Dan Jenkins, the Hall of Fame sportswriter, is familiar to readers of Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest. He is also the author of several novels about football and golf, the best known of which is Semi Tough which was made into a movie starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. Now in his eighty-fifth year, Jenkins has written His Own Self, a book he calls a semi-memoir. I suppose that’s because it dwells as much on sports figures he has met and written about as on the details of his own life. It is an interesting book about an interesting life.
In brief, Jenkins was born in 1929 in Fort Worth, Texas to an entrepreneurial mother and a father who soon skipped town. He was brought up mostly by his grandparents and assorted aunts and seems to have an idyllic childhood even through the Depression years. He attended Paschal High where he lettered in golf and basketball and wrote for the school newspaper, the Pantherette. One of Jenkins’ articles caught the eye of the sports writer at the local paper, the Fort Worth Press, and he had a job even before he graduated high school. He continued to work there all through college, was picked up by Sports Illustrated magazine in the mid -fifties, and continued to do so even after the success of his first novel Semi-Tough. It seems to have been a charmed life, doing the work he loved, covering golf, football and the Olympics, living in Manhattan and becoming a habitue of Elaine’s, P.J. Clarke’s and Toots Shor’s when he was not jetting off to Europe. Forgive me if I sound a little envious.
In his novels, Jenkins created the persona of Jim Tom Pinch, the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, hard partying sports writer at the mythical Fort Worth Light and Shopper. Jenkins seems to have modeled the character on himself because he shares many of the attributes of Jim Tom Pinch. The book is breezy with nice touches of humor. For instance, he describes sitting in church at age seven, listening to a fire and brimstone preacher and thinking that “…burning in hell for an eternity sounded like rather harsh punishment for somebody who’d done nothing worse than to refuse to eat liver.”
The best parts of Jenkins’ book are those where he writes about golf and the golfing titans whom he covered, befriended and sometimes played with. This is a man who once played a round (for $2 a hole) with the great Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and was offered free golf lessons by Ben Hogan. My favorite parts of Jenkins’ book are when he writes about Hogan and his incredible comeback in 1950 after a near fatal traffic accident ,and Arnold Palmer’s never to be forgotten final round at the Masters in 1960. It gave me chills to read about how Arnie came from seven strokes behind and overtook 14 others to claim the green jacket. I’m not a big golf fan but after reading that chapter I resolved to read about those magic years when Hogan, Palmer and Nicklaus were all on the golf course at the same time.
Jenkins doesn’t write only about golf. There’s a lot about college football, particularly about the Horned Frogs of TCU, and stories about Slinging Sammy Baugh, Doak Walker and Bobby Layne and a host of others in the college and pro ranks. Good stuff.
There are some parts of the book I did not care for, those where Jenkins gives us his political views. He is of course entitled to write about them but I didn’t enjoy reading about ” … Fox news, the only news program that doesn’t seem to hate America”. That I thought was a bit too much. There is also a whole chapter about the six presidents that he has met and about playing golf with George W. Bush. Good for him, but not interesting to me.
His Own Self has its good points and is a fun read but, in the end, it left me a little disappointed. It’s like eating a lemon meringue pie; delicious but you wouldn’t want to make a meal of it.
His Own Self. Dan Jenkins ( Doubleday, 2014).