In 1955, as the infant magazine SPORTS ILLUSTRATED approached its very first Kentucky Derby, the editors thought it would be a capital idea to invite William Faulkner to go to Louisville and record his impressions—not necessarily of the Derby itself, which, as SI's racing writer, I would cover, but of the elements of the spectacle that appealed to him. The editors held a briefing lunch in New York, at which Faulkner and I met. If anything at all came out of that luncheon, it was the fact that Faulkner was bored to death by editors. Later we walked a few blocks and he insisted, inasmuch as we were about to spend a week together, that we get on a first-name basis. "You call me Bill," he said emphatically, "and in Kentucky please never introduce me as Mister. I'm very informal and want to stay that way."
Faulkner and I arranged to meet the following Tuesday at Louisville's famous Brown Hotel, where he was to stay. The only instructions I received from SI's editors concerning Faulkner were to try to see that our guest did not become so preoccupied with the available whiskey that he neglected his assignment. As a hedge against that possibility, I was asked to persuade Faulkner to turn over to me 300 words each evening, which I would then take to the Western Union office and file to New York.
As it turned out, a few hours after Faulkner got off a train from his beloved Oxford, Miss., the entire Louisville press corps was searching for the famous man to inform him that he had just been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I met him, as arranged, in the great paneled grill room of the Brown Hotel. He was dressed the way he would be for most of our acquaintanceship—in gray flannel slacks, a simple tweed sports coat and a small but appropriate bow tie. His pipe was, as usual, at full glow. I was quick to congratulate him on the Pulitzer. He smiled, taking a long, satisfying pull on his pipe.
"I must say, I thought I had some chance but considered myself a long shot," he said. "Still, it's nice and gratifying, and I won't complain." Faulkner paused, then went on with what seemed natural nonchalance, "But let's get on with what we're here for. Tell me about the Derby horses, who we'll see and where we'll go this week."
From that moment on, he was thoroughly professional in his approach to the Derby. His knowledge of horses and their bloodlines went way back, and I think the best part of his week may have been the day we skipped away from Louisville to visit farms in Lexington. At Claiborne Farm he was very much taken with Nasrullah, later to become one of the alltime great stallions and sire of, among others, Bold Ruler, another champion sire. But no horse he saw in Lexington that long day entranced Faulkner nearly so much as a beautiful gray, Mahmoud, an Epsom Derby winner, then 22 years old and galloping effortlessly in his paddock at the C.V. Whitney Farm.
On the drive back to Louisville, Faulkner put his pipe aside and took a nap. Somewhere near Frankfort, he suddenly woke. His nostrils twitched. He sat straight up, rolled down his window and inhaled deeply. "I thought so!" he exclaimed. "I don't mistake that smell. There's a distillery damn close to here." No more than a quarter of a mile ahead we saw a sign pointing toward a famous bourbon distillery just off the main road.
That evening when Faulkner gave me the first of his 300-word dispatches to file, I was more than a little alarmed. My reaction was nothing compared to that of the Western Union wire chief when he read the single page of neatly typed prose. He looked at me in amazement and said, "What the hell is this? You gone nuts or something?"
"Not mine," I replied. "Just go ahead and file it and let them straighten it out up in New York." We both laughed. The page contained not a single punctuation mark of any sort—no commas or colons or periods and no capital letters. The words were all strung together beginning with, "this saw boone the bluegrass the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from...."
During the ensuing days before the Derby, Faulkner became more and more fascinated by the activity at Churchill Downs and more and more disenchanted with the idea of attending social functions. He was far more at home at the track than anywhere else, both in the early morning when he squinted through the smoke from his pipe at the horses galloping by in the heavy mist, and in the afternoons when he forsook a clubhouse seat for admission to the press box. Before his first trip to the press box, Faulkner asked in an excited schoolboyish way, "Do you suppose I can meet the only man here I want to see, Red Smith?" When their meeting took place, the two men sat together at the end of one of the press-box porches and happily handicapped the day's races. Smith relied mostly on past performance, Faulkner entirely on conformation.
Despite the warnings about his fondness for bourbon and fears that he might not do his work in Louisville, Faulkner performed with precision and, god knows, distinction. Night after night he came up with his 300 words—a single page of the master's prose—and night after night it was wired to New York. When the Derby was over, he had constructed a piece of text so poignant that Bing Crosby, a horse lover and racing fan himself, later read it aloud for a memorable recording. With punctuation, Faulkner's first paragraph about the Derby in SI's issue of May 16, 1955 read: