Sample text for Triumph : the untold story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics / Jeremy Schaap.
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Just before 9:30 p.m. central time on September 23, 1955, in a handsome
townhouse on Chicago's South Side, James Cleveland Owens slipped into a
tweed jacket and sat down in a straight-backed chair. As he smoothed out
his pencil mustache and slicked back his hair -- what little was left of it -- a
dozen technicians put the finishing touches on what had been an allday job,
wiring and lighting the Owens home. In a few minutes, Owens would be
talking live on national television with Edward R. Murrow of CBS, on his
celebrity interview show Person to Person. More than 20 million Americans
would watch as Murrow spoke from a studio in New York via satellite, first
with Owens and his family, and then, in the second half of the show, with
Leonard Bernstein and his.
A forty-two-year-old father of three, Jesse Owens weighed twenty-
five pounds more than he had in Berlin in 1936, when he had turned in the
most indelible performance ever at the Olympic games. In his conservative
jacket, flannel slacks, white shirt, and dark tie, he could have passed for a
fifty-year-old. Not that he wasn't in superb shape. He was. In fact, just a few
months earlier he had run 100 yards in 9.9 seconds, less than a second
slower than his personal best. He still held the world record in both the broad
jump (now called the long jump) and the 4 x 100-meter relay -- though both
records had been set in the mid-1930s.
For his part, Murrow was readying himself for another half-hour of
banalities. No one confused Person to Person with See It Now, Murrow's
other show on CBS, the one on which eighteen months earlier he had
neutered Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite the fluff, Murrow was eager to
speak with Owens, whose legend had grown significantly since 1936. Here,
Murrow thought, was a legitimate American hero, the man who had humbled
the Third Reich.
For Owens, the appearance with Murrow was emblematic of his
enhanced stature. In the first fifteen years after his athletic career ended, he
had struggled to find his way, professionally and financially. He made more
money than the vast majority of his fellow Americans -- in the dry-cleaning
business, at Ford Motors, working for the state of Illinois -- but the windfall
he expected in the aftermath of his Olympic heroics never materialized.
Banned from amateur competition after an imbroglio with American track
officials, he had raced against horses -- most famously in Havana, in
December 1936, defeating Julio McCaw, a five-year-old bay gelding, after the
horse spotted him a 40-yard advantage. In 1938, on the occasion of the first
night baseball game at Ebbets Field, he raced two speedy major-league
outfielders, spotting them several yards. He barnstormed with a black
baseball team and campaigned for the Republican presidential candidate Alf
Landon. In countless ways, he sold himself -- but he never had much to
show for it. Until now.
By the time Owens sat down to speak with Murrow, he was well
on his way to becoming an institution -- the Jesse Owens who would spend
the rest of his life telling his story to appreciative audiences around the world,
the Jesse Owens who could have been a hero from Horatio Alger, if Alger's
heroes had not all been white. In the years after his Olympic victories, his
achievements in Berlin had been overshadowed by World War II. But by
1955, at the end of the first decade of the cold war, he was finally getting his
due. He was in demand as a banquet speaker and making good money
because he had become useful -- to industry and government -- as a
symbol of the opportunities America promised and sometimes delivered. To
the delight of white America and most of black America, he disputed the
sentiments of Paul Robeson, the All-American football player turned actor/
singer, who famously suggested that African-Americans would not and
should not fight for the United States in the event of war with the Soviet
Union. Owens, in contrast, held himself out as an example of what black
Americans could achieve, despite the indignities and slights he had suffered
his entire life. He agreed with Jackie Robinson, who in his 1949 testimony
before the House Un-American Activities Committee had said that blacks had
too much invested in the American experiment to support its enemies.
Just a few days after his appearance on Person to Person, Owens
was to embark, at the behest of the State Department, on a goodwill tour of
Singapore, Malaya, the Philippines, and India. As A. M. Rosenthal, then the
New York Times correspondent in South Asia, put it, Owens's mission
was "to make friends for the United States." Having fought the fascists with
his fleetness of foot, he would now fight the Communists with his charm and
rhetoric -- even though some Indian writers, unversed in the annals of the
Olympics, confused him with Sir Owen Dixon, an Australian judge and United
Before the long ride to the subcontinent, though, there was the
interview with Murrow, whose fondness for bespoke tailoring matched his
own. Finally, at 9:30, with a cigarette clenched in his left hand, Murrow began
"Jesse Owens," he said, "is generally recognized as the greatest
track star of the last half-century. His performance in Berlin stands
unmatched in modern times. Statistics will never indicate Adolf Hitler's
reaction as he watched a twenty-three-year-old boy from Danville, Alabama,
run the athletes of the master race right into the ground." Owens, whose
politeness was among his defining characteristics, declined to correct
Murrow by pointing out that he had been twenty-two, not twenty-three, and
was from Oakville, Alabama, not Danville. He simply smiled and waited for
the questions he knew were coming, the questions that always came.
After several minutes of amiable chatter -- "You look to be in
almost good enough condition to get out your old track shoes again" -- and
the introduction of Owens's wife and three pretty daughters, Murrow offered
him the opportunity to talk about the games of the Eleventh Olympiad. "Jesse
Owens," he said, "what's your warmest memory of that August of 1936?"
Owens had been asked this question, or its variants, perhaps
hundreds of times. He did not hesitate. "I remember a boy," he said, his
accent betraying no hint of his southern roots, "that I competed against in the
broad jump -- a boy with whom I built a friendship -- and we corresponded
for a number of years, and then the war broke out, and I didn't hear any more
from him at all."
Owens looked down and away from the camera. The boy he was
referring to was Luz Long, the silver medalist, a pureblooded Aryan from
Leipzig who had helped him reach the broad-jump finals when he had been
on the verge of disqualifying. Composing himself, Owens talked about Long's
son Kai -- Owens and Kai had met in 1951 -- and then about winning the
100-meter dash. But he had not yet answered Murrow's question.
"I think that the greatest moment that a person can have is to
stand on a victory stand," he said, "far away from home, and then, from the
distance you can hear the strains of 'The Star- Spangled Banner,' and then
suddenly you make a left turn and you see the Stars and Stripes rising
higher and higher, and the higher the Stars and Stripes rose the louder the
strains of the Star-Spangled Banner would be heard. I think that's the
greatest moment of my whole athletic career."
Finished, he smiled, looking slightly off-camera.
"Thank you very much, Jesse Owens," Murrow said, taking a deep
drag. "In just a moment, we'll take you for a visit with Leonard Bernstein and
his wife, Felicia Montealegre."
Now Owens rose from his chair and dug into his pants pockets.
Unlike Murrow, he had not dared to smoke on camera. Acutely conscious of
his image, it simply would not do for Jesse Owens, the great track champion,
to be seen smoking on network television. Nor did he want any of the young
people who idolized him to think that he condoned the use of tobacco. But
now that the technicians were coiling their cables and packing their cases,
he pulled out a cigarette, lit up, and inhaled. Eventually, this habit would kill
him -- as it killed Murrow. But he was hooked, of course, and he would just
as soon have joined the Communist Party as quit his Camels.
As the crew finally moved his couch and coffee table back where
they belonged -- into the deep indentations in the carpet -- Owens and his
wife, Ruth, carefully returned his memorabilia to a display case. A few
special items had been freed from the case temporarily, for Murrow and his
audience to see clearly. There were the bronzed spikes. And the medals.
The laurel wreaths. All the tokens of his youthful greatness. He had collected
them nineteen years earlier, in Germany, with the eyes of the world fixed on
him, in an atmosphere charged by an ascendant Third Reich, on a continent
that would soon convulse in war and genocide.
Nothing Jesse Owens did at the Olympic stadium diminished the
horrors to come. He saved no lives. However, for those paying close enough
attention, Owens, in Berlin, revealed essential truths. While the western
democracies were perfecting the art of appeasement, while much of the rest
of the world kowtowed to the Nazis, Owens stood up to them at their own
Olympics, refuting their venomous theories with his awesome deeds.
Copyright © 2007 by Jeremy Schaap. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Owens, Jesse, -- 1913-
Track and field athletes -- United States -- Biography.
African American athletes -- Biography.
Jewish athletes -- United States -- Biography.
Glickman, Marty, -- 1917-2001.
Stoller, Sam -- 1915-1983.
Olympics -- Participation, American.
Olympic Games -- (11th : -- 1936 : -- Berlin, Germany)
National socialism -- Philosophy.
Racism -- Germany -- History -- 20th century.