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The Banter Gold Standard: The Clear Line

My mother was born in Brussels in the spring of 1944. Three years later my grandfather moved the family to the Congo, then a Belgian colony, where she would live until she was sixteen. She came back to Belgium with her sister at the end of June in 1960 just a few days before the Congolese Independence. During her childhood in Africa, my grandfather read his daughters the latest adventures of Tintin–first as they were serialized in newspapers and magazines, and later in hardcover books.

Mom kept most of those books and brought them to America when she married my father. She read them to my sister, brother, and me when we were kids and now she reads the adventures of Tintin to her grandchildren. I’ve known those stories, and more to the point, those books and Herge’s drawings, for as long as I can remember.

So it with great personal pleasure that I share with you the following piece on Tintin by Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. This story, written in 2004, can be found in Sante’s fine collection, Kill All Your Darlings.

“The Clear Line”

By Luc Sante

In a corner of my office, on top of a bookcase, lies a hunting horn–a sort of bugle, curved in the manner of a French horn. It has occupied a place in my inner sanctum wherever I’ve lived since childhood. Such horns are not hard to find secondhand in the Ardennes Mountains of southern Belgium, since these days there’s not much call for them by hunters of the stag and the boar. The reason I talked my parents into buying me this horn can be found in the fifth panel on page 4 of the sixth adventure of Tintin, The Broken Ear. The panel shows Tintin visiting an artist’s garret, a low skylit room with a bed on the floor amid a panoply of artistic bric-a-brac: a plaster bust, a horseshoe, a sixteenth-century helmet, a skull, a few paintings and sketches, and, directly above the pillow, a hunting horn. Since I wanted to be an artist at an age when most kids want to be firefighters, I knew that I would one day live in a room just like that, and wanted to get started accumulating the props. Possession of such a horn would ensure my future as an artist. The Tintin albums were never wrong about such things. Had I wanted to be a sea captain instead, I would have pestered my mother into knitting me a blue turtleneck sweater with an anchor motif on the chest, the kind worn by Tintin’s friend Captain Haddock. The sweater would automatically have conferred upon me the authority to command a vessel.

But if the adventures of Tintin were my guide to life (and worryingly, perhaps, they still are; just a few years ago I bought a floor lamp at a flea market because it looked like the sort of thing Tintin would have in his living room), they were also the reason I wanted to be an artist. I was not alone. Because of Tintin, kids in Belgium, where the series and I both originated, aspire to draw comic strips the way their American counterparts want to start rock bands. I was typical: As soon as I could draw recognizable figures, I started working on a comic strip featuring an adventurous lad and his faithful dog. But even Belgians with no discernible talent have incorporated Tintin and his world-view into the fiber of their beings. The boy reporter made his debut in 1929 in the children’s supplement of a Catholic newspaper, crudely drawn at first, but with his personality and that of his white terrier Milou (called “Snowy” in translation) fixed almost from the first panel of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the first adventure. That he was an ageless kid, of less than medium height and of an uninsistent modesty despite his many accomplishments, answered to the best aspects of the suffering Belgian self-image. Overnight, or almost, he became a national icon.

Tintin is of indeterminate age; he can drive a car and shoot a gun but is said at least once by another character to be “hardly more than a child.” He is invariably called “the boy reporter” in the fictional newspaper and radio accounts that are quoted within the panels, but is never seen doing any reporting or writing nor is any such work ever otherwise alluded to. He has a nice apartment and a substantial library although no apparent income; his constant travel might be paid for by law-enforcement agencies–Interpol, maybe–since the trips always lead to the solving of some crime or other, but he is never seen being assigned, debriefed, supervised, or compensated. He has no parents or any other relatives unless you count the all-male elective family he accumulates over the course of the series: Captain Haddock, the eccentric Professor Tournesol (“Calculus” in translation), and the twin detectives Dupont and Dupond (“Thompson” and “Thomson”).

Milou (I can’t bear to call him “Snowy”) goes with him everywhere, including to the moon, where he has his own four-legged spacesuit. Tintin has a little tuft of blond hair sticking up in front, and unless he is in costume or disguise he wears the clothes of a jaunty youth of the 1930s, including plus-fours with argyle socks. My father, who was short, blond, and usually wore plus-fours, was called “Tintin” by his friends back before the war, although by the time I knew him his hair had turned black.

I began absorbing Tintin before I learned to read. I know that my father’s mother gave me a subscription to the Tintin weekly magazine before she died, which was sometime around my fourth birthday. I’m pretty sure the magazine was then serializing Tintin in Tibet, the twentieth of the twenty-three volumes–twenty-four if you count the one left in rough sketch form by the death in 1983 of Georges Rémi, known as Hergé, who wrote and drew the series and refused to consider a successor. Hergé attained his peak of productivity in the ’40s, right in the middle of the war, when he published his strips in the Brussels daily Le Soir. The paper from those years is referred to as Le Soir volé–the stolen Soir–because it was overseen and censored by the German occupiers. Unlike most collaborators, Hergé got little more than an administrative slap after the war, and hardly any public opprobrium, because it was so clear he was an innocent by nature. His ideology was conservative, but it was molded for all time by the Catholic Boy Scouts. His world-view was that of a serious-minded twelve-year-old.

A serious-minded Belgian twelve-year-old in, say, 1939 would think of the colonial subjects in the Congo as simple, happy people who derived enormous benefits from being colonized. You couldn’t expect them to understand complex matters, but at least you could send in the White Fathers to convert them to the Roman religion and stop them from eating each other, or whatever it was they did. Tintin in the Congo, book number two, makes for painful reading today, and not only because Tintin is so determined to bag every sort of big game that, unable to shoot a rhinoceros, he blows it up–although he uses too much powder and is left with just the horn.

The caricatures of foreign cultures in the Tintin books are hardly virulent, just indicative of a smug ignorance pervasive throughout the Western world then, but the treatment of the Congolese is shocking because its grotesque simplifications had to have been based on self-serving firsthand accounts by the colonizers. To confirm this, all I have to do is look in my family album. My Uncle René, a drunken ne’er-do-well who lived in the Congo in the 1950s, is pictured with a much more mature-looking African gentleman standing a few paces behind him; this man is identified on the back as his “boy.” The English word was used to mean “manservant” for obvious reasons–it wouldn’t do to think of the Congolese as adults. Tintin is not an adult, either; he is the champion of youth, fighting the scary and corrupt adults of the world on their behalf. In the Congo these inimical adults are nearly all white, while the natives belong to Tintin’s constituency regardless of their ages–it is the only country he visits where everyone recognizes him. When he leaves, the people cry.

Possibly the most striking thing in the Tintin universe is the almost complete absence of women. Of the 117 characters pictured in the portrait gallery on the endpapers of the hardcovers, only seven are female. Women are thin-lipped concierges or very occasionally the silent consorts of male characters; few have more than walk-on parts. The only significant or recurring female character is the overbearing diva Bianca Castafiore, who periodically appears to sing the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust, a performance that has the effect of a gale-force wind.

This is not so much misogyny as, again, the perspective of a nerdish pre-sexual twelve-year-old. There are no young girls, or attractive women of any age, because the frightened boy is determined not to see them. Tintin has been psychoanalyzed voluminously–the critical literature is vast, and canted upon every sort of postmodern theoretical framework–so that I’m certain that some academic somewhere has already suggested how much Tintin’s family, as it were, resembles the Holy Trinity: the boy reporter as Jesus, Captain Haddock as an irascible Old-Testament Jehovah, and Milou–small, snow-white, and ever-present–as the Holy Ghost. You might still expect women to hover on the periphery of consciousness as mothers and whores, although both would distract from the serious business of adventure and crime-fighting, and introduce all kinds of unwanted ambiguity. Hergé, ever the Boy Scout, simply excised them.

Hergé redrew the first several stories (with the exception of the irredeemably crude Land of the Soviets) for their postwar publication in album form. Nevertheless, they are set in a period that while undefined necessarily predates May 1940, when the Nazis invaded Belgium. Even the later stories seem to take place in the 1930s, although none of us kid readers of the late ’50s and early ’60s minded or even noticed, since until the “economic miracle” of 1964, postwar Belgium itself effectively lived in the prewar era, at least with regard to technology. The world of Tintin’s adventures is one in which servants wear livery, savants wear long beards, men emerge from fights with their false collars jutting out, and the lower orders are identified by their caps. The world is big enough to include little-documented countries you’ve never heard of, although no subject is so obscure that there isn’t in Brussels some smock-wearing expert who knows all there is to know about it, and possesses the book- and artifact-stuffed apartment to prove it. It is a cozy world in which every detail is correctly labeled and filed away on the appropriate shelf. The world may contain its share of evil, but it is regularly swept and, like Belgian sidewalks, washed every week. There are no areas of gray. Villains–they are most often drug smugglers, sometimes counterfeiters–look and act like villains, and if heroes have their share of human failings (Captain Haddock’s alcoholism being the major case in point), there is nevertheless no doubt about the purity of their souls. Sex, of course, would mess up everything.

The clear moral line is beautifully expressed by Hergé’s graphic style, which is in fact called “clear line.” This method of rendering the world accurately, sensuously, and yet very simply by distilling every sight down to its primary linear constituents derives most obviously from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japanese popular woodblock-print style called ukiyo-e, and its masters Hiroshige and Hokusai. Those graphic artists were introduced to European eyes in the late nineteenth century, when their work had a particular impact upon the French Impressionists, especially Manet and Degas, who learned from them the value of cropping and of visual shorthand. Hergé absorbed not just those lessons; he swallowed their style whole. He enclosed every particule of the visible, no matter how fluid and shifting, in a thin, black, unhesitating line; made that line carry the burden of mass and weight without modeling; and endowed the line with an accomplice in the form of pure, clear, emphatic but not garish color. The style makes the world wonderfully accessible, in effect serving as an analogue to its hero’s mission: Just as Tintin, a mere boy, can travel the world and navigate its dark passages and defeat its oppressors without himself succumbing to corruption, so you, too, whether you are seven or seventy-seven (the advertised age-range of the weekly), can confront the overwhelming variousness of the perceptual universe and realize its underlying simplicity without sacrificing your sense of wonder. And that is the core of Hergé’s genius: to mitigate his young audience’s fears and convert them into sensual delight.

When Tintin, menaced by Chicago gangsters in Tintin in America, must exit his hotel room through the window and make his way to the next one by inching his fingernails and shoe soles along the mortar between the bricks, the young reader prone to acrophobia (me, that is) can translate his trepidation into pleasure at the magnificent geometry of those many unyielding rows of windows as depicted very precisely from a dizzying oblique angle.

The terror of suddenly coming into an entirely foreign landscape–notably, Shanghai in The Blue Lotus–can give way to joy at the immense panels of streets crowded with very individual pedestrians and surmounted by overlapping ranks of colorful banners and signs filled with intriguing if indecipherable Chinese characters. (For this volume Hergé sought the advice of a young Chinese artist then resident in Brussels, Chang Chong-Jen–who became a character in the story–so that the details possess particular authenticity.) The great heights, deep cold, and blinding snows of Tibet; the horror vacui of the featureless Sahara; the threat of a tempest at sea as experienced on a raft; even the empty and unknowable surface of the moon (circa 1955)–all of these can be not only managed but appreciated. To say that Hergé domesticated those locations and experiences would be putting the emphasis in the wrong place. What he did was to bring them into the child’s compass, not only through the heroic surrogate of the boy reporter, but also visually, by scraping away murk and muddle and purifying it, revealing the world as an awe-inspiring but comprehensible series of planes.

In every way but the visual it is easy to dismiss the simplifications of the series. They are the legacy of the comfortable world view that rationalized colonialism–that complacently taught African children in French possessions to remember “our ancestors, the Gauls.” They are of a piece with the creed of scouting as devised by Baden-Powell, with pen-pal clubs and ham radio and collecting stamps, which Walter Benjamin said were the visiting cards left by governments in children’s playrooms. They belong to the same branch of literature as the Rover Boys and Tom Swift and the fantasized travels of Richard Halliburton. They are predicated on nostalgia for a world in which strength rested upon ignorance, and this was so even in the ostensibly simpler times in which Hergé conceived them. Their world is the cosmos of childhood, after all, and childhood past is what all nostalgia refers to, even if wrongheaded adults insist on situating it within historical coordinates.

The visual, by today’s lights, might be diminished just as easily, you might think, considering by contrast the dark abstract tangles that represent the world in many of today’s strips, including some of the better-known superhero adventures, or noting that the heirs of the clear line, most famously Joost Swarte, have applied it to an ironically jolly delirium in which there are not only no moral certainties, but not even any definite up or down or inside or outside. But even Batman has one foot in the adult world these days, even if politicians are no closer to growing up. That the adventures of Tintin remain unsullied by maturity or experience allows them to preserve their power as a visual primer. They are an Eden of the graphic eye, in which every object–each shoe, each road, each flame and book and car and door–is in some way the first, the model that instructs the beholder on the nature of the thing and makes it possible to grow up knowing how to cut through fog and perceive essentials. What Hergé did is as serious and as endlessly applicable as geometry. Small-minded, reactionary, immature, he is not the Rembrandt or the Leonardo or the Cézanne of the comic form–he is its Euclid.

2004

 

The Banter Gold Standard: Thieves of Time

The following piece was written by one of our best, Charlie Pierce (Esquire, Grantland). It originally appeared in The National (May 10, 1990) and can also be found in Pierce’s excellent collection Sports Guy.

“Thieves of Time”

By Charlie Pierce

The press conference was over, and two men from New Castle, Pa., named Robert Retort and Ed Grybowski had been charged with interstate transportation of stolen property, which is a federal felony. In the conference room of the FBI field office in Pittsburgh, an agent named Bob Reutter was looking over the stolen property, examining it, not with a G-man’s eyes, but with those of a fan. There were baseball uniforms—thick, heavy flannel things with the names of the great, lost teams on them. The Memphis Red Sox. The Kansas City Monarchs. There were autographed baseballs, and old, sepia-shrouded pictures of young men wearing the heavy flannel uniforms of the great, lost teams. Looking at them, you could see back through time, all the way to the outskirts of town. Bob Reutter spent a long time looking.

It all belonged to an 86-year-old former security guard at the St. Louis City Hall named James Bell. In 1922, when he and the world were young, James Bell was pitching one hot day for the St. Louis Stars in the Negro League. It was late in the game, and there were men on base, and at the plate was a signifying hitter named Oscar Charleston. If the Negro League had a Babe Ruth, it was Oscar Charleston. The 19-year-old pitcher stared down the alley, and struck Oscar Charleston out of there, saving the game.

Lord, the other Stars thought, that young man is cool. So that’s what they called him. Cool Bell. But Manager Bill Gatewood thought the nickname lacked sufficient dignity for the grave young man man with the thoughtful eyes. He’s older than that, thought Gatewood. Cool Papa, that’s who he is.

Cool Papa Bell.

The man had style. Anyone could see that. In the Negro League, the wardrobes always cut like knives. A player named Country Jake Stevens cold Donn Rogosin, the author of Invisible Men, that he knew he’d made the big club when the owner took him out and bought him three new suits and two new Stetson hats. Even in this company, Cool Papa was sharp. When he walked through Compton Hill in St. Louis, children danced in his wake.

He played for 29 years and for seven different teams. He was the fastest man anywhere in baseball, so swift and deft on the basepaths that, when it looked like Jackie Robinson was going to be chosen to shatter the segregation of the major leagues, Cool Papa once ran wild just to show the young shortstop what kind of play he could expect when and if Robinson were called up. Jimmy Crutchfield once told a baseball historian named Robert Peterson that, when Cool Papa hit one back to the pitcher, everybody else in the field yelled, “Hurry!” Satchel Paige claimed that Cool Pap could hit the light switch in the hotel room, and that he’d be in bed before the room got dark. That was the story they always cold about Cool Papa Bell. They even told it when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

He is old now, and half-blind. For years, he held court in his house on what is now Cool Papa Bell Avenue in St. Louis. He would tell stories, and sign autographs, and he would show the curious everything he had saved from his playing days. The uniforms. The programs. The pictures. He always was an obliging man, was Cool Papa Bell. Even when his health began to fail, he always was that.

“He always had all of this memorabilia,” says Norman Seay, Bell’s nephew and an administrator at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “People came from everywhere, from Timbuktu, to get autographs from Uncle Bell. It was a normal occurrence around that house.”

The, on March 22, all that changed. Bell was visited by Grybowski and Retort, who had driven 17 hours to St. Louis from New Castle, where Retort owns a company called R.D. Retort Enterprises. It operates within the bull market in what are called baseball collectibles. By all accounts, Retort is an aggressive collector. “He called here a lot, and you couldn’t get him off the phone,” says a source at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “He never quite made it clear what the purpose of his research was, but he made a lot of requests for uniform numbers, and for what teams certain players played for. He didn’t seem to have much of a working knowledge of baseball history, but he kept us on the phone a half-hour at a time.”

Retort has declined comment on the specifics of the case against him, but does say that “when it all comes out, you’ll see there’s one huge world of difference between what I’ve been charged with, and what really happened. It’s a situation where, basically, I was there to get autographs from a Hall of Famer, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It is possible that Retort and Grybowski were invited to come to St. Louis by Bell, who rarely turned down such a request. The two spent several days there. Bell signed a lot of autographs, but it was a slow process. The FBI says that Retort paid Bell $100 for the various autographed items. That is all that Retort says he did there. The FBI does not agree.

According to investigators, Retort and Grybowski returned on March 25, and began to remove from the Bells’ house several cardboard boxes filled with the paraphernalia Cool Papa had collected over the course of his career. Bell and his wife, Clarabelle, told both the local police and the FBI that they had felt “trapped” by the two men, and that they were too intimidated to try and stop them. In fact, the Bells said, they were so intimidated that they didn’t even report the incident until their daughter, Connie Brooks, discovered what had happened a week later.

Retort, 38, and Grybowski, 65, were arrested on April 9. Both are free now, Retort on $25,000 bond and Grybowski on $10,000. They will stand trial this summer in St. Louis. Most of the memorabilia was recovered. Connie Brooks has flown in from New York, and she has spent a month helping investigators identify some of the articles. It is a federal offense to take more the [sic] $5,000 worth of stolen merchandise across state lines. The estimated value of everything that was taken from Cool Papa Bell’s house is $300,000, which has flatly flabbergasted some people who are close to him.

“I couldn’t believe it when they said that,” says Norman Seay. “I mean, a half-a-million dollars? To me, he was just my Uncle Bell, and all that stuff he had, I thought its real value was an internal kind of thing, that its value was intrinsic to him.”

But that is not the way the world is today. There are people who would call $300,000 a modest price for what was taken from Cool Papa Bell. These are people who understand a new and unsettlingly volatile marketplace in which the past is raw currency, and what energizes that marketplace is that same feeling that came over Bob Reutter, when he looked into the FBI’s conference room and saw an exposed vein of pure history stretched across its walls.

“I have to admit that I’m a fan, and I looked the stuff over,” admits the agent with a chuckle. “I saw those uniforms and I thought, ‘How did they ever play in those heavy things?’ It was all really interesting to me.”

Perhaps the Fourth Lateran Council had the right idea after all. In the 13th century, the Roman Catholic Church was awash in very pricey relics, including not only the purported heads of various saints, but also enough alleged pieces of the True Cross to build duplex homes for half the yeomanry in Western Europe. Embarrassed by this unbridled profiteering in the sacred, the church called the Council, which forbade the practice in 1215, whereupon the price of a saint’s head crashed all over Christendom.

That sort of naked interference in the free marketplace would not be tolerated today. We live in an acquisitive age, a trend encouraged from the very top of the political and cultural elite for more than a decade now. It manifests itself in everything from the leveraged buyout to the current desire of every cherubic four-year old to surround himself with replicas of pizza-chomping, Hey-Dude amphibians who are built like Ben Johnson. Indeed, today we have collectibles the instantly accrued value of which almost totally rests with the immediate demand for them. How much more, then, must genuine relics be worth?

It hit the art world first. In his book, Circus of Ambition, journalist John Taylor describes the rise of what he calls “the collecting class.” Taylor writes that, in the 1980s, “Collectors were returning in droves. One reason was the huge surge in income enjoyed by the individuals in the higher income brackets.” In one telling anecdote, Taylor overhears a rich young couple at an art auction. The husband complains that, “We’re unhappy with the Cezanne.” His wife responds, cheerily, “That’s OK because we’re going to trade up!”

Substitute “Pete Rose” for Cezanne in that conversation, and you’ve pretty much got what happened when this dynamic hit sports, the only difference being, of course, that, unlike Rose, Cezanne wasn’t around to pitch his own paintings on the Home Shopping Network. It is estimated that the trade in sports collectibles has become a $200 million industry in this country. It is manifested best by all those things that give the willies to the baseball purists. These include card shows—and the almost universally condemned notion of the $15 autograph—as well as the public auction of old baseball equipment.

When Taylor writes that, “Many of these collectors were frankly more interested in art as an investment than as a means of cultural certification,” it’s hard not to hear the complaint that echoes across the land every time another one of yesterday’s heroes starts peddling his memories. It’s hard not to hear the guy at Cooperstown saying that Robert Retort’s “working knowledge of baseball” was lacking.

As is the case with any good capitalist enterprise, if you push it far enough you find yourself passing through greed and moving all the way into the criminal. The case of Pete Rose is instructive here. First came the reports that there were several bats in circulation that were purported to be the one that Rose used to break Ty Cobb’s record on Sept. 11, 1985. Now, accounts of that historic at-bat indicate that Rose used only one bat. Where the other three (or four, or eight, or 12) came from remains a mystery, especially to the gullible people who bought them. In this, Pete Rose was lucky he only had to face the late Bart Giamatti. The Fourth Lateran Council would’ve had him in thumbscrews.

Now, however, it’s been revealed that Rose failed to declare to the Internal Revenue Service the cash income that he made at card shows, and in the sale of various memorabilia. There is some symmetry, at least, in the fact that, in the same week, Pete Rose and Michael Milken, symbols of their age, both faced a federal judge.

Nor is Rose the only criminal case in which baseball collectibles figure prominently. We have the odd affair involving National League umpire Bob Engel, who is alleged to have attempted to steal 4,180 baseball cards from a store in Bakersfield, CA. And, believing that his bats were being lifted by enterprisingly larcenous clubhouse personnel, at least one American League superstar has taken the radical step of having the bats sent directly to his hotel rather than to the ball park.

But the case of Cool Papa Bell is far more serious than either of these other two. After all, it involves the alleged intimidation of an 87-year old, half-blind, sickly man, and it also involves a federal felony even more serious than the one committed by Pete Rose. There would have to be a huge payoff involved for Retort to have risked such a crime. Experts say that there was, and that it has everything to do with the nature of the memorabilia itself.

In the first place, there is a finite number of Negro League collectibles available. When Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, the Negro League essentially collapsed. Therefore, there’s no futures market in Negro League memorabilia.

In addition, the people who played in the Negro League are mainly quite old now—Bell is about the average age for a Negro League veteran—and there are not many left who even played back then. That means there are only limited prospects for the lucrative trade in replicas, in which a retired player will authorize (and autograph) things like duplicate bats and uniforms. The FBI charges that Retort and Grybowski forced Bell to sign a letter authorizing such replicas. Retort denies the charge.

Because Negro League memorabilia is so passing rare, there is no established price scale for any of it. Thus, traders are free to ask whatever price they want because there are no benchmarks by which that price can be measured. “If I saw a ball signed by the 1919 Black Sox, I’d know what that was worth,” says Alan Rosen, a New Jersey entrepreneur who’s known among memorabilia collectors as Mr. Mint. “But if I saw a ball signed by the original winners of the Black World Series, I wouldn’t know how to authenticate the signatures. I wouldn’t know how to price the thing.”

This is not an insignificant admission. Mr. Mint has been known to show up in the living rooms of baseball-card collectors with a briefcase full of cash. Indeed, if you were to skulk around Colin Cliveishly and dig up Christy Mathewson, Mr. Mint probably could price the bones for you. Nevertheless, Negro League memorabilia has brought top dollar at a number of auctions. An authentic poster advertising a Fourth ofJuly doubleheader featuring Satchel Paige once sold for $2,400. A program from an exhibition game between a Negro League All-Star team and Dizzy Dean’s barnstorming club went for $700. Intact tickets from the Negro World Series, or from the annual East-West All-Star game have fetched up to $500 apiece, and an autographed ball from the 1940 East-West game was sold to a collector for $850. A man named George Lyons even got $1,500 for an authenticated contract between a Cuban League team and one James Bell of St. Louis.

“Nobody really has any independent judgment regarding what to pay for something,” explains Herman Kaufman, a collector and auctioneer who specializes in Negro League memorabilia. “I’d say that 99 percent of collecting is pure enjoyment, but that the other one percent is knowing that you have something that nobody else has.”

Which brings up the question of how far a collector is willing to go to get what nobody else has. Investigators probing the recent massive art theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum say privately that, while they’re confident that they will apprehend the thieves, most of the actual paintings are probably gone forever, quietly sold to collectors and now hanging in someone’s library.

Kaufman dismisses the idea of a memorabilia underground—”Why buy something if you can never show it?” he asks—but others in the field are not as sanguine about the possibility. They think Cool Papa’s lucky that the FBI got most of his things back.

“If you’re asking if sometimes guys’ll come to me and say, ‘Look, I got this scuff here, and keep it between me and you where you got it,’ and that’s the deal, I’d have to say, yes that happens, says Joe Esposito of B&E Collectibles in New York. “You have to remember that you’re dealing with collectors. They’ll do anything.”

***

Cool Papa was hospitalized shortly after the incident with Retort and Grybowski. “He’s at the point of death,” says his wife. He’s at home now, but other family members wonder whether or not it’s time for him to leave the house on Cool Papa Bell Avenue and live out his days in a retirement home. They doubt whether Clarabelle can adequately care for him anymore.

“He’s very fragile and he’s very weak; ‘ says Norman Seay. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. You know, it’s funny, all those years growing up next door to him, I didn’t realize that he was a celebrity. He was just Uncle Bell. I never realized how great he really was. You know, as an African-American athlete, he never got the respect he should have. It was kind of a second-class identity for him.”

That, perhaps, is the real crime here. It’s more than a simple threat. It’s a kind of crime against history. Because of the entrenched racism of major league baseball, Cool Papa Bell never was able to profit fully from his enormous skills. At the very least, then, he ought to be able to profit fully from the accoutrements of that talent, or he ought to be able to leave it alone, snug in boxes in the basement. If what the FBI says is true, then that is the real crime here, not the mere pilfering of things to meet the demands of a marketplace gone dotty, or to satisfy an acquisitive age. *It is the further robbing of a man who’s already had too much of his self stolen.

There’s a man named Tweed Webb who knows what the crime is. He is the unofficial historian for the Negro League in St. Louis, and he is a friend of Cool Papa Bell’s. “I go back to about 1910,” he says. “I kept all my records because if you don’t have records, you can’t prove nothing happened. It’s like nothing ever did happen, if you don’t have records.

“Cool Papa, he’s been sick for 18 or 19 years, but we talk, you know? He told me about what happened right when it happened.

The FBI come out here to talk to me because, you know, I got valuable stuff myself. I got all my records, all my scorecards. Certain people’d love to get their hands on the stuff I got. But I don’t sell none of it. I pass along learning to people, but the records are priceless. At least, they’re priceless to me.”

Oddly enough, both the investigators and the defendant express concern for Bell’s health. “I did a lot of work on this out of loyalty to Cool Papa,” says Bob Reutter, G-man and baseball fan. “I heard that he wasn’t doing too well, and I wanted to get that stuff back for him. I don’t imagine the publicity’s going to help much, either. I mean, it probably isn’t good for him that people know he’s got a quarter-million dollars worth of stuff in his basement.”

“I’m worried about what all this will do to his health,” says Robert Retort. “It’s got to take a toll on the poor man.”

It will come to trial sometime this summer. For now, Connie Brooks stays in St. Louis, identifying pieces of her father’s past for the investigators. And Cool Papa Bell stays at home. He doesn’t get up much any more. In the twilight, Cool Papa Bell is already in bed. Someone else turns out the light.

Nobody was ever convicted of any crime in connection with Cool Papa Bell’s memorabilia. Cool Papa died on March 7, 1991 and he’s buried in Hilldale Cemetery near St. Louis. His fame lives on in the name of a popular Detroit funk band.

[Illustrations by Allan Mardon; Will JohnsonTom Chiarello; Mike Benny; John Wolfe]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Killing of Gus Hasford

Grover Lewis was part of a remarkable generation of Texas writers to emerge onto the national scene in the 1960s and ‘70s, including Larry McMurtry, Larry L. King, Edwin “Bud” Shrake, Gary Cartwright, Billy Lee Brammer, Dan Jenkins, and Dave Hickey.  Police records show that Lewis’ estranged parents shot and killed each other in San Antonio when he was a small child, and he was raised among uneducated and poor relatives who, for the most part, discouraged him intellectually and artistically.  He also was legally blind, making his way as best he could through substandard Texas public schools.  Yet, remarkably, he managed to become very well read and developed an encyclopedic knowledge of American film.  At what’s now the University of North Texas, he fell in with the company of other bright students with a literary bent, including McMurtry. He then pursued graduate school and newspaper work for several years.

Among Texas newspaper reporters, he developed a reputation as a hard-drinking, never-back-down journalist.  He made a name for himself nationally when he began to publish articles in the Village Voice in the late 1960s.  He then became an early staff writer and editor for Rolling Stone, where he proved to be a master of long-form journalism.  At the time, Rolling Stone was at its peak of its journalistic influence and Lewis was one its star contributors.  While he wrote about a variety of topics, his groundbreaking work was made up of dispatches from the shooting locations of some of the most important films of the 1970s.

Lewis’ tenure at Rolling Stone was relatively short-lived, however, as conflicts with publisher Jann Wenner grew.  After leaving Rolling Stone, he contributed to several magazines, notably New West and Texas Monthly.  Except for paperback collections of his Rolling Stone articles and poetry, he published no books, yet he developed a devoted cult following for his magazine pieces, a following that included important authors, editors, critics, and filmmakers.  A heavy smoker, Lewis died of lung cancer in April 1995 at age 61.  Ten years later, the University of Texas Press published Splendor in the Short Grass: A Grover Lewis Reader to wide acclaim.

W.K. (Kip) Stratton is the co-editor of Splendor In the Short Grass.

“The Killing of Gus Hasford”
By Grover Lewis

1. SEMPER GUS

“The best work of fiction about the Vietnam War,” Newsweek called Gus Hasford’s The Short-Timers when it was first published in 1979. The slim hardcover sold, like most first novels, in the low thousands, but established its author as one of the premier writing talents of his generation. In the tradition of Stephen Crane, Hemingway and James Jones, the book summoned up the horrors of war in an unrelenting voice with all the potential for world-class success.

Hasford’s critical stock rose even higher when Stanley Kubrick filmed the book as Full Metal Jacket. Released in 1987, the picture received one major Academy Award nomination—shared by Kubrick, Michael Herr and Hasford himself for best screen adaptation. At a stroke, the struggling, rootless young novelist entered the upper realms of “A-list” Hollywood. But in a skein of envy, spite and the inexorable grinding of bureaucratic “justice”—all of them compounded by Hasford’s own obsessive passion for books—his newfound celebrity backfired, and he was sent to jail on bizarrely exaggerated charges involving stolen and overdue library books.

It all combined to kill him.

Gus died alone, as he had mostly lived, in Greece on January 29 at the measly age of 45 from the complications of untreated diabetes. His death coincided eerily with the 25th anniversary of the Tet offensive, the campaign so graphically described in The Short-Timers. Two weeks after the shock of his death, 20-odd mourners had gathered in the chapel at Tacoma’s Mountain View Memorial Park. Gus’ kin sat close to the front—his mother, Hazel, a gaunt and visibly ailing Alabama native, along with Gus’ younger brother, Army Sergeant Terry Hasford, and Terry’s Korean wife, Soo. Back of them a couple of rows were the Snuffies, a cadre of Gus’ brothers-in-arms from the Vietnam days, all wearing their battle ribbons on sweaters or lapels, the five men who’d managed to attend representing a total of eight Purple Hearts.

Several editions of The Short-Timers lay on Gus’ bier, along with copies of his later books, The Phantom Blooper and A Gypsy Good Time. Gus’ picture as a stern-faced teenage Marine sat on a pedestal, The urn containing his ashes on another. His Vietnam decorations were also on display—two rows of ribbons plus-one, the highest being the Navy Achievement Medal with a Combat “V.”

Five wreaths ringed the dais—two from Gus’ family, another from “Doctor Dave” Walker, who’d been Gus’ landlord and unofficial medical adviser in his last days in America. A spray of white tulips was signed, “From all the gang down at the Cafe Cafard.” The floral tribute from the 1st MarDiv ISO Snuffies spelled out SEMPER GUS. Nothing from Hollywood—not a bud or sprig from Stanley or Michael or any of the other distant A-listers who’d profited from The Short-Timers.

Assorted friends sat across the aisle—Doctor Dave, and the book dealer Bruce Miller from San Luis Obispo, who’d supported Gus during his trial, and Kent Anderson, another formidable Vietnam War novelist. Anderson, author of Sympathy for the Devil, fidgeted in agitation. I sat just behind him, shivering a little in my lightweight L.A. clothes, In the far rear of the room, with their rifles stacked out of sight, sat six young Marines in full dress uniform, white hats squared on their blue-clad knees.

The noon ceremony was spare, simple and elegantly offbeat Steve “Bernie” Berntson, chief archivist of the Snuffies, spoke a brief eulogy and then set out bottles of Jack Daniel’s, fruit juice, Evian water and California wine. Nine other mourners, including myself, offered personal tributes to Gus, concluding with toasts to his memory. A local Presbyterian minister, a little nonplussed by the procedure, toasted God.

At the service’s conclusion, the Marine honor guard fired four volleys of salute outside the chapel, followed by a bugler playing taps. A smart-stepping Marine SNCO presented Gus’ mother with a folded American flag. “In behalf of a grateful nation, ma’am, we present this flag as a token of your son’s honorable and faithful service to the United States of America.” Mrs. Hasford sat with her eyes lowered, softly fingering the cloth. “I never could understand that boy,” she’d told one of the Snuffies a few days before, “just never could.”

In a caravan of cars, the memorial moved en masse to Berntson’s house in a nearby suburb, where the post-mortems continued through the afternoon and into the evening in a glow of sipping whiskey, fond remembrance and brusque camaraderie. Many of the characters in The Short-Timers had been modeled on the now-middle-aged Snuffies, and the men were strapping proud of the distinction. In Vietnam with Gus, they’d all been Marine combat correspondents, equally adept filing dispatches or fighting hooch-to-hooch. At Gus’ wake, circulating from bar to buffet. they openly discussed his jail sentence and its effect on him. None of them approved of his transgressions, but none of them had rejected him, either. As men who’d shared life at its worst, they viewed Gus as family—and whatever had happened, they loved him. “Capital punishment for library violations?” Gordon Fowler growled. Gordon was “Cowboy” in the book.

Bernie told perhaps the best “Gus story”: “It’s peculiar, but this happened exactly 25 years ago today. I’d set up a base camp in Hue City, and Walter Cronkite rolls up with a camera crew. He was doing a stand-upper with some pogue colonel, asking about rumors that our guys had looting. Just then Gus busts in with two black onyx panthers and a stone Buddha on his back. ‘Hey, there’s a whole temple full of this shit,’ he hollers.’ We can get beaucoup bucks for this stuff in Saigon!’ I hustled him outside quick, and Cronkite, of course, came back home and declared the war unwinnable on national TV.”

There were a million Gus stories, and some of the classic ones were told by Major Mawk Arnold, USMC (Ret.). He arrived late in the afternoon, delayed transit, but he was essential not only for his moral presence, but to carry Gus’ remains back to the Hasford family plot in Haleyville, Alabama. Picture John Huston with a shiny pate, resplendent in dress blues and battle ribbons dating back to the South Pacific and China in the 1940s. “Skipper” Arnold had created the Snuffy team by letting them make their own mistakes and victories. Nearing 70 now, he’d been the catalyst—the force who’d molded raw young snuffy recruits with reading habits and verbal skills into warrior artists in a World of Shit.

Another round of toasts commenced after dinner. Every Snuffy present had helped Gus out of various hapless jams during and ever since the war … and, Jesus, if the fucker hadn’t slipped out of their reach, maybe he wouldn’t have died. It hung over the table, unspoken. Bob Bayer (“Mr. Short-Round”) recalled driving hundreds of miles to rescue Gus from his latest broken-down lemon car. “He could start out to meet you with a thousand bucks in his pocket, walk past a bookstore, and then you’d have to spring for dinner.” Earl Gerheim (“Crazy Earl”) nodded and smiled: “Gus had a 45-year childhood—the childhood the rest of us missed, I guess.” There was general agreement that Gus had been a zany, wonderful, generous naive, impractical genius, maybe too pure in his way to die of old age. Bernie raised his wine glass. “To those of us who are near,” he said, “and those far away, and those who are beyond the wire.”

Around midnight, since we both had early flights to catch, Skipper Arnold offered me a lift. We rode across the dark city, at conversing in low tones, with Gus’ ashes in the trunk.

Back at the hotel, I packed for a wake-up call, turning over in my mind again the riddle of how Gus had become a victim instead of a victor. As much as anybody—except perhaps Gus himself—I understood how he’d been stung to death by success. But there was one more key to turn, one final labyrinth to enter—in a hilly suburb of San Diego. For the first time in two weeks, I fell into deep, dreamless sleep.

2. CAFARD

“I know this psycho vet novelist you ought to meet,” Judith Coburn, a writer for The Village Voice, told me over drinks in the spring of 1982. Coburn, one of a handful of American women to cover the Vietnam War, let me know with a look and a shrug that she’d gone out with Gus Hasford a time or two and found him too much of a headache. “Maybe !’ll bring him by.” I said sure, lovely. I’d admired Hasford’s book and was curious to meet him I figured anyone who wrote with that kind of crafted velocity would have to be a piece of work.

When the two of them arrived on the weekend, July was fuming. On the walk over. they’d argued in shouts about the IRA, wi1h Gus staunchly defending terrorism. She !eft early and he ended up staying late.

In his early 30s then, a tall, beefy lad in mismatched wash-and-wear clothes, Gus shook hands formally with my wife, Rae, and me, declined a glass for his beer, and launched into a stream-of-consciousness commentary that ranged from Nathan Redford Forrest’s cavalry tactics to Lion paperbacks, cheerfully finding a thread of comedy in everything, including Judy’s desertion. He had a huge, open, frequent country laugh, and he paced back and forth with big arms swinging. his eyeglasses and high forehead glinting, he seemed very much like a large child coming on as a swaggering Marine drill instructor. Amiable and eager to please, he was a ceaseless note-taker. If you said something be liked, he jotted it down immediately in the little leather-bound notebook he always carried with him. ‘”Hey, do you mind? I don’t want to make any more faux passes, y’know.”

With the ice broken, Gus raided the fridge for another beer, located the bathroom, and then took up position by the main bookcase in the living room, where he delivered a blistering diatribe against Harper & Row, from whose clutches he’d been trying for months to pry remainders of “Shorty,” as he called his book. “Hell, I don’t work for those candy-ass pogues,” he snorted, “they work for me.” In style, he was a master of bombast, invective and insult repartee—but his heart belonged to books. He spread his arms and said he owned over 10,000 volumes. “My God, where do you keep them?” “In a rental locker up in San Luis Obispo. It’s my research library.”

He clucked approvingly at my collection of hard-boiled titles, and pulled out a volume of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories. He read aloud a favorite passage from “Chickamauga” and said he was planning to write a biography of Bierce, plus a multivolume saga on the Civil War. Plus a novel about an American woman president, which he was presently working on. Plus a sequel to “Shorty” called The Phantom Blooper. Plus a series of six L.A. private-eye novels. His notebook was color indexed to various ongoing research projects, including Mark Twain, anarchy, the Alamo, Van Gogh, screenwriting and Abraham Lincoln—all subjects about which he expected to write books eventually. “I don’t quite have my stroke down on Hollywood yet,” he confided, “but somebody’ll film ‘Shorty’ one of these days, and I want to work on the script. My book, my movie. So maybe you’ll play me some videotapes sometimes and give me your counsel and talk to me and stuff. Hey, are we bonding yet?”

If Gus was chasing rainbows, it was on a Renaissance scale. He laid out his writing plans with such implacable certainty that you had to nod. He never quite let himself brag, but he had his path to success all mapped out, and he managed to leave the impression that he was poised for little short of world literary domination.

As a journalist, I specialized in playing fly on the wall to star misfits, and I recognized an utter original as Gus offhandedly related the bare bones of his back story. When he was a high-school kid in backwoods Alabama, he’d somehow managed to publish a nationally distributed magazine for writers called Freelance. Then, at 18, he’d joined the Marines to get away from Dixie and Mama. After the war, he’d floated through a decade of shit jobs up and down the West Coast while he honed The Short-Timers to a fine and polished point. Now, he was trying to get the bread together for a look-see trip to Australia with an idea of settling there permanently. He rejected American Civ wholesale—except for maybe Sizzlers and used-book stores. Full of outrageous opinions, he loathed “the brass” in all forms, whether military or industrial. At the moment he was flirting with anarchy, because it figured in his woman-president book, and I just laughed when he brought up the IRA as misunderstood heroes. When he got too far out for me to follow, that was my response, and usually he’d laugh, too.

Our conversation carried on into the night, and something subtle and intensely personal began to flow between us, keyed to the fact that we’d both grown up poor in the cracker South. Beneath his mock-macho manner, Gus projected unspoken miseries, unvoiced suffering—an undertone of vulnerability and isolation that he carried like a shadow. We compared notes on growing up, and I observed that neither of us had been properly raised—we’d escaped. Gus wrote it down. I began to feel protective toward him even as I laughed at his one-liners.

Still prowling our bookshelves, Gus came across Rae’s inscribed copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “Ooh,” he crowed, “do ‘y’all know the Didions and the Dunnes? Could we go over there right now? I got a thang for Joan. I want her to sit on mah face!” Elaborating his fantasy in obscene flights, Gus picked up his empties and pitched in to help with the dishes.

Rae, who’d seen Hunter Thompson puke on his shoes and survived, said after Hasford had gone, “Sweet guy. We’ll have to get him some clothes.” We agreed he was a heartbreaker. Before turning in, I made a few notes of my own, sensing that Gus was going to be part of our history, not so much as a subject but as someone who taxed my abilities to sum him up.

Gus had an uncanny way of involving you in fun that was clever and layered and kept unfolding. On his third or fourth visit, he marched out to our glassed-in lanai, switched on the neon cerveza signs, and stood silently regarding the white buildings of downtown Santa Monica just as dusk fell.

“Through those palm leaves,” he announced, “it looks just like Saigon. Outstanding! I’m naming this joint the Cafe Cafard. Do you mind?”

Cafard, he said, Was an obscure French term meaning “beyond anomie or dread” that he associated with the last-ditch warriors of Dien Bien Phu. Gus appointed himself social director, and within weeks a company of regulars formed for occasional al fresco dining and light carousal. Gus brought in Andy Dowdy, the owner of Other Times Books in West L.A., and Dowdy in turn introduced us to Philippe Garnier, a correspondent for Liberation in Paris, and his wife, Liz Stromme. It was a cozy, harmonious circle, free of competition or back-biting—a sort of R&R club for non-joiners. If you weren’t happy to be there, you weren’t invited twice. Gus hungered for acceptance, validation of his talent, and the group gave him that.

Going out in public with him was a dicier matter. He would race into a software store and say to the first clerk, “Tell me all about computers.” He’d get buzzed off, of course, without ever fully understanding why. He and I went to only one movie together—after which I slunk out guiltily because he’d talked throughout the picture. At an exhibit of Larry Clark photos, he somehow grossed out the gallery attendant. As time went on, I mainly confined my travels with him to book-buying expeditions. In bookstores, he was as well-behaved as he ever got.

As a hardcore eccentric, Gus either charmed people on the spot or scared them off quick. Full of an astonishing array of tics, tropisms, quirks and peculiar habits, he was alarmingly innocent about some things and deeply cynical about others. Everybody found him unreliable about time and totally resistant to sane advice. He imagined he was being subtle when he was being obvious. Given one of his periodic fixed ideas, you had to jolly him along toward a ray of reason. Part of him was a sunny boy and another part was permanently angry—over his childhood, the war, his poor luck with women.

Gus’ love life was a touchy issue. Oh, he could score, I gathered, but he wanted to capture some worthy woman’s heart on a permanent basis. He had his career all plotted out, but he longed for a partner to ease his loneliness. In the past, he’d been briefly married, and was bitterly estranged from his latest girlfriend in San Luis Obispo. “Brains is what I’m looking for,” he joked, “but I’ll settle for big tits.”

Our first heated words arose over Gus’ free ways with library books. In describing his reference files, he let it drop that he sometimes checked out books without returning them or otherwise “liberated” items he needed. It hit me dead wrong—my own life had literally been saved by public libraries in Texas—and I jumped down his throat about it, pointing out the obvious fact that library books belonged to everybody.

“Well,” he said defensively, “I need them more than everybody. If the libraries would just let me, I’d buy the stuff outright. Cut me a huss, willya?” If Gus got really sore, the cranky child would come out in him and he’d stalk off with his hands clenched. Not knowing the extent of his “borrowings” and mildly rattled by my own moralizing, I marked it up to one more mad-cap quirk. You had to make allowances for such a wild hair.

When we’d first met, Hasford had been living in his car “between motels”—a fact he didn’t mention until his fortunes improved. That occurred when a Munich businessman with no visible ties to the movie world optioned the screen rights to The Short-Timers—acting, as it turned out, for Stanley Kubrick. Gus broke the good news by brandishing a one-way Qantas ticket to Australia. All of us were jubilant at his prospects, since he stood to make handsome royalties from his worldwide literary rights alone, not to mention the prestige that would come from Kubrick’s involvement. At a bon voyage party, Hasford grandly signed and passed out remainders of “Shorty” to one and all. As the evening wound down, I commented that it might be tough for him to find a spot in Kubrick’s plans. Gus grinned: “Hey, I’m a self-motivated individual.” “Well, I’ll spread your fame,” I said. “Okay, I’ll keep you posted,” he promised.

His first letter to us was dated November 23, 1982—from Perth, on Australia’s far western shore:

I am, as we say so poetically in Alabama, happier than a pig in shit…Some big star is supposed to be interested in “Shorty” but they won’t tell me who it is until they sign the deal…I am trying to work on my famous thriller about the first woman president but so far my discipline is zero…Selling a book for lots of $ will be the end of my writing career because as soon as I have money I’ll see that I really don’t want to write, I just love to fan about with books and little projects…

The same week, Gus confided to Bob Bayer, his closest Snuffy pal:

My famousness seems out of control and may grow to proportions so awesome I’ll be scared to speak to myself. Yesterday I got a call from Stanley Kubrick—no shit…It was like Moses talking to the burning bush, a pea picker from Alabama and your basic cinematic legend…Don’t tell anybody, but I think I wet my pants…I feel totally out of my class…So now I’ll be more famous and more people will get mad at me, but there it is…Just don’t anybody accuse me of becoming arrogant—I always been arrogant.

(Dec. 8) Dear Grover & Rae…I don’t know if I should order a Rolls-Royce or get on welfare from one day to the next…I’m 35 now, so I have to be good. I come from a family of chronic dyers. Diars? Anyway, I have the death certificates of about 30 of my blood ancestors, and stress knocked them all off, so I’m mellowing my own self out… Stanley… is a thoroughly charming and easy-going fellow, just a good ole boy who happens to have made about half of the classic films in America. I talk to him every few days. We are trying to come up with a more satisfying ending for “Shorty”…I said, “But Stanley, the Vietnam War bloody well wasn’t satisfying.” “Right,” he said, “but they made you go…while we’ve got to convince people to pay to see this movie.”…That’s show business…Give them my regards at the Cafe Cafard.

(Jan. 4, 1983) Greetings Bob & America…Stanley and I, after about a dozen long talks, are lobbing frags. I told Stanley he didn’t know shit from Shinola about Vietnam. And he’s so sensitive, he got mad…Boy, famous people think they know everything.

Hasford returned to California in May 1983. Having given up his idea of emigrating and abandoned his thriller, he seemed almost desperately glad to see our friendly faces again. After a reunion in Santa Monica, he moved into a downscale motel in San Luis Obispo to be near his precious “storage.” In the coming months, striking several of us as slightly off his stride, he made two connections that would vex him for the rest of his life.

Early in the summer, he met an attractive young woman named Tidwell, a student at Claremont. Smitten at first sight, Gus decided she was the girl of his dreams. Tidwell, although friendly, failed to return his interest. No matter—he started writing her epic-length letters and showering her with gifts and attentions, determined to change her mind.

He also fell into a troubling relationship with a fast-talking pretty-boy sidekick I’ll call Hacker. A dabbler at writing and exotic con games, Hacker had hatched a bald scheme to accompany Gus to England to “cool out Stanley.” Forever posturing, Hacker was so up-front in his brown-nosing, so transparent in his envy of Gus’ talent, that I eventually barred the door to him. For a time, the two of them shared Hacker’s house in Sacramento. They traded books and competed for the same women until their chummy friendship turned to mutual hatred. When Gus decamped, he left behind him not only a poisonous enemy, but a time bomb set to explode.

(Feb. 1, I984—from San Luis Obispo) Hi Gang…”Shorty” is on the road to cinematic legend, etc. I’m rich now, only I don’t have any money. What an odd sensation. I can’t wait to see what it feels like to be rich and also have the money.

I told you I was planning…to do a series of tough-guy detective stories…I decided that the name of the detective’s partner will be “Dowdy Lewis.” Works pretty good, huh?…I still would like to see Killer’s Kiss…Stanley gets miffed every time I mention this film, so I mention it all the time. Or I say I liked Spartacus, another one he doesn’t care for…I’m going to go live at Stanley’s house and we’ll write the screenplay. Then I’m going to be technical advisor during the production…The other day he threatened to hire Michael Herr to help him write the film. I told him, be my guest. Stanley can’t replace me…Michael Herr can rite gud, but he wasn’t a Marine, he was just a very perceptive tourist…I promise not to eat cocaine with a spoon. I’m 36 now, got to pace myself. I think about a year or two of this show business bullshit is going to be enough to last me for a long time.

(Jan. 18, 1985—from a Mayfair address in London) Hi, mates!…I miss you guys. And Tidwell—I miss Tidwell a lot…I found (via Stanley’s connections) a really cute and cozy little flat right in the heart of the city…Stanley and I are getting along great. Michael Herr and I are big pals. I had dinner over at his place last night…Look for the movie around 1999—Stanley…insists on doing every single thing himself. Today Michael and I were joking with him, saying that when the film came out Stanley would probably insist on taking the tickets…Stanley didn’t think it was funny. He just looked at us with that Buddha face of his, as though considering doing just that…

(July 14—return address c/o Michael Herr)…Here in London the Great Movie Wars…are going hot and heavy. The situation is very complex, but the basic issue is one of screen credit. I’ve pretty much written Stanley’s movie (Michael and I are big pals now, but—off the record—Michael’s biggest contribution…has been his famous name) and Stanley has added a few minor things, but essentially the screenplay is by me. But Stanley wants to give me an “additional dialogue” credit…He threatens to pull the plug on the whole thing. Meanwhile, I am refusing to sign my screenwriter’s contract. Shooting was scheduled to start on July 1st, so I have held up the production for two weeks…I’m starting to feel all alone, like Gary Cooper in High Noon…Don’t worry about [Tidwell and me]…she won’t hear from me again. I never meant to be such a pain in the ass for everybody. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again…Don’t worry about Stanley and the movie, [either]. It’ll work out. Stanley has got more tricks than there are recipes for chili…

But back in Santa Monica we were worried—about Gus’ blinding naiveté and the fact that he had no agent. I wrote to him on July 23:

Try to think and go slow. The real power that the world will see in Full Metal Jacket is yours—and everybody who is past eating with his hands will know that. So if you take the money…and the…”Additional Dialogue,” so what? You will be buying yourself entry to . . . future big-time screen credits and much bigger book money in the long haul. What’s “right” by Hollywood standards is who says what’s right. That might not be suitable to your taste or mine, but it’s the way things work.

(Aug. 13—handwritten letter from Paris) Sorry I haven’t written in so long, but I hate to write…when I’m depressed…Stanley is bullying me, threatening me, and trying to rape me, and every day I’m getting hysterical phone calls from my mother because [Hacker] is calling her up and telling her all kinds of hateful fantasies—I’ve just driven that boy insane with my “success”—a “success” that is such a curse to me…What else? I’m broke. I’m in a city where I don’t know anybody. I feel old. I miss Tidwell every minute of the day…I miss all you guys.

(September—handwritten letter from London with a Bantam editor’s return address). The situation now is that I have delayed signing…until Stanley was forced to start filming, which he did on Aug. 25. The white flag has not yet waved…but I have beaten that self-described Napoleon son-of-a-bitch and I have beat him fair and square…I will mark [Hacker's] file “case closed” after I knock off his kneecaps. For some things, you’ve got to pay the price…

(March 1, 1986—from Gus’ former address in Perth) Late Flash: FILMING IS FINISHED!…I cannot believe this situation. I finally pried a copy of the shooting script out of Stanley’s famously anal-retentive fingers. It’s 99% mine. I got records, copies, witnesses…I got this shit locked in concrete. So here is a major motion picture written by a guy who has not signed any kind of contract, nor made a verbal contract, nor entered into an implied contract. This may be unique, I don’t know. Stanley thinks I’m worried about collecting the relatively small amount of money he owes me for screenwriting, plus getting some kind of credit, while I’m thinking that until I have received the money and the credit I deserved and was promised, I own his fucking movie…By and by Warner Brothers will hear about how far out on a limb their ass is—and how prime for the manual insertion of a big piece of paper with Latin on it, and then the rivers will run upstream…because there is only one rule in the movie business—The Golden Rule—he who has the gold makes the rules…I stumbled a few times…but now I think I’ve got this “Success” thing whipped. I’ve learned to view it in its proper perspective—that is, as a comedy…Defections, betrayals and swamped egos are just routine and are not my fault—I see that now…It really is something quite astonishing and pathetic [and] really, really scary. I have been introduced…as Gus/slash/Kubrick movie and I’ve seen seemingly normal people…with almost perfectly concealed egos that are like chained monsters—monsters so ugly, malformed, and sick with ruthlessness that they would make Count Dracula weep…So now…I can’t be the same, because everybody is relating to me differently…I’ve learned some stuff, but the price bas been high—almost higher than I could pay…I can only hope that the people that I care about will allow me to exist by seeing that it’s just old plain me back here behind this blizzard of little tinfoil stars…Stress kills but adrenalin keeps you young. Happy trails…

(May 20—from Perth)…In the cynical world of L.A., where show *biz* deals are conducted in the back alleys of cocktail parties like self-parodying out-takes from a comedic film noir, you might want to interject this lively note…I won my credit battle with Stanley, I beat Stanley, City Hall, The Powers That Be, and all of the lawyers at Warner Brothers, up to and including the Supreme Boss Lawyer. As a little Canuck…friend of mine would say: I kicked dey butt…I’m sort of bracing myself for all the attention that’s coming…[but] I can’t imagine anything more likely to seduce me into the far side of negotiating than this rush I am experiencing after taking on these movie people, the Big Boys, the Money Men & Yankees—and coming out with a decisive victory. As an Apache said: “Who will they send against me now?”…After Stanley gave up and decided that I wasn’t the hillbilly they stand in line to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to, Michael Herr wrote me a nice letter, which included his reaction to…the movie. Michael speaks with some authority … which is even more impressive if you know that Michael is so level-headed that it’s a mistake he wasn’t born an Englishman: “Your work has been treated with extreme sensitivity and respect…I think it’s going to be a great movie, and a landmark movie, maybe the best war movie ever made, and one that could be of incredible importance and usefulness to everyone involved…it is also, incidentally or not so incidentally, incredibly faithful to your book, to the real heart of your work…” I’d better go roll up in the old saddle blanket…I’m looking forward to being able to step up to the bar at the Cafe Cafard…

3. SOME CAME RUNNING

 

When Hasford flew home for the release of Full Metal Jacket, I interviewed him for the L.A. Times Sunday magazine. It was an ordeal—collaring Gus in his paranoia for a taped interview, working up a quick profile that did him justice without caricaturing him, and then nursing the text through the Times‘ pasteurization process. On the record, Gus cagily moderated his comments about about Stanley and Michael, but he was jittery about the piece and pressed me several times to see it.

Two days before the pub date—too late to change a word—I showed him the galleys. He read through the story several times, seeming gruffly pleased. Since he was camped out on our sofa, the two of us sat up late watching the glass elevator glide up and down the side of the nearby Huntley Hotel. Just before turning in, picking my moment, I asked: “How exactly did you kick dey butts, Gus?” He gave a short, abrupt laugh as if to say touché. “I forced them. Those fuckers retyped my book and wanted to put their names on it. So I told Stanley, either give me my credit or I’m going to the press—Gloria Emerson and Frances Fitzgerald and all my other old pals in the media—and say, ‘Hey, I’m a Vietnam veteran and Kubrick’s ripping me off.’ It would’ve killed the movie, so Stanley saw his way clear to cut me some slack.” The hair on the nape of my neck stood up. It wasn’t what I would’ve done, but I couldn’t help admiring his audacity, either. Still, I thought he might be fooling around with some kind of high-stakes bad karma.

Gus devoted the better part of two weeks to promoting the film. Warner Bros. put him up at the Westwood Marquis, where he gave phone interviews and amused himself by ordering $25 hamburgers from room service. “Hell, order a steak,” his buddy Bob Bayer advised. “What,” Gus cried, “and go back on my raising? Burgers are still my meat.” Since childhood, he’d subsisted almost exclusively on junk food (Ding Dongs were probably the most nutritious strain). During his time abroad, he’d started putting on excessive weight, causing several of us to wonder about his health. If we hinted that it might be a worthwhile idea to get a medical checkup, he’d say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah”—meaning the opposite.

Gus was threatened by celebrity, apprehensive about what he saw as the black hole of success, and after his flacking duties were finished, he seemed touchy and insecure, easy to rile. To cool him out and reintroduce him around, Rae arranged a series of dinners, inviting many of the writers and artists we knew. Gus thought he wanted to hobnob with the Westside literati—until he met some of them. The literary crowd tended to regard him as an amusing freak of nature—he didn’t have manners exactly like theirs. Gus could scent condescension at a thousand yards. He got along much better and found more in common with wheeling boho painters like Joe Clower, Jim Hayward and Robin Palanker.

Gradually, Hasford regained his easy-going composure and began enjoying his new status. Full Metal Jacket was playing to full houses all over America, and Bantam’s new paperback edition of The Short-Timers was on sale everywhere. The book was a global franchise now—a dozen translations poured in during the summer—and Louis Blau, Kubrick’s tony U.S. lawyer took Gus on as a client, placing The Phantom Blooper with Bantam for publication in 1990. Gus found a spacious, comfortable place to live in San Clemente, forming a lasting odd-couple relationship with his landlord, Dr. David Walker. Free of stress and money worries for the first time in his life, Gus went on a shopping spree, treating himself to a big-screen TV, a VCR, a Jeep and a new flak jacket. He lavished gifts on his friends and took a cross-country drive to tour the Southern battlefields. By mail, he conducted a heated side feud with Kubrick over Lee Ermey, the film’s drill instructor, whom Hasford labeled “a fucking pogue lifer” and a propagandist for the official Marine Corps pro-war line on Vietnam. Happy in his new digs, Gus puttered with his various projects and spent hours on San Clemente beach, where he claimed the world’s most beautiful women gathered to sunbathe.

Only romance—the lasting kind he yearned after—continued to elude him. The up side was that he met and dated a number of attractive new women. The down side—most of them, he was convinced, had dollar signs in their eyes. Gus’ ex-wife, whom he hadn’t seen in a dozen years, tracked him down after his picture appeared in the press. Her new husband ran some kind of bucket-shop phone-sales operation. She asked Gus to make a $25,000 investment. He declined, and related the story afterward with a mixture of rue and wrath.

Hasford still missed Tidwell, so he looked her up with the hope of renewing his courtship. Rejected again, he began bombarding her with angry letters. Tidwell showed me some of them, a little alarmed and seeking advice. I read a few pages and blanched—it was dark, spooky stuff, Gus’ usual invective gone off the rails. Fond of both of them, I gingerly interceded, asking him to ease up and try his luck elsewhere. The barrage of letters ceased, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t give up the idea of winning the girl he’d chosen to adore. His persistence had paid off with “Shorty.” Why not with Tidwell?

On February 11, 1988, Hasford, Kubrick and Herr were nominated for the best screenplay adaptation of 1987 by the Writers Guild of America, and a week later the three were also nominated for the Academy Award. Andy Dowdy and I urged Gus to attend the ceremonies for the sheer novelty of the experience. “Nah,” Gus snorted, “I’d have to wear a tuxedo.” But he asked Rae to plan an Oscar-night party for him at the Cafe Cafard.

Less than a month later, the time bomb that had been ticking for almost five years exploded. On March 21, in the Calendar section, the L.A. Times reported. “Jerry Gustav Hasford is being sought by California Polytechnic State University authorities, who late last week discovered some 10,000 books from libraries around the world in a storage locker in San Luis Obispo rented to the author.” The item went on to say that campus police had located overdue books from Cal Poly, delinquent to the sum of $3,000 in library fines, as well as rare books from libraries in England and Australia. “Authorities say the address and Social Security number listed on [Hasford's] card were false. No arrest warrant has been sought because investigators must first inventory the books, contained in 396 cardboard boxes that comprise a pile 27 feet long, five feet wide, and five feet tall.” In its essentials, the same story was carried on the AP wire (where it originated), in the L.A. Herald Examiner, and on CNN and KNBC-TV.

I tried to reach Gus all day. In a state close to shock, I also spent hours calling back and forth with Dowdy, Philippe Garnier, Tidwell and Bob Bayer, whom I knew only slightly, at the time. Bayer drove by Hasford’s place, found it deserted, and speculated that Gus was on the road to Tacoma to see his mother.

Ten thousand books from libraries around the world—that part of the story, I knew, had to be rubbish. And why, with no arrest warrant issued and no inventory of losses compiled and no “allegeds” in the copy, had the story run at all? Whether true or false, a charge of library theft was the toughest kind of antisocial beef to beat, a universally despicable offense that even illiterate slobs could feel superior about. As a former daily newsman, I realized that in two inches of type, Gus had I been branded a bug—effectively lynched. On some instinctive level, I also knew that any chance for him to win the Oscar had vanished and that his career had been permanently blighted, if not destroyed.

Two days later, with Gus still out of touch, Louis Blau called to ask if l knew his whereabouts, “Things are not as bleak as they seem,” the attorney said, “but it’s important that I reach him before they become bleak.” Miles Corwin of the L.A. Times also rang up to ask for Gus’ phone number. I told him I thought the initial story had been misreported, and he promised to look into it. Later, he called back to say that some 800 books were in question, not 10,000. He added, “They may have gotten in over their heads up there [Cal Poly],” and conceded that the original AP story had been mishandled by a local stringer.

On March 26, five days after the hub-bub erupted, Gus checked in with us from a highway pay phone. He seemed calm and oddly detached when I asked him what had happened. ‘The assholes ganged up one me,” he said. “You remember Hacker? Well, he had his eye on Tidwell, so I took off with some of his books for payback, left him mad. And he got together with my ex-girlfriend, who was mad at me, too. They hooked up with some showboat rent-a-cop at Cal Poly who thinks he’s Matlock.” Gus didn’t seem terribly upset then or a couple of days later when he came by to visit. As we talked through the evening, it sank in on me that he’d decided to treat the whole affair as a minor annoyance. The worst of it, he said, was that the “college-boy pogues” had all of his books. He planned to pay his fine or whatever and put it all behind him.

Ray Berrett of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus police with books seized from a campus-area storage locker rented by Hasford. Photo via the LA Times.

An AP follow-up ran in the Times on March 31—”Author Nominated for an Oscar Charged in Library Book Thefts.” The story related that Gus had been charged with grand theft on a Sacramento warrant dating to mid 1985, alleging that he’d stolen 50 to 100 books worth more than $1,000. (This was in addition to the Cal Poly allegations, not yet legally charged.) Bail was set at $50,000. The AP’s theft count had dropped from 10,000 to “9,816 books from libraries as far away as Australia and Great Britain.”

Miles Corwin’s lengthy story about Gus and his troubles, running the next day in the Times, corrected the stolen-book count to “hundreds,” but without stressing the exaggeration of the original reports. Ray Berrett, the Cal Poly campus police investigator who “broke” the case, was pictured and quoted: ‘”All the librarians [we called] said [Hasford] had checked out books, didn’t return them and then disappeared’…The San Luis Obispo County district attorney could issue a warrant…Berrett [went on]…’If [Hasford] gets an Oscar…an officer could hand him the warrant [at the ceremony] and say…put your hands behind your back and away we go.’”

Corwin’s story alluded to, without naming, Gus’ former girlfriend—”a librarian at Cal Poly”—and Hacker—”a man who said Hasford was a house guest…and left ‘unexpectedly with a number of books’…found in Hasford’s collection.”

At our Oscar-night fete for him on April 11, Gus handed out signed Full Metal Jacket posters and copies of an editorial cartoons showing a reader being arrested at gunpoint for overdue library books. Hasford arrived at the party “fashionably late like a famous Hollywood screenwriter” with a couple of brainless little dumplings he introduced as “neighbor girls.” The turnout was large and supportive, and Gus was especially pleased to see two writers whose work he admired—Kent Anderson and Scott Bradfield. “Awww,” we all chorused when The Last Emperor won the best adapted screenplay award, but Gus actually seemed relieved. He talked at length with Bradfield and Philippe Garnier about the Greek isles, his latest idée fixe being to move there when he got his library intact again. Offering and responding to toasts, he drank more than usual—the only time I ever recalled seeing him tight.

Once in motion, the legal machinery ground on inexorably, and like a top reversing itself, Hasford’s life began to spin the other way. At first, Gus thought he’d be shielded by Louis Blau’s venerable reputation as a lawyer, but he ended up retaining a San Luis Obispo attorney named Orlan Donley, who eventually billed him around $20,000. On June 23, Hasford pleaded innocent to two counts of grand theft and 10 counts of possession of stolen property at an arraignment in the San Luis Obispo County Municipal Court He was booked at the county jail and freed on $7,500 bail. “Books from 77 different libraries were found in Hasford’s collection,” Miles Corwin reported in the Times, and the AP finally reduced its count to “hundreds of stolen books.” Later, Bruce Miller, the San Luis Obispo bookseller, was appalled to discover that the campus police investigating Gus’ collection often confused university-press books with university property.

For a while, Hasford maintained an outer calm, but I knew he was on the far edge, trying not to look down into the abyss. Traveling constantly between San Clemente and San Luis Obispo for the preparation of his case, he made our place a regular stopover going both ways. By the end of the summer, he looked worn down and started talking nonstop about an idea he’d had for his next book—an expose of the overblown charges against him. He said he planned to hire private eyes to get the goods on his persecutors, the vicious pack of enemies who’d conspired to turn his fame against him. “It’s ugly enough for this country,” he said. “It’ll sell millions.”

Early in November, Orlan Donley solicited a character reference for Hasford to present to the San Luis Obispo Probation Department, and I promptly dispatched it. A week or so later, Gus stopped by on his way to the hearing. The outcome was crucial, so I sat him down, fed him half a box of doughnuts, and gave him a sort of George-and-Lennie pep talk about how important it was for him to keep his equilibrium. A day later he came back ranting about a run-in with the hard-ass woman officer assigned to his case. She was hostile and bent on destroying him, he claimed, and they’d gotten into a shouting match right off the bat when she questioned his attitudes toward women. “What’s that crap got to do with anything?” he raged. “My old girlfriend probably put her up to it and she was just laying for me.” A couple of weeks later, on December 2, Hasford pleaded no contest to possessing stolen property, with two counts of grand theft dismissed in the terms of the plea bargain. The prosecutor—Deputy D.A. Terry Estrada Mullaney—recommended that Hasford serve six months in jail. Even so, Gus held out hopes of getting off with a hefty fine, payment of restitution costs and maybe a stretch of community service.

Surprising almost no one, except Gus himself, the court creamed him when he came up for sentencing on January 4, 1989. Superior Court Judge Warren Conklin ordered Hasford to serve six months in jail and five years’ probation for the theft of 748 books from nine libraries and “one individual.” The court also fined Gus $1,100 and directed him to pay shipping costs for the return of the books. After the verdict, Estrada-Mullaney, with a celebrity scalp on her belt, said Hasford’s punishment would “serve as a lesson that stealing library books is a serious offense.” Stunned, half expecting to walk free, Hasford was handcuffed instead and taken directly to a rural annex of the San Luis Obispo County jail, where he was issued an orange jumpsuit and assigned to manual labor on a road crew.

(Jan. 17—handwritten letter from the San Luis Obispo County Jail) Dear Grover and Rae: Just a note from the Stone Hotel to assure you that I am okay…A lot of people seem to be cashing in their chips on me…Perhaps it’s good to drop off deadwood every so often…I stand corrected, but firm…Because the facts are on my side…and I am neither discouraged, nor intimidated, but am rather inexorable, like fate. Bayer [is] planning a party for me [in San Diego] when I get out…I hope you guys will be able to make it down. Remember what Nietzsche said—”What does not kill me only serves to make me stronger. XX’s and OO’s…

Gus called us from jail the same week his letter arrived. He said the San Luis Obispo slammer was hellish—a constant din of racketing TV, stinking meals and nothing to read. His voice was raspy from a cold, full of wounded pride and barely reined-in belligerence.

We talked for most of an hour, and Gus’ mood veered between frantic and laid-back, manic and depressive. He rambled obscurely about Tidwell and “cutting his losses,” and as gently as possible, I urged him to stop obsessing about things he couldn’t control. In a defiant tone, he said he had no regrets about anything except getting caught. “Oh, I regret being snitched on—I regret being in here with all these junkies and head cases. I’m putting it all in my expose book. This shithole’s so boring, I’m already writing the opening in my head.” Finally, I rattled off some old Cagney prison-break lines and got him to laughing. When I offered to come up for a visit, he said no, but we agreed to meet at Bayer’s party down the line.

Hasford promised to call us regularly, but a week went by without him checking in, and then another. Concerned about his health, Rae wrote him several letters without receiving a reply. The silence—and our growing uneasiness—stretched from weeks to several months, and by the time we saw a news brief in the Times about Gus’ early release from jail in April, we still hadn’t heard from him. Incredible, but there it was—Hasford had broken off contact with us for no discernible reason.

“It was the Didions and the Dunnes,” Rae decided, rolling her eyes. “That Joan’s such an iceberg.”

Getting brushed off without cause was a bitter pill for me to swallow, and I burned with resentment until I caught myself and thought: You’re acting just like Hacker. Feeling spurned. In the end, Rae and I settled into thinking of Gus as an absent friend. We assumed his delusion or whatever the hell was bugging him was temporary, and we expected to see him at the door again when the fit had passed. But with our social director on French leave, the gypsy good times were over. The chairs were stacked on Table No. 1 and the Cafe Cafard was closed until further notice.

4. EX LIBRIS

What Rae and I didn’t know was that the disgrace and ritual humiliation had already started to kill him by the time he left the San Luis Obispo lockup. Ravaged by a cold and then intestinal flu, Hasford had dropped 40 pounds as a prisoner. In time, he gained back some of the weight, but he never really regained his health or strength or spirit.

Bob Bayer started telling me the end of Hasford’s story as we drove along a commercial strip in suburban San Diego, headed for a location Bayer wanted to keep secret. “When he first got out, Gus was in pretty rocky shape. It took him a long time and a lot of effort to get his stuff back from the police. Cost him a bundle, too. And things were missing—a collection of $20 gold pieces, for one. I’m not sure what else was taken, but they got him coming and going—whacked him for stealing, and then stole from him when he couldn’t do anything about it.

“Gus started drinking around that time—drinking a lot of beer and wine at night. Said he couldn’t get to sleep otherwise. He’d never had that problem before. You know, he’d go out, maybe have a beer or two, but he never really drank all that much. He was living in a motel in El Cajon so he could be close to his books, which he was reorganizing after trucking them down from SLO. I was recycling cans at home, and he’d bring over big trash bags full of tall Colt 45 empties every couple of weeks. He drank those by the case. Plus, wine—a lot of wine.

“He just wasn’t ever himself again after going to jail. It weighed on him heavily, you know, on his mental attitudes. He was afraid to take planes afterwards, and he talked a lot about applying for political asylum in France. And that big expose he was planning to write—hiring private dicks and everything? I told him, ‘Gus, nobody’s gonna care about this shit three years from now—it’s a small time legal deal. Focus the energy you’ve got on your bigger projects.’ But he wouldn’t let go of it.”

I mentioned that I’d had an almost identical conversation with Hasford.

Bayer nodded, grinning ruefully. “Gus just totally lacked common sense. His diabetes, for instance. When he got his books back in order, he went up to Tacoma to stay with his mother and brother in a real small apartment, sleeping on the floor. He was still drinking all the time and feeling lousy constantly, so Bernie Berntson dragged him—almost physically—to a V.A. hospital. They ran tests and gave him an insulin shot on the spot. After that, Doctor Dave, who’d moved his practice to Seattle, kept after Gus to get his diet regulated, get his weight down under proper guidance. Dave told Gus he probably shouldn’t be going to Greece. Everybody else told him the same thing. By the fall, he’d moved into a pensione in Aegina, about 45 miles by boat off the Greek coast. By that time, he was hardly even writing letters anymore, so l called him in December and asked if he was under a doctor’s care and so on. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’—you know the drill. Apparently, he was alone when he died. The woman who owned the pensione found him in his room.”

As we approached what resembled a small city of prefab warehouses, Bayer braked the car and fumbled for his wallet. He was a 40-something married man who worked as an editor for the San Diego edition of the L.A. Times, but since the two of them had first met as teenage warriors in Vietnam in 1967, Bayer—”Mr. Short-Round”—had been Gus’ ever-patient best friend and obliging gofer, nurse, handyman, charge d’affaires…and the keeper of the keys to Gus’ library. Turning out of traffic, Bayer fed a plastic ID card into an electronic gate, and we pulled up the macadam drive to the numbered door of Hasford’s book locker.

It was a standard mini-storage unit with plastic skylight and a plywood floor, measuring 10 by 60 feet. Massive cardboard boxes filled with books and papers crowded almost every inch of space, making it tricky to move around. Out of sheer nervous energy, Bayer and I rough-counted the cartons, arriving at a tally just under 900. Gus had believed he could master any subject if he could find the right books to study. Books, the printed word, had been his college, his tabernacle—the secret labyrinth at the center of which he lived.

Bayer tapped his toe against a Marine-issue footlocker stenciled with Hasford’s initials. “It was fun being Gus’ friend,” he said, shaking his head reflectively. “It wasn’t always easy, but it was always fun.”

I wandered along the narrow squeeze-space between the stacks of boxes, reading labels. In the gloom near the rear wall, I spotted a carton marked A GYPSY GOOD TIME—COPIES. The book had been published just before Gus left for Greece—the first of his “Dowdy Lewis” series—and as I well knew, the dedication read:…to the regular patrons of the Cafe Cafard: Grover and Rae Louis, Philippe and Liz Gamin, Andy Dowdy…and, of course, especially, to Tidwell.

While Bayer found his coat and prepared to lock up, I ducked outside for some air and a moment alone. I was still tasting bile over Gus’ death—the sheer, needless waste of it. He’d died by many hands, including his own, but basically I thought, he’d been pecked to death by chickenshits. His real crime was being hopelessly different from most people in a claptrap culture where everything was considered transient, talent a mere currency. In my mind’s eye, l could see a montage of Gus’ blood enemies—smug, merciless, “correct” killer wimps—gorging on their casual road kill.

I paced along the tarmac like Gus, with my hands clenched. Slipped beyond the wire now, Hasford still taxed my ability to sum him up. But l could say for certain that he was irreplaceable. Full of shortcomings and human failings, not a grown-up at all on some level, afflicted with built-in buzz-saw cussedness and a deadly book jones, he had been nonetheless gallant, large-hearted, steadfast—a man of honor with complicated gifts and brave, bad attitudes in a wretched time, a Southern romantic to the core and forever a soldier. Hollywood hadn’t even looked up from its chips at his passing, but among those who’d taken the time to see him clearly, Gus was well-loved. I wondered if it was something he ever fully knew.

The Short-Timers stood as his his major testament. To write it, Hasford had outwitted poverty and class prejudice and his own callow ignorance and lack of education. As long as the Vietnam War was recalled, his book would be read as one of its defining documents—raw and galling and true as spilled blood.

At the corner of the warehouse, I stood smoking and warming my back in the washed-out February sunlight. I’d thought in advance that coming to see Gus’ locker would be my last step with him, but l knew now that I’d never be through with Gus. Maybe I’d get down to Alabama to visit his grave with Skipper Arnold, who lived in a town not too far from Haleyville. For sure, I meant to go for a walk on San Clemente beach when the sunbathers were in force. Laughing and joking, Gus had talked a blue streak about the beach and all its lustrous beauties. When he died, he’d say, he wanted his ashes scattered there so all the gorgeous girls could sit on his face for eternity.

That night I dreamed about Gus Hasford. He had come back home to the fold, bearing an armful of books.

This story originally appeared in LA Weekly, June 4–10, 1993. It is reprinted here with permission of Rae Lewis.

[Images of Hasford via: gustavhasford.com; photos by Linus Lohoff, Nicole Franzen and mrfreakz; painting by DK Stone]

The Banter Gold Standard: Brownsville Bum

Here’s what Jimmy Breslin calls the best magazine story ever written:

“Brownsville Bum”

By W.C. Heinz

It’s a funny thing about people. People will hate a guy all his life for what he is, but the minute he dies for it they make him out a hero and they go around saying that maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all because he sure was will- ing to go the distance for whatever he believed or whatever he was.

That’s the way it was with Bummy Davis. The night Bummy fought Fritzie Zivic in the Garden and Zivic started giving him the business and Bummy hit Zivic low maybe 30 times and kicked the referee, they wanted to hang him for it. The night those four guys came into Dudy’s bar and tried the same thing, only with rods, Bummy went nuts again. He flattened the first one and then they shot him, and when everybody read about it, and how Bummy fought guns with only his left hook and died lying in the rain in front of the place, they all said he was really something and you sure had to give him credit at that.

“So you’re AI Davis?” one of the hoods said. “Why you punch-drunk bum.”

What did they expect Bummy to do? What did they expect him to do the night Zivic gave him the thumbs and the laces and walked around the referee and belted Bummy? Bummy could hook too good ever to learn how to hold himself in, if you want the truth of it.

That was really the trouble with Bummy. Bummy blew school too early, and he didn’t know enough words. A lot of guys who fought Zivic used to take it or maybe beef to the referee, but Bummy didn’t know how to do that. A lot of guys looking at four guns would have taken the talk and been think- ing about getting the number off the car when it pulled away, but all Bummy ever had was his hook.

Bummy came out of Brownsville. In the sports pages they are always refer- ring to Brownsville as the fistic incubator of Brooklyn, because they probably mean that a lot of fighters come out of there. Murder, Inc., came out of there, too, and if you don’t believe it ask Bill O’Dwyer. If it wasn’t for Brownsville maybe Bill O’Dwyer wouldn’t have become the mayor of New York.

The peculiar thing about Brownsville is that it doesn’t look so tough. There are trees around there and some vacant lots, and the houses don’t look as bad as they do over on Second Avenue or Ninth Avenue or up in Harlem. Don’t tell Charley Beecher, though, that you don’t think it’s so tough.

“What’s the matter you sold the place?” Froike said to Charley the other day. “It ain’t the same, now you sold it.”

Charley Beecher used to run the poolroom “With the gym behind it on the comer of Georgia and Livonia where Bummy used to train. It was a good little gym with a little dressing room and a shower, and Charley was a pretty good featherweight in the twenties, and his brother Willie, who was even a better fighter, fought Abe Attell and Johnny Dundee and Jack Britton and Leach Cross and Knockout Brown.

“For 17 years I was in business,” Charley said. “Seventeen times they stuck me up.”

He looked at Froike, and then he pointed with his two hands at his mouth and his ears and his eyes.

“I had guns here and here and here,” he said. “All I ever saw was guns.”

The worst part was that Charley knew all the guys. A week after they’d heist him they’d be back for a little contribution, maybe a C note. They’d be getting up bail for one of the boys, and they just wanted Charley to know there were no hard feelings about the heist, and that as long as he kept his dues up they’d still consider him friendly to the club. That’s how tough Brownsville was.

Bummy had two brothers, and they were a big help. They were a lot older than Bummy, and the one they called Little Gangy and the other they called Duff. Right now Gangy is doing 20 to 40, just to give you an idea, and Bummy took a lot of raps for them, too, because there were some people who couldn’t get back at Gangy and Duff so they took it out on the kid.

When Bummy was about seven his father used to run a candy and cigar store and did a little speaking on the side. In other words, he always had a bottle in the place, and he had Bummy hanging around in case anybody should say cop. When the signal would go up Bummy would run behind the counter and grab the bottle, and he was so small nobody could see him over the counter and he’d go out the back.

One day Bummy was going it down the street with the bottle under his coat and some real smart guy stuck out his foot. Bummy tripped and the bottle broke, and Bummy looked at the bottle and the whiskey running on the sidewalk and at the guy and his eyes got big and he started to scream. The guy just laughed and Bummy was lying right on the sidewalk in the whiskey and broken glass, hitting his head on the sidewalk and banging his fists down and screaming. A crowd came around and they watched Bummy, with the guy laughing at him, and they shook their heads and they said this youngest Davidoff kid must be crazy at that.

Davidoff was his straight name. Abraham Davidoff. In Yiddish they made Abraham into Ahvron and then Ahvron they sometimes make Bommy. All his family called him Bommy, so you can see they didn’t mean it as a knock. The one who changed it to Bummy was Johnny Attell.

Johnny Attell used to run the fights at the Ridgewood Grove, a fight club in Brooklyn where some good fighters like Sid Terris and Ruby Goldstein and Tony Canzoneri learned to fight, and Johnny and a nice guy named Lew Burston managed Bummy. When Bummy turned pro and Johnny made up the show card for the fight with Frankie Reese he put the name on it as Al (Bummy) Davis, and when Bummy saw it he went right up to John’s office.

“What are you doing that for?” he hollered at Johnny. “I don’t want to be called Bummy.”

“Take it easy,” Johnny said. “You want to make money fighting, don’t you?”

“People like to come to fights to see guys they think are tough.”

They sure liked to come to see Bummy all right. They sure liked to come to see him get his brains knocked out.

The first time Johnny Attell ever heard of Bummy was one day when Johnny was coming out of the Grove and Froike stopped him. Froike used to run the gym at Beecher’s and handle kids in the amateurs, and he was stand- ing there talking to Johnny under the Myrtle Avenue El.

“Also I got a real good ticket seller for you,” he said to Johnny after a while.

“I could use one,” Johnny said.

“Only I have to have a special for him,” Froike said. “No eliminations.” “What’s his name?” Johnny said.

“Giovanni Pasconi,” Froike said.

“Bring him around,” Johnny said.

The next week Johnny put the kid in with a tough colored boy named Johnny Williams. The kid got the hell punched out of him, but he sold $200 worth of tickets.

“He didn’t do too bad,” Johnny said to Froike after the fight. “I’ll put him back next week.”

“Only this time get him an easier opponent,” Froike said.

“You get him your own opponent,” Johnny said. “As long as he can sell that many tickets I don’t care who he fights.”

The next week Johnny put him back and he licked the guy. After the fight Johnny was walking out and he saw the kid and Froike with about 20 people around them, all of them talking Yiddish.

“Come here, Froike,” Johnny said.

“What’s the matter?” Froike said.

“What is this guy,” Johnny said, “a Wop or aJew?”

“He’s a Jew,” Froike said. “His right name’s Davidoff. He’s only 15, so we borrowed Pasconi’s card.”

“He can sure sell tickets,” Johnny said.

Bummy could sell anything. That’s the way Bummy learned to fight, selling. He used to sell off a pushcart on Blake Avenue. He used to sell berries in the spring and tomatoes and watermelons in the summer and apples in the fall and potatoes and onions and beans in the winter, and there are a lot of pushcarts on Blake Avenue and Bummy used to have a fight to hold his spot.

“I was the best tomato salesman in the world,” Bummy was bragging once.

It was right after he knocked out Bob Montgomery in the Garden. He stiffened him in 63 seconds and he was getting $15,000, and when the sports writers came into his dressing room all he wanted to talk about was how good he could sell tomatoes.

“You go over to Jersey and get them yourself,” he was telling the sports writers. “Then you don’t have to pay the middle guy. You don’t put them in boxes, because when you put them in boxes it looks like you’re getting ready to lam. When you only got a few around it looks like you can’t get rid of them so what you gotta do is pile them all up and holler: ‘I gotta get rid of these. I’m gonna give ‘em away!”‘

The sports writers couldn’t get over that. There was a lot they couldn’t get over about Bummy.

When Johnny turned Bummy pro he wasn’t impressed by his fighting, only his following. Every time Bummy fought for Johnny in the Grove he’d bring a couple of hundred guys with him and they’d holler for Bummy. Everybody else would holler for the other guy, because now they knew Bummy was Jewish and the Grove is in a German section of Ridgewood, and this was when Hitler was starting to go good and there was even one of those German beer halls right in the place where the waiters walked around in those short leather pants and wearing fancy vests and funny hats.

The fight that started Bummy was the Friedkin fight. Bummy was just beginning to bang guys out at the Grove and Friedkin was already a hot fighter the Broadway Arena and they lived only blocks apart. Friedkin was a nice about three years older than Bummy, kind of a studious guy they called Schoolboy Friedkin, and there was nothing between him and Bummy except they were both coming up and the neighborhood made the match.

Like one day Bummy was standing in the candy store and a couple of guys told him Friedkin was saying he could stiffen Bummy in two heats. Then they went to Friedkin and said Bummy said Friedkin was afraid to fight. At first this didn’t take, but they kept it up and one day Bummy was standing with a dame on the corner of Blake and Alabama and Friedkin came along.

“So why don’t you two fight?” the dame said.

“Sure, I’ll fight,” Bummy said, spreading his feet.

“Right here?” Friedkin said. “Right now?”

“Sure,” Bummy said.

“I’ll fight whenever my manager makes the match/’ Friedkin said, and he walked away.

Bummy couldn’t understand that, because he liked to fight just to fight. He got right in the subway and went over to see Lew Burston in Lew’s office on Broadway.

“Never mind making that Friedkin match,” he said to Lew.

“Why not?” Lew said.

“Because when I leave here,” Bummy said, “I’m going right around to Friedkin’s house and I’m gonna wait for him to come out, and we’re gonna find out right away if I can lick him or he can lick me.”

“Are you crazy?” Lew said.

By the time Johnny Attell made the fight outdoors for Dexter Park there was really a fire under it. They had show cards advertising it on the pushcarts on Blake Avenue and Friedkin’s old man and Bummy’s old man got into an argument on the street, and everybody was talking about it and betting it big. Then it was rained out five nights and Johnny sold the fight to Mike Ja- cobs and Mike put it into Madison Square Garden.

When Bummy started working for the fight Lew Burston came over to Beecher’s to train him. When Bummy got into his ring clothes they chased everybody out of the gym, and Lew told Bummy to hit the big bag. Bummy walked up to the bag and spread his feet and pulled back his left to start his hook and Lew stopped him.

“Throw that hook away,” Lew said.

“Why?” Bummy said. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing’s wrong with it,” Lew said, “only for this fight you’ll have to lose that hook.”

Before that Bummy was nothing but a hooker, but for weeks Lew kept him banging the big bag with rights. Then the night of the fight after Bummy was all taped and ready, Lew took him into the shower off the dressing room and he talked to Bummy.

“Now remember one thing,” he said to Bummy. “I can tell you exacdy how that other corner is thinking. They’ve got that other guy eating and sleeping with your hook for weeks. I want you to go out there and I don’t want you to throw one right hand until I tell you. If you throw one right before I say so I’ll walk right out on you. Do you understand?”

Bummy understood all right. He was like a kid with a new toy. He was a kid with a secret that only Bummy and Lew knew, and he went out there and did like Lew told him. Friedkin came out with his right glued along the side of his head, and for three rounds Bummy just hooked and hooked and Friedkin blocked, and a lot of people thought Friedkin was winning the fight.

“All right,” Lew said, after the third round. “Now this time go right out and feint with the left, but throw the right and put everything on it.”

“Don’t worry,” Bummy said.

Bummy walked out and they moved around for almost a minute and then Bummy feinted his hook. When he did Friedkin moved over and Bummy threw the right and Friedkin’s head went back and down he went with his legs in the air in his own corner. That was all the fighting there was that night.

Now Bummy was the biggest thing in Brownsville. AI Buck and Hype Igoe and Ed Van Every and Lester Bromberg were writing about him in the New York papers, saying he was the best hooker since Charley White and could also hit with his right, and he had dough for the first time in his life.

He got $14,000 for the Friedkin fight. When he walked down the street the kids followed him, and he bought them leather jackets and baseball gloves and sodas, just to show you what money meant and how he was already looking back at his own life.

When Bummy was a kid nobody bought him anything and he belonged to a gang called the Cowboys. They used to pull small jobs, and the cops could never find them until one night. One night the cops broke into the flat where the kids used to live with some dames, and they got them all except Bummy who was with his mother that night.

Sure, Bummy was what most people call tough, but if he felt sorry for you and figured you needed him be couldn’t do enough. That was the way Bummy met Barbara and fell in love.

Bummy was 19 then and one day he and Shorty were driving around and Shorty said he wanted to go to Kings County Hospital and visit a friend of his who was sick, and there was this girl about 16 years old. They sat around for a while and Shorty did all the talking and then the next time they went to see the girl Shorty was carrying some flowers and he gave them to her.

“From him,” Shorty said, meaning Bummy.

When the girl left the hospital Shorty and Bummy drove her home, and then every day for a couple of weeks they used to take her for a ride and to stop off for sodas. One day the three of them were riding together in the front seat and Bummy wasn’t saying anything.

“Say, Bobby,” Shorty said all of a sudden, “would you like to get married?”

The girl didn’t know what to say. She just looked at Shorty.

“Not to me,” Shorty said. “To him.”

That was the way Bummy got married. That was Bummy’s big romance. After the Friedkin fight Bummy won about three fights quick, and then they made him with Mickey Farber in the St. Nick’s. Farber was out of the East Side and had a good record, and one day when Bummy finished his training at Beecher’s he was sitting in the locker room soaking his left hand in a pail of ice and talking with Charley.

That was an interesting thing about Bummy’s left hand. He used to bang so hard with it that after every fight and after every day he boxed in the gym it used to swell up.

“I think I’ll quit fighting,” Bummy said to Charley.

“You think you’ll quit?” Charley said. “You’re just starting to make dough.”

“They’re making me out a tough guy,” Bummy said. “All the newspapers make me a tough guy and I don’t like it and I think I’ll quit.”

“Forget it,” Charley said.

When Charley walked out Murder, Inc., walked in. They were all there—Happy and Buggsy and Abie and Harry and the Dasher—and they were looking at Bummy soaking his hand in the ice.

“You hurt your hand?” Buggsy said.

“No,” Bummy said. “It’s all right.”

They walked out again, and they must have gone with a bundle on Farber because the day after Bummy licked Farber he was standing under the El in front of the gym and the mob drove up. They stopped the car right in front of him and they piled out.

“What are you, some wise guy?” Buggsy said.

“What’s wrong with you?” Bummy said.

“What’s all this you gave us about you had a bad hand?” Buggsy said.

“I didn’t say I had a bad hand,” Bummy said.

“You did,” Buggsy said.

“Listen,” Bummy said, spreading his feet the way he used to do it, “if you guys want a fight let’s start it.”

Buggsy looked at the others and they looked at him. They they all got in the car and drove off, and if you could have been there and seen that you would have gone for Bummy for it.

That was the bad part about Bummy’s rap. Not enough people knew that part of Bummy until it was too late. The people who go to fights don’t just go to see some guy win, but they go to see some guy get licked, too. All they knew about Bummy was some of the things they read, and he was the guy they always went to see get licked.

Even the mob that followed Bummy when he was a big name didn’t mean anything to him, because he could see through that. He could see they were always grabbing at him for what they could get, and that was the thing he never got over about the time he was training in Billy West’s place up in Woodstock, New York.

Bummy went up there after he came out of the Army,just to take off weight, and there are a lot of artists around there. Artists are different people, because they don’t care what anybody says about a guy and they either like him or they don’t like him for what they think he is. They all liked him up there, and Billy used to say that Bummy could have been Mayor of Woodstock.

Billy had a dog that Bummy never forgot, either. Bummy used to run on the roads in the mornings and Billy’s dog used to run with him. Every morning they’d go out together and one day another dog came out of a yard and went for Bummy and Billy’s dog turned and went after the other dog and chased it off.

“Gee, this dog really likes me,” Bummy said, when he got back to the house, and he said it like he couldn’t believe it. “He’s really my friend.”

The fight that really started everybody hating Bummy, though, was the Canzoneri fight in the Garden. It was a bad match and never should have been made, but they made it and all Bummy did was fight it.

Canzoneri was over the hill, but he had been the featherweight champion and the lightweight champion and he had fought the best of his time and they loved him. When Bummy knocked him out it was the only time Tony was knocked out in 180 fights, and so they booed Bummy for it and they waited for him to get licked.

They didn’t have to wait too long. After he knocked out Tippy Larkin in five they matched him with Lou Ambers. Just after he started training for Ambers he was in the candy store one day when an argument started between. Bummy and a guy named Mersky. Nobody is going to say who started the argument but somebody called Bummy a lousy fighter and it wasn’t Bummy. Somebody flipped a piece of hard candy in Bummy’s face, too, and that wasn’t Bummy either, and after Bummy got done bouncing Mersky up and down Mersky went to the hospital and had some pictures taken and called the cops.

The first Johnny Attell heard about it was the night after it happened. He was walking down Broadway and he met a dick he knew.

“That’s too bad about your fighter,” the cop said.

“What’s the matter with him?” Johnny said.

“What’s the matter with him?” the cop said. “There’s an eight-state alarm out for him. The newspapers are full of it. He damn near killed a guy in a candy store.”

The cops couldn’t find Bummy but Johnny found him. He dug up Gangy, and Gangy drove him around awhile to shake off any cops, and finally Gangy stopped the car in front of an old wooden house and they got out and went in and there was Bummy.

Bummy was sitting in a pair of pajama pants, and that was all he had on. There were four or five other guys there, and they were playing cards.

“Are you crazy?” Johnny said.

“Why?” Bummy said, playing his cards, but looking up.

“If the cops find you here they’ll kill you,” Johnny said. “You better come with me.”

After Johnny talked awhile Bummy got dressed and he went with Johnny. Johnny took him back to New York and got him a haircut and a shave and he called Mike Jacobs. Jacobs told Johnny to take Bummy down to Police Headquarters, and when Johnny did that Sol Strauss, Mike’s lawyer, showed up and he got an adjournment in night court for Bummy until after the Ambers fight.

The night Bummy fought Ambers there was Mersky right at ringside. He had on dark glasses and the photographers were all taking his picture and when Ambers beat the hell out of Bummy the crowd loved it.

The crowd, more than Ambers, hurt Bummy that night. He didn’t like the licking Ambers gave him, but the hardest part was listening to the crowd and the way they enjoyed it and the things they shouted at him when he came down out of the ring.

“I quit,” he said to Johnny in the dressing room. “You know what you can do with fighting?”

Johnny didn’t believe him. Johnny was making matches for Jacobs in the Garden then and he matched Bummy with Tony Marteliano, but Bummy wouldn’t train.

Only Johnny and Gangy knew this, and one day Johnny came out to Bummy’s house and talked with Bummy. When that didn’t do any good Lew Burston came out and he talked for four hours, and when he finished Bummy said the same thing.

“I don’t want to be a fighter,” Bummy said. “I like to fight. I’ll fight Marteliano on the street right now, just for fun, but when I’m a fighter everybody picks on me. I want them to leave me alone. All I wanted was a home for my family and I got that and now I just want to hang around my mob on the street.”

Johnny still didn’t believe it. They put out the show cards, advertising the fight, and one day Bummy saw one of the cards in the window of a bar and he phoned Johnny in Jacobs’ office.

“What are you advertising the fight for?” he said, and he was mad. “I told you I’m not gonna fight.”

Before Johnny could say anything Jacobs took the phone. Johnny hadn’t told him Bummy didn’t want to fight.

“How are you, kid?” Jacobs said. “This is Mike.”

“Listen, you toothless—,” Bummy said. “What are you advertising me for? I’m not gonna fight.”

He hung up. Mike put the phone back and turned around and when he did Bummy was suspended and Johnny was out of the Garden and back in the Ridgewood Grove.

When Bummy heard what had happened to Johnny he went over to the Grove to see him. All the time Johnny was in the Garden Bummy was a little suspicious of him, like he was a capitalist, but now he was different.

“I came over to tell you something,” he said to Johnny. “I’m gonna fight.”

“Forget it,” Johnny said. “You can’t fight.”

“Who says I can’t fight?” Bummy said.

“The New York Boxing Commission,” Johnny said. “You’re suspended.”

“Let’s fight out of town,” Bumrny said. “We’ll fight where I’m not suspended.”

Johnny did it better. He took Bummy back to Mike and Bummy apologized and Bummy fought Marteliano. For nine rounds they were even, and with ten seconds to go in the last round Bummy landed the hook. Marteliano went down and the referee counted nine and the bell rang and it was another big one for Bummy and he was going again.

It was Johnny’s idea to get Marteliano back, but Bummy saw Fritzie Zivic Henry Armstrong for the welterweight title and he wanted Zivic. If you the two guys you knew this was a bad match for Bummy, because he didn’t know how to fight like Zivic.

There were a lot of people, you see, who called Bununy a dirty fighter, but Zivic fight made them wrong. The Zivic fight proved that Bummy didn’t know how to do it.

When he came out of the first clinch Bummy’s eyes were red and he was rubbing them and the crowd started to boo Zivic. In the second clinch it was same thing, and at the end of the round Bummy was roaring.

“He’s trying to blind me,” he kept saying in the comer. “He’s trying to blind me.”

When it started again in the second round Bummy blew. He pushed Zivic off and he dropped his hands and that crazy look came on that wide face of his and they could hear him in the crowd.

“All right, yo—-,” he said, “if you want to fight dirty, okay.”

He walked right into Zivic and he started belting low. There was no trying to hide anything, and the crowd started to roar and before it was over people were on their chairs throwing things and the cops were in the ring and Bummy was fined $2,500 and suspended for life.

They meant it to be for life—which wouldn’t have been very long at that, when you figure Bummy lived to be all of 26—but it didn’t work out that way. About three weeks after the fight Bummy walked into Johnny’s office with Shorty and Mousie, and they sat around for a time and Johnny could see Bummy was lost.

“You know what you ought to do?” Johnny said. “You ought to join the Army for a while until this blows over.”

This was in December of 1940, before we got into the war. For a while Bummy sat there thinking, not saying anything.

“Could my buddies go with me?” he said.

“Sure,” Johnny said.

So Johnny called up the recruiting officer and Bummy and Shorty and Mousie showed up and there were photographers there and it was a big show. Everybody was for it, and Ed Van Every wrote a story in The Sun in which he said this was a great move because the Army would teach Bummy discipline and get him in good physical shape.

That was a laugh. The first thing the Army did was split Bummy and Shorty and Mousie up and send them to different camps.

They sent Bummy to Camp Hulen, Texas, and their idea of discipline was to have Bummy cleaning latrines with a toothbrush.

You got me into this,” Bummy used to write Johnny. “I’m going crazy, so before I slug one of these officers you better get me out.”

Johnny didn’t get him out, but he got Mike Jacobs to get Bummy a leave to fight Zivic in the Polo Grounds for Army Emergency Relief. Bummy used to fight best at about 147 pounds, and when he came back from Texas he weighed close to 200.

“You look sharp in that uniform, AI,” Zivic said to him when they signed for the bout.

“I’m glad you like it,” Bummy said. “You put me in it.”

You can imagine how Bummy was looking to get back at Zivic, but he couldn’t do it. He hadn’t fought for eight months, and Zivic was a real good fighter and he put lumps all over Bummy and in the tenth round the referee stopped it. They had to find Bummy to take him back to camp. They found him with his wife and they shipped him back, but then the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor and the Army decided it had enough trouble without Bummy and they turned him loose.

Bummy fought some of his best fights after that. He couldn’t get his license back in New York but he fought in places like Holyoke and Bridgeport and Washington and Philadelphia and Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Boston. He didn’t like it in those places, but he had to live, and so no matter where he fought he would always drive back to Brownsville after the fight and sometimes it would be four o’clock in the morning before he and Johnny would get in.

It’s something when you think about Bummy and Brownsville, when you think of the money he made, almost a quarter of a million dollars, and the things he had thrown at him and the elegant places he could have gone. It was like what Lew Burston said, though, when he said the Supreme was Bummy’s Opera, and the Supreme is a movie house on Livonia Avenue.

You have to remember, too, that Brownsville is only a subway ride from Broadway, but Bummy had never seen a real Broadway show until Chicky Bogad sent Bummy and Barbara to see Hellzapoppin the night before the second Farber fight.

“How long has this been going on?” Bummy said when they came out.

“How long has what been going on?” Chicky said.

“People like that on a stage,” Bummy said.

“People on a stage?” Chicky said. “For years and years. For long before they had movies.”

“Is that right? I’ll have to see more of that,” Bummy said, but he never did.

All of those fights Bummy had out of town were murders, too, because Bummy wasn’t hard to hit, but the people liked to see him get hit and when the Republicans got back in power in New York, Fritzie Zivic put in a word for Bummy, saying he guessed he had egged the kid on, and Bummy got his license back. That’s when they matched him with Montgomery.

“What you have to do in this one,” they kept telling Bummy, “is walk right out, throw your right, and miss with it. Montgomery will grab your right arm, and that will turn you around southpaw and then you hit him with the hook.”

They knew that was the only chance Bummy had, because if Montgomery got by the first round he figured to move around Bummy and cut him up. They drilled Bummy on it over and over, and they kept talking about it in the dressing room that night.

“Now what are you going to do?” Johnny Attell said to Bummy.

“I’m gonna walk right out and miss with my right,” Bummy said. “He’ll grab my arm and that’ll turn me around southpaw and I’ll throw my hook.”

“Okay,” Johnny said. “I guess you know it.”

Bummy sat down then on one of the benches. He had his gloves on and his robe over him and he was ready to go when there was a knock on the door.

“Don’t come out yet, Davis,” one of the commission guys said through the door. “They’re selling some War Bonds first.”

When Bummy heard that he looked up from where he was sitting and you could see he was sweating, and then he keeled right over on the floor on his face. Johnny and Freddie Brown rushed over and picked him up and they stretched him on the rubbing table and Freddie brought him to, and now they weren’t worried about whether Bummy would do what they told him. All they were worried about was whether they could get him in the ring.

They got him in the ring and Burston had him repeat what he was supposed to do. When the bell rang he walked right out and threw his right and missed around the head. Montgomery grabbed the arm and turned Bummy around, and when he did Bummy threw the hook and Montgomery went down. When he got up Bummy hit him again and that’s all there was to it.

Montgomery was 10 to 1 over Bummy that night and they couldn’t believe it. Bummy got $15,000 for that fight and he borrowed $1,500 from Jacobs and the next day when Mike paid him off he told Bummy to forget the grand and a half.

“Take it out,” Bummy said, throwing the dough on the desk. “You know damn well if he kayoed me like you thought he would you were gonna take it out.”

Bummy thought he’d never be broke again. He got $34,000 the night Beau Jack beat him and $15,000 when Armstrong stopped him. Then somebody sold him the idea of buying that bar and grill and somebody else sold him a couple of race horses and even after Dudy bought the bar and grill from him he was broke.

He should have been in training for Morris Reif the night he was shot. Johnny wanted him to fight Reif, just for the dough and to go as far as he could, but Bummy said that a lot of his friends would bet him and he didn’t think he could beat Reif, so instead he was sitting in the back of Dudy’s drinking beer and singing.

Bummy used to think he could sing like a Jewish cantor. He couldn’t sing, but he was trying that night, sitting with some other guys and a cop who was off duty, when he looked through that lattice work at the bar and he saw the four guys with the guns.

“What the hell is this?” he said.

He got up and walked out and you know what happened. When Bummy stiffened the first guy one of the others fired and the bullet went into Bummy’s neck. Then the three picked up the guy Bummy hit and they ran for the car. One of the guys with Bummy stuffed his handkerchief in the collar of Bummy’s shirt to stop the blood, and Bummy got up and ran for the car. When he did they opened up from the car, and Bummy went flat on his face in the mud.

When the car started to pull away the cop who had been in the back ran out and fired. He hit one guy in d1e spine, and that guy died in Texas, and he hit another in the shoulder. The guy with the slug in his shoulder walked around with it for weeks, afraid to go to a doctor, and then one night a cop in plain clothes heard a couple of guys talking in a bar.

“You know that jerk is still walking around with the bullet in his shoulder?” the one said. “What bullet?” the second one said.

“The Bummy Davis bullet,” the first said.

The cop followed them out, and when they split up he followed the first guy and got it out of him. Then the cops picked up the guy with the bullet and he sang. They picked up the other two in Kansas City and they’re doing 20 to life. They were just punks, and they called themselves the Cowboys, the same as Bununy’s old gang did.

It was a big funeral Bummy had. Johnny and Lew Burston paid for it. The papers had made Bummy a hero, and the newsreels took pictures outside the funeral parlor and at the cemetery. It looked like everybody in Brownsville was there.

This piece originally appeared in True. It is reprinted here with permission of Gayl Heinz.

More Heinz:

One Throw (Short Story)

The Happiest Hooligan of them All (Pepper Martin)

Death of a Racehorse

Speaking of Sports (Howard Cosell)

Maybe Tomorrow, Maybe the Next Day (Jeremy Vernon)

As a bonus, please check out out this terrific introduction to the Heinz collection What A Time It Was:  The Best of W.C. Heinz on Sports.

By Jeff MacGregor

W. C. Heinz is the last surviving member of a golden generation of American writers. A newspaper reporter and columnist, a war correspondent and magazine feature writer, a novelist and short story writer, he was a friend and colleague of Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice, Red Smith, A. J. Liebling, Jimmy Cannon, Frank Graham, and Paul Gallico. At mid-century he was one of the best and most admired writers in America.

Across the arc of a sixty-year career his fiction has been praised by Ernest Hemingway and his combat reportage compared to that of Ernie Pyle. He wrote the book that made Vince Lombardi a sports icon, and co-wrote the classic novel MASH. He wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma peace march and about the Allied march into Germany to end the Second World War. He wrote about success and failure, life and death, and all the dire business of humanity in the busiest half-century of mankind’s history. Mostly, though, Bill Heinz wrote about sports.

Wilfred Charles Heinz was born on January 11, 1915, in Mount Vernon, New York. The only child of Elizabeth and Frederick Heinz, he recalls ancient afternoons spent with his friends flipping baseball cards after school—winner takes Cobb, Ruth, or Johnson, Speaker or Frisch, a fortune’s worth now—the pasteboard cards tossed into the air and then gathered up for the breathless run home. Heinz, fine-boned and slender, played hockey all the way up through high school, so he understood athletics as a physical and competitive expression of self. But he was also an avid reader, devouring sets of Tennyson, Twain, Shakespeare, Balzac, and Poe, which introduced him to a world of ideas, and to self-expression of a different sort. For Christmas in 1932 he received the Omnibus of Sport, a sports writing anthology edited by the legendary Grantland Rice. In it, Heinz discovered the intersection of two things he loved: good writing and sports.

In 1937 Heinz graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, where he had written and edited the sports page of the school newspaper. In that autumn of ’37, he took his first real job as a messenger boy for one of the afternoon papers down in the city, the New York Sun. He was paid fifteen dollars a week to run errands. Soon promoted to copyboy, by 1939 he was working as a cub reporter, covering school board meetings and apartment fires and learning how to write on deadline. He learned to listen to people, to what they said and how they said it and what they really meant. And most importantly, he learned how to tell a story.

For the next four years, Bill Heinz worked as a general assignment reporter at the Sun. He wrote about corrupt politicians and roller coaster trackwalkers, city bond issues and streetcorner shootings. He occasionally covered basketball or wrote a piece on the new winter sensation, parallel skiing, but he felt stuck and unfulfilled and wasn’t sure where or how far his writing could take him. The Second World War changed all that. He became the Sun‘s junior war correspondent in 1943, covering carrier operations in the Atlantic. His early dispatches were crisp and informative, optimistic, and heavy on the upbeat hometown profiles of Your Boys at Sea. By 1944, though, when Heinz started following the ground war across Europe after the Normandy invasion, his work took on a new gravity, the words tempered by the horrible reality of war seen firsthand. What Heinz saw on the push east to Berlin would inform his work from then on. He stripped away the artifice, did away with any writerly “style” until he made himself transparent. This would characterize the best of his work for the rest of his life.

It is this streamlined lyricism and meticulous devotion to detail that marked Heinz’s work after he returned from Europe in the spring of 1945. He was assigned a sports beat, and quickly became one of New York’s most highly regarded writers. (When asked, in 1946, to recommend a writer for an upcoming magazine job, Damon Runyon, unable to speak because of terminal throat cancer, wrote on a cocktail napkin, “W. C. Heinz very good.” He underlined “very good” three times.)

By 1948 Heinz had his own daily sports column in the New York Sun, fittingly positioned in a double truck layout opposite that of his mentor, Grantland Rice. He wrote magazine pieces and fine short stories as well, raising a family and building a national reputation. One of his columns from that year, “Death of a Racehorse,” which is included in this collection, remains, with all due respect to Bill’s good friend Red Smith, perhaps the best piece of daily newspaper writing you’ll ever read. It is a 700-word master class in how to write. It is observant and precise in detail, lyrical and beautifully metered in its language, and, in its final paragraph, piercingly eloquent about futility, about struggle and loss, and about death.

For over two years, five times a week, Heinz wrote his column in the best sports city in the world. New York was a mecca for everything from football and baseball to hockey and track, to harness racing to the dog show to the six-day bicycle races up at the 168th Street Armory. Heinz wrote about all of it exceptionally well. But what Heinz best loved to write about was boxing. It appealed to his storyteller’s sense with its simplicity, its finality, and its colorful—to say nothing of comic—characters; its sleek and shadowy money men with their pneumatic molls, its artful managers and dogged trainers and idiot savant cornermen, its avid fans and its second-generation fighters, young men bootstrapping themselves up from the gutter and into their split-level, wall-to-wall American dream and then back again.

At places like Stillman’s Gym on Eighth Avenue, Heinz spent his afternoons with his sleeves rolled up, his tie loosened, and his elbows propped on the damp canvas, taking notes, listening to the way the boxers and their handlers spoke, watching how they moved and what punches they threw. He was an extraordinary student of the form. He saw in boxing’s regulated savagery the purest expression of man’s endless appetite for combat, which he witnessed repeatedly during the war.

Boxing, to any writer but most especially to Bill Heinz, was a tailor-made meeting of the sacred and profane. It has always exerted an irresistible pull on writers of every generation from Jack London to Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates. Looking back over the years since 1900, though, the simplest way to catalog the relative accomplishments of writers on the subject of boxing is this: There is W. C. Heinz. There is A. J. Liebling. There is everyone else.

The New York Sun closed its doors in January 1950, an early victim of the declining circulation that would reduce the number of daily papers in New York City from ten to three over the next two decades. By the time of its demise, Bill Heinz had already become a successful freelancer for magazines like Collier’s, Sport, the Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, True, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and Look. Most of the pieces in this collection come from Bill’s magazine work.

Between 1950 and 1958 when his novel The Professional was published to wide critical acclaim (including an effusive congratulatory telegram from one of his most ardent admirers, Ernest Hemingway, and a fan letter from an earnest young author named Elmore Leonard), W. C. Heinz perfected his signature approach to the craft of storytelling. Like a master mason, Heinz built each of his long-form stories as though he were building a wall of mortarless stone. Every word and phrase was carefully set on the words and phrases that went before them. At his best, he was the equal of a Joseph Mitchell or an E. B. White. What can top the two paragraphs which open “Brownsville Bum”?

Heinz had an ear for dialogue, for the truth of what people said and how to write it. He was a student of the great Frank Graham, another sports columnist who had helped perfect the so-called “conversation piece,” stories built around long blocks of dialogue unbroken by writerly asides or commentary. In the days before the tape recorder (and guarded, litigious athletes), it was still possible to report the spirit, if not the letter, of what your subjects said—especially if you made them sound better, or smarter, or more colorful. In this technique, Heinz was, and remains, unmatched.

Through that decade and into the next, Bill Heinz profiled, it seems, every star athlete in America. Stan Musial and Pete Reiser and Eddie Arcaro and Charlie Conerly and Joe Namath. Boxers from Joe Louis to Carmen Basilio to Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray Robinson and Ingemar Johannson to Ezzard Charles and the original Rockys, Marciano and Graziano. In every case what characterizes the writing of Bill Heinz is its drive and its deceptive simplicity. Never strident or overwrought, never hagiographic or adulatory, Bill Heinz wrote sports with a gimlet eye.

He also wrote with the same sure voice about the practice of medicine in his novels The Surgeon, Emergency, and MASH, a book he wrote in partnership with Dr. Richard Hornberger under the pseudonym Richard Hooker. This last title offers a rare glimpse into the sly sense of humor for which Heinz is still best known among his friends. And though these books, along with The Professional, American Mirror, and Once They Heard the Cheers were well-wrought and successful, perhaps Heinz’s greatest triumph was Run to Daylight! his week-in-the-life collaboration with the legendary Vince Lombardi. It made Lombardi a household name. Other members of the press eventually chose to make him a household god.

Even Bill Heinz, who should be a role model for gifted young writers everywhere, has suffered at the inconstant hands of history. Most of the publications for which he did his best work have long since ceased to be. Collier’s, Argosy, Look, True, the Sun, and the Saturday Evening Post have all been lost to us. Heinz never had the stable, high-visibility, long-term platform his friend Red Smith did. He is, at least in part, responsible for the careers of New Journalists like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and Frank Deford. Pioneering a new voice and a new approach, he created new opportunities for every writer to follow. And with this collection of his best writing on sports, he will no longer be the best kept secret in American literature.

The Banter Gold Standard: Brando

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

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

Please enjoy:

“Brando”

By Mark Kram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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