2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Old Pieces of Paper

Just after 9/11 I was sitting on a dusty ladder deep in the stacks of the National Archives in Washington. Sirens wailed outside, non-stop. Anthrax dust was floating everywhere, it seemed. I had just started the research for Native American Son.

Surrounded by boxes of documents filling shelves from floor to ceiling, I had a chilling thought. If the terrorists had slammed a plane into this building, they would have wiped out the primary sources of our recorded history. Destroyed the records of millions of the already dead.

Like this one: the U.S. Army Enlistments of 1837. The name Hiram G. Thorp (Jim added the "e" later) is fourth from the bottom, indicated by the arrow in the left margin. He was Jim's paternal grandfather, white, born in Connecticut of English descent going back to the founding of New Haven. He enlisted in the Eighth Infantry, Company A at the age of 24. He had blue eyes, brown hair, fair skin, and was five feet, eight inches tall.

We only know all that information about his physical person because of this old piece of  paper preserved on microfilm. For me, starting work on this biography way back in those dark scary days, to find such concrete, evocative details from the past was oddly reassuring. Hiram's record had survived, so far. Maybe mine would too.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


"How did you come to write a book about ________? It's the question a biographer is asked more than any other.

So why Thorpe? The answer begins on a hot day in 1996 in the cool archives of the University of Southern California's Cinema/Television Library in Los Angeles. I was working through the extensive Warner Brothers production file for their 1951 bio-pic.Jim Thorpe: All American(In the 1950 photo above you see, left to right, Lancaster, Thorpe, and director Michael Curtiz on the set.)

Burt Lancaster: An American LifeLancaster had played Thorpe, and Lancaster was the subject of the Lancaster biography I was researching and writing.

Though I come from a family of California athletes, I didn't know much if anything about Thorpe. But I did know that for many people sports were more than games, athletes sometimes more than human. So I was struck, hard, by the tone and passion of the letters and postcards in the production file that had come in from all over the country to studio head Jack Warner as shooting started in 1950. The most passionate letter came from a very young Bobby Kennedy. Their gist: Don't mess up the story of our hero. Get it exactly right.

A writer of biographies looks or waits for such messages from the past. At least I do. Maybe it's a romantic notion, but it feels as if the ghosts are transmitting a plea: Remember what was important to us. Thorpe turned sixty-three in 1950. He hadn't played any sport since a disastrous football game in 1928. Why was he so vividly remembered?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Approaching the finish line

Jim Thorpe (1887-1953) was perhaps the greatest all-around athlete of modern times. For a biographer, me, he was an irresistible subject.

He preceded radio and television, yet remains in the collective memory, however hazy, as the definitive athlete. When I would mention I was thinking of doing a book about him to just about any man, or group of men, the reaction was always the same. A couple of beats of silence and then, with a particular tone of awe, his name spoken slowly, emphatically, "Jim Thorpe!"

The reaction was the same whether it was at a tony cocktail party on Fishers Island or from a postal worker in the Appalachian town of Lexington, Virginia or a contractor in Southern California.

As you can guess from the stacks of corrected proof pages on my work tables pictured here in March 2010, figuring out why Thorpe's story had lingered for so long was not a short  -- seven years -- or easy task.

Unexpected discoveries emerged and will emerge. They always do.