Help from friends and family got Gary Hart's book to market
STEVEN JOHNSON - SLAM! Wrestling
For the last three years of his life, wrestling manager and booker Gary Hart labored over an autobiography entitled My Life in Wrestling: With a Little Help from My Friends.
The subtitle was more than appropriate. In the 18 months since Hart died unexpectedly at age 66, his friends -- particularly sons Jason and Chad Williams, and collaborator Philip Varriale -- worked to get his life story into print, and their activity has culminated with publication of the book.
"My dad put so much into it," Jason said from his home near Dallas. "After my dad passed away, when Phil called with his condolences, I told him by all means we want the book out. There was no question, as far as my brother and I were concerned, that the book needed to come out."
Early returns on the volume, available at PlayboyGaryHart.com, have been overwhelmingly positive, and the sons suspected Hart would be pleased with the result. He finished the manuscript before he died, and already made the decision to self-publish in a world where getting wrestling books to a mainstream publisher is an uphill climb.
"I could have told his sons, 'Just do this; we have the text, we'll set it up on Kindle and if people want it they can click it and get it.'" Varriale said. But family and friends felt that quick and cheap was the wrong way to go, so they toiled over photos, illustrations, layout and design so Hart's story would reflect the touch of class with which he carried himself during a career that spanned from the late 1950s to the early 1990s.
"Gary invested $5,000 of his own money into creating the Great Kabuki character in 1981, because he wanted Kabuki to be something special. It was something he believed in," Varriale said. "It's a similar concept with the book."
In fact, Chad, who has been wrestling for several years, said he can hear his father's voice rising off the pages of the book. "It's hard for me to read it," he conceded. "It sounds like my dad talking. It is really my dad's signature."
Hart, a Chicago native, grew up in a time when speaking honestly and truthfully about pro wrestling was more vice than virtue, and only public admissions by former world champion Lou Thesz convinced him to reveal the tricks of the trade.
"Dad was one of the last of the guys who didn't cop to anything. He was still, as we would call it, kayfabing, well into 2003," Jason said. "He wouldn't kayfabe other things other people were doing, but as far as what he did, he still defended it. Once Lou Thesz said, 'Well, when I won was it was legitimate and when I lost, it meant I was taking a dive,' as soon as Dad heard Lou say that in an interview clip, he said, 'If Lou can admit it, so can I.' "
Just as important, Hart wrote the book in part to set the record straight about his experiences with the star-crossed Von Erich family in Texas-based World Class Championship Wrestling. Hart worked with promoter Fritz von Erich for years, and was instrumental in the careers of five Von Erich boys -- David, Mike, Kerry, Chris and Kevin -- four of whom came to unfortunate ends.
"He wanted to completely honest, but really what he wanted to in a lot of the ways was to dispel a lot of myths about the Von Erichs because he adored the family," Jason said. "There's a lot of stuff that exists about them that really wasn't true. There were problems occasionally, yes. Dad would always say, 'If they were so drugged out and they were so much trouble, how did they draw all that money?' Dad really wanted to make sure that a lot of the things that were said were corrected and clear up misconceptions about them."
One behind-the-scenes story sheds light on the relationship between Hart and the Von Erichs. "Kevin was my brother's rock when my dad had his heart attack," Chad said. "Kevin would call my house. Jason's relationship with Kevin is very special."
Varriale said Hart gradually warmed up to the idea of full disclosure. The book marked the first time he talked about his experiences with the mob in Chicago. And, while he first balked at discussing the Von Erichs' drug issues, he realized after several drafts that the topic had long since been out in public. "Once the floodgates were open, he would discuss anything and everything," Varriale said.
As a result, fans who regarded Hart solely as a TV mouthpiece might be surprised to learn about the scale and scope of his activities. Hart put a mask on Don Jardine and turned him into The Spoiler, one of the greatest heels of his era. He invented characters such as Kabuki and Muta, and helped persuade Dusty Rhodes to adopt a jive-shuckin' style. Hart was booker of record at the first Starrcade in 1983, the father of the Von Erichs-Freebirds feud in Texas, and the creative genius behind other angles laid out in 63 chapters in My Life in Wrestling.
"I think a lot of people would be surprised that Dad was the one who was setting up things for the Von Erichs and Bruiser Brody
and Jimmy Valiant
-- things like that," Jason said. "To be known as a manager, that's one thing, because he was on TV and he talked a lot. But to know what he did as far as the office and the matchmaking process, I think they would be a little surprised to find that out. And the reason I think they'd be surprised is he never talked about it until the last five or six years of his life."
Said Chad: "Flair, Spoiler, Muta, Kabuki, Andre -- for me there were so many stories about so many cool guys. It tells the truth about a lot of guys. He wanted to capture the moment. He knew he was sick; he was not going to B.S. anyone about anything."
Hart left the mainstream in the early 1990s, accurately foreseeing that World Championship Wrestling was headed down the tubes. But he never expressed remorse or ill will toward the industry. He diligently worked with Chad to try to get him a spot in the business and tuned the dial to wrestling every Monday night. That's because, his sons said, Hart had a clear-eyed understanding that wrestling took him places and exposed him to things that he never could have imagined as a kid growing up on the streets of Chicago in the early 1950s.
As Jason recounted: "He told me one time he was in Australia on a sand dune with Mark Lewin and Curtis Iaukea and he said to himself, 'My God, I should technically still be in the Midwest somewhere, driving a garbage truck. I'm sitting on a sand dune in Australia. I'm living in a penthouse in Sydney, Australia, overlooking Sydney Harbor. I'm not supposed to be here.' He had a real appreciation for that."
March 17, 2008: Manager/booker Gary Hart dies
March 17, 2008: Gary Hart: ‘With a little help from my friends’
March 16, 2008: World Class not a distant memory
May 1, 2001: 'Playboy' Gary Hart not so hated
Previous SLAM! Wrestling book reviews
-- with files from Matt Johnson
With Greg Oliver, Steven Johnson is co-author of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams, and Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror that Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport (with Heath McCoy and Irv Muchnick). He is a reporter and editor in Virginia.