HE BEATS THE DRUMS FOR CHAMPS AND BUMS

Sartorially elegant and with a Hollywood flair, imaginative Harold Conrad is the most improbable fight flack in the business. At the moment he is selling Liston vs. Patterson as one of the great bouts of all time
July 07, 1963

Harold Conrad, the drumbeater, publicity man or flack, for the Liston-Patterson fight in Las Vegas on July 22, is in creative ecstasy. He is so excited about dreaming up stunts, or what he calls "gimmicks," to captivate the public that he is unable to sleep at night. Conrad lives for gimmicks. When he thinks of a particularly bright one, he is overjoyed. He figures he needs at least a dozen good gimmicks for a heavyweight title fight. He doles them out over a four-week period, beginning with the more basic gimmicks that set the mood (grimly determined underdog, blithely confident champ) and ending up, a few days before the fight, with the superdupers (secret sparring, hushed-up injury, the visiting hypnotist). Each week Conrad dispenses a ration of gimmicks according to a planned schedule of hoopla. On a Sunday, a slow news day, he might plan to have the underdog flatten a spar-"ring partner. On a Thursday, when the newsreels are in town, he will arrange to have one of the managers chased from the opponent's training camp.

What makes these gimmicks distinctive is that a) they are plausible and b) they are artfully based, somewhere, somehow, on the truth. When, for instance, a manager is tossed out of the rival camp, it is not because the ouster was faked but because Conrad knew the manager would be thrown out if he dared to appear. Of course, it was Conrad who not only suggested that the manager show up but also tipped off the other side that the manager was in the crowd. Indeed, Conrad treads the delicate line of truth with such mingled brass and aplomb that Ben Hecht, who covered the first Liston-Patterson fight, hailed him as a "press wizard."

Conrad is unlike any other drumbeater of recent years. Instead of being short, squat, rumpled and cigar-smoking, he is tall, slender, well tailored and addicted to a cigarette holder. Elegant is the word that Conrad's friends use to describe him. On the most routine working day, he can be found dispensing hokum in a $250 suit, Ascot tie and dark glasses. His ensemble is so sartorially striking that Sonny Liston and his manager, Jack Nilon, are often slack-jawed in awe. Once when Nilon managed to pull himself together for a contemptuous snort, Conrad dismissed him with a flick of a manicured hand. "I'm around to give you bums some class," he said.

Conrad is the thinking man's press agent. In his spare hours he reads omnivorously, paints abstractions and reworks furniture culled from the Salvation Army. He is married to Mara Lynn, an actress-dancer who has appeared in films {Let's Make Love), on the stage (This Was Burlesque) and in numerous television shows. With their 9-year-old son, Casey, they live in a cavernous old-fashioned Manhattan apartment that Conrad has done up in burnt ocher and black. "Who else but Harold would have dared to have done that?" says Dr. Carl Fulton Sulzberger, a psychiatrist friend and old Broadway buddy. "Harold has superb taste." All in all, Conrad is a man of such varied attainments that he may well be the most unusual character to attend the fight in Vegas.

He has, among other things, been a Broadway columnist; shot pool with Leo Durocher; done publicity for a Florida gambling house run by Frank Costello and Joe Adonis (his job was to keep the joint's name out of the papers); "won" a gold medal for the U.S. in the 1948 Olympics (while working for J. Arthur Rank, he forced a British producer to show the film of the 400-meter relay race that proved the U.S. was not guilty of a technical violation); written Joe Palooka radio scripts (Ham Fisher, the Palooka cartoonist and a slow payer, used to mollify Conrad by inserting his name in the strip); and maintained fervent palships with Serge Rubinstein and Ed Leven, two of the age's most gifted swindlers.

Milton Berle, an old Hollywood acquaintance, esteems Conrad as a first-rate raconteur, and, for a spell, the Duke of Windsor found him a charming drinking companion on the Riviera. Conrad met the duke one summer while trying to buy Monte Carlo for an American syndicate. The deal fell through, but Conrad used to pass the evenings buying a round for the duke and talking about boxing, while the duchess played chemin de fer with Louis Jourdan. The relationship came to an end one night after the duke toddled off to bed. "How come the duke never springs for a drink?" Conrad happened to inquire of the bartender, an Englishman. As Conrad recalls it, "The bartender drew himself up like a fusilier and said, 'Sir, the King never buys!' "

Sophisticate that he is, Conrad has been stunned but once in his life, and that after Robert Harrison, the publisher of Confidential, asked him to do a film script based on the magazine. Given the key to the magazine's secret files, Conrad spent a couple of entranced days going through them, emerging with a pair of sprained eyeballs. He never wrote the script (the idea of putting pen to paper apparently caused his hand to become unsteady) and even today, when asked about the experience, his face glazes over and he is only able to muster a dazed, "Wow, gee, golly."

Much of Conrad's deep interest in boxing stems from his fascination with the rogues populating the sport. He looks upon them as works of art in an all too pedestrian time, and when he encounters a character such as Evil Eye Finkel, of Slobodka Stare and Double Whammy notoriety, he will spend an hour chatting at close quarters, even if the Eye has not been bathing of late.

Conrad first became involved with boxing in his late teens when he went to work for his home-town Brooklyn Eagle. At the time there was at least one fight club going every night, and Conrad covered them all, including the Broadway Arena, where the boys from Murder, Inc. hung out, giving one another hotfoots and forcing spiced candy on fans in the lobby.

Around the Eagle, Conrad was a dapper figure who dazzled the staff. He took to wearing a Chesterfield and derby and squiring Manhattan show girls. He became friendly with Damon Runyon and, from the late '30s until the war, he wrote a thrice-a-week Broadway column for the Eagle. Once a year the paper sent him to Hollywood for two weeks, where he furthered his taste for high life.

During the war Conrad served in the Army Air Corps, first in intelligence, then as a publicity man for the show, Winged Victory. He never rose higher than private first class, but at a distance he was often taken for a general since he wore a gorgeous uniform tailored for him by a theatrical costumer. After service he returned briefly to the Eagle, served as nightclub and movie editor on the Mirror and ghosted a novel, The Curtain Never Falls, an amusing taie about a comic who is a heel, for Joey Adams, the comedian. According to friends, Conrad dashed it off in six weeks. At the end of every week Conrad dispatched a finished chapter to Adams, out on the road with an act. Adams would toss the manuscript on the breakfast table the next morning and say to cronies, "Gee, I'm bushed. My fingers are sore again from typing all night." When the novel appeared it received excellent reviews, and Adams went around saying he had written it about Milton Berle. Actually, Conrad had based the character on Adams. (Conrad himself will not admit that he wrote the novel for Adams. He does, however, proudly own up to the authorship of another novel, Battle of Apache Pass, which he wrote under his own name. "This Cochise was a hell of a character," he says.)

In the late 1940s, Conrad moved to the Coast, where one of his first jobs was acting as press agent for something known as the American Rollerskating Championships, then being held in Oakland. While there he looked up Casey Stengel, an old friend from Brooklyn who was managing the Oakland team in the Pacific Coast League. "We had a couple of drinks," Conrad recalls, "and I asked Casey if he would do me a favor. "What is it?' he asked. I tell him all I want him to do is put on a pair of skates and pose for photographers. He says, 'Sure, just as long as I don't have to skate. 1 don't know how.' So he's game. I get the photographers and put the skates on Casey. Just as he stands up, I give him a good shove from behind, and he goes sailing! We got a lot of space with that."

Conrad spent the early '50s in Hollywood, writing scripts. He never made a big score financially, but he had an active social life palling around with the late Serge Rubinstein. "1 met him when he first got out of the can," Conrad says. "You had to admire his ingenuity. Here was a guy who could control the market, steal the Bank of Japan, shake the Bank of France. That's really moving! What a background! Why, his father was Rasputin's accountant."

Rubinstein had a Napoleon complex, and everywhere he went he carried a Napoleon uniform with him. "He could hardly wait for a costume party," Conrad says, "even if he had to throw it himself." Few persons cared to attend Rubinstein's soirees, but Conrad was always on hand. "I had to be there," he says. "You can imagine the characters who went."

Conrad introduced Rubinstein to Ed Leven, a young Hollywood con man. Leven looked up to Rubinstein as a god. Rubinstein, for his part, so admired Leven that he refused to become involved with him legally. The closest they ever came to a deal was when Rubinstein okayed Leven's credit, which was nonexistent, with Harry Winston, the New York jeweler. As a result, Leven, who was hoping to marry Dolly Fritz, a San Francisco heiress, was able to get a $6,000 ring on approval. Alas, private detectives hired by Miss Fritz's guardians broke up the romance. Interested onlookers have supposed that if Leven had succeeded in marrying Miss Fritz he would have split the swag with Rubinstein. Conrad denies this. "All Rubinstein wanted," he says, "was a chance to sell Leven some stock."

In show business circles, Leven is celebrated for his gall, and there are any number of people who try to top one another with "Leven stories." As Leven's closest friend—if friend is the word—Conrad figures in most of them and is held as the supreme arbiter of their authenticity. For several years Leven was a producer in Hollywood. His greatest epic was a film with the appropriate title of Run for the Hills. It starred Sonny Tufts and Barbara Payton. Just as Leven was about to start production on the picture, he was tossed into jail for traffic violations. But his luck held: he met an agent locked up on a drunk charge, and by the time the agent's bail had been posted, he and Leven had finished casting the minor roles.

"Leven was always looking to hustle money," Conrad says. "He always had a script of some sort. I suspected him immediately, but I didn't want to believe it. When a guy's talking millions, that's big numbers. You're hoping against hope, and you bulldoze yourself. He was always dropping big names, and he seemed to be some sort of a financial genius. He came up with something new all the time and his deals always missed just by a hairline, so you couldn't write him off."

Once Conrad recalls lending Leven S4 for gas so he could drive to Palm Springs to buy RKO from Howard Hughes for $18 million. "Leven had it all planned," Conrad says. "He was going to be head of the studio, and 1 was head writer. He had the whole deal wrapped up. But then it turned out that the two guys backing Leven were really only looking to establish a bigger credit rating of their own, and the minute it was mentioned in the press that they were offering $18 million for RKO, they had made their point. They withdrew and told Leven to get lost. But by this time Leven's hanging around my joint and doing all his business on my phone. He owed $450, and the phone company shut the service off. Out there they don't fool around. He was looking for money to produce Run for the Hills. After the picture, he said he had to go east, but we could have his car, a big Cadillac. We have it two weeks and a cop on Sunset Boulevard stops my wife and says it's a stolen car." The Conrads became fed up with Leven, especially after he spread the word that he was tired of having Conrad sponge off him, and so on his birthday Mara baked a cake and wrote on the icing, "To Leven, a complete rat." "Mara was serious," Conrad says, "but that didn't bother Leven. He cried and said, 'No one ever baked a cake for me before.' "

When Rubinstein was murdered in New York and Leven went to San Francisco county jail for grand theft and thence to San Quentin twice (the first time for violation of the labor code and the second for violation of parole), this broke up what Conrad calls "a great quinella." He moved back east and spent several years writing scripts, mostly for pilot films that never got off the ground. Three years ago, before the second Patterson-Johansson fight, Conrad returned to his first love, boxing, this time as a publicist. After his experiences in Hollywood, he was a success from the start. Conrad likens his role in building up a fight to that of a producer casting a spectacular. "Once the sportswriters rely upon you, you can get away with a lot of things," he says. "Not lies, but you can broaden things. Tongue in cheek. Fun things. Cus D'Amato is one of the real characters. Of course, maybe D'Amato is for real. He's a method actor. He can register any emotion, and you believe it. Anger! He's angry. Amazement! He's amazed. He's better than Brando. Up in Toronto for the Patterson-McNeeley fight, we staged an argument about $1 million that was supposed to be put up. Now, 1 was not lying; the $1 million had not been put up. So Cus and I have this argument in front of two local reporters. D'Amato's yelling he's calling the fight off, and of course we want the local guys to print that. I say to the two guys, 'Now, fellows, don't print that.' And they say, 'We won't. We don't want to hurt you.' I'm going crazy. The writers start to leave, because they don't want to intrude while D'Amato's yelling he's taking the fight out. Cus and I had to follow them out of the room. 'Don't print this story,' D'Amato's telling them. They keep saying they won't. What can we do? Finally D'Amato offers to give one of them a lift in his car. Then I knew that writer was had. Ten minutes alone with D'Amato, and D'Amato could sell him anything. I take the other writer, and I say to him, 'Gee, I'll bet that guy's going to write the story about Cus canceling the fight and your paper's going to get stuck.' And the windup, of course, is that both guys print the story.

"Then I decide to build up McNeeley," Conrad continues. "I find out there's an old boxer training at night in McNeeley's gym in Toronto. So I told the gym man not to say who's training, and I let the word out that something's going on in the gym at night. It was great. The newspapers started writing about McNeeley holding secret practice. And then when McNeeley denied it—which was the truth—that made it a better story. If the writers had come to me, I would have said I didn't say McNeeley was training. I only said I understood some guy was training secretly. You lie to writers once, and you're dead. But you have to leave a lot of loopholes."

Sometimes a gimmick will just happen. "Before the Liston-Patterson fight in Chicago," Conrad says, "Jimmy Grippo, the hypnotist, writes a letter to each fighter offering to hypnotize him so he can't feel the punches. Grippo is trying to work it so neither fighter knows about his offer to the other fighter. But he scrambles the letters in the envelopes, so Liston gets the letter to Patterson, and Patterson gets the letter to Liston.

"This is a natural! I put D'Amato on the Jack Eigen radio show, and he really shouts about how Liston is trying to pull something with a hypnotist. The next morning Cus is with the reporters, and 1 say to him, like I'm disgusted, 'These guys need copy and you drop a story like that on radio.' Immediately all the writers get excited and yell, 'What? What?' They're hooked. This is great psychology. Now they're begging Cus to tell them. If he had told them straight out, they would have said, 'What are you trying to sell us?' Now they're asking for the story. So D'Amato announces he's going to the commission with a hypnotist. Everyone was all primed. Newsreels, television, everyone! Cus gets a hypnotist, and this hypnotist hypnotized a dame, touched her with a torch, belted her, and Cus says that this conclusively proves his argument that a hypnotized boxer does not feel pain. Boy, we got a lot of space on that. This is what hooks people who are not fight fans alone. You have to get the public aroused."

According to Conrad, timing is just as important as the gimmicks. "You have to plan it so you'll reach your peak a week before the fight," he says. "Then all the writers come in and take over, and you no longer have to sweat, because they're there. Everything is ready. You've created this hysteria. And the writers are excited by all the space you've gotten before they arrived. One reason J made the most out of having all the longhair guys—Norman Mailer. James Baldwin, Budd Schulberg, Gerald Kersh—in Chicago is that you don't see these guys at a World Series, a pro football playoff or the Stanley Cup. But at a big fight you do, and I think the sportswriters are impressed. Guys are still talking about the scene."

Although Conrad eschews the sensational, a gimmick has occasionally threatened to backfire. Before the third Johansson-Patterson fight, Conrad gave Oscar Fraley, the UPI columnist, a story about Johansson's alleged doping in the second fight. "I never said Johansson was poisoned," Conrad says, throwing up his hands in honest-Injun fashion. "But Whitey Bimstein, who was training Johansson, said, 'Gee-I think he was doped.' So that makes it a story. The Journal-American picks it up and runs a headline: JOHANSSON DOPED. SO three days later two guys from the Kefauver Committee come in to sec Johansson and Bimstein. I speak to these guys and 1 say, 'You mean this is the way you two guys operate? You want to come in on the tail end of my publicity? You believe everything you read in the papers?' The fight was going great, and so they want to get on the bandwagon. Oh, I really let 'em have it."

The forthcoming Liston-Patterson fight should present Conrad with the severest challenge of his career. On form, the fight looks like a flop. The last time the fighters met, Liston knocked out Patterson in 2:06 of the first round. It was no contest. Before that, Liston also knocked out his previous opponent in one round. But Conrad, who will be trying to build up the Vegas fight as an even battle, has already figured this angle.

"Why, Liston's fought less than five minutes in two years," he says. "He's probably rusty."

Liston's complaint of an injured left knee has also been duly noted, and should Sonny catch an act at a local hotel, the word will spread of his nightclubbing. By the time the bell rings, Liston will have been billed as a creaking overweight cripple. At the same time Conrad is deflating Liston, he will be building up Patterson. Floyd can be counted on to make only one public appearance (to a Boy Scout encampment on the merits of clean living), hold hush-hush drills and impress visiting experts like Al Weill who will exclaim over his fitness and determination. In the meanwhile, Conrad will see to it that pictures of Patterson regaining the title from Johansson are shown at every Elks smoker in Nevada, the moral being it can happen again.

And, of course, there will be other gimmicks galore, some of them super-dupers now taking form in Conrad's feverish mind. "This is the creative part of this business," he says, all aglow. "It's the Hollywood bit. It's show business. The writers love it. The younger writers eat it up. This is a new thing to them. They're around baseball, pro football—they don't get this kind of action there. The fight racket has got characters and hoopla. What would the scoffers do without the fight racket? What would they do without fighters to belt? There's all the scheming and intrigue leading up to the fight, then the fight itself. There's no moment like that moment before a heavyweight championship fight. It reaches you. It has to. It's the biggest thing in American sports. Now, if all this hoopla had been built up for a phony wrestling match, this would be anticlimactic. But it isn't. It's for a big event, the biggest. The intrigue all leads up to it, and the more hung you get with the hoopla, the bigger that moment is."

PHOTOTONY TRIOLOWITH ACTRESS WIFE MARA, CONRAD RELAXES IN OCHER-AND-BLACK DEN ILLUSTRATIONPALOOKA SCRIPTS brought Hal Conrad erratic paydays from Ham Fisher, but frequent mention in comic strip.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)