A MYSTERY IN PURSUIT OF A LEGEND

Young Marcel Cerdan comes to New York, ready to reveal whether he is anything like the fighter his father was and to revive the memories of a tragic romance that captivated two continents
April 13, 1970

Weak sunlight comes and goes across the Place de la Concorde in Paris, until there is just the wind and the cold spray of rain. Gomez indicates he does not like the rain and, pointing toward a café down the street, insists that he must have a cognac to chase the chill from his poor body. His stride, resembling Groucho Marx', reminds me of the first time I saw Gomez, the night outside a Frankfurt dressing room, when he finally freed himself from the choking hand of a German cop. He was then, he says now, a vagrant journalist, but alas, he sighs, "I am at the moment more vagrant, mon ami." It is painful, he says, for one descended from Madrid aristocracy, a revelation that confirms my suspicion that he is really from some rathole in Andalusia.

Gomez is a spare man with hollow cheeks and the color of an old newspaper, and the slight bend to his body and his bloodhound eyes suggest that he is a tired, very spent vagrant. Ignore his appearance and the possibility that he may not have a franc in his pocket, he says, but do not forget that he is a part of lout Paris, "the Paris that matters, the inside people." His credentials established, he unveils his candor, the kind he presumes would not fail to impress an American. Even though he is proud to be a French citizen, honesty compels him to say that much is myth in France: the French, pharaohs of gastronomy, are bumblers in the presence of beef; the daily Beaujolais is ulcerous swill and the principal reason for their bilious disposition, and....

"Fine," I say, "but what about the boy?"

"Yes, my friend," he says, "but first another cognac."

"Do you know much about him?"

"Junior? Who knows much about Junior? Of the father, yes. Of Junior, no one knows. He is a ghost. Have you talked with him?"

"No, the manager has been difficult. He doesn't seem to want anyone near the boy."

"He is Corsican," says Gomez.

"So?"

"That is enough. He is Corsican."

"Junior has fought in Paris. Have you watched him? Has he knocked many people out?"

"Yes, and then again no," he says. "He was present, but I do not know if he was fighting. No one in Paris knows. Yes, he has many knockouts, but he does not have a knockout punch. He is lighting in Lyons on Saturday. You must see him."

"Who is he fighting?"

"Johnny Cooke, an Englishman, a very old Englishman."

"Yes," I say, "I must go, but...."

"Good," says Gomez. "I will work for you. You will need an interpreter. We will take one of our fine French trains, and we will eat well in Lyons. Lyons is not a myth."

"I don't know," I say. "You haven't been worth a damn up to now."

"Who could be, my friend?" asks Gomez, slightly insulted. "He is a mystery, Junior. A mystery that has been guarded very closely. All of France waits for the end of it."

On May 11 in Madison Square Garden, Marcel Cerdan Jr. of France will fight Donato Paduano of Canada. Neither is among the elite of the welterweight division, but it is not an ordinary fight. The Cerdan name is magic. For some Americans, the name evokes the memory of one of the most electric figures in the history of boxing. For the French, the name is inviolable. Whether Cerdan Jr. can fight or not is much more than just a matter of mild national curiosity. It is easily the most provocative question in French sport. It is, too, the final sequel in a tale of much irony and of life and shadow.

If, as it has been said, the past forces unfair competition on the present and the past almost always wins, then Cerdan Jr.—unless he is a complete embodiment of his father—cannot escape falling victim to a carefully cosseted legend. "France is a hothouse of memories," says a French journalist. "What is the point of trying honorably to be the contemporary of your compatriots if they dismiss all your efforts and prefer the backward glance? At times it calls for heroism—at least until now it has—to try to live in France in terms of the date shown on the calendar." Time, then, will back up more than 20 years on May 11, and what the French will see will not be the son but the father: the father beating Tony Zale for the middleweight title, the father and Edith Piaf, the father's life ending on a foggy mountain in the Azores.

The father emerged when France was in desperate need of symbols. The sadness of 1940, the occupation, the stinging reality of Vichy were humiliating. The sense of prowess and pride—Don Juanism, if you will—had vanished. The symbolic Gallic cock, brilliantly plumed and spurred, seemed gray and mangy. Then came Cerdan—handsome, genuinely charming, a veteran of the Free French navy and a boxer who was not counterfeit. He had been born in the Foreign Legion town of Sidi-bel-Abb√®s and had fought his way out of the dead ends of Casablanca. "Never imagine," Cerdan's father once told him, "that someday you will be other than a boxer. You have no other reason to be. It must be your only aim. You live today to box, and it is by boxing that you will live tomorrow and always." On Sept. 21, 1948, Cerdan knocked out Zale in the 12th round for the title, restoring pride to the French and offering them a brilliant career to admire.

Several months later, exhausted and mumbling, "My title, my title," Cerdan failed to answer the bell in the 10th round while defending against Jake LaMotta. He had torn the elevator muscle in his left shoulder in the first round. A return bout was scheduled for Sept. 28, 1949 but was postponed because of a training injury to LaMotta. The fight was then moved ahead to Dec. 2, and Cerdan left for New York in an Air France plane on Oct. 27. He was, as usual, certain he would regain the title and before leaving had satisfied his superstitious whims. He had consulted a fortune-teller, had young Marcel, who was then 5, spit in his hand and he boarded the plane wearing his good-luck blue suit and a watch on each wrist. The plane crashed in the Azores. For hours, crowds of Parisians waited in front of the Air France office on the Champs-Élysées and the show windows of newspapers for information. There was hope—and then Cerdan was identified by the watches he was wearing.

If the French were stunned, singer Edith Piaf was near collapse just before her evening show in the Versailles nightclub in New York. She performed, weeping, before a silent audience, causing others to weep openly. It was no secret that Cerdan, married and with three children, and Piaf, "the pathetic waif of the back streets," were locked in what was much more than an affair. Tiny, fragile, with hands that reminded Jean Cocteau of "lizards darting over ruins," she was the constant companion of Cerdan. At his death, the French grieved for Piaf, too. To them she was the victim of a tragic love, a story so often told with the sob that was her voice. Piaf, who had a Mass said for Cerdan every day of her remaining years, was never the same after she lost Cerdan, and misfortune, much of it her own doing, shadowed her days. She died in 1963.

A half sister, Simone Berteaut, tells much about Piaf and Cerdan in a recent book that is heavy with True Romance treacle but oddly touching in passages. In one part the book tells of Piaf and Cerdan at Coney Island. "Mom-one," Piaf says to Miss Berteaut, "we ate hot dogs, waffles and ice cream. I wish that night could have gone on singing, spinning, laughing forever. Marcel took me on the switchback. We shrieked the whole time, and when we got down, hundreds of people began yelling and it never stopped. Then they recognized me and they all began yelling, 'La Vie en Rose! La Vie en Rose!' and I sang, Mom-one, just like that. Like I used to sing in the streets. It was magnificent." In another place, Miss Berteaut remembers a time when Piaf joined Cerdan while he trained for Zale. Worried over a possible scandal and interference from his manager, they agreed on a plan:

"We took a taxi up to his camp and requested the driver to leave us out in the countryside. A few minutes later Marcel arrived, alone. It must have been difficult for him to get rid of his manager. Marcel then packed us into the trunk of his car and locked us in. In the camp each boxer had his own bungalow. Some distance away Marcel noticed an empty one, and that's where he put us. As no one was expected to live in it, there was nothing there, no hot water or anything. We had to wait until evening to eat, when Marcel would bring us sandwiches he had hidden under his windbreaker. We would cat a good part of them during the night. As a result, next day we would go hungry. We only had water to drink, and each time Edith would take a drink she would say: 'Do you realize how much I love him to drink this stuff!"

"We lived in the dark or nearly. During the day the blinds were down, and at night we dared not turn on the light. We would go to bed at nightfall, and we could only talk in whispers. It was an impossible way to live. Each evening Marcel would arrive, happy, in a good humor. Once or twice he managed to bring some beer, but more often than not it was milk, which greatly amused Edith. Then he would take Edith in his arms and waltz around with her in the half-dark. And Edith would hum: 'Heureuse de tout, heureuse de rien, Pourvu que tu sois là....' "

Nothing visual commemorates Cerdan in Paris. He is buried in the Ben M'Sik Christian Cemetery in Casablanca, not far from the Mers-Sultan quarter in which he was raised. He rests under a black marble slab next to the tombs of two French army generals in a place of honor near the entrance of the graveyard, a spot often gray from the clouds of dust and smoke that emanate from the Derb Jdid slum area. On the grave are some porcelain flowers, a weathered plaster bust of the champion, a crude cement trophy cup, a boxing glove and Cerdan's smiling portrait on a sepia medallion. In the cosmopolitan crucible of Mers-Sultan, few have forgotten Cerdan's funeral. It was the largest for a private citizen Morocco has ever seen. "There were 48 taxis for the flowers alone," recalls one observer.

Cerdan's wife Marinette still owns a café in Mers-Sultan, operated by her brother Emile. It is a decrepit, wine-stained, spitty place, ornamented by solemn old men sipping milky anisette. It was Emile who first accompanied Marcel Jr. to Paris, where he would begin his career. "I was with him on the beach one summer," says Emile. "He seemed to have something on his mind. Like he was thinking about something. 'Marcel,' I said, 'what are you going to do with your life? Are you going to work in the bar the rest of your days?' 'No,' he told me, 'I am going to become a fighter. It is my destiny." I told him to forget it if he really did not have the desire. I told him that he was not Marcel p√®re. People would shout his name only because he was the son of the father." Emile stares at a ribbon of sunlight, a perfect scar on the dusty floor. Sound, a symphony of klaxons, Wurlitzers, revving motors and police whistles, filters through the café, and a river of grotesque shapes flows by the window. "Do you think," says Emile, "he will be champion?"

Emile himself does not seem to think his nephew will succeed, but his eyes betray uncertainty, seem to wonder perpetually if it all, as he says, "has not been written in the stars." He says, "Never was a boy less equipped, physically, to become a fighter." He keeps pulling out old clippings, which seem to have been folded and unfolded a thousand times, to counter his pessimism, and then he says, "How should I know? I have not been with him for a long, long time, since those first days in Paris." The early days in Paris, he says, were lonely days for the boy. They arrived in spring and were met by two mammoth North Africans in sunglasses and immediately secluded by the manager Philippe Filippi. Marcel was a sickly kid, shy but talkative, mostly about his father.

"He was a strange boy," says Emile. "Even though I was with him, he seemed so alone. I had to go with him to the toilet in restaurants, and he would never go to the movies without me. Most of the time we just sat, silently, and played checkers, and then we would go to bed. We had to sleep in the same bed."

Cerdan's Paris debut took place in April 1960. Long before he entered the ring, the Salle Wagram crackled with anticipation. The crowd believed that this night would truly mark the renaissance of French boxing. The boy was 16, and all noted the resemblance to his father. Their emotions, of course, had been carefully shaped. He had been the subject of a television show that opened with a camera on the back of a fighter working a heavy bag in the gym. "The announcer said, "This young man is"—there was a pause, and then the fighter turned and faced the camera, which came up close—"is Marcel Cerdan!" Another camera was in Casablanca, focused on the boy's mother.

"I never wanted him to box," said Marinette. "Boxing took my husband from me. I will know the same suffering with my son. I never saw my husband fight. I'll never go to see my son, either."

In a hushed tone the announcer said, "Madame Cerdan, Marcel is in Paris watching you. On what you say to him now could depend his entire career. Speak to him. [Here the announcer paused, giving the audience a chance to ponder the drama of it all.] Speak to him from the heart."

"It's cold in Paris, my little one," said Marinette softly. "Be careful. Dress warmly."

The manager, Philippe Filippi, was then asked for a comment. He rubbed his eyes and said, "I am a religious man and I know that the father is up there watching me and that he is happy about what I am doing for his son."

The fight itself was a failure. The boy won shakily and went to his dressing room and fainted. "It has been too much for him," said Filippi. "Two thousand eyes," wrote one reporter, unmoved by it all, "were on the boy, seeking some of his father's traits. They weren't many." Another critic pleaded, "We should give him peace. Let him serve his apprenticeship. For two or three years let's forget his name."

If the French were reluctant to oblige, Filippi certainly was not. Since that night Marcel has fought mainly in small towns—of his 45 lights, only 11 were in Paris. The next to last one, against Pablo Lopez of New York, was a critical disaster. The light was stopped in the second round: even Marcel was surprised. "Midway through the first," said the Paris Herald Tribune, "Cerdan threw a left hook. It started out as if Cerdan were a first baseman stretching for a ball, then it lingered a while in mid-flight and snapped off of Lopez' head. Lopez was reeling, and the crowd was on its feet in anger. The crowd demanded its money back." The French concluded that the fight was fixed, or that Lopez was doped or perhaps that the real Lopez was still in New York.

"Pablo Lopez of New York," said Filippi, shaking his head, "was supposed to he a good professional."

"Yes." said Charles Michaelis, director of boxing for the Palais des Sports, "and he can't stand up to a puncher like Cerdan? Cerdan will never fight here again, unless you consent to fight who I say you should fight."

"It is in the stars," Filippi said later, commenting on Cerdan's future. "I have had to bring him along slowly, very slowly. He was never an athlete. He was never strong. He is still not strong. He is a technician. His father was not a technician. Cerdan will be champion of the world. He is only 26. Remember, Nino Benvenuti had over 70 fights before he won the title. We are ready now to make our move. America—that is the beginning of the dream."

"Yes," says Michaelis, "the dream begins, and about time. Cerdan cannot go to the provinces to fight anymore. After New York, we will know much more about him. If he wins or loses in good form, Filippi will not be able to protect him anymore."

Says Marinette, who has just opened a new café in Toulouse, "To be his father, that is all he has ever dreamed. He is so much like his father, even his temper. I remember his father often went out with friends and came home early in the morning. From my room I would call out to my sister not to let him in, and Marcel, who heard, would shout, 'Hél√®ne, if you don't open the door I'll break your jaw.' And he would hit the door with tremendous blows. He broke several that way. His children have inherited that trait. When they are mad, they take it out on doors. But my husband was, too, such a gentle man. So is my son Marcel. I do not like him to fight, but how do you kill a dream? So, after all these years, I relive the same anguish. Worse, because now it is my little one."

The young Cerdan is ebullient, pleasant and uncomplicated on the surface. He has no interest in politics, books or music. "He has never had time," says Michaelis. "No fighter in Europe has worked as hard as he has in the gym." His only distractions seem to be his wife and baby boy and his wardrobe. He is meticulous and imaginative with his clothes. Physically, he is in sharp contrast to his father. The "animal presence" is missing. His hands are delicate, his legs are frail and his skin, with the exception of a few cuts, is ivory smooth. In conversation, he is bland but earnest—until the subject of his father arises.

"What do you remember about your father?" he is asked.

"The cowboy and Indian clothes he used to bring me back from the States," he says. "And one afternoon, when in the pool. His face. He was holding me in the pool, and I was scared and clutching at his clothes."

"Do you often think of him?"

"He is with me always," he says. "My one goal is to bring his remains to Paris so I can be near him. I have all his things. His water bottle. His trunks with the blood on them from Zale. The watch he was wearing when he died. It does not work anymore. I lost it last month, and I put an advertisement in all the papers. I later found it in the apartment."

"Were you close to Edith Piaf?"

"I loved her. I lived with her for three years not long after I came to Paris. I called her Aunt Zizi. I remember when I would get up at 7 o'clock to do roadwork, she would be just coming in, and she would fix my breakfast. She was so sad, and when I would run in the morning, the sun just coming up, I would think often of her sadness and a chill would creep up my back. Just before she died she gave me a medal of Ste. Thér√®se and said, 'Wear it always, my son.' I have it sewn in my trunks. It is also necessary for me to hear a song by her before every fight. I do not cheat. It must happen by accident. Once, on the way to a fight, I panicked. I had not heard a song. And then, while stopping at a toll booth, there it was, her voice. I must hear that voice and visit her grave before every fight."

On the morning before he was to leave for his fight in Lyons, Cerdan visited the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris. It was early, the night just reaching for light and it was damp and cold. He came with flowers and walked briskly up the winding cobblestone path, past the graves of Molière, Balzac, Chopin and Colette, and finally stopped at a grave on a small hill. It was Piaf's grave. He said a brief prayer and then kissed the picture of Piaf on a medallion, which is close to an inscription that reads, Toujours avec toi. Walking out of the cemetery, he was quiet for a long time and then he turned and asked:

"Will they love me in New York?"

"In what way?"

"The way my father was loved," he said.

The next day I waited for Gomez in a café and thought of the story. Film, blurred and eerie, sped through my mind: Piaf humming while she waltzed with the father in the dark of a Catskill bungalow; the boy and the battered Piaf, she so close to death, talking softly in the morning light of her apartment; and finally the boy, walking at dawn in a graveyard, so entombed in the past. Then, like an apparition, there was Gomez, his gold tooth decorating a smile.

"Well," he said, "we are off to Lyons today. Oh, my friend you have not seen such food as is there."

"No, we're not going to Lyons," I said.

"What!" shouted Gomez. "You must see him fight. You must know whether he can fight or not."

"No," I said, "I don't want to know if he can fight or not. His mystery will end soon enough."

TWO PHOTOSPRAYING at the grave of Edith Piaf before his most recent fight, Cerdan fulfills a pledge he made after she died. When he was a teen-ager, he and Piaf (inset) were very close. She had been his father's mistress in his years of triumph. PHOTOBEFORE HIS TRIP TO THE U.S., CERDAN LISTENS TO ADVICE FROM MANAGER FILIPPI PHOTOON HIS WAY TO THE TITLE IN 1948, CERDAN SMASHES A RIGHT TO ZALE'S HEAD

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)