“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That line in the western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance came to mind this week when I heard this NPR story about the myth surrounding Jesse Owens’ famous long-jump performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
I’d heard before about the myth — about how the commonly told, irresistibly inspirational story of Owens’ pre-jump guidance by German competitor Luz Long was, in fact, a fabrication. But what I hadn’t realized was Owens’ own role in perpetuating that myth:
Tom Ecker, author of Olympic Facts and Fables, says he asked Owens in 1965 point-blank about the story. Ecker had noticed inconsistencies in how Owens told the tale. He had read Grantland Rice’s account of the Olympic long jump. Rice, the pre-eminent sports journalist at the time, had binoculars trained on Owens during the qualifying round and never saw him talk to Long. And so it was that Ecker and a colleague asked Owens in 1965.
“Jesse Owens admitted to us that he had not met Luz Long until after the competition was over,” Ecker says.
So why hadn’t Owens told the real story in his many public speaking appearances?
“He once was quoted as saying, ‘Those stories are what people like to hear, so you tell ’em,’ ” Ecker says.
This should serve as a reminder to me and other biographers that you can’t always take your subject’s own version of his story as the truth, no matter how frequently that version gets repeated by your subject or anyone else. Wherever we can validate our subjects’ versions of events — say, when that version could be corroborated or cast into doubt by an Olympic stadium full of attentive onlookers — we owe it to our readers to do so.
In the case of Owens, it raises an interesting question: Should a biography for young readers “print the legend,” ignore it, or explore Owens’ choice to perpetuate it?