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BGS: Can the Mets Survive Respectability?

Another good one from the late, great Joe Flaherty. This one from the summer of 1968. It appears in the fine collection, Chez Joey.

“Can the Mets Survive Respectability?”

By Joe Flaherty

If in a moment of campy whimsy Susan Sontag and Salvador Dali decided to have a love affair and conceive a child without sin, he would be destined to grow up and become a New York Met. In a dastardly age when we are accused of genocide at home and abroad, the Mets remain as innocent as a feather boa or a Busby Berkeley musical.

Admittedly, baseball, in Red Smith’s phrase, is still a game played by little boys, but it also is a serious business. One has only to remember the fabled exodus of Walter O’Malley’s Dodgers from loving Brooklyn to lush Los Angeles. The shacks of Mexican peasants were torn down to erect (as the Hollywood press agents call it) O’Malley’s Taj Mahal of sports arenas. And when his edifice was complete, it was discovered that there wasn’t a water fountain in the place. O’Malley in his countinghouse realized soda pop cost money and water was for nothing. So those poor bronzed blond darlings of Southern California, those objects of adoration of all the Humbert Humberts among us, were being subjected in that land of wheat germ and blackstrap molasses to sugary cavities. But these devious machinations have nothing to do with the Mets.

In their six-year history (1968 is their seventh) the Mets not only gave away water but a torrent of ball games as well. Their pitching staff had the marksmanship of Sergeant York-they hit every damn bat in sight. Their batters were as aggressive as flower children, and their baserunners circled the pads as though Mack Sennett and Richard Lester were coaching on first and third. The Mets’ defense was so feeble it could make Nasser feel like a Prussian general. Yet they were loved.

In six years they finished last in the National League standings five times and next to last once. Their unbelievable dramatic ninth-place finish in 1966 (28½ games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers) was relegated to a freak of nature when in 1967 they returned to form and finished last, 40½ games behind the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

But these were the innocent years. What could be expected of a club that paid $125,000 for Don Zimmer and Lee Walls and $75,000 for the likes of Ray Daviault and John De Merit? And who gave a hell about winning when their manager of three-and-one-half years, Casey Stengel, could combine jabberwocky and Finnegans Wake and convert tragedy into comedy? After Stengel’s heady reign, the Mets went into their Eisenhower years. Under Wes Westrum, the ex-Giant catcher, the Met fans mistook boredom for serious stewardship. For nearly three seasons the Mets slept.

But precociousness is a fragile commodity. What is adorable in adolescence is contemptible in adults. 1968 was the year the Mets were supposed to grow up. And the reason for their maturity was the hiring of Gil Hodges as manager. The feeling was that Hodges, the gentle giant, the solid man who was adored as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ first baseman for ten years, would bring stability to the Mets.

New York was always a National League town. The aristocratic Yankees are only tolerated here; the real action was always the Giants and the Dodgers. And Hodges was the embodiment of the golden years, the late forties and early fifties of the Dodgers. He was so unique as an individual he was never even jeered by the enemy Giant fans. In a borough that canonized the image of the “regular guy” Gil Hodges was a saint.

One remembers the elegance he brought to playing first base. His massive hands seemed to span the right side of the Dodger infield, making it impenetrable. And who could forget the 370 home runs-or, as Red Barber called them, “Old Goldies”? Then there was the human saga, the 1952 World Series in which Hodges batted 0 for 21, and on a Sunday every church in Brooklyn offered up prayers that Gil would end his slump. Indeed, Hodges always seemed to be a character in a morality play. One recalls the great confrontation between Hodges and Giant pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie. The blue-eyed Hodges at bat, who always had trouble hitting the curve ball, looking like Billy Budd facing the swarthy, unshaven Maglie as Claggart doing the unmentionable to the instrument of our national pastime-spitting on it-magnificently curving the hero to his death, while the faithful of Flatbush hissed the hairy villain. Even now Hodges says with a self-deprecating smile: “Sal would have to make a terrible mistake for me just to hit the ball.”

Hodges, who also was one of the original Mets, retired from active ball in 1963 because of a crippling knee injury. In 1963 he became manager of the last place Washington Senators of the American League. Within five years as the Senators’ manager Hodges raised the club from the cellar in 1963 to a respectable tie for sixth place in 1967. Then in ’68 the Mets summoned Hodges home, though in a way he had never left since he has lived on Bedford Avenue with his wife and four children (a boy and three girls) since 1948.

But for those looking for the Met image to change drastically the spring season didn’t offer much hope. The Mets compiled their worst loss record ever, and the zany stories were still getting into the press. Ron Swoboda, the team slugger and the sibling with the Chinese stepfather, was reported to heed a call from nature during an exhibition game and missed his turn at bat-once again, the Mets were caught with their pants down. Then there was the story of relief pitcher Hal Reniff urging Phil Linz, infielder and owner of the East Side swing spot Mr. Laffs, to come to spring training for a tryout. In typical Met fashion Reniff had a horrible spring and was cut, and Linz, playing brilliantly, made the team. In fact, Linz was so impressive that Daily News sportswriter. Dick Young was moved to write that Linz was one of the best prospects in spring training. Linz, upon reading the accolade, was moved to comment: “I know that’s not right.”

But these stories, which were the substance of Stengel’s existence, don’t amuse Hodges. Sitting in his office at Shea Stadium, Hodges solemnly said: “I used to enjoy Met stories as much as anyone else, but I don’t appreciate them anymore. We have to get away from the image of being a funny club.” But the old image didn’t have any major revision during the first two weeks of the season. The Mets blew their opening game to the Giants in the ninth inning and managed to lose six one-run ball games in their first twelve games through spotty relief pitching and horrendous fielding. In fact, if to err is human, to be a Met is divine. In the first seventeen games the Amazin’ Ones made nineteen miscues.

But loving the Mets is not a rational thing; it’s more like life with a drunken husband. He curses you, abuses you, beats you, and then every so often the lousy bastard does something so spectacular that passion overrules reason and your bed of nails once more becomes the arena of conjugal bliss. So it was with the Mets as they staggered home from their road trip, like Hickey the salesman, to their opener at Shea.

All the regular hoopla was present: marching bands, flags flapping everywhere, and a horseshoe wreath wishing Gil good luck. Then, in one loving swoop, all was forgiven. The current ace of Hodges’ staff, twenty-five-year-old Jerry Koosman, not only struck out the Giants, but struck out Willie Mays with the bases loaded. But such treats are rare. The same weekend the Mets threw away a doubleheader to the Dodgers, and Hodges sat in his office, his massive hand shaking, holding a filter cigarette, unable to talk to the reporters. He seemed to be suffering the frustration of so many talented participants who are now relegated to the sidelines to manage the ineptitude of others. The best he could mutter was “We’re beating ourselves, and that can be corrected.” When one looked at the pale blue eyes vacuous and washy, the face from our boyhood now lined and looking prematurely haggard, one thought of John Lindsay after managing a couple of tough summer seasons in this city.

But after a day off, Hodges looked refreshed at a Tuesday morning batting practice. Here one catches the real essence of Hodges. Essentially, Gil Hodges is a father. Young ballplayers treat him with respect but not awe. His jokes are mild-not clever, not cutting, just a touch of chastisement in them. He was hitting ground balls to first baseman Art Shamsky, taking particular glee when he drove one by him. Shamsky sheepishly smiled at the past master of the position he was trying to conquer, and then Hodges, grinning broadly, would hit him an easy grounder to make him look good. Hodges’ coach, Yogi Berra, was pitching batting practice. Berra is the only man alive who can make a baseball uniform look like a zoot suit. His low-slung pants seem pegged, his hat slouches over his eyes be-bop fashion, and his bouncy walk evokes the street corner. Tommie Agee stepped into the batting cage, and Hodges stopped smiling. Hodges traded away .300 hitter Tommy Davis and pitcher Jack Fisher to obtain the White Sox center fielder. Agee, who was suffering a terrific batting slump, couldn’t even hit the ball in practice. Hodges eyed him intently, looking for some flaw in the swing that might bring Agee around. When asked about the wisdom of giving up the Mets’ only .300 hitter for Agee (who later went on to tie the Mets’ record for most hitless times at bat—0 for 34), Hodges in his usual gracious manner said: “Certainly I’ll take credit for the trade. Tommie will come along just fine.”

But all is not bleak for Hodges and his Mets this year. Relaxed in his office after practice, he talked about the positive side of the Mets. “Our pitching is our strong suit,” he said. “These young boys are fine.” Indeed, the Mets do have a fine young staff in Koosman, Tom Seaver, who won 16 games last year, and Nolan Ryan, whose speed has been compared to that of Koufax and Feller. And Ron Swoboda is off to the finest start of his career. But there are the others, the nameless mediocrities who fill out the roster. Hodges has set a goal of winning 70 games this year and perhaps playing .500 ball next year. “These boys have it in them. They’re fine boys.”

Fine boys. The phrase is slightly square for a paid athlete. But then Hodges is slightly square. But then again baseball, like Hodges, is square—but in a nice sort of way. It is a game that is meant to be played under God’s sunshine, as Phil Wrigley used to say. Unlike football, it has no snob appeal. It’s a game for kids, cabdrivers pulling long night shifts, and the old Jewish men who stand on Flatbush Avenue outside Garfield’s Cafeteria. It’s a beer drinker’s game, where the fans do corny things like sing fight songs and take seventh inning stretches. And Gil Hodges fits perfectly into this milieu.

For all his size (6 feet 2, 210 pounds), one could never picture Hodges in pro football where everyone uses war game parlance as if they were bastard sons of Robert McNamara. Or where the season ticket holders are the ad boys with their plaid-covered flasks holding their Ambassador Twelve, snobbishly talking about “Z-outs” and “zig-ins,” as if they were talking about Kama Sutra positions instead of a ball game. Hodges seems content to settle for the glitter of Abner Doubleday’s diamond.

But one wonders if his team should be the Mets. One remembers the hand shaking, the soft drink on the desk, the pale face, and the hesitant speech. Then one thinks of Stengel, booze in hand, regaling sportswriters with sidesplitting tales of his clowns’ ineptitude. Hodges can’t play the buffoon; he takes his “boys” seriously. This may be the sadness of his homecoming. The Mets still look like a team to be run by a tipsy Falstaff rather than a sober, brooding, fatherly Lear.

May 27, 1968

The Banter Gold Standard: Love Song to Willie Mays

Here’s another sure shot from the great Joe Flaherty (reprinted with permission from Jeanine Flaherty). You can find his story on Toots Shor, here; his wonderful piece on Jake LaMotta, here.  Meanwhile, enjoy a…

“Love  Song to Willie Mays”

by Joe Flaherty

When Willie Mays returned to New York, many saw it—may God forgive them—as a trade to be debated on the merits of statistics. Could the forty-one-year-old center fielder with ascending temperament and waning batting average help the Mets?

To those of us who spent our boyhood, our teens, and our beer-swilling days debating who was the first person of the Holy Trinity–Mantle, Snider, or Mays?–it was a lover’s reprieve from limbo. No matter how Amazin’ the Mets were, a part of our hearts was in San Francisco.

Mays was special to me as a teenager because I was a Giant fan in that vociferous borough of Brooklyn. This affliction was cast on me by a Galway father who reasoned that any team good enough for John McGraw was good enough for him and his offspring. So as boys, rather than take a twenty minute saunter through Prospect Park to Ebbets Field, the Flahertys took their odyssey to 155th Street, the Polo Grounds.

In that sprawling boardinghouse of a park I had to content myself with the likes of Billy Jurges, Buddy Kerr, and a near retirement Mel Ott whose kicking right leg at the plate was then a memory, no longer an azimuth which his home run followed. The enemy was as star laden as MGM: Reese, Robinson, Furillo, Cox, Hodges, Campanella, et al. So when Willie arrived in 1950, the Davids in Flatbush who had been hoping for a slingshot instead were bequeathed the jawbone of an ass.

Of course, we did have Sal Maglie, that living insult to Gillette, who thought the shortest distance between two points was a curve. But it was Willie who did it. It was he who gave the aliens in that Toonerville Trolleyland respectability. Even the enemy fan was in awe of him. He was no Plimptonesque hero about whom the beer drinkers in the stands fantasized. He was beyond that. His body was forged on another planet, and intelligent grown men know they have no truck with the citizens of Krypton. It has always amazed me to hear someone taking verbal vapors over the physical exploits of a ballet dancer while demeaning the skills of a baseball player. After all, is it not true that such as a Nureyev is practiced and choreographically moribund within a precise orbit I should swoon at such limited geography, when I have seen Mays ad lib across a prairie to haul down Vic Wertz’s 1954 World Series drive? No. Willie, like Scott Fitzgerald’s rich, is very different from you and me.

Yet, looking back on him (call it mysticism, if you like), I have the feeling his comet could have sputtered. This fall from grace, I feel, could have happened if he had come to bat in the final playoff game against the Dodgers in 1951. I was in the stands with a bevy of other hooky players, and I can’t help thinking Mays would have failed dismally if he had to come to the plate. He was just too young, a kid constantly trying to please his surrogate father, Durocher. Something dire surely would have happened: The bat would have fallen from his hands, or he would have lunged at the ball the way a drunk mounts stairs. Of course, this is all conjecture, since Bobby Thomson’s home run was his reprieve.

Still, let the mind’s eye conjure up the jubilant scene at home plate as the Giants formed a horseshoe to greet Thomson. Willie, who was on deck, should have been one of the inner circle, but he was on its outer fringes—at first too paralyzed to move, then a chocolate pogo stick trying to leap over the mob, leaping higher than all, which is an appropriate reaction from a man who has just received the midnight call from the governor.

But that’s rumination in the record book. Now, the day is Sunday, May 14, 1972, the opponent those lamisters from Coogan’s Bluff, Willie’s recent alma mater, the San Francisco Giants. The day was neither airy spring nor balmy summer but overcast and rain-threatening. I liked that—the gods were being accurate. This was no sun-drenched debut of a rookie; the sky bespoke forty-one years.

The park was as displeasing as usual. Shea Stadium is built like a bowl, and when one sits high up, he feels like a fly who can’t get down to the fudge at the bottom. An ideal baseball park is one that forces its fans to bend over in concentration, like a communion of upside down L’s. Ebbets Field was such a park.

The fans at Shea have always been too anemic for me. Even the kids with their heralded signs seem like groupies for the Rotarians or the Junior Chamber of Commerce: ”Hicksville Loves the Mets,” “Huntington Loves the Mets”; alas, Babylon can’t be far behind. And today the crowd was behaving badly, like an affectionate sheepdog that drools all over you. Imagine, they were cheering Willie Mays for warming up on the sidelines with Jim Fregosi! A Little League of the mind.

But there were dots of magic sprinkled throughout the meringue. The long-ago-remembered black men and women from the subway wars also were in attendance: the men in their straw hats, alternating a cigar and a beer under the awnings of their mustaches; the women, grown slightly wide with age, bouquet bottoms (greens, reds, yellows, purples) sashaying full bloom. These couples wouldn’t yell “Charge” when the organ demanded it (a dismal, insulting gift from the Los Angeles Dodgers), nor would they cheer a sideline game of catch. They were sophisticates; they had seen the gods cavort in too many Series to pay tribute to curtain-raising antics.

Mays was in the lead off spot, and one watched him closely for decay. Many aging ballplayers go all at once, and the pundits were playing taps for Willie. This (and a .163 batting average) roused speculation about Mays’ demise. Nothing much was learned from his first at bat. He backed away from “Sudden Sam” McDowell’s inside fast ball, a trait that is much more noticeable in him lately against pitchers who throw inside smoke. But he wasn’t feverishly bailing out, just apprehensively stepping back. Not a deplorable physical indignity but a small one, like an elegant man in a homburg nodding off in a hot subway. He walked, as did Harrelson and Agee after him. Then Staub, as if disturbed by the clutter, cleaned the bases with a grand slam. Mets 4–0.

His second time at bat I noticed he shops more for his pitches these days. There is a slight begging quality, where once there was unbridled aggressiveness. This time patience paid a price, and he was caught looking at a third strike. This was more disturbing. The head of the man in the homburg had just fallen on the shoulder of the woman next to him.

In the top of the fifth the Giants roughed up Met pitcher Ray Sadecki for four runs. Also in the course of their rally they pinch hit for their lefty McDowell, which meant that Mays would have to hit against the Giants’ tall, hard-throwing right hander Don Carrithers in the Mets’ bottom half. Bad omens abounded. If a left hander could brush Willie back, what would a right hander do? And now the game was tied, and he would have to abandon caution. Worse, the crowd was demanding a miracle, the same damn crowd which had cheered even his previous strikeout. The unintelligent love was sickening. He was an old man; let him bring back the skeleton of a fish, a single, this aging fan’s mind reasoned.

But one should not try to transmute the limitations that time has dealt him on the blessed. Even the former residents of Mount Olympus now and then remember their original address. Mays hit a 3-2 pitch toward the power alley in left center–a double, to be sure. I found myself standing, body bent backward like a saxophone player humping a melody, ’til the ball cleared the fence for a home run. The rest was the simple tension of watching Jim McAndrew in relief hold the Giants for four innings, which he did, and the Mets won, 5–4.

The trip home was romance tainted with reality. I knew well that Mays would have his handful of days like this. He still had enough skill to be a “good ballplayer,” though such a fair, adequate adjective was never meant to be applied to him. But life can’t be lived in a trunk, so I closed the lid on the memory of his lightning, and for a day, like an aging roué who has to shore up the present, I boldly claimed: “Love Is Better the Second Time Around.”

August 26, 1972

The Banter Gold Standard: Sympathy for the Devil

His was an all-too short career, much of it spent writing about his favorite blood sports, boxing and politics, but it’s most remarkable aspect may have been the improbable sequence of events at its fairytale inception. At age thirty, Joe Flaherty (c. 1936-1983) was still a laborer on the New York waterfront whose unpaid (and often un-bylined) stories occasionally appeared in his Brooklyn community weekly. When the weekly deemed his account of a rowdy police gathering too hot to handle, a friend surreptitiously sent it to The Village Voice. Impressed, the Voice’s editors hired Flaherty to write a follow-up story, an assignment that ended when the fledgling reporter came to blows with one of his subjects. Flaherty’s next piece incensed Pete Hamill, largely because it painted an unflattering picture of a middleweight named Joe Shaw, in whom Hamill, Norman Mailer, and George Plimpton had acquired an interest. The New York Times Magazine then asked Flaherty to write an expanded follow-up about the feuding Brooklynites, thus launching a career that would produce bylines in magazines from the Saturday Review to Playboy, the journalism collected in Chez Joey (1974), the novels Fogarty & Co. (1973) and Tin Wife (1983), and Managing Mailer (1970), an account of his experience as campaign manager for Norman Mailer’s 1969 mayoral run. As Flaherty put it: “A lesson for young journalists: in your early rounds forget the body and go for the head.”

—George Kimball and John Schulian on Flaherty in At the Fights (now out in paperback).

Here’s another good one: Joe Flaherty on Jake LaMotta. This piece originally appeared in the January 1981 issue of Inside Sports. It is reprinted here with permission of Jeanine Flaherty.

“Sympathy For The Devil”

By Joe Flaherty

All lives are failures in some degree or another. Somewhere along the line we fudge the pristine youthful dream. Even when we achieve, the compromises we’ve made, the injuries we’ve inflicted sully the prize. But most of us can live with this, since we deal in minor declinations of the soul.

Not so with Jake LaMotta. LaMotta’s fortunes and misfortunes have been so cosmic they could be considered godlike if it weren’t for the sacrilege implied. The ruin he has heaped on himself, and on many of those who’ve come in contact with him, seems pagan. Those who lament LaMotta would have you believe Attila the Hun would have to move up in class to get it on with Jake.

When you go in search of the good word on LaMotta, no soft, illuminating adjective is forthcoming. Since most of the naysayers are from within boxing, the word is even more damning. The ringed world is awash with evocations of loving motherhood, guiding priests and golden-hearted gladiators. Cauliflower corn pone bows only to the jab as the basic element of boxing.

But when the talk turns to LaMotta’s character (his boxing ferocity is always lauded), the usual benediction of hot water turns to spit. The only bow to grace is that no one wants his quotes attributed, though this “nicety” could be interpreted as fear of retribution, since no one believes the 58- year-old LaMotta has mended his savage ways.

Thus, one of the game’s gentlest promoters calls LaMotta “a reprehensible, obnoxious, despicable sonnuvabitch,” and then apologizes that he has characterized a human being in such a fashion.

To be sure, it’s a tough assessment, but even LaMotta wouldn’t deny he worked like a bull to earn his unsavory rep. Born on the tough Lower East Side of New York, he and his family moved to the Bronx when he was a boy. In that borough of hills (peaks and valleys in psychological jargon), LaMotta’s cyclonic emotions got untracked. Young Jake wasn’t one of those angels with dirty faces, a wayward street urchin with tousled hair who pinched apples from outside, the grocery store and puckishly threw rocks at schoolhouse windows. Jake’s mayhem was main arena, armed robbery, assault, rape.

As a teenager he pummeled the head of the local bookie (whom he liked!) in a robbery attempt and left the man for dead with a crushed skull. Subsequently, the papers falsely reported the bookie’s death and LaMotta did not learn until years later, after he won the middleweight championship, that the bookie, following a hospital stay, had moved to Florida to recuperate. In fairness, LaMotta had ongoing pangs of conscience about “the murder,” but the primal concern of the heart was how best to beat the rap, not the devil.

The horror his early violence wreaked also didn’t stop him, in later years, from battering various wives for “love” and numerous opponents for loot. LaMotta’s Life has been so unappetizingly gamy, so foully unpalatable, it bends the conventional limits of social understanding, as graphically documented in the film of his life, Raging Bull.

Even those who shared the same mean streets can find no sympathy. An Irish trainer from the same boyhood Bronx said, “Look, he just went too far. I grew up there, too. We always hustled a fast buck, put out other guys’ lights in fistfights, and even brawled with cops. Hell, the Irish are great cop-fighters. But we stopped short of some things, the animal stuff. Beating people’s head in with weapons and wife-beating, Christ, that’s as low as you can get.

“Ask anyone. That bastard didn’t even know how to say hello. But don’t take my word for it. The Micks are notorious. for not having a good word for Wops. Go ask his own kind. His own kind hate him because he was a squealer. He even screwed them. You go ask the italians what they think. When your own kind hate you, that tells you something.

Indeed, the “wise guys,” the sharp money guys who always have leeched on the tit of boxing, long ago wrote off LaMotta for his testimony before the Kefauver Committee that he went into the water for the mob when he fought Billy Fox in Madison Square Garden in 1947. But even before that, !he wasn’t acceptable. Hustlers who live off “the edge” dislike dealing with a “crazy” man.

EVEN ITALIAN-AMERICAN  director Martin Scorsese, while creating a technically beautiful film and coaxing marvelous ensemble acting from his cast, was in the moral quandary about what to make of LaMotta the man. If the film had to stand on redeeming social qualities, Raging Bull would have been castrated by the censors. Scorsese, like so my who have faced LaMotta, was overwhelmed with the brutishness of the life and in the end, using Robert DeNiro’s great talents, settled for an exposition of poetic rage. The violence is softened by slow motion and an operatic score. This creates the illusion that one is dealing with a demon.

But the frightening things about LaMotta is that he is very real, and removing him from our orbit with technical skill and art is cleverly slipping the punch. The only way to explore LaMotta’s life is to delve into the festering place in his heart of darkness.

The LaMotta you meet today hardly qualifies for a portrait in ferocity. If it weren’t for his classically failed soufflé of a face and the thickness of his articulate speech, you wouldn’t suspect he had made his living at demolition. His weight is back to the 160-pound middleweight limit, and his manager is deferential. His hands belie their destructive force in that they are small, slim and tapered.

“I should have been an artist, or a fag,” he jokes. But the jibe has insight. They look like the hands of someone who would beat helplessly on the chest of a bully.

ONLY THE eyes give a clue to his former life. They are so sad and placid, they almost look burned out. Twin novas which which didn’t survive the Big Bang, memos to some terrible past.

So you’re not surprised when he responds to a question about his current life, “I’m a recluse. I stay at home and read, play cards, and watch television. And I love to cook. I’m a gourmet cook. It’s a knack.”

His oldest son Jack Jr. (by his second wife, Vikki) concurs: “I’d rather eat at home with him cooking than go out to a fine restaurant.”

LaMotta’s forays outside are restricted to long walks, infrequent trips to an East Side bar to meet Rocky Graziano, who pulled time with him at reform school when they were in their teens, and some evening blackjack games. “I don’t want to go out anymore,” he says. “I seen it all, and I had it all.’ Fame, fortune, Cadillacs. There’s nothing out there for me. Besides, I don’t like the kind of people I attract.”

When asked to elaborate, he has trouble pinning if down. “I don’t know. Other people like to go out. It must be me. I dislike a lot of people.” He amends, “I don’t mean a majority of people. Maybe I’m too cynical. But sometimes I hear the first word out of their mouths, or see a smirk on their faces, and I know they’re not sincere. They’re jealous or something. Jealousy is a word I use a lot, but I think it’s right. Well, I think like that anyway. I guess I attract those kind of people, so I stay home.”

The recluse pose is really nothing new, if one applies it to LaMotta’s inner emotions. In his fighting days, though public, he was notorious for being a loner in the things that mattered. He managed his own career, ostracized the mob until it promised him a shot at the crown for dumping to Fox, and had the intimate counsel of no one. He viewed his wife of that period, Vikki, with insane jealousy and suspicion, and forced his brother Joey, who worked his corner, “to do my bidding.” The adjectives applied to Jake were “suspicious,” “paranoiac.”

Now divorced from his fifth wife, he is even more insular. The film is a hiatus in this isolation. Jack Jr. is up from North Miami Beach on leave from his job to guide his father through the publicity maze connected with the film. Vikki and his five other children also came to New York for the film’s opening and some of the attendant hoopla. But when the stardust settles, he will be back living alone in his Manhattan apartment. The isolation may be complete for a long period if some job offers don’t result from the film since LaMotta, in earnest, declares, “I’m now practicing celibacy,” which could be construed as the last word on the people one attracts.

Jake attributes his decision on unilateral withdrawal to “the failures of my romantic life.” His first marriage broke when he met Vikki, “the love of my life.” Vikki left when LaMotta lost all control of his temper, his calorie­ and alcohol intake, and his ability to find his way home to his wife’s bed after his retirement. “I think I suffered a nervous breakdown during that period,” he says, “and didn’t realize it. I was crazy. I was drinking a bottle or two .a day. I owned my own joint [in Miami Beach], the price was right. Plus, there were a lot of broads. I blacked out a lot and didn’t remember. I really think I was crazy and didn’t it.”

LaMotta seems to be hesitant about going all the way back. His notion is that life would have been fine if he and Vikki could have worked out their problems. If they had been “mature” enough to realize he was going through a bad time after retiring, “the small death” all athletes must face, as the novelist John Updike called it. Similar is the lament that three marriages broke up because finances were tight, and the one thing he regrets is his dump of the Fox fight. The one thing?

LAMOTTA DEALS with his woeful experiences piecemeal, not as the pattern of a life. For LaMotta, to have led a conventional life, it seems he would have had to be born in different circumstances, or somehow been able to overcome the ones he was dealt. The latter is no mean trick. The should is cankered with barnacles of who and what spawned us. Only the imperial George Bernard Shaw had the audacity to state that if he had one thing to change in his life it would have been his parents. And for good reason. There’s a reverberation in that shot that might ricochet back to our own siring.

LaMotta makes some earnest attempts. “You know, I think they brainwashed us. You know, this is your life, you’re poor, and this is the way it’s going to be. I always felt I didn’t deserve good things. I was always guilty. I thought I killed someone, but it was more than that. Years later, I even thought of the way I fought. Letting guys hit me in the face. I didn’t have to do that. I think I was brainwashed to be punished.”

If you want to find the man, it helps to find the boy, and then the father of the boy. LaMotta’s father was an Italian immigrant who beat his kids and beat his wife, and it’s safe to say Jake was tutored in raucous romance early. And even though LaMotta hated the bullying, like so many sons of fathers who beat, drank, molested or committed suicide, he replayed the old man’s aberrations. The psychiatric statistics are too firm in these area to be taken, as happenstance. In dismal surroundings finesse is lost, you take what is offered.

Since the home life was a microcosm of the neighborhood, he had only to expand the MO of violence. In such neighborhoods the glittering prizes of bread, broads and booze wenI to the wise guys. “Artists and fags” (same thing really) need not apply.

To anyone who knows those streets, the real triumph is to make it through time-honored devices in the neighborhood, not in the outside world, There’s a sense of betrayal when one makes it “legit” and moves away. You turn your back on the highest gutter canonization—”a regular guy. It’s not for nothing that artists with such roots can’t completely resist the swagger, highlighting the accent, the tough-guy stance. These are love notes thrown back over the barricades from their now “effete” surroundings. Worldly success is so much manure—the real bones are still made back on he block.

LaMotta only seems an aberration to us because he achieved celebrity and money and didn’t find the happy life. That is the height of anti-Americanism. But to use Willard Motley’s phrase, “Knock on any door,” and you could find countless LaMottas—violent, suspicious, self-destructive, who have left disasters in their wake, but there was nobody there to chronicle them. We prefer happy endings to our social neglect: saccharine Sylvester Stallones. pugs who are pussycats or flower girls who end up at Ascot.

But even in the field of achieving and then destroying celebrity, LaMotta is not unique. Streetwise black, basketball players with fat NBA contracts still get high on more than slam dunks, and up-from-the-pavement union leaders who have had access to the seats of government can’t resist the chance to turn a little change on the side. The outside world might be astonished, but the boy on the block understand all too well. What’s felonious to some is “regular” to others.

When LaMotta got the chance, he didn’t get out. When he made his score in boxing, his first move was to buy an apartment house in the Bronx for his family (parents, brother, sisters). Obviously, to erect a shrine in such heathen lands as the other boroughs never occurred to him, nor should it have. It had to be accessible for worship by those who lay down turf theology.

YEARS LATER, when he was broke and serving time on a Florida chain gang for allowing a teenage prostitute to work his nightclub (he claims innocence about her age and trade), his father sold the apartment house (it was in his name but Jake’s property), deserted his family and moved back to his native Italy alone.That’s the caliber of doublebank that makes street legend.

If one knows the code of the streets, wife-beating is no surprise either. Women (mothers exempted) were only revered as sexual trophies. The language of lovemaking sounded like contracts: “bang,” “screw”—love delivered from a running board. Jealousy is easy to divine, too. You simply ascribed to others the reason you wanted women. If your own intentions were base, so were the world’s.

One has only to remember the photos of Vikki LaMotta then, or to look at her now to realize her erotic worth as a trophy. At age 50, after giving birth to four children (three by Jake and one by a subsequent marriage that also ended in divorce), she still could make a bishop want to break a stained glass.

Vikki realizes the cloud a sexual aura casts. “People see the blonde hair, the beautiful body and look no further. They never search for the dignity. My problem with Jake was that he consumed me. He did it in a very beautiful way, but he consumed me. I was only 15 when we met in June 1946, and we were married in November of the same year. In a way you could say Jake kidnapped me.”

It’s a lovely turn of phrase: “kidnapped me.” It evokes Fay Wray and her rough-hewn suitor. “Our marriage was fine when Jake had control. On the beginning he trained me, molded me to be his kind of woman, but later on when I matured and deviated from what he wanted, he couldn’t handle it. I watched Pygmalion on television the other night, and I saw many similarities.”

LaMotta’s mad jealousy was fueled by the long periods of sexual withdrawal when he was in training. He believed in the old adage that sexual activity sapped strength. “It was a mistake, but in a way it worked. It made me an animal in the ring. Bu now I think I should have had it once in a while.”

Worse, the intensity of training began to render LaMotta impotent when he wanted to perform. For man like LaMotta to fail at all, but especially with his “kidnapped” goddess, was excruciating. So instead of swatting airplanes, Jake disfigured opponents such as Tony Janiro, whom Vikki found handsome; his brother, who had introduced Vikki to Jake, and who made the mistake of kissing her warmly whenever they met; and Vikki herself, for offering her cheek to be peeked by friends.

The beatings were serious enough to require medical attention, and when once Vikki retaliated, she said, “It was a mistake. He reacted like a fighter. He came back at me and nearly killed me.”

Yet for all this, she claims they had glorious times together (rarely shown in the film), and finds her ex-husband spiritual. “Just look into those sad, soft eyes. Whenever I’m sick, Jake is the first at my bedside. What greater love? I love him dearly. No longer in a sexual way, but who knows? That could come back, though I’m frightened to put the heat back into the relationship. It’s so loving and warm now. I just don’t think of him in a sexual way. To be blunt, I have no desire to ball him. He doesn’t like me to say that, but it’s the truth. And I’d need that to get back with him. I’m a woman, and a woman means hot. But love him I do, and who knows what the future will bring? That’s the exciting thing about the future.”

They, have stayed in constant contact 34 years. Jake visits Vikki in North Miami Beach (in the home he bought for her) a few times each year and stays at the house. “Separate bedrooms,” he is quick to add. He talks to her by phone three or four times a week. And he admits that his continuing affection for Vikki hindered his other marriages. “Aw, they knew,” he says. “I’m not smart enough with women to hide anything.”

Of course, LaMotta’s love for Vikki might be heightened by their golden period together. “We had everything,” he says. “Love, home, children, money, the championship, his and hers Cadillac cars.”

Their children hint at more solid stuff. The two boys I met, Jack Jr., 33, and Joe, 32, seem well-adjusted and carry no scars. Neither remembers the parental brawls. Those took place in private, and Vikki says that when she was black and blue she retreated behind her bedroom doors until the damage healed. There is a courageous civility about that.

Jack Jr. is sympathetic about the forces that fashioned his father’s life. “He grew up in the Depression, and everything was struggle. Everything was denial. His generation had to fight to get out. That’s why you don’t see fighters with the ferocity of the ’40s fighters anymore.”

JACK CONCURS. “The fighters today are spoiled. Only Duran and Muhammad Ali could have stood with the greats of the past. You know, we fought every three weeks. When I started to make money, I couldn’t get enough. It was a Depression thing, I’d fight anyone. Then when I made it, I didn’t know how to handle it. After all those years of denying myself, I went crazy with everything from booze to broads.”

Fight everyone, he did. Nobody puts a knock on LaMotta as a fighter. Harry Markson, the retired president of Madison Square Garden boxing, said “Outside Sugar Ray Robinson, he was the greatest middleweight of that era. He fought black fighters, both light-heavyweight and middleweight, that no one else would touch. He was fearless.

Much is made of LaMotta’s dump to Fox, but many forget he was top-ranked for five years without getting a title shot. And going the in the water wasn’t his province alone. It is common knowledge that good black fighters of that era often had to swoon for the mob to get bouts. Robinson was one who refused and had wait until he was 30 to get his crack at the middleweight crown, which, perversely, was granted by LaMotta.

Also, some members of the pious press didn’t seem to have the clout to force legitimate showdowns. This wasn’t for ignorance of fistic worth, but for the most venal of reasons. You still hear gossip about members of the fourth estate who picked up “envelopes” under the guise that they were gifts for their kids’ birthdays, graduations, or some such.

Harry Markson, while making no case for LaMotta’s action (“Robinson never did it”), added that boxing commissions were either nonexistent or had no clout, and that the press and television didn’t have the power they have today. “Let’s just say that in that period there was ample skullduggery.”

LaMotta’s sole defense is that he wanted the crown. “I always hated those creeps and never let them near me. They offered me a hundred thousand to dump, and I refused. I only wanted the title. And even when I went along, I still had to kick back $20,000 under the table to get the fight with Cerdan.”

Jake testified before Kefauver when the statute of limitations ran out. In his original affidavit Jake named Blinky Palermo as the fixer, but later testified he didn’t know who masterminded the dump. “You know who was around in those days. Palermo, Carbo, draw your own conclusions.”

LaMotta, in a way, as like John Dean. He validated the bad news in high places everyone knew about but no one wanted to talk about. Finking no matter how cleansing, is never appreciated. It isn’t strange that LaMotta can recite verbatim Brando’s Terry Malloy speech, “I coulda been somebody …” from On the Waterfront with feeling.

When Jake finished talking about this painful period, Jack Jr. massaged his shoulders into relaxation. “No one knows my father except his family. They only know of him back then. Not what he became. A gentle, sweet man. The ending is the exciting part of his life.”

Jake, grandiose as ever, proclaimed, “Now I have the patience of a saint. You’ll lose your temper before me.”

Joe and Vikki concur. Jake, realizing the “saint” line is as gaudy as his leopard-skin fighter’s robe (the material of macho bathing suits in the ’40s, though LaMotta didn’t add the black slim comb as a final fillip), tempers his canonization: “I still make mistakes, but less and less. Isn’t that what life is about? It has to be less and less, if I am going … going to …” He trails off.

Jack says he finds lessons in his father’s life: “There are deep meanings in dad’s struggle.” LaMotta, where his family is concerned, seems not to have passed on the sins of his father.

MARTIN SCORSESE defends his unrelenting, unprobing film portrait of LaMotta by declaring he didn’t want to apply tired psychology, that he found LaMotta to be an “elemental man.” By which I gather he means a man unfettered by influences. It’s a quaint notion: The Abominable Snowman Comes to Mulberry Street. The director’s peg tells us more about Scorsese than about LaMotta.

Numerous articles have related that Scorsese was sickly child, consumed by movies and movie magazines, looking down from his window on those mean streets below. As a man, the same articles tell us, he is still house bound, running endless private tapes of movies in a more spacious, affluent setting. This sequestered life comes through in all Scorsese’s films, the art of a meticulous voyeur.

Scorsese gets the mannerisms, the speech patterns, the language and the interiors precisely right. What formed the tableau seems beyond him. From a bedroom window—his first viewfinder—barbaric action in the street with an opera record playing in the background might indeed look like the rites of a primal society.

The only way to dispel reverential awe was to know those streets. Saloons and poolrooms were not pagan temples, merely colorful neon way stations in a drab culture. Bright bars were concrete equivalents of the neighborhood’s best painted women, and a rack of pool balls cascading under fluorescent lights transported the shooter into a colorful galaxy. People didn’t die gothic deaths on those streets. Life was drained by the dullness. If LaMotta’s hook were a little slower, his temper a shade less manic, he would have been the Friday night undercard in the local beer joint, not a celebrated “Raging Bull.”

For Scorsese to plumb LaMotta’s psyche he would have to have a narrative curiosity, and that is not the art of a window kid for whom stories take place down below—on the streets. Talk is the province of the comer guys, the verbal spritzers who gaudily throw it around in lieu of money, dreams or hope.

And, of course, narrative is interruptive. It breaks up, sullies the purity of the scene. To visually oriented artists such as as Scorsese, narrative is as sacrilegious as inserting dialogue balloons on a Magritte

So Scorsese too an astringent tone in his film. With Raging Bull, he effectively holds boxing films such as Champion and Body and Soul, which explored Social beginnings, up to ridicule. Through attempts at reason and understanding, these films made overtures to the heart. To Scorsese, obviously, these were cluttered films, weakened by sentiment. So he used his camera as an unsympathetic X-ray machine, the bed boy finally making his bones.

CONTRARY TO stereotypes, “house-grown” kids are often filled with confidence. The doting of parents, the coloring books and ice cream brought to bedside, the extra blanket for the precious body, the music spinning in the background are the trappings of tyke kings. Consequently, they learn to manipulate an audience early. So it’s not surprising Scorsese couldn’t understand LaMotta’s self-loathing and lack of confidence. LaMotta was only one of the litter.

Also, LaMotta feared and hated priests early. When Scorsese made a bow to such emotion in his Mean Streets, he had Harvey Keitel sacrilegiously bless his whiskey glass, evoking Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The Jakes and Studs Lonigans of he world took damnation seriously, not as baroque artistic fodder. To LaMotta, the fear of immolating fire was never aesthetic, it was real: “I felt for some reason my opponent had a right to destroy me.”

Since street kids get by with hustle, not substance, they always doubt themselves. The leopard skin was worn to keep outside tribes at bay. Street kids feel con, not concreteness, is their deliverance. When you work with con and swagger the final damnation is going to be your unmasking in the larger world.

When I was first published at age 30, after working the docks for most of my life, I was terrified instead of being elated. When I was at a social function with my betters, Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, Arthur Miller, I laced myself with booze against the impending mass denunciation I felt would expose me as a cultural bodysnatcher. This dread was fortified by the oppressive Catholicism of the ’40s and ’50s. The most deeply felt commandment was that earthly glitter was suspect; it was tawdry, whorish rouge on both your religion and your roots. God, like the old gang, only dug regular guys.

An operatic score is much too florid for LaMotta’s life. It is a cultural pretension, akin to the canard that all the Irish are familiar with Yeats. For LaMotta’s odyssey of self-loathing, the Catholic hymn; “Lord I Am Not Worthy,” would have come closer.

Indeed, it is because LaMotta is not “elemental man” that he survived and softened his life. LaMotta is what he is today because he has made intellectual decisions, no visceral ones. Through reading, self-hypnotism and study of various religions, through studying acting and grooming himself as a lecturer—all things foreign to him *and elemental man)—he has found some grace in life.

These are disciplines of the mind, and LaMotta knows his is a life that has to be sentried. He carries this over to his physical well-being by dieting and shunning booze. His decision to be reclusive and his acquiring the domestic arts of cooking and cleaning are further monitors. In the future, he wants to talk to kids about violence and alcoholism (“I think they’ll listen to me”) and do charity work in hospitals. “You know, tell people stories, do some recitals from my stage and nightclub act Make people laugh.”

He’s a man who declares, “I love to do things. To keep busy. That’s why I love Vikki and the kids with me now. I cook every meal. I won’t let any of them touch a dish. I love projects.” Projects are the Dobermans that prowl his darker impulses. He is still a man who suspects before he greets. In frustration, Graziano says, “He’s very complex, very deep.

I tell him to relax, but he can’t. I introduce him to someone, and he says, ‘Who is he? ‘What does he do? What does he want?’ He can’t realize it’s someone who just wants to meet him; He just don’t know. I say hello to the world . He just don’t know.”

Even now, when someone greets Vikki in public with a kiss, he looks on with distrust, but he doesn’t act. Reason has brought him to that simple point. He mistrusts success, as well he should. Every high point in his life has been followed by a crash. The title “nobody is going to take from me” was gone 20 months later, lost to Robinson. From the crown, he went on to divorce, alcoholism and conviction on morals charges. He says now, “I can’t be happy, everything is going so well.”

Not quite that well. Again, success has a rectal side. The IRS has leaned on him for money accrued from the movie, his fifth wife is suing for an alimony settlement and his brother is suing the entire movie production staff, including Jake for their portrayal of him. In his most emotional statement, Jake declares, “Aw, that’s nothing. It’s part of living in this vicious, fuckin’, mixed-ups, sick world.”

To LaMotta’s credit, he keeps such dark rage on a tight leash these days. He has learned the elemental lesson of those streets. You can’t go back because some unhealed part never leaves. In this world our initial address, like tragedy, forever haunts.

For more Flaherty, check out “Toots Shor Among the Ruins.”

New York Minute

So if you’ve never read Joe Flaherty’s Managing Mailer, well, it’s worth picking up.

Toots Shor Among the Ruins

Joe Flaherty was a wonderful writer. He may be best remembered as Mailer and Breslin’s campaign manager but his work for the Voice, Esquire, Sport and many other magazines holds up today. It is smart, irreverent, and funny. Unfortunately, Flaherty died of cancer in 1983 at the age of 47.

Still, you can’t go wrong with any of his four books:

It’s a shame that much of his magazine work is unavailable on-line, so in an effort to correct that wrong, here is a piece that originally appeared in the October 1974 issue of Esquire. It is reprinted here with Jeanine Flaherty’s permission.


Toots Shor Among the Ruins

By Joe Flaherty


Across the isle of Manhattan these days floats a torch song for the past. The wail seems to be strained through a muted horn or, better yet, siphoned through a derby. What occasions this is the belief that the Apple has turned sour, the Big Town has become just another burg.

The reasons are myriad: political, social, sporting. For a while Lindsay revived some past glories, but his clout was cultural—always a limited bailiwick. Lincoln Center is a haven for scratch hitters, while Jimmy Walker got the kudos of the leather-lunged set in saloons, ball parks, and the Garden. Now City Hall is dwarfed by an accountant.

When future generations walk what was “The Main Stem,” “Dream Street,” “The Great White Way,” they will be as baffled as current-day surveyors of Stonehenge. What do these remains bespeak? Will they believe that such places as the Paramount, the Roxy, the Capitol, the Strand, Lindy’s, Birdland, the Hotel Astor, and Tootsie’s ever existed? Or will they think they were some Runyonesque flight of fancy?

Will they ever believe that Broadway was once a street where a gent sported a derby on his head instead of his lap, and that deep throat was the source of accolades for Ruth, DiMag, Mantle, Mays, Canzoneri, Conn, and Louis rather than the private province of Linda Lovelace?

Contrary to the boast of the Beautiful People, the town has turned tacky. Every freak who scatters glitter on his or her navel and whose sexual persuasion is as dubious as Eisenhower’s syntax (confusion over copulative verbs) is christened a celeb overnight. Even the mob guys have lost their cachet. No more Big Frenchys, Owney Maddens, and “Uncle Frank” Costellos. The current crop, if one is to believe their chroniclers, are Sicilian versions of Robert Young in Father Knows Best.

Sports have seen a better day here. What once passed as a mortal Olympus has been reduced to an anthill. The Dodgers are gone like the trolley; and the Giants, residents of Coogan’s Bluff, went with them westward to California for man’s most expedient reason: the fast buck. The sites where Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds stood are now housing projects, a progression that might brighten the horizons of the Americans for Democratic Action but hardly the hopes of those theologians who thought the teams’ existence in this town was as essential as God or the Devil (depending on your persuasion) and who nightly found biblical or demonic portents in the box scores of the Daily News.

The football Giants are taking it on the lam for New Jersey (the spare-parts capital of the world), so one will feel no longer like a sport on a trek to the Stadium but rather like a penny-conscious housewife on a foray to a suburban shopping mall. The Mets and Jets are sequestered out in Queens, which is as consoling as having a government-in-exile.The Garden is the last real action spot, but most of the championship fights of late have been held out of town or out of the country to beat New York’s huge tax bite.

Of course, there are the Knicks and the Rangers. The Knicks are fine if you can come by the hottest ticket in town and then bear to sit will a collection of unisexuals from Maxwell’s Plum and Thursday’s; while hockey is best left to those whose psyches are haunted by the province of Manitoba and violence on the rocks.

Just pause to think of the glories of another day. During the golden era of sport, the early Twenties through the Fifties, the three New York baseball clubs—the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants—won a combined total of forty-one pennants and twenty-three World Series. There was incestuous joy in those stats. From 1921 to 1956 there were thirteen (!) “Subway Series,” involving the Yankees (participants in all) against either the Dodgers or the Giants. So the navigators of New York knew better than to believe the notion that the world was round. Abundant riches were to be found in the flat shuttling of the subways.

To unearth all these relics, there was only one man to turn to. A man who knew all the bygone haunts, hoods, and heroes. A man who outdrank and outlasted them not because of his spiritual and social worth but through the tenacity of an anointed liver: New York’s premier saloonkeeper, Toots Shor.

If the choice offends contemporary barhoppers, indulge. It’s a forgotten motif we’re seeking. Better yet, try to picture Elaine Kaufman (hostess of the chichi Elaine’s) laying a fin on a down-and-out wino. But like everything that once comprised his world, Shor’s star these days is in descendance. First off, he is a man without a saloon, which to Shor is like being a priest without a pulpit. No longer do the greats serve as acolytes at his boozy altar, accepting both compliment and insult as blessing. In the old days either one sufficed, the only limbo was being ignored. To be called a “creep” or a “crumbum” back them meant you were a member of his liquid church.

Now his only outlet to his world is the telephone on which the congregation call in daily (though check in seems more like it) for a few minutes of patter that has the ancient jocularity of the buck-and-wing. But it is not a one-way street: the voices on both ends of the line seem to need the therapy. So the phone it must be, since Toots is too sick to make house calls.

Shor sits in a small suite in the Hotel Drake, dressed in blue pants and an open-neck shirt. Even the gold wedding band on his finger bows to a more innocent time. The band is a testament to forty years of marriage to the same woman. He is seventy-one, and his once rugged bulk has been whittled away by a combination of age, illness, and nearly a half century of beating the milkman home by an eyelash. Of late, he has suffered two broken hips, has arthritis in his knee, and on this day he is a week away from having a pancreas operation.

But the visitor does not receive a litany of old-age infirmities (that would show “no class” in the Shor cannon). Indeed, his only lamentation is that he has been on the wagon for three weeks on doctor’s orders, and Shor is a man who can make three weeks without sauce sound like the worldly rejection of a Trappist monk.

But to talk of Shor, one must understand a simple fact: a good part of life is the gesture or the front one puts up. Only deadbeats and punks weep about life’s slings and arrows; stand-up guys take it on the chin and order another round, even if they have to put it on the tab. Shor himself was a flat-pocket import from Philadelphia who rose to millionaire status when, in 1958, he sold his fabled spot at Fifty-one West Fifty-first Street to the Zeckendorf real-estate interests for one million, five. But today, his pockets are as close to his ass as the day he blew Philly. His downfall was building his new saloon at Thirty-three West Fifty-second, the site of the old Leon and Eddie’s (where, in his early days, he served as a bouncer) and now Jimmy’s, political drinking trough of former Lindsay aides Dick Aurelio and Sid Davidoff.

Shor took great pride in building his joints from the ground up. He didn’t like taking over someone else’s failed saloon and redecorating it to his taste. The ghosts of someone else’s boozers haunting one of his places would be an unspeakable social breach. Toot’s grounds had to be new and hallowed. After all, you couldn’t 86 some other creep’s ghosts. And besides, he did have a good track record, since the Fifty-first Street place had been a success. But the one-block jump and a few decades’ distance proved a disaster.

His mistakes were many. Adhering to a bygone calendar, he miscalculated the cost of everything from construction to the prices he would have to charge for food and drinks just to keep the place operating. In the Forties he paid off his Fifty-first Street saloon in a year and a half, charging $1.40 for roast beef, with drinks at fifty and sixty cents. Now hooch cost more per shot than the roast beef of decades ago, and steaks were pulling down $7.50. He estimated the construction cost at three million, seven; but according to The Herald Tribune financial page, the actual cost ended up at $7,500,000.

Moreover, when one looks back at the failure of the new Toots Shor’s, it was touchingly human. Shor is not unlike Lear in old age—unable to accept that men can control everything but time. This is hardly a sin, just a pathetic need in all of us to cocoon ourselves between the parentheses of dates. The old Garden on Fiftieth Street was gone, and the new Garden was downtown on Thirty-second Street. No longer could one saunter over to Toots’s, one had to cab it. And when one was forced to wheels, other options opened: Gallagher’s 33, the bars located in the new Garden itself, or the Lion’s Head in the Village.

Granny Rice and Bill Corum were filing from the other side of the void, and the West Coast had lured away many of the New York celebs that made Toots’s Toots’s. And Shor’s proud claim, “I never ran a dame joint,” which had held him in good stead in the past with hale-hearted fellows, was a stigma invisibly painted on his door to a new breed of athlete and sportswriter who, after an evening of sniffing liniment, yearned for some perfume. In the Sixties, passes and runs at ends were being made at Namath’s Bachelors III, and sexual shagging was the sport in Phil Linz’s Mr. Laff’s.

Depending on your perspective, Shor’s opening such a place smacked of arrogance or an heroic effort by a man who would plug the hourglass to his pleasure. Even simple concessions to another era weren’t granted. In the age of the turtleneck, patrons at Shor’s had to wear a tie (Bill Veeck was the only man excepted from this dictate).

But possibly there is a last, more romantic conclusion to be floated. The new Shor’s was cavernous—spacious beyond any functional worth. So indeed, Toots might have known his time had passed, and like Tutankhamen he decided to build a tomb for himself and his memories, with a curse ensconced for all those who in the future dared to violate the place with broads and turtlenecks.

Make no mistake about it, the allusion to a past potentate is not out of joint. Although Shor is a self-confessed “loudmouth” and “just a saloonkeeper,” he commanded curtsies from the mighty far beyond such deprecations. Not only did the jocks and celebs come to the Fifty-first Street Lourdes for the waters, but also Presidents, princes of the church, financiers, a Supreme Court justice, and a bevy of heavy-between-the-ears writers. He had been lionized in biographies by Bob Considine and John Bainbridge of The New Yorker.

“Somebody once said to me,” Toots growled from his chair, “that I was lucky to have a drink with seven different Presidents, and I said they were lucky to have a drink with me.”

Though the food at his joint was rated Cordon Phoo, it was he who was chosen to cater a luncheon for visiting members of the papal court at the Archdiocese of New York, one of the many “proudest moments in my life” he proclaims. Such stars as DiMaggio and Mantle called him at his saloon every day when they were on the road, and the suspicion here is that it was expected.

The devotion he commanded might best be summed up by a story Bainbridge tells: A Shor regular once met DiMag running west on Fifty-second Street and stopped him to inquire about his hurry. The great Joltin’ Joe answered, “I had to eat lunch with the Yankees at ‘21’ and I want to get over and tell Toots before somebody gives him a bad report.”

This kind of toadying usually is rendered to a vindictive aristocracy, not to the saloonkeeper son of immigrant parents.

To trace Shor’s rise to prominence, one has to shun studies of family heraldry and look to plays by Odets or Abraham Polonsky’s movie Body and Soul. His mother Fanny was born in St. Petersburg. His father Abraham came from Leipzig and had attended the university at Munich. They were both Jews.

This fact surprises, since Shor’s lifestyle of bouncing, boozing, and gambling more appropriately describes the Irish Catholic. It would be fair to assume that a goodly number of people, knowing not the man but the legend, would think Shor was spelled Shaw and that the carouser they read about in Earl Wilson’s column was a roaring boyo. Teddy Brenner, the Garden matchmaker, suffers from the same ethnic confusion. After all, it’s common knowledge—right?—that Jews don’t take up the rowdy professions or carry on in public.

But this canard brings us back to Messrs. Odets and Polonsky. The stage, or scene, is set. Shor’s mother, one of thirteen children, had no time for schooling when she arrived in America. She had to go to work in a Philadelphia factory to support her brothers and sisters. Think of strength. Think of Anne Revere.

His father, even with a higher education, was forced into the shirt-making trade in the new, prejudiced land. Think of the kindly, philosophical dreamer. They opened a cigar and candy store to supplement the father’s meager income. Now we have it: egg creams for education. Add Odets’ Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy or Polonsky’s Charlie Davis in Body and Soul, and the scenario fleshes out. Toots is the Jew John Garfield later memorialized on film. In the hostile gentile environs of South Philly he did not have just to learn but also to master the catechism of the gutters if he was going to make his mark.

Soda jerking was for jerks and schooling for the leisure class or dewy-eyed immigrants who would raise their aspirations one generation at a time. So Toots preempted the script of the Ash Can school of art and mastered the cue stick, as Prospero summoned his staff. Moreover, he etched the parameters of the poor—the con and the hustle—into his psyche.

If one listens to Considine tell it, the script sticks. Toots’s mother was the formidable influence (Garfield had waded into hell only to bring back a fur coat for Anne Revere). “My mother was a little woman, but real strong, God bless her,” testified Shor.

His father comes in for praise, but with a disclaimer: “He was a wonderful, educated man, tall and well built, but like a Mr. Milquetoast. My mother ran our family. She taught me the greatest lesson I ever had—she taught me how to fight.”

There are layers in that quote, and one suspects they get darker as they are peeled off. Toots’s beloved mother died in a horrible accident: she was decapitated by a runaway ambulance; his father committed suicide five years later. His father’s act might explain Shor’s later advocacy of “professional illiteracy.” Perhaps culture and learning, no matter how desirable, were anathema to being a “stand-up guy.” And father or no father, one has to believe that suicide, in the Shor canon, bespoke “no class.”

According to Shor, his love affair with New York was instantaneous. He worked as a bouncer and greeter in a couple of joints before he was able to raise a bankroll for his own spot on West Fifty-first. “When I started to meet guys like Crosby and Sinatra and all those ballplayers,” he related, “I knew this was the place for me.” After a while, he claims, the adoration flowed the other way. “The celebs,” he said, “would come to any joint I was working in.”

Why? once again pops up. Here is Shor, a rube who admits he debuted in the Big Town with “brown shoes, for chrissake,” becoming the mountain to the WHO’S WHO lemmings. A good measure of his success is attributable to the columnist Mark Hellinger, who recorded Shor’s exploits in baroque terms and baptized him “the classiest bum in town.” If providence had granted Shor the right to choose an alter ego, Hellinger would have been it. He was an urbane, witty man who spent like a sailor and drank like an eighteenth-century lord. Shor, who didn’t shake hands with the devil till his early twenties, soon made Mark his Mitty—right down to adopting Hellinger’s “class” drink, brandy-and-soda.

The penultimate Hellinger-Shor story dates back to 1947, when Shor and his wife spent a month’s vacation in Hollywood as Hellinger’s guests. Variety’s account of the trip ran under the headline, “100% Sur-Le-Cuff.”:

“After New York restaurateur Toots Shor recently completed a month’s cuffo stay under Mark Hellinger’s aegis on the Coast, the producer-writer arranged for the stewardess on Shor’s return flight to hand him $5 when he boarded the eastbound plane, with a note explaining, ‘Just to make it 100%—in case you have to tip at LaGuardia.’”

When Hellinger died at the age of forty-four, Shor in reverence to his mentor became the quickest arm in the East reaching for the tabs. That, too, touches. In my experience, only those who have known poverty develop into big spenders. It’s as if a childhood of watching one’s family genuflect to the buck in the most miniscule monetary matters predicates that the only way as an adult to rid oneself of such dread is to have an economic exorcism—in short, to “piss it all away.”

This thesis has been borne out in the personal experience among not only the once poor but also the forever rich. I once interviewed a young socialite, who was running for political office, at a downtown saloon where the food dead-heated with what Toots used to serve. When the bill for cheeseburgers and beer came, he informed me that I had ordered a side of home fries and two beers to his one, thus I was liable for the extra $1.35 on the check.But such psychological meandering would be so much crap to the gruff Toots. A shrink once made the public conjecture that he over-tipped to compensate for his insecurity, and Shor replied, “It’s not possible to over-tip.”

This extravagance, this blatant disrespect for the buck in a society that gingerly sniffs it out like a hound in search of the proper johnny pump had to give Shor, the otherwise bumptious South Philly exile, a smattering of élan. Legend has it that Toots’s was the place where those aspiring to greatness, like the late actor Paul Douglas or Jackie Gleason, or a newspaperman who only had another deadline in his future, could “put it on the arm” when flat-pocketed.

One story is that Gleason tabbed for over a year, and that it didn’t disturb Shor in the least until he noticed “the Great One” was adding enormous tips to his bills. When Shor confronted him with this disturbing dichotomy, Gleason, instead of being contrite, became indignant and replied, “What are you trying to do? Make me look like a bum in front of your help?” Shor, the report goes, never brought it up again.

If you’re a man who likes his sauce, finding Toots is similar to finding the proper analyst—the one who agrees with you. The philistines are teetotalers, since the Shor sermon from the mount is that “whiskey helps you when you’re feelin’ good and when you’re feelin’ bad.” Indeed, when Shor lists the accomplishments and social graces of other men, drinking proclivities seem to outweigh all else. He even has his All-Stars. In the actor category Don Ameche wins hands down. Jason Robards and “that limey actor—what’s his name, Peter O’Toole?—are nothing but Eighth Avenue boozers.” What this geographical slur meant missed me, but a shot in the dark is that Eighth Avenue, with its well-known theatrical pubs, is the guzzling ground for fey drinkers. Pubs, pshaw! Shor’s was a saloon.

In sports—even though his records are passé, asterisk or otherwise—there was only one Ruth, according to Shor, when it came to the Sultan of Swill. “We used to call him ‘the Animal,’” Shor said fondly, “there was nobody like him. He was the greatest personality of his time. He dominated everything. He lit up every room he walked into. That’s what we need today, a hero of that stature who kids could look up to. But he’ll never be replaced.”

The amazing thing about Shor is that he professes never to find the dark side of alcohol. This is not meant as a prudish chastisement, since I’ve blown more kisses to “last call” than I care to remember. But all the heavy hitters I have known in life have had their periods of despair. Then again, they waded in the sea of booze because they were out on philosophical fishing expeditions. A whale of an answer was to be found in the sauce.

Shor sees it differently. He says he has lived a life in which every night was New Year’s Eve.Perhaps this can be attributed to the firm belief that the high-living Toots has never found himself at odds with the Lord. Indeed, aside from his gluttonous liquid intake, Shor has raised huge sums of money for religious groups of all dominations. He regally state, with all the pomp of a teetotaling deacon: “I consider myself a very religious man.” In the old days, around Toots the Lord was chummily referred to as “the Big Guy.” A nice stunt if you can carry it off—the sky as a locker room with Vince Lombardi as the honcho. The “boys” or “regular guys” would always be welcome in such a milieu; and if the real truth were known, God is a chap who probably enjoys his glass.

One suspects this is not guesswork by the reporter, since “all the great ones,” according to Toots, were blessed with this failing. Shor even says it wasn’t the booze that did in Hellinger but some vague infection he acquired while he was in the hospital. And when Rags Ragland died, Shor wrote to Bing Crosby: “The ginger ale [booze] ruined him. The doctor said he should have started taking care of himself fifteen years ago. My answer to that is, Look at the fun he would have missed.”

Bygone memories and booze are beyond dispute in the Shor scheme of things. He defiantly stated: “What is this new breed worrying about? The rat bastards ought to realize you have to die from something. And the ones who are gone, well, I don’t see anybody taking their place.”

Shor, to put it mildly, is not hot on the current crop in any field. But this is not a rarity among men who have outlived their times and many of their contemporaries. A swinger such as Namath is a mere Shriner on a toot when compared to Bobby Layne: “Layne drank more booze and had more broads in one season than Namath will have in his career.” And Eddie Arcaro received the accolade of being “the best hangover jockey of all time.” But such stats are difficult to check unless one is privy to the tales of the confession box.

For all his hard-nose, Shor has a disturbing Dink Stover quality. He speaks of Ruth and Dempsey as if their records shouldn’t be in books, but on the Sistine Ceiling. To him, athletes are the ones who have graced this planet. “People in sport,” he tells you, “are the greatest people in the world.”

To illustrate his point, he cited how he attended a prizefight at the Garden with Averell Harriman, Joe DiMaggio, and Ernest Hemingway, and “nobody noticed Hemingway—only DiMaggio.” He would be better off if he remembered Red Smith’s dictum that baseball, after all, is still a game played by little boys.

A basic flaw in Shor (an abundance of grace to his champions) is his sentimentality. But as O’Neill pointed out, this is part of being a boozer. John Barleycorn turns on the sad music in his adherents. Toots has a vehement distaste for all young sportswriters who look at the seamier side of Olympus. “All they write about is money,” he complained. “Who wants to hear about that? They should be writing about the heroes.”

This seems deliberately naïve, since sports have now bypassed whoredom in greed. But then, Shor deals in absolutes. He will bitch about the decline of New York, but during the course of our conversation was on the phone with Giants president Wellington Mara, who is shagging ass to New Jersey, and they sounded like matched turtledoves. And when I asked him about this obvious contradiction, he gave me a conspiratorial wink and said, “I know you’re right, but you don’t tell another guy how to run his store.”

Of the current irreverent sportswriters, Larry Merchant of The New York Post is the target of much of his ire. Merchant wrote of Mara, “How can you trust an Irishman named Wellington?” and pointed out his penchant for the green.

“He’d like to write like Dan Parker, but he doesn’t have the balls,” said Shor.

Merchant, passing off Shor’s venom, touted him thus: “He’s just pissed off because I never went into his fuckin’ joint.”

But the bull’s-eye of Shor’s ire is ex-Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton, the Joe Valachi of the locker room, who wrote Ball Four. “That bum nearly ruined Mickey’s  marriage with his book,” Toots growled.

On the other hand, Shor claims that the young sportswriters “are a bunch of creeps who leave a sporting event and go home and have a milk shake.”

One of them, Vic Ziegel, who also writes for The New York Post and who has been known to curl his fingers around a glass as lovingly as around his typewriter, retorted, “Just tell him I would have been happy to come into his place, but they didn’t even know how to make a good milk shake.”

In a way it’s odd (even conceding old age) that Shor spurns the young, since he sees himself as an all-encompassing father figure. When he speaks of Crosby and Sinatra, he says, “I raised those kids.” And this year, when Mantle and Whitey Ford were inducted into the Hall of Fame, Toots says it was another of his greatest moments. “To see my two kids make it to Cooperstown was the thrill of a lifetime,” he declared. At a party afterward Shor cracked to Mantle that Ford’s pitching arm had added two years to Mantle’s career, and Mantle replied, “You took five years off it.”

That is the nice surrogate-father role, but there also is a tyrannical Big Daddy. Shor proudly related how he “aided” one of the most famous athletes ever to play baseball in New York. The player in question had just been divorced by his first wife. One evening while Shor was attending a prizefight at the Garden, someone told him the player’s ex-wife was flying back to California and taking the couple’s young son with her. Toots immediately left the Garden and cabbed to Idlewild. “I grabbed her at the airport and said, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ and took the kid by the hand and brought him back to his father. The bitch flew to California alone.”

In the Shor canon, this was a consummate act of loyalty; in the legal canon, it might be considered kidnapping.

Yet this, too, must be considered: why Shor commanded power beyond his calling. His daring to act, to be the take-charge guy, to fit Bob Dylan’s memorable phrase “the whole world is looking for a daddy.” Shor served as not only barkeep but marriage broker as well. Infidelity is beyond his scope.

“I can’t understand,” he said, “how a husband and wife could do that to each other.”

But surely, one queried, of the scores of celebs who frequented Shor’s some played around? Big Daddy had a dictate for this, too: “I wouldn’t allow one of my married regulars to come into my joint with another broad on his arm. If he was screwing around, he had better have another guy in his company with the broad to make it look all right.”

Indeed, there were many ways to fall out of Shor’s graces. On a particularly crowded and hot night in Shor’s, the much-lionized Norman Mailer was asked to leave because he took off his jacket. Jimmy Breslin was chastised for his colorful language. And when Charlie Chaplin complained about waiting for a table, Shor told the great comedian to “be funny for about twenty minutes.” The message was that in Shor’s it was Toot’s deck.

If Toots orchestrated the living, he was a maestro over the dead. As a mourner he was (and is) a one-man wailing wall. When a Shor regular died, it was beyond saying that the family would be looked after and the surviving troops commanded by Shor to the bier to assure a classy send-off. When the regular was particularly close to the proprietor, Shor would weep and drink in tandem for weeks. There is an apocryphal story circulated by George Jessel that he once whispered in Shor’s ear, “McKinley died,” and Shor broke out weeping and bought rounds for the house.

So Shor, we have found, is composed of as many ingredients as a complex cocktail: bravado, bathos, loyalty. It is the last that cements his bond with his following.

Red Smith, the dean of New York sportwriters, had this to say: “When I was working in Philadelphia, I once asked Toots what made his place the number-one saloon in the world. You have to remember the old place was more famous than Harry’s Bar in Paris or Shepheard’s in Cairo. Toots simply said, ‘The newspaper guys were always my friends.’ He never realized the place was a mother lode if you were writing a column—a blessed thing to have for material.

“As for Toots, he had an all-embracing affection for the guys who went in there. Bill Veeck once said to me it didn’t matter whether he owned the Cleveland Indians or some bushers in Milwaukee, the treatment he received was always the same.”

Smith recounted a story that highlights Shor’s tenacious loyalty to friends, wherever they might be in the standings: “I was sitting with Toots at a back table on a night that the Yanks won the World Series. That year Joe Page  had had a dismal record. I guess it was a combination of old age and too much partying, or maybe his arm was just tired. Whatever, he didn’t really contribute much to the Yanks’ success, and he felt it. That evening the Yankees were having a victory party somewhere else in town. Suddenly, Toots stood up from our table and said,

‘Excuse me, Joe Page is outside.’

“I sat alone for awhile, then a waiter came up to me and said, ‘The boss just gave Joe Page a hero’s welcome.’”

Smith, who is as nifty with a phrase as a professional gift-wrapper with a bow, tied it up: “As a man, you would have to say Toots was enormously loyal and hideously sentimental.”

To others, the magic of Fifty-one West Fifty-first was a happy marriage of the man, the time, and the place. Louis Sobol, the old Broadway columnist for the now defunct Journal-American, opts for the man: “Toots was the last of the old booming hosts. In those days Billingsley at the Stork Club used gimmicks to attract business. He would give perfume to the women or have things like a ‘Balloon Night.’ The balloons would have gift certificates inside for jewelry, cash, puppies—you name it.” Then he added with legionnaire loyalty, “Toots never needed those things. He gave away nothing but the sheer force of his personality.”

For Whitey Ford, the place was unique for a delectable aspect of human bondage: “You would always run into Ameche or Gleason or Graziano. The real charm of the place was that if you went in there at twelve noon you knew you wouldn’t get out for the day.”

For my own part, I, ruefully, was too young to sample the siren call of West Fifty-first, and I found my visitations to Shor’s Taj Mahal on Fifty-second wanting. On my first visit, after a major fight at the Garden, I was denied entrance because I was wearing a turtleneck (but also, I might add, a sport jacket—I personally thought I looked like Max Beerbohm). On subsequent trips, the joint reminded me of a packed convention hall, emitting a single dull roar. But maybe I should have tried a daytime foray. Ford was right about high-noon drinking. It’s like afternoon moviegoing. There is a clandestine camaraderie to be found in such enterprises: to be at play while the rest of the world is toiling in the fields of the Lord.

But what bothered me most about the new Shor’s was that there was no identifiable stamp on it, it could just as well have been run by Restaurant Associates. Once again, Red Smith offered a capper: “The trouble with that cavernous place was that it engulfed Toot’s personality.”

It was now late afternoon, and after watching me back down the better part of a bottle of his brandy, Shor decided—doctors or no doctors—that three weeks dry was enough for any civilized man. He poured a tumbler and pulled hard, and in the same style that black athletes taffy-pull the word “shit” into “shee-e-e-it,” he announced, “Bee-e-yoo-tiful.”

Two hotel employees came into the room to make minor adjustments on his skitterish TV set; and for three minutes’ work Shor peeled a couple of bills from a wad, snapping the money toward himself Broadway style, and dropped them on the grateful repairmen. An old lifestyle never bows to current economic reality.

Some more booze was dropped, and Shor estimated that for nearly a half century he has done a bottle or two of brandy each day. This is a dubious claim to fame, since alcoholism is now the third largest killer in the United States after heart disease and cancer. TIME magazine has given the subject its cherished cover, and there was a television movie, The Morning After, starring Dick Van Dyke (a recovered alcoholic himself).

Shor had watched the special, and it infuriated him. “I never knew any drunk who carried on like that,” he said. “Beating his wife and losing his job and all that shit. My daughter called me the next day, and I told her I should demand equal time. And she said [he was now chortling] that I would need a twenty-four-hour telethon to respond.”

As we bantered, the phone continued to ring. Well Mara again, and to him Shor dropped a line that truly astounded me. He said that he had talked to Randy and told him he was conducting himself like a man—“Randy” was Randolph Hearst!

Pat O’Brien also checked in from the Coast, and there were many I-love-you-too’s. O’Brien dedicated an entire chapter of his autobiography to Shor; it is titled “A Man Called Toots” and is so sentimental it makes Mother Machree sound like something sinister from Sam Beckett.

The drinking continued, and the phone kept ringing. Shor signed off many calls with his comrades-in-arms, “Give your wife a pat on the fanny for me.” One could hear the sisters marching. But again, Shor would be the first to tell you he never ran a dame joint.

As the booze warmed him, Shor became more expansive and perhaps more trusting of one of the “new breed” seated across from him. Men’s boozing always creates that kind of atmosphere—the recalling of episodes, well-worn stories, which have always made me think saloons are the oldest repertory companies in the world.

There was the night he and Pat O’Brien hired a hansom cab to ferry them around town and at daybreak took the driver upstairs to Toot’s duplex for a nightcap. To his irate wife, Shor proclaimed, “You’re lucky we didn’t bring up the horse.” But this is standard college-boy stuff. Some tales indicate that Shor is not the bellowing boozer he would like everyone to think, but a man of agile wit.

The I.R.S. once challenged his return because he had claimed his tickets to baseball games as legitimate business expenses. When the auditor informed Shor that baseball games were pleasure, Toots snorted, “Pleasure! Did you ever see the St. Louis Browns play?” The audit was dropped.

And when his good boozing companion, Ernest Hemingway, went down in a plane crash in Africa and was reported dead by the press, only to emerge a few days later alive and sporting a jug of gin and a bunch of bananas, Shor cabled him a one-word critique: “Showboat!” Then there was the time an old friend spotted Shor talking to Robert Sherwood in his Fifty-first Street joint; he approached Shor and asked what the hell Toots could be saying to a genius. Shor replied, “I was fading him with grunts.” Hardly the quips of a guy who wears brown shoes.

Shor was now in an amber mood, matching the brandy inside and the setting sun outside, and he conceded that a “modern” jock might once again dominate the town like “the Babe.” The Mets’ right outfielder, Rusty Staub, is his choice. Staub has the Shor credentials for canonization: physical presence, talent, he is a bachelor with a bevy of broads and, of course, a man who can handle his jar. On presence alone “O.J. Simpson might make it,” Shor said. “Clay [Ali] could have done it, but he got into that political crap.” The amber turned burnished red.

What of the political Shor? He says he has been a lifelong Democrat. Did he vote for McGovern? Does the pope keep a copy of Martin Luther’s theses on his night table? “If the election was held over again today, I wouldn’t vote for him.” Nixon then? “That s.o.b is paying seven hundred dollars in taxes, and they busted me for a half million.”

Here Shor was referring to the tax assessment on his duplex apartment at 480 Park Avenue and his saloon, which came to $575,000, left him flat-pocketed, and ultimately cost him both his home and his joint. Hedging like hell, like a man who has made a bad tout and doesn’t want to admit it, he refused to commit himself. The tout here is that Nixon, as he did with most of the nation, foxed Shor with his curvy nickel-and-dime philosophy.

It was time to leave. Shor’s wife entered the room and informed him that his private nurse was waiting for him in the bedroom. Mrs. Shor is a petite, pretty woman and a former show girl, Marian Volk (Hellinger had also married a show girl); her public nickname is “Baby.” But to Toots, she is “Husky.” And he obviously puts some credence in his muscular love name for her, since he blamed the empty jug on me.

Jug gone, day done, I now had to frisk why Toots was the genie of the bottle set. New York spits out saloon-keepers with casual distain. Owners and joints fold more often than they succeed and are never heard from again. So why did Shor become sovereign? Why were his legions so loyal? Indeed, during World War II when he had used up his allotment of meat stamps, and the place had to survive for a long period on a menu of omelets and fish, Jimmy Walker announced that Toots was in trouble, and now everybody had to eat there twice a day.

Also consider this: Shor’s food, when meat was plentiful, was summed up by the late Jimmy Cannon in this bit of Michelinian meanness. One night the lights were dimmed at Shor’s for atmosphere, and Cannon cracked, “Thank God, they’ve executed the chef.” So the answer is not to be found in the menu, but definitely in the man.

In an anchorless world, Shor, whose demeanor (by his own account) resembled a bobbing buoy, was a bulwark against drifting values. He was a family man who had raised four children. He was fast with a buck and yet spurned the fast buck. Even now, in financial bushville, when he was approached by a publisher to do a tattle-tale book for big bread on the night life of the gods he had known, he “threw the bum out.”

Through charity he helped line the pockets of the poor and enrich the coffers of heaven. Right or wrong, he was what the Sixties and Seventies aren’t. Though there would never be a McGovern in his life, it would be unfair to indict him for a Nixon. If Shor dealt a monarchial deck, at least it would be a fair one. And if his failing health can’t be revived by science, it might be by nostalgia. After all, if we can’t stand up and sing The Star-Stangled Banner anymore, some sense of solace could be found standing up in a new Toots.

AN EPILOGUE: Weeks later, I talked with Shor by phone to find out about his operation. “I feel great,” he declared. “I was out of the hospital in eleven days. The doctors tell me it takes you young stiffs three weeks to recover. Earl Wilson called me this morning and asked if I was going to give up drinking now, and I told him that at my age it makes no sense.”

I cautioned him that he should at least get back into training for such a venture, and he replied like a man who had just had his flat-pocket spirits inflated, “I’ve been in training all my life.”

What epitaph can be found for an unrepentant Falstaff?

Joe Flaherty and His Muse

Special thanks to Dina C for her transcription skills.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver