One thing that stuck in my mind, for some reason, was the way that Cassius Clay and his brother, Rudy, and their high-school pal, Tuddie King, and Frankie Tucker, the singer who was opening in Brooklyn, and Cassius’ pride of “foxes,” Sophia Burton, Dottie, Frenchie, Barbara and the others, and Richie Pittman and “Lou” Little, the football player, and everybody else up there in Cassius’ suite on the forty-second floor of the Americana Hotel kept telling time by looking out the panorama window and down at the clock on top of the Paramount Building on Times Square. Everybody had a watch. Cassius, for example, is practically a watch fancier. But, every time, somebody would look out the panorama window, across the City Lights scene you get from up high in the Americana and down to the lit-up clock on that whacky Twenties-modern polyhedron on top of the Paramount Building.
One minute Cassius would be out in the middle of the floor reenacting his “High Noon” encounter with Sonny Liston in a Las Vegas casino. He has a whole act about it, beginning with a pantomime of him shoving open the swinging doors and standing there bowlegged, like a beer deliveryman. Then he plays the part of the crowd falling back and whispering, “It’s Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay.” Then he plays the part of an effete Las Vegas hipster at the bar with his back turned, suddenly freezing in mid-drink, as the hush falls over the joint, and sliding his eyes around to see the duel. Then he plays the part of Cassius Clay stalking across the floor with his finger pointed at Sonny Liston and saying, “You big ugly bear,” “You big ugly bear,” about eighteen times, “I ain’t gonna fight you on no September thirtieth, I’m gonna fight you right now. Right here. You too ugly to run loose, you big ugly bear. You so ugly, when you cry, the tears run down the back of your head. You so ugly, you have to sneak up on the mirror so it won’t run off the wall,” and so on, up to the point where Liston says, “Come over here and sit on my knee, little boy, and I’ll give you your orange juice,” and where Cassius pulls back his right and three guys hold him back and keep him from throwing it at Liston, “And I’m hollering, ‘Lemme go,’ and I’m telling them out the side of my mouth, ‘You better not lemme go.’” All this time Frankie Tucker, the singer, is contorted across one of the Americana’s neo-Louis XIV chairs, breaking up and exclaiming, “That’s my man!”
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The next minute Cassius is fooling around with Rudy’s phonograph-and-speaker set and having some fun with the foxes. The foxes are seated around the room at ornamental intervals, all ya-ya length silk sheaths, long legs and slithery knees. Cassius takes one of Rudy’s cool jazz records or an Eretha Franklin or something like that off the phonograph and puts on one of the 45-r.p.m. rock-and-roll records that the singers keep sending to him at the hotel.
“Those are Rudy’s records, I don’t dig that mess. I’m just a boy from Louisville”—he turns his eyes up at the foxes—“I dig rock and roll. Isn’t that right?”
All the girls are hip, and therefore cool jazz fans currently, so most of them think the whole thing over for a few seconds before saying, “That’s right.”
Cassius puts a 45-r.p.m. on and says, “This old boy’s an alley singer, nobody ever heard of him, he sings about beans and bread and all that old mess.”
Cassius starts laughing at that and looking out over the city lights, out the panorama window. The girls aren’t sure whether he is laughing with or at the alley singer.
Cassius scans the foxes and says, “This is my crowd. They don’t dig that other mess, either.”
The girls don’t say anything.
“Is that your kinda music? I know it’s hers,” he says, looking at Francine, who is sitting pretty still. “She’s about to fall over.”
And maybe at this point somebody says, “What time is it?” And Rudy or somebody looks out the panorama window to the clock on the Paramount Building and says, “Ten minutes to ten.”
Probably anybody who had that suite in the Americana would tell time that way. But it stuck in my mind. I suppose it is because it symbolizes the state of mind Cassius Clay is now in. Cassius lets you know in a wide assortment of ways that his big talk is an act. He says it straight out. He says it obliquely with the bit about, “You better not lemme go.” He says it ironically, and perhaps unconsciously, when he sits in a $160-a-day hotel suite, looking out over city lights, and cajoles a battery of hip New York girls into standing up and being counted on the side of beans and bread as apostrophized by an alley singer nobody ever heard of. But it is also true that now he has had the view from the top of the mountain, as the phrase goes. It is doubtful that he is going to be able to settle, psychologically, for anything less. He is only twenty-one years old, but the latter-day career of Cassius Clay is going to be one of the intriguing case histories of American boxing or show business or folk symbolism or whatever it is that he now is really involved in.
He may have a showman’s perspective on his pitch—“I am the greatest”—but he is hooked on the attention and worship it has brought him. I think Cassius Clay is already worried about the fact that this part of his life could end with his boxing career.
He is starting to talk about himself as a show-business figure.
“You know, everything now is the talking, going on television, building up the fight,” he told me that night at the Americana. “Sometimes it seems like the fight ain’t anything. It’s not even any fun to win anymore. It’s all the buildup.”
Cassius had just come from the Columbia Records studio, across from the hotel at Seventh Avenue and Fifty-second, where he was making an album, I Am the Greatest, a long pastiche of poems and skits composed wholly in terms of his impending fight with Sonny Liston. The incessant rehearsing of his lines for two weeks, most of them lines he had sprung at random at press conferences and so forth over a period of a year and a half, had made Cassius aware, as probably nothing else, of the showman’s role he was filling. And made him tempted by it.
After cutting up a little for Frankie Tucker and the foxes and everybody—showing them how he could act, really—he went over to one side of the living room and sat in a gangster-modern swivel chair and propped his feet up on the panorama-window ledge and talked a while. Everybody else was talking away in the background. Somebody had put the cool jazz back on and some husky girl with one of those augmented-sevenths voices was singing Moon Over Miami.
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I asked Cassius if the constant popping off and being onstage all the time was getting to be a strain.
“Yeah, it’s a strain,” he said, but then he thought that over awhile. “The only time it bothers me is when things start to change too fast and I can see people’s faces….”
He didn’t follow that up.
“Lionel Hampton and all these people write me, and I go around and appear at the clubs. Jimmy Smith. Leslie Uggams, the colored girl who’s been singing at that club. Coltrane, the sax player.
“I don’t feel like I’m in boxing anymore. It’s show business. Everything changes so fast.
“If you told me I was going to be here when I was twenty-one….”
He looked at his feet, propped up on the panorama-window ledge. Beyond them were the city lights and the Palisades.
“When I was around seventeen or eighteen, I would be in the room at home watching the Saturday-night fights. My momma and daddy and the whole family watching the Saturday-night fights on this little bitty screen, about nine or ten inches. They get $4000 for those TV fights, the fighters. I’d say, ‘Momma, that guy is supposed to be a pro, and I could beat him.’ I thought I was ready, but I really wasn’t—but I could beat those guys. I would say, ‘Momma, they get $4000 for one night. Just think, our house don’t cost but $5000 and you all saved all your life to get it. And they get $4000 in one night.
“But now I’m only twenty-one and I got so big I can’t fight on TV. Ain’t enough in it. They got to have closed circuit. Fighting for $4000 would be like fighting for nothing.
“Ain’t anybody in boxing can draw like me. When I walk down the street, the crowds, they have to call the police.”
When Cassius brags about crowds, that’s the part he really means. He is a little like politicians that way. I once heard Abraham Ribicoff say that the thing politicians live for after awhile is not the publicity, pictures in the newspapers, television and so forth, or power in the sense of having control over important matters, but personal deference—the way people hop to it when you come around or move when you say move. I think Cassius has the same feeling.
While I was talking to him, a new girl showed up. I don’t know where she came from. She was a tall, good-looking girl wearing a garden-party hat. Cassius swung around in the chair.
“Who is that girl?” he said. “Who are you?”
She didn’t say anything. Somebody introduced them, but she edged slightly toward Richie, as if to show Cassius she wasn’t going to be one of his foxes.
No response. So Cassius called Sophia over and said, “I got something to tell you,” and gave her a hug instead.
“You can’t let ’em go too long, you got to hug ’em,” he said to his brother Rudy.
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“Don’t look around at me,” said Rudy. “That’s something nobody’s gonna figure out for you.”
It makes a man feel like Dali’s sister to say so—it was a sister of Salvador Dali who told a Paris reporter that he had been a sweet child who never indulged in necrophagia or any other of the notorious tastes he claimed for his earliest days—but Cassius gives every indication that he plays not for woman, and not for the high life, but for the crowd. Cassius Clay’s night life in New York was a rather purified version of high living, as nearly as I could discern. Practically no drinking, and none at all by Cassius himself. And after awhile these girls didn’t seem like babes at all, but Cassius’ foxes, which is an aesthetic species.
“What’s that club Leslie Uggams was at?” Cassius asked.
“The Metropole, that’s right. That’s one of the big ones out there, ain’t it?”
His designation of the Metropole Café as “a big one” is an interesting thing in itself, but the key phrase is “out there.” To Cassius, New York and the hot spots and the cool life are out there beyond his and Rudy’s and Tuddie’s suite at the Americana and beyond his frame of reference. Cassius does not come to New York as the hip celebrity, although it would be easy enough, but as a phenomenon. He treats Broadway as though these were still the days when the choirboys at Lindy’s would spot a man in a white Palm Beach–brand suit heading up from Forty-ninth Street and say, “Here comes Winchell,” or “Here comes Hellinger,” or even the way Carl Van Vechten’s Scarlet Creeper treated 125th Street in the days of the evening promenade. Cassius likes to get out amongst them.
About 10:15 p.m. he motioned to Sophia and started leaving the suite. All five girls got up and followed. The procession was spectacular even for Seventh Avenue on a crowded night with the chocolate-drink stands open. Cassius, six feet three, two hundred pounds, was wearing a black-and-white-checked jacket, white tab-collared shirt and black tie, light grey Continental trousers, black pointed-toe Italian shoes, and walking with a very cocky walk. The girls were walking one or two steps behind, all five of them, dressed in slayingly high couture. There were high heels and garden-party hats. Down at the corner, at Fifty-second Street, right at the foot of the hotel, Cassius stopped, looked all around and began loosening up his shoulders, the way prizefighters do. This, I found out, is Cassius’ signal, an unconscious signal, that he is now available for crowd collecting. He got none on that corner, but halfway down to Fifty-first Street people started saying, “That’s Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay,” the way he had mimicked it back in the hotel. Cassius might have gotten his crowd at Fifty-first Street—he was looking cocky and the girls were right behind him in a phalanx, looking gorgeous—but he headed on across the street when the light changed, over to where two fellows he knew were standing a quarter of the way down the block.
“Here he comes. Whatta you say, champ?”
“Right, man. Hey,” said Cassius, referring the girls to the taller and older of the two men, “I want you all to meet one of the greatest singers in New York.” A pause there. “What is your name, man, I meet so many people here.”
“Hi, Pinocchio,” said one of the foxes, and the man smiled.
“Pinocchio,” said Cassius. Then he said, “You see all these queens are with me?” He made a sweeping motion with his hand. The girls were around him on the sidewalk. “All these foxes.”
“That’s sump’n else, man.”
Cassius could have gotten his crowd easily on the sidewalk outside the Metropole. When it’s warm, there is always a mob out there looking in through the front doorway at the band strung out along the bandstand, which is really more of a shelf. If there is a rock-and-roll band, there will always be some Jersey teen-agers outside twisting their ilia to it. That night there was more of a Dixieland or jump band on, although Lionel Hampton was to come on later, and Cassius entered, by coincidence, while an old tune called High Society was playing. All the foxes filed in, a step or so behind. The Metropole Café has not seen many better entrances. Cassius looked gloriously bored.
The Metropole is probably the perfect place for a folk hero to show up at in New York. It is kind of a crossroads, or ideal type, of all the hot spots and live joints in the country. I can tell you two things about it that will help you understand what the Metropole is like, if you have never been there. First, the color motif is submarine green and Prussian blue, all reflected in huge wall-to-wall mirrors. If the stand-up beer crowd gets so thick you can’t see over them to the bandstand, you can always watch through the mirrors. Second, the place attracts high-livers of a sort that was there that night. I particularly remember one young guy, standing there at the bar in the submarine-green and Prussian-blue light with sunglasses on. He had on a roll-collar shirt, a silvery tie, a pale-grey suit of the Continental cut and pointed black shoes. He had a king-size cigarette pasted on his lower lip, and when the band played The Saints, he broke into a terribly “in” and hip grin, which brought the cigarette up horizontal. He clapped his hands and hammered his right heel in time to the drums and kept his eyes on the trumpet player the whole time. The thing is, kids don’t even do that at Williams College anymore, but they do it at the Metropole.
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This same kid came over to ask Cassius for his autograph at one point. He thought The Saints was hip, but he must not have thought autograph-hunting was very hip. He wanted an autograph, however. He handed Cassius a piece of paper for his autograph and said, “It’s not for me, it’s for a buddy of mine, he wants it.” This did not score heavily with Cassius.
“Where’s your pen?” he said.
“I don’t have a pen,” the kid said. “It’s for a friend of mine.”
“You ain’t got no pen, man,” said Cassius.
About a minute later the kid came back with a pen, and Cassius signed the piece of paper, and the kid said, “Thank you, Cassius, you’re a gentleman.” He said it very seriously. “It’s for a buddy of mine. You’re a real gentleman.”
That was the tone of things that night in the Metropole. Everything was just a little off, the way Cassius saw it. He never did feel the impulse to turn off his gloriously bored look and be a star. Which points up an interesting thing about Cassius’ attitude toward his own fame. On the one hand, he knows that his act—“I am the greatest”—is a piece of outrageous bombast and that one reason the public loves it is that they know no man could possibly mean it. It makes him a clown, a jester like Bobo Newsom, the bragging baseball player, who used to speak of himself in the third person, saying, “Ol’ Bobo is going to do such and such.” But on the other hand, Cassius doesn’t want the fuss to be made over him sheerly in his role as a clown. He wants to be thought of as a man who does the clown act consummately well, which is to say, an actor.
So when Cassius goes into a place like the Metropole, he doesn’t come on waving, mugging and cutting up. He comes on gloriously bored. He wants to see the people come to him as the man who can do that act called “I am the greatest,” not as the man who is doing the act.
From the moment he walked into the doorway of the Metropole, people were trying to prod him into the act.
“You really think you can beat Sonny Liston, man?”
“Liston must fall in eight.”
“You really mean that?”
“If he gives me any jive, he goes in five,” Cassius said, but in a terribly matter-of-fact, recitative voice, all the while walking on ahead, with the foxes moseying in behind him, also gloriously bored.
His presence spread over the Metropole immediately. As I said, it is the perfect place for folk heroes, for there is no one in there who is not willing to be impressed. The management, a lot of guys in tuxedos with the kind of Hollywood black ties that tuck under the collars and are adorned with little pearl stickpins and such devices, was rushing up. A guy at the bar, conservatively dressed and about thirty, came up behind Cassius and touched him lightly at about the level of the sixth rib and went back to the bar and told his girl, “That’s Cassius Clay. I just touched him, no kidding.”
They sat all the foxes down in a booth at about the middle of the Metropole Café and gave Cassius a chair by himself right next to them. Lionel Hampton came up with the huge smile he has and shook Cassius’ hand and made a fuss over him without any jive about when Liston must fall. Cassius liked that. But then the crowd came around for autographs, and they wanted him to go into his act. It was a hell of a noisy place.
If Cassius really wants to go into his act, if he is in front of a crowd he thinks will really appreciate its Pantagruelian overtones, he turns on a pair of 150-watt eyes and suddenly becomes a star. That is the only way I can think of to describe it. It is in the eyes and in the facial muscles around the eyes, an ability to come alive upon demand. I think that is what people usually mean about an actor or a singer when they say he or she has an intangible “star” quality. Many times I saw Cassius turn it on in a second for television interviewers or photographers who said they wanted to catch him in a characteristic pose. “Just start talking, you know, like you would about Liston—recite one of your poems,” they would tell him, and Cassius would turn on those 150-watt eyeballs in a second.
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But the crowd at the Metropole hit several wrong notes. One was hit by a white man about fifty-five, obviously a Southerner from the way he talked, who came up to Clay from behind—people were gaggled around from all sides—and stuck the blank side of a Pennsylvania Rail Road receipt, the kind you get when you buy your ticket on the train, in his face and said in a voice you could mulch the hollyhocks with:
“Here you are, boy, put your name right there.”
It was more or less the same voice Mississippians use on a hot day when the colored messenger boy has come into the living room and is standing around nervously. “Go ahead, boy, sit down. Sit in that seat right there.”
Cassius took the Pennsylvania Rail Road receipt without looking up at the man, and held it for about ten seconds, just staring at it.
Then he said in a slightly accusing voice, “Where’s your pen?”
“I don’t have a pen, boy. Some of these people around here got a pen. Just put your name right there.”
Cassius still didn’t look up. He just said, “Man, there’s one thing you gotta learn. You don’t ever come around and ask a man for an autograph if you ain’t got no pen.”
Only he said it with that patient, slow-boil exasperation that a riveter standing on an I beam catching hot rivets in a bucket might use with the garnishee collector who has tracked him down and tapped him on the shoulder.
The man retreated and more people pressed in.
Actually, that was fairly typical of the way Cassius handles the race business as it affects him. He is very canny about it, especially for a kid of twenty-one. He will not discuss it in the abstract. The explanation that has been given is that Cassius’ backers are almost all prominent Louisville, Kentucky, businessmen, white Southerners, and he is careful not to embarrass them. But I think there is more than that to it. I see it as part of Cassius’ genuine pride. He doesn’t like the idea of getting into a discussion that starts off with the premise that he is part of a group that is doomed to an inferior position. His answer is to assert himself and assume what he sees as his rightful position, and so far there has been no one to challenge him. I mean, he props his feet up on the conference table and stretches back in a Moroccan-leather chair when he is in the boardroom in Louisville with his eleven backers, and four of them are millionaires and they all keep their feet on the floor.
Cassius treats the fact of color casually. Sometimes, when he is into his act, he will look at somebody and say, “You know, man, you lucky, you seen me here in living color.” One time, I remember, a CBS news crew was filming an interview with him in the Columbia Records Studio A, at 799 Seventh Avenue, when the cameraman said to the interviewer, who was moving in on Cassius with the microphone: “Hey, Jack, you’re throwing too much shadow on Cassius. He’s dark enough already.”
All the white intellectuals in the room cringed. Cassius just laughed. In point of fact, he is not very dark at all.
But he does not go for any of the old presumptions, such as, “Put your name right there, boy.”
Another wrong note was hit when a middle-aged couple came up. They were white. The woman struck you as a kind of Arkansas Blanche DuBois. They looked like they wanted autographs at first. They did in a way. They were both loaded. She had an incredible drunk smile that spread out soft and gooey like a can of Sherwin-Williams paint covering the world. She handed Cassius a piece of paper and a pencil and wanted him to write down both his name and her name. He had just about done that when she put her hand out very slowly to caress his cheek.
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“Can I touch you?” she said. “I just want to touch you.”
Cassius pulled his head back.
“Naw,” he said. “My girl friends might get jealous.”
He didn’t call them foxes to her. He said it in a nice way. After she left, though, he let her have it. It was the only time I ever heard him say anything contemptuously of anyone.
“Can I touch you, can I touch you,” he said. He could mimic her white Southern accent in a fairly devastating way.
“Naw, you can’t touch me,” he said, just as if he were answering her face to face. “Nobody can touch me.”
As a matter of fact, Cassius is good at mimicking a variety of white Southern accents. He doesn’t do it often, but when he does it, it has an extra wallop because he has a pronounced Negro accent of his own, which he makes no attempt to polish. He only turns it on heavier from time to time for comic effect. Once I heard him mimic both himself, a Louisville Negro, and newspapermen, Louisville whites, in one act.
I had asked him if the cocky act he was putting on all over the country, and in England for that matter, surprised the people who knew him back home. What I was getting at was whether he had been a cocky kid in Louisville back in the days before anybody ever heard of him. He changed the direction slightly.
“They believe anything you tell ’em about me back in Louisville. Newspapermen used to come around and I’d give ’em predictions and they’d say, ‘What is this boy doing?’
“I had a fight with Lamar Clark, I believe it was, and I said [Clay mimicking Clay, heavy, high-flown, bombastic Negro accent] : ‘Lamar will fall in two.’ I knocked him out in two, and they said [Clay mimicking drawling Kentucky Southern accent] : ‘Suht’n’ly dee-ud.’” (Certainly did.)
“I said, ‘Miteff will fall in six.’
“They said, ‘Suht’n’ly dee-ud.’
“I said, ‘Warren will fall in four.’
“They said, ‘Suht’n’ly dee-ud.’”
Clay had a lot better look on his face when people came by to admire what he had become rather than the funny act he puts on.
One young Negro, sharp-looking, as they say, in Continental clothes with a wonderful pair of Latin-American sunglasses, the kind that are narrow like the mask the Phantom wears in the comic strip, came by and didn’t ask Cassius when Liston would fall. He shot an admiring, knowing look at the foxes, and said, “Who are all these girls, man?”
“Oh, they just the foxes,” said Cassius.
“Man, I like your choice of foxes, I’m telling you,” the kid said.
This tickled Cassius and he leaned over and told it to Sophia.
The kid, meantime, went around to the other side of the booth. He had a glorified version of how Cassius was living. He believed Cassius as he leaned over to the girls when the waiter came around and said, “You get anything you want. I own this place. I own all of New York.” (Sophia gave him a derisive laugh for that.)
The kid leaned over to one of the girls and said: “Are you all his personal property?”
“What are you talking about, boy. What do you mean, his personal property?”
“You know, his,” said the kid. He was getting embarrassed, but he still had traces of a knowing look salivating around the edges.
“Why do we have to be his personal property?”
“Well, like, I mean, you know,” said the kid. His mouth had disintegrated completely into an embarrassed grin by now, but his eyes were still darting around, as if to say, “Why don’t they level with me. I’m a hip guy.”
Cassius also liked it when a Negro he had met a couple of nights before, an older guy, came around and didn’t ask when Liston would fall.
“I saw a crowd on the sidewalk out there, and I might have known you’d be inside,” he told Cassius. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, I’m just sitting here with the foxes,” said Cassius.
“You sure are,” the fellow said.
A young white kid with a crew cut said, “Are you afraid of Liston?”
Cassius said mechanically, “That big ugly bear? If I was worried, I’d be out training and I’m out partying.”
Cassius had a tall, pink drink. It was nothing but Hawaiian Punch, right out of the can.
“How you gonna beat him?”
“I’ll beat that bear in eight rounds. I’m strong and I’m beautiful and I’ll beat that bear in eight rounds.”
“You promise?” said the kid. He said it very seriously and shook Cassius’ hand, as though he were getting ready to go outside and drop off a couple of grand with his Weehawken bookmaker. He apparently squeezed pretty hard. This fellow being a fighter and all, a guy ought to shake hands like a man with him.
Cassius pulled his hand away suddenly and wrung it. “Don’t ever squeeze a fighter’s hand, man. That hand’s worth about three hundred thousand dollars,” he said, making a fist. “You don’t have to shake hands, you doing good just to lay eyes on me.”
The kid edged off with his buddy and he was saying, “He said, ‘Don’t ever squeeze a fighter’s hand.’” Somehow I could see that kid growing up and on one of those interminable Sunday afternoons he will be trying to talk buddy-to-buddy with his own kid, or just to wipe the kid’s suppressed revolutionary sneer off his lips by seeming more than a forty-four-year-old drudge in a short-sleeve sport shirt, and the conversation will get, or be dragged, around to the subject of physical conditioning, and he will say, “You know, one thing you ought to remember, never squeeze a fighter’s hand when you shake hands with him.”
Whether or not he says, Cassius Clay told me that, depends on what happens to Cassius Clay.
By now Cassius was looking slightly worse than gloriously bored.
“If they don’t stop worrying me,” he said, “I’m gonna get up and walk out of here.”
Sophia leaned over and told me, “He doesn’t mean that. He loves it.”
Of all the girls, Sophia seemed to be closest to him. She found him amusing. She liked him.
“You know, he’s really a normal boy,” she told me. She threw her head to one side as if to dismiss Cassius’ big front. “Oh, he’s got a big mouth. But aside from that, he’s a real normal boy.”
I’LL GO along with that to a certain extent. He doesn’t give you the impression of the continuously wacked-out frame of mind of an egotist like Salvador Dali. Of course, in Dali’s case it’s partly the language barrier. It’s harder for him to give you cues when he’s kidding. But Cassius is an egotist, there shouldn’t be any mistake about that. One thing I noticed is that he never begins a sentence with the word, “Well,” when he’s talking about himself. Other people, at a committee meeting or in school or someplace, will be asked what their opinion is of such and such, and they will invariably start off saying, “Well, I—.” The “Well” says, Well, I am not an egotist who thinks his opinion is necessarily very valuable, it’s just that somebody asked me. But a TV interviewer can come up to Cassius, as the fellow did over at Columbia Records, and say, “Cassius, what makes you think that you, a boxer, can be a recording star?”, and Cassius will turn on his 150-watt eyeballs and start rapping his right forefinger into his left palm and saying right off the bat, “I am the world’s strongest fighter and the world’s most beautiful fighter and the world’s most poetical fighter, and old man Liston’s scared of me and won’t fight and I need something to do to kill time.
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“I predict this record will go eight—eight zillion. It’s gonna be the biggest-selling record of all time, bigger than My Fair Lady and The First Family combined.”
I asked Cassius’ brother, Rudy—Rudolph Valentino Clay is his full name—if Cassius was always popping off, even as a kid.
“Well, naw, he wasn’t like that,” said Rudy.
“You mean he was quiet?”
Rudy laughed at that. “Naw, he wasn’t never quiet. He was in-between. You know.”
Rudy is the kid brother, a year younger, but it’s everybody’s tacit understanding that Rudy is the man appointed to keep Cassius vertical as he is swept by the winds of celebration. The two are very close, and Cassius will listen to him.
Rudy is probably invaluable to Cassius Clay and the corporate galaxy that spins around him because part of Cassius’ egotism is his determination not to be the typical fistic plug and pawn, a “property.” He travels in New York without a manager at his elbow, let alone the kind of silver tie, nubby-twist alumicron-silk-suited hoods you see at other fighters’ weigh-ins. He can thank his Louisville backers, a clean bunch, for that. On the other hand, although he never would say anything about it, I get the impression he feels that his backers’ big fifty-percent bite out of his earnings makes him a little less than his own man.
Once at the Americana, when the phone rang, Cassius answered with, “Next champ speaking, start talking.” He was in a pretty good humor. Then whoever it was on the other end started asking him something, apparently trying to set up some business deal, and he wanted to talk to Cassius’ manager about it. Cassius wasn’t in a good humor anymore.
“I don’t have no manager. I got a trainer and he’s in Florida. I’m my own boss. I got backers, they put up the money, but I’m the boss, I’m the onliest boss.”
Cassius is kidding himself a little bit, but not too much. He couldn’t manage his own affairs right now. He doesn’t have any idea how to do it. But Cassius has the grand view of what Cassius is going to do in life. It was Cassius who invented Cassius the Greatest. Cassius says he did and there is no reason to doubt it. Certainly nobody among his Louisville backers invented the role. Louisville is a fine old Southern town and all, but it is a town where a rich man with imagination is detected by the fact that this summer he is wearing a tan-and-white cord suit instead of the usual pale-blue-and-white or, at the very outside, one of those Glen-plaid seersuckers.
Cassius told me he got the idea for Cassius the Great from Gorgeous George.
“Right after I turned pro,” Cassius said, “the reporters would come around and they’d ask me if I thought I could make it as a pro, and I would say, Yeah, I thought my chances were pretty good, and then my trainer would say I was in pretty good shape and I was coming along pretty good, and all those newspaper cats would say, ‘So long, Pretty Good,’ and there wouldn’t be nothing about me.
“And then one night I was down in Miami, there wasn’t nothing to do at night and I was watching the wrestling, and Gorgeous George came on. He was struttin’ around and wearing this silky robe and furs and I don’t know what all and he give everybody a look you could kill ants with.
“They were booing him and everything, but they were talking about him and everybody came out there to see him. And the newspapers and TV, they didn’t say Goodbye, Pretty Good, to old Gorgeous George. He wasn’t much but everybody was talking about him.
“So next time the newspapermen came around, I started saying I could beat everybody and everything and I was the greatest and I was beautiful, and then I started predicting and that’s how it went.”
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This demonstrates Cassius’ chief mental asset, which is an unusual awareness, unusual for a fighter, at any rate. He is quite aware, even supersensitive at times, of other people’s motives. He is aware of newspapermen’s motives, his backers’ motives, his trainers’ motives, autograph hunters’ motives and even the social motives of sophisticated white New Yorkers he has seen only at a glance.
His first trip into the Velvet Belt, the town-house district of the East Fifties, Sixties and Seventies in Manhattan, took place when he taxied to the Graphics Group studio at 206 East Fiftieth Street to have the picture made [that appears in this issue]. He looked down the row of determinedly Mayfair brownstones, he told me: “This is all an extension of London, all this.” He was just back from fighting Henry Cooper, the British heavyweight, in London.
“How do you mean?”
“Aw,” he said, “those little houses. And everything.” There were a couple of custom-suited, custom-shirted gentlemen walking by, the broad-striped shirts, the solaro cloth suits, the full bit. Cassius nodded toward them: “And them.”
I thought that was pretty good going for a twenty-one-year-old heavyweight from Grand Avenue in Louisville. He really did use the word “extension.” In fact, he said it again. “It’s just an extension of London.”
It may not seem like much to cynics on the outside that a fighter should size up the fight business as show business, but damned few before Cassius Clay ever did it. Sugar Ray Robinson and Archie Moore, the two fighters whom Cassius admires most, became showmen and bosses of the sort Cassius aspires to be, but they had no master plan, even though they were both bright, like Cassius. It is tough for a kid who grows up thinking the point is to win fights, after the Greco-Roman amateur ideal of triumph, to discover that he is really caught up in show business, a not very ideal or even mirthful world whose factors, as they say in the trade, are aging men gone sour with baldness, emphysema, flabbiness and deteriorating tissue in their wattles.
Cassius Clay started fighting as an amateur when he was twelve and had more than a hundred amateur fights. Most of them, until the press started closing in at Rome during the 1960 Olympics, were conducted in the chlorine, ammonia and witch-hazel atmosphere of amateur athletics. By the time he won the Olympic heavyweight crown, Cassius was looking farther ahead than the press was willing to have him look.
After he won the Olympic gold medal, there was a press conference at which the reporters zeroed in and started handing Cassius the whole waxed poke full of gooey questions, the first one of which is, “How does it feel to be the champion?” and the second one of which is, “What is your main ambition in life?” There is only one possible answer to the first one, which is, “I am thrilled to death,” or something of the sort, and there are only three possible answers to the second, “I want to be a fighter,” “I want to be a doctor,” preferably along the malarial coast of Rowangu with Project HOPE, or “I want to help fight juvenile delinquency” (NEXT ON CHAMP’S LIST: K.O. J.D.). There is no record of what Cassius said to the first question, but to the second he said, “I want to be a rock-and-roll singer like Elvis Presley.”
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The reporters were morally shocked. Some refused to print it, succumbing to the kind of self-censorship that hits reporters about five hundred times as often as any directives that come from publishers. This kid, who was very popular in Rome at the time, had suffered a lapse, an aortal rupture of the moral sense.
Later, some of the reporters pressed him in private and he said, at least as it appeared in their reports, “Well, I really want to turn pro as a fighter, but I didn’t think that was the right thing to say at the Olympics, which is for amateur sports.” (I don’t think Cassius, even then, ever began a sentence with “Well.”)
Actually, you have to ask yourself what higher pinnacle the press expects a Negro, with a high-school education, from Louisville, Kentucky, to aspire to than to be a rock-and-roll singer like Elvis Presley. After all, Elvis Presley came on as the white hope of the recording industry because he was what they had been looking for all these years: a white singer who could sing like a Negro. Maybe Cassius has the right ambition: to be a Negro who can make money like Elvis Presley.
Already Cassius’ plans go far beyond fighting. I never could get him to discuss the possibility that Sonny Liston might very well beat him. But Cassius makes it clear, one way or another, that he has thought of that possibility and knows that, in any case, the fight game is like a road show with two, maybe three more bookings. After the climactic fight, or fights, What? as they say in the political monthlies. A few charades at the Garden with such celebrities as Zora Folley and Wayne Bethea? Boxing is a dying show. They had to rush Cassius Clay along like a Department of Agriculture experimental-station suckling to revive the business this time. Ring Magazine, always known as the boxing bible, is half devoted to wrestling now. Which only goes to document Cassius Clay’s Gorgeous George insight. Wrestling is not dying, because it is inspired hooey.
Singers kept turning up wherever Cassius went in New York, or else he kept turning up where they were. Jerry Vale would drop by and show him a new album, and they would joke awhile. He got to know Lloyd Price, the Negro singer, and then there were the trips to the Metropole and so forth. At one point, when I asked Cassius why he was making all these rounds, he said, “Aw, I just go in there for the publicity,” then he added, “and the show business and everything. I wanna get used to that. I may be doing that someday.”
He never talks in a worried way about fighting anyone, but he gets a distracted tone when you ask him how long he figures he will stay in boxing.
“Aw, maybe two or three more years,” he told me. “Maybe then I’ll go in the movies. I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”
But the next minute—we were sitting in his hotel suite—he was talking on the telephone to somebody about Sam Cooke and singing.
Sam Cooke is a Negro rock-and-roll and blues singer who had sold more than eight million records, the last figures I saw. One of his biggest hits was a record called You Send Me. I had never heard of him, although I had heard that record.
“You’re square, man,” said Cassius. “You probably don’t listen to the radio. You probably dig all that,” and he motioned over to Rudy’s pile of cool jazz records.
So he put a Sam Cooke 45-r.p.m. record on the phonograph. It was sort of sad-tenor rhythm and blues. “See what you been missing? You’re square, man.”
The gist of it is, he had gotten in touch with Sam Cooke. He wants some pointers—lessons, I gathered, although he didn’t prefer to go into it deeply.
When Cassius was in New York to make the record album, I Am the Greatest, he turned out to be determined and disciplined to a point that completely surprised his mentors at Columbia Records. They were prepared for a kid who was going to be wandering off all the time as if it were piano lessons he was up against.
He was late for only one rehearsal session, fifteen minutes late, and that was the time he got lost in Brooklyn, which happens to people all the time. Columbia had their executive in charge of Artists and Repertory, A&R, as they call it, working with Cassius on the album. His name is David Kapralik. When you first saw Kapralik working across a table from Cassius at a rehearsal, you got the picture of the hip, alert New-York-show businessman trying to coax something resembling a competent performance out of a prizefighter. Kapralik looked the part. He is a small, trim guy with lively dark eyes, an impeccable dresser with shirts that get in there and hit that ball for the team, and he has the nervous system of a purebred Manchester terrier, very quick, tense, exuberant. But the George-and-Lennie side of the thing was the wrong picture.
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Kapralik was the most interested in seeing that album succeed, but Cassius was second. They were both working like slaves over it. At one point, in Studio A, Cassius undid his shirt front and fanned himself and said, “Man, I’m sweatin’.” Cassius was desperately interested in whether or not his lines were genuinely funny. He tried them out on every newcomer who came into the room. The first time I met Cassius he was rehearsing in a basement room at Columbia. He just barely shook hands and said hello. But the next minute he was getting off a crack in one of his poems,
“After Mr. Liston’s dismemberment,
“He’s gonna wonder where October and November went,”
and he completely turned away from Kapralik and Mike Berniker, the other A&R man working with him, and looked at me with this special mock grin he has. He pushes his lower lip down with his tongue and opens his eyes wide. The effect is: “That was supposed to be funny, but I’m hip to the fact that it’s a little corny and might not be funny, and now I want to see from your face whether I pulled it off.”
“Come on, Cassius, don’t play to him. Reporters aren’t supposed to laugh.”
“I ain’t playing to him,” said Cassius. “I just want to see if he laughs. I want to see if it’s funny.”
Now Cassius was rehearsing in Studio A. He was at a table, with Kapralik across from him, leading him with his hands, like a director, and Mike Berniker was inside the studio’s sound booth, directing the taping of the rehearsal, but the place was rigged up so they could talk back and forth to each other over microphones.
The rehearsal was floundering at that point, and Cassius came to the end of the section with this line: “My only fault is, I don’t realize how great I really am.”
Berniker switched in and said, “Okay, very good.”
Cassius asked him, over the microphone:
“Is that really good?”
“Could you do that?”
“I know I couldn’t do it.”
“Then I must really be great,” said Cassius, laughing like hell.
At one point he complained about what hard work it was, and Kapralik tried to cheer him up by saying, “You’ll be a star by the time you get through with this.”
Then Kapralik disappeared into the sound booth, and Cassius started talking near the microphone, as if he thought Kapralik couldn’t hear him, mimicking a heavy Negro accent: “People don’t want to hear this stuff, they want some good old music. This is gonna be a flop. Ain’t Kapralik du-u-u-mmb?”
Cassius was in Kapralik’s and Berniker’s hands as far as the record album was concerned, but he held a proprietary interest most of the way. I remember one piece of life-in-our-times tension that arose when the seven actors came into Studio A. At some points in the album they form a sort of Greek chorus. They also take part in skits, strictly routine stuff. Cassius was at what amounted to stage center. Seven chairs were set off to one side for the actors. As they trooped in, four men and three women, they barely looked at Cassius, refusing to be impressed, and right away you got the picture. Here they were, seven professional actors, most of whom had rounded the bend at thirty and had just begun to make names for themselves in a satirical revue called Second City, but there at stage center was the star of the show, a twenty-one-year-old Negro boxer.
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When they came into the room, all pointedly looking at far walls as if Venusians were coming in through the fourth dimension, Kapralik whispered to Cassius, “Be charming.” Cassius turned on the 150-watt eyeballs and said, “How you feeling? I hope you feeling better than I am, ’cause they working me to death.” There were some civil smiles, but nobody was going to be conned.
At first Cassius did some more jollying along. Then he began detecting things in their performances he thought could be improved on. One skit called for a little boy’s voice. Cassius told Kapralik, out loud, that the actor who had the little boy’s part didn’t sound like a little boy. This was an actor about thirty-five. Another actor, about thirty-eight, said, “Don’t worry, he can sound like the littlest boy you ever heard.” Swell, said Cassius, let’s hear him. The issue now was whether this thirty-five-year-old professional actor, a member of the ancient and mystically sanctioned craft, was going to practice his lines until a twenty-one-year-old prizefighter thought he had it right. Kapralik was the man in the middle. There was a lot of hemming and hawing. The actors turned away and talked about something else. Cassius finally let it drop. Actually, Cassius wanted to do all the voices. He had practiced them a number of times: the little boy, his father, his mother, the voice of Cassius Clay as a hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old man (“America’s oldest living ex-President”). “I can do the little boy and the man and the woman and the old man,” said Cassius, “but how am I gonna do the footsteps in there?” He delivered that deadpan. Then he started doing the footsteps by making a toc-toc-toc-toc noise with his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
Then came the point at which Cassius made suggestions about how the whole chorus could improve its lines. One of the lines went, “No, he’s the new champion.” Kapralik thought Cassius was right on this one, even though this didn’t make the actors very happy. The actors staged a kind of San Quentin protest, of the sort in the prison movies when all the Lee Marvins are sitting at the row tables refusing to eat and rapping their spoons on the tabletops, chanting, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” They started practicing the line, only in Jewish-humor fashion.
The first guy said, “No, he’s the new champion.”
The second said, “Nu, he’s the chempion?” (The incredulous question.)
The third said, “Nu, he’s the no champion.”
Life in our times was piling up around Cassius there like layers of baklava, but he was not aware of it. He was worried about the record album.
Several minutes later, he got up and went to the piano and started playing the Walking Boogie. He only knew one chord, but he started singing, “Hey, hey, pretty baby, don’t you know I’m the next champ. Hey, hey, pretty baby, don’t you know I’m the next champ. Why don’t you move right in and train here in my camp.”
Kapralik and Berniker looked at one another with patience in their eyes. But Cassius was only halfway clowning around. Peel away the discipline, turn down the loud mouth and you see a rock-and-roll singer, just like Elvis Presley.
One minute I can comprehend the picture. There is Cassius Clay in a shiny white gaucho shirt and tight pants of the Elvis Presley fashion, with an electric guitar in his hands that has more chrome and exotic fretwork than a loaded Harley-Davidson hogback motorcycle, and a group of four Adam’s-appled singers with fading deltoids bunched behind them, going, “Ah-ah-unnnh, ah-ah-unnh, ah-ah, yuh-annh, annnh,” while he sings, but then the next minute I can’t see it at all. Kapralik, who is concerned less with the long-range future of Clay than with the long-range future of his record, finds Cassius a refreshing original: “I think people love it when Cassius stands up and says, ‘I am the greatest.’ Nobody else can do this in our conforming society. If some executive gets up and says, I am a great executive, I am important around here,’ he won’t last until sundown.”
The trouble with the role of just being great, however, is that it is not negotiable. People can love a bragging athlete, because being supreme is an athlete’s business. The whole point of following sports is to enjoy a little harmless identification with aggression and supremacy, and if an athlete announces that he is the greatest, a man can identify with that, too, and even pray for him to prove it. But when the braggart moves over into any other field, even the stage, a veritable D.P. camp for egotists, it becomes a little edgy. People are glad when Jeanne Eagels, in the movie, gets hers. And a lot of people would be glad to see Sinatra or Bobby Darin get his. The point is, Cassius can’t carry the same act into another field—unless, of course, he can retire as an undefeated champion, announcing that he is now heading into the wide world to become the greatest everything.
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There in the middle of the Metropole Café, the foxes were beginning to stare a little morosely into their Gin Fizzes and Brandy Alexanders and Sidecars, and even the stream of autograph seekers was slowing down. It was damned crowded and you could hardly hear yourself talk. Every now and then the drummer would go into one of those crazy skyrocketing solos suitable for the Metropole, and the trumpet player would take the microphone and say, “That’s what Cassius Clay is going to do to Sonny Liston’s head!”, and Cassius would holler, “Right!”, but it was heavy weather. By this time Richie Pittman had dropped in, and Cassius motioned to him. They got up and went out “for some air.” At the doorway there was a crowd on the sidewalk looking in at the bandstand, as always. They made a fuss over Cassius, but he just loosened his shoulders a little and made a few wisecracks. He and Richie started walking up toward the Americana.
It was after midnight, and at the foot of the hotel, where this paseo-style sidewalk pans out almost like a patio, there was a crowd gathered around. Cassius didn’t miss that. They were watching three street musicians, colored boys, one with a makeshift bass—a washtub turned upside down with a cord coming up out of the bottom, forming a single string; a drum—a large tin-can bottom with spoons as sticks; and one guy dancing. They were playing Pennies from Heaven, a pretty good number for three guys getting ready to pass the hat. Cassius just walked up to the edge of the crowd and stood there. One person noticed him, then another, and pretty soon the old “That’s Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay, Cassius Clay” business started. Cassius’ spirits were rising. Pennies from Heaven stopped, and the three colored boys looked a little nonplussed for a moment. The show was being stolen. Somebody had said something about “Sonny Liston,” only this time Cassius had the 150-watt eyes turned on, and he was saying, “The only thing I’m worried about is, I don’t want Sonny Liston trying to crash my victory party the way I crashed his. I’m gonna tell him right before the fight starts so he won’t forget it, ‘Sonny,’ I’m gonna tell him, ‘Sonny Liston, I don’t want you trying to crash my victory party tonight, you hear that? I want you to hear that now, ’cause you ain’t gonna be able to hear anything eight rounds from now.’ And if he gives me any jive when I tell him that, if he gives me any jive, he must fall in five.”
A soldier, a crank-sided kid who looked like he must have gone through the battered syndrome at about age four, came up to take the role of Cassius’ chief debater. Cassius likes that when he faces a street crowd. He’ll hold a press conference for anybody, even a soldier on leave on Seventh Avenue.
“Where you gonna go after Sonny Liston whips you?” the kid said. “I got some travel folders right here.”
“Boy,” said Cassius, “you talk about traveling. I want you to go to that fight, ’cause you gonna see the launching of a human satellite. Sonny Liston.”
The crowd was laughing and carrying on.
“I got some travel folders,” the kid said. “You better look ’em over. I can get you a mask, too.”
“You gonna bet against me?” said Cassius.
“Every cent I can get my hands on,” said the kid.
“Man,” said Cassius, “you better save your money, ’cause there’s gonna be a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
Cassius was standing there looking like a million dollars, and Richie was standing by, sort of riding shotgun. By this time, the crowd was so big, it was spilling off the sidewalk into Fifty-second Street. All sorts of incredible people were moving up close, including sclerotic old men with big-lunch ties who edged in with jag-legged walks. A cop was out in the street going crazy, trying to prod everybody back on the sidewalk. A squad car drove up, and the cop on the street put on a real tough tone, “All right, goddamn it,” he said to an old sclerotic creeper with a big-lunch tie, “get up on the sidewalk.”
Cassius looked around at me as if to say, “See, man? That’s only what I predicted”—which is to say, “When I walk down the street, the crowds, they have to call the police.”
The autograph business had started now, and people were pushing in with paper and pens, but Cassius wheeled around toward the three colored boys, the musicians, and said, “Autographs are one dollar tonight. Everyone puts one dollar in there” (the musicians had a corduroy-ribbed box out in front of the tub) “gets the autograph of Cassius Clay, the world’s strongest fighter, the world’s most beautiful fighter, the onliest fighter who predicts when they will fall.”
The colored boys took the cue and started up with Pennies from Heaven again. The kid who danced was doing the merengue by himself. The kid on the bass was flailing away like a madman. All the while Cassius was orating on the corner.
“Come on, man, don’t put no fifty cents in there, get that old dollar bill outa there. Think at all you’re getting free here, the music’s so fine and here you got Cassius Clay right here in front of you in living color, the next heavyweight champion of the world, the man who’s gon’ put old man Liston in orbit.”
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The dollar bills started piling up in the box, and the solo merengue kid was dervishing around wilder still, and Cassius wouldn’t let up.
“Yeah, they down there right now getting that Medicare ready for that old man, and if I hit him in the mouth he’s gonna need Denticare. That poor old man, he’s so ugly, his wife drives him to the gym every morning ’fore the sun comes up, so nobody’ll have to look at him ’round home. Come on, man, put yo’ money in that box, people pay good money to hear this—”
The bass man was pounding away, and Cassius turned to me and said, behind his hand, “Man, you know one thing? If I get whipped, they gonna me outa the country. You know that?”
Then he threw his head back and his arms out, as if he were falling backward. “Can you see me flat out on my back like this?”
The colored kids were playing Pennies from Heaven, and Cassius Clay had his head thrown back and his arms out, laughing, and looking straight up at the top of the Americana Hotel.
This article was originally published in the October 1963 issue of Esquire.