|homepage | calendar | discussion | blogs | articles | contact Bill | about|
by Bill Kimberlin
July 4th, 2012
In the late 1960's the Newman-Herman Gym was at 312 Leavenworth street in San Francisco. The gym lived under a large skylight at the bottom of an airshaft in the center of the Cadillac Hotel. The area outside for several blocks in all directions was known as the Tenderloin. Like the cut of beef, this was the choicest section of town for bribes and graft.
For a couple of hours after 4:30 on week days and at about noon on Saturdays local fighters trained in the two elevated rings and on the numerous practice bags. Red enameled bleacher seats sprouted in two banks from one wall with every other plank rubbed smooth by years of railbirds, as the regular spectators were known, who came to gossip and keep the watch.
One Saturday Sonny Liston, who had been ignobly removed from his heavyweight throne by a brash young man from Louisville, came to train for a fight. The place was packed with the fight crowd who rarely come to the gym in bunches, except for a champion. The railbirds were aflutter having lost the seats that were truly theirs.
Liston moved like a man on a business trip, without time for the familiarities the crowd could indulge in. Like a monolith he moved from chore to unpleasant chore, business for the mind to ignore and the body to endure. Some fighters train this way. They set a goal which is also a time when the work will be done and don't think about what comes in between. Liston trained this way and looked blank even as the huge medicine ball slammed against his stomach. Then there was the rope skipping to the record "Night Train" which played a squeaky tune on a flimsy little portable record player which his manager, Sandy Saddler, started to set-up but which Liston finished with the manager joking, "He don't like nobody messin' up his stuff." And through all this the crowd crowded and the in-people were recognized (Eddie Matchem a former boxing great sitting against a far wall holding a knowing smile that the nearby Miles Davis gave him) while Sonny Liston neared the end.
Before he left Liston sparred with a brilliant little welterweight named Charley Shipes. For his part Shipes threw row upon row of tricky combinations as he bobbed and weaved. And Liston jabbed and hooked with murderous intent save for that crucial quarter of an inch they spared each other. It showed their skill if not their fate and the crowd liked it, applauding wildly when they were done. They were both champions.
As they day's goal neared Liston's mood lightened and he spoke to a sport who took his picture in the ring with one of those panoramic cameras whose lens slid from one side to the other as it exposed the film. "And how much does that cost ?", Liston asked in a tone that told he'd never had something for nothing.
The crowd had left and Liston was the first one to shower and reach the street, before all his sparring partners and handlers, in slacks and a turtle-necked sweater. He stood just outside the door of the gym and when two companions appeared from inside, there was a short huddle which produced a lit firecracker which Liston pitched down the sidewalk with a blast of relief. As locals known to them passed, more firecrackers landed in the wake of these unsuspecting pedestrians marking the end of another business day.
After this, Liston moved off to a Chinese grocery where he bought a bottle of orange juice which he drank from, while he sat in the back of a battered old Chevrolet which drove him away.
My first thoughts were that somebody had killed him when I heard that Sonny Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home only a short time after my having seen him in San Francisco. Officially he died of "coronary insufficiency" the newspapers said. Since this is a result not a cause it told me nothing more than that he was dead which I already knew. So I went to Las Vegas to try and find out more.
In the day time Las Vegas isn't so brave. There is an immediate feeling that the town itself is ashamed of what went on last night. The democratic sun lays a flat hot light down, even in the wet corners where drunks had stood the night before. The walls of neon that command attention at night lose all their boldness to the sun. Someone once said that everyone's a believer late at night. That could be true anywhere but Vegas. Here it's the opposite. The night's are lit for free and that watchful sun leaves the city's secrets invisible at night. All that is seen, was meant to be seen, strung and lit with pride. Outside Vegas, city nights are cold and dark and empty. But here night means the beginning of the day, the heat giving way to warmth.
In this strange turned over place Sonny Liston found he could be at home. No one would choose to come live here who had found a way to live in the outside world. If night is day here, then down is up just as often as the dice baskets trade bottom for top. Every game involves a rolling or spinning, creating the perfect condition of chance. Every toss or spin brings the participant in touch with a new event of total happenstance whose result might bless him. It is a chance to show that it is only luck that, in the end, makes success or failure. It's no ones fault. It's the breaks. You win, you lose, In the end you'd come out even, if only you could just play long enough.
The man who covered Sonny Liston's death for the Las Vegas Sun was named A.D. Hopkins. It was such a great newspaper man's name that I had expected to find a grizzled old man in a green visor, but he was just a kid.
A.D. Hopkins was a serious man. But not too serious. He was a little baffled and amused by my interest in the late Sonny Liston but he wanted to be helpful and accurate. People had been to see him before, just after the death. One big shot writer from the East Coast was especially remembered. "I got a call from a guy saying he was coming and could he talk to me. And I said all right. Well, when he got here he sort of burst on the place. He was a great big guy with a long black cigar. And I remember I took his hand to shake it and, you know how it is... some guys have a firm grip and some not so firm. Well when I grabbed his hand he had a real soft shake, real limp. So I kind of let mine go looser when all of a sudden he clamped down on me like a vice. I remember that."
I chatted with A.D. Hopkins for quite a while and he was real friendly. I asked if Hopkins had ever seen Liston in the days of the big Las Vegas fights (which he hadn't) and if he knew any stories about him. "I interviewed him once," he said, "over the phone." When asked for any impression Hopkins said, "He sounded slow, maybe even slow-witted. But then he could have been under sedation." Liston had cracked up his Cadillac in front of the Sears and Roebuck store near his home and was in the hospital at the time of the interview. Sonny had bent the steering wheel double and took a pretty nasty head full of glass. Apparently he didn't use a seat belt.
"When I asked who he fought last, " Hopkins continued, "he couldn't remember the opponents name. He asked somebody in the room, saying something like, "Who was that guy I stomped?"
I mentioned that I had read the article Hopkins wrote about the Liston death and liked its honesty and style. Hopkins had been the
"I had trouble finding the place from the police directions and when I got there he was already gone. Anything could have been moved by that time so I don't know what happened for sure myself. The place was nice inside I can tell you that. I don't remember much. Except the bedroom, it was real nice. Obviously decorated by a woman but something a man could live in."
"As for stories, I'll tell you just what I told the guy from back East. I said to him that I'd heard something but I couldn't confirm it so don't publish it unless you can corroborate it somewhere else. Well, he goes right ahead and prints up how I said Liston pitched a nark agent through a doorway."
When I mention that I'd like to see anything in the picture morgue on Liston I was introduced to Dave Waite. Waite was young like Hopkins but had a more outgoing sense of humor. He covered the funeral. "A lot of people were there from sports and show business," Waite remembered. "Even Roosevelt Greer. We later found out it wasn't Roosevelt Greer." Both Waite and Hopkins were amused no end at the misidentification. "Everybody listed Greer as attending the funeral," Hopkins laughed. "He looked like Roosevelt Greer and he answered to the name of Roosevelt Greer," Waite said. "But he wasn't Roosevelt Greer."
"What about earlier? Did you ever see him when he was boxing," I asked Waite? "Yeah, I did some publicity stuff for one of the hotels once and he was there. I took some pictures of him. He was kind of sad I thought." "What do you mean," I asked? "Well, so cooperative it was weird. Like he would do just exactly what ever you told him. If you said to stand here or put your arm like this he just did it and then he wouldn't move until you said it was OK. It was just kind of sad, that's all. That was my impression.
Lem Banker was a gambler. Not a backroom, liquor soaked, cigar poking gambler, but a gambler just the same. He was big. Tall, with widely built arms above the elbow that came from lifting weights. His personality was easy going. He could tell a story or laugh at yours. Like all good gamblers he never looked at the charade just the participants. What he knew he had studied and he bet on. What he didn't know he left alone.
Lem's house was spread across the middle of a lot and looked expensive. In the driveway was a white-on-white Lincoln Continental with blue Nevada plates reading LEM in white letters. There was a lawn of good size and a young teenage girl who answered the door in a small bikini.
I followed her into a spacious display-window decorated house. Walking to the back of the house and then turning past the dining area and through the kitchen to the living room we didn't pass through a wall. In a sofa chair facing away from me with a telephone and the sports sections only of every major newspaper in the country in front of him, sat Lem Banker.
There was a no-fire fireplace, and one wall was the glass-doored back to the house which opened to the patio and pool. Two large German Shepherds jumped and barked away our opening conversation. Lem showed the slight embarrassment of a dog owner faced with the watchdog's confusion at being ordered to shut up. Soon, unable to talk evenly or be heard Lem jumped to the glass doors and opening them dealt out punishment that brought quiet and stories about Liston. Banker was a white friend who shared an interest in athletics and party girls with the ex champ. Sonny's leather body bag hung incongruously above and to the side of Lem's well tailored patio.
"Sonny had a good sense of humor," he began "He had this two headed quarter to kind'a give him an advantage. Well, he loans it to a waiter in Denver and the guy lost it. Sonny was going to kill him. Well, I heard about it and the next time I see him I say, 'Hey Sonny I got a chance to buy a two headed quarter off a guy from Denver, a waiter. Think I'll take it. Could be worth a lot of money.' All he said was, 'Yeah, guess you heard."
Besides gambling Banker wrote a nationally syndicated column on sports and gambling. He was also a greeter at Caesar's Palace. "Meet me at Caesar's at eleven o'clock tonight and I'll introduce you to some people. Joe Lewis, Ash Resnick (boss of the Casino), maybe some others. They can help you out."
The Casino Boss
A greeters duties are ill-defined. If he is primarily a personality, he's there to dress up the place. He shakes hands, signs autographs and has his back slapped, while slowly making the rounds from crap table to the wheel of fortune. The best immediate gain for the casino from this type of greeter is his ability to, by his presence, draw a crowd of action around one of the slower tables. The other brand of greeter is more professional. Although not nearly as well known, his value is more easily defined. His job is to separate the high rollers both known and unknown from the sea of grinders that fill the casino. High rollers need special attention which the knowledgeable, like Lem Banker, provide. Since the professional greeter is a gambler himself he sees the job as sort of a "free parking" near his profession. He can stay near the glow of the action at small cost and still be privy to the casino scuttlebutt that all Las Vegas regulars thrive on.
At Caesar's, Bankers White Lincoln was parked at the front door, a sign of respect for his position in the gambling hierarchy. Lem lead me down a hall that was to the rear of the main gambling lobby past a counting room and into a small wood paneled office with framed sports pictures hanging on the walls. Lem was wearing ready made slacks and an expensive short sleeved sweater. This was the office of Ash Resnick. Lem was nervous which made me nervous.
"Ash brought Sonny out here," Banker tells me as he points out the boxing pictures and looked for a photo album of Resnicks. "He can tell you a lot about Sonny. He promoted the Lewiston fight, you know. Here it is." Finding the album, he flipped through the collection pointing out various stills of Liston, Clay, Patterson, Lewis, Marciano, and others. Mostly these are posed Caesar's Palace publicity shots. Some with Banker and Resnick among other unknowns who had glad-handed their way into the photos.
Banker moved with respect but also with familiarity around the office. On the wall closest to Resnicks desk was a picture of Floyd Patterson shaking hands with Richard Nixon in the White House. The photo was in an elaborate gold frame that looked real enough to mint. But there was something odd about this photo. Since politicians don't shake hands with any but current champions this Richard Nixon was clearly a vice-president. Who would give so much play to such a picture? To survive in Vegas you must know people, important people. So if you've only got one picture you make do. Resnick knew Patterson and Patterson knew Nixon. That was good enough. With Nixon now as the current President a resurrection was in order.
Resnick is around somewhere Banker says. He picked up the phone and had him paged. I poked around the office and felt as out of place as the TV monitor above Resnick's desk which kept watch on dealers and customers alike. There was the definite feeling of being in the inner sanctum of the Casino, no one gets in here. After awhile Resnick strolls in but not in response to any page. I am ignored. There but not there. Ash could best be described as cranky. He either hangs up the phone in mid sentence or is overly solicitous. Women are honey, men baby if equals, Mr. if betters, and on a first name basis if inconsequential.
Resnick's feet go up immediately on his desk as Banker explains me amid a barrage of incoming calls. "Is this private?," pops a head in the door. "Naw, nothin' sit down." Resnick orders. Banker did the introductions. It would have been out of line to ask who this man was or what he did. "This is so and so", Banker introduced. "This guy is researching Sonny Liston. He's a fan of his. Going to write something nice. Nothing to knock him, you know, like some of them guys did."
So and so looked of Mexican descent. He was very large and gave the impression he could hurt people. He wore a lose fitting business suit of a light color. Maybe 45, he seemed at ease and was possibly a relative of some higher up. Still he was going to take things in before he said anything beyond a greeting. Banker had introduced me to both of them now and had carried a very heavy conversational ball ever since. Resnick's attitude was obvious. "You talk, I'll listen. If you say anything I don't like, you can get out"
Finally, Resnick spoke. "I never made a nickel off the guy. Never wanted to. Never needed to. I brought him out here. And Senator Heart wants to know, 'What's a Las Vegas gambler doing in his dressing room?' The cock sucker. There wouldn't of been a fight without me. I ran the hotel. I sent 'em the goddamn ring for Christ's sake."
Phone call. Disgruntled, "Yeah?” Surprised, “Freddie, baby. What do you need Fred? Is it money? I hope it's money." Pause. "What times it start? Eleven? (it's four minutes to eleven) Where are you? How many you need? (Jots it down) Done. OK baby, sure." Resnick clicks off and pushes a phone button. "Honey, I want four in the red for Greenwald or Wall, somethin' I don't know. Eleven o'clock. Thank you honey." Silence.
I ask So and So if he knew Liston. "Yeah, I'd seen him around. He liked ice cream. Vanilla. He was probably one of the strongest men that ever lived. I saw him pick up the front end of a car once. You remember that Ash? God, the guy had arms on him like that." He indicated a small tree trunk with his hands.
Normally, with his feet up on his desk all I could see of Ash Resnick was the soles of his shoes which I was close enough to notice read, "turtle leather" on their bottoms. Apparently, Resnick couldn't see me either because when he addressed me he had to tilt one shoe slightly to the side to see my face. I could see him leaned way back in his chair. However, as soon as he finished talking to me the shoe flipped up again blocking out our respective views.
I ask Resnick about Joe Lewis. "He isn't here." Resnick says. There is a pause, "He went to Detroit." A longer pause, "He's back but he won't come in." This is said with a sort of, 'What are you gonna do' resignation. Then he launches into his disgust with Louis's casino attire. Louis dresses shabbily he says. "His mind is shot. He wears that old golf cap... he doesn't care." Then more light-heartedly, "Marciano was the same way. He was always wearing my clothes. He'd stay at my house and he wouldn't bring a change of clothes."
But Resnick didn't complain to Louis much anymore. It seems that one day Resnick had had enough and he called Louis into his office and read him the riot act about his attire. "He'd been out at the swimming pool for Christ sakes talking to these women, guests at the hotel, and he's dressed like a bum. I was really pissed off about it.Well, about three hours later my secretary says ,'You're got a call... it's the White House.' So I get on the phone and it's President Nixon and he says, 'You can't talk to Joe like that.' He says Joe Louis is a national hero and he can dress any Goddamn way he pleases. "Can ya beat that?'
I later learned that Resnick was a true "wiseguy" sent to Las Vegas by the Genovese crime family. He was an associate of Meyer Lansky and was a bagman for "Fat Tony" Salerno. Targeted for gambling debts he had escaped a shooting and a car bombing and was referred to as the "Caligula of Caesars Palace. His exploits continue to be told up and down the Strip.
Toward the very end of the skirts of Liston's career he had a trainer named Johnny Taco. In talking with Lem Banker, Taco's name came up so I made arrangements to see him. At the same time I also learned from Banker that Taco was in some sort of mysterious trouble. According to the Vegas papers Taco's problems involved Grand Jury tampering, and some sort of unhealthy problems with the local mob. Then while I was searching the hall of records downtown an explosion occurred in the garage portion of the building next door. This event didn't stand out for me until I saw the papers the next morning at breakfast. The day I was to meet Taco the headline read, "Ignition Bomb Kills D.A."
Even by Las Vegas standards wasting the D.A. in downtown broad daylight seemed excessive. The paper also found space to speculate that the bomb may have been intended for someone else. The paper went on to say that the D.A. drove a Cadillac of the same year, model, and color as another garage patron, Johnny Taco.
It seems that the key ingredient to the car bomb that liberated the D.A. from his afternoon appointments was a clothes pin which attached the dynamite to the electrical system. Perhaps because I had been asking a lot of questions to a lot of strange people over the last few days I began checking under the hood of my rental car for any telltale clothes pins.
Johnny Taco owned a bar called "The Zebra Room". It was a modest little venture that looked hastily built. Parking in the adjoining gas station I went inside. The bartender was a woman and the only two customers were near the front door. One of these turned out to be Taco and the other his lawyer. "I'll be with you in a minute. Have a seat over there," Taco said, indicating one of the booths across from the bar. There wasn't even a crack to indicate the heat and light of the afternoon outside. As Taco and the lawyer mumbled seriously, I refused drinks and thought about what to ask Liston's last trainer. No one had come in or out since I had arrived yet there was an air of expectancy in the place. Not for customers to arrive, but for some one to push open one of the swinging doors with a blast of daylight behind him and spray indiscriminate gunfire at everyone so foolish as to patronize the bar of a marked man.
"Yeah, I was the last guy to train him." Taco was compact with thick shoulders and about fifty years of age. Like a lot of men who have only themselves to support he had a neat bachelors appearance with a prominent gold ring and wristwatch. In the big casinos on the strip the more successful of Johnny's contemporaries have breakfast in small groups and talk about money, while flashing the same type of ring. Except that their ring clutches the little finger of their left hand and is much more expensive.
"The guy was beggin' me to be his trainer. He come right in that door and stood right over there the day after the Martin fight and said, 'Are you going to be my trainer?" Sonny's last fight was a loss to Leotis Martin. Taco claimed that Liston's trainer for that fight, Sandy Saddler, forgot to put Sonny's mouth piece in for the last round and Liston got knocked out. In any case, Liston was shocked enough by the loss to present himself to Taco for immediate help.
As Taco spoke he unconsciously outlined his personality. A straight shooter with a logic of common sense which he applied to all problems. It was easy to see how a fighter having trouble might head towards this patient man for support. But Taco's strengths also probably served to keep him small time. As we talked Taco always referred to those who originally surrounded Liston as, "those big guys...all those friends of his."
Taco told me, "I asked Liston, 'What about Saddler? (The former trainer and a boxing somebody) Liston said, 'I fired that guy last night." Taco then said he gave Liston a set of demands that would have to be met before he would act as trainer. "I told him that I'd have to be the boss. That he'd run in the morning, chop wood, go home for a nap and come back to train in the afternoon." This of course was hardly anything unusual to ask but Taco took nothing for granted and it apparently worked because Liston replied, "Who says I ain't gonna do that?"
Twice while we talked the front door swung open and as Johnny Taco jerked his head to see who it was I tried to restrain myself from ducking under the table.
In the training sessions supervised by Taco Liston kept missing the speed bag with his left hook. "I kept telling him to step-in with the hook," Taco recalled. "When he finally did catch it, Jesus he tore it clean off the stand."
"There's talk," I said, "that Liston was on the needle. That that's what did him in." Taco had no hesitation on the subject. "Look," he said, "I know for a fact that Liston was scared to death of two things. Needles and airplanes." Taco's hands were clasped together in front of him now, on the table. "When he was fly'n he'd never sit down, walking up an down the aisles. If he'd had needle marks I would have seen 'em when I rubbed him down. They never found any needles in his house. How do you take junk without needles? It don't make any sense."
I left with promises of more conversations. Johnny was a nice guy. Too bad he had troubles. God I was glad to get out of that place.
"I'm having my hair cut a two o'clock in the hotel barber shop. You can talk to me there." To have a decent interview it is best to sit down with someone with the door closed and the phone calls held. That's the best way. There are a lot of gradations down from there, but near the bottom is an interview in a barber shop.
In the first chair of a small shop the only customer was having a trim and a manicure. He was Mel "Red" Greb the local promoter for the second Liston-Patterson bout. Greb handled the details for the small live gate. The millions from theater TV were handled by someone else.
As the barber listened closely Greb went through his interview imitating the petulance of a famous man. "I'd like to know about the financial end of Liston's career," I began. "What the matches grossed and what his end of them was."
"Liston-Patterson was the biggest in Vegas until Clay-Quarry," Greb recited. "It did four million dollars gross. Liston got 40% of everything." Greb spoke in short choppy sentences as if what he said was so burdened with significance that elaboration would endanger any hope of ever finishing.
Liston's take was important because there were increasing indications that his finances were thin at his death. Many were anxious to assume that he had squandered his money. The facts were that because of his reputation and skill he had always been forced to take the very short end of the purse until he was champion. For a chance at the title Liston was given only 12 percent of the take. This was 8 percent less than the lowest amount ever offered a first rate contender. It was also true that Liston was badly cut-up financially by a number of people. Esquire magazine had once printed a picture of Liston divided like one of those pies that represent a government dollar. Because there was a long winding road from the 40 percent Greb mentioned to Liston's wallet, I asked, "Is that a true figure?" "I just told you so," Greb snapped.
"Well," I ventured, "How much would you say that was in cash?" "Get a pencil and figure it out," came the impatient reply. As the manicurist switched hands I switched subjects.
"Did Liston carry a gun?" "A gun?" came the astonished reply. I could have asked if Liston carried a rag doll and opened a subject of less mirth. "He had a water pistol," Greb answered imitating laughter. "You know, for a joke, bang-bang and he squirts you." Greb was amused. For a Las Vegas regular there is no percentage in bad mouthing anyone. "A gun, I never saw any gun," he said watching himself in the mirror. "I saw him all over town," the barber added, "an he never wore a coat."
Moving on, we talked about Liston having friends on the infamous "West Side" of Las Vegas. I was curious to know if he kept these friends separate from those he knew though his profession. The "West Side" is the ghetto section of Las Vegas and I had heard that Liston was a sort of cultural hero to this group. But no one knew much else. "Joe Lewis was Sonny's idol but Sonny thought Joe sort of forgot where he came from. That's why he had friends on the "West Side" This was Greb's answer.
With everyone you talk to about Sonny Liston there is invariably a story about Liston lifting something as an indication of his great strength. Once it was a crap table but most often it is an automobile. Greb's went like this. "Liston was an animal." A short pause. "He turned a whole car full of people upside down in St. Louis." Now why he would do such a thing or how the people in the car felt about this, these questions were left unanswered. When it came to questions about Liston's business acumen Greb was more specific. "You had to draw pictures for him just to speak to him." Greb said matter-of- factly. "He was an illiterate you realize." Making illiterate sound just like idiot; a term which could just as easily be replaced with something more neutral like unlettered.
The last was more of a loaded question. I had already turned up mortgage notes by his widow on the furniture to pay (it appeared) for the funeral. I had seen the modest little house she now lived in and most telling of all I had heard Ash Resnick say she'd been in looking for a job as a hostess and was turned down by Resnick but was working somewhere else on the strip.
Do you think he died leaving Mrs. Liston any kind of an estate. Pretending, it seemed, not to have any real idea he said, "Oh, I imagine he left her pretty well fixed."
In Palm Springs there is a firm called "Villa Builders". Their product is characterized by having more extras than staples. They may not have garages or mailboxes but they do have desert defying lawns, a courtyard and double front doors. In Las Vegas their is a woman who runs a mating service for these type homes and anyone with a public name who comes to town to stay for awhile. Her name is Bea Heath and she had found the home that Sonny and his wife Geraldine had purchased from the Las Vegas casino magnate and business tycoon Kirk Kerkorian.
"I deal in homes for the stars," she said as I finally got her on the telephone. I had spent hours in the past days calling and only reaching her answering service. We talked for about ten minutes. I wanted to talk to Mrs. Liston. Could you arrange something for me. Just an informal chat. I just like to meet her. "Well," she said, "I know she'll ask this. Would there be any money involved?" "Look I said I don't have any money. I'm on my own. Just sort of a fan" There was no discernible answer to this request. But then she said, "He was a perfect gentleman at all times around me, my daughter, and my husband." This made me wonder just what it was she had expected.
"If I could just talk to you then." "Where are you staying?" she fired back." This was to be my test. I knew that in Las Vegas if one were to answer this crucial question incorrectly not only could the conversation be over, whole careers could be lost this way. "I could meet you tomorrow in the lobby of the Sands around 10 o'clock" It's a public lobby. If it looks like I'm staying at the Sands so much the better. "All right, 10 o'clock, The Sands," she said. Evidently I'd past the test.
The Sands was classier than the other hotels. For instance, when you walked in you weren't immediately confronted with a barrage of slot
Then I said something that I wish I hadn't said. Something to the effect that I wanted her to know that I was... sincere. Immediately she pounced, "How do I know your sincere. You say you're sincere but that doesn' t prove anything."
The next day I waited in the lobby of the Sands about and hour before I called Bea Heath's answering service and left a message that I'd be in the restaurant having breakfast. I had a great breakfast and Bea Heath never showed up.
Even the best of houses in Las Vegas are not as formidable as houses in other parts of the country. Not only is this a testament to the unavoidable harshness of living and building in the desert it is also an indication of how badly people want to live here.
In a better part of town behind a suburban shopping area there was a group of houses some of which adjoined The Stardust Country Club Golf Course. Sonny Liston's house was near the end of a court in this development.
Each house seemed different until, after a few blocks, a duplicate of an earlier one appeared. There were several typical ranch style homes but they were not in the majority. Las Vegans apparently prefer a freer style. Liston's house was the more typical. It was green with white trim and separated from the street by a small sloping lawn fringed with shrub bushes. The house was a split level and at first resembled a well financed Arizona radio station because of an apparent facade set out and to one side that might help disguise a flat sided concrete building. But on closer examination these thoughts quickly disappear. The house was actually much larger than expected and its gift to its owners was its broad rear garden and terrace which, with amble trees and bushes, commanded a private view of the adjoining golf course in the rear. Here the house outdoes it neighbors with the simple comfort of it's vegetation and the luxury of the wide sliding glass doors, comfortable garden furniture and nice swimming pool.
Sonny Liston had bought this house from movie magnate, casino owner and sometimes billionaire, Kirk Kerkorian Not bad for a Black man born on a plantation 17 miles northeast of Forrest City, Arkansas in 1932.
While in Caesar's Palace one sometimes heard famous people being paged. It then dawned on the simple tourist that here was a place where one could conceivably turn and see, in the flesh, any famous person in the world. Now, of course this means a lot to some people and nothing to a few, but on any given day it was difficult if not impossible to find anyone in Caesar's Palace whose mind ignored the intercom when the woman said, "Paging Mr. Lewis please, Mr. Joe Lewis." Those who'd just walked in, started looking around expectantly. Those who worked there, seemed to muse, "Back from the coast I guess" (or Chicago, or New York or Denver etc.). And those who'd been there for a while must have thought to themselves, "He sure gets a hell of a lot of phone calls."
There really wasn't anyone else around with a reputation quite like that of Joe Lewis. Oh, there was Joe DiMaggio I guess. I used to live in the Marina district of San Francisco and I'd take people by his little house there, where he used to live with Marilyn Monroe and I'd make 'em guess who lived there. "Two of the most famous people in the world lived in that house", I'd say, "and one of them still does." They'd never guess, I'd tell them before they guessed. Still, Joe Lewis was kind of like being an ex president who'd never made any enemies and who was also a hero. And because of this big reputation Louis did pretty much what he felt like even while working as a greeter for Caesar's Palace.
Knowing this, I entered the Palace looking for Lewis. There was a chance I'd be introduced to him later but I couldn't wait to sneak a look at him right away if possible. Though I'd seen hundreds of pictures of Louis in his boxing years I had only seen a few of him in his later life. It certainly never occurred to me that I might have trouble recognizing him. While I walked around the Palace, Lewis was paged frequently. Any second now I would spot him. I wondered where he'd be when I first saw him. He wasn't there. After a while I went towards the front door and sat down on a fancy upholstered bench. Then I saw him.
Seated at the other end of this very long bench, near the front door, was a large muscular black man in a baseball cap, sound asleep. Knowing Louis was rarely without a cap of this type, and that, like many great athletes he was likely to fall asleep in curious places, I knew it was him; except that there was something missing. I had expected him to have an aura fifty feet thick and while it was certainly interesting to see him snoring, chin on chest in the midst of this noisy palace, I was disappointed.
Well, as long as I was here I might as well take a good look, so I made several strategic pass bys However, by keeping a respectful distance I couldn't tell much except that I was worried. I was worried because now I wasn't sure if it was him. This was more than a little embarrassing. I could forgive myself for not being able to recognize anyone, except Joe Lewis. I felt like a biographer unable to recognize the subject of his biography. But what was even more worrisome was that this might really be him and that this was all there was to him.
I thought, "He is big, and how many guys would be sound asleep at the front door of Caesar's Palace? "It's him." "It's not him." "This is ridiculous." Then the page came. "Paging Mr. Lewis, please. Mr. Joe Lewis." I watched... "Paging Mr. Lewis, please. Mr. Joe Lewis." Not a muscle moved. Everyone in the place was either looking around or pretending not to. Still no movement. "He's either dead or that's Joe Lewis," I thought. He's the only one ignoring it." The paging stopped and the sleeping continued "This is ridiculous", I repeated to myself. Now I was trying to watch some of the Palace's black employees to see if they showed the sleeping figure any sort of deference. I was almost sure a black custodian working near him was beaming with black pride as he fussed around the sleeping figure in the baseball cap.
Then suddenly a black woman who had evidently been gambling walked up and sat down with no special reverence beside our definitely stirring hero. I knew that Joe Lewis was married to a black women lawyer who practiced in Los Angeles and looked after Joe, who practiced on the Caesar's golf course. But when he lifted his head and rubbed his big hands in his eyes he suddenly became the tired husband that he was who had followed his wife around all day and would like to see Joe Lewis to. I was relieved that Joe Lewis might yet have and aura fifty feet thick.
Entering Caesar's Palace for one more look see I headed for the rear coffee shop hoping to spot Lewis along the way. Since the last interview with him I'd read had taken place in that coffee shop it was my most frequent haunt. Rounding a curve I saw a very large man about fifty years old wearing a red cardigan sweater and a baseball type cap. It was so clearly Joe Lewis it was almost shocking. The President would have been less obvious. He seemed enormous. Rather like the largest most dignified old elephant in the world. When he moved it was with the grace and swing of a mammoth's trunk. Slow and easy but with confidence and power. Only then did it dawn on me that he was black, a Negro. I was surprised to find that fact so slow to register.
Lewis was performing as an on duty greeter. Standing around, shaking all out thrust hands, replying to greetings, and generally mingling. He looked a little uncomfortable but he had been cheered, and charmed for so many years now that he knew what to expect. As the wheel of fortune man pulled at his ever slowing charge he exchanged small talk with Lewis. And Joe always had something to say. It started with a low mumbled line in that beautifully expressive voice of his that can barely contain a chuckle and ends with his leaning over to deliver an almost whispered confidence that only the wheel of fortune man will ever understand.
After this ritual, restlessness set in and Joe reached a boxers big hand into his slacks for the last of many millions and threw away another dollar like a burnt out match. It is not that easy to actually throw a dollar bill, but Louis's gesture spoke of a mastery. From pocket to table was one easy movement. No clumsy wallet to fool with, just a wad of bills from which a dollar sprung folded and easy to toss. The dollar landed half open and Joe's arm came back like a croupier's rake that always pushed and never pulled. It was a gesture of friendliness, an act contrary to the nature of gambling and the wheel of fortune man recognizing this, did an extraordinary thing for a casino employee, he pushed the dollar back toward Joe almost pressing it in his hand with a gesture and a look that said, "Come on Joe, you don't have to do this, this is for the tourist
Probably the least interesting thing about Sonny Liston was whether he had succumbed to drugs. That little beast had entered far more traditional households than Liston's and still would. That he had been alive this long and had gotten this far was the greater wonder. Born to a family of twenty-five children, Sonny Liston's birth rite entitled him to exactly one twenty-fifth of nothing, and as a male to more work and punishment than any small boy should have had to handle. His mother left the family and went to St. Louis. Sonny later tried to follow her and stayed. This was during the thirties. Sonny had been in and out of school in order to work on the farm and was growing faster than the grades to which he was promoted. Soon he was much too big for his desks or his classmates, so when they began to laugh, he left. Knocking around St. Louis with his only asset being size and strength he hit trouble real fast
Later, he'd gotten the reputation of a strong arm for the mob and a guy who beat up a cop. But its kind of hard to imagine a pre-civil rights black man getting the better of a southern cop, and his rap sheet was full of charges his friends would later characterize as "puffed".
In Las Vegas Sonny Liston had finally found a refuse. All his life he had stuck out like a gaudy fender from a tract house garage. Here was a town that could soften his flash amongst a million of its own. But while it was a refuse from the world it was not a refuse from himself. While it was camouflage against the outside world he was now his own opponent.
Sonny Liston is buried in the Paradise Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Las Vegas, Nevada. There is a low wall that separates the grave area from the street and there are several neatly trimmed cypress trees spaced along the wall for decoration that closely match the ones at his nearby home. This is the flattest cemetery that one is ever likely to see, made look all the more so by the fact that there are no gravestones only metal plaques sunk flat on concrete bases. The grass is surprisingly bright green and Sonny's grave like most of the rest has creditable looking plastic flowers resting in the permanently mounted flower holder. Every few minutes a large jet plane makes a roaring glide very low over the cemetery as it prepares to touch down at the Vegas airport. Looking straight up into this sky of noisy jets is Sonny's metal marker which reads simply, "Charles 'Sonny' Liston 1932-1970 'A Man' "
|homepage | calendar | discussion | blogs | articles | contact Bill | about|
|copyright AndersonValley.net 2000-2016|