Along about 1937, facing a midlife crisis at 40 and sensing that the Great Depression was finally over, a New York sportswriter named Paul Gallico decided to change his life. He had tried his hand at several branches of journalism, fired from a spot as a movie reviewer for being too snarky, before landing at the sports desk of the Daily News.
Others might have thought it a demotion for someone so talented, and Gallico himself later admitted that he indulged in all the clichés and purple prose the business had to offer. But he took the job seriously, and he did something that no other sportswriter would do—at least more than once—until George Plimpton came along a couple of decades later: Though not the most gifted of athletes himself, Gallico went into the boxing ring with the great Jack Dempsey and got himself clobbered and then knocked out in the space of less than two minutes. He jumped in the pool to race Johnny Weismuller, a champion swimmer before becoming the Tarzan of short-feature fame. He faced Dizzy Dean at the plate and nearly got killed by a fastball. He played golf, tennis, basketball, football, polo, and faro against the stars of those games, and he wrote about what he saw and did out on the beat. For good measure, he founded the Golden Gloves award.
But in 1937, Gallico was ready for something new. The following year, he pulled together a collection of his best writing, meaningfully called Farewell to Sport, writing in the introduction that he was reluctantly abandoning a calling that he termed “an old and good friend and companion to me” and allowing that he was “lingering as long as one dares before the final, irrevocable shutting of the door.”
He started to write in earnest: fiction, sketches, lots of magazine pieces. He moved to England, where World War II was beginning to heat up, publishing a novel whose modern knight-errant hero was something of a Gallico alter ego: an inky wretch who learns spycraft and martial arts and goes off to fight the Nazis pretty well single-handedly. After the war began for real, Gallico turned in a sentimental but memorable story called “The Snow Goose,” which the Saturday Evening Post published. Its hero, an artist who, like Gallico, was living a quiet life on the English coast, rehabilitates a wounded bird. “He was a friend to all things wild,” Gallico writes of his hero, “and the wild things repaid him with their friendship.” So the snow goose does, witnessing the artist’s death while heroically saving British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk.
For the next 35 years, Gallico enjoyed great success as a commercial novelist, never much liked by the critics but eminently capable of turning in satisfying potboilers like The Poseidon Adventure, Thomasina, and Mrs ’Arris Goes to Paris. By the time he died in 1976, he had published some 50 novels. He even returned to sportswriting long enough to write the story and then the script for the Lou Gehrig biopic Pride of the Yankees, lingering at the door for just a little bit longer.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.