ON THE BOOKS: How his wife exploited Jim Thorpe

On Nov. 9, 1951, Jim Thorpe, who had been voted “greatest athlete of the half-century” a year earlier in an Associated Press poll of nearly 400 sportswriters and broadcasters, had a tumor removed. lower lip cancer patient in a hospital. in suburban Philadelphia.

The next day, press photographers converged to take pictures of him in his hospital bed, his lower jaw bandaged. Reports said he was joyful despite his third wife, Patsy, announcing that the couple were “broken”.

“Jim only has his name and his memories,” she said. “He spent money on his own people and gave it away. He was often exploited.

Chief among his exploiters may have been Patsy, a former nightclub singer who claimed to have played the piano at one of Al Capone’s joints.

After Thorpe was voted the “greatest athlete,” she said her goal was to turn that honor into $1 million. She managed her husband’s career and cooked up a sort of vaudeville act for him. He would read a poem, tell jokes, then head for the bar.

She set him an expense fee of over $1,000 for speaking engagements. She saw him as the host of a national television show and made a deal for him to manage a young Native American who competed as a professional wrestler under the name Suni (or Sunny) War Cloud. Thorpe and his charge would walk to the ring together, wearing full headdresses.

She had a public relations job with the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League for him.

“I’m determined to put Jim back in the spotlight and too bad if I haven’t,” Patsy wrote to her husband’s eldest daughter, a 30-something she had never met in person. “But I work on it around the clock. I’ve literally kicked down doors all over the country, and Jim Thorpe will now be the biggest thing in sports. Of course you know how lazy he is. I have to blast it and ride it constantly. ”

But oral cancer has pretty much put the kibosh on Patsy’s Million-a-Million campaign. Although there were several campaigns to raise money for the Thorpes, including those organized by the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Green Bay Packers, it’s hard to say how much money actually reached the Thorpes. And Thorpe’s sons argued that whatever happened to them, well, Patsy was probably spending it on herself.

Anyway, within months the Thorpes were living in a trailer park in Lomita, California, near Los Angeles. During a late lunch on March 28, 1953, Jim Thorpe collapsed. It was his third and final heart attack.

Just as New York Yankees great Don Mattingly once admitted he was in the big leagues before realizing that Babe Ruth was a historical figure and not a Paul Bunyan myth, most of us probably have a sketchy idea of ​​Thorpe. He was a real man, a great athlete who won two gold medals in athletics at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics (only to have them taken away from him a year later because he had played a few seasons of semi-professional baseball ), twice won American honors as a college football star, played six seasons in Major League Baseball, helped launch the National Football League, and was promoted as a professional basketball player.

He was also an alcoholic, a tragic embodiment of the “drunken Indian” stereotype. It is easy for us to reduce his story to a few simple lines. All we have to do is watch Burt Lancaster as Thorpe in the 1951 film “Jim Thorpe: All American.”

So veteran Washington Post reporter David Maraniss has done a great service with his detailed, lucid, and sometimes impenetrably sad biography, “Path Lit By Lightning,” which takes its title from a translation of Thorpe’s Sac and Fox’s name. Wa-Tho Nation. -Huk.

Maraniss adheres to the conventional assumption that Thorpe was largely a victim – chronically patronized, exploited and misused by people and powers he trusted – but resists the temptation to infantilize Thorpe as a simpleton without agency. This Thorpe is a proud and taciturn man, whose reluctance to speak for himself has no doubt complicated his life as well as the work of his biographer.

Thorpe did not speak or write too much; the only way to try to get to know him is to look at what his friends, associates and family have said about him.

That’s not to say “Path Lit By Lightning” isn’t a valuable corrective to the mythos surrounding Thorpe – the Pop Warner portrayed here is a moral coward and a liar, not a benevolent father figure – only that even after having him read, Thorpe remains an enigma. Because that’s how some people are.

Thorpe always wanted to be buried in Oklahoma, but the day before a traditional Sac and Fox burial ceremony, at a tribal feast held to honor Thorpe’s life and legacy, Patsy s rushed with a hearse and several policemen to carry away the coffin. They took it back to Los Angeles, where a screening took place.

The body was not buried. Patsy was looking for a suitable place for her husband’s remains. Maybe she was looking for the highest bidder?

Thorpe’s remains ended up in a memorial park in a small town in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, a place where Thorpe probably never set foot. Two small towns looking for a way to attract tourists agreed to merge and rename themselves Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and build a memorial park.

Maraniss, responsible reporter that he is, does not report what has often been rumored: that Patsy also received $500 in cash under the table.

E-mail: [email protected]

About Herbert L. Leonard

Check Also

Sharing Library Books I’m Very Thankful For | Local

As a book lover, I have a very long list of favorites. I still have …