Now there she is sitting under an apple tree, like some sweet, aging lady who looks for unusual birds and thinks that Oil for the Lamps of China was the last great picture made. What a gentle, uncomplicated sweetheart she is, sitting there talking about the Indian summers of her Vancouver youth and the music that was made at twilight of every evening in her father's house. Next time, you think, you must take her for a nice long ride in the country so she can see the billboards and say: "My, how everything has changed."
Certainly this cannot be the feared Lady Aileen of boxing's gold coast, not the woman known by such names as Madame Nhu, The Dragon Lady, Ma Barker, The Man-Eating Lotus Flower and The Woman, the one who knows how to tape a hand or a fight manager's mouth, scale a house to the seat or shave a pitchman who thinks he has all the pitches? That's her, all right, under the apple tree: Aileen Eaton, the biggest and maybe the most powerful boxing promoter in the world today, the same Aileen Eaton who last week staged the Jerry Quarry-Floyd Patterson heavyweight elimination fight in Los Angeles.
So do not think of her as a delicately declining lady on the brink of warm milk and a shawl and nice long drives in the country. For one thing, no one takes Aileen Eaton for a ride. She does the driving, in the longest Cadillac in southern California, and usually to a place where you pick up cards and dice. The Lady moves, that is, when she has time. Politically lethal, she has been a forceful figure in at least two campaigns, in one of which Attorney General Thomas Lynch won and Pierre Salinger lost. She once ran for the city council and lost, too, but that was the exception. Do not try to beat her on her own turf.
Currently, the major areas of boxing promotion in this country are New York, New England, Philadelphia, Miami and Los Angeles. The best of these is L.A. Monolithic Madison Square Garden is impersonal; Subway Sam Silverman of Boston, Worcester, Portland and points unforeseen in New England is a freebooting ferret who makes a score only occasionally; Herman Taylor, Philadelphia, a grumpy patriarch, is an anachronism; and Miami's Chris Dundee knows how to turn a dollar—any way he can.
November 6, 1967
All of these promoters are professional, meaning they are able to count, are sufficiently learned in the art of buncombe and have just the proper amount of probity in them to survive. Aileen Eaton is no different. She has all these qualities that are considered so necessary to the marksman in boxing, but she never cuts herself in on a fighter's earnings, an illegal practice for a promoter but one that is still rampant in the sport.
"A couple of her matchmakers used to have pieces of fighters or cut them," says Harry Kabakoff, alias Melville Himmelfarb or, as he calls himself, El Ruso Loco (The Mad Russian). Melville must be considered an authority on this subject. Once an assistant matchmaker for Mrs. Eaton but not unreasonably larcenous, Melville was never known in those days for his excessive charity. "But Ma Barker," he says, "never cuts a fighter. She has the power, she could have all kinds of fighters; you know, a manager comes up to her and says, 'Here, take my part of my boy. You can make him.' "
Aileen Eaton does not want part of any boy. She runs her polished operation like a business, one that is refreshingly interested in the people who allow her business to exist. Quite simply, she performs. Dictatorial and charming and often intolerant of imperfection, she is everywhere during her weekly shows at the Olympic Auditorium, an ancient, graying, high-ceiling fortress of boxing on South Grand Ave. She is on television selling her next show, or gently or un-gently reprimanding a customer for bad manners. Her security, despite a riot in 1964 that forced her to take out a bank loan so she could restore the Olympic, is the best one can attain at a fight. Sartorial untidiness—television is the influence—also distracts her. She constantly badgers referees to wear blue shirts and ties and insists ringside customers facing the cameras wear jackets.
Before a show she is just as conscious of detail, busying herself with such things as seating comfort for her spectators. In the days preceding the first Quarry-Patterson bout at Memorial Coliseum, she could be seen on her hands and knees measuring the space between each chair with a tape; there was not a cramped seat in the house. On other days she hears complaints from customers concerning decisions, keeps club members (who get choice seats at $1 off on each ticket) informed of forthcoming cards and schemes to build young fighters into attractions. Finally there is the relentless, daily jousting with managers who, with the skill of the best quarter horses, can cut a buck out of the rubble of a city dump, and have robbery in their souls and disloyalty forever in their minds.
The treatment of these old pirates, a curiously likable tribe, is a delicate diplomacy, requiring at various times cajolery, intimidation, sabotage and tenacity. Be kind, a bit servile and honest, and the manager will be suspicious, if not repelled by your ignorance of his character and ethics. He is only confused briefly, though, and then you are relieved of your ignorance and your bank account. Be crude, profane and stealthy, and the manager is respectful because he knows that you understand the nature of his game, a deeply shadowed realm of migratory and marginal people who live lives of half-truths and no truths, tricks, double tricks and triple tricks.
"In the last 20 years," says Melville, now the manager of Jesus Pimentel, the No. 1 bantamweight behind Champion Fighting Harada, "I've seen her put fear into managers, many of them trying to give her hell. I've seen her attack managers with her purse, kick 'em downstairs and even raise her fist to them. But you always get a good count even if the lights are out, which no doubt she shot out in the first place arguing over a quarter."
Unlike Melville, most managers remain mute concerning Aileen Eaton. All managers must deal with her eventually, and in California, where there are more desperate and busted managers than anywhere else, they need The Woman if they are to survive. Survival comes in the form of a loan—$100, $300—and if and when the manager comes up with an interesting fighter, Aileen, smiling and charming, just reaches out like a giant squid and uses the boy without having to tolerate the usual preliminary gas from the manager. Says one: "When things get bad, I call her number in L.A. collect. I'm in bad shape and I say, 'I've got to have $500.' She says, 'You'll take $300.' She beats your brains out, I'll tell the world, but you get the money."
"Take this incident," says another manager. "There's this retired businessman who now manages fighters, and be also has a reputation for saving a buck. Well, the other day he tries to drive his car into the exit line of the coin parking lot outside the Olympic. Now, he's going the wrong way, maybe to save a few cents, see. Well, they've got these spikes, and they rip through two of his tires. He goes up to The Woman's office to see if she's got insurance for her parking gate. Hah! 'No,' she says, lookin' at him like he's crazy, 'but if your car is still there I'd appreciate the 50 cents.' "
"Sure," says Melville, secretly admiring her unruffled manner and boxing acumen, "she has the face of a rock, but she's not all rock. Just recently I go back to my room and all of a sudden I'm dying. I can't move one of my legs. Who do I call? Nobody's up at this hour. Who's gonna help? Another fight manager? So I call Aileen. 'Aileen,' I says, 'I'm dyin'. I got to get to a hospital.' So she says, 'You ought to die, Melville, you're such a liar.' I say that I know all of that but she was the only one I could turn to. 'That's all right,' she says. 'I had to get up and turn the television off anyway.' So she gets somebody to pick me up and then pays all the bills. She's not all rock."
One guesses that often, perhaps more than ever before, she is relieved at those times when she is away from boxing, that she even is embarrassed that she is in the sport. She appears to have a deep contempt for the people she has to deal with, for those who have eroded The Lady she dreamed of in some long-ago time. "I am a lady away from boxing," she repeats often, as if no one really believes it. She is, though, fond of fighters, many of whom she consoles with a kiss on the cheek when she is not prodding them in an effort to help them capitalize on their short, violent careers in a sport not notable for any form of almsgiving.
Violence does not jar her, but its aftermath does. If a fighter is hurt, she will not leave the hospital until he is cleared by a neurologist. When Davey Moore was killed in 1963, she made all the mortuary arrangements and generally conducted herself like the stand-up person many insist she is. Although she never appears hurt by any comment, she does wince when someone quotes a line circulating around L.A., which goes: "Aileen said Davey Moore wasn't hurt. 'Oh,' she said, 'he just has a broken nose." Yeah, and Paret died of pneumonia."
Whether there is any truth or not in the line, Aileen Eaton is, as one manager put it, "very unstupid." Her weekly boxing shows gross close to $1 million each year, and her wrestling shows, directed by her son Mike, do better yet. Even in her youth there were never any real problems, financial or domestic, unless you count the flutist who lived in her father's apartment house; he never did understand the meaning of pianissimo and often in her father's musical seances he sounded like he was in the front rank of an American Legion band. The apartment in Vancouver, B.C., the town in which Aileen was born to a Polish refugee father and a New Zealand mother, was warm and alive. "It was a happy life," says Aileen, "and a fine place for a little girl."
She would not always enjoy such solvency or happiness. Eventually her parents, who had taken to wintering in California, moved to Los Angeles. Aileen married Maurice LeBell after graduation from high school. Her husband became an osteopath, but she wanted a career of her own. She went to work in a law office and in the evenings studied law. When Mike became ill—there was another son, Gene, and later a stepson, Bob Eaton—she reluctantly chose to quit school. Her husband, paralyzed after a near drowning, died in 1941. Aileen was forced to start scrambling for a living, not any living, she decided, but a profitable one.
"We had no social security," she says, "and we didn't carry the insurance people do today. I had nothing left to take care of the children with. I finally put them in California Military Academy on a trade deal. I handled the academy's advertising in exchange for room and board for the boys."
It was through advertising that Aileen got into boxing. She landed an account with the owner of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, who also had the Olympic Auditorium. The promoter to whom the Olympic was leased was not doing well, and the Athletic Club had to support the arena. Aileen moved quickly. She brought the Olympic owner together with one Cal Eaton, who was an inspector for the state athletic commission. Eaton, a cultured Clifton Webb caricature who wore a thin mustache and his hat tilted at just the right angle, became the boxing promoter. Eaton divorced his wife in 1947, and he and Aileen married two years later.
The Eatons, along with Matchmaker Babe McCoy, cut up a lot of money together, despite the fact the '50s were dominated by Jim Norris' International Boxing Club, sometimes known as Octopus, Inc., and the now incarcerated Frankie Carbo, known variously as Mr. Gray, The Man or The Traveling Salesman. Everybody bought from The Salesman. In the mid-'50s the Cox investigation revealed Los Angeles to be a back-alley slum of boxing. McCoy, because of blatant chicanery and thievery, was in trouble. A beach ball of a man, vengeful and vicious, he hated and liked certain people with great excess. Though he had once been fond of Aileen, he went to his grave hating her, claiming that she and her husband Cal had tossed him to the wolves and that they never did honor a deal that sliced him in on part of the play at the Olympic after his enforced retirement. "I loved Babe," says Aileen. "I paid a lot of his attorney's fees and loaned him money. Why would he hate me?"
Maybe only Babe knew that, but the investigation found that boxing in California was an endless series of fixed fights, cheated boxers, indiscriminate licensing of criminals, monopoly and only the participants know what else. Now only monopoly is cried in Los Angeles, and most of that is done by Aileen Eaton's rival promoters. With assistance from them, she knocked them all out of the box.
Her technique seldom varied. She would open with a pestiferous ploy by objecting to the commission in Sacramento (where she employed a lobbyist) to the licensing of another promoter. Then she would load up a show and schedule it near the opponent's. This, along with her constant scrapping with managers, made her one of the most vilified and acutely disliked figures in sports, and inspired various comment, ranging from base gossip about her personal life to charges that she controlled the commission and was more than adept at subtle bribery of the press.
"Goodness!" shouts Aileen, "the commission doesn't give me everything I want. Look at Governor Pat Brown. I campaigned for him, and he wanted to abolish boxing. And the press. If you give a man $300, how do you know he won't take $600 from your rival?"
The press, like many of the managers, would like to have another promoter in Los Angeles but, unfortunately, most of those who have pitched their tents have been promotional dolts. "A competent promoter who knows the business," says Melville, "could make money in this town. There's been a lot of promoters, but mostly gypsy groups who gave ridiculous guarantees. These guys were kids taking on a world champion. O.K., you go with one of them, get your $1,000 more than you would from Ma. Then the promoter goes out of business, and you have to crawl back on your hands and knees. Ma has flattened them all. It's the organization. The others were like three-ring circuses. Ma's like a machine."
One promoter whom many claim was flattened by Aileen is Leo Minskoff. Says Minskoff: "I consider Aileen to be one of the smartest promoters in the country. She's building up young fighters and making big paydays. I have no bitterness toward her." Yet, wasn't it true that he once did not feel so kindly toward her?
"Oh," he says, "that's right in a way, but I never blamed my failures on her. I partially blamed people like Don Fraser—he is now my friend—who I thought was spreading untruths about me [Fraser was Aileen's publicity man]. O.K., maybe she did go out of her way to hurt me sometimes. Like the night of the Quarry-Alongi fight, she ran a big wrestling show. This was a regular wrestling night but the commission should have done something about it. Then she tried to block me when my license came up for renewal. She said she was building up fighters and I was stealing them. I never did. I only used one of her fighters once, and that was Quarry. She held something against me that she was guilty of. Joe Louis was promoting and I loaned Joe some money. He brought in Cassius Clay to fight George Logan. Then she steals Clay to fight Lavorante and Archie Moore.
"But she withdrew her objections to our getting a license when she saw she wasn't getting anywhere. I know she tried to block Don Fraser, who went on his own. You know what I told him. I said he should see each of the commissioners individually and that he wouldn't have any trouble. His license was granted. One thing is for sure. Having a lot of money in this town won't help a promoter. She's got a 10,000-seat arena and, best of all, she's got a good television contract. She's a machine, all right." The Machine never stops. Except for a few trips to Las Vegas, occasional parties and a weekly trip to the beauty parlor, Aileen Eaton never breaks her routine. She leaves her house early in the morning, goes to the office, then to the bank and back to the office. She returns home late at night. On one such night an incident occurred that tells much about her. She was accosted in the driveway by a pair of bandits. The two slapped her in the mouth and ripped away her necklace and tore off her bracelet. Why not, they decided, tie her up and put her in the trunk and demand a ransom? "No, don't be stupid," she advised. Kidnapping, she told them, as if she were conducting a symposium, would get them gas, but robbery, well, they would only get a few years. The two thought and then agreed to loot only the house. They wanted her to direct the tour. "Not on your life," she said. "My husband is a very sick man and he can't be disturbed." Exasperated, they started arguing with each other and a neighbor hollered out. The pair fled and Aileen, her feet partially tied, got up and stumbled after them, waving her hands. She managed to get the license-plate number, and the bunglers were later caught. "If people are going to steal," says Aileen disdainfully, "they should know how."
So her life races into the 60s, and one wonders why—alone again, now that her second husband is dead—she persists in the face of so much abuse and what really pushes her along this strange and dark side of sport. Greed seems beyond her, but she does appear, behind her mask, to enjoy power over people and situations, and maybe even secretly to like being called vicious and cunning and a ruthless old chick who is No. 1 in a game in which no woman may ever tread again. Or, perhaps, she delights in being the personification of the kind of woman once described by a 6¢-cigar smoker:
"Whatever their outward show of respect for a man's merit and authority, they always regard him secretly as an ass and with something akin to pity. His most gaudy sayings and doings seldom deceive them; they see the actual man within and know him for a shallow and pathetic fellow."
Yet, more than anything, she seems chased by loneliness and by the hope that the next deal, the next great bargaining caper, will ease away what it is that aches inside her. But it never does, and on many nights, very late and when the wind is softly stroking the guava and olive trees in her yard, she walks into the big, empty house littered with phones and toy dogs and there The Incomparable Buzzsaw gently releases her melancholy through a piano. It is a long time before a little girl standing in an Indian summer twilight envelops all the fighters with cut eyes and all the managers with won ton soup on their ties.