"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.(In the 1950 photo above you see, left to right, Lancaster, Thorpe, and director Michael Curtiz on the set.)
Lancaster 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?