I’m a sportswriter who spent 20 years telling readers of Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine and other magazines about Tiger, Phil and the rest of today’s top golfers. But the guy who really intrigued me never played on the PGA Tour. Titanic Thompson, who may have been the best golfer of his generation, gambled on his own, motoring from town to town from the Roaring Twenties to the 1970s, betting on golf, poker, dice, pool, horseshoes and games of his own invention. He killed five men, married five women and blazed a trail through the 20th Century.
In the 1920s he rolled into New York City and cleaned out the gamblers who played underground craps games. That was the real-life action behind Damon Runyon’s famous Guys and Dolls stories. Runyon, the best-paid newspaperman in the world, wanted to write Titanic’s life story. But Ti said, “No thanks. Mine ain’t the kind of work publicity helps.” So Runyon fictionalized him. He based his most famous character on Titanic: Sky Masterson, the gambler hero of Guys and Dolls.
Gamblers and other liars have had almost half a century to embellish their tales of the immortal Titanic. Two years ago I set out to separate the legends from the facts. I found plenty of living memory – gamblers who lost to Titanic, and his last wife, who recalls the charming hustler who married her almost 50 years ago.
Who was Titanic? I don’t know if I’ve solved that puzzle, but I gave it my best shot.
About the author: Kevin Cook, whose 2007 book Tommy’s Honor was one of Sports Illustrated’s books of the year, is an award-winning sportswriter. He lives in New York City.
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