2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Farewell, Bernie Schwartz

A break from Jim Thorpe to mark the death yesterday of Tony Curtis.
“ ‘The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.’ This is Sidney Falco speaking.” 

The year was 1997. The voice on the phone was indeed "Falco," speaking that famous line from Sweet Smell of Success. Tony Curtis was a key source for my biography of Burt Lancaster that would be published in 2000. I’d been trying for months to get an interview with him. Here he was, suddenly, with no advance warning, calling from Los Angeles, gleefully playing for me his venal, hyper-eager press agent. The 1957 movie bombed at the box office – “This was a feel-bad movie,” exulted Curtis, still delighted with the film’s unrepentant cynicism that repelled that decade’s filmgoers. But Sweet Smell had the last laugh, giving us the enduring Manhattan archetypes of Falco and Lancaster’s Walter Winchell clone, J. J. Hunsecker. 

Both Hollywood stars – and they were huge in 1957 – were New Yorkers first and foremost. Curtis from the Bronx, Lancaster from East Harlem. As Curtis told me, they knew the script in their bones and were essentially playing Big Apple aspects of themselves. “Look at the way Sidney looked,” said Curtis. “So… perfect. Good-looking, lean, silk shirts, tapered trousers. Couldn’t get out of that environment. He’s there forever.”  

Curtis, born Bernie Schwartz in 1925, got so far out of that New York environment he was able to play a hilariously pitch-perfect Cary Grant knock-off in Some Like It Hot and an improbable circus aerialist flying through the air in Trapeze. There’s usually, however, a cost to such success, a stench, as Sweet Smell vividly shows. Curtis would go on to have the typical Hollywood problems of multiple marriages, substance abuse, a declining career.

But he never forgot who he started out as and the hunger to escape the accidental limitations of birth. His Bronx Jewish energy fueled his ambition, as it does Falco’s, forever, on film – and his survival. Curtis reinvented himself as a painter, a good one. To judge from my interview, at least, he never lost a sharp, observant, highly intelligent New York humor. From that first Falco line to the last good-bye, I pretty much laughed, hard, while somehow managing to take good notes.

“I’d like to take a bite out of you,” says Hunsecker to Falco. “You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” Curtis gives Lancaster a knowing smirk. Sidney Falco was Bernie Schwartz if he’d never escaped to Hollywood.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Oklahoma, Here I Come!

Prague, Oklahoma, about 1903

Oklahoma was never on my list of places to see before I die. Which goes to show how prejudices we don't even know we have limit our view of the world. 

Jim Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1887 (not 1888, as most sources claim) near where this rough western town of Prague would be created about twelve years later by immigrants from Bohemia. His Sac & Fox and Potawatomi people had been "removed" (forcibly relocated) to Oklahoma after the Civil War from Kansas (to which they had been removed from Iowa, to which they had been removed from Illinois). Towns like this were laid out overnight on Indian lands that opened up for white settlement with the famous Oklahoma land runs, like the one pictured below, that began in 1889.

When I first arrived in Oklahoma City (OKC to locals) in 2002 to start research on Thorpe the city and surrounding country looked flat, dry, and plain. There didn't seem to be much for the eye to linger on. The wind blew constantly because there was nothing to stop it. 

Then I noticed the sense of humor -- flat, dry ("dusty!" laughed one Oklahoman), plain, and very funny. Will Rogers wit. The punch line came at you like a cowboy seen far away on the horizon: Wait for it. "Why is Oklahoma so windy? It's all that hot air blowing up from Texas." It's an intimate state, a  monk told me, a man so handsome he was referred to, affectionately, as "Brother What A Waste" and "Father Hunk-a-Monk." When the state finally got around, 80-some years later, to adding a dome to the capitol building, there was a constituency that argued it was more distinctive to be the only state in the union without a dome. 

Any biography worth its name should expand the sympathies and understanding of the biographer. Now I love the state I had to learn so much about in order to write NATIVE AMERICAN SON. One new friend recently dubbed me "an honorary Okie." It's a title I'm delighted to accept.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Frank Deford and me in Jim Thorpe, PA

Native American Son is not out yet but, thanks to the controversy surrounding the burial of Jim Thorpe in the town named for him in Pennsylvania (see previous blogpost, "No Rest for the Dead," the book tour has effectively begun.

Jim Thorpe, PA

Which is how I found myself sitting across from the great sportswriter and author Frank Deford, in a room above the stage at the Jim Thorpe Opera House. HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, thanks to a pitch from the Knopf publicist Lena Khidritskaya, had decided to do a 12-minute segment on the lawsuit filed by Jim's son, Jack Thorpe, against the town of Jim Thorpe. As Thorpe's most recent biographer, I was chosen as the "expert."

It's always a bit daunting to come out of the dark cave of writing a book -- and the grueling editing and proof stage before the book goes to press -- into the bright light of media scrutiny. Deford's questions were, not surprisingly, both acute and broad. Is Jim Thorpe remembered today? he asked. I remember the 1950 Associated Press sportswriter and radio announcer poll (no TV yet) that voted him the greatest athlete of the half century, way ahead of Babe Ruth, he said. Today, everybody lauds only the most recent star, he lamented. What surprises did you discover? he asked (the passion with which he was and is remembered as the outsider robbed of his due, I answered, his unexamined "iron man" sports career in the 1920s after he exited the "greatest athlete in the world" limelight, and his equally unexamined career in Hollywood in the 1930s).

What did I think Jim Thorpe would say about the current burial controversy and a town he never saw named for him? was Deford's last question. I answered that he might say: Remember what I did when I was alive. I earned the name.

It was a terrific way to start the book tour, with the best in the business. Catch the show on September 21 on HBO.