Liudmila Konovalova: The New Maya

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Dressed in black leg warmers and an insulated lavender down vest to ward off the cold that had chilled the magnificent opera house, the disarmingly gracious Konovlova, the prima ballerina of the Vienna State Ballet — the Wiener Staatsballett, sank herself into a rehearsal break just off an enormous ballet training room as she contemplated a journalist’s question about her childhood idol.

Like most Russian-born dancers, Liudmila Konovalova grew up fantasizing that she would follow in the toe shoes of the country’s fabled ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who spent much of her career as a captive under fierce scrutiny and at the murderous whim of Stalin’s regime, but still shimmered as one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century.

Ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya and Luidmila Konovalova at the legendary Russian ballet icon's 85th birthday gala where Konovalova performed her signature Black Swan pas de deux. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

Ballerinas Maya Plisetskaya and Luidmila Konovalova at the legendary Russian ballet icon’s 85th birthday gala where Konovalova performed her signature Black Swan pas de deux. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

But for Konovalova, that fantasy was little more than a fairy tale, a seemingly unrealistic goal given her circumstances. The child of a broken home, she lived in a shelter as a teen and was rejected by the Bolshoi Ballet company after going through its academy. She had little reason to expect that one day her homeland’s ballet icon would wondrously connect with her artistically and personally, breathing new life into her dreams, not unlike Michelangelo’s near-touching hands of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Much less could she have foreseen a scenario in which that would happen when she was literally down and out — and in the most embarrassing position possible.

But that was the spectacle Konovalova now remembered from Italy’s 2007 Premio Roma Dance competition at which Plisetskaya was head of the judging jury, and where Konovalova dreaded she had chosen to perform the challenging Black Swan pas de deux in front of her role model whose storied name was synonymous with “Swan Lake” in the world of ballet.

“I was thinking, the Black Swan is… one the most famous roles that Maya Plisetskaya did,” recalled Konovalova who had never met Plisetskaya until that competition, “and now I (am) gonna show her my Black Swan! I thought it’s a joke. That would be total fiasco.”

Almost prophetically, in the middle of her performance that day, Konovalova’s worst fears pirouetted out of control. Slipping and as her legs gave way underneath her, she felt certain that her dreams of winning the competition had just fluttered somewhere beyond her black tutu — all in front of Plisetskaya. 

“I finished my (Black Swan) variation exactly (as) the music was ending, seated on my ass,” said Konovalova, one of the select group of dancers who performed at the March 6 Ave Maya Gala at London’s Coliseum Theatre honoring Plisetskaya, who died last May at the age of 89. “Yes, I fall completely on my popo, bottom, rear, ass — however you call it — it is the fact.

“I was sure I am out of the competition and plus such big shame… But right after I was sitting on my ass, Maya Plisetskaya stands up. (She) was clapping and laughing!

“So then we did (the) coda. I did my fouettés. This all went fine. We got a really good applause, but she was (giving) me standing ovation…”

The competition wasn’t over, though Konovalova figured she could no longer even place, much less win, and that in further rounds could only hope to complement her dance partner who was still up for a prize himself.

“That gave me time to give more to understand the situation,” she said, looking back on what appeared to be developing into a disappointing moment in her career. “I was officially working nowhere. I (was) finished with Russia. I had (a) contract to Berlin, but I (was) suppose to start in two months.

Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding performing in 'Swan Lake.' Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, Copyright 2016.

Liudmila Konovalova and Matthew Golding perform in ‘Swan Lake’ in Moscow in 2015. (Photo by Alex Pankov. courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

“So I was girl from nowhere.”

Then, as all hope seemed gone, fate stepped in.

“Konovalova! Where is my Konovalova?” “Коновалова,где моя Коновалова!”

Startled out of her self-pity over having fallen in competition, Liudmilia couldn’t believe she was hearing Plisetskaya’s voice screaming her name in their native Russian tongue. “Konovalova! Where is my Konovalova?”

“I was scared… but went front… And then comes unbelievable thing,” said Konovalova, who found Plisetskaya reaching to embrace her. “She hugs me and tells me how great it was and that I gonna get a first prize, and that she remembers how hard was this variation of Black Swan, and I am doing it so light, like nothing.

“And that I am real ballerina.

“I thought I am dreaming… Deeply! And need to wake up… But it was the truth! Sometimes I cannot even talk about it because it sounds so unrealistic!

“So then it was second round and on to the third I had to repeat Black Swan again. She came to me right after third round was finished. She told me that it is the best Black Swan she ever saw. She told me that I will get first prize and I will not share it with anyone — normally very often they share the prizes — but Maya Plisetskaya said, ‘No way. She will get it alone!’

“And I got it! And got it alone! And I know that she was fighting for me, and because it was against their rules to give it just to me, and Maya Plisetskaya had major fight, but she did what she told me! And this you almost never see now.”

A touch of the hand of providence indeed.

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Looking for Hemingway

Young Teo Davis chats with Ernest Hemingway pool side at the Davis family villa in Spain, La Consula, where the author lived for months in 1959. (Teo.Davis.muchloved.com)

Young Teo Davis chats with Ernest Hemingway poolside at La Consula, the Davis villa in Spain, where the author lived in 1959. (Teo.Davis.muchloved.com)

IN THE FALL OF 1975, WHEN MY WIFE decided she wanted a divorce, I moved into a quaint though dilapidated cottage in an obscure rain forest corner of River Oaks, Houston’s poshest neighborhood, where our home’s only amenity was being awakened each morning by a family of raccoons rummaging through our kitchen.

The address was fittingly pretentious, 8 Asbury Place, and it belonged to a fashion writer named Peter Heyne, who through his connections at Women’s Wear Daily was forever entertaining young debutantes with double last names and lineages to names in Texas history books.

I was too depressed with self-loathing, pity and half-baked plans about moving to Paris in search of Hemingway or, at least, a reasonable facsimile of personal oblivion. To his credit, Peter didn’t try to dissuade me and instead indulged my delusion. His previous roommate who had inhabited my bedroom, he enlightened me, had once sat on Hemingway’s lap in some grand villa in Spain. His parents had been wealthy American expatriates who entertained Hemingway, his longtime literary pal A. E. Hotchner and the entourage that followed Hemingway for an enchanting summer of running with the bulls.

“His name is Teo Davis,” said Peter. “He was educated in Cambridge, married a contessa who later divorced him, and he moved in here with me.”

“So where is he now?” Yes, I wanted to know, where do mended broken-hearts go when they haven’t shot their brains out.

“Teo? Teo’s now in Hollywood. He’s out there writing screenplays.”

Having just seen Sunset Boulevard for the first time in my life, and with the image of slain screenwriter Joe Gillis in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool lurking in my head, this was not what I wanted to hear.

Teo Davis, though, would remain indelibly on my mind, if for no other reason than that he had left behind notebooks and parts of an unfinished novel. The most interesting of his notes were in Spanish: References to “Papa” and “Hotch” and “Málaga.” His handwriting was so bad, however, that making sense of his ramblings proved to be an exercise in fiction and futility.

One afternoon, I actually found a library in Houston and checked out several biographies of Hemingway. To my surprise, what Peter had said was true. Bill and Annie Davis were rich, beautiful people in Málaga who, though they did not know Hemingway very well, had invited him and his fourth wife Mary to stay with them in 1959 at their elegant estate called La Consula. Their house was filled with a lot of servants and cars, and they were parents of a son and daughter. One of the biographies even mentioned Hemingway playing in the mornings with young Timoteo.

Peter didn’t seem to know much more. “To be honest,” he said. “I thought he might have been making it all up.”

Fifteen years passed. Instead of Paris, I decided to go to Spain. I don’t know whether I was searching for Hemingway or for Timoteo. I found neither. I wound up in Los Angeles. One day I finally sobered up. I was still alive, writing for an NBC prime-time cop show and sharing an office overlooking Sunset Boulevard. Peter had been right. When you’ve been to hell and back, you go on to Hollywood to make things up.

I moved into an old Spanish villa apartment in West Hollywood whose claim to fame was that F. Scott Fitzgerald had once lived there. I would soon learn that in Hollywood someone famous has always lived where someone not so famous now lives. It’s like reverse reincarnation: you were always someone famous in a past life. One day when we were in a story meeting at my office, a guy popped his head in the door looking like he had seen better days. He was there to paint our offices, he said, but he was the most unusual looking painter you will ever find. He was wearing a rumpled, navy Armani blazer, soiled linen slacks that none of us could afford, and he had a slight upper class English accent that was both unexpected and intimidating.

“My name is Teo,” he informed us like some waiter at LeDome, the elegant restaurant up the street, “and I’m your painter.”

I don’t believe Teo ever finished painting the office. He spent most days chain-smoking unfiltered Camels on our terrace overlooking the Sunset strip while we watched young actresses walking their composites and headshots to the agency across the street. Teo would regale us with reminiscences about Ernest Hemingway that, on the one hand, seemed implausible considering he was not even ten when Hemingway had spent several months under the same roof.

But who was to argue with a man from Eton. Peter hadn’t given him his proper props. Teo had been educated at Eton, not Cambridge, and he had married a woman of lofty status — not a countessa but the daughter of an English marchioness —  who had broken his heart. He also had vivid memories of the time Hemingway had visited. Hemingway had met Teo’s father in Mexico some years earlier, before Teo was born and when the author was still married to his third wife Martha.

Bill Davis’ given name was actually Nathan, an American of enormous wealth although Teo wasn’t certain how he had made his money. Or, if he knew, he never said. His father was a quiet, laid-back, balding man with a self-effacing sense of humor who was the complete opposite of Hemingway. He didn’t intrude on his famous guest, who at times treated his host almost like a servant. Hemingway called Bill Davis “Negro,” using the Spanish pronunciation, possibly because he had thick lips and swarthy features.

Davis accepted it as a term of endearing friendship and enjoyed playing chauffeur for Hemingway. Bill Davis loved to drive cars and in Mexico was driving a taxi cab, for inexplicable reasons, when he met Hemingway. Valerie Danby-Smith, who as a young Irish journalist in Spain had befriended Hemingway and later married Ernest’s youngest son Gregory, would recall that Davis “let the Hemingways use the house as if it were their own house. He didn’t do the big thing of ‘I’m the host, I’m hosting the Hemingways.’ He really took a back seat, and his wife Annie was just the most delightful person, just a wonderful, warm person.”

“We called him Papa — everyone did,” said Teo. “He was like a big teddy bear who was larger than life. When he was there, life revolved around him. Being quite young at the time, and a bit on the precocious side, I knew who Ernest Hemingway was — that he was an author of some importance — but just how important he was is something that I wouldn’t even begin to comprehend until years later.”

Teo Davis, top left on the wall with his young sister Nena and household staff from his family home, La Consula, and its 1959 guests, Ernest and Mary Hemingway. (Photo courtesy of the Estate of Teo Davis)

Teo Davis, top left on the wall with his young sister Nena and household staff from his family home, La Consula, and its 1959 guests, Ernest and Mary Hemingway. (Photo courtesy of the collection of Teo Davis)

Teo recalled that the day the Hemingways arrived at the La Consula, which was actually in the countryside west of Málaga, his mother had their cook make turkey sandwiches that his father had taken with him as a snack for the guests on their drive back from the port of Algeciras across from Gibraltar.

The Hemingways’ arrival at the estate had signaled a flurry of activity by the servants. Ernest and Mary had brought 21 pieces of luggage, and Teo remembered that for a few moments the entry of the estate had resembled a busy hotel lobby with servants acting as porters. The Hemingways were pleasantly surprised by what they saw. The Davis’ nineteenth century mansion rose gracefully behind twin iron gates. The doors alone were over fifteen feet high and were made of heavy carved oak. It was filled with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko paintings and hundreds of first edition books. Outside the rich vegetation that included palm and acacia trees, pines, lilies and vines reminded the Hemingways of their finca in Cuba.

Hemingway did not sleep well and usually was awake before dawn, Teo recalled. Often he would find Hemingway at daybreak working at the stand-up desk on a veranda overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Malaga, the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, is Spain’s second largest seaport, and La Consula offered a panoramic view of the historic Andalusian landscape.

Hemingway was almost religious in his morning ritual of writing. He began work each morning around 6 a..m. and finished by 10 a.m. Later, Teo was to learn that in those first ten days at La Consula, Hemingway roughed out the preface for a new school edition of his short stories. But Hemingway had gone to Spain on assignment for Life magazine which had contracted with him to write a short article about the series of mano a mano bullfights between Antonio Ordoñez and Luis Miguel Dominguín, two of Spain’s greatest matadors.

From the Davis estate, Hemingway spent the summer travelling with the bullfighters to gather material for the article. Later, however, Hemingway’s article grew to some 120,000 words. Tortured over trying to shorten his work, Hemingway asked his friend Hotchner to help edit the piece. Eventually they cut the article to 65,000 words, which Life published as “The Dangerous Summer” in three installments in 1960. It would be the last work that Hemingway would see published in his lifetime.

For little Teo, the experience would forever influence his life. He became a writer because of Hemingway, whose few moments of fatherly-like attention lavished on Teo affected him enormously.

Some mornings, Teo’s childish squealing as Papa chased him down the long halls of the estate awakened the other guests, who delighted in seeing Hemingway’s increasingly grumpy demeanor soften, even if only for a few fleeting moments. For Teo, these were much-needed displays of emotion that were sadly missing from his relationship with his parents. Neither Bill nor Annie Davis were affectionate with their children, and Teo would lament that “I cannot recall my parents ever telling me they loved me.”

Mary Hemingway would later write in her memoirs that the Davises had indeed been unusual people. Annie Davis, she said, was “an American who had lived abroad so long she seemed to us European.” The Davises also did not permit a telephone or radios in their home, so their only means of communicating with the outside world was by mail or telegram.

Nonetheless, La Consula was filled with commotion the nearly six months that the Hemingways were guests. Teo recalled that life on the estate during that period centered around Papa. He loved Fats Waller, and the Davises always had Fats Waller songs blaring from their loudspeakers by the pool. Hemingway’s favorite was “Your Feets Too Big.” He did not really sing in tune but instead loved to encourage other people to perform.

Often the commotion was simply the departure and return of Hemingway and his cadre of friends and bullfight aficionados. With Bill Davis at the wheel, Papa was on the road often, following that season’s bullfights. At various times, the group chasing after the bulls with Hemingway included Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, and Beverly Bentley who would later marry Norman Mailer.

That summer, Hemingway turned 60, and little Timoteo was awestruck by the extravagant birthday party his parents hosted on July 21. Mary Hemingway summoned guests from all over the world and arranged the party with fireworks, champagne from Paris, Chinese food from London, Spanish musicians and flamenco dancers.

When a fireworks display set a palm tree on fire, the local hook and ladder company — led by bullfighter Antonio Ordoñez, joined the party. Hemingway enjoyed himself immensely, but the celebration produced some indications that all was not well with him. Among them was a nasty flash of ill temper directed at his frontline friend from World War II, General Charles Trueman “Buck” Lanham. Having come from Washington, D.C., for the party, he left Spain certain that Hemingway was an extremely troubled man.

To all but a few, Hemingway’s public persona had become almost a self-parody. A child could be excused for not seeing it. Most in Hemingway’s entourage, however, either excused it or refused to see it. Teo took it all in, delighted with the bafoonish Hemingway acting out fits of anger, rage and neurosis as if in a cartoon.

Within two years, Hemingway would be dead.

“I remember learning that he had died,” Teo recalled, “but I don’t think it was until later that I learned how he had died. I don’t know if it matters. He had lived a long, rich life and obviously, from his point of view, it had reached its end.”

Today, in a sense, there is still a bit of that irrepressible Hemingway spirit in the young boy who once looked up to him in that enormous villa in Spain. The boy, in fact, has now become a man just a few years younger than Hemingway had been when he visited La Consula.

“I’ve been looking for Hemingway for so long,” says Teo, “for a sense of who he really was, that at times I feel as if I’ve almost become Hemingway. Does that make sense?”

To an entire generation, of course, it does.

 

EPILOGUE: Timothy Logan Bakewell Davis, known to his friends as Teo, died March 1, 2016, in Pasadena. He was 64. His sister Nena has set up a memorial at http://teo.davis.muchloved.com.

 

This story is part of a new biography of Ernest Hemingway, Looking for Hemingway: Spain, the Bullfights, and  a Final Rite of Passage, to be published by Lyons Press in November 2016. To pre-order, go to Amazon.com.

 

Could Latino Discontent Doom Hillary Clinton?

Will Hillary Clinton offset a potential Latino voter protest by picking Obama Cabinet member Julian Castro as her running mate?

Will Hillary Clinton, should she be the Democratic presidential nominee, offset a potential Latino voter protest at the polls by picking Obama Cabinet member Julian Castro as her running mate?

AMERICAN POLITICAL HISTORY IS rife with presidential elections that were determined well before the year in which the campaigns were held.

The most prominent example in our lifetime may have been Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 that likely was decided when his opponent, incumbent President Gerald Ford, pardoned his successor, the disgraced Richard Nixon, whose Watergate scandal brought down his presidency.

Four decades later, could that happen again? Has next year’s presidential election been determined by President Barack Obama’s broken promises for comprehensive immigration reform —  which has angered many immigration reform activists, including some threatening a boycott of the 2016 elections?

Could a low Hispanic voter turnout among traditionally Democratic-voting Latinos, caused by disappointment over the Obama failure to secure comprehensive immigration reform legislation, cost preemptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the presidency?

There were renewed signs of that on Cinco de Mayo in Southern California when some Latinos — Union del Barrio-LA, MEXA de ELAC and the Los Angeles Brown Berets — protested Clinton’s appearance at a rally at East Los Angeles College.

“Organizers called Clinton an enemy of the working class,” LA Weekly reported. “They also argue that her Central American policies as secretary of state caused death, destruction and deportation.”

Last fall, members of a DREAMers’ organization confronted the former Secretary of State at a North Carolina rally over the Obama administration’s dismal record on immigration reform, raising the possibility that disillusioned young Latinos could threaten to urge the nation’s 25.2 million Hispanic voters to skip casting ballots in 2016.

Latinos boycotting the election would be payback for the foot-dragging by President Obama on immigration reform, which he promised in 2008 but has put off successfully championing in Congress and has only minimally executed through executive action.

Democrats in California today are still reeling from the likelihood that the notoriously low turnout among Hispanic voters in the 2014 off-year elections likely cost former Assembly Speaker John Perez the state controller’s election.

Perez, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s cousin, finished behind fellow Democrat Betty Yee by fewer than 500 votes, dampening the rising star dreams of the once politically powerful Perez, who had been a favorite to win the office.

Latinos make up more than one of every five registered voters — 22.7 percent — in California. But for Perez’s important statewide election they voted at a rate of just 6 percent.

Although Latinos historically have been low turnout voters, especially in mid-term elections, no one expected the dismally low turnout would cost Hispanics a statewide office and also raise questions about 2016, especially if immigration reform activists follow through on their boycott threat.

The reason for the President continually putting immigration reform on the backburner has been nothing short of playing politics. In 2014, Obama chose not to risk giving Republicans something more with which to rally their faithful in that mid-term year, fearing that the Democrats could lose control of the Senate in his final two years as president.

The GOP, however, captured the Senate anyway and, with control of the House of Representatives, virtually assured that the already sparse Obama legacy would have little more to showcase in his lame-duck years.

It has been theorized in recent years that not only could the ever-increasing Latino vote decide the next presidential election and those beyond, but it could shift the balance of power that will be felt negatively in 2016. A poor Latino turnout would effectively serve as a Hispanic voter boycott.

DREAMers and other immigration reform activists could potentially turn presidential politics on its ear.

“By mobilizing against Mrs. Clinton,” The New York Times reported last fall, “the self-named Dreamers hope to pressure her to commit to immigration change or risk losing critical Latino votes.”

Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, the largest national network of young undocumented immigrants, was even more direct in threatening to launch a campaign urging withdrawal of support by the traditionally Democratic-voting Latinos from the 2016 Democratic ticket.

“If you’re going to pick politics over our families,” said Jimenez, “you should know that you can’t take this constituency for granted.”

This is especially critical for Clinton, considering that the Latino vote could potentially be even more important for her than it was for Obama.

In 2008, it was the overwhelming Latino vote that helped Clinton almost overtake Obama in their bitter Democratic primary battle for the nomination. That year, in Super Tuesday’s 16 primaries, Clinton carried 63 percent of the Hispanic vote compared with 35 percent for Obama.

The question now is whether Democrats will take the threat of a Latino boycott seriously.

It might do them well to acquaint themselves with what amounted to a similar Latino boycott in Texas in 1970, a time when Hispanic voters in the Lone Star State were proportionately the biggest Latino group in America.

Disillusioned with the Democratic Party, young Latino activists urged Hispanic voters not to vote in the 1970 election but instead to sign a petition to get the Chicano movement’s Raza Unida political party on the ballot for the 1972 election.

Texas state laws did not allow voters to both vote in the elections and sign the petition.

Ultimately, the Chicano activists succeeded in getting enough signatures from Latino voters to qualify La Raza Unida for the 1972 ballot. In doing so, though, the low turnout of Latino voters had an unintended historic impact.

U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough, the incumbent darling of Texas progressives who was seeking re-election, was upset in the Democratic primary by businessman Lloyd Bentsen in a defeat that many liberals blamed on Chicano activists and their Latino voter boycott.

For Clinton, her potential problem with Latino voters is now compounded by statements she has made in the past while attempting to support the Obama administration’s decisions delaying immigration reform — as well as comments about the tens of thousands of Central American immigrant children who flooded across the border in 2014.

“I don’t think she had any idea of how that response was perceived by a young Dreamer who is thinking, ‘Um, we’ve elected a lot of Democrats,’” says Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice.

“Immigration is not the only issue, but it is the defining issue, and she will need to learn that the old lines and old dynamics no longer apply.”

A Conversation With Tony Castro

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Tony Castro is the author of the new book DiMag & Mick: Sibling Rivals, Yankee Blood Brothers. He also has written Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal SonThe Prince of South Waco, and Chicano Power. He is a former staff writer for Sports Illustrated, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.  

Q: Why did you decide to write a book looking at both Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle?

A: Dating back to my childhood, I’ve long had an undying interest in both Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

My father was a New York Yankee fan and returned home from World War II with a huge poster — off an old New York market calendar, I believe – of DiMaggio in that classic swing of his. A few years later, the DiMaggio poster in my bedroom was joined by one of Mantle finishing off his own powerful swing.

Those two posters covered most of an entire wall in my bedroom, and it used to upset my mom because they dwarfed the crucifix that hung between them.

Our parish priest used to come over for dinner once a month or so, and my mom once tried to shame me by showing him the signs of what she saw as my sacrilege.

I don’t think she realized that our parish priest was the coach of our CYO baseball team because he looked at the juxtaposition of the posters and the crucifix, and he said, “Señora Castro, I think these are all just innocent representations of the role models close to Tony’s heart, each with their symbolic pieces of wood on which their great stories have lived and died.”

b10411_e2281795fe9e4f0ebcbba977693c73f2My mom never brought this up again. I suppose there’s Roman Catholicism and then there’s Baseball Catholicism.

Years later, I had the good fortune to meet and befriend Mickey Mantle. It was 1970. I was a young newspaper reporter, a few months out of college, working in Dallas; and Mickey was a couple of years into his retirement, virtually an exile in Dallas, a retired baseball legend in what was then and still is a big pro football city.

He was also a pariah among sportswriters because of his horrendous behavior among them, which had worsened toward the end of his career.

As I go into in the book, Mickey and I hit it off that first afternoon getting drunk over hamburgers and golf. Perhaps he was longing for the attention he’d had at the top of his career, and I was someone who could play golf any afternoon and could drive him home because he was usually too drunk to drive and then help [his wife] Merlyn retrieve his car. I was a decent golfer and, working on an afternoon newspaper, I could usually sneak off to play 18 holes early in the day.

And DiMaggio I met in 1978 in San Francisco through his longtime friend Reno Barsocchini.

But I never thought about writing a book about either of them or any book, for that matter. I’d written a book early in my career, a civil rights history about Cesar Chavez and Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s – Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America (Dutton, 1974) – that basically killed my first marriage, and I’d sworn not to do that again.

But when Mantle was dying in 1995, I wanted to read my sons a book about Mickey — and that’s when I discovered that all those books I’d read about him years ago were not very good.

That’s when I decided to write my Mantle biography, Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son (Brassey’s, 2002).  I had hoped to follow that with a biography of Joe DiMaggio, but the Richard Ben Cramer book of 2000 pretty much saturated the market and with its brutal one-sidedness killed for the time what was left of the DiMaggio image.

What led to this book, DiMag & Mick, was an e-mail I received a few years ago from a man thanking me for having written so favorably in my Mantle biography about his aunt, an actress named Holly Brooke, who has been described in most books about Mickey as a showgirl who had been his girlfriend in 1951.

Mickey Mantle with actress Holly Brooke, his girlfriend in New York during his 1951 season.

Mickey Mantle with actress Holly Brooke, his girlfriend in New York during his 1951 season.

However, no biographer had been able to interview her or even locate her. I think most of us had assumed she was dead. Holly’s nephew, though, said not only was she still alive and well but that she was also willing to talk to me.

That began a series of almost daily visits and conversations that proved to be incredible. She convinced me with her stories and some strong documentation that her love affair with Mickey lasted beyond his marriage in 1951 and carried on well into the 1960s.

She had lived with Mantle much of his rookie year, even when he was sent down to the minors to play in Kansas City, which had a Yankees’ minor league team at that time. She was also the reason Mickey asked to have his uniform number changed from 6 to 7 when he returned to the majors, a number that was her date of birth.

Holly was older than Mickey, had a toddler son that he wanted to adopt as his own, and Mickey proposed to her and likely would have married her if it hadn’t been for his father.

In 1951, Mickey’s father learned he was dying, and he demanded that Mickey marry his hometown sweetheart as his dying wish. Of course, it was just part of the unusual hold that Mickey’s father held over him.

With this material, especially since Holly had also known DiMaggio, it just seemed tailor-made for a book centered around Mickey and Joe, set around 1951, the only season they played together and using all that as a backdrop to destroy that longstanding myth that DiMaggio and Mantle had been bitter enemies. It just wasn’t true.

Q: Why were they portrayed as bitter enemies, and how would you characterize the dynamic between them?

A: In spring training of 1951 – Mantle’s rookie year and DiMaggio’s final season – sportswriters made Mickey out to be the next coming of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio rolled into one.

The Yankees’ manager, Casey Stengel, largely championed this, talking openly to writers about it in a way that was ridiculous because of the pressure that talk like this can place on an unproven rookie – a 19-year-old rookie, at that. Still, Mantle had a spring training performance for the ages.

DiMaggio, who had already announced he was retiring at the end of the season, was preparing to play with tremendous daily pain from heel spurs that continued to bother him even after a couple of operations.

DiMaggio also wasn’t a very open person or teammate. Sometimes people forget or don’t know that he was the son of Italian immigrants who didn’t speak English and didn’t become citizens until after World War II.

Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle as rookies on the 1951 New York Yankees team.

Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle as rookies on the 1951 New York Yankees team.

Joe was also a high school dropout who, until his death, was insecure about his education and his background. When he came up to the Yankees in the mid-1930s and being Italian, about the only way he might have otherwise gotten into Yankee Stadium was as a hot dog vendor, if he hadn’t been able to hit incredibly well. We sometimes forget about the anti-Italian discrimination that was rampant in America in the first half of the 20th century.

There was tragedy from that for DiMaggio even after his crowning moment. In 1941, he hit safely in 56 consecutive games, perhaps the most remarkable record in baseball. He was the prince of New York and a hero in America.

But in December, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and soon America was at war with Japan, Germany AND Italy. And what does the country do? It sends Japanese Americans into internment camps, and there were even plans to do the same with Italians.

Fortunately, for DiMaggio’s immigrant parents, the U.S. does not do this, but it does place strict restrictions on their mobility. His parents have a fishing boat and a restaurant in Northern California that they’re not allowed to travel to, and they eventually wind up losing their means of income.

This is all happening just months after Joe DiMaggio’s greatest season. Lesser men might have begun rioting. Even in 1951, the bias and discrimination was there. Consider how Casey Stengel referred to DiMaggio behind his back: He regularly called him “Dago.”

A big deal has been made about the racial slurs some ballplayers and managers used against Jackie Robinson, and some lost their livelihoods because of that. But Stengel calling DiMaggio “Dago” was hardly a term of endearment, and little has ever been made about the discrimination that DiMaggio had to endure. And Joe, like Jackie, was just too classy and turned the other cheek.

But it was part of the climate in 1951, as was just the resentment among some of the Yankee teammates as well as some in the press.

DiMaggio was the highest paid Yankee of the era before free agency. He made more money as a rookie in 1935 than Mantle did in his rookie season in 1951.

And unlike Mickey, who was known as a “great teammate” – which is even written on his Yankee Memorial Park plaque at the Stadium – DiMaggio was a loner whose close friends were non-Yankees. In fact, none of his teammates from that 1951 team had been around when he broke into baseball or even in 1941, DiMaggio’s greatest year.

That spring training of 1951 sportswriters were extolling the virtues and talent of Mickey Mantle and how he was being groomed to succeed Joe in center field and as the star of the Yankees, especially since DiMaggio had been slowed by his injuries and age.

And there was intense competition among those writers covering the Yankees. Remember that at the time there were about a dozen daily newspapers in New York, and you’ll find in old newspaper clippings the seeds of a feud between DiMaggio and Mantle in 1951, making it seem that Joe’s usual aloofness was caused by some kind of resentment of Mantle for being there to replace him in center field and stealing his thunder in what was to be his farewell season.

After 1951, after DiMaggio’s retirement and absence from the Yankee clubhouse, this imaginary feud took on a life of its own, fueled in part by some of Mickey’s Yankee teammates and their loyalty to Mantle.

And there was no one to challenge this, except, of course, for DiMaggio and Mantle who went to their graves denying there was any animosity between them, as well as the two women most prominent in Mickey’s life –his wife Merlyn, and Greer Johnson, who was Mickey’s companion the last 10 years of his life.

Their denials were always reported, but I suspect no one took them seriously. Especially after Billy Crystal’s 2001 HBO film 61, about Mickey and Roger Maris’ chase in 1961 of Babe Ruth’s home run record.

The irony or paradox in the film is that while it is about the friendship between Mantle and Maris, it also bursts the myth of the alleged rift between them that writers had effectively made up – while it still promotes the equally false myth of a feud between Mantle and DiMaggio.

There’s even a scene of Mantle becoming physically sick and being driven to a drunken binge because of an appearance by DiMaggio in the Yankee clubhouse. It was absolute fiction, perhaps typical juvenile fan behavior believing that you can somehow enhance your childhood hero by tearing down some competitor to his legacy.

Well, Mickey Mantle doesn’t need that kind of help. The newer analytics used in baseball today seem to indicate that Mickey was far the greater ballplayer, as if you can truly compare different eras.

As for the “feud,” Richard Ben Cramer’s biography of DiMaggio, nasty as it was toward Joe, bolstered the idea of its existence, as did one major biography of Mickey Mantle, which claimed that the first time DiMaggio and Mantle ever spoke was Oct. 5, 1951, the second game of that season’s World Series.

That was the game in which Mickey suffered a terrible knee injury when he slipped on a sprinkler cover in right center field as he tried to avoid running into DiMaggio as he caught a fly ball.

Mantle went down “as if he’d been shot,” according to some of his teammates and in horrible pain. DiMaggio, after catching the fly ball, ran over to check on Mickey, supposedly initiating the so-called first conversation between the prize rookie and the old pro.

Of course, that’s pure fiction, too. In researching the book, I found an audio tape recording that proved that claim to be an utter lie.

On the morning of April 16, 1951, DiMaggio and Mantle were with their New York Yankees teammates about to board a train to Washington for the season’s Opening Day against the Senators.

They were being detained for a few minutes for recorded interviews for CBS Radio’s famous news program Hear It Now when a remote microphone picked up DiMaggio and Mantle’s unrehearsed conversation, a conversation that unfortunately would soon be overlooked and forgotten.

On the recording, the veteran DiMaggio — who only weeks earlier had announced he would retire at the end of the 1951 season — sounds enthusiastic and supportive, engaging Mantle in a genuine manner that is both refreshing and surprising. It’s a wonderful exchange, and it may not even have been the first conversation they had.

And they had many more long friendly exchanges during that season, according to Holly Brooke who was present several times when Mickey and Joe spoke at restaurants or had dinner together. So much for that so-called authoritative story that they didn’t speak until Mickey’s injury in the World Series.

Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: In recent years I spent countless hours talking to Holly Brooke, getting her to recall the details and dialog of anecdotes she remembered. I revisited sources from my Mantle biography and rechecked clippings from numerous magazines and newspapers.

I also had folders full of notes from my conversations with Mantle in the early 1970s in Dallas and in the 1980s when we reconnected while he was traveling for memorabilia shows, and my conversations with DiMaggio and his friend Reno Barsocchini in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The most surprising thing that I found had to have been the CBS radio audio tape because it leaves no doubt that right after spring training where their animosity supposedly bloomed they were, in fact, talking like friendly teammates, and Joe was giving Mickey advice and Mickey was talking as if he were awe-struck of Joe DiMaggio.

Q: What do you see as each player’s legacy today?

A: They were if not the greatest players of their era, then certainly among the top two or three during their time.

Of course, they went about it differently. DiMaggio never left anything on the field. He had a passion for always being at his best. Mantle, unfortunately, didn’t always take all his talents on to the field.

DiMaggio retired almost at the right time. He may have wished he had left at the end of 1950. As it was, he still left having been part of a World Series championship team in 1951.

Mickey went to his grave second-guessing his decision to play as long as he did, long past when he could run well and when it hurt his fans just to watch him swing the bat. Not to mention that the Yankee teams near the end of his career were mediocre at best.

At their prime, DiMaggio and Mantle were as good as any ballplayer has ever been, with the possible exception of Babe Ruth. But at their time, DiMaggio and Mantle were the greatest players on the greatest baseball team during arguably the greatest era of the game.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a biography of Ernest Hemingway scheduled to be published in September by Lyons Press. I’m currently working on books about Joe DiMaggio and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wouldn’t be surprised if some time in the future — based on the evolution of analytics in baseball, on his incredible statistics during the golden age of the game, his injuries notwithstanding, and because of his ability to do this as a switch-hitter – that Mickey Mantle doesn’t become widely acclaimed as having fulfilled those great expectations once placed of him: being recognized as the greatest player of all-time, greater than Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and all the rest.

‘A Dream of a Book’ – Chicago Tribune on ‘DiMag & Mick’

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DiMag & Mick: Sibling Rivals, Yankee Blood Brothers by Tony Castro, Lyons Press, 271 pages, $24.95

This is a dream of a book. Castro, author of perhaps the best biography of Mickey Mantle, “America’s Prodigal Son,” takes on the myth that in 1951, Joe DiMaggio, in his last season, snubbed the rookie who would replace him in center field for baseball’s greatest dynasty. Castro offers a revisionist history of the friendship of the two Yankee greats. Castro reveals a fascinating bond where others, over the decades, found no relationship at all. He also puts a fresh perspective on the fame of both Joe and the Mick, quoting Hollywood journalist James Bacon: “Joe and Mickey had more in common with Frank Sinatra, John Wayne and the idols of celebrity than they did with the life into which they were born … It’s what came with what they did so wonderfully well with the inevitability of their success.”

Castro has a fine eye for the revealing detail. Near the end of Mantle’s career at a Mickey Mantle Day at Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio, looking splendid in late middle age, “walked with his customary grace from the dugout on to the field.” Then, as he waved to the cheering crowd, the Yankee Clipper noticed Mickey’s mother, Lovell, standing off, almost ignored, to one side. DiMaggio unexpectedly cupped her elbow in his hand and escorted to where all the players and dignitaries were lined up along the infield grass.”

But DiMaggio’s dignity gave way to scorn a few minutes later when he saw Robert F. Kennedy in the Yankees dugout: “DiMaggio despised both Bobby Kennedy and his brother … for their romantic involvement with Marilyn Monroe.” Snubbing Kennedy, “DiMaggio turned his attention to Mickey and the fans there to honor him. ‘I’m proud,’ he announced, ‘to introduce the man who succeeded me in center field in 1951.'”

“DiMag & Mick” grants us insight into Mantle, quoting from interviews and letters of Holly Brooke, Mickey’s secret girlfriend in the 1950s. Ms. Brooke’s memories of Mickey should temper our own recollections: “Mickey just wouldn’t tell a lie. He would try not to hurt anybody. I don’t know how many people you can say that about.”

http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-baseball-book-roundup-20160510-story.html