ON BOOKS: How wife exploited Jim Thorpe


On November 9, 1951, Jim Thorpe, who a year earlier had been voted the “greatest athlete of half a century” in an Associated Press poll of nearly 400 sportswriters and broadcasters, had a cancerous tumor removed from his lower lip at a hospital in a suburb of Philadelphia.

The next day, news photographers gathered to take pictures of him in his hospital bed with his jaw bandaged. He was reportedly cheerful despite his third wife Patsy’s announcement that the couple was “broke.”

“Jim has nothing but his name and memories,” she said. “He spent money on his own people and gave it away. He was often taken advantage of.”

Chief among his exploiters may have been Patsy, a former nightclub singer who claimed to have played the piano at one of Al Capone’s bars.

After Thorpe was voted “Greatest Female Athlete,” she stated her goal was to turn that honor into $1 million. She controlled her husband’s career and had cobbled together a kind of variety show for him. He read a poem, told a few jokes, and then went to the bar.

She set him an expense allowance of over $1,000 for speaking engagements. She saw him host a national TV show and made a deal for him to manage a young American Indian competing as a pro wrestler under the name Suni (or Sunny) War Cloud. Thorpe and his charge walked to the ring together, wearing full headgear.

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She had advertised a public relations job for him with the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League.

“I was determined to put Jim back in the spotlight and damn if I didn’t make it,” Patsy wrote to her husband’s eldest daughter, a 30-year-old whom she had never met in person. “But I work on it 24 hours a day. I’ve literally kicked in doors across the country and Jim Thorpe is going to be the greatest thing in the sporting world from now on. Of course you know how lazy he is. I have to blow it up and keep riding it. ”

But oral cancer pretty much doomed Patsy’s make-a-million campaign. While there have been several campaigns to raise money for the Thorpes, including those organized by the Pittsburgh Pirates and Green Bay Packers, it’s hard to say how much money the Thorpes actually got. And Thorpe’s sons claimed that whatever did leak out to them, Patsy probably spent it on herself.

Anyway, within months the Thorpes were living in a trailer park in Lomita, California, near Los Angeles. During a late lunch on March 28, 1953, Jim Thorpe collapsed. It was his third and last heart attack.

Just as New York Yankees great Don Mattingly once admitted he was in the major leagues before realizing that Babe Ruth was a historical figure and not a Paul Bunyan-like myth, most of us probably have a vague idea of Thorpe. He was a real man, a great athlete who won two gold medals in track and field at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics (only to have them taken away from him a year later for playing a couple of seasons of semi-pro baseball). He twice received all American honors as a college football star, played six seasons in Major League Baseball, helped found the National Football League, and was a forward as a pro basketball player.

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He was also an alcoholic, a tragic embodiment of the stereotypical “drunk Indian”. It’s easy for us to reduce his story to a few simple lines. All we have to do is see Burt Lancaster as Thorpe in the 1951 film Jim Thorpe: All American.

Thus, veteran Washington Post journalist David Maraniss has done a great service with his detailed, clear-eyed and at times impenetrably sad biography, Path Lit By Lightning, whose title is derived from a translation of Thorpe’s Sac and Fox Nation names Wa -Tho is derived from -huk.

Maraniss adheres to the conventional assumption that Thorpe was largely a victim — chronically patronized, exploited, and abused by people and powers he trusted — but resists the temptation to infantilize Thorpe as a simpleton with no decision-maker. This Thorpe is a proud and taciturn man whose reluctance to speak for himself has undoubtedly complicated his life and the work of his biographer.

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Thorpe didn’t talk or write much; The only way to get to know him is to look at what his friends, co-workers and family have said about him.

That’s not to say Path Lit By Lightning isn’t a valuable corrective to the myths surrounding Thorpe – the pop warner portrayed here is a moral coward and a liar, not a benevolent father figure – just that even after reading, Thorpe remains an enigma . Because that’s how some people are.

Thorpe had always wanted to be buried in Oklahoma, but the night before a traditional sac-and-fox funeral ceremony, during a tribal festival held in honor of Thorpe’s life and legacy, Patsy tumbled in with a hearse and several police officers carry away the corpse coffin. They brought it back to Los Angeles for a viewing.

The body was not buried. Patsy was looking for a suitable place for her husband’s remains. Maybe she was looking for the highest bidder?

Thorpe’s remains ended up in a memorial park in a small town in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, a place Thorpe likely never set foot. Two small towns looking for a way to attract tourists agreed to join forces, renaming themselves Jim Thorpe, PA and building a memorial park.

Maraniss, the responsible journalist that he is, does not report what is often rumored: that Patsy also got $500 cash under the table.

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