Joe Louis: an icon
By Thomas Hauser
The conventional wisdom in publishing circles is that books about boxing don't sell. That might be right; but in the case of David Margolick and Donald McRae, it's a shame.
Margolick is the author of Beyond Glory, the definitive study of the rivalry between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. The book builds to a single climactic fight. But it's also about the events leading up to that fight, its participants, and their place in history.
McRae is the author of Heroes Without A Country, a portrait of Joe Louis and Jessie Owens, their respective careers, and the friendship between them.
Both books are meticulously researched and well-written. They are as good as, if not better than, any writing ever about Joe Louis.
Louis was born in 1914 near the small town of Lafayette, Alabama. When he was two, his father, Munroe Barrow, was institutionalized in the Searcy Hospital for the Criminally Insane. One year later, Lillie Barrow was told (or said she was told) that her husband had died. She married again, this time to a man named Patrick Brooks. In 1926, they moved to Detroit. Eleven years later, it was discovered that Munroe Barrow was still alive in the same institution, but his son never went to see him. He died in 1938.
When Joe Louis began his ring career in 1934, the Great Depression was ravaging America. Segregation was law in much of the land. There was not a single black person in the United States whose accomplishments were noted regularly in the white press. No black man or women played a prominent role in the American establishment. Black players were banned by Major League Baseball and the National Football League.
Margolick and McRae, each in his own way, describe how Louis changed America.
Louis fought in a time when boxing mattered. For decades, Margolick writes, "The fight game had been a sport of back rooms and low-lifes, gamblers and thugs. In the Jazz Age, it became legal, respectable, glamorous, and omnipresent."
But with the retirement of Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, the sweet science faltered. A series of mediocre title fights and marginal champions led to diminished public interest in the sport. When Primo Carnera knocked out Jack Sharkey to become heavyweight champion in 1933, the live-gate was a meager $200,000. Madison Square Garden (the "Mecca of Boxing") lost money in 1933 and 1934.
Then Joe Louis arrived on the scene, a fighter unlike any the world had witnessed. Jack Johnson had been technically innovative. Jack Dempsey fought with an unprecedented ferocious swarming assault. Louis combined their styles, bringing a unique combination of speed and power to his craft. No fighter had ever delivered crushing blows that fast. He punched harder than anyone had hit another man before.
"Joe never telegraphed anything," legendary trainer Eddie Futch later said. "If he hit you with a shot, you never saw the punch coming. You just saw a light in your head; like a camera flash going off. Bang!"
The specter of Jack Johnson hung heavily over Louis early in Joe's career. "Papa Jack" had been the first black man to claim the heavyweight throne. Brash, outspoken, married to a white woman, he'd reigned as champion for seven years and been the most hated person in America. Since his loss to Jess Willard in 1915, no black man had been allowed to challenge for the heavyweight crown.
Johnson felt threatened by Louis. If Joe were to become heavyweight king, Johnson would no longer stand alone in that regard. And worse, it was possible that Louis was a better fighter than Johnson had been. Hence, the former champion publicly denegrated Joe's intelligence and gifts as a fighter at every turn.
Meanwhile, as Louis rose through the ranks under the tutelege of trainer Jack Blackburn, his managers (John Roxborough and Julian Black) were working to shape his image in a way that would make him palatable to white America.
"Roxborough and Black," Margolick writes, "devised an elaborate code of conduct, most of which came naturally to Louis anyway. He would be the antithesis of everything Jack Johnson had been. He would always be soft-spoken, understated, and polite no matter what he accomplished. He would not preen or gloat or strut in the ring. If he needed his teeth capped, it would not be done in gold as Johnson had done. He would always conduct himself with dignity. When it came to women, he would stick to his own kind. He would not drive fast cars, especially red ones. The press would be saturated with stories of Louis's boyish goodness, his love for his mother, his mother's love for him, and his devotion to scripture."
Louis turned pro on July 4, 1934, and won eighteen fights in less than a year. Then he came to New York, the center of the boxing world, to fight former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera on June 25, 1935.
Louis-Carnera was the first "mixed-race" fight of consequence in New York in almost a decade. The gate receipts were the largest ever for a non-title fight up until that time. Sixty-four thousand fans (an estimated one-third of them black) were in attendance at Yankee Stadium; twice as many as had seen James Braddock seize the heavyweight crown from Max Baer twelve days earlier.
Louis knocked Carnera out in the sixth round. Less than an hour after the fight, a special edition of the Defender was on the streets of Chicago; only the second time in its history that the paper had published an "extra".
The white media was also impressed. Davis Walsh of the International News Service summed up the often-conflicted feelings of his brethren with regard to Louis's ring skills and race. His story's lead read, "Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle tonight to strike down and utterly demolish Primo Carnera."
Walsh was not alone in those sentiments. Two months later, after visiting Louis at his training camp in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, Paul Gallico of the New York Daily News wrote, ""I felt myself ridden by the impression that here was a truly savage person, a man on whom civilization rested no more securely than a shawl thrown over one's shoulders. I had the feeling that I was in the room with a wild animal. He lives like an animal, fights like an animal, has all the cruelty and ferocity of a wild thing. Is he all instinct, all animal? Or have a hundred million years left a fold upon his brain?"
On August 7th in Chicago, Louis knocked Harry "Kingfish" Levinsky down three times in the first round. The bout ended when Levinsky famously pleaded with the referee, "Don't let him hit me again."
Then Louis returned to New York to fight former heavyweight champion Max Baer. Tickets for choice seats were scalped for as much as $400 each. In most parts of Manhattan and the Bronx, hotel rooms were unavailable. The New York Central Railroad broke records for incoming traffic. Five thousand people gathered outside the office of the New York State Athletic Commission for the pre-fight weigh-in.
On the night of September 24, 1935, 95,000 spectators jammed Yankee Stadium. Twenty-five thousand more stood outside just to be there. New York governor Herbert Lehman, New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Cary Grant were among the celebrities in attendance.
Ring announcer Joe Humphreys introduced the fighters. First, "the sensational Californian and former world's heavyweight champion, Max Baer." Then it was Louis's turn: "His worthy opponent, the new sensational pugilistic product. Although colored, he stands out in the same class with Jack Johnson and Sam Langford; the idol of his people, none other than Joe Louis."
Louis knocked Baer out in the fourth round. "I could have struggled up once more," the defeated fighter said afterward. "But when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch it."
Joe Louis had now captured the imagination of America. He was receiving more than one thousand letters a week. Popular songs were written about him. Samuel Chotzinoff (the music critic for the New York Post) observed, "Booker T. Washington and Duke Ellington are all right in their way, but they do not represent Might." By the end of the year, thanks to Louis, Ring Magazine had 11,000 new subscribers.
At age 21, McRae writes, "Joe Louis had become an icon. No matter how long he lived, he would never again be seen as an ordinary man."
After the Baer fight, Louis scored knockout victories over Paolino Uzcudun and Charlie Retzlaff. By this time, Margolick observes, Braddock might still have been champion but he was largely inconsequential. Louis was the "champion-in-waiting," and he was idolized by black America as no one had been before.
The next designated victim was Max Schmeling. In 1930, after Gene Tunney retired, Schmeling had won the vacant heavyweight championship by disqualification over Jack Sharkey. He defended it successfully against Young Stribling the following year, but lost the title to Sharkey in a 1932 rematch. Then, after defeating Mickey Walker, Schmeling was knocked out by Max Baer, lost a decision to Steve Hamas, and fought to a draw with Paolino Uzcudun. Victories over Walter Neusel, Hamas, and Uzcudun followed. But by the time he signed to fight Louis, Schmeling was thirty years old and considered damaged goods. One writer likened his chances to those of an ice cube in a smelting furnace.
Louis shared that view. He reported to training camp twenty pounds overweight and played a lot of golf in the weeks leading up to the fight. Meanwhile, Schmeling spent countless hours with his trainer Max Machon watching films of Louis against Lee Ramage, Carnera, Levinsky, Baer, and Uzcudun.
"Schmeling studied his opponent again and again," McRae writes. "It was an often frightening exercise. The films proved how hard Louis hit the men in front of him. His defense and control of the ring were no less shimmering on screen than in person. Schmeling thought Louis came closer to boxing genius than any fighter he had ever seen. Eventually, in an attempt to break down Louis's style, Schmeling and Machon ran the film backward frame by frame, following a blow from its point of landing back to the instant it was thrown. A small mistake in Louis's stance became more glaring the longer they watched him. Schmeling thought it barely noticeable to the naked eye. But reverse frame by reverse frame, there were fleeting examples of Louis's failure to protect the left side of his face. The opening only emerged when Louis threw left hooks in succession. He would then leave his left hand low for a second before sliding back into his impregnable pose."
Louis-Schmeling I was contested at Yankee Stadium on June 19, 1936. A boycott of the fight to protest anti-Jewish developments in Nazi Germany limited the crowd to an estimated 45,000; half the number that had witnessed Louis-Baer nine months earlier. But 60,000,000 Americans (half the population of the country) listened to it on the radio.
The black press was capivated by the match-up. The Amsterdam News held its presses until the fight was over. The Pittsburgh Courier sent eight reporters to Louis-Schmeling and only three to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The white press was similarly fascinated. Printers at the New York World-Telegram set a headline in bold type in advance that read, "Louis Wins By Knockout".
Both McRae and Margolick recreate the action in Louis-Schmeling I with compelling drama. In round four, Louis was knocked down for the first time in his professional career. "With one punch," writes Margolick, "all of boxing had been upended."
"I really don't know what happened the rest of the fight," Louis later acknowledged. "I didn't know where I was. I didn't know nothing. I took such a terrible beating that [in the twelfth round] I just couldn't get up. The only thing I remember is, when I went out of the ring, my trainer said, 'Cover up his face.' That's because my face, my jaw was out like this where I had stopped so many right hands."
McRae describes the last seconds of the historic bout: "Louis was on his knees. His gloves clawed at the ropes as if he were a baby struggling to hold himself upright against the bars of his rocking crib. Then he slid to the canvas and lay on his side. He shook his head. There was no mistaking that moment of terrible realization. And then, agonizingly, Louis rolled over. The count, sounding like a faint and eerie whisper, reached ten. Joe Louis had lost. Joe Louis had lost."
It was one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports. "For many black children," Margolick writes, "that night marked the first time they had ever seen their parents cry."
Two months later, Louis returned to the ring to face former heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey. Now there were doubts. Jack Johnson, who had consistently denigrated Louis, picked Sharkey to win, saying, "Louis is a sucker for a right hand. And after they get through teaching him how to avoid it, he'll be a sucker for something else. I'd like to say that Louis is a great fighter because he's one of my race. But if I did, I'd only be kidding myself and anybody else who might be interested. Louis has mechanical flaws and he's not a bright boy."
Louis knocked Sharkey out in the third round. Then he defeated Al Ettore, Jorge Brescia, Bob Pastor, and Nate Brown. Meanwhile, James Braddock had kept the title on ice since dethroning Baer in 1935. By right, Schmeling should have gotten the first crack at the champion. But anti-German sentiment was running high in the United States. And more importantly, Mike Jacobs (who ran boxing at Madison Square Garden and promoted Louis) made the Braddock camp an offer it couldn't refuse. If Braddock fought Louis, Jacobs would give Joe Gould (Braddock's manager) and Braddock himself ten percent each of the net profits from all heavyweight title fights that Jacobs promoted over the next ten years.
"I'm not ducking Schmeling," the champion said when Braddock-Louis was signed. "I'm ducking poverty. Do you know the difference between the purse I'd have got with Schmeling and what I figure to get for Louis. I used to fight tough guys for ten bucks. I got my nose broken, an eardrum busted, and my eyebrows laid open in a fight that paid me eight lousy bucks. Poverty has been with me nearly all my life. Now I have a chance to beat it for good."
Braddock-Louis was contested in Chicago on June 22, 1936. It was the first time since 1908 that a black man had challenged for the heavyweight championship. At age 23, Louis was also the youngest man up until then to fight for the heavyweight crown.
Louis entered the ring a 3-to-1 favorite. Margolick and McRae describe in vivid detail how he methodically beat Braddock down. "Joe's jab feels like someone is jamming an electric light bulb in your face and screwing it in," Braddock said after being knocked out in the eighth round. "His right hand is even worse. It feels like somebody is nailing you with a crowbar. When Louis threw that last right, it just about ripped my head off."
After Louis-Braddock, the new champion successfully defended his title against Tommy Farr, Nathan Mann, and Harry Thomas. But he understood that, as good as he might be, he'd have to beat Max Schmeling before he was entitled to universal recognition as the true heavyweight champion of the world.
The stakes were higher for the rematch betwen Joe Louis and Max Schmeling than for any prizefight ever. All of Louis's fights encompassed the issue of color, but this was something more. The bout was viewed as a test of freedom and democracy versus Nazi philosophy and totalitarianism. It was the clearest symbolic confrontation between good and evil in the history of sports. "Each fighter," Margolick writes, "was bearing on his shoulders more than any athlete ever had." It was also the first time that many people heard a black man referred to simply as "the American."
Margolick is superb in documenting how, after Louis-Schmeling I, "the business of boxing and the heavyweight crown became central to the Nazi psyche." Schmeling's wife, the actress Anny Ondra, had listened to that fight on the radio at the home of Joseph Goebbels (Hitler's minister of propaganda). Following Schmeling's victory, there were celebrations throughout Germany. On the night of his return, Schmeling dined with Goebbels. The next day, he met with Hitler and they watched a film of the fight. Hitler, Schmeling later wrote, "gave a running commentary and, every time I landed a punch, he slapped his thigh with delight." A film of the fight was soon showing in 47 movie houses in Berlin.
Schmeling was more popular in Germany after beating Louis in 1936 than he'd been after winning the world championship six years earlier. His victory over Louis, Margolick observes, was "a total triumph; technical, physical, and psychological. It was just as the Nazis had said. Discipline, dedication, intelligence, courage, and will had prevailed over brute strength."
Schmeling had been managed from 1928 on by Yussel "Joe" Jacobs, a Jew from New York. McRae depicts Schmeling as a loyal defender of Jacobs. Margolick takes issue with that view. Starting in 1934, he notes, Jacobs no longer represented Schmeling in Germany and was paid nothing from his fights there. As for Jacobs's representation of Schmeling in the United States, Margolick maintains that Schmeling's association with a Jew was reluctantly accepted by Hitler as "the cost of doing business in New York." And even that role was marginalized over time.
Before Hitler's rise to power, Schmeling had many Jewish friends and associates in Germany. But in 1933, they began to disappear. "By July 1936 [one month after the first Louis-Schmeling fight]," Margolick observes, "whatever his official status, Schmeling was thoroughly emeshed with the Nazis, and he was perceived as such on both sides of the Atlantic."
"Schmeling never said any more than he had to to stay in the Nazis' good graces," Margolick continues. "He was never the man his most intemperate critics claimed. He was never 'Nazi Max', the man who had supposedly worn a storm trooper uniform during the early days of the regime. He did not spout Nazi rhetoric or wrap himself in the swastika. It will never be clear whether this was a matter of conviction or calculation, or even whether the decision was his or someone else's. But for all concerned, things worked out quite nicely. He gave the Nazi salute when circumstances warranted, appeared at Nazi events, and made the occasional pro-Nazi statement. Whenever the Nazis asked him to pitch in, he obliged. And Schmeling's dogged insistence that he was a sportsman rather than a politician made him more useful to the Nazis, not less. The Nazis had Schmeling precisely where they wanted him. And while Schmeling always kept his own counsel, he was, to all appearances, content to be there. There is no evidence in anything he said or did at the time to suggest that he ever agonized over anything."
To Schmeling's credit, he is reliably believed to have sheltered the two sons of a Jewish friend on Kristallnacht in November 1938. And as Margolick acknowledges, "One could hardly fault Schmeling for failing to understand the full significance of what was happening [in Germany]. Most Jews didn't either." But the bottom line for Margolick is that there were times when Schmeling did "more than protect his interests or betray his ignorance. He participated in a cover-up, becoming as a result a propagandist for the Nazi regime."
Louis-Schmeling II was scheduled for June 22, 1938. Earlier in the year, Franklin Roosevelt had invited Louis to the White House, felt his biceps, and proclaimed, "We need muscles like yours to beat Germany." Now, 9,000 fans watched Louis work out on a single day at Pompton Lakes and 5,000 showed up to see Schmeling at his camp in Speculator, New York.
On June 21st, speaking before a cheering throng of 120,000 followers in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, Joseph Goebbels pledged to drive all Jews out of Berlin. One day later, on the afternoon of his rematch against Louis, Schmeling received a cablegram addressed "To the next world's champion, Max Schmeling." The message read, "Wishing you every success." It was from Adolph Hitler.
In 1910, Jack Johnson versus James Jeffries had been contested against the backdrop of a bitterly divided nation. Now America was united in the hope that Joe Louis would defeat Max Schmeling. It was the first time that many white Americans, particularly in the south, openly rooted for a black man against a white opponent.
The hour of reckoning drew closer. "Around ten p.m.," Margolick writes, "a timekeeper would strike a small bell, and much of a world still unaccustomed to acting in unison would cease whatever it was doing and come to attention. The streets in most American cities would be utterly deserted. In Yankee Stadium, nearly seventy thousand fans would lean forward in their seats. Throughout the rest of the world, a hundred million people or more -- the largest audience in history for anything -- would gather around their radios. Everything else would suddenly cease to matter."
America's hopes had been placed on the shoulders of a semi-literate 24-year-old black prize-fighter. Joe Louis had become the symbol of his race to white people as well as black. And on that night, Louis was magnificent, the greatest fight who ever lived.
The fight was an annihilation, not a competitive bout. It was over at two minutes and four seconds of the first round. But one-sided fights grow larger through the prism of history. And that night, an annihilation was what America wanted.
Louis-Schmeling II was the most important building block in the Joe Louis legend. The impact of his victory was extraordinary. Within days, films of the contest were showing in theaters across America. The fight had an almost spiritual effect on the nation. From that point on, Margolick writes, "Louis was acknowledged as a mighty force of cultural unity and political harmony." His hold on the American psyche was so great that an apocryphal tale, later widely disseminated by Martin Luther King Jr, told that the last words spoken by a young black man choking to death in the gas chamber were, "Save me, Joe Louis."
It's hard to imagine anything of import about Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling that Margolick hasn't covered and put in perspective. The depth of his research and quality of his writing are remarkable. But despite a brief "Aftermath" and "Epilogue," his book essentially ends with Louis-Schmeling II. Thus, McRae is the standard-bearer for the later years of Louis's life.
Louis held the heavyweight crown until 1949 and made a record 25 successful championship defenses, seventeen of them in New York. Ray Arcel, the brilliant trainer who stood in the corner opposite Louis many times, later observed, "If you were booked to fight Joe Louis, you didn't go to bed alone. Any guy who was booked to fight Joe Louis went to bed with Joe Louis on his mind every night."
McRae is particularly strong in describing the action in many of Louis's later fights. Reading his prose is like listening to them live on the radio. And then there are the testimonials from the boxers Louis fought. "God, how the man can punch," Johnny Paychek said after being knocked out in the second round of their 1940 bout.
When World War II finally came, Louis donated his entire purse from championship fights against Abe Simon and Buddy Baer to the Army and Navy relief funds. "We'll win," he told a 1942 armed forces benefit in New York, "because we're on God's side."
"You don't see a shipyard owner risking his entire business," Jimmy Powers wrote in the New York Daily News of Louis's patriotism and generosity. "If the government wants a battleship, the government doesn't ask him to donate it. The government pays him a fat profit. The more I think of it, the greater guy I see in this Joe Louis."
Jimmy Cannon of the New York Journal-American summed up the prevailing view with the words, "Joe Louis is a credit to his race; the human race."
Louis enlisted in the Army in 1942 and had no fights other than exhibitions during his time in the service. He was discharged on October 1, 1945, and returned to the ring the following year, but the world around him had changed. Trainer Jack Blackburn was dead. One of his managers (John Roxborough) had been imprisoned for racketeering, and Louis split with the other (Julian Black) over financial issues.
But more significantly, Louis was getting old for a fighter. In 1936, after being knocked out by Louis in the third round, Jack Sharkey had said, "Youth must be served. Louis will find that out. He'll be thirty-four some day."
On March 1, 1949, at age 34, his skills fading, Louis announced his retirement from boxing. The only blot on his record was his 1936 loss to Schmeling. Then, like many former champions, he sought a return to glory.
On September 27, 1950, for the first time in thirteen years, Louis entered a boxing ring as the challenger. The heavyweight champion was Ezzard Charles. Prior to the bout, Charles's trainer (Ray Arcel) took his charge aside.
"Look, Ezzard," Arcel said. "I know it's almost unbearable to go in against Joe. But you gotta do it. When you beat him, they might hate you but you'll still be champion. If you lose, you'll have nothing."
Charles dominated the bout and won a lopsided unanimous decision. "After the third or fourth round, I knew I was washed up," Louis acknowledged afterward. "And I knew from the seventh that I just couldn't do it."
Louis fought eight more times over the next eleven months, scoring three knockouts and winning five decisions over mediocre opposition. On October 26, 1951, in the final fight of his career, he returned to Madison Square Garden to face a rising young heavyweight named Rocky Marciano.
"He looked younger with his snap-brim hat on," A. J. Liebling wrote of Louis in The New Yorker. "It hid the bald spot, And in street clothes, a superbly conditioned man of thirty-seven is still young. It's when he gets in a ring that age comes on him."
The Marciano fight was worse than any of the others. Louis was knocked out in the eighth round. "What's the use of crying," he said through bloodied lips when it was over. "The better man won. I'm too old, I guess."
In the dressing room after the fight, New York State Athletic Commission doctor Vincent Nardiello told Louis that he couldn't fight again for at least three months.
"Doc; do you mind if I don't fight no more at all?" Louis countered.
The rest of Louis's life was tinged with sadness. In 1956, the Internal Revenue Service confirmed that he owed the government $1,243,097 in back taxes; money that he would never be able to pay. That same year, to make ends meet, he went on tour as a professional wrestler. The script for his matches was always the same. Louis was pitted against a villainous opponent who would engage in dirty tactics until rendered unconscious by Joe's famed right hand. His wrestling career came to an abrupt end shortly after it began, when a 320-pound opponent named Rocky Lee timed a leap poorly and landed on Louis's chest, breaking two of his ribs and bruising the muscles around his heart.
In the late-1950s, Louis descended into an even more hellish existence. He'd always enjoyed the company of women, often indiscreetly and sometimes with women who were indiscreet. When he was young, he and his eldest sister's step-daughter had engaged in a sexual relationship that lasted for years. Prior to the first Schmeling fight, he'd become sexually involved with a number of starlets, including Norway's Olympic ice-skating gold-medalist turned actress Sonja Henie.
On the day of his fight against Max Baer (September 24, 1935), Louis had married Marva Trotter, the daughter of a black minister. Marva was a stenographer; intelligent, pretty, and well-spoken. Louis's management team approved of the union because marrying a respectable black woman would further distance their fighter from Jack Johnson in the public mind.
But as Margolick notes, "Marriage was to make little difference to Louis. He strayed almost from the very beginning." McRae is in accord, referencing evenings with multiple sexual encounters as well as liaisons with Lana Turner and Lena Horne in support of the view that "Louis's appetite for women was insatiable."
Louis and Marva were divorced in 1945. They remarried in 1946, but divorced again three years later. On Christmas Day 1955, Louis married a beautician named Rose Morgan. That marriage ended in 1957.
In 1958, Louis found himself in a Milwaukee hotel room with a companion named Annie, who McRae describes as "a beautiful but dangerous girl with long black hair and a pretty Chinese face." Drawing primarily on tapes of interviews with Louis's longtime friend, Freddie Guinyard, McRae then writes, "Lost and hopeless, Louis turned over in the lumpy hotel bed and, not quite understanding what she was doing, felt Annie stick a needle in him. 'Relax, baby,' she'd said when he tried to pull away. 'This is what you need.' After a while, he started to think she was right. Even a small shot of heroin was enough to have him floating inside his body, cut loose and free in that cool and happy place."
Thereafter, McRae writes, "Louis knew only one way of making himself whole again. It never did last. But for a while, with a secret little hit of heroin or coke, he could sometimes feel like he'd felt when he beat Jimmy Braddock to become heavyweight champion of the world. Joe had never felt as certain of anything since, unless it was during the drug rush that now took him to a hazy place he called Funnyland."
After that, to use McRae's words, "Louis began to crumble. He was breaking apart, piece by tiny piece." McRae describes in chilling detail the paranoia that ate away at his insides. Louis was certain that the mob had put a contract out on him. A Texas assassin was tracking him. He was being served poisoned cheesecake in restaurants. The greatest fighter of his time would go into a hotel room, take apart the beds and disassemble every room lamp. Then he'd remove the iron grill covering each air vent to search for nozzles that might serve as a conduit for poison gas. After he found the nozzles (or thought he had), he'd cover the vents with insulation tape. Now he was safe for one more night.
Louis's fourth marriage was to a California attorney named Martha Jefferson. In 1970, at her request and that of his son, Louis was involuntarily committed to the Colorado Psychiatric Hospital. He was subsequently transferred to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Denver and discharged after five months. Later, he set up residence in Las Vegas, where he worked as a greeter at Caesars Palace. In 1977, he underwent heart surgery. That was followed by a stroke. He died in 1981 at age 66.
Max Schmeling had a much more comfortable old age. After World War II, he became the owner of a Coca Cola distributorship in West Germany. It made him wealthy beyond anything he'd dreamed of as a boxer, and he lived to the extraordinary age of 99. The revisionist view of Schmeling was that he'd been cast by fate in a very difficult role in the 1930s and accepted his place in history with dignity and grace. Of course, that dignity and grace were essential to restoring his image in post-war Europe and furthering his own economic interests.
Meanwhile, history places Louis in the top tier of its immortals.
"When you strip away all the layers of mythology and idealization," Margolick writes, "it's hard to say very much about the Louis who remains. He was dignified and decent, uneducated and inarticulate, though with an odd knack for reducing things to pithy truisms. For all of his violence in the ring, he was largely passive, affectless, even dull outside of it. He was not oblivious to the gargantuan impact he had on others. But like just about everything else, he took it all in stride. The hopes that people placed on his shoulders, enough to crush normal people, appeared to impose no particular burden on him. He had few deep feelings of his own, but he had an ability to generate intense passion in others. He was the perfect vehicle for everyone else's dreams."
Thus, upon meeting Louis, Alex Haley (who co-authored The Autobiography of Malcolm X) blurted out, "I feel like I'm finally meeting with God."
A fan named Earl Potts recalled, "We were second-class citizens. Joe Louis made us feel first-class."
Ruth Owens (the widow of Jesse Owens) said of her husband and Louis, "Jesse was not an angry or bitter man. Neither was Joe. They didn't hate anyone. They just wanted to make something of themselves. They might seem quiet if you put them next to some of these modern fellows you got today, but quietness don't diminish pride."
And Eddie Futch said simply, "I don't know anybody who disliked Joe Louis."
"It's a strange business," John Schulian wrote shortly after Louis's death; "this deciding who's to bless and who's to blame, who's a story and who's history. But with Joe Louis, there was never a question. He was a champion for all time."
That and more. Donald McRae has written an exceptionally good book. David Margolick has written a great one. After reading their work, one comes to the conclusion that Muhammad Ali might have been the greatest heavyweight of all time, but Joe Louis was boxing's greatest champion.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org