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Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship

Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship

3.5 2
by Dave Kindred

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Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell were must-see TV long before that phrase became ubiquitous. Individually interesting, together they were mesmerizing. They were profoundly different -- young and old, black and white, a Muslim and a Jew, Ali barely literate and Cosell an editor of his university's law review. Yet they had in common forces that made them unforgettable:


Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell were must-see TV long before that phrase became ubiquitous. Individually interesting, together they were mesmerizing. They were profoundly different -- young and old, black and white, a Muslim and a Jew, Ali barely literate and Cosell an editor of his university's law review. Yet they had in common forces that made them unforgettable: Both were, above all, performers who covered up their deep personal insecurities by demanding -- loudly and often -- public acclaim. Theirs was an extraordinary alliance that produced drama, comedy, controversy, and a mutual respect that helped shape both men's lives.

Dave Kindred -- uniquely equipped to tell the Ali-Cosell story after a decades-long intimate working relationship with both men -- re-creates their unlikely connection in ways never before attempted. From their first meeting in 1962 through Ali's controversial conversion to Islam and refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army (the right for him to do both was publicly defended by Cosell), Kindred explores both the heroics that created the men's upward trajectories and the demons that brought them to sadness in their later lives. Kindred draws on his experiences with Ali and Cosell, fresh reporting, and interviews with scores of key personalities -- including the families of both. In the process, Kindred breaks new ground in our understanding of these two unique men. The book presents Ali not as a mythological character but as a man in whole, and it shows Cosell not in caricature but in faithful scale. With vivid scenes, poignant dialogue, and new interpretations of historical events, this is a biography that is novelistically engrossing -- a richly evocative portrait of the friendship that shaped two giants and changed sports and television forever.

Editorial Reviews

For decades, sportscaster Howard Cosell and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali behaved like a slightly dysfunctional team, exchanging banter, boasts, and, occasionally, insults: "Howard Cosell was gonna be a boxer when he was a kid -- only they couldn't find a mouthpiece big enough," said Ali. Radically dissimilar in personality and background, this ultimate odd couple formed a sports partnership that benefited both men. David Kindred's book recounts an unlikely alliance of sound and fury that did signify something.
Budd Schulberg
Kindred sees Cosell, warts and all, with the clear eyes of a trained observer - and no man had more singular warts than Cosell. The author also expresses love, admiration and awe for his longtime friend Ali. But the dead-on honesty that has characterized Kindred's career, from The Courier-Journal to The Washington Post to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and his many sports books, is reflected in his view of Ali the man, with all his flaws and his inflated narcissism. He is the black man who famously tells the white world, "I don't have to be what you want me to be," and if some innocent and not-so-innocent women and some well-meaning men are blindsided by his runaway hubris, well, Kindred is not afraid to say, that's the price one may have to pay when entering the trajectory of this human meteor.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Veteran sportswriter Kindred seeks to "recover Muhammad Ali from mythology and Howard Cosell from caricature" with interlocking portraits that trace the rising careers of the boxer and the sportscaster to their first meeting in the early 1960s and then through the creation of one of television's most popular bantering couples. Their on-air playfulness didn't necessarily translate into full friendship. Kindred carefully notes that while Cosell supported the heavyweight champion's right to refuse induction into the army during Vietnam, he never expressed support for Ali's actual position. Likewise, Ali knew exactly how the relationship benefited them, once telling Cosell, "You know you need me more than I need you." Kindred's close relationships with both men inform the story without overwhelming it, and he depicts the moments at which he was not present-Cosell's early battles with anti-Semitism in the broadcast industry, Ali's fear that the Nation of Islam would kill him the way they did Malcolm X-with the same immediacy he brings to his eyewitness perspective. There are already many books on Ali, but few independent considerations of Cosell, and none that show so effectively how each man helped create the legend surrounding the other. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
"Ali and Cosell" has the ring of a vaudeville team, and in a sense they were: the baddest heavyweight champion paired so often on television with the baddest broadcaster. Their stars rose almost simultaneously-Ali and Cosell first met in 1962-and began their downward trajectories at nearly the same time as well. The title chosen by Kindred (Glove Stories), a journalist who has spent many hours with both men, is apropos, as each gained prominence by combining bombast with talent and both Ali, a black man, and Cosell, a Jew, were fueled by internal furies born of dealing with racism. When Ali, born Cassius Clay, converted to Islam and refused to be inducted into the army, Cosell publicly supported him. Kindred shows the symbiotic nature of their relationship, illustrated most perfectly in an interview in which the two argue about whose fame is most dependent on the other's. Not much new ground is covered, but the author does manage to humanize Cosell and to delve deeply into Ali's childlike and often fearful subservience to Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims. This is an entertaining read for anyone who grew up with Cosell's ubiquitous TV presence or the chant of "Ali, Ali, Ali." Recommended for medium to large public libraries.-Jim Burns, Jacksonville P.L., FL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Award-winning sports journalist Kindred (Glove Stories, 2002, etc.) captures the spirit of an era in intersecting biographies of two truly irrepressible personalities. The author, who knew both Ali and Cosell, might be accused of forcing them together here, as each has been the subject of numerous other books, including their own. What common bond, after all, could the offspring of Russian-Jewish immigrants to Brooklyn have with a Kentucky sign-painter's son 24 years his junior? Kindred quickly answers this question, and dispels any doubts about his project, with a vast barrage of anecdotes, testimonials and riveting summaries of media events that freeze the essential moments as two ambitious careers collide and meld in a decades-long dance of sometimes brilliant and often shameless mutual exploitation. Immediately after their first encounter in the early 1960s, the bombastic doggerel of Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a 20-year-old Olympic heavyweight champ turned pro, and the sesquipedalian arrogance of Cosell, an apostate attorney dreaming of a media spotlight as the prototypical sports journalist, became an irresistible attraction for a TV nation hungering for "telling it like it is." With Cosell pushing Clay, soon to rename himself Ali, with intimidating questions about his unorthodox boxing style ("Are you, in fact, afraid of being hit?"), and Clay in turn threatening to snatch off his mock adversary's obvious toupee on camera, the show boomed along into the big time. When Ali turned Muslim draft-resister, Cosell, almost alone, stayed in his corner. As fans of both remember, and Kindred well documents, the lows inevitably came. For example, a past-his-prime Ali suppressing a medicalexam that showed neurologically impaired coordination, only to be pummeled by undefeated champ Larry Holmes. Or Cosell being accosted by frustrated broadcasting partner Al Michaels after downing the better part of a bottle of vodka during a baseball game. Nicely written insider's compendium on the men, their times and TV's impact on sports.
From the Publisher
"This book has it all: a great idea, the perfect writer, and two extraordinary characters—Ali and Cosell—whose interconnected lives changed the way we think about sports and society." — David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered

"The best books combine a compelling story, superb reporting, and wonderful writing. In Sound and Fury, Dave Kindred has produced all three elements. This is a book that needs to be read and reread to appreciate just how good it is." — John Feinstein, author of Caddy for Life and Last Dance

"Cosell and Ali: it's impossible to think of one without the other. This dynamic look at two outsized personalities is as unique as was their relationship. Ali and Cosell created a form of synergy that transformed the world they dominated. But the triumph here is Kindred's. His prose floats like a butterfly. His reporting, telling it like it is, stings like a bee. Kindred by a knockout." — Jane Leavy, author of Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy and Squeeze Play

"In this terrific book, Dave Kindred has not only invented a new form, he has set the platinum standard. Even things I thought I knew about Cosell and Ali are richer here. Sound and Fury is a shrewd, hilarious, and eventually heartbreaking journey into the nooks and crannies of their lives, surprising even for me, and I was there." — Robert Lipsyte, author of The Contender and The Brave

"I love Muhammad Ali, and I absolutely love this book. It portrays Ali at his most glorious, most flawed, and most heroic. Dave Kindred's Sound and Fury will be the classic Ali biography for generations to come. Plus, there's Howard Cosell agitatin'. What could be more fun?" — Michael Wilbon, cohost of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption

"Two great American lives demand a great American storyteller. Dave Kindred tells the entwined sagas of Ali and Cosell with depth, feeling, and an indomitable humanity." — Charles P. Pierce, author of Hard to Forget: An Alzheimer's Story and Sports Guy

"A fine book, honest and carefully reported." — Jimmy Breslin

"As much a social history of our times as it is a biography of two of our most formidable cultural giants, Sound and Fury emerges clearly as a read quite as important as it is poignant and riveting." — Bill Nack, author of My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money, and the Sporting Life and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated

"We thought we knew everything there was to know about Muhammad Ali, but Kindred tells us more. We knew next to nothing about the man behind the facade that was Howard Cosell, and Kindred tells us everything." — Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times

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Prologue: They Charmed and Bedeviled Us

One afternoon in Las Vegas, while in bed with Muhammad Ali, I asked him to name the members of his entourage and list their duties. He took my pencil and held my reporter's spiral notebook inches above his pretty face. In childlike block letters, he printed a dozen names. Alongside the names he wrote dollar figures in estimate of each person's weekly salary. We lay there, shoulder to shoulder, one of us wearing clothes. Here's what I thought: Are we nuts, or what?

Years later I told New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, "I was in bed with Ali."

Anderson said, "We all were."

"No," I said, "I was in bed with Ali."

"Oh," he said.

It happened in a hotel suite three or four days before some fight. The suite was the usual Ali Circus madhouse of perfumed women, pimp-dressed hangers-on, sycophants, con artists, sportswriters, and other reprobates. Through an open door at one side of the suite's central space, I saw Ali in bed with the sheets pulled up to his chin. On eye contact, he shouted, "My man. Louisville, come in here."

I worked for the Courier-Journal, his hometown newspaper, and first spent a day with him in 1966. Already famous and infamous as the heavyweight champion and loud-mouthed draft resister, he had come to Louisville to visit his parents and fight an exhibition bout for charity. I was a young reporter in my first year at the great newspaper and eager to do anything the editors asked. When one said, "Clay's in town, go find him," I did. We drove around the city, stopping now and then to do some business. My son, Jeff, four years old, rode with us, and Ali occasionally put Jeff on his lap as if he were steering the car. I thought: a nice guy.

Now, in his bedroom in 1973, the noise from the central suite was maddening. Ali lifted a corner of the bedsheet and said, "C'mon, get in." Over the years I had talked with him in shower stalls and toilets, in funeral homes, log cabins, mosques, and once in a Cadillac at eighty-five miles per hour on a logging road through a forest. And now -- this was a reporter getting close to his subject -- I took off my shoes and put myself under the sheets with the once and future heavyweight champion of the world. I wore golf slacks and a polo shirt. More than most men, if not more than most narcissists, Ali loved to show off his body. He was beautiful, six foot three and 210 pounds, with proportions so powerful and so perfectly in balance that he might have sprung to life from a Michelangelo sketch. On the off-chance that you didn't notice, he often repeated what a nurse had said on prepping his groin for hernia surgery. "She took one look," Ali said, "and she went, 'You are the greatest!'"

Like schoolboys on a sleepover hiding their mischief, we pulled the sheets over our heads. Ali made a tent by raising his knees. Shadows danced inside our hiding place. The suite's noise seemed distant. On my back I did an interview that ended with Ali saying, "Tell the people in Louisville this will be noooo contest because I am the greatest of alllllll times." Then I asked for my notebook back.

The strangest aspect of the undercover interview was that it wasn't strange. For Ali, it was characteristic. Whatever he wanted to do, he did it as soon as possible. C'mon, get in. Anything could happen around Ali and often did.

I saw him naked. I am not sure I ever saw him clearly.

Howard Cosell was in his underwear.

I sat at a breakfast table in his beach house on Long Island in Westhampton, New York. The sun streamed in over a marshland. I saw in the shadows across the room a ghostly shape that on inspection turned out to be my host shuffling barefoot from his bedroom, skeletal in a white undershirt and white boxer briefs. He was bleary-eyed. He had not yet found his toupee. As Cosell noticed me, he raised his arms and struck a bodybuilder's biceps-flexing pose. Then he spoke, and this is what he said: "A killing machine the likes of which few men have ever seen."

On this morning in September 1989, I had known Cosell for twelve years. Our relationship began the day I wrote a column in the Washington Post praising him as a sports-broadcasting journalist without peer. I wrote that, while his excesses invited criticism, he deserved better than to be the target of mean-spirited punks, among them a Denver bar owner who allowed patrons to throw a brick at a television set carrying Cosell's image. The day the column ran, I answered my office phone.

"David Kindred," the caller said, not bothering to identify himself, "you are a perspicacious and principled young man, and it will be my honor to meet you this next week when I am at RFK for another of these Monday Night Football tortures."

Sounded like Cosell.

"David, this is Howard Cosell," he said.

"Well, it sounded like you," I said.

Twelve years later, he wanted me to write his fourth memoir. We met at his place in the Hamptons. There in the kitchen, he demonstrated the complete repertoire of his domestic skills. He found the refrigerator, extracted a carton, and without injuring himself or witnesses he poured a glass full of orange juice. His sainted wife, Emmy, said, "Took forty-five years to teach him that."

Cosell that morning also pleased his daughter, Hilary. Yes, he said. Yes, a man should walk down to the beach and see the ocean on a morning this beautiful. "We'll talk," he said to me, "after we examine Hilary's beloved beach." He put himself together. Toupee. Slacks. Boating shoes. Sunglasses. Short-sleeved shirt. He was ready. "To the beach," he said. He might have been MacArthur about to wade ashore in the Philippines.

From Cosell's deck at the edge of marshy Moniebog Bay, we walked maybe a hundred yards to the beach. The Atlantic glimmered in the rising sun. The obedient father of Hilary Cosell stood at the water's edge, though not so near as to allow water to stain his shoes. He looked to the horizon. He watched a wave lap against the shore. He gave the lovely beach and the ocean's wonders thirty seconds of his time. Then he said, "Well, Hil, we saw it."

Whereupon he retraced his steps to the comfort of a deck chair shaded by an umbrella. There he talked about the book. He was certain it would make America sit up and take notice. "We will excoriate the executives in charge of network sports broadcasts," he said. "They are people without scruples, without morality, without standards, without principle, and therefore without journalism. It is far past time for someone of integrity to expose the unholy alliances between promoters, broadcasters, and the sports industry."

He was a master of excoriation. He had excoriated most everyone in his third book. I was not in favor of more excoriation. That was not the book I wanted to write. But before I could say so, Cosell was in full cry about miscreants real and imagined, past and future. At that point, I did what millions of Americans had learned to do with Howard Cosell. I gave up and I listened.

We had no choice, really, except to listen to Ali and Cosell. Across much of the last half of the twentieth century, they were major players in American sports. Had they been practitioners of traditional humility, their extraordinary talents alone would have demanded that attention be paid. But there was nothing traditional about Ali and Cosell. A thimble would have contained their humility with room left over for an elephant.

Ali's shortest poem served as the foundation for most of his wakeful thinking. It went . . .



Cosell was a lawyer and thus inoculated against such brevity. He once wrote, "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, persecuting, distasteful, verbose, a show-off. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am."

Before Ali, sports was a slow dance. After, it was rock 'n' roll. A child of the 1950s, Ali grew up with the Temptations, Elvis, and Fats Domino. "You know who started me saying, 'I am the greatest'? Little Richard did." Ali was fifteen years old when he staked out Lloyd Price at Louisville's Top Hat Lounge to tell the singer he would be the heavyweight champion someday and, Please, Mr. Price, tell me how to make out with girls. When Ali beat Sonny Liston the first time, the singer Sam Cooke sat at ringside with two more of the fighter's heroes, Malcolm X and Sugar Ray Robinson.

Before Cosell, sports on television was a reverential production. After, it was a circus. He brought to his work a fan's passion, an entertainer's shtick, and (this was new) a journalist's integrity. He had no interest in creating an image of men as heroes simply because they could play a kid's game. Instead, he subjected sports to the examinations Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite made of the day's news. Thirty-eight years old when he gave up the law for broadcasting, he had not yet met Ali. He was a decade and more away from Monday Night Football. But he announced this: He would get famous.

They should never have met. Ali and Cosell lived in parallel worlds, separated by the sociological barriers of age, race, religion, education, and geography. But greater forces were at work. Twelve-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. put on boxing gloves, and high school sports editor Howard Cohen wrote his first Speaking of Sports column. Their differences became less important than their commonalities. Ambition and talent would bend their lives to a meeting place.

For most of twenty years, the fighter and the broadcaster appeared together on national television so many times that they became a de facto comedy team, Ali & Cosell. As considerable as the sports and news considerations were to Ali and Cosell, they were also intriguing as an eccentric evolutionary step in the history of entertainment. Comedy teams could be traced to the 1840s minstrel shows featuring the Interlocutor and Mr. Bones. Then came vaudeville, America's first mass entertainment industry with two million customers a day filling four thousand theaters to see twenty-five thousand performers. Radio, movies, and television created icons: Burns and Allen, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, the Smothers Brothers, the Blues Brothers Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, the ensemble comedy teams of Seinfeld and Friends.

But Ali & Cosell was different. It was real. No scripts, no rehearsals, no let's-shoot-that-scene-again. What television viewers saw was the most famous man on Earth (the pope ran second to Ali in most surveys) talking with the most famous television star in America (or maybe next to Johnny Carson). Ali & Cosell worked the way comedy teams always worked. They were their own sight gag, the handsome athlete shimmering alongside the homely fellow with the bad toupee. They sounded funny because Ali spoke simply while Cosell's language was that of a sesquipedalian trained at law and infected by grandiloquence born of pomposity. Twenty-four years younger than Cosell, Ali could represent every kid who ever flouted authority. The fighter forever titillated spectators with pantomimed threats to lift the broadcaster's hairpiece and once said, "Cosell, you're a phony, and that thing on your head comes from the tail of a pony." To a Cosell scolding of "You're being extremely truculent," the defiant child Ali replied, "Whatever 'truculent' means, if that's good, I'm that."

It made Ali & Cosell must-see TV. At the dawn of television's dominance of popular culture, they were both the creators and beneficiaries of sudden fame never before available. If blacks and Jews were marginalized by society, these two recognized that television could grant them legitimacy. Both profited from the work, for without Ali engaging his liberal social conscience, Cosell would never have found his truest voice; and without the embrace of Cosell and the American Broadcasting Company when other networks wanted nothing to do with him, Ali could have been dismissed as a cultural-fringe aberration. At each other's side, they rose on an arc of celebrity previously unknown in sports and television.

It was a bumpy ride. While violence scarred America through the 1960s, Ali preached a hateful hodge-podge of racism, religion, and black nationalism. His declarations of independence as a black man made him a symbol of pride adapted for use by groups as disparate as the separatist Nation of Islam and the integrationist Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Athletically, sociologically, and politically, Ali mattered more to his times than any other athlete who ever lived.

Only the rare journalist stood with him, though, and only Cosell did it on national television. On issues so volatile they divided America, Cosell defended Ali's right to his religion, his right to oppose induction into the army, and his right to work while appealing his conviction for refusing the draft. He did it at the risk of his reputation and his livelihood in a business -- television -- not famous for principled stands that might offend advertisers. He did it, too, Cosell often said, despite thousands of letters he received in which the correspondents referred to him as "a nigger-loving Jew bastard."

Mostly, Ali & Cosell worked because the men brought to their lives and to their television appearances a fascinating array of dichotomies: love and hate, racism and tolerance, fear and courage, idealism and compromise. The camera's unblinking eye testified to all that, as well as to the men's mutual respect. Cosell loved Ali, the rebel with a belief, and Ali loved Cosell, the cranky old white guy brave enough to stand with him in the storm.

A night in Baltimore. Room 428 of a hotel. A man in the hallway bangs his fist against the room door. The man is Cosell and he is shouting. From inside the room comes a raspy voice.

"Who's there?"


"Go away."

Cosell beats on the door again. "Ali, it's me, Howard."

"Ain't Cosell. Tryin' to sleep."

Then comes a sentence of percussive consonants and melodramatic phrasing. "I'm warning you, nigger, you open this door, and open it now, or I will destroy it and tear you to ribbons."

The door flies open, Ali out of bed, laughing. "Cosell, get your white ass in here."

Only the inimitable, irascible Cosell could have roused Ali from bed that way. Only the inimitable, sweet-hearted Ali would answer those slurs smiling. Across a generation of tumult, they were friends, partners, and co-conspirators in an improbable dialectic that charmed and bedeviled us. One was Beauty, one was the Beast, and we never quite knew which was which. Copyright ©2006 by Dave Kindred

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Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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