In 1927, William “Gorilla” Jones, 20, was invited to fight in Akron, Ohio by promoter Suey Welch. Jones accepted the offer, toyed with his more experienced opponent, collected his purse, and then went and blew every dime in a dice game. He approached Welch, hat in hand, and asked for an advance on his next purse. He took that and the fever took him. Off he went looking for “dem bones,” expecting to double back and square up early. Needless to say, he doubled back with his hat in his hand again. It became a routine until Welch let the dice fly himself and signed him. Jones became as much an indentured servant as a fighter under the new banner. During daylight hours, he was at the Welch Athletic Club on South Main Street; by night he was whooping it up in the red-light district. Welch’s father, Akron’s police chief, lent a hand and put out an APB to the gambling dens in the city—“Don’t let Gorilla Jones through the door!”
Jones spent a few years fighting in and around Ohio. He was a defensive specialist who often loafed his way to a decision win but was more than able to send the crowd home early. It depended on the other guy’s ambitions; if those ambitions were too aggressive, Jones would knock him silly. It also depended on Jones’s social calendar; if Jones happened to have an engagement to attend, he would plant his feet, so to speak, to get to the dance on time. Late one night before a fight, Welch heard unfamiliar snoring coming from Jones’s room and opened the door to find a double in Jones’s bed. Jones was you-know-where doing you-know-what.
Late in 1928, Mae West accompanied gangster Owney Madden to the fights at Madison Square Garden. Jones was on the undercard and doing all right. Later, the fighter spotted the movie star and her well-tailored escort in a bar and sent over a round of drinks. West liked his moxie and invited him to see her at the theatre. After the show, West found that she liked his heroic musculature too and invited him to her dressing room.
Maybe the walls caved in. Whatever happened, it must have been stupendous because West began bankrolling Jones’s career and his luck turned for keeps. He filed taxes on his 1929 earnings totaling $85,000 (that’d be $1,158,430 in 2014), drove a shiny new Lincoln Coupe, sported over 90 suits with sharp cuts and side vents, and developed a taste for diamonds that matched that of his new patroness.
By the time West was writing her lines for her Hollywood debut in Night After Night, the man winked at in one of those lines (“Hey Ga-rilla! C’mere!”) —was middleweight champion of the world.
It was 1932. Jones made one defense before losing his crown later that year to a Frenchman who looked like something from The Hills Have Eyes. He soon followed the woman he affectionately called “The Lady” to Los Angeles. Manager Suey Welch went with him and both were put on salary. By 1934, Welch was supervising fight scenes in a Mae West movie and Jones was earning $750 a week. Welch got out of the fight racket for a while and bought a string of theatres. Jones retired in 1940, and as far as the mainstream press knew, got hired as West’s chauffeur, though a chauffeur wasn’t often seen walking a diamond-collared lion on a leash along Central Avenue or fondling his blonde employer in after-hours joints near the Dunbar Hotel. Central Avenue was then predominantly a black community and the residents there knew what blue-eyed gossip columnists could only guess—Jones and Mae West were lovers.
Sometimes word leaked out. There’s a story where some bum made a rude comment about the star and Jones decked him but good. West scolded him for it. “Let ‘em talk,” she said. “I made four million because people were saying nasty things about me and you shouldn’t get in a fight to change that opinion.” There’s another story where the manager of the Ravenswood wouldn’t allow Jones past the lobby to visit West and it was West’s turn to fume —She bought the building.
West’s generosity to Jones was extended to his mother. Daisy Jones, a retired Memphis school principal, was hired on as a wardrobe assistant and travelling companion and stayed on for eighteen years. She adored West. “She is very kind and I like working for her very much,” she told the New York Age.
In the Fifties, Jones taught boxing classes at the Boys’ Club in Watts until his vision began to fail as a result of adult diabetes. In 1957, his almond eyes were obscured behind horn-rimmed glasses and his total annual income was “zero” according to Jet magazine. But West wouldn’t let him live any less than comfortably. She had wisely invested much of his ring earnings into a trust fund, purchased property for him, and paid his bills.
He loved her right back. When a motion-picture company offered him a quarter-million dollars for his story, he turned them down flat because they tried to make him admit he was one of West’s lovers. The Lady always insisted on keeping her private life private and lying to those outside her world was considered loyalty. Jones’s loyalty had no price. “All the money in the world would be no good without friends,” he said in 1974. “I would never betray a friend who has done everything to keep me on top and let me live the life I wanted to live.”
Lowell Darling is a conceptual artist, two-time gubernatorial candidate in California, and president in perpetuity of the Society for the Preservation of Lowell Darling. In the Seventies, he “fell in with hams and muscle heads” at the Cauliflower Alley Club in Hollywood where, he said, old fighters “regrouped en masse to form a constellation of faint stars.” Gorilla Jones was among them. He was damn-near blind by then and wore a wig that might have been found at the end of a push broom at dd’s Discounts the day after Halloween. Jones’s friends at the club knew the truth about the ageless star and the champ, but weren’t broadcasting it. “Let’s just say,” said one of them, “that Mae always had a soft spot in her heart for Gorilla.”
Jones was doing all right. He was living rent-free in a small white frame house in Echo Park, the one with the little figurine of a gorilla straddling the lattice fence at the front. His neighbors knew him as a “gentlemanly fellow who would hastily button his shirt if a lady approached the porch where he sat on warm days.” Inside the house was a makeshift shrine to his glory years. Darling was one of the few invited inside to see it. One day the phone rang. “That must be The Lady,” said Jones as he groped for the receiver.
“I have a present I want to give you,” Jones told her.
“How much will it cost me, Ga-rilla?”
“—I want to give you a telephone for your car so we can talk anytime, 24-hours a day.”
They spoke to each other, said Darling, “like lovesick kids.” Sometimes she sent a car to bring him to the Ravenswood for more than talk. By then, Jones (and millions more) had been in love with the star for over half-a-century.
In 1980, 86-year-old Mae West suffered a stroke and that purring lilt went silent. When she was brought home from the hospital, she would lie in bed watching her old movies, transfixed by a character as fascinating to her as it is to us.
Early on the morning of November 22, 1980 she went to sleep, peacefully, and took her last breath. I imagine a shimmer of sunlight reaching into her bedroom like a finger to touch her cheek.
The African-American press remembered her as a friend and a heroine. Headlines trumpeted her disregard of contrived color lines. “Mae West: Snow White Sex Queen Who Drifted” read Jet. “Mae West Had Her Black Friends” read the Call and Post. Columnist Bill Lane wrote that she had “something within that transcended clear skin and sexy hips. She had a humanness that broad-jumped unpretentiously over whiteness and blackness.”
Her funeral service in the Hollywood Hills wasn’t big and flamboyant like she was when the cameras rolled, like we thought she was. It was an intimate gathering of trusted friends, which is what she cherished most in this world. Gorilla Jones, 74, stood weeping without shame by the casket. Every now and then he’d honk his nose and the wig perched on his head would slip.
West’s body was transported back home to Brooklyn to be buried alongside her mother and Battlin’ Jack.
Jones was left behind.
He stopped going to boxing shows and the Braille Institute. He stopped going to the store. “After she passed on,” said a next-door neighbor, “he just went down.” He began passing-up rides to the Cauliflower Alley Club; and eventually wouldn’t leave the house, wouldn’t eat. His once-heroic musculature wasted away to 102 lbs.
On January 4, 1982 they found his body surrounded by his boxing memorabilia, old newspaper clippings, and framed images of The Lady, her bedroom eyes locked on him.
Her bedroom eyes
…spotting someone in the distance, she puts the brakes on her strut and a hand on her hip— “Hey Ga-rilla!” she calls out. “C’mere!”
Special thanks to Lowell Darling, Bruce Kielty, Alice Martin, and Alister Scott Ottesen.
Mae West: Goodness Had Nothing to Do With it (1959); Life (4/18/69); Henry Armstrong’s interviewinPeterHeller’s In This Corner…! 42 World Champions Tell Their Stories (DeCapo, 1973); Mae West: The Lies, the Legend, The Truth by George Eells and Stanley Musgrove (1984), p. 143; Jet “Snow White Sex Queen Who Drifted by Robert E. Johnson (7/25/1974); Private detective’s statements in Mae West: Empress of Sex (HarperCollins 1991); Milton Berle: B.S. I Love You (McGraw-Hill, 1987); UP (Jack Cuddy, 6/4/1937 and 9/27/1944); INS 12/6/1933, Los Angeles Herald and Express (1/16/1934); Jim Murray’s opinion in Los Angeles Times (4/25/1961); AP 8/21/1957. Details regarding Chalky Wright found in Baltimore Afro-American (12/24/1960), Milwaukee Sentinel (12/2/1946); UP 8/24/1957, Los Angeles Sentinel (8/15/1957), Baltimore Afro-American (8/31/1957), and Los Angeles Times (August 1957); Mickey Cohen, in My Own Words: The Autobiography of Michael Mickey Cohen As Told to John Peer Nugent (Prentice-Hall, 1975); Alice Martin told this writer that she believed that West paid for Chalky’s funeral. Archived autopsy report performed by Dr. Gerald K. Ridge, M.D., Deputy Medical Examiner on Albert G. Wright, August 13, 1957 at 1:45pm (rec’d 10/2/2014 from Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, County of Los Angeles). Details regarding Gorilla Jones found in “Local History: Akron’s King of Rings” by Mark J. Price (Beacon Journal, 6/8/2009); “Lady Luck’s Frown Starts Jones Upward” by Carl Crammer, AP 2/26/1932; MilwaukeeSentinel, (11/22/1931); Jet (7/16/1953, 4/3/1958 and 1/28/1982); Pittsburgh Press (6/13/1934); Lowell Darling (unpublished manuscript; emails to author); Los Angeles Times, 1/6/1982.
Springs Toledo is the author of The Gods of War: Boxing Essays (Tora, 2014, $25).He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org