July 29, 2011 8:16:00 PM
Everybody knew who Evel Knievel was in his heyday. He made a living doing dangerous things, and had a knack for making them into spectacles that the whole world paid attention to.
If you consider such talents admirable, that will be pretty much all there is to like about him. The great problem with the exhaustive biography "Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend" (Doubleday) by Leigh Montville is that the subject is relentlessly awful, with serious behavior problems and sociopathic traits.
It is also the great attraction to the book; Knievel''s was a wreck of a life, but just like a wreck on the highway (or one of his wrecks on a motorcycle landing ramp), it rivets attention. Montville has done fine biographies of other more traditional sports figures like Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, and uses here a florid, breathless style full of apocryphal anecdotes; he interrupts frequently to tell the reader he is about to tell "a story." It is a fittingly lurid way to tell a nasty tale, a cautionary story about how we should be careful who we pick for heroes.
Montville centers Knievel''s life around his hometown of Butte, Mont., where he was born in 1938. Butte was a mining town, and the men had tough jobs full of risk. With such clientele, the bars never closed and prostitution was legal. Fistfights were a fit way of resolving disputes. Knievel was eager to take risks, or to talk others into doing so, even when he was young. As he got older, he was always looking for ways to strike gold. A friend who went to bars with him said, "He''d be looking at the jukebox or the cigarette machine, trying to figure out if it was full of money or not. If he thought it was full, well, he was going to try to figure a way to get that money. That was just the way he was.
"He did work in the mines for a short time, but that wasn''t his way. He robbed business establishments, even those of friends, and then set up a private protection service to prevent further heists, for those who hired him. One of the times he was in jail, he was there with another miscreant, William Knofel, nicknamed by the cops "Awful."
The simultaneous incarcerations of the two, Montville suggests, got Knievel his nickname when one of the jailers said, "Hey, we got Awful Knofel, and here''s Evil Knievel." (Knievel was shrewdly, and prudently, to change it to "Evel," the same sort of thinking that got him out of black leather outfits and into clean-cut white ones for his shows.) Among his more legitimate attempts at an income was to organize a semipro local hockey team and get the world-champion Czech team to play an exhibition game against them. The Butte team lost badly, of course, and most of the vendors of different aspects of the endeavor never got paid (a characteristic of Knievel''s business relationships all his life), but he made a neat bundle. He did become a positive-thinking insurance salesman, and his sales numbers were impressive. He might have sailed to the top of the company, but the rise was too slow for him.
More fun and more showy was doing motorcycle stunts. His first exhibition jump was over a couple of sleepy cougars and a box of rattlesnakes. The jump was not a success, because he hit the box of snakes; the jump was a success because the snakes slithered out and made the event memorable for all involved. He was to go on to jump increasingly wide spans of side-by-side cars and trucks, and he was good at what he did. And just like with the rattlesnakes, failures were successes, too.
"There are no Harry Houdini tricks," writes Montville, "no false bottoms or optical illusions. He makes the jump. Or doesn''t. The times he doesn''t make headlines." The most famous of his jump disasters was over the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on New Years Eve 1967. He hustled his way into the gig by flooding the casino''s management with calls from "fans" who had heard about the jump (at a time when no one had heard about it) and then calling a final time as himself and threatening to sue the casino because of all the calls he was getting about a Caesars Palace jump and the casino had no authorization to be using his name without permission. The jump was shown on ABC''s "Wide World of Sports" (as were many of his other jumps, which were among the highest-rated episodes of the program).
Filmmaker John Derek documented the jump, and his wife at the time, actress Linda Evans, ran the camera that recorded the astonishing tumbles of Knievel''s fall. "The film was instant credibility," Montville writes. It is astonishing that Knievel lived after taking such a beating, but he basically had only a broken pelvis. That wasn''t enough; when the unfounded story came out that he had been in a coma for 29 days, there were no denials.
Knievel''s fame was assured. It was high among men, and especially young men, and also boys. In 1973 the most popular Christmas toy was the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle from the Ideal Toy Co., and sales from the toy make Knievel a steady millions of dollars. There were also Evel bicycles, lunch boxes, pinball machines, movies and more. He even had his own medical syndrome, and it had nothing to do with the countless injuries and broken bones he himself endured, but rather the ones he inspired: the Evel Knievel Syndrome was introduced in a paper within the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and had to do with the lacerations and fractures of kids who tried to do stunts on their bicycles in imitation of their hero.
Some hero. Kids should have been kept far away from his famous, failed attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in 1974 (an event given in detail here), because the crowd of adults, patrolled by hired Hell''s Angels goons, went nuts with alcohol and drugs, arson and rampant sex. Knievel squandered his money. He at least had a good time with it, buying multiple expensive cars and boats. He was a lousy husband, enthusiastically and openly unfaithful to his longsuffering wife.
He was abusive to his children. He was strident against drugs but had a huge alcohol habit and was mean when he was drunk, which was often. He was a bigot and anti-Semite and a completely untrustworthy business partner, even with friends.
In 1977, he and a hired goon viciously beat with a baseball bat a man who authored a book about him, and he went to jail. He lost all credibility, and Ideal canceled his lucrative toy contract. He didn''t die until 2007, and his last sad years included being a "star" at the AVN Awards (the Oscars for pornography), commercials for a bail bond company, increasing drinking and a blip in publicity when he appeared on TV''s "Hour of Power" to announce his religious salvation. This is the sort of hero the ''70s seemed to call for, and while he wasn''t admirable, he was unique. Montville brings all the scuzzy details here in exuberant descriptions that match the subject nicely. If nothing else, Knievel''s life was one wild ride.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]