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Thursday 31 May 2012

The Greatest Typewriting Athlete Ever: Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Two months out from the start of the 2012 London Olympic Games, it seems timely to salute a champion speed typist who ranks up there with Jim Thorpe as one of the world’s greatest all-round sportspersons. Eighty years ago, in 1932, Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias won three Olympic Games medals, two of them gold, at the first Los Angeles Olympics.
Babe Zaharias was unquestionably the finest female athlete of all time. She is ranked as one of the greatest golfers in history, was a multi-Olympic Games track champion and world record holder, an All-American basketballer and a star baseballer. She also played softball, tennis and pocket billiards (pool), shot, boxed, wrestled and rowed, and was a diver,  swimmer, roller-skater and a tenpin bowler.
On top of all that, Zaharias was also a gold medallist typist!
So adept was Zaharias at a typewriter from an early age that, in 1925, at just 14, he wrote 42,000 words of an early autobiography, The Story of My Life.
This episode exposes two very telling things about Babe Zaharias.
First, typing a life story of 42,000 words was first and foremost her high school typing practice. Zaharias’s philosophies in life and in sport were expressed in these quotations: “The formula for success is simple: practice and concentration then more practice and more concentration”, “The more you practice, the better. But in any case, practice more than you play” and “Practice, which some regard as a chore, should be approached as just about the most pleasant recreation ever devised ...”
Second, by managing to get 42,000 words out of a then 14-year-old life, Zaharias showed she was already the supreme egoist, a sporting self-promoter long before Muhammad Ali, the Louisiana Lip. By comparison, Zaharias was the Beaumont Bugle, the Texas Trumpet. She famously said of herself: “I am out to beat everybody in sight, and that is just what I'm going to do”, “You know when there's a star, like in show business, the star has her name in lights on the marquee! Right? And the star gets the money because the people come to see the star, right? Well, I'm the star, and all of you are in the chorus.” And, best of all, “The Babe is here. Who's coming in second?”
80 metres hurdles final, Los Angeles Olympic Games, 1932. Babe is on the right.
Long before she had reached Los Angeles by rail for the 1932 Olympic Games, Zaharias’s boasting about her capabilities had offended every one of the US teammates travelling with her. The thing is, though, Zaharias, like Ali later, was as good as her word. She once said, “Before I was in my teens, I knew exactly what I wanted to be: I wanted to be the best athlete who ever lived.” She turned out to be exactly that.
In her 1955 autobiography, This Life I’ve Led, Zaharias recalled, “[In February 1930] Colonel McCombs asked me what kind of office work I could do. I told him I knew typing and shorthand. I'd taken that in [Beaumont, Texas] high school.
"I wanted to be an athlete, but I didn't suppose then that I could make a living out of it, except maybe in physical education. I thought I might wind up being a secretary.
“I won a gold medal in school for hitting the best speed on the typewriter. I think it was 86 words a minute.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Melvorne Jackson McCombs, generally known as “Colonel M.J.McCombs”, was born in Austin City, Texas, on February 20, 1887. He worked for the Employers’ Casualty Insurance Company in Dallas and was manager of the company’s women’s basketball team, the Golden Cyclones. The company gave Zaharias her first job, as a secretary-stenographer on $75 a month, of which she sent $45 back home and spent $5 on accommodation. It was McCombs who recruited Zaharias from Beaumont and introduced her to top-line sport, including track and field. McCombs died in Ohio on July 28, 1945.
In 1932, McCombs entered Zaharias as a single-person team in the Amateur Athletic Union national championships and Olympic Games trials in Chicago, setting her up to emulate Thorpe from 20 years earlier. Zaharias competed in eight of 10 events, won five and tied for first in a sixth, setting five world records, in the javelin throw, 80 metres hurdles, high jump and baseball throw, in a single afternoon. She won the team’s title on her own.
After winning two golds at the LA Olympics (hurdles and javelin), as well as a silver (high jump, having been barred from the gold medal jump-off because her head crossed the bar ahead of her torso, as seen above), Zaharias was disqualified from amateur athletics for endorsing a car. She went on the vaudeville circuit, travelling with Babe Didrikson's All-Americans basketball team and as the one female, unbearded member of the House of David baseball team.
She took up golf in 1935 and soon began to revolutionise the women’s game. "Hildegarde, it's not enough just to swing at the ball," she once told a female singer. "You've got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it."
In January 1938 Zaharias competed in the Los Angeles Open, a men's PGA tournament, a feat no other woman would try until Annika Sörenstam, Suzy Whaley, and Michelle Wie almost 60 years later. Zaharias later became the first and only woman to make the cut in a regular PGA Tour event, but was prevented from playing in the US Open. She won back her amateur status and in 1947 became the first American to win the British ladies amateur championship.
She won 17 straight amateur titles, a feat since unequalled.  After becoming a pioneer on the women’s professional circuit, and before colon cancer started to overtake her life in 1953, Zaharias won a total of 79 golf tournaments. She added one more with her last major, the US Women's Open, one month after the cancer surgery and while wearing a colostomy bag, and two more titles for 82 career victories all up, half of them on the LPGA Tour, including 10 majors.
A powerful 5ft 5in tall natural athlete, Zaharias was not without her enemies. New York World-Telegram sportswriter Joe Williams wrote, “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.” On the other hand, the great Grantland Rice, who covered her exploits at the 1932 LA Olympics, wrote, “She is beyond all belief until you see her perform ... Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen.”
With husband George Zaharias 
With very close friend Betty Dodd 

She could also dance, sing and play a harmonica with professional skill.
Mildred Didrikson was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on June 26, 1911.  In 1938 she married wrestler George Zaharias, the "Crying Greek from Cripple Creek". She died on September 27, 1956, at the John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas, aged a mere 45.

With pool champion Ruth McGinnis 
With Jack Kelly, Grace's father
With the "other" Babe! 
With Bing Crosby and Bob Hope 
With President Eisenhower
Packing to go back to hospital 

Tuesday 29 May 2012

White Birthday, Wrong Typewriter

Everyone was discreet enough not to mention it. It was, after all, the late Australian Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White’s 100th birthday. And it was being celebrated in the august surrounds of the National Library of Australia, in Canberra. But if the  notoriously curmudgeonly writer had been around, he’d have been outraged.
After all, given it was there, people might quite reasonably have assumed it was a Patrick White typewriter!
There, on a mock-up of White’s writing desk, beside a large 100th birthday cake decorated with a pair of black-rimmed spectacles, was a Remington Super-Riter office typewriter, the so-called “Superman” typewriter.
White, of course, never used such a thing. The typewriter he did use late in life, a Czechoslovakian-made Optima portable, is already ensconced in a Patrick White exhibition at the National Library.
OK, fair enough, whoever put the birthday cake display together had to find another typewriter. But a British-made machine called a Super-Riter? I think not. Not appropriate at all.
Cutting the cake and recalling her friendship with White, Australian actor Kate Fitzpatrick underlined White’s dislike of all things British, from the monarchy down. He may have been London-born, but he hated with a passion Britain’s lingering influence on things Australian, the so-called "cultural cringe".
I feel sure White would have taken a certain pride in owning a typewriter made behind the Iron Curtain, one bearing an East German brand name and made in a Communist worker’s factory. Yes, the Remington sitting on the desk yesterday was made in Glasgow, where workers, led by Manchester United soccer club manager Sir Alex Ferguson, were on occasion rather bolshie. But still it’s a British-made typewriter, and White would not have been amused by such a thing. He was, after all, staunchly republican.
Fitzpatrick recounted how she had briefly fallen out with White, who had turned down a knighthood, because she had accepted a Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977. When Fitzpatrick attended a regal function given by the English Queen on the royal yacht Britannia, White barred her from appearing in a play White had written for Fitzpatrick, Big Toys.
The typewriter White did use, the eggshell blue Optima portable, is on display in the Life of Patrick White exhibition at the National Library, on loan from the New South Wales State Library in Sydney. There, the numbskull curators think it is an Olivetti, and continue to proudly say so on the library’s website.
Here we see Tracy Bradford, the library’s head of manuscripts, with White letters, the Optima and a portrait. These photos were taken in late August 2010, but the library first displayed the items in April 2003.
Twenty years ago, just after White died and the library had acquired White’s desk and typewriter, senior curator Paul Brunton, who knew the portable was an Optima, worked out the secret behind one of White's characteristic scams.
At his home in Centennial Park, Sydney, in the winter of 1988, the then 76-year-old White perpetrated what Brunton called "one of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time", a wicked practical joke at the expense of people he had little time for: academics, librarians, scholars and critics.
It involved White’s final novel, the manuscript of which the library had combined with the National Library to secure.
Brunton (seen above, with the Optima) was convinced the truculent, quarrelsome and dry-witted White went to his deathbed thumbing his nose at the literary establishment. White detested the idea of scholars studying his rough manuscripts, believing the published work was all that counted. He famously destroyed almost all of his manuscripts. One example which survives is a hand-written draft of Memoirs of Many In One.
Why was this one spared? In 1986, a few months after it was published, White was asked by the Canon Collins Trust in London, an anti-apartheid group, to join famous authors donating original manuscripts for auction, to raise money for disadvantaged South Africans. In August 1988 White wrote that he had “found this practically unintelligible MS of Memoirs of Many In One published in 1986. Perhaps its messy condition will make it more appealing to the ferrets." The manuscript was auctioned in London after White's death in 1990.  
Brunton found it surprisingly orderly. The main draft was in the same blue pen, with relatively few crossings out and no discernible change of hand pressure - as if it had been copied, rather than written afresh. But all the revisions were neatly added in red biro. "It is unlike any other author's manuscript I have ever seen," said Brunton. "It's a constructed artifice. When I began to look at the changes I began to see the in-jokes. Then I put it together with the subject of the novel, which purports to be an edited manuscript about the value of archives as opposed to the value of memory."
Brunton believed the deception appealed to White’s mischievous sense of humour while raising funds for a cause to which he was sympathetic. But, more importantly, it would set scholarly "ferrets" off on a wild literary goose chase. It would also keep his principles intact, since the false manuscript would reveal "absolutely nothing about his creative process".
It should be noted that White didn’t type the final draft. His back had collapsed again, so instead of his usual method of rewriting, his friend and agent Barbara Mobbs typed the second draft for him and then White revised it in its typed version. He dedicated the book to Mobbs (below) and sent it to London in June 1985.
Last year it was revealed that an incomplete novel by White would be published to mark the centenary of his birth. The Hanging Garden was left among a pile of papers he instructed were to be destroyed on his death. Mobbs, as his literary executor, kept the hand-written manuscript, which is now held in the National Library. It was transcribed in 2010 and has now been typeset.
Patrick Victor Martindale White was born on May 28, 1912, in Knightsbridge, London, and died in Sydney on September 30, 1990, aged 78. He won the Nobel Prize in 1973.