'Sutton': America's 1920s, Bank-Robbing 'Robin Hood'

Sep 26, 2012
Originally published on September 26, 2012 2:49 pm

After the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer was so angry at banks, he says, he decided to write about the people who rob them — in the form of fiction, since he's not an economist.

"I thought it would be healthy to live vicariously through a bank robber at that moment that bankers were ruining the world," Moehringer tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

In his first historical novel, Sutton, Moehringer writes from the point of view of Willie Sutton, whom he calls the "greatest American bank robber."

Stealing from scores of banks over three decades without ever firing a shot, Sutton began his career in the late 1920s at a time of soaring unemployment, bank panics and depressions.

He was known as a "Robin Hood figure" and an "anti-societal force," Moehringer says. Growing up, Moehringer says, he remembers people "speaking about him with curious admiration — they always mentioned Sutton with a nod of the head and a wink."

Sutton escaped prison several times, but he was finally put away after he was arrested in 1952. Because he was ill, New York authorities released him in 1969. He died in 1980 at age 79.

To research the famous criminal's life, Moehringer pored over old FBI records, police files, newspapers and Sutton's memoirs — all of which contradict each other in ways, according to Moehringer. While the truth and reality are important to him as a journalist, Moehringer says, he also likes historical fiction "because there's so much about history we don't know — and novelists can get us close to it with their imagination."

Moehringer reported for the Los Angeles Times for many years and has also written two memoirs — Open and The Tender Bar. Open is about Andre Agassi's life — Moehringer was the ghost writer. The Tender Bar is about how Moehringer was raised by a single mother and an uncle who was a barfly — and how he became a writer.

Moehringer says he's glad to have lost the pretensions of his youth. As a teenager, he says, he was determined to use these words in his college essay: "Strident, bucolic, fulcrum, inimical, behemoth, Jesuitical, minion, eclectic, Marquis de Sod — spelled 'sod' — and aesthetic.

"And you can imagine the essay that resulted from these words."


Interview Highlights

On listening to his absent father, disc jockey Johnny Michaels, on the radio

"He just had these beautiful pipes. I might not have been so inclined to romanticize him if he hadn't sounded the way he sounded. But he really did have this beautiful, almost Paul Robeson voice. And then when he wasn't speaking, he was playing this new, incredibly exciting music. Every time I hear certain Stevie Wonder songs, certain Van Morrison songs, I can hear my father.

"But it was so frustrating to be a little kid. I didn't have a relationship with him — but also, the radio provided this spotty access to him. So I was always trying to dial him in. I didn't understand that he had a certain shift every day, so I'd sit out on the stoop and I had this transistor radio, and I was turning the dial excruciatingly slowly trying to find his voice, which really broke my mother's heart. And yet she didn't quite know how to step in and take the radio away from me.

"And then what was strange is that when he died in 2002, a lot of his fans posted their favorite shows. They'd saved recordings of some of his best shows, and so I was trying to download them on the Internet. And I was having trouble and I was getting frustrated and suddenly I just stopped and I had this complete flashback. I was doing exactly what I had done when I was a kid, sitting on the stoop, and I just had to turn the computer off and walk away. It was just too trippy, and it took a long time to unwind my sense that he was living this exotic party life — that really, he was a lonely guy projecting a false image through that microphone. It took decades to figure out that that wasn't the truth."

On writing his college application essay

"I was 17 at the time — I thought that writing meant using $20 words, and if you can find $50 words, all the better. And I wrote these essays about — I don't know what topics — topics I considered worldly. And I had my mother read them before I sent them off to colleges, and she said, 'You sound insane.' It was one of the biggest arguments we've ever had, and we just went around and around. I thought, 'This woman obviously doesn't know good writing.' And we were slamming doors. I remember this like it was this morning.

"But she, as she always does, she prevailed and she said, 'Just tell them the truth. Pick out something from your life. Speak from the heart.' And so I told them about a part-time job I had with these two eccentric booksellers in this little bookstore near our dinky apartment, and I just wrote about how these guys gave me books and talked to me about books and how much I looked up to them and how they'd open the world to me and I couldn't wait to extend that experience to college — just read more books with smart people.

"And I thrust it at [my mother] like, 'This'll show you,' because I knew it was terrible, because it was just simple words and nothing but the truth and she said, 'Perfect.' And we put a stamp on it that day. I was never so confused about writing. So my mother has always been my best editor, but she has suffered so much through my life as my best editor, she just takes the brunt of it, because she's the one who has to tell me, 'This is awful.' "

On ghost-writing Andre Agassi's memoir Open

"I found out that all the research in the world doesn't get you very far — that when you start telling the story, there's all this stuff you really don't know. And I had the wonderful perk of being able to call him, sit down with him, every time I came to something and didn't know what it looked like or smelled like. So it was like writing a novel about an imaginary character, but then being able to call that character and say, 'What was this like? We forgot to talk about this. Tell me what this person said.'

"So really, it was a lot of fun, and it also wasn't very different from writing my own memoir. When you're writing a memoir the trick, I think, is to treat yourself as a character — to distance yourself from yourself. You write about yourself in the first person, but you think about yourself in the third person. That's the only way you can gain any perspective, any clarity, and keep the dogs of narcissism at bay. And then when you're writing someone else's memoir, you do just the opposite. You try and inhabit their skin, and even though you're thinking third person, you're writing first person, so the processes are mirror images of each other, but they seem very simpatico."

On visiting the prison where Willie Sutton stayed

"I went into a cell that was just like the one Willie would have spent years in, and it was horrifying for me. I have a touch of claustrophobia, so just to go inside, just to be led in by the curator — because it's now a national historic site — was terrifying, and my blood just stopped slugging through my veins. And I stood there and I could just imagine how you would unravel psychologically. It's not a normal cell. It's a dungeon. It was built in the early 1800s. It was world-famous instantly because it was considered so inhumane.

"When Charles Dickens came to America, he said he only wanted to see two places: the U.S. Capitol and Eastern State Penitentiary. And he actually interviewed a lot of the prisoners there and upset his American hosts by writing about the suffering that they were enduring. So just the seconds that I spent in that cell was life-changing because the first thing you think to yourself is, 'I can't imagine surviving this.' And the second thing you think, if you're researching a book about Willie Sutton, is how remarkable it is that more than survive it, he had the will to live that permitted him to devise an escape."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, J.R. Moehringer, is best known for his bestselling memoir "The Tender Bar" about how he was partially raised in the bar where his uncle worked. What isn't as well-known is that he collaborated with tennis star Andre Agassi on Agassi's bestselling memoir "Open."

Moehringer has just written his first novel, it's called "Sutton." It's based on the life of Willie Sutton, who started robbing banks in the 1930s and became a folk hero for his ingenious ability to get into banks and out of prison. He escaped several times. In 1950, while hiding out after one such escape, he made it onto the FBI's first Most Wanted List. On Christmas Eve 1969, at the age of 68 and in failing health, he was released from Attica prison, in spite of being sentenced twice to life. He died in 1980 at the age of 79.

J.R. Moehringer, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's start with Willie Sutton. Why was he a legend in his own time?

J.R. MOEHRINGER: Well, he robbed banks at a time when people hated banks. That's not so hard for us to understand nowadays. And he did it really well. When police called him the Babe Ruth of bank robbers, I think they got it right. He studied the art of robbing banks, and he studied other bank robbers the way Mozart studied other composers. And I think that's the reason he was so fascinating not just to the common man, who was feeling jobbed by banks and Wall Street, but he was fascinating to artists and writers.

There's a beautiful riff about Willie Sutton in Saul Bellow's great novel "Herzog," and so I think he's always been fascinating to people for a variety of reasons, whether it be his roguish nature, his savoir faire, his dedication to his craft, but also, importantly, he was nonviolent. He never fired a shot in all of his bank robberies, however many there were.

GROSS: So why did you want to write about him, a novelization of his life?

MOEHRINGER: Well, I had several ideas for books, and I was considering them all, it was late 2008. I had just finished helping Andre Agassi with his memoir, and I was kicking ideas around. I was talking them over with friends, and the world was ending. A global financial meltdown was underway.

And I was reading the newspapers and listening to the radio and becoming just angrier by the day. And other people around me were becoming angrier, and I started thinking I would like to write about this anger and express it. I'd like to write about the meltdown and particularly about the people who caused it, these bankers who seemed to me, and still seem, so incredibly unrepentant.

But I'm not an economist. I'm not Michael Lewis, as much as I wish that I were. And I started thinking of other ways to write about banks. And that kept me thinking about other people who hated banks as much as I did - or more. And that got me thinking about bank robberies and bank robbers, famous bank robbers.

And that immediately brought to mind Willie Sutton. And all of these things began to congeal in my mind, and I thought it would be interesting to write about banks from the point of view of the greatest American bank robber, and I was shocked that no one had ever done that before. No one had ever novelized Willie. No one had ever written a biography of him.

And so it just, it felt really like the right moment and like the right book for me, given my mood at the time. I thought it would be healthy to live vicariously through a bank robber at that moment that bankers were ruining the world.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to ask you to do a short reading from the first chapter of your new novel "Sutton," and this passage is set when Willie Sutton is being released. And he's - it's 1969, he's 68, and he's not in good health. In fact, he expects to die that day.

MOEHRINGER: (Reading) The guards march Sutton back to Admin. The clerk cuts him two checks: one for $146, salary for 17 years at various prison jobs, minus taxes; another for $40, the cost of a bus ticket to Manhattan. Every released prisoner gets bus fare to Manhattan.

(Reading) Sutton takes the checks. This is really happening. His heart begins to throb, his leg, too. They're throbbing at each other like the male and female leads in an Italian opera. The guards march him back his cell. You've got 15 minutes, they tell him, handing him a shopping bag.

(Reading) He stands in the middle of his cell, his eight-by-six home for the last 17 years. Is it possible that he won't sleep here tonight, that he'll sleep in a soft bed with clean sheets and a real pillow and no demented souls above and below him howling and cursing and pleading with impotence and fury? The sound of men in cages, nothing can compare.

(Reading) He sets the shopping bag on the desk and carefully packs the manuscript of his novel, then the spiral notebooks from his creative writing classes, then his copies of Dante, Shakespeare, Plato, then Kerouac. Prison is where you promise yourself the right to live, a line that saved Sutton on many long nights.

(Reading) Then the dictionary of quotations, which contains the most famous line ever spoken by America's most famous bank robber, Willie Sutton, aka Slick Willy, aka Willie the Actor. Finally he packs the yellow legal pad, the one on which he was writing when the guards came for him, not his novel, which he recently finished, but a suicide note, the one he began composing an hour after the parole board's rejection.

(Reading) So often he thinks that's how it happens. Death stands at your door, hitches up its pants, points its baton at you, then hands you a pardon.

GROSS: And was it actually a pardon that got him released?

MOEHRINGER: It's still not clear if he was pardoned by Governor Rockefeller or released by the parole board. It's really sort of mysterious. Some people think Rockefeller let him out of jail because he was running for re-election in New York and needed the Irish vote, and Willie Sutton was wildly popular, still, among the Irish. And other people think it's just the parole board got tired of fighting his lawyers, who had taken up his case pro bono and were really fighting fiercely on his behalf.

So to this day, I don't know, and you can't really look to his memoirs for cogent explanations.

GROSS: So what we just heard was J.R. Moehringer reading from his new novel "Sutton." It's a novel based on the life of Willie Sutton. So don't take this the wrong way. I'm usually very suspicious of historical novels and biopics because, you know, you never really know, as the reader or viewer, what's fact and what's fiction. So I always feel like it risks distorting our vision of history. So what's your take on that?

MOEHRINGER: Right, well, no, I mean, as a journalist, I feel that acutely. I mean, I like the truth. I like reality. But I also do like historical fiction because there's so much about history that we don't know, and novelists can get us close to it with their imagination. And I read a quote from Hillary Mantel once, whose work I greatly admire, and she said that historical fiction fills in the gaps in the record, that readers will allow you to imagine, to invent, as long as you stay within the confines of the known truth.

And that's what I tried to do with Willie Sutton, and the great thing is that there's not much that's known about him. He wrote two memoirs, but to my knowledge, he's the only person in the history of American literature to write two memoirs that contradict each other, even on basic biographical details.

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: So there's a pretty wide gap, wide enough to drive a Brink's armored car through, in the known record. And then newspapers of the time contradict themselves. The FBI files contradict police files. So there's a lot to work with in terms of your imagination.

And I just think that historical fiction works when there's no alternative.

GROSS: One of the things you wanted to learn while researching this book was what was it like to be in prison. So you went to one of the prisons where he spent a lot of time, this was Eastern State Penitentiary, which is very close to our Philadelphia FRESH AIR studio. WHYY in Philadelphia is not very far from Eastern State Penitentiary, and they give tours there all the time.

And I've been meaning to go on one in years, you know, for years, but I haven't done it yet. But you spent time at Eastern State Penitentiary and even, I think went into what you describe as a series of ancient punishment cells, underground, no larger than a coffin, called The Klondikes.

MOEHRINGER: They had those cells at Eastern State. I went into one of the quote-unquote "normal cells." They can't tell you anymore which cell was Willie's, they've lost those records, but they're all alike. So I went into a cell that was just like the one Willie would've spent years in, and, you know, it was horrifying for me. I have a touch of claustrophobia, so just to go inside, just to be led in by the curator, because it's now a national historic site, was terrifying.

And my blood just stopped slugging through my veins, and I stood there, and I could just imagine how you would unravel psychologically. It's not a normal cell. It's a dungeon. It was built in the early 1800s. It was world-famous instantly because it was considered so inhumane. When Charles Dickens came to America, it's said that he only wanted to see two places: The U.S. Capitol and Eastern State Penitentiary.

And he actually interviewed a lot of the prisoners there and upset his American hosts by writing about the suffering that they were enduring. So just the seconds that I spent in that cell was life-changing because the first thing you think to yourself is I can't imagine surviving this. And the second thing you think, if you're researching a book about Willie Sutton, is how remarkable it is that more than survive it, he had the will to live that permitted him to devise an escape.

He escaped from Eastern State through a tunnel with 11 or 12 other guys. And to this day, I think - you mentioned they have tours at Eastern State. I think they also re-enact the great tunnel escape once a year.

GROSS: And they found him pretty quickly, though, after that, right?

MOEHRINGER: They found him right away.

GROSS: That's not the escape where he stayed out for five years.

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: No, it's not.

GROSS: There's another escape.

MOEHRINGER: There was - I mean, he escaped - as good as he was at robbing banks, he was even better at escaping from prison, which again is another part of what made him such a legendary figure. I mean, the prisons couldn't keep hold of him, the cops could never find him, and they spent nearly a year digging this tunnel from one prisoner's cell, under the yard, out the wall.

But of course they came up on - I think it's Fairmont Avenue, a busy thoroughfare in Philadelphia - and people saw them. And they went scattering, but they were all rounded up pretty quickly. Two guys, I think, managed to stay at large for six weeks.

And then after that, they were shipped to Holmesburg, also near Philadelphia, and that's the prison from which he made his great escape, and he was at large, then, for five years and got plastic surgery, or so he says, to change his appearance and really was so brazen that he lived right near a police precinct in Brooklyn while he was one of the most wanted men in all New York and continued, went right on robbing banks.

He did not keep a low profile while he was America's most wanted fugitive.

GROSS: If you've just joining us, my guest is J.R. Moehringer. He's written the new novel "Sutton." It's a fictionalized version of the life of the bank robber and prison-escaper Willie Sutton. And Moehringer is probably best known for his memoir "The Tender Bar." Let's take a short break here, And then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer J.R. Moehringer. His new novel is called "Sutton," it's based on the life of bank robber Willie Sutton. He also wrote the memoir "The Tender Bar," and he - can I use the word ghost-wrote Andre Agassi's bestselling memoir "Open."

MOEHRINGER: I always say I helped Andre with his book. It captures more of what we did. But ghost-wrote is fine, yeah.

GROSS: Good. So I want to talk with you about your bestselling memoir "The Tender Bar," and this is about, you know, growing up and how you lived right near a bar that your uncle worked in and how you basically grew up at the bar, and the guys in the bar were almost like substitute fathers for you, because your father was absent.

And so let me start by asking you to describe this bar that played such an important part of your childhood. It's kind of like "It Takes A Village," but in your case it takes a bar.

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: Right, it takes a barroom full of barflies, yeah. Well, yeah, I grew up - it was just me and my mother. My father was a rock-'n'-roll DJ in New York. He was quite well-known at the time. So I grew up knowing what he sounded like but not knowing what he looked like.

GROSS: Say his name.

MOEHRINGER: Johnny Michaels, and he was - he bounced around a bit. He was at WNBC and WABC, and he was there at the vanguard when rock 'n' roll was making that switch from AM to FM. He had the most beautiful voice, which, you know, made it even more vexing that he wasn't around because this gorgeous baritone would be coming out of the radio, and I knew that was my father, but I didn't know what he looked like or why he never came around.

And pretty early on, my mother kind of handed me off to my uncle and these guys from the bar, asked them, you know, take me to the beach and to the ballgame. She knew that I needed some kind of male influence. She trusted my Uncle Charlie more than she might have, more than she should have, maybe.

So from a very early age, I was spending, you know, a good bit of time around these guys. I was never sitting at the bar with a scotch in front of me. It wasn't that strange. But - and in fact these guys were pretty careful, conscientious babysitters until the time that I was of legal age.

But boy I got an education in, you know, cursing and manhood and manly interests real fast. And I guess my mother recognized that some male influence is better than none. And then, of course, when I was old enough to drink in the bar, you know, I really kind of embraced these guys, and I spent a lot of time at that bar learning different lessons about manhood, about courage, about character from those guys.

GROSS: What did manhood mean to you?

MOEHRINGER: Well to me it meant just total mystery and confusion. I mean, it was just me and my mother, and she's a wonderful woman and knows all there is to know about courage and character and grit. But I just felt, as so many young boys, young men do, that there was some secret knowledge that men had and that I wasn't privy to it because there was no man in my house.

So at the time, the problem was I didn't know what manhood meant. And to these guys it meant a certain kind of John Wayne aura. It meant not complaining, and it meant grinning and bearing it. It meant a certain kind of wry humor. It meant being very respectful, courteous with women. Thankfully, they were kind of old-school, these guys.

It mean having a sense of humor. I mean, I remember being around these guys from, you know, 11 years old until I was about 25, and I remember laughing a lot. That's my single greatest memory, and it wasn't all drunken laughter. They were just uncommonly witty guys. There was this sense that the best response to life is a kind of gallows humor. And I certainly, I adopted their ethos.

GROSS: So you were basically brought up, in part by the macho kind of guys at this bar. And then you get a scholarship to go to Yale. So I'm thinking the women, the young women at Yale might have had a different sense of manhood the way they wanted it, than what you were exposed to.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And what you were just describing there, it was like they were old-fashioned men who really, like, what was the word you used, gentlemanly. I forget what the word you used.

MOEHRINGER: They were respectful. They were courteous.

GROSS: Respectful, yes, but you didn't say that they treated women as equals, which...

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: No, I can't.

GROSS: Which you probably can't say.

MOEHRINGER: I can say that certainly about some of them. I don't want to malign...

GROSS: No, no, I understand, yeah.

MOEHRINGER: But yeah, no, I mean, there was a variety. These guys were not all of a kind. And so it's hard to generalize about them. So yes, certainly there were some old-school chauvinists among them.

GROSS: But did you find that your preparation for manhood wasn't necessarily the kind of manhood that was going to be a positive thing for the women who were your peers once you got to college?

MOEHRINGER: Oh yeah, it - I mean, it was unorthodox, my childhood, my training. And it wasn't just the women at Yale. It was the young - it was my - you know, it was the young men among my classmates who noticed that I had come from a kind of a different world.

But yeah, so I felt very out of place. My mother and I had nothing. And I arrived as a scholarship student. I could barely afford my books. And my mother, I remember, canceled her subscription to People magazine so that she could send me that money. You know, it was - times were very rough.

And so I had a lot of rough edges as I arrived, and I was acutely conscious of that throughout my time at Yale. I mean, I've learned since then, that I was not alone, that the most seemingly polished kids in my class felt the same sense of being out of place. I wish someone had told me that then. I wish there had been a way for all of us at Yale to communicate, you know, our sense of alienation and that social awkwardness.

But yeah, you're right. It was not the best training to grow up in a bar and in a tiny apartment with a single mom and to go to a bad public school. This is not how you prep for college, I think.

GROSS: So in talking about the bar where you grew up, in part, you write that there was lots of sex at the bar, that sex was one of the foundational premises of the bar, so it made a kind of sense that people had sex all over the premises: in the parking lot, in the bathrooms, in the basement. Did you end up running into some of these examples before you actually understood the facts of life?

MOEHRINGER: No, it was - I was pretty conversant in the facts of life when I was in the bar and observing what the grownups were all doing. And, you know, this was a different time. It was the '70s, early '80s. And, you know, people drank a lot then and smoked a lot, and it just - it made for a lot of good stories. Every night there was something interesting to watch.

There was sex in the air at the bar. I mean, the bar was unusual in that it attracted, you know, men and women and couples, and it was really the gathering point for my entire town. And so if you weren't observing, you know, overt displays of sexuality, you were observing couples breaking up or married couples deciding to end it. I mean, every permutation of sex and relationships was on display there.

So it was quite an education, but I came to it with some basis of knowledge.

GROSS: Oh, who needs to watch an HBO series when you have that?

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: No, the bar was always better than television, that is the truest thing you can say about that place.

GROSS: J.R. Moehringer will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "Sutton." His 2005 memoir is "The Tender Bar." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with J.R. Moehringer. His new novel, "Sutton," is based on the life of Willie Sutton, who became famous for his bank robberies and prison escapes starting in the 1930s. Moehringer is also the author of the best-selling memoir "The Tender Bar," which is about being raised, in part, at the bar where his uncle worked. The men there became substitutes for his father, a New York DJ who had abandoned him after Moehringer's parents divorced. For most of Moehringer's youth his only contact with his father was listening to him on the radio.

So, I'm just fascinated by the idea that your father was a DJ and you didn't really know him because he and your mother split up when you were very young, but you'd hear him on the radio. And anyone else in the house would turn the radio off because he mistreated your mother so badly - or at least that's what you had been told growing up.

MOEHRINGER: Yeah.

GROSS: And so you'd hear him on the radio and just like fantasize about who he was and read all kinds of things into his voice. You thought of him as the Voice with a capital V. And you thought of his radio show as like this party that your father was giving with like Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison and The Beatles.

Can you describe a little bit what it was like? Like I know like when I was growing up and I'd listen to the radio, to me it was like that, that place that no one could take away from me because even alone in my bedroom I could listen to the radio and...

MOEHRINGER: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...it would be like my, you know, my connection to like not only great music but like the world outside, and like a world that seemed like just like so hip, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: Right. Right.

GROSS: So just talk a little bit about what it meant to listen to this absent father on the radio and imagine who he was.

MOEHRINGER: It was surreal because, as I say, his voice was spectacular. He just had these beautiful pipes. I might not have been so inclined to romanticize him if he hadn't sounded the way he sounded. But he really did have this beautiful, almost Paul Robeson voice. And then when he wasn't speaking, he was playing this new, incredibly exciting music. Every time I hear certain Stevie Wonder songs, certain Van Morrison songs, I just, you know, I can hear my father.

But it was so frustrating, to be a little kid. I didn't have a relationship with him - but also, the radio provided this spotty access to him. So I was always trying to dial him in. I didn't understand that he had a certain shift every day, so I'd sit out on the stoop and I had this transistor radio, and I was turning the dial excruciatingly slowly trying to find his voice, which, you know, really broke my mother's heart. And yet she didn't quite know how to step in and take the radio away from me.

And then what was strange is that when he died in 2002, a lot of his fans posted their favorite shows. They'd saved recordings of some of his best shows. And so I was trying to download them on the Internet. And I was having trouble and I was getting frustrated and suddenly I just stopped and I had this complete flashback. I was doing exactly what I had done when I was a kid, sitting on the stoop. And I just had to turn the computer off and walk away. It was just too trippy, and it took a long time to unwind my sense that he was living this exotic party life - that really, he was a lonely guy projecting a false image through that microphone. It took decades to figure out that that wasn't the truth.

GROSS: I think if you listen to the radio you're always surprised if you meet the person you've been listening to, because you have imagined them to be one way and they're probably not that way...

MOEHRINGER: Right.

GROSS: ...either physically or, you know, biographically. Now in your case, it was your father who you were obsessed with on the radio.

MOEHRINGER: Right.

GROSS: So you were imagining him in your mind. You got to know him a little better before his death. What surprised you most about the differences between who he was and what you'd imagined?

MOEHRINGER: Well, yeah, I met him when I was 16 or 17. And um, you know, I was just too, I was too filled with longing for a father and I was too emotionally overwrought by the moment to notice any disparity between the voice and the person. I know exactly what you're talking about. There's always that jolt when you meet - it's not just radio people but writers, you've admired their work and here they are, they never live up. But that didn't happen to me when I met him because he was my father and I was so excited to meet him. And we sat in a coffee shop in Phoenix and he told me stories. And he was so funny and he was an incredible mimic. He had just absolutely the most pitch perfect ear, so he would do voices and he'd known famous people and he had stories about The Beatles. I'd never met anybody like him and he was my actual father, so disillusionment wasn't one of the things that I felt in that moment.

Quite the contrary. In fact, it just took forever for me to gain any perspective on that moment and realize who he was and how eager to please me he was. I mean, I went into that meeting hoping he would like me. And it took most of my life to realize that as much as I hoped that, he was twice as anxious for me to like him.

GROSS: Did you meet him again after that later in life?

MOEHRINGER: I did. I had several meetings with him, which were now they seem funny but at the time they were - I mean he was a hard drinker and nobody could make a bad decision like my father, so his life was spiraling downward. And so whenever I met him, he was always sinking. And so, I got to know him, which I think is important as much as it was possible to know him, but then at a certain point I had to keep him at arms length, because he just wasn't a healthy influence in my life.

GROSS: In what way was he an unhealthy influence?

MOEHRINGER: Well, he was destructive, self-destructive, and I think he was destructive to people around him. He was incapable of being happy. And he was just sort of brutally insensitive. I remember I was a correspondent at the LA Times in the Atlanta office and a giant box arrived. And I opened it up and there were maybe 20 gifts, little gifts, like dollar gifts - things you'd buy at a 99 cents store - a kazoo. I remember there was a picture of Yogi Berra - and each gift had a tag and one - they said like eighth birthday, 11th Christmas, 14th birthday. It was just - it was horrifying because it wasn't really an attempt to make up for all those birthdays and Christmases that he had missed. It was an attempt to salve his own conscience. So he just didn't get it, he never got it, and as he got older he got it even less and less. All I wanted him ever to do or be was kind and there.

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: And that was more than he was capable of. He tried the grand gesture. He tried the makeup gift, and it just it always felt fake, forced. He just, he seemed incapable of being genuine and present and just a dad.

GROSS: My guest is J.R. Moehringer, author of the 2005 memoir, "The Tender Bar," and the new novel, "Sutton."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is J.R. Moehringer. He's best known as the author of the best-selling memoir, "The Tender Bar." He has a new novel based on the life of bank robber Willie Sutton. The new novel is called "Sutton."

When you got into Yale on a scholarship, did you have to write one of those entrance essays?

MOEHRINGER: I did.

GROSS: So, did you basically write a draft of your memoir "The Tender Bar" for your college essay?

MOEHRINGER: No. Not at all. There's actually a chapter in the book. I thought that, you know, I was 17 at the time and I thought that writing meant using $20 words, and, you know, if you can find $50 words, all the better. And I wrote these essays about - I don't know what topics - topics I considered worldly. And I had my mother read them before I sent them off to colleges, and she said, you sound insane.

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: It was one of the biggest arguments we've ever had, and we just went around and around. I thought, this woman obviously doesn't know good writing. And we were slamming doors. I remember this like it was this morning.

But she, as she always does, she prevailed and she said, just tell them the truth. Pick out something from your life. Speak from the heart. And so I told them about a part-time job I had with these two eccentric booksellers in this little bookstore near our dinky apartment. And I just wrote about how these guys gave me books and talked to me about books and how much I looked up to them and how they'd open the world to me and I couldn't wait to kind of extend that experience to college - just to, you know, read more books with smart people.

And I thrust it her like, this'll show you, you know, because I knew it was terrible, because it was just simple words and nothing but the truth. And she said, perfect. And like we just put a stamp on it that day. I was never so confused about writing. So, you know, my mother has always been my best editor, but she has suffered so much through my life as my best editor, she just takes the brunt of it, because she's the one who has to tell me, this is awful.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You remember any of the sentences from the essay that she didn't want you to send or any of the, you know, million-dollar words that you used?

MOEHRINGER: I, well, you know, to her credit or discredit, she saved the essays. I think maybe she thought she might have to have me committed one day and these would be...

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: And I quote them in the book. I mean she brought them out when I was writing "The Tender Bar" and I quote some of the worst, the most offensive sentences in the book. And...

GROSS: Oh, so do you have the book with you?

MOEHRINGER: I do. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So find a phrase there.

MOEHRINGER: OK. Sure. Let's see. I'm going to flip the pages here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLIPPING PAGES)

MOEHRINGER: Yeah. I turned right to it. Before beginning my essay for Yale, I made a list of big words and my mother saved this list - and I quote it in the book. It's, these are words that I was determined to shoehorn into my college essays. So provisional, strident, bucolic, fulcrum...

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: ...inimical, behemoth, Jesuitical, minion, eclectic, Marquis de Sod, spelled S-O-D and esthetic. And you can imagine the essay that resulted from these words.

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: And...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. How were you going to his Marquis de Sod - S-O-D, in a sentence?

MOEHRINGER: I really would rather not go into it, frankly. But I do quote one line from this essay: Try as I might, I wrote - I actually writing this on a manual typewriter. Try as I might, I feel unable to truly convey the emphatic pangs of hungry ignorance that attend this, my 17th year, for I fear that my audience is well fed.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Bravo.

MOEHRINGER: It's really, there are kids right now who are applying to Yale just steaming, fuming that I got in. But my mother, you know, I think another parent would've said well, you know, he obviously think this is great and so I don't want to break his little heart. So, no, but my mother is, my uncle always said that my mother is tough as a $2 dollar steak, and it's still the best description of her. And she just stood there and bore the brunt of my hubris and my yelling and my sticking out my bottom lip...

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: ...and has done it since - more times than I care to count. But it's because of her that I kept going back into my bedroom and toning it down - dialing it down. And I wrote, you know, I did write a plain simple essay about this bookstore where I worked and these two guys who were so good to me and gave me books, and gave me a love of books. And I do think that that is a big part of why I got into Yale from a really bad public school.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is J.R. Moehringer. He's best known as the author of the best-selling memoir, "The Tender Bar." He has a new novel, based on the life of bank robber Willie Sutton. The new novel is called "Sutton."

Now you've collaborated with Andre Agassi on his best-selling memoir "Open," as in winning the tennis open and you basically ghost wrote the book. And he wrote in his acknowledgments that he read your book during the 2006 Open during his final big tournament. And he liked the book so much - the book being "The Tender Bar," your memoir - that he was hoping that the tournament wouldn't end before he was done reading your book. And then after that he invited you to dinner and invited you to collaborate with him on his autobiography, which you declined to do several times before finally agreeing. And he wrote that he wanted to know what his life would look like through the lens of a Pulitzer Prize winner - you.

And so, when I asked him about that he told me that, you know, what was it like, like why did he want that. And he said that he told me he knew the stories of his life but he didn't know what they meant - or what the truths were about his life that he had been searching for - searching for about his life and himself.

So what did you do, to help turn the stories of his life to what he thought of as more of the truths of his life?

MOEHRINGER: Well, we did a lot of things together. And the first thing that we did was we started a long really wonderful conversation about his life. It worked like therapy. I did - I sat in a straight back chair and Andre sat on a couch and I had a pad in my lap and he really, he dug deep, and together we found patterns and themes in his life. But it did get to the point where I was really worried that I might make some suggestion or render some analysis that would leave him, you know, helpless to Steph and the kids. So I started reading, like, Freud and Jung and...

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: ...and giving myself this crash course in psychology and he thought that was hysterical. But I was really worried that, I mean, he was digging so deep that I wouldn't be able to get him, you know, back to the surface.

But, once we'd amassed this enormous - it was like 1,100 or 1,200 pages of transcript. Then we dug through it together and we found themes together. There was nothing that I imposed on his life from above. I mean, it was - this really was the purest kind of collaboration, but what seemed plain to me was that he'd responded to my book because it all started with a complex, difficult relationship with my father. That was something that he was really able to relate to and...

GROSS: Yeah. Because he had a father who was very demanding and basically kind of insisted that he be super serious about tennis in a way that obviously makes it seem like he didn't really want to be.

MOEHRINGER: Right. My father was absent and Andre's father was kind of hyper-present, breathing down...

GROSS: Yes, right, right.

MOEHRINGER: ...his neck. And those two things felt kind of the same. They just felt off balance and so he got me in that way and he read himself into my story that way, but with him, I mean I was able to imagine what it would be like to have a father that you can't relate to. And I also saw in him a fellow perfectionist, somebody who's really hard on himself and has trouble recovering from mistakes, losses, setbacks.

And so with those two themes at the forefront, you know, we built a narrative and we found an arc. I think there's an arc in everyone's life, but I think we're all too close to our own lives to find it. I think maybe if Andre and I just switched seats, he could have done the same thing for me that I did for him and help me figure out the arc of my life.

GROSS: Well, that's the thing. In actually doing the writing for Andre Agassi's memoir, you were writing in the first person, which means that you had to really imagine being him to write. What was that experience like?

MOEHRINGER: It was really quite a lot of fun, you know, and I found out that all the research in the world just really doesn't get you very far, that when you start telling the story, there's all this stuff that you really don't know. And I had the wonderful perk of being able to call him, sit down with him every time I came to something and didn't know what it looked like or smelled like.

And so it was like writing a novel about an imaginary character, but then being able to call that character and say, what was this like? We forgot to talk about this. Tell me what this person said. It was a lot of fun and it also wasn't very different from writing my own memoir. When you're writing a memoir, the trick, I think, is to treat yourself as a character, to distance yourself from yourself. You write about yourself in the first person, but you think about yourself in the third person. That's the only way you can gain any perspective, any clarity, and keep, you know, the dogs of narcissism at bay.

And then when you're writing someone else's memoir, you do just the opposite. You try and inhabit their skin and even though you're thinking third person, you're writing first person.

GROSS: So I want to say I've really enjoyed talking to you and I thought you were awesome and I use that word, awesome, because I know you really don't like how it's used in speech, how it's been used for the past few years. So tell me what really irritates you about awesome.

MOEHRINGER: Well, I think there's a line in "Inherit the Wind" when Spencer Tracy says we have damn few enough words. And I feel that way. I mean, the richness of the English language is still limiting. I mean there aren't enough words for all the wonderful emotions and experiences and yet everyone seemingly has agreed to use just one word for everything. Awesome. That's now everything. I hear it 30 times a day and it just makes me feel like we're all turning into zombies. And if people aren't saying, awesome, they're saying amazing.

So, as somebody, you know, who loves language and loves words, it's a constant source of sadness to me that we're winnowing the entire English language down to two words.

I remember a NASCAR driver caught on fire and they asked him what the experience was and he said awesome. And I remember President Bush was hosting the pope and the pope said a few words and Bush said awesome talk, pope. So I just feel - I don't know. I'm trying not to be cranky as I get older, but the word awesome - it just seems like it's overdue to be retired.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

MOEHRINGER: I've really enjoyed it, Terry.

GROSS: Me too. It was awesome. Thank you again.

MOEHRINGER: You're amazing.

GROSS: J.R. Moehringer's 2005 memoir is called "The Tender Bar." His new novel, "Sutton," is based on the life of bank robber Willie Sutton. You can read an excerpt of "Sutton" on our website, FreshAir.NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.