SI Flashback: Heavyweight Champion of the Word
Maybe this is how it begins.
The boy, eight years old, is asleep in his room, curled fast into the pillow, breathing softly. He looks fragile and small beneath the bedclothes, fine-boned, with a long, elegant face that seems determined and earnest even at rest. In the kitchen his mother has washed and dried and put away the dinner dishes. Standing at the sink in her patterned apron, a damp dish towel over one shoulder, she scours the last few imperfections from the white enamel roasting pan. Through the swinging door she can hear the men in the dining room fussing with the radio.
It is a crystal set, a homemade job, bright copper coil and wires and vacuum tubes, as complicated and fickle as a human heart. The boy's father, a salesman, built it himself. With the headphones placed in the cut-glass fruit bowl at the center of the dining-room table to amplify the sound, the family can draw close, lean in over that dark polished wood and listen. Some nights they can hear KDKA all the way from Pittsburgh, the radio signal booming out of the sky across Pennsylvania, crashing over the Alleghenies and down into this trim little house in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Tonight the signal is weak, and the ghostly voices coming from the Polo Grounds, from just a few miles south in New York City, seem distant, interplanetary. The salesman and the bank clerk from around the corner and Schlosser, the German butcher from next door, will have to take turns with the awkward Bakelite headphones, describing to each other what they can hear from beneath that sea of static. It is Sept. 14, 1923, and tonight Dempsey, the lethal Dempsey, is fighting Luis Firpo for the heavyweight championship of the world.
The butcher sits wearing the headset for the opening bell, knitting his thick fingers as he carefully intones the announcer's call to his friends, but within seconds he is on his feet, red-faced and sputtering, repeating again and again that "Vurpo ist down! Vurpo ist down!" until, without sense or segue, eyes wide, he shouts, "Tempsey ist down now too! Out of de ring and down!" The boy's father grabs the headset from the butcher, trying to make sense of what's happening. It's the wildest round in heavyweight history! Impossible but true! Firpo's been down seven times in the first, Dempsey twice, once even tumbling through the ropes. In the second round, with that stadium crowd of 85,000 roaring murder into the night and echoing in those tiny headphones, Dempsey knocks Firpo cold with a couple of short lefts and a hard, anesthetic right, and it's over.
Upstairs, the boy sleeps on, peaceful. Maybe the fight comes to him through the walls, as if in a dream, a riot of giants.
The next morning, at the breakfast table, his father tells him about the apocalyptic Dempsey-Firpo fight, about the broadcast and the static, and about the bright-red face of the tongue-tied German butcher from next door. The boy will remember all this, and more than three quarters of a century later, it is one of the stories he tells me.
W.C. Heinz is a writer, and he tells his stories the way Heifitz fiddled or Hopper painted, or the way Willie Pep boxed--with a kind of lyrical understatement, with an insistent and inspired economy. His work has been rediscovered only recently, a happy by-product of all those end-of-the-millennium anthologies and sports shows. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam calls him a pioneer, one of the innovators of what came to be called New Journalism and the literary godfather to men like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and Frank Deford.
Heinz will tell you, chuckling at the pun, that he is "last in his class," a writer from a long-gone generation of American greats, the sportswriters of mid-century who come down to us now every bit as ancient and sepia-washed as the athletes and events they covered: Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, A.J. Liebling and Frank Graham and Paul Gallico and all those Lardners. Before television, when newspapers and magazines had a heft and resonance unimaginable today, these were the master craftsmen of sporting prose. And Bill Heinz, byline W.C., was perhaps the purest writer among them, the writer other writers read. "At his best," Frank Graham said, "he's better than any of us."
He still has that long, elegant face, determined and earnest when he comes to the door, smiling now, his glasses set across the prominent emperor's nose, wide on his face between the pale blue-green eyes, the feathery white hair combed back off the broad forehead; the lines drawn there and down from the high cheeks and at the eyes and up from the corners of his mouth are as deeply etched as a carving, a medieval woodcut of a man at his last age. It takes a long time to earn a face like this. The head is large on his body--he is still fine-boned and slender, somewhere between a super bantam and a lightweight, maybe 130 pounds in his shoes. He stands 5'8" or 5'9", a bit shorter after all these years, but unbent by the weight of his age at 85, his back as straight as a ring post.
We shake hands on the patio by his driveway, and he invites me in. His hands are huge. "I'm a little cowed by this," I say to his back, walking inside. "It's awkward interviewing a good writer. You know all the tricks already."
"I was picking
"It's like stealing something. Taking people's stories. Sometimes I feel like a thief."
Without turning, he says, "I know."
Heinz has lived with his wife, Betty, in this modest house in Dorset, Vt., for 34 years. Betty isn't here yet. A neighbor has taken her down to Manchester to go shopping; Heinz didn't want to worry about her too much while we talked. Betty has Alzheimer's, and she's a handful lately, always walking off or trying to straighten up the house. They've been married 59 years.
Wilfred Charles Heinz was born on Jan. 11, 1915. Maybe he got the sports bug from dreaming that Dempsey fight or from the baseball cards he collected or from the few scrapes he had in the schoolyard. (He says boxing on the playground taught him to appreciate the value of a good left hand. He didn't have one.) When he was 10 years old, he saw Red Grange running right at him on a movie screen. Heinz was athletic, played hockey through high school, but he was light and knew he wasn't going to get much bigger: "I came to realize that I wasn't going to be a Dempsey or a Ruth when I found out that a punch in the nose hurt and didn't improve my appearance, and a baseball bounced off my head didn't clarify my thinking."
But Heinz was a reader too, and there were sets of Tennyson and Hugo and Balzac in the glass-front cabinet at home, Twain and Shakespeare and Poe. When he got the
He graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1937 with a B.A. in political science. More important to history, he was the sports editor for the school newspaper. Most important of all, though, he met Betty there in his freshman year. Elizabeth Bailey was a junior, cochair of the 1934 winter carnival, and he saw her for the first time in the lecture hall of the science building. She was small and athletic, with luminous blue eyes set in a round face framed by short, light-brown hair. "She was absolutely beautiful," he says. "I was completely captivated." Bill and Betty started dating the following autumn.
When Heinz got out of school, a family friend helped him get a job as a messenger boy for the New York
He was writing now too, banging out short pieces on the black 1932 Remington portable his father had bought him. Frederick had been a typewriter repairman before he became a salesman, and he knew a good machine when he saw one. Keats Speed, the excellently named editor of the
Although he was doing well as an all-purpose reporter at the
"Let's eat some lunch."
He butters toast the way another man might perform a ritual tea ceremony, deliberate and contemplative--something worth doing right. We take our roast beef sandwiches on white toast out to the dining room. He points to my notebook and tape recorder and says gently, "Why don't you put those away for a while?"
We talk for a long time about writing, about the panic that creeps over you when you're sitting in the chair and nothing comes. About trying to find some music in the words and about the moment, when it's going well, that you look down at the page and the story comes to you in full, everyone and everything alive in your head and busy on the page, and when you look up again, eight hours are gone and you feel like Lindbergh landing in Paris.
Heinz became the
The next scrapbook, though, chronicles what Heinz saw and what he did and what he wrote as he followed the ground war through Europe. It has a bad weight to it.
In April 1944 he packed that Remington portable and shipped out for London to cover the Allied invasion. The writer people talk about when they talk about W.C. Heinz was born during the Allied push across Europe. Everything he wrote after 1944 was informed by what he experienced as the fighting moved east toward Germany. Everything he came to understand about courage and cowardice and truth can be found, like seedlings, in his combat dispatches. He learned that men at war fight not for causes but for one another and that heroism is a kind of love. He learned to strip the artifice from his work. His style emerged, a refined transparency in which the I largely disappeared, and what the reader got was pure story.
Heinz is fond of saying that, for a young writer, the war was great training: "It was so dramatic, you couldn't write it badly." But plenty of writers did. Some covered the war from a briefing room at Army headquarters or, worse yet, filed thirdhand dispatches from behind a highball glass in hotel bars in Paris or Cherbourg. Heinz got as close to the fighting as the brass and good sense would let him. When the
Much of what he saw he couldn't write about; none of them could. It would never have made it past the censors. The infernal stink of infection and cordite and fear, the bodies of American teenagers sunk in the muddy roads beneath the weight of the tank tracks, the waste and the cruelty and the panic and the ineptitude. By September 1944 Heinz was on the verge of a nervous collapse, but he hung on through the fall and the winter, the Battle of the Bulge and the last push to Berlin. He came home in June, not long after V-E Day.
In the few pictures of Heinz in this dark scrapbook, from '44 and '45, he seems exhausted and cheerless, far older in the eyes than 29. There are the dispatches and cablegrams he sent back to New York, filed from Spa or Remagen or deep behind German lines. There are some of the little ends and bits he collected too, the Army manuals and business cards and train tickets. But maybe the one thing most revealing about W.C. Heinz, the writer and the man, is folded into the back of the scrapbook; a magazine piece about the war on which he's made a correction in the final paragraph: "After that there was just the muffled sound of the shelling, the sounds of the men breathing heavily and turning in their sleep, and the sound of the straw."
Between the words "the" and "sound" in the last clause he had, who knows how many years later, drawn a caret in soft lead pencil and inserted the word "taffeta." The taffeta sound of the straw. Even when it's done, it's never finished.
When Heinz got back to New York, the
When Heinz's battered black Remington was shipped back from the war, the copyboy at the Sun who checked it in was a kid named David Anderson. He held it in his hands for a while before he put it up on the stockroom shelf. "I was in awe of him," says Anderson. "We all were." Anderson is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for
Indeed, by the end of the war Heinz's writing had earned him a wide following, especially among those who plied the same trade. When asked in 1946 by an editor from Hearst to recommend someone for a potential magazine article, Damon Runyon, silenced by throat cancer, wrote on a cocktail napkin, "W.C. Heinz very good." He underlined "very good" three times.
By the late '40s Frank Graham, the little giant of New York sportswriters, had mastered what was sometimes referred to as the "conversation piece," a fly-on-the-wall approach using long blocks of dialogue without writerly asides. Heinz took the device and refined it until, as he now puts it, "imitation and adaptation and conversion" had him walking comfortably in shoes of his own.
You don't see conversation pieces much anymore, those unbroken skeins of polished, colorful dialogue. One reason is that they weren't always word-for-word accurate. Graham worked without a notebook--what he reproduced so beautifully was what the people he was quoting wanted to say, and he said it in their voices. Heinz took notes but knew that the secret of this novelistic technique was to get the sound right. "Quoting like that is walking on thin ice," he tells me, sorcerer to apprentice. "You go gently so you don't break through."
By 1948 Heinz had earned the luxury and burden of his own column in the
Betty and Bill had their first child, Barbara, in 1947 and had moved from Manhattan up to Old Greenwich, Conn., but Heinz spent his working days at places like Stillman's Gym at 919 Eighth Avenue, the alpha and omega of boxing in those days. It was a converted loft on the second floor that stunk of sweat and wintergreen, ambition and corruption. Everyone in the world of boxing came up those stairs at one time or another, and there was always a story to be found. By then, in addition to his five-day-a-week column, Heinz was writing magazine articles and fiction, and he had sold a handful of fine short stories.
He has two large scrapbooks full of his columns. Each has been neatly scissored from the newspaper and glued side by side, two per page. What is remarkable about them 50 years later is that none of them are bad. He wrote five of these things a week, 700 words a day, on deadline, for more than two years, and there isn't a clunker in the bunch. Some are better than others, certainly, but each is thoughtful and well-turned and tells a story. At the bottom of some of these yellowing clips, Heinz has become his own harshest critic and modestly written "good" on about every 14th column.
The postwar years were a boom time in New York sportswriting, and Heinz worked and socialized with the other famous names of his trade. He'd see A.J. Liebling, fat and round and pale as a snowman, making notes for a
"The other what?" answered Heinz.
Cannon, milking it, looked around as though searching for something lost. "The other roller skate."
"Shhhh. Don't talk to me right now.... I'm trying to read this guy's hubcaps."
Some nights Heinz made it home in time for dinner with his best friend,
In the photos they wear camel-hair coats over their boxy double-breasted suits and striped suspenders and slender silk neckties, these kings of the city, these sportswriters, and fine, brushed fedoras and shoes polished brighter than the bar rails they were propped on. In those long, red banquettes at Toots Shor's or around a table at Dempsey's or ringside at Stillman's, their hats off and their sleeves rolled up, their elbows and their notebooks on that damp canvas, or in the swaying club car choked with cigarette smoke on the sleeper to Chicago to cover the second Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano bout, they were always together, working, talking, cracking wise.
The newspaper business was changing after the war. Undermined by television and declining circulation, the
In 1951 the Heinzes had a second daughter, Gayl. Heinz was piecing together the kind of freelance income that most writers only dream of. Over the next few years he did some of his best work, including
Throughout the '50s Heinz wrote for
In boxing he found the purest form of competition. He often compared it to painting or composing, an application of scientific principle to produce a work of art, and has said that when he watched Willie Pep fight--the best boxer he ever saw--he could almost hear the music. Prizefighting has always attracted a colorful crowd, too, which gives a writer great raw material. A sport full of gutter-poor kids bootstrapping their way up off the street, it appealed to Heinz as the proto-American success story.
Nineteen fifty-eight was probably the best year Heinz had as a writer. He published a much-anthologized article about Pete Reiser, the hard-luck Brooklyn Dodgers phenom who played with such exuberant abandon that he spent most of his injury-shortened career hobbled after running hell-bent into too many outfield walls.
Nineteen fifty-eight was also the year in which Heinz's first novel,
It is the story of Eddie Brown, a middleweight contender, and his manager, Doc Carroll, told by a sportswriter named Frank Hughes. Brown is based on Billy Graham, a popular middleweight in the '40s and '50s with admirable skills and a missionary's work ethic, of whom Liebling said, "He's as good as a fighter can be without being a helluva fighter." Doc Carroll is drawn from Jack Hurley, boxing's last angry man, an on-the-level manager of the scrupulous old school. "There are two honest managers in boxing," said Damon Runyon. "One is Jack Hurley, and I can't remember the name of the other." The writer Frank Hughes is an alter ego for Heinz, who speaks to our fascination with prizefighting.
The book was generally well reviewed. It has everything Heinz knew and loved about boxing and everything he hated about the ascendancy of mendacity and mediocrity that was killing it. The novel is constructed in the manner of all Heinz's best work, in a series of interlocking, overlapping copy blocks that, once finished, become seamless and whole. "It's like building a stone wall without mortar," he tells me in the den. "You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they're balanced and solid."
Hemingway cabled congratulations from Cuba and called
All this is in the scrapbooks along with Heinz's original notes for the novel, sheets from a dime-store pocket notebook covered in his neat cursive, the blue ink long since faded to gray.
At the other end of this quiet house we hear the front door open and slowly close.
"Come meet Betty."
Heinz and I unfold ourselves from the floor and go out to the living room. Betty's eyes are as blue and clear and deep as a movie star's pool, but the Alzheimer's has robbed her of most conversation and thus stolen from Bill as well. She'll sit in the chair by the window and look out across the valley to Bromley Mountain for hours, smiling, while he reads the paper, but her health is declining by the week. Bill's been unwell lately, too, and he nearly died in 1998 following a series of operations that cost him his left eye. Each of them takes a fistful of prescription drugs every day for an arm-long list of ailments.
Bill gets Betty settled into her chair by the big window. "We'll be in the office, Mom," he says, and leads me back down the hall to the other end of the house. In the office are shelves of the books he's written. On the wall he has an autographed copy of his friend Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. There's a painting of Stillman's Gym by combat artist John Groth. Beside the desk is a small statue of two boxers, one putting out a left jab, the other slipping it. On the desk is the same Remington portable he's used his entire working life.
Heinz was skating on a backyard pond with Smith's son, Terry, during Christmas break in 1961 when Smith called to offer Heinz a book deal. Smith wanted him to cowrite a book with Vince Lombardi as part of a new series he was editing, a book that would take readers inside pro football. Heinz was already at work on a book, one that had grown out of his fascination with medicine. He had written a piece that year for LIFE magazine on J. Maxwell Chamberlain, a thoracic surgeon. He had watched three-dozen surgeries at Chamberlain's elbow and thought there was a novel in what he had seen. Heinz, being Heinz, wrote both.
The Lombardi book, which became
Heinz roomed with Lombardi through camp and preseason, a constant presence players dubbed "the shadow," those pale eyes behind the thick black glasses he wore then taking in everything while he filled those notebooks and Lombardi's office ashtrays. Over time they became guarded friends. Heinz has a sly sense of humor and to this day enjoys letting some air out of the pompous. Lombardi was, at times, as self-inflating as an expensive life raft. During the cocktail hour one night down in that rec room, Lombardi, in front of a large group of family and friends, barked, "Bill Heinz, wait'll you hear this! I got a letter the other day, and the only thing on the envelope was my picture and a stamp. But it came right here!"
Heinz didn't say anything. Bellows-chested and puffed full of himself, Lombardi needed an answer, an acknowledgment. "You're not impressed?"
Heinz paused. The room went quiet, just the sound of the ice in the glasses, everybody waiting for it.
"Coach," he said, "I'd be more impressed if your picture was on the stamp."
The book went through 15 printings and was the first gospel, mythological and bronze-bound, of the legendary Lombardi. Heinz wrote an award-winning television adaptation of the Lombardi book (produced by his friend Howard Cosell), and by the end of 1963, at the top of his profession, he had the time and the money and the ease of mind, at 48, to consider carefully what he might do next.
Barbara Heinz, age 16, died on Feb. 27, 1964. It is quiet torture for him to tell this story, and he tells it carefully, as though these words were made of glass and might shatter in the telling. Might cut him.
On Feb. 25, the day of the first Clay-Liston fight, in Miami, Barbara told Betty she didn't feel well. She had a persistent fever, she couldn't eat, and she had a headache. Heinz had already left to cover the fight. Betty took Barbara to the doctor, who booked her into Stamford Hospital. On the way there, they dropped off Gayl, 13, who was going on a ski trip. A few minutes later, Barbara turned to Betty in the front seat of the car and said, "I'm going to die, Mom."
That night Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. Heinz flew back to Manhattan a few hours after the fight to write a newsreel wrap-up that would play in movie theaters the next day. Betty called him early on the 27th, and told him to get to the hospital. All of Barbara's major organs were shutting down.
He arrived there at 11 a.m. At 7 p.m., Barbara died. Heinz remembers Betty standing in the hospital lobby saying, "She's gone." He remembers how tightly they held each other. Toxic shock or some virulent strep, they still don't know what it was. He can never forget "taking home Barbie's empty clothes" and being stricken for the next few days, in and out of a state like a horrible, waking sleep.
Forgoing a service, Bill and Betty took Barbara's ashes up to Vermont, where she'd been so happy the summer before at camp in Dorset Hollow, where she'd fallen in love for the first time. They spread the ashes beneath a tree, and Heinz, eyes shut tight against something he still can't stand to look at, tells me they "started on the road back, which never ends."
Bill and Betty lived apart for a time after that--they couldn't look at each other without crying. Each thought the other was thinking that they could have or should have done something more, anything, done the impossible somehow. Heinz returned to 919 Eighth Avenue, the old address where he'd spent so much time, Stillman's Gym. They'd torn it down and put up an apartment building.
He and Betty hung on, though, and in 1966 they bought the mountainside house in Dorset, reknit what they could of their hearts and started over.
It is getting dark, and snow is falling outside. Heinz is tired. He brought sportswriting across the century from Granny Rice and Ring Lardner and passed it like a gift to the writers we read today. Perhaps he'd have become as famous as Red Smith if he'd stayed in one place. He had bad luck with newspapers and magazines. The
Heinz kept working, more pieces for the magazines, including
As I say good night, Bill's helping Betty out of that chair by the window. "You ready for dinner, Mom?" are the last words I hear.
What Bill Heinz knows and what Bill Heinz wrote is that life is the biggest fix of them all, and every one of us was bought the day we were born. Maybe you can pick the round you go down, or hold out for more money, or book yourself into the main event in a bigger room. But for all the training and the roadwork, for all the hours and weeks and years spent in patient, useless practice, for all the effort and hunger of it, the brutality and the sweetness of it too, the battering and the circling and the moments of perfect, silent pain or crazy, transcendent peace, on your feet or on your knees or on your ass, you know how this fight is going to end.
What Bill Heinz knows and what Bill Heinz wrote is that the dignity, the nobility of it all, lies in the fighting itself and in taking the thing as deep into the late rounds as you can. Bill and I talk about that fight on the phone these days, checking up on each other. A few weeks ago, dizzy, he fell and cracked his head on the mantel. Gashed like he'd been butted in a clinch. I ask if he's O.K.
"Oh sure," he says, "just another writer still beating his head against the wall."