Billy Pearson: Never Look Back

Billy PearsonYesterday I received feedback from a person who had read my 2010 review of the book Never Look Back, by jockey Billy Pearson. Pearson, famous in his day for 826 wins on the racetrack, was also an art dealer, and back in the 1950s his knowledge of art won him over $170,000 on the television quiz shows The $64,000 Question and The $64,000 Challenge. In The $64,000 Challenge, he matched wits against Vincent Price, and the competition eventually ended in a draw because neither one could be stumped.

Thanks to his wild ways, these winnings and the rest of his wealth slipped easily through his fingers. He boasted that he squandered a million dollars, and in an interview in Parade magazine (Jan 1959) he declared, “I am reconciled to the fact that I will never get out of this life alive, and while I’m still breathing, I’m going to live it up.” Indeed, he smoked, drank, gambled, married six times, and was always up to some kind of mischief. At least a remnant of his flashy lifestyle remains: one of the 17 homes that he bought and filled with his art went on the market last year for $15 million http://realestate.aol.com/blog/2012/05/07/house-of-the-day-jockey-billy-pearsons-la-jolla-mansion/.

My interest in him was sparked in 2010 when I was talking with my friends Silvia and Nena, who told me they had just attended the funeral of their cousin, Queta, who had been married to Billy Pearson. While Queta’s marriage to Pearson didn’t last, she shared his interest in art and helped him prepare for the game shows. She also bore two of his four children.

I went home and headed straight to the Internet, where I discovered and purchased his autobiography Never Look Back. As luck would have it, my copy was signed by the author himself, which made him even more real to me.  Pearson tells his story up until 1956, with his first win on The $64,000 Question. I can’t remember ever having had so much fun reading a book. Its pages are filled with amazing and preposterous stories. They stretch credulity, but even if one-tenth of them are true, he was arguably one of the most fascinating men of his time.

Here is the review that I posted on amazon.com back in 2010:

What a blast!

Never Look BackFor those who don’t know (and I was one of them), Billy Pearson was the professional jockey—also daredevil, high school dropout, and reform school graduate—who soaked up everything he could learn about art in his spare time between horse races until he became one of the most knowledgeable art historians and collectors in the world. He won the top prize on The $64,000 Question in the category of Art and Artists and was quite the phenom in his day. The book is autobiographical and tells his story up to his famous first win on television. It ends before his rematch with Vincent Price for The $64,000 Challenge, when millions of viewers were glued to their television sets as the two answered question after question over a period of many weeks and finally split the jackpot.
Billy (with the aid of co-author Stephen Longstreet) reports on his wild younger days with refreshing honesty, no holds barred, and no regrets in a delightful self-deprecating style. He tried just about everything, won and lost money like drinking water, and hobnobbed with the rich and famous of his day. He tells of pranks pulled on his good friend movie director John Huston, and of Huston’s delicious revenge. Did it all really happen? Some of the stories are hard to believe, but who cares? This book is a page-turner, and every page is fun.

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