undefinedBudd Schulberg, ca. 2012. Photograph by David Shankbone

 

Budd Schulberg granted this interview on a salubrious July 21, 2001, at his most agreeable home and workplace in Quogue, New York, a peaceful “un-Hampton,” if you like, one seashore village west of the tumultuous real Hamptons, on the South Fork of Long Island. His property, Brookside, named in memory of his wife Geraldine Brooks, who died in 1977, fronts on Aspatuck Creek, not far from where it empties into the open Atlantic. So the water becomes brackish when the tide comes in, and attracts a sizeable population of waterfowl, by far the most spectacular of these being swans. Schulberg has evidently earned the trust of swans, getting some to take corn and bread from his extended palms, not an easy thing to do. One might even say it was a quixotic thing to even try to do.

Before the interview began, Schulberg and the interviewer, down by the creek with his present wife, the former actress and journalist Betsy Langman, talked some about the success of yet another of his improbable enterprises, which he himself acknowledged as quixotic. Back in August 1965, African-Americans in the Watts section of Los Angeles rioted, causing enormous destruction to their own neighborhood. Schulberg, knowing no one went there, went all alone to Watts, and offered to teach anyone how to write stories or novels or poems or screenplays as a way to elevate self-respect and attract favorable attention.

“Growing up,” he said, “the only African-American I knew at all was Oscar the Bootblack, the shoeshine man at Paramount Studios.” Needless to say, this is no longer the case, not only with the writing school still operating in Watts, but with his having since founded in New York City the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center up on West Ninety-sixth Street, which now has a faculty of fourteen, a student body at any given time of about three hundred, all studying writing, and is supported by the New York State Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with Schulberg and other private donors he solicits. Of the gifted writers he discovered in Watts so long ago now, he reflected, “I used to say I’d like to pit my writing team against one from Beverly Hills High School. We’d win! We’d win!”

He and the interviewer then repaired to his office, on the second floor of the building separate from his residence, and turned on the tape recorder and cleared their throats, and:

 

 

INTERVIEWER

I was honored to be invited to your birthday party a while ago and I was so touched that there were so many boxers there and that they loved you.

BUDD SCHULBERG

Well, from about the age of ten on, I’ve had fighters as friends. I guess it sort of came naturally from my early Los Angeles days with my father when I went to the fights twice a week. Hollywood Legion was really the social center of the town in those days. And since my father was a big shot and running a studio, the fighters would come out to visit. So very early on I got to know them; and I’ve always been attracted to them. There’s something special about boxing to me. Fidel La Barba, the great little flyweight champion, was one of my really close friends and was the best man at my first wedding.

INTERVIEWER

What boxers were at your birthday party, because I don’t know boxers that well?

SCHULBERG

Well, let’s see. There was my old fighter that I had managed, Archie McBride. He was a pretty good heavyweight back in the 1950s. He fought all the top-ten fighters. Johannson and Patterson and all the rest. I hadn’t seen Archie in a long time, a very sweet man, a very dear man. Another good friend who was there is José Torres, the ex-light-heavyweight champ, who’s written books on Ali and Tyson. And then there was Roger Donaghue, another lifetime friend. Roger was a pretty good middleweight in the fifties also. When we were doing On the Waterfront I talked to Elia Kazan about the definite body language every fighter has, a special way they walk, a way they move. And so Kazan encouraged me to bring Roger Donaghue in to teach Marlon Brando how to be more believable as an ex-pug. Roger took Marlon to Stillman’s Gym to give him boxing lessons and ran back to me all excited, “I c’n make a helluva middleweight outta this kid!” “Thanks, Roger,” I said. “Just let him get through our movie first.”

INTERVIEWER

The question I’ve been dying to ask you for a long time: Do you box?

SCHULBERG

I did box. Very poorly—very, very poorly. I was a very sub-mediocre boxer in my youth. I had one terrible flaw as a boxer: I could not stand being punched in the nose! Secondly, I could never find any defense against being punched in the nose. It doesn’t hurt so much, but it humiliates you. I remember Archie had graduated from the little fights we’d started with out in Trenton, and I was trying to get him a main event in Madison Square Garden. We were talking about taking on a big strong heavyweight at the time, Bob Baker, whom I thought Archie could beat. The matchmaker said, “No, how about Floyd Patterson?” And I thought to myself, Oh, God. Archie can’t deal with Floyd. It’s too much. I got terribly nervous. I was worried that something might happen to Archie, that he might get hurt. The Sunday before the fight in the Garden, about five days before, our sparring partner didn’t show up. Roosevelt LaBoard—I’ll never forget that name. So I said, “Archie, I’ll go in and spar with you.”

By this time I guess I’m in my forties. I said, “Only for Christ’s sake, Archie, please, please don’t hurt me.” He said, “Mr. Schulherg, would I hurt you?” He was really offended. About one minute into it he jabbed me in my nose, and he broke it so badly, I was a mess. That next day I spoke at an author’s luncheon in Philadelphia with plaster from one cheekbone to the other. That was my last fight.

INTERVIEWER

Well, you did stick with literature, however!

SCHULBERG

Yes, it was the only thing I could do.

INTERVIEWER

Incidentally, how did Archie McBride do?

SCHULBERG

He held his own with Patterson for six rounds. But in the seventh, he got caught in a whirring blender of punches and went down. In the dressing room he cried, he felt he had let me down. “I’m not hurt at all, just felt dizzy for a moment—so many quick punches.” But Archie went on to an honorable career.

INTERVIEWER

If you could get credit for any book that’s ever been written, not Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or anything huge like that, what would you pick?

SCHULBERG

Well, there are some pretty good books out there, as you know. I wouldn’t mind having it with Crime and Punish­ment first.

INTERVIEWER

Were Russian writers extremely influential?

SCHULBERG

Very. In my household we sort of started with them. My father, who was running a big studio, had come out of a writing background. He won a short-story contest in high school, which got him a job on a newspaper in New York City. And then very early he got a job writing movies. They were called photoplays in those days. By the age of twenty he had written a textbook on how to write photoplays. He was a twenty-year-old expert! So he was very book influenced, literary influenced. Every Sunday morning we used to read for two to three hours. He would read aloud. We went through Dickens, novel after novel. And we went through Melville, not just Moby-Dick—I mean Omoo and Typee. Then we finally graduated to the Russians, and I began to fall under the influence of Russian classics. By the time I was fourteen, 1 was trying to write in the style of the dark, dark short stories of the Russians. Like the ones that come from the Russian soul. I was very influenced early on by the Russian novels, by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.