Read an Excerpt
Most Likely To
It was a beautiful drive up to Silver Lake, a resort just east of Lake Michigan where high school kids lucky enough to own their own automobiles would hang out on the beach for the summer. It was 1965, and Jim Osterberg had just joined the car–owning set, but as was his habit he had flouted the conventional entry requirements of parental approval, a driver’s license—or even driving lessons. Lynn Klavitter, his steady date throughout twelfth grade, was impressed that Jim had saved up enough cash to afford the ’57 Chevy station wagon, but she wasn’t so impressed by his driving on the two–hundred–mile trip to the resort. Yet the more she asked him to slow down, calmly, avoiding confrontation, the more her kindhearted, funny, but increasingly headstrong boyfriend floored the accelerator, insisting he was in control.
On the final stretch of Highway 31 up to Silver Lake, Lynn started to lose her temper as Jim coaxed the reluctant old red–and–white Chevy up to ninety miles an hour. Suddenly they were shouting at each other, and just as suddenly the wagon’s back end started fishtailing. They swerved out of control and veered off the road; before they could even react, the car flipped over once, twice, then a third time. It mowed down two trees on the grass verge and crashed through bushes upside down as it filled with wood splinters and dust.
As the Chevy groaned to a halt on its roof, its teenage passengers scrambled out of the open windows and looked at each other. The car was a total wreck, but apart from scratches from tree bark and Jim’s bruises from the steering wheel, they were both, unbelievably, unharmed. It was suddenly quiet. Calmly, Jim picked up a license plate that had been ripped from the Chevy, linked hands with Lynn, and they walked off, up the hill, and all the way to the resort, where they would both lie on the beach in the sun.
It was maybe a couple of days later that Osterberg told his closest friend, Jim McLaughlin, how lucky he was to be alive. “Here we go, another of Osterberg’s tall tales,” thought McLaughlin, and promptly forgot about it. A few years later, Iggy Stooge mentioned to a journalist how he was special, that he’d survived what should have been a fatal accident and was destined to make his mark. Even though the notion of an indestructible rock star seemed faintly ludicrous, like many of his inflated claims it made good copy.
These were optimistic, booming, postwar years in America, when anything seemed possible. It was a time and a place when a smart kid, brought up in an environment seething with intellectuals and scientific savants, driven by intelligent, hardworking ambitious parents, could seemingly do anything he wanted. He could make friends with some of the most powerful figures in the industrial world, and witness first–hand an intimate arts scene peopled with characters who would later become superstars. With this environment, the right kind of kid—one with drive, a fierce intelligence, and the right kind of charm—could become the president of the United States. And this was the future that classmates and teachers in Ann Arbor predicted for Jim Osterberg, the witty, well–dressed classroom politician, a kid with an enviable knack of making connections with the rich and powerful.
Coachville Gardens Trailer Park sits in green surroundings on Carpenter Road, just outside the city of Ann Arbor, officially in the town of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Although it’s gained the inevitable gaggle of sprawling big–box stores, Ypsilanti is still mostly a lush, quiet place where nothing much happens. There are plenty of isolated wooden houses where you can live undisturbed, watching out for cranes and squirrels in the summer and taking your dogs for long, reflective walks through the crisp virginal snow in the winter. It’s a beautiful setting, although, like many small country towns, there’s occasionally a feeling of claustrophobia, and it’s easy to bump into slightly odd characters who watch TV late into the night on jerry–rigged cable hookups, haunt Internet chat rooms, or get loaded on illegal drugs to numb their boredom.
Although these days Ypsilanti rather grandly terms itself a city, in reality it’s overshadowed by its much bigger neighbor, Ann Arbor, which since 1837 has been defined by the presence of the University of Michigan. The university was celebrated for its diverse curriculum and liberal ethos and, together with the presence of General Motors and Ford in nearby Detroit, it would attract a constant influx of new residents to the city and stimulate thriving local industries in engineering, pharmaceuticals, and electronics.
The influence of the university ensured that Ann Arbor was a classy town. People who lived there drank espresso, formed arts groups, and took dancing lessons. In contrast, people from Ypsilanti were often regarded as midwestern hillbillies. The two towns weren’t totally uneasy bedfellows: plenty of academics might dispense intellectual wisdom at the university and then return home to a sprawling isolated farmhouse in Ypsi’s beautiful countryside, but the divide was perceptible for anyone who crossed the city limits: the gap between people whose salaries were generated by their intellects and those whose weekly paychecks were earned with the rude labor of their hands on a farm or in a factory; between people of culture and rural rubes. It was on that divide that Jim Osterberg and Iggy Pop grew up.
As a rock star, Iggy Pop would often refer to his upbringing in a trailer park, the definitive blue–collar home. But as a schoolboy, Jim Osterberg was regarded as the middle–class boy most likely to succeed. Other kids admired, and some of them envied, his elegant dress, his parents’ house in Ann Arbor Hills—an elegant enclave peopled by academics, architects, and the nation’s most significant captains of industry—and a confidence that seemed unshakable.
In the late 1940s, Ann Arbor, along with most of Michigan, was undergoing an economic boom. Money still flowed in from military contracts, while industrial giants including Ford and General Motors were readying themselves for a huge expansion in demand as a million ex–servicemen prepared to spend their government mortgage loans. In the east of the state, all the way over to Detroit and its huge River Rouge Ford plant, new factory buildings sprouted in once-green, peaceful locations, with resonant Native American names. Multistory buildings shot up on the Michigan University campus, and although housing was being developed all around the city, there was still a severe shortage. In 1948, a small group of businessmen headed by Perry Brown, who managed a machine shop in the city, and the Gingras brothers—Irv, Leo and George—developed a small trailer park on Carpenter Road, which they named Coachville Gardens, aiming to attract workers at the Ford factory and the local telephone company. Among the first people to move in, in the fall of 1949, were James Newell Osterberg, his wife Louella, and their infant son, James Newell Junior, who had been born, prematurely, in Muskegon’s Osteopathic Hospital on April 21, 1947. The unconventionally small family would become well known around Coachville Gardens: “It was a small trailer with a very large mother and a very skinny tall father,” says Brad Jones, who lived nearby, “like something you’d see in a cult movie. The trailer was very small, and the dad was an Ichabod Crane kinda guy, real tall and thin, and mom was just a square body. But you know what? They connected alright. Somehow it worked.”
Jim Osterberg’s earliest memory is of being in Louella’s lap, playing a game where “she’d recite a kind of a chant, in Danish, then on the last word almost drop me to the floor and pick me back up. And I wanted to do it again and again.” Jim Junior grew up in his mother’s warm, nurturing love and surrounded by his father’s baseball accoutrements (“He had played some semi–pro baseball, he had an enormous bat, and the mitt, and everything that goes with it”).
James Newell Osterberg Senior, the dominating influence in the life of the son who carried his name, was born on March 28, 1921; he was of Irish and English descent, but spent his youth in a Michigan orphanage, lonely and unwanted until, when he was age fourteen, two spinster Jewish sisters named Esther and Ida Osterberg walked into the orphanage and decided that James was the child who most needed a home. They nurtured and loved him, and paid for his education, before passing away in quick succession; one in mourning for their lovely house, bulldozed to make way for a highway, and the second for her adored sister. James appreciated the break he’d been given late in life and worked hard at school. A keen baseball player, he later played in the minor leagues and tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers, although he never obtained the contract card that designated professional athlete status. Like many of his generation, James Osterberg’s education was interrupted by the war, but his obvious college potential meant he was trained as a radio operator in the Army Air Force (in later years he would still remember his missions over Germany and warn his son off the place). After the war James Senior toyed with studying dentistry and osteopathy, before training as a teacher of English and moving to Ypsilanti to take a job at the high school on Packard Road, a four–minute drive from Coachville.
James Osterberg Senior was regarded by most of those who knew him as a reserved, even severe teacher, who graded his students strictly. He taught English, and assisted in sports; as a new teacher, he was more likely to teach the less academic pupils, in which case much of the emphasis was on public speaking. Many of his ex–pupils remember being intimidated by him during their school days, although as adults they’ve come to admire his tenacity and commitment; one pupil, Mary Booth, describes him as her most “feared—and favorite” teacher. Around 1958, Osterberg landed a better–paid job at Fordson High, in the Dearborn district, an area on the outskirts of Detroit dominated by a huge Ford plant. The bigger paycheck meant the family could move from their Spirit trailer to a much bigger New Moon, all futuristic and Jetsony. At Fordson Osterberg was respected as a committed, dedicated, and fair teacher who would occasionally unleash a quick, dry humor. “Mr. O” was an idealist; sometimes this made life difficult, notably when he unsuccessfully attempted to found a teachers’ union. According to Jim Junior, only one friend backed him up and the project was abandoned.
Not all of Mr. Osterberg’s charges remember his lessons, but those who do retain huge respect for his dedication and perseverance. Patricia Carson Celusta was inspired to become a high school teacher by his example and credits him for transforming her from a shy girl into a confident public speaker. “He made you think beyond yourself,” she recalls fondly, remembering that this inspirational figure helped impart “truths that have sustained us all.” Now retired after her own long career as an English and speech teacher, Patricia Celusta hails James Osterberg as “the very definition of a teacher” and still treasures a battered old copy of the English textbook from which he taught. “Mr. O” inculcated confidence and the power of the spoken word into his successful pupils, as well as encouraging their understanding of wider cultural and literary issues. Many other ex–pupils back up Patricia’s description of him as committed, capable, and fair. So does Osterberg Junior. But this was the fifties, and Jim Senior was a military–minded man, and that intellectual rigor required a backbone of discipline that meant on several occasions he would resort to using the belt or the hickory stick on his son.
While Jim Junior would disappoint his disciplinarian father countless times over the following years, and often confront him, sometimes with violent undertones, you could say that the belt and hickory stick worked. Like his father, Jim was a driven personality, although in his case that drive was wrapped up in a charm and wackiness that also betrayed the influence of his easy–going and cuddly mom.
Around Coachville Gardens, Mr. Osterberg was regarded as an intimidating presence, although a few people speculate that some of that severity came from necessity, given his job. According to Brad Jones, “He'd only be severe if you let him get away with it.” James Senior’s tough, no–nonsense attitude (“trailers make sense” was how he justified the family’s unconventional abode) was reflected in his dress and military haircut. But he would also take Jim Junior on long idyllic drives into the country. When Frank Sinatra came on the radio, Osterberg Senior would sing along with him. Over fifty years later, his son remembers drives in the Osterberg Cadillac, listening to his dad crooning “Young At Heart” and dreaming of becoming a singer.
Louella Osterberg, nee Kristensen, was a cuddly woman of Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian blood who doted on the two men in the house and became a well-loved figure around western Ypsilanti, despite working full–time in an office at Bendix, one of the main industrial employers in Ann Arbor. In later years she would preside over increasingly competitive arguments between father and son, but she remained remarkably unfazed. Somehow, for all the male aggression on display in the tiny trailer in later years, there seemed little doubt that this was a happy, loving, if unconventional family.
For many people in Coachville Gardens, the trailer park represented an American arcadia, where kids in bibbed denim overalls played happily in rolling fields, dreaming of Sputnik and Superman. Parents could leave their children to play around the park, safe in the knowledge that they'd be watched over by friendly adults in the close-knit community. It was probably this family atmosphere, plus the postwar housing shortage in Ann Arbor, that drew the Osterbergs to the park; once there, though, they stayed put until the fall of 1982, be–coming some of Coachville’s longest–term residents. There was green farmland all around, the nearest building being a stone, one-room elementary school on the other side of Carpenter Road and the Leveretts’ adjacent farmhouse, the premier hangout for kids in the area, who could earn pocket money working at Chuck and Dorothy’s vegetable stall or picking corn for them in the summer. For Osterberg Senior the presence of Pat’s Par Three golf course, right beside the trailer park, was a major draw. Behind the trailer park, a small track led to the railway lines. Young James could hear the mournful hoot of freight trains passing through at night, and in the daytime he could sneak down to watch them clatter past on their way from New York to Chicago.
On most days, kids from the trailer park played baseball or football around its snaking driveway. From the age of two or so, Jim was a regular at the kids’ birthday parties, although he spent more time in his trailer than most. Although not a snob, James Senior was careful about the kids with whom his son associated. He was particularly worried when Jim Junior wandered down to see the Bishops, who were “different.” Jim would later describe them as “bona fide hillbillies”; however, the Bishops were well–liked, fun to be around, and a natural focus for Jim’s attentions. But when Jim Junior later developed a fascination with the precocious Diane Bishop, Jim Senior seemed to acquire an almost supernatural omniscience, and he inevitably turned up to whisk his son away from her. Osterberg Senior had no such concerns about Duane Brown and Sharon Gingras, whose parents had helped develop the site, and both remember childhood games around the park, although Sharon remembers that “Jim didn’t play out as much as the other kids, although you’d always see him at parties. His mom was popular, I liked to go over there, she always seemed so kind, calm and pleasant to be around.” In contrast, Mr. Osterberg frightened the kids: “I don’t know why,” says Duane Brown, “he was a very tall thin man with a marine haircut and I didn’t like being with him. He never did anything that made us not like him, he just came across as very gruff.”