Buzz Bissinger looks for ‘timeless’ stories
By Erik Hall
Buzz Bissinger is most known for writing the 1990 book “Friday Night Lights.” Bissinger also goes by H.G. Bissinger, which stands for Harry Gerard, according to his IMDB.com page. The 60-year-old Bissinger has also written the books “A Prayer for the City,” “Three Nights in August,” “Shooting Stars” and “Father’s Day.”
Magazine writing is also a prominent part of Bissinger’s portfolio. He has been a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine since 1996, according to Bissinger’s website. He started writing sports columns for Newsweek/The Daily Beast in 2009.
For this assignment, I looked at four articles that Bissinger wrote for Vanity Fair and one of his Newsweek columns. The Newsweek column I looked at was published on Sept. 3, 2012, and it is titled “Winning: To hell with the doping charges. Lance Armstrong performed miracles. Stop tearing down our idols. Why I still believe.”
The first Vanity Fair story that I looked at was published in September 2000, and its title is “For Love of DiMaggio: Perhaps no figure in 20th-century America was worshipped like Joe DiMaggio and perhaps none had a more tortured relationship with those who loved him. Buzz Bissinger gets an exclusive interview with the one man whose devotion outstripped the legendary ball player’s distrust: Morris Engelberg, the lawyer who attended to DiMaggio’s every whim, built him a fortune, and was privy to his deepest hatreds (Clinton, the Kennedys, and Sinatra) and his greatest love, Marilyn Monroe.”
The second Vanity Fair story that I read is from August 2007. It is titled, “Gone Like the Wind: None of them had ever seen a horse like Barbaro: the speed of a rocket, the spirit of a champion in his eyes. Not owners Gretchen and Roy Jackson, or trainer, Michael Matz, or veterinarian Dean Richardson, or jockey Edgar Prado, who rode him to victory at the 2006 Kentucky Derby. After the horse’s devastating injury at the Preakness, with the world watching, they would struggle to save him. But Barbaro was betrayed by his own Thoroughbred body.”
His third story in Vanity Fair that I read was printed in March 2009. That story has the title, “Inventing Ford Country: The 1939 movie ‘Stagecoach’ created three icons: John Wayne, John Ford, and the 30,000 acres of glory on the Utah-Arizona border known as Monument Valley. It was pioneering rancher, Harry Goulding, who brought Hollywood to his home, and helped America’s vision of the West.”
The most recent Bissinger story I read from Vanity Fair was published in October 2012. That story has the title, “America’s Golden Girl: It’s obvious that Gabby Douglas’s world will never be the same. But the 16-year-old, who this summer became the first black woman of any nationality (and only the fourth American) to win gold in the individual all-around in women’s gymnastics, didn’t get there by living a normal life. In London, where Douglas’s poise far exceeds that of the journalists swarming her, Buzz Bissinger talks to the sweetheart of the 2012 Olympics and finds the real story is about a family’s love.”
The story written differently from the rest in the set was the Newsweek story. It was a column stating Bissinger’s desire to believe Lance Armstrong’s innocence at the time Bissinger wrote the piece in September 2012.
Armstrong had never failed a drug test, and he had not admitted to his performance-enhancing drug use at the time Bissinger wrote the column. Bissinger emphasizes the corruption in cycling that so far excluded Armstrong, and the tactic serves as cover for Bissinger’s view in hindsight with Armstrong’s admission of drug use. Bissinger shows the corruption in cycling by citing a New York Times story that a third of the top-10 finishers have admitted or been suspected of doping. “If Armstrong used banned substances, he was leveling the playing field. He was still the one who overcame all odds.”
Bissinger makes the point that so many cancer survivors and their families see Armstrong as inspiration for overcoming cancer, and Bissinger says that makes Armstrong’s doping irrelevant.
Writing about Armstrong, Bissinger also makes the column personal by talking about his 21-year-old son Caleb in the lead. Bissinger says his son wanted to emulate Armstrong. Bissinger wrote, “Caleb is not blind. He said it was hard not to read the statement and conclude that … what lay below the outrage was an admission that he may well have cheated with performance enhancers in order to win.” Bissinger shows the reader right away why this matters to him.
I found it interesting that at the end of the column, Bissinger is not afraid to take kind of a personal shot at Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the United States Anti Doping Association. Bissinger wrote in the penultimate paragraph, “Perhaps Travis Tygart, before trying to destroy Lance Armstrong for his own job security, should get his ass out of the chair in his office and try it himself.”
I did not talk to Bissinger about his column when I interviewed him. I focused on his Vanity Fair stories that I read.
The Vanity Fair story that was most different of the four was the one about Gabby Douglas. It was the only of the four stories that Bissinger was there in person for events he described. The Douglas story was also the shortest of the four Vanity Fair stories.
“Gabby Douglas, frankly, was kind of a quick-hit piece, because we wanted to get something out quickly to tie it to — to make it as close to the Olympics as we could,” Bissinger said in a phone interview. “So on a piece like that, because the deadline is tight, you just really have to rely on being there. It was much harder to draw a full narrative line.”
The lede to the Douglas piece starts with a description of the media throng around Douglas. He talks several times about how Douglas handles the media in the early parts of the piece. But a point Bissinger made about the Douglas piece while being interviewed was how much he gives people a chance to respond when they are a subject in one of his magazine stories. Douglas had a bad experience being bullied at Excalibur Gymnastics in Virginia Beach. Bissinger tried hard to give the staff at Excalibur a chance to respond to Douglas’ accusations.
“I give people every opportunity to respond,” Bissinger said. “I believe in that. Normally, what I will do is I will write out written questions that are very, very specific. I don’t try to hide anything. I want people to be able to respond, and then I look at the responses. And if there are things that are just wrong or assertions that I’ve made, they will be corrected. Every Vanity Fair piece is also read by a lawyer.”
He continued by talking specifically about the Douglas story.
“I know the Gabby Douglas piece, the issue of how she was treated at the gym in Virginia Beach. I mean I must have called the mother 10 times to make sure I had it all correct,” Bissinger said. “The owners would not talk to me, but I wrote a letter. I got their email, and I think I FedEx’ed them a letter. I’ve done that in all my pieces. It’s not to do just sort of do it for the hell of it to cover all bases. It’s because they should and often they will point out things that maybe I need to take a second look at. I want to give them every opportunity.”
One thing that made the Douglas piece distinct from the other Vanity Fair stories I compared it to was that Douglas was still alive. The horse Barbaro was the center of that story, and he was dead. John Wayne, John Ford and Harry Goulding were all dead when Bissinger intertwined their stories. Joe DiMaggio was dead, and that was the main focus of that story. Even though it was Morris Engelberg’s life, too, and Engelberg was alive. Engelberg did whatever DiMaggio wanted, so Engelberg was almost only living DiMaggio’s life.
But by writing about someone who is alive like Douglas unlike the other primary subjects, it allows Bissinger to be there for the events and use dialogue. Bissinger did not use dialogue in the Barbaro, Ford or DiMaggio stories that was more than a few sentences.
“Dialogue reconstruction can be risky,” Bissinger said. “You never quite know where it’s coming from. I think in those instances, you want to rely more on the actual quote just to give it more credibility and authenticity.”
Not being able to use dialogue or see events currently happening may be a drawback of profiling a dead person. It is not all bad.
“When they’re dead, frankly it’s better because they’re not around to say you screwed it up or you’re wrong,” Bissinger said. “You do apply the rigors of reporting, but let’s face it, you’re going to have more latitude. When they’re alive, you do have a greater responsibility, ‘cause they’re alive. And it’s not just you’re worried about them being mad at you — you really do want to get it right.”
Dead or alive does not determine if Bissinger decides to write a story. The thing that leads him to his magazine stories is the lasting relevance of the topic.
“It is what in a sense is timeless,” Bissinger said of his story topics. “Barbaro was a timeless story. I was able to come up with enough new material and able to write it as a narrative piece about Barbaro. It’s a profile of a horse, basically. I figured people would read it because it had been in stories so much in the public view. So I knew that there was an interest level there, and it’s up to the piece to convey new material — one way or another.”
His ability to convey his stories is something that Bissinger still sees improving.
“There were a lot of purple pros at the beginning. I think ‘Friday Night Lights’ — I understand why — was written with a youthful passion, much like the team that I was writing about,” Bissinger said. “For me, I write with a lot of emotion, and I write with a lot of power. It’s also learning to tone it down so it doesn’t sound like over-the-top yelling. Still, the reporting aspect is really fun. It’s like putting together … a huge puzzle.
Bissinger pointed out one distinct difference for him when writing a book compared to his magazine pieces. The writer does not have to have a story about a grand topic in every magazine story.
“To a degree, I want my books to be greater than simply what I am writing about,” Bissinger said. “Some stories are just great stories. You don’t want to shove some social theme down the reader’s throat because the readers are smart enough to realize that this is pretty much bullshit.”
Written for Jennifer Rowe’s intermediate writing class.
Joe DiMaggio at Fenway Park in Boston during 1938. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)