Dawidoff, Nicholas 1962-
Dawidoff, Nicholas 1962-
Sports Illustrated, New York, NY, general assignment reporter, 1985-89; freelance writer, 1989—.
Henry Luce Foundation fellowship, 1989; Guggenheim fellowship; Yaddo and MacDowell artists colonies fellowships; Berlin Prize fellowship, American Academy, 2002.
The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1994.
In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor) Baseball: A Literary Anthology, Penguin Putnam (New York, NY), 2002.
The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to periodicals, including New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, and American Scholar.
The Catcher Was a Spy has been optioned for a feature film.
Nicholas Dawidoff grew up in a household with no television set, encouraged to read by his mother, an English teacher, and by his grandfather, a renowned Harvard professor. Today a respected journalist-turned-book-author, Dawidoff shows a remarkable range of interests in his writings, much like the polymath grandfather he profiles in The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World. A former reporter for Sports Illustrated, Dawidoff has also taught American culture in Bangkok, has won a prestigious Berlin Prize from the American Academy, and has established himself as a younger nonfiction writer of note. He is particularly interested in people—whether they be country musicians or baseball players—who challenge the standards of normalcy while achieving fame on their own terms.
Dawidoff grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and attended Harvard University. He began his journalistic career at Sports Illustrated but decided, after three and a half years there, that he wanted to avoid being pigeonholed as a sportswriter. He applied for, and received, the Henry Luce Foundation fellowship that sent him to Bangkok for a year, and upon his return he began contributing to national magazines and to the New York Times. His first book, The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg, was published in 1994.
Moe Berg, a 1923 graduate of Princeton University, played major league baseball for nineteen years, including stints with the Chicago White Sox, Washington Senators, and Boston Red Sox. He was never a star-quality player but managed to keep a spot on various rosters due to his knowledge of the game and his ability to charm managers and reporters alike. Berg also earned a law degree from Columbia University and was said to have known several foreign languages. In the wake of his baseball career he went to work as a spy, serving the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II by collecting data on Germany's attempts to build an atomic bomb. In preparation for The Catcher Was a Spy, Dawidoff interviewed scores of people who knew Berg, pored through the records of the OSS, and painstakingly traced Berg's final peripatetic years when he literally lived off the kindness of friends. To quote Richard F. Shepard in the New Leader, the author "tirelessly tracked down every trace of Berg as remembered by his surviving friends and acquaintances. In addition, Dawidoff plowed through mountains of copy produced over decades by sportswriters marveling at an intellectual who pitched Sanskrit and caught fastballs."
Many reviewers found favor with The Catcher Was a Spy. A Publishers Weekly critic felt that Dawidoff "has done a wonderful job of unraveling the legends around the mystifying Berg." Insight on the News correspondent Colin Walters wrote: "Dawidoff does not shy away from the occasionally disturbing thought, and his biography, supported by extensive endnotes, is a good read." Brunswickian Entertainment reporter Mark Savoie noted that what Dawidoff has accomplished with the book is to "shatter the myth of the amazingly brilliant catcher/spy which has long been the accepted tale of Moe Berg." Shepard concluded: "A strange fellow, this Moe Berg. Dawidoff has devotedly assembled and lucidly presented the facts in a biography well worth reading."
Dawidoff's second book, In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music, examines the roots of American country music and introduces readers to some of the genre's most highly regarded, and most artistic, practitioners. The author visits the home regions of such notable country/bluegrass stars as Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, and the Carter family, and takes pains to differentiate between the often innovative and heartfelt works of such pioneers and the more homogenized, middle-of-the-road, pop-oriented music being touted by Nashville today. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Richard Eder observed that Dawidoff "is a shrewd and sensitive reporter and more: He can evoke as well as describe." Eder went on to declare that Dawidoff "writes about performance so that you can hear it. He evokes the hard life, the competition." A Publishers Weekly critic commended the author for his "balance of reverence and skepticism" and concluded that with Dawidoff, "country finds an elegist and champion worthy of its golden age."
Dawidoff worked on his next two books simultaneously. As editor of Baseball: A Literary Anthology, he compiled a 720-page collection of readings on every facet of baseball, not only by sportswriters but also by poets, fiction writers, and memoirists. Some of the inclusions are already well known to baseball aficionados, others demonstrate the ways in which the national pastime has insinuated itself into literature and comedy. In Booklist, GraceAnne A. DeCandido found the book "chock-full of beautiful and shapely writing. … Ineffable, indispensable, inimitable." A Kirkus Reviews critic deemed the work "an intelligently selected and diverse collection … [that] ultimately convinces readers that reflecting on baseball helps us understand our complicated national identity."
The other book on which Dawidoff labored as he was compiling the baseball anthology is his most personal to date. The Fly Swatter is a biography/memoir of Dawidoff's famous grandfather, Alexander Gerschenkron, one of the seminal figures in economic theory throughout the 1950s and 1960s. A refugee first from communist Russia, and then later from Nazi-occupied Vienna, Gerschenkron immigrated to America just prior to World War II, worked for the U.S. government during the war, and began a long tenure at Harvard University in 1948. There Gerschenkron influenced several generations of American economists with his theories of industrial development, but he also impressed his colleagues as one of the most widely read and highly educated individuals in any university environment. One colleague, New Republic editor Martin Peretz, dubbed Gerschenkron "the last man with all known knowledge." Dawidoff introduces this Renaissance scholar in his biography but also includes warm remembrances of his grandfather's more private moments, when he carefully chose the perfect fly swatter to nail a hornet and slipped chocolate candy to his grandson while tucking him into bed.
In her New York Times Book Review piece on The Fly Swatter, Sylvia Nasar commented: "In his captivating memoir, … Dawidoff shows that one source of the brilliant insights of ‘The Great Gerschenkron’ into how nations triumph over backwardness was his own personal triumphs over adversity. By retracing his grandfather's tortuous path to Cambridge, Mass., Dawidoff … also conveys something of the larger story: the biggest transfer of intellectual capital in history and its indelible—and continuing—impact on American thought." Smithsonian Magazine reviewer Daniel Akst observed that the book is "a touching portrait of a complex and staggeringly learned individual, written by one of the few people he allowed to touch his heart." Amy Strong in Library Journal described The Fly Swatter as "a wonderful paean to scholarship, teaching, and the life of the mind." And in the New Leader, Gene Sosin concluded: "Grandfather [Gerschenkron] may be spending most of eternity in heaven's reading room, devouring all the volumes he regretted having missed at Harvard's Widener Library. If he has access to a celestial computer and can download (or perhaps upload?) Nicky Boy's moving tribute, he must be proudly savoring every word."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, May 15, 1994, Alan Moores, review of The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg, p. 166; February 15, 1997, Mike Tribby, review of In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music, p. 990; February 15, 2002, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Baseball: A Literary Anthology, p. 984; April 15, 2002, Bryce Christensen, review of The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World, p. 1365.
Business Week, April 22, 2002, "Home Run," p. 22.
Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX), May 23, 2002, Richard Hauer Costa, "Musings on a Pastime."
Insight on the News, August 15, 1994, Colin Walters, review of The Catcher Was a Spy, p. 31.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2002, review of Baseball, p. 156; April 1, 2002, review of The Fly Swatter, p. 467.
Library Journal, May 1, 2002, Amy Strong, review of The Fly Swatter, p. 112.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 30, 1997, Richard Eder, "The Real Thing," p. 2.
New Leader, August 15, 1994, Richard F. Shepard, review of The Catcher Was a Spy, p. 17; May-June, 2002, Gene Sosin, "Portrait of a Polymath," p. 29.
New York Review of Books, March 2, 1995, Stephen Jay Gould, review of The Catcher Was a Spy, p. 20.
New York Times Book Review, June 16, 2002, Sylvia Nasar, "‘The Last Man with All Known Knowledge.’"
Publishers Weekly, June 27, 1994, review of The Catcher Was a Spy, p. 65; December 16, 1996, review of In the Country of Country, p. 47; June 24, 2002, review of The Fly Swatter, p. 51.
Smithsonian, July, 2002, Daniel Akst, review of The Fly Swatter, p. 110.
Sporting News, October 3, 1994, Steve Gietschier, review of The Catcher Was a Spy, p. 8.
Sports Illustrated, May 9, 1988, Donald J. Barr, "Staff Writer Nicholas Dawidoff Loves Baseball and Literature," p. 4.
Time, August 15, 1994, R.Z. Sheppard, review of The Catcher Was a Spy, p. 59.
Brunswickian Summer Issue 1995,http://www.unb.ca/bruns/9596/ (September 30, 2003), Mark Savoie, review of The Catcher Was a Spy.
Identity Theory,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (March 9, 2004), Robert Birnbaum, "Interview: Nicholas Dawidoff."