The Monster in Buzz Bissinger
A week ago last night, I was walking into the Giant supermarket near my house when my cell phone rang. I couldn’t tell who it was at first, what with the Muzak blaring, so I took refuge in the empty organic-foods aisle. “You can’t hear me, can you?” a male voice asked. “It’s Buzz Bissinger.”
I was surprised. I wrote a profile of Buzz a few years ago, and I’ve talked and emailed with him in the time since, but it was rare for him to call. He had a hot tip on a Philly story of interest: the $1.5 million price tag for the wedding of the son of part-Inquirer-and-Daily-News owner Lew Katz. Buzz was, as always, funny and profane. “All that fucking money for a wedding when they’re laying off writers,” he growled of the papers’ new owners. And then the coup de grace: “Fuck, it won’t last anyway. I should know; I’ve been married three times!”
That seems more than a little ironic now, in light of Tuesday’s Buzz bombshell: the 6,000-word piece in GQ about his leather fetish, his dabblings in S&M and homosexuality, the fact that his sex life with his third wife petered out years ago. A friend sent me the link; I read the first-person essay with a profound sense of disconnect. The contrast between its shocking revelations and that vintage-Buzz conversation in the organic-food aisle was too strong, too unlikely. He’d known that life as he lived it was about to implode when he called to offer me that tip. What was going on in his head?
I’ve thought about little else since. It’s scary, when you’re a writer, to realize that you missed the big story—that you tiptoed right up to the edge of it but then glanced away. I talked to a bunch of people who knew and loved Buzz for that profile. I think I’ve read just about every word the man has ever written—even his awful LeBron James book. I thought I had the guy pretty much figured out.
But now that I’ve gotten over my initial shock, I can more readily forgive myself. When you’re interviewing someone, all you have to go on is what he’s willing to say. Three years ago, Buzz’s leather fetish was just beginning. He wasn’t ready to talk about being a shopaholic then, or to share his marital woes. Now, suddenly, he is. And what Buzz reveals in his GQ essay turns out to fit in pretty neatly with what I thought I knew about him before.
First off, Buzz likes things old-school. That was plain in his infamous 2008 showdown with Will Leitch, then of Deadspin, and in the book he wrote as an homage to (then) Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. It was just as plain when he talked to me about growing up in the elegance of old Manhattan, and the salons his parents hosted for the likes of Judy Garland and Ethel Merman and Natalie Wood. There are echoes of his yearning for that lost glamour in the GQ piece when he writes about childhood memories:
My mother wore leather gloves in springtime. My first teacher in kindergarten … wore leather gloves, and every day as she left I would watch as she slowly put them on with the stretch and pull of the fingers.
There are echoes of nostalgia for that past, too, in what he finds seductive about shopping trips to Gucci:
It is all part of the “Mr. Big” mentality, the waters parting when I walk into the New York store on Fifth Avenue and 56th, the smile of the normally very depressed security guard at the front who knows where I am heading, up the steep stairs to the temple of the men’s department on the second floor, an ooze of sensual darkness in the gauzy lights.
Yet it’s not a milieu that wholly fits him:
I am taken back to an earlier moment in my life when I stood in front of mirrors at Brooks Brothers on 44th and Madison in New York. I was a preadolescent, pimples and early pubic hair, looking at myself with mystery as I tried on the khakis my mother had selected.
He stuck with the Brooks Brothers “preppy look” at Andover, he says, except on one occasion: a parade down Main Street for which he donned an outfit his adored father bought him: “a sculpted jacket with an intricate pattern of orange and black, and a pair of pants in the same colors that fit tight.” In this “New Orleans whorehouse” getup, he writes, “I suddenly felt an erection. … I experienced a sexual vitality I had never felt before in my life.”
It’s this duality between glamour and trash, between patrician cool and hooker heat, that haunts Buzz. It lies at his heart, and it imbues his work with its restless quest for “authenticity.” What is reality and what is pose? Read what he wrote for the Daily Beast about Oscar Pistorius, in the wake of the runner’s arrest for murdering his girlfriend:
Oscar Pistorius was transfixed by the dark side of the moon. “I am a bullet in a chamber,” said Pistorius in a 2011 ad for Nike. Sounds like he may have known himself all too well.
Or this, on Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett opting for political expediency over the victims, in a piece on the fallout over Jerry Sandusky:
In the meantime, Corbett took close to $202,000 in gubernatorial campaign donations from board members of the charity started by the predatory animal, called Second Mile, according to Deadspin.com. In the meantime, there were all of two state investigators (some say it was only one) assigned to the case of the predatory animal until Corbett became governor in 2011. It was only afterwards that the investigation expanded into the scope it always deserved.
Or this, on Jovan Belcher, the NFL player who murdered his girlfriend:
Trying to find some underlying explanation for the acts of this monster only further glorifies him. He is gone, and it is good he is gone, and there is nothing more that needs to be said about him.
Look at his subject matter: Americans love football because we love violence! Jeremy Lin is overhyped! Tebowschmania! Jim Boeheim ! The U! There’s not an idol on this earth that Buzz doesn’t want to see torn down, leveled, smashed, humiliated. Even his longstanding love affair with Lance Armstrong finally came to an end in January, after the biker’s appearance on Oprah:
This wasn’t a true confession. This was a stage show, a third act for a man who doesn’t deserve one. This was damage control for a man who only quit bullying and lying and subversion of the law when he finally got cornered.
What Buzz longs to root out and punish in others is the sin he sees in himself: not the way suede feels against his bare skin, but the hypocrisy that lies at the fundament of his existence: I am not the man you thought me to be. Not the family man, the fond father, the doting husband. Not the genius author of that early masterpiece, Friday Night Lights. Just a sad and addled husk dressing up in stilettos and Tom Ford makeup to greet the UPS man.
Are sportswriters particularly prone to dual lives? I’m thinking of a more temperate piece Buzz wrote about the downfall of Bill Conlin, the best-known sportswriter in his adopted hometown of Philly, who resigned abruptly after being accused of child molestation. Buzz knew and admired Conlin, but he couldn’t help but acknowledge that the case against him, as laid out in the Philadelphia Inquirer, was “airtight.” He mused about the situation:
You could also feel the agony of [the victims’] parents. We know this man. Do we want to ruin this man? We know he molested our children. He is a monster, but do we want to subject his wife to the shame of living with this monster?
I’m thinking, too, of the L.A. Times’ Mike Penner, who in the midst of a distinguished career underwent transgender surgery, continued writing as Christine Daniels, went back to being Mike Penner, and then committed suicide. It’s easy to understand the allure, for such a conflicted soul, of the glorious clarity of sports, where instant replay is all it takes to land upon certainty. From my profile of Buzz:
And every moment of every game holds the chance for redemption. “Scott Rolen is a flawed human being,” Buzz says of the former Phils third baseman. “But the way he fields a ball is perfection.”
Ballplayers retire. It’s different with writers. Theoretically, there’s no reason we shouldn’t grow better, deeper, richer with age. It rarely seems to work that way, though. The ideas no longer sizzle; the hunger to understand fades; the prose doesn’t scorch. Here’s Buzz in GQ:
There was a time earlier in my life when I loved to write, the same feeling of orgasm that I now get with clothing. But in my mid-50s, the words were harder to find, the excuses to fuck around more pronounced, the anxiety multiplied that whatever I was working on would never reach the dizzying heights of Friday Night Lights.
And so he bought leather clothes, experimented with gay sex, engaged with a dominatrix, became ever more outrageous, begging for somebody to trip over his duplicity, call him out, shame him as he once shamed others and believes he deserves to be shamed. When no one did, he threw himself on his own burgundy-leather-sheathed sword. “All stories like this should and do end this way,” he summed it up in GQ, “the slaying of the beast.” And off he went to rehab, though with no great confidence that it will take.
“I feel old and useless,” he told me on the phone the other night. I told him: I do, too. The coming of winter is hard even when you’re not harboring secrets like his. Most of us, I think, feel like frauds in our lives—as though the personae we’ve created and project don’t match our inner realities. That’s the catch: The beast isn’t in us; it is us. Buzz always has been tougher on himself than anyone else ever could be, though.