The story of New York in the fifties – of rat pack cool and the fading of the Mob's glamour, brilliantly told through the prism of Madison Square Garden.
New York in the Fifties was the most interesting and most vibrant city in the world. New York gave the world a couple of other things too: one bloody and brutal but the king of sports, the other simply bloody and brutal. The Fifties were boxing’s last real heyday. Never again would the sport be so glamorous or so popular. And that’s where New York’s other gift to the world—the Mob—came in.
Gangsters have been around for boxing’s entire history, but this time it was special. Most of the decade’s major fights took place at boxing’s spiritual home, Madison Square Garden, and most of the deals that made or ruined the lives of the era’s many fine fighters were done on a famous strip of pavement across the road from the Garden: Jacobs Beach. And the man ruling that strip of pavement was a charming Italian murderer called Frankie Carbo.
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The Mob, The Fights, The Fifties
By Kevin Mitchell
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2010 Kevin Mitchell
All rights reserved.
THE BEAST WITHIN
The story you are about to read has a beginning and a middle, but no end. It is a story about the fight game, and the fight game is an unkillable beast. What it did yesterday, it does today and, unless the sun doesn't rise somewhere, it will do the same tomorrow.
Some periods and places, though, live in the imagination more vividly than others. The fifties were such a time, New York such a place. While no age exists in isolation, there is a backstory to the fifties that makes those years unique in boxing. In that decade in that city, in a venue that has been the spiritual home of the business for more than a century, a coterie of chancers came close to doing the impossible: they nearly killed the fight game.
A lot of people were responsible for what happened in and around Madison Square Garden in those ten years: gangsters, promoters, managers, TV moguls – and some of the fighters.
Jake La Motta, for instance. Jake was the less-than-beautiful bull born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a crude, tough kid who raged through his era with manic energy, hounded by the Mob and, very occasionally, his conscience. He was a wife-beater, a rapist and thief, a mugger and liar who went on to become a raconteur skilled in reheating his past. He was then and remains today an extraordinary man, a fighter who struggled to ever say sorry, who expected no apologies in return and, crucially for the making of his legend, clung to the notion that he wouldn't go down. The words he is famously supposed to have uttered through purpled lips in Chicago on St Valentine's Day, 1951, while enduring a barely legal beating at the expert hands of Sugar Ray Robinson, were, according to Martin Scorsese's evocative take on his life, Raging Bull, 'You never got me down, Ray.' Those words stand as a boxer's battlecry of futile pride, even though, as his biographer Dave Anderson revealed years later, Jake never said them.
Nevertheless, Jake La Motta is the nearest thing to an animal boxing has ever seen. Stumpy, strong, bobbing up and down as if moving through the jungle in search of food, Jake stalked his prey, splayed-legged, as his short, hairy arms carved a wide, venomous arc, and with only cursory regard for his own health. It was fighting without artifice. It lacked any self-consciousness and it was driven by a mix of bravery and foolishness. But to disregard the defensive tenets of the sport was to court disaster. No man could go in six times with Sugar Ray Robinson and think he would emerge unscathed. No man except Jake La Motta. But, as he was to learn in five of those encounters, he was as human as the rest of us. He was not a beast, after all. And, of course, La Motta did go down. Not that night, but on others against much lesser fighters. More than once. They all did. One way or another, literally or metaphorically, everybody takes a count.
It is central to boxing's myth that the fighter is king, that the great ones rule through the power of their fists, the strength of their chins and the fortitude housed in abnormally large hearts. But they are all blood and bone. La Motta was the essence of the powerless fighting man. He was proud but corruptible, not only because he had to bend to the will of the people who controlled his life, but because, as hard as he was, even he had to admit to his physical and spiritual vulnerability in the end. Sugar Ray couldn't put him down; but boxing did.
La Motta epitomises boxing's gift for crushing truth to a pulp. Although Jake was a hell of a fighter, one of the best middleweights of all time, he had no problem in sustaining his legend by denying for more than a decade that he had thrown his fight against the mobbed-up Billy Fox at the Garden in 1947. If he had confessed when he was first accused of the fix, he would have been banished and forgotten. His silence earned him his shot at the world title ten fights later, in 1949 against the exquisite Frenchman Marcel Cerdan. It also lent La Motta a twisted immortality. It wasn't until a Senate hearing in 1960, however, six years after he'd quit boxing, that La Motta came clean. By then, he was on his way to becoming a parody of himself, albeit a famous and rich one, to be remembered eventually as the Raging Bull.
La Motta is a small part of this tale, and his experiences are not unique. But Jake (and his literary collaborators) had a better handle on it than most. As he was once quoted as saying, 'I also noticed that around the gym all the time there were the Mob guys, for the very simple reason that there's always betting on fights, and betting means money, and wherever there's money there's the Mob. If you paste that inside your hat it will explain a lot of things to you and maybe even save you some trouble.'
He would know.
La Motta's time and place stretched from pre-war New York and other fight towns on through the fifties, a decade in which the Mafia – historically voracious movers of meat in the fight game – wanted to control him and every other worthwhile pug of the era. They carried out most of their shenanigans in the Garden, a place that housed as much deception as it did heroism. That particular establishment is the most famous of the four to have worn the name on various sites in Manhattan, never more than a cheroot spit from Broadway, since 1879. For seventeen of his 106 fights, it is where La Motta established his reputation, on good nights and nights when he didn't look as good as he might have done.
Other men, characters who never threw anything more threatening than a glance, were the real rulers of the ring, not the likes of La Motta. Professional boxing would not survive without either the compliant fighter or the scheming moneymen, and this story is full of them: the old Garden promoter Mike Jacobs, Mafia servants Frank Costello, Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, along with their more presentable business associates, Jim Norris and Truman Gibson, plus a large cast of faceless cronies. These were the men who ran boxing for a generation, the black-and-white days either side of the last world war, mainly in the atmospheric old auditorium situated on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, in the middle of the most exciting city in the world.
And at the black heart of boxing's empire was Jacobs Beach. It's gone now but for twenty years it was the only place to be for boxing's tsars and their camp followers. Geographically, it covered the stretch of pavement on West 49th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, with the Garden and Jack Dempsey's Restaurant at either end of the block. Around about the middle was 225 West 49th, the ticket office of Mike Jacobs, the one-time scalper after whom it was named. For nearly two decades he decided who did and who didn't fight in the Garden. From his centre of the boxing universe, journalists, gamblers, managers, underworld goons and hangers-on would walk across the street to the Forrest Hotel – the occasional residence of Damon Runyon, not to mention women of dubious moral distinction and other denizens of the dark – to talk their dirty business. (The owners sued Bob Hope once for joking that the Forrest's maids changed the rats every day.)
The Forrest – which is now the Time Hotel and a place where out-of-towners some times stay, ignorant of its past, probably – was the place to which most deal-makers had been gravitating since the twenties, guys such as Runyon and his pals, Tex Rickard and Doc Kearns. The charismatic Runyon, who lived for a long time in the hotel's penthouse, was the catalyst for many great gatherings and stories. He loved all sports, but boxing dominated the hushed conversations of the Forrest. The writer Westbrook Pegler wrote in 1936: 'There was always some hungry heavyweight sitting in the big fat chair in the corner, squinting down the street at the clock to see if it was time to eat yet. Sometimes it would be an old, gnarly heavyweight with a dried apple ear and a husky voice from getting punched in the neck. Sometimes it would be a young pink one with the dumb, polite expression that young heavyweights have.'
The label Jacobs Beach – no apostrophe mostly, although, like a fight contract, these things are not set in stone – was given life by Runyon, according to the newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon. But the American author David Margolick, who has written excellently about the period and about boxing, is not sure. 'More likely,' he says, 'the name came from one of two prime sportswriters of the era, Frank Graham of the New York Sun or Sid Mercer of the New York American.'
Whatever its genesis, Jacobs Beach lives on only in grainy, nostalgic images. The cartoonist Ham Fisher, who created the long-loved and improbable boxing ingénu Joe Palooka, would include in his syndicated strips the requisite number of zoot-suited sharpies, chewing on old stogies and shooting the breeze with broken-nosed bums hanging about for a break or a broad. That's how Runyon would love to have 'The Beach' remembered, too.
The Beach lasted from 1935, when Jacobs set up his ticket office, until the imagination let it go, at some point in the mid-fifties, a few years after Uncle Mike had been eased from power at the Garden by illness and the International Boxing Club, which was run by his sometime Mob pals. Nostalgia is fine, but sentiment lingers about as long as cigar smoke in boxing. Today, it is just another bit of grubby Gotham pavement. No plaque. No statue.
In 2005, Margolick took Jacobs's niece, Roz Rosee, to the area – and she couldn't be sure where the old rascal's office had been, even though she had once worked nearby in the Brill Building. In fact, it stood on a site now occupied by a garage on the north side of the block. 'He was very smart,' Rosee, then eighty-nine, said of her Uncle Mike, 'but he was not what you would call a gentleman.' You would hope not.
The gangsters who mingled on Jacobs Beach did not go unchallenged in their dealings. What happened there and across the wider landscape of the sport in the fifties was described and dissected by two United States Senate inquiries, at the start and finish of the decade. These were instigated by an old-fashioned Democrat lawyer from Chattanooga called Estes Kefauver. When Americans turned on the few TV sets they had in 1950, they saw the upright, earnest senator, a decent man who yearned to be president, trying through the rigour of the law to rid the country of the mysterious men who organised crime, as well as the fight racket. The first of Kefauver's televised investigations – as gauche as the good senator himself – met with qualified success. In the process, however, he became America's original and most unlikely reality-TV star. Every night America saw, for the first time, flesh-and-blood images of the bad men Kefauver was trying to put away.
The wise guys who owned boxing also owned the heart and soul and much of the bank account of the heavyweight regarded then as the best there ever was. Joe Louis, the champ everyone loved, was a balding shadow with debts, a failing marriage and a mind in decline by the time he sold the title to the IBC. Kefauver was as knowledgeable a boxing fan as most American males of his time and was saddened by the spectacle of Louis passing on the championship he had once valued so highly. Despite the best efforts of the senator and other do-gooders, though, the Mafia continued to control most of boxing's significant world titles for several years. And, sad as it is to acknowledge, it was Joe Louis, his faculties already shredded, whose gentle nature and lack of financial alternatives made it possible.
Not every fight in the Garden in that decade was a predetermined result. But regular punters went there whispering. Often they trudged home scowling, stepping over ripped-up betting slips as they made their way towards the subway station on 50th Street, for the old Eighth Avenue Independent or the West Side IRT. Many a journey home from the Garden would be filled with loud discussions about the antecedents and social connections of the judges and referees. And nearly every discussion of a night at the fights was peppered with two words: the Mob.
The better heeled among New York's fancy stayed on, for champagne, music and whatever version of risqué entertainment they could safely be seen to be patronising. Of the swanky nightclubs favoured by the silk-scarf set who slummed it at the Garden were El Morocco on nearby 54th Street and the more formal Cafe Lounge in the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, at Fifth and 59th. There was the mildly notorious Kit Kat Club, on 55th, 'Harlem moved downtown', as guides of the time described it, and 'popular in the early hours of the morning'. There was the Stork Club on 53rd, expensive, packed with New York's aristocracy and the perfect place to mull over wages won and lost at the Garden. There was also, of course, the Cotton Club, on Broadway and 48th, longtime haunt of boxing's inner sanctum; Mob connections with the Cotton stretched back to the twenties, and the neon signs that flashed outside advertising '50 Tall, Tan, Terrific Gals' said it all.
And, for the hardcore, there was always Toots Shor's, the ultimate post-fight den, parked at 51 West 51st Street, a short stroll from the Garden. It was here that many great stories were born (some of them true) and just as many reputations ruined – or enhanced, depending on your view of life. The actor Jackie Gleason, large in every way, threw his weight around here a lot, brawling and boozing until he collapsed on the floor. On more than one occasion the proprietor stepped over him with practised nonchalance. That was Bernard 'Toots' Shor, a rabble-rousing adventurer from Philadelphia, who was big and ugly enough to earn a living as a speakeasy bouncer in the fading years of Prohibition. He met and liked Damon Runyon, whose clout gained Toots entry to New York's demimonde. Toots had found his natural home and, in 1940, opened his eponymous establishment. Like Jacobs Beach, it would live on past a point of dignified closure, a tatty relic in the end.
In the age before rock and roll, before TV took a grip, before the Pill, as the horns swung from big band to boogie to blues, New Yorkers loved a simpler version of the boxing universe: they loved Toots, the Garden, great fights, as well as the smell and thrill of Manhattan's throbbing ribbons of light. For a while, there was no place else to be for those in search of sanitised depravity.
It was in these clubs and bars and coffee shops that men in their thin-brimmed pork-pie Adams fedoras, tugging on their Romeo Y Julietas, stinking of Pino Silvestre cologne, talked quietly with men whose flat noses betrayed their calling. These were not innocent men. They were players. They made boxing what it is, for better or worse.
The Mob had been deep in the heart of boxing since the early days of Prohibition. The handing on of power from one set of thugs to the next had not been seamless, but it had been unstoppable. By the late forties, the International Boxing Club, run at one remove by Carbo, had slipped without ceremony on to the throne. Usually one step ahead of the law, they controlled boxing late into the fifties, by which time complacency would weaken their grip on the business and on reality. When Kefauver went after the Mob one last time in 1960, he came closer to delivering a knockout blow than he and other agencies had in previous efforts. This was partly through the belated confession of La Motta, but mainly was down to the staggering hubris of the bloated and arrogant warlords who reckoned they could continue to rule the lives of thousands of people in the fight game for as long as they chose to, Even as they sneered at Kefauver's righteousness, the wise guys were compelled to acknowledge Joe Louis's own ring maxim: you can run, but you can't hide.
Those characters and those joints are memories now. But La Motta lives on (at the time of writing), still telling his stories. His contemporaries have nearly all gone down for the count, replaced by facsimiles. Don King, who started his boxing journey in the fifties, carries on the fine tradition of hucksterism that began with P.T. Barnum in the first Garden and was refined by the likes of Rickard, Kearns and Jacobs in the others.
What the Mob did between 1950 and 1960 at the Garden provides a snapshot of a sport and business many people said, even then, was out on its feet. They've been saying that since the days of Jack Broughton, Jem Mace, John L. Sullivan, Primo Carnera ... They're saying it now. Somehow, against the odds, boxing keeps getting off the floor.
Excerpted from Jacobs Beach by Kevin Mitchell. Copyright © 2010 Kevin Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations viii
1 The Beast Within 1
2 The Ring Is Dead 10
3 Never Far from Broadway 16
4 Owney Madden and Lucky Jim 32
5 Setting Up Joe 47
6 Distant Drums 63
7 This Isle of Joy 74
8 Alone on Sugar Hill 102
9 The Cat in the Coonskin Hat 128
10 The Rise of the Rock 147
11 Sonny and the Mob 169
12 The Slow Death of the IBC 184
13 Long Live the King 192
14 Teddy Atlas Knows 210
15 Sparring with Schulberg 216
16 Rocky Died in One of My Jackets 227
17 Lou Duva, a Fighter 250
18 A Couple of Artists 259
19 The Reckoning 273
Good Night, and Good Luck 283