Wil Haygood: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
>> It's a great privilege for me to be here today to introduce one
of the finest writers on the staff of the Washington Post, Wil Haygood.
What distinguishes Wil, as those of you
who have read his newspaper writing
or his several excellent biographies will know, is his exquisite sense
of history and his pitch-perfect ear for dialect.
He is brilliant at describing the unsubtle tectonics of race
in our land and he's possessed of a wise empathetic voice
that subordinates itself to the narrative.
His writing never overpowers the extraordinary tales that Wil likes
to tell of other people's remarkable lives
yet Wil's own life story is one for our times too.
He's a child of Columbus, Ohio where he was a self-described product
of a simple boyhood overlaid by a complicated family, a story he told
in a memoir, The Haygood's of Columbus, a love the story.
He didn't set out to be a writer.
In fact, he majored in city planning during the 1970's which thus
to be old enough to remember or recall that was
when the New York Daily News ran the headline, Ford to City: Drop Dead.
New York may not have taken a hint but Wil did.
He switched over and took a management training program
in a big department store from which he was soon fired.
He jokes he was reading books in the stockroom
which may have been good training for what came next.
He figured if he couldn't make it
in retail he could always try journalism.
It was a goof fit.
He worked his work for the Charleston West Virginia Gazette,
the Boston Globe, and for the last 20 years or so for The Post
where he's now on a national staff.
One of his unique talents is describing the lives
that are the threads and the tapestry of our times.
Some like Sammy Davis Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. are famous.
Others are less so.
Three days after President Obama's inauguration,
Wil wrote a memorable profile of Eugene Allen,
a black man as Wil put it, unknown to the headlines who had never
in all his years serving as a White House butler imagined he would see
someone who looked like him in the White House.
The book Wil will talk about today is Sweet Thunder.
His biography of Sugar Ray Robinson, the boxer and cultural icon
and owner of a famous pink Cadillac that I will let Wil explain
if he wishes, please join me in welcoming Wil
to the national book festival.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you and welcome and certainly on a day like this I know
that the executive editor of the Washington Post has a million
and one things he could be doing, so I'm quite touched that he took time
to come out here to introduce me.
Somebody just asked me a few minutes ago if I grew
up fighting in a gym, boxing.

And I've been trying to tell ladies from the second grade
on that I consider myself much more of a lover than a fighter.
[ Laughter ]
>> But there was one experience I had in the boxing ring
in my hometown in Columbus, Ohio I was in the 16th grade
and somebody talked to me into stepping into the boxing ring.
I might make the team if I was fast enough in the ring.
And the other person hit me very hard and I went down.
And the pain went in one ear down my back, down the back of my leg,
over to the other side of my body
and I'm still feeling that pain today.
So no, I never became a boxer, but I had a lot of admiration for somebody
who had a life as fascinating outside of the ring
as they did inside of the ring.
And while this book is a book about a fighter,
Sugar Ray Robinson it really is much more it's a--
what I like to think it's about as Langston Hues put it,
the sweet flypaper of life.
Sugar Ray Robinson had 3 very dear friends in Harlem.
They were Langston Hues, Lena Horne, and Miles Davis.
And a lot of this book is about the wonderful cultural swirl
that Sugar Ray Robinson made happen.
A lot of the night clubs in New York City in the 30's and 40's
as you know were segregated
and so Sugar Ray Robinson took it upon himself with his earnings
from the ring to build a nightclub that was called Sugar Ray's.
It was very elegant and folk could come all races, all hues.
They could come and sit down and not worry about the color of their skin
and that in turn proved
to the wonderful Jazz giants Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr.
who is an entertainer and others
that Sugar Ray's was the place to be in Harlem.
I went on a book tour and I'm just gonna tell you about 2 things
that happened that standout a great deal and made me know
that the 5 years I spent on this book were well worth it.
I was interviewing somebody and they said you have to go find Mel Dick.
And I said, who is Mel Dick?
And this person said "well, Mel Dick knew Sugar Ray Robinson for many,
many, man y years more than 35 years and he's some place in Florida
and you must find Mel Dick.
It's going to add a lot to this story that you're trying to tell.
And so I was able to track Mel Dick down in Miami, Florida
and this is Mel Dick's story.
When he was 8 years old he lived in Brooklyn, New York.
He played hooky from school, he went into New York City to a gym,
Steelman's gym where Sugar Ray Robinson happen to be sparring.
Now, Mel Dick is white, and he told me this story when I found him,
and he was the lone white kid in the gym that day just sitting
in the audience watching Sugar Ray Robinson spar.
He played hooky from school and he didn't tell his mom
and dad where he was going.
Sugar Ray Robinson noticed him out on the corner of his eye
and after he was finished sparring, he walked down and was talking
to the other people, and he bent down and asked Mel Dick who he was.
And he said, "Sir, my Melvin Dick," and he said, "Why are you here?
And where's your mom and dad?"
And he said, "Well, my mom and dad they're at home
and they do not know that I'm here."
And Sugar Ray Robinson said, "Well, why are you here?
For heaven's sake, why are you here?"
And he looked up at Sugar Ray Robinson and he said,
"Because you're my hero, and I love you."
And for the next 45 years, Mel Dick
and Sugar Ray Robinson were extremely, extremely close.
Sugar Ray Robinson was the best man at Mel Dick's wedding.
Mel Dick was there along with Miles Davis in 1965
when Sugar Ray Robinson at the age of 40 plus fought his last bout
and it was just a beautiful moment to find somebody from their youth
on up who had known Sugar Ray Robinson.
And the second great moment for me as a writer happened in Ailey,
Georgia and that's where Sugar Ray Robinson was born,
although he was only there for a few months and then his family took him
up north in Michigan, and then from Michigan to Harlem.
And I went to Atlanta, Georgia on the book tour to give a reading
and the Atlanta officials took me the next morning to Ailey, Georgia.
A little, small rural community and I'm thinking as we're driving
over that goodness there might not be anybody there for the simple fact
that Sugar Ray Robinson had left when he was 4 months old.
And we drive and we roll into this little tiny town in a little library
on the side of the road and they had a marquee.
And on the marquee it said, "Ailey, Georgia welcomes Wil Haygood."
That may be the only time in my life that my name will be on a marquee.
I appreciated it though.
Now, there were--
[ Applause ]
>> There were about 125 people in the lot next
to this little library just milling about, men, women, mostly men
and women and they were milling about.
And my thinking is that, "Gee,
something must be going on at the library.
I wonder what it is."
And I got out of the car and I was in a suit.
If you're gonna write a book about Sugar Ray Robinson, you have to go
out and buy some nice suits for the simple fact
that Sugar Ray Robinson was a very elegant guy dressed very
beautifully, wore pink Cadillac I mean drove a pink Cadillac.
It was an era of lushness, his life was an era of just true elegance
and grace and lots of poetry.
But anyway, a man in the parking lot walks over to me
and he has a very deep southern voice and says to me,
"Would you by any chance be the author?"
And I said, "Well, yes, sir, I am, I am."
And he said, wonderful.
He said, "We're all Sugar Ray Robinson's relatives
and we have come out to walk you into the library."
And I was so, so very touched.
It was just wonderful and when I got into the library, you know,
I was just so enormously touched.
I started reading and there were about 130 seats, so it really was me
and Sugar Ray Robinson's family, and I would read certain sections,
and they would yell back at me.
"That's right, Sugar.
Hit him, Sugar.
Amen, Lord have mercy.
That's my sugar.
That boy was something else.
And I'm reading, I'm looking out at them, really, oh wow, hey, Amen.
Lord, hit him, Sugar."
So those two experiences were worth being away, you know,
on your little book advance that you get, you know,
hoping that your editor is gonna welcome you back into the newsroom
after the several years of-- you know of hard work on the book.
But it has been worth it, and ever-- every sense of the word.
This is the final book of what I like to think of as a trio of books
about unheralded or lost figures you might say in history.
There was Adam Clayton Powell,
there was Sammy Davis Jr., and Sugar Ray Robinson.
They're are all figures who I think put a little more of the red, white,
and blue in this country and made a unique difference.
So thank you, and I guess we'll open it up for some questions.
[ Applause ]
>> I was curious, how many women played a serious,
significant role in his life?
>> In Sugar Ray Robinson's life?
>> Yeah.
>> Yes, his mother, Layla Walker was a very fierce lady.
Sugar Ray Robinson used to go outside when he was a kid,
8 or 9 years old and he would get beat up
and he would be crying and he would go home.
And his mother would say, "Don't come in here crying.
Go back outside and fight."
So in a real sense, his mother sort of shoved him into the fight game.
I think Sugar Ray Robinson if he would have had his brothers,
he would have been an entertainer, he actually left boxing for 3 years
and became a hoofer, a dancer.
He wasn't very good at it and then in 1954 he went back to fighting.
But his mother was, you know, very important in his psyche.
>> Were there a lot of women attracted to him?
Pursuing him [laughs].
>> Oh, oh ladies, ladies.
You're talking about the ladies in the nightclubs, okay.
I was a little slow on that one.
[Laughter] Okay, ahh, you know, as with all flamboyant figures
and as Raymond Chandler once put it, there's always a lady
in Sugar Ray Robinson's life.
I think there were a lot of women around,
although he only had two marriages, and he died married
to his second wife, Millie, out in Los Angeles so.
Okay I'll go over here.
>> First of all, thank you very much for the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.
>> Thank you.
>> I too idolized Sugar Ray Robinson when I was a kid.
I still can't believe he lost to Joey Maxim.
But I wondered if you could compare his cultural impact
with Muhammad Ali's?
>> Uhmm. Well, now I mean, great question.
I think one of the main reasons why Sugar Ray Robinson somewhat got lost
in history was that another fighter who fought in the 1960 Olympics
in Rome, he came along and the TV age was just starting
to explode you might say.
And Ali really, really sort of wiped Sugar Ray Robinson from a lot of--
a lot of our-- not memory but a lot of our visual love,
Sugar Ray Robinson should have been on those night talk shows like,
you know, or the daytime talk shows like Merv Griffin or Phil Donahue
or whatever you had in the 60s and 70s.
But then you had this huge figure, a cultural bullet across our airways,
Ali, and in a way, Sugar Ray Robinson receded he moved to L.A.
and he started a youth foundation which is--
which was just wonderful because in his youth foundation the kids could
do a lot.
They could dance.
They could play the piano, badminton, checkers,
they could paint but there was no boxing.
There was no boxing.
Sugar Ray Robinson did not want to have a child get into a boxing match
and go home and not have a father open the door and tell the son
that everything's going to be all right
because Sugar Ray Robinson's father was not under his roof.
And so that's very telling and actually that was one of the reasons
that made me want to really write this book.
Sugar Ray Robinson was a fighter.
He founded a youth program and you could do anything you wanted
to almost in that program except box.
Okay, I'll go over here.
>> Okay, hi.
Two questions.
>> Uhmm.
>> Maybe you've implicitly answered it in terms
of the physical toll of boxing.
We know football players have serious problems like get banged
on the head and we've seen some horrendous consequences of boxing.
So I wanted to ask what Sugar Ray thought about all that?
And if I could veer to Sammy Davis Jr. and your other books,
what real depth of knowledge did he have of Judaism?
He converted and that was always talked about,
but I wonder what it really meant to him in terms
if his knowledge and his commitment?
>> Okay, that question is you know is just a big layered,
layered question and there's not enough time to the answer.
But you'll find the answer in a book called, "In Black and White:
The Life of Sammy Davis Jr."
[ Laughter ]
>> Okay.
>> Your first question about boxing.
>> Yeah.
>> Sugar Ray Robinson I think foresaw all of this
that boxing was a very brutal sport.
In 1947 he went to Cleveland, Ohio he fought a guy named Jimmy Doyle.
Jimmy Doyle had suffered some severe knockouts
in the State of California.
He shouldn't have been boxing in the State of Ohio,
but he was allowed to box.
This was in 1947.
Sugar Ray hit him with a punch in the chin and it killed him.
Sugar Ray was threatened with arrest and a charge of manslaughter in 1947
and so he knew that boxing took an awful toll
on fighters, but he lived in America.
It was segregated at the time.
There was no jobs on Wall Street for blacks, no jobs in banks, few,
few, few jobs in Hollywood.
And so boxing was one way
where a black man could become somewhat wealth, and so Joe Louis,
Henry Armstrong, other fighters they took that risk knowing that.
Now, I might add that after Sugar Ray Robinson killed Doyle,

he took a tour and fought four times and raised money
because Doyle was fighting to buy his mother a house,
and Sugar Ray was struck to the core
that Jimmy Doyle died fighting to buy his mom a house.
So Sugar Ray Robinson went and fought four fighters
and they were tough fighters, but he gave his winnings
to Jimmy Doyle's mother so that she could buy her house.
I just think it's a very touching part of his life, his history.
>> Thank you.
>> Over here.
>> Hi Mr. Haygood.
>> Hi.
>> I like your point about three of the kind
of forgotten people in American history.
I just finished a master's thesis
at Georgetown University on Nathan Hale.
One of the, I think forgotten heroes of American history.
My question is I don't know if it's been asked
but who gave Sugar Ray's name?
Where did that come from?
>> Okay, great question.
He was born Walker Smith Jr. Walker Smith,
Jr. I think that the ladies liked Sugar Ray Robinson a little more
than Walker Smith Jr. But anyway, he was a young fighter
on a young boxing team based in a church in Harlem and they went
into Watertown, New York to fight.
He was just 15-years-old and there was a fighter
on the team named Ray Robinson, but Ray Robinson got sick
and so young Walker asked the manager,
George Gainford, if he could go on.
If he fight in Ray Robinson's-- his place.
George Gainford didn't think he was good enough,
but the young Walker Smith browbeating
in the locker rooms said, "Coach, please, let me fight.
Please I'm ready."
Walker Smith fights but George Gainford, the manager has
to change the name on the fight card.
He has to-- he doesn't have an extra fight card so he uses the fight card
that said Ray Robinson, and he told the referee that the kid stepping
into the ring now is Ray Robinson.
So he fought and he knocked the other kid out.
I mean, boom, boom, boom.
His skill was apparent even then.
There was a sports editor named Jack Case from the Watertown newspaper.
Jack Case asked the manager, Gainford, who was that fighter
and because he sure is sweet.
And he said, "Well, his name is Ray Robinson."
When Jack Case hustles back into the newsroom,
he makes up the name Sugar, sweet as sugar.
So he makes up the name, Sugar Ray Robinson scores knockout
at arena and the name stuck.
>> Thank you.
>> Okay. Yes.
>> Hi, at one time professional boxers were really at the core
of the American consciousness.
They were the real cultural icons.
Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali.
I have to admit, I haven't a clue
who the heavyweight boxing champion is today.
What has happened that there's no longer Sugar Ray Robinson's
or at least Sugar Ray Robinson coming out of boxing?
>> Well, I think that in the 40's and the 50's boxing was
like NCAA football is now.
It was epic.
There were fights fought outdoors, there were stadiums that were,
you know, full of people, 100,000 people.
They were fought at night.
It was stunning to see two figures in a ring.
Radio was big.
The rivalries were big.
Joe Louis, Mash Melling [phonetic], Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson;
these figures were sort of larger than life,
and I think because of the simple fact that we have more sports now
that are seen by more people and the fight game has suffered so much
as far as integrity, honor-- it's just really suffered something
that it hasn't been able to come back from,
and thus we really don't follow fighters the way we used
to follow fighters in the 50's and the 60's.
And I mean that was one reason why I wanted
to spend years unraveling Sugar Ray Robinson's life.
He was a big, big deal in the 40's, 50's, and 60's
and yet he sort of vanished.
And I just think that we found other sports to watch and, you know,
so many comically and tragic things have happened with fighters,
heavyweight fighters especially over the last 15 years that it's hard
to sometimes take it seriously.

>> Okay. I'll go over here.
>> Hi Mr. Haygood.
>> Hi.
>> Just first of all I want to say congratulations to you
for being nominated for the 2010 Hurston/Wright Award for nonfiction
for your book and also for the--
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you.
>> Also for being nominated or being a runner up rather
for the PEN/ESPN award for sports writing.
Thank you very much.
>> Thank you.
>> I really enjoy the book.
I'm a writer so I'm gonna ask a writer question.
>> Okay.
>> All of your biographies, they're so nuanced and their so layered
and you give us so many things about so many people in Sweet Thunder.
We found out not only about Sugar Ray Robinson but we also found
about Lena Horne, Miles Davis.
I mean you were able to put so much into it.
How do you keep all those thousands of bits of information flowing
to be able to make a really coherent and inviting
for the reader; first question.
Second question is what are you working on now?
>> Okay, thank you.
Thank you so much.
She said some wonderful things that I swear I hope
that all the people back in the 5th grade
who said I would never amount to anything.
I hope they heard that and I hope their watching C-span today and--
[ Applause ]
>> I hope that they heard that.
Anyway, these figures, and it's interesting when I wanted to,
you know, like have Lena Horne and Miles Davis
and Langston Hughes swirling throughout the narrative.
My editor, Peter, gathers wondered if it would work.
And I said, well, let me write the first 50 pages
and I think you'll see what I'm trying to do.
And you know, they all were of the same time periods.
You know, and they all, you know, sort of flourished and worked
in Harlem and so that made it easier but I did have a wall in my home
and up on the wall it would say something
like Sugar Ray Robinson, 1947.
And then I would have a big piece of wall paper
and it would ask me I would write the question,
what is Lena doing in 1947?
And then under that I would ask the question where is Miles Davis
at in 1947 and then I would say where is Langston Hughes at in 1947?
And then you know it skips ahead and then I bring the reader
up to what Langston and Lena
and Miles are doing say in 1953, you know.
And so I knew that every-- every 50 pages or so I wanted
to remind the reader that there's this wonderful cultural swirl
going on.
It really is a book about all the things going
on outside of the boxing ring.
You know if you think it's only a book about violence
and blood and boxing, it is not.
It really is a book about poetry, about music, about dance,
about night life, about nightclubs, about New York City,
about Los Angeles, about Chicago.
It's a book about America and how she danced and sang
with these people in the middle of the spokes wheel.
Okay, question over here?
Sorry I can't hear.
Something is wrong.
>> Hi, can you hear me now?
>> Yeah.
>> Yeah there we go.
I'm a big fan.
Thank you, you always gift us with your words.
I have a quick question.
>> Thank you.
>> Which is just how do you choose your subjects for biography?
Adam Clayton Powell, you know, Sugar Ray Robinson,
Sammy Davis Jr. just wondering what is it that a figure would have
to possess to get Wil Haygood to take on their lives?
And then I will cede the rest of my time
to the gentlewoman from North Carolina.
>> My quick question is why did you become a journalist,
and how has that training affected the books that you've written
like the Sugar Ray Robinson book?
>> Okay, thank you.
Last questions over here
and the first one how did i choose the subjects?
Real quick answer, New York Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell,
was you know a force on the hill.
He went to congress in 1944 and left in 1970.
He was big on the student loan program and I would not have gone
to college were it not for the student loan program and so
in the back of my mind, I just said
to myself one day many years ago I simply wanted
to pay a debt back to Adam Clayton Powell.
And you know, it really was a dream as simple as that
and so that's how that book was birthed.
Sammy Davis Jr. when I was little growing
up in the 60s there was not very many blacks on TV
and Sammy Davis Jr. was one of those figures who was my mother
and my grandmother who raised me, they would call me in the house
and say, "Sammy Davis Jr. is on TV, Sammy Davis Jr. is on TV"
and so he meant something to them.
And so I just sort of told myself it would be interesting to write a book
about Sammy Davis Jr. some day.
These are figures who happened to have had a lot of scandal
in their lives and they were sort of burdened with scandal and
yet there was something heroic about Adam Clayton Powell,
Sammy Davis Jr. and Sugar Ray Robinson.
I told you at the beginning about the punch that I took
that I'm still feeling, so I wrote this book to figure
out where that punch came from.
Thank you very much.

[ Applause ]
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