Biographies & Memoirs



SOMETIMES IN LIFE you meet someone whose soul seems in tune with your own. Almost from the moment I met Bill Nack at Illinois, we were leaning over our coffee cups in the basement of the student union and exchanging earnest opinions about life and literature. Fifty years have passed since that day and there have been many more conversations, but at this moment I have no idea of his politics and couldn’t tell you if he believes in God. When we get together we’re like two old stamp collectors, but instead of discussing the Penny Black we discuss Nabokov.

Bill loves good writing with a voluptuous intensity. He commits great chunks of it to memory and isn’t shy about reciting it. His own prose is elegant and pure, some of the best sportswriting ever created. Like all great sportswriters, he isn’t really writing about sports but about athletes—which is to say, men and women, and horses. He has a mesmerizing effect on his listeners. He doesn’t monopolize a conversation; he listens well, but when he speaks people want to listen. Mike Royko was like that. You always wanted a tape recorder.

Nack was sports editor of the Daily Illini the year I was editor. He was the editor the next year. He married Mary Scott, an Urbana girl I dated in high school. I’d never made it to first base. By the time we met, I think he may have been able to slide into second and was taking a risky lead and keeping an eye on the pitcher. We had a lot of fun on the Daily Illini. It was in the days before ripping stuff off the Web. He insisted on running stories about every major horse race. We had only one photo of a horse, and used it for every winner. If it was a filly, we flipped it. Of this as his editor I approved.

After college, Nack went to Vietnam and ended up writing news releases for Westmoreland’s staff. Then he got a job at Newsday. On Long Island, he and Mary raised three girls and a boy. One year at the paper’s holiday party he stood up on a desk and recited the names and years of every single winner of the Kentucky Derby. Dave Laventhol, the editor, asked him, “Why do you know that?” Bill said he’d been studying it since he was a kid and loved the racetrack. Laventhol said if he wanted to be the paper’s turf writer, he should write a memo. Nack wrote to him: “After covering politicians for four years, I would like the chance to cover the whole horse.”

From Newsday Bill moved to Sports Illustrated and came into full flower. He wasn’t the kind of writer who covered a particular beat. He was a great prose stylist. At a signing for his book My Turf, he read a story and made a woman cry. Then he read another story and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. One was about the death of Secretariat. The other was about a filly breaking down and being destroyed on the track. He wrote long articles I could only envy, because I’ve spent my career writing shorter pieces on deadline.

Bill was part of the story of Secretariat from before the great horse was born, or maybe a few days later, I forget the details. Discovering the greatest horse in history became the central event in his professional life, as seeing Scorsese’s first film became mine. Bill saw the stallion for the last time very shortly before his death. “After the autopsy, the vet said he had a heart twice as big as the average horse,” Bill told me. “There was nothing wrong with it. It was simply a great heart.” He wrote about this in the best seller Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, which was made into a movie.

Bill was the writer who exposed the scandal of how owners and vets conspired to use cortisone in order to race horses who were not ready to be raced. “I started seeing horses breaking down all the time,” he said. “You hardly ever used to see that.” No one at the tracks would give him the time of day for a couple of years. It was a rotten business.

Our friendship has endured despite the inescapable fact that I don’t care very much about horse racing and Bill doesn’t seem to go to many movies. Our bond is reading, and our subject is often not far removed from the Meaning of It All. We are puzzled that we are now nearly seventy. How did that happen? Our conversations all take place in the present tense. We are always meeting for the first time. When you’re young you don’t realize that at every age you are always in the present, and in that sense no older; when I look at Bill I see the same man I met at Illinois. He’s one of the lucky ones whose lifelong work didn’t change him but only confirmed the person he was all along.

One night in Chicago he asked me to drive him past the Old Town Gardens, an apartment complex built in the 1930s where he lived as a boy with his family. I parked, he got out and walked up the front steps and then stepped out carefully onto a ledge and reached for something as far as he could. He climbed down and returned to the car.

“It’s still there,” he said.


“A quarter I wedged between the bricks when I was a kid. That was my bedroom window. I left it there.”

We didn’t need to discuss the meaning of this. We send messages to ourselves in the future and receive them from the past. We’re both conscious of the passage of time, of its flow slipping through our fingers like a long silk scarf, until it runs out and flutters away in the wind. Every time I see Bill, I asked him to recite for me from memory the closing words of The Great Gatsby, and every time he does. He did it when Chaz and I were married, and at his own second marriage to Carolyne Starek, whom I love for many reasons, one of them that she has an infinite patience for listening to Gatsby. This recitation is not merely a ritual. It is an observance in defiance of time. In some way we are still sitting over coffee in the 1960s, and he is still reciting it to me for the first time.

“I was talking with Jim Carey today,” he told me that first time. Carey was the young journalism professor we admired. “I told him I was going to start memorizing passages from books. He asked me what I was going to start with. I said, ‘The end of Gatsby.’ He said he thought that was an excellent place to start.”

Bill told me his friend Hunter S. Thompson once warmed up by copying out every word of The Great Gatsby on his typewriter. Not that you can immediately see Fitzgerald’s influence in Hunter’s style, although perhaps Fitzgerald’s words “compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired” is the best possible description of Thompson’s life’s work.

Bill and I conspired to meet a couple of times a year, at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder and at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. I appointed myself as Bill’s impresario. I persuaded Rancho to schedule a program titled “A Concert in Words with William Nack.” The room was pretty full, because I’d been working the dining room at mealtimes, flogging the great event. Bill dimmed the lights a little and recited for an hour, standing in front of the lectern without a book.

Bill devours books. When he finds something good he’s like a kid. Of all writers he loves Nabokov the most. He’ll give you the opening page of Lolita or passages from Speak, Memory. “There’s something I want you to hear,” he told me one morning during a hike at Rancho. “It’s from Nabokov’s Pnin. Have you read it? About a university professor. I think this might be the most profound metaphor I’ve ever found.”

It may not seem to belong in a book of this sort, but it expresses a leap of thought that I find magnificent:

With the help of the janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener—that highly satisfying, highly philosophical instrument that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.

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