“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?
Great post title, great post. Concise and incisive.
I agree that biographers must treat every fact he uses as brand new, double- and triple-checking each one even if the prevailing belief is that it is OF COURSE true. (This, of course, is much less time-consuming for a picture book writer than a writer of a 500-page opus.)
In a recent blog post about biography-writing, I mentioned how memory is unreliable. In Owens’s case, he was outright fabricating, but sometimes it’s a more innocent mistake. In the end, I feel biographers are reaching for the approximation of truth. That’s really the closest we ever come. As such, we could include the Long story in an Owens book – even first presenting it as fact and then later debunking it, so the reader discovers the truth chronologically. But it would then call into question everything else Owens said, which would have to be addressed as well.
There was a pic book on Owens a few years ago–don’t remember if it includes the Long incident: http://www.amazon.com/Jesse-Owens-Fastest-Man-Alive/dp/0802795501.
BTW, I know I’m hardly the first to say this, but it’s funny that a long jumper’s name was…Long.
I think it’s valuable to explore how stories and myths come to be, first of all as a way to show young readers that not everything they hear or read is reliable, and second because the appeal of those stories is a big part of being human, and thus part of what we need to learn about ourselves.
In this case, Owens’s audience apparently wanted to hear that he’d received crucial advice from a white man. That created a narrative of a bridge across a racial divide, but it also reflected deeper myths of blacks depending on white intellectual guidance.
One of my favorite stories was always the one about record producer Andrew Loog Oldham locking Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a kitchen together and forcing them to write a song, thus forming one of the greatest songwriting partnerships ever. I’d read it in countless biographies about how it happened, and Keith Richards was always very specific. Then Jagger starts doing interviews saying, “Keith likes to tell the story about the kitchen, God bless him … but [Oldham] didn’t literally lock us in.”
So now, which one do you believe?
Accuracy is no damn fun.
It’s a good question.
I’ve been thinking about a book for children dealing with local history – a more general work – and I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way you can do it is to make it appeal to as young an audience as possible while still dealing with real issues and questions. So, yes, you tell the long jump story and bring up the questions it raises.