Stardom is coming back for Louis Zamperini


The Wall Street Journal gives over almost its entire Friday Journal section front today to Laura Hillenbrand's upcoming biography of Louis Zamperini, the 93-year-old war hero and star Olympic athlete of the 1930s who grew up in the South Bay and lives in Los Angeles. Random House is looking for a repeat of Hillenbrand's 2001 bestseller, "Seabiscuit," printing 250,000 copies to begin. "We're positioning it as the big book for the holidays," a Barnes and Noble buyer says in Steve Oney's article in the Journal. It's quite a piece, about Zamperini's life story, his emotions on reading the book, and his bond with Hillenbrand, the author who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome so debilitating that she never came to California to meet her subject. "I skipped my shower today in order to have the strength to do this interview," she told Oney. Except from the WSJ:

With a fringe of white hair poking out from under a University of Southern California baseball cap and blue eyes sharp behind bifocals, 93-year-old Louis Zamperini refuses to concede much to old age. He still works a couple of hours each day in the yard of his Hollywood Hills home, bagging leaves, climbing stairs and, on occasion, trimming trees with a chainsaw. His outlook is upbeat, even rambunctious. "I have a cheerful countenance at all times," he says. "When you have a good attitude your immune system is fortified." But as he plunged into "Unbroken," Laura Hillenbrand's 496-page story of his life, the happy trappings of his current existence fell away....

Unbroken" details a life that was tumultuous from the beginning. As a blue-collar kid in Southern California, Mr. Zamperini fell in and out of scrapes with the law. By age 19, he'd redirected his energies into sports, becoming a record-breaking distance runner. He competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin where he made headlines, not just on the track (Hitler sought him out for a congratulatory handshake), but by stealing a Nazi flag from the well-guarded Reich Chancellery. The heart of the story, however, is about Mr. Zamperini's experiences while serving in the Pacific during World War II.


For 25 months in such infamous Japanese POW camps as Ofuna, Omori and Naoetsu, Mr. Zamperini was physically tortured and subjected to constant psychological abuse. He was beaten. He was starved....Mr. Zamperini was singled out by a sadistic guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known to prisoners as "the Bird," a handle picked because it had no negative connotations that might bring down his irrational wrath. The Bird intended to make an example of the famous Olympian. He regularly whipped him across the face with a belt buckle and forced him to perform demeaning acts, among them push-ups atop pits of human excrement. The Bird's goal was to force Mr. Zamperini to broadcast anti-American propaganda over the radio. Mr. Zamperini refused....

This all came rushing back when Mr. Zamperini first sat down with a copy of "Unbroken" last month. "As I was reading," he says, gesturing with an arm to a peaceful vista of palm trees outside his house, "I had to look out that picture window from time to time to make sure that I wasn't still in Japan. When I got to the end I called Laura and told her she'd put me back in prison, and she said, 'I'm sorry.' "

Hollywood has interest in Zamerpini's story, but the path to a film is complicated by rights issues over some previous movie options and Zamperini's own 1957 autobiography, "Devil at My Heels," updated in 2003 with author and LA Observed contributor David Rensin. Also online: an interactive graphic on Zamperini's life.

Add WSJ: Today's Journal also reviews John Baxter's bio of 1930s and 40s director Josef von Sternberg.

Photos: Wall Street Journal

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