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A Life In The Loser’s Dressing Room
A talk with the superb journalist and sports report who was the co-author of MASH and wrote Ernest Hemingway’s favorite fight novel
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
“A professional is someone who makes every play. there’s no compromise.”
So I got my uniform and all that stuff and went my way, and Joe was drafted and fought in Italy. He’s dead now, so I can say that he just couldn’t take it and shot himself in the foot. He was dishonorably discharged and went back and worked on the paper after that, and the burden grew when it got around about how it had happened. But I felt I could have gone that same way too. You can’t know for sure when you’re a war correspondent. If you’re in the Army every day, though, and going through that all the time... well, I’m not sure what Joe’s problem was in that particular situation, but I could have done it too. Once I saw a kid shoot himself in the hand just before we pushed off into enemy ground, and one of the other kids said, “He shot himself.” That was all that was said. Nobody condemned him.
How long were you there?
I joined up with the 1st Army when I went ashore after D-day. I stayed on the battleship Nevada for 10 days, because we were bombarding the coast of France. My first byline ashore was in Cherbourg when they were cleaning out the port to bring ships in. I was still with the Navy at that point. Then I joined the 1st Army in Paris, because our [the Sun ’s] number one guy in Europe, Gault McGowan, was captured by the Germans. I replaced him as the 1st Army was going into Paris. We reporters always had a little bit of a contest with the 3rd Army because they got so much publicity out of Patton and we had a very quiet general.
How long was McGowan held by the Germans?
I don’t know, five or six days. The Ger mans announced that they’d captured Gault McGowan of the New York Sun . Then he jumped out of a train as it was coming into a station and made his way back with the help of some friendly French people and showed up at the Hôtel Scribe in Paris. I said in the cable: THE CLOTHES FIT MCGOWAN THE WAY EUROPE FITS HITLER. IT’S TOO TIGHT IN SOME PLACES AND TOO LOOSE IN OTHERS . They ran it. You needed a laugh at the time.
After you came home in 1945, how hard was it to write about something as normal as sports?
That was a difficult thing. When I came back, they were going to send me down to Washington. I told the boss that was not what I wanted to do, and he put me back on the city desk. I waited all day for an assignment and found out the editor was too embarrassed to give me something mundane after the war stuff. Finally the sports editor comes in and says, “Keats Speed has changed his mind.” Keats said the sports department could have me.
First thing my editor, Wilbur Wood, told me to do was meet Lou Little. He was a wonderful guy and the coach at Columbia, and he had been one of my sports heroes when I was younger. So I went up there and met him, and I went from there into sports regularly and left the war behind.
It was Red Smith who asked you to write the book about Vince Lombard! that became the bestseller and classic Run to Daylight! Another Lombardi biographer, David Maranis, gives a great account of your settling into the Lombardi house to collaborate on your book. How long did it take you to realize he couldn’t recall any details about his own life?
I said to him, “You have no audiovisual recall,” and he said, “What the hell is that?” I said, “I just made it up. You don’t remember how anything sounded or what it looked like.” He immediately said, “That’s right.”
So the book, which was to be written in the coach’s voice, would have been a bust if it hadn’t been for his wife?
Yeah, if he didn’t have someone who couldfill in the blanks. It wasn’t that he was hanging back, it’s just that he didn’t re- member any of these things. But Marie did, and I would bounce her feelings about people and things off him and—bang!—they’d come up to the surface for a moment. He would say, “She’s right!”
Was Lombardi surprised at what a success the book became?
I don’t know, but I do know that he was very pleased that Coach George Halas of the Chicago Bears liked it. Halas called him up and said, “Where did you get that guy?” Vince thought he meant a football player. He said, “Who?” and Halas said, “That guy who wrote your book. It’s the best football book I ever read.” So then Vince thought, Wow, we did a hell of a job.
A later, highly successful collaboration was with Richard Hornberger on the novel MASH. That must have been a very different experience .