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Biographer David Maraniss chronicles the life of Jim Thorpe


Jim Thorpe is one of those epic names in American lore - the greatest athlete ever, a Native American who overcame great odds to triumph in a number of sports - football, baseball, Olympic medals in track and field, lionized by Hollywood. But his story is also one of exploitation and racism and one that's often been misunderstood or only told in part until now. In a new book, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David Maraniss goes into great detail about the events and the myths that shaped Jim Thorpe and his legacy. It's called "Path Lit By Lightning: The Life Of Jim Thorpe." And it's the latest in a long line of celebrated biographies written by Maraniss, which include bestselling profiles of Barack Obama, baseball great Roberto Clemente and Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

We wanted to learn more about this latest book and Jim Thorpe's legacy, so we called David Maraniss. David, thanks for being here.

DAVID MARANISS: I love being with you, Don. Thank you.

GONYEA: As we mentioned, you've written extensive biographies of some very impressive people. What drew you to Jim Thorpe? Was there something you felt had to be told?

MARANISS: Well, I did. You know, I consider this the third in my trilogy of sports biographies of - starting with Vince Lombardi and then Roberto Clemente. And in each case, I'm looking for two things. One is the pure drama of the sports, and the second is a way to use that to illuminate American sociology and history. And so I saw in the story of Jim Thorpe a chance to really write about the Native American experience from 1887, when he was born, to 1953, when he died, a critical period of American history told through the lens of what Native Americans endured.

GONYEA: So let's dive into that life, starting with his early life, as you said, born in 1887 on Indian territory in what would later become Oklahoma. As a teenager, he is sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in central Pennsylvania. Again, the myth is that this is the place where he got his life together and found his athletic skills, but you have a much more complete look at the school.

MARANISS: Oh, absolutely. This was the flagship Indian boarding school run by the U.S. government, founded in 1879, only three years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The first students were Lakota Sioux, who thought they were going there to show their bravery and to die. The motto of the school all the way through its existence when Jim Thorpe was there as well, was Kill the Indian, save the man, which meant rid the Native Americans of their culture, of their language, of their religion, cut their hair, dressed them in the Calvary uniforms of the U.S. Army and try to acculturate and assimilate them into white society in a dehumanizing process.

GONYEA: You clarified a lot of my misconceptions with that part of the book. I mean, I thought it was more a typical boarding school for Native Americans of high school and some college age students. But these kinds of places - and there were others around the country - they occupied a very purposeful place in the history of the U.S.'s treatment of Native Americans, didn't they?

MARANISS: Oh, they absolutely did. And, you know, to - you know, I try to look at the complexity of life. So many Indians who went through those schools figured out ways to survive and actually prevail and became Indian activists in terms of becoming lawyers and doctors and so on. But the general - the point of them was to rid them of their pure culture. And, you know, it didn't succeed in most cases - thank goodness - but that was what it was trying to do.

GONYEA: So he's a student at Carlisle, and that really is where the world started to take notice of his amazing athletic gifts. Talk about that.

MARANISS: Yeah. You know, when he came to Carslisle, in 1904, he was 16 years old. And stunningly, to me, he was 5 foot 5 and weighed 115 pounds. But he had an incredible growth spurt, and in 1907 really is when he started to show his athletic talents. He was working on the farm at Carlisle and walked by the track and saw the high jumpers trying to clear 6 feet, none of them successfully doing it. Jim Thorpe was in his overalls and easily cleared the bar. The next day, he was on the track team and, you know, within a year he was the star of the football team. And then in 1911 and 1912, he was the dominant athlete in both of those

sports. In football in particular, he was beating all of the great teams in college football, which in that era happened to be East Coast teams - Harvard and Army, Syracuse, Princeton. Probably his best game ever, the one that really made him nationally famous was when the Carlisle Indians went to West Point and beat Army 27-6 with Jim Thorpe as the star. You know, it was the one time when Native Americans were on a level playing field with the Army and they thumped them. And it was because of Jim Thorpe. And all of the national press was there. And really, it was then that he rose into this incredible prominence.

GONYEA: Carlisle is the place where Thorpe meets his most famous coach, Pop Warner. People may know that name for the youth football leagues named after him to this day across America. This is really a critical relationship in the book.

MARANISS: I think there's a codependence of sorts. Pop Warner was the football coach and the track coach when Jim Thorpe was an All-American in football and the Olympic decathlete gold medalist. Warner was a great football coach. He was inventive, innovative. He really developed the forward pass and the single wing and double-wing offenses. But he was not a reputable human being. And at the critical point of Jim Thorpe's life, he lied about what he knew to save his own reputation. And later, it even came out that in a congressional investigation that he was betting on games and physically and mentally abusing some of his Native American athletes. So it's a mixed reputation, to say the least, about Pop Warner.

GONYEA: I want to get to the thing that is perhaps the basis of the myth for a lot of Americans, especially Americans of a certain age. It was 1951. Jim Thorpe was by then 63 years old, and Hollywood decided to tell his life story.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Jim Thorpe, All-American, the man of bronze, who became the greatest athlete of all time, an Oklahoma Indian lad whose untamed spirit gave wings to his feet and carried him to immortality.

GONYEA: The film starred Burt Lancaster as Thorpe. You describe it as well-intentioned, but not really how things went.

MARANISS: Well, Burt Lancaster was a great athlete, but he was 37 years old. And he wasn't Native American. It had a terrific director, Michael Curtiz, who had directed "Casablanca." And it was sympathetic to Jim Thorpe in many respects, but it was also wrong in almost every detail and wrong in the largest sense. The larger sense is that the narrator of the movie was the aforementioned Pop Warner. And the theme of it was, you know, as his athletic skills diminished and he struggles for the last 20 or 30 years of his life, Pop Warner reemerges and basically says, Jim, you know, if you'd only listened to me and successfully assimilated into white society, you wouldn't have had any of these problems. So it was Pop Warner the white savior and, you know, not realizing that it was Pop Warner at the critical moment of Jim Thorpe's life who had turned against him when he lost his gold medals.

GONYEA: We've watched many a great athlete struggle with life when their days on the field or on the court are done. Obviously, it can be a tough transition even if you've got all the support and planning imaginable. But Jim Thorpe did not have such a great plan.

MARANISS: Well, he didn't have a plan. And he didn't have the money because he was a great athlete before the era when athletes made any money. You know, the most he ever made was $300 playing football for Canton. And he did struggle for those last 20 years. At one point, he was digging ditches in Los Angeles during the heat of the Depression. He acted in several movies - over 70 - as an extra in Hollywood. But, you know, they would say starring Jim Thorpe or with Jim Thorpe. But he - you could barely find him on the screen. And he was getting a minimal pay for that.

He kept working no matter what. And that's sort of the final conclusion of my book that you can consider it a tragedy in one sense. But my point of writing the book was try to use Jim Thorpe as an emblem for the Native American experience. And there were points early in Jim's career - in 1915, for instance - when the most popular statue in America was called The End of the Trail. And it had an Indian stooped on horseback. And the implication was that manifest destiny had prevailed, that progress made the Indian obsolete, and the race was dying and about to be dead.

And it didn't happen. Native Americans figured out how to survive in a system that was geared against them. You know, kill the Indians, save the man. They managed to keep their integrity and their identity and their culture. And, you know, at the point in 1915, there were less than - fewer than 300,000 Native Americans. That's grown consistently ever since. And I tend to look at that as another symbol of Jim Thorpe, who, despite everything that went against him, he kept trying it. And persistence was what defined him, not tragedy.

GONYEA: Where does the title of this book come from, that phrase - path lit by lightning?

MARANISS: It comes from his birth. He was born in May of 1887 along the North Canadian River in what would become Oklahoma in Indian territory. And there was a thunderstorm that night. And his name in Sac and Fox was Wa-Tho-Huk. And the poetic translation of that is path lit by lightning, which as soon as I saw it, I said, that's the title of my book because it's illuminating.

GONYEA: We've been talking to David Maraniss. His newest book is called "Path Lit By Lightning: The Life Of Jim Thorpe." David, thank you.

MARANISS: Thank you, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.