James Wol­cott

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - by Dave Zirin

Jim Brown: Last Man Stand­ing

Jim Brown:

Last Man Stand­ing by Dave Zirin.

Blue Rider, 320 pp., $27.00

James Wol­cott

Un­bend­able, un­break­able, and on the play­ing field un­beat­able, the foot­ball great Jim Brown once loomed as the stan­dard against which other men were mea­sured and found lack­ing. In a Sports Il­lus­trated pro­file in 2015, Tim Lay­den con­veyed the majesty of Brown’s dom­i­nance of the NFL as a full­back for the Cleve­land Browns: “Brown tow­ered over the league, a phys­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual force like none other in Amer­i­can sports his­tory.” At his most ex­alted Brown was chris­tened the “Black Su­per­man,” his pow­ers far be­yond those of mor­tal be­ings. (His ill-fated friend Richard Pryor joked in one stand-up set that fire was afraid of Jim Brown, im­i­tat­ing Brown brush­ing off flames as if they were an­noy­ing dan­druff.) Even now, at the age of eighty-two, re­liant on a cane, Brown projects a force of per­son­al­ity, charisma, and deep-down pur­pose that can sub­due any room he en­ters; he re­mains some­body you wouldn’t want to tri­fle with.

The ti­tle of Dave Zirin’s Jim Brown: Last Man Stand­ing strikes a chord of vale­dic­tory trib­ute to a bronze idol em­body­ing an era and an ethos soon to pass into his­tory and gla­di­a­tor lore. It’s partly that—how could it not be?— but Last Man Stand­ing is not some jock aria or nos­tal­gia trip. A fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The Na­tion whose pre­vi­ous books in­clude What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Re­sis­tance in the United States and Wel­come to the Ter­ror­dome: The Pain, Pol­i­tics, and Prom­ise of Sports, Zirin isn’t that kind of jour­nal­ist. He uti­lizes a larger an­a­lyt­i­cal tool­kit. An NFL hall of famer, Hol­ly­wood star, and rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, Brown rep­re­sents a black pil­lar of life­long achieve­ment who has al­ways cleaved to his con­vic­tions, but he’s also a ques­tion­able fig­ure who’s never had to face the mu­sic, and by mu­sic I mean a #MeToo reck­on­ing. Zirin wants to has­ten the reck­on­ing be­fore Brown runs out the clock.

To do so re­quires go­ing over a lot of fa­mil­iar turf, estab­lish­ing the po­lit­i­cal­his­tor­i­cal-racial back­ground, and all that. The blood, sweat, and dirt of the Jim Brown saga has been told be­fore in other bi­ogra­phies, Brown’s own au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Out of Bounds (1989), foot­ball chron­i­cles, and video doc­u­men­taries— the most provoca­tive be­ing Spike Lee’s Jim Brown: All-Amer­i­can (2002)—but prodi­gious ex­ploits lose lit­tle in the retelling. (As the ever-ex­pand­ing shelf of ti­tles de­voted to Muham­mad Ali at­tests.)

In Brown, all of the con­stituent parts of ath­letic prow­ess—not only strength but speed, agility, men­tal pre­pared­ness—were welded to­gether into a phe­nom­e­non who dom­i­nated not one but two sports, while also ex­celling in bas­ket­ball and track and field. As a lacrosse star at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­sity, Brown wielded his stick with Kendo mas­ter skill as he pow­ered to the net, the op­pos­ing play­ers fu­tilely bounc­ing off his jug­ger­naut thighs like elves. “Brown was big­ger, faster, and stronger than any­one the sport of lacrosse had ever seen by a lu­di­crous mar­gin,” Zirin writes. But lacrosse was not a sport to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of a na­tion. Foot­ball was. A run­ning back and place-kicker for Syra­cuse, Brown dom­i­nated and elec­tri­fied. He scored an as­tound­ing six touch­downs in a game against Col­gate, and made Al­lAmer­i­can. Even that col­lege pre­lude didn’t pre­pare fans for the ramp-up once he turned pro.

As a run­ning back for the Cleve­land Browns for nine sea­sons be­gin­ning in 1957, he tore through de­fen­sive lines like an ar­mored car, lead­ing the league in rush­ing eight sea­sons out of nine, av­er­ag­ing over 100 rush­ing yards a game, scor­ing 106 touch­downs over the course of his ca­reer, send­ing de­fen­sive line­men to the brink of de­spair. (“When Detroit Lions tackle Alex Kar­ras was asked how to stop Brown, he said, ‘Give each guy in the line an ax.’”) His war­rior fe­roc­ity be­tween the lines was com­ple­mented by a cool pro­fes­sional de­meanor out of uni­form. He car­ried a brief­case, wore suits on the road, men­tored his team­mates to think and act like busi­ness­men and look af­ter their fi­nances. He was, to use the phrase im­mor­tal­ized by base­ball’s Reg­gie Jack­son, the straw that stirred the drink.

And then in 1966, at the top of his game, to the shock of the sports world and the lamen­ta­tion of fans, Brown quit pro foot­ball. He had been cast in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen as one of the hard-ass in­cor­ri­gi­bles and bug-eyed cra­zies re­cruited for a sui­cide mis­sion. (Brown had made one pre­vi­ous film, the west­ern Rio Con­chos, and had got­ten a han­ker­ing to be the black John Wayne.) With the pro­duc­tion of The Dirty Dozen be­hind sched­ule in Bri­tain and the next NFL sea­son fast ap­proach­ing, Browns owner Art Modell made the mis­take of turn­ing an owner–player dis­pute into a pub­lic test of Brown’s man­hood. Modell or­dered Brown to re­port to train­ing camp on the set date or re­ceive sus­pen­sion with­out pay and a $100 a day fine. “Ev­ery­thing comes back to his man­hood,” says for­mer sports colum­nist Robert Lip­syte, who was re­port­ing on the film­ing of The Dirty Dozen at the time. And Brown’s man­hood was never go­ing to fold up and go home. He an­nounced his re­tire­ment at a press con­fer­ence, wear­ing his char­ac­ter’s mil­i­tary fa­tigues and stand­ing in front of a pair of army tanks. No flow­ery sen­ti­ment, no lofty rhetoric: it’s been great, good-bye. This clean break echoed like a thun­der­clap across the At­lantic.

When The Dirty Dozen proved to be a stam­ped­ing suc­cess, one of those 1960s guy’s-guy films like The Great Es­cape and The Mag­nif­i­cent Seven that ven­er­ate team­work, in­ge­nu­ity, un­der­dog bravado, and vi­o­lent mo­tion with none of that mushy stuff, Brown tran­si­tioned from all-star to ac­tion hero as if step­ping out of the locker room straight into the wardrobe de­part­ment. He joined the parka crew of Ice Sta­tion Ze­bra, led a heist of a foot­ball sta­dium in The Split, played a sher­iff in the South in the now cult clas­sic ...tick... tick...tick... , costarred with Raquel

Welch in 100 Ri­fles, a lust-in-the-dust west­ern in which their equally fa­mous chests bat­tled for cam­era supremacy, and starred in a hand­ful of blax­ploita­tion films with high body counts. Although the range of emo­tion Brown dis­played on screen was no wider than a mail slot, he never em­bar­rassed him­self, never played to a de­mean­ing stereo­type or the comic patsy (as O. J. Simp­son would later do in the Naked Gun series). He was a rugged chas­sis for a more self-as­sertive fig­ure: the black uber­man who could out­fight and out­fuck any pasty punk in his path. Where Sid­ney Poitier and Harry Be­la­fonte epit­o­mized class, el­e­gance, and ebul­lience, Brown was more of a door buster and body slam­mer whose pro­tag­o­nists, dodg­ing muz­zle blasts and mob­ster beat­downs, placed a low pre­mium on shiny-enam­eled elo­cu­tion and dap­per body lan­guage.

As lovers, Brown’s men were often brusque tak­ers, ex­cit­ing the dan­ger zones of women—“Women are afraid of him but they’re at­tracted to him at the same time,” the pro­ducer Robert Chartoff said of Brown’s sex ap­peal, adding, “He sat­is­fies women’s masochis­tic need”1—and in­cit­ing the envy of white men. He was even of­fered the starring role in Mandingo, the ul­ti­mate black stal­lion pulp fan­tasy, but wisely de­clined, spar­ing him­self con­sid­er­able

1Nei­ther masochis­tic nor needy, Raquel Welch doesn’t fondly re­call the sen­sa­tion of Brown slip­ping his tongue in her ear dur­ing their first sex scene in 100 Ri­fles. “I’m get­ting a squeegee on the side of my face .... I thought, ‘What is this crap!’” per­sonal in­dig­nity and James Ma­son’s atro­cious south­ern ac­cent. Be­sides, Jim Brown didn’t need to play Mandingo to so­lid­ify his totemic stature.

His off­screen cocks­man­ship more than took care of that. Brown pre­ferred his women pe­tite, young, and peachy. “When I eat a peach I don’t want it over­ripe,” he spec­i­fied in Out of Bounds, and he helped him­self to a lot of peaches. Yet the man wasn’t self­ish; Brown’s home in the Hol­ly­wood Hills be­came a happy hunt­ing ground for he­do­nists where he hosted what he called “Cre­ative Or­gies,” swinger af­fairs that were pre­sum­ably a cu­rated up­grade from the av­er­age heap of Hol­ly­wood hus­tlers and play­mates. The se­cret spice for these soirees, Brown re­vealed in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, was women who ap­peared whole­some, sweet, and coolly proper and who, prop­erly stim­u­lated, went freaky-deaky. Per­haps fun was had by all at these rum­bas, but they have en­tered the an­nals of leg­end mostly as a show­case for Brown’s stay­ing power and busy turnover. “Just be­tween you, me, and the tabloids,” Brown bragged in Out of Bounds, “I’ve had up to eight girls in my room, maybe four on my couch and four on my bed. I might have sex in one night with four or five of them. But only if Jim Ju­nior was feel­ing ex­cep­tional.”

Along with Jim Ju­nior al­ways at the ready, Brown had an­other Jim in his life then, the jour­nal­ist and fu­ture screen­writer-di­rec­tor James To­back, whose 1971 mem­oir Jim: The Au­thor’s Self-Cen­tered Mem­oir on the Great Jim Brown of­fered an in­sight­ful, en­ter­tain­ing, ef­fu­sive in­side por­trait of Brown’s life made pos­si­ble by un­prece­dented ac­cess and largesse. A friend and pro­tégé of Nor­man Mailer who had re­ported from the set of Mailer’s Maid­stone for Esquire in 1968, To­back—whom, I should men­tion, I’ve known and been friendly with since the 1970s,2 when we met through the movie critic Pauline Kael—had been as­signed to pro­file Brown for the mag­a­zine. The pro­file was a non­starter but a bro­mance was born and Brown in­vited “Toe,” as he nick­named him, to crash at his Hol­ly­wood Hills pad. Which Toe did. For months.

It was like some­thing out of a Les­lie Fiedler es­say, this ar­che­typal bond be­tween Jewish and black soul broth­ers. The two Jims played ten­nis, shot hoops, cruised a hop­ping night spot called the Candy Store (“War­ren Beatty, sit­ting with twins in iden­ti­cal dresses, jumps up to shake hands and say hello”), and par­tied to­gether at Brown’s pad—an un­fold­ing sex­ual odyssey of boo­gie nights blur­ring into one epic satin reverie. In the scene that ev­ery­one who has read Jim has em­bed­ded in mem­ory, no mat­ter how hard they’ve tried to re­move it, To­back and Brown shared the same bed for a romp session with their re­spec­tive part­ners of the evening—a mé­nage à qua­tre—where­upon, tak­ing par­tic­i­pa­tory jour­nal­ism to a new thresh­old of ex­cite­ment,

2Toback has also achieved in­famy as one of the worst al­leged #MeToo male­fac­tors, ac­cused of se­rial sex­ual ha­rass­ment and threat­en­ing be­hav­ior by hun­dreds of women, in­clud­ing ac­tors Rachel McA­dams, Selma Blair, and Ju­lianne Moore. To date, no crim­i­nal charges have been filed and To­back is no longer un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for sex crimes in Los An­ge­les.

To­back paced the rhythm of his thrusts to Brown’s, trad­ing hip so­los and achiev­ing a bar­rier-dis­solv­ing one­ness on the bounc­ing boxsprings: “Black and white, fe­male, male,” a beau­ti­ful choco­late-vanilla swirl.

Even this harem phase of Brown’s life wasn’t one of idle dis­si­pa­tion. By day he was still fully en­gaged in the po­lit­i­cal fight. Dis­ci­pline un­der­girds ev­ery­thing he does, and his ded­i­ca­tion to so­cial ac­tivism and black self-de­ter­mi­na­tion is the steel cable through-line that dis­tin­guishes him from many sports stars. It has its source in a show­down that taught Brown a har­row­ing les­son that per­ma­nently stuck. While in col­lege, Brown was trav­el­ing in a car with Syra­cuse team­mates through the South where he was pulled over by a cop who emerged from his ve­hi­cle gun drawn. “Get out, nig­gers!” he or­dered. An­other po­lice unit pulled up. The sit­u­a­tion es­ca­lated through no provo­ca­tion of Brown’s un­til he found him­self with a gun jammed in his gut by a cop only too happy to squeeze the trig­ger. Only when the sec­ond cop said he rec­og­nized Brown as a foot­ball star did the first cop re­tract his weapon, warn­ing Brown that he “bet­ter learn how to act down here, nig­ger!”

The in­ci­dent shook Brown. “You don’t for­get a thing like that,” he told Alex Ha­ley, “not if some­body handed you ev­ery tro­phy in foot­ball and fif­teen Academy Awards.” The spe­cial treat­ment ac­corded a black celebrity is no mag­netic shield. It can dis­solve in a sin­gle mo­ment of non­recog­ni­tion from some trig­ger-happy bigot. “We don’t want to have to be some­body spe­cial to be treated with re­spect,” Brown said. In 1967, Brown or­ga­nized what has come to be called “the Ali Sum­mit,” a meet­ing of some of the top AfricanAmer­i­can ath­letes—in­clud­ing bas­ket­ball stars Bill Rus­sell and Lew Al­cin­dor (later Kareem Ab­dul-Jab­bar)—in a demon­stra­tion of sol­i­dar­ity for Muham­mad Ali, who had been stripped of his box­ing ti­tle, vil­i­fied in the press, and was fac­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of prison for his re­fusal to be drafted for the Viet­nam War. The sum­mit was con­vened in the of­fices of the Ne­gro In­dus­trial Eco­nomic Union, founded by Brown to fos­ter and fund black busi­ness en­ter­prise. It proved a land­mark event. The pho­to­graph of Rus­sell, Ali, Brown, and Al­cin­dor seated at a ta­ble to­gether pre­sent­ing a united front for the press put the coun­try on no­tice that the day of the go-along, get-along black ath­lete was done.

Then as now, Brown dis­dains and chas­tises su­per­star ath­letes who use fame and wealth as a moat, crit­i­ciz­ing Michael Jor­dan and Tiger Woods at their celebrity peak for not do­ing enough for the com­mu­nity and be­ing more con­cerned with their brands. In 1988, Brown founded Amer-ICan, a pro­gram to fos­ter self-es­teem and achieve self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, which sounds like a ton of Tony Rob­bins hooey, ex­cept that as Amer-I-Can’s point man and gruff am­bas­sador, Brown has used his cred and clout to ad­min­is­ter tough love to gang mem­bers and bro­ker truces be­tween ri­val out­fits. He put him­self out there and showed what true mas­culin­ity is made of, pre­vent­ing car­nage, set­ting in­di­vid­ual lives straight. As Zirin in­di­cates, Brown’s my-way-or-the-high­way lead­er­ship hin­dered Amer-I-Can from be­com­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tional force it might have been, but a for­ti­fied, bat­tle­worn ego like Brown’s isn’t easy to mod­u­late, es­pe­cially as one gets older, crankier, more dug-in.

Brown is so dug-in to­day that he’s be­ing swamped by prob­lems long­brew­ing. Karma has caught up with him. As with Bill Cosby, the good that Brown has done, the ac­com­plish­ments he’s racked up for over half a cen­tury, have be­come tainted items. Even Black Su­per­man can’t con­trol the for­ma­tion of opin­ion or the dish­wa­ter churn of so­cial me­dia. A head­line on the web­site Dead­spin put it starkly: “Jim Brown Did Great Things; He Also Beat Women.” Brown has a lengthy rap sheet of al­leged vi­o­lence against women that reaches back to 1965. The in­ci­dents in­clude a charge of as­sault and bat­tery per­pe­trated against an eigh­teen-yearold in a Howard John­son mo­tel (he was found not guilty); a bat­tery charge, later dropped, for al­legedly fling­ing two women down a flight of stairs for re­fus­ing to per­form a sex act to­gether; charges of rape and as­sault in­volv­ing a woman liv­ing in his home, dis­missed by the judge be­cause of in­con­sis­tent tes­ti­mony; and most in­fa­mously, the twen­ty­foot fall from the bal­cony of Brown’s sec­ond-floor ho­tel room of girl­friend and model Eva Bohn-Chin, who was found sprawled, bleed­ing, and dazed on the con­crete. Brown was charged with as­sault with in­tent to com­mit mur­der, but the case was dropped af­ter Bohn-Chin told au­thor­i­ties she wasn’t pushed or thrown but had slipped and tum­bled—a pretty fishy ex­pla­na­tion but with­out her co­op­er­a­tion there was noth­ing to hang on Brown ex­cept re­sist­ing ar­rest, for which he was fined a fee­ble $300. (Years later Bohn-Chin’s ac­count of that evening in Spike Lee’s doc­u­men­tary con­tra­dicts Brown’s ver­sion, but her speech is so stop-start and el­lip­ti­cal that it’s hard to get clar­ity on the par­tic­u­lars.)

Brown and his de­fend­ers con­tend that de­spite the litany of ac­cu­sa­tions and charges, he’s never been con­victed of any crime against women and only done time once—when he chose to serve a six-month sen­tence rather than un­dergo coun­sel­ing and per­form com­mu­nity ser­vice for van­dal­iz­ing his wife’s car dur­ing a do­mes­tic dis­pute. Brown also not im­plau­si­bly claims that he was the tar­get of an LAPD cam­paign to nail him be­cause of his bold po­lit­i­cal pro­file—such as his friend­ship with Black Pan­ther founder Huey New­ton (“He was my fa­vorite Pan­ther”)—and the re­sist­ing-ar­rest in­ci­dent.

The last recorded log en­try on Brown’s al­ter­ca­tions with women dates back to 1999. (He and his wife Monique have been mar­ried since 1997.) Brown has ac­knowl­edged and ex­pressed re­gret over slap­ping women in the past in the heat of ar­gu­ment, but don’t ex­pect him to break down and give us what used to be called a “Bar­bara Walters mo­ment,” an emo­tion-choked con­fes­sion ac­com­pa­nied by con­tri­tion. He in­tends to hang tough un­til the fi­nal bell. “The last thing I’m go­ing to give up is my man­hood,” he tells Zirin. “Brown has as­serted his fierce sense of man­hood as a prin­ci­ple of eman­ci­pa­tion,” writes Zirin.

But the his­tory of ac­cu­sa­tions of vi­o­lence against women levied against him has scarred his legacy .... It has pre­vented him from achiev­ing the kind of main­stream adu­la­tion be­stowed on con­tem­po­raries like Ali and [Bill] Rus­sell. Barack Obama—who as pres­i­dent took a par­tic­u­lar joy from his reg­u­lar in­ter­ac­tion with black sports heroes of yes­ter­year—never di­a­logued with Jim Brown. Don­ald Trump, how­ever, rolled out the red car­pet.

And Brown ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion, re­ceiv­ing a cho­rus of cat­calls from for­mer ad­mir­ers and ap­palled by­standers. Not that he cares. Po­lit­i­cally, Brown has al­ways gone his own way, shrug­ging off crit­i­cism as just an­other species of crowd noise. Along with the soul singer James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr., he was one of the most prom­i­nent black sup­port­ers of Richard Nixon’s 1968 pres­i­den­tial bid (in part be­cause of Nixon’s seem­ing em­brace of “black cap­i­tal­ism” ini­tia­tives), not a pop­u­lar move.

Trump is far taw­drier com­pany. Two of his most prom­i­nent AfricanAmer­i­can sup­port­ers dur­ing the cam­paign were for­mer heavy­weight cham­pion Mike Tyson, a con­victed rapist, and box­ing pro­moter Don King, a con­victed mur­derer (re­duced by the judge to man­slaugh­ter)—not ex­actly an el­e­va­tor car you want to squeeze into. And then there’s Trump him­self, a tod­dling re­pos­i­tory of loutish­ness with women, with whom no one as­so­ciates with­out walk­ing away soiled. “What the Hell Hap­pened to Jim Brown?” was the vex­ing ques­tion Stephen A. Crock­ett Jr. raised at the web­site The Root, rue­ing that “Brown has never been one to bow down to any­one, so it’s be­yond weird to watch the man my fa­ther lauded al­most as much as he did Ali cower and soft-shoe his way around Trump when he used to run over peo­ple just like him.” Per­haps it’s be­cause Brown feels an affin­ity for a creaky steam­roller who re­fuses to apol­o­gize for his be­hav­ior and has got­ten away with it. Or per­haps Trump stroked his van­ity where it was most sus­cep­ti­ble to cheap flat­tery, the only kind Trump dis­penses. In­fat­u­a­tions are often hard to de­ci­pher.

Jim

Brown: Last Man Stand­ing closes on an un­sat­is­fac­tory note. More than one un­sat­is­fac­tory note, ac­tu­ally—an awk­ward strad­dle be­tween hope and cyn­i­cism that’s at­trib­ut­able to the fact that Zirin doesn’t have a fit end­ing to the story as long as Brown re­mains stand­ing. Un­able to com­pose a con­clu­sive epi­taph, Zirin po­si­tions Brown as the fore­run­ner to a fresh gen­er­a­tion of black fe­male protestors who

are now car­ry­ing the torch of Jim Brown’s life­long fight against in­jus­tice with a flair and de­ter­mi­na­tion that is in­spir­ing peo­ple across the coun­try . . . . They are tak­ing the best of the tra­di­tion of self-as­ser­tion in the face of racism, mak­ing it their own, and dis­card­ing the rest. That knowl­edge should com­fort Jim Brown.

I doubt Jim Brown seeks com­fort and doubt too that these young black fe­male ac­tivists have Jim Brown lodged high in their po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness. It’s as if Zirin is re­leas­ing a flock of doves in the last chap­ter in the name of har­mony, an au­thor’s equiv­a­lent to a Hail Mary pass.

But then fol­lows an af­ter­word where Zirin sud­denly drops this line, for­sak­ing the big pic­ture and pre­sum­ing to chan­nel Brown’s thought pro­cesses, a du­bi­ous de­vice he uses for chap­ter in­tro­duc­tions through­out the book that orig­i­nated with the old-school sports­writer Jimmy Can­non, who would kick off a col­umn, “You’re Mickey Man­tle. You’re a bub­blegum kid in a chew-to­bacco league...” “You are Jim Brown and it has been a hell of a year,” and so it has: pre­sent­ing the cham­pi­onship ti­tle to Lebron James af­ter the Cleve­land Cava­liers slay “the curse of Cleve­land,” hav­ing a statue erected in front of Browns Sta­dium, be­com­ing the go-to guy to in­ter­pret Muham­mad Ali’s legacy af­ter Ali’s pass­ing. One long In­dian sum­mer of toasty ap­pre­ci­a­tion. Then: “The phone rings. It’s Don­ald Trump. You have met him over the years at var­i­ous golf and char­ity events. He wants you by his side as he pre­pares for his pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tion. He doesn’t care about any of the past fe­male bull­shit.” Brown re­sponds to the devil’s call and thereby for­feits all the warm fuzzies the fu­ture had in store:

The ar­rows are com­ing at you, just like in the 1950s, ex­cept this time

Muham­mad Ali and Jim Brown on the set of The Dirty Dozen, 1966

Jim Brown, 1983

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