tv Book TV CSPAN December 11, 2010 7:00pm-7:30pm EST
[applause] >> thank you and welcome, and certainly on a day like this, i know that the executive editor of the "washington post" has a million and one things he could be doing, so i'm touched he took time to come out here and introduce me. somebody just asked me a few minutes ago if i grew up fighting in a gym boxing. i've been trying to tell ladies from the second grade on that i
consider myself much more of a lover than a fighter. [laughter] but there was one experience i had in the boxing ring in my hometown in columbus, ohio. i was in the 6th grade, and somebody talked me into stepping into the boxing ring. i might make the team if i were fast enough in the ring. the other person hit me very hard and i went down and the pain went in one ear down my back, down the back of my legs, over to the other side of my body, and i'm still feeling that pain today, so no, i never became a boxer, but i had a lot of admiration for somebody who
had a life as fascinating outside of the ring as they did inside the ring, and while this book is a book about a fighter, sugar ray robinson, it is much more. it's what i like to think, it's about the sweet fly paper of life. sugar ray robinson had three dear friends in harlem, lank stone hughs and miles davis, and a lot of the book is about the wonderful cultural swirl that sugar ray robinson made happen. a lot of the nightclubs in new york city in the 30s and 40s as you know were segregated, and so sugar ray robinson took it upon himself with the earnings from the ring to build a nightclub that was called sugar ray's. it was very elegant and folks
could come, all races, all youths, and they could come and sit down and not worry about the color of their skin and that in turn proved to the wonderful jazz giants, duke ellington, sammy davis jr. who was an entertainer that sugar ray's was the place to be in harlem. i went on a book tour, and i'm going to tell you about two things that happened that stand out a great deal and made me know that the five years i spent on this book were well worth it. i was interviewing somebody, and they said, you have to go find mel dick, and i said, who is mel dick? this person said, well, mel dick
knew sugar ray robinson for many, many, many years, for more than 35 years. he's someplace in florida, and you must find mel dick. it's going to add a lot to the story you're trying to tell. i was able to track mel dick down in miami, florida, and this is mel dick's story. when he was 8 years old he lived in brooklyn new york, played hook ky from school, went into new york city to a gym, steelman's gym where sugar ray robinson happened to be sparring. now, mel dick is white, and he told me to story when i found him, and he was the lone white kid in the gym that day just sitting in the audience watching sugar ray robinson spar.
he played hooky from school, and he didn't tell mom and dad where he was going. sugar ray robinson noticed him out of the corner of his eye, and after he was finished sparring, he walked down and was talking to the other people, and he bent down and asked mel dick who he was. he said, sir, i'm melvin dick, and he said, why are you here? where's your parents? he said, well, my mom and dad are at home, and they do not know that i'm here. sugar ray robinson said, well, why are you here? for heaven's sake, why are you here? he looked up at sugar ray robinson and said because you're my hero, and i love you. for the next 45 years, mel dick and sugar ray robinson were extremely, extremely close. sugar ray robinson was the best
man at mel dick's wedding. mel dick was there along with miles davis in 1965 when sugar ray robinson at the age of 40-plus fought his last bow, and it was just a beautiful moment to find somebody from their youth on up who knew sugar ray robinson. the second great moment for me as a writer happened in ailly, georgia, and that's where sugar ray robinson was born. he was only there for a few months, and then his family took him up north to michigan, and then from michigan to harlem. i went to atlanta, georgia on a book tour to give a reading, and the atlanta officials took me to the little small rural community, aily, georgia, and i
was thinking goodness there might not be anybody there for the fact that sugar ray robinson left when he was 4 months old, and we drive and we roll into this little tiny town in a little library on the side of the road and they had a marquee, and on the marquee it said we welcome will wil haygood. that may be the only time my name is on a marquee. i appreciated it though. now, there were 125 people in the lot next to this little library just milling about, men,
women, mostly men, but they were milling about. my thinking is that, gee, something must be going on at the library. i wonder what it is. i got out of the car, and i was in a suit. if you're going to right a book about sugar ray robinson, you have to go out and by some nice suits for the simple fact that sugar ray robinson was an eel gaunt guy dressed -- elegant guy and drove a pink cadillac. it was an era of luxury and his life was an era of just true elegance and grace and poetry. anyway, a man in the parking lot walks over to me, and his very deep southern voice and says to me, would you by any chance be the author? i said, well, yes, sir, i am.
i am. he said, wonderful. he said, we're all sugar ray robinson's relatives, and we have cosm out to walk you into the library. i was so, so very touched. it was just wonderful, and when i got into the library, you know, i was just so enormously touched. i started reading and there were about 130 seats, so it really was me and sugar ray robinson's family, and i was reading certain sections, and they would yell back at me. that's right, sugar. hit him, sugar. lord, have mercy. that's my sugar. it was something else. [laughter] i'm reading, looking out at them and they're yelling, lord, have
mercy. hit him, sugar. those two experiences were worth being away, you know, on your little book advance that you get, you know, hoping that your editor is going to welcome you back into the newsroom after the several years of, you know, of hard work on the book, but it has been worth it, and ever -- it has been worth it in every sense of the word. this is the final book of what i like to think of as a trio of books of unheard of or lost figures you might say in history. they are all figures who i think put a little more of the red, white, and blue into this country and made a unique
difference, so thank you, and i guess we'll open it up for some questions. [applause] >> i was curious. how many women played a serious, significant role in his life? >> in sugar ray robinson's life? >> yeah. >> his mother, layla walker was a very fierce lady. sugar ray robinson used to go outside when he was a kid, 8 or 9 years old and he would get beat up and would be crying and would go home, and his mother would say, don't come in here crying. go back outside and fight. in a real sense, his mother sort of shoved him into the fight game. i think sugar ray robinson, if
he would have had brothers, he would have left boxing for three years and became a dancer. he wasn't good at it, and then in 1954 he went back to fighting. his mother was very important in his life. >> were there a lot of women attracted to him? >> oh, pursuing him. ly discriminations,ly discriminations. you're talking about the ladies in the nightclub. okay. i was a little slow on that one. [laughter] okay. you know, as with all flamboyant figures and as raymond chandler put it, there's always a lady in sugar ray robinson's life. i think there was a lot of women around, although, they only had
two -- he only had two marriages, and he died married to his second wife mill y out in los angeles. okay. i'll go over here. >> first of all, thank you very much for the book. i thoroughly enjoyed it. i too idized sugar ray robinson when i was a good. i still can't believe he lost to joey. i wondered if you can compare his cultural impact with muhammad ali's? >> i think why he got lost in history is because another fighter that fought in the 1960 olympics in rome, he came along, and the tv age was just starting to explode, you might say, and
ali really sort of wiped sugar ray robinson from a lot of, a lot of our not memories, but a lot of our visual love, sugar ray robinson should have been on those night talk shows like or the daytime talk shows like phil donahue or whatever you had in the 60s and 70s, but then you had a huge figure, a cultural bullet across our airways, ali, and in a way, sugar ray robinson receded. he moved to l.a., and he started a youth foundation which was just wonderful because in his youth foundation, the kids could do a lot.
they could dance. they could play the piano, play bad mitten, paint, but there was no boxing. sugar ray robinson did not want to have a child get into a boxing match and go home and not have a father open the door and tell the son that everything's going to be all right because sugar ray robinson's father was not under his roof, and so that's very telling, and actually that was one of the reasons that made me want to really write this book. sugar ray robinson was a fighter. he founded a youth program, and you could do anything you wanted almost in that program except box. okay. i'll go over here. >> okay, hi, two questions. maybe you answered it in terms of the physical toll of
booktv.orging. we -- boxing. we know football players have injuries, and boxers have tremendous injuries. what did sugar ray robinson think about that? if i could veer to sammy davis, j.r. and your other books, what death depth of knowledge did he have in judaism? i know he converted to it. what was his knowledge in terms of commitment? >> okay. that question is a big layered question, and there's not enough time in the answer, but you'll find the answer in a book called "in black and white: the like of sammy davis, j.r.". >> okay. >> the injuries about boxes,
sugar ray robinson saw this was a brutal sport. he fowgd a guy -- he fought a guy in cleveland, ohio named jimmy doyle and he faced severe knockouts in the state of california. he shouldn't have been fighting in ohio, but he was allowed. sugar ray robinson hit him with a punch in the chin, and it killed him. sugar ray robinson was threatened with arrest and a charge of manslaughter in 1947, so he knew that boxing took a awful toll on fighters, but he lived in america. it was segregated at the time. there was no jobs on wall street for blacks, no jobs in banks, few, few jobs in hollywood, so
boxing was one way where a black man could become somewhat wealth, so joe louis, henry armstrong and other fighters took that risk knowing that. now, i might add after sugar ray robinson killed doyle, he took a tour and fought four times and raised money because doyle was fighting to buy his mother a house, and sugar ray robinson was struck to the core that jimmy doyle died fighting to buy his mom a house, so sugar ray robinson went and fought four fighters, and they were tough fighters, but he gave his winnings to jimmy doyle's mother so she could buy her house.
i think it's a very touching part of his life and history. >> thank you. >> over here. >> i liked your point about three of the kind of forgotten people in american history. i just finished master thesis at georgetown university on nathan hale. one of the forgotten people of history. i don't know if it was asked, but why did sugar ray robinson get his name? where did that come from? >> yeah, great question. he was born walker smith, j.r.. walker smith, j.r.. i think the ladies liked sugar ray robinson more. [laughter] he was a young fighter on a young boxing team based in a church in harlem, and they went into watertown, new york to fight. he was just 15-years-old, and
there was a fighter on the team named ray robinson, but ray robinson got sick, and so young walker asked the manager, george gainford if he could fight in ray robinson's place. george didn't think he was good enough, but the young walker smith browbeat him in the locker rooms and said, coach, please, let me fight. i'm ready. walker smith fights, but george gainford, the manager has to change the name on the fight card. he has to -- he doesn't have an extra fight card, so he uses the fight card that says ray robinson, and he told the referee that the kid stepping into the ring now is ray robinson, so he fought and he knocked the other kid out, i mean, boom, boom, boom.
his skill was apparent even then. there was a sports editor named jack kate from the watertown newspaper. jack asked the manager, who is that fighter? he sure is sweet. he said, well, his name is ray robinson. when jack case hustled back into the newsroom, he makes up the name sugar, sweet as sugar. he makes up the same, sugar ray robinson scores knockout in arena and the name stuck. >> thank you. >> okay. yes. >> hi, at one time, professional boxers were really at the core of the american conscious. they were the real cultural icons. joe lose, ali, i have to admit, i haven't a clue who the heavy
weight boxing champion is today. what happened that there's no longer sugar ray robinson's coming out of boxing? >> well, i think that in the 40s and in the 50s, boxing was like ncaa football is now. it was epic. there were fights fought outdoors. there were stadiums that were, you know, full of people, 100,000 people. they were fought at night. it was stunning to see two figures in a ring. radio was big. the rival rightss were big. these figures were sort of larger than life, and i think because of the simple fact that
we have more sports now that are seen by more people and the fight game has suffered so much as far as integrity, honor, -- it's just really suffered something that hasn't been able to come back from, and thus we really don't follow fighters the way we used to follow fighters in the 50s and 60s, and i mean, that was one reason why i wanted to spend years unraveling sugar ray robinson's life. he was a big, big deal in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and yet he sort of vanished. i just think that we found other sports to watch and, you know,
so many comically and tragic things have happened with fighters, heavy-weight fighters, especially over the last 15 years that it's hard to sometimes take it seriously. okay. i'll go over here. >> hi, mr. haygood. >> hi. >> first congratulations for being nominated to the 2010 award for nonfiction books. [applause] >> thank you. >> and being a runnerup for the sports writing. >> thank you. >> i'm a writer so i'm going to ask a writer question. >> okay. >> all of your biographies are so nuanced and layers, and you give us so many things about so many people in "sweet thunder" we found out about miles davis. you put so much into it.
how do you keep the thousands bits of information to flow to make a coherent and inviting for the reader? second question is what are you working on now? >> okay. thank you, thank you so much. she said some wonderful things that i swear i hope that all the people back in the 5th grade who said i never amount to anything. i hope they heard that and are watching c-span today -- [applause] i hope that they heard that. anyway. these figures, and it's interesting when i wanted to, you know, like have nina horn and miles davis swirling throughout the narrative, my editor peter, wondered if it would work. i said, well, let me write the first 50 pages, and i think
you'll see what i'm trying to do, and you know, they all were of the same time periods. you know, and they all, you know, sort of flourished and worked in harlem, and so that made it easier, but i did have a wall in my home and up on the wall, it would say something like sugar ray robinson, 1947, and then i would have a big piece of wall paper, and it would ask me, i would write the question, what is lena doing in 1947? and then under that i asked the question, where's miles davis at in 1947, and then where is
langston hughs? it skips ahead to what they are all doing say in 1953. you know, and so i knew that every 50 pages or so i wanted to remind the reader that there's this wonderful cultural swirl going on. it really is a book about all the things going on outside of the boxing ring. you know, if you think it's only a book about violence and blood and boxing, it's not. it really is a book about poetry, about music, about dance, about night life, about
nightclubs, about new york city, about los angeles, about chicago. it's a book about america and how she danced and sang with these people in the middle of the spokes wheel. okay. question over here? sort of can't hear. something's wrong. >> hi, can you hear me now? yeah, there we go. i'm a big fan. you're gifted with words. >> thank you. >> quick question. how do you choose your subjects for biographies? just wondering what is it that a figure would have to possess to get wil haygood to take on their lives? >> my quick question is why did you become a journalist, and how has that training affected the book that you've written like the sugar ray robinson book?
>> okay. thank you. last questions over here and the first one how did i choose the subjects? real quick answer, new york congressman adam clayton powell was a force on the hill, went to congress in 1944 and left in 1970, and he was big on the student loan program and i would not have gone to college were it not for the student loan program, and so in the back of my mind, i just said to myself one day many years ago, i simply wanted to pay a debt back to adam clayton powell, and you know, it really was a dream. simple as that. that's how that book was birthed. sammy davis j.r. when i was little growingp
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