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Alums of one of D.C.’s oldest prep schools have been buzzing ever since the Washington Post printed an excerpt from My Losing Season, the new memoir by Pat Conroy.
Though Conroy is known mainly as a novelist (The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and The Prince of Tides are his three biggies), his latest work is shelved in the nonfiction aisles. It’s built around his senior year as point guard on the Citadel’s basketball team, in the 1966-1967 season, when the squad he captained went 8-17.
But the Post’s selected passage, which ran Dec. 26 in the sports section and clocked in at over 3,400 words, told of his sophomore year of high school, his one year at Gonzaga College High School.
Conroy’s wordsmithing once again hit home with reviewers (the New York Times gave it a big thumbs-up last fall) and with Hollywood: Warner Bros. recently announced it had signed a “preemptive seven-figure” deal with Conroy calling for Jennifer Aniston’s production company to turn the book into a movie, as happened to several of his novels.
The version of Gonzaga’s ways presented in My Losing Season, however, didn’t win over all alums of the Capitol Hill institution, founded in 1821 and still all-male. Particularly biting was a reference to the Jesuits who run the school as “rottweilers.” In a letter to the editor that the Post ran on Dec. 28, reader John E. Shreve, class of ’47, told of being “outraged” by the “diatribe against Gonzaga and the Jesuit fathers,” and he called Conroy a “punk kid.”
“What a pity that the only thing this misanthrope learned in his one year at Gonzaga was the art of writing,” Shreve wrote, “which he has now turned vindictively against the school.”
Other alums, however, rather liked the portrayal of Gonzaga as a place where teachers didn’t mind getting uncivil with students when trying to make a point.
“Gonzaga really was a tough place, like [Conroy] says,” says Pat Buchanan, class of ’56. “It’s much more elite now, but when I was there, the Jesuits were tough, tough guys. But they were wonderful.”
The biggest buzz created by the Post excerpt came not from Conroy’s academic portrayals but from the vivid description of a brawl that the writer recalls as having taken place in the Gonzaga auditorium in May 1961, during the annual athletic banquet and awards ceremony. The unquestioned king of the Daddy Dearest novel writes that the brouhaha really got going after he was knocked out for the second time that night by—no surprise here—his dear old dad. According to the text, his father decided that the boy deserved the double beat-down for playing a prank on another student.
“The second backhand caught me on the left jaw, harder than the first, and I went down to the floor again,” Conroy writes. “Then a free-for-all began.” In the book, the younger Conroy came to just in time to drag his bad dad out of the auditorium and save him from other Gonzaga fathers—”an angry mob of men”—who wanted a piece of the perpetrator of a very visible act of child abuse.
“They had no idea who my father was and did not care,” Conroy writes. “They saw a stranger knock a Gonzaga boy to his knees and came roaring to my defense.”
A public man-boy pummeling? Two knockouts in one night? Sure sounds like memorable stuff, and it will no doubt make for some fine movie scenes. But the all-hands brawl Conroy describes doesn’t have a big place in Gonzaga lore. In fact, until the Post story ran, it apparently didn’t have any place.
“I think Conroy got everything else about Gonzaga right, so I don’t know why this wouldn’t be right, too,” says John Carmody, Gonzaga’s general counsel and one of four generations of Carmodys to attend the school—the gym is named after his father. “But I’d never heard that story before.”
Carmody suggests that William Bennett would be able to confirm Conroy’s account. In the book excerpt, Conroy places himself behind Bennett, the high-profile moralist and member of Gonzaga’s class of ’61, during the fateful awards ceremony.
“Mr. Bennett says he was at the function, but he can’t recall that scuffle,” says Jeff Kwitowski, Bennett’s spokesperson. “He can’t verify any scuffle.”
Chris Warner, a Gonzaga classmate whom the excerpt places next to Conroy earlier in the banquet, also says he didn’t see any fight.
Buchanan, who keeps close ties to the school and is involved in the alumni organization, says he’d never heard about the big brawl, either. “That’s quite a story, though, so after I read it [in the Post], I asked some of my brothers about the brawl, and they said they’d never heard it, either,” says Buchanan, one of seven siblings to attend Gonzaga. He then adds with a laugh, “But he’s some writer, isn’t he?”
“This is such a personal memoir, we didn’t do any fact-checking,” says George Solomon, the Post’s sports editor. “We trust Mr. Conroy, with his reputation, for its accuracy.”
One Gonzaga-ite who had heard about the banquet brawl is Danny Costello, class of ’72, now vice president for development at the school. He got it right from the horse’s mouth.
“Pat Conroy came here about 12 years ago and I walked the halls with him, and he told me a story of his father’s kicking his ass at a school dinner,” says Costello. “I’d never heard that story from anybody before or since, until the book came out.”
Costello says he understands why the Post piece left some
Gonzaga alums wondering why they’d never heard more about
the brawl. He hasn’t been able
to answer their questions.
“I see why some people could question the account [that appeared in the Post]: He describes being dazed and not aware after getting hit, yet he also describes in great detail everything that was going on around him. How the hell does that happen?” Costello says. “But was there a rumble, and did the brawl happen the way the book says it did? I guess only one man knows all the answers, and that’s Pat Conroy. But I really think it’s irrelevant. That’s the way he remembers it. Everything he writes, his dad beats him up—I know he gets pounded in The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides—and stories about his dad beating him up are in every article that’s ever been written about the guy. So nobody should be surprised that he gets beat up in this book, too.”
Buchanan says he’s also ready to let Conroy’s brawl story stand as written. But he admits that the episode reminded him of the travails of Gonzaga alum Joe Ellis, class of ’61. Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, had his career derailed when it came out that he’d padded his resume with a fictional stint with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. As the press was piling on Ellis, it also came out that he’d bragged to the Boston Globe about catching a game-winning touchdown pass in his final game on the Gonzaga football team. Ellis never played football.
“But now, whenever anybody brings up the Joe Ellis touchdown story,” Buchanan says, “I just tell them I [threw] that pass.”
After being asked through e-mail and phone messages to confirm his account of the Gonzaga free-for-all, Conroy responded through his literary agent, Marly Russoff. “No one saw him get hit,” Russoff says, “and he did not discuss it with anyone.”—Dave McKenna