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July 17, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 40
Making Contact With Broadway Joe
by Barbara Long
The masses forever fend for themselves as best they can, and, forever elitists, young writers go straight to political leaders for that love and attention needed most by young writers, most meaningful when bestowed blessing-like by rich and powerful elitist men, some sweet reassurances that the specific whences from which we came have given us some special edge on Truth and Beauty. Robert Kennedy, for example, taught my old buddy Jack Newfield the particular beauty of growing up poor in Bedford-Stuyvesant, an experience that a young writer might otherwise have regarded as a singular pain in the ass. Political wisdom may reside in Brooklyn Heights, then, but political soul definitely rests in the black-shoes breasts of white urban college-graduate slum kids.
Rural slum-kid credentials tend to be trickier, however, the influences and effects endlessly multiple; another political leader of a decidedly different ilk than the late Kennedy, possibly as rich, certainly more urbane, wanting nothing from our meeting except a pleasant lunch, showed me recently that growing up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, population 18,000, had taught me very little about Truth, merely a great deal about growing up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. He had asked me what I thought of Joe Namath.
Roots serve to define those concepts with which one has to deal, and those one grasps intuitively. I have not had to deal with Joe Namath, because Joe Namath comes from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and kids from P’burg automatically understand kids from Beaver Falls. Surrounded by farms, occupied by factories, the hometown of Robert B. Meyner and his mother Sadie, Phillipsburg sits on the Delaware River across from Easton, Pennsylvania, a town driven through to reach the Pennsylvania Dutch and coal-mining countries from New York. Our high school football team plays some of the “concrete kid” football teams that play Beaver Falls. Our towns share the same deadliness, except that the literary tragedy of coal mining towns makes them more glamorous. When you get out of school in either town, you either run away, go to college (something you have to fight your parents about because college education is not part of the lower-class white Protestant plan), get a job, get married, or live at home with your parents until you do get married. Conversations among adults dwell on remembering details, the who-was-theres and the exact days piling up until the insignificant event takes on historic importance. The bars are plentiful and all the same; the Sundays are suicide days; the need for cars is the same; and the “hanging out” is the same, a Beaver Falls predisposition to the hustler mentality, the factor now screwing Joe Namath.
“Joe Namath is a jerk,” I said.
I had met Namath once, I told him. Years ago a fashion magazine, assigning Cecil Beaton as my photographer, had commissioned me to profile Namath. He was practicing the next afternoon, he had told me over the phon, why didn’t I meet him there, then drive back to the city with him. We shook hands in the back sat of a limousine sent to Shea Stadium by an ABC interview radio show to take us to the Plaza where the interviews of many personalities would be taped in a cocktail party milieu. Knowing that he would be leaving for a game on the West Coast in a few days, and knowing that this meeting might well be my one shot, I took out my notebook and pen. Joe’s face would be common enough in Beaver Falls, thick and heavy, a stupid streak running through the eyes, the then 23-year-old patter learned and tedious. Not especially interested in how many airline stewardesses he had dated, airline stewardesses being wonderful only to boys from Beaver Falls, quite interested in someone who played quarterback so well and must love the game to pay with bad knees, excruciatingly painful at that point, just before he entered the hospital for an operation. I asked, “Do you think the AFL should change the regulations to protect quarterbacks while they’re getting off passes?”
Okay, so it was a dumb question, dumb because the inquiry was pertinent. Joe Namath had no intentions of discussing football with me, a bit of fluff from a fashion magazine not supposed to ask legitimate football questions. By the time we got to the Plaza, we couldn’t wait to get rid of each other.
The radio show was being handled by Howard Cosell and Tom Poston, the interviewing table off to one corner, the drinks and buffet in another room. Some of the guests were Milt Kamen, Max Lerner, Martin Balsam; others were the countless girls and homosexuals who work for media-oriented companies, who all know someone brilliant working on a brilliant documentary, the same crowd that get tickets to private screenings and never realize that private screenings are prestigious only if you’re a backer, the director’s ex-wife, a minor actor in the movie, or a critic.
The other athlete there was Tucker Frederickson, also a bonus baby but not playing that season because of bad legs, drinking because there’s not much else for a sensitive man to do during a season when he’s not playing. Frederickson is the sort of athlete who didn’t read while he was in college but had become aware that book-reading offered another viable option. He was staring at a short man standing alone in the middle of the room.
“That’s Max Lerner,” I said, knowing him from that old photograph the Post used to carry.
“Didn’t he write a big book on American civilization?” Frederickson asked. We walked over to introduce ourselves to Lerner.
“Mr. Lerner,” I said, “this is Tucker Frederickson. He wanted to meet you.”
“Ah,” said Max Lerner with that pretentiousness peculiar to academicians who write a newspaper column. “Then you, Mr. Frederickson, like Sandy Koufax, are an intellectual athlete.”
“No, sir,” said Frederickson with the lack of pretentiousness characteristic of athletes, “I heard good things about your book, but I haven’t read it yet.”
We were interrupted by the hush that pinpoints show-biz meaningful experiences.
Her agent had just led Carol Doda, haltered cow-like, into the room. her face was stupid and sweet, her dress low-cut, and her breasts huge and unreal from silicone injections. Leonard Lyons’s column the next day would carry an item about Carol Doda and Joe Namath being seen the night before at “21.” Joe Namath was brought over to meet her. They shook hands. One dead-drunk advertising agency man, “This is a truly historic meeting…the $400,000 Bonus Baby meets the Silicone Breasts.” He meant it, too, his glazed eyes more honest than they had ever been before.
Hours later, realizing that I didn’t care to be part of the hastily assembled Carol Doda-Joe Namath party heading toward “21” to make the historic press release come true, I walked to a corner to say good night to Tucker Frederickson.
Joe Namath, high as a kite, Beaver Falls all over his sagging face, came charging through the crowd, took my hand, and laid it on his fly.
“That’s all America wants from me,” he said.
I finished telling the story and waited for the political leader’s reaction. I had been telling the anecdote to sportswriters for years, and we had always exchanged impressed nods.
“But,” said the political leader softly, “that’s not even true.”
The lines that sound so great in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, or even in Phillipsburg, New Jersey are not necessarily true lines.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 23, 2010