Thursday, February 28, 2008

W. C. Heinz

The man who died today at the age of 93 wrote about courage and grace under pressure better than anyone of his time.

Bill Heinz was idealized by generations of writers who in the new millennium were still reading his books, articles and collected columns.

We met when I edited a piece of his about Lew Jenkins, a Depression kid from Texas who fought his way up to lightweight champion and then lost everything, breaking his body in motorcycle and car crashes and coming into the ring hurt and drunk.

Bill ran into him during World War II when the former champion was in the Coast Guard landing invasion troops and later after he won a Silver Star as a foot soldier in Korea at the age of 36. The article was the best I worked on during my time at Argosy, a picture of a man who knew how to fight but not how to live with what is called success.

In 1958, Bill wrote a piece for me at Redbook about a young boxer who killed his first opponent in the ring. His novel, "The Professional," had just been published to good reviews, but some critics and readers were put off by the ending. The hero does everything right but loses the big fight in a quirk of fate and then learns to live with it. Fight stories are not supposed to reflect a tragic sense of life.

Ernest Hemingway called it the only good novel about a boxer he had ever read. But what mattered to Bill most did not get into the blurbs. It was the only time I saw him allow himself a moment of pride as he told me:

"Hemingway said he knew it had to end the way it did, but when he got to the last chapter, he threw the book across the room."

Bill Heinz's subject was grace under pressure. He wrote about football coach Vince Lombardi, surgeons in the operating room and Martin Luther King's march on Selma. Along the way, he did a little book about a trauma unit in Korea called "MASH."

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