Sand In My Shoes: An interview with journalist and writer Robert Ward

Cut To The Chase Into The Gonzo Past




In the early 1970s, the author Tom Wolfe visited Robert Ward’s creative writing class at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY on the frozen banks of the Seneca River. “Wolfe looked around at the gorgeous, frozen landscape and told me if I wanted to be a successful writer, I needed to pack in academia and move to New York City and write some ‘new journalism’ that allowed writers to tell real life stories in long, personalized narratives thumping with a heartbeat of the human condition once reserved for the literary novel,” Ward recalled.

Ward nodded and told Wolfe he’d like to give it a try but he needed an assignment. Wolfe said he’d give his name to the editors of the then recently founded New Times Magazine, said Ward, whose latest novel “The Stone Carrier” launches the reader on a journey back in time to the 1970s where Ward’s main character, Terry Brennan, is a successful gonzo chronicler of sports stars and assorted celebs in places like Elaine’s, The Lion’s Head, and the beach house parties of the Hamptons.

“In real life, back then I had an introduction from Tom Wolfe and now I needed a subject matter and so when I looked around Geneva, all I kept seeing was the local police car,” said Ward. “I pitched to New Times editors Frank Rich and John Lynn the idea of doing a piece on real-life small-town cops, doing patrol ride-alongs, arrests, hanging out with them in cop bars off-duty, and on the private lives of Geneva cops named Tribbler and McGuigan, which the editors titled ‘The Yawn Patrol.’”

Ward continued, “As I rode along with them, the two cops kept telling people I was doing a story for Time Magazine instead of New Times so many times that I stopped correcting them and then the piece came out and people really liked it — except in Geneva — and my phone started ringing from various editors and after a few awkward post-publication encounters with the two cops, I moved down to Manhattan and started writing for magazines like New Times, Sport Magazine, GQ, and Rolling Stone.”

Literary Saloon

Ward rented an apartment in the West Village and started hanging out in The Lion’s Head, a literary saloon on Sheridan Square filled with “drinkers with writing problems,” and Elaine’s on the Upper East Side, where celebs and authors were stoned on cocaine and starlets were zonked on ambition, and the Hamptons summer beach scene, including the Artists vs Writers Softball Game in which Ward — and now his literary alter ego, Terry Brennan — played.

In his blurb for “The Stone Carrier,” best-selling novelist and A-list screenwriter Richard Price call’s Ward’s latest “both a smart thriller and an (appropriately) jittery look back at the literary bar scene of New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the only high more potent than cocaine was the high of acclaim. Suffused with a blend of paranoia and nostalgia, Ward captures that world beautifully.”

Ward, who would later write for and earn a producer credit on the excellent “Hill Street Blues,” and become the show runner for “Miami Vice,” has also written several crime thriller novels. So, in his retelling of the 1970s New York literary/celeb world, Ward also amps up the action with a brutal murder.

“It’s the ’70s in New York,” Ward said, summarizing his new novel. “Terry Brennan is a gonzo journalist for all the major magazines. He does a piece on super novelist Thaddeus Bryant and the two become best friends. Thad has everything Terry wants, a major novel called ‘The Debt,’ and soon a big movie with Dustin Hoffman, Roy Scheider, and Gen Bujold. The friends both hang out with the superstars at Elaine’s, make the scene at Studio 54, and in the Village, The Lion’s Head. But Joey Gardello, Thad’s oldest friend, is jealous of this new kid on the block who has taken over Thad’s friendship. Worse for Terry, as the novel opens, Joey is murdered in Central Park, and Terry becomes the prime suspect.”

Thus begins the chase across Manhattan and out to the Hamptons, a place Ward knows well. “From ’76 to ’84, I went to the Hamptons every summer,” he said. “Always made enough as a journalist, combined with screenplays, and novels to rent a small place. Loved it, went to many parties. Jann Wenner even came over to my place one night from his compound. I was on the bay side in the coolest little red house. It was great, except for the ticks. Also had a cool place in Springs a couple of times. I loved the beach out there and spent most of the day falling back on my towel and then body surfing. Man, the seafood was the best too.”

Screenwriting In Springs

Ward recalls that in 1978 he’d done a spring training piece on Reggie Jackson joining the Yanks for Sport Magazine. “I’d handed it in to Dick Schaap and Berry Stainback, editors at Sport. They loved the piece, and paid me, and I promptly forgot about it. There was a three-month lead period in those days. So, I went on to do a couple of more pieces for other mags during that stretch, then went out to Springs to rest and work on a screenplay.

“One day I decided to go into the city to see friends, and I took the LIRR in. I get to Penn Station and as I get off I see a newspaper stand with a paper showing the sports page (which is normally on the back) as the front page. I look at the blaring headline: ‘Furor On The Yankees!’ I picked it up, still not quite figuring what this meant. Then I read the first line of the piece, which said, ‘There was a furor in the Yankee locker room today as one after another the Yankee players read Robert Ward’s piece on Reggie Jackson in this month’s Sport Magazine in which he claims to be ‘The straw that stirs the drink.’” I was like, ‘Holy Christ.’

“I read the whole newspaper story about my magazine piece and ran to a pay phone to call Sport. Dick Schaap gets on the line, ‘Where the hell have you been? Everyone in the country is trying to reach you for interviews. Get up here right away.’ See, I’d been locked away in Springs, before cell phones, before the Internet, no way to reach me, working on my script, walking my dog, and talking to no one. But the whole country was talking about the Sport Magazine piece: ‘Reggie Jackson In No Man’s Land.’”

Back To Novels

I ask Ward what has happened to that kind of gonzo journalism, that stirred a 1970s nation, in the 21st Century. “Two things,” he said. “First, publicists killed gonzo because if you did a warts-and-all piece on a celeb that got close to the truth and that celeb has a publicist who hated the piece, then you will never get a chance to do a piece on the rest of that publicist’s client list. So, to gain access, editors and journalists wound up writing puff pieces that were glorified public relations stories. No warts, no all, no what’s-it-all-mean journalism. Gonzo was largely replaced by PR. Second, computers shortened the attention span of many readers. Young readers today want news in short, instant hits, like lines of coke. That’s why Twitter is popular and other forms of social media. The internet destroyed not just newspapers but also many magazines. It’s one of the reasons I turned back to novels and Hollywood.”

In 1985, Ward published the much-heralded novel “Red Baker,” about a working-class anti-hero who, after being laid off, searches for his lost identity that he never had to begin with.

This summer of quarantine and isolation and death, as we all await the passing of the coronavirus plague, is a great time to take the time again to read some books. “The Stone Carrier” by Robert Ward will carry you back to another time to a different New York City and a different East End that will make you nostalgic for the more innocent age of drugs, sex, rock and roll, gonzo journalism, celebrity, and murder.

“I’m already working on a sequel,” said Ward. “Same character, Terry Brennan, and all his adventures in Hollywood that get a little amped up by a homicide. Stay tuned.”

We will . . .

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