It was during the 1973 Kentucky Derby when newspaper man Bill Christine got a dose of jockey Bill Hartack's surliness. The legendary racehorse Secretariat had just blown away the field. Hartack's mount, Warbucks, finished last in the 13 horse field.
Through binoculars, Christine had seen a “bit of a scuffle” around the first turn between Hartack and Secretariat jockey Ron Turcotte.
After the race, Turcotte, having just won the fastest Derby in history, was surrounded by sportswriters. So Christine hunted down Hartack, who was notorious for giving reporters a hard time, to ask about that first turn.
“I was working for a Pittsburgh newspaper at the time; he’s from Johnstown, Pa., so I thought that might give me an edge,” recalled Christine, who lives in Redondo Beach.
“I said, 'I only have one question. I want to ask you what happened on the first turn?' He only had a towel around his waist and a pair of shower shoes, halfway walking to the shower and he said, 'You know how it is. I just don’t want to talk about it.’ I got a dose firsthand how uncooperative he could be, but he wasn’t always nice when he was uncooperative.”
In his career, Hartack won nearly 4,300 races; won five Kentucky Derbys, two Preakness Stakes and one Belmont Stakes, the three races that comprise the Triple Crown; and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1959, more than 21 years before he retired. After retirement, he was a TV race analyst, worked as a steward and had various racing official jobs at horse racing tracks around the country.
Christine published “Bill Hartack: The Bittersweet Life of a Hall of Fame Jockey,” last year, and has followed that up with a very different story about the songwriters behind “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” with the biography, “They Left Their Hearts in San Francisco: The Lives of Songwriters George Cory and Douglas Cross.”
Christine will discuss both books at the Redondo Beach Main Library on Tuesday, Feb. 27, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Christine covered horse racing for the Los Angeles Times for more than 24 years and worked as a sports editor for several publications prior to that. Hartack's story came to the forefront
John Ball, a friend of Christine's planned to write a Hartack biography. Ball was in close contact with Nancy Lang, a widow of Hartack's agent Chic Lang, who had stayed as Hartack's agent for six years, longer than anyone. Nancy Lang had saved virtually everything written about Hartack. She packed everything up, from scrap books to Time and Sports Illustrated magazines, and sent it to Ball in Pittsburgh.
“After talking to him for an hour (one day) said, 'You know more about Hartack than I do, so why don’t you write it?'” Christine said. “So he turned the project over to me.”
The material Ball sent Christine was big enough to fill a box for a 25-inch T.V. set. That started about a year of research, which included interviews with Hartack's sisters, Maxine and Evelyn, who is also known as Dolly. The sisters hated each other and hadn't spoken in decades. They also had not spoken to their brother for decades prior to his death, but they were instrumental in detailing Hartack's childhood, which he rarely talked about. But the “dysfunctional” family had been through a lot. On Christmas day in 1940, their mother had been killed in a car accident at the age of 28. Bill was in fourth grade, Dolly in fifth grade and Maxine was 13 months old at the time of her death. His father also physically abused him as a child.
“He didn’t like his father that much although they buried the hatchet later on,” Christine said. “His father was murdered by a girlfriend ... he was a coal miner, a tough guy.”
Christine said the biggest challenge with writing the book was “trying to find people who liked him.” Throughout his career, which included leading jockeys by earning two years and another four years leading the U.S. in wins, he had an adversarial relationship with other jockeys, including some of the greats of the era, including Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro.
Christine said Hartack was “his own worst enemy” until the jockey's death in 2007.
“I was trying to give the book some balance ... I didn’t have many people that really liked him,” Christine said. “I thought, 'Boy, this is going to come off as such a downer of a book, people are going to think that I’m exaggerating just for the sake of being controversial,'” But I was really hard pressed to find people who liked him. Even people who did like him had their ups and downs because he was such a cranky guy.”
Career in words
During his career at the Los Angeles Times, Christine won nine national writing awards and shared in a Pulitzer Prize. During his “heyday” at the Times, his byline would appear in the paper more than 200 times a year. Christine also covered a lot of baseball, writing a biography on baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.
Christine's first Kentucky Derby was in 1968 when Dancer's Image edged Forward Pass. But Dancer's Image was later disqualified after then illegal phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug, was found in the horse's system after the race. The owners sued and the stayed in Kentucky courts for nearly five years, which Christine covered.
In total, Christine said he's attended 35 Kentucky Derbys, including more than 20 while working at the L.A. Times.
And, it was the chronicling of famous jockeys, that led Christine to consider exploring other unsung heroes.
Leaving his heart
Tony Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in public on Dec. 28, 1961, in the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room in San Francisco.
The song has become a standard while selling millions of singles, but according to Christine's book, the song was nearly never recorded. The story unfolded when Christine began researching the songwriting careers of George Cory and Douglas Cross for a freelance piece for the SF Weekly.
“I was always fascinated by songwriters not getting enough credit,” Christine said. “I point out in the book that even the singers with (Frank) Sinatra being a notable exception, hardly ever give songwriters credit.”
The San Francisco Chronicle turned down Christine's pitch for a feature on Cory and Cross. But the SF Weekly was interested in him writing a 5,000-word cover story to coincide with Bennett's 90th birthday party at the Fairmont Hotel in 2016. He started writing the story, but realized his word count had ballooned to 11,000 words. The Weekly turned down the idea of a two-part story, so it was then that Christine realized that it could be his next book.
“I wasn't even warmed up yet,” he said.
“They Left Their Hearts in San Francisco: The Lives of Songwriters George Cory and Douglas Cross” details the struggles of the songwriting pair who were also a couple in real life.
Cory and Cross first met during World War II when they were stationed at the Presidio. They would put on shows for the servicemen, but they were never shipped overseas. In 1952, they moved to Brooklyn so they could be close to Tin Pan Alley, a group of music publishers and songwriters. They wrote “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1953 as sort of a love letter to city they missed.
They had offered the song to “everybody and their brother,” and some well known singers nearly recorded the song. But it sat around for nearly eight years until Ralph Sharon, Bennett's longtime piano player ran into the songwriting team.
“They handed him the sheet music and he took it home to his apartment and put it in his dresser drawer with his shirts and 50 other songs, but luckily it was on the top of the stack,” Christine said. “So Bennett and Sharon are leaving New York and going on a tour in 1961. The tour is going to start in Hot Springs, Arkansas and then they’re going on to San Francisco. Sharon is packing his suitcase ... he looks over and on the top is the sheet music in pencil to 'I Left my Heart in San Francisco.' They’re going to be in San Francisco in two weeks and he thinks well maybe I can throw this into my suitcase.”
The song was a hit at the Venetian Room, where Bennett sang it five straight nights leading up to New Year's Eve 1961. But Bennett had difficulty getting it recorded at Columbia Records where he was under contract. Record producer Mitch Miller said it was a “local song” that wouldn't sell anyplace else, so he turned it down.
“So for two or three weeks, Bennett wouldn’t let it go,” Christine said. “He kept hounding Mitch Miller, 'we’ve got to do this song' ... Miller said go ahead and record it, but make sure it's the B-side.”
It was first recorded as a B-side to the Broadway song “Once Upon a Time,” but “Heart” became so popular on the radio that it was released again later in the year as the A-side, and went on to sell two million copies in 1962.
Christine did interview Bennett for the book.
“What you see is what you get. He’s a great guy,” Christine said. “In fact, he wound up being more interested in me. The unfortunate part is he didn’t know these guys very well."
Before their trip to San Francisco, Bennett and Sharon stopped by a bar called the Blue Orchid after a performance in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The story goes that there was only one other person in the bar at the time, the bartender, who heard them tinker with the song on the bar's piano. Sharon did a quick arrangement of the song before the opening at the Fairmount.
On a whim, Christine called an old friend of his, a racetrack lawyer in Beverly Hills, who went to law school at the University of Arkansas. Christine said to the lawyer “This is a long shot, but do you know a bartender who worked at the Blue Orchard years ago?” He said yes, he went to high school with him, but the bartender had died a few years back.
Christine thinks “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” had an “extra amount of serendipity” to become the classic it has.
“Think of all the things that had to happen for this to fall in place?,” he said.
Cory and Cross had short lives, both dying in their 50s in the 1970s.
“They were drinkers when they were poor and when they became rich, they really became drinkers ... both of them really drank themselves to death,” Christine said.
Christine said he is currently working on two new books. One is a true-crime book, with the working title,“A Deutschfest, Then Murder: The Newspaper Intern, the Drifter and the Serial Killer,” detailing unsolved murders in Belleville, Ill. in the late 1980s.
The other is novel based on an embezzlement scheme in Baltimore in the mid 1960s. The story is loosely based on a woman Christine dated at the time, who was the embezzler’s ex-wife.