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Schulberg, best known for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, wrote a relentless expose of the fight racket 50 years ago--a celebrated novel of the prize ring that has lost none of its power since its first publication. Crowded with unforgettable characters, The Harder They Fall tells of an Argentinian peasant ballyhooed by an unscrupulous fight promoter and his press agent.
When I came into the story I was having a quiet conversation over a bottle of Old Taylor with my friend Charles the bartender at Mickey Walker's, the place Mickey hasn't got any more at 50th and Eighth Avenue, right across the street from the Garden. I like Charles because he always serves up a respectable two-ounce whisky and because of the talks we have about old time fighters. Charles must know as much about the old days as Granny Rice. He must be sixty or seventy years of age, with baby-pink skin and hardly a wrinkle in his face. The only give-away to his age is his spare white hair that he insists, for some reason, on dyeing a corny yellow. He's seen a lot of the fighters who are just names to me—legendary names like Ketchell and Gans and Mexican Joe Rivers. One of the last things he did before he left London (a faint cockney echo lingers in his speech) was to see the famous Peter Jackson-Frank Slavin fight at the National Sporting Club. This afternoon, as on so many other afternoons, we were back in the crucial twentieth round, and Charles, with his hands raised in the classical nineteenth-century boxing stance, was impersonating the dark-skinned, quiet-spoken, wonderfully poised Jackson.
"Fix the picture in your mind, sir," Charles was always saying. "Here's Jackson, a fine figure of a man, the first of the heavies to get up on his toes, faster than Louis and every bit the puncher. And here in front of him is solid Frank, a great rock of a man who's taken everything the black man had to offer and had him on the verge of a kayo in the early rounds. They're locked for a moment in a furious clinch. Jackson, who's made a remarkable recovery, a miraculous recovery, sir, breaks away and nails old Frank with a right that travels just this far—" Charles demonstrated, reaching over the bar and rapping me sharply on the side of the jaw—"just that far."
At this point in the battle Charles switched sides. He had been in vaudeville once, and during the early days of the depression he had picked up a couple of bucks playing butlers on Broadway. He should be paying regular dues to Actors Equity because he's acting all the time. Now he was the staggering, glassy-eyed Slavin, reeling back from Jackson's short punishing blow. "Fix the picture in your mind, sir," he repeated. His chin was resting on his chest and his body had gone limp. "His hands are at his side, he can't raise his head or lift his feet, but he won't go down. Peter Jackson hits him again, and Frank is helpless to defend himself, but he won't go down. He just stands there with his arms at his side, waiting to be hit again. He's made quite a boast of it before the fight, you see, sir, that there's no nigger in the world good enough to make Frank Slavin quit to him. I never use the word 'nigger' myself, you understand, sir, I'm just trying to give you the picture as it was. In my business, you see, sir, I judge a man by the color of his deeds, not the color of his skin. This Peter Jackson, for instance. A finer sportsman never climbed through the ropes than this dark gentleman from Australia."
Now Charles was Jackson again, magnificently proud and erect as the crowd waited for him to finish off his battered opponent. "But at this moment, a memorable thing happened, sir. Instead of rushing in and clubbing the helpless Slavin to the canvas, Jackson stood back, risking the chance that Slavin with his bull-strength might recover, and turned to the referee. You could hear his calm, deep voice all the way back to where I was sitting, sir. Sounded more like a preacher than a fighter, he did. 'Must I finish him off, Mr. Angle?' he said. 'Box on,' said Mr. Angle. Black Peter turned back to his man again. In spite of all those taunts about the color of his skin, you could see he had no stomach for the job. He tapped Frank on the chin once, twice, three times—little stiff punches that would put him away without breaking his jaw—and finally on the fourth, down went old Frank, cold as the proverbial mackerel, for all his boasts. And all the gentlemen who had come to the Sporting Club to see the white man get the better of the black couldn't help rising to their feet and giving Jackson one of the longest rounds of applause that had ever been heard in the Sporting Club."
"Give me another shot," I said. "Charles, you're wonderful. Did you really see the Jackson-Slavin fight?"
"Would I lie to you, Mr. Lewis?"
"Yes," I said. "You told me you were one of Joe Choynski's handlers the time he fought Corbett on that barge off San Francisco. Well, over on Third Avenue I found an old picture of Choynski and Corbett with their handlers just before the fight. You don't seem to be in it."
Charles uncorked the Old Taylor again and poured me another one. "You see, a man of my word," he said. "Every time you catch me in an inaccuracy, Mr. Lewis, I buy you a drink."
"An inaccuracy is an accidental mistake," I said. "What I caught you in, Charles, was a good old-fashioned lie."
"Please, Mr. Lewis," said Charles, deeply offended. "Don't use that word. I may on occasion, for dramatic emphasis, fib. But I never lie. A lie is a thief, sir, and will steal from anybody. A fib just borrows a little from people who can afford it and forgets to pay them back."
"But you actually saw this Jackson-Slavin fight?"
"Say 'bout,' sir, the Jackson-Slavin bout. You'd never hear a gentleman calling a boxing contest a fight."
"Here on Eighth Avenue," I said, "a gentleman is a fellow who calls a woman a broad instead of something else."
"It is unfortunately true," Charles agreed. "The gentlemen in the pugilism business are conspicuous by their abstinence."
"That includes me in," I said. "What do I owe you for this week, Charles?"
"I'll tell you before you leave," Charles said. He never liked to talk about money. He would always scribble the amount on the back of a tab and then slip it under my glass like a secret message.
A sharply dressed, nervous-looking little man stuck his head in the door. "Hey, Charley—you seen the Mumbler?"
"Not today, Mr. Miniff."
"Jeez, I gotta find him," the little man said.
"If he shows up I'll tell him you're looking for him," Charles told him.
"T'anks," said Miniff. "You're m' boy." He disappeared.
Charles shook his head. "It's a sad day, Mr. Lewis, a sad day."
I looked at the big oval clock over the door. A little after three. Time for Charles' over-the-bar address on the decline and fall of the manly art. "The people who come into this place," Charles began. "Grifters, chiselers, two-bit gamblers, big-time operators with small-time minds, managers who'd rather see their boys get killed than make an honest living and boxers who've taken so many dives they've got hinges on their knees. In the old days, sir, it was a rough game but it had some ... some character to it, some dignity. Take Choynski and Corbett fighting on that barge. Skin gloves on Choynski, two-ouncers on Corbett, to a finish. No fancy percentages, no non-title business, just winner take all, may the best man win. A man squared off for his own pride in those days. He was an athlete. If he made a little money at it, fine and dandy. But what have we got today? Champions with mobsters for managers who stall for years fighting over-weight bouts because they know the first time they climb into the ring with a good man it's good-bye, championship."
Charles turned around to see if the boss was watching and had one himself. The only time I ever saw him take one was when we were alone and he got going on this decline-and-fall thing.
He washed his glass and wiped it clean, to destroy the evidence, and looked at me steadily. "Mr. Lewis, what is it that turned a fine sport into a dirty business?"
"Money," I said.
"It's money," he went on, as if he hadn't heard me. "Money. Too much money for the promoters, too much money for the managers, too much money for the fighters."
"Too much money for everybody except the press agents," I said. I was feeling sorrier for myself at the moment than I was for the game. That's what the bottle always did to me.
"I tell you, Mr. Lewis, it's money," Charles was saying. "An athletic sport in an atmosphere of money is like a girl from a good family in a house of ill fame."
I pulled out the gold-banded fountain pen Beth had given me for my birthday, and made a couple of notes on what Charles was saying. He was made to order for that play I was going to write, the play on the fight game I had been talking about so long, the one Beth seemed to be so sure I was never going to finish. "Don't spill it all out in talk," she was always saying. Damn Beth and her bright sayings. If I had had any sense I would have found myself a nice dumb broad. But if I could only set the play down the way I felt it sometimes, in all its sweaty violence—not a nine-dollar bill like Golden Boy— no violinists with brittle hands, no undigested poetry subtle as a train wreck, but the kids from the street as they really were, mean and money-hungry, and the greed of the mobsters who had the game rigged; that was the guts of it and I was the boy to write it.
One solid job could justify all the lousy years I had frittered away as a press agent for champions, deserved and otherwise, contenders and bums, plenty of the latter. You see, that play would tell Beth, I haven't really fallen so low as you thought. All the time it seemed as if I were prostituting myself by making with the adjectives for Honest Jimmy Quinn and Nick (The Eye) Latka, the well-known fistic entrepreneurs, I was actually soaking up material for my masterpiece. Just as O'Neill spent all those years as a common sailor and Jack London was on the bum.
Like O'Neill and London. It always made me feel better to make those notes. My pockets were full of notes. There were notes in every drawer of my desk at the hotel. The notes were kind of an escape valve for all the time I wasted getting loaded, cutting up touches with Charles, sitting around with the boys, going up to Shirley's, and ladling out the old craperoo about how old Joe Round-heels, who couldn't lick my grandfather and who had just been put away in two over at the Trenton Arena, was primed (I would be starving to death without that word primed) to give Jack Contender the fight of his life.
"What are you doing there, Mr. Lewis?" Charles said. "Not writing down something I say."
A good bartender, Charles never pried into his customers' affairs. But he was beginning to break down with me because he liked the idea of getting into my play. I wish Beth had as much faith in me as Charles. "You know what you ought to do, you ought to quit leaning on your elbows and get to work," she was always saying. But Charles was different. He'd tell me something and then he'd say, "You ought to put that in your play." We talked about it so long that my work of art came to have a real identity. "If you're going to put me in your show," Charles would say, "please call me Charles. I like to be called Charles. My mother always called me Charles. Charley sounds like—a puppet, or a fat man."
The door swung open and Miniff popped his head in again. "Hey, Charley, still no signa the Mumbler?"
Charles shook his head gravely. "No signa the Mumbler whatsoever, Mr. Miniff." Charles was a snob. It gave him pleasure to exercise his talent for mimicry at the expense of his ungrammatical clientele. Miniff came in and climbed up on the stool next to mine. His small feet didn't reach the foot-rest at the base of the stool. He pushed his brown felt hat back on his head desperately. He ran his hands over his face and shook his head a few times, his fingers covering his eyes. He was tired. New York is hot when you run around all day.
"Have one with me, Miniff," I said. He waved me off with a small, hairy hand.
"Just the juice of the cow," he said. "Gotta keep my ulcer quiet." From his breast pocket he took a couple of short, stubby cigars, shoved one into his mouth and offered the other one around.
"No, thanks," I said. "If I smoked those six-for-a-quarters I'd have ulcers too. If I'm going to have them, I want expensive ulcers, bottled in bond."
"Listen," Miniff said, "it ain't the hemp. It's the headaches I got. Nervous digestion." He drank his milk carefully, letting it trickle slowly down his throat for maximum therapeutic effect.
"Jeez, I gotta find the Mumbler," he said. The Mumbler was Solly Hyman, the matchmaker for St. Nick's. "I looked everywhere already, Lindy's, both of them, Sam's. Up at Stillman's I hear Furrone can't go Tuesday. Gotta bad toot'. Jeez, I gotta guy to take his place. My bum'll look good in there."
"Who you got, Mr. Miniff?" Charles said, still mimicking.
"Oh, my God," I said.
"He can still go," said Miniff. "I tell ya he c'n stay three-four rounds with the shine, maybe go the limit."
"Cowboy Coombs," I said. "The grandfather of all the bums."
"So he ain't no Tooney," Miniff said.
"Fifteen years ago, he wasn't Tunney," I said.
Miniff pushed his hat back an inch or two on his forehead. His forehead was shiny with perspiration. This Cowboy Coombs thing was no joke. It was a chance to hustle a fast fifty. The way Miniff works he picks up some down-and-outer or some new kid from the amateurs and he angles a spot or two for him, if he can. It's strictly quick turn-over. If the bum goes down, Miniff can't do anything more for him anyway. If the kid is good, smarter managers with better "ins" always steal him away. So for Miniff it's mostly a substitution business, running in a bum or a novice at the last minute, so the box office doesn't have to buy the tickets back, or picking up a quiet C by arranging for one of his dive-artists to do an el foldo.
"Listen, Eddie," Miniff said to me, working all the time, "Coombs has got a wife and five kids and they gotta eat. All he's been doin' is spar work the last year or two. The bum needs a break. You could maybe write up something in one of the rags about him. How he got canned for settin' the Champ down in a workout...."
"That's not the way I heard he got canned," I said.
"All right, all right, so it happened a little different, maybe the Champ slipped. I suppose you never write stuff it ain't a hunert percent kosher!"
"Mr. Miniff, you impugn my integrity," I said. The stuff a guy will write to pay his rent and keep himself in whisky! The things a guy will do for 100 bucks a week in America! Eddie Lewis, who spent almost two years at Princeton, First Group in English, had a by-line in the Trib and has twenty-three pages of a play that is being systematically devoured by a little book club of hungry moths who can't tell a piece of literature from a square meal.
"Go on, Eddie, for a pal," Miniff pleaded. "Just one little lineroo about how the Cowboy is back in great shape. You could work it into almost any colyum. They go for your crap."
"Don't give me that Cowboy Coombs," I said. "Coombs was ready for the laughing academy when you had to talk through a little hole in the door to get a drink. The best thing that could happen to Mrs. Coombs and those five kids is for you to climb down off Mr. Coombs' back and let him go to work for a change."
"Aaaah," said Miniff, and the sound was so bitter it could have been his ulcer talking. "Don't sell that Coombs short. He c'n still lick half the heavyweights in the business right now. Whadcha thinka that?"
"I think half the heavyweights in the business should also climb back on their trucks," I said.
"Aaaaaah," Miniff said. He finished the milk, wiped his lips with his sleeve, pulled some of the wet, loose leaves from the end of his cigar-butt, stuck it back between his teeth again, pulled down the brim of his old brown hat, said, "Take it easy, Eddie, see ya, Charley," and got out in a hurry.
Excerpted from The Harder They Fall by Budd Schulberg. Copyright © 1947 Budd Schulberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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