Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Among the Greatest: At Evanston's Bookends & Beginnings, Jonathan Eig Speaks About His Comprehensive New Biography, 'Ali: A Life'

Book Event Recap

Ali: A Life
by Jonathan Eig
Bookends & Beginnings, Evanston, IL
November 7, 2017
Book website | Store website

"Why did a black man growing up in the 1940s and '50s think he could be special?"

"If you can't answer that, don't write the book."

This is what renowned African-American comedian and activist Dick Gregory told Jonathan Eig was central to the noted journalist and author writing a new biography about Muhammad Ali.

Eig himself relayed Gregory's contention and challenge Tuesday evening in an engaging presentation promoting Ali: A Life, the 539-page result of a 4-1/2 year effort during which time both Ali and Gregory have passed.

A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Eig was appearing just blocks away at Evanston's Bookends & Beginnings, an independent bookstore in the spot occupied by Bookman's Alley for decades (behind the 1700 block of Sherman).

Although I haven't read any of Eig's previous works, including 2005's Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, I was aware of him as an acclaimed biographer.

Given my fascination with Ali, who I had once memorably encountered--as relayed here upon his death in June 2016--I knew I wanted to get the new biography, even if staying focused enough to read it in full will be a 15-round challenge (given my admittedly fickle reading proclivities).

I noted several Chicago-area engagements for Eig, including at the Oak Park Public Library and the Chicago Humanities Festival, but even in necessitating rescheduling a theater ticket, the event at Bookends & Beginnings worked out best.

After a warm introduction by store owner Nina Barrett--including praise for a prior appearance by Eig tied to his 2014 book, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution--Eig spoke for about an hour on why he wanted to write about Ali, how he went about his research and what he learned.

Affable throughout, the slight, bald, bespectacled author began by saying he and the three-time heavyweight champion of the world had much in common, including--as Eig clenched his fists in a boxers stance--"We both have lightning fast jabs."

And drolly, without having flinched, "Wanna see it again?"

More seriously, while noting that Ali, once considered the most famous person in the world, had garnered voluminous press coverage and has been profiled in fine books by Norman Mailer (The Fight), David Remnick (King of the World), Mark Kram Jr. (Ghosts of Manila) and others--I'll add Thomas Hauser (Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times)--Eig found that no one yet had done the kind of full-blown, comprehensive biography he was envisioning.

So he set about writing one, first interviewing a reluctant Ferdie "The Fight Doctor" Pacheco, who Eig said tried to throw him out of his house, and then Ali's second wife, Khalilah (a.k.a. Belinda), who told the author, "Says who?" when Eig introduced himself as an Ali biographer.

After initially insisting on $6,000 for her cooperation--which Eig found an odd amount and didn't feel compelled to pay--Khalilah became a valued and friendly source as the writer delved deep into learning what made the man born Cassius Clay tick.

And how Ali's life--through which wove race, politics, war and boxing, plus worldwide popularity, immense public hatred, quite a bit of womanizing and crippling illness--can enlighten ours.

"The key is to make him human," shared Eig, "to get beyond the mythology."

I'm not going to transcribe Eig's entire speech, key aspects of which can presumably be found in Ali: A Life, but he discussed interviewing Ali's brother Rahman, showed a slide of their childhood home in Louisville, told the famed story of young Cassius Clay getting into boxing after having his bicycle stolen and shared how even from a young age, Ali desperately wanted to become famous.

A nice gathering at Bookends & Beginnings, including my friend Ken and seemingly some of Eig's fellow journalists, also heard about Ali beating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964, soon joining the Nation of Islam, adopting a Muslim name, becoming "the most hated man in America" and, in 1966, refusing induction into the U.S. Army at the time of the Vietnam War.

Referencing the vitriol faced from certain corners by Colin Kaepernick today, Jonathan Eig noted that in the mid-'60s, white American reaction to Ali was ten times worse.

Even at the height of his fame in the 1970s,
Ali hawked a variety of products purely
for profit, as Eig depicted with this one.
Yet he also "became a hero to those in the anti-war movement" and, after having his title stripped in his prime, Ali's resiliency in rising off the canvas following a brutal knockdown at the hands of Joe Frazier in their hallowed 1971 title fight--in which Ali lost for the first time in 32 pro fights--marked the beginning of his becoming more widely beloved.

"White people accepted him more when they saw him as vulnerable," Eig offered as hypothesis rather than fact.

Eig shared some sad truths about Ali, including that--based on research he had conducted for the book--the boxer likely absorbed more than 200,000 punches in his amateur and professional career, which was unnecessarily extended for financial gain.

The Parkinson's syndrome that robbed Ali's motor skills and famed loquaciousness was undoubtedly caused by all the abuse he took in the ring, per Eig, but though its effects were apparent to the public from the late-'80s until his death, the author's research uncovered much earlier signs of brain damage, including a substantial drop in "speaking rate" between 1970-1980.

Although I happily purchased Ali: A Life at Bookends & Beginnings, had Eig sign and inscribe it to me and even began reading it at bedtime last night, it'll be a good while--if ever--before I can share much about the book itself. (It seems to be getting stellar reviews, and strong accolades from people such as Ken Burns.)

But based on what Eig shared on Tuesday night, it would appear the tome is far from a hagiography.

Although I, perhaps only before reading the bio, would readily use the word "hero" to describe my affinity for Ali--I've twice visited the museum in his honor in Louisville and have watched numerous documentaries--Eig notably never did in his presentation.

In fact, while saying that he was surprised by discovering how humble Ali could be among strangers, despite his famed "I am the greatest!" exhortations, the author expressed being quite troubled by certain elements of the full picture he painted in his book.

Not only could Ali be terribly cruel to Frazier, Foreman, and other black opponents--far more than white ones--according to Eig he treated his wives and children poorly, and among several adulterous affairs cited in the biography were ones with underage girls.

Over time, the author shared, the champ--beset by financial troubles and depression, imprisoned by the ravages of Parkinson's, emboldened by renewed adoration after lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics--became more thoughtful and religious.

Eig didn't reveal if he ever met Ali or attempted to interview him for the biography--I should have asked in the Q&A segment--but did attend his funeral, noting that the boxer got "more than a Presidential sendoff."

"He was turned into a saint," said Eig, amiably, admiringly, but seemingly not entirely in agreement with such veneration.

Which should make Ali: A Life far more fascinating than just a highly-detailed deification.

And along with all I will learn about Muhammad Ali, I valued gaining insight into the process taken by a skilled biographer, the truths he tries to reveal, the scenarios he depicts to give readers a sense of being there and the questions he tries to answer.

Including, ultimately, the key quest Dick Gregory set him upon:

Why did a black man growing up in the 1940s and '50s think he could be special?

Because, Jonathan Eig intimated on an enlightening evening in Evanston:

"[Muhammad Ali] believed he didn't have to accept the world the way he found it."

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

This review was a knockout. Way to go champ!