Author/blogger’s note: This is Chapter 21 of my unpublished little novel titled “Grabmore.” The title is also the name of the fictional media empire where most of my main characters work.
The company has driven them to become felons. They’ve, ah, borrowed the company CEO and have stashed him away in a hiding place in Chokoloskee.
I staggered upstairs, feeling the effects of all that malbec, grabbed my copy of “Poet, Pugilist and Pressman” and stumbled, nearly falling into that swaying hammock on the balcony. Palm fronds waved in the gentle afternoon breeze. That combination of swaying hammock and waving palm fronds and malbec nearly made me spin and tumble right out of the hammock.
Fortunately, I had a safe and soft landing in the hammock, the book clutched to my chest.
The first Chesterfield Ebenezer O’Riley was becoming something of a hero to me, even a role model, the antithesis of his great-grandson, who was locked away downstairs. O’Riley No. 4 was likely sipping a frappucino and watching the Kardashians do whatever it is Kardashians do on that reality show that is apparently aimed at very stupid people.
O’Riley No. 1 had no use for such fluff. He was a man of substance.
I decided to read the chapter on his early days as a sports writer in New York, in the years before World War 1.
The chapter’s title was “Jocks, Poets, Playwrights and Some Ink-Stained Pals.”
I settled down deeper into the hammock and started reading what Mr. O’Riley wrote more than a half-century earlier. I have no trouble referring to him as Mr. O’Riley. He earned that Mister in front of his name. Not so O’Riley No. 4, our houseguest, to use a euphemism that sounds like Grabmore Speak.
Here, then, some more of what is becoming one of my favorite books:
Most people, I know, just think of me as this old coot rattling around inside one of his mansions or puttering on one of his yachts.
They probably think I’m now like Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper tycoon in “Citizen Kane.” About the only thing that fictional tycoon has in common with me is that we’re both rich. And old. And don’t ask me about Rosebud.
But I was young once. That’s what I want to write about in this chapter, being a young sportswriter in New York City in the years before World War I and then branching out and becoming a newspaper tycoon.
Here we are in 1961. We have an Irish boy in the White House as president. I met his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, in the ‘20s. Didn’t really care for him but Jack seems like a nice kid.
So much has changed in the more than half a century since I first walked in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle front door, stinking of the City of Cheaters. Hungry. Dirty. Poor. Smelling like steerage and all those other desperate immigrants.
For starters, as I think I’ve said before, I can afford plenty of soap now.
Before going on I want to share something from one of my favorite poets, William Wordsworth:
“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”
That comes from a poem called “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”
I don’t want to get all pretentious and maudlin on anybody who might read this. I just like the ring and tenor of those lines, the beauty and lyricism of Wordsworth’s words.
But I do have a larger point.
A few, actually.
I always thought a strong sports section was vital to a good newspaper. And I didn’t want some stereotypical sports dolts running the sports section.
There are, among many others, two types of people I find irksome to the point of distracting madness.
One is the sports fan or writer who doesn’t know anything about anything outside sports, who wouldn’t know Wordsworth from a Woolworth’s sale on hosiery. I wanted people writing and editing my sports sections with an understanding of the world, who realized sports is part of the rich tapestry of life.
I can’t imagine a life without sports just like I can’t imagine life without literature and poetry.
The other irksome types are those dad-blasted, snooty, pseudo-intellectual snobs who believe sport is beneath their notice, that in their self-absorbed, aren’t I so-smart smugness only semi-literate mouth-breathers care about sports.
Well, a pox on both their houses.
Where was I?
Oh, yeah, sports section.
My ideal sports editor was Stanley Woodward, who worked for the New York Herald Tribune in the 1930s. He assembled great writers and let them write. I recall the advice he gave the best of them, Red Smith.
He told Red, “Don’t God up the ballplayers.”
In other words, no hero worship. No ass-kissing. I hate that stuff and would hate to see it in the people working in my company. Anybody who tried it with me usually got fired.
I wanted to hire Woodward and Smith away from the Herald-Tribune to work for any of my papers anywhere but they wouldn’t leave.
One of the first writers I met in New York was Bat Masterson. People nowadays know him from his days as Wild West gunfighter and the TV show starring Gene Barry as Bat.
I remember Bat telling me once in Stillman’s Gym as we watched middleweight champ Stanley Ketchel sparring that his motto out west in his younger days was “Shoot first, and never miss.”
He let that sink in for a moment and then said, “Don’t forget that, kid.”
I never had to shoot anybody but I never forgot what Bat told me.
Ketchel, by the way, meant an unfortunate and early death a few months later out in Missouri. It was 1910 and he was shot in the back by, as the story goes, the common-law husband of a woman Ketchel knew quite well. A woman who was cooking his breakfast at the time of the shooting.
Somebody said shortly after the fatal shooting, “Tell ‘em to start counting 10, and he’ll get up.”
Stanley Ketchel didn’t get up. Hasn’t got up since.
I promised Bat that I would not to forget his advice about shooting first and never missing. Like I said I never got around to shooting anybody, though. Boy, there were times I was tempted to shoot a few people.
Damon Runyon, who’s probably best known now for “Guys and Dolls,” told me Bat wasn’t much of a writer. In fact, Damon said, “he has no literary style, but he has plenty of moxie.”
I like moxie. Moxie is what got me hired at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Moxie is what convinced Mr. Kent to invite me in as a partner with my first newspaper, that weekly in Poughkeepsie.
I love moxie.
As I was saying, way back when, I got to know writers such as Lincoln Steffens and Damon Runyon and Rex Lardner.
Now, to be clear, I’m not claiming to be pals of any of these folks. I was on the periphery, a young guy awed to be around them. Some of them were young, like me. Others were established such as journalism legend Ida Tarbell, whose work brought down Standard Oil.
Although I’d run up to Poughkeepsie in those days to check on the weekly and I was investing what little money I had in some other papers, I was still working fulltime for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
I was a sports writer who also dabbled in covering theater and the fledgling movie industry.
The people I met were a who’s who of sports and entertainment at the time.
You’d be surprised who I met. Boxers such as the great Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight champ. I think he was better than Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano but most people nowadays don’t even know anything about him.
When I heard about how many white people hated Johnson and prayed for a white champ, I thought back to my time on the City of Cheaters and reading Huck Finn as the ship plowed through the Atlantic Ocean. The runaway slave, Jim, is the best person in the book. He had nobility about him that the white characters in the story didn’t.
I had never met a Negro as a boy in Ireland. But as I read the book on the deck of that ship, I vowed to treat any black people I met in America with dignity.
It troubled me that the great author Jack London called for a Great White Hope to reclaim the heavyweight crown for the white race by beating Johnson.
I’m getting off track now.
Readers of this book may want to know more about how I became a tycoon than for my thoughts on Wordsworth and Jack London and my brief encounters with the famous.
Did I ever tell you about the time I met silent movie star Clara Bow? She was known as the It Girl.
One of the prettiest girls I ever met. And I met quite a few.
As John Keats, another one of my favorite poets wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
Clara Bow wasn’t a beauty forever but I hope Grabmore, the company I built, remains one.
- B. Yeats is another poet I like and it’s not just because he was Irish.
Here’s part of his poem “The Second Coming:”
“The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
I hope that never happens to Grabmore.
Here’s my final poetry quote of this chapter and maybe the book, something else from Yeats, from the poem “A Drinking Song:”
“Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye
That’s all we know for truth
Before we grow old and die
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and sigh.”
That in my post-malbec daze is where I stopped reading, put the book down and dozed off once again in that hammock on Uncle Orville’s second-floor balcony.
The malbec and the stress were getting to me. I helped kidnap a CEO. We had this colorful shuffleboard fanatic nosing around the house. The cops were asking more questions. Would they come down to Chokoloskee in a fleet of Crown Victorias and start nosing around Uncle Orville’s house?
And I had to drive back again to Fort Myers. Lt. Hooper wanted to talk once more.