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Posted by John on

Charlie Davis and Bill Nack

It’s a sad time. Secretariat’s superb exercise rider Charlie Davis died on February 7, and last night Bill Nack, Secretariat’s great biographer and journalist par excellence, left us as well. Two dear friends, and companions on the lifelong run of carrying Secretariat’s torch. Here’s a link to a video I put together in memory of Charlie. I’m glad Bill lived to see it, but I’m sorry neither Penny nor Charlie did. I think they’d have enjoyed it. I hope you do.

 

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Posted by John on

After Charlottesville

I spent last Sunday reading condemnations of others’ racism after Charlottesville.  I read few investigations of self.

I’ve just returned from a road trip through Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming – country I’ve traversed, and loved, for years.  Impassable red rock craters and spires.  Rigid fields of irrigated potatoes.  Windy plains evoking Mongolian steppes, dotted with antelope.

And every fifty miles or so, a town – sickening, dying, or dead.  I’ve watched these little towns over the years, stopped in their gas stations and eaten in their cafes.  I’ve seen how the movie house closed because it couldn’t afford a digital projector.  How the musty old hotel restaurant, where you could get a steak under the stare of a stuffed buffalo head, has become a Denny’s.  How a grocery store’s converted to an antique shop, as the keepsakes of a rural community bleed out through its last open orifice.  How the diner we used to stop at because of the row of pickups out front is now empty, its windows painted over with dust-covered bald eagles and American flags.  How it doesn’t take long, once the last business goes, for the buildings to bleach like bones.

Of course this is hardcore Trump country.  Businesses are festooned with “Make America Great” signs.  People’s country courtesy comes edged with resentment.  I’ve always been an outsider, and I’m still a customer.  But I’ve felt increasingly like an enemy.  This trip, a motorcyclist passing the other direction flipped us off – I guess just for our Colorado plates.

Still, even after Charlottesville, I carry these people in my heart.

It goes deeper.  My mother’s family came from northern Virginia.  They owned a large farm, worked by slaves.  They lost it to foreclosure around the Civil War, and two separate battles were fought near their land.  The night Richmond fell, a boy of sixteen – my great-grandfather — guarded a dry-goods store with a pistol against fire, Union troops and looting locals.  The landscape lay devastated by combat, the white social structure morally ravaged by slavery.  Its people faced a terrifying future.  My great-aunt wrote, in a memoir depicting our family’s struggle out of that awful shadow: “As a race we were afraid of negroes.  That is the truth.  The talk of keeping them in their place was merely a way of saying, ‘We’ll make them scared of us, so scared they won’t try anything.’”  My great-uncle beat up a black man he’d been friends with as a child — at midday in the town square — because the man refused to call him “mister.”

Outwardly, I am none of these things.  A professional, progressive Boulderite, I harbor no ideologies of racial separation or superiority. I have no trouble condemning the KKK.  But we do not live in the world of Indiana Jones, where good guys punch out cartoon Nazis.  The racism we must confront is not merely the tiki-torch variety.  It’s our own in-group out-group hard wiring, overlaid with the history, power structures and acculturation of our regional, familial, and personal roots.  By this standard, of course Donald Trump is racist.  But so am I.  When I meet a person, among the first things I notice is their race.  Also, a quick flash of wariness.  It has always been there. 

The great damage wrought by Bannon and Trump is that they align such deep-rooted racism with our often legitimate sense of economic loss and cultural fear, and meld them into tribal resentment.  People thus incited do not experience themselves as haters.  What they feel is allegiance and safety.  So they deny being – or at least feeling — racist.  But the hatred and violence engendered are no less real. 

Humans as a species are universally vulnerable to race-baiting like Bannon’s.  Democracy’s defenders should condemn and confront it.  But we — especially people of privilege — should also be honest about ourselves.  The therapy for racism is not righteousness.  It is understanding: of other, of self.

One morning last week we set out before dawn on Highway 50.  The Great Basin opened up ahead, a carpet of black sage stopping at silhouetted cliffs, thrusting to indistinct peaks and ridgelines and tumbling bruises of cloud, dark grey, burgundy, pink — then suddenly breaking into orange fire.  What had been a wash of soulful gloom abruptly turned every color, green, yellow, lavender, each proclaiming its particular self.  Oncoming headlights faded to twinkles, like morning stars.  Mary Chapin Carpenter crooned:

Oh my darling, oh my love,
The things we are made of.

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Posted by John on

American Pharoah and the Triple Crown

American Pharoah and the Triple Crown

Today I awoke from a dream of Secretariat’s Belmont Day, 42 years ago. Dreams from childhood are self-centered affairs, and as usual I spent most of this one looking for my pants. But as I arose from sleep to doze, from dream to memory, I recall the crowds, the warmth of the day. I remember the deference and adoration the fans had for my mother, and in a weird undeserved way for me. I remember the giddy celebrations in the Trustee’s Room, and afterwards at the barn. But I have no concrete recollection of the race itself. Today I wondered if my personal memory was simply overwritten by the video footage, by the announcer’s famous call. But then I realized: I never did have a narrative memory of the race, such as we have of ordinary events in our lives. What I had instead, from the beginning, was a sensation, an experience. Sports fans have used the word “perfection” to describe it. For me, the word is “transcendence.”

Every species of domesticated animal has its signature traits. Cats are graceful and conceited. Dogs are loyal and ebullient. Horses are courageous and noble. They gave humans their first experience of exhilarating speed. To ride horseback is to fuse uniquely with another being, to take on its height, power, and nobility. In many cultures, a man who sought to govern others did so by riding a horse. I think horseracing became known as the “sport of kings,” not because kings owned horses, but because horses created kings.

In 1973, my parents were grinding towards divorce, while America was grinding through Watergate towards defeat in Vietnam. But when we watched Secretariat run the Belmont Stakes, we briefly forgot our fallen, grieving, disputatious selves. My mother’s self- transcendence was the most powerful of all. She became forever after known as “Secretariat’s Owner.” However, there was never any true “ownership” of Secretariat. If anything, he owned Mom, owned the thoroughbred world, and in a subterranean way has owned me, ever since. In the 42 years since, that domination has engendered private and public burdens, jealousies and arguments. But on Belmont Day, Secretariat ruled by divine right. All I truly remember is a feeling of oneness, among a huge crowd of ecstatic vassals.

Today Penny, at 93, is at Belmont Park, on hand to watch American Pharoah try to win the Triple Crown, and to celebrate if he does. Thoroughbred racing has lost its eminence in our culture, and horses themselves are increasingly neglected and abused, both in the sport and outside of it. But it remains true that well-trained and well-cared-for horses run out of their innate drive to be the fastest — as Penny says in the attached video — “for the joy of it.” My best hope for today’s race, Triple Crown or not, is for the horses to run safely, and to run with joy.

Today I awoke from a dream of Secretariat’s Belmont Day, 42 years ago. Dreams from childhood are self-centered affairs, and as usual I spent most of this one looking for my pants. But as I arose from sleep to doze, from dream to memory, I recall the crowds, the warmth of the day. I remember the deference and adoration the fans had for my mother, and in a weird undeserved way for me. I remember the giddy celebrations in the Trustee’s Room, and afterwards at the barn. But I have no concrete recollection of the race itself. Today I wondered if my personal memory was simply overwritten by the video footage, by the announcer’s famous call. But then I realized: I never did have a narrative memory of the race, such as we have of ordinary events in our lives. What I had instead, from the beginning, was a sensation, an experience. Sports fans have used the word “perfection” to describe it. For me, the word is “transcendence.” Every species of domesticated animal has its signature traits. Cats are graceful and conceited. Dogs are loyal and ebullient. Horses are courageous and noble. They gave humans their first experience of exhilarating speed. To ride horseback is to fuse uniquely with another being, to take on its height, power, and nobility. In many cultures, a man who sought to govern others did so by riding a horse. I think horseracing became known as the “sport of kings,” not because kings owned horses, but because horses created kings.In 1973, my parents were grinding towards divorce, while America was grinding through Watergate towards defeat in Vietnam. But when we watched Secretariat run the Belmont Stakes, we briefly forgot our fallen, grieving, disputatious selves. My mother’s self- transcendence was the most powerful of all. She became forever after known as “Secretariat’s Owner.” However, there was never any true “ownership” of Secretariat. If anything, he owned Mom, owned the thoroughbred world, and in a subterranean way has owned me, ever since. In the 42 years since, that domination has engendered private and public burdens, jealousies and arguments. But on Belmont Day, Secretariat ruled by divine right. All I truly remember is a feeling of oneness, among a huge crowd of ecstatic vassals.Today Penny, at 93, is at Belmont Park, on hand to watch American Pharoah try to win the Triple Crown, and to celebrate if he does. Thoroughbred racing has lost its eminence in our culture, and horses themselves are increasingly neglected and abused, both in the sport and outside of it. But it remains true that well-trained and well-cared-for horses run out of their innate drive to be the fastest — as Penny says in the attached video — “for the joy of it.” My best hope for today’s race, Triple Crown or not, is for the horses to run safely, and to run with joy.

Posted by Penny & Red: the Life of Secretariat's Owner on Saturday, June 6, 2015

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Posted by John on

Confessions of Secretariat’s Slower Brother

Confessions of Secretariat’s Slower Brother

I take this blog category from an article I wrote for my high school’s alumni magazine . . .

Confessions of Secretariat’s Slower Brother

By John Tweedy ’78

St Paul’s Alumni Horae, Spring 2015

“My mother owned Secretariat.”

Ever since the summer before my Third Form year at St. Paul’s, my life story has featured that sentence, a flashing non-sequitur in an otherwise pedestrian paragraph. As a racehorse, an athlete – a sheer force of nature – Secretariat would have upended the lives of any humans who might claim to “own” him. He certainly upended ours.

His 1973 Triple Crown sweep, setting records that still stand today and winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, shocked the country out of its Watergate torpor. He graced the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated all in the same week. A postman delivered 250 pieces of fan mail to our home. Every day.

But my mother, Penny Tweedy (now Chenery), also played a key role in Secretariat’s story – a role for which she had, by twists of fortune, been well prepared. She bred him into an intact racing stable that, two years earlier, she’d had to cajole her siblings not to sell. She had in place a brilliant trainer, jockey, and backstretch team. She had even been through a dress rehearsal the previous year, winning the 1972 Kentucky Derby with Riva Ridge. And then, once Secretariat’s championship season evolved beyond any expectation, she did her best to do him public justice. Penny adopted a democratic persona for the TV audience, broadening the appeal of a sport previously dominated by aristocratic snobs. She was more parental than possessive, reflecting her enthusiasm for the horse’s achievements to fans of any class. And yet she maintained the social graces of her boarding-school upbringing, sending a personally-signed response to every one of those pieces of fan mail. She was somehow both a ham and a lady. Forty years later, the racing world still loves her.

The 2009 film Secretariat, starring Diane Lane, vividly captured this partnership between horse and owner in the mythic Disney tradition. The movie even features a ball scene, with my mother dressed in a gown and elbow-length gloves. Thus elevated to the status of Disney princess fable, Penny’s story has delighted a new generation of girls who dream of powerful horses. Mom still gets fan mail, now often gushing, “You are such a great lady! I’ve watched your movie at least 20 times!”

Thus Hollywood becomes our historian. But as my mother puts it, “In some ways, that’s a lot of BS.”

In real life, my mother belongs to the World War II generation, with the salty vocabulary to prove it. She’s like many of the mothers of my formmates at St. Paul’s – smart, ambitious women who went to good schools, served capably during the war, and were forced back into the kitchen in the late 40s, where they sweated, and fumed, for the next quarter-century. Mom worked in a naval architecture firm until D-Day, went to France with the Red Cross in 1945, and came within a month of finishing her Columbia MBA — until her father insisted she quit, so she could plan her wedding.

Giving up hope for a career lit a slow fuse. By the time of my 1960s childhood, our household was a tense place, a genteel clapboard front in the wars of gender and generation that marked the era. The battle lines were sharper, the injuries deeper, and the losses more permanent than today’s “family-friendly” films convey. When Mom had the opportunity to escape and achieve, she grabbed it with both hands.

The youngest of her children, a skinny eighth-grader recently transplanted from Colorado, I felt dazzled by her brilliance and lost in her dust. Secretariat’s grandeur thrilled me utterly. And to celebrate his victories in the elite recesses of famous racetracks — where waiters impassively served champagne to a twelve-year-old boy – felt giddily surreal. But these experiences left a hangover too. My adolescent ego grew increasingly frustrated at being famous for the achievements of someone else. And I resented my parents’ public efforts to portray their marriage and family as intact and happy, when privately we had fallen apart.

By 1974, when I arrived at St. Paul’s — where both my father Jack and my brother Chris were alums — the last thing I wanted to talk about was Secretariat. Thankfully, the school largely obliged. I’m sure my peers knew I was a kid from a famous family – like the Senator’s son, or the girl who came from European royalty — but none were gauche enough to mention it. This pattern continued into college, where I became so silent on the topic that friends would know me for a year before it arose. When disclosure became unavoidable, I would casually mention that my mother owned “a horse called Secretariat.”

Dude,” one classmate laughed. “That’s like saying your dad is a guy named Richard Nixon.”

And so the non-sequitur took form, a brilliant fragment casting an ill-fitting shadow, persisting for decades. When the Disney movie came out, my brother Chris joked, “I’m glad they made up the family part. In real life we were neither functional enough, nor dysfunctional enough, to make a good movie.”

It struck me that Chris’s remark stated the problem dead on. As a culture, we require our public figures to be either paragons or fallen, either accepting the Oscar or checking into rehab. In truth, celebrity often combines elements of both. What Mom and I both needed, for our separate reasons, was to weave the public and personal narratives of her life into a single braid.

My wife, Beret Strong, and I have made documentaries since the 1990s, and I had long thought of Mom’s pristine film prints of Secretariat’s races and other family archives as rich sources for a film. Plus, from the fearlessness of a 90-year-old perspective, Mom now wanted to talk – about how her own childhood was marked by conflict and abuse; how her father encouraged excellence but insisted on submission; how her ambitions chafed under the housewife role; how her anger grew; how it felt to take over her father’s stable, to find victory with Riva Ridge but to receive a kind of grace in Secretariat’s transcendence. How, at the same time, she lost her father and her marriage. How she found a new path in the loneliness and liberation of fame.

The resulting film is Penny and Red: The Life of Secretariat’s Owner. A documentary should offer a fact-based perspective but not make a pretense of truth. In my personal interviews with her, Mom and I aimed for catharsis, and we found it. But as director and editor, I tried to steer between the opposing shoals of hagiography and exposé. And a documentary still needs a story, with a plot that obeys the laws of ancient drama.

Among those narrative archetypes is the “hero’s journey.” One of my grandfather’s father’s rules of thoroughbred etiquette was, “Don’t embarrass the horse.” If Penny’s life has elements of heroism, it is partly because she has worked for four decades to live up to an animal that many still think of as the paragon of his sport.

But Penny’s journey is also simply that of many women of her era. I think the women of the “Greatest Generation” were heroes – along with the men who fought and died — whether they became famous or not. And in exploring Penny’s private struggles and triumphs, as well as her public glories, Penny and Red aims to suggest that, from the perspective of those who live it, a heroic life is no fairy tale.

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Posted by John on

Ebert, O’Hehir, and Disney’s “Secretariat”

Back when the Disney movie “Secretariat” came out, I posted a reaction on Roger Ebert’s blog, after he posted a favorable review that commented on a negative review in Salon.com.  I actually think the process of writing these comments created the appetite for me to begin working on”Penny & Red” three years later.  Roger’s re-post of the exchange follows below:

November 8, 2010   |   35

I received this comment on my blog entry about “Secretariat” the movie, Secretariat the horse and the discussion about Andrew O’Hehir’s review of the film at Salon.com. It appears under the blog, as do comments by O’Hehir and Bill Nack, author of the Secretariat biography that informed the film. But it is so well-worded and wise that I wanted to call particular attention to it. RE

October 9, 2010

As Penny Chenery’s youngest son, I am fascinated by “Secretariat’s” reception by critics, and the dialogue between Ebert and O’Hehir is to me the most interesting so far. Rather than taking sides about whether the movie is “good” or “bad” (I am far too close to evaluate its merits), I want to comment on the value I see in both reviewers’ perspectives. From their conflicting angles, each shines a light on something I believe to be true about both the movie and the events that gave rise to it.

I understand O’Hehir’s perception of something relentlessly, indeed forcedly, upbeat about the story, perhaps masking a troubling reality underneath. The movie does, indeed, glamorize and improve on my family’s situation in the early 1970s, as it sanitizes the cultural context of that era. In real life, we Tweedys were more riven and frayed by the large and small conflicts of the time, and by the pressures of celebrity into which we were suddenly thrust. The wars between our parents were more bitter, the marriage more broken, and we kids were more alienated and countercultural than the movie depicts. During the pre-race CBS broadcast at the Belmont, Woody Broun interviewed my dad, my siblings and me, asking Jack whether he was the “power behind the throne.” He gamely (and for me now, poignantly) replied that he was proud of his wife, his kids, “and the horse.” Mom had wanted us to be all together for that interview, but away from the cameras we were each living in a separate world. The movie navigates this terrain with a combination of erasure, gentleness, and tact, and from the point of view of my family’s privacy, I am grateful.

But Ebert is right that there is something more — and something better — at work in the movie than simply airbrushing over painful truth. My mother has always known that the “Secretariat story,” and her role in it, filled a deep cultural need. While the country was convulsed by feminism, Watergate and Vietnam, Penny took pains to present as a wife and mother, offering a wholesome, western, maternal female image that paired beautifully with the heroic, powerful male icon that Secretariat was becoming. Our President may have been a Machiavellian liar, our soldiers denounced as baby-killers, and our fathers excoriated as chauvinist pigs as they commuted grimly to work. But here came Secretariat, deeply male, muscular and graceful, his chest lathered with sublimated sex. And on that day in June 1973, when he blew away the field in the Belmont Stakes, he transcended argument, rivalry, even transcended sport itself. In that moment Secretariat gave my family, and gave the public, something like grace.

Now we are again in a cultural moment of war and dissension. My sense is that the movie’s creators didn’t feel the need to portray the convulsions of the early 1970s, in part because today’s audiences carry the burdens of our current convulsions into the theaters with them, hoping to escape briefly to a world they can believe in and admire. I think the movie is offered to satisfy the old hunger for a kingly male and a queenly female, who together strive for something beyond themselves, who seek victory, and achieve grace. Disney has long been in the business of telling this kind of story. The best such films rise to the level of archetype, while lesser ones sink into the mire of cliche, or worse. Whether “Secretariat” succeeds in this mythic leap is for critics to argue, and for audiences to decide. Personally, I’m enjoying the ride, as well as the critical dust it’s kicking up.

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Posted by John on

Penny & Red at the Boulder International Film Festival

Penny & Red at the Boulder International Film Festival
IMG_0461 We had over 500 people for the premiere of “Penny & Red” at the Boulder Film Festival yesterday. Penny was in good form for the Q&A, and the film got lots of laughs — even in places where you’d think, hmm, was that moment actually funny or do they not know quite how to react to that information. . . . I feel deeply grateful to have Mom still here, still participating, still casting Secretariat fairy dust out to her fans after 40 years.

 

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