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Mike Stanton Brings Colorful Characters to Life

Veteran newspaperman and author Mike Stanton’s books on a corrupt Providence politician and a boxing champ have garnered attention from theater producers and filmmakers.

mike stanton
Author and former investigative reporter Mike Stanton

By Sean Hargadon
Fall 2019

In the mid-1990s Mike Stanton ’82 MS shared a Pulitzer Prize as a member of the Providence Journal investigative team, a role that put him in constant contact with one of America’s most notorious mayors, Buddy Cianci. The charismatic but felonious architect of the Providence renaissance became the subject of Stanton’s debut book, New York Times best-seller The Prince of Providence (2003). In the fall, Trinity Repertory Company adapted Stanton’s book to the stage with a script written by playwright George Brant ’91. It had an extended, sold-out run in September and October. Stanton’s second book, Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano’s Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World (2018), earned best of 2018 nods from the Boston Globe and the Library Journal. Stanton, who teaches journalism at the University of Connecticut and is working on an investigative project as a Boston Globe Spotlight Fellow, has reached an agreement in principle with a Hollywood producer of a recent Oscar-winning film to develop a movie based on Unbeaten. He says the stage and screen success of his works shows the power of storytelling.

I knew I wanted to write since I was a little kid. We used to go strawberry picking in the fields of northern Connecticut, where I grew up, and I would sit by the side of the field and write stories in my notebook.

Being at Northwestern for a year was a transformative experience. I have rewarding memories of being the editor of the first magazine that [journalism professor] Abe Peck had his magazine students produce in what has become such a renowned program. I also studied urban politics and worked out of Medill’s downtown Chicago newsroom with Donna Rosene Leff ’70, ’71 MS and David Nelson ’67, ’68 MS. And I spent a lot of time at Wrigley Field, including with one professor who would take his students there and grade papers in the bleachers. Chicago was certainly a wonderful laboratory for studying urban journalism, political corruption and baseball.

I wrote my first book about Buddy Cianci, this larger-than-life, colorful, roguish mayor who transformed the city. But he also presided over a breathtaking array of corruption, in not one but two administrations. He had to resign after beating up his ex-wife’s lover and holding him hostage in his house on Power Street. Buddy became the longest-serving mayor in America. Then the FBI came in, and he was convicted of racketeering conspiracy.

Boxing was a very colorful world, and even if you’re not a boxing fan, Rocky Marciano’s story is a great window into what America was like in the middle of the 20th century. Here’s a guy who was born in the 1920s, when there was a lot of anti-Italian immigrant fervor, like you see with immigration today. He came of age during the Great Depression. He fought in World War II. And then he became the boxing champion.

I uncovered this really fascinating episode where Rocky became friends with Muhammad Ali. They met in a secret studio in Miami to film a fake bout between the two of them — a radio promoter’s really hokey idea — and they sparred several rounds. This was 1969, and he and Ali really bonded. They talked about the race riots in America, and they had an idea: “What if you and me, a white man and a black man, two champions, got on a bus and went to Detroit and went to Watts and we talked about how blacks and whites can get along?” They were sitting by the side of the ring eating grapefruit, talking about this idea. A few weeks later Rocky got on a plane in Chicago to fly to Iowa to the opening of a mob pal’s nephew’s steakhouse, and he died in a plane crash.

The fact that both of my books have been successful, and also drawn movie and stage interest, speaks to the power of storytelling — and journalism as the foundation for stories that people want to hear.

Interview by senior editor Sean Hargadon.

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