This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too—the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival—Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod's and Harbuck's Stations, Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.
After Faulkner set the precedent, John P. Marquand was SI's next guest author, at the 1956 Derby. Marquand was quite taken with his own importance and did everything possible to blow the assignment, which was to float around to the pre-Derby parties and come up with some social commentary in a style reminiscent of his novels. He began by arriving late—at noon on Friday, the day before the Derby. Once on the scene, he immersed himself in a one-day whirlwind social tour of Louisville, though he spent most of the time playing his celebrity role for all it was worth.
When he finally got around to looking over the Derby entries, he picked out the names of two of the favorites, Career Boy and Needles, and uttered a remark that might have come straight from The Late George Apley. Noting that the former represented the stable of C.V. Whitney and that the latter was a Florida-bred owned by a couple of guys named Dudley and Heath, Marquand declared, "Why, this is nothing more than the classic encounter between the Establishment and the poor kid. Career Boy is the representative from Groton and Needles comes from a Florida public high school. I think I'll stick with the Grotie." When Needles won and Career Boy finished sixth, the author had nothing further to add.
Marquand muffed it, too, at a more important level. Asked to write mostly about the Derby's myriad social doings, which one day in town hardly qualified him to do, he chose to spend most of the night after the race dictating a complete news report of the race results to his agent's wife. This, of course, duplicated the assignment I was undertaking one floor below at the Brown. When he brought it down for me to read at 3 a.m., I told him frankly that one of us was on the wrong track and that I suspected it might be he. That morning we new back to New York, where Marquand was treated like many a lesser writer and installed in a small office with specific instructions to do a complete rewrite. He tried and failed, and eventually assistant managing editor Dick Johnston came up with an 11th-hour solution: convert the story to the letter form Marquand had used in an SI series based on life at a mythical country club called Happy Knoll. After that, even in the privacy of New York's Knickerbocker Club, Marquand never claimed that his 1956 Derby trip produced any memorable material. Writing as Roger Horlick, a governor of Happy Knoll, to Albert Magill, president emeritus of the country club, Marquand began his piece in the issue of May 14, 1956 like this:
It was a beautiful day yesterday at the Derby, and occasionally I wished that you were with me to enjoy the sunshine, the quaint intricacies of the delightful old, though overgrown, clubhouse and the betting areas on the Churchill Downs course. Frankly, nothing much seems to have changed there since you and I were college boys attending our first race with our fathers—except that it is easier by far to get to the $2 windows than it used to be and except that the juleps appear to have grown noticeably weaker under the impact of the years....
Great success has a way of following utter failure, and the 1957 Derby produced a double triumph: A colt named Iron Liege won memorably; and SI's guest author, Catherine Drinker Bowen, chose to focus her literary brilliance on the winning jockey, Bill Hartack.
Mrs. Bowen, a biographer and historical novelist, was well known as the author of such works as Yankee from Olympus
John Adams and the American Revolution. I was apprehensive before her arrival in Louisville on Monday of Derby Week. Not knowing what she might like to drink, I made sure that the bar in our rented house was stocked with everything imaginable, including champagne and cognac.
Mrs. Bowen drove up to the house in a taxi shortly before lunch—a tall, imposing, gray-haired lady with a determined chin and long angular nose, but also an endearing smile. She sat down politely and said, "I'll have a glass of dry sherry, please." Our houseman made a track-record run to the local liquor store to buy the only alcoholic beverage we had failed to stock. I do recollect that, long before the week was out, I introduced Mrs. Bowen to gin and tonic, and that by the time we parted company on Sunday, the bottle of Duff Gordon sherry was not even half empty.
Mrs. Bowen gave no one reason to doubt that she was a professional of the very first order. Well before her arrival in Kentucky, she knew that she was invading new territory and that there was much to be assimilated. Even before we sat down to lunch that first day, Mrs. Bowen laid down her one and only ground rule. "Please," she said, "all I want to do is trail around with you and listen. Don't spoil anything by trying to introduce me to anyone. Let me watch and listen and make my own notes. If there is anything I want to know, I'll ask later."
Her formula worked exceptionally well. With an ear finely tuned to catch the rich dialogue that flowed from every direction at Churchill Downs, Mrs. Bowen missed very little. Most of her story was based on her attempts to comprehend Bill Hartack—a chore that had defeated many a full-time racing writer. She was not only accurate but produced an outstanding reporting job. Mrs. Bowen had worked so efficiently all week converting her daily notes into polished final copy that her story was completed well before deadline on Sunday. She took her leave of Louisville that day wearing the same all-purpose smile that she had brought a week earlier.