2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Friday, July 27, 2012

Oh, Canada!

Goody, a book race! Click here -- Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Summer Sports Showdown -- and vote, under Track & Field, for NATIVE AMERICAN SON. Vote every day, if you want, until the end of the 2012 Games on August 12. We're going for the gold. 
     If you want more Things Canadian, check out this fine piece on Thorpe and the book from Jeff Blair at the Toronto Globe & Mail.
     Canadians are smarter as well as funnier...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

After London

Robert Frew LTD, Antiquarian Books, Maps & Prints

Well, the Thorpe (duplicate) medals never made it to London after all. Turns out they were classified as museum artifacts and, thus, were too complicated to ship across the ocean. 
     No problem. London was terrific, even in the rain. Maybe especially in the rain, because it forced us inside, into places like the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Imperial War Museum (see John Singer Sargent's HUGE - 20 feet long - disturbing WWI painting "Gassed, 1919"), the tiny Finborough Theater (above a handy wine bar & you'll be the only tourists in the 30-person audience), the Bloomsbury Coffee House, Liberty's, St. Paul's and on and on. All I wanted to do was walk the streets of this city I have loved all my life and that's just about all I did.
     One rainy afternoon we exited the V&A and ducked out of the downpour into this tiny book and print shop across the street (see photo above). We didn't leave for at least an hour and only then because it was closing. 
     There was plenty of amazing and expensive stuff to marvel at. But there were also bins of affordable things, such as the charming print of a delicate little bird and another of a happy-looking lion that we took away with us. 
     So, if you're going to London for the 2012 Games and want a change of pace from sports, make your way to 8 Thurloe Place, SW7 and take away a real souvenir of English life and history.
     And, yes, I did watch 84 Charing Cross Road, which I'd never seen, as soon as I got back home. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

London Bound

A duplicate of the gold medals won by Thorpe at the 1912 Games

The 2012 London Olympics kick off July 27. It's going to be huge. The BBC has been all over me and anybody else connected with the history of the modern Olympic movement for at least the past twelve months. They are so psyched over there that I decided I would jump the gun and get a preview glimpse. 
     So I'm flying over the pond -- as old timers love to say, as if we're all camping out in a summer colony -- tomorrow. I'll be there from July 10-15. Just enough to have fun and check out the new stadium -- and to avoid the crowds.
     What interests me anyway is the history of sports -- how games started, why the mania, the passion. Thorpe astonished the world 100 years ago this summer and look at all that has happened since. Look where sports are now: the common passion of our time. We've come a long way. And, I argue in my biography of Thorpe, a certain intensity of feeling about athletes and their performance began with him, in Stockholm, that long century ago.
     Thorpe's two (duplicate) medals (see the biography for the full story) for the classic pentathlon and the decathlon are supposed to be on display at the USA House in London (aka the Royal College of Art in Kensington). I'm going to check that out and will report back...

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Countdown to Thorpe Olympic Centennial

U.S. Olympic team onboard the S.S. Finland, bound for Stockholm, 1912

Don't they look sharp, dressed in blazers and boaters, waving their American flags? New York City saw the country's Olympic team off here in style on June 14, 1912 for the trip across the Atlantic to Stockholm. 
     The press dubbed the athletes "America's Argonauts," an homage to the Greek myth of Jason in quest of the Golden Fleece. Of course America was going to beat everybody at the Fifth Olympiad and bring home the most gold medals (real gold for the last time). Of course, said Jim Thorpe to himself, he was going to win the five-event pentathlon AND the ten-event decathlon. He knew it. He was ready.
     I can't pick him out in this crowd on the ship's deck, but he's there. He's already visualizing in his head each of the events he'll have to perform. He's already working out the point balance between the feats he knows he's really good at -- the hurdles and the 1,500-meter race, and the others he's barely done -- the pole vault, the javelin, the discus, the shot put. 
     People would later claim he never practiced, but he did. For real and in his head. He was in the best condition of his life and he didn't want to get stale, as he put it. He had to stay confident, secure within himself. He had to tune out the energies and egos of all these other athletes, clamoring on the deck of the S.S Finland
     Some of the other American athletes, college men mostly, would notice on this trip across the ocean that Thorpe didn't wear any rings or a watch. He didn't even carry a wallet. No extra baggage. Many of the other athletes were jumpy, nervous. Jim wasn't. He was strangely calm. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hunger Games & the non-fiction writer

     Can learning how a movie script gets squeezed out of a book help the non-fiction writer?
     When the Media Arts Lab at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, offered a course in Film Adaptation this spring, I signed up. The teacher, Joy Goodwin, recently adapted William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust (to be produced at HBO). She is really good at bending this literal, linear biographer's mind to think different (Too much exposition? Break it up!).
     For the first class Joy handed out copies of the first chapter of THE HUNGER GAMES. Those of us who had either read the book or seen the movie were to try to forget everything we knew and look at the chapter fresh. We analyzed and second-guessed the chapter's elements and Joy wrote them down on the dry erase blackboard. The characters (Katniss, Prim, the mother, Buttercup the cat, Gale, dead father, Effie Trinket, the mayor). The setting (the electric fence, the meadow, the bakery, the Hob, District 12). The tone (o-m-i-n-o-u-s). 
     OK, Joy said, from this list decide which elements are important. Which ones have to be in the movie.
     Now, write a quick scene, she said, right now, dramatizing one of those elements. I had Katniss wake up screaming from the recurring nightmare of her father's death in the mine explosion. We discussed how many other, better ways that memory + the fact of her father's death could be conveyed, got out of the way as backstory. And so on, around the table, each of us reading our scene, workshop format. Each scene totally different. Just like a Hollywood pitch meeting, said Joy. She was being kind. 
     Purpose of the exercise? To see that an entire first act of a movie version is in that first chapter. 
     Homework for next week: Take another element of that HUNGER GAMES chapter and write a 2-3 page scene. Fold in as much expository background (the history of Panem, the rules, the tesserae) as economically as possible. 
     Can't wait. So far, this non-fiction writer is indeed starting to think different. Mostly about what you don't need to include in a narrative...
     A quote from movie screenwriter and director Richard Brooks (ELMER GANTRY, THE PROFESSIONALS, IN COLD BLOOD, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF) popped into my brain: "The book is the orange, the movie is the juice." 

Friday, March 16, 2012

What's With Jim Thorpe, PA, Anyway?

Jim Thorpe, PA

     It's complicated. Jim Thorpe was never in this pretty little gateway-to-the Poconos town while he was actually alive from 1887 to 1953. He -- or his body --didn't get there until he was dead and had been dead for eleven months. And he didn't get buried there officially until three years after that, on Memorial Day, May 30, 1957.
     You can read the full story of this bizarre Life After Death in my new biography of Thorpe, Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe
     However, since the Knopf hardcover was published in October 2012, a whole new Thorpe controversy has erupted. The two surviving sons of Thorpe's original eight children have brought a federal lawsuit against the town of Jim Thorpe under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to have their father's remains exhumed and brought back to Oklahoma, where he was born and where, they say, he wanted to be buried. It was the Thorpe widow who cooked up the deal with the town, not them.
     Could be big. If the Thorpe sons, Bill and Dick, win this thing, it will be known as the Thorpe Case, an important legal precedent for NAGPRA and American Indian culture in general. Personally, as Thorpe's biographer, I can't think of a better legacy, a better end to the story of his life. The town faithfully honored their side of what was essentially a contract for a human body in 1953, but times and attitudes have changed in half a century. 
     Meanwhile, for the latest and thorough update on the case, read Neely Tucker's "Battle over athlete Jim Thorpe's burial site continues," the cover story of this Sunday's Washington Post magazine.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Why read a biography of Jim Thorpe now? Bunch of reasons, but let's start with a few cued to 2012.
     This year is the centennial of the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm when Thorpe, the American Indian out of nowhere, won gold medals in the pentathlon AND the decathlon. No other Olympian has ever done that in these multi-sport events made up of elemental feats that have been the foundation of all athletics since the ancient Greeks. Thorpe also won both by huge margins. Nobody would match them, either. Thorpe's Olympic time in the decathlon 1,500-meter race would hold until 1972. That's 60 years. Incredible. 
      However, Thorpe's Olympic time and distance records are not official. They were stricken from the record in 1913 when it was revealed that he had played minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910. As doping is now, professionalism -- taking money for playing sports -- was the threshold issue back then, especially for the Olympics. Amateurism was pretty much bogus, but it ruled the day (read Native American Son to learn more). The Thorpe affair was the mother of all sports scandals, still rated at the top by the 2011 WORLD ALMANAC.
     Thorpe's records were never put back. Oh, yes, there was a sort of posthumous  "reinstatement" by the IOC in 1982. The supposed happy ending. Thorpe was re-entered by the IOC as a "competitor" in the 1912 Games and listed as a co-gold medal winner with the original second-place athletes who had been promoted to first place when Thorpe was erased. Duplicate medals were cast from the original mold and given to his children. But the "record" was not changed. 
     Result: two "official" gold medal winners of both complex, multi-sport events, an absurdity. Thorpe's individual performances in each event were kept off the record probably because if they were reinstated, the co-winner status would look even more bizarre. Sports Illustrated called the whole mess the ultimate asterisk in sports. The first international celebrity athlete, the first Olympic super-star, remains today, a century later, a phantom contender, there but not there. 
   Thorpe's demotion in 1913 reverberated around the world for months, years and decades. He was seen by just about everybody except the AAU and the IOC as the outsider made scapegoat to an elitist and exclusionary ideal.       
     But the Swedes had shown the world how to put on a proper Olympiad when the whole idea of an international multi-sports event was new. The four Olympiads prior to Stockholm had ranged from rudimentary to disastrous. It was by no means certain that this movement begun by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896 would survive (the 1916 Games were supposed to take place in Berlin). Without the beautifully organized and successful Stockholm Games 100 years ago, we might not be looking forward to London this summer. 
     Equally important to the survival of the modern Olympic movement in 1912 was Jim Thorpe. He glamorized the Games. He thrilled the world with a series of athletic performances that set a standard sports fans would anticipate every four years (except during World Wars) since. 
     2012 twist: Thorpe did those 15 events in Stockholm without the aid of any enhancement drug or even the level of training his competitors enjoyed. The machine of his own body, aided by his ability to observe and then mimic the best athletes around him, was enough. More than enough.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


When the Knopf hardcover of NATIVE AMERICAN SON rolled off the printing press in October 2010 I thought of the Ford Assembly line in 1927. Was my book like the last Model T chugging out of the plant in Highland Park, Michigan exactly 83 years before? The last of the old-style books, lovingly designed by the ace team at Knopf, then edited, copy edited, proof read, sent to a printer, and so on? Would I show this artifact of the early 21st century to my grandchildren one day as proof of how really old their grandmother is?
     Well, rumors of the traditional book's death, so far, have turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Of course, at the same time, nobody knows anything. Which means it's pretty good news -- let's agree to call it that -- to have a paperback edition of your hardcover coming out in 2012. Made it just under the wire! 
     The new paperback looks great (see cover image at the top of the blog page). Bison Books at the University of Nebraska did a fine job. The (few) errors that inevitably popped up in the hardcover have been corrected (I know. Thorpe did not play in the 1913 World Series). Snippets from some of the great reviews are on the front page, probably the best thing, to its author, about any paperback. More review excerpts on the back cover. And so on. 
     So far, so good in this crazy book biz. We can still hold the thing we built, and that we hope will last, in our hands. Yay.

Friday, January 27, 2012

That Famous Letter to the AAU

On January 27, 1913, 101 years ago today, Glenn S. "Pop" Warner delivered a letter from Jim Thorpe to James E. Sullivan, the secretary-treasurer of the American Amateur Union (AAU) at his office in New York. In the letter Thorpe admitted to having played professional baseball in the minor leagues during the summers of 1909 and 1910. "Professional" meant that he had been paid to play.
     This was explosive information. Six months before, at the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm, Thorpe had won gold medals by huge margins in both the pentathlon and decathlon, astonishing the world as the first super-athlete as the modern Olympic movement was struggling to survive. In order to qualify to compete, he had had to sign a form that stated he was an "amateur" -- meaning that he had never accepted money for any kind of athletic endeavor. 
     So, when a newspaper headline on January 22, 1913, six months later, revealed that Thorpe was no amateur, the result was what is still considered the biggest sports scandal ever. After congratulating itself for the American team's generally spectacular performance in Stockholm, the American sports establishment, humiliated, rushed to find its scapegoat.
     Actually, Warner wrote the letter to Sullivan and persuaded his star athlete at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to sign it. Warner also insisted he had no idea that Thorpe had played baseball those two summers. In fact, he knew exactly where Thorpe had been and what he'd been doing. But Warner, ambitious, often unscrupulous, was not going to take the fall for his athlete in the scandal that had quickly assumed international proportions. 
    Here is the full text of what soon became a famous letter, scrutinized and debated about for the rest of the century -- and beyond:

Carlisle, Pa. Jan. 26, 1913
James E. Sullivan
Dear Sir:
    When the interview with Mr. Clancy stating that I had played baseball on the Winston-Salem team was shown to me I told Mr. Warner that it was not true and in fact I did not play on that team. But so much as been said in the papers since then that I went to the school authorities this morning and told them just what there was in the stories.
     I played baseball at Rocky Mount and at Fayetteville, N.C. in the summer ofd 1909 and 1910 under my own name. On the same teams I played with were several college men from the north who were earning money by ball playing during their vacations and who were regarded as amateurs at home. IO did not play for the money there was in it because my property brings me in enough money to live on, but because I liked to play ball. I was not wise inthe ways of theworls and did not realize this was wrong, and that it would make me a professional in track sports, although I learned from the other payers that it would be better for me not to let anyone know that I was playing and for that reason I never told anyone at the school about it until today.
     In the fall of 1911 I applied for readmission to this school and came back to continue muy studies and take par tin the school sports and of course I wanted to get on the Olympic team and take that trip to Stockholm. I had Mr. Warner send in my application for registering in the A.A>U., after I had answered the questions and signed it and I received my card allowing me to compete on the winter meets and other track sports. I never realized until now what a big mistake I made by keeping it a secret about my ball playing and I am sorry I did so. I hope I would be partly excused because of the fact that I was simply as Indian school boy [Thorpe would turn 26 in 1913] and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong because I was doing what I knew several other college men  had one, except that they did not use their own names.
     I have always liked sports and only played or run races for the fun of the things and never to earn money. I have received offers amounting to thousands of dollars since my victories last summer, but I have turned them all down because I did not care to makes money from my athletic skill. I am very sorry, Mr. Sullivan, to have it all spoiled in this way and I hop the Amateur Athletic Union and the people will not be too hard in judging me.
Yours truly,
James Thorpe

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Same Old., Same Old ...

Joe Nocera wrote a terrific piece in today's Sunday New York Times Magazine on college athletes:
They should be paid, he says, and thereby end "the hypocrisy that permeates big-money college sports."

He is totally right and the only thing missing from the piece, at least to me, was a paragraph that traced the current mess right back to the beginnings of college football about a century ago. For some of that backstory, read my biography of Jim Thorpe, NATIVE AMERICAN SON: THE LIFE AND SPORTING LEGEND OF JIM THORPE (Knopf, 2010). 

Thorpe stepped onto the gridiron just as the rules of football finally settled into the form we would recognize as the modern game. His coach, Glenn S. "Pop" Warner, was a master manipulator of those rules. He also set up a football machine at Thorpe's Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania that is a precursor of today's collegiate football enterprise.

Not that he was the only one. The coaches at Yale, Harvard and other top-level football schools turned a blind eye to alumni payments "under the table," not to mention to other perks that made the financial situation of top collegiate athletes very comfortable indeed. 

Fascinating stuff. Let's see if Nocera's tough thinking produces concrete results in the NCAA...