He bet cautiously at the track, but elsewhere he was drawn to those with the odds stacked against them
By Zachary Sklar
June 1, 2009
He lay on his back, eyes closed, skin sallow and sagging, belly bulging under the hospital sheet. So many tubes and wires hooked into his bruised veins, I could barely recognize him.
The sterile room in the Mount Sinai cancer ward scared me. I’d visited many hospitals, but I’d never seen anything like this.
He opened his eyes, pale blue, milky, the glasses he was always losing gone now. “Hi Zach.”
“Hey Bill. How you doing?” “Not good. . . . Pain.” In the 20 years I’d known Bill Reuben, he’d been through spinal and prostate surgery, two cataract operations, a bleeding ulcer that had the police bashing down his door to rush him to the emergency room, emphysema, diabetes. And that didn’t include three bullet wounds he got in World War II. But through all that, I’d never before heard him complain of pain.
“Don’t stay,” he said. “Okay, if you don’t want me to.” “Do me one favor.” I nodded. “Tell the doctor . . . to give me something . . . so I can . . . get out of here.” “Sure, something to make you more comfortable . . . ” “No.” He sounded irritated. “To get out.” The doctors had taken off the oxygen mask he’d been wearing for a couple of weeks. Bill didn’t want it. The congestion in his lungs was getting heavier, his heart weaker. But the resolute look in his eyes was unmistakable.
“I understand. I’ll tell them.” “Look, I’m 88,” he said, his breath short. “I’ve always believed nobody gets out of here alive.” He was on a morphine drip, but his mind was as lucid as ever. “I just want to say my goodbyes.”
“Thanks for . . . everything, Zach,” Bill continued, words coming out between gasps. “You’ve . . . been a great . . . friend.”
My mouth was dry. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow.
Bill’s voice was quiet but firm. “We’ve had some . . . terrific times . . . together . . . ”
There was silence. His mind seemed to drift into memory. So did mine.
August 1990. Our first trip to Saratoga Springs. Bill was 74, I was 41. I picked Bill up in Manhattan, we drove for three hours, got off at Exit 14 of the Northway, and, as Red Smith said, entered a different century. Set on the edge of a storybook Victorian town, the thoroughbred racecourse, the oldest in North America, traces its heritage back to 1865. As we parked near the training track and walked through the stable area, watching horses being washed down and groomed, Bill said, “My father took me here when I was 15. I’ve been back every summer since.” To him, Saratoga was a sec- ond home. “Well, except maybe a few years when my son was young and my second wife didn’t want me squandering the rent money.”
His step seemed to quicken as we entered the grounds of the track. Instantly I could feel myself being pulled into an insular, timeless world, operating on its own rules, honoring its sacred rituals and traditions. “Just look at this,” he said, pointing to the creaking wooden grandstand with its red-and-white awnings and languid ceiling fans. “How can anyone even think of George Bush or Iran-Contra when they’re here? I keep telling you, Zach, Saratoga is the best therapy around.”
I’d met Bill seven years earlier through our mutual friend Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation magazine. Victor had asked me to edit a pamphlet on the Alger Hiss case. Hiss’s notorious 1950 conviction on perjury charges was being appealed, and the idea was to publish the pamphlet documenting more than 100 factual errors in the federal judge’s opinion before the Supreme Court reviewed the case.
Hiss was one of those iconic names that every kid who grew up in a Communist home knew—like Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, the Rosenbergs, Paul Robeson—so I agreed to do it.
Victor warned me that the writer of the pamphlet, William A. Reuben, was a bit eccentric. He lived in one of the most fashionable neighborhoods of Manhattan—East 63rd Street between Park and Madison. But it was a rent-controlled, fourth-floor walkup, and Bill, twice divorced, had been alone for quite a while, so the cramped interior had a shabby, decaying feel, with musty books and files covering every available surface. Bill wore baggy thrift-shop clothes that smelled of dried egg and stale sweat. Rather than buy The New York Times, which he considered the enemy, he regularly picked it out of the garbage in the subway. “Why encourage the bastards?” he
“I understand. I’ll tell them.” “Look, I’m 88,” he said, his breath short. “I’ve always believed nobody explained. He’d been studying the Hiss and Rosenberg cases for 30 years, but hadn’t held a steady job that whole time. He’d been a press agent for the Metropolitan Opera and the American Civil Liberties Union, a phone salesman huckstering land in Arizona, a taxi driver, and a plaintiff in numer- ous lawsuits. He’d lived on the settlement from one “successful accident” for a full year. Somehow he pieced together a living from freelance writing, Social Security, a small disability pension from his war wounds, and a few well-placed bets at the racetrack.
Victor had told me that Bill suffered from a number of maladies including diabetes, and when his blood sugar was low, he could be ornery—or worse. But I found Bill charming and gracious. Apparently my political pedigree had predis- posed him to like me. As a young man, he’d seen social protest plays my father had written, and his camp counselor had been my father’s best friend and collaborator, Albert Maltz, later one of the Hollywood Ten. When I told Bill I’d grown up with two of his books on my parents’ shelves— The Atom Spy Hoax, a defense of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and The Honorable Mr. Nixon, an exposé of Congressman Richard Nixon’s dishonorable role in the Hiss case—his eyes lit up and he announced to Victor that I was the man for the job.
The pamphlet proved to be a nightmare. My Columbia Journalism School training clashed with Bill’s loose interpretation of what a factual error was. Bill would regularly explode and threaten to fire me or, alternatively, to aban- don the project. In these conflicts, Victor became the final arbiter. Bill protested his verdicts so often and at such great length that we missed the deadline and ended up publishing Footnote on an Historic Case: In Re Alger Hiss a couple of months after the Supreme Court had rejected Hiss’s appeal.
A lot had happened in the seven years since then. My father had died, I’d come down with an incapacitating case of chronic fatigue syndrome, and I’d moved to a small house in the Hudson Valley to heal. Physically unable to do much else, I spent a lot of time thinking about my father, miss- ing him, mourning him—and exploring my anger at him. One of the things I realized was that, unlike most fathers and sons, he and I had never gone to a single sporting event together. Though the Dodgers, the Lakers, and the Rams all played regularly in LA, I went to see them only with friends and their fathers. And although I had played competitive tennis in high school and my father had written a novel about the game, he never
took me to a match or came to watch me play. In a city with an unreliable bus system, where kids depend on their parents for transportation, he never drove me anywhere. He was the only man in Los Angeles who didn’t know how to drive—or so it seemed to me.
One day I was going through the childhood things I’d rescued from the house, and I found a Saratoga Springs T-shirt with a picture of horses strain- ing for the finish line. My grandparents, who ran a small tailor shop on the Lower East Side and every August took a couple of weeks to escape to Saratoga for the fresh country air and healing waters, had sent it to me when I was eight years old. As a boy, I’d always loved that T-shirt and dreamed of the mythical place called Saratoga.
Thirty-four years later, with the worn T-shirt in my hands, I felt a long- ing for something—I didn’t know exactly what. And then I remembered a yellowing newspaper photo I’d seen one day on Bill Reuben’s bulletin board when we were finishing the pamphlet. It was of Bill in 1968, reading a Daily
Bill Reuben: “If you’re a Marxist, you can win at the track.”
Racing Form in the paddock area at Saratoga Springs. He looked young, strong, vibrant, and slim.
Somewhere in my aching soul I felt it was time to go to Saratoga and that Bill would be the perfect guide. I called him, and here we were, strolling the grounds together—an odd couple if ever there was one. Bill was of medium height, with a balding head, long strands of gray hair
flowing behind his ears, a red bulbous nose, drooping jowls, a double chin, and a protruding belly. On top of a knit shirt, he wore a stained 1950s plaid sport jacket, the pockets bulging with a racing program, sunglasses, and reading glasses. I was tall, skinny, and pale, wearing faded Levis, sneakers, and a baseball cap.
Though he was 33 years older, I’d been weakened by my illness, so we moved at pretty much the same pace. Bill pointed out all his favorite spots— the clothing room where the rainbow-colored silks of all the stables hung, the jockeys’ quarters where the diminutive athletes (mostly Hispanic and Irish) freshened up between races, the scales where they weighed in, the Big Red Spring, named for the fabled Man o’ War, where we drank the mineral waters.
Finally, we sat down at a picnic table in the paddock area. Here we watched the horses being saddled by their trainers and paraded before their high-soci- ety owners—beautiful women in outrageous hats and flowery dresses and aging men in white linen suits and panamas, who smelled of money.
I knew nothing about horse racing or betting. “If you’re a Marxist, you can win at the track,” Bill said. “It’s all dialectics.” He pulled out a stack of small paper sheets with computerized numbers in graph form. Bill pre- pared for a day at the races by buying both the Daily Racing Form, which most everyone used, and the Ragozin Sheets, which cost a lot and very few bettors used. “These were invented by an ex-Communist,” Bill said. “He almost sin- gle-handedly supported the Progressive Labor Party with his track win- nings all through the sixties.”
He started to explain how they worked, but before he got very far, he was drowned out by “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the loudspeaker sys- tem. Everyone stood up, some saluting the flag. I felt my usual mixture of anger, anxiety, and fear. The flag Bill had fought for stood for freedom. But having lived through the McCarthy era and the civil-rights and anti–Vietnam War movements, I had come to view it as a symbol of Amer- ica’s expanding imperial, military, and racist presence around the world.
I felt intimidated by the flag-wavers around me. I’d grown up in the 1950s in Hollywood, where my father had been a blacklisted screenwriter. Fear permeated our home, and my father’s response to the blacklist had been to retreat. He dropped out of politics altogether, and as a boy I watched him wither, a diminished man. He still read about politics, but his dissenting voice had been silenced, his spirit crushed.
I still lived with that pervasive fear. And so I found myself reluctantly ris- ing to my feet as that unsingable anthem blared. But Bill remained firmly seated, like a big-bellied Jewish Buddha. A heavily muscled middle-aged man with a crewcut stood nearby, his hand over his heart. He glared over at Bill.
“Hey, how about a little respect for the flag, old-timer?” he yelled. Bill didn’t respond. I nervously shuffled my feet. I’d escaped Vietnam with col- lege deferments. My father had avoided World War II by working for the movies. Patriotic military types always made me feel like a wimp.
“I said, how about showing some respect for this great country?” the man shouted, his face reddening. He was drunk. My breathing grew short and quick. “What kind of coward won’t stand up for his country?”
Bill didn’t budge. He looked straight into the man’s eyes. “I have three Purple Hearts,” he said quietly. “How many do you have?”
The man slinked away as the song ended. I was ready to follow Bill anywhere.
He led me to the horse races, and the spectacle dazzled me. Flowers everywhere, even hanging from the stables. The romantic names—Sky Beauty, Sea Hero. The sensual horses with their shining coats, flowing manes, and soulful eyes. The rituals—saddling in the paddock, the bugle signaling the horses’ entrance to the track, the regal post parade. The roar of the crowd, the horses turning for home and heading down the stretch. My own heart pounding, a horse we’d bet on surging to the lead at the fin- ish line. For better or worse, I fell in love with horse racing that day.
Before the first race we each put $100 in a pool, and I left the betting to Bill. By the end of the feature race, we had accumulated an astonishing profit of $1,200. As we walked through the stables on the way to the car, Bill told me his first rule of horse racing: if you win, don’t give it back to the track. Treat yourself to a good meal at as fancy a restaurant as you can find.
We went to a small classy place called Eartha’s, rubbing shoulders with wealthy horse-owning families like the Vanderbilts and Phippses—a temporary leveling of the playing field that gave Bill infinite pleasure.
Bill’s second rule was: if you win, buy something for somebody you love. And so, after dinner, Bill and I ended up in the swankiest boutique on Saratoga’s main drag, relying on the saleswoman to pick out a purple tie-dyed dress for Sarah, my life partner, who almost never wore dresses but adored anything purple.
After a leisurely drive by the luxurious Victorian homes on upper Broadway, we headed to my home in Olivebridge.
“So . . . three Purple Hearts,” I said as we entered the Northway. That was all it took. Bill was off telling me stories about his war experience.
“I enlisted and went to Europe as an infantry second lieutenant,” he said. “My main job was to jump out of the foxhole first and yell, ‘Follow me.’ The life expectancy for infantry officers in combat was about nine days. All you had to hope for was that you’d come up with what they used to call ‘a million-dollar wound.’ In other words, you’d get hit bad enough to take you out of combat but not maim you for life. I was the only one from my offi- cers’ training class who survived the war. Everyone else got killed. I was lucky. Got hit three times, got trench feet, which is something like gan- grene. Spent seven months in the hospital and got out of the Army with a 30 percent disability benefit for life. It wasn’t much, but it helped support me as a freelance writer.”
It was late, I was tired. But Bill’s stories kept me awake, and my respect for him grew the more he told me. He’d arrived on the beach at Normandy a month after D-day. He remembered looking up and wondering how U.S. forces had been able to scale those cliffs under heavy fire. Then, when he got to the top of the cliffs himself, he saw the vast field of crosses where thousands of young men were buried, and he understood. Right after V-E day, he’d taken a leave and gone to Dachau with his wife, Miriam, a concert violinist, and the singer Paul Robeson, who’d been entertaining the troops on a USO tour. Together they’d seen the horror of the Nazi concentration camps—an image that haunted him the rest of his life.
“The war radicalized me,” he said. “Before I went overseas I was stationed all over the Deep South—Fort Benning, Georgia; Camp Shelby, Mississippi; Camp Rucker, Alabama. I was supposed to deliver lectures to the troops about why we fight against fascism. And here I was, in a segregated Army, hearing the word ‘nigger’ every place you went. I mean, the venom that came out towards anyone whose skin pigmentation was any different—all these expressions of racism that seemed to me to be the very thing we were supposed to be fighting against.
“And then when we went to Dachau, I remember we must have stopped 15 people (our driver spoke German) and asked, ‘Where is the concentration camp?’ and everyone, without exception, said: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never heard of it.’ That made such a profound impression.
“And finally, back home I went to work for the ACLU and Roger Bald- win, the orneriest SOB you could ever meet. The ACLU was defending Nazis, our enemies in the war, and at the same time turning down cases of Com- munists, our allies in the war—this was an enormous shock that jolted me into wondering, ‘Is this what we fought the war for?’ And so, when every- one else was leaving the Communist Party, I joined, just to show which side I was on. But I didn’t last long. Too stifling for an independent mind.” Bill spent that night in Olivebridge, marveling at the fresh air, the stars, and the quiet. The next day I put him on a bus in New Paltz. He went straight from the Port Authority terminal to Roosevelt Hospital, where he was rushed into emergency surgery for prostate cancer. He hadn’t told me about the blood in his urine at Saratoga. Within 10 days he had a second operation. When I finally reached him on the phone, he seemed unfazed. The doctors had told him his prognosis was good. I was relieved, but when I hung up, I said to Sarah, with more than a little disappointment, “I guess that’s the last time I’ll ever go to Saratoga with Bill.”
For the next 13 summers, I told Sarah the same thing. And every year I was wrong. Even when Bill had spinal surgery, even as his diabetes worsened and neuropathy set in, even when he was 87 and in a wheelchair, we never missed Saratoga.
Every year the ritual was pretty much the same. I would pick him up in the city, and once in Saratoga we’d head directly to the clubhouse dining room, where we would have lunch and bet on the races from a table overlooking the magnificent track with its furrowed dirt, manicured grass, and ever-present waterfowl. To conserve funds for the betting windows, we’d stay in a modest bungalow several miles north of Saratoga. At dawn we’d be up watching the horses work out in the morning mist, followed by breakfast at the concrete-block café in the backstretch area, where the migrant stable hands ate. In the afternoon, back to the track for more races and betting. And at sunset, win or lose, we’d drive slowly around the sta- ble area, enjoying the smell of hay and the peacefulness as the horses settled in for the evening.
It was there in the stables near the training track that Bill took me in 1993 to visit his trainer friend Skippy Shapoff. They’d known each other since boyhood, Bill explained. Skippy’s father, Moe, was a trainer and a friend of Bill’s father. Skippy had gone to Harvard but had come back to horse training. This year he had a top three-year-old colt named Silver of Silver who’d finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes and was training for the big race of the summer, the Travers.
“Hey Billy,” said Skippy. He didn’t say much else. Bill asked him about Silver of Silver as we gingerly sidestepped clods of horse dung.
“Just worked in 1:12. They’ll notice that.”
He took us over to see the big horse, but warned us not to pet him. He was mean and could bite. Bill asked if he had any other horses we could bet on, but Skippy just grumbled. Then he looked up at Bill and said, “Y’know, I think Damon had a horse a long time ago—named him Billy Reuben.”
We’d lost all our bets that day, so we went to dinner at the Four Seasons, an inexpensive vegetarian café that Bill didn’t really like. I asked him about “Damon.”
“Damon Runyon was a good friend of my father’s,” Bill said. “He wrote most of his best short stories at our house on Hibiscus Island in Miami. He didn’t get along with his own family, but he liked me. Took me with him to the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. He wasn’t a real hustler himself, didn’t talk like the characters in his stories. In fact, he hired a friend of my father’s to be his driver just so he could hear the real street talk. I for- get his name—maybe Greasy Fin- gers Lefty or Pickpocket Harry. No, no, it was Horse-Thief Burke. He talked the real lingo.”
He sniffed a seaweed casserole with suspicion. “What is this stuff? Y’know, Zach, I wouldn’t come here, except I keep hoping Julie will walk in again.”
Two years earlier, the first woman jockey in the horse-racing Hall of Fame, Julie Krone, a fearless 90-pound veg- etarian with a squeaky voice, had sat down next to us and talked to Bill for 10 minutes about racing and diet. He was in heaven.
“So did you get to know some of these hustlers?” I asked.
“Sure, all my father’s friends—con men, charlatans, scoundrels.” He smiled to himself. “I remember this one guy we’d drive to Saratoga with— E. Phoshen Howard. He ran an old-fashioned shakedown operation. He’d follow the rich and famous to brothels, then he’d threaten to expose them in his weekly scandal sheet unless he was paid off.”
“And your father? Was he a hustler too?”
Bill nodded as he dug into a vegetable stir-fry. “He was raised in the Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum. A very gifted salesman, promoter, made a lot of money with his schemes. He was interested in all kinds of sporting events. At one point he owned a part of the Cleveland professional football team. And from the time I was six years old, he took me to racetracks all over the world.”
“So where’d you make your first bet?”
“New Orleans. I was a teenager working at the track. A 50-to-1 long shot named Freedom’s Call, and he won! I always thought that was prophetic. But I’ll tell you, working there every day, watching the hustlers and touts and degenerate horseplayers, I figured out pretty quick the world was not what it seemed. You want to know what’s really going on—on or off the track—you follow the money.”
I couldn’t get enough of this stuff. Like Bill, I’d been born into a non- religious Jewish home. But the world of my parents was populated by moral,
honest, upright intellectuals—serious political people who believed in Marxist ideology and the nobility of the working class. Bill’s Runyonesque world of scam artists hustling for an easy buck was something utterly for- eign—fascinating, dangerous, and alluring.
“Through the first years of the Depression I was raised like a millionaire’s son,” Bill continued as he shoveled down his tofu salad. He was warming up now. “I had a governess, a chauffeur. Went to private schools. We lived on Park Avenue in Manhattan and later Hibiscus Island in Miami. Our neighbor on the next island was Al Capone.”
“Hold it, hold it,” I interrupted. “You knew Al Capone?”
“No, he was in prison, but I was friends with his son. Sweet, lovely boy. Every school day for a year his bodyguard picked me up in the morning and drove me and Sonny Capone to school, then picked me up and brought me back home. That ended when I was sent to boarding school in Switzer- land. Then at the University of Pennsylvania, I had my own Cadillac road- ster, my own suite of rooms. But I never really knew where all this affluence came from until one day at the end of my sophomore year I saw a headline in the newspaper: my father had been indicted for fraud and income tax evasion. All of a sudden there was no money. I had to drop out of college. That was the beginning of my personal disillusionment.”
Although his father was eventually acquitted in a backroom payoff, whatever respect Bill once had for authority figures was now gone. The hysteria of the Cold War years further disillusioned him. “McCarthy, Nixon, Whittaker Chambers, J. Edgar Hoover—they were just lying, cheat- ing con artists like the ones I was raised with—only on a much bigger stage. When most of America bought into their phony espionage cases, their loyalty oaths and blacklists—that completed my radicalization.”
He paused, finishing his brown-rice pudding. “I guess maybe you had to be raised like me to see that was just another con game.”
ill was a walking history of the 20th century. How many other people had spent two days explaining the Rosenberg case to Albert Einstein? (Bill came back from Princeton and told his mother he’d finally met some- one intelligent enough to understand him.) In the beginning, our con- versations were mostly a one-way street—Bill telling stories, me listening. But over time that changed. Bill had become isolated. He was a political maverick who couldn’t work with any party or organization for long. His combative personality had ended a number of friendships. He was divorced. His son lived in California. I realized that Bill needed me, not just to pass lonely hours, but to share his life, his history, his passion for politics and for horse racing.
Having escaped death three times in combat, Bill considered every day an unexpected gift. After the war he lived with no fear, no caution, no plan for the future, no concern about money. He spent his time fighting
Sklar RHP.qxp 8/15/2006 4:48 PM Page 98Saratoga Bill
for the underdog. But at the racetrack he almost invariably bet on favorites. In his view, inside information ruled the stock exchange, poli- tics, the track, and just about everything else, and he didn’t have enough money to risk betting against the big boys. His idea of a good bet was to plunk down $50 to place on an even-money favorite. When the horse won and he collected a $20 profit, he’d say with satisfaction, “Forty cents to the dollar. Now that’s value.”
He did a lot of homework before going to the track, carefully studying the Ragozin Sheets, which evaluated horses by assigning numerical speed figures to each of their past races. By looking at the numbers and the phys- ical pattern they made on a graph, you could, in theory, more easily pre- dict what the horse would do on the day he was to race. If a horse had run a particularly fast race recently, for example, most likely he would “bounce” and run a poor race next time out. After sufficient rest, he might recover and run somewhere in between. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The Hegelian- Marxist dialectic.
Bill taught me how to read The Sheets, but warned me not to put too much faith in them: “The horses still have to run around the track.” I learned that lesson the hard way. One day, having studied the great filly Sky Beauty’s superior sheet numbers, I decided she couldn’t lose. “Careful,” Bill counseled. “The map is not the territory.” Ignoring him, I put $300 on her to win. Sure enough, she crossed the finish line first by three lengths—but was disqualified for interfering with another horse. Bill had little sympathy.
Unlike Bill, I had lived a remarkably sheltered life. Growing up with so much fear during the blacklist, I had adopted a cautious approach to liv- ing. After college, I’d gone to journalism school and gotten a secure part- time job proofreading at Time magazine while I worked on a novel. I kept my expenses to a minimum and stayed out of trouble. No big risks—till I discovered the racetrack.
I found the betting part of horse racing thrilling. It was liberating not to worry about money for once, to ignore those Depression-era voices of my parents whispering in my ear to be frugal. And for someone who worked alone as a writer and editor on projects that took years to complete, there was nothing more satisfying than the immediacy of a horse race. You chose a horse, placed a bet, watched the race, and the whole thing was over, win or lose, within a few minutes.
I was the exact opposite of Bill. Whereas he had lived with reckless aban- don and bet with the utmost caution, I had lived with caution and bet with reckless abandon. He usually bet favorites. I loved long shots. He liked to see the odds going down on a horse he’d bet, taking it as a sign that someone knew something. I was happiest when I saw the odds on my horse skyrocketing. He was dispassionate and scientific in his analysis. I was emotional and was even open to the predictions of a self-described psychic—something that drove Bill crazy, especially when I won with one of the psychic’s picks at 18 to 1.
Ultimately, though, Saratoga wasn’t about gambling. We’d gone to the races at Belmont Park, Aqueduct, and The Meadowlands. But Bill always said, “Losing at Saratoga is better than winning anywhere else.” For Bill, Saratoga was a tonic that revived his spirit. He could leave behind George W. Bush and all the depressing news stories he followed every day on C-SPAN and think about nothing but horses.
Over the years, as his back, eyes, and legs began to fail, he slowed down. During that same time, I had recovered from my illness and was moving faster. Our paces were no longer in sync. Bill began exploding in temper tantrums, and I became increasingly impatient. More than once, as he snapped at me or asked me to carry one more thing when my hands were full, I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” But somehow we survived these conflicts and found ways to cope. First Bill got a cane. Then he held on to the cane with one hand and me with the other. Finally, a wheelchair. By 2000, he was having trouble seeing the odds board and I was placing his bets for him. Increasingly, it felt as if these annual trips to Saratoga were the only thing keeping him alive—except for the Hiss book.
Ever since we met, Bill had been talking about the Hiss book. In 1950, as an investigative reporter for the independent radical weekly National Guardian, Bill had written the first articles questioning Alger Hiss’s convic- tion for perjury. For the next two decades he’d researched and written exposés and books on several of the most sensational espionage cases of the McCarthy era. But in the late 1970s, after Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act, he went back to see Alger Hiss. Together, he and Hiss requested all government records about the case. When the government denied their request, they sued and won. More than 200,000 pages of gov- ernment documents, mostly from the FBI, were released to them.
For two decades he’d been wading through these documents, which bulged from the file cabinets in his rundown apartment. He was writing what he considered the most important work of his life: the definitive book on the Alger Hiss case. But I’d never seen a page of it. Neither had Victor Navasky. Nor Hiss’s son Tony. I began to wonder if the Hiss book was Bill’s equivalent of Joe Gould’s Secret—the Greenwich Village legend’s monu- mental oral history of the world that, it turned out, never existed.
In 1998, Victor Navasky and Tony Hiss, growing impatient, asked if I would work with Bill and edit his book. My career had taken a different direction in the ’90s. A book I had edited, On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison, had been optioned by Oliver Stone, and he had hired me to adapt it into a screenplay with him. Following the release of the resulting film, JFK, whatever credibility I once had in mainstream journalism had vanished and I had turned to screenwriting full-time.
But I found it difficult to say no to Navasky, and Bill wasn’t willing to trust anyone else as his editor. So I agreed. It took no time to discover that the manuscript did indeed exist, and was hundreds of pages long. As I read the confusing chronology, I felt myself being sucked into a quagmire almost as deep as the last one I’d stumbled into in 1987—the Kennedy assassination, which had consumed my life for nearly five years. Now, instead of the endless puzzle involving Oswald, the Zapruder film, and the magic bullet, I was trying to make sense of Hiss, the Pumpkin Papers, Whittaker Chambers, Nixon, and the Woodstock typewriter.
By early 2003, the manuscript had passed the 1,200-page mark. To finish, Bill just had to write a final summary chapter and an introduction. But there were more distractions. In February 2003, it was clear that George W. Bush was misleading the United States into a disastrous war in Iraq. “If Bush had ever bled in combat and smelled the stench of death on a battlefield like I did, he couldn’t possibly do this,” Bill railed at me. “Take me to an anti-war demonstration. Anytime, anywhere, I want to be there.”
On February 15, more than 30 million people around the world poured into the streets to protest the immi- nent war in Iraq. It was a bitter-cold day in New York. But the demonstration was on the East Side, only 20 blocks from Bill’s apartment. We bundled up in our warmest clothes, I lifted Bill into his electric wheelchair—he called it his “scooter”—and we headed toward the crowd. The protest was so massive that police had barricaded every street below 72nd, from Third Avenue to the East River. There was no way to get through. These kinds of situations—big crowds, lots of heavily armed cops—had always brought back my deepest fears from the blacklist days. I was ready to go home.
But Bill would not be denied. He steered his scooter right up to a young cop manning a barricade and pulled out his medals and Purple Hearts from World War II. “How about letting a disabled veteran through?” The cop stared at the Purple Hearts, and then pulled back the barricade. For the next couple of hours we joined the crowds marching in the streets, Bill weaving his way on his scooter, I on foot next to him. When we got home, we were frozen and exhilarated. Though we’d been to several memorial services together, including one for Alger Hiss, this was the only demonstration I ever went to with Bill. I’d never been to any with my own father or mother.
The war began in March. Bill was glued to the TV all spring and into the summer. By August he was ready for our annual escape to Saratoga. I couldn’t fit the scooter into my car. Instead, we took a collapsible wheelchair, and Bill was just as happy for me to be pushing him around. His eyes had deteriorated badly. He could barely see the track and the horses through his binoculars. We had our usual ups and downs, our victories, near misses, “woulda, shouldas” and “if I’da’s.” I don’t remember if we won or lost. It didn’t matter. We were in Saratoga.
At the end of the second day, we took our ritual drive around the stable area, watching the horses being groomed, hot-walked, washed down, fed. We stopped near the Phipps stable of trainer Shug McGaughey. It’s the most secluded and beautiful part of the backstretch, overlooking the Oklahoma training track. The horses were all settled in their stalls. The sun inched lower, orange against a luminous blue sky. The only sounds—hooves shuffling, gentle snorts. We looked out at the track and shared a moment of contentment. Late summer. Warm. All peaceful. In harmony. We didn’t say a word. Somehow we both knew: this was the last time we’d be at Saratoga together.
One day that autumn Bill called. He’d awakened unable to move his left leg. His doctor told him he’d probably had a small stroke. He spent the next two weeks at Lenox Hill, taking dozens of tests and seeing specialists. He loved the attention. “If I was 40 years younger,” he said, “I’d have proposed marriage to four nurses and three therapists.”
He came home without a diagnosis, but with pain in his right shoulder and difficulty breathing. He talked about writing that last chapter of the Hiss book, but since he was now hooked up to an oxygen tank, he didn’t have the strength to do it. All winter he was in and out of the hospital. The shoulder was broken, fragile from a spreading cancer. Breathing impaired by a weakening heart. Legs almost gone now. In spring, the doctors said there was nothing more they could do.
He blinked his weary eyes. The hospital room’s lights were bothering him. “Did that Smarty Jones win the Triple Crown?” Bill asked. On TV he’d been able to follow the exploits of the little horse from Philadelphia who’d won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
“Not yet. The Belmont is this Saturday,” I replied. “I’ll be there rooting for you. Should be one to two. Your kind of horse.”
He didn’t respond. His strength was fading. I put my jacket on. “I’ll make sure your book gets published.”
He nodded. “Touch my hand.” His voice shook.
I groped for a spot with no needles or tubes, then leaned in and gave him an awkward hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Have a good journey . . . the rest of the way,” he said. “You too.” My voice was trembling more than his. “Goodbye, Bill.” Bill died that night. A few days later I went to Belmont Park to see Smarty Jones run for the Triple Crown. Surrounded by 120,000 people, I felt an aching loneliness. I bet $2 to place on the 2-to-5 favorite—for Bill. When a 36-to-1 shot passed Smarty in deep stretch, the crowd lapsed into stunned silence and I found myself weeping. But then the payoffs were posted on the big board—$3.30 for the place bet—and I had to smile. I could hear Bill’s voice: “Sixty-five cents to the dollar. Now that’s what I call value!”
Although Bill’s prose was often like a jungle that needed to be hacked through with a machete, his main thesis was clear as day: Hiss was innocent of both espionage and perjury, and his accuser Whittaker Chambers was neither a spy nor a Communist but a pathological liar. “Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and Chambers framed Hiss,” Bill harangued me, “because he was a high-profile liberal New Dealer—big State Department official, first secretary general of the United Nations. They knew if they called him a Communist spy, they’d make sensational headlines for themselves—and discredit the reforms of FDR’s New Deal. The whole message they wanted to get across was: ‘liberal’ equals ‘Communist’ equals ‘spy’ equals ‘traitor.’ But it was all fiction. The fact remains: of all the people accused of being spies in the 1950s, not a single one was ever convicted of espionage in a court of law in this country. Not a single one.”
The work continued at a leisurely pace, in between my screenwriting jobs and our trips to the races. After several years and nearly 1,000 pages, the end was nowhere in sight. Every time I thought we were approaching the final trial, Bill would add a new chapter. It became clear to me that he really didn’t want the book to end. His life was pretty well set up. He didn’t have much money, but he got by. He had a rent-controlled apartment. Meals on Wheels delivered a hot supper everyday. A part-time housekeeper from Caring Neighbor cleaned up. Access-a-Ride took him anywhere he wanted to go. And despite all his health problems, his mind was as sharp as ever. The book provided a mental challenge, something to do every day. While Saratoga and the horse races were an amusing distraction, the book gave Bill’s life meaning.
Zachary Sklar is a journalist, editor, and screenwriter. He co-wrote the films JFK (with Oliver Stone) and The Feast of the Goat (with Luis Llosa and Augusto Cabada).
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