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The Writing of “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now”?

ted-williams-mcclain-flood

This piece originally appeared in the 8th issue of The Classical Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

The Great Seduction: The Writing of “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”

Alex Belth

They came to Ted Williams the way those eight ill-fated adventurers came to Everest, thinking they could scale it, conquer it, reduce it to something mortals could comprehend. John Updike almost made it to the top when he wrote that gods don’t answer letters, but Ed Linn got off just as good a line in Sport magazine summing up Williams’ last game: “And now Boston knows how England felt when it lost India.” Leigh Montville weighed in with an almost poetically profane biography, and now Ben Bradlee Jr. has delivered a massive biography of his own at nearly 1,000 pages. But none of them—and I’m talking about a great novelist, two splendid sportswriters, and a deeply committed researcher here—made it to the top of the mountain where dwelled Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid.

Richard Ben Cramer did.

He had only 15,000 words to work with, and he had to scheme and skulk and send flowers to get those, but he climbed inside Williams’ life and mind and special madness the way nobody before him did and nobody after him has. His story—”What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”—reached out from the pages of Esquire‘s July 1986 issue and grabbed you by the collar. Once you read his first sentence—”Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those”—you didn’t need to be forced to go the rest of the way.

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It began at an editors meeting in Esquire‘s Manhattan offices. The magazine’s American Male special was up next and they needed a monster piece on which they could hang the issue. Why not Ted Williams? His hatred of the press was legendary but he had the necessary stature. Still, he’d be hard to get—impossible, maybe.

There was one guy that wouldn’t be scared off, though. If anything, Richard Ben Cramer would relish the challenge.

“They know if they really get me going on an idea, well, I just can’t come home without it,” Cramer later explained in Robert Boynton’s incisive interview collection, The New New Journalism. “It might take years, but I’ll eventually get it.”

Seven years earlier, Cramer had won a Pulitzer Prize covering the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was an enviable talent, a terrific reporter who could also really write. He got to the story, got people to talk to him and was a natural storyteller. Sure, his prose blushed a shade of purple at times, but that’s not the worst sin, and Cramer could be forgiven because his excesses were the product of his enthusiasm. He had a reputation in some quarters for being loose with facts, but nobody doubted his talent, or his desire to tell a good story, or, at least in the big picture, to get that story right.

Cramer turned to writing for national magazines when he’d exhausted everything he could do at a newspaper. By this time he had a clear voice and his first three features—two for Esquire, the other for Rolling Stone—announced the arrival of a major talent who was gunning for Halberstam, Talese, and Wolfe. He was a star, and he carried himself like one, and nobody much held it against him because he was self-deprecating and generous, a real charmer. Cramer wasn’t movie-star handsome, yet women loved him. He was a man of big appetites—thick, rare steaks, full-bodied red wines, unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and five cups of black coffee the next morning. He wore linen suits and Panama hats and had the most disarming accent, dese-and-dose guttural, the flat A’s from his native Rochester mixed with a Southern drawl picked up during years of reporting in Baltimore.

But underneath all that wooly shit Cramer was an Apollonian kind of dude.

He jumped at the chance to write about Williams. Aside from a few stray newspaper columns, Cramer had never written about his favorite sport. His editor at Esquire, Dave Hirshey, called the Boston Red Sox and inquired about access. They laughed at him. Williams was such a pain in the ass that the Red Sox had long stopped trying to facilitate any publicity.

“I went back to Cramer and told him the news,” Hirshey told me, “and he was more adrenalized than ever, because he lived for outsized challenges like this. He knew he could get to anyone on the face of the planet, and since the Red Sox weren’t assisting in any way he wasn’t indebted to them.”

Impossible, my ass.

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“After I got the assignment from Esquire,” Cramer told Boynton, “I just went down to the town he lived in in Florida. I didn’t want to know anything, I didn’t want to read all the received wisdom of the last fifty years, because then I’d be spouting the same crap as everyone else—which was exactly what pissed Ted off about journalists in the first place.”

Williams wasn’t around Islamorada, a small town on the road to Key West, when Cramer arrived, which was fine by Cramer. He wasn’t on a newspaper deadline and was in no great rush. In the tradition of Gay Talese, he practiced the art of hanging out. His approach to a celebrity profile wasn’t any different from how he reported events Beirut or Pakistan, really: You see the flash and you go towards it when everyone else is getting out of there. You know it’s risky, but you want to see it—you want the truth.

Cramer had a gift for putting people at ease. “You could sit down with Richard,” his friend and Baltimore Sun colleague Tony Barberi told me, “whether it was you or me or somebody he’s interviewing for the first time, and he would sit there and smile and nod and laugh in the right places and tell you at the end this is the greatest story he’d ever heard. He was just a wonderful listener.”

“I’m gonna go one step further,” said Hank Klibanoff, who worked with Cramer in Philadelphia. “What made Richard special was that he didn’t seem to always have an end game in mind, which was writing a story. My impression is that Richard separated the two things so that people didn’t feel like they were just pawns in his writing game. They came away thinking he really liked them. And I think he really did.”

So he made himself a part of Williams’ world while Williams wasn’t there. “I met all his fishing buddies,” he said, “and I really got to know them. Once in a while I’d ask a little about Ted, but I didn’t push it. So by the time Ted comes back everybody’s saying, ‘Hey, Ted, have you heard about this odd guy who’s been hanging around for weeks?’ And pretty soon, Ted had to check me out for himself.”

Once Cramer got his hooks into Williams, he didn’t let go for three months. It didn’t matter if Esquire was paying him enough to justify that kind of investment of his time. (Cramer later claimed to have lost money on every magazine article he ever wrote.) What mattered was to get something that no one else could get, that no one else could write.

“In his hometown of Islamorada, on the Florida Keys, Ted is not hard to see,” wrote Cramer:

He’s out every day, out early and out loud. You might spot him at a coffee bar where the guides breakfast, quizzing them on their catches and telling them what he thinks of fishing here lately, which is ‘IT’S HORSESHIT.’ Or you might notice him in a crowded but quiet tackle shop, poking at a reel that he’s seen before, opining that it’s not been sold because ‘THE PRICE IS TOO DAMN HIGH,’ after which Ted advises his friend, the proprietor, across the room: ‘YOU MIGHT AS WELL QUIT USING THAT HAIR DYE. YOU’RE GOING BALD ANYWAY.’

He’s always first, 8:00 A.M., at the tennis club. He’s been up for hours, he’s ready. He fidgets, awaiting appearance by some other, any other, man with a racket, where upon Ted bellows, before the newcomer can say hello: ‘WELL, YOU WANNA PLAY?’ Ted’s voice normally emanates with gale and force, even at close range. Apologists attribute this to the ear injury that sent him home from Korea and ended his combat flying career. But Ted can speak softly and hear himself fine, if it’s only one friend around. The roar with which he speaks in a public place, or to anyone else, has nothing to do with his hearing. It’s your hearing he’s worried about.

Cramer often didn’t even take notes when talking to a subject, but he once told former colleagues at the Baltimore Sun that to capture an extended riff by Williams during a long car ride, he had Williams stop the car while he went in a convenience store and bought a small tape recorder. He returned and stuck the recorder in full view on the dashboard, making it clear that this ride was on the record and that there would be no confusion as to the accuracy of the reporting.

“Believe me,” says Klibanoff, “if he made anything up Ted Williams would have let the world know.”

Cramer stayed in Florida until he exhausted Williams’ patience. In Dan Okrent’s telling of the story, Williams drove Cramer to the Miami Airport. As they stood at the curb, Cramer thanked him for his time, explained that he might call to clarify some things that might arise in the writing, and that magazines had these people called fact checkers who would be in touch as the piece was ready to go to press. Williams looked at him and said, “Cramer, I’ve got two things to say to you. First, get a haircut. Second, I never want to see you or speak to you again.”

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The Williams that Cramer encountered was coarse, gregarious, and sympathetic. Cramer’s choice to capitalize some of Williams bellowing was reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s expressionistic prose style but in this case it didn’t serve to distract the reader only to punctuate character. Cramer himself appeared in the piece but only as a foil for Williams; unlike other new journalists the writer didn’t become the story.

“What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” upset people’s expectations after decades of having read about Williams as remote and forbidding. Cramer humanized Williams to such an extent that you could actually imagine sitting down and having a beer with Teddy Ballgame. And Cramer plied his considerable charm to make sure he got every one of the 15,000 words he wrote into print. Hirshey says that Cramer wouldn’t accept the 1,500 words that Esquire‘s managing editor demanded be cut. As the final touches were being put on the issue, Hirshey was at a black-tie affair and couldn’t be reached when Cramer struck.

“His first stop was the copy department,” said Hirshey, “where he charmed the culottes off the head copy editor and told her that I had given him permission to restore the trimmed 1,500 words and that she could call me at home if she liked. She did and, of course, got no answer. Cramer, being a Pulitzer Prize winner and all, had enough journalistic cred to convince her he would take full responsibility for any changes. Next, with the new 15,000 word galleys in hand, he went to the art department and told them they would have to drop a photo of Williams in the opening layout and shrink the type on the jump. When they balked, he told them I had given him permission and they were welcome to check with me. Now came his biggest challenge. In order for us not to see his handiwork the next morning, he would have to convince the production department that the piece would have to ship that night because ‘the printing plant isn’t used to handling pieces of this length and needed the extra day.’”

The next morning Hirshey arrived at the office and noticed three bouquets of long stem red roses at the receptionists’ desk addressed to the copy, art and production departments. All three had the same note attached: “Thanks for your grace under pressure, Richard Cramer.”

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In The Best Sports Writing of the Century, David Halberstam picked “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” as one of four stories considered “The Best of the Best.”

“It’s hard to write a magazine piece that stands out from other magazine pieces,” Cramer’s friend, the writer Mark Jacobson told me. “At that time a lot of the best journalists were working in the magazine business. So there was a high degree of difficulty in pulling off a piece that really stood out like that. I think it’s the best thing Cramer ever wrote.”

Cramer didn’t have anything left to prove in magazines after Ted Williams. He moved on to books, first writing about presidential hopefuls in What it Takes and then debunking the popular sentiment of another American icon in Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. He wrote the occasional magazine piece to pay the bills; they were solid, professional, but not etched in memory.

The Williams profile appeared in the 1991 coffee table book, Ted Williams: The Seasons of the Kid. After Williams died in 2002, Cramer revisited the subject for a standalone volume that included a 1,700-word introduction and a 5,800-word afterword. His return to Williams enriched the original article, and showed off Cramer at something like his full power. The coda charts the reinvention of Williams’ reputation in his later years, during which he became beloved, a living incarnation of the American century, and ties this to the man Cramer knew. Evaluating what made Williams great, Cramer wrote:

It wasn’t his eyes, it was the avid mind behind them, and the great heart below. Ted was the greatest hitter because he knew more about that job than anyone else. He studied it relentlessly. If you knew something about it, he wanted to know it—and RIGHT NOW! He ripped the art into knowable shards, which he then could teach with clarity, with conviction (something he was never short on), and with surprising patience and generosity. That’s how he was about anything he loved. It was the love that drove him.

It wasn’t just a love for hitting, or his old opponents, or fishermen, but his children, and his old friends, too:

He fell in love with showing his friends that he loved them. The urge grew more poignant and pressing as he lost them to old age—he outlived so many of his generation. When he lost his old Florida Bay fishing-guide buddies, Jack Albright and Jack Brothers—and then, too, his north-woods fishing companion, the Maine newspaperman Bud Leavitt—Ted fretted that he might not have told them well enough, often enough, how much they meant to him. So he’d call up their kids—apropos of nothing in particular: ‘You know, I loved your dad—LOVED ‘IM!’

This, perhaps, is why Cramer wrote so well about Williams. He loved the old guy, and when Cramer loved a subject—whether it was Williams or Bob Dole or Joe Biden—he could do them justice on the page. (When Cramer’s charm failed to win the confidence of a subject, when the love wasn’t reciprocated, as was the case with DiMaggio, Cramer could be unforgiving, even sour.)

A small library of books are devoted to Williams, biographies that reveal more facts about the Red Sox great than Cramer’s Esquire article, even in its expanded version. And Williams is one of the few athletes who merit such lavish biographical attention.

But nothing else that’s been written in any form, at any length, has ever gotten through to Williams himself. This was no caricature. Cramer rendered the man in three dimensions. Others tried but they didn’t ingratiate themselves the way Cramer did so they couldn’t get the nuances down. They wrote from the outside in; Cramer wrote from the inside out.

“I’m out there to clean the plate,” Cramer told Boynton.

And he did.

[Photo Credit: Paul Plaine]

Clearing the Bases

teddywilliams

 

From an essay I wrote about Richard Ben Cramer’s Esquire story on Ted Williams for the latest e-magazine from The Classical:

They came to Ted Williams the way those eight ill-fated adventurers came to Everest, thinking they could scale it, conquer it, reduce it to something mortals could comprehend. John Updike almost made it to the top when he wrote that gods don’t answer letters, but Ed Linn got off just as good a line in Sport magazine summing up Williams’ last game: “And now Boston knows how England felt when it lost India.” Leigh Montville weighed in with an almost poetically profane biography, and now Ben Bradlee Jr. has delivered a massive biography of his own at nearly 1,000 pages. But none of them—and I’m talking about a great novelist, two splendid sports writers, and a deeply committed researcher here— made it to the top of the mountain where dwelled Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid.

Richard Ben Cramer did.

He had only 15,000 words to work with, and he had to scheme and skulk and send flowers to get those, but he climbed inside Williams’ life and mind and special madness the way nobody before him did and nobody after him has. His story – “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” – reached out from the pages of Esquire‘s July 1986 issue and grabbed you by the collar. Once you read his first sentence – “Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those” – you didn’t need to be forced to go the rest of the way.

Check it out here. 

New York Minute

I’m reading Richard Ben Cramer’s Big Book, “What it Takes,”–which was dubbed “What it Weighs” by the Boston Globe back in 1992. The book is a good excuse to think about buying a Kindle or a Nook and believe me I’ve considered it. But there’s something about lugging the thing around–dealing with the weight of it–that I’m compelled to do in honor Cramer’s exhaustive efforts.

And so I lug. (Oh, and also, I’m entertained. The book is a ton of fun.)

The Banter Gold Standard: Fore Play

Here’s a little honey from our man.

“Fore Play: A Celebration of Golf the Glorious”

By Richard Ben Cramer

I play golf, I recommend golf, I celebrate golf—for the exercise. For this I am roundly derided by friends. God knows what my enemies say. But they don’t understand. The exercise has nothing to do with getting winded, making the heart bump-a-whump for twenty minutes, or releasing amino-ketones (or whatever bodily chemical is this month’s Cosmo health trend). I do not mean to join in the national beatification of sweat.

Golf is exercise of the spirit, the trimming away of lumps and rolls that distend the successful psyche. We all have ways of jamming ourselves into contortions that the world rewards: the best lawyer I know has to build up a hard knot of rage at some injustice that threatens his client. I know a woman who cannot entertain without subjecting herself, her home and family, to such ferocious primping that she winds up a total wreck. But her parties are lovely. The point is there are many useful twists of persona, but things unnaturally bent grow brittle if they’re never snapped back into shape. And golf untwists. It’s more than the sun and air, stretching and flexing the body. For those corporeal joys, why not try gardening?

Golf is bodily, sort of. The swing, as anyone who has tried it knows, is such a demanding blend of physics and physicality that any of a hundred different muscles or movements can be cited as the latest cause of failure. But the essence of the game, and the locus of its experience, lies somewhere between the body and the mind, or in their fusion—not in the precision of latinate names with which we label musculature but in that murkier realm where words, if there be any useful words, must come from oriental tongues.

This stems from the nature of the contest: golf may be played with a partner or against an opponent, but the real and relentless competition is the self. Any golfer, even the worst, knows basically what to do: there is the ball—hit it toward the hole. But every golfer, even the most experienced, plays always against the tendency toward deviation and lapse. We play against our own capacity to screw up, against the limit of our imperfection, against the proverbial essence of humanity: to err. It is a solitary struggle, and humbling, trying to make the body do. Strength, speed, or size—none of these will avail; only the gentle coaxing of grace. It cannot be forced. The concentration is yogic.

Compare golf for a moment with some other sports: there are no bulked-up defenders trying to block the next shot. No faster player will thunder up to tackle us on the fairway. There is none of the fishy luck of the angler who can walk away from failure with a shrug and an easy alibi: “They just weren’t biting, today.” And none of the competitive consolation (“That serve of yours is just too quick!”) that tennis allows. In the game of golf, no one hits the ball out of reach—no one but us.

To the extent that we succeed we triumph over self, and when we confront failure we have nowhere to look but within. That accounts for the endless fretting, the golfer’s morose self-absorption. Of course the scoffers, the jokesters, see only the overt unhappiness (a “good walk spoiled,” Mark Twain called the game). And I concede one may not see right away the straight-line links from Aristotle and Aquinas to that overweight accountant speaking foul words as he slams the 3-iron back into his bag and drives his sputtering gas cart over the moribund grass he has just uprooted with his latest errant swipe. But, I assure you, no theologian, no saint, has examined and condemned his own frailty with more sincerity. Yes, the golfer may be ungainly with his tools; yes, he seems wrapped up in his woe; yes, he may talk of it without cease . . . but what can we expect from a being who is wrestling with the mortal mystery, the meagerness of the human will?

Then the miracle happens and something goes right (it always does, though, alas, too seldom). A long putt curves to the hole, slows, and . . . drops. A chip shot arches just over a vicious abyss of sand and . . . settles tractably on the green beyond. Or a drive leaves the tee . . . . Can those scoffers have felt even once such a tee shot? A miracle, nothing less. . . There is the ball: still, small, dimpled, damning our latest failures with an unsightly bruise or two, daring us to hit it again with all our might. Thwack! The driver connects with a glad clap of wood, and the ball is free of earth, aflight, ripping through the air under our fond eyes at a speed that makes a green blur of the ground; and now the ball, a shapely dart of white, rises fast, growing smaller, more perfect ever, as it climbs to its apogee, black now against a vault of blue sky, a speck of pure promise that seems to hang, holding hope aloft, as we hold our breath, until it settles, beautifully, white again, onto the velvet fairway, an eighth of a mile toward the hole.

A fine thing God has made for us! And the feeling it promotes is not one of chesty self-worth but wonder, awed pleasure: we are blessed. Of course, we cannot keep such joy for long. We lose the grace; all too soon we lapse. But oh, just to have had that moment, when we steadied the erring self and found within it the capacity to do right, to do perfectly! If it happens but once and the rest is dross, if we lose the match, if we score like bums, if it rains and our feet squish in our shoes . . . still, we spent a day with our self, and found its best. We exercised it. We are untwisted.

I remember a game last summer with my favorite partner, that ferocious hostess I spoke of before. I had to drag her out. She was facing a breakfast for forty—some cousin’s daughter was getting married—only three days hence…”Just nine holes!” I cajoled her. “You have to get some air. . . .”

She hit the first drive badly. She never bothers to warm up. She always thinks of it as stealing the time, and on the first tee, she still carries all her cares. That day she swung with forty guests on her back. I said: “Want to hit another?” But I knew the answer. “No. Come on,” and she grimly shouldered her little bag and stepped off the tee toward the rough and her ball.

I watched her sink deeper in new troubles through the first hole, then the second. I saw the fretful changes to her swing as she rifled her mental grab bag of tips, teachings, and keys to success: turn on the backswing, hands ahead on the downswing, club head open, club head closed. . . . She duffed two shots on the third hole, then swung so hard she almost fell. “What is it?” she finally cried in despair, as if she’d searched the whole universe for the cause of her troubles.

I mumbled a few truisms—elbow in, shift the weight, keep the head down—and then, as I recall, some of the incantatory stanza that form my personal mantra: “Let the club head do the work, make the swing a slow and beautiful dance….”

Who knows what she heard, if she heard anything at all. She was so downcast, alone with her million mistakes. But something cased within her and her club head drew back in a graceful arc, and thwack! She began to hit the ball, only straight at first, but then hard, and harder, and she stood on tiptoes to see the ball bounding, scurrying over the hills ahead. “Liked that one!” she said as she grabbed her bag and strode on. I caught up and stood behind her as she hit her next shot. She smacked the ball free of the earth, watched it fall and roll, and she turned with a grin. “Feel better?” I asked. She tilted her head up, shook her head, and cried “Oooohhh!” to heaven. She had no words sharp enough for the joy.

Of course, she lost it, too. Just a few holes on, she overswung and pulled her ball sharply to the left, where it settled in a trap. And that one shot broke the spell. She hit some good ones still. But the blessing was off her head. Now she berated herself loud, or clucked in disapproval as a chip shot skittered off the back of a green. But she was smiling at herself, too, mocking her mere humanness (when she knew the divine was in her!). She had only herself to blame, after all, so she had only herself on her mind. Not the weight of the world: she’d been freed of that.

I stood behind her again in her kitchen that evening. She was bent at the sink, polishing silver. It wasn’t the silver she’d serve with that Sunday. Those pieces sparkled already. This was the silver that molders in the breakfront. In case anybody bothered to look, you know. She was thinking of fish. Could she call in her order? Would they pick out the best? Clean them perfectly? No, she would go, pick them out herself. Have them filleted under her exacting eye. Then, back home, she’d clean them all again. Those little bones… Could she get away with buying mayonnaise?…

“How was the golf?” It was her husband coming home. He walked in the back door and casually tossed off the question by way of hello. He didn’t mean much, just, How was your day?

But as she turned, all tightness at her eyes disappeared, her hands unclenched from a polish-smeared bowl, and her smile was of another world, a smile of the Sufis, of the saintly, of the saved.

Ohh,” she said.”It was de-licious.”

[Photo Credit: Ringworld; George Huff; Jimbodownie]

Originally published in the June 1987 issue of Esquire and reprinted here with the author’s permission.

A Real Mensch

Richard Ben Cramer turned to writing biographies. His 1992 book, "What It Takes," profiled George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis and Joseph R. Biden Jr. and their quest for the White House in 1988.

The tributes are rolling in…

Tom Junod:

“Few men try for the best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those.”

Now, I’ve read that sentence, and that story, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” at least twenty-five times, and I’ll never be able to do justice to what makes it so great except to say it’s a handshake of a sentence — brisk, warm, offhand, relaxed, firm, honest, and man-to-man, the kind that accompanies a promise. It’s the sentence of a writer who is himself about to try for the best ever, and is willing both to let you in on what he’s going for and to do whatever’s necessary to make good. What follows is a nearly perfect melding of writer and subject — a story that makes the usual journalistic distinctions between first-person and third-person sound fussy and academic, and does the hardest thing a writer can do, which is to amplify his own voice in order to make his subject roar. “This is a bitch of a line to draw in America’s dust,” Cramer writes of Williams’s simultaneous need for fame and distaste of celebrity, and you can’t read that sentence today without realizing that Richard Ben Cramer was scratching out an impossible line of his own, staking his own claim as a writer by ceding the megaphone to the wounded, uppercase bellowing of Teddy Ballgame.

I didn’t know a whole lot about journalism when I first read “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” in Esquire in the summer of 1986. Before I ever read Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese, however, I knew that this was the New Journalism I’d heard about. It wasn’t so much that it “used fictional techniques to tell a nonfiction story,” or that it sounded “like a novel” — it was that it didn’t. It didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard, before or since, and in that sound was freedom… freedom to sound like yourself, freedom to sound like your subject, freedom to do what it takes to make both a subject’s experience and the experience of a subject come alive. Sure, there were plenty of sound effects and exclamation points, but it wasn’t Wolfean — it was Bellovian, the work of a first-class noticer who knows that writing “like an angel,” or however it is that writers are supposed to write, is a small thing next to writing, well, like a mensch.

Mike Sager:

Over the last decade or so I have only spoken with Cramer via e-mail. I’ve kept in touch with him mostly through our mutual friend and her husband, two artists with whom he was close. Though he’d been hospitalized for some time, Cramer’s prognosis was kept quiet. When news of his impending death finally leaked out to the inner circle, his message was in character: “Please don’t come. Johns Hopkins doesn’t want to host my farewell party.”

You don’t get into writing to be remembered. Your work has to take care of that for you. You do it because you have to and you hope you’ve made the right choice. Just about the time Cramer was going into the hospital for his final stay, I was invited one morning to the newsroom at the New York Times to meet with a group of talented and seasoned newspaper reporters. Several mornings a week, it seems, they devote some of their precious spare time to participation in a reading club. The story they were discussing? “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”

Of course I will always have his work on my shelf, his blurb on my book, his voice ringing, “You got chops, Sager.” Now that he’s dead it’s starting to leak out: It wasn’t just me. He was really nice to a lot of writers.

All of us know how hard it is to do what we do and how lonely it feels sometimes. Cramer’s work transcended because of who he was. It is one thing to be great; it is much harder to be kind.

Mark Warren:

It wasn’t Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes that made me want to upend all of my other extensive life plans and instead be a magazine journalist. It was something Cramer wrote long before then. In 1984, I was living in Austin, working in the legislature, pretending to have a career in politics, when just after Labor Day, the October issue of Esquire showed up in the mailbox. The issue had a cover that no magazine would or could have today — eight ugly little head shots of eight big-city mayors, with the cover line: “Who is the best mayor in America…and why is he annoyed?”

Now, being tribal and from southeast Texas, I hadn’t thought deeply about any place much outside of Harris County, much less…Baltimore. Who cared about Baltimore? The cover story that month was about the asshole — I’m not being mean, it was a major throughline of the piece — who by then had been mayor of Baltimore for twelve years. William Donald Shaefer was his name. By then I had read some of the New Journalists, mostly Tom Wolfe, with his brilliant reporting and layers of ironic detachment, but that piece, Cramer’s piece, which just went on forever, was the most glorious piece of journalism I had ever read. It humanized this strange little man, made him a titanic figure, and delivered his world whole and entire. I remember that I rationed the story out to make it last as long as I could. And then read it again right away. It was the story that bonded me to Esquire, bonded me to Cramer, whom I had never heard of, and first made me think: Who gets to make these stories?

I didn’t know it then, but Cramer was one of those few writers, one of those few people, who change everything, and influence scores of people — some extraordinary writers and tons of imitators — in their wake. He wrote with all of the verve and inventiveness of Wolfe, but whereas Wolfe was not above keeping a contemptuous distance from his subjects, Cramer inhabited his people, body and soul. No one had ever humanized on the page they way Richard did. No one.

Steve Kornacki on “What it Takes”:

“He spent just an inordinate amount of time in interviews with me, my friends and my family,” Richard Gephardt, who was also featured in the book, told Salon. “He came down to St. Louis countless times. What he was interested in doing, I think, was psychoanalyzing what, in the end, makes someone run for president.

“It was a slant of presidential politics that went well beyond where Teddy White left it off in the 1960s and early 1970s. And that said, it probably hasn’t been done since.”

One of the reasons no one has attempted a similar project is the level of trust between author and subject that it required. Because the incumbent president wasn’t seeking reelection, the ’88 race attracted an unusually large field – at one point or another, 15 candidates actively sought the Democratic and Republican nominations. Many of them are barely mentioned in the book, but those who made the cut allowed Cramer to witness their most vulnerable moments — key meetings, tense backstage moments, even intimate family conversations.

Gephardt, who began the race as a long shot but ended up winning the Iowa caucuses, said he doesn’t remember exactly how the project first came to his attention or why he agreed to it. But he said he quickly warmed up to the author and came to view him less as a reporter and more as a friend along for the ride.

“He did it well,” Gephardt said. “He didn’t interfere. He knew when to back off. He was a delightful person to be around. He was very funny, very smart. And unlike some writers in the political space, he wasn’t all hung up on politics. He was really interested in the human side of it.

“People on the staff, people in the family, just liked talking to him. Sometimes he’d just ride in the back of the van, telling jokes and stories – not doing interviews.”

…[Gary] Hart described how Cramer slowly earned his trust.

“That was a great part of his methodology. He ingratiated himself in the best sense of the word. He doesn’t push his way into the center, he’s on the fringe, he’s observing, he’s to a degree participating. His style was very rumpled, and almost absent-minded. So you kind of wanted to take care of him.

“He was so gentle and polite to my wife and my kids. My kids liked him an awful lot. And you understand that he’s not doing daily journalism, that he’s not looking for a headline. So as time went on, you just learned to open up to him.”

Here’s more: Ryan Lizza (a dinner with Richard and his wife Joan), Joe Klein,  John Avlon,  Ezra Klein, and Frederick N. Rasmussen’s terrific obit in The Baltimore Sun.

 

[Photograph Credit: Librado Romero, The New York Times; Algerina Perna, The Baltimore Sun]

What it Takes

Here’s David Hirshey, Richard Ben Cramer’s editor at Esquire, talking about the priceless Ted Williams story:

Cramer spent three months stalking Williams and brought back 15,000 words that ‘couldn’t be cut.’ However, given the exigencies of magazines, even back then, we only had room for 13,500. When the managing editor, a slight but combative woman who just cleared five feet in height, informed Cramer that he needed to trim 1,500 words from his piece, he turned the color of a ripe apple and vaulted over me in an attempt to separate her head from her body. I was able to bear hug him away and usher him out of the office but he was not done with us.

That night I had to attend some black-tie deal with the magazine’s editor Lee Eisenberg, a fact I must have casually mentioned to Cramer earlier in the week. So at 10 p.m. Cramer returned to the Esquire offices at 2 Park Ave. and went to work. His first stop was the copy department where he charmed the culottes off the head copy editor and told her that David and Lee had given him permission to restore the trimmed 1,500 words and that she could call us at home if she liked. She did and, of course, got no answer. Cramer, being a Pulitzer Prize winner and all, had enough journalistic cred to convince her he would take full responsibility for any changes. Next, with the new 15,000 word galleys in hand, he went to the art department and told them they would have to drop a photo of Williams in the opening layout and shrink the type on the jump. When they balked, he told them we had given him permission and they were welcome to check with us. Now came his biggest challenge. In order for us not to see his handiwork the next morning, he would have to convince the production department that the piece would have to ship that night because ‘the printing plant isn’t used to handling pieces of this length and needed the extra day.’

Incredibly, they bought it but not before trying to reach us for confirmation. At 2 a.m., his mission accomplished, Cramer went home to sleep the sleep of the triumphant. Seven hours later, I arrived at the office and noticed three bouquets of roses at the receptionists’ desk. They were addressed to the copy, art, and production departments and all three carried the same note: ‘Thanks for your grace under pressure, Richard Cramer.’

I got no flowers.

Our Guy

Our dear friend Richard Ben Cramer died yesterday. Lung cancer. He was 62.

He was–and is–a mensch of the highest order, a good man, as well as a wonderful storyteller.

Here is a small sampling of his work:

“The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis” 

“Can the Best Mayor Win?”

“The Ballad of Johnny France”

“What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”

“Citizen Ueberroth”

“Men of Honor”

“Know Your Way Home”

“A Native Son’s Thoughts”

Excerpt from his Joe DiMaggio book.

“Serious Business”

There will be more in the coming days. Here is a fine piece on Richard by Jonathan Martin.

Our pal is already sorely missed.

The Banter Gold Standard: Know Your Way Home

Let’s start the New Year with this gem from our pal Richard Cramer. It first appeared in Esquire (October, 1993) and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“Know Your Way Home”

by Richard Ben Cramer

In England recently, I learned the real definition of parochial. A law in the time of Elizabeth I restricted you to your own parish. If you did leave, and ran into trouble elsewhere, you were literally whipped home: That is to say, the beadles of each parish between you and your place of birth would flog you through their territory, then hand you over at the boundary to the lash-bearing beadles of the neighboring parish . . . until you were, safely (for them), back in your slot.

I suspect it was success in colonial America (and, perhaps, in other sparsely peopled adventurelands) that spawned the idea of picking your own home—searching it out, as conviction or economy required. It was certainly Americans who turned this innovation into a way of life, first as frontier farmers and ranchers, later as industrial cowpokes—followin’ them fatct’ry dogies where they roamed.

But it was only our own post-war generation (with the meat-ax of sharper American succcess) that cleaved altogether the ideas of Necessity and Home. Now we selected our hometown (wasn’t that our right?) . . . off a menu as wide as the world. Maybe we talked about a job there (not that there weren’t jobs elsewhere)—but it was really about a friend there, or some girl who was nice to us in bar . . . the weather, the way the mountains looked . . . the college community gave it such “tone” . . . or it made us feel cool to say we lived there. We were operating so far from our forebears’ experience that we had to make up lame-brained words like lifestyle. Now everybody had to (you know, uh, like) . . . find his own space!

We got to the point—with our Boogie boards on the crest of the potent baby-boom wave—we thought we could surf over Home completely. If Home was supposed to be wherever we chose to make it . . . well, it was only a small step (and self-regard required it) to say that wherever we were was Home.

We were arrived upon a glorious age: The world was our oyster . . . not necessarily to be eaten (though, God knows, we’ve tried) . . . but we were raised to the conviction that wherever we—we favored grains of sand—lodge our grit, there we become pearls.

And in this all-freedom all-power, I was Homeless.

I DON’T MEAN I slept on a steam grate. I had apartments, I had houses—splendid places, too. By age twenty, at college. l had an old Maryland farmhouse (with acreage!) that would have contented any settler through most of America’s history.

Me, I graduated and moved on. Settling was definitively not the point—it smacked of settling for second-best. It never occurred to me to move back to where I was born. My friends had scattered. That was my parents’ home . . . anyway, what about that oyster world? Home was something dorks like Glen Campbell moaned about. We all lived in a yellow submarine. I made a bet with one girl: The first of us to have two out of the following three—kid, insurance, mortgage—would have to buy the other a sailboat. I knew she’d welsh.

I picked a job that would keep me on the move. Newspapering was about impermanence. You’d never have two workdays the same. The stories would carry you all over the world. I started in Baltimore (two apartments, one house) and Annapolis (a hundred hotel rooms); then Philadelphia (an apartment); New York (one apartment, a storage box); Cairo (an office apartment); London (one flat I barely saw); Rome (un attico). By that time, I didn’t even say I had a home. I had a bureau. In fact, by Boogie-board all-power, I was the bureau . . . until I was out of the newspaper business, and I had to decide where to live.

This was a new concept. Of course, I’d always said I lived somewhere. I lived in Cairo . . . it made me feel cool to say so. But I didn’t really live anywhere, except in the stories—everywhere at once. Now I was supposed to pick a home—for me. There wasn’t even much for me to consult. So I did what any sensible man of my age did. I decided I’d live . . . wherever my girlfriend wanted.

I haven’t mentioned the girlfriend. She was the reason I came back from Rome, and the reason I was faced with this crisis of all-freedom, this question of self, of Home. Not that she was much threat to saddle me with a domestic establishment. This girl didn’t even own a skillet.

But a strong decorating sense she had. So we moved to New York, to a place that was strong on decoration. It was what the French call mignon—though at the time, I didn’t know that word. For example, the bedroom window looked out on a patio with lights that shone aloft through plants from underneath the wooden deck—you could see this semi-Polynesian effect (we called it Hawaii) from the bed . . . which was a decorating coup as there was no room to be off the bed and you couldn’t go out to the patio because it was really someone’s roof and couldn’t take the weight of an actual human. Another example: The living room (which was pretty much the only real room) had a curved wall. This softening of standard form was a decorating coup . . . insofar as it softened (in fact, disguised past the start of the lease) the hard fact that much of this living room had been eaten away for the closet and bath. I also learned there that mirrors are a decorating-coup substitute for light and space. This living room had mirrors. In fact, when I paced it off—continuously for a year—it was the size of an upmarket Japanese car. l think it was in that place l first said, “I want a home.” Understandably, the girlfriend did not react. I talked to myself quite a bit that year.

Or it may have been in out second place in New York—it was bigger, I picked it—I started talking about Home. I brought the word up with the landlord, an Israeli gent…in summer, urging him to scrape the rime off the windows . . . in winter, I suggested the place would be better with heat, “Eli, don’r you understand?” I’d wail into the phone. “This is my home!” His reply was concision itself. “I get tsuris, yourrnt guzzup.” So I’d transfer wailing to the girlfriend: “I want a home!”

“What’s this? she’d say

Tsuris.”

But Eli had a point—it wasn’t my home. He knew, as well as I did: l’d be gone before the bum who slept in the downstairs doorway. The fact was, the girlfriend and I had no more home than the bum. And no idea what Home was: We kept getting it confused with the best place to live.

“How about Paris?” the girlfriend would say. (She thought Paris had the strongest decorating sense.)

“How ’bout Moscow?” (I still had a lingering confusion between Home and story.)

Said the girlfriend: “Get a life.”

I GOT A BOOK—which maintained the confusion for six years more. We moved around, hauling the book. The girlfriend came along to edit and argue.

“I want a home.”

“Shut up. Finish the book”

We married, had a child. I finished the book. We had to decide where to live. The wife announced: “Paris.”

“Yes, dear.” (Strangely, it turned out, at the end of six years’ labor, I owed.)

She leased an apartment on the basis of a snapshot that showed a gilded mirror. I contracted to pay for this decorating coup by working in Paris for a sixty-year-old magazine. We called movers—we had skillets now, furniture, a million books, and (by the movers’ count) three million four hundred twenty-two thousand articles for child care and entertainment. Those I carried to Paris.

That was January—when I learned the word mignon. It meant cute. Our apartment was mignon. The living room (pretty much—well, you get the idea . . .) featured that gilded mirror because there was no light or space. In fact, when I paced it off . . . well, I couldn’t, because of a Lego castle and a Brio train set. But I knew what to do.

I got an airline ticket to America. After two days in the country, I bought an old farmhouse, with acreage, in Maryland. I took some photos—I hoped they’d display potential for strong decoration. Then I got back on the airplane, to show the photos to the wife. I said: “This is home.”

“What?”

“Home.”

And when our year in Paris has passed, we’ll go back there—Home. Our place. We’ll stay. We won’t have any choice. After twenty-two years of patient work. I have acquired one-tenth the acreage I had in college, at one hundred times the price. In fact, by my calculation, if I continue working for the sixty-year-old magazine, I will fully own this house three years after my death.

I don’t mind. I look at all those zeros on my mortgage as chainlike between the noble ideas of Necessity and Home.

I tell my wife: We’ll still travel . . . Hey! The world is our oyster! But I’ve no doubt if we do leave, for work, for wanderlust—somehow soon . . . life will whip us home.

[Images Via: Andre Klein; SonjaRob Brulinski]

BGS: The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis

Here is Richard Ben Cramer’s chilling Jerry Lee Lewis story. It originally appeared in Rolling Stone (March 1, 1984) and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

First up, a brief introduction from Cramer:

How was I out to lunch? Let me count the ways. I was new to magazines, never having written for a national publication, much less for ROLLING STONE. I was a newspaperman, just returned from the Middle East—a bit unsteady, still, in America. The provenance of rock & roll I had traced as far back as the record store. Past that lay a great sea of unknowing.

All of a sudden, I was in Hernando, Mississippi, where no restaurant order was complete until the waitress asked, “You wan’ gravy?” Where the leading candidate for sheriff was known as Big Dog Riley. Where Jerry Lee Lewis was a legend and a power, not to mention the spendingest man in the county, which spending had bought for almost a decade the quiet cooperation of local authorities who would perform all kinds of “community service,” like towing the Killer’s car out of a ditch without checking his blood for alcohol, or bargaining his drug charge down to a simple hoe, or shipping off the bruised body of his dead fifth bride for a private autopsy, with no coroner’s jury and little public inquiry into the cause of her death.

And I was proposing to penetrate this long-closed world, to find out how that girl died?

Truly, I was out to lunch.

But God looks after his children who were tardy on brain day. He introduced me to a splendid couple of folks who owned the local weekly newspaper, and then to the local prosecutor, who wanted to help me honorably, even though the resulting story could not reflect well on his grand-jury presentation. And then there were the ambulance drivers, the local cops, local merchants and matrons, meetings at midnight, anonymous notes left at my motel. Bit by bit, they made a picture of life where Jerry Lee lived.

Then, too, I was led to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way, the Killer’s favorite nightclub, fifteen miles north in Memphis, Tennessee, and to the lubricious owner of that nightclub, Kenny Rodgers; in Memphis, too, there was Elvis’s old doctor chum, Dr. Nick; there was Jerry Lee’s manager, J.W. Whitten, and Whitten’s little dogs, Nickie and Kai; there was J.W.’s former wife; and there were former band members, club bartenders, former girlfriends, bouncers, strippers, whores. . . .

Quickly, it became apparent that this unexpected, inexplicable death was not out of the ordinary in the world of Jerry Lee. And not long after, it would become equally clear that the official version of events diverged early and often from the facts. Something went violently wrong at the Killer’s mansion on the night of Shawn Lewis’s death. And as soon as that death was disclosed, everything went wrong with the investigation. A grand jury was quickly led to conclude that no crime had occurred. But I was sure Shawn’s death was no suicide, no mistaken handful of pills. No one would ever prove what happened: Only two people were in the house that night. One was dead and buried before the appropriate tests could be made. The other was Jerry Lee Lewis.

First, I had to learn something about where Jerry Lee’s music came from—and about the stark choices presented to a boy at the Assembly of God church in Ferriday, Louisiana. In a hundred times of trouble, he had vowed he would dedicate his soul and his music to the Lord’s work, forevermore, but he never could make that stick. And then the millions of miles and the thousands of nightclub dates—the rage they required, the drinks and drugs—took their toll. He ate away at himself. By the terms of his church, Jerry Lee made his living with the devil’s dance on his piano. “Great Balls of Fire” was his anthem not by happenstance.

And he ate through the lives of his women. His third wife, his cousin Myra Gale Brown, won divorce with horrific tales of how Jerry Lee beat her up in view of their little daughter. His fourth wife, Jaren Gunn, also won divorce, but she ended up dead, mysteriously drowned in a Memphis swimming pool, just before her settlement came through. Shawn Michelle Stephens was the fifth. A sharp and spunky twenty-five-year-old from Garden City, Michigan, she thought Jerry Lee was her ticket to the good life. They married on June 7th, 1983, and seventy-seven days later, she was dead.

It seemed to me unlikely that the magazine of rock & roll would greet this harsh story with enthusiasm. I thought, in fact, that if I meant to question Jerry Lee’s clean escape from this case, I’d have to possess a ton of stone-hard facts and present them as a wall, every stone immovable. It took weeks in Mississippi, Memphis and Detroit—more weeks in New York. It seemed to me a miracle that I never heard a discouraging word from my editor, Susan Murcko. I thought perhaps I hadn’t made exactly clear what it was I thought I’d found. I wrote with trepidation. I saw every word raising a wall that might fall back on me. It was months after the assignment when, at last, I presented to Murcko a thick sheaf of pages.

Too thick!

Murcko started thinning the wall. She worked with the infinite patience of a medieval mason. Thousands of words were chiseled to dust. And nothing was lost. Murcko, God bless her, was all dogged delicacy.

Then Jann Wenner looked it over. Too thick!

To hell with delicacy! More thousands of words, whole interviews, whole characters, were dust, mere dust. Murcko brushed the wall smooth again.

Then fact checkers . . .

Then copy editors . . .

Then lawyers!

I was unprepared for this woe. I was a newspaperman. The way I was brought up, you wrote the thing, you sent it in, it ran that night. Next day, it was over. This was months. This was murder.

February 1984, finally, the story was in type. Ten pages in the magazine. I looked it over as if it were some strange geode, compressed as it was by time and tread. I was shocked to discover that it said what I meant.

The county’s inquiry into Shawn’s death never was reopened. The feds took up the scent for a while, but they never made a case on the death of Jerry Lee’s wife. They put all their eggs into the Internal Revenue basket and actually charged Lewis under the tax laws. But as far as I know, nothing much came of it. Some bargaining went on—more judgments against Jerry Lee, more liens. What the hell, he already had enough judgments against him to pave the road to Tupelo.

Jerry Lee got married again—to a cute young thing. The tabloids attended and wrote about her ring.

The Killer’s only reaction to my story came through his manager, J.W. Whitten. He said Jerry Lee was “just surprised . . . that ROLLING STONE would do that kind of thing on us.”

Well, so was I.

“The Strange And Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis”

By Richard Ben Cramer

The killer was in his bedroom, behind the door of iron bars, as Sonny Daniels, the first ambulance man, moved down the long hall to the guest bed- room to check the report: “Unconscious party at the Jerry Lee Lewis residence.”

Lottie Jackson, the housekeeper, showed Sonny into a spotless room: Gauzy drapes filtered the noonday light; there was nothing on the tables, no clothes strewn about, no dust; just a body on the bed, turned away slightly toward the wall, with the covers drawn up to the neck. Sonny probed with his big, blunt fingers at a slender wrist: it was cold. “It’s Miz Lewis,” Lottie said. “I came in…I couldn’t wake her up….” Sonny already had the covers back, his thick hand on the woman’s neck where the carotid pulse should be: The neck retained its body warmth, but no pulse. Now he bent his pink moon-face with its sandy fuzz of first beard over her pale lips: no breath. He checked the eyes. “Her eyes were all dilated. That’s an automatic sign that her brain has done died completely.”

Matthew Snyder, the second ambulance man, had barely finished Emergency Medical Technician school. He was twenty, blond, beefy, even younger than Sonny, and just starting with the Hernando, Mississippi, ambulance team. Even rookies knew there wasn’t anything uncommon about a run to Jerry Lee’s to wake up some passed-out person. But Matthew saw there was something uncommonly wrong now, as he caught the look of worry and excitement from Sonny over at the bed. “Go ahead and check her over,” said Sonny, and Matthew restarted the process With the woman’s delicate wrist. He saw, up on her forearm, the row of angry little bruises, like someone had grabbed her hard. He saw the little stain of dried blood on the web of her hand. He shook his head at Sonny: no pulse.

Lottie knew It was wrong, too. She was a stolid, hard-working black woman who’d taken care of Jerry Lee since before he moved down here from Memphis—more than ten years, that made it. She was crying as she moved down the hall and knocked at the door with the iron bars.

The Killer was there within seconds. If he’d been sleeping on the big canopied bed, he must have been sleeping in his bathrobe. For now, he came into the hall, with the white terrycloth lapels pulled right across his skinny chest, and he looked surprised to find Lottie in tears. Then he looked a silent question into Sonny Daniels’ eyes.

“Mr. Lewis, your wife….” Sonny averred his gaze. He said: “I just checked her over in there….”

Still, he didn’t meet the question in Jerry Lee’s hard eyes. He saw the two bright red scratches on the back of Jerry Lee’s hand, like a car had gouged him from the wrist to the knuckles. When Sonny looked up at last, his own eyes grew, his whole face seemed to grow larger, rounder, younger.

“Mr. Lewis,” he said. “I’m sorry. Miz Lewis is dead.”

***

The autopsy that cleared Jerry Lee Lewis called Shawn Michelle Lewis, 25, “a well-developed, well-nourished, white female, measuring sixty-four inches in length, weighing 107 pounds. The hair is brown, the eyes are green….” It hardly did her justice. She was a honey blond with a tan, small and full of bounce, with a grin that made everybody smile and had turned male heads since junior high.

“Everybody liked her. She was like the stepchild of the club. Everybody looked out for her,” says Mike DeFour, the manager of DB’s, a fancy nightclub in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan, where Shawn Michelle Stephens worked as a cocktail waitress. DeFour treated his waitresses, “the DB’s girls,” like family—he loved them all, took care of them, saw to it that they made good money—even the new girls, like Shawn, who had started part time about four years ago. “Some of the girls I gave nicknames to. Shawn was ‘Little Buzz” because she was always buzzing around, you know, half buzzed….

“No, not like that. Drugs weren’t a big problem. You know, a hit on a joint or two, no problem. It was around. Or a shot from a bottle of schnapps—okay, I’d look the other way.”

Shawn loved working there. The money was great—sometimes $150 a night. But it wasn’t just that: It was upscale, crowded with people who dressed and threw money around. It was something more for a girl from Garden City, a suburb of little boxes built for the auto workers of the Fifties. There, more was the stuff of dreams.

But somehow, in Garden City, Shawn never seemed to get much more. Her mother’s divorce had only made it harder. Shawn had been in and out of jobs, mostly waitressing, since she graduated in 1975. She dreamed of marrying Scott, her boyfriend, but his parents were strict, and they never thought much of Shawn. So DB’s was fine for the moment—great, in fact. She loved the people. It almost wasn’t like work. The musicians took them to parries after hours—great parties.

One DB’s girl, Pam Brewer, took up with J.W. Whitten, the wiry bantam of a road manager for the Jerry Lee Lewis band. Pam flew off to Memphis, and when she came back the next year, she was soon to be Mrs. J.W. Whitten, traveling with the band, flying in Learjets and shopping from a limo! That’s when it happened to Shawn.

Jerry Lee, performing for a week at the Dearborn Hyatt, picked Shawn out from among the girls. Pam Brewer set it up: She told Shawn that Jerry Lee wanted to take her to a party in his suite. It wasn’t like Shawn had been looking for it. In fact, the first time she’d seen Jerry Lee, she’d told her mother: “Mom, he’s a lone man, and he’s about your age. You ought to come and try to meet him….” Instead, It was Shawn who went. ” I always thought Shawn’d be good for Jerry,” says Pam. “She was so cute, petite, and he likes little women. And she was so much fun to be with. I introduced them. I thought she was flexible enough to understand his moods.”

Jerry Lee wasn’t showing his moods the night of that first party. A great party, Shawn told her friends. actually, it was just a few drinks in his suite. A couple of other women were already up there. Jerry Lee played piano and sang, while Pam’s little Chinese Shih Tzu dog sat up with him on the stool. Shawn knew she was looking good, in her jeans, cowboy boots and a huggy little white rabbit jacket. And Jerry Lee treated her so nice! He’d turn away from the keyboard as he’d slow down his rhythm for a snatch of a love song. She felt him sing straight to her. It was February 1981. Shawn was twenty-three.

***

“Dead. you sure?” said the Killer, as he crossed the hall to the guest room. He grabbed Shawn’s wrist, as if to feel her pulse, then dropped it and just stood staring at her.

“Anything you can do?” Jerry Lee said, mostly to Sonny. “In the hospital?”

“No, sir, we woulda took her already,” said Sonny. He was real polite.

Jade McCauley, a deputy sheriff came into the room at that moment. By happenstance, he said, he’d been patrolling on Malone Road as the ambulance made the turn for Jerry Lee’s house. Of course, his ordinary patrol area was miles away, but nothing about Jack McCauley seemed to fit the ordinary. McCauley, 48, certainly was the sharpest deputy in DeSoto County: a college man, a Yankee transplanted to Mississippi, a man who said he’d made a small fortune on developments like the industrial park in the northeast comer of the county. John Burgess McCauley lived in a hideaway house that made Jerry Lee’s look modest—it must have been worth $200,000, according to realtors who’d seen it. Nobody quite knew what Jack was doing, fooling around in patrol cars with a deputy’s job that paid $12,000 a year. And the way he’d take your head off for the smallest little thing, start shouting and get red all the way up to his crewcut, no one asked Jack.

Sonny was going to explain to Jerry Lee the need for an inquest, but Jack McCauley took over from there. He had that air of command about him. McCauley announced he was going to clear the room. He wasn’t real polite like Sonny—more familiar. “Come to think of it,” says Sonny, “I don’t recall Jack introducing himself. Maybe he knew Jerry Lee.”

Maybe, but it’s hard to tell now. McCauley won’t talk about the case. And Jerry Lee never said much of anything about it, except that day, when he had a long talk with McCauley. They were alone in Jerry Lee’s little den for more than an hour before the state investigators or anybody else arrived at the house. McCauley never filed any report on that long conversation. He did write a report that told how he came in the wake of the ambulance, just after 12:30 p.m., August 24th, 1983, and how he got delayed in the driveway by two employees of Goldsmith’s department store, who’d come to the house to hang drapes, and then how Matthew Snyder told him “that a female subject was dead in one of the bedrooms.” His report continues:

Upon entering a small bedroom on the east side of the residence, Mr. Lewis was bending over the bed where a white female was lying partially covered by a bedspread. She was clad in a negligee….When I first arrived, Mr. Lewis’ speech was heavily slurred, but he was alert and coherent. I telephoned the sheriff’s office and requested a justice of the peace if the coroner could not be located, and an investigator. The latter was requested because there were no visible causes of death and because Mr. Lewis’ bathrobe contained apparent bloodstains and he had a cut on his wrist.

At 13:51 hours I advised Mr. Lewis that his manager J.W. Whitten had arrived but would not be allowed to enter the residence until the investigation was completed. Mr. Lewis commented we need to “find out who killed—how she died,” so funeral arrangements can be made.

So McCauley was the first to report that Jerry Lee’s robe was spotted with blood. Surely, McCauley must have seen, as well, the blood on Shawn Lewis, on her hand, on her hair, on clothes and a bra in another room, on a lamp, in a spot on the carpet. He must have seen the film of dirt on her, and the bruises on her arms and hip, maybe her broken fingernails with something that looked like dried blood underneath. None of this was in his report. But it didn’t matter much. For McCauley’s report never made it into the investigative file, never left the sheriff’s department until after the grand jury had decided no crime had occurred.

***

Shawn hadn’t been a great fan of the Killer’s, not until that first night in his suite. She was tiny in her mother’s womb when his “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” threatened to knock Elvis himself off the throne of rock & roll. At forty- five, Jerry Lee was still riveting—a star, and he seemed to like her. He’d make funny faces and twist his head around, trying to understand her funny Yankee way of talking. Then he’d understand and try to mimic, and everybody’d laugh—Jerry, too. Of course, girls were never a problem for the Killer. They were always around. Often, Jerry left the details of his trysting to others; now, in February 1981, it was Pam who issued another invitation, this time with a free ticket to Memphis: “Jerry was gettin’ ready to go to Europe, and I figured it was a good time to bring Shawn down. Because I figured he’d take her with him. Which he did….”

Clever girl! Pam Brewer is twenty-six now, and although she’s split up with J.W. Whitten, she still lives in Memphis. She talks in a molasses drawl (well, a girl’s got to fit in!) about Shawn’s springtime trip to Europe.

“He bought a beautiful gold watch for her. I don’t know how many thousands he spent on it. It was his first gift to her….They’d send her out, and she’d get herself a bunch of beautiful suits, and she’d come back and just look at herself in the mirror, because she couldn’t believe that was her in all those beautiful things….

“How could you not get taken by it? I was in heaven all the time I was, uh, involved.”

It was heaven–most of the time. Then there were the times Jerry was speeding so bad after a show: He couldn’t come down, and he’d bully Shawn to stay up with him. God, they never slept. And then it was kind of disgusting when Jerry would stick that big needle with the Talwin narcotic right into his stomach. He said his stomach was killing him, and no wonder, the way he lived.

It was better, sort of, back in Nesbit, Mississippi, in the big brick house—at least you could relax. There was the pool shaped like a piano, and the lake out back with the Jet Ski, a sort of kicky little snowmobile for the water. Shawn loved the sun, and she’d be out there all afternoon, before Jerry woke up. Then at night, they’d go to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way, Jerry’s home club, fifteen miles north, up in Memphis. They’d roll in about midnight, and Jerry Lee would sort of dance to his table, announcing: “The Killer is here.” They’d always drink, or have a pipe or two back in a little office by the bandstand. Sometimes, Hernando’s owner, Kenny Rodgers, would get up to the mike, straighten his pearly tie under the vest of his gray business suit and announce: “Ladies an’ gennlemen! The greates’ ennataina inna worl’…the Killa…Jerra Lee!” And then Jerry’d screw around for hours, while the house band wilted behind him, and Jerry would work to his own private rhythms, singing a snatch of this or that, cutting off songs in midverse, making the whole club dance to his tune. That could get ugly, too, like the time some patrons left the floor in disgust when Jerry Lee cut off another song. “You stupid ignorant sonsabitches,”Jerry Lee screamed from the piano bench. “You got a $20,000 show here, and y’all walkin’ offf rom the Killer!”

Shawn said she knew how to handle him. For one thing, you just had to pay attention. Shawn said she knew, too, how to handle other women. A friend and former DB’s girl, Beverly Lithgow, says: “Shawn told about one of the first times they went out to dinner down there near Memphis, and this girl came over to the table and asked for Jerry Lee’s autograph. So he gave it to her. She came back again and started talking with him. So the third time she came back, Shawn finally just grabbed her by the hair and pulled her down, and said, ‘He’s with me tonight. Leave him alone.’ Shawn said Jerry Lee loved it because she was so forceful.”

She had spunk—”She wasn’t a pansy,” says Bev—enough to leave him when her younger sister, Shelley, came down to visit, and Jerry started showing his moods. Shelley, 20, drove down with their brother, Thomas, and his friend, Dave Lipke. Jerry Lee got jealous; he thought Shelley was bringing a young man for Shawn. Then he got mad, according to Shelley, and started knocking Shawn around. Shelley says the real problem was Jerry Lee’s insistence that she and Shawn have sex with him.

“Iknew what he wanted, and I wouldn’t do it,” Shelley says.

“He made us leave, but he didn’t actually tell us to go. He made Shawn tell us. So she said, ‘Well, if you’re leaving, so am I.’

“It was really crazy. Jerry Lee was wild. He ended up accusing us of stealing his Jet Ski. But the Jet Ski is big, like a snowmobile. I mean, I only had a Camaro. And he saw us drive away. He parted the curtains. We saw him looking through the bars on his window. I kept saying, ‘Duck! Duck!’ We all thought he was going to shoot us.”

Later, Shawn called Jerry Lee to calm him. But Jerry wouldn’t be pacified. Shawn said he sounded “jealous, sort of sick….” As it turned out, it was more than sort of: Within weeks, by July 4th, 1981, the Killer was in a hospital bed with most of his stomach gone and a less than even chance of living. The jealousy was real, too: Shawn had called Jerry Lee from Texas, where she and Shelley wound up living with the love of Shawn’s young life, Scott.

***

Charlie Ward, the Hernando, Mississippi, city policeman who drove the ambulance truck, already had used the radio once to try to call in the coroner. But Jack McCauley said things might get too public. He decreed radio silence. McCauley used the phone from Jerry Lee’s kitchen to start planning with Sheriff Dink Sowell, who was just as eager to keep matters at a decorous hush. His first order of the day: a deputy to man the gates at the base of the driveway to keep the damn press away.

Sheriff Sowell didn’t need any noise while he was trying to retire in peace and keep a hand on the department with the election of his chosen successor, his chief deputy, James Albert “Big Dog” Riley. There were too many rumors already about James Albert and that Hernando’s Hide-A-Way crowd. You could talk to any of Big Dogs opponents in the hot Democratic primary and collect hellacious stones about James with drugs, and sang gospel songs to the crowds who greeted his return. And with more determination, he sought out the love of a woman, “a different kind of girl,” a woman who might have the strength to change him: Jerry Lee got out of the hospital and started calling Shawn.

***

Texas hadn’t turned out so well for Shawn, Shelley and Scott, and by the end of summer 1981, all three were heading for home.

At first Jerry Lee’s calls seemed funny to her, like a card from someone she’d met traveling—they didn’t seem part of real life. But as fall gave way to hard Michigan winter, the calls seemed to grow more important. After all, she was back in the same tired circle: the icy, gray streets of Detroit, back and forth to work at a secretarial job. Even Scott and his precious parents! What did his family have against her? And what did they have over him? Why didn’t he want her? Jerry Lee wanted her. He said he’d give her anything. H e wanted to send a ticket—a ticket to anywhere.

As it turned out, she met him close to home. In 1982, Jerry Lee was booked for a show in Michigan. Shawn, her mother, her brother and her sisters met the Killer’s plane, and suddenly, there it all was again: the jet, the limos, the big men holding the doors….Mother, brother and sisters rode with the band. Shawn rode with Jerry in the limousine.

And so it was that Jerry Lee came back into her life with that vision of something more. The Killer said he wanted to marry her, just as soon as he got free of Jaren. The girls from DB’s were so jealous!

Still, there was Scott. “The one thing she wanted out of life,” says her mother, “was to marry Scott and have his baby.”

Scott, now a factory worker in Livonia, Michigan, says: “Shawn just could never get over me and her. We had a lot in common, and we had fun together….But I never could forgive her for going off with Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s the bottom line. Everybody knew about it, and there was no way I could take her back.”

Jerry Lee kept pressing her. Jaren was dead and Jerry was free, and he wanted Shawn to be his. He demanded an answer by the tune he carne back from Europe in the spring of 1983. Shawn stayed behind in Michigan, savoring her dilemma.

Shelley remembers: “I guess we all just said, ‘Yeah, go ahead, try it. If you don’t like it, you can always get divorced.’ I feel so guilty about that….But it was flattering.”

After yet another transatlantic phone call, Shawn announced: “Mom, I’m going to Europe…I’m going to marry him.” Shawn put everything she wanted in her mother’s two suitcases. Except for her family, there was nothing more for her in Garden City. Even her tawny cat, Scottie, had run away.

In a beery bachelorette party at Henry’s, Bev Lithgow asked Shawn why she was marrying Jerry Lee. Shawn laughed: “Because he has a big dick and a lot of money.” Janice Quesenberry, another DB’s girl, says: “Shawn gave me a big hug and kiss and said, ‘Well, I’m going to go for it. I’m not crazy about the man, but I’ve never had this kind of life.’ I told her, ‘You know, you’re going to have his kids.’ Shawn told me: ‘There’s no way I’m having kids with that old creep. I’m just going to stay married for as long as I can, and then I’m getting the hell out.”‘

Still, down to the very last, she wasn’t sure. Scott says she called two days before the wedding to tell him: “If you’d just say the words, I’d come back….”

And still, she was asking Mike DeFour, DB’s manager: “Mike, what should I do?” DeFour shakes his head and remembers: “I told her, ‘You’re free, white and twenty. Go for it. Just make sure you got some money and a plane ticket home.’

“See, none of us ever gave the marriage more than six months to a year. But none of us ever expected her to wind up in a pine box.”

***

Bill Ballard was in his office when he got the call from Sheriff Sowell, about tw0 hours after Shawn was found. The sheriff told Ballard, the county attorney, that he wanted a legal paper authorizing an autopsy. Once again, there wasn’t much explaining required. William W. Ballard, 40, was likely the smartest man in Hernando. He was the kind of Ole Miss graduate who came out so studiedly tweedy that he made Harvard Law men look flamboyant.

The sheriff knew Ballard was just the man for the job: He had used Ballard as his private attorney. Ballard’s county post was part time—it only paid $14,800. Even Ballard didn’t have much explanation why he kept on with it, but he had, since 1968, and no one ever ran against him. It sort of came with the territory, as a Ballard: His father had been vice-president of the Bank of Hernando; now his brother was bank president. DeSoto County was Ballard country.

By the time Dink Sowell came to see him, Ballard had drafted an agreement insuring that all autopsy information be provided to County Attorney William W. Ballard. Both men headed out to the house on Malone Road.

The state police investigators already had been called there, and the scene was orderly—McCauley had seen to that. The only unofficial personage who had entered the guest room since it was cleared for pictures was Lottie Jackson. Jerry Lee stayed in his den, talking to McCauley. The Killer only emerged once, when the body was being removed from the house.

Sonny Daniels, Matthew Snyder and Charlie Ward were wheeling the body on a stretcher down the hall, when Jerry Lee popped out and asked if he could look. They took down the sheet, and he stared at Shawn. He turned away after a few seconds. He didn’t say anything. “He looked normal,” Charlie Ward recalled. “He seemed to be in good shape.”

Ballard and Sowell knew exactly what would happen to the body. The sheriff explained that he’d already contracted for an autopsy with Dr. Jerry Francisco, the medical examiner up in Memphis. Dr. J.T. Francisco was the man who had staunchly maintained to the world that Elvis Presley died of heart failure.

Of course, Francisco would cost a bundle—far more than the county’s $260 limit for autopsies. But McCauley had taken care of that. He and Jerry Lee had agreed that the Killer would pay. And that was good news, too. For it meant the autopsy was a private report; it need never be placed on public file.

Ballard tried to review these details with Jerry Lee in the big brick house. He needn’t have bothered. The Killer was in his recliner chair. He looked like he was just waiting for all this to be over. He wasn’t weepy. He seemed altogether without emotion, without energy, crashed, like a storm had passed and knocked him dull. When Ballard squatted next to the big recliner and showed Jerry Lee the authorization, the Killer seemed barely to look at the words. He just asked where to sign.

Ballard asked him, “Is there anything we can get for you, or anybody we can call?” He just said his manager, J.W. Whitten, was down at the gate, and he couldn’t get in. “So I told the sheriff, and the sheriff had him let in.”

Just as well, for the state men wanted to get Jerry Lee out of the house. Jay Clark, the chief investigator, really wasn’t that anxious about it. Clark was a bag, easygoing fellow, a plodder, a fifteen-year man with the highway patrol. Very little excited Jay, not even his own hair-raising habit of reading while he drove. But Creekmore Wright, the second man on the job, sure hadn’t seen any case this hot. Wright was younger than Clark, dark-haired, fresh-faced and square-jawed. Of course, Creekmore knew the tales about the Killer, and frankly, the house gave him the creeps. There were those bars on the doors and windows, the bullet holes in the windows and walls, the guns that kept turning up in strange corners of the house. The next day, when Creekmore was to make his second trip to the house, he showed up at the sheriff’s office with his own Magnum prominently holstered. He took some ribbing about it, but he was dead serious. He said he wasn’t going back there without some iron on his side. Now, as Wright and Clark were picking through some bloody clothes in the master bathroom, Creekmore nervously whispered: “Man, if we could just get him outta the house….”

“C’mon Jerry,” J.W. Whitten said, as he walked into the den. “Put some clothes on. Sheriff Sowell wants me to take you away from here.” Jerry Lee rose from the recliner.

Jay and Creekmore had moved into the master bedroom by the time Jerry Lee came in to dress. Ballard also had wandered in, his eyes shifting slowly around the room; he regarded the high, king-size bed, with its four heavy posters and canopy; he glanced at a tray of dirty dishes on the floor, with leavings of streak bones and vegetables, and broken glass on the floor, too, with no large pieces to show where it came from; he noticed the 9-mm pistol Jerry Lee kept on the bed table, and mentally, he tracked the line of fire from Jerry Lee’s expanse of mattress to the bullet holes in the wall.

“It seemed like somehow, we all ended up in the kitchen,” Ballard says. “He was fixin’ to leave. And he was lookin’ for a pair of sunglasses, just lookin’ around for a pair. And then someone went out to the car and brought in a box with what looked to me like twenty-five or thirty pairs of sunglasses. It was the manager, or maybe the manager’s brother, selected a pair and wiped ‘em off, cleaned the lenses, you know, doin’ all his thinking for him. And then Jerry Lee stood there, and I can just see him. It was like somebody lookin’ for what kind of reaction he should have. He looked at us and said, ‘Sorry. Sorry. I don’t know what to say.’ He put on his glasses and went on. It was pathetic. If I’ve ever seen a tragic figure, I saw one then.”

As Jerry Lee made for the door, he carried a metal strongbox, two feet by two feet, and almost as deep. Creekmore Wright asked politely if he could check the contents. Jerry Lee reluctantly opened the lid to reveal diamond jewelry, a few papers and tens of thousands of dollars in cash. Creekmore got a look in the box and nodded. Jerry Lee took his hoard and departed in a black Cadillac.

***

The Killer wore a white tuxedo and a red, ruffled shirt to his wedding on the patio of the big Nesbit house. Shawn shone in ivory-colored silk, and she spoke her vows bravely to Justice of the Peace Bill Bailey, who presided. In the rush, they hadn’t been able to find a preacher to do the honors. (Well, J.W. Whitten found one, but he was black and Jerry might not have liked that, so J.W. got the judge.) In the rush, no one thought about the blood test for the license and the three days’ wait required by Mississippi law, until Lottie Jackson brought it up on the morning of the wedding. For a while, it looked like Jerry Lee would have to pack the whole parry off to Tennessee, where things could be done with less wait and bother. But J.W. fixed the license, too. “I made a phone call,” he says, with evident pride. “Just somebody I knew down there.” J.W. winks. “In the business, it’s called ‘juice.’”

Shelley arrived in Mississippi in the first days of June, driving a brand-new red Corvette that Shawn had asked her to deliver for her.

Shelley’s mother said the family would drive down, too, but Shawn insisted that they spring for one-way air fare. No problem, Shawn said: Jerry Lee could send them home in the Learjet.

When at last they got it together, it didn’t seem to want to start. Shawn’s mother walked down the hall to find out what was keeping Jerry. He was almost ready: He was sitting in the master bedroom with his friend, Dr. George Nichopoulos. Dr. Nick had his medical license suspended in 1980 for overprescribing addictive drugs. He was Elvis’ personal physician on part of the King’s long slide into drug oblivion. Dr. Nick testified at hearings that he also wrote narcotic prescriptions for Jerry Lee Lewis. Dr. Nick was still a frequent guest at the Nesbit house. On the wedding day, Shawn’s mother says, she found Jerry regarding three pairs of pills, laid out neatly on a bed table: two of each, three different colors. Jerry Lee said he’d be up in a moment.

J.W. Whitten had invited the National Enquirer, which supplied this account of the big day, June 7th, 1983:

Despite Jerry’s experience at saying, “I do,” he was a bundle of nerves during the ceremony….And three times the nervous groom flubbed the line “according to God’s holy ordinance.” Eventually, Jerry held up his hand to the judge and said, “Just a minute, sir. I’m going to get that right,” and went on to complete his vows perfectly.

Then he slipped a ring on the finger of the honey-blonde bride….The magnificent $6000 ring glittered with a two-carat diamond surrounded by smaller diamonds, all set in silver.

“Oh, Lord, was I nervous,” laughed the legendary hell-raiser, known to friends and fans as the Killer….

“It was love at first sight,” Jerry recalled. ”I’ve never believed in that sort of thing, but there it was: The Killer fell in love.”

There it was…and Shawn, was it there for her, too?

Well, she clipped the Enquirer’s story and sent it to friends and family. On each copy, she crossed out “$6000″ and wrote in the margin, “$7000.”

***

Her father stood in the hallway shouting: “What’s the deal here? You marry my daughter, then you can’t even come out and see us? Thomas Stephens was steamed; the morning after the wedding, he’d arrived with the rest of the family at the house at eleven. They’d sat outside the locked doors at the pool for more than an hour, before Shawn could emerge from the bedroom to let them in the house. Now, after another hour, Jerry Lee still hadn’t made an appearance.

Jerry Lee showed a half-hour later, with a mumbled apology. He was buzzed. They couldn’t understand him. He wasn’t in a very good mood. “l went into the kitchen,” says Shelley, “and he yelled at me, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I just came in for a couple of beers.’ He started pounding his fist on the counter, screaming: ‘You scared of me? You should be. Why do you think they call me the Killer? How’d I get that name, huh?’ Then he slapped my face. I was trying nor to cry. I couldn’t tell my father. Shawn took us to a hotel there, near the airport, and dropped us off.”

The family didn’t have tickets home, and they didn’t have the money to buy them. Gone was the easy promise of the Learjet. Shawn’s mother, Janice Kleinhans, says there weren’t any rental cars available at the airport that day. At last, she had to call Jerry Lee. “I said, ‘I don’t know where this mix-up come from, but if you can get us home, you’ll have this money back right away.’”

Jerry Lee said: “I don’t want no money back from you.” He and Shawn came by a couple of hours later. Shawn was crying as she met her mother in the airport and laid $1000 cash in her hand. Jerry Lee kept the motor running.

In phone calls back to Michigan, Shawn seldom spoke of troubles. Still, at one point, she told a friend chat her life with the Killer was just like jail—she couldn’t stand his jealousy, she felt like she was watched all the time. Once, she called home all excited about her new Lhasa apso—a $500 dog! In her next call, she sadly reported that she had to give up the pet because Jerry Lee got jealous. Later in the seventy-seven-day marriage, most of the calls were about a homecoming, a Jerry Lee concert Sunday, August 28th, in Nashville, Michigan. The family planned to convene—even Shawn’s grandfather, who’d been too infirm to make it to the wedding, was planning to go. “Don’t forget that Sunday,” Shawn reminded them a dozen times.

She couldn’t wait to see her sister Shelley and called in the middle of August to invite her down for a visit. Shelley, who had left her apartment and had to wait a month before moving into her new one, delightedly agreed to a long vacation. “Perfect,” said Shawn. “I’ll send you a ticket.”

Her first night there, they went to Hernando’s Hide-A-Way. Jerry was in a good mood, joking and dancing with Shawn, trying to charm Shelley. When they left at four in the morning, Jerry Lee was still flying. He played some piano back at the house, then put on the cassette of his new, unreleased album. “No one has ever heard any of these before,” the Killer told Shelley and Shawn. When the song “One and Only You” started playing on the tape, Jerry Lee smiled and murmured, “This is dedicated to you.”

He said it to both the sisters, but Shelley felt he was pressuring her. She didn’t want him coming on. She didn’t go for group sex. She said she’d better get to bed. Shawn said: “Oh, stay up a little longer.” Shelley didn’t want to be put on the spot. She said good night and went to bed.

When she got up at two the next afternoon, Jerry Lee was still up, drinking in his den. His sister, Linda Gail, and her children were over at the house for a visit. Shawn and Shelley sat in the sun at the pool until Jerry Lee came out, looking mean and slurring his words. “He said something like, ‘I think you girls better get your shit together,’ and then he hit-me on the thigh and slapped me across the face. Shawn sat up to say something, and he hauled off and backhanded her across the face. He hit her hard, too. Then he just looked at us really crazy and walked off into the house again.

“I just looked at Shawn, and she asked me, ‘Did he hit you hard? Did it hurt?’ I said, ‘You’re damn right it hurt!’ I said, ‘I’m leaving. I don’t care who he is. Nobody can….’ And then I started to cry. ‘He can’t hit me like that….’ I said I was going to the police.

“Shawn said It wouldn’t be a good idea to go to the police down there, because they were with Jerry, and they’d be trying to find a way to get me for trying to cause trouble for him. So I just said I was going. I was really upset. And she said, ‘Just wait a little, Shel, ’cause I’m leaving, too. I’m not staying if you don’t. I know what he’ll do to me if I go back in that house.’ I said, ‘Get your stuff, ’cause I’m leaving, with you or without you.’”

They passed through the den on their way in, and Shelley said, trying not to cry, “I think I’m going to go now.”

Jerry Lee said, “Go. Get your ass outta here. Get walkin’.” He mumbled something about her being trouble.

“Then Shawn said, ‘Shelley’s been as quiet as a mouse since she’s been here.’ Jerry didn’t hear her. She was over by the record shelf He started yelling: ‘Speak up! Whaddya say about me?’ He grabbed some albums out from under her hands, and he smashed them on the floor. Then he knocked her across the room. Linda Gail grabbed up her two kids and left.

“Shawn was, like, whimpering: ‘You’re so mean. What’s wrong with you?’ She was sunk down into the big brown chair. He picked up a set of keys and whipped ‘em at her, hit her in the forehead. She bent down to get the keys, and she told him: ‘I’m leavin’ with Shel. I’m not stayin’ here with you.’ So he tells her, ‘I’ll show ya leavin’. He grabs her by the front of her robe, and he hauls her off down the hall. He says, ‘You’re my wife. I’ll kill you before you leave me.’”

Shelley left the house on foot. She hitched a ride to the nearest store and called her father.

Back in Detroit, Shelley called her mother to recount the fight, but she omitted any mention of group sex. “Well, there may be things you didn’t know about,” her mother said. “Maybe she was making him mad somehow. There’s two sides to everything. One night, when you’re over here, we’ll call her together and all talk about lt.” But before they made that call, Shawn wakened her mother with a phone call at 3:30 a.m., August 23rd.

“She said, ‘I’m leaving him:” her mother recalls, “‘if and when I can get away from him….’

“I said, ‘Shawn, it’s three o’clock in the morning. Call me tomorrow.’

“She said, ‘I don’t know if l can. Whatever you do, make sure nobody calls for me here.’

“‘Honey, call me tomorrow, okay?’

“‘I don’t know if I can, but I’ll be in touch, Mom.’

“‘Okay, talk to you later….’”

The next day, Shawn was dead.

***

In the quiet house, after Jerry Lee left, Jay Clark and Creekmore Wright, Sheriff Sowell and Bill Ballard drafted a report for Dr. Francisco, who’d requested a description of the scene. Jay Clark did the writing. Jay and Creekmore did the talking, since they were the ones who’d seen the body. Later, Ballard would seem very upset when the funeral director, Danny Phillips, fed the statement to reporters. Ballard needn’t have worried; the description they drafted was mild enough:

Ambulance arrived on the seen approx. 12:52 p.m. Victim was located in front bedroom lying in the bed with cover up to neck. The bed was very neat and did not appear to have been slept in.

There was by visual inspection blood, or what appeared to be blood, on the web of the left hand. There were also bruises on the lower left arm and the upper right thigh. Victim was clothed in a blue nightgown. There were no other items near the victim’s body. . . .

They decided that should wrap it up.

By that time, they knew about the blood on Jerry Lee’s robe and on his slippers. They knew, or had reason to assume, that the body was moved to the guest bed and reclothed in the nightgown. They knew someone had tried to clean up the house after a disturbance. They saw bloody clothes in the bathroom, blood in a rivulet on a door, blood in a spot on the carpet; they could see a bloody piece of gauze on a cabinet in the billiard room where they were writing the report. Why did they omit these facts? “It wasn’t my report,” says Ballard. “I was just watching.” None of the others will talk, including Lottie.

Ballard and Sowell left for the Brantley-Phillips funeral home to attach the report to Shawn’s body for the trip to the morgue in Memphis. On the way out, Sowell paused to tell the reporters that Jerry Lee had been wakened just after noon, by the drapers from Goldsmith’s. Jerry Lee talked with them and then told Lottie Jackson to go wake up Shawn. Sowell declined to offer a theory on the cause of Shawn Lewis’ death. The sheriff said a search had turned up no nonprescription drugs, and no unusual amounts of prescription medicines.

In the big brick house fifty feet away, state investigators and crime lab technicians would work for another full day, collecting enough drugs to fill three single-spaced pages on a crime-lab list, and at least one hypodermic syringe. There was no way to tell if they were illegal drugs or prescription medicines: The job of analysis wasn’t finished for months, and the job wasn’t even started when Bill Ballard and a county grand jury wrapped up the case with a pronouncement that no crime had occurred.

Fifteen miles north, in Memphis, the Killer was resting at the house of J.W. Whitten, who told reporters that Jerry Lee wouldn’t be able to come to the phone: He was “in shock” and “heavily sedated.” But Jerry Lee soon made it to the phone: That evening he would call Shawn’s mother; he would calk to Shawn’s sister Denise. He would call Hernando’s Hide- A-Way, in a late-night search for hypodermic needles. A witness said the Killer asked, “You got any rigs? Goddamn cops cleaned me out.”

In the county sear of Hernando, at the Brantley-Phillips Funeral Home, the morticians, Danny Phillips and his father, John Phillips, had time for a good look at the corpse. It was Danny, the independent-minded thirty-year old, who first released the description that Jay Clark and Creekmore Wright had written up. It was Danny who first reported that Shawn Lewis had traces of blood in her hair, and under her broken fingernails. It was Danny who told reporters that the bruises on Shawn Lewis’ arm had fingernail indentations above them, showing that someone had grabbed her roughly. Danny told reporters, too, that her neck had discoloration. Perhaps someone had exerted pressure there. Bill Ballard came down hard on Danny for releasing the description of the body, and John Phillips had a talk with his son about the firm’s reputation and their “stake in this community.” So Danny grew more careful when he talked about Shawn Lewis. But he wasn’t going to shut up altogether:

“It’s like Charlie Ward said—he drove the ambulance that day, you know. He brought her from the house, and he was standin’ right here, and he said: ‘You know, somethin’ don’t seem right.’

“I’d never say Jerry Lee killed that girl,” Danny says, when he gets going on it. “It might be innocent as a train wreck. But I’d like to see it investigated. To me, I just can’t believe that girl just got to that bed and lay down and died. You just can’t make me believe it.”

***

“Jan? This is Pam’s friend…” Shawn’s mother had just gotten home from work. It was six p.m., August 24th. “…I called to tell you that Shawn didn’t wake up this morning.”

Shawn’s mother screamed and dropped the phone. Her husband, Robert Kleinhans, took the receiver and the scant information Pam could supply.

In the little Garden City house, the rest of the night was spent on the phone, calling relatives, the funeral home, Sheriff Sowell, Dr. Jerry Francisco, Bill Ballard, the funeral home, then a lawyer nearby in Michigan, then the funeral home again.

Sowell told Mr. and Mrs. Kleinhans to direct all inquiries to Ballard. Francisco called back the next morning to say: “If you’ve got any further communication, call Sheriff Sowell.” Danny Phillips, at the funeral home, told Shawn’s mother how the body looked when he carted it up to Memphis. It flashed on Mrs. Kleinhans that her daughter would be cut up and buried before she could even see her. “But I told her,” Danny remembers, “there wasn’t anything she could do about it, because It was private. It wasn’t DeSoto County orderin’ the autopsy.”

Mrs. Kleinhans called Bill Ballard, protesting the quick autopsy. She was too late, he told her. The autopsy was under way. Later, he recalled that he must have misspoken; the autopsy wasn’t begun until the next day. Shawn’s mother might have stopped it, or at least held It up. But she didn’t find out in time.

Mrs. Kleinhans picked up the phone again just after nine p.m. “This is Jerry,” she heard, and her breath caught. She says Jerry Lee told her: “I can’t understand why this happened, we were gettin’ along so well.”

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, Jerry. I know different. Shelley told me about the fight when you slapped them and dragged Shawn off to me bedroom…’

“He said, ‘I mighta slapped ‘em, but I never drug Shawn off anywhere.’

“‘Well, that’s not what I heard.’

“‘Well, how would you like to wake up with your wife dead next to you?’”

Mrs. Kleinhans stared at the phone for a second. She answered with a quake in her voice: “They told me she was in another room.”

She says Jerry Lee snarled back, “Well, she’s dead. And I’m alive.”

Shawn’s mother says: “I didn’t know what, I couldn’t…I just told him, ‘I don’t think I want to continue this,’ and hung up. I didn’t know what to think.”

A girlfriend of Shawn’s put the family in touch with a lawyer, Michael Blake, who runs a plain-spoken practice, mostly drunk-driving and negligence cases, from a small office in a shopping mall a few miles from Garden City. He knew that the family couldn’t pay much; that was always Blake’s first question. But he thought he might bulldog the case for a while and find a wedge for a lawsuit. He, too, started calling Mississippi.

The night was nearly over when Blake got a call back from Jay Clark, who agreed to take statements from Shawn’s mother and sister. Blake also got through to Ballard, who promised, calmly, evenly—one legal man to another—to keep Blake fully apprised.

Just before midnight, Denise spoke to Jerry Lee for the last time. His speech was slurred. She could barely understand him: “‘Jesus Christ, Jerry, what happened?’

‘”Denise sisser’s daid an’ she ‘uz a bad girl.’

“‘What? What do you mean? Jerry! What do you mean?’

“‘Sheuzza baggirl. . . anshe daid. . . .’

Jerry mumbled on until Denise thought she would cry, then she hung up.

***

“No foul play,” Francisco reported to Ballard early the next day. “It’s pulmonary edema. Fluid in the lungs. Due to causes unknown.”

Ballard says: “He told me it was consistent with a drug overdose, but he said it’d be some time before all the drug scans would be completed.

“I asked him, ‘What’s your impression from what you’ve been able to do? Foul play doesn’t seem likely?’

“He said, ‘No likely about it. There is no indication of foul play.’”

Francisco’s chipper certainty took a weight off Ballard. The Memphis medical examiner might have looked like a fool or a liar in the Elvis Presley case; he had also been criticized by a congressional committee reviewing the autopsy of Martin Luther King Jr. Ballard knew the stories, but he knew Francisco couldn’t be shaken.

“He’s very good that way. He doesn’t talk down to a jury. he likes to tell you exactly what it is, and he likes to defend his position. Lawyers know with Francisco: Unless you can rake him apart, you don’t even question him in front of a jury. If he gets annoyed, he’s going to drive the nails right into your coffin.”

Francisco got Shawn’s body out of the lab within hours, back to the funeral home in Hernando. The embalming had to be hurried. The body was due in Jerry Lee Lewis country, Ferriday, Louisiana, Friday night. And Shawn had better look good.

The technicians from the state crime lab headed back toward Batesville, Mississippi, with their van full of stuff from the house on Malone Road. The state investigators, Jay Clark and Creekmore Wright, were out at the house again Thursday, but they assured all comers they had a good work-up on the scene; It should be smooth sailing from that point.

Sheriff Sowell also said he already had most of the mystery cleared up. In the days ahead, Sowell would release his account of the Shawn Lewis death. The Memphis metropolitan daily, the aptly named Commercial Appeal, took a swan dive on the story. The Hernando weekly, the DeSoto Times, was first and fullest with Sowell’s best stuff.

Sherriff Sowell said, “Jerry Lee had cut his finger on some glass,” and that this was probably responsible for the blood on Shawn Lewis’ hand. The bruises were described by Sowell as superficial, the kind that anybody might have. “She had been up during the day,” noted Sowell in explanation of how she might have lain down on a neat bed. Sowell noted that there was nothing to indicate that anybody had been attacked. “There were no marks of any violence.”

AIthough Sowell said he did not know when the autopsy would be completed, he did not see that there was any emergency now, since the autopsy had removed much of the urgency: “A lot of questions have been answered at this time.”

This sanguine confidence would last for a week, until the Detroit Free Press interviewed Shawn’s family, and the threats, abuse and violence of the marriage became public for the first time.

***

Shawn’s family bought round-trip tickets to Memphis and got to the funeral home in Hernando for the viewing late Friday afternoon. Thomas Stephens, Shawn’s father, a Catholic, requested some privacy with the body so he could recite the rosary for Shawn. Danny Phillips wasn’t taking chances. He called J.W. Whitten for permission, then fetched the local priest. When the prayers were said, Shawn’s father tucked a cross into her folded hands, and the casket was closed for the trip to Ferriday. Jerry Lee didn’t come to the viewing.

Shawn’s casket was opened for another viewing at one a.m. in Ferriday’s Comer Funeral Home. This time, the Killer came to look, and he said she wasn’t exactly right, something about the hair. Danny Phillips says they told him it never comes right after they open up the head for an autopsy. “Well, she was a pretty girl and I loved her,” Jerry Lee said. Then he saw the cross. “What’s that doin’ in there?”

The Ferriday funeral director said: “That is a symbol of the Catholic faith.” Jerry Lee took the cross from her hands. He was mad.

“How’d that get in there?” Danny Phillips told him about the family’s private prayer in Hernando. “‘That wasn’t right,” Jerry Lee said. He turned to J.W. Whitten, pointing: “You fucked up.”

J.W. protested: “I didn’t tell ‘em to do it.”

The Killer waggled a finger between Whitten and Phillips:

“You fucked up. And you fucked up.” He ordered the casket dosed. There’d be no viewing that night.

The funeral went off at 2:30 Saturday. Some of Jerry Lee’s kin played piano and sang hymns from the front of the church. Jerry Lee’s cousin, Gerald, spoke the oration. It was all about Jerry Lee’s troubles. It slowly dawned on Shawn’s family, sitting in their third-row pew, that they were the only strangers in the Assembly of God church. This was Jerry Lee’s service. No one would say anything about Shawn. lt started to sink in on Shawn’s mother after the hymns, about ten minutes into the service, when Jerry Lee walked into the church and everything paused while he made his way up to the front pew. The Killer wore a white tuxedo and a red ruffled shirt.

Shawn was buried in the Lewis family graveyard, where Jerry Lee had played as a child. The Yankee strangers left as soon as they could. They barely talked on the long ride north to Memphis and the airport. They didn’t even pause in DeSoto County. There was nothing for them there.

The Killer, too, barely paused in DeSoto County. The next night, he was back in Memphis, back at Hernando’s Hide-A- Way, with two girls at his side; one witness said they were dancers from a strip joint called Gigi’s Angels. The Killer was singing through a lopsided grin; he was making up a little ditty as he moved to his table: “Ah tol’ her when she lef’ me. . .Ah’d have anothuh in her bed. . . .”

***

Interview: James Albert Riley, sheriff-to-be. He sat before a wall full of badges, in a big swivel chair, his bovine features set in mistrustful concentration. It was midnight, and no one except his campaign manager, David Camp, was in the sheriff’s office to hear him. Big Dog had picked the time.

A: I’ma tell ya the truth now…Jerry Lee Lewis don’ mean shit to me. I don’t even know ‘im.

A: Now, shit. I know y’all come to tie me up in this Jerry Lee Lewis shit….Now I’ll be straight with y’all now, I don’t know if Jerry Lee even knew about those checks. Shit. I’ll tell you this is gonna cost me the sheriff’s election. I don’t even know ‘im.

A: Now what the hell does Hernando’s Hide-A-Way have to do with anythin’? [Riley rocketed back in his chair, hit the wall, staring. He didn't speak for a minute. His elbow started hammering on the padded arm of the chair.]

A: I’ll be hones’ with y’all, now. B’lieve it or not, Jerry Lee hardly even talked to me…I was only up oncet, aw, twicet, to Hernando’s….

A: I don’ know a damn thing about gamblin’ machines.

A: Now I don’t know shit about drugs. They couldn’t stack enough money in this room to make me put that stuff in my body.

A: You work an’ bust your ass and you try to be straight, and where the hell does it get you? It gets you in a damn magazine with this Jerry Lee Lewis shit to fuck up your whole damn life. Now, y’all got a man’s life in your hands! l’ll be hones’ with y’all now….

***

Interview: Roger Jones, County Coroner. He tucked at the waist carefully, to slide the solid slab of his chest behind a Formica table at Coleman’s Barbecue; he folded before him two hands the size of good dictionaries. “Them hands for pullin’ cow tits,” he said. He wasn’t always a coroner. He was a deputy sheriff. Meant to be sheriff someday, too.

Q: You signed the death certificate, but you never saw the body?

A: Well, in this case, an autopsy was performed by Dr. Jerry Francisco. So I just put on the certificate, “See autopsy.”

A: See, what I do, normally, is I get six people, bring ‘em to where the body’s at. We investigate….Now, strange deaths, you know, twenty-five-, twenty-six-year-old people, bruises on the body, something like that, that’s a strange death. There’s no reason a twenty-five-, twenty-six-year-old person should be dead. But unless you have an autopsy, you can’t determine no cause of death….That takes the pressure offa everybody.

A: The death certificate signed, that don’t mean nothin’. Death certificate just shows the people dead.

A: No, I never done it like this before.

A: I’m still in the dark. Far as I know, there was two people there—him and her. You gotta ask him or her. Hell, no witnesses, nothin’. You gotta take a man at his word.

A: Well, I asked Bill Ballard. I tol’ him, I said, “I can’t sign the death certificate without a coroner’s inquest.” So he called down to Jackson, and he call me back, tol’ me: “Here’s how you could do it. You just say, ‘See autopsy?’ So that’s what I did.

A: No, I didn’t see it. Tuesday, I took the certificate over to Ballard. He showed me some paper, showed me he was gonna clip it together. He said, “You want me to send it for you?” I said, “That’d be fine.”

***

[Photo Credit: Jim Herrington]

J.W. Whitten squeezed the sleep from his eyes. He slowly adjusted to the afternoon sunlight filtering into his Memphis house. His little dogs greeted him, yapping and licking, climbing up the front of his bathrobe. J.W. said he wanted the dogs’ names in the story. They are Nickie and Kai.

Then J.W. got right to business: “I can see how her family’d be concerned. But they’re tryin’ to make Jerry into some kind of scapegoat or somethin’. You know they just liked the money. Some of the family’s constantly poppin’ in and out . One time they all of’ em came down and they went to the airport, called up, and they didn’t even have no money to get home. I told him, ‘Jerry, tell ‘em all to get me hell out. You married Shawn, not all the rest of ‘em.

“It’s my opinion this Shelley came around, an’ every time she’d come around, she’d cause trouble. She was connivin’. She’d always have Shawn off to the side, talkin’. Jerry’d think they were talkin’ about him. I’d tell him, ‘Those Yankee people ain’t the same as us. They don’t mean nothin’ by it.’…But if it wasn’t for the family, none of this woulda ever happened.”

J.W. Whitten has been taking care of the Killer’s business for twelve years. He got with him just by hanging around, being the biggest Jerry Lee fan in town. J.W. likes to tell how he and his daddy were riding in a pickup, down a farm road of Tennessee dirt one day in 1957, when the radio started playing “Great Balls of Fire.” J.W.s daddy told him: “Now, son, there’s your real talent.” J.W. never forgot.

Now, Jerry Lee is his life. On tour 200 days a year, it’s Jerry, twenty-four hours a day. J.W. writes all the checks. He confides, with something like pride, that the feds are planning to indict him, along with Jerry, on a tax charge. When J.W. talked of Shawn’s death, his story was Jerry’s, his reactions were Jerry’s, his feelings….

“No, it was really a shock. But, you know, you stumble into the bathroom, you know, take some pills, it’s easy to make a mistake. Hell, if you don’t know what you’re doing…

“No, they were just talkin’, watchin’ TV. She went to the bathroom. She said, ‘I took some sleepin’ pills.’ He said, ‘Well, how many? You didn’t take too many, or I’m gonna call the ambulance.’ She said, ‘No, It wasn’t that many.’

“People come out to hang the drapes, wake him up. That’s when he tried to wake her up because it was her project. That’s a woman’s job. He noticed her lips were blue. He couldn’t wake her. He smashed the wall with his hand. Cut his thumb. That’s where the blood come from. He walked her up and down the hall, carryin’ her, shakin’ her. Finally laid her on the other bed. That’s how she got to the other bed, see? She had that gown on….Called out to Lottie: ‘Lottie, I can’t get Shawn awake. Call the ambulance.’”

Lottie called J.W., too. He was at the gate in twenty minutes. A couple of hours later, Sheriff Sowell called him into the house, told him about the autopsy plan.

“No, Jerry picked him. Jerry wanted the autopsy and he wanted it in Memphis. He just wanted the best, and Francisco is the best in this part of the country. Sure, it cost us. I can tell you, $2800, but Jerry wanted the best.

“The sheriffs? Number one, as far as I’m concerned. They did their job, but they were very, very nice. Very understanding. Very sympathetic.

“Yeah, I gave the money for the campaign. Now, understand, now. I gave those contributions, but I did it for Jerry, of course. It was just my concern for Jerry, livin’ there and wantin’ the best man for sheriff.

“Well, a friend of mine in Memphis told me he was the best man in the race….No, not one particular friend….Oh, yeah, I checked it out and felt he was the best qualified.”

J.W. said Jerry Lee spent two days “in shock…right in this livin’ room, right where you’re sittin’…We talked, watched some TV, mostly talked. You know. things goin’ on, or business, workin’, things like that. He’d try to stray from the subject of death. He was tryin’ to push the death away from him.

“He’s the greatest,” J.W. said. “He’II come back from this. The first two days, you could tell he was really bothered, but after that, he got it together….”

J.W. picked up one of his dogs. “He talked to Nickie, didn’t he?” he goo-gooed in the dog’s little face. “You talked to the Killer, dincha, dincha?

“Put the dogs in the story, man. Nickie and Kai. They were very understanding. Jerry couldn’t believe how they sympathized with him.

“But you understand, Kai, doncha, doncha?”

***

Ballard said he’d take the case to the grand jury, just to allay all the doubt. “I’ve tried to make it clear,” he said, “that the only reason for the grand-jury inquiry is to try to dispel some of the suspicion. There is still no indication of foul play.”

With the drug scans after the autopsy, Francisco found what he sought. He phoned Ballard with glad tidings: fluid in the lungs resulted from an overdose of methadone, the synthetic narcotic most commonly used to wean junkies off heroin. Ballard had the cornerstone of his case: a precise and non-violent cause of death. It might have been a suicide, or an accident. It didn’t matter which. As long as it wasn’t a killing.

Ballard put out the news: AUTOPSY LINKS SHAWN LEWIS’ DEATH TO METHADONE, the headlines said. And for the evening paper: LEWIS’ WIFE KILLED HERSELF, OFFICIAL FEELS. Ballard later said his quote—”I believe it was suicide. She was no stranger to drugs…”—was supposed to be off the record.

He still didn’t have a written autopsy report. (He said he didn’t want to rush Francisco.) But Ballard and Jay Clark went to the morgue in Memphis for a meeting. As a courtesy, they took along Jimmy Radford, the district attorney’s investigator, although It was pretty clear there wasn’t going to be any prosecution. Francisco insisted at the meeting that Shawn herself must have taken the methadone. He said he could find ”no mechanism” by which it could have been forced on her.

“No indication of foul play,” Ballard told the Commercial Appeal that evening.” I think we made a thorough investigation of this case and nothing has pointed to homicide.”

How thorough?

There were basic forensic procedures incomplete:

There were drugs by the scoopful in the big brick house on Malone Road. No one knew which drugs Shawn used, or even what all the drugs were. The Mississippi state crime lab did not finish the testing for months. The tests were nowhere near complete by the time the case went to the grand jury.

There was blood on Shawn, blood on Jerry Lee’s robe and slippers, blood on a door, on the carpet, on a lamp, on gauze, on a towel, on bedding, on Shawn’s clothes found in the bathroom….No one knew whose blood It was. Once again, the crime lab did not finish the tests for months.

There was evidence still accruing from the investigation:

Jay Clark had gotten to the drapers from Goldsmith’s. They told him they never talked to Jerry Lee. Instead, they’d stood outside the house knocking for a half-hour. It was Lottie who tried to let them in, when she drove up at about 12:20. As she fiddled with her key in the lock, the Killer opened the door from within. Lottie went to the master bedroom to wake Shawn. Then Lottie came back and told the crew chief from Goldsmith’s: “I have something I have to take care of right now. Why don’t you wait in the den?” Lottie and the Killer were closeted in the master bedroom for a half-hour before the ambulance came, and for about fifteen minutes before the ambulance was called. What did Lottie find in the bedroom? And what was going on in the house while the drapers were stuck outside?

Jay Clark also found two girls Jerry Lee had picked up at Hernando’s Hide-A-Way three nights before Shawn’s death. After dawn, according to one of the girls’ statements, the Killer took them to his house for group sex with Shawn; it led to an argument. The girls ran out of the house across Malone Road and begged the neighbors to take them to Memphis. Did Shawn also try to escape?

There was evidence that the investigators didn’t turn up, or didn’t want to know:

For example, the married couple who rode the girls back to Memphis tried to deny the incident when a couple of reporters showed up at their door. Although they’d complained about the Killer for years, on this occasion. they launched into a loud panegyric on his neighborly virtues. When the reporters mentioned that the incident was covered in the investigative reports. the husband started snarling, “Thassa buncha shit.” Angrily, he dialed the sheriff’s office. asked by name for Deputy McCauley and shouted: “It ain’t s’posed to be in there. I never signed anythin’ like that!” Did McCauley cut some deal with the neighbors?

A night before Shawn died. Jerry Lee was spotted sitting alone in his Cadillac. stuck in a ditch off the exit ramp of the freeway leading to Memphis. The sheriff’s office was called; two deputies arrived at the scene. (The Killer ordered the deputies to fetch his tow-truck man, David Camp, campaign manager to James Albert Riley.) When Jerry Lee was taken home and his car was towed from the ditch, the deputies forgot to administer a test for intoxication. The incident was not recorded in the sheriff’s department logs. “I knew not to log it or nothin’,” said the dispatcher, John Crawford. “When I heard it was Jerry Lee Lewis, I knew is was just a community service.”

That same night, after Shawn called her mother to announce she was leaving Jerry Lee, she made another call, which Ballard & Co. might have known about if they’d pulled the Killer’s telephone bills. In Michigan, Scott’s sister was wakened by the call from Shawn. who asked about Scott: Did he still love her? She asked Scott’s sister to meet her, alone, at Jerry Lee’s August 28th concert in Nashville, Michigan. Shawn asked about seven times: You’re going to come now, aren’t you?” Shawn said she’d call back the next day to make sure about the meeting. She was in midsentence when the phone went dead. Was that the call of a woman planning suicide? And who cut the line?

Certainly, there was a fight at the Jerry Lee Lewis house on the night the Killer’s young bride died. And certainly, evidence was altered. Broken glass was still on the floor, but the big pieces had been removed. Shawn’s garments, with substantial bloodstains, were found stuffed in a paper sack in the master bathroom. Who tried to clean her up? Who reclothed her in the negligee? How did she get to the guest bedroom? Who stripped the sheets and pillowcases in the master bedroom?

Lottie Jackson stripped those sheers. Shortly after he took control of the scene, McCauley found her locked in the master bedroom. He knocked and she wouldn’t respond. He called, and still she wouldn’t open up. Lottie finally came to the door, and McCauley saw the cleanup in progress. McCauley revealed that episode in a “supplemental” report, dated nearly a month after the grand-jury verdict.

But no one needed more reports to shatter the Killers fragile story. lf Shawn went to bed after a quiet night, how did she get dirty? lf he shook her and dragged her up and down the long hall, why didn’t her feet show the contact with the carpet? lf he laid her atop the guest bed when he could carry her and shake her no longer, how did she get under the covers? Why did he say he sent Lottie there to wake her? Why did he say he’d just woken up?

Why would a stripped woman, “no pansy,” scheme to leave her husband, call for news of an ex-lover, make elaborate plans to meet family and friends, promise to telephone them soon…and the next day give it up and kill herself?

Or how did a canny twenty-five-year-old, “no stranger to drugs,” a woman who knew what sleeping pills were, who had used them one at a time with success, grow so careless as to swallow what Francisco described as “ten to twenty tablets” of a drug she’d never been known to use?

How did Shawn Lewis die?

“We may never have an entirely logical sequence,” Ballard said, very quietly, almost sadly, two days before the grand jury met. “You have to get your scenario of what happened and why. And sometimes, the why just lingers sometimes.”

But now he had a ten-page report from Francisco. He had his cause of death. He had an expert who’d testify surely that it was an accident, or suicide.

Ballard brightened: “I think that as time passes, I’ll feel better knowing that we let a grand jury see everything we had….The last thing I want to do is have anybody think I was putting a lid on this thing.”

***

The grand jury met for about three hours. The only witnesses were McCauley, Clark and Francisco. Ballard Francisco. Ballard had Lottie Jackson and the ambulance crew “on standby,” in case the jury wanted them. It didn’t. Jerry Lee wasn’t even on standby.

Ballard wouldn’t say what evidence was presented. The only witness to comment was Francisco, who brushed past reporters on the way out, after forty-five minutes in the jury room—the entire afternoon session. Francisco was asked to characterize his testimony.

“Painless,” he said.

Michael Blake, the Detroit lawyer, came down to witness the jury process. He wasn’t allowed to, so he spent his time in the courthouse records. He soon learned It wouldn’t be worth the time or trouble to sue Jerry Lee. The Killer already had a half-million dollars in judgments against him, and none of the plaintiffs could collect. They couldn’t even reach his possessions, because the IRS already had two liens on the house and its contents.

Blake did get from Ballard a copy of the autopsy which he showed to a medical examiner back in Detroit. “It seems incomplete,” said the examiner, Greg Kauffman. “It simply does nor answer a lot of questions—questions that should have come up.” He said: “Pulmonary edema is a totally nonspecific finding. It could be caused by a drug overdose, or it could be caused by drowning, strangulation, suffocation, asphyxiation, by trauma to the head or other parts of the body. “These possibilities can be tested, but the tests were either nor performed or nor reported.

Francisco’s autopsy does not even list the bruises and bloodstains evident to untrained eyes. There is no analysis of the blood observed on Shawn’s body. There is no mention of the bruises on her arm and hip. There’s no mention of the condition of her fingernails, nor analysis of the blood that appeared to be clotted beneath them.

There is no mention of any residue of the tablets that Shawn is supposed to have taken. “If they were ten-milligram tablets, she would have taken ten to twenty of them,” Ballard quoted Francisco. Bur the Killer’s prescription for methadone specified five-milligram tablets. Did Shawn gulp twenty to forty pills? And was there nothing left of them?

Francisco’s report shows only: “The stomach contents measures 725 cc’s.” That is a tremendous amount to find in a slender woman’s stomach. But the autopsy doesn’t say what It is. Could it be lake water or swimming-pool water gulped in extremis? Impossible to know. Could it be just a big dinner, or liquid that she drank herself? Once again, hard to say. But methadone hits the bloodstream within a half-hour of oral ingestion. It peaks at four hours. How could Shawn eat a big meal when she should have been already comatose? Or did the methadone enter her body with the meal? It would be soluble in liquids. Once again, Impossible to know. There was a tray of food remains visible in the master bedroom, but collection and analysts of the food seems to have been neglected.

Or could the methadone have entered via some route other than her mouth and her stomach, perhaps after she’d eaten? “Come to think of it,” says Danny Phillips, the funeral director, “it looked like there was a hypodermic mark on the inside of her right arm, just under the armpit. I’m sure of that. l’d hate to say it was a hypodermic mark, but It looked like a puncture wound.” Francisco’s autopsy notes: “There are two small abrasions on the anterior aspect of the right arm, adjacent to the arm pit measuring three millimeters in diameter each.” There is no further description of the “abrasions.”

There was at least one hypodermic picked up at the house that day. By January, Ballard said he still didn’t have an analysis of traces in the syringe. Ballard said he wasn’t qualified to discuss omissions or questions from the autopsy. Sowell refused to discuss any aspect of the case (although in a carefully worded leak to the Commercial Appeal, Sowell admitted that the private, out-of-state autopsy was illegal). And Francisco refused repeated calls for more information about his report. “Fran­cisco may be taking the position that I find myself in,” said Ballard. “When you don’t have a homicide, you don’t have an investigation, and when you don’t have an investigation, what right do I have to release information?”

On the day the grand jury met, Ballard refused to release the autopsy, “at the family’s request….” He meant husband Jerry Lee Lewis. Ballard refused to release investigative reports. “No sir, no reason. I just don’t make snap decisions like that.” He said no record of testimony was taken. The witnesses and jurors were sworn to silence.

To reporters who filled his office, Ballard announced that afternoon: “The grand jury was of the opinion of no probable cause of a crime being committed. There was still no indication of foul play….I don’t think the jury missed anything.”

Does that mean that he and the jury came to know how Shawn Lewis died?

Ballard came forward at his desk. His words grew more pronounced and even rose a notch in volume. “What ii still comes down to is there is no reason to suspect foul play. And whether I know what happened in the last twelve hours or the last two days before the death of Shawn Lewis, there is…still…no…reason…to…suspect…foul…play.”

Ballard serried back in his seat.

“That’s it, as far as I’m concerned.”

***

The Killer had a party at Hernando’s Hide-a-Way to celebrate his forty-eighth birthday. It was four days after the grand-jury session. Jerry Lee’s friends were happy.

They convened at about nine—record producers and independent truckers, ex-girlfriends of singers, Memphis matrons and off-duty cops, all bunching up at the door, flashing their printed invitations at a big black man in leather, whose eyes drifted unhurriedly from their faces, over their clothes to their shoes, with a detour toward the left armpit for men who might be packing guns.

Inside, the best tables went fast, staked out with bourbon bottles clumped in the center of the tablecloths. Late arrivals had to stand along the walls, leaning against the juke box or the poker machines. The men did a lot of back-pounding. Their women stood by, posing. There was a man in a suit and a smile, pounding every back and shaking the ladies’ hands. A campaign button on his lapel showed him in a smile and a suit, and advertised his name and lever. Owner Kenny Rodgers slid through the swelling crowd.

The noise from the crowd barely diminished as an inaudible introduction gave way to a wobbly country song by Webb Pierce, another Louisiana hell-raiser who was singing hits while Jerry Lee Lewis was learning to shave in Ferriday. Now nearly sixty, a drinker, thirty years past his prime, Pierce finished his song, and the crowd gave him a big hand for who he used to be. Pierce bowed and beamed like they meant it. Funny how they just don’t know.

And then he was there! Kenny Rodgers got up on the stage, took a mike and announced with wheezy emotion: “He’s here, folks. Here is Jerra. Jerra, you’re still the greatess. Ain’ nobody to touch ya.” The crowd cheered and whooped for Jerry Lee, who raised a hand and pulled his face in a taut grin.

They had a long table for him, set up to one side of the dance floor: a pile of gifts and a forest of bottles. Jerry drank from a glass of whiskey. Everybody tried to crowd around to the back of the table, to shake his hand, kiss him or whisper something. Jerry didn’t know most of them—especially the women, who bullied their way to the spot just behind him. One girl in a loose flowered shirt left her seat for a fifteen-minute struggle to Jerry Lee’s right ear. She whispered something and he answered, and she worked her way back through the crowd, beaming. “I told him, ‘You know, I came all the way from Kentucky to see you.’ And he said, ‘Oh, did you?’ That was all I had time for, cause Blondie next to him was goosin’ me.”

There was Blondie on has right and a lovely ltalianate brunette on the other side. There were a half-dozen other young women ringing the table. They took turns pouring or talking for him, if no one had his ear. Jerry Lee looked, without change of expression, from one to the other, as if they were so many TV sets. The lnstamatic flashes etched cruel skeletal shadows on his sagging face. The flesh seemed to have worn away with the millions of miles, millions of photos, millions of whispers. His eyes stared, flat black spots, unmoving, unblinking, giving out nothing. Now the Killer reached over toward the pile of gifts, lifted a gold paper crown and put it on his head. The flashes started popping off like crazy. The King was all bones and coal eyes under the shiny gold headband. The girls at the table all threw their heads back, threw their faces into bright young smiles…Oh, Jerry! Oh, Killer!

“It’s just some friends of ours, you know, some girls I put there, just to talk to him, you know,” J.W. Whitten said, looking on in approval, hovering at a corner of the dance floor. “Yeah, some of ‘em he knows, some of ‘em he don’t.” The dark-haired beauty at Jerry Lee’s left had her hands on his cheek and chin, her face right behind them. She was wiping lipstick off him. Kenny Rodgers was at the mike: “Folks, the mos’ greates’ ennataina in the worl’…y’all know him, so less givem a big han’….” Jerry Lee stood stiffly to work his way to his piano. He was holding up a hand, smiling, acknowledging cheers.

“Yeah, he looks good, don’t he?” J.W. said. “He’s okay now. That’s all over. You know the grand-jury vote? Sure I got it. Was 14-2, or somethin’, only two against us.

“Listen,” J.W. said, and he even turned away from the stage for a moment. They’ll never bust him in DeSoto County. That’s like bustin’ Elvis in Memphis. Never. Never. And you can quote me on that.”

 

Forgive Some Sinner

Last year Esquire reprinted this terrific 1984 profile of William Donald  Schaefer by Richard Ben Cramer.

It’s well worth your time.

The Ballad of Johnny France

We’re proud to present a classic magazine profile by Richard Ben Cramer. “The Ballad of Johnny France” first appeared in the October, 1985 issue of Esquire and it is reprinted here with permission from the author.

The Ballad of Johnny France

Listen to the story of the lonesome lawman who went hunting in the mountains for Don and Dan Nichols, and who finally got ‘em, right there, by the campfire

By Richard Ben Cramer

You probably heard of the case, the young woman from Bozeman, Montana, who got kidnapped by Mountain Men. Her name was Kari Swenson. She was a world-class biathlete. Last July, as she was training, running a trail near the Big Sky resort, two men jumped out of the woods, grabbed her, and chained her up to a tree. These were Mountain Men, father and son. Turned out they were hunting a wife.

Well, they couldn’t have picked worse. Not that Kari wasn’t good-looking, or strong enough, or able to teach them a thing or two about social graces. She was all that and more: twenty-three, a graduate of Montana State U, tops at skiing and shooting, friendly in better circumstances. In fact, you could call Kari Swenson a proper belle of Bozeman, the perfect flower of the New West. Just happened the New West and these Mountain Men didn’t have much in common.

Did they mean to woo her with the squirrel they served? The boy so proud: he’d caught dinner with his cunning snare. And the old man, clever, careful; tending his crusted skillet on a smokeless squaw-wood fire. But Kari wouldn’t eat their mess. When the father left the campfire, she pleaded with the son: “You could let me go. I wouldn’t tell anyone.” The young man seemed to consider this. He said: “No, you’re pretty. I think I’ll keep you.”

Did the old man think they might win her over? “Just stay three days and you’ll start to love it….” But his mountain-wife dream wouldn’t last that long.

By dawn, there were fifty people on the trail or on their way: her parents from Montana State U, all hangs from the dude ranch where she worked, dogs, helicopters, lots of lawmen, Sheriff Onstad from Bozeman. This was tough country, steep and wild, and you couldn’t see ten yards through the timber. Sure enough, two searchers from the dude ranch would have walked right past Kari and her captors. But then they heard the shot.

They busted in on the campsite. Kari was chained up and bleeding. The young Mountain Man was crouched near the campfire, holding a gun, crying: “Oh, God, I didn’t mean to shoot her. Oh, God…” Kari had taken a .22 slug through her lung and out her back.

One of the searchers, Al Goldstein—he’d been in Montana only two years—circled around the campsite, dug in a pack, came up with a pistol. He yelled: “Put down your guns. You’re surrounded by two hundred men.” But the old man had a rifle. He wheeled and shot. Goldstein went down hard, on his back, the pistol in one loose hand, a walkie-talkie in the other, with one eye open and the other shot away, his mouth full of blood to the top.

The other searcher ran for his life. Father and son took the chain off Kari, left her to die. They said they’d kill anyone who came after them. They took off through the timber, and so began a five-month hunt for two men in the wilds of America.

But first there’s Kari Swenson, bleeding in the woods back up on the ridge. And below at the trailhead, there’s her father, Bob Swenson, chairman of the physics department at Montana State U, screaming at the sheriff from Bozeman: “DO SOMETHING!” And there’s Sheriff Onstad, trying to explain that he is doing something, that his men are searching in the air, on the ground, and anyway, there’s a problem: he has looked at a map and it’s not his county, not a case for Bozeman, or even Big Sky. They’re over the county line, off his turf. In fact, Kari’s six-mile run took this case right out of the New West.

Onstad explains that it’s Madison County, and that’s Sheriff Johnny France, and…Where is Johnny?

Well, Johnny does get there, at least in good time for the rescue. He’d stopped to commandeer a helicopter from an oil business near Ennis. As a matter of fact, it’s Johnny’s chopper that winches down an aluminum basket to hoist Kari off to the hospital. But when they lift her into the basket and flash the high sign and the chopper swings up, damn if they don’t mash that poor woman right into a dead lodgepole pine. “Yuh, almost dropped her,” recalls Johnny France. “Didn’t, though.”

Johnny gets busy at the crime scene: borrows a camera, takes the pictures himself. Mostly, they’ll just come out blank. He picks at the campsite for clues on the killers: a bit of flour and a few shell casings. Maybe some computer can match the shells—but that‘ll take time. Deputies with dogs want to get on the trail. Sheriff Onstad is setting up roadblocks already. Word has spread to Big Sky and back to Bozeman. The men of the New West are taking up guns. Women are locked in their houses. Maniacs loose in the woods! And where is Johnny?

Well, Johnny comes out of the woods pretty late. He’s thinking, doesn’t hurry. Drives the others nuts. “You know,” he tells a deputy, “there’s a fellow used to stay near the power plant, up the Beartrap. Had a son. Have to check, but, uh, his name mighta been Dan….”

Turns out he didn’t have to check—not for names, anyway. Search and rescue men with chain saws were already cutting on a pine tree at Ulery’s Lake. They carried out a three-foot stretch of log, emblazoned with a careful, curly print:

DAN
AND
DON
NICHOLS
LIVE IN
THESE
MTS.
July 14,
1984.

Once, when the boy was only nine and didn’t come home from summer in the woods with his daddy, the mother called Madison County, set the sheriff to hunting father and son. Old Roy Kitson was sheriff then. He and Deputy France had to hunt ten days to find Don and Dan up Beartrap Canyon. The mother drove down from White Sulpher Springs the following day. Meantime, Kitson took the boy home to give him a meal, maybe a bath. The boy had only his dirty clothes, a sleeping bag, and heavy field glasses that hung from his neck. Kitson’s wife, Minnie, tried to make conversation: “Oh, Danny,” she said, “where’d you get the big binoculars?” The boy didn’t seem to understand. Minnie reached out to touch the field glasses: “These…” But the boy twisted away. “No,” Dan said, “those are my people watchers.” He wouldn’t say much more.

Back in those days—that was ten years ago—Don only had summers to teach the boy in the woods. Come fall, it was hard to give him up. Don adored that boy: “I’d lay down my life for him,” he used to say, and no one who saw them together could doubt it. They’d come off the mountains, get to a store, and the topic was always, What does Dan want? More soda pop? Candy to take back to the woods? Nothing was too good for him. Don went without to give him presents, or money if he had any. But mostly he wanted to give Dan teaching: that’s what he’d missed.

Don Nichols’s father worked the mines around Norris, until he died in a car wreck. Don’s mother raised the kids, cleaning houses or doing other little jobs. Don never seemed to have a good coat, or the right shoes for the snow. He was a quiet kid, a hiker and hunter, smart enough to graduate at the head of Harrison High. But when his mother remarried, Don never got on with the new man or the new rules. He went off to the Navy, and no one in Norris saw him much after that, though they knew he’d come back—Montana was the only home for him.

Don left the Navy on a Section 8, mental instability. He talked like he’d put one over on the Navy, and he did seem straight enough. He found a wife in West Virginia, got a job there for Union Carbide. He made good money, they had Dan and a daughter, and another man might have been happy. Not Don. More and more, he talked about Back to Montana. He’d build them a cabin in the mountains. Well, Verdina, the wife, came from the mountains. She knew what hauling water was, and she liked her washer-drier. She’d come along to Montana, all right, but as to mountain life—“Living like the Indians,” Don said—no, there she drew the line.

(more…)

Serious Business

Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories is out. Check, check it out.

Meanwhile, dig Richard Ben Cramer’s essay from the book. It’s priceless:

By Richard Ben Cramer

My grandfather took me to my first game at The Stadium. Not baseball: the Cleveland Browns against the New York Football Giants. I lived in Rochester and, as a consequence, I was a Browns fan. As to whether this was right and proper, I thought not at all. I knew nothing about sports marketing and could not have cared less if small-market Rochester had been gerrymandered into the Browns’ TV-turf as a sop to get the Modells’ vote for the television package. I was 14, and I loved Jim Brown.

By modern standards, I was still a casual fan. Football was more fun to play than to watch, and I lived in a neighborhood with wall-to-wall kids. There was a backyard game every Sunday, so I probably missed more Browns’ games than I saw. But even I knew that this would be a big game: December football; the Browns had to win it to get to the championship. It was also a revenge game: the Giants had beaten the Browns two-straight (the final game of the season and a special playoff) to get to the ‘58 championship, said to be the greatest ever played. I knew the Browns would have beaten the Colts, and, dutifully, I reviled the Giants.

I was stunned by the ballpark. My notion of a stadium was Red Wing Stadium, where the Rochester AAA ballteam played. But this was something else—vast and powerful, filled with sixty thousand fans, and the tangy scent of smoke mixed with alcohol (which I wouldn’t smell again till I could go into bars), and noise like I’d never heard in my life. I couldn’t even describe the noise—a wailing screech?—ebbing and then rising as loud as a jet plane. I fell silent. I felt tiny.

But the Browns gave me courage. As I remember, the game was tight, with the Browns clinging to a nervous lead by the half—at which point some kind of miracle transpired. Suddenly, the Browns could do no wrong, and for the Giants, nothing went right. Title was intercepted for a score. Jim Brown caught a pass and waltzed into the end zone. The Giants fumbled, the Browns scored…and again…and again…and I was whooping and cutting up just as loud as I could, just like the (suddenly silent) New York fans…or so I imagined—it only showed how little I understood.

When the Browns’ back-ups scored again, and their score climbed to more than 50 points, I asked my grandfather (rather too loudly) if that big Longines scoreboard could show three digits for the visiting team. A couple of New York fans turned around and gave me the look that was my real introduction to Yankee Stadium. I had known for about the last quarter that they probably wanted me to shut up. But their look now didn’t say, “shut up.” What it said was they wanted to kill me. What is said was this was the worst moment of their lives and if I didn’t shut up they might forget how unutterably sad they were, and have another drink, and kill me for sure.

I shut up. I feared them. But I also respected them. No one I knew felt that way about their team. And they taught me something important, which was the dire seriousness of New York sports—which is what the old Stadium was about.

Amen.

High and Mighty

I missed this when it was first posted  but it’s still worth noting–Roger Angell on Bob Sheppard:

Up in the pressbox, every night ends the same way. Herb Steier, a retired Times sports copy editor, comes to every game and sits motionless in the third row, his hands in front of him on the long table. He doesn’t keep score but watches the action intently, with bright, dark eyes. When the ninth inning comes, he gets up and stands by the railing behind the last row of writers, near the exit, and after the potential final batter of the game has been announced, Bob Sheppard, the ancient and elegant Hall of Fame announcer, comes out of his booth and stands next to him, with a book under his arm. (He reads novels or works of history between announcements.) Eddie Layton, the Stadium organist, is there, too, wearing a little skipper’s cap. Eddie has a private yacht—well, it’s a mini-tug, called Impulse—that he keeps on the Hudson, up near Tarrytown. He gets a limo ride to the Stadium most days from his apartment in Queens—it’s in his contract—and a nice lift home with Bob Sheppard and Herb Steier at night. Eddie and Bob Sheppard make a bet on every single Yankee game—the time of the game, the total number of base runners, number of pitches by bullpen pitchers, whatever—but won’t tell you which one of them is ahead. The stakes are steady: a penny a game.

Steier is Sheppard’s neighbor, out in Baldwin, Long Island, and he drives him to work every day and home again at its end; they’re old friends. Sheppard, a stylish fellow, is wearing an Argyle sweater and espadrilles tonight. This is his fiftieth year on the job at Yankee Stadium, and once in a while I ask him to enunciate a player’s name for me, just for the thrill of it. “ ‘Shi-ge-to-shi Ha-se-ga-wa,’ ” he’ll respond, ringing the vowels. It sounds like an airport.

The instant the last batter strikes out or pops up or grounds out Sheppard and Steier and Layton do an about-face and depart at a slow sprint. Out the door they go and turn right in the level corridor, still running. A few kids out there are already rocketing down the tilted runways. “Start spreadin’ the noooss…” comes blaring out from everywhere (the Yanks have won again), but Bob and Herb and Eddie have turned right again, into the quiet elevator lobby, where the nearer car awaits them, its door open. Down they go and out at street level, still at a careful run. Herb’s car, a beige 1995 Maxima, is in its regular slot in the team parking lot, just across the alley—the second car on the right. They’re in, they’re out, a left turn up the street, where they grab a right, jumping onto the Deegan, heading home. The cops there have the eastbound traffic stopped dead, waiting for Bob Sheppard: no one else in New York is allowed to make this turn. Two minutes, maybe two-twenty, after the game has ended and they’re gone, home free, the first of fifty thousand out of the building, every night.

I sat in the lobby of Yankee Stadium on the night of the final game back in September of 2008. Next to me was Herb Steier. I’d seen him before. He was always easy with a smile and a story. Sat through a game a year earlier talking to him, Richard Ben Cramer and Angell. When Rodriguez hit two home runs that day, Cramer was smiling and Steier had a twinkle in his eye (Cramer is writing a book about Alex Rodriguez).

Now, those eyes were sad. He was hunched over slightly as he told me how the Yankees were giving him a hard time about sitting in the pressbox now that Sheppard wasn’t working regularly anymore. I don’t know what he’s up to these days but Steier is good people. I hope he is well.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver