Sammy Aaronson!” An ex-pug stands by one of the phone booths at the entrance of Stillman’s Gym, a receiver held up over his head. He slips his cigarette to one side of his mouth and calls out again -–“Sammy Aaronson! Telephone!” Gaggles of managers and matchmakers, contenders and has-beens, wiseguys, and miscellaneous members of the fight mob banter and back-slap under a low-hanging cloud of smoke. Spectators in folding chairs face the exhibition rings at the far end of the floor. Boxers slip through quivering ropes and roll their shoulders as they wait for the bell. Assorted miniature handlers, most of them ex-pugs themselves, watch every move. Every now and then they register approval with a grunt. They register disapproval with a grunt. Only the tourists are confused.
Millionaires organized the gym in the early 1910s to help ex-convicts. Lou Stillman, an ex-cop who runs the joint, recalled their guiding principle: “If criminals knew how to use their fists in a sportsmanlike way, they wouldn’t use knives and guns.” He’s perched high on a stool by Ring No.1 like an overseer on a horse. A white handkerchief peeks out of the breast pocket of his suit. The gun he’s carrying is less concealed. “I am the keeper of a madhouse,” he has said without a hint of a smile.
Beyond the boxing rings is a narrow corridor where fighters wait their turn for sparring. A black middleweight with a Rottweiler’s neck stands at the front with his right hand outstretched. His manager winds gauze around his knuckles, wrist, between index finger and thumb, back around the knuckles. It’s a sight to see, this is. Some say a sight for sore eyes. Others think Stillman went soft and flipped his gym for a theatre to host some two-bit French fairy tale. What’s next, they wonder –-curtains?
See, the manager wears lipstick.
Sarah Patterson was a stripper at a night club in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. A black woman with red-hair and freckles, friends called her “Tiny” due to her diminutive size –-she was under five feet tall and weighed in at 118 pounds. Tiny danced with her clothes on too, and was good enough to tour with the ensemble of Blackbirds before the unlikeliest of career changes. In 1944 she went to work as an office manager at Sammy Aaronson’s Boxing Enterprises over on Broadway. A lifelong fight fan, she learned the ropes quickly and soon had a stable of her own.
“…Bert Lytell!” barks Stillman into the microphone. Lytell and Tiny are already at the foot of the ring. The fighter bends forward and cocks an ear for last minute instructions, then bounds up the stairs and through the ropes.
The bell clangs.
He’s a southpaw, this one. Worse than that, he’s a swarmer. Within seconds the sparring partner is besieged, covering up on the ropes while Lytell bobs and weaves out of a crouch, hurling punches from every angle. Observers at ringside push up their hats and lean forward in their chairs. Conversations hush behind them and the gaggles drift toward the action. Lytell doesn’t stop -–he doesn’t even hold.
“That’s right,” Aaronson told a reporter in 1946, “no holding.” The world’s largest stable of fighters was built on that fundamental rule. It’s a “ruinous habit,” he said, because “you can’t fight when you hold; meanwhile ring officials count holding against you in scoring the fight; and holding displeases fans because it prevents action.” When he or Tiny or any of his other 18 trainers see it, they know that the fighter is not in the condition he should be. If the fighter is sick, he’s taken to a doctor. If he’s been slacking off in training, said Aaronson, “we won’t let him box or make any money until he’s in shape.”
Tiny was reportedly the only African American woman managing fighters. And she was strong enough to enforce the strict expectations of the Aaronson office to the letter. If any of her fighters skipped a workout she’d bawl them out and like a mother hen she kept tabs on them with regular phone calls to make sure they were eating right and getting to bed on time. Ranked contenders were no exceptions. When she got wind that Lytell was frequenting a night club, she warned him about breaking curfew. He broke it again and she marched right on down there herself to collect him.
One time he got loose. In November 1946, he was at a Brooklyn night club between fights. Two patrons had a problem with him for one reason or another and after a couple of sideways glances at the lone figure, they decided to do something about it. So they jumped on him. Within a minute or two they were hollering for help. Police officers arrived on the scene. Bert went berserk and the officers couldn’t control him any better than the two smear cases lying on the floor. A riot squad was called in and it was even money. Lytell didn’t stop, he didn’t even hold. Eventually, those night sticks bouncing off his head cracked it open and he collapsed after losing too much blood.
He was in the hospital for six days.
“The day he was released,” said Aaronson, “the guy asks me: ‘Say, when am I fighting again?’ I didn’t know what to say. Here was a fellow who had just had his skull sewed up and he was asking about his next fight.
“The guy just isn’t human. You can’t hurt him.”
Check back soon for the long-awaited truth of Bert Lytell’s origins in PART 1 OF “THE BEAST OF STILLMAN’S GYM.”
Graphic first appeared in the September 1947 edition of Holiday (“Stillman’s Gym,” by Paul Gardner); “NY gym owner Lou Stillman dies” AP 8/21/1969; “Lady Boxing Boss,” Ebony, May 1947; New Orleans Times-Picayune, 5/18/47. Aaronson’s views on holding in Jack Cuddy’s “Agrees Penalties Will Make ‘Em Get In Trim,” wire service, 7/17/46; Aaronson’s report on the night club melee in Ray Grody’s column, in The Milwaukee Sentinel, 4/2/48.