There is more than a touch of irony in that biographer Kate Buford's other major work chronicles the life of actor Burt Lancaster. Lancaster was chosen to portray Jim Thorpe in a 1950 film biography while Thorpe was still alive. The film, though bittersweet, ends with a glimmer of light for the aging athlete. This work at hand, vigorously researched and deglamourized, tells a tale in quite an opposite trajectory.
Buford takes time and care to depict the curious contradictions of Oklahoma Indian life for a child born in "Indian Territory" [Oklahoma Territory] in 1887. The conjugal boundaries between "whites" and a variety of Native American tribes were never as clear as we might be tempted to believe today. Thorpe's father Hiram descended from English immigrants; his mother from the Potawatomi tribe was also of French Roman Catholic roots.
Throughout his minority years Thorpe, legally an Indian by residence, suffered and profited from the U.S. government's somewhat awkward efforts to undo at least a small portion of several centuries of injustice. He and his siblings were eligible for special boarding schools, though with the obvious pain of separation and uprooting. It is in this system that Thorpe found himself enrolled at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School as a college freshman.
It was at Carlisle that Thorpe made the history he is remembered for today. While Buford documents the school's many irregularities and shortcomings, it is worth noting that Carlisle played a demanding football schedule, always on the road, against flagship universities who evidently felt no embarrassment of association. Army was a regular opponent; Thorpe ended the gridiron career of one cadet, Dwight David Eisenhower, on the field of play.
Carlisle's athletic director and football coach, Glenn "Pop" Warner, gets a substantive and circumspect evaluation. He came to Carlisle with something of a questionable past, but at a time when college football was evolving from its scrum physicality to a more wide open strategic contest. By today's standards Warner would have been an NCAA rules nightmare; he tweaked the system endlessly both on and off the field. That said, Warner did field very good teams: the fact that a majority of his players were of Indian ancestry allowed him to meld squads of both strength and speed.
Warner did not, then, invent an offense to suit Thorpe's unique combination of speed and strength; rather, Thorpe took an existing system on his shoulders and displayed himself in the large media venues, as Carlisle's exclusive road schedule played to his advantage. Easily the nation's most recognized collegiate player, Thorpe positioned himself and his coach, Warner, to the next challenge, the 1912 Olympics.
The stories of Thorpe's spectacular performance at these games and the subsequent stripping of his medals are well known. Rather surprisingly, the issue of money and amateur collegiate reimbursement has scarcely changed since Thorpe's day. [Thorpe received an illicit stipend for summer semi-pro baseball, a common practice tolerated until Thorpe's superstar status brought new scrutiny.] By Buford's account, much of the sports world--certainly that in the U.S.--never changed its favorable outlook toward the Carlisle star, though Thorpe himself was profoundly distressed until his death.
In his post-Olympic world, Thorpe had more immediate concerns: post collegiate football was a raggedy collection of sporadic pro franchises and intermittent barnstorming tours. Sports money gravitated toward one object: professional baseball. Thorpe accordingly threw himself into the pro game, assigned to New York and the Giants' bigger than life manager, John McGraw. It is intriguing to read of the interplay between the two. McGraw did respect Thorpe's talents; to his credit, he talked up his rookie's progress in the face of an increasingly critical press corps. In truth Thorpe could not hit the curve, the downfall of many a man of promise. Privately McGraw found his charge distracted by his outside fame, ambitious, and somewhat defiant in a game of consummate teamwork under an all abiding authority. Buford observes that at this stage of his 20's Thorpe probably needed a father figure; McGraw could be many things, but probably never that.
Thorpe returned to football and played in a variety of professional and exhibition settings, including the NFL's Oorang Indians of LaRue, Ohio, in 1923 at age 36. By this stage his physical skills had diminished markedly. But here his emotional difficulties joined forces with a dangerous consort, alcohol. By 1931 Thorpe's personal life was in free fall when a photographer by chance captured Thorpe digging ditches for a living. This began a pattern of sorts of Jim Thorpe "rediscoveries" when Americans periodically discovered their hero down on his luck and rallied to relive the memories. The 1931 episode led to a number of minor but sustaining appearances in Hollywood B Westerns--as many as 50--and for a time Thorpe attempted to organize Indian "extras" in films. But a third marriage to an opportunist during a Mexican alcohol blackout literally ended Thorpe's professional usefulness. At the premier of the aforementioned Burt Lancaster film in 1950, Thorpe was literally "falling down drunk" and died, broke, in 1953.
Buford does an admirable job in portraying the considerable affection and respect that Thorpe still engendered in the final years of his life, though in truth he had done nothing remarkable in the forty years between the Olympic conquests and his pauper's death. However, she is realist enough to concede that Thorpe's greatest contributions were in fact the memories and the myth. Sadly, the abuse of those memories took flesh and blood form after his 1953 death. In what has to be one of the most bizarre post mortems of recent times, two competing Pennsylvania cities [neither near Carlisle] appear to have joined forces to purchase his body to boost a flagging local tourist economy. The new single village, named Jim Thorpe, became embittered over the limited returns, to the point that Thorpe's mausoleum was desecrated by 123 hammer blows in 1964. So much for Hollywood endings.