John Lardner was painting a prose portrait of a legendary con man when he wrote: “On a small scale, Titanic Thompson is an American legend. I say on a small scale, because an overpowering majority of the public has never heard of him. That is the way Titanic likes it. He is a professional gambler. He has sometimes been called the gambler’s gambler.”
Lardner might well have been writing about himself, although calling him a writer’s writer is entirely inadequate. In a career that spanned three decades, the ‘30s through the ‘50s, he wrote for The New Yorker about everything from movies and TV to the invasions of Normandy and Iwo Jima. But it was as a sports columnist for Newsweek that Lardner left his deepest footprint, and he underscored it with long, brilliant magazines pieces like this one on Titanic Thompson, which originally appeared in True in 1951.
In an age of legendary sportswriters, Lardner was every bit the equal of Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, A.J. Liebling, Joe Palmer, and W.C. Heinz. He is overlooked today because he was never as famous as his father, Ring, and because he was a humorist and essayist in the age of the novel. Lardner wrote for newspapers and magazines, ephemeral institutions at best, and yet he didn’t enjoy Smith’s longevity or possess Cannon’s flair for self-promotion. Mostly he is forgotten because he died a month before his 48th birthday, in 1960, too young to achieve the lasting greatness that he surely seems to have been building toward.