HANSEN ALEXANDER ASKS GEORGE VECSEY ABOUT WEST VIRGINIA AND LIFE AT THE NYTIMES

[George Vecsey interviewing the Dalai Lama in New York City in 1979.]

Hansen Alexander: You first met your wife Marianne at Hofstra when you were an undergraduate. Your writing life has incorporated the period of professional advancement for women. You two have been a team in a lot of ways, even wrote a children’s book together, The Bermuda Triangle: Fact or Fiction? Can you talk about Marianne’s contributions to your work?

George Vecsey:  Hansen, I am honored by your interest in my work, and your compliments.

You chose a great way to start because a lot of who I am has to do with my wife (given a great start from my parents, both journalists and union activists.) I met Marianne in college, on a blind date, and was impressed by her inner strength and spirituality as well as her artistic talent and knowledge. The signal event in my life is that, after working as co-editors of two yearbooks at Hofstra, I was lucky to marry her, just kids, barely 21, but both having real jobs, the way it used to be. Her own path as teacher and artist and volunteer for a child-care program in India has included the struggle to be taken seriously, as women know. Living with a strong-minded woman helped me appreciate women with whom I wrote books – Loretta Lynn, Martina Navratilova and Barbara Mandrell. They are formidable…and have bumped up against male/societal expectations….and I was able to enjoy my associations with them more because of my wife. The kids’ book on the Bermuda Triangle? We enjoyed learning about the myths and misconceptions of that fable, together.

HA: A man we share a commonality with is former Army quarterback Carl “Rollie” Stichweh. An idol of mine as a boy, I put on three Stichweh Bowls in the late 60s for my school mates on my farm. Can you talk about your friendship with Stichweh? And is it considered ethical for reporters to form such friendships with people they write about?

GV: I’ll have to tell Rollie about those Stichweh Bowls. He was probably in combat in Vietnam during some of that. I met him when I covered high schools for Newsday and he was chosen the best football player in Nassau County in 1960. I visited their home in Mineola and hung out for a few hours. I was four or five years older than he was, and found him bright and funny and perceptive. I wrote about him when he played QB for Army, splitting two epic matchups with Roger Staubach, now a close friend of his. We kept in touch, he wrote me letters from Vietnam, and later I wrote about his class and their careers after service. I was always a reporter, and he was a very savvy businessman, and understood that, but he was comfortable around me. About a decade ago, he and a teammate talked about how many of their classmates were killed after LBJ and McNamara realized the war was not working. As a reporter and as a friend, I needed to ask: Is that on the record? And these two combat veterans said yes. There are rules about not getting too close to people you cover, but I think our long association is well within those bounds. I got close to a number of Mets and Yankees over the years, and even a few front-office people. Sometimes you know things….all reporters learn to walk the line.

HA: You began your career as a reporter for Newsday on Long Island. Then you joined the vaunted New York Times. How did that come about?

GV: I loved Newsday. It was a great paper in the 60s-70s-80s. I was making noise about covering news at Newsday, but then I got an offer to cover sports at the Times, and I saw more opportunities there.  Within two years, I was living in Kentucky, covering Appalachia, so my move was the break of a lifetime. I still refer to my Newsday years and to “us” the way ball players talk about their first organization, where they learned to play the game.

HA: On the sports desk there you covered the Yankees, Mets, and Giants. You seemed to develop quite a rapport with the Mets first manager, Casey Stengel. Although you continue to sidestep my pleas that you write a book about Casey, LOL, can you tell us about covering the legendary manager and comic?

GV: Thanks, but there are lots of good books about Casey; I’ve written about him in several of my books. I was fascinated by Casey….I was still 22 in their first spring of 1962, and it was a hoot watching him promote the Mets. He knew when you were on to him….I was a great audience…Post midnight in some bar, Casey buying for “my writers,” and I would ask a question, and he would duck it, and half an hour later he would put that grip on my forearm and drop a pithy one-sentence reply and say, “That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” He was complicated…plenty of goods and bads….and I could handle that. I will also say that I drank more in those four years on the road in hotel bars with Casey than before or after (I’m very close to an abstainer now. I’d trudge down for breakfast and the Old Man would be chipper and well dressed, gabbing with people in the dining room. He was tough.

HA: From sports you moved to the national staff, and were based in Louisville, where you covered Appalachia. You’ve said you still have a place in your heart for that region, which included covering West Virginia. And it is an important place to me, too, as Taube is from Huntington, West Virginia, part of the “We Are Marshall” family, her alma mater. Can you talk about those years?

GV: Sure. Gene Roberts, the great National Editor at the NYT, was building his staff, and recruited me from Sports. What a compliment. Gene was so intuitive, knew so much, and is something of a mystic, hard to read. He’d say in his coastal North Carolina drawl, “I think you ought to keep your eye on coal. It’s going to be a big story.” Six weeks after I moved to Kentucky, some miners used the wrong dynamite indoors and blew 38 miners, and I happened to be an hour away because…Gene had wanted me to focus on the eastern part of the state, the mountains. I didn’t get home for four days. I was a greenhorn, but I wanted to learn, and I loved the Appalachia area, looked for any reason to get stories there. My wife says she and the kids lived in Louisville….and I lived in Hazard.  There’s some truth to that. (I also wrote from West Virginia, SW Virginia, Tennessee, western PA, Ohio, Indiana. Best job I ever had. But I could see that our move was not good for the family, and I asked to come home after two years, right back to our old neighborhood, and I’m glad I did.)

HA: Probably most people of a certain age are familiar with the best- selling book about country singer Loretta Lynn, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and the subsequent movie starring Sissy Spacek, but few probably could name you as the author. Yet didn’t that book have a tremendous impact on your life?

GV: Absolutely. I liked old-timey country, from living upstate New York some summers as a kid. You could get WWVA from Wheeling, clean as a bell, in the Adirondacks at night. I was thrilled to visit the Ryman Auditorium and the Opry in Nashville and to interview Loretta on assignment from Charlotte Curtis, the great editor of the Style section. Loretta and I hit it off….but when it was time for her to do her book in 1974, she and her manager asked Pete Axthelm, who had done a terrific cover piece for Newsweek, to write the book. Ax was busy, and declined, and they asked me.  Ax was so talented. In the last years of his life, he would joke with me about his wonderful judgment. Most people who write books have stories like that – the luck, the dynamics. Being around Loretta, and later with Barbara Mandrell, was a delight – the band members, the fans, backstage, shop talk. I can’t complain. Aunt Loretty put my kids through college, and I got plenty of attention – there was a movie billboard, a story or two high in Times Square, with my name on it. I did fine. I was lucky.

HA:  You returned to New York where you would initially report on the Metro desk and cover religion. I’d like you to talk about religion first. You strike me as a very religious man, and your sports columns that you are now known for demonstrated many Christian attributes such as a sympathy for the underdog and concern for the rights of minorities.

GV: What a nice comment. Thank you. I can’t say I am “religious” – I was raised Catholic, had a strong Christian experience in college (that just might have been connected with the lovely girl I married) but I am unchurched. I also grew up with mostly Jewish friends; recently I took a DNA test that revealed I am 47 per cent Jewish: my father had been adopted. I think I always knew that I was part Jewish, and am deeply proud of it.

HA: You have written books about an alcoholic, baseball pitcher Bob Welch, the lesbian tennis super star, Martina Navratilova, and Chinese dissident Harry Wu. What about those people compelled you to write books about their lives?

GV: Interesting question. All very different, but all three were smart and all three were determined, and had gone through struggles. To understand what Bob had gone through, I went to the same rehab center (The Meadows, in Arizona) for a family week, on my own, but interacting with families of addicts. That week was one of the best things I have done in my life because it put me in touch with my feelings, gave me more security and self-control. Martina taught me about tennis, her resistance to the brutal regime from the Czechs’ “good friends from the east.” speaking out for herself, her discipline and drive to succeed, as well as the path of a woman attracted to other women. She remains one of the remarkable people in the world – often speaking out for what she thinks is right. Harry Wu did 19 years in a Chinese labor camp (laogai) for the crime of having an independent brain. He came to the US and was a constant goad to the Chinese regime. He resented the 19 years he lost – spoke for the ghosts of men who had died in his camp. He had a rocky time later in his life. I learned from him, how to resist totalitarianism. He is gone; I’d love to hear him these days.

HA: Can you take us through a day when you were a reporter on the Metro section of the paper? Did you arrive early? Was there a specific deadline? Did you have a formal lunch hour? And how was the pay in those days?

GV: Essentially, every day was different, but if you went into the office, you could get into a rut. They had a huge staff, and you could get lost, and find yourself in a numbing routine of going out to lunch with colleagues, just killing time, hiding from editors in the last hour or three of your shift. I was not a great reporter…but I loved specific assignments, where I could listen…and write….and was happiest way out on the fringes somewhere, doing something an editor wanted. I worked with some amazing people – Gene Roberts, AM Rosenthal, Arthur Gelb, great old reporters, and then watching talented young people like EJ Dionne and Anna Quindlen join the staff. I have never seen a young star accepted so openly by everybody as Anna was.

HA: Were there a specific, minimum, number of sources that you needed for a story?

GV: I never went to J school and don’t know the rules.  I learned that in sports you could check the record book…and watch the game carefully. I think a news reporter is supposed to have two sources for everything, but what if both are lying? In the Real World, everybody lies.

HA: What were the consequences at The New York Times if you got a story wrong? Wrote something that was inaccurate or untrue?

GV:  Depends on the gravity. The Times is a stickler for running corrections, and if it’s serious, they will run an editor’s note to explain. I’ve heard of reporters getting in the doghouse for a story that is not accurate. The Times has gotten taken – the Jayson Blair frolics, making up stuff, the leadup to the Iraq fiasco, but when I worked there, the NYT had many smart editors who sussed out mistakes, and kept them from getting into print. The dedication to accuracy, on small points and large, is unmistakable. People I know who work in other disciplines have no idea how much expertise and how many rules go into the daily NYT. Some people think we just write stuff and it goes into print or on line. They have no idea of the close supervision from layers of editors. The Sulzberger family sets a tone. I know, I sound like a lifer – and I was.

HA: George, you became most well known as the erudite, sometimes poetic columnist in sports for the Times. Can you talk about some of your favorite poets and how they may have impacted your columns?

GV: “Sometimes poetic?” Wow. Nobody ever said that to me before. Thank you. I took a course in the Cavalier poets in my last college semester – Donne, Herrick, Marvell. I was in love, and those poems gave me some gather-ye-rosebuds bravado that just may have done right by me.  We named our second child Corinna, from the Herrick poem. I had some great teachers, and I loved that course, by a rather distant older teacher named Ruth Stauffer. She could flat-out teach. Or maybe I was just ready for those poems.

I hope I learned something about feeling, and writing, from those poems. The value of brevity, of dropping the right word or phrase. I have sometimes tried impressionistic prefaces to books, rather than wordy prose, but I never fooled myself that I was writing poetry. However, I do admire songwriters who tell a story – “Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone….”   James Taylor.

My life, it don’t count for nothing
When I look at this world I feel so small
My life, it’s only a season
A passing September that no one will recall

But I gave joy to my mother and I made my lover smile
And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting
And I can make it seem better for a while

—Iris Dement, My Life.

HA: Taube, you, and I all love the poetic novels of Thomas Wolfe. Was there ever a time when you thought maybe you should be a fulltime novelist like Wolfe instead of a sportswriter?

GV: I was turned on to Thomas Wolfe by my parents in early teens. Wolfe died 9 ½ months before I was born. A boyhood friend of his – the son of his beloved teacher, Margaret Roberts — worked for the Associated Press, where my dad worked, and I was a copy boy, but I never could bring myself to say hello to him. What a moron. I recently read the updated version of “Look Homeward, Angel,” reviving the early chapters about how Wolfe’s dad sassed Rebel soldiers along Gettysburg Rd.  Wolfe’s great editor lopped it off the original version – for space! What a crime.  As for being a novelist, I have never shown the slightest talent or discipline to write fiction. I came to journalism via my parents; it was a family skill. I admire fiction, but in truth I mostly read non-fiction. I am currently reading a book about the Roman presence in England, in the second century, “The Edge of the Empire,” by Bronwen Riley. I’ve been to some of those places in England and Wales.

HA: You began your career at a time when the personal lives of athletes were off limits and ended it when we seemed to be inundated by their off-field lives. Can you discuss that change and your view of whether it was a good or bad development?

GV: “We”  — Newsday – were pioneers. We asked questions and quoted people and wrote about personal issues, late 50s and early 60s, prodded by my boss, Jack Mann, who was upgrading the “national” part of Sports. Jack told us not to be afraid to ask tough questions. Jack also told us that we should interview high school athletes, which led to some pretty tense times. Rollie Stichweh’s coach,  an old Columbia and NY Giant player, Bruce Gehrke, a great coach but a hard-head, hated me. If he saw me at one of his games, he would say, “It’s been nice talking to you.” I’d see Stichweh with a grin on his face. He loved Gehrke and understood the complexity of the man. Many other coaches let us talk to players and we tried to remember they were teen-agers, not professionals.

When I started covering baseball, I liked talking to younger players, who had the same economic scale that reporters did, and some became personal friends. I played touch football in the fall with some of the Mets and socialized. But there was a fine line, in that period before social media and instant photos and twittering. All reporters learn to keep secrets. You store impressions. I was phasing out of my career when reporters started twittering during games, dumping their instant impressions onto a web site. But for most of my career, I was writing about issues and news, not gossip. If you get too close to people, it can be tricky.

HA:  In your final years you lost interest in football, particularly college football, why was that?

GV:  Part of my distance from football was the identity between football and the establishment, the vaguely military caste to everything – do as you’re told. That was a very 60s way of looking at it, and I did. Before that, I had a great introduction to college football, as the student assistant to the sports information director at Hofstra, Dick Gordon. I had a workship, and traveled with the great offensive teams of Howdy Myers, and the great basketball teams of Butch van Breda Kolff. So I knew football players, up close. The ones at Hofstra had to be actual student athletes – pass your courses, or dropped off the team. The more I was around big-time college and pro football, the more hypocrisy I sensed. The authoritarian personalities. Coach.

You’d see entire states – Florida, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Oklahoma, in thrall to Coach, overlooking all the seedy stuff about admissions and injuries and scandals. Big-time college football and basketball are deeply dishonest. I came to realize that. Plus, when TV took over, the football games took so long. After three hours, the ball had been in play about 12 minutes. I found it boring, and hard to write. Some of the dreariest days in my career were spent driving from Long Island (where I live) to New Jersey to cover Jets games and Giants games, fans already drunk on the Interstate, going to the games, and knowing nothing good could possibly happen until I was back in my car 10 hours later, maybe good classical music on the FM radio while I was stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge. Ugh. Just thinking about those days….

(MY wife and I did have an apartment in South Florida from 1988-1994, and I covered a lot of Miami Hurricanes and Miami Dolphins and Florida State place-kicker fiascos. I understood football better being in that environment. Plus football kept me in a warm place in winter months—best thing I can say about it.)

HA: Despite your reputation as a superb columnist, you said that athletes you covered, such as in baseball, did not know you as well as they knew the reporters and columnists for the tabloid newspapers. Why?

GV:  We did not have our photos in the papers…and as a columnist I moved around from sport to sport…and, to be honest, the NYT is not accessible to many athletes. But I received plenty of feedback from Times readers, even before emails and social media. And athletes in the clubhouse would get to know you, even if they did not read the NYT; they would form visceral reactions. There were always players who were great to talk to.  When I came back to sports in the 80s as a Times columnist, there were plenty of athletes and coaches who knew me and what I wrote — Ken Dryden, Barry Beck, Pierre Larouche, lots of Islanders, Reggie Jackson, Keith Hernandez, Tom Seaver, Doc Rivers, Billie Jean King, Pam Shriver, Julie Foudy, Alexi Lalas. The NYT has tremendous impact, and the brighter athletes were aware of what we did.

HA: One of the funniest stories I’ve ever read was your account of talking on the telephone with the great soccer star Diego Maradona in Eight World Cups, where Maradona went back and forth in several languages pretending not to be Maradona. Can you discuss covering him over the years, and is he the most talented soccer player you covered?

GV: True story. I was getting ready for the 1990 World Cup, and was asked to do a magazine piece on Maradona, the star of the 1986 World Cup. Somebody slipped me Maradona’s number in Napoli…and I called it…and a man answered. I started in my bad Spanish…and the guy switched to Italian….so I switched to my bad Italian…and he switched back to Spanish.  He knew nothing. Me lo siento. Mi dispiace. He promised he would give my name and number to Maradona. Months later, after a game in Napoli, I heard him give a media conference. Son of a gun: Maradona’s voice was the voice on the phone. I’ve seen a lot of great soccer players. Maradona stole a semifinal game in the 1986 World Cup with a blatant handball goal, but he also made one of the most brilliant runs through the English defense that anybody has ever seen. His grass-skimmer lead ball to Caniggia in the 1990 World Cup in Torino was a textbook assist. He was brassy and talented….and also one of the most addled and paranoid athletes I ever saw. He did not help himself with all the drugs. But at his peak, he was a great, great player.

HA: Several years older than President Trump, you grew up not far from him in Queens. Can you discuss Trump, his reputation in Queens in the early days, when you interviewed him, when you observed his behavior at sporting events?

GV: I knew his older brother, Freddy, who went to school with friends of mine. They loved Freddy, who had problems, and they said his kid brother was a nasty boy. The kid sister of my soccer teammate said that if she played ball in her back yard and the ball went into the Trump yard, snotty little Donald would take it and run inside saying, “Nyah, nyah, it’s my property now.” She’s told that story to the Times. I met Trump half a dozen times around sporting events. He could not make small talk – was out there, somewhere, something unbalanced about him. When I interviewed him, he was vague on facts, even about the football team he owned. His wife Ivana would correct him in that lush Czech accent, patronizingly:  “No, no, Donald, Walt Michaels is not the general manager, he is the coach.” Trump had a box at the US Open Tennis. He would stand out in front, like the statue at the front of a ship. The ball would go back and forth but Trump’s eyes did not follow the players. He was posing, selling the only product he really had – success, or the semblance of success. People in New York who knew him did not take him seriously. We could spot a hustler, a popinjay, a lightweight. Unfortunately, a lot of other folks could not.

HA: You once told me you could type 90 words a minute. What practical value has that had in your career?

GV: I took typing in junior high school. I’m hardly an expert, but typing allowed me to let the words escape. I love to write. My wife says that’s when I am happiest. I hum to myself, like Oscar Peterson playing the piano. It’s true: typing fast allowed me to make deadline, to let the words roll, so I could get out of the press box at a reasonable time and see friends or go hear music or just get some sleep. Typing got me out of work earlier. What’s not to like about that?

HA: Over your career, would you say you have had more positive or more negative feedback from readers? And were there differences in that once you were easily available via e-mail?

GV: My career has been absolutely positive, and I am grateful.  Most people who write letters are either positive, or positive in correcting a mistake or bad impression. Once email came around, the NYT published the addresses of columnists, back when there were regular sports columns. People could lash out quicker, tell you when you were wrong, but that is part of the game. More than a few people began by mocking a position I took, and became “friends” via correspondence. More than once, I got an email from somebody who had just finishing reading my column on line, and informed me I had made a mistake. We could correct it before it got into the paper. Basically, more information and quicker connections can only be good.

Now, retired, I mostly stay out of the twitter wars, except that I have my own little therapy web site (georgevecsey.com) that satisfies some of my old column habit.

HA: When you look back over your distinguished career, are there particular columns that you enjoyed writing more than others, that bring a smile to your face when you think of them?

GV: I did a lot of deadline columns from sports events, which is going out of fashion now that the Times seems to have phased out sports columns. But my job description was to be rational, on deadline, not an easy task. Sometimes it was awful, but sometimes the column just clicked. Once the Braves won the pennant on a hit by a marginal player named Cabrera. I found him in the melee on the field, got a few quotes from him, made the late deadline, and a few hours later caught a dawn flight back to New York. When the cab let me off on Long Island, the Times was still in the driveway – with my substitute column in there – and it was not an embarrassment.  I once wrote a column about a kid from our neighborhood, R.J. Murray, who went hunting right after Thanksgiving near his family home in western Pennsylvania, and he missed a chance at a buck….because he was eating a sandwich of turkey leftovers. I told the story…and I wrote my own headline: “The Sandwich Eater.” (Based on “The Deer Hunter.”) I loved the chance to come up with stuff on my own, something no editor could ever imagine or order. What freedom to be creative. Other times I criticized The Boss, George Steinbrenner. One time, baseball scheduled two Mets playoff games, a night and the next afternoon, on Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish holy day. I predicted there would be a Biblical rain – and there was! I happened to get into the press elevator with the National League president, Bart Giamatti, and he was glowering at me, and I just laughed. The game was postponed. God knew!

HA: When you took over the “Sports of the Times” column upon the death of Red Smith, did you imagine writing for a certain audience?

GV:  I was always trying to reach a female reader who did not care about sports results but cared about people and writing. It was a means to an end. Of course, I loved some of the events I covered.

HA: You suggested to me once that a sports columnist was like a kid throwing snowballs at important people. Where did that idea come from?

GV: Oh, I once scared the daylights out of poor Paul Tagliabue, when he was newly elected commissioner of the NFL. We were chatting before a game in some heinous press box on one of my lost Sundays, and I said my concept of my job was to toss snowballs at people in top hats, like in the comics. I think that’s how I put it. Poor man started backing away from me, as if I were mad. Fortunately, Joe Browne, my neighbor and the NFL PR guy at the time, who knows I am an eccentric pain, came over and smoothed things over. Funny thing is, Tagliabue is a great guy…and his brother is a NYT foreign correspondent. I guess my imagery was a little weird for a lawyer.

So it goes.

HA: You and Marianne have traveled all over the world as you wrote about sports. Do you and she have a favorite place?

GV: Oh, gosh. She did go with me to many events, when it was possible to plan. She would see 15-20 plays at the National Theatre during the Wimbledon “fortnight” and sometimes I would make the evening performance.  We drove in the press pack during the Tour de France, that beautiful country. We had a great hotel room in Seoul during the 2002 World Cup and she found art and dance when I had a free afternoon or evening. I love that country. We have Japanese friends in Tokyo, and they took us around on two of our visits there. Germany by train in the 2006 World Cup. We rented a writer’s flat in the Piazza Sforza Cesarini in 1990, she lived like a Roman lady for five weeks. Greece. San Francisco during the 1989 earthquake. Mexico in 1986. So many great places – but the thrill for me was being privileged to work in those places. Here’s a little secret: When the event is over, I want to go home. I am a terrible tourist.

HA: No doubt, I’ve missed many key aspects of your writing career in these questions. Feel free to discuss anything you wish about it.

GV: No, man, you’ve asked great questions that got me going. I wrote a lot about our travels, and my work, in my book about 1986, “A Year in the Sun.” It is not, emphatically not, a collection of columns but about how I did my work. You are kind to ask about a memoir but my 1986 book can stand as my memoir. Well, I have written a bit of rough draft about my four years in college – the athletes, the courses, the start of a newspaper career, the girl I loved…and, the miracle of my life, I married. But that is deep in my laptop somewhere.  Better I should read a book.

 

 

 

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