Williamsburg-based writer Jane Schwartz, whose biography Ruffian: Burning from the Start was recently reissued by Ballantine Books, sat down with the Rail’s Margot Farrington.
Margot Farrington (Rail): You’re a writer who has immersed herself in the world of sports. Before we talk about Ruffian, I’d like to backtrack, and talk a bit about your novel about pigeon flying, Caught. You’ve lived in this neighborhood 20 years, and in Greenpoint before that. Pigeon flying has always been a man’s sport. How did you first gain entrée into that world?
Jane Schwartz: Some former film students of mine in Boston were coming down from Emerson College to do a thesis film, and they asked if I could help connect them to the pigeon flyers. I did, and we spent a week: we went to the pigeon shops and met the pigeon flyers and went up on the roofs. Then they went back to Boston to do their project. I found myself totally enchanted with the game. I went to back to one of the shops and asked a couple of flyers if I could come back. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to write about that world. They said, “Sure, just come hang out,” and then [laughs]they basically ignored me for hours at a time. I was just a fly on the wall, and I’d spend two or three hours on somebody’s roof, then come down to the pigeon shops and stay from six till 10 or 11 on a Friday night. I was always referred to as “The Girl.” Little by little, I got to know different people and they invited me up to their roofs. Sometimes I spent the whole weekend on the rooftops. I just kept going with it as my interest deepened.
Rail: One of the places pigeon flying existed in ancient times was Rome. Would it be your guess that Italian immigrants originally brought pigeon flying to the neighborhood?
Schwartz: Well, when I studied the history of it—there’s some record, but not much—you find Italy, Central Europe, Northern Africa, China, the Middle East, and India all have a history of pigeon flying of various types. But, yes, the big impetus here was in the mid 1800s, and came with Italian and Central European immigrants who tended to live in the immigrant enclaves, which were like flat roofed tenements: the perfect location for the sport. So the architecture of the city actually influenced the development of the sport. After World War II, with the building of huge housing projects that replaced those smaller tenements, the sport began to decrease.
Rail: There was a pigeon feed place on the corner of N. 5th and Bedford, where the Rain Lounge is now. Did you frequent that place? Was it a source for the novel?
Schwartz: Well, I went there, that was Blackie’s or Pat’s Pet Shop, as it was officially called. But there was another shop on Havemeyer and Metropolitan called Freddie’s, and that was the main one, but I went to both. The front room had the counter and feed supplies and usually a table where the guys could hang out, have coffee and play cards, and the back had huge cages with pigeons for sale. Mostly, people in this neighborhood bought Flights, but sold Homers, too.
Rail: So Freddie’s was a bit more the prototype for Joey’s, the feed shop in the novel?
Schwartz: Yes, though I also drew from shops in Canarsie and Maspeth. But Freddie’s was where I started, and it was the shop used for the documentary Keep ’Em Flying, that the students from Emerson made.
Rail: Can you tell me something of your very first experience on the roof with someone flying their pigeons?
Schwartz: It was magic. First of all it was a big factory roof on Manhattan and Skillman, about six or seven stories high, and it was autumn—prime flying weather: crisp, clear days. This person had a lot of birds, and when he let them out there was this amazing rush and the sound of flapping—like the shuffling of decks of cards, over and over, and then they took off. The arresting thing about the Flights is that their primary wingtips are white no matter what color the birds are. So when you have this big group of birds high up in the sky, the sun shines on them and they flash like tiny mirrors: from bright to dark to bright to dark. They’re flying in the sky so there’s no end to their playing field—it’s not like any other sport—it’s a limitless expanse. I didn’t understand it then—I just felt exhilarated; I loved it from the very first time. Of course, later you begin to see what’s going on. It’s the antithesis of the street. The street is marked by corners, it’s the grid pattern of any city, especially New York. But there are no corners in the sky. A lot of the flyers looked at it like the Wild West: it was a place where they could go—physically—up, instead of out West. Not literally land and space, yet the feeling of open space. That’s a big part of the game’s attraction.
Rail: Did you meet any women who flew pigeons during your time with the flyers?
Schwartz: No, but I did hear about a woman in Bushwick, who’d been a flyer for years but wasn’t there anymore.
Rail: Can you say something about the basics of the pigeon flying game, of “catch-keep,” and how those rules or codes of behavior interlock with the love story of Caught?
Schwartz: The significance of catch-keep is that you really do win or lose, it’s a real gamble, while the free catches and the fixed catches offer you a way out—you’re not really taking the risk. Catch-keep is what the true flyers learn and believe in: to be good at this game, you have to be willing to lose. And I guess this is sort of a metaphor for growing up, and for love in general: you have to take a chance, and then it works or it doesn’t. You have to put everything on the line.
Rail: I think I can get away with saying you went from one kind of flying to another. Galloping on a horse and achieving speeds of what—30 miles per hour?—has some parallels with the pigeon game. Did you go to the track before you began work on Ruffian: Burning from the Start?
Schwartz: No, I’d never been to a race-track. I loved horses when I was little. I never wanted to be another person, but I always wanted to be a horse! [Laughs]Until about 5th grade, I signed my papers Jane Horse Schwartz. But it was so similar to the pigeons—it was about that same kind of freedom that flying expresses. So I entered the identical process I’d gone through with the flyers, in which I spent four or five years on the rooftops, getting to know them. I really looked at it like another college education: all these years immersing yourself in something. I researched the pigeon game, but since there was little written information most of it was direct: tracking down people and talking to them. With horse racing I had to start doing both, and I spent another four or five years, this time at the track, on the backstretch and at the farms. And in the stands as a fan and as a bettor, and I did some informal hot-walking just to get a feel for things. I was also able to do a lot of research on horse racing regarding the last hundred years of the sport’s history. I guess you could say this is an inefficient way of writing books, but I felt I had to spend a lot of time because both of these worlds were worlds I knew nothing about. I think to write authentically you need more than a couple hours of interviewing. Each person had their own account, and unless you spent months or years in that world you’d only have a narrow perspective on it.
Rail: Ruffian’s story is the stuff of myth: a filly who won all her races but the last, which not only altered her incredible record but brought about her destruction. Did you see her existence as mythic, or were you more interested in other aspects of her as a subject?
Schwartz: I was only aware of Ruffian the day after the match race, so she was already dead when I heard of her, so yes, her story is of a kind of larger-than-life heroine. Her record before the match race was 10 starts—not only 10 victories—but at every point of call in every race she was in front. That’s very unusual for a horse running in races that vary from a sprint to a mile and a half. But she did that, she had to be in front; she was one of those horses that they say in racing knows exactly what she’s doing. If you look at past performances, they put numbers for each horse at each point of call in the race, Ruffian had nothing but ones in her entire record until the match race. Technically, in the way racehorses are registered, she was not black but dark brown, but to the untrained eye she appeared as this huge black horse. So she was that iconic vision: beautiful, very well proportioned—she would always be the one who caught a person’s eye. And she had this classically tragic life: the very quality that made her great contributed to her destruction—not just that she was fast, but that she had such spirit to win. In her final race, Vasquez heard the bone snap and tried to pull her up right away, but she fought him, and she ran until she’d pulverized the bones in her ankle, so it was a massive injury and there was no way they could save her.
Rail: Who was your first contact when you began to interview people for the book?
Schwartz: This is how ignorant I was: I thought the jockey was more important than the trainer, because it’s easier to understand what a jockey does. So I went to Vasquez first. It was winter—he was racing in Florida, and I went down there to talk with him.
Rail: Was he difficult to talk to?
Schwartz: No, he was very receptive. 11 years had passed since Ruffian’s death. No one had written a book about her, none of the turf writers who had followed her. Someone had written a children’s book; another book had been rushed out six months after her death which was basically a compilation of news interviews and photographs, but there was no in-depth book. Anyway, Vasquez was very voluble, very friendly, and I learned over time—as with anyone—the things he told me in the beginning were not necessarily true. Both he and Whiteley had a notorious distrust of the press. Certainly, they lied in the beginning and gave me the sanitized version of what they’d given the press. I accepted what people said, though I sensed it might be different. Later, because they saw the intensity and the extent of the research I was doing, they volunteered the truer, inside stories. I was very patient, I’d just sit and listen, and I’d ask questions. Both he and Whiteley would say, “Oh I don’t remember, it was a long time ago.” But bit by bit it was amazing how much they remembered. Eventually, I was given this wonderful gift: I was able to reproduce a lot of dialogue because it was verified by another party. And this was true for particular incidents as well. For instance, I might start asking about a specific race, and Vasquez would say something like: “Oh yeah, that was the race where Angel Cordero kept shrieking the whole time, trying to spook my horse.” Then I’d talk to Cordero, and he would say: “Yeah, well, nobody could beat Ruffian, so we all did things to try and make it interesting.”
Rail: On occasion something happens in the world of sports that spills over its normal boundaries and captures the imagination of a larger public. What kind of meanings do you think were there for the non-racing public who watched the match race?
Schwartz: That race in 1975 was clearly set up as a boy versus girl contest, and of course, the battle of the sexes is of perennial interest to people. Ruffian raced in ’74 and ’75 and during the mid-’70s there was so much attention being paid to the women’s movement and to legal changes: think of Roe v. Wade in ’73. Ms. Magazine started in ’73; in ’73 we had the Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs tennis match. I think this culture was looking for symbolic representations of women becoming powerful. And here was Ruffian, who was not only powerful but majestic, with an unbeaten record.
Rail: I’d like to address the phenomenon we speak of as “heart.” In the book you mention a filly named Copernica who ran a very gallant race against Ruffian but lost, and after that never regained her winning form. How is it different between race-horses and human athletes in that regard?
Schwartz: It’s true that human athletes can lose confidence as well, but often human athletes use defeat to motivate themselves, not to give up, to keep trying. With horses, I initially thought people were romanticizing this idea of “heart”—the toughest guys on the racetrack would use this statement—but what they meant was: the best race horses know the meaning of a race, they’re out there to be first. Of course, they’re born with the basic instinct to run, it’s their natural defense against predators.
Rail: You still follow racing. Would you say the number of women jockeys is about the same as when Ruffian was racing, has dropped, or increased?
Schwartz: They’re still a minority, but the number’s increased. A woman jockey won the Belmont—that was Julie Krone, who’s now retired.
Rail: Ruffian was published in hardcover in 1991, as a paperback in 1994, and after going out of print became sought after as a collector’s item on eBay and the Internet. Now Ballantine has reissued it, and my sense is this won’t be the last time. Anything you’d like to say about that?
Schwartz: Well, I’m very happy the book’s come out again because I do get a lot of inquiries. As long as there’s any interest in racing, sports, or mythic figures of any kind, I think there will be an interest in Ruffian. Her story transcends racing or it would never have gotten to me as deeply as it did. It also made me long to know this figure I had always completely missed in life. In many ways I think that’s the impetus to write a book: to try to have something you can’t have.
Rail: Are you working on sports-related writing now, or something else?
Schwartz: Well, if you want to stretch the theme of sports a little—yes. I’m writing a novel about a woman who’s a high wire walker.