Literary Notes: ‘Great Men Die Twice’
Mark Kram was a superb writer. “Great Men Die Twice” (St Martin Griffin) is a collection of his best articles as selected by his son, Mark Kram Jr.
Kram started writing for Sports Illustrated in 1964, when the magazine was 10 years old. Managing editor Andre Laguerre oversaw what was known as a “writers’ magazine.”
Kram took his writing seriously. “When he read his own work,” his son writes in the foreward to “Great Men Die Twice,” “his eye always fell to a line that could have been worded better, a paragraph that wandered astray, a beginning or ending that was not as acutely observed as it should have been.”
Unfortunately, Kram was also a heavy drinker. In his son’s words, “It would be accurate to say that he did not do himself any favors by the way he comported himself. He had a foul temper. In keeping with the unsavory heritage of the Kram men, not one of whom has lived beyond the age of seventy because of alcohol addiction, Dad became aggressive when he overindulged.”
Rumor has it that, on assignment in Manila for the historic third encounter between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Kram missed the fight because he was bedridden that morning with a severe hangover. What we know with certainty is that he spent some time with both fighters the evening after the bout and wrote one of the best articles ever written about a fight (“Lawdy, Lawdy, He’s Great”, October 13, 1975, Sports Illustrated).
More troubling – and also acknowledged by his son – were allegations that Kram took money from Don King to ease his financial problems. An investigation by Sports Illustrated uncovered what the powers-that-be believed were ethical breaches amounting to “gross misconduct.” More specifically, Kram admitted to accepting payment from King for “screenplay proposals.” He was fired by Sports Illustrated.
Late in life, Kram cut down on his drinking. “Ghosts of Manila” (HarperCollins) – his pro-Frazier (and sometimes mean-spirited) reflections on what he called “the fateful blood fued” between Ali and Frazier – was published in 2001. He then signed a contract to write a book about Mike Tyson. It was never written. One week after journeying to Memphis to witness Tyson’s June 8, 2002, destruction at the hands of Lennox Lewis, Kram died of a heart attack at age 69.
Great Men Die Twice contains 20 articles, 10 of which are about boxing. There’s one notable omission. Kram’s seminal September 2, 1974, Sports Illustrated article about Don King, which introduced King to mainstream sports fans, is not included. Still, King, Ali, Frazier, and other denizens of the sweet science are well represented.
In Kram’s words, Ali’s jab was “a straight left of jolting electricity.” Don King “dresses like an MC in a cheap nightclub” and has hair that “looks like a bale of cotton candy just retrieved from a coal bin.” Brain damage is “the common cold” in a fighter’s life.
Read and enjoy Kram’s work. At his best, he wrote about boxing as well as anyone.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His next book (“A Hurting Sport”) will be published by the University of Arkansas Press.