Writing a biography of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, one of the greatest American athletes of the 20th century, presented plenty of challenges, not least of which was the woman herself.
"She lied so much about practically everything that I found one of my greatest challenges as a reporter was to separate the lies from the truth," Don Van Natta Jr. says.
He sorts it all out in the engaging, often amazing book Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Van Natta, a correspondent for the New York Times and a member of three Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting teams, usually works on investigative projects. He is currently covering the News Corp. phone hacking scandal.
"I'm kind of an accidental sportswriter," Van Natta says. In 1999, he wrote a story for the Times about then-President Bill Clinton's "habit of taking extra shots" that turned into the 2003 book First Off the Tee, about presidential golfers from Taft to Bush.
"I spend way too much time watching sports of all kinds, but golf is the game that's close to my heart. My dad and I used to play together," Van Natta says. He was thinking of writing a book on Bobby Jones or the course at St. Andrews, but golf historian Rand Jerris told him, "Those have been done. You should write about Babe Didrikson."
Van Natta says he only vaguely remembered Zaharias, who died in 1956, but "the more I found out about her, the more excited I became. She was the quintessential American success story, a first generation child of immigrants, born dirt poor, with so many hurdles put in her way. What I found irresistible was that will of hers."
The poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Beaumont, Texas, Van Natta says, "imagined a life for herself no one had ever imagined before" — and then went out and got it.
A natural athlete from childhood, she burst into national prominence by winning three track and field medals, two of them gold, in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. She competed successfully in a wide range of sports but became best known as a golfer: She was the first woman to play in the PGA, helped found the LPGA and won more consecutive tournaments than any other golfer, male or female, before or since.
Fans loved her outsize personality, and the press loved her exuberant storytelling. Van Natta says she told half a dozen different versions of how she took up golf. "She knew the more irresistible the story was, the more ink she would get," he says, noting that the "extremely press savvy" Zaharias was a pioneer not just as an athlete but as a self-promoter.
Her marriage to pro wrestler George Zaharias enhanced her career as well, given that he was even better at business and eventually dropped his own career to manage hers. The pair were "happy wanderers" through much of their marriage but eventually settled in Tampa, buying the golf course in Forest Hills that now bears her name and building their home, Rainbow Manor, there.
"Babe designed it herself," Van Natta says. "A house, not a rented house but one built for them, was really important to her." She wouldn't enjoy it for long. She had been diagnosed with colon cancer before the house was built and died, at age 45, less than a year after they moved in.
She was a pioneer in how she handled her cancer, too, Van Natta says. In a time when cancer was never publicly discussed, Zaharias spoke openly about her condition. She also refused to retire from golf. "People said, how can someone play golf with a colostomy bag strapped to her side? Babe said, 'Of course I'm going to play — and I'm going to win.' " And so she did.
Van Natta says he didn't want to write a hagiography but to present Zaharias flaws and all, pointing out she could be "braggadocious" and mean-spirited as well as dishonest.
But he couldn't resist her "incredible determination. She practiced hundreds and hundreds of hours. She golfed until her hands bled. . . . She wanted to be the best of the best."