BUTTE — There’s not much a tell-all book can say about Butte’s most famous son that longtime Mining City residents don’t already know.
Yet there’s still something fresh and exciting about Leigh Montville’s latest biography on Evel Knievel.
In “Evel, The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil and Legend,” Montville explores this larger-than-life man, who identifies himself as an “explorer” on the headstone of his final resting place.
“Evel” is published by Doubleday and is available in hardback at most local bookstores. It retails at $27.50.
Montville writes about the stunts, the broken bones. Caesars Palace. Snake River Canyon. Wild Turkey and wild women. The money, and the breakneck speed at which Knievel could spend it.
Montville dedicates much of his book to Butte, examining the city, because — as it appears to the author — understanding Butte was essential to understanding Knievel.
“He was from Butte, Montana, and that was the most important fact of all in understanding how everything worked,” Montville writes in the book. “He was from Butte, Montana.”
The author characterized Butte as a town, at least during Knievel’s childhood, where most of the inhabitants made their living in the dangerous profession of mining. They risked their skins crawling into the ground to reap the precious ore and spent their wages in a mad fury in the bars at night.
“Risk-takers every one of them. Butte was a city built for risk-takers from the beginning,” Montville observed about the city’s early dwellers. He asserts that Knievel inherited this trait from the city and used it to build his legend.
Montville gets many of the anecdotes and insights about Knievel through interviews with Butte natives who knew him. He never spoke with the book’s protagonist. But Butte readers are sure to recognize the names of Pat Williams, Louis Markovich, Jimmy Dick, Joe Little and other Butte rats who swapped stories with the author like they would with any regular at the Met Tavern.
Knowing Knievel’s reputation for exaggeration, Montville is careful to note that some of the tales in this book could be fact, could be inflated, or just a straight-up lie.
So what may surprise Butte readers?
Knievel was a company man. No joke. This high-flying, risk-taker had a square job as an insurance salesman for Combined Insurance Co. in his early life. And he was damn good at it; he was salesman of the year. If Knievel never placed his rump on a motorcycle, Montville indicates he could have had a long, successful career selling, ironically, accident insurance.
He couldn’t ride. Yup. According to several people in the motorsports biz, Knievel wasn’t a very good motorcyclist. He couldn’t win a motocross race to save his life. But jumping a motorcycle was where Knievel shined.
Flopped at Caesar’s Palace? Montville interviews the promoter of the fountains jump who claims he and Knievel conspired to make his injuries worse than they actually were. Sure, Knievel was banged up in that famous crash, but Montville writes that the promoter and daredevil allegedly exaggerated wounds to garner more attention.
Knievel once held a gun to actor George Hamilton’s head and forced him to read the “Evel Knievel” movie script aloud to him.