J.R. Moehringer
Nieman Class of 2001

UnknownHere’s just some of the telling hardware Moehringer has taken home for his stories: Pulitzer Prize (2000) for feature writing; Pulitzer Prize finalist (1998) for feature writing; Livingston Award for young journalists (1998) for feature writing; a PEN Center USA West literary award (1997). He started in newspapers, as you may know from his bestselling memoir, The Tender Bar (which he spent part of his Nieman year researching and writing), and then moved into magazines and books. A natural for longform, he has written about professional athletes, musicians, cities, celebrities, race, violence and tragedy on the scale of 9/11 and the Columbine shootings. A deep student of the craft, and a serious proponent of it, he comes up with some of the more creative storytelling structures for his pieces in GQ, ESPN The Magazine and Los Angeles magazine, and is widely admired for his vivid voice, hilarious lines and gift for verbal gymnastics, metaphor and image. (From his famous Pete Carroll profile: “Heritage Hall is a hypermasculine, phallocentric environment, and with your little notebook, and your nettling questions, and your trick knee, you can’t help but feel like Woody Allen’s kid brother.”) If there’s a theme to his work it’s this: the search for identity and the meaning of manhood and fatherhood. In writing movingly about a forgotten prizefighter, and about his own childhood, and about the tennis megastar Andre Agassi, and about the famous bank robber Willie Sutton (to name just four), he chips hard at the concepts of masculinity and honor, charming his readers along the way. The transition from newspapers to books “has been a wistful one, and it’s always felt unnatural,” he told the Dallas Morning News last year, upon the release of his first novel, Sutton. “It’s always felt like writing with my left hand. I had a sense of mission and purpose when I worked for newspapers, like this is what I wanted to do forever. Now I just feel like I’m making it up as I go along every day. I’m constantly reactive. It can be exciting, but there’s a tinge of melancholy over the whole thing. I miss newspapers.”

Recommended:

The Tender Bar, his memoir about growing up fatherless in Manhasset, Long Island. Excerpt:

My father was a man of many talents, but his one true genius was disappearing. Without warning he would change shifts or switch stations. I’d counter by taking a portable radio outside to the stoop, where the reception was better. With the radio on my lap I’d wiggle the antenna and slowly turn the dial, feeling lost until I found The Voice again. One day my mother caught me. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Looking for my father.”

She frowned, then turned and went into the house.

I knew that The Voice didn’t have the same tranquilizing effect on my mother. In her mind my father’s voice was “full of money,” as Fitzgerald wrote of another careless voice in Manhasset. Hearing my father boom from the radio, my mother didn’t hear his jokes, his charm, his voice. She heard every child-support payment he’d failed to make. After I’d spent the day listening to The Voice I’d often see my mother looking through the mail for The Voice’s check. Dropping the stack of envelopes on the dining room table she’d give me a blank face. Nothing. Again.

—“Resurrecting the Champ,” from the Los Angeles Times, about the search for the truth about a forgotten prizefighter, and his own father. Excerpt:

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, waiting for a call from a man who doesn’t trust me, hoping he’ll have answers about a man I don’t trust, which may clear the name of a man no one gives a damn about. To distract myself from this uneasy vigil–and from the phone that never rings, and from the icy rain that never stops pelting the window–I light a cigar and open a 40-year-old newspaper. * “Greatest puncher they ever seen,” the paper says in praise of Bob Satterfield, a ferocious fighter of the 1940s and 1950s. “The man of hope–and the man who crushed hope like a cookie in his fist.” Once again, I’m reminded of Satterfield’s sorry luck, which dogged him throughout his life, as I’m dogging him now. * I’ve searched high and low for Satterfield. I’ve searched the sour-smelling homeless shelters of Santa Ana. I’ve searched the ancient and venerable boxing gyms of Chicago. I’ve searched the eerily clear memory of one New York City fighter who touched Satterfield’s push-button chin in 1946 and never forgot the panic on Satterfield’s face as he fell. I’ve searched cemeteries, morgues, churches, museums, slums, jails, courts, libraries, police blotters, scrapbooks, phone books and record books. Now I’m searching this dreary, sleet-bound Midwestern city, where all the streets look like melting Edward Hopper paintings and the sky like a storm-whipped sea. * Maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s caffeine, maybe it’s the fog rolling in behind the rain, but I feel as though Satterfield has become my own 180-pound Moby Dick. Like Ahab’s obsession, he casts a harsh light on his pursuer. Stalking him from town to town and decade to decade, I’ve learned almost everything there is to know about him, along with valuable lessons about boxing, courage and the eternal tension between fathers and sons. But I’ve learned more than I bargained for about myself, and for that I owe him a debt. I can’t repay the debt unless the phone rings.

—“23 Reasons Why a Profile of Pete Carroll Does Not Appear in This Space,” from Los Angeles magazine, a creatively built profile of the famed football coach. Excerpt:

7. I’m Unable to Describe Carroll’s Appearance Without Sounding Gay

Most football coaches are bald, pear-shaped sourpusses. They look like Southern sheriffs, circa 1954. But Carroll is a Hollywood fever dream, a hybrid of Knute Rockne and a rock star. (Folk rock.) He looks like a man who spends his days in the sun. Not the bad sun, the sun of Marlboro Men and aging soap opera actors, but the good sun, the sun of tennis pros and yachtsmen. He’s not leathery, just burnished. His eyes are bright Caribbean blue, and the browner his skin gets, the bluer his eyes turn. His nose is slightly zigzag. It breaks left, then right, a runner in the open field, and his chin is jutting, prominent, always pointing the way forward.

His hair, however, might be his signature feature. A puffy palette of white, silver, and gray, it reminds you sometimes of Bill Clinton, other times of Dick Van Dyke. Now you see follicular intimations of Richard Gere, now you see flashes of Phil Donahue, now a fleck or two of Jack Kemp. A journalist friend, when I mention that I’m writing a profile of Carroll—before I realized I couldn’t write a profile of Carroll—says the coach has always seemed to him the paragon of kicked-back cool, the Burt Bacharach of coaches. It’s a fine, and fittingly hair-focused, comparison.

—“Crossing Over,” Moehringer’s Pulitzer-winning feature on the former slave community of Gee’s Bend, Ala. Excerpt:

On the surface, Mary Lee’s river is just another plain brown river, skittering down the middle of the Deep South like a raindrop down a dirty window. But rivers have their faraway looks too. Slow, timid, her river typically keeps to itself, hiding between steep banks the color of blushing cheeks. On hot summer days, it goes through the steaming fields at about the speed of a Model T, giving no sign of its quick temper, no hint of the Indians, settlers, slaves and steamships strewn along its floor, 40 feet down, all guarded by poisonous water moccasins and man-sized catfish and alligators that will bite a hound dog in half. “No one,” a Camden minister wrote in the early ’30s, “plays in the Alabama River.”

It travels 315 miles, mostly in circles, and like Mary Lee it never leaves Alabama. The errant child of two capricious rivers–the Coosa and Tallapoosa, which twirl down from the Georgia mountains–it does what errant children do: whatever it wants. Above Gee’s Bend, it becomes even more erratic, performing balletic loops and sluggish U-turns, staggering left and right before finally crashing into the Tombigbee, which takes it to the sea.

None of which describes Mary Lee’s river.

Her river is a “strong brown god,” as T.S. Eliot said of a different river, but also a  way of thinking about God. Eternal. Silent. Life-giver and mysterious taker. It’s the force that shaped Mary Lee’s world, drew it like a hurried artist signing his name with a piece of charcoal in the lower right-hand corner of America. Some people spend their lives resisting what defines them. Mary Lee was baptized in the water that defines her. She takes it as a given, and gives thanks.

Open, Andre Agassi’s memoir, which Moehringer co-wrote. Excerpt:

An official of the U.S. Open, wearing a suit and carrying a walkie-talkie as long as my forearm, approaches. He seems to be in charge of network coverage and on-court security. He seems to be in charge of everything, including arrivals and departures at LaGuardia. Five minutes, he says.

I turn to someone and ask, What time is it?

Go time, they say.

No. I mean, what time? Is it seven thirty? Seven twenty? I don’t know, and it suddenly feels important. But there are no clocks.

Darren and I turn to each other. His Adam’s apple goes up and down.

Mate, he says, your homework is done. You’re ready.

I nod.

You’ll definitely want to listen to Terry Gross interview him on Fresh Air, about Sutton, and watch him talk (see vid below) about the book at last year’s BookExpo America. (Discussed: a flying grandma. You are welcome.) For Fresh Air, listen all the way to the most excellent kicker, which makes Terry Gross giggle.

The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.

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