Cover image for Imus : America's cowboy
Imus : America's cowboy
Tracy, Kathleen.
Personal Author:
First Carroll and Graf edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Carroll & Graf, [1999]

Physical Description:
311 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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PN1991.4.I48 T73 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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This biography offers a detailed, balanced portrait of the public personality and the private man, Don Imus.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this comprehensive biography of radio host Don Imus, Tracy (Home Brewed: The Drew Carey Biography; Seinfeld: The Entire Domain) patches together the reminiscences of friends and enemies into a rollicking narrative of the sleazy but successful career of the "I-Man." Tracy posits that Imus, who grew up on an Arizona ranch, brought a cowboy ethos with him to Manhattan. By her lights, Imus is "a rugged individualist living by his own code" with a "from-the-hip style." Despite much-publicized alcohol and drug problems, and incidents like his 1969 firing for repeatedly making comments about "spooks," after having held a mean-spirited "Eldridge Cleaver look-alike contest," Imus has always bounced back. His incendiaryÄand oft-protestedÄrhetoric and his jousting with public figures who criticize him have garnered the talk-radio pioneer an audience of 15 million who listen to him on WFAN in New York, or in syndication on almost 100 stations. Whereas Jim Reed's recent biography, Everything Imus, is based almost exclusively on second-hand stories, Tracy has conducted extensive interviews, producing hilarious reflections and a balanced account. Leonard Shapiro of the Washington Post asks, following a presidential appearance on Imus in the Morning, "Why would somebody like Bill Clinton, a decent human being, go on a show where there are constant references to genitals and Jews and derogatory comments about blacks?" Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes takes up the defense, calling Imus rival Howard Stern "a vulgar, vulgar man," and finding Imus "infinitely more intelligent [and] infinitely more sensitive." The shock jock who calls himself "Howard Stern with a vocabulary" will find little here to raise his famous ire. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One In many ways, Southern California has become a self-perpetuated fiction. Invoke the name and it congers Baywatch -esque images of swaying palm trees, sandy beaches, the Pacific Coast Highway, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. But travel east and in less than an hour a very different and typically unseen Southern California emerges, one with scrub-brush landscapes, mobile home parks, and hardscrabble towns with glamour-challenged names like Calimesa, Belmont, and Hemet. Even today these small communities lie in relatively remote rural areas and, except for those looking to buy gas or get a snack at a 7 Eleven, are barely noticed by passing drivers on nearby Interstate 10.     But fifty years ago Los Angeles was actually the anomaly when viewed in the context of the entire southern region of the state. California was, and for that matter still is, primarily an agricultural state. Farms and ranches dotted the landscape, and the nose-to-the-grindstone lifestyle was as far removed from that of movie stars as it was from English tea and finger sandwiches. For the most part, the areas east of the coastal cities were isolated and rustic. The few residents who inhabited the sparsely settled land identified not with the developing fantasy that was known as Hollywood but with the legacy of the Old West, where men were the masters of their destiny and where hard work would be rewarded.     At the same time, however, there was also a subtle but definite unforgiving nature to both the land and the residents. Human failings weren't likely to be excused because of a difficult childhood, and an affliction such as alcoholism was seen not as a disease needing treatment but as a weakness of moral character. And once a family was marked with a particular reputation, it stuck to them like branding on the backside of a steer.     Perris, California, is such a community; it is also Don Imus's hometown. John Donald Imus, Jr., was born on July 23, 1940, in the small enclave located not far from the Riverside County seat. His parents, John, Sr., and local beauty Frances Elizabeth, had been married a year earlier, in 1939. Family friend Michael Lynn remembers Frances as "one of the terrific, outspoken women who had also a very quick and incisive wit."     "We had a funny family. Mother and Dad were both funny," says Don's brother, Fred, who is younger by just eighteen months. "In fact, the ones that weren't funny were crazy."     "I don't know," counters Don. "I mean, we had great parents."     At the time, Frances no doubt thought she had made a good catch in John, who was a third-generation cattle rancher and who came from hardy family stock. The Imuses' presence in California can be traced back to 1850, and the story of the family's trek west shows the mettle of the people who were compelled to settle the untamed land west of the Rockies.     The move west was initiated in 1849 by Hiram Imus, Sr., and his son, Hiram, Jr., who had married a Quaker from Pennsylvania, Eliza, with whom he sired eleven children. At the time, both father and son were living in Illinois, but after hearing the glorious tales of the California gold rush, dreamed of taking a herd of cattle west, where they could set themselves up as ranchers. Plus, Hiram, Jr.'s, brother Charles and Hiram's son, also named Charles, had already moved to California. So on May 3, 1849, the younger Imus, together with his parents and another family, the Rices, left Galena, Illinois, with a wagon train consisting of cattle, horses, and mules packed high with provisions they believed were sufficient to last through their journey to California.     In the early stages of the trip, the travel was easy. There was plentiful grass for the cattle to graze on and the weather was temperate. Along the way the Imus party passed several other groups who were also California bound, as well as trains of Mormons heading for their promised land of Utah. But at the Platte River in Nebraska, the Imuses' luck began to take a turn.     They had made camp near the river and spent an uneventful night. But as they were cooking breakfast the following morning, the ground beneath them began to shake, as if an earthquake were trembling the land. Then suddenly a herd of buffalo came stampeding through their camp, charging through the cattle and pushing them not only upriver but across the river. The stampede lasted several hours, and when the last of the buffalo ran through, all their cattle were gone.     The horses that fled during the chaos were rounded up and the badly shaken party packed up and moved on, while a few of the men rode off to see if they could find any of the scattered cattle. Only a handful was ever retrieved.     In Utah the Imus party traveled to Salt Lake City, where they planned to rest and restock their provisions before undertaking what they knew would be the most difficult part of the journey, in part because of the weather and in part because of pockets of hostile Indians. Several wagon trains had been forced back to Salt Lake because of deadly encounters with the local Indian tribes. However, the city wasn't set up or equipped to handle a large influx of travelers, so the Imuses and other parties were strenuously urged to move on, and in December 1849 continued their way west. It has become part of Imus family lore that at some point on their journey the Imuses met up with the Donner party, but in fact the Donner disaster had occurred two years earlier, during the winter of 1846 to 1847.     But as it was, the Imus party themselves barely survived. As they plodded through the arid deserts of the West, skeletons of fallen horses and oxen--as well as crude graves--were vivid reminders of the peril they were in. For weeks they passed piles of furniture and other personal belongings that had been left behind by previous groups in order to lighten the burden of the failing pack animals who were slowly starving to death. As the Imus party animals lost strength, their train covered fewer and fewer miles in a day, prolonging an already endless trip and forcing them to stretch meager provisions even thinner. The first thing they ran out of was salt, then their food supply was so precious, it was actually kept under lock and key so people, now on strict rations, wouldn't be tempted to steal.     Finally, the decision was made to send three members on the three strongest horses ahead to Los Angeles, then a small outpost of a city, for provisions. There they were able to locate the Rollins ranch, where the three men were given food to take back to those who'd been left stranded. Once nourished, what remained of the Imus party made their way back to the Rollins ranch, where they stayed until both the people and animals had recuperated.     Rollins, who owned the ranch, was a friend of Hiram, Sr.'s, son, Captain Charles Imus, who had settled in Santa Cruz, California, after his military service. And it was to Santa Cruz that the Imuses headed when they left the Rollins ranch on May 3, 1850, exactly a year to the day they had left Illinois.     Charles Imus had originally come to California in the summer of 1831 with Henry Rice and his wife, settling on a claim at the mouth of the Wolf River, in Stockton County--an area that would play an important part in Don Imus's life over a century later. But in 1832 Imus and the Rices were forced to return to Illinois for the duration of the Black Hawk Wars. In 1845 Charles had returned to California with his nephew and settled permanently.     Once in Santa Cruz, the rest of the newly transplanted Imus clan settled in and made the area its home. However, the adventuresome spirit that had prompted the family to come to California lived on in Hiram, Jr.'s, sons, Edwin, Charles, and William. In 1854 the three young brothers packed a few horses and left the family ranch, Quien Sabe, and set off south along the ruggedly beautiful but often inhospitable northern California coast. They first spent time at the Gould ranch, then moved on to Rancho del Chorro, where William lived for many years with his wife, Sarah.     In the early summer of 1875 Charles and Edwin were once again on the move, this time with a cattleman named Jake Harden. The three men intended to drive their cattle from California all the way to Arizona, a risky proposition at best, considering the lack of plentiful water. They spent the winter in Carson Valley, Nevada, then continued on their journey, which took them through Rock Springs, then Eldorado Canyon (located near the Grand Canyon), where they had to cross the Colorado River, two mountain ranges, and go through Union Pass, until they at last settled at Camp Willows, an abandoned soldiers' camp located near Kingman, Arizona.     "The original Willows was an army post, and it was connected to Fort Whipple out of Prescott," explains George Davis, whose grandmother was Edwin's daughter. "The cavalry was based there and then they abandoned it. That's when my great-grandfather came through and homesteaded the Willows, living in that old adobe shack that was the army post."     After purchasing Camp Willows and settling his stock in, Edwin returned to California and married Rose Hunt, then brought his bride back to Arizona, where they would make their home. With verve and determination Edwin worked to make his land a successful cattle ranch. Eventually the property became known as the Willows ranch, with Edwin's the first white family to lay claim to the area. "The Imuses have a lot of history in there," Davis notes. "Historically, May was the first white lady born in Mohave Count. She later married my namesake, George Davis, who came out of Idaho and brought a herd of horses down into that Kingman area."     It's easy to see what attracted men like George Davis and Edwin Imus to settle in that part of Arizona. First, although it is part of the Mohave Desert, with summer temperatures hovering in the mid-nineties, the area's low humidity helps keep the heat surprisingly bearable. At the same time, because it's nestled in a valley, the winters are relatively cool, which means that the saguaro cactus that many people associate with the southwest desert does not thrive there.     And then there was the land itself. Not only was it vast enough to hold a man's dreams, but it was also just naturally awe-inspiring. At dusk, the nearby Hualapai Mountains take on a pinkish cast, while off to the west, the sun goes down in a blaze of brilliant reds, oranges, and pinks reflecting off the brown and beige landscape to create a spectacular palette of color. It's hard not to feel both humbled and inspired by the sheer beauty of it all.     Although they were bound by both the land and by blood, the Imus and the Davis sides of the family slowly drifted apart, and by the time George was born in 1939, the estrangement was complete. He notes that even today he doesn't "know any of the Imuses. They still have an Imus family reunion, but I just never had the opportunity to know that side of the family."     The Imus clan felt that they had found their home and looked forward to laying down permanent roots, and by 1885 William Imus had joined his brother Edwin at Willows. Five years earlier, brother Charles had died en route to California at Eldorado Canyon. William, who had been his brother's business partner, disposed of Charles's property in California, then came to Arizona and took over his holdings there. Cattle ranching, though, is a difficult and uncertain business, fraught with risk. Nor is it as lucrative as one might think. While thirty-five thousand acres sounds like a vast expanse of land to most people, by ranching standards it's not. And the value of any land is not merely its overall size but how many acres are actually suitable for grazing and how many are unusable scrub. For all its splendor, Willows ranch, which would have been an operation with three to four hundred mother cows, would have been hard pressed to comfortably support more than one family.     "As far as I know," laughs George Davis, "there wasn't too many wealthy Imuses."     The reality was, neither Edwin nor his brothers nor their progeny ever became rich men cattle ranching, but they were comfortable enough; their land allowed them to be self-sufficient and provide for their large families, and most important, they were their own bosses.     Over the years the ranch passed between various family members, but with each succeeding generation the fate of the Willows seemed more and more precarious. Eventually the family fortunes would take a devastating turn with the generation that included Don's father, John Imus. As John grew older, it became obvious to everyone around him that what his friends and family discreetly referred to as a drinking problem was far more serious than that. John was a full-blown alcoholic, as much an addict as a heroin junkie and just as in need of help. But the days of understanding the true nature of the affliction and how to treat it were still decades away. So, the Imuses did what most other families of the time did: ignore the truth and pretend it wasn't affecting their lives.     One of the properties John had inherited was the family home in Perris, California. And like Imuses before him, he would regularly take his sons to the Willows during summers, where they would enjoy the fruits of their ancestors' labors. As youngsters, Don, Jr., and Freddie were still blissfully unaware of their family's skeletons or the uncertainty that the Willows ranch was facing. All they knew was that the ranch, fifty miles from the nearest town, was their personal playground, a real-life theme park, where boys really did grow up to be cowboys. Even in its early years, though, the ranch was primarily a summer residence, where family members would come for the season, then retreat to other residences during the colder, winter months.     "I love horses and cattle and I remember that as being great fun, growing up on a cattle ranch," Don would say years later. "That's all I remember about it. But it was great because we grew up about half the time on a cattle ranch."     Although they would later develop a symbiotic closeness more associated with twins than mere siblings, as young children Don would lord his age and size over Freddie by regularly beating up on him--until baby brother fought back one day.     "I broke his foot with a shoe," laughs Fred. "It's been a pretty good relationship ever since."     It needed to be. For one thing, because of their relative isolation on the ranch, they had no children to play with, which prompts Fred to note: "I guess that's why we get along so well."     "Even when we weren't out on the ranch we spent a lot of time together," Don adds. "And we're still very close."     With few other friends for the boys and no television to act as entertainment, Don's parents, who were both college educated, made sure Don and Fred had plenty of books to read. So as a young boy Don was exposed to a wide variety of literature, including Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant, and the works of Aldous Huxley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Herman Wouk. Once Don was into a book, it was hard for him to put it down until he finished it.     His love of books may have also been a form of escapism, because his family life was often unsettled. One curious incident that other family members recall was the two-year absence of the boy's mother. "My grandmother May helped watch Don and Fred during that time," says George Davis. "What happened was, Frances went to Europe for a couple of years and left the boys and John behind."     As they grew older and their family would slowly start to deteriorate further, the boys would often have only each other to turn to for comfort and support, forging a bond that no person or circumstance would ever be able to break.     According to relatives, Don, Sr., tried to follow in the family business with a spread of his own in Perris. But he simply didn't have the necessary passion for ranching the way his grandfather and father had had. As the years unfolded, whatever promise Frances once thought Don held was broken by his drinking and his inability to turn much of a profit, until their life had more in common with Of Mice and Men than it did Dallas . The hopes they once had for the future were now just bitter pipe dreams.     Money was a particular sore spot. There was just never enough of it, a situation Frances was not accustomed to, because she had come from a wealthy family. Ironically Don's efforts to maintain his wife's standard of living may in fact have helped hasten their financial downfall.     "You could tell she came from wealth," says a relative. "Just the way she carried herself and the air about her. I'm just speculating, but I think that was a lot of the problem; Don tried to keep her in the manner to which she was accustomed."     Between his drinking and her desire for a standard of living that was beyond their means, money became increasingly tighter and the relationship between Frances and her husband grew increasingly strained. The family fallout had a pronounced effect on Don, who began acting out in school, exhibiting an aggressive, sharp-witted--and sharp-tongued--nature.     "I was a horrible adolescent," Don admits easily. "I was always the rotten kid who made fun of the fat kid in school. I was an obnoxious little bastard."     Powerless to stop his family's downward spiral, he did his best to be the master of his environment everywhere else. He would dress and talk the way he wanted and, whenever possible, try to be the one in charge, leading the way.     However, not everyone always appreciated the experience. In the eighth grade Don enjoyed his first taste of popularity when he was elected class president. But just a short time later he was impeached and removed from office for being too dictatorial.     "He had a definite attitude and a point of view of what he thought, and he didn't mind saying it," Fred acknowledges.     But Don was more than just opinionated. He was angry and confrontational, and looking back he admits he "was a problem child. I was bounced from one hideous private school to another." Sometimes he would leave because of family circumstance; sometimes he would be asked to go. Don's attitude toward authority figures was such that he recalls his wealthy grandmother once "predicted I would end up in prison."     At that point Frances was more worried about her children ending up in the poorhouse than in the big house. Although there are conflicting stories as to exactly how it happened, eventually John Imus lost everything. There was no longer a personal family home in Perris and no Imus family Willows ranch.     Some say John lost most of his money to tax troubles. Others say it was mostly a self-inflicted financial wound.     "The story was that Don's father just kept borrowing against his so-called legacy," says Phil Oelze, a friend from high school. He recalls Don and Fred revealing that their father's brother had been keeping the family afloat "all those years John had a drinking problem and ultimately he spent his legacy."     George Davis has a similar recollection. "John and his brother didn't get along, but I had the impression he was supporting his brother." Davis says that it was after they lost the ranch that "they started milling around a little bit."     As an adult George would have the chance to visit the ranch he'd heard so much about growing up. "The original site isn't there, but the Willows ranch is still there," he says, then adds with a sigh, "In fact, they're subdividing it now and I hate to see that."     Freddie was able to graduate from grammar school in Perris, but with no land to call their own, Frances and Don were forced into an itinerant lifestyle, moving from place to place, town to town. Since California had little left to offer the family other than unhappy memories, Don decided to return to his native state, spending some time in Scottsdale, Arizona, before moving on to Prescott, where he had some relatives who might help the family adjust.     While in Scottsdale, Don attended Scottsdale High and was befriended by a fellow student, Freddie Parker, who is now deceased. "Freddie had what we call command presence," says a college buddy of Parker's. "He was a good athlete and an interesting fellow. Don idolized Freddie, and Freddie used to laugh a lot about Don. They had a lot of fun together."     Which made it all that much more difficult for Don to be uprooted once again, especially to a town 110 miles from Scottsdale that any teenager would consider to be in the middle of nowhere. When the Imuses arrived in Prescott during the summer of 1956, it was a small community of less than twenty thousand people. Named after noted historian William Hickling Prescott, the town had played an important part of the area's history, a story well known by locals, who were proud of their heritage. After the discovery of gold led to Arizona becoming a United States territory, the provisional seat of the territorial government was established at Fort Whipple in Chino Valley on January 22, 1864. Nine months later it was moved twenty miles away to a little mining community named Prescott. The capital moved to Tucson in 1867 for ten years, then shifted back to Prescott, until it moved permanently to Phoenix in 1889.     Located over a mile above sea level in the Bradshaw Mountains among the largest stand of ponderosa pines in the world, Prescott lies within central Arizona's Yavapai County, which was one of the original four created when Arizona was still only a territory. Once a massive 65,000 square miles, Yavapai County now covers "only" little more than 8,125--an area as large as New Jersey.     Early settlers were attracted to Prescott because of the ponderosa pines; the wide, open ranges needed for the ever-present cattle ranchers; and minerals such as copper. As miners and ranchers swelled the town's population, some enterprising businessmen established Whiskey Row, which featured numerous saloons and restaurants that stayed open twenty-four hours a day, giving Prescott a true Dodge City feel. The current residents of the area are proud of their town's rich history and have taken pains to preserve their links to the past, which is why many areas, such as Whiskey Row, remain standing today as they did a century ago.     A community such as Prescott clings tenaciously to its past and doesn't readily welcome change of any kind, a painful lesson Don would soon experience first-hand. Like the cowboys and miners who first settled the area, the longtime residents believed there was a proper way of acting and behaving and anyone not abiding by the local standards was viewed with skepticism and wariness.     It's seldom easy being the new kid in town even for those who naturally fit in. For someone like Don, who seemed to go out of his way not to conform, it's nearly impossible. Although he would eventually establish close ties with a small group of guys, in many respects Don would remain an outsider throughout his time in Prescott, setting a pattern he would follow his entire life. Copyright © 1999 Kathleen Tracy. All rights reserved.