Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand


  WN: One of the problems in doing historical non-fiction is finding people still alive who actually witnessed what you were writing about. You did find people who were around at the time, such as Alfred Vanderbilt, Jr., Seabiscuit’s exercise riders, and jockey Tommy Luther and his wife Helen. Did these voices bring fresh and special vibrancy and life to the narrative?

  LH: So much of history goes unrecorded. Newspapers, magazines, and recordbooks, by virtue of lasting the longest and being most accessible, form the mainstay of the historian’s diet. They are indispensable, but because they are mainly concerned with basic facts, they are often one-dimensional. In these sources, historical figures have a certain sameness; what they said and did is dryly recorded, but their interesting edges are usually polished off.

  This isn’t the way we experience history when we view it firsthand. We see all the small things that illustrate a person and an event—things that few people ever think to record, but that tell us a great deal about who the historical players are and why their actions are important. So much of what is truly interesting and illuminating in history resides only in memory, which outlives events for only a brief time. In researching Seabiscuit, I wanted to capture as many of those memories as possible before they were lost forever.

  I caught many eyewitnesses to this story in the last months of their lives. These men and women put flesh on the bones of this tale. Without them, we would have known the basics of Seabiscuit’s career, but we never would have known about the girls of the Molino Rojo and the runaway manure mountain at Tijuana; Red’s secret blind eye; Frenchy Hawley’s explosive “Slim Jim” experiments, and many of the grisly details in the lives of jockeys; what Red said to George on that scandalous live national radio interview in 1938; Smith and Howard’s secret strategy for the War Admiral match race negotiations; life on the road with Ten Ton Irwin; how Tom taught Seabiscuit to outbreak War Admiral; the use of Grog as a ringer, and dozens of other things. These are the details that, for me, made my subjects and their time real and accessible. They made the story much more intimate. Memory is, of course, a fallible source, and everything had to be cross-checked, but over and over again, I was amazed at how accurately these people recalled the events. And aside from facts, these people communicated the emotions that attended the events, the feel of America in that era.

  WN: You were faced with a real problem involving momentum in this book. There were two legitimate endings to it. The first, of course, was the end of the Seabiscuit–War Admiral match race, the culmination of the 1938 racing season and one of the greatest events in the history of American sport. The second was the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, the last race of his career and the Big One that had always gotten away. You were faced with the problem of building dramatic tension right through the match race, an event that left readers breathless, and then rebuilding it again for the hundred grander—a tough writing job, to be sure, but you pulled it off. How did you come at this problem? Was it difficult to solve?

  LH: I was concerned about the pacing through these two races, and the events in between. A year and four months passed between the match and the 1940 handicap, a space of time in which Seabiscuit tumbled from the top of the racing world to the depths of serious injury, then, slowly, climbed all the way back to the top again, alongside his crippled jockey. Part of what made this progression enthralling for those who followed it was the considerable time it took for it to happen. It was, as Pollard phrased it, “a long, hard pull,” and the slowly building tension of this time loaded his final race with emotional import for the participants and the public. But in terms of recounting it in print, so little happened in the space between the two races—compared to the dense sequence of events that had preceded that time—that I was worried that it would be hard to pace the book in a way that would impart the same exhilaration, almost hysteria, that the public felt upon witnessing the horse’s incomparable final performance.

  To recapture the pacing of the story as it played out in 1939 and 1940, I delved as deeply as possible into the horse’s injury and first retirement. I worked as hard as I could to gather every detail about the day of the horse’s injury, and was able to find quite a bit. I wanted to provide the same kind of detail for the retirement period, but because the horse and the men spent it in a remote place, out of view of reporters, there was much less to be found. I was lucky in that I located people who were there, and Howard and Pollard later spoke of that time to the press and to their families. Hopefully, what I found was enough.

  WN: How long did it take you to research and write Seabiscuit? When and where did you begin the project? When did you turn in the final draft?

  LH: I began the research in the fall of 1996, while writing the article for American Heritage. The article became the framework for a book proposal, then the book itself. I spent the first two years working from an excruciatingly tiny apartment in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t the easiest place to work. My apartment was on the corner of a very busy intersection, less than one block from a firehouse and directly across the street from the Taiwanese consulate. That year, a tiny but surprisingly noisy group began camping out in front of the consulate, protesting Taiwanese policy. They set up a loudspeaker and played a rallying song, apparently in Chinese, sung by children. I have no idea what they were singing, but it sounded like, “Hidee-ho hidee-ho hidee-ho hidee-ho! Fight! Fight fight fight!” They played it over and over, hour after hour, day after day, as loud as they could get it, apparently to torment the consulate workers. Hearing this song just once set my teeth on edge; hearing it hundreds of times was maddening. The song became the soundtrack to my writing process. I parked a radio on my desk and worked while blasting music in an attempt to drown out the fight song outside, but it didn’t help much. I conducted most of my interviews from that apartment, via telephone. I kept having to ask my interviewees to stop talking for a moment while the sound outside died down. I taped and transcribed all of my interviews, but at times all I could hear on my tapes were horns, sirens and the infernal hidee-ho song. In 1998, my book deal made it possible for me to move out of the hidee-ho apartment and into a little house farther downtown, where I spent the next two years finishing up the book. I turned in the manuscript in September 2000.

  WN: Much has been said and written about the illness that has plagued you for years, a condition apparently prompted by a case of food poisoning that you suffered in 1987: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome exacerbated by vertigo. Could you recall how and when you first came down with this condition? What are the symptoms?

  LH: In the spring of 1987 I was a sophomore at Kenyon College, majoring in English and history. I was nineteen, healthy and fit, playing tennis and cycling several times a week. On the night of March 20th, while traveling back to Kenyon from spring break, I developed apparent food poisoning, and became sick enough that my roommates called paramedics. For three weeks, I couldn’t seem to shake the stomach upset. Then one morning, I awoke so weak that I was unable to sit up. It took me two hours to work up the strength to stand. I expected the exhaustion to pass, but it didn’t. For weeks, I couldn’t even make the short walk to the dining hall. There was no way for me to attend class or do my work, so I had to drop out of school. I spent the next eight months bedridden. I was under siege from constant infections, unremitting fever, chills, soaking night sweats, acute light sensitivity, balance and cognitive problems. In the first month alone I lost twenty pounds, weight I couldn’t afford to lose; I finally leveled off at one hundred pounds. I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by the head of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins.

  Though my health has fluctuated since then, and at times I have enjoyed improvement, I’ve never recovered. There have been stretches, sometimes lasting several years, in which I have been totally bedridden. In early 1993, I developed extremely severe, chronic vertigo—a neurological abnormality apparently caused by CFS—which causes the sensation of spinning, pitching, and rolling. For two years, I was unable to read or write because
of it. I have been dealing with the vertigo, on top of my other symptoms, on some level ever since, and it continues to make reading and writing very difficult.

  WN: How did the illness affect your ability to write the book? Were there long periods when you could neither do research nor write? Did you get discouraged, at times? What kept you going?

  LH: Writing this book was immensely important to me, but my illness made it very hard. I had to accept that there would be a large physical price to pay for undertaking this project, and that I would have to pare away the rest of my life to save my strength for what I wanted to do. For the four years that I researched and wrote this book, I did virtually nothing else. I devoted everything I had to it. I had my office set up so that there was a refrigerator, cereal boxes, bowls, spoons, and a giant jug of water right by my desk, allowing me to keep working without wasting energy on fixing meals. I stacked my research books in a semicircle on the floor around my chair so I wouldn’t have to get up to get them. I couldn’t travel to my sources, but found ways around that by making maximum use of the Library of Congress’ interlibrary loan service, the Internet, my fax machine, email, and, of course, my telephone. For the most part, my body held together. I worked whenever I had strength, sometimes at odd hours, and I often worked until completely exhausted and dizzy. There were days when it was almost impossible to move, but I usually found something I still had the strength to do. If I was too dizzy to write, I did interviews. If I was too weak to sift through books, I sat still and wrote. Sometimes I worked while in bed, lying on my back and scribbling on a pad with my eyes closed. Though it was hard to do this, there was never a point at which I became discouraged. These subjects were just too captivating for me to ever consider abandoning the project. The price I paid was steep. Within hours of turning in the manuscript, my health collapsed completely. The vertigo returned in force, and I was unable to read or write at all for several months. I also became markedly weaker and was rendered almost entirely housebound again. Well over a year later, I still haven’t completely recovered. But it was worth it.

  As difficult as the illness made the writing and research process, I think I also have it to thank for spurring me into the project. Being sick has truncated my life dramatically, drastically narrowing the possibilities for me. For fifteen years, I have had very little contact with the world. The illness has left me very few avenues for achievement, or for connecting with people. Writing is my salvation, the one little area of my life where I can still reach out into the world and create something that will remain after I am gone. It enables me to define myself as a writer instead of as a sick person. Because of this, I felt an immensely powerful motivation for writing this book, and writing it as well as I could.

  WN: No book on horse racing—and very few on any sport—has ever held the top spot on the New York Times best-seller list, as Seabiscuit did for six weeks. Had you ever imagined, when you began the project, that you would have the No. 1 best-seller in the nation? Looking back now, how would you describe the experience?

  LH: Wildest dreams have a long reach. I think every writer dreams of having a No. 1 New York Times best-seller; I certainly did. But only a tiny percentage of books ever make the list, so you have to be realistic. I think every writer, especially a first-time author like me, has a set of reasonable expectations, goals they can be satisfied with. I tried to be very realistic. This was a story that, no matter how fascinating the human characters and events were, centered around a racehorse, and no racing book had ever been a major success. I thought this was a fantastic story, but that a lot of people would pass it up simply because of the subject matter.

  When I first imagined making this story into a book, my hope was that I could find a small equine-topics publisher that would be interested in it. I hoped to be able to sell maybe 5000 copies, out of the trunk of my car if I had to. That was okay with me. I just wanted to tell this story. Even after Random House bought the book rights, and Universal Pictures the movie rights, I kept my aspirations very modest. So I really wasn’t prepared for the call I got in March, 2001 from my wonderful editor, Jon Karp, telling me that after only five days on sale, the book was already on the best-seller list, at No. 8. It was No. 2 the following week, and hit No. 1 the week after that.

  That phone call began a very wild ride. After having lived in complete obscurity and isolation for so many years, I was suddenly on TV and radio, and in newspapers and magazines. In one day, I was interviewed seventeen times. Readers recognized me on the street. I received thousands of emails. My phone was ringing constantly. I got huge stacks of mail, including letters from both President Bushes. It was completely overwhelming. Physically, fulfilling the obligations that came with the success was very hard to do, but it was also indescribably gratifying. All the work had paid off.

  The thing I will look back on with the most pleasure is the fact that these men and this horse are remembered again. They deserve to be. I hope they would be happy with the work I did.

  Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion

  Seabiscuit grew so popular as a cultural icon that in 1938, he commanded more space in American newspapers than any other public figure. Considering the temper of the times as well as the horse’s early career on the racetrack, what were the sources of The Biscuit’s enormous popularity during that benchmark period of U.S. history? Would he be as popular if he raced today? What did the public need that it found in this horse?

  The Great Match Race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in 1938 evoked heated partisan passions. These passions spilled over on radio and into the daily prints, with each colt leading a raucous legion of followers to the barrier at Pimlico Race Course that autumn day. What were the differences separating these two horses, and what did each competitor represent in the American experience that set one apart from the other?

  All jockeys in the 1930s endured terrible hardships and hazards, starving themselves to make weight, then competing in an exceptionally dangerous sport. For George Woolf and Red Pollard, there were additional factors that compounded the difficulties and dangers of their jobs—diabetes for the former and half-blindness for the latter. Why, in spite of this, did they go on with their careers? What were the allures of race riding that led them to subject themselves to such risk and torment?

  What was the role of the press and radio in the Seabiscuit phenomenon? How did Howard use the media to his advantage? How did the media help Seabiscuit’s career, and how was it a hindrance?

  Seabiscuit possessed all the qualities for which the Thoroughbred has been prized since the English imported the breed’s three foundation sires from the Middle East three hundred years ago. What were those qualities? What made this horse a winner?

  Horses of Seabiscuit’s stature, from Man o’ War in the 1920s to Cigar in the 1990s, have always generated a powerful gravitational field of their own, attracting crowds of people into their immediate orbit, shaping relationships among them, and even affecting the personalities of those nearest them. How did Seabiscuit shape and influence the lives of those around him?

  Red Pollard, Tom Smith, and Charles Howard formed an unlikely partnership. In what ways were these men different? How did their differences serve as an asset to them?

  What critical attribute did Howard, Smith, and Pollard share? How did this shared attribute serve as a key to their success?

  In what ways was each man in the Seabiscuit partnership similar, in his own way, to Seabiscuit himself? How did these similarities help them cultivate the horse’s talents and cure his ailments and neuroses?

  What lessons can be drawn from the successes of the Seabiscuit team? What does their story say about the role of character in life?

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  LAURA HILLENBRAND has been writing about Thoroughbred racing since 1988 and has been a contributing writer/editor for EQUUS magazine since 1989. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, American Heritage, ABC Sports Online, The Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times, Th
e Backstretch, Turf, Sport Digest, and many other publications. She is a two-time winner of the Eclipse Award, the highest journalistic award in Thoroughbred racing. She is currently serving as a consultant on a Universal Studios movie based on this book. Born in Fairfax, Virginia, Laura attended Kenyon College and currently lives in Washington, D.C.

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  PREFACE

  ALL HE COULD SEE, IN EVERY DIRECTION, WAS WATER.

  It was June 23, 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of his planes’ gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had winnowed down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.

  The men had been adrift for twenty-seven days. Borne by an equatorial current, they had floated at least one thousand miles, deep into Japanese-controlled waters. The rafts were beginning to deteriorate into jelly, and gave off a sour, burning odor. The men’s bodies were pocked with salt sores, and their lips were so swollen that they pressed into their nostrils and chins. They spent their days with their eyes fixed on the sky, singing “White Christmas,” muttering about food. No one was even looking for them anymore. They were alone on sixty-four million square miles of ocean.

 
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