And now we'll never get that Kimball memoir
SIDELINE CUT:George was gleeful about the idea of his burst of productivity in the midst of a terminal illness – ‘coming out punching in the last round’ was how he described it, writes KEITH DUGGAN
GEORGE EDWARD Kimball III: where do you even begin? It is impossible to portray such a big and generous life in a single column, so the best place to start would seem to be the last time I met him, which was in Dublin last autumn.
He was staying in a regular haunt, Buswells, with his wife, Marge. She had just returned in glowing form from a visit to the Yeats exhibition in the National Library. George mixed a liquid concoction he was taking as food during the trip, which he admitted was a struggle, but that was the only concession he made to his illness. It was a nice afternoon, and after a while he decided to take a stroll over to Brogan’s pub.
On the way, we stopped for a lemonade – literally: he quit drinking in 1991 – and over a smoke he told this story concerning F Scott Fitzgerald and Budd Schulberg. George was a long-time friend of Budd Schulberg and, in time, with his son Benn. In 1939, the ailing Fitzgerald and the up-and-coming Schulberg had been hired to co-write a screenplay, Winter Carnival, a disastrous (or ingenious) idea which resulted in a week-long drinking spree and which fell apart after the pair were fired by the producer.
They parted ways when Schulberg helped the older man into a taxi in New York – Fitzgerald ended up in hospital.
Just last year, George got to hold a few mementos from their time together which had passed into Benn’s possession. And, looking over the rim of his big glasses as he relived that ancient drinking spree, he had clearly been delighted by the experience.
That afternoon and that story was another reason why I wished George had managed to find time to include a memoir among the crowded list of writing accomplishments that decorate the last six years of his life. In February 2008, I visited him in Sloane Kettering hospital in New York, and although he looked pretty wrecked that morning he was full of plans for books which he did see through: the marvellous Four Kings was due out, a collection of his Irish Times columns would come out that summer, he was planning the compilation which became At the Fights.
And he was gleeful about the idea of this burst of productivity in the midst of a terminal illness – “coming out punching in the last round” was how he described it that day.
He was realistic about his illness, talking of plans with the caveat that he couldn’t “promise” to be around when such and such an event was due to take place. But through 2008, 2009 and 2010, he managed to be around and then some, beating the odds and popping up at big fights and golf tournaments on both sides of the Atlantic.
With Marge, he issued a brilliant party invitation last Christmas which featured George grinning devilishly and seated in an armchair superimposed over the New York skyline and bearing the legend: Still At Large. So even though he was getting weaker, he seemed to have an aura of invincibility about him.
At Kimball’s book launch for his collected Irish Times columns in 2008, Seán Moran said something which I always thought summed up George’s attitude perfectly. Seán said George was “dauntless”. And that is how it seemed and why it was stunning as well as hugely saddening to learn he had gone quietly on Wednesday night.
I probably annoyed him more than once with my insistence he should write a memoir. It wasn’t so much because he seemed to have a limitless supply of wild and brilliant anecdotes featuring, it seemed, many of the heroes and misfits who strode through American sports and cultural life over the last four decades.
It was because George, for all the chaos and movement and mischief of his lifestyle, had an incredibly clear and precise memory of the stuff he lived through. He had this forensic memory for conversations, dates, times, figures, people and places.
That fastidious detail and clarity shone through in his writing, but it was sort of frightening to encounter it in conversation: it seemed impossible that he could have had anything more than a hazy recollection of his younger decades, given the company he kept. But he had this clarity and exactitude which I always imagined he inherited from his father – George was the son of a military man.
Because of his tremendous ability to summon up those times and his uncanny knack for turning up at the right moment, and because he wrote so sharply, his memoir would have been much more than a series of great anecdotes; it would have been a valuable chronicle of a society and people which have already largely disappeared. And you can bet the facts would have been on the money.
The columns he wrote on these pages were often a tantalising glimpse at what a full account of his life would have been like. Although he was highly regarded in American journalism, it was never highly enough for my liking. For instance, his column about the origin of the line always associated with Marlon Brando – “I coulda been a contender” – forms the basis for what might just be the perfect newspaper column: ’True Tale of an Original Contender’ (August 31st 2006).
Perhaps this newspaper was fortunate enough to publish the best of his journalism, for some of the columns he published in recent years stand effortlessly alongside the collected pieces in the Best American Sportswriting of the Century, edited by David Halberstam in 2000.
“I had just turned 30 when I got a fan letter from David Halberstam,” is how Kimball started a 2007 column written after Halberstam was killed in a car crash in California. It was one of several wonderful columns he wrote as off-the-cuff odes to departed friends in the past few years, from Hunter Thompson to Jim Carroll to Budd Schulberg, Ted Williams, George Plimpton and, in an unforgettably-pitched piece entitled ‘Last Bell Sounds for Lion-hearted Finnegan’, his account of the boxing life and subsequent decline of an Englishman named Kevin Finnegan.
The columns managed to be both elegiac and funny. But about his life and illness, Kimball was resolutely upbeat and unsentimental. In fact, his illness never featured. When the sympathy messages began to pour into the Off the Ball lads on Newstalk radio on Thursday night, it was no surprise that some Kimball fans hadn’t known the man had not been in full health: he continued to write with exuberance and zest about the great and absurd developments in American sport and life.
He moved effortlessly between sport, music, literature and politics, and it is anyone’s guess as to which mattered most to him. On YouTube, there is a short film of George’s friend Tom Paxton, recorded on June 30th, 2008, where Paxton sings I Miss My Friends Tonight. Introducing the song, he talks about The Lion’s Head in Sheridan’s Square, the (now gone) pub which once served as Kimball’s postal address and which seemed to form a point of origin for the nexus of friendships and anecdotes he would gather through his life. I don’t know for certain if George and Marge are in the crowd at that performance, but my guess – my wish – is they are.
He was no angel. He got up the noses of plenty and was turfed into jail on more than one occasion. And he could be absolutely cutting in print when he felt the occasion demanded it.
But he was great fun and endlessly interesting and bright in every sense of the word, and it is hard to believe that familiar photograph – half baleful, half amused – won’t be staring out of these pages next Thursday.
The last email I got from him, dated June 25th, ended:
“Breathing difficulties are the most overbearing. Have to use oxygen and nebuliser and sometimes both. Still hope to go to the Vineyard Friday for a week, staying Chez Schulberg. Cheers. G.”
Dauntless, to the last.