The Harlem Harlequin

by Paul Talbot on October 16, 2010

He couldn’t throw a hard punch.  Hitler despised him, mobsters adored him, and he parlayed his talents into three careers.  The first, after a stint in reform school, was boxing.

Maxie Rosenbloom Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom

Knowledgeable fight fans never took Maxie Rosenbloom seriously.  They considered him a goofball, a showboat, a dilettante.  But for four glittering years Maxie Rosenbloom was the World’s Light-Heavyweight champion.

Back when boxing mattered, when boxing eclipsed baseball as America’s most popular sport, Max Everett Rosenbloom was a household name.  He was also one of the nation’s great Jewish heroes.

America’s ethnicity was different then, embracing all those visceral emotional connections boxers enjoyed with their communities, that stirring of the melting pot which took place in the ring.  The Irish, the Italians, the Jews, each had their heroes.  The blacks had a hero once but Jack Johnson was too menacing and too dangerous.  Another black champion would not emerge until Joe Louis took the Heavyweight title from James J. Braddock in 1937.

When Jews reflect on their once formidable ties to boxing Maxie Rosenbloom tends not to come to mind.  Max Baer does, the Star of David stitched on his trunks like an insolent badge of courage, as he dismantled Hitler’s boxer, Max Schmeling, who was actually not Hitler’s boxer but Germany’s.

Another great Jewish boxer, perhaps the best of them, was Lightweight Champion Benny Leonard.  They called him “The Ghetto Wizard.”  Benny Leonard came out of New York City’s Lower East Side and his speed, strength and intelligence scored him 69 KOs.

After The Wizard retired and lost his money in the 1929 stock market crash, Benny Leonard went to work for Bill Dwyer.  Dwyer was an intense Hell’s Kitchen bootlegger who ran a fleet of twenty ships hauling whiskey down to Rumrunner’s Row off New York from St. Pierre and Miquelon.

Dwyer bought the Hamilton, Ontario franchise in the NHL, the Tigers, moved the team to New York and named them the Americans.  He was a crooked, meddlesome owner who tried to rig hockey games.  When Bill Dwyer secretly bought a second NHL team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, he installed Benny Leonard as the front man.  It was not a successful venture.  The Pirates moved to Philadelphia, became the Quakers, and soon folded.

Benny Leonard moved on from hockey and wound up dying in the ring.  After his dealings with Dwyer went sideways he worked as a referee.  On an April night in 1947, at St. Nicholas Arena in New York, Leonard suffered a heart attack after the first round of the seventh fight he was officiating, collapsed on the canvas and died.  He was 51 years old.  Ring magazine ranked him #8 on its list of the 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years.

If Benny Leonard was the most accomplished of the great Jewish boxers and Max Baer the most celebrated, Maxie Rosenbloom was the most fascinating.

In my scheme of things, Slapsie Maxie was a more miraculous Jewish phenomenon by far than Dr. Albert Einstein.
Philip Roth

Slapsy Maxie.  Legend has it that Damon Runyon penned the nickname.  It stuck so well that two Slapsy Maxies nightclubs opened on the coast, one in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco.

One of the numerous legends wrapped around Maxie Rosenbloom suggests that he was “discovered” by the actor George Raft.  Raft may or may not have been walking through East Harlem one day, saw young Rosenbloom in a street fight, and may or may not have encouraged him to learn to box.

There would be 299 fights in 16 years.  The first was on October 8, 1923, a ten round decision against Nick Scanlon in New York’s Lenox Athletic Club.  Maxie won his next eight bouts, then lost to Guardsman George West, a British middleweight, in a thirteen round decision the following February.

Rosenbloom stayed busy for the next few years, fighting in venues such as Ridgewood Grove in Queens, the Pioneer Sporting Club in New York, the Ocean Park Casino in Long Branch, New Jersey, and the Arena in Rockaway Beach in Queens.  He didn’t fight outside the New York area until a west coast swing in the spring of 1925, where there were five bouts in Oakland and San Francisco over the course of eight weeks.

At the Auditorium in Oakland, he fought Sal Carlo, “The Terror of San Francisco,” twice in one week.  The first was scored a draw, the second a decision.  This was Rosenbloom’s first trip to California, which he fell in love with and where he would ultimately settle.

As he honed his boxing skills, which were largely evasive tactics, Slapsy Maxie figured out how to integrate his irrepressible showmanship instincts.  He stood in the ring and worked the crowd, talking, gesturing, sometimes singing.  It was not unusual for him to carry on a conversation with his corner men through an entire fight, talking about things which had nothing to do with the business at hand.

Maxie Rosenbloom Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom

Outside the ring he stayed out late, chased women and gambled.  Rosenbloom was not a drinker but he was enamored with night life, to the point it regularly interfered with his training.   A newspaperman suggested that he “liked to do his training on the dance floor.”

By the fall of 1929 he was enough of a name to be one of the five headliners for a boxing benefit at Madison Square Garden on behalf of “The Stricken Jews of Palestine.”

Three days before the first day of the stock market crash, promoter Samuel Rosoff put together a fusion of politics and boxing which presaged the Max Baer Max Schmeling fight of 1933.

Rosoff’s goal was to raise money for the Palestine Emergency Fund.  In August there had been terrible rioting as Arabs attacked Jews in Jerusalem and Hebron.  Violence quickly spun beyond the control of inept British administrators who looked the other way.  The wave of murders prompted the Jews to establish defense groups, which eventually evolved into the organizations which helped establish the state of Israel in 1948.

Rosoff was known as Subway Sam.  He boasted of never having spent a single day in school.  Subway Sam graduated from selling newspapers on New York City streets to building the subways which ran beneath them.  At the time of the rioting in Palestine he was involved in Zionist causes and wanted to stage a boxing benefit.

The political timing was opportune.  Six weeks before it hosted this unusual night of boxing, a rally organized by the Zionist Organization of America was staged in Madison Square Garden.  Responding to a request for a statement, President Herbert Hoover sent a carefully crafted message which was read to the crowd by journalist Herman Bernstein;

I am glad of the opportunity to express my profound sympathy with those who have been bereaved and who have suffered through these disturbances. Good citizens in every country deplore these outbreaks and this loss of life. Our Government is deeply concerned not only in this broader sense but in the narrower sense of the protection of the lives of American citizens.

Our advices are that the vigorous action taken by the British Government has restored a large measure of protection, although that Government is still faced with great burdens from this outbreak of fanaticism. I know the whole world acknowledges the fine spirit shown by the British Government in accepting the mandate of the Palestine in order that there might under this protection be established a homeland so long desired by the Jews. Great progress has been made in this inspiring enterprise over these last ten years, and to this progress the American Jews have made enormous contribution. They have demonstrated not only the fine sentiment and ideals which inspire their activities but its practical possibilities.

I am confident out of these tragic events will come greater security and greater safeguards for the future, under which the steady rehabilitation of the Palestine as a true homeland will be even more assured. An immediate and pressing question is the relief to those who are suffering. The fine sympathy of the American people is already evidencing itself in this purpose and it should receive the most generous support.

Hoover’s statement, which passed Palestinian problems off on the disengaged British, gave America’s Jews nothing substantive.  At least Subway Sam’s boxing benefit was a solid card, and $75,000 was raised.

Maxie Rosenbloom was the headliner that night.  He won a ten round decision against Joe Sekyra.  Ten boxers fought five five round fights.  Along with Maxie, fans saw Al Singer, Jack Berg, Ruby Goldstein, and Yale Okun.

The evening was drenched in hardscrabble politics.  Just about every Irish politician in the city was there.  Simply by being in the Garden and showing support for the Jews, the Irish could align themselves with another race poorly done by at the hands of the Brits.

The committee members who helped Sam Rosoff put the evening together included Mayor Jimmy Walker and James Farley, who would later serve as President Roosevelt’s political wizard and an innovative Postmaster General.

This was the night Maxie Rosenbloom’s manager and James J. Braddock’s manager arranged for the two to fight.  More than 14,000 fans saw Maxie Rosenbloom beat Braddock, a future World Heavyweight champ, that November.  Maxie would fight twice more before the year was over.
New York Times sportswriter James P. Dawson described his style as “unorthodox” and noted his “weak hitting power.”  It was a salient observation.  “I always hated to hit hard,” Maxie said following his retirement from the ring.

On June 25, 1930, Maxie Rosenbloom won the world Light-Heavyweight title in a fifteen round decision over Jimmy Slattery in Buffalo.   On November 16, 1934 he lost it to Bob Olin in New York, again, in a fifteen round decision.  This was the only Light Heavyweight championship bout where both boxers were Jewish; it was a sloppy fight and Bob Olin lost his title less than a year later.

The loss to Bob Olin was Maxie Rosenthal’s final fight in New York City.   Afterwards, he fought in places like Tonopah and Oakland, Detroit and Hermosa Beach.  Back then every town had a place for fights.  Scattered across the land was a collection of brutal rooms full of smoke and noise and dreams, strung together in a corrupt constellation by fighters and fans, sports writers and promoters.

Rosenbloom’s style was known as “flick and cuff.”  In 1931 the Pittsburgh Press anointed him as one of the most “irresponsible playboys of boxing.”  The following year UPI crowned Maxie Rosenbloom as “the ring’s clown prince.”

Maxie’s manager was Frank Bachman, a printer who did not rely on the ring for his income.  Frank Arcel and Whitney Bimstein were his trainers.

The typically frolicsome career was not without controversy.  A fighter goes in the ring 299 times and the brightest of lights drilling into the canvas cannot illuminate everything.  On June 4, 1928, Rosenbloom fought in London’s Royal Albert Hall.  His opponent: former British middleweight champ Tommy Milligan.  Maxie was ahead on points and then;

“The end came suddenly…There was a short flurry and then down went the American on his back, to roll about until counted out…His seconds entered the ring and carried Maxie to his corner, amid claims that a foul blow had been struck…It was (soon) made plain to everyone that the claim of a low blow had been disallowed.” (Boxing, June 6, 1928, page 716.)

According to the New York Times;

Few saw Milligan’s finishing blow.  Rosenbloom claims he was fouled.  The record books scored it as a knockout.

A month later Rosenbloom was in The Stockyards Stadium in Denver fighting Lou Scozza.  The two would fight one another seven times.  Scozza was from the Italian west side of Buffalo.  He trained at Lou Finch’s Gym on West Main and was an ideal opponent for Rosenbloom.  Between 1926 and 1933, their seven bouts included two split decisions.  Scozza was an accomplished boxer, one of only two fighters to ever knock out James J. Braddock.  The other was Joe Louis.

Only 14, 1932, Rosenbloom and Scozza met for the NYSCA World Light Heavyweight Title in Buffalo’s Bison Stadium.  According to the New York Times;

Maxie piled on the points in the first half of the battle, cuffing and slapping when Scozza attempted to bring the fight to close quarters. Scozza concentrated on a body attack but Maxie’s long left was too much for him. Rosenbloom scored a knockdown in the seventh, and Scozza dropped Rosenbloom for “8″ in round 14. From the 11th round on Maxie was in trouble and the crowd of 10000 stood and roared for the local boy to score a knockout. Maxie weathered the flurry of blows however.

One of the 299 men Rosenbloom fought was Jimmy Delaney, a 26 year-old light heavyweight from St. Paul.  Less than three weeks after their February, 1927 fight in Cincinnati, Delaney was dead.  A splintered bone in his left elbow suffered during the bout lead to blood poisoning.  Two operations failed to save his life.

When a boxer dies something in his opponent dies as well.  The survivor suffers a chilling reminder of his own mortality.  Some boxers take it harder than others.  None took it harder than Max Baer.

On August 25, 1930, at San Francisco’s Recreation Park, Baer knocked out Francisco Camilli, aka Frankie Campbell.  Thirteen hours later Campbell was dead.  Baer cried when he heard the news.  For days he could not eat, could not sleep, and even as he began to accept the fact that he had killed a man in the ring, Max Baer was never again the same fighter.  As Jeremy Schaap wrote in “Cinderella Man;”

Later in his career, he mysteriously refused to press his advantage against wounded opponents on several occasions.  He would hammer someone with his right hand, then step back and wait for his opponent to recover his senses.

It was much the same years later with Middleweight Emile Griffith.  In their third fight, broadcast live on NBC TV, Griffith knocked out Benny “The Kid” Paret in the twelfth round.  Paret died twelve days later.  Griffith never hit as hard again and NBC TV never broadcast another professional fight.

None of the other fighters Maxie Rosenbloom faced died in the ring.  He scored knockouts in less than ten percent of the fights he won.  He didn’t have the power; his record was built on a wily defensive genius.  For a few years his instinct and his evasiveness made him virtually impossible for an opponent to hit.

The Harlem Harlequin continued to clown, to avoid training, to gamble and to chase women.  He also continued to box, albeit with a style the New York Times described in 1930 as “slapping, cuffing, clubbing and mauling.”

Maxie Rosenbloom Slapsy

He took on journeymen who left behind nothing but a record, lost names such as Larry Johnson.  He fought leading amateurs such as George Hoffman.  In 1930, after he won the undisputed World Light Heavyweight title, he fought Battling Bozo, whose birth certificate read James Curtis Hambright. He fought Patsy Perroni, Tony Cancela, and Marty Gallagher.  Through the early 1930s Maxie Rosenbloom was fighting just about every week in towns as far flung as Tampa and St. Louis.

He fought in Boston’s Fenway Park and Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.  One night in Jeffersonville Indiana, he received just $87 to fight Charley Belanger.  Rosenbloom won the fight but Belanger took home three times as much money, opting for a flat fee rather than a percentage of the gate.

Rosenbloom’s most significant fight was notable only in retrospect.  It took place five days after Adolph Hitler seized power in Germany.  On March 10, 1933 Slapsy Maxie beat Adolph Heuser, the German Light Heavyweight Champion in a fifteen round bout in Madison Square Garden. It is believed that largely as a result of Rosenbloom defeating Heuser, Hitler promptly banned athletic competition which involved Jewish athletes.

In 1934, when Rosenbloom fought Joe Graham for the World Light Heavyweight title in Miami’s Madison Square Garden Stadium, 23,000 fans were in the stands.  More took in the bout from illuminated blimps which circled above the spectacle.

That summer, Rosenbloom was to have fought Enzo Fiermonte, an Italian more interesting outside of the ring than in it.  Fiermonte was a journeyman light heavyweight from Baria, Italy who fought 22 times in Italy, Great Britain and Argentina before showing up in New York in the spring of 1929.

He married Ms. William K. Dick, the former Mrs. John Jacob Astor.  Like Rosenbloom, Fiermonte lacked the discipline to train, and each enjoyed a successful show business career after their days in the ring.

The Fiermonte-Rosenbloom championship was not sanctioned by the New York State Boxing Commission.  Fiermonte did not seem upset when he announced his retirement to reporters who traveled from the city to Crampton House, an oceanfront estate on Long Island’s Westhampton Beach he had leased for training;

To get ready to fight, I had to give up a lot of things.  The rigors of training are not worth the results to be obtained from the bout.

A few weeks later the big house in the Hamptons was closed for the season, the servants were paid an extra three weeks salary and the Fiermonte road show moved on.  Enzo remained married to Madeleine Astor until 1938, and then went on to make 129 film appearances, including a 1979 role as Guido in “Return of the Saint.” Fiermonte worked in Hollywood, Italy, Spain, the Philippines and the Soviet Union.

This was the summer Maxie Rosenbloom was nearing the end of his reign.  On November 16, 1934, the Harlem Harlequin lost his championship.

Bob Olin was not supposed to have won the fight.  He had a solid right but was not considered a serious contender. There were only eight thousand fans in Madison Square Garden to see the forgettable fifteen round bout.  The crowd booed as Rosenbloom kept grabbing and holding Olin, hanging on him round after round.

It was the last night Slapsy Maxie’s act would play on canvas in New York City.  The rest of his fights were forgettable.

On June 26, 1939, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom entered the ring for the final time at the Gilmore Gym in Los Angeles.  His opponent was a formidable West Philadelphia heavyweight, Al Ettore.  Ettore went down four times.  Nobody liked the fight.  California officials ruled that it was “a sham exhibition.”  Ettore’s thousand dollar purse was seized before it was subsequently released and he was barred from ever again fighting in the state.  It was Ettore’s final fight.

Rosenbloom was exonerated.  His friendship with Mickey Cohen may have helped.

Like Rosenbloom, Mickey Cohen loved the ring.  When the two met in Los Angeles Cohen was perhaps the most powerful mob figure on the west coast.  A former fighter whose career in the ring began with illicit, unsanctioned fights in Los Angeles, he boxed professionally between 1930 and 1933.

Cohen was a blue blood mobster.  At the age of nine, he was delivering whiskey for New York City bootleggers.  He worked as an enforcer for Al Capone’s organization in Chicago and was dispatched to work rackets in California by Lou Rothkopf, an associate of Meyer Lansky.  Cohen’s Los Angeles assignments included keeping a watchful eye on the wayward Bugsy Siegel.

It was the connection with Mickey Cohen and mob money that launched Maxie Rosenbloom’s career as a night club impresario.  Beginning in 1943 and continuing through the end of the decade Slapsy Maxie’s was an essential fixture on the Hollywood circuit.

Maxie Rosenbloom Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom

Rosenbloom came to the business naturally.  He was a habitué of gin mills, dance halls and clubs.  Slapsy Maxie’s had two locations, one in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco.  In November 1943, the club moved from Beverly Boulevard to Wilshire Boulevard, taking over the former Wilshire Bowl.

The sprawling Hollywood room was frequented by showbiz types and mobsters, their hangers on and the merely curious.  It was where Frank Sinatra first saw Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin performing.  Jackie Gleason and Danny Thomas played the club, as did scores of lost entertainers such as Benny Fields, a song and dance man Bing Crosby called “America’s first crooner.”

Night clubs don’t last much longer than boxers.  Slapsy Maxie’s, with a capacity of 550, was expensive to run.   In 1947 Mickey Cohen either sold the club or transferred ownership to Charles and Sy Devore.

Sy Devore, born Seymour Devoretsky in Brooklyn, billed himself as Hollywood’s “tailor to the stars” and ran a men’s clothing store on Vine near Sunset.  He later sold suits to members of the rat pack and followed their trade to Las Vegas where he opened a second location at the Sands.

At Slapsy Maxie’s the Devores slashed expenses.  The era of $10,000 weekly entertainment budgets came to an end and a strategy to retool the club as less glamorous and more mainstream was promptly proven misguided.  The club languished, faded and died a slow, predictable death.

But not before Hollywood’s Jewish mobsters cavorted for a few more years.  Ben Hecht joined the regulars who held court at Maxie’s.  Hecht rolled into the club with impeccable Hollywood credentials; he was the first screenwriter to win an Academy Award and he loved running with gangsters.

One night in 1950, Hecht and Mickey Cohen hosted a benefit for the fledgling state of Israel.  For Maxie it may have been the ghostly reprise of a far off night in Madison Square Garden in 1929.

Hecht worked the room and tapped the crowd of bookies, political hacks, and B list and below showbiz types.  More than $200,000 was raised, none of which made it to Israel.  Mickey Cohen claimed a ship carrying the funds was torpedoed and sank.  Others knew better.

By this time Maxie Rosenbloom was a Hollywood fixture, working regularly in the movies.  He was typically cast as a dimwitted thug.  When a director needed a punch drunk ex-fighter whose stupidity was good for a guffaw, Rosenbloom was the man.

He had a network radio show on NBC and he went to Korea to entertain troops.  He also had a wife.  In 1939, Maxie took 22 year old USC graduate Muriel Faeder to Las Vegas and married her.  The marriage lasted eight years

Rosenbloom’s movies ranged from Abbot and Costello Meet the Keystone Cops to Wine, Women and Bong, a farsighted title for a movie made in 1951 that seemed destined for a counterculture revival that never quite happened.

In 1956 he helped write television history of sorts by appearing in the first ninety-minute TV show, “Requiem for a Heavyweight” on Playhouse 90.  Rod Serling’s “Requiem” captured seven Emmy Awards.  Slapsy Maxie played a washed up fighter relegated to slurring barroom stories of better days.

Jack Palance played Mountain McClintock, a punch drunk fighter suffering from a neurodegenerative disease.   This is what Maxie was starting to show as the early signs of as the accumulated blows and beatings of 299 fights turned the champ into an unsettling caricature of himself.  He suffered both from Dementia Pugilistica, a neurodegenerative disease and Paget’s Disease, an often progressive bone disorder.

After a string of TV appearances in sixties shows such as The Munsters, I Dream of Jeanie, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., he found it more difficult to perform.  Then came spiraling and severe memory loss.  With expenses paid by the Motion Picture and Television Fund, he spent the last years of life in the Braewood Convalescent Hospital in South Pasadena, California, where he passed away in April, 1976 at the age 0f 70.

Maxie Rosenbloom Slapsy Maxie

Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom, the Harlem Harlequin who infuriated Adolph Hitler, is buried at the Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood.

Be Sociable, Share!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ilia February 14, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Interesting article.

observer1 July 21, 2011 at 6:17 am

great article, I’m going to write about maxie on triond site, sportales

Gregg Storms August 30, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I met Maxie when I was 9-years old, as my mother was a friend of his.
To this day, I remember his face was rather frightening, the result of the ring.
Saw him on a DVD I rented, “Mr. Motto’s Gamble”. Brought back the memory of meeting him.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: