Evan Shipman lived a life among legends

The circle of those who knew Evan Shipman when he was one of the premier racing writers in America is narrowing. He has been dead, after all, for 53 years, his last column appearing in this newspaper on Kentucky Derby Day of 1957. I am one of those fortunate few still left who knew him, understood him, I believe, and followed his fascinating peregrinations from a groom in New England to Paris of the Roaring Twenties, to close friendship with Ernest Hemingway. (He lived in Hemingway’s home in Key West and tutored English to Hemingway’s young son Bumby, who had been raised in France.) Then he went on to the Spanish Civil War, where he was wounded, and a return to the U.S., where he covered the major races and best horses in both Thoroughbred and harness racing. That was where I met first him, in Chicago, on what was a thrilling assignment for a young kid: to pick up Evan at his downtown hotel and drive him to and back from Maywood Park, a round trip of less than 25 miles, yet I can still recount the conversation almost word-for-word today. Then, in something akin to the thrill that Evan must have felt when he wrote with Hemingway, I was asked, at 24, to take over his Form harness racing column in Los Angeles when the paper needed him back East to cover major Thoroughbred events of 1948. Now, all these years later, and after five or more years of very tough archival research in libraries at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brandeis, the Sorbonne, and in Chicago, a Harvard grad and classicist named Sean O’Rourke has written a book on Shipman. It is called “Grace Under Pressure,” and is the first book by O’Rourke, who has taught Latin, French, and English in high schools and junior colleges. The book is a fascinating read, light on racing until the later pages, but heavy on Shipman’s days as an aspiring poet in Paris of the 1920s, where young American writers, of promise – and some without promise – gathered. Shipman was tutored in the Franco-American scene, including boxing and drinking, by Hemingway, who called him “an excellent kid who will make a great poet.” Hemingway dedicated his second collection of short stories, “Men Without Women,” to Evan. During those years Shipman met and became friendly with Gertrude Stein and became a contributor to Transition, a small, elite magazine on the Parisian scene. The first issue of the intellectual venture carried an essay by Stein, a story by Kay Boyle, and poetry by Hart Crane, Robert Desnos, Andre Gide, Archibald MacLeish, and Evan Shipman. Stein said of the group, “You are all a lost generation.” After his wounding in the Spanish Civil War, Shipman served in World War II with a tank battalion and on returning to the U.S. he found work writing in New York. He wrote Hemingway, “I owe Spain a great deal. I owe you a great deal. At the time I went I was in a bad state in many ways, both discouraged and confounded. I am neither today. And again after such a long time, I feel real eagerness for work. Again I have confidence in myself.” That confidence found expression in covering the new harness track at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, which opened in 1940 but was interrupted by World War II. Evan’s friends in France – Joan Miro, Picasso, Louis Aragon – scattered; Andre Masson and Andre Breton came to America; and Evan went to France and Germany for brief active duty with the tank corps before the war ended. Back in the U.S. in 1945, Evan began assisting Bob Horwood with coverage of Thoroughbreds in the afternoon and then moving to Roosevelt and Yonkers for harness racing at night. The Morning Telegraph sent him west to cover the Pacific racing scene, and he switched coasts as the racing seasons changed. Those changes led to my assignment in 1948, and I’m still hanging around, with a long spell between then and the current run. I told my Form editors when I returned in the late 1990s, “Everyone should get a second chance every 50 years or so.” Sean O’Rourke’s 178-page book on Evan Shipman is available now from Unlimited Publishing online at www.unlimitedpublishing.com/shipman for $15.99. It should be available, with corrections and errors noted, from Amazon or book stores later this winter.


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