Paul Gallico: Biography Overdue

September 2, 2018

In 2018 one might connect someone 50 years or older to author Paul Gallico by reminding the >50-year-old of The Snow Goose. In the early 1970s this story about an artist, a girl and a way-off-course Canadian goose set on the eve of World War II was broadcast a couple Christmas shopping seasons on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. The Snow Goose was also rebroadcast outside the Hall several times.

Another Gallico story brought to us by Hallmark was A Small Miracle, a remake of Never Take No For An Answer, about an Italian boy with a sick donkey who believes that St. Francis can heal the ailing ass. This only got one showing as did an ABC made-for-TV movie, Gallico's The Story of Silent Night, broadcast on Christmas night, 1968.

Around those years of The Snow Goose repeats and of Paul Gallico's last storytelling hurrah, The Poseidon Adventure, I became aware of authorship and that one who practiced that art was named Paul Gallico. It fascinated me that a person could live by writing stories of which movies and TV shows were made.

Gallico's books were the first grown-up fiction I read: Coronation, The Foolish Immortals, The Abandoned. It was a thrill to find another Gallico at a flea market for two to four bits. I bet no other kid got close to reading Love, Let Me Not Hunger, "grown-up" on the verge of being adult!

Paul Gallico was no P.G. Wodehouse when it came to style and technique, but he was also no Wodehouse in telling the same two stories over and over again.

In Gallico's taleweaving the reader met a Brit family thrilled to have tickets to Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, traveled to the birthing of the State of Israel, became stranded in Spain with a dinky English circus, evangelized Ireland wth St. Patrick.

Cats: Gallico wrote at least four books about felines such as Thomasina filmed by Disney. He was truly a pioneer of the cat book. He also blazed the trail for old-lady books with his Mrs. Harris series about a London cleaning woman. Mrs 'Arris was enlivened on screen by Angela Lansbury (Who else?). Gallico's story about romance via puppets blossomed into the movie Lili and the musical Carnival.

Paul Gallico was no P.G. Wodehouse when it came to style and technique, but he was also no Wodehouse in telling the same two stories over and over again.

I think I had read a dozen Gallico books and had moved on to other authors by the July 1976 day I came home, sunburned and tired from golf, to hear my Mom announce, "Paul Gallico died."

In a few-seconds obituary on the news that evening, Harry Reasoner described Gallico as a predecessor of George Plimpton, a sportswriter who tried professional athletics and then reported on the experience.

Forty-two Julys later, when eBay has replaced all the old flea markets between DC and Gettysburg, I ordered and read a couple of the Gallico books that I didn't get to long ago.

Reading Farewell To Sport, I wondered if a biography of Paul Gallico has ever been written since his death. To my surprise it has not. The most extensive life story of the sportswriter reborn as a storyteller is the Wikipedia entry.

That may be because Gallico was never a member of the lit'ry crowd. He wrote stories that the middle class liked, not stories about how stupid and awful the middle class is. By his own admission he wrote for fun and profit, likely for mostly the latter. "I'm a rotten novelist" he told New York magazine, "I'm not even literary. I just like to tell stories and all my books tell stories...."

I believe that in one of Gallico's biographical blurbs on a dust-jacket, he states, "I write good."

Of all Gallico's books published over 35 years, only The Snow Goose won an award and received praise, if faint, from a leading critic who is now forgotten.

I suspect that the first 40 years of Paul Gallico's life would make more interesting autobiography than the second. By the time he reached his median, Gallico had been married twice.

Having obtained a Reno divorce (reason: cruelty) from his 17-year-old second wife, he left a successful sportswriting career, following Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner into writing fiction.

Not only did he leave sportswriting, he left the United States, settling in southwest England.

As war clouds rose and darkened, the native New Yorker returned to the U.S. married to a Hungarian baroness with show business ambitions. The 1950s again found Gallico living in Europe, finally settling in Antibes France.

Another Nevada divorce was eventually sequelled by another baroness, a Lichtensteiner who served as a lady-in-waiting to Princess Grace of Monaco. His issue were two sons from his first wife, one being the late Bob Gallico who became a celebrity broadcaster in Ireland.

Although he had bid farewell to sport, Gallico's first big seller as a bookwriter was a sports book: Lou Gehrig - Pride of the Yankees, released in 1942 simultaneously with the movie starring Gary Cooper as the "Iron Horse."

Pride of The Yankees (1) was typical biography of the time, not very deep, with traces of Horatio Alger: shy, unathletic mama's boy forced to support his family becomes, by the grace of his grit, successor to Babe Ruth. He marries his love. Then comes the "tragic mystery" in his muscles which he meets by declaring himself to be "the luckiest man on the face of de oith."

Paul Gallico

It was fitting that Gallico should account for Gehrig. Both men were born of immigrant parents circa 1900 in New York City, a few years and a few blocks apart. Both attended city public schools and worked their way through Columbia University. Gallico's time at Columbia was interrupted in 1918-19 by service in the U.S. Navy. He rowed in an eight-oar shell on Columbia's team.

The "Feel"

Gallico became a sportswriter in what he called "the wildest, maddest, and most glamorous period in all the history of sport," (2) the time when boxing was Dempsey and Tunney, golf was Bobby Jones, tennis was Helen Wills, swimming was Gertrude Ederle and baseball was Murderer's Row led by Babe Ruth.

It was a time when scheduled-event reporters were accompanied by telegraphers who telegraphed their copy to the newspaper. The snooty tennis-crowd didn't like hearing the tickety-tick from the press coop. The editors at the newspaper often didn't like what the tickety-tick informed them. They tickety-ticked back that they wanted better copy and predictions of outcomes. With such frantic tickety-ticking back and forth they sometimes got a flash edition out on the streets before the boxing match or whatever contest was concluded.

It was a time when a reporter could write a sentence comparing Jack Dempsey to "David, Siegfried and Roland" and a significant number of readers -- and even his editors -- would know who those guys were.

On his first assignment as a cub reporter in advance of the 1921 Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo fight, Gallico took the initiative and requested that the in-training Dempsey box a round with him.

Gallico hoped to experience a standard Dempsey punch. Dempsey didn't disappoint and Gallico, after a brief blackout, found himself on the canvas "grinning idiotically." He mentions that photographs were taken of this, his application for his trademark of walking in athletes' mocassins.

"If I knew what playing a game felt like...," he wrote in Farewell to Sport I was better equipped to write about the playing of it and the problems of the men and women who took part in it."

In the years after the Dempsey research, he was able to tell readers what it was like to catch and hit balls cannoned by pros, what it was like to fly, to race at Indianapolis or in Gar Wood's speed boat wherein the throttle bar got too hot to hold.

Having trained for skiing mostly on a department-store slide, Gallico slid down a IVth Winter Olympiad mountain on his back and almost flew off the course into a 2,000-foot abyss.

By 1987--

Gallico likely quit sportwriting in 1936 because he thought that "the wildest, maddest, and most glamorous period" had ended. The Great Depression kinked the post-World-War-I-boom pipeline that gushed money into athletic events and salaries. Americans struggling to put food on the table had no interest in millionaire athletes.

In his farewell forecast of the coming 50 years, Gallico predicted that money would never be so lavished on sport as it was in the '20s. He was very wrong about that. He foretold that most athletic records set during his career would fall by 1987 and that African American athletes would come into the respect they deserved.

Intriguing questions about Gallico include: Why did he become an expatriate? While in his writings one can find disgust at certain aspects of sport, and virtually total disgust at the sport of boxing, one finds no disdain for America. After all, his stories, set mostly in foreign lands, were for the types of reader the young fugitives detested.

The other question is: why was Gallico interested in Catholic subjects: the story of Silent Night, the Italian boy seeking St. Francis' intervention for his donkey, The Steadfast Man, St. Patrick?

With an Italian father (Paolo Gallico, the pianist) and an Austrian mother, Paul was likely born into a Catholic household or perhaps a Catholic/Jewish home. If he was not religious himself, he was of that generation of creative people who grew up around religious faith. Such people saw faith as normal, not some horrible, criminal conspiracy composed of morons. It may be that the mercenary in Gallico simply understood that because of the cultural power of the mid-20th-century church, there was a market for Catholic stories.

A biographer would have to piece together Paul Gallico's life from hundreds of sources, mostly old publications on microfilm wherein Gallico gets a mention, perhaps one paragraph, one sentence. For any author with the time and inclination, a guy who made such confessions as "I am and have been a hungry, greedy, covetous man myself," is worth the effort.


(1) Gallico, Paul, Lou Gehrig: Pride of the "Yankees," Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1942, 186 pp.

(2) Gallico, Paul, Farewell To Sport, Borzoi Books, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1938, 346 pp.

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