By Mark Jacobson
Esquire, December 1991
The last time I saw Harold Conrad, he was lying in a hospital bed wearing dark sunglasses. Leave it to Harold to stake out a small territory of cool amid the fluorescent lighting, salt-free food, and stolid nurses bearing bedpans. The results were in by then, the tale told in black shadows on X-ray transparencies: one in the lung, the other in his head. But Harold always had an angle, and even now, a step from death, the cancer throughout his eighty-year-old body, he sought a hedge. He motioned me closer, rasped into my ear, “Did you bring a joint?”
A few weeks later, after Harold died, I told this story at a memorial service. It got a laugh. Several of Harold’s old friends were there, telling Harold Conrad stories. Norman Mailer recalled how Harold once saved his life; Mailer was drunk that night, he didn’t notice the television set falling off the shelf, hardly caught a glimpse of Harold snatching the machine in midair. “He preserved half my head,” Mailer said. Budd Schulberg talked about a wild week in Dublin, when Harold promoted a Muhammad Ali fight there and the populace stormed the gates because “it was an insult to ask an Irishman to pay to see a fight.” Bill Murray recollected a particularly gelatinous massage and steam-bath procedure Harold once directed him to. “I used to be somebody before I met this Harold Conrad,” Murray detailed. All these stories got laughs, which was only perfect. Harold would never tolerate a wake that didn’t turn into a celebration; you’d figure this would go double for his own.
You could say this about Harold Conrad, newspaperman, superflack, friend to bard and bozo, custodian of a bygone age—he went out on his forever-bent shield. It was Harold’s life mission: to be in his own particular vision of the right place at the right time. Like just two months before he died, we were in Vegas.
Harold had been to Vegas before, about a million times. In fact, along with almost every other bit of action worth a tumble in this hot-breathed century of ours, Harold Conrad was in Vegas at the beginning, before they even threw the switch on the first neon sign. Ground-floor kind of guy, Harold. It was Bugsy Siegel (Ben to you) who got him out to the desert back in ’48, when the Strip was nothing but a dusty two-lane highway between here and L.A. “I need you. Today,” Siegel summoned. Following in the way of Aeneas, Bugs was possessed by a revelatory calling to found a great city. His Flamingo, all pink and heatwaved in the sun’s blare, was ready to open, and he needed someone sharp to sling his ink. Harold, of course, had handled the publicity for Meyer Lansky and the boys when they bought the Broward sheriff and ran a Colonial Inn-cum-gambling joint down near Lauderdale in ’47; he was wise to what to put in the papers and what to keep out, how to smooth over the rough spots. Like that time he fixed that dicey scene with Walter Winchell. You see, Winchell was on his gangbusters kick, making noise in his column about blowing Lansky’s whole operation. Winchell was big, you couldn’t get next to him. So Harold’s riding in the car with Meyer, Frank Costello, and Joe Adonis, and even if he’s just the press guy fresh out of the Air Force’s 101st Bomber Command, he’s not shy, so he up and says Winchell’s got this soft spot for Damon Runyon, who’s dying at the time. A five-thousand-dollar check to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, of which Winchell is the chairman, would help, Harold figures. It does, but a well-placed word that a cute little number from Kansas City—whom Winchell had been known to eyeball—is working in the Colonial chorus line doesn’t hurt either.
But the truth is, Harold says to Bugs, he’s tired of this kind of work. “Can’t help you,” he says as the gangster shows him around the Flamingo’s best suite, the one with the escape chutes in the closets and steel shutters on the windows. “I’m a writer. This PR stuff’s on the side.” Bugs is wounded. “You can be a writer too. I own Hollywood.” Great, Harold thinks, that’s all I need: to show up in Zanuck’s office with my typewriter and say, “Bugsy sent me.” Again he refuses. So Siegel shakes his head and says all right, if Harold doesn’t want the job, that’s good enough for him. That’s Harold: He turns down Bugsy Siegel and lives.
Yeah, like Katmandu and Monte Carlo, Maine and Monrovia, Harold had been to Vegas before. In ’63, when he was hyping the first big fight here, the second Liston-Patterson, he drove out from New York in his Ford woody, along with his wife, the fabulous Mara Lynn, his son, Casey, and the family cat, which ripped up all the upholstery. They stopped off along the way, took in a few sights: the Grand Canyon and Eisenhower’s birthplace. Took six weeks. Flackery had a pacific aspect back then. Not now. This week they got Tyson and Razor Ruddock over at the Mirage where the fake volcano blows up every twenty minutes and the high rollers are coming in private jets.
“Fucking town,” Harold grumbles as he reconnoiters the tourist-dense casino. Forty-five years ago Runyon referred to Harold as “my good friend, the tall and stately columnist for the New York Mirror.” Eternally dapper in his tailored safari suit and pencil moustache, Harold remained tall and stately even when the Mirror was gone, along with every other sheet he ever worked for, including his beloved Brooklyn Eagle. It gets like that, if you live long enough. Harold lived long. Just the month before, after decades of smoking and drinking and staying out all night long, he turned eighty. He’s not nuts about the idea. “You know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see the big eight-oh looking back?” Conrad imagined if he got this far it’d be enough time to “get revenge.” Instead, he opens his address book and “there’s two dead guys on every page.”
So we go over to the Riviera coffee shop and talk with Gene Kilroy about Ali. The Champ, Harold, and Kilroy, a giant, raucous man who now works as an “executive casino host,” go back a long way. Together they went around the world, to Zaire, Manila, Kuala Lumpur. It was the most perfect party, a road show no one thought would end. Harold first ran into Ali at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami back in ’61. He was working the third Patterson-Johansson fight, using every huckster’s wile to propagate the notion that the shopworn Swede actually had a chance. Johansson needed a sparring partner, and a young, brash man, just a year out of the amateurs, volunteered. Pop, pop, pop, Ali, then Cassius Clay, surrounded the lumbering Scandinavian with zinging leather. “Sucker,” the young man taunted, “I should be fighting Patterson, not you.” Harold’s eyes opened wide. He’d covered fights back since before Louis-Schmeling, back to when they ran weekly cards in little dives like the Broadway Arena, where Murder Inc. sat in the first row. Right off, he knew what he was looking at. “I saw the new champ today,” he told anyone who’d listen. Later, after they took Ali’s title because, as he said, war was against his religion and besides he didn’t have “nothing against no Cong,” Harold went around the country trying to get the Champ’s license back; persistent guy, Harold—he was in twenty states before Georgia said yes and Ali got to knock out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta.
“At my age you’re supposed to be dead, or at least in Florida getting stoned. I didn’t know I’d still be out here hustling.”
Being the Greatest was never dull, like the time in the Philippines when Ali leaned across Imelda, over to Marcos, and asked, “You the president? President get a lot of pussy?” “Much pussy,” Marcos nodded, with a curt smile. “You’re not as dumb as you look,” Ali returned.
Everyone figured Ali would be coming in for Tyson-Ruddock. He usually shows up for the big heavyweight fights and often picks up a few g’s from the promotion just for waving when they say his name. But the champ’s not here. The Parkinson’s is getting worse, he’s too sick to travel. “Last time I talked to him on the phone I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying,” Harold says, softly. Kilroy nods glumly.
So it goes. In Conrad’s neoautobiography, Dear Muffo, a wry and passionate chronicle of his near-lifelong interface with celebrity large and small, he talks about how, in the service of hawking the first Ali-Liston fight, he got the Louisville Lip together with the Beatles, who were then on their first American tour. Taking his accustomed long view, Harold noted: “The Beatles and Cassius Clay—the two hottest names in the news, worldwide. They are all about the same age. I wonder how posterity will treat them.”
“I never expected to find out,” mutters Harold, who lived across the street from the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot dead. “At my fucking age you’re supposed to be dead, or at least sitting on your ass in Florida getting stoned. I didn’t know I’d still be out here hustling, trying to make a goddamned living.” For Harold, that was a big part of the disappointment at Ali not being in Vegas this week; he’s supposed to be doing a piece on Muhammad for Rolling Stone, which probably made him the oldest free-lance magazine writer in the world. A couple of years before, he had applied his special broth of piquant newspaperese to the pages of Spin magazine. Seventy-eight years old! Working for Spin, writing between the Iron Maiden and Megadeath profiles. High blood pressure and arthritis—working for Spin!
“What am I supposed to do?” Harold shouts in his ratchety voice. “I’m on my ass. I need the scratch.” Then he smiles and his eyes come on like star sapphires. “Also the action.”
Action. That was Harold’s unquenchable desire, the axis mundi of his existence. Action: something genuine happening. People coming together, energy pouring into a room until your head’s light and you can’t breathe right. It doesn’t happen every day, not the real stuff. Harold knew. He was the point man in the promotion when Evel Knievel swore he’d soar across Snake River Canyon in a sawed-off rocket ship. Harold put Casey Stengel on skates to hype a roller derby in Oakland, tried to goose many a six-day bicycle race. The smell of the unkosher come-on was not unknown to the less-than-petite Conrad honker. You can’t kid a kidder. Legitimate action is a rare thing, eminently perishable, in need of constant replenishment. It can be a heavy jones.
And right now, the tingle’s beginning. The crowd torsos past the slots, a crush of: velveteen, a sheen of sequins. Here comes: Tyson’s team, a dozen bodyguards, growly and hard, in black leather hats that say KICK ASS. Ruddock’s people have special baseball jackets that seem to glow in the dark. Harold has seen it before and better, way better. But this doesn’t get old. Not this—that time before the bell when the drumbeating and; backbiting and cadging suddenly cease, and: for an instant, at least, there’s a chance of witnessing something absolutely pure.
“Six forty-four,” Harold says, looking at; his watch. “Six forty-four, and there’s no place on earth where they have action like this. And we’re here. This is what there is to; live for.”
Let me say, flat out, that Harold Conrad was the single most happening, been-everywhere/done-everything cat I ever met. For certain he had the best résumé. I mean, sure, there’s that business about being Meyer Lansky’s press agent, and all those days and nights hanging around with Runyon, Winchell, Charley Lucky, Joe Kennedy, King Farouk, George Raft (the gangsters were crushed when he played a cop), Sonny Liston, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle (“the biggest pecker in Hollywood”), Marilyn Monroe, John Huston, Howard Hughes (he tried to pick up Mara Lynn), and Mike Todd, not to mention Mailer, Murray, James Baldwin, and Hunter Thompson, but how many guys can say Humphrey Bogart played them in the movies? In ’54, when Budd Schulberg was writing his novel about an even seamier side of boxing, The Harder They Fall, he found his good friend Conrad an exceedingly convenient model for the central figure of the somewhat dissolute, wholesomely cynical sports reporter Eddie Lewis. “You can imagine how proud I am,” Harold says. “Bogart, my favorite actor, playing me in the movies! So one night I’m in a Sunset Strip joint, and I see Bogart sitting at a table. He’s got his head down over his glass, and I say, ‘Mr. Bogart, my name is Harold Conrad. I just want to tell you how proud I am that you’re playing me in The Harder They Fall.’ Now he raises his head, and I can see how skulled he is. His eyes are barely open. I repeat my line about how proud I am. ‘Why don’t you go fuck yourself,’ he says and drops his head back down over the glass…. I was never so crushed in my whole life.”
The coda to the story is Bogart later apologized, saying Harold caught him on an off night, that they both had a good laugh about it. “If I hadn’t got that squared away with Bogie I don’t think I would have ever been the same,” Harold comments. And that makes you happy, because Harold was the sort of fellow for whom you want everything to turn out right.
Born in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1911, the only son of Romanian steerage travelers, graduate of Franklin K. Lane High School, Harold Conrad swaggered a broken field through the century with the consuming immigrant pluck that told him anything was possible as long he thought fast, talked faster, and kept his head down in the clinches. His life! His times! To me—one who has never been able to casually say, as Harold did so frequently, “So one night I walk into Lindy’s,” or to recall, as Harold was given to, what it was like on the Lower East Side the night Louis knocked out Schmeling—Harold Conrad was a conduit to another, more vibrant, infinitely more colorful age. In a sea of retro-gimmicked, James M. Cain fashion knockoffs in slouch hats, he was the legitimate article, a guy with a capital G, a gaudy-pattered, Gershwin-rhythmed remnant of a time when people made buildings with spires lurching to the sky because they believed their works were beautiful and assumed the heavens would concur.
Hanging out with Harold was never a sweat. You’d go up to his apartment, look at the photos on the wall—Harold with the young Joe Louis, Harold with the old Joe Louis, Harold sitting at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana with his wife, Harold sitting in the identical seat at the bar with another woman not his wife, the dozen Leroy Neiman sketches of Harold from all parts of the globe—and then light up. You’d have to light up. Harold, you see, shared his first joint with Louis Armstrong and Dickie Wells backstage in a Fifty-second Street club. Pops told Harold that reefer was “medicine for headaches, toothaches, and the blues.” Harold took the advice; he smoked more or less every day for fifty-five years. It was his enduring badge of beatnik bohemianism, not to mention a key to his success as a boxing press agent, since everyone knows a fight flack’s main job is to keep the reporters happy. Harold had “polio pot,” attest numerous abidingly grateful members of the fourth estate. The haze lingers on. The other day in Vegas, Smokin’ Joe Frazier greeted Harold with the shout, “Hey man, you still with them funny cigarettes?”
Once you’re properly blasted, the stories can commence. Forever positioning himself as the bemused adjuster of bollixed-up situations, the sane everyman set down amid the messes of majesties and morons, saints and liars, Harold unveils his dense, textured oral history with snazzy syntax and much wingy body English. You hear of Harold’s days on the newspapers, immerse yourself in the dense incense of the dripping lead type in Hildy Johnson’s city room. Harold worked the Broadway beat and wrote sports. (He covered the Dodgers for the Brooklyn Eagle! The Brooklyn Eagle! Where they set the box score on the front page by hand!) It was frantic back when twelve dailies hit the New York streets each day in a half-dozen editions. Harold had his scoops: Once he was sitting in a bar and everyone was talking about how tough Capone was and someone said, “Yeah, but he ain’t as tough as the guy who gave him the scar.” Got to find that man, Harold vowed, and he did. The guy who gave Scarface his name was an unassuming barber in Brooklyn; he sliced up Capone after an argument concerning the closeness of a shave. Al never came back for revenge, all of which led Harold to conclude that the mobster knew the press value of a good nickname (“Some pun, ha, ha”).
The sagas go on from there, an eclectic, free-associated torrent owing nothing to chronology or rote, seamlessly stitched together by Harold’s singular baritone scrape. You get Conrad’s melancholy visit with Luciano after the Mafioso’s deportation and how Charley Lucky was so bummed out to be lounging in Naples, overlooking the bay. “You know what I’d give right this minute to be sitting behind third base at the Polo Grounds eating a hot dog?” Luciano sighs, a man without a country. You go on, through the myriad run-of-the-mill-Johnny-come-lately-Hunter-Thompson-with-rental-car tales, to how Harold, after much provocation, manages to cadge the exceedingly cheap Roy Cohn out of $5,000 (and how when the hyperstolid Cohn finds out, he’s truly flattered Harold took the trouble to fleece him), to the narrative of how, at George Plimpton’s request, Harold manages to put Ali and Marianne Moore together for lunch at Toots Shor’s. The elderly poetess is a big fan of the Greatest, and it develops that she should collaborate on a poem with Ali, who, despite being under the impression that he’s the second coming of Walt Whitman, is not that crazy about the prospect, since he forgot his rhyme book. Together they huddle over a napkin, writer and fighter alternating lines. Finally the work is complete and Ali says he has to split and everything is fine until Plimpton notices that the napkin has been cleared away along with the half-eaten food. He runs into the kitchen and thrashes through all the dirty linen until he comes upon the soiled piece of cloth. On it is written a poem that begins with the lines, “When we fight Ernie Terrell/He will get nothing, nothing but hell,” and ends with the couplet, “He has been talking too much about me and making me sore/After I’m through with him he will not be able to challenge Miss Moore.”
Often, the reverie rolled on deep into the night, an unflagging, unredundant product of the raconteurial mind. You could be walking down the street, and apropos of nothing Harold would say, “So I was screwing Jack Webb’s girl….” Then he’d be back to Ali, talking about the time he had to hide the Champ in his apartment before the Ken Norton fight at Yankee Stadium. Ali was running around, “trying to give away all his money to every Boys’ Club in town,” looking peaked; he had to be taken out of circulation—after all, Norton was tough, he’d broken Ali’s jaw back in San Diego. Harold tells how Dick Gregory came around with his health therapies and blenders. “You have to neutralize your poisons, Ali. You have to drink your own urine,” Gregory said, demonstrating with a beaker of his own bodily fluids. “Drink my own piss?” Ali boggled. “He poured out everything Gregory gave him after that, the vegetable juices, every elixir,” Harold says. “Gregory never knew. He kept raving, ‘See! He looks better already.’”
Assessing the veracity quotient of Harold’s stories in his foreword to Dear Muffo, Norman Mailer said they’re “more true than you might expect.” More recently, Mailer amended that to say, “If they’re true, and I think they are, because we want them to be true, and it would break our hearts if they’re not.” You wonder if it even matters anymore. A cogent case could be made that the Golden Age, characterized by the now-vanished Guys-and-Dolls-Tin-Pan-Alley-Broadway-immigrant-hipster frenzy of upward mobility, was made possible at the expense of others, primarily non whites and nonguys. The occasionally high testosterone level of these sagas is somewhat mitigated, however, by the also now-vanished courtliness Guys saw fit to extend their Dolls. But that aside, these pre-TV days were an epoch when American giants strode the earth, a time when wiseacres and sharpies, suddenly free of the shtetl, Sicilian village, and failed potato farm, were given free rein to self-invent a wholly new urban ethos (“action”) in the hitherto-unexplored marginalia of the cityscape. It was a profoundly optimistic, gloriously organic age, an era when the notion of celebrity seemed more authentic, earned. In the current spin-doctored, pygmyish days of George Bush, it does us good to hear of this past time and hear it told right, free of the unnecessarily thick smear of sentimentality. In that way Harold, with his faintly detached yet undeniably firsthand merge of style and substance, performed a patriotic service; he, alone, it seemed, survived for so long to tell thee of a time when the national spirit appeared to strike a bolder, more heroic chord. And with the dekiltered surrealism Harold brought to that telling, he’d sometimes break through to what can only be called Art.
Action. That was Harold’s unquenchable desire, his Axis Mundi. It doesn’t happen every day. Not the real stuff.
Like the time his first wife threw a lamp at him. It goes, more or less, this way: “Yeah, I was living on Fifty-second Street at the time. Right near Sixth. It was great, all those musicians right down the street. Two dozen clubs, something always happening. My first wife was a great babe. Great body. Eurasian. But sometimes she’d get crazy. So she picks up this lamp and throws it at me across the room. Did you ever have a lamp thrown at you? It takes a little bit of time to get there. So I’m looking at this lamp coming at me, and I’m thinking, That plane outside the window is flying pretty low. Really low. Loud, let me tell you. I’m thinking all this as the lamp is coming. Then it goes by my shoulder, crashes against the wall. Bam. A lot louder than I would have figured. And know what? That was the night that plane crashed into the Empire State Building.”
At one with his times, Harold was more than a bop-age Zelig. With him, you always got the idea that celebrity existed for his benefit—not the other way around. Ever offhand, relentlessly imperturbable, Harold was typically diffident about his appeal to the younger generation of would-be hepcats. He’d narrow his brown eyes (which so many women less than half his age found irresistible), puff on his cigarette (only adding to the aura of understated octogenarian sexuality), and unfurl his most compelling half-sneer. “I know about you guys, why you hang around. You see these pictures of me on the deck of the Queen Mary with a bottle of champagne, and you get all misty; you know there’s nothing you can do about getting that. No amount of money buys it back.” This doesn’t mean that Harold was a nostalgia merchant, content to lord his special knowledge over us lapdog born-too-lates. “You know,” he’d say ruefully, “I’d kill myself before I became one of these creaky fucks who sits around talking about how great the old days were. That’s the worst. Of course the old days were better: You didn’t have arthritis, you could get a hard-on. But what scares me is: When I first came on the scene, everything we had going—man, did I tell you I used to live right up the block from Duke Ellington?—and then I compare to what’s going on now, I think: It was better then. You’d have to be crazy to think any other way. That world, compared to this one: Forget about it. I don’t want to let myself think like that. Instead I say, you just have to look harder to find the action now.”
So that brings us back around to Vegas where Mike Tyson is driving Razor Ruddock into the ropes, and the referee, Richard Steele, is stopping the fight way too soon. This denouement is not appreciated by the Ruddock camp, which all week long has been predicting something exactly like this would happen, since Steele’s got a track record for quick triggers, and besides he works as a pit boss for Steve Wynne, who owns the Mirage and happens to have a deal for Tyson’s next fight with Iron Mike’s paramour, the indefatigably skulduggerous Don King. Right now Murad Muhammad, Ruddock’s smarmier-than-thou promoter, his reflexive prefight paranoia rewarded, is in the ring kicking Tyson’s trainer Richie Giachetti in his ample gut as a form of protest. “Another black eye for boxing,” Harold remarks with his seasoned sarcasm as he watches the ensuing riot, referring to the headlines he knows will appear in every paper tomorrow. “Boxing’s like the night. It’s got a thousand eyes, all of them black.”
Harold gets up with a grunt. He’s been feeling crappy since we got to Vegas, tired. It’s a pulled muscle in his side, he keeps claiming, pulling out another joint, playing craps until three in the morning. “It’s all fucking downhill after eighty,” he groans. To Harold the worst thing about being old is “it’s harder to compete. If there’s a story, these young fucks run faster.” It’s not exactly like you’d notice, however. As the decades wore on, Harold took increasing delight in telling people, especially women, his age. No squint-eyed carny could ever guess it; it’s a shock to find out he’s twenty years older than you always thought. Mailer says, “I first met Harold in ’61. He had a Patterson fight. I was thirty-eight and he was fifty. He looked fifty. Then he didn’t age a day in the next two and a half decades. It’s only since Mara died that you began to see a change. That was a blow. Mara was in every way Harold’s equal.” About that there can be no argument. Mara Lynn was, by all accounts, a piece of work, a doll with a capital D. Twenty years of study with Balanchine, she made her mark dressed in funny costumes hoofing beside Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, playing zany with Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love, and pouring a rum and coke over the head of an excessively raging Jake LaMotta. Budd Schulberg refers to her as “a one-girl riot.” Mailer, who featured Mara in his movie Wild 90, says with a stab of reverence, “She was a blond witch and a blond angel, she could be both, often at the same time, depending on her mood. She could get a guy agitated. Like every man married to a beautiful woman, Harold, I think, was always a little in awe of her.” Others, too. As one story goes, Bianca Jagger, impressed, once made a plaster cast of Mara’s posterior.
Harold first met Mara back in ’48, when he was doing a Broadway column for the Mirror. She was dancing at a place called the Hurricane Club. A deadly entry at any price, they got married in 1950, divorced in ’56, got back together a couple of years later, and lived together for decades more. According to numerous eyewitnesses, Harold never hyped a big fight better than Mara did. She would arrive at ringside wearing an ermine coat, silk pajamas, and an aviator helmet. People screamed, “Okay, lady, we seen the dress, now let’s see the fight,” but often enough the costume eclipsed the punch-up. Life with Mara apparently could be quite stormy. Needless to say, Harold loved her very much. Once, when he was doing the second Ali-Spinks fight in New Orleans, he got wasted, fell in with a shipload of sailors, and found himself inside an all-night tattoo parlor getting a tricolor severed heart affixed to his bicep. MARA, it said. At first, Mara was shocked—after all, sixty-seven-year-old Jewish men are not known for getting tattoos on their arms in the middle of the night, not this kind, anyway. But then she broke down, said it was the greatest tribute of love she’d ever seen. They were a pair, Mara and Harold—Mailer still insists their lives would have made great television. “One week Howard Hughes tries to date Mara, and Joe Adonis gets George Woods’s nose fixed. Next week Mara is dancing in the show at the Monte Carlo, and Harold is buying drinks at the bar for the Duke of Windsor…. What good Saturday nights this could bring for middle-age stay-at-homes!”
The fun stopped when Mara got sick, and Harold spent all his money trying to save her, which is how at age eighty he wound up writing articles about the owners of Nevada whorehouses for rock-’n’-roll magazines to pay the rent. As horrific as the end must have been, it was in keeping with the romance of a certain romantic age. Harold and Mara remarried after nearly thirty years of living in sin, smoked a last joint together, and that was it.
“Been faking it since then,” Harold would admit grudgingly. “I’m all front.” In Vegas, though, you could tell things weren’t right. Even Don King—Harold’s collaborator on several Ali fights, whose incessant effulgence of “wit, grit, and bullshit” Conrad approvingly recognizes as being in boxing’s scalawag tradition of Jack Kearns and Tex Rickard—noticed. Nattily attired in a baggy red, white, and blue ONLY IN AMERICA sweat suit, King is on his many-decibeled autopilot, swearing on a stack of his dead mother’s Bibles that the Tyson-Ruddock battle “will separate the pugilistic wheat from the chaff” and quoting Frederick Douglass, George Bush, and Plato in the same sentence when he sees Harold. Losing no beat the promoter abruptly launches into an apparently heartfelt but equally loud reverie about “Harold Conrad—the legend!—the nonpareil of sell, a man of much moxie, of an independent turn of mind unshackled by the corporate monotony.” But then he stops, tilts his multipronged coif, says, “Hey, Harold, you all right, man?”
He’s not. Maybe he shouldn’t have had those couple of drinks with the Brit sportswriters, Harold says with the deep embarrassment of someone forever finicky about appearances, because when he got back to the hotel he slipped in the lobby, fell down between the dollar slots, and his head’s been spinning ever since. It’s just his luck (and in Harold’s case, this means good luck) there’s a chiropractor convention at the hotel, because before he even hits the lobby floor, six guys are pushing cards at him. One of them (again Conrad’s luck) turns out to be an old buddy. Fresh from adjusting a hundred Palm Beach rich ladies, he gives Harold numerous zetzs, eliciting many cracks. Harold says it helps, but you can tell not very much.
But how can you argue when Harold says he’s fine? The next morning, walking through the casino lobby, a woman in a stretchy orange dress comes over and asks Harold (who never ceases to look like a somebody), “Are you a movie star?” “Sure, I’m big,” Harold replies. She takes out a piece of paper and asks for an autograph. Harold writes “Best wishes always, Ramon Navarro.” She looks at the paper, back up at Harold, and asks, “Aren’t you dead?” Harold only bugs his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, walks on.
A week after Harold’s return to New York however, with merciless diagnostic secession, the pulled muscle mutates to “a small stroke” and then inoperable cancer. Plenty of times Harold would talk about how he spent day after day at Damon Runyon’s bedside, how one time Runyon, who couldn’t speak near the end, once wrote him a crotchety note followed by three exclamation points. “You don’t have to yell at me, Damon,” Harold replied. After that, Harold hated hospitals. Now, so soon after Mara’s death, he was in Mount Sinai, the same place, “just about the same room,” where a couple of years ago he visited his longtime friend Buddy Rich, when the famous drummer was dying. It was terrible, Harold recalls, watching the great basher who only went one speed—fast—stare up at the ceiling. Then Harold raises his right arm, and real pain crosses his face. “That’s what Buddy did,” he says, “raised his arm and said, ‘If I can’t play I don’t want to live.’” This gets very sad because soon the tumor is pressing on Harold’s brain, making it next to impossible for him to talk. Impossible to tell the stories, to rekindle the grander times. So you sit beside Harold’s bed with his son, Casey, next to the flowers sent by the Friars Club (“Frank Sinatra—Abbot”), watching him alternately doze and glance at the muted television where the Mets are getting shut out, and the silence is awful, because three weeks ago Harold never would have tolerated such emptiness on the soundtrack.
A few days later, Harold is on a plane to Mexico, going to a clinic seeking an alternative to the chemotherapy he was certain would kill him. And a few days after that, The New York Times is carrying three column inches headed by the phrase, HAROLD CONRAD, BOXING PROMOTER. The obit indicates that Harold was “a colorful character.” Likely, Harold would have accepted the short shrift with his usual cynic’s grace. He knew they always screw you on space. As a storyteller he would also know that you can’t stop the tale there. So, allow me one more story about my old friend Harold Conrad.
It was a night a few months ago when Harold and I went over to watch Sugar Ray Leonard fight some kid named Terry Norris at the Garden. Harold, of course, has been to the Garden before, a few million times. Mostly he went to the old Garden, the one on Forty-ninth Street and Eighth that was torn down back in the late Sixties. That was where the real action was, standing underneath the giant curve of the marquee, waiting for something to happen, sensing this night—like so many before it—was magic. The new Garden, except for that one ecstatic evening when Ali fought Frazier twenty years ago, and a basketball game or two, has never had the same juice. Tonight’s event is typically desultory, the overpriced, half-filled building is little more than a TV studio, the backdrop for the cable-TV broadcast. The canned music, heavy on the sampler machine, is blaring. Leonard’s a great fighter, no argument, and you can’t knock a guy for getting rich, but with his viciously cute smile and bitchy demeanor, he’s always been a tinny presence. Harold’s never been a fan. He wouldn’t even have come to the fight if it wasn’t for that extreme outside chance: You just never know when something might happen. It’s the action, Harold’s addiction. In this case the something happens: Leonard loses, gets the crap beat out of him. But even that doesn’t make it. When Louis fought one too many against Marciano, people wept. Even Ali’s wrongheaded comeback against Holmes engendered a kind of heroic pathos. But Leonard—well, at least he’s gone now. Harold knew it in the first round. A minute in, he turns and says, “He’s got nothing.”
So the fight’s over, and we’re walking over to Broadway in the cold night air. We’re at Herald Square, it’s Saturday night and the town’s dead, no one moving except for some ragged figures over where the big welfare hotel used to be. “You could shoot a cannon off out here,” Harold snorts. “Used to be, on a big fight night, by now everyone would be going up to Toots Shor’s: Winchell, Joe D. if the Yanks were in town, the Fischetti Brothers, who ran Chicago, right next to J. Edgar Hoover. People would be all decked out, up and down Broadway from here to Fifty-seventh Street….” We walk on, freezing. Years ago Damon Runyon wrote a column about how Harold never wore a hat. Everyone else wore one then. “I do not look good in a hat,” Runyon quoted Harold as saying. Tonight however, Harold is wearing a hat, it’s crammed down over his outsized ears. “Got to,” he says, “my head gets cold.” Then, reminded that when Runyon died he had his ashes thrown out of a plane so they sprinkled over Broadway, Harold says, “Not for me. It’s against my religion, I think. Besides, you never know, maybe I’ll live forever.”
[Photo Credit: Bags]