Four Horsemen

posted in: Will Rogers | 0

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”

This would not have been the way readers of the Herald Tribune sports pages expected to learn the results of that weekend’s Notre Dame-Army football.  After an initial double-take, the aptness of the metaphor would have sunk in.  The readers would have lingered over those lines, rereading them several times.  More than a few would have jumped up from their coffee tables, stabbing their folded papers with extended fingers, declaring, “Would you get a load of this….”

Was John’s Book of Revelation so familiar to Jazz Age Americans that it could make its way so seamlessly onto the sports page?  Well, no…and yes.

Vicente Blasco Ibañez published The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a novel of the Great War, even before the armistice had been signed.  It was quickly translated and printed in the United States–and it made a sensation.  Burton Rascoe of the Chicago Daily Tribune declared it “the greatest novel the war has produced.” (At least to that time.)  So great was its popularity that Ibañez received adoring press in a four month tour of the United States a year later.  And Will Rogers, Broadway’s homespun interpreter of American politics and culture, made comic hay from it on the stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre.

“He is liable to talk about anything or anybody” declared the Follies program about Rogers’s “Timely Topics” act.  The Cowboy Comedian had probably never even picked up Ibañez’s thick novel, yet from what he “read in the papers” he knew it was the talk of the town.  It was a subject that demanded his witty commentary.  “Look at that Spaniard,” Will began his one liner.  “He wrote a Book called the ‘Four Horse men of the Apothecary.’    I read it plum through [Not!] and there wasent a thing about Horses or Drug Stores or anybody riding,…”   Pure Will.  Pretending to be ignorant at the same time he pretends to know more than he does.  We can be sure he got plenty of laughs.

The book made such a splash that Hollywood produced a thirteen-reel feature film based on it two years later.  “Everybody knows the story,” wrote a reviewer.  But on the silver screen, he continued, “Ibañez’s words are here become actions, emotions, the visible earth, air, and sky, life itself.  The story lives.”  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse had entered the popular imagination.

And its lexicon.  Three years after the blockbuster movie, when trying to capture Notre Dame’s dominance in words, sportswriter Grantland Rice drew from John’s–by way of Ibañez–image of apocalyptic horsemen.  (It helped that there were four members of the backfield.)  Even before Rice’s story hit the newsstands, a Notre Dame publicity agent took matters in his own hands.  He had each member of the backfield mount a horse, leather helmet on his head, pigskin cradled in the crook of his arm.  That image of  the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame lives on as surely as Rice’s words:

“In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”



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