Manuscript archive for Jim Thorpe's unpublished autobiography, 1950

Manuscript archive for Jim Thorpe's unpublished autobiography, 1950

Thorpe, Jim [James Francis] (1887 – 1953) and Orlo Robertson (1903 – 1985).  An archive relating to an unpublished biography of legendary athlete Jim Thorpe, 1950. Included are a 132 pp. of draft materials with revisions by Thorpe and his wife, as well as correspondence from Jim Thorpe, Patricia Thorpe, “Pop” Warner, Everett Freeman, and Orlo Robertson. Individually filed in an archival box, 0.5 linear feet.

Anticipating the production of the 1951 biopic, Jim Thorpe – All American, Jim Thorpe and his wife, née Patricia Gladys Woodbury (1898 – 1975), made arrangements to publish his autobiography. Though much lionized for his extraordinary athletic achievements decades earlier, Thorpe was struggling financially in the 1940s. After the two married in 1945 – Thorpe was working as a merchant marine at the time – Patricia adopted the role of her business manager. In early 1950, she arranged for the Oklahoma-born sports writer Orlo Robertson (1903 – 1985) to write the authorized biography. Robertson had been covering Thorpe for the Associated Press since the 1920s. Because Warner Brothers had purchased the rights to Thorpe’s life story, she first had to secure permission from the studio. A letter included here from producer Everett Freeman (1911 – 1991) conveyed the studio’s blessing.

Under the terms of the contract, a handwritten draft of which is included here, Jim Thorpe would pay Robertson $1000 in two installments, plus 5 percent of royalties once the book was published. The Thorpes retained all control over content: “Jim Thorpe will have the right of approval of the manuscript . . . and to have the right to correct, add to, or take from said manuscript.”

            From the correspondence, it is clear that the couple worked closely with Robertson, who had access to Jim Thorpe’s scrapbooks. Their correspondence reference specific events in Thorpe’s life (“I have not had time to write the Paris episode,” Patricia writes to Robertson, “but will either end it to you or tell you about it if I come over.”) The corrections to the manuscript in several hands, including Jim Thorpe’s. “Jim is now going over your story and as soon as he is finished I will prepare it for returning to you,” writes Patricia to Roberton. She also kept the pressure on the writer to produce. “Times a wasting now,” she writes.

It is possible that the manuscript was used to rewrite the film when it was in production. When the movie was first announced in July 1949, Vincent X. Flaherty and Douglas Morrow were named as the screenwriters. “I don’t know what scrip Warners used for putting together the movie,” Robertson wrote to Patricia in July 1950, “but I bet there is a lot in this book they never knew about.” Robertson sent Warners an excerpt from the manuscript with a notarized statement confirming himself as the owner. Production did not start until April 1950 and casting continued through the summer and early September. Filming did not start until October 1950, and continued through the end of the year. By the time it was finally released in August 1951, Douglas Morrow and Everett Freeman were named as the screenwriters, with Thorpe credited as “technical advisor”. It seems likely that the increasing momentum of the film led the Thorpes to place the biography on the back burner. Patricia’s last letter to Robertson dates from December 1950.

The manuscript, precedes by six years the first published book on Thorpe. It is the only extended biography written during Thorpe’s lifetime, and the only one written with his direct involvement. It is very much a first draft, more a compilation of notes than an extended narrative, and clearly based on conversations with Thorpe. The athlete was famously a taciturn figure; this manuscript, though mediated, brings us closest to his voice. Biographers have often presented Thorpe as a figure with only limited agency in his own life; this manuscript reveals the extent to which he shaped his own narrative. “We are editing your mms and will return to you for final whipping into shape,” Jim Thorpe writes in August 1950. “The west coast editor for Colliers is very interested but the mms must be presented properly.”

Patricia Thorpe, whom most biographers grant only meager consideration, and whose decisions – particularly respecting his final resting place – have long attracted condemnation, comes across here as a spirited personality. Details of their life together slip through her letters, which are written on hotel letterheads, and on stationary from Jim’s various short-lived enterprises. She contributes a two-page appreciation of her husband. In a letter to Robertson from August 1950, Jim reciprocates with praise for his wife:

I think she is the grandest little woman in the world and the best pal a man ever had, give her a chapter and a real build up in the story—she has also taken care of my boys.

The handwritten statement by legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner (1871 – 1954) was intended to serve as the forward to the book. “He was honest and frank and a good sportsman,” Warner writes of Thorpe. “There was no sham or guile in his makeup. That explains why he used his real name when he spent a vacation playing baseball in a small Carolina League composed mostly of northern and New England college boys who played under assumed names to preserve their amateur standing. That honesty eventually lost him his amateur standing and his Olympic trophies and medals.”

Since 1956, Jim Thorpe has been the subject of at least a dozen biographies and countless articles in popular magazine and scholarly journals. This archive will be essential for all future work on the man still known as “the greatest athlete of all time.”

The contents of the archive:

I: Correspondence

Freeman, Everett to Jim Thorpe, TLS, March 29, 1950

The producer of Jim Thorpe -- All American informs Thorpe that he can publish his autobiography without infringing on his deal with Warner Brothers.

Palm, Folke to Orlo Robertson, TLS, 14 April 1950

The chief of the Associated Press's office in Stockholm writes on trying to get a statement on Thorpe from King Gustav V.

Robertson, Orlo to Patricia Thorpe. Two ALS with envelope, July and August, 1950

Thorpe, Jim to Orlo Robertson, ALS, August 22, 1950, 2 pp.

Thorpe, Patricia to Orlo Robertson, 11 TLS and 1 ALS, dated March to December 1950

II: Manuscripts

Robertson, Orlo. Notarized statement cover sheet acknowledging Robertson as the owner of materials on the life of Jim Thorpe, dated 21 July 1950. With two pages of sample text.

Robertson, Orlo, Jim Thorpe, and Patricia Thorpe. [Biography of Jim Thorpe]. Typescript drafts with extensive emendations. 132 pp.

Thorpe, Patricia. Draft contract between Jim Thorpe and Orlo Robertson, written in pencil, [ca. March 1950]

Thorpe, Patricia G. “Jim Thorpe as I Know Him.” 2 pp. typescript..

Warner, Glenn S. “Pop.” Handwritten statement on Thorpe sent to Robertson for use as the book’s forward, 2 pp. on personal letterhead, signed, [1950].

Selected References

  • Bauer, Thomas and Fabrice Delsahut. “Jim Thorpe – All American: A Thin
    Hollywood Line of Truth?,” The International Journal of the History of Sport, 37 (2020): 937-949
  • Bruchac, Joseph. The Story of All-star Athlete: Jim Thorpe (New York: Lee & Low
    Books, 2018)
  • Buford, Kate. Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010);
  • Coffey, Wayne. Jim Thorpe. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1993.
  • Cook, William A. Jim Thorpe: A Biography. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011.
  • Newcombe, Jack. The Best of the Athletic Boys: The White Man’s Impact on Jim Thorpe. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
  • Rubinfeld, Mark. “The mythical Jim Thorpe: Re/presenting the twentieth century American Indian,” The International Journal of the History of Sport, 23 (2006): 167-189.
  • Updike, Rosemary K. Jim Thorpe, the Legend Remembered. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing
    Company, 1997.
  • Van Riper, Guernsey, Jr. Jim Thorpe: Indian Athlete. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956.
  • Warner, Glenn S. and Frank J. Taylor. “Pop” Warner’s Book for Boys. New York: Robert M. McBride, 1934.
  • Warner Brothers. Jim Thorpe – All American. Produced by Everett Freeman. Directed by Michael Curtiz, 1951.
  • Wheeler, Robert W. Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete (Norman: University of
    Oklahoma Press, 1979)

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    Manuscript archive for Jim Thorpe's unpublished autobiography, 1950