Stories From My Idols: Part III

Little needs to be said about this writer, whose become perhaps the most iconic journalist among those not in the field or who don’t really pay attention to the authors of stories. He has a movie about him, he was seemingly immune to whatever he threw into his body, he pretty well created a famous Colorado election, he had an iconic death, but most importantly, to me at least, he created a new type of journalism. Gonzo.

If you’ve never heard of Hunter S. Thompson, well, to be blunt, you should stop doing whatever you’re doing and watch Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas to give you an express look at what Thompson’s done. Once done there, pick up a book, and begin to read the man’s work.

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. – Hunter S. Thompson

For those who are unfamiliar with writing styles, Gonzo journalism is a style of reporting where rather than removing his- or herself from the story, the reporter actually uses himself as a character in the story. It was the foundation for the New Journalism movement of the 60’s and 70’s, which basically calls for the elimination of pure objectivity, and also is regarded as the first real examples of what has come to be considered “creative non-fiction.”

The career of Thompson was probably just as interesting as his writing style. He got involved in journalism at a US Air Force base, where he began writing about the base football team. He went on to take a job in small-town Pennsylvania as a sports editor, then went to Puerto Rico, where he did some work for American papers on what was happening in the Caribbean. He moved back to the States and began heavy coverage of presidential elections, as well as cultural pieces on America, and of course, continued covering sporting events, as what got him into the biz. Some of his most famous work has come in the form of full-length books of his writing, which use the distinguishable Gonzo style. One such book was focused on a year Thompson spent riding with the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, while another, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 offered a then-rare glimpse on how campaigns worked, and focused strongly on the Democratic primaries of that year. This book also sparked the famous hatred of Richard Nixon which Thompson is still related to to this day.

Without further ado, I offer you one of my favourite (if perhaps less famous) works by Thompson, “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy,” originally published in the very first edition of Scanlans. Oh, and another thing you’ll find out about Thompson – he was given space in his work. The piece after the jump is about 8,000 words.

Gray day in Boston. Piles of dirty snow around the airport. . . My cocktail flight
from Denver was right on time, but Jean-Claude Killy was not there to meet me.
Bill Cardoso lurked near the gate, grinning through elegant rimless glasses,
commenting on our way to the bar that I looked like a candidate for a serious dope bust.
Sheepskin vests are not big in Boston these days.
“But look at these fine wing-tips,” I said, pointing down at my shoes.
He chuckled. “All I can see is that goddamn necklace. Being seen with you could
jeopardize my career. Do you have anything illegal in that bag?”
“Never,” I said. “A man can’t travel around on airplanes wearing a Condor Legion
neck-piece unless he’s totally clean. I’m not even armed. . . This whole situation makes
me feel nervous and weird and thirsty.” I lifted my sunglasses to look for the bar, but the
light was too harsh.
“What about Killy?” he said. “I thought you were supposed to meet him.”
“I can’t handle it tonight,” I said. “I’ve been chasing all over the country for 10
days on this thing: Chicago, Denver, Aspen, Salt Lake City, Sun Valley, Baltimore. Now
Boston and tomorrow New Hampshire. I’m supposed to ride up there with them tonight
on the Head Ski bus, but I’m not up to it; all those hired geeks with their rib-ticklers. Let’s
have a drink, then I’ll cancel out on the bus trip.”
It seemed like the only decent thing to do. So we drove around to the airport hotel
and went inside, where the desk clerk said the Head Ski people were gathered in Room
247. Which was true; they were in there, perhaps 30 in all, standing around a cloth-
covered table loaded with beer and diced hotdogs. It looked like a cocktail party for the
local Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. These were the Head Ski dealers, presumably
from around the New England area. And right in their midst, looking fatigued and
wretchedly uncomfortable — yes, I couldn’t quite believe it, but there he was: Jean-Claude
Killy, the world’s greatest skier, now retired at age 26 with three Olympic gold medals, a
fistful of golden contracts, a personal manager and ranking-celebrity status on three
continents. . .
Cardoso nudged me, whispering, “Jesus, there’s Killy.” I hadn’t expected to find
him here; not in a dim little windowless room in the bowels of a plastic motel. I stopped
just inside the door. . . and a dead silence fell on the room. They stared, saying nothing,
and Cardoso said later that he thought we were going to be attacked.
I hadn’t expected a party. I thought we were looking for a private room, containing
either “Bud” Stanner, Head’s Marketing Director, or Jack Rose, the PR man. But neither
one was there. The only person I recognized was Jean-Claude, so I waded through the
silence to where he was standing, near the hotdog table. We shook hands, both of us
vibrating discomfort in this strange atmosphere. I was never quite sure about Killy, never
knowing if he understood why I was embarrassed for him in those scenes.
A week earlier he’d seemed insulted when I smiled at his pitchman’s performance
at the Chicago Auto Show, where he and O.J. Simpson had spent two days selling
Chevrolets. Killy had seen no humor in his act, and he couldn’t understand why I did. Now, standing around in this grim, beer-flavored sales meeting, it occurred to me that
maybe he thought I felt uncomfortable because I wasn’t wearing a red tie and a Robert
Hall blazer with brass buttons like most of the others. Maybe he was embarrassed to be
seen with me, a Weird Person of some sort. . . and with Cardoso, wearing granny glasses
and a big grin, wandering around the room mumbling, “Jesus, where are we? This must
be Nixon headquarters.” We didn’t stay long. I introduced Cardoso as an editor of the
Boston Globe, and that stirred a bit of interest in the dealer-salesmen ranks — they are
wise in the ways of publicity — but my neckpiece was obviously more than they could
handle. Their faces tensed when I reached into the beer tub; nothing had been offered and
my thirst was becoming acute. Jean-Claude just stood there in his blazer, smiling
nervously. Outside in the hallway, Cardoso erupted with laughter. “What an incredible
scene! What was he doing with those bums?”
I shook my head. Killy’s hard-sell scenes no longer surprised me, but finding him
trapped in a beer and hotdog gig was like wandering into some housing-project
kaffeeklatsch and finding Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis making a straight-faced pitch for
Folger’s instant-brewed.
My head was not straight at that stage of the investigation. Two weeks of guerrilla
warfare with Jean-Claude Killy’s publicity juggernaut had driven me to the brink of
hysteria. What had begun in Chicago as a simple sketch of a French athlete turned
American culture-hero had developed, by the time I got to Boston, into a series of
maddening skirmishes with an interlocking directorate of public relations people.
I was past the point of needing any more private time with Jean-Claude. We had
already done our thing — a four-hour head-on clash that ended with him yelling: “You and
me, we are completely different. We are not the same kind of people! You don’t
understand! You could never do what I’m doing! You sit there and smile, but you don’t
know what it is! I am tired. Tired! I don’t care anymore — not on the inside.or the outside!
I don’t care what I say, what I think, but I have to keep doing it. And two weeks from now
I can go back home to rest, and spend all my money.”
There was a hint of decency — perhaps even humor — about him, but the high-
powered realities of the world he lives in now make it hard to deal with him on any terms
except those of pure commerce. His handlers rush him from one scheduled appearance to
the next; his time and priorities are parceled out according to their dollar/publicity value;
everything he says is screened and programmed. He often sounds like a prisoner of war,
dutifully repeating his name, rank and serial number. . . and smiling, just as dutifully,
fixing his interrogator with that wistful, distracted sort of half-grin that he knows is
deadly effective because his handlers have showed him the evidence in a hundred press-
clippings. The smile has become a trademark. It combines James Dean, Porfiro Rubirosa
and a teen-age bank clerk with a foolproof embezzlement scheme.
Killy projects an innocence and a shy vulnerability that he is working very hard to
overcome. He likes the carefree, hell-for-leather image that he earned as the world’s best
ski racer, but nostalgia is not his bag, and his real interest now is his new commercial
scene, the high-rolling world of the Money Game, where nothing is free and amateurs are
called Losers. The wistful smile is still there, and Killy is shrewd enough to value it, but
it will be a hard thing to retain through three years of Auto Shows, even for $100,000 a
year.We began in Chicago, at some awful hour of the morning, when I was roused out
of a hotel stupor and hustled around a corner on Michigan Avenue to where Chevrolet’s
general manager John Z. DeLorean was addressing an audience of 75 “automotive
writers” at a breakfast press conference on the mezzanine of the Continental Plaza. The
room looked like a bingo parlor in Tulsa — narrow, full of long formica tables with a
makeshift bar at one end serving coffee, Bloody Marys and sweet rolls. It was the
morning of the first big weekend of the Chicago Auto Show, and Chevrolet was going
whole-hog. Sitting next to DeLorean at the head table were Jean-Claude Killy and O. J.
Simpson, the football hero.
Killy’s manager was there– a tall, thick fellow named Mark McCormack, from
Cleveland, a specialist in rich athletes and probably the only man alive who knows what
Killy is worth. Figures ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 a year are meaningless in the
context of today’s long-term high finance. A good tax lawyer can work miracles with a
six-figure income. . . and with all the fine machinery available to a man who can hire the
best money-managers, Killy’s finances are so skillfully tangled that he can’t understand
them himself.
In some cases, a big contract — say, $500,000 — is really a 5-year annual salary of
$20,000 with a $400,000 interest-free loan, deposited in the star’s account, paying
anywhere from 5 per cent to 20 per cent annually, depending on how he uses it. He can’t
touch the principal, but a $400,000 nut will yield $30,000 a year by accident — and a
money-man working for 30 percent can easily triple that figure.
With that kind of property to protect, McCormack has assumed veto-power over
anyone assigned to write about it for the public prints. This is compounded in its foulness
by the fact that he usually gets away with it. Just prior to my introduction he had vetoed a
writer from one of the big-selling men’s magazines — who eventually wrote a very good
Killy article anyway but without ever talking to the subject.
“Naturally, you’ll be discreet,” he told me.
“About what?”
“You know what I mean.” He smiled. “Jean-Claude has his private life and I’m
sure you won’t want to embarrass him or anyone else — including yourself, I might add —
by violating confidence.”
“Well. . . certainly not,” I replied, flashing him a fine eyebrow shrug to cover my
puzzlement. He seemed pleased, and I glanced over at Killy, who was chatting amiably
with DeLorean, saying, “I hope you can ski with me sometime at Val d’Isère.”
Was there something depraved in that face? Could the innocent smile mask a
twisted mind? What was McCormack hinting at? Nothing in Killy’s manner seemed
weird or degenerate. He spoke earnestly — not comfortable with English, but handling it
well enough. If anything, he seemed overly polite, very concerned with saying the right
thing, like an Ivy League business school grad doing well on his first job interview —
confident, but not quite sure. It was hard to imagine him as a sex freak, hurrying back to
his hotel room and calling room service for a cattle prod and two female iguanas.
I shrugged and mixed myself another Bloody Mary. McCormack seemed satisfied
that I was giddy and malleable enough for the task at hand, so he switched his attention to
a small, wavy-haired fellow named Leonard Roller, a representative of one of Chevrolet’s
numerous public relations firms.
I drifted over to introduce myself. Jean-Claude laid his famous smile on me and we talked briefly about nothing at all. I took it for granted that he was tired of dealing
with writers, reporters, gossip-hustlers and that ilk, so I explained that I was more
interested in his new role as salesman-celebrity —  and his reactions to it — than I was in
the standard, question/answer game. He seemed to understand, smiling sympathetically at
my complaints about lack of sleep and early-morning press conferences.
Killy is smaller than he looks on television, but larger than most ski racers, who
are usually short and beefy, like weight-lifting jockeys and human cannonballs. He is
almost 6-feet tall and claims to weigh 175 pounds — which is easy enough to believe
when you meet him head-on, but his profile looks nearly weightless. Viewed from the
side, his frame is so flat that he seems like a life-size cardboard cut-out. Then, when he
turns to face you again, he looks like a scaled-down Joe Palooka, perfectly built. In
swimming trunks he is almost delicate, except for his thighs — huge chunks of muscle,
the thighs of an Olympic sprinter or a pro basketball guard. . . or a man who has spent a
lifetime on skis.
Jean-Claude, like Jay Gatsby, has “one of those rare smiles with a quality of
eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or
seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you
with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you would like
to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at
your best, you hoped to convey.” That description of Gatsby by Nick Carraway — of
Scott, by Fitzgerald — might just as well be of J.-C. Killy, who also fits the rest of it:
“Precisely at that point [Gatsby’s smile] vanished — and I was looking at an elegant young
roughneck, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. . .”
The point is not to knock Killy’s English, which is far better than my French, but
to emphasize his careful, finely coached choice of words. “He’s an amazing boy,” I was
told later by Len Roller. “He works at this [selling Chevrolets] just as hard as he used to
work at winning races. He attacks it with the same concentration you remember from
watching him ski.” The assumption that I remembered Killy on skis came naturally to
Roller. Jean-Claude is on TV so often, skiing at selected resorts all over the world, that it
is nearly impossible to miss seeing him. This is The Exposure that makes him so
valuable; every TV appearance adds dollars to his price. People recognize Killy, and they
like his image — a sexy daredevil, booming downhill toward a cushion of naked
snowbunnies. This is why Chevrolet pays him a salary far larger than Nixon’s to say, over
and over again, “For me, zee Camaro is a fine foreign sports car. I own one, you know. I
keep it in my garage at Val d’Isère” (Killy’s hometown in the French Alps).
Jean-Claude emerged from the 1968 Winter Olympics with an incredible three
gold medals and then he retired, ending his “amateur” career like a human skyrocket.
There was nothing left to win; after two World Cups (the equivalent of two straight
Heisman Trophies in U. S. collegiate football) and an unprecedented sweep of all three
Olympic skiing events (the equivalent of a sprinter winning the 100, 220, and 440),
Killy’s career reads as if his press agent had written the script for it — a series of
spectacular personal victories, climaxed by the first triple-crown triumph in the history of
skiing while the whole world watched on TV.
The nervous tedium of forced retirement obviously bothers Killy, but it comes as
no surprise to him. He was looking over the hump even before his final triumph in the ’68
Olympics. Between training sessions at Grenoble he talked like a character out of some early Hemingway sketch, shrugging blankly at the knowledge that he was coming to the
end of the only thing he knew: “Soon skiing will be worn out for me,” he said. “For the
last 10 years I have prepared myself to become the world champion. My thoughts were
only to better my control and my style in order to become the best. Then last year [1967]
I became the world champion. I was given a small medal and for two days after that it
was hell. I discovered that I was still eating like everybody else, sleeping like everybody
else — that I hadn’t become the superman I thought my title would make me. The
discovery actually destroyed me for two days. So when people speak to me about the
excitement of becoming an Olympic champion this year — should it happen — I know it
will be the same thing all over again. I know that after the races at Grenoble the best
thing for me is to stop.”
For Killy, the Olympics were the end of the road. The wave of the future crashed
down on him within hours after his disputed Grand Slalom victory over Karl Schranz of
Austria. Suddenly they were on him — a chattering greenback swarm of agents, money-
mongers and would-be “personal reps” of every shape and description. Mark
McCormack’s persistence lent weight to his glittering claim that he could do for Killy
what he had already done for Arnold Palmer. Jean-Claude listened, shrugged, then
ducked out for a while — to Paris, the Riviera, back home to Val d’Isère — and finally,
after weeks of half-heartedly dodging the inevitable, signed with McCormack. The only
sure thing in the deal was a hell of a lot of money, both sooner and later. Beyond that,
Killy had no idea what he was getting into.
Now he was showing us how much he’d learned. The Chevvy press breakfast was
breaking up and Len Roller suggested that the three of us go downstairs to the dining
room. J.-C. nodded brightly and I smiled the calm smile of a man about to be rescued
from a Honker’s Convention. We drifted downstairs, where Roller found us a corner table
in the dining room before excusing himself to make a phone call. The waitress brought
menus, but Killy waved her off, saying he wanted only prune juice. I was on the verge of
ordering huevos rancheros with a double side of bacon, but in deference to J.-C.’s
apparent illness I settled for grapefruit and coffee.
Killy was studying a mimeographed news release that I’d grabbed off a table at
the press conference in lieu of notepaper. He nudged me and pointed at something in the
lead paragraph. “Isn’t this amazing?” he asked. I looked: The used side of my notepaper
was headed: NEWS. . . from Chevrolet Motor Division. . . CHICAGO — Chevrolet began
its “spring selling season” as early as January first this year, John Z. DeLorean, general
manager, said here today. He told newsmen attending the opening of the Chicago Auto
Show that Chevrolet sales are off to the fastest start since its record year of 1965. “We
sold 352,000 cars in January and February,” DeLorean said. “That’s 22 per cent ahead of
last year. It gave us 26.9 per cent of the industry, compared to 23 per cent a year ago. . .”
Killy said it again: “Isn’t this amazing?” I looked to see if he was smiling but his
face was deadly serious and his voice was pure snake oil. I called for more coffee,
nodding distractedly at Killy’s awkward hustle, and cursing the greedy instinct that had
brought me into this thing. . . sleepless and ill-fed, trapped in a strange food-cellar with a
French auto salesman.
But I stayed to play the game, gnawing on my grapefruit and soon following
Roller out to the street, where we were scooped up by a large nondescript car that must have been a Chevrolet. I asked where we were going and somebody said, “First to the
Merchandise Mart, where he’ll do a tape for Kup’s show, and then to the Auto Show — at
the Stockyards.”
That last note hung for a moment, not registering. . . Kup’s show was bad enough.
I had been on it once, and caused a nasty scene by calling Adlai Stevenson a professional
liar when all the other guests were there to publicize some kind of Stevenson Memorial.
Now nearly two years later, I saw no point in introducing myself. Kup was taking it easy
this time, joking with athletes. Killy was overshadowed by Bart Starr, representing
Lincoln-Mercury, and Fran Tarkenton, wearing a Dodge blazer. . . but with Killy in
eclipse the Chevrolet team still made the nut with O. J. Simpson, modestly admitting that
he probably wouldn’t tear the National Football League apart in his first year as a pro. It
was a dull, low-level discussion, liberally spotted with promo mentions for the Auto
Show.
Jean-Claude’s only breakthrough came when Kup, cued by a story in that
morning’s Tribune, asked what Killy really thought about the whole question of
“amateur” athletic status. “Is it safe to assume,” Kup asked, “that you were paid for using
certain skis in the Olympics?”
“Safe?” Killy asked.
Kup checked his notes for a new question and Killy looked relieved. The
hypocrisy inherent in the whole concept of “amateurism” has always annoyed Killy, and
now, with the immunity of graduate status, he doesn’t mind admitting that he views the
whole game as a fraud and a folly. During most of his career on the French ski team he
was listed, for publicity reasons, as a Government-employed Customs Inspector. Nobody
believed it, not even officials of the Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS), the governing
body for world-class amateur ski competition. The whole idea was absurd. Who, after all,
could believe that the reigning world ski champion — a hero/celebrity whose arrival in
any airport from Paris to Tokyo drew crowds and TV cameras — was actually supporting
himself on a salary gleaned from his off-season efforts in some dreary customs shed at
Marseilles?
He spoke with a definite humility, as if he felt slightly embarrassed by all the
advantages he’d had. Then, about two hours later when our talk had turned to
contemporary things — the high-style realities of his new jet-set life — he suddenly
blurted: “Before, I could only dream about these things. When I was young I had nothing,
I was poor. . . Now I can have anything I want!”
Jean-Claude seems to understand, without really resenting it, that he is being
weaned away from the frank unvarnished style of his amateur days. One afternoon at
Vail, for instance, he listened to a sportscaster telling him what a great run he’d just made,
and then, fully aware that he was talking for a live broadcast, Jean-Claude laughed at the
commentary and said he’d just made one of the worst runs of his life — a complete-
disaster, doing everything wrong. Now, with the help of his professional advisers, he has
learned to be patient and polite — especially in America, with the press. In France he is
more secure, and far more recognizable to the people who knew him before he became a
salesman. He was in Paris last spring when Avery Brundage, 82-year-old president of the
International Olympic Committee, called on Jean-Claude and several other winners of
gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics to return them. Brundage, a tunnel-visioned
purist of the Old School, was shocked by disclosures that many of the winners — including Killy — didn’t even know what the word “amateur” meant. For years, said
Brundage, these faithless poseurs had been accepting money from “commercial interests”
ranging from equipment manufacturers to magazine publishers.
One of these gimmicks made headlines just prior to the start of the Games, if
memory serves, and was awkwardly resolved by a quick ruling that none of the winners
could either mention or display their skis (or any other equipment) during any TV
interview or press exposure. Until then, it had been standard practice for the winner of
any major race to make the brand-name on his skis as prominent as possible during all
camera sessions. The “no-show” ruling worked a hardship on a lot of skiers at Grenoble,
but it failed to satisfy Avery Brundage. His demand that the medals be returned called up
memories of Jim Thorpe, who was stripped of everything he won in the 1912 Olympics
because he had once been paid to play in a semi-pro baseball game. Thorpe went along
with the madness, returning his medals and living the rest of his life with the taint of
“disgrace” on his name. Even now, the nasty Olympics scandal is the main feature of
Thorpe’s biographical sketch in the new Columbia Encyclopedia.
But when a Montreal Star reporter asked Jean-Claude how he felt about turning in
his Olympic medals, he replied: “Let Brundage come over here himself and take them
from me.”
It was a rare public display of “the old Jean-Claude.” His American personality
has been carefully manicured to avoid such outbursts. Chevrolet doesn’t pay him to say
what he thinks, but to sell Chevrolets — and you don’t do that by telling self-righteous old
men to fuck off. You don’t even admit that the French Government paid you to be a skier
because things are done that way in France and most other countries, and nobody born
after 1900 calls it anything but natural. . . when you sell Chevrolets in America you honor
the myths and mentality of the marketplace: You smile like Horatio Alger and give all the
credit to Mom and Dad, who never lost faith in you and even mortgaged their ingots
when things got tough.
Anyone watching our departure from the Kup show must have assumed that J.-C.
traveled with five or six bodyguards. I’m still not sure who the others were. Len Roller
was always around, and a hostile, burr-haired little bugger from whichever of Chevvy’s
PR agencies was running the Auto Show, who took me aside early on to warn me that
Roller was “only a guest — I’m running this show.” Roller laughed at the slur, saying, “He
only thinks he’s running it.” The others were never introduced; they did things like drive
cars and open doors. They were large, unconfident men, very polite in the style of armed
gas-station attendants.
We left the Merchandise Mart and zapped off on a freeway to the Auto Show —
and suddenly it registered: The Stockyards Amphitheatre. I was banging along the
freeway in that big car, listening to the others trade bull/fuck jokes, trapped in the back
seat between Killy and Roller, heading for that rotten slaughterhouse where Mayor Daley
had buried the Democratic party.
I had been there before, and I remembered it well. Chicago — this vicious,
stinking zoo, this mean-grinning, Mace-smelling boneyard of a city; an elegant rockpile
monument to everything cruel and stupid and corrupt in the human spirit.
The public is out in force to view the new models. Jean-Claude makes his pitch for Chevrolet every two hours on the button: 1-3-5-7-9. The even numbered hours are
reserved for O. J. Simpson.
Barker: “Tell me, O. J., are you faster than that car over there?”
O. J.: “You mean that groovy Chevrolet? Naw, man, that’s the only thing I know
that’s faster than me. . . ho, ho. . .”
Meanwhile, slumped in a folding chair near the Killy exhibit, smoking a pipe and
brooding on the spooks in this place, I am suddenly confronted by three young boys
wearing Bass Weejuns and Pendleton shirts, junior-high types, and one of them asks me:
“Are you Jean-Claude Killy?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“What are you doing?” they asked.
Well, you goddamn silly little waterhead, what the hell does it look like I’m
doing? But I didn’t say that. I gave the question some thought. “Well,” I said finally, “I’m
just sitting here smoking marijuana.” I held up my pipe. “This is what makes me ski so
fast.” Their eyes swelled up like young grapefruits. They stared at me — waiting for a
laugh, I think — then backed away. Five minutes later I looked up and found them still
watching me, huddled about 20 feet away behind the sky-blue Z-28 Chevvy on its slow-
moving turntable. I waved my pipe at them and smiled like Hubert Humphrey. . . but they
didn’t wave back.
Killy’s Auto Show act was a combination interview/autograph thing, with the
questions coming from Roller and a silver-blonde model in rubberized stretch pants. The
Chevvy people had set up a plywood podium next to the Z-28 — which they said was a
new and special model, but which looked like any other Camaro with a (Head) ski rack
on top.
Not far away, on another platform, O. J. Simpson fielded questions from a ripe
little black girl, also dressed in tight ski pants. The acts remained segregated except in
moments of unexpected crowd pressure, when the black model would occasionally have
to interview Killy. The blonde girl was never cast with O. J. — at least not while I was
there. Which hardly matters, except as casual evidence that Chevvy’s image-makers still
see racial separatism as good business, particularly in Chicago.
On the way in, Roller had rehearsed Jean-Claude on the Q. and A. sequence:
“Okay, then I’ll say, ‘I see an interesting looking car over there, Jean-Claude —  can you
tell us something about it?’ And then you say. . . what?”
J.-C.: “Oh, yes, that is my car, the new Z-28. It has seat covers made of Austrian
ski sweaters. And you notice my special license plate, JCK. . .”
Roller: “That’s fine. The important thing is to be spontaneous.”
J.-C. (puzzled): “Spuen-tan-EUS?”
Roller (grinning): “Don’t worry — you’ll do fine.”
And he did. Killy’s public pitch is very low-key, a vivid contrast to O. J. Simpson,
whose sales technique has all the subtlety of a power-slant on third and one. . . O. J. likes
this scene. His booming self-confidence suggests Alfred E. Neuman in blackface or Rap
Brown selling watermelons at the Mississippi State Fair. O. J.’s mind is not complicated;
he has had God on his side for so long that it never occurs to him that selling Chevrolets
is any less holy than making touchdowns. Like Frank Gifford, whose shoes he finally
filled in the USC backfield, he understands that football is only the beginning of his TV
career. O. J. is a Black Capitalist in the most basic sense of that term; his business sense is so powerful that he is able to view his blackness as a mere sales factor — a natural intro
to the Black Marketplace, where a honky showboat like Killy is doomed from the start.
There are some people in “the trade,” in fact, who can’t understand why the
Chevrolet wizards consider Killy as valuable — on the image-selling scale — as a hotdog
American folk hero like O. J. Simpson.
“What the hell were they thinking about when they signed that guy for three
hundred grand a year?” muttered a ranking “automotive journalist” as he watched Killy’s
act on Saturday afternoon.
I shook my head and wondered, remembering DeLorean’s owlish confidence that
morning at the press breakfast. Then I looked at the crowd surrounding Killy. They were
white and apparently solvent, their average age around 30 — the kind of people who could
obviously afford to buy skis and make payments on new cars. O. J. Simpson drew bigger
crowds, but most of his admirers were around 12 years old. Two-thirds of them were
black and many looked like fugitives from the Credit Bureau’s garnishee file.
Mark McCormack signed to manage Arnold Palmer a decade ago– just prior to
the Great Golf Boom. His reasons for betting on Killy are just as obvious. Skiing is no
longer an esoteric sport for the idle rich, but a fantastically popular new winter status-
game for anyone who can afford $500 for equipment. Five years ago the figure would
have been three times that, plus another loose $1,000 for a week at Stowe or Sun Valley,
but now, with the advent of snow-making machines, even Chattanooga is a “ski-town.”
The Midwest is dotted with icy “week-night” slalom hills, lit up like the miniature golf
courses of the Eisenhower age.
The origins of the ski boom were based entirely on economics and the appeal of
the sport itself. . . no freaky hypes or shoestring promotion campaigns. . . the Money
Boom of the 1960’s produced a sassy middle class with time on its hands, and suddenly
there was a mushrooming demand for things like golf clubs, motorboats and skis. In
retrospect, the wonder of it is that it took people like McCormack so long to grab a good
thing. Or maybe the problem was a lack of ski heroes. Does anyone remember, for
instance, who won Gold Medals at the ’64 Winter Olympics? It was the prominence of
Jean-Claude Killy (as a hot racer in 1966 and as a press hero in ’67 and ’68) that suddenly
gave skiing an image. Jean-Claude emerged from the ’68 Olympics as a sort of sauve Joe
Namath, a “swinging Frenchman” with the style of a jet-set maverick and the mind of a
Paris bartender.
The result was inevitable: a super-priced French import, tailored strictly for the
fast-growing U.S. leisure market, the same people who suddenly found themselves able
to afford Porsches, Mercedes and Jaguars. . . along with MG’s and Volkswagens.
But not Fords or Chevvys. “Detroit iron” didn’t make it in that league. . . mainly
because there is no room in the brass ranks of the U.S. auto industry for the kind of
executive who understands why a man who can afford a Cadillac will buy a Porsche
instead. There was simply no status in owning a $10,000 car with no back seat and a hood
only five feet long.
So now we have a DeLorean-style blitz for Chevrolet, and it’s doing beautifully.
Booming Chevvy sales are mainly responsible for GM’s spurt to a plus-50 per cent of the
whole auto market. The strategy has been simple enough: a heavy focus on speed, sporty
styling and the “youth market.” This explains Chevvy’s taste for such image-makers as
Simpson, Glen Campbell and Killy. (Speculation that DeLorean was about to sign Allen Ginsberg proved to be false: General Motors doesn’t need poets.)
Killy has spent his entire adult life in the finely disciplined cocoon that is part of
the price one pays for membership of the French ski team. As a life style, it is every bit as
demanding as that of a pro football quarterback. In a sport where the difference between
fame and total obscurity is measured in tenths of a second, the discipline of constant,
rigid training is all important. Championship skiers, like karate masters, need muscles
that most men never develop. The karate parallel extends, beyond muscles, to the
necessity for an almost superhuman concentration — the ability to see and remember
every bump and twist on a race course, and then to run it without a single mistake: no
mental lapses, no distractions, no wasted effort. The only way to win is to come down
that hill with maximum efficiency, like a cannonball down a one-rail track. A skier who
thinks too much might make points in conversation, but he seldom wins races.
Killy has been accused, by experts, of “lacking style.” He skis, they say, with the
graceless desperation of a man about to crash, fighting to keep his balance. Yet it’s
obvious, even to a rank amateur, that Killy’s whole secret is his feverish concentration.
He attacks a hill like Sonny Listen used to attack Floyd Patterson — and with the same
kind of awesome results. He wants to beat the hill, not just ski it. He whips through a
slalom course like O. J. Simpson through a jammed secondary — the same impossible
moves; sliding, half-falling, then suddenly free and pumping crazily for the finish line to
beat that awful clock, the only judge in the world with the power to send him home a
loser.
Shortly after I met him, I told Killy he should see some films of O. J. Simpson
running with a football. Jean-Claude didn’t know the game, he said, but I insisted that
wouldn’t matter. “It’s like watching a drunk run through traffic on a freeway,” I said. “You
don’t have to know the game to appreciate O. J.’s act — it’s a spectacle, a thing to see. . .”
That was before I understood the boundaries of Kilty’s curiosity. Like Calvin
Coolidge, he seems to feel that “the business of America is business.” He comes here to
make money, and esthetics be damned. He wasn’t interested in anything about O. J.
Simpson except the size of his Chevrolet contract — and only vaguely in that.
Throughout our numerous, distracted conversations, he was puzzled and dimly
annoyed with the rambling style of my talk. He seemed to feel that any journalist worthy
of his profession would submit 10 very precise questions, write down 10 scripted Killy
answers and then leave. No doubt this reflected the thinking of his PR advisers, who
favor such concepts as “input,” “exposure” and “the Barnum Imperative.”
My decision to quit the Killy story came suddenly, for no special reason. . . an
irrational outburst of red-eyed temper and festering angst with the supplicant’s role I’d
been playing for two days, dealing with a gang of cheap-jack footmen whose sense of
personal importance seemed to depend entirely on the glitter of their hired French
property.
Some time later, when I had calmed down enough to consider another attempt at
cracking the PR barrier, I talked to Jean-Claude on the telephone. He was in Sun Valley,
allowing himself to be photographed for a magazine feature on the “Killy style.” I called
to explain why I hadn’t made the night with him, as planned, from Chicago to Sun Valley.
“You’ve made some funny friends in the past year,” I said. “Doesn’t it make you nervous to travel around with a bunch of cops?”
He laughed quietly. “That’s right,” he said. “They are just like cops, aren’t they? I
don’t like it, but what can I do? I am never alone. . . This is my life, you know.”
I have a tape of that conversation, and I play it now and then for laughs. It is a
weird classic of sorts — 45 minutes of failed communication, despite heroic efforts on
both ends. The over-all effect is that of a career speed-freak jacked up like the Great
Hummingbird, trying to talk his way through a cordon of bemused ushers and into a free,
front-row seat at a sold-out Bob Dylan concert.
I had made the call, half-grudgingly, after being assured by Millie Wiggins
Solheim, the Style Queen of Sun Valley, that she had learned through the Head Ski
hierarchy that Jean-Claude was eager for a soul-talk with me. What the hell? I thought
Why not? But this time on my terms — in the midnight style of the Great Hummingbird.
The tape is full of laughter and disjointed ravings. Killy first suggested that I meet him
again at the Auto Show in Chicago, where he was scheduled for a second weekend of
Chevvy gigs on the same 1-3-5-7-9 schedule.
“Never in hell,” I replied. “You’re paid to hang around with those pigs, but I’m
not. They acted like they expected me to sneak up and steal the battery out of that
goddamn ugly car you were selling.”
He laughed again. “It’s true that they pay me for being there. . . but you get paid
for writing the article.”
“What article?” I said. “As far as I know, you don’t exist. You’re a life-size dummy
made of plastic foam. I can’t write much of an article about how I once saw Jean-Claude
Killy across a crowded room at the Stockyards Amphitheatre.”
There was a pause, another quiet chuckle, then: “Well, maybe you could write
about how hard it is to write about me.”
Oh ho, I thought. You sneaky bugger — there’s something in your head, after all. It
was the only time I ever felt we were on the same wavelength — and then for only an
instant. The conversation deteriorated rapidly after that.
We talked a while longer and I finally said, “Well, to hell with it. You don’t need
publicity and I sure as hell don’t need this kind of fuckaround. . . They should have
assigned this story to an ambitious dwarf hooker with gold teeth. . .”
There was a long pause at the other end of the line. Then: “Why don’t you call
Bud Stanner, the manager from Head Ski. He is here in the Lodge tonight. I think he can
arrange something.”
Why not? I thought. By the time I got hold of Stanner it was 1 A.M.
I assured him that all I needed was a bit of casual conversation and some time to
watch Killy in action.
“I’m not surprised Jean-Claude wouldn’t talk to you tonight,” he said with a
knowing chuckle. “I happen to know he’s being. . . ah. . . entertained at the moment.”
“That’s weird,” I said, “I just finished a 45-minute talk with him.”
“Oh. . . ?” Stanner pondered my words for a moment, then, like a skilled
politician, he ignored them. “It’s the damnedest thing you ever saw,” he continued
cheerfully. “Goddamn broads won’t give him any peace. It’s embarrassing sometimes, the
way they come on him. . .”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve heard.” Actually, I’d heard it so often that I recognized it now
as part of the program. Killy has a very obvious, natural kind of sex appeal — so obvious that I was getting a little tired of hustlers nudging me to make sure I noticed. McCormack
had set the tone at our first encounter, with his odd warning about “discretion.” Moments
later, replying to somebody who’d asked him if Killy had any plans for a film career,
McCormack had grinned and said, “Oh, we’re not in any hurry; he’s had plenty of offers.
And every time he says no, the price goes up.”
Killy himself says nothing. Straight interviews bore him anyway, but he usually
tries to be civil, even smiling, despite the brain-curdling tedium of answering the same
questions over and over again. He will cope with almost any kind of giddy ignorance, but
his smile snaps off like a dead lightbulb when he senses a carnal drift in the conversation.
If the interviewer persists, or launches a direct question like, “Is there any truth in this
rumor about you and Winnie Ruth Judd?”, Killy will invariably change the subject with
an angry shrug.
His reluctance to talk about women seems genuine, leaving disappointed reporters
no choice but to hunker down in misty speculation. “Killy has a reputation as a skiing
Romeo,” wrote the author of a recent magazine article. “Typically French, though, he
remains discreet about his swinging love life, saying little more than, yes, he has a girl
friend, a model.”
Which was true. He had spent a quiet vacation with her in the Bahamas the week
before I met him in Chicago, and at first I got the impression that he was fairly serious
about her. . . Then, after listening to his pitchmen for a while, I wasn’t sure what I
thought. The “discretion” that would have been the despair of any old-style, low-level
press agent has become, in the hands of McCormack’s cool futurists, a mysterious and
half-sinister cover story, using Killy’s awkward “no comment” behavior to enhance
whatever rumor he refuses to talk about.
Jean-Claude understands that his sex-life has a certain publicity value, but he
hasn’t learned to like it. At one point I asked him how he felt about that aspect of his
image. “What can I say?” he shrugged. “They keep talking about it. I am normal. I like
girls. But what I do is really my own business, I think. . .”
(Shortly after that phone talk with him in Sun Valley, I learned that he really was
being “entertained” when I called, and I’ve never quite understood why he spent 45
minutes on the phone in those circumstances. What a terrible scene for a girl. . .)
I tried to be frank with Stanner. Early on, in our talk, he said: “Look, I’ll give you
all the help I can on this thing, and I think I’m in a position to give you the kind of help
you need. Naturally, I’d expect some play for Head Skis in your photo coverage and of
course that’s my job. . .”
“Fuck the skis,” I replied. “I couldn’t give a hoot in hell if he skis on metal bowls;
all I want to do is talk to the man, in a decent human manner, and find out what he thinks
about things.”
This was not the kind of thing Stanner wanted to hear, but under the
circumstances he handled it pretty well. “O.K.” he said, after a brief pause. “I think we
understand each other. You’re looking for input that’s kind of offbeat, right?”
“Input?” I said. He had used the term several times and I thought I’d better clarify
it.
“You know what I mean,” he snapped, “and I’ll try to set it up for you.”
I started making plans to go up to Sun Valley anyway but then Stanner disrupted
everything by suddenly offering to arrange for me — instead of Ski Magazine’s editor — to accompany J.-C. on that Eastbound flight. “You’ll have a whole day with him,” Stanner
said, “and if you want to come to Boston next week I’ll save you a seat on the company
bus for the ride to Waterville Valley in New Hampshire. Jean-Claude will be along, and
as far as I’m concerned you can have him all to yourself for the whole trip. It takes about
two hours. Hell, maybe you’d rather do that, instead of working your ass off to make that
cross-country flight with him. . .”
“No,” I said. “I’ll do it both ways — first the flight, then the bus ride; that should
give me all the offbeat input I need.”
He sighed.
Killy was there in Salt Lake, red-eyed and jittery with a Coke and a ham sandwich
in the airport cafe. A man from United Airlines was sitting with him, a waitress stopped to
ask for his autograph, people who had no idea who he was paused to nod and stare at “the
celebrity.”
The local TV station had sent out a camera crew, which caused a crowd to gather
around the gate where our plane was waiting. “How do these people know when I’m
here?” he muttered angrily as we hurried down the corridor toward the mob.
I smiled at him. “Come on,” I said, “you know damn well who called them. Do we
have to keep playing this game?”
He smiled faintly, then lined it out like a veteran. “You go ahead,” he said. “Get
our seats on the plane while I talk to these camera people.”
Which he did, while I boarded the plane and instantly found myself involved in a
game of musical chairs with the couple who were being moved back to the tourist
compartment so Jean-Claude and I could have their First Class seats. “I’ve blocked these
two off for you,” the man in the blue uniform told me.
The dowdy little stewardess told the victims how sorry she was — over and over
again, while the man howled in the aisle. I hunkered down in the seat and stared straight
ahead, wishing him well. Killy arrived, ignoring the ruckus and slumping into his seat
with a weary groan. There was no doubt in his mind that the seat was being saved for
Jean-Claude Killy. The man in the aisle seemed to recognize that his protest was doomed:
his seats had been seized by forces beyond his control. “You sons of bitches!” he yelled,
shaking his fist at the crewmen who were pushing him back toward the tourist section. I
was hoping he would whack one of them or at least refuse to stay on the plane but he
caved in, allowing himself to be hustled off like a noisy beggar.
“What was that about?” Killy asked me.
I told him. “Bad scene, eh?” he said. Then he pulled a car racing magazine out of
his briefcase and focused on that. I thought of going back and advising the man that he
could get a full refund on his ticket if he kept yelling, but the flight was delayed for at
least an hour on the runway and I was afraid to leave my seat for fear it might be grabbed
by some late-arriving celebrity.
Within moments, a new hassle developed. I asked the stewardess for a drink and
was told that it was against the rules to serve booze until the plane was airborne. Thirty
minutes later, still sitting on the runway, I got the same answer. There is something in the
corporate manner of United Airlines that reminds me of the California Highway Patrol,
the exaggerated politeness of people who would be a hell of a lot happier if all their
customers were in jail — and especially you, sir.Flying United, to me, is like crossing the Andes in a prison bus. There is no
question in my mind that somebody like Pat Nixon personally approves every United
stewardess. Nowhere in the Western world is there anything to equal the collection of
self-righteous shrews who staff the “friendly skies of United.” I do everything possible to
avoid that airline, often at considerable cost and personal inconvenience. But I rarely
make my own reservations and United seems to be a habit —  like Yellow Cabs — with
secretaries and PR men. And maybe they’re right. . .
My constant requests for a drink to ease the delay were rebuked with increasing
severity by the same stewardess who had earlier defended my right to preempt a first
class seat. Killy tried to ignore the argument but finally abandoned his magazine to view
the whole scene with nervous alarm. He lifted his dark glasses to wipe his eyes — red-
veined balls in a face that looked much older than 26. Then a man in a blue blazer
confronted us, shoving a little girl ahead of him. “Probably you don’t remember me, Jean-
Claude,” he was saying. “We met about two years ago at a cocktail party in Vail.”
Killy nodded, saying nothing. The man shoved an airline ticket envelope at him,
grinning self-consciously: “Could you autograph this for my little girl, please? She’s all
excited about being on the same plane with you.”
Killy scrawled an illegible signature on the paper, then stared blankly at the cheap
camera the girl was aiming at him. The man backed away, unnerved by Killy’s failure to
remember him. “Sorry to bother you,” he said. “But my little girl, you know. . . since we
seem to be delayed here. . . well, thanks very much.”
Killy shrugged as the man backed off. He hadn’t said a word and I felt a little
sorry for the reject, who appeared to be a broker of some kind.
The moppet came back with the camera, wanting a second shot “in case the first
one doesn’t come out.” She took one very quickly, then asked J.-C. to remove his glasses.
“No!” he snapped. “The light hurts my eyes.” There was a raw, wavering note in his
voice, and the child, a shade more perceptive than her father, took her picture and left
without apologies.
Now, less than a year later, Killy is making very expensive and elaborate
commercials for United Airlines. He was in Aspen recently “secretly” filming a ski race
for showing, months later, on national TV. He didn’t ring me up. . .
Killy refused both the drink and the meal. He was clearly on edge and I was
pleased to find that anger made him talkative. By this time I had disabused myself of the
notion that we had any basic rapport; his habit-smiles were for people who asked habit-
questions — fan-magazine bullshit and pulp philosophy: How do you like America? (It is
truly wonderful. I would like to see it all in a Camaro.) How did it feel to win three gold
medals in the Olympics? (It felt truly wonderful. I plan to have them mounted on the
dashboard of my Camaro.)
Somewhere in the middle of the flight, with our conversation lagging badly, I
reverted to a Hollywood-style of journalism that Killy instantly picked up on. “Tell me,” I
said. “What’s the best place you know? If you were free to go anyplace in the world right
now — no work, no obligation, just to enjoy yourself — where would it be?”
His first answer was “home,” and after that came Paris and a clutch of French
resort areas — until I had to revise the question and eliminate France altogether.
Finally he settled on Hong Kong. “Why?” I asked. His face relaxed in a broad,
mischievous grin. “Because a friend of mine is head of the police there,” he said, “and when I go to Hong Kong I can do anything I want.”
I laughed, seeing it all on film — the adventures of a filthy-rich French cowboy,
turned loose in Hong Kong with total police protection. With J.-C. Killy as the hellion
and maybe Rod Steiger as his cop-friend. A sure winner. . .
Looking back, I think that Hong Kong note was the truest thing Jean-Claude ever
said to me. Certainly it was the most definitive — and it was also the only one of my
questions he obviously enjoyed answering.
By the time we got to Chicago I’d decided to spare us both the agony of
prolonging the “interview” all the way to Baltimore. “I think I’ll get off here,” I said as we
left the plane. He nodded, too tired to care. Just then we were confronted by a heavy
blonde girl with a clipboard. “Mister Killy?” she said. J.-C. nodded. The girl mumbled
her name and said she was there to help him make connections to Baltimore. “How was
Sun Valley?” she asked. “Was it good skiing?” Killy shook his head, still walking very
fast up the corridor. The girl was half trotting beside us. “Well, I hope the other activities
were satisfactory,” she said with a smile. Her emphasis was so heavy, so abysmally raw,
that I glanced over to see if she was drooling.
“Who are you?” she asked suddenly.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’m leaving.”
Now, many months later, my clearest memory of that whole Killy scene is a
momentary expression on the face of a man who had nothing to do with it. He was a
drummer and lead singer in a local jazz-rock band I heard one night at a New Hampshire
ski resort where Killy was making a sales appearance. I was killing time in a dull
midnight bistro when this nondescript little bugger kicked off on his own version of a
thing called “Proud Mary” — a heavy blues shot from Creedence Clearwater. He was
getting right into it, and somewhere around the third chorus I recognized the weird smile
of a man who had found his own rhythm, that rumored echo of a high white sound that
most men never hear. I sat there in the dark smoke of that place and watched him climb. .
. far up on some private mountain to that point where you look in the mirror and see a
bright bold streaker, blowing all the fuses and eating them like popcorn on the way up.
That image had to remind me of Killy, streaking down the hills at Grenoble for
the first, second and third of those incredible three gold medals. Jean-Claude had been
there — to that rare high place where only the snow leopards live; and now, 26-years-old
with more dollars than he can use or count, there is nothing else to match those peaks he
has already beaten. Now it is all downhill for the world’s richest ski bum. He was good
enough — and lucky — for a while, to live in that Win-Lose, Black-White, Do-or-Die
world of the international super TV athlete. It was a beautiful show while it lasted, and
Killy did his thing better than anyone else has ever done it before.
But now, with nothing else to win, he is down on the killing floor with the rest of
us — sucked into strange and senseless wars on unfamiliar terms; haunted by a sense of
loss that no amount of money can ever replace; mocked by the cotton-candy rules of a
mean game that still awes him. . . locked into a gilded life-style where winning means
keeping his mouth shut and reciting, on cue, from other men’s scripts. This is Jean-Claude
Killy’s new world: He is a handsome middle-class French boy who trained hard and
learned to ski so well that now his name is immensely saleable on the marketplace of a
crazily inflated culture-economy that eats its heroes like hotdogs and honors them on about the same level.
His TV-hero image probably surprises him more than it does the rest of us. We
take whatever heroes come our way, and we’re not inclined to haggle. Killy seems to
understand this, too. He is taking advantage of a money-scene that never existed before
and might never work again — at least not in his lifetime or ours, and maybe not even
next year.
On balance, it seems unfair to dismiss him as a witless greedhead, despite all the
evidence. Somewhere behind that wistful programmed smile I suspect there is something
akin to what Norman Mailer once called (speaking of James Jones) “an animal sense of
who has the power.” There is also a brooding contempt for the American system that has
made him what he is. Killy doesn’t understand this country; he doesn’t even like it — but
there is no question in his mind about his own proper role in a scene that is making him
rich. He is his manager’s creature, and if Mark McCormack wants him to star in a geek
film or endorse some kind of skin-grease he’s never heard of. . . well, that’s the way it is.
Jean-Claude is a good soldier; he takes orders well and he learns quickly. He would rise
through the ranks in any army.
Killy reacts; thinking is not his gig. So it is hard to honor him for whatever
straight instincts he still cultivates in private — while he mocks them in public, for huge
amounts of money. The echo of Gatsby’s style recalls the truth that Jimmy Gatz was
really just a rich crook and a booze salesman. But Killy is not Gatsby. He is a bright
young Frenchman with a completely original act. . . and a pragmatic frame of reference
that is better grounded, I suspect, than my own. He is doing pretty well for himself, and
nothing in his narrow, high-powered experience can allow him to understand how I can
watch his act and say that it looks, to me, like a very hard dollar– maybe the hardest.

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