The writer and the puzzle: Richard Ben Cramer couldn't crack A-Rod
This was 1981. Mark Bowden, American reporter, had just arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, for his first overseas assignment. He was sitting at a sidewalk table, jetlagged head aswim with black rhinos and African mystique, feeling alone, off-kilter: It was the Fourth of July. Now came headlights, the pop-pop of motorcycles; now men and machines jumped the curb and closed in on him and sputtered to a halt. A rider, grin framed by an explosion of hair and beard, straightened up and held out an unlit and fragrant joint.
"Bowden!" Richard Ben Cramer said. "Welcome to the Thirrrrd World!"
The day changed. Cramer was one of those people: They charm, they dazzle, they come along rarely, though that's harder to see in an era when every stray thought and selfie, it seems, deserves to be posted online forever. No, Cramer knew how to make an entrance. He navigated some of life's toughest corners and made it look fun. He was different from you and me, and not because he had more fame or smarts or -- as Hemingway gibed -- money. On the contrary: Debt was a constant, but unfeared, companion. Cramer had something more powerful. He was irresistible.
In 1978, while reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Cramer walked the two-mile no-man's-land between Israeli troops and Fatah commandos and survived. The next year, at 29, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his ground-level coverage of the conflict in the Middle East. The year after that he snuck into Afghanistan, traveled with a cadre of the mujahideen and witnessed the capture and execution of a Russian officer. Why? "This man was not Muslim," the Afghans explained. Cramer, a Jew, survived that too.
Indeed, in his prime, there seemed no subject or story that Cramer could not crack. He had himself lowered down a Baltimore elevator shaft to listen in on a closed judicial session. He spent months -- making 19 cents an hour, he later calculated -- in the Florida Keys stalking Ted Williams, cultivating his fishing buddies, until the crab-shelled Red Sox legend agreed to talk. The reclusive subject of Cramer's coruscating, definitive 2000 best seller, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life, refused to cooperate, but Cramer showed up at his Hollywood, Fla., motel door if only to show that he could. "What are you doing here?" DiMaggio asked. "How did you find me?"
Between Cramer's relentless reporting and supercharged prose, hard cases like singer Jerry Lee Lewis, Senator Bob Dole, President George H.W. Bush -- and, yes, even DiMaggio -- stood revealed. Some even liked it. Future Vice President Joe Biden was one of six candidates dissected in What It Takes, Cramer's galloping 1,072-page classic on the 1988 election; Biden's train-wreck campaign (résumé inflation! plagiarized speeches!) was laid out in such unsparing detail that the Obama administration placed Cramer on its list of unfriendly reporters. How could they know that Biden loved him? After Cramer died of lung cancer on Jan. 7, 2013, at 62, the veep altered his schedule to speak at his memorial service in New York City.
"It is a powerful thing to read a book someone has written about you," Biden said, "and to find both the observations and criticisms so sharp and insightful that you learn something new and meaningful about yourself."
Cramer, a graduate of Johns Hopkins, was a longtime Maryland resident. Later that month, the morning of another memorial, in Chestertown, Governor Martin O'Malley ordered the flag over the statehouse in Annapolis lowered to half-staff and delivered a striking tribute. "I spent as much time working to get that right as I did on my father's eulogy -- and actually [Cramer's] came off a lot better," O'Malley says. "I'm not a séance sort of guy, but I do believe Richard was channeling through me."
Family, friends and old colleagues laughed and wept that day; writers of all stripes, nationwide, tapped out more words on Cramer's impact on politics and sports and reporting. In all it was the kind of send-off that few scribes, much less one toiling in the gotcha galaxy of 21st-century- media, could ever hope to expect. No one talked about Alex Rodriguez much, not openly anyway. Why bother? There had been so many triumphs.
Still, the fact that Cramer died the same month that Rodriguez's career crashed -- again -- created an unavoidable symmetry. Last January, the Miami New Times published stories linking baseball's highest-paid player to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, this time by way of his relationship with a Coral Gables anti-aging clinic. And as Rodriguez's crisis unwound over the 2013 season -- denial, injury rehab, comeback, a record 211-game suspension and an arbitrator's decision, last Saturday, to reduce the ban to a still-record 162 games -- Cramer's absence grew ever more haunting. "It's a huge loss," says Rich Hofman, Rodriguez's coach at Westminster Christian High.
Because once upon a time -- 2006, to be precise -- Cramer, the towering reporting talent of his generation, embarked on a book project about A-Rod titled The Importance of Being Alex: A Life with the Yankees. How could it miss? No great player, ever, has maintained as strange a relationship with baseball, post-modern fame and his own prodigious talent as the painfully self-conscious Rodriguez. And no intellect seemed better equipped to plumb the ego that had blunted so many journalistic lances. If anything, to judge by Cramer's opening words on the man, it figured to be too easy.
The first time I met Alex Rodriguez, he was in the fight of his life. He was the guy who was supposed to have everything -- good looks, good health, good habits -- all the talent in the world and most of the money. He was the Ur-baseball star of the modern age and had what all the other fellows wanted: He was the reigning American League MVP, with the guaranteed-huge contract with the richest and most famous team in baseball ... with a nickname that was brand-name for shoe-deals and batting gloves, and who knows what else ... with a wife who loved him and took care of his whole life ... with the killer agent, the blue chip investments and free cars from his own Mercedes dealership.
Instead, like Rodriguez's teammates, the Yankees' franchise, commissioner Bud Selig and the sport itself, Cramer found himself drawn into the A-Rod briar patch. After five years, reams of notes, countless interviews with Rodriguez and his family and friends and teammates and coaches, two busted deadlines and the ransacked whole of a $550,000 advance, Cramer produced almost nothing.
Not to mention he was the youngest man in history to hit two hundred home runs ... and three and four hundred. Five hundred homers (a lock for the Hall of Fame) was just a matter of time. He had just turned thirty, he was in his prime.
All that survives is a 2,283-word prologue, a nasty bit of litigation by Hachette Book Group to recover its money, and a mystified regret over the masterpiece that might have been. On a list of a young century's stunning upsets, this wouldn't be a bad place to start.
And he was the most miserable man in the game.
"In a way," says HarperCollins editor David Hirshey, Cramer's longtime editor at Esquire, "A-Rod defeated him."
Time now to speak of writers. We are, most of us, a particularly cramped breed, gunning for little victories: the newest wrinkle, the most telling detail, the juiciest quote, the phrase or paragraph or -- please, God -- page that approaches the song in our grasping, caffeine-riddled minds. Writers are selfish. Writers judge. Writers trust words more than people. There's a reason writer and neurotic so often end up in the same sentence.
Cramer wasn't like that. Readers in Baltimore in 1974 felt it in his description of a dedicated city finance director crawling on a four-story ledge to get the locked-out mayor into his office. Readers in Philadelphia in 1981 felt it in his lyric account of the funeral of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. I knew it, like thousands of other wannabe writers, in 1986, when Esquire published his epic on Teddy Ballgame: There was a generosity, a largeness, to his probing that allowed a man's grace and venality to coexist in one all-too-human stew. Cramer loved what we were supposed to hate -- the cruel jock, the armed zealot, even the supposedly tedious times and tasks required to land a story. Told that the Red Sox wouldn't give him access to Williams, he laughed and said, "Great news!" Cramer liked the difficulty. He loved the whole damn thing.
Few men try for best ever, that story began, and Ted Williams is one of those. There's a story about him I think of now...
With those words and that piece, it was clear that Cramer was throwing down a marker: He was going for it all -- the biggest subjects, the toughest nuts, the title itself. He was trying for best ever in the writing universe, stepping onto the nonfiction mat dominated by Norman Mailer and David Halberstam and Tom Wolfe. Such audacity was, in Cramer's most famous phrase from that story, "a bitch of a line to draw in America's dust." And he was just getting warmed up.
"Go get the tombstone," Cramer rumbled when, early in the process of What It Takes, he was told that another book on the 1988 campaign was being written. "We're gonna bury this f-----' guy."
Thirteen years later, long after "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" had been widely acclaimed as perhaps the greatest piece of sportswriting ever, What It Takes was named, by NYU, the 58th-best work of journalism of the 20th century. "Did you see?" Cramer said of one giant listed a few places ahead. "I can write him under the table!"
Yet even with an ego and style that screamed look-at-me -- ALL CAPS! Sentences hijacked by dashes and Aghhs and miles ... of ... ellipses -- Cramer, at his best, made you forget he existed. "What you read was the essence of whoever he was capturing," says David Rosenthal, one of his early editors. "Richard was a bit of a chameleon. He was able to listen to the way people spoke, the way people thought, and started to become one of them."
And if he was competitive, if he was so ambitious that it seemed, as one friend says, that "Cramer was a man trying to eat the world," he liked sharing the feast. He had every reason to feel threatened by Bowden -- the future author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo -- who competed against him in Baltimore at the rival News-American. Bowden, in turn, had been hearing about Cramer's greatness since his college days at Loyola in Baltimore, first when Cramer was the hotshot editor at the Hopkins student daily, then when he was The Sun's run-and-gun stylist.
Nothing seemed capable of derailing Cramer's rise, not the love triangle involving his boss, the city editor, not even the embarrassing front-page retraction of his 1976 series of exposés on a Maryland U.S. senator. Cramer resigned in protest, but it didn't matter; within a few months he was scooped up by The Philadelphia Inquirer. But whenever Bowden, who followed him to Philadelphia in '79, found himself jealous of Cramer's success, talent and opportunity, it didn't last long. Cramer's hustle was too obvious, and he felt so good about himself that turf battles just didn't apply. "He didn't envy other writers," says veteran Washington Post editor Jeff Leen. "He's the only guy I know like that." The trip to Nairobi? Bowden was there only because Cramer had lobbied for the Inquirer to hire him in the first place.
"I always felt when I was with Richard that he really admired ... me," Bowden says. "Even when people would look at us and say, 'Here's the great Richard Ben Cramer, and his friend who aspires to be a reporter,' Richard's attitude toward me -- and I'm sure he was this way to everyone -- was, You are a fantastic person and I'm proud to know you. There was such a strong sense of wonder and appreciation for other people. You couldn't help but love somebody like that."
First, she read him. Half a world away, Carolyn White, a 28-year-old firecracker managing editor of the tiny Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, found all those Richard Ben Cramer stories from overseas on the wires. She'd tack a copy on her wall, the example of all she wanted from her underpaid staff -- musicality, momentum, deep reporting. "This is what you should aspire to," she'd say. They already knew. By 1980 hacks nationwide were rushing to out-of-town newsstands to read Cramer in the Inquirer, reciting his leads, wondering how the hell he did it.
Then, after the Inquirer hired her to edit the Sunday magazine in early 1982, she started talking to him. He was writing a piece from Rome, and they were on the phone constantly, and Richard on the phone sounded like no one else -- deep voice, accent this slappy mix of Great Lakes river rat and Baltimore bait shop. And she came right back with her dirty Southern twang, Memphis high and low, drama dripping off every word. They lit each other up.
"I fell in love with Richard before I ever laid eyes on him," White says. "Then I saw him across the newsroom and it was finished. Richard was really hungry. You want to know what made him a writer? He looked in my eyes and saw what he could be."
By then, of course, it didn't seem Cramer could be more committed; who else would dive into the Philadelphia ghetto to report for a few weeks and come out wearing cornrows? His work as the Inquirer's first foreign correspondent helped ignite its Pulitzer-winning run, with 17 prizes in 15 years. "We built," says Gene Roberts, the legendary editor under whom the paper became ground zero for the some of the most aggressive and distinctive newspapering ever, "on what Cramer was doing."
One trip home he strolled into the fifth-floor newsroom leading a camel and a goat -- the goat was there to keep the camel calm. The camel behaved; the goat trashed Roberts's office. Everyone laughed. When Cramer later described a presidential candidate as "the heavy lump of iron" around which "the magnetic field of the family bent," colleagues assumed he was half-writing about himself. By 32, the world made way for him.
And now he met his match. Three decades later you'll still hear some of the nation's top journalists call White the most inspiring editor they've ever known. "Extraordinarily skilled," Bowden says. "She made me much more disciplined, and I carry lessons that I learned working with Carolyn in everything that I write today. She was fabulous."
And, boy, did she know it. White's every critique was emphatic -- "I love this ... yes ... Give it to ME!" She had impec-cable taste, bragged about having "angels in my ear," never stopped pushing. "She could be really maddening," says writer Steve Friedman. "Like, Do more; push on this -- not just on the writing, the reporting. And her instincts were almost always right."
"When Carolyn sets her sights on something?" says National Geographic photography editor Sarah Leen. "Look out."
The apocryphal version? Eight minutes after meeting in the Philly newsroom, the two ducked into a back room for a bit and emerged a couple. When, two years later, Carolyn got scooped up by Rolling Stone, she didn't go alone. Cramer quit his job cold, moved with White to New York City. His first magazine piece, for her new magazine, was 13,000 astonishing words arguing that Jerry Lee Lewis got away, essentially, with killing his fifth wife. A thousand would-be writers snapped their TRS-80s over a knee. A handful of others thought, Wait. You can do that?
"Suddenly, Hurricane Richard had come in," Rosenthal says. Esquire called, and under White's disciplined hand Cramer churned out incredible pieces on Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer, Montana lawman Johnny France, Williams, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth. And New Journalism had its Scott and Zelda, a couple so brilliant that people flocked to be near that light, first at their cramped apartment in Manhattan, later at their home in rural Maryland.
"Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor: like that, in so many ways," says Sarah Leen. "I mean larger-than-life, passionate, just living to the hilt. And all these people they could just ... summon. They'd have Fourth of July parties and put on the dog for four days, and 50 people would show up from New York, Florida -- wherever you were you would come, because of the whole ambiance."
And together they pieced together What It Takes, a project that ate six years, destroyed his health, drained the $500,000 advance ("I spent the hell out of it," he said) and left the couple and ace researcher Mark Zwonitzer hollowed. Cramer smoked nonfilter cigarettes like a suicide case, sucked down bottomless pots of coffee. "I'd go to sleep to clacking, the clicks of his keyboard," White says. "Then I'd get up in the morning and edit it."
Something small, he was sure, had crept into journalism by then. Reporters had become obsessed with rooting out the latest gaffe, slip or scandal, all the while moaning about the "dwarves" who seek public office. Cramer wanted nothing to do with what he called Karacter Kops. He was sure it took guts and, yes, a certain valor for these men to endure the humiliations of begging votes. He wanted, as he put it, to "give them their size." He went seafloor deep, producing a furious cascade of emotion, insight and detail that made you rethink Biden and Dole and Poppy Bush, and love, even, the grind that would exact from them such a mad and grueling toll.
"Carolyn White was my partner in this book's first dreaming, my guide and my spur through all its doing," he wrote in the foreword. "For her every line was written."
He paid her back with a year in Paris; they flew over on the Concorde. Guide and spur? When reached last fall by phone to talk about Cramer, White began by explaining his practice of "cleaning someone's clock," maneuvering a source to unload every bit of info. Then, after fielding a few questions, she began giving instructions: I needed to get hold of a high school essay by their daughter, Ruby ("She nailed him!"), about Richard. I needed to find out everything about his boyhood, his parents and sisters. She also had an interview tip.
"Go to our daughter," White said, "and say, 'Tell me about your mom.' Then -- and save it till last -- ask, 'What happened with your mom and dad?' "
He loved baseball. It got its hooks into Cramer long before writing or women or politics. Yankees broadcasts were on TV every night growing up in Rochester, N.Y., in the 1950s. Robert (Brud) Cramer, a pharmacist quick with a joke or story, could take or leave the game. But his wife, Blossom, a born-and-bred New Yorker, made sure the Bombers were on. Pencil in hand, she always kept score.
Richard did too, for the rest of his life. Baseball mattered, maybe more than it should have. Even in cold or rain or snow, Cramer the hard-bitten reporter couldn't believe anyone would leave early. "Before the game is over?" he'd say. If the Yanks were losing even a midseason tilt at Camden Yards, he'd have to listen from the concourse. He couldn't bear to watch.
Yet the more Cramer's fandom collided with reality, the more a reader could sense a souring. His mid-1980s version of Ted Williams was baseball icon as fan dream -- raw and flawed, perhaps, yet better up close than ever suspected. When it came to Cal Ripken Jr., though, Cramer had to pin down an active legend bunkered beneath layers of handlers and hype; his 1995 SI meditation on Ripken's streak was less celebration than lament. "No one trusts the game to be enough," he wrote.
And by then he'd begun his deep dive into DiMaggio -- the legend's mob ties, his cheapness and crimped personality, the unseemly rise of the memorabilia business. By comparison, covering the Afghanistan war was like "falling off a log," Cramer said in 1998. "This old guy has run me ragged."
Finally, one of Joe's lawyers met with Cramer and Rosenthal, his editor at Simon & Schuster, in New York to offer a proposal: Pay DiMaggio $1 million and you can be his authorized ghostwriter, and he'll talk only about what people care about: baseball. No Marilyn Monroe, no mafia stuff. Cramer's counter: If DiMaggio cooperates, no topic off-limits, we'll hold off publishing until he dies.
"They didn't like that offer," Rosenthal says.
By 2000, Joe D was dead, and Cramer's relationship with White was on life support. The couple's high-octane dynamic -- great for igniting adrenalized prose -- couldn't help but leech into the most mundane events. Now Rosenthal needed the book, and the Chestertown home gave off sparks like a snapped power line. Carolyn's red pen still bloodied the pages, but the battles over rewrites became more unpredictable, even teary. Days could pass in silence.
Ruby came home from school one afternoon to find Carolyn standing on a kitchen counter, smashing china onto a floor littered with shards. The very next she found her parents there together, dancing. "They combusted," the 23-year-old Ruby says. "It was two people who were constantly pushing each other -- and that can only hold for so long."
Finally, Richard had had enough. Midway through the writing of The Last Hero he told Carolyn: no more edits. He took his pages away from her, to New York. The second half of the book would not be as tight as the first, but it didn't matter. In terms of sales, the DiMaggio book, released in late 2000, was by far his biggest success.
"He fired me," Carolyn says. "That was the end of us. The book debuts at No. 4 on the best-seller list, and that was the end of our marriage."
It wasn't the only cost. Cramer had battled through pleurisy, Bell's palsy and back pain to finish What It Takes. On the home stretch of writing DiMaggio, doctors discovered a brain tumor; Cramer put off the operation until after the book was done. In 2000, surgeons at Johns Hopkins sliced his skull, peeled back his forehead and excavated away. Then came recovery, a book tour. At some point Cramer began a relationship with Joan Smith, a San Francisco book reviewer. Carolyn became unmoored. Who knows which came first?
He was famous now. Rakish touches like the pilot jacket and Rochester Red Wings cap had long given way to $300 Charvet shirts and French cuffs; the cigarettes had become cigars. If, at 52, Cramer wasn't eating the world, he still ordered two steaks at dinner -- and finished them.
On paper the lifestyle seemed impossible to sustain. After taxes and expenses, his reported $850,000 advance for the six years on DiMaggio broke down to less than $100K a year. The house, all 4,600 square feet of it on 20 acres, needed constant repair, and in 2002 the IRS slapped a lien on the property for $281,875.20. But a circuit of friends, including one millionaire named John Ryan, had long backstopped the couple with "loans." Cramer was one of those people. Such largesse seemed only natural.
Besides, it's not as if he stopped hustling. After the success of The Hero's Life -- 10 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list -- Cramer dived into a quick study for Simon & Schuster called How Israel Lost: The Four Questions that garnered mixed reviews and little sales. In 2005, after five years of research for a project about the garment industry ran aground, he needed a big score, not to mention a book to fulfill his contract. Cramer proposed the A-Rod bio, but asked for more money. S&S passed.
On Sept. 12, 2006, Cramer signed a two-book, $1.5 million contract with Twelve, Hachette's new prestige imprint. The $550,000 advance for The Importance of Being Alex eased pressure on him, but both men had been waiting. The year before, during a quiet moment at Yankee Stadium, Rodriguez had agreed to cooperate.
... he couldn't have been nicer. I told him I wanted to write a book about his whole life, the real story, and he thought that was great. The real stuff, he said, never gets written. And he said it was good luck that I had shown up, because he had a question for me, too: He'd been thinking about it, but he just couldn't figure ... maybe, as an experienced writer (he meant old), maybe I would know ... it was bugging him, he couldn't think of a reason. . . .
Why did I think he was getting such lousy press?
Few journalists circled a subject the way Cramer did. He didn't act like a reporter. He would sit with someone's mother or uncle and chat, charm, joke; 30 minutes could pass without his taking a note. "I want them to know me as a human being," he'd say. Cynical colleagues called this his "human being trick." But the point was to play horseshoes with President Bush, be in a position where DiMaggio's childhood friends are calling you first: actually get inside. "Don't be the schmuck on the other side of the table," Richard told Ruby when she began reporting a few years ago. "Don't get an interview with the guy. Be in the room with him while he's being interviewed by someone else."
He was in the room with A-Rod, early on. From late 2006 to early '08, Cramer insinuated himself deep into Rodriguez's camp: conversations with the star in South Florida, Baltimore and New York, lunches with his then wife, Cynthia, dinners with the high school coach, long talks with old teammates, friends, family. He pulled small gifts for the couple's two daughters from his battered briefcase, did his best to seem harmless, invisible.
"Richard kind of traveled with us for a bit and became part of our inner circle," says Cynthia, who has a master's in psychology. "I think he just really was a fan. I think he even named his dog after Alex.
"He was always schlepping stuff, always looked a little bit disheveled, always looked like he was just getting his act together. When you'd see him you were, like, Oh, this guy's a mess. But that wasn't the case. Richard was together. He was sharp. He was the epitome of the opposite of a mess."
And it worked. A year in, "I think Richard knew more about Alex than Alex did," Hofman says. "He had him down to a T."
Publicly, Cramer seemed to like what he found. Even after A-Rod's tin-eared decision to announce, during the fourth game of the 2007 World Series, the decision not to exercise his option with the Yankees, Cramer told Publishers Weekly that he found him "a serious guy and a smart guy." As for the steroid rumors, he said, "I would be shocked if Alex has put anything in his body except the healthiest possible stuff. You cannot imagine how this guy eats. Literally, Cynthia ... carries salad dressing in her purse so they go into a restaurant, and order the salad dry, and have the proper flaxseed oil in the salad dressing."
But privately Cramer was growing frustrated with Rodriguez's flightiness, his inability to engage. He had hoped to give A-Rod "his size" as the apotheosis of postmodern stardom, but the deeper he dug the more he found, says one close friend, "nothing there. A completely vacuous person and a completely vacuous life." DiMaggio's career resonated with epic themes: His marriage to Monroe was an American dream, his grace and power a projection of the nation's self-image. Rodriguez's playoff failures and purported affair with Madonna made for far thinner fabric -- and his 2008 divorce from Cynthia removed vital ballast. A-Rod as subject was losing air fast.
Cynthia had also been Cramer's best contact; once the marriage ended, so did his access. As wags giggled about Madonna and A‑Rod's mystic-celebrity bond, Cramer tried researching Kabbalah and ended up muttering, "This book is just getting ridiculous." There was one last awful dinner with the man and his posse: By the time the main course arrived, A-Rod sat silent, ignoring the irresistible force, fiddling with his phone.
Then it got worse. In the wake of an SI investigation, Rodriguez admitted in 2009 that he had used performance-enhancing drugs in the early '00s, during his years with the Rangers. Cramer tried calling, to hear and understand what it was like to be in such a vortex, but A-Rod wouldn't talk.
Three months later Hirshey, Cramer's old Esquire editor, published Selena Roberts's A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez for HarperCollins. Cramer felt betrayed, boxed in. His subject had grown loathsome, and he was only beginning to understand why the slugger would, rounding the bases, shout at an infielder camped under a pop-up, why he would kiss himself in the mirror. "Alex acts out," reads one of Cramer's notes, "when he doubts his talent".
Oddly, the PED issue and Rodriguez's great performance -- at last -- in the 2009 postseason lent him some cultural heft; he now embodied his era as much as Joe D ever did. Problem was, the era was equivocating, vain, doped-up, its narrative arc bent always toward someone's wallet. "What is the larger statement about A-Rod? Ehhhh," Rosenthal says. The idea of spending three more years and 700 pages marinating in such a cocktail held little appeal. People think politicians are awful and baseball players are heroes, Cramer told Jonathan Karp, the editor waiting for his A-Rod manuscript. But it's the other way around.
Besides, writing -- never an easy or quick task even in Cramer's prime -- was becoming tougher. By 2007 it was clear that his engine wasn't revving as fast. Cramer's life had become calmer, more country squirish, after Joan moved into the Chestertown house a few years before. Maybe she didn't push him like Carolyn, and he liked that. Maybe the brain tumor left him stepping more gingerly.
"Richard wasn't gaining any traction in his work," Bowden says. "I suspected that something really vital had been taken out of him. He was just as charming and fun and smart as ever. But he told me about money worries." Bowden arranged a meeting with editors at The Atlantic who, with the 2008 presidential election looming, offered Cramer great space, flexible deadlines and much cash to write about politics.
"But he never did anything," Bowden says. "He never wrote a word."
Bowden would have loved to read Cramer on Obama. His publisher would have loved to read even a diluted version of his A-Rod book. But Cramer wouldn't give it up, not unless he had him nailed. "Any number of writers could've taken what he had, turned it into a perfectly saleable book -- and got the contract off his back and sailed on," says Michael Pakenham, one of Cramer's editors at the Inquirer. "But that just wasn't Richard."
On Sept. 8, 2011, Hachette canceled the contract for The Importance of Being Alex and demanded a refund of half of the advance, with interest -- $292,478.8 -- within 15 days. Shortly before word of the cancellation got around, Rob Fleder, a former SI editor working on an anthology about the Yankees, called Cramer: There had to be something from five years of research on Rodriguez that Fleder could include. There wasn't.
"He said that his experience with A-Rod was so awful at every turn, every aspect, that it not only ruined for him, forever, A-Rod and the Yankees -- but baseball in general," Fleder says. "I think he really hated A-Rod. Couldn't stand what he turned out to be."
Was that defeat? For the writer who could make even a Democrat love Bob Dole, maybe. Cramer didn't act like it, though. He spoke of the A-Rod book being only in "abeyance" in the summer of 2012, yet he was already ginning up a project on Jon Corzine -- business titan turned politician turned Wall Street villain, a rogue with a view. By then, too, Cramer's cancer had begun to spread.
Once Cramer died last January, friends and editors figured Hachette would withdraw the lawsuit it had filed against him just three weeks before. The company issued a statement to Publishers Marketplace asserting that they never knew Cramer had been ill, hadn't had contact with him for more than a year and pursued litigation only as a last-ditch recourse. Being depicted as corporate ghouls rifling the pockets of a beloved corpse was no one's idea of good publicity.
Yet more than a year later Hachette remains intent on getting its $550,000 from Cramer's estate, though the public line from family and friends is that Richard "spent the hell" out of that, too, and there's nothing to recover. "After Mr. Cramer's death, HBG refiled the claim with the cooperation of and prior discussion with the attorney for Mr. Cramer's estate," said Sophie Cottrell, the company's communications director. "HBG has made repeated attempts to contact the estate to resolve this matter without further need for litigation, but has not received any response from the estate."
Such wrangling matters, if only to see which entity -- -baseball, the Yankees or Cramer's family -- will be first to break free of its A-Rod mess. But for Cramer buffs, only the written word lasts. Speculation over what, if any, part of an A-Rod manuscript exists bubbles on. Cramer married Joan, who declined to speak to SI, on Valentine's Day, 2012, and his A-Rod material remains with her. Editors and close friends, though insisting that Cramer was not suffering from writer's block, are universal in their belief that he had written almost nothing on Rodriguez.
But Ruby believes there's more than just the prologue that her father sent Karp in 2009. She's not alone. "They mean there's nothing publishable," White says. "I don't believe it, and I want it. Because I can make it something."
A decade ago no one would have doubted that. In 2003 the 53‑year old White was still considered a wonder, and she lit out for San Francisco to become a deputy managing editor at the Chronicle. Newspapers had changed, gotten smaller, but she hadn't; White was still ambitious, still pushing sexy New Journalism in a sound-bite age: a multi-month series on wine, another on Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Then National Geographic put her in charge of all its words, and she made it hum there, too. Who else could get John Updike to write about dinosaurs?
Cramer's sudden death left plenty derailed. Ruby was there for his final days at Johns Hopkins; she was a newly-minted political reporter for BuzzFeed, a website dedicated to the quick-take minutiae that her dad couldn't abide. Yet he was supportive to the end. "You don't have to worry about having me gone," Cramer told her. "Because you'll know -- no matter what question you have or advice you need -- my answer."
"And it kills me," Ruby says, "because I don't. Every day, I'm like, What would you do? What would you want me to do? I curse him every day for that, because I don't know what he would say to me if I said, 'Do you think that I'm starting my career the right way? Would you be proud of me?' "
It took me weeks to reach Carolyn in October. She has a knack, since the Geographic job ended badly in 2008, for dropping out of contact with close friends and family; her phone rang on or announced a mailbox that hadn't been set up, until one rainy afternoon. She was living outside Baltimore, she said, but wouldn't say where, and over the course of three conversations grew panicky and began to cry. She sounded alone and far away, as if waiting for him to make one last entrance.
"Richard thought he was going blind," White said. "I think I'm going blind. Richard's the only person who could save my life -- and he died."
She said she was in "real bad trouble" -- something to do with her current apartment -- and hung up and then called back to ask if I could help find a lawyer. "I think Richard sent you," she said. And I did all I could to keep her on the phone: Yes, I said, I'd find a local lawyer. Yes, she could find my stories online. I'd written about Ted Williams, too, and yes, Richard had blurbed one of my books. Could we meet somewhere, some time?
White hung up after that. I called often in the days and months ahead, but she never picked up, and eventually I stopped. She knew that I would. The cleaning of someone's clock is an act of collaboration, after all. Once a source decides that you're done, the only thing to do is move on.