Sports Illustrated during the 1960s and early 1970s but had drifted apart in the ensuing years, as friends occasionally do. They were both from Baltimore, yet not the same Baltimore. Frank grew up in an affluent area of the city, and Dad had come out of East Baltimore, a working class section. He had lettered in baseball, basketball and football in high school—in fact, he had played high school baseball against Al Kaline—but had been a poor student and had no interest in books until his pro baseball career in the Pirates organization came to an end.

Mark Kram, left, Tito Francona far right

I had known Frank as a boy and became reacquainted with him some 30 years later at a book event he had at The Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005, three years after Dad had died. We went out for a few drinks and I filled him in on the man he once knew. By the end of the evening, he said, “You know, you should write about him.” The thought had occurred to me, but I could not think of the circumstance that would arise where it would be possible. Were I to do it, it would have to have been for publication, and I could not think of any editor who would be remotely interested. Incredibly, Frank conspired with Rob Fleder, then a top editor at SI, to offer me an assignment.

BB: That had to come as a surprise, given how your father and SI parted ways in 1977.

MK: You can say that again. I showed my wife Anne the email Rob had sent me and her jaw dropped. SI had not even published an obit on him, and here they were asking for 6,000 words on him. I played along, but I was under no illusions that whatever I came up with would ever appear in their pages.

BB: Really?

MK: Yes. As stellar has his work had been, Dad had breached some very serious ethical standards – which I explore in some depth in “Forgive Some Sinner”–so he represented a complicated piece of SI history. It seemed unlikely to me that they would have any appetite to revisit it. And yet I was excited to have the assignment, if only because it gave me a license to pick up the phone, call people and ask questions.

BB: What happened when you submitted the story?

MK: SI paid for the piece in full and then sat on it. Rob had done a wonderful job helping me get it in shape—he is a splendid editor—but as I said, I doubted that it would ever get in. A year and half passed and Rob called. He said, “I have good news and bad news.” I said, “Give me the bad news.” As I expected, he said SI would not be running the piece. But the “good news” was that I could have the story back and sell it elsewhere, if I could find someone who would take it.

BB: At least they paid you for it and let you have it back.

MK: That was kind of them – and I appreciated it. So I shopped it around but no one wanted it. And then one day, a neighbor, Jason Wilson—who is the series editor of Best American Travel Writing—crossed into our yard and said he had just been appointed the editor of “The Smart Set,” an online cultural magazine he convinced Drexel University to underwrite. “Forgive Some Sinner” appeared as part of their launch and still gets visitors to it. So I would have to say it could not have worked out better.

BB: And there is a benefit to having it on-line because a simple Google search continues to lead readers to it.

MK: Absolutely. It’s been wonderful in that way.

BB: And it was included in The Best American Sports Writing that year. That had to be gratifying.

MK: It was. Given the circuitous journey the piece had before it found a home, it was more than that. I am deeply thankful to Glenn Stout, the series editor of the book, and Bill Nack, the guest editor who selected it. And I am thankful to Frank, Rob and Jason for teeing it up.

BB: I was drawn to the part of “Forgive Some Sinner” where your old man discouraged you from pursuing a career in writing. Can you shed some light on what his thinking was?

MK: Writing was an extraordinary struggle for him. I can still see him sitting at the typewriter, drenched with sweat and wreathed in smoke from the pipe that he always had going. Every word to him was a careful brush stroke. Frank captured it well in his new memoir, “Over Time”:

“To Mark, writing was a laboratory science more than a craft; he could not write the second word until the first word was perfect. He also believed that he was like a female holding a finite number of eggs—that he only had so many words within him.”

I could not have said it better. Frank and I part company on certain other observations he had, but I am a very fond of him and he is surely entitled to his opinion. But to answer your original question: I think Dad discouraged me from writing because it was such an ordeal for him. I remember he used to say, “I should have stayed in baseball and become a first base coach.” Maybe he would have been happier.

Father and Son at Graceland, 2002

BB: To what extent was writing that story a relief for you?

MK: More than you can know. For years I had looked upon with the eyes of a boy—and only those eyes. I loved him dearly, and was always trying to plead his case in one way or another, even when the evidence to the contrary had been inescapable. I idealized him. I remember I used to look at his work and wonder how he ever did it—and if I ever could even approach what he did in some small way. Writing “Forgive Some Sinner” demanded that I looked at him with another set of eyes—challenging, discerning and yet not judgmental. No one is spared suffering in life, but you can either be embittered by it or ennobled by it. Dad became embittered by it, I am sad to say, and yet that was not the sum of who he was. “Forgive Some Sinner” was a painful excavation, yet one that acquainted me with the gray areas that hold regency over us. I think in some sense “Forgive Some Sinner” primed the pump for “Like Any Normal Day.”

BB: That’s an excellent point particularly since this is your first book. Why this story and why now?

MK: For years, I had hoped to do a book. Certainly, it seemed to be a logical outgrowth of the narrative writing I had been doing so long for newspapers. But I did not want to do just any book. I had no interest in doing an as-told-to celebrity job. I wanted to slice off a piece of life and examine it. What I found in the Miley family was precisely what I had been searching for: Ordinary people steeped in extraordinary circumstances. But I did not choose this story as much as it chose me.

BB: Ordinary people…

MK: Yes. When I attended the University of Maryland, I had a conversation with the novelist James M. Cain at his house one evening. Remember, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity?”

Cain was well into his 80s by then, but he told me a story that has stayed with me ever since. Carey Wilson, the producer, had once told him, “Jim, the reason I like your stories is that they are about real people. I know them.” Cain told me this story to illustrate his antipathy for Raymond Chandler, whose characters in the “The Big Sleep” included “a rich, old bald-headed guy who raises orchids and has two nymphomaniac daughters.” Cain said Wilson had told him, “Whoever heard of someone like that? You can take that son of a bitch and jump in the lake with him.” In any event, I knew Buddy Miley. We were we the same age. I had played ball with boys like him, star athletes who would only go so far before gravity pulled them to earth. I think I understood who he was.

BB: You played sports in high school, right?

MK: Some baseball and basketball. Good enough to be on the team, but more or less a bench player.

BB: How did Buddy’s story choose you?

MK: I suppose you could say Buddy whispered in my ear. He became a thread I tugged on while I worked on other stuff. I think with any creative project, you have to give yourself space to play with the loose threads you come across and see where they lead. Some of the threads you pull at snap off. Others just go on and on. Buddy became a thread that I could not let go of. Over the course of some years, I found that some intriguing themes emerged: What is our duty to one another? To what extent are we able to sacrifice of ourselves? I fooled with some of screenplay versions of the story, suffered through the usual annoyances that are attached to that, and then finally decided: This has to be a book. At that point the question became, can I sell it?

BB: Did you have a feel for how that would go?

MK: Practically speaking, it seemed to me to be a long shot that any publisher would be interested in Buddy, or his story. But I had what I think of as an epiphany. It dawned on me that the book was not about Buddy alone but the people he touched.

BB: Someone who is injured like that impacts everyone around him.

MK: Exactly. That one split second of horror that occurred one day on the football field in 1973 changed the destiny of an array of people beyond just Buddy. His parents, his siblings, especially Jimmy, his youngest brother. Friends. I even found his high school girlfriend in Alabama—Karen Kollmeyer (then Karen Shields)–whose life intersected with Buddy in an intriguing way up until the very day he died. It seemed to be the perfect book for me—not a sports book per se, or a Kevorkian book—but one that played out across a large canvas of human experience.

BB: You explain in the book that you first wrote a piece about Buddy after reading a letter his mother wrote in Sports Illustrated. What was it about her letter that drew your curiosity?

MK: I always have an eye out for pieces that play in the margins of sports. In this case, an editor at the Philadelphia Daily News passed it along to me. Since I had come to Philadelphia in 1987 from Detroit, I had no idea of who Buddy or the Mileys were. In her letter, Rosemarie said, in part:

“I am sure the majority of SI readers ‘love’ football. I ask them to spend one day with my son. They will see the terrible pain he endures. They will feel his frustrations at being totally dependant upon others.”

It went on. But the point is, I followed up on her invitation, even if it had been intended as a rhetorical one. I called her and asked if I could drop by and take her up on her invitation. Of course, I had no idea of where it would lead except for perhaps an interesting feature article.

BB: Did you stay in touch with Buddy after that first article was published?

MK: I spoke with Buddy just once after the piece appeared in the paper. Apparently, some of his old friends had read it and organized a benefit for him. Ostensibly, it was to raise funds so he could visit Buoniconti clinic in Miami in search of relief from the pain he was in on a daily basis. He did take that trip, but it was to no avail, though he did get an eyeful on a side trip to South Beach.

BB: Hey, that had to be a good feeling, that something you had written had led people to organize a fund-raiser?

MK: The hope I always have is to spark a connection. Occasionally, that has expressed itself in a level of generosity that I found inspiring. I remember I once did a story on Joe Delaney, a promising young Kansas City Chiefs running back who died trying to save some boys from drowning—a $1000.00 check showed up in the mail to forward along to his widow. In the case of Buddy, I think we see the bigheartedness of others throughout his life—and this book.

BB: He was not alone.

MK: Good people stepped forward from every walk of life to help him, from legends such as the former Colts running back Alan Ameche, his widow Yvonne, and obscure characters such as Dave Heilbrun, who volunteered his expertise to build an addition on the Miley home that allowed Buddy some space of his own. So I suppose I would say, what I have always hoped to do is move readers in a way that enables them to connect to a world outside themselves.

BB: I interrupted you there. So did you stay in touch with Buddy?

MK: We spoke just once again and he more or less faded from my radar until I received a phone call from the office one evening in March, 1997. Buddy had been found dead in a Michigan motel room. From what could be immediately ascertained, it looked like it had been a Kevorkian job. I contributed some reporting to the story that appeared the following day, but did not become more deeply involved in the story until a year later. I proposed a piece on the one-year anniversary of his death, if only because the initial reporting seemed to leave certain questions unanswered. I am also of the belief that in pursuing feature subjects—especially when there is a tragedy involved—it is usually a good idea to give people some space to grieve.

BB: That makes sense.

MK: When I revisited the Mileys in March 1998, everyone was there except for Jimmy. I was told it would just be too hard for him to be there. Although I suspected then that Jimmy had been the one who had taken Buddy to Michigan, I figured that I would be done with the Mileys when I finished that story. But I had grown fond of Rosemarie and gave her a call every now and then just to talk. Always, it seemed, we ended up laughing over one thing or another. Occasionally, I would bring up Jimmy, ask how he was and told her I would love to talk with him if he was ever up to it.

BB: And you later did a story on him as well, right?

MK: The piece I did on Jimmy appeared in the Daily News in June 2006. A year before, Rosemarie called me and told me Jimmy would like to talk with me. So I drove out to Warminster to see him, no strings attached, just a chat. If for whatever reason he did not want a story written, I promised him that that would be the end of it. We met at a diner and talked for four hours. I knew then that he had a compelling story to share, but I could also see that he was bound up in fear. He seemed to think if he went public, he would end up in jail as an accessory. Or, perhaps even worse, that he would be shunned in the community for participating in an act that the Catholic Church looked upon as a sin.

BB: He was tortured.

Jimmy Miley

MK: Yes. He was so overwhelmed by his fears that he called two weeks or so later and declined to proceed. Another year passed before he decided to move forward. Contrary to the apprehensions that had held him back, the community embraced him with compassion. I received dozens of letters from readers who opened up their hearts to him. To the extent that the book had a genesis, it could be found in those letters—this sense that what Jimmy experienced had universal overtones. In fact, I had an aunt who lived in a vegetative state for 10 years, so I had some fairly strong personal views regarding self-determination.

BB: Did you share any of the letters you received from that second article with Jimmy?

MK: I did. I dropped a pile of them off at his house one day. I think it was a revelation to him, that there were people who supported what he had done, even if they did not approve of Dr. Kevorkian or what he stood for. They understood that what he had done had been an act of compassion on behalf of his brother.

BB: When Jimmy got cold feet, how did you react to that?

MK: Disappointed, of course, yet not entirely surprised. As we spoke, I sensed that he was backing away. And yet he continued to talk, as if by doing so he was expelling a large burden he had been carrying around. Sometimes I have had story subjects who could not bring themselves to follow through. I understand it. This is deeply personal stuff, and it is not easy to expose your inner world to someone, particularly a stranger who proposes to share your story in a public forum. In this case, there was also an added obstacle that came into play. Nationally, the big story in the news in early 2005 was Terri Schiavo, the young woman who had been in a vegetative state and became the focus of a heated debate on euthanasia in America. I had a sense that that spooked Jimmy.

BB: Can you talk about the difficulties that you face as a writer when you get to know a subject and like them? And was there a difference between the connection you had with the family during the two articles you wrote and then the book?

MK: Initially, my relationship to the Mileys was cordial but not one that I had any sense would endure. They were lovely people, yet the necessities of turning around fresh ideas seemed to preclude any deeper connection. Once a story is published, there is always this sense of closure, that both the subject and I had attained what we had set out to accomplish and would part ways. A book is different matter altogether. To go to the depths one has to plumb in order to piece together a narrative non fiction of any length, it is essential to establish a level of abiding trust and transparency. What I found is that you have to give of yourself in order to have any expectation of any return. The Mileys were helpful in this regard. They assured me, “This is your book.” And I assured them that I would observe the same sensitivity in writing about them as I would my own family.

BB: In what way do you give of yourself? At one point in the book, you bring yourself in the picture by sharing some of your personal history. And you do share that you and Buddy were the same age. Is this what you are referring to?

MK: By “giving of yourself” to a subject, this quite simply means that you have to be something more than an interrogator. You have to connect with them at a human level and create an environment of safety. I remember when I interviewed Karen in Alabama, I asked her to look up “Forgive Some Sinner,” if only to give her a sense that I understood what was involved with letting go of old demons. I think by reading it she came away with a better sense of who I was and became more relaxed with me. As far as Buddy was concerned, I included some personal history only to underscore the passage of years. In the 23 ½ years Buddy had been paralyzed, longer by the way, than he had been ambulatory, time had not stopped for me as it had for him.

BB: Buddy fell in love with Karen while he was in the hospital. At what point in the process did you track her down?

Buddy Miley and Karen Sheilds on Graduation Day, 1974

MK: Karen emerged very early in my reporting. At some point while I was preparing the piece on Jimmy for the Daily News, he told me that women had always loved Buddy. Some had passed in and out of his life, but there was one in particular that Buddy had a special affection for. He told me she was living somewhere in the South, Florida or Alabama. He said he had her telephone number somewhere. Once the Daily News story appeared and I began to draft a book proposal, I asked Jimmy to give her a call. He did, and Karen and I later spoke on the phone. That was in 2006 or so. When I finally got a deal, I flew down to Alabama and spent a few days with her.

BB: That’s a huge get on your part.

MK: By the end of those interviews, it became clear to me that she would be an essential character to the book. I remember I told her, “I need you to help me tap into the heart of this story.” And so she did, beyond what I could have imagined.

BB: Was there anything new or surprising that you learned about the Mileys writing the book?

MK: Nothing “new” or “surprising,” but I did develop a deep appreciation for what lovely people they were. None of them shied away from any of the questions I had, although their memories in some cases had dimmed. I remember asking Rosemarie Miley if she would share with me the letters she exchanged with her husband Bert during World War II. I asked her a few times offhandedly, but she always said no, that they were private. It was not until my final interview with her that, out of nowhere, she asked me if I would like to see one of them. “Of course,” I told her. She excused herself from the table and came back with a hand-written love letter that Bert had sent her from the Pacific near the end of the war. Quietly, she read part of it aloud to me. It was as if I had come across a missing piece in an elaborate puzzle: beneath the stony exterior that Bert exuded beat the heart of a man with the same dreams his paralyzed son had had.

BB: The story is so sad in many ways and dramatic. How did treat that story without becoming melodramatic?

MK: From the beginning, I knew I had to find some way to lighten the emotional load. So humor had to be a critical element of the story. Jimmy provided more than enough in this area. As the youngest of the seven Miley children, he had been a fine athlete, perhaps better than Buddy, yet he had been immature and always falling over himself in one way or another. It was not until he tapped into his courage and helped Buddy that he ascended into manhood. Karen, as a character, also allowed me to step away into a love story, even if that love story would ultimately have tragic overtones.

BB: And it was an unusual, complicated love story, too.

 

MK: Karen weaves in and out of the book. They were supposed to go on their first date after the game in which Buddy was injured. Karen began visiting him in the hospital and they became close – indeed, they fell in love. In the book there is a wonderful picture of the two of them on the stage at graduation. In any event, Karen moved away at that point with her parents, but not before Buddy assured her that when he was able to walk again, he would find her and sweep her off her feet. It was pure fantasy – Buddy would never be able to walk again – yet Karen became a projection to Buddy of the normal life he longed for. As the years passed, Karen went on to have a life of her own, with a husband and children, yet a part of her remained connected to the boy whose heart had touched her so long ago. Buddy contacted her two years before his death with the help of a private investigator. During this period, the deep feeling between them reemerged, and continued until Buddy called her from Michigan to say goodbye.

BB: You had this story with you for a long period, yet had addressed it only in short form. What entered into your thinking as you expanded to 70,000 words instead of 5,000?

MK: Good jockeys have a clock in their head, which is to say they have a sense of pace that enables them to know precisely where they are at any given point in a race. I had that ability here. Originally, the contract called for 80,000 words. Before I signed it, I sat down with a legal pad and worked up a very loose outline, just to get a sense of how far this material could be spread out. What I came up with during that exercise was what appeared to be a 70,000-word book, so we had the contract amended. And the book I turned in came to 70,400 words. We ended up trimming perhaps 1000 words from that during the editing process.

BB: Damn, that’s nothing.

MK: With the help of my wife, Anne, who attended the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and has a sharp eye for errant prose, I did some rewriting on certain chapters as I went along. Some of our editorial sessions were tense.

BB: Oh, I can only imagine.

MK: But when I looked at what she suggested with a cooler head I was always deeply grateful, not just for her direction but the patience and love with which she offered it.

BB: Did you show your editor any early drafts?

MK: No, I just showed George Witte, the editor in chief at St. Martin’s Press, the completed manuscript when I was finished with it. I had a good sense of where I was going. And there is no point eliciting a partial score. George got back to me within a week with a lovely acceptance note. At that point, there were only some very minor revisions.

BB: That sounds so tidy. And you would have never been in this position had you not written about your father. “Forgive Some Sinner” really gave you a leg up on writing “Like Any Normal Day,” is that fair to say?

MK: In so far as the deep diving you have to do with certain subjects, I would say yes. I came away from “Forgive Some Sinner” with a better understanding not just of Dad and myself, but of life—even under ideal circumstances, it is a muddy affair. In a certain way, I cleared the land of the underbrush with that piece, which enabled me to enter the world of Buddy and Jimmy Miley in an unobstructed way. And I had discovered that “Forgive Some Sinner” helped me develop some previously unengaged creative skills, perhaps which in the final analysis can only come with experience. I remember whenever I had self-doubts as a boy, Dad used to remind me again and again: “The race is to the steady, not to the swift.” I can still hear him say that: Hang in there.

BB: I like how Scott Raab put it when he said, “Endurance is a talent.”

MK: Well said. Along with whatever talent you can scrape together, you have to have an iron ass. Buddy sure as hell had it. For 23 ½ years, he hung in here until he could not do it one more day. The pain that would shoot through him was so severe that it would leave him gritting his teeth. And yet I think he was ennobled by his suffering, not embittered by it. That’s a remarkable thing, really. Buddy had a big heart, and he shared it with whoever walked into his room and sat down with him. It was because of that heart that he stepped away from his struggle, if only to enable his mother Rosemarie a few years of peace in her advancing years. So he and Jimmy stole away to Michigan. Buddy was the personification of endurance, which is why I will always treasure the piece of memorabilia that Jimmy gave me that had belonged to his brother: a signed Cal Ripken jersey. Somehow that seemed so perfectly fitting.

You can order “Like Any Normal Day” here and here. And check out Kram’s website, here.

[Photos provided by Mark Kram Jr. Additional images via Elevated Encouragement. Author pictures taken by Mary Olivia Kram. ]

Bronx Banter Interview: John Schulian

“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”

Tim Marchman on John Schulian’s latest collection, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us.” (Wall Street Journal)

John Schulian has been entertaining us this year with the story of his career in “From Ali to Xena.” He has a new collection of sports writing out and we recently caught up to talk about it. Here’s our conversation.

Enjoy.

BB: Your work has been collected twice before: “Writers’ Fighters,” a boxing compilation, and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” a collection of baseball writing. What was the genesis of your new anthology, which is both broader and more specific than those two?

JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.

I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.

BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?

JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?

BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?

JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.

BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?

JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.

No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.

(more…)

How Sweet It Is

George Plimpton once wrote, “The smaller the ball used in the sport, the better the book.” But this doesn’t account for boxing, a sport that word-for-word has produced more great writing than any other. For hard evidence, look no further than “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,” an outstanding new collection edited by George Kimball and John Schulian.

All of the heavyweights are here–from Jack London, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer, to A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon. And that’s just for starters. How about Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, George Plimpton, Pete Dexter, David Remnick and Mark Kriegel, not to mention the veterans of the boxing scene like Larry Merchant, Mark Kram, Vic Ziegel, Pat Putnam and Richard Hoffer.

I’m not a huge boxing fan but I adore boxing writing and this is the finest anthology I’ve ever come across.

Check out the Library of America’s website for a fascinating and in-depth interview with Kimball and Schulian.

Here’s Kimball:

The wonder shouldn’t be that there are two Liebling pieces, but that there are only two. (He and Schulberg have the only double-barreled entries in the anthology.) If I’d been compiling that list, The Sweet Science would be No.1, and A Neutral Corner, Liebling’s other collection of (mostly) New Yorker pieces No. 2.

Putting At the Fights together was a painstaking, year-long process that was often like a jigsaw puzzle, because sometimes the decision to include a par- ticular piece would, due to subject matter or tone or approach, displace others. John and I made a conscious decision early on to hold Liebling in reserve. We knew whichever of his pieces we wound up using, they were going to work. Our initial inclination, for instance, had been to include Liebling’s terrific account of his visit to Sonny Liston’s training camp, but if we’d used that we probably wouldn’t have been able to include Joe Flaherty’s wonderful “Amen to Sonny,” and if we hadn’t used Liebling’s “Kearns by a Knockout” we’d probably have had to find two more pieces to adequately address Doc Kearns and Sugar Ray Robinson. It was sometimes like playing Whack-A-Mole, because every time you’d hammer one down, three more would pop up somewhere else. But in that respect Liebling was a constant security blanket, our wild-card, because of our unshaken confidence that whatever we wound up using was going to be great.

Anyone who has written about boxing for the last fifty years owes a great debt of gratitude to Joe Liebling, so yes, his influence has been both pervasive and profound, but woe be unto the conscious imitator. Any writer who sets out trying to write his own “Liebling piece”—and there have been a few—is inex- orably doomed to fall flat on his face.

And Schulian:

It’s too much to say that the best boxing stories are about losers. That argument is contradicted time and again throughout the book. But losers and eccentrics and guys who never quite made it to the mountaintop have inspired some classic writing. You want to weep for Primo Carnera after read- ing what Paul Gallico had to say about the way he was used as a patsy and a stooge and a pretend heavyweight champion. And then you have Stanley Ketchel and Bummy Davis, two crazy-tough fighters who would have been swallowed by the mists of time if it weren’t for the stories written about them. Was John Lardner’s piece on Ketchel better than the fighter himself? Absolutely. And Bill Heinz’s on Davis? Without a doubt. And the amazing thing is that Lardner and Heinz never met their subjects, both of whom were prematurely dispatched from this life by gunshot. But Lardner and Heinz were intrepid reporters as well as stunning writers, and they proved it with their renderings of the two fighters’ hearts and souls.

Click here for an excerpt.

Don’t sleep, pound-for-pound, this will be the most rewarding book–never mind sports book–you’ll buy this spring.

It was 40 Years Ago Today…

A few months before I was born, two previously undefeated boxers, Muhammad Ali (31-0)and Joe Frazier (26-0) fought for the heavyweight title in the so-called “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden. That was forty years ago today. It was not their greatest fight–that would be the Thrilla in Manila–but it was possibly the biggest spectacle in boxing history.

Here is our man John Schulian, writing for the Library of America’s website:

The two of them had been friends before their violent Garden party. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military and found himself wandering the college lecture circuit, Frazier loaned him money. It was a fitting gesture, for Frazier now wore the crown that had been Ali’s. But he vowed he would give the deposed champ a chance to win it back, and when Ali was allowed to return to the ring in 1970, Frazier did something that isn’t standard practice in the cutthroat world of boxing. He kept his word.

They would each make $2.5 million and fight in front of a Garden crowd that overflowed with celebrities. Burt Lancaster, Sinatra’s co-star in From Here to Eternity, did the radio commentary. But the only thing that really mattered was the hatred that had erupted when Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom and a tool of good-old-boy sheriffs and Ku Klux Klansmen. In a lifetime filled with kindness as well as greatness, it was a low moment for Ali. He knew full well that Frazier, the thirteenth child born to a one-armed North Carolina sharecropper, had traveled a far harder road than he had. By comparison, Ali was a child of privilege, raised in relative comfort in Louisville, his boxing career bankrolled by local white businessmen. But he got away with it because he was handsome, charming, funny, all the things Frazier was not.

And here’s Mark Kram from his book “Ghosts of Manila”:

Ali was the first in the ring, in a red velvet robe with matching trunks, and white shoes with red tassels. He glided in a circle to a crush of sound, a strand of blown grass. Whatever you might have thought of him then, you were forced to look at him with honest, lingering eyes, for there might never be his like again. Assessed by ring demands–punch, size, speed, intelligence, command, and imagination–he was an action poet, the equal of the best painting you could find or a Mozart who failed to die too early. If that is an overstatement, disfiguring the finer arts by association with a brute game, consider the mudslide of purple that attaches to his creative lessers in other fields, past and present; Ali was physical art, belonged alone in a museum of his own. I was extremely fond of him, of his work, of the decent side of his nature, and jaundiced on his cultish servility, his termopolitical combustions that tried to twist adversaries into grotesque shapes. It never worked, excerpt perhaps on Liston, who came to think that he was clinically insane. It did work on himself, shaped the fear for his face and general well-being into a positive force, a psychological war dance that blew up the dam and released his flood of talent. The trouble was that, like Kandinsky’s doubled-sided painting of chaos and calm, it became increasingly difficult for him to find his way back from one side to the other.

In a green and gold brocade robe with matching trunks, Joe Frazier almost seemed insectile next to Ali in the ring, and he was made more so as Ali waltzed by him, bumped him and said: “Chum!” Far from that slur, Joe was a gladiator right smack to the root conjurings of the title, to the clank of armor he seemed to emit. Work within his perimeter, and you courted what fighters used to call “the black spot,” the flash knockout. He was a figher that could be hit with abandon, but if you didn’t get him out of there his drilling aggression, his marked taste for pursuit and threshing-blade punches could overwhelm you; as one military enthusiast in his camp siad, “like the Wehrmacht crossing into Russia.” I was drawn to the honesty of his work, the joy he derived from inexorable assault, yet had a cool neutrality to his presence. In truth, with a jewel in each hand, i didn’t want to part with either of them, thus making me pitifully objective, a captial sinner in the most subjective and impressionistic of all athletic conflicts.

Frazier won the fight, of course, in front of a celebrity-studded crowd. Dali, Elvis, Woody and the Beatles were there. Burt Lancaster did the color for the closed-circut broadcast and Frank Sinatra was there taking pictures for Life Magazine.

In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, Richard Hoffer has a nice little piece on the fight:

While it promised sufficient sporting spectacle and mystery (could Ali reclaim the grace of his youth and now, nearing 30, reclaim the title that many thought was still rightfully his?), the fight also operated as a social ballot box. Ali, who’d been a sort of political prisoner, commanded the support of every freethinker in the country and beyond, striking his revolutionary stance. In addition, he somehow cast a fight between two black men as a racial referendum, a puzzled and comically outraged Frazier now a stand-in for the status quo and the white man as well.

All this was accomplished with the primitive promotional platforms at hand: newspapers, radio and talk shows. The intrigue was still enough to make the fight the hottest ticket of a lifetime, possibly the most glamour-struck event ever. The excitement was overwhelming, even far beyond the Garden, but can you imagine what it might have been like if Ali, the ultimate pitchman, had, say, a Facebook page? If we’re so eager to exploit celebrity that a semifamous athlete like Chad Ochocinco has his own reality show, then you can be certain Ali would have had his own network long before Oprah.

Then again, how could our digital applications improve upon the analog beauty of their struggles that night, an eye-popping brutality that Frazier narrowly won, a contest of such evenly matched wills, such equal desperation that the words Ali-Frazier have come to signify a kind of ruinous self-sacrifice? The old ways are not necessarily the best, but once a generation, anyway, they’re good enough.

Ali taunted and humilated Frazer time and again in the press and Frazier has never forgiven him for it. From Bill Nack’s great 1996 piece on Smokin’ Joe:

He has known for years of Frazier’s anger and bitterness toward him, but he knows nothing of the venom that coursed through Frazier’s recent autobiography, Smokin’ Joe. Of Ali, Frazier wrote, “Truth is, I’d like to rumble with that sucker again—beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus…. Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren’t going so well for him. Nope. I don’t. Fact is, I don’t give a damn. They want me to love him, but I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him.”

Nor does Ali know what Frazier said after watching him, with his trembling arm, light the Olympic flame: “It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”

Nor does Ali know of Frazier’s rambling diatribe against him at a July 30 press conference in Atlanta, where Frazier attacked the choice of Ali, the Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, as the final bearer of the torch. He called Ali a “dodge drafter,” implied that Ali was a racist (“He didn’t like his white brothers,” said Frazier) and suggested that he himself—also an Olympic champion, as a heavyweight, in 1964—would have made a better choice to light the flame: “Why not? I’m a good American…. A champion is more than making noise. I could have run up there. I’m in shape.”

And while Frazier asserts at one turn that he sees “the hand of the Lord” in Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome (a set of symptoms that include tremors and a masklike face), he also takes an eerily mean-spirited pride in the role he believes he played in causing Ali’s condition. Indeed, the Parkinson’s most likely traces to the repealed blows Ali took to the head as a boxer—traumas that ravaged the colony of dopamine-producing cells in his brain—and no man struck Ali’s head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier.

“He’s got Joe Frazier-itis,” Frazier said of Ali one day recently, flexing his left arm. “He’s got left-hook-itis.”

Check out this cool photo gallery of “The Fight of the Century” over at Life.com.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver