Laughter Is the Key Ingredient in Dan and June Jenkins' Recipe for Handling Life Its Ownself

When Simon & Schuster was looking for a place to celebrate the publication of Dan Jenkins’ latest novel, Life Its Ownself, a sequel to his 1972 bestseller, Semi-Tough, the obvious choice was Juanita’s, a bustling new Tex-Mex café on Manhattan’s East Side. Not only does Juanita’s serve a mean margarita, it also is owned by June Jenkins, Dan’s wife of 24 years. The night of the party, as well-wishers from the fields of sports, publishing and showbiz crowded around Juanita’s mahogany bar and the decibel level rose alarmingly, the guest of honor surveyed his wife’s domain with a practiced eye and observed succinctly, “The margaritas have kicked in.”

Jenkins, 54, began his career as a $25-a-week sportswriter for the now-defunct Fort Worth Press and eventually moved to New York, where he covered golf and football for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for 22 years. He has parlayed his sharp ear and irreverent wit into five novels, a house in Hawaii, a condominium in Ponte Vedra, Fla. and a 12-room Park Avenue duplex overlooking Central Park. His two artistic premises—that sport is primarily a laughing matter and that life is best viewed from the back table of a friendly joint, preferably late at night—have served him well professionally and at the same time have made him something of a legend on the Manhattan saloon circuit

“Dan has elevated hanging around to an art form,” says New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica. “In his worldview there are people who can and people who can’t. You’re disgraced in his eyes if you get up from the table at midnight to go home. He looks at you over the top of his glasses and says, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ or ‘They shoot deserters, you know.’ If you hesitate, the next thing you know it’s 4 a.m. and the owner is scrambling eggs.”

“Dan has always sat somewhere till 4 in the morning,” says Bud Shrake, a lifelong friend and the model, at least in part, for Shake Tiller, wide-receiver teammate of Billy Clyde Puckett in Semi-Tough. “For years he averaged three hours sleep a night and drank more coffee than any other writer except Balzac.” Shrake claims, in fact, that the final conversation of Dan’s brief first marriage to a high school classmate began, “If you go to Massey’s [a Fort Worth hangout] one more time, I’m gonna get a divorce.”

“I didn’t go to sleep from about the age of 12 until 33,” admits Jenkins. “I was afraid I was going to miss something.”

There are two schools of thought on June Jenkins, 52: 1) She is a saint. 2) She would never marry anyone as boring as an estate planner. Like Dan, June Burrage attended Fort Worth’s Paschal High. And like the beauteous Barbara Jane Bookman, the female lead in Jenkins’ rowdy Texas triangle of Puckett, Tiller and Bookman, to whom June bears more than a passing resemblance, her father was an oilman. Dan’s father was a traveling furniture salesman. June and Dan met in junior high, and in high school Dan went out with June’s best friend, often double-dating with June and a beau. Dan and June both married—other people—right out of Paschal, and it was not until June was 29 and Dan was 30 that they finally got together. Shrake maintains they were in love all along. “Dan was married twice. His first wife had three children after they were divorced. His second wife also had a child. But neither had a child with Dan. June was married for eight years and had no children. Yet when they got together, they had three children within two years. I’d say God was saving it up.”

Twins Sally and Marty, now 23, were born first; Danny came along a year and four days later. “An awful lot of fathers are not involved with their children at all,” says June. “But Dan was from the first minute they were born.” Says Dan: “Some guys won’t change diapers. They think it’s woman’s work. I did all that stuff because I thought it was interesting. Maybe I was researching a book. Maybe not. I don’t know.”

In late 1962 Jenkins was hired away from the Dallas Times Herald by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, so he and June and their three infants drove north to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve in the midst of a blizzard and a newspaper strike. Their Texas friends were convinced that no good would come of it. “They thought we were going to Devil’s Island,” says Dan. “An awful lot of Texas women don’t want to leave Texas. If they married a guy who said, ‘We’re going to move to New York,’ they’d say, ‘What! And leave the River Crest Country Club? Are you kidding?’ But June was never like that. We’d never have fallen in love if she had been.”

Raising three children in Manhattan was not always easy, but June feels the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. “In any really tough situation they can handle themselves well,” she says. Marty now works for KTVT in Fort Worth and on weekends operates a hand-held video camera at college football games. Danny, who is living at home, works part-time as a bartender at Juanita’s and attends the New York School of Visual Arts, aiming for sports photography. Sally, a Stanford graduate, covers Pac-10 football for the San Francisco Chronicle

“Looking back now, my brothers and I call it Camp Jenkins,” says Sally. “It was always interesting. You never knew who might be there when you woke up. One morning Jerry Jeff Walker was asleep on the couch, the Last Gonzo Band was in the kitchen and Bud Shrake was making omelets out of Chinese food.”

A major ingredient in the Jenkins formula for long-term marital success has been doing things together. “We thought that was more important than just about anything,” says June. “When Dan was working for SI and traveling a lot, many times he spent money to take me with him, even when we didn’t have it. Our first priority was that we be together.”

“We kids ate a lot of chicken potpies,” says Sally, “but we always knew where our folks were if we needed them. If it was Monday, it was P.J. Clarke’s. We knew that was their time, and when we grew up it would be our time. We knew they were special and talented people and that they loved us but that they loved each other too, and they were lucky enough to be able to go places together and have fun. We were taught not to begrudge them any of that.”

June, at various times beginning in her teens, had worked as a model, a department store fashion coordinator, an antiques dealer, an airline reservations clerk, a bookkeeper in a lumber yard and a file clerk for the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad. But in New York she was frustrated in her efforts to find a job that would accommodate three children and occasional travel with her husband

“I went to see Eileen Ford when I first got here,” she says, “trying to get on with a model agency. I talked first to Gerry, her husband, and he was very nice. Then he took me into her office to meet her. He said, ‘Eileen, I’d like you to meet J…’ and she said, ‘No!’ And he said, ‘I thought you might like to…’ and she said, ‘No!’ So I went straight to Bonwit Teller’s and ate a double hot fudge sundae.”

While the children were still young, June occasionally modeled in New York’s garment district and for a time baked pies at home for P.J. Clarke’s. “Apple walnut,” says Dan. “The whole damn building smelled like apple walnut. But I delivered them in a limo.”

“You did not. He always tells that story.”

“I delivered them in a limo one time.”

By the time the children were in high school, June felt free to branch out. In 1976 she and four friends—weekly luncheon companions who, like June, were married and careerless—pooled their money and labor to create Summerhouse, a restaurant in a former antiques store on upper Madison Avenue. “I wanted to do something I cared about,” June says. “I’d never really cared much about fashion, but I always had a passion for food.”

June’s earliest adviser was her friend, Elaine Kaufman, owner of the celebrated New York saloon Elaine’s, and a close friend of the Jenkinses. “I tried to talk her out of it,” says Kaufman. “But only in the beginning. The business is so tough and so energy-and time-consuming. But June is an emotional force and her will made it happen.”

With Summerhouse established and profitable, June and her partners turned their attention last year to a second venture, which they named Juanita’s after the heroine of Dan’s fourth novel, Baja Oklahoma. The three-deep crowds at the bar attest to Juanita’s success

In spite of the strains inherent in balancing several careers, raising the children, traveling extensively and leading a harrowing social life, the Jenkins marriage has survived almost a quarter of a century with only one serious jar, a three-month separation initiated by June in 1982. At issue was a way of life that June felt needed drastic modification if she were not to be left a young widow. “She was trying to save his life and he was being a stubborn baby,” says Kaufman. “She was dynamite.”

“I blame money and hard work,” says Dan. “You get to thinking it’s just you and your typewriter, and if it doesn’t work, the whole empire crumbles. You get very selfish and you forget what it’s doing to your home life.”

Out of the resolution of their differences came the purchase last year of their comfortable two-story Ponte Vedra condominium on the beach, where the Jenkinses hope eventually to spend about half the year. The area is liberally sprinkled with golf courses. Dan, who was once a scratch golfer, will divide his time between writing works of fiction and trying to regain the form that supplemented his meager newspaper salary with winnings on the links

“Because Dan is so prolific,” says Lupica, “a myth has grown that he doesn’t work very hard. But when he takes a carton of Winstons and a vat of coffee up to his office, he works 10-hour days on a novel. And June works 14-hour days at Juanita’s. If going out at night in New York is your main release from all that, well, you can’t keep it up. You need bigger and bigger breaks.”

Which is not to say that the Jenkins industry is about to grind to a halt. June already has plans for a new food business in Jacksonville, Fla., “a gourmet delicatessen kind of thing, where you can eat in or take out,” she says. Dan’s current projects are a screenplay of the best-selling Life Its Ownself, which has been bought by MGM, and a monthly sports column in Playboy, which will first appear in the January issue. In the spring he plans to begin another novel. His hero this time probably will be a Texas sportswriter named Jim Tom Pinch, the character who has already made memorable cameo appearances in Semi-Tough and Life Its Ownself

“Being busy helps you stay married and it also pulls you apart,” observes Jenkins. “I don’t think there’s any way to resolve that. But I think a sense of humor helps. I don’t know anybody who ever got divorced because of a sense of humor.”

Or, as the apparently immortal Billy Clyde Puckett put it: “Laughter is the only thing that’ll cut trouble down to a size where you can talk to it.”

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