“Is That a Pistol in Your Pocket?”
Rubbing shoulders and who knows what else with Mae West at ringside was a rogues gallery of gangsters; many of whom branched out from Brooklyn like she did or left on the lam. There was Mickey Cohen in Los Angeles, Al Capone in Chicago, and Owney Madden. She was closest to Madden, a gangland murderer and bootlegger who became the underworld king of New York in the late 1920s. He was chief proprietor of the Cotton Club in Harlem and had interests in boxing —and Mae West. He bankrolled her career and was, for a time, her lover.
She wasn’t shy about asking for favors. When she heard that a Joe Louis-Maxie Rosenbloom bout was being negotiated for the Hollywood Legion in 1937, she called Madden and persuaded him to get Louis a title shot instead. That June, Louis knocked the crown off the head of Jim Braddock and became the first black heavyweight king since Jack Johnson. West was there, ringside.
She said that the guys who talked out of the sides of their mouths were perfect gentleman, but learned the hard way that they weren’t exactly pals. Three of them, one an ex-member of the Capone gang who used to work for her, held her up while she sat in her limousine in 1933. “Throw out your poke and let’s have the rocks,” she was told, and off into the night went $17,000 in diamonds and cash. She testified at the trial, despite receiving phone calls of the “or else” type. She knew where to turn for protection. Prospective chauffeurs were asked about their ability to bust heads, not brake safely. A parade of professional boxers were hired, among them a future world champion named Albert “Chalky” Wright. Chalky was a frustrated featherweight who needed a weekly paycheck to keep what little he had. West reportedly did better than that; handing him the down payment for a house he wanted to buy for his mother and paying for his divorce. He would drive her to the fights at the Olympic Auditorium on Tuesday and Friday nights in a chocolate-colored Rolls Royce; she would slip him a C-note and away he went.
Chalky, no stranger to vice, preferred bourbon to horses and horses to home life. If the word of a private investigator is to be believed, he preferred Miss West to everything else. “I am not the chauffer,” Chalky supposedly told an acquaintance when asked why he didn’t always wear a uniform, “—I am The Man.” Moreover, he admitted he was in love with her.
She loved him right back. When she heard that his boxing career had stalled out because of mismanagement, she sponsored his comeback and applied pressure behind the scenes to get him a title shot. She even hired his brother to take his place as her driver, to “keep it in the family.” When Lee Wright, a welterweight, got himself arrested for shooting light heavyweight Cannonball Green while Green was in a phone booth on Sunset Boulevard, she pulled strings and he walked. After all, said an eye-rolling reporter, it was “an accident.”
It wasn’t the last time she helped a fighter beat the rap. Filipino bantamweight Speedy Dado followed the Wrights into West’s front seat and was arrested for waving a gun at three motorists in a traffic incident. The hot-headed Dado might have been better off cooling his heels in the clink because he was losing more fights than he won.
Perhaps (pardon me) his legs were weak.
In the early Fifties, Chalky was retired and greasing pans in a bakery for a living. Mae West was, well, back on top in Vegas with a bevy of beefcakes on stage at the Sahara. In 1955, her private life was thrust into public view. Investigators for what she called an “under-the-rock” magazine were making the rounds at boxing arenas in California where, they said, “the name Mae West is as well-known as Spalding.” The name Chalky Wright kept coming up. They tracked him to a bar. Chalky, thinking they were producers interested in making a movie about West, took $200 to talk about his months in her employment. “Mae West’s Open-Door Policy” appeared in the November 1955 edition of Confidential Magazine. It became part of a lawsuit filed by Hollywood against the magazine, though there wasn’t much more than a tickle or two among mundane facts about West’s cleanliness and generosity.
Her lawyer drew up an affidavit denying any hanky-panky and the ex-featherweight champ signed it, or so the lawyer said. In 1957, Chalky was subpoenaed to court, but he never showed up. He died thirteen days before the court date.
It was an odd death. Recently separated from his second wife, he had moved in with his mother on South Main Street in Los Angeles. On August 12, she returned home from shopping and heard water running in the bathroom. She called Chalky’s name and when he didn’t answer she unlocked the door to find his body slumped in the bathtub. His head was under the water and the tap was running. At first, police suspected foul play —a towel rack had been torn from the wall, which suggested a struggle, and they thought they saw a contusion on Chalky’s head.
Whatever the cause, the caseagainst Confidential Magazine went forward and Chalky’s ex-wife’s subpoena was in the mail practically before the mourners had left Lincoln Memorial Park. It was still on her kitchen table when the phone rang. “You’d better clam up,” she was warned, “if you know what’s good for you.” She made it clear to the Baltimore Afro-American that the caller did not represent the magazine. She said “[t]hose people have too much money and too much power” but would not say who “those people” were and that invites speculation that West’s underworld friends were behind it. On the other hand, another witness was told to slant testimony in favor of the magazine, and a third, scheduled to testify against the magazine, died from a drug overdose that was no less suspicious than Chalky’s death.
Chalky was no stranger to vice lords. Word on the street was that gangster Frankie Carbo owned him during the latter days of his career, and no one doubted that he had a story to tell. It turns out that he told it, three years before his death, to a young black pulp writer by the name of Jay Thomas Caldwell. Me an’ You was published by Lion Books in 1954 and was dedicated to “Chalky, the gentle Hedonist.” Names were changed to protect the not-so innocent: “Turkey Jones,” the main character, is Chalky. “One Gun Laws” is “One Shot” Wirt Ross, Chalky’s manager early in his career, and “Al Smith” is Eddie Mead, his last manager.
The story unloads like a death-bed confession. Laws/Wirt, said the Chalky Wright character, routinely “invented fiction for the newspapers,” including one that said the fighter was born in Mexico. Chalky had a good laugh at that one: “Ain’t that a pip?” his character says.
There are more serious revelations that, if true, cast a shadow on his career. For example, the record tells us Eddie Shea knocked out Chalky Wright in the first round in 1933. In the book, a fight manager (who happens to share a first name with notorious West Coast gangster Mickey Cohen) meets Turkey Jones at the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles and hands him $300 to take a dive against “Bobby Shay” in the first round. “That bum didn’t knock me out,” Chalky’s character says afterward. “I dumped.” It wasn’t the only time he did.
The character of “Tommy White,” a short, God-fearing whirlwind from St. Louis who became a double champion, is Henry Armstrong. Chalky’s character is offered a fight against the Armstrong character to set up the book’s most startling mea culpa. It’s found in a scene on page 55:
“Only one thing,” his manager told him. “We gotta do a little business.”
“Whatever’s best,” the fighter replied.
“Okay. They want a good guy, somebody with a reputation and you’re the only one who fills the bill. But they know they can’t take any chances with you. You might beat him.”
The record tells us Chalky Wright was knocked out by Henry Armstrong in three rounds in 1938. It is no longer certain that he did. Armstrong’s manager, Eddie Mead, is fingered in the book as the man behind the fix. Three pages later we read that the manager was satisfied enough with the performance to invite the main character to New York. It’s a matter of record that Eddie Mead became Chalky’s manager after Armstrong-Wright and that Wright’s next fight was his first at Madison Square Garden, where the spotlight was brighter and the purses were bigger.
It’s also a matter of record that Mead was all tangled up with gangsters on both coasts. One afternoon in 1942, he dropped dead in front of the Park Central Hotel. According to gangster Mickey Cohen, Meade was fencing diamonds back east and they were stashed in his coat. Cohen couldn’t believe it. He died “with all the f*ckin’ stuff on him!” (The police report left that out.) “Boxing and the racket world were almost one and the same,” opined Cohen as if we didn’t know. “Most boxers were owned by racket people and at one time, six of the boxing titles belonged to guys in the so-called racket world.”
Chalky’s affinity for white women is also dramatized in the pages of Me an’ You, including his marriages to two of them, but it stops there. His affair with Mae West is conspicuously absent. There is only a hint, at once suggestive and poignant, that appears near the end of the book as the main character walks toward the ring at Yankee Stadium: “He smelled a woman’s perfume from among ringsiders. It was a white woman’s perfume and no matter what he ever did he would never know what to do about it.”
In the end, Chalky’s death mirrored his affair with West. Despite the controversy swirling around it, his death was natural as his love. His autopsy report, dated September 3, 1957 ends the mystery. The Los Angeles County Coroner examined the body and found nothing that would make a mob hit likely. “No evidences of bony injury, either old or recent are demonstrated,” it reads. “The scalp is free of any evidences of injury.” Nor was he drowned. Tests conducted on his lungs, liver, and heart could not support that diagnosis. The coroner’s conclusion was as anticlimactic as a marriage: “aortic stenosis due to old rheumatic valvulitis, inactive.” It was heart failure that did Chalky in.
Mae West was present at his funeral.
According to at least one family member, she paid for it as well.
THEY SAY MAE WEST HAD A SOFT SPOT FOR GORILLA JONES —THEY DON’T KNOW THE HALF OF IT. DON’T MISS THE VALENTINE-WORTHY CONCLUSION TO “THE RINGSIDE BELLE” ….
TELL YOUR SWEETHEART! READ IT BEFORE BED!
Springs Toledo is the author of The Gods of War: Boxing Essays (Tora, 2014, $25).He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org