Sparring with Hemingway: And Other Legends of the Fight Gameby Budd Schulberg
“As much as I love boxing, I hate it.” So begins screenwriter, novelist, and journalist Budd Schulberg’s collection of essays on the sweet science of bruising, a sport that fueled his literary ambitions and unsettled his conscience from/b>
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Schulberg goes toe to toe with his lifelong passion in this collection of his greatest writings on boxing
“As much as I love boxing, I hate it.” So begins screenwriter, novelist, and journalist Budd Schulberg’s collection of essays on the sweet science of bruising, a sport that fueled his literary ambitions and unsettled his conscience from a young age. He gives riveting accounts of classic bouts, such as Rocky Marciano–Archie Moore, Muhammad Ali–George Foreman, and Marvin Hagler–Thomas Hearns. Yet these essays also offer insight into the sport’s sociological significance from a man who covered its highlights and corruption-marred lowlights for decades. Sparring with Hemingway stands as the unparalleled history of boxing’s place in American culture throughout the twentieth century. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Budd Schulberg including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate.
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Sparring with Hemingway
And Other Legends of the Fight Game
By Budd Schulberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Budd Schulberg
All rights reserved.
Sparring with Hemingway
I had just published my novel on the fight game, The Harder They Fall—having managed somehow, after the unforeseen success of What Makes Sammy Run?, to hurdle that old second-novel bugaboo. When the new book made the Times best-seller list and sold to the movies for Humphrey Bogart, the fact that my two young sons and their mother were suffering from familiar Bucks County winter complaints suggested that a warm-weather vacation was in order. I picked the southernmost spot in the United States: Key West.
Key West had come to mind because my taste in resorts ran to isolated places with deep-sea fishing—the Hemingway kind of place it was. Yes, I had read of Hemingway's connection with Key West, how he had moved there and built there in the early '30s. And of course I had read his Depression novel To Have and Have Not, with its haunting, dirgeful opening and its evocation of the violence of wasted lives and the desperation of a tough old salt fighting his losing battle for survival.
There were no poets in Key West then, no overpopulation of literary types, no gay bars and shoppes and quaint tours of local landmarks, including the Hemingway House. The place on Whitehead Street was just a nice, comfortable, sprawling house where the writer had lived before moving on to Cuba with No. 4 wife, Mary—while No. 2, nee Pauline Pfeiffer, still spent her winters in what was simply her house and not "The Hemingway House."
On the one little public beach on the island (the navy seeming to have gobbled up all the rest) we had met what turned out to be the best possible couple to know in Key West, Betty and Toby Bruce, whose children were of an age with ours. Betty was tiny, funny, tomboy-tough, and feisty, and Toby was her perfect running mate, a skinny little beak who looked as if he had just hopped right out of a comic strip. And comic he was, with a twinkle in his eye and a quip on his tongue, bubbling over with ribald innocence. Betty, we discovered, was that rarity, a true Conch, born on the island of Barbados of parents who had pioneered Key West in the 1880s. Toby had met her when he came down from Piggott, Arkansas, with Pauline after she married Ernest. Toby had practically built the Hemingway House, putting up the brick wall with his own small, work-toughened hands, installing the pool and serving as general overseer. In fact, Toby had become indispensable to Hemingway, as his Man Friday running interference against celebrity-seekers, and able to double as boat pilot, hunting and fishing guide, secretary—you name it, and Toby could do it with a flourish. "Hey, mon, what you know bad?" was his trademark greeting. He was such fun to be with while doing everything so neatly nice, including making the best bloodies I ever drank.
I thought of the Bruces as two adorable little people who lived with two adorable little children—right out of a folksy nursery rhyme. It was comical, too, because the Morenos, Betty's mother and father, lived just across the driveway—in a quiet, gracious, and spacious Key West house built in the grand Bahama style. Mrs. Rosina Moreno was a genteel Southern lady, very proper in her ways, while Betty rebelled by dressing and acting like a rough 'n' ready hoyden, her little house as delightful a mess as Mrs. Moreno's was pin-perfect.
One bright morning in old Key West brought ripples of excitement. The news was, "Papa's coming to town!" Yes, the Great One, Mr. Key West himself, coming back for a visit to the island outpost he had virtually put on the map. Toby hurried over to our digs, "the southernmost house," the Casa Cayo Jueso, with the announcement: He and Betty and Pauline were throwing an impromptu cocktail party for Papa and Mary in the Bruces' little patio. "Good," I thought, a chance to meet the walking legend. We would talk about the work I had admired from college days and the subjects we had in common: Scott Fitzgerald, tarpon fishing, boxing ...
Browsing through his marvelous Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories to bone up for my adventure, I sipped a little Metusalem, a rum taste I had acquired from "Papa" via Toby, who seemed to enjoy a steady supply from Cuba. Then, high on expectation, I went forth to meet the self-styled and generally acknowledged "champion of American letters."
It was one of those sun-bright late afternoons of Key West winter, when an unblemished canopy of blue sky stretched to the far horizon. But there was one small, totally unexpected dark cloud: As I came into the patio, looking forward to a good time talking and drinking, Toby brought me a no-nonsense Metusalem, saying, "I hope it goes all right. Papa's on the warpath. Been lookin' for you since he got in."
"Me?" I know the Bruces had told him that I was their new friend and that we were planning a cruise through the Keys and the nearby Ten Thousand Islands together. But warpath!
As Toby moved off to his other guests, I leaned back against the back wall of the patio to ponder the mystery. But not for long.
A bull-chested, ruddy-faced man of fifty—barefoot, wearing shorts that looked as if they had been ripped violently from worn blue jeans and a fishing shirt open almost to the navel—shouldered through the crowd and set himself in front of me, feet spread in a fighter's stance, head thrust forward until our faces were not more than a foot apart. He hadn't been stinting on the Metusalem.
The first words out of his mouth were short, sharp jabs. "So you're Schulberg? The book writer?"
"I've written a few books."
Now the hard right: "What do you know about prizefighting—for Christ's sweet sake?"
I retreated to a characteristic I don't admire but often find myself adopting when under attack: apparent humility with a nasty edge. "Maybe I don't know too much about boxing. I've just followed it all my life."
His bare chest pushing against me forced a backward step. Then he looked me in the eye and spat out a name, punctuating it with a little shove. "Billy Papke?"
I stared at him. How do you answer that one? In anger or passivity? Choose the latter. My answer came in robot-mono-tone:
"Billy Papke was the only middleweight who ever knocked out Stanley Ketchel. That gave him the middleweight championship. Then Ketchel knocked him out. When they fought again, Ketchel won in twenty rounds. After Ketchel was murdered, Papke was champion again. I think he killed himself in California about ten years ago." Monotone, monotone, I cautioned myself. "Papke was famous."
There was absolutely no reaction. Not a flicker. Just "Leo Houck?" and the little shove for punctuation.
"Same weight division. Same period. Fought everybody. Papke, Harry Greb, Gene Tunney. For years he's been the boxing coach at Penn State." That I happened to know because my screenwriting friends, the Epstein twins, had been on his team.
Still no reaction. Nothing. The fistic catechism went on. I could feel my back almost brushing against the wall now. I felt like a fighter bulled into a corner, taking punches. I wondered how long I could take it, or should.
Pinkey Mitchell! Did I know Pinkey Mitchell? Now he was moving into my generation. "Pinkey Mitchell was the brother of Richie Mitchell, who fought Benny Leonard for the lightweight title. My father took me to the Garden but they wouldn't let me in. I was only seven. Five years later I saw Mushy Callahan, our local favorite in L.A., take the junior welterweight championship from Pinkey. I saw Pinkey Mitchell. When he came out to fight Mushy, he was a big fighter from the East. He was famous. In fact, when Mushy won he gave me the gloves from the fight. I hung them in a place of honor on the wall above my bed."
No reaction. It had settled into a kind of war of attrition. I wasn't going to lose my temper if I could help it—and "Papa" wasn't about to quit.
"Pete Latzo?" This shove took me right to the wall. I could feel my shoulders against it. I was being bulled out of the patio. The famous bare chest was pressed against mine, pushing me back.
Pete Latzo? A little like asking Alfred Kazin if he had ever heard of Jack London. But I took a deep breath and began:
"Pete Latzo took the welterweight championship from Mickey Walker. The great Mickey Walker, Ernest [I knew he hated that name but I couldn't get my mouth around "Papa" and so never knew what to call him]. You're asking me famous fighters. Pete Latzo is famous. Anybody who knows anything about boxing knows Pete Latzo." And then, finally, in exasperation, I threw a combination of my own:
"Pete Latzo comes from Scranton, Pennsylvania. And, if you'd like to get in touch with him, he's still there. He's an organizer for the Teamsters Union."
And I gave him a little shove. I despise physical fighting—"Leave it to the pros," I've always said—but it seemed as if our "moment of truth" had come.
I set my feet, braced for attack or to throw a punch, fantasizing a surprise left hook to the somewhat rum-swollen gut. At the same time, there was ambivalence: a flash replay of Ernest's tangle with radical writer Max Eastman in the office of their editor, Max Perkins, at Scribner's. A messy contribution to the public image of "Papa" that he claimed to resent but too often managed to encourage.
Suddenly, as if reading my mind, he wheeled and lurched back through the gathering to the bar and the kitchen behind it. I leaned back against the wall, seething. I was relieved that we hadn't come to blows, yet I had an impulse to follow him, spin him around, punch the arrogant bully face. Then I thought of getting out, heading for Sloppy Joe's. Or would he corner me there? "Joe is my friend. Joe's is my place. What do you know about Sloppy Joe's, for Christ's sweet sake?"
I was still leaning against the wall when Toby came back with a refill of the Metusalem.
"Papa's in the kitchen. He says he likes you."
I tried to swallow back the rage and keep my voice steady. Having "Papa" here and a lot of old Key West friends to see him was a big thing for the Bruces, and they didn't deserve a mess.
"Tell 'Papa' I admire him. But from now on I plan to admire him from afar." I took a deep breath. "As far away as I can get."
Toby felt bad. We were both his friends and friendship was Toby's thing.
"Papa's had a bug up his ass all day. A lot of pressure. Pauline being here—and Mary. But he's good people. He wants you to come in and have a drink with him."
"Toby, I'll read 'im. I'll read anything he writes. But he asked me a lot of dumb questions that hurt my feelings. I think it's better if we stay away from each other."
Toby went back to the kitchen to deliver this message. I kept on leaning against the back wall of the patio, still seething and nursing the rum.
A few minutes later Toby was back. "Look, mon, Papa really feels bad. He asked me to tell you again, he likes you. He wants to make it up to you. Like to take you fishing in the morning."
But I had heard about "Papa's" fishing expeditions. If someone hooked the first fish, he was teed off. And God help you if you boated the biggest. I liked deep-sea fishing, loved to be out on the water. But it wasn't life-and-death with me, as everything was with " Papa."
"Tell him thanks but I'd just as soon get my own boat. I c'n take the family. More relaxing."
"All right, mon." I had never heard Toby argue with anyone. It wasn't subservience but instinctive respect for other people's ways of seeing things. Unlike friend "Papa," who was a highbrow with lowbrow affectations, Toby was a genuine lowbrow with unspoken and unspoiled sensitivity. As I got to know them both better, I began to feel that Toby was the man Ernest truly wanted to be. I could understand why "Papa" liked him so much. It wasn't simply because Toby hero-worshiped him, although it seemed to me that the need for such worship had already begun to poison the Hemingway well.
A few days later the Hemingways left town, and Key West settled down again. But Toby and Betty were still convinced that "Papa" and I were meant to be friends, and that in time they would bring us together. "You two guys would like one another," they kept insisting, urging me to give him another chance. I began to feel that maybe I was being the difficult one, that he had apologized in his own proud way and that perhaps I should be a little more forgiving.
The following winter I happened to be at the Bruces' when a phone call came in from "Papa" in Cuba, and when they told him I was there he asked them to put me on the phone. He was warm and friendly. He asked me if I was writing and I said yes, working on another book, and he said he was working on a book, too, a new novel and he couldn't tell yet whether it was any good. He didn't ask me what mine was about and I didn't ask him about his. He said Toby had told him we had been tarpon fishing and that I had caught one large enough to mount and he urged me to try the waters around Cay Sal, between Key West and Cuba, one of his favorite fishing grounds. He sounded the way the Bruces described him. Couldn't have been nicer.
A year later my book was finished—it was called The Disenchanted—and this time, for the winter respite, we decided to move on from Key West to Cuba. Toby steered us to "Papa's Hotel," the Ambos Mundos, and told us to be sure to call "Papa," who (the Bruces assured me) would like to invite us out to the Finca Vigia for lunch.
At the front desk of the old Spanish-Colonial hotel—the kind I took to immediately, with its faded tiles and worn mahogany—the clerk said there was a message from Don Ernesto. Frankly, I was pleased, in a good mood about the success of my book and more than ready for a truce. But the message from El Papa was: When I arrived, he wanted it clearly understood that I was not to call him. The clerk passed this on to me in a world-weary monotone. I had the feeling he was accustomed to handling these negative invitations from El Maestro.
I made some phone calls to learn the nature of my sins. From Arthur Mizener, who had written the first biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald; from Harvey Breit of the New York Times Book Review, another friend of Ernest's and mine who had made it his mission to bring us together; finally, from Toby himself, who got it straight from "Papa," I discovered what it was I had done to him this time. The Disenchanted drew in good part on my ill-fated cross-country trip from Hollywood to Hanover, New Hampshire, with Scott Fitzgerald to write a movie with him about the Dartmouth Winter Carnival. My central character—the tormented, fading novelist scrambling for movie money so he could shore up his literary reputation—had been based on all the "failed priests" (as Scott had called them) who had worked for my father, the producer B. P. Schulberg. I had known them well—Herman Mankiewicz, Vincent Lawrence, John V. A. Weaver, Edwin Justus Mayer—all of them desperate for that "second chance." Still, I would not argue that Scott Fitzgerald and my Manley Halliday were brothers.
And that, it seemed, was my problem, or was it Ernest's? Scott Fitzgerald was "Papa's" friend. Scott and Zelda belonged to "Papa." "Papa" was outraged that I would dare invade his territory. In his not so humble opinion, both Mizener and I were "gravediggers," disturbing the bones of his old friend, who should be allowed to rest in dignity and peace. "Papa" had already fired off furious letters to Mizener and Breit protesting my invasion of Scott's privacy. Oh yes, I could hear the voice of our literary god bellowing down from his finca: "What the hell do you know about Scott Fitzgerald, for Christ's sweet sake?"
And I could see him pushing his hard belly against me and trying to bull me up against the wall. And hear myself trying to hold my temper as I recited my own knowledge of Scott—no, maybe not so deep as Ernest's—but that ordeal at Winter Carnival had brought us together, and when we got back to California we had visited back and forth and had remained friends.
In the autumn of what was to be his last year on this earth, he had volunteered to write what turned out to be a rave notice of Sammy for the book jacket and, just a few weeks before the end, in his modest flat off Sunset Boulevard, he had written a touching inscription in my first edition of his Tender Is the Night and had shown me the opening chapters of The Last Tycoon.
Excerpted from Sparring with Hemingway by Budd Schulberg. Copyright © 1995 Budd Schulberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Budd Schulberg (1914–2009) was a screenwriter, novelist, and journalist who is best remembered for the classic novels What Makes Sammy Run?, The Harder They Fall,and the story On the Waterfront, which he adapted as a novel, play, and an Academy Award–winning film script. Born in New York City, Schulberg grew up in Hollywood, where his father, B. P. Schulberg, was head of production at Paramount, among other studios. Throughout his career, Schulberg worked as a journalist and essayist, often writing about boxing, a lifelong passion. Many of his writings on the sport are collected in Sparring with Hemingway (1995). Other highlights from Schulberg’s nonfiction career include Moving Pictures (1981), an account of his upbringing in Hollywood, and Writers in America (1973), a glimpse of some of the famous novelists he met early in his career. He died in 2009.
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