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Myth vs Reality

When Minnesota Fats and Walter Tevis' imagination collided.

Story By R.A. Dyer


You can't tell the story of America's 1960s pool renaissance without first telling the story of Walter Tevis, the novelist. But you can't tell that story without telling the story of Rudolf Wanderone, the pool hustler.

Anyone who knows our sport's history knows the broad outlines — that Tevis wrote a popular novel, that the novel became a film, that a deceitful pool hustler named Rudolf Wanderone appropriated the novel's Minnesota Fats character for his own self-aggrandizement. In the process, however, the hustler Wanderone attracted heaps of attention to pool.

Minnesota Fats and Rudolf Wanderone, Walter Tevis and "The Hustler" — the history of 1960s pool jumbles them all up together, a funhouse mirror mishmash of reality and myth. But now, decades later, I present for your consideration two new questions. Was that decade's renaissance really based on a lie? And if so, whose lie?

Welcome back. For this installment I reexamine one of our sport's most important creation stories — the story of how Walter Tevis created Minnesota Fats and how Minnesota Fats, Pinocchio-like, became a real-life person. Was Fats real? Was he fiction? And what does it mean to be real? I also detail here for the first time ever an important literary discovery made by an off-duty cop in Kentucky. Rather than clearing up our paradox, this new discovery — maddeningly, frustratingly — muddies it even more.

But first, as always, a bit of context. I begin most columns by introducing interviewees and citing resources. This month I introduce just a single person, 37-year-old Eastern Kentucky University police officer Derek Kirunchyk; and I cite just one resource, the original manuscript of Tevis' 1959 novel, "The Hustler." Officer Kirunchyk discovered what appears to be an extremely significant detail in that manuscript after coming across it in the library basement at the university where he works. It is this newly discovered detail I discuss here. For this installment of Untold Stories I also must ask for a bit of the reader's indulgence. To explain the importance of what I reveal here I must provide a fair amount of background history about pool during the 1950s and 1960s. I likewise make assertions here and there about that history, about Rudolf Wanderone and about Walter Tevis — assertions that some readers may disagree with.

Derek Kirunchyk, a father of four, has competed three times in the U.S. Amateur Championships in Florida, competed at both APA and BCA events in Las Vegas, progressed into the fourth round of 9-ball at Derby City and even makes pool cues. He also works for the police department for Eastern Kentucky University, in Richmand. Given his background and his proximity to the university library, it is not so surprising that he would go snooping around looking for books.


Tevis maintained that his "Minnesota Fats" character was entirely fictitious.

"I work there and I went to school there and some time ago, a long time ago, I went to see if they had any books about billiards." Kirunchyk told me in May, during a long phone conversation. He said he wanted how-to books and biographies, but then a university library archivist told him about the Tevis manuscript located in the basement. "So I went down there and asked about it."

Keep in mind that this, Kirunchyk's initial research foray, occurred several years ago. That his university employer, a rural university historically known as a teacher's college, held the original manuscript came as a bewildering shock. Without a doubt The Hustler is the most important American novel ever written about pool. And it was right there, at his school. Tevis had donated the munuscript to EKU in 1968, during the height of his fame — but all this was news to Kirunchyk.

The archivist brought him two musty old manilla folders, each containing yellowing pages. Almost immediately he noticed little edits in pencil and pen. The manuscript pages also had pairs of punched circular holes in the left-hand margins, sure signs that Tevis had used a two-ringed binder to hold them together. And then Kirunchyk saw it. There, right above the author's name, right above Tevis's phone number (4-9823) and the book's title — there was another title. Tevis had written "The Hustler" in ink, but this other title he wrote using his manual typewriter. Tevis had scratched out the second title with a pen and, judging from his scrawl, it looked as if his ink failed him as he did so. But there it was: "The Brilliant Green."

Although Tevis had spoken publicly about this original title — for instance, there's a 1958 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer where he explains the meaning of "The Brilliant Green" — seeing these words for the first time gave Kirunchyk a little jolt, the same jolt that all researches experience when they rediscover forgotten things. This, however, wasn't the only detail that caught his eye. Kirunchyk saw other corrections, other little edits, but when he initially examined the manuscript several years ago, he wasn't quite sure what to make of them. "So I put the book back — that was five or 10 years ago — and I forgot all about it," he said.


Kirunchyk stumbled across Tevis' original manuscript for "The Hustler" while researching billiards. Photo by Sherry Lawson

Walter S. Tevis, the author, was born in 1928 in California and spent the first years of his life in San Francisco. In his bones, however, he always was a Kentuckian. Tevis moved to the Blue Grass State in 1939 after his family received a land grant there, and it was in Kentucky that he received most of his education. He served in World War II (in the Pacific theater), then returned to Kentucky to attend the Model Laboratory School in Richmond and later received both his bachelors and masters degrees in English Literature from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Tevis also worked at a pool hall near the university campus, and he lived in Lexington when he was writing about pool.

In August 1955, about a year after receiving his master's degree, the then 27-year-old author published his first pool-related short story. Just two pages long, The Big Hustle focused on a high-stakes match between an old veteran, Ned Bales, and a kid named Hot Springs Babe. The story appeared in Collier's magazine. Two years later Tevis published a second pool-themed story, this one appearing in Playboy. Although it differed significantly from his more famous novel, Tevis also called this short story, "The Hustler." The actual novel with that name came next, in 1959, and here Tevis introduced his most well-known creations — the hot-headed Fast Eddie Felson and the intimidating Minnesota Fats. These characters became world famous after Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason portrayed them on the big screen two years later.

Here's an iconic scene from the novel — the moment when Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats meet for the first time. This dialogue was replayed, line by line, by Gleason and Newman in the 20th Century Fox movie. The passage I reproduce here begins with Tevis's physical description of Minnesota Fats himself.

He was wearing a silk sport shirt, chartreuse, open at the neck and close on his side, soft-looking belly. His face was like dough, like the face of the full moon on a free calendar, puffed up like an Eskimo's, little ears close to his head, the hair shiny, curly, and carefully trimmed, the complexion clear, pinkish. His hands were clasped over the great belly, above a small, jeweled belt buckle, and there were brightly jeweled rings on four of his fingers. The nails were manicured and polished. About every ten seconds there was a sudden, convulsive motion of his head, forcing this chins down toward his left collar bone. This was a very sudden movement, and it brought an automatic grimace to that side of his mouth which seemed affected by the tic. Other than this there was no expression on the face. The man stared back at him. Then he said, "You shoot pretty good straights." His voice had no tone whatever. It was very deep. Eddie, somehow, did not feel like grinning. "Thanks," he said. He turned back to the table and finished up the rack of balls. Then when the cashier, the man with the black-rimmed glasses, was racking them up, Eddie turned back to the fat man and said, smiling this time, "You play straight pool, mister?" The man's chin jerked, abruptly. "Every once in a while," he said. "You know how it is." His voice sounded as though he were talking from the bottom of a well. Eddie continued chalking his cue. "You're Minnesota Fats, aren't you, mister?" The man said nothing, but his eyes seemed to flicker, as if he were amused, or trying to be amusing. I love this scene. It's hard to overstate how much I love it. For me it perfectly sums up the romance of pool, the potential drama imbedded in the very heart of it. And it is here that I will make the first of several admittedly arguable assertions about the character of Tevis's work. I believe his Minnesota Fats character and not his Fast Eddie that is the more engrossing of the two. Tevis certainly infused Fast Eddy with skill and it's hard not to root for him. But Fast Eddy is a chump. Fats, by contrast, is dangerous. And unlike Fast Eddy, Fats does not seem like a man accustomed to losing. It's Fats who steals the show.


Early in Tevis' novel, "Fast Eddie" references his foe as "New York Fats."

And here I'll make a second and far more controversial assertion. I believe it is Minnesota Fats who largely rescued our sport during the 1960s. Pool, as measured by its popularity with the public, had fallen into a terrible slump during the preceding decade. Table sales were down. Poolrooms were closing. But after the 1961 Hollywood release of "The Hustler," the sport came roaring back. Americans loved the movie and they loved Minnesota Fats in it. He was deceitful, mysterious and intimidating. He represented all the lowest, most terrible and disgraceful elements of our sport. And America couldn't get enough of him. With Minnesota Fats, the renaissance was born.

Rudolf Wanderone lived a life we now roughly divide into two parts. The first came before "The Hustler" and the second came afterwards. Briefly, this is how the first part went. Wanderone was the child of Swiss immigrants, he was born in 1913 in Manhattan and he lived there as a youth. Wanderone attended public school near his home around 148th Street, dropped out early and then made a name for himself as a professional billiardist of at least moderate ability. As a hustler he went by various nicknames, Double Smart Fats and Triple Smart Fats among them. But really he was always New York Fats. This was the name that other players bestowed upon him in the pool rooms around Times Square and Upper Manhattan, and this is the name he took with him on the road. Significantly, it also is the name he possessed in 1961 when 20th Century Fox released "The Hustler." Keep this in mind. This is important.

Now, if you met Rudolf Wanderone the year before "The Hustler's" release you might first be struck by his colorful way of speaking. It was like he had a Coney Island carnival barker affectation — sort of W.C. Fields meets Tony Soprano — but with all his soft vowels drawn out at the end of his sentences. At a glance you might also recognize why people called him New York Fats. The pool player was big and gluttonous and lazy, and in fact he often boasted of all these traits. You might also notice that Wanderone still played pool, even though by 1960 he was well past his prime.

But the pool gods had granted Wanderone greater gifts, and these you might not recognize at first, but you would recognize them soon enough. Among these were his innate sense of showmanship, his instinct for self-preservation and an ability to concoct the most beautiful of lies. These gifts — both the good ones and the bad — Wanderone employed in 1961 after the film's release. First was the matter of the Egyptian Drive-In, a movie theater near his adopted hometown in DuQuoin, Illinois. Witnesses said he picketed the theater during a showing of "The Hustler," claiming the film stole his identity. Next came Wanderone's statements to Sports Illustrated writer Tom Fox, statements that later showed up in the pool player's memoirs that Fox helped him write. "There was no question that the character called Minnesota Fats was fashioned after the one and only New York Fats, who just happened to be me," Wanderone said in the book. And when newspaper writers came knocking and magazine reporters too, he made the claims to them as well.

He made the claim, and he made the claim and he made the claim — and finally it stuck. I AM Minnesota Fats, he insisted. I AM Minnesota Fats. No matter that the New Yorker had probably never ever set foot in Minnesota; no matter that he always went by the moniker "New York Fats;" no matter that Tevis himself, in a forward to the 1976 edition to his book, explicitly denied the connection. "That is ridiculous," the writer said. "I made up Minnesota Fats — name and all — as surely as Disney made up Donald Duck."

But none of this mattered. With the command of a born showman, the hustler always known to the pool world as New York Fats had, through this beautiful lie, transformed himself into real but very-much-bigger-than-life Minnesota Fats.

And thus the second part of Rudolf Wanderone's life began.

"And then a friend of mine shared a video with me, a video of Minnesota Fats arguing with Willie Mosconi — and I remembered that manuscript down there in the library basement. The original copy. I remembered it down there, and so I made a point to go back and look at it again."

We take up the story again with Kirunchyk, the Kentucky police officer. Recall that Kirunchyk had examined the manuscript once before, years previously. But in early 2019 the idea came to Kirunchyk that he should go look at it again. It was this YouTube video that gave him this idea. In it, the supposed "real life" Minnesota Fats — that is, Wanderone — was arguing with Willie Mosconi, America's greatest-ever pool player. The argument was during a famous televised pool match in 1978 in New York City.

And so now we arrive at a crucial bit of context. Wanderone and Mosconi arguing. Arguing. One specific detail of that 1978 argument is important for this story, although in most ways the argument that year was no different from the argument that Wanderone and Mosconi always had been having, the same argument that began with the Hollywood release of "The Hustler" and the same argument they kept having well into their retirement. Superficially the arguments seemed to take different forms and they were over different questions — who won what, for instance, or who was the better player. But behind all the arguments, the 1978 argument included, there was just a single question and that question was simply this: who was Rudolf Wanderone really?

Author Walter Tevis disputed, had always disputed, that Wanderone was the real-life model for his Minnesota Fats character. "That is ridiculous," he wrote in 1979. And this view of things — that Wanderone was a charlatan and a fraud and that he had stolen his fame — this became the official view of things. It was the view held by most respectable billiard players; it was the more or less official view of official pooldom; it was the view championed by Willie Mosconi, in 1979, as he argued with Rudolf Wanderone on national TV.

When Kirunchyk first viewed the Tevis manuscript years earlier he was aware of this controversy, but not all the details of it. He knew, for instance, that there was a man who went around calling himself Minnesota Fats and that pool scholars believed he had assumed that persona to profit from the movie's success. But Kirunchyk did not know, back years ago when he first examined the manuscript, that Wanderone had been going around calling himself New York Fats prior to the book's release. Kirunchyk only became aware of this detail later, as he watched the argument between Mosconi and Wanderone on the YouTube video. In it, Wanderone makes this assertion: "The real Minnesota Fats is none other than New York Fats — if they weren't describing me in "The Hustler," why didn't they make a movie about Willie?" And then it clicked. Something about that assertion jogged Kirunchyk's memory about a detail in the manuscript, about a detail he saw earlier but didn't then understand.

"So I went back to take a second look," Kirunchyk told me. "I skimmed each page. I was very careful, gently turning the pages one by one, so as not to damage the fragile paper, and then I noticed it . ..."

And here it comes ...

"I noticed that he has written 'Minnesota Fats'. ... but at the beginning (Tevis) started out by using the name 'New York Fats'. He has actually typed 'New York Fats'. But then he goes back and marked out 'New York' — he writes a line through that — and writes 'Minnesota' over it."

And son of a bitch, it's true. New York Fats. New York Fats. Kirunchyk is absolutely right. On page 78, Tevis has scratched out "New York" and written in its place, in his own hand, the word "Minnesota." In fact, Tevis does that twice on this page. Elsewhere, on pages 36, 39, 48 and 100 Tevis also references "New York Fats", not "Minnesota Fats". "And in a few spots he forgets to mark it out, and you can see it. I noticed it — I noticed the title, that it had a different title, and after that I noticed where 'New York Fats' had been scratched out, and 'Minnesota Fats' written in. ... He actually typed 'New York Fats', and then he (Tevis) hand draws a line through it, and writes 'Minnesota' over it. The first time I noticed it, he scratched it out in pencil. And then he did it in pen later on.

"I enjoy the history of billiards — I'm a real big enthusiast — and when I made the connection, I realized this was part of a 60-year-old mystery."

What does all this mean? Nothing less than this: that Wanderone, perhaps, was telling the truth. Rather than having stolen his name from Tevis, the reality may have been completely the other way around. For nearly 60 years, ever since the release of "The Hustler," those who follow the sport widely assumed that Wanderone had lied about his own provenance. Because of Kirunchyk's discovery, we must now reassess this view of things.


Tevis' original manuscript for "The Hustler" includes a page in which the author changes the character's nickname from "New York" to "Minnesota."

I believe it is likely that Tevis borrowed more from Wanderone than he cared to admit. I think the author probably spied New York Fats during one of his frequent pool trips and then incorporated elements of this New York Fats into his book, but changed his name to Minnesota Fats. And if you read "The Hustler" closely, if you consider the small details, you will find supporting evidence for this view. The sports shirt-wearing Minnesota Fats of the novel is in many respects more Rudolf Wanderone-like than the dark-suited Jackie Gleason ever was.

This is important. I have always contended that Wanderone's hustle was the greatest in the history of our sport. Through it he managed to parlay a work of fiction into personal fame, and in that process he defined both himself as a person but also pool. And if Wanderone never staked his claim, if he never abandoned his own nickname in favor of Minnesota Fats, the 1960s pool craze would have subsided much more quickly than it did.

But that doesn't belie the important fact that, at the heart of our sport's colorful 1960s renaissance, there resides a story. Quite literally. Peel away enough onion layers and what you're left with is a novel by Walter Tevis and a character named Minnesota Fats. Myth and true life get jumbled up all together in them. The literal truth of their stories don't make them any more less significant. It's their stories themselves. And this, I believe, is why Minnesota Fats still lives with us.

Eddie kept smiling, but he felt his fingertips quivering and put his hand in his pocket, holding the cue stick with the other. "They say Minnesota Fats is the best the country, out where I come from," he said.

"Is that a fact?" The man's face jerked again.

"That's right," Eddie said. "Out where I come from they say Minnesota Fats shoot the eyes right off them balls."


Another Walter Tevis Mystery: Do Something About The Turtle.

Beyond the question of Minnesota Fats' true identity, the new re-examined Walter Tevis manuscript also raises another question. Although a much more trivial one, this second question is not any less enigmatic.

Included among the pages Tevis donated to Eastern Kentucky University was a page of handwritten notes. The notes are numbered one through five, making the page look like a grocery list. Note number one reads: "Clear up Bert's lack of real knowledge of Findlay's pool playing." Number 3 says: "This is a book about the limitations of talent, and how a young man learns about them."

All the other notes also seem pretty straightforward.

Here, however, is Number 5: "Do something about the turtle".

After Kirunchyk brought this odd detail to my attention I went back through the book in search of turtles. I found just two references. The more prominent was Tevis's reference to "Turtle Baker," a pool-playing thug who breaks Eddie's thumbs about midway through the book. Less prominent, however, was Tevis's earlier reference to a pet turtle that Eddie's girlfriend Sarah keeps in a glass bowl above her toilet. Tevis describes that turtle thusly: "A self-contained, cautious, withdrawn creature ... The turtle asked no questions, and was required to give no answers."

 

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