"I need this like I need another hole in my head!"
George Parnassus (rhymes with colossus), 75, of Greece and Los Angeles—the most successful year-in, year-out fight promoter in history—is sitting straight-backed in an overstuffed chair in the lobby of the Hotel Syracuse. He is wrought up over $60,000 he does not even have a piece of. "I'm the go-between. I feel responsible. But you know what this means to me?" he cries. "Not a nyickl."
Not a nickel today, that is to say. Each thing in its own time. Parnassus promotes all fights held at the Forum, in a suburb of Los Angeles, and his ability to draw astonishing gates there with bantamweights—bigger gates than Madison Square Garden tends to draw with heavyweights, except in fights of the century—is due largely to his Mexican connections. He is keeping up those connections now in Syracuse.
It is late afternoon. In five hours Jose Napoles of Mexico—one of many Latin fighters in whose careers Parnassus has taken a paternal, not to say god-fatherly, interest—is scheduled to defend his welterweight title against local boy Billy Backus, Carmen Basilio's 27-year-old nephew. Parnassus has no part in this Syracuse promotion, but he has advised Napoles' manager to accept the match for a $60,000 guarantee. Now Parnassus is on hand, at his own expense, to speak Greek-accented Spanish and Greco-Mexican-accented English as required, and to make sure that everything comes along all right, including the $60,000. So far the money hasn't.
May 30, 1971
"They say they going to bring it by tonight. Cash money," he says. Parnassus, though never a fighter, is a welterweight himself—5'7", 145 pounds, white-haired and conservatively natty in a blue boardroom suit. He is also quick on his small, shiny-shod feet. Even in relative repose, his deeply lined expression tends to range from high dignity to a sensitive tragic-mask scowl, the effect of asthma and intensity. Now, especially, he is frowning. He says, "I tell you, I'm not going to take all that money out of here!"
"He don't want to carry that much cash," explains Johnny De John, a longtime local fight figure who is not involved in the Backus promotion. "People been killed for less than that."
"Should be a certified check in the hands of the person at 12 o'clock the day of the fight," grumbles Parnassus. "Cuco should be doing this," he adds, referring to Cuco Conde, Napoles' manager, who has gone off to see his fighter after observing warily, "There is a lot of Italians here."
Cuco, an unassuming man in a gray car coat, appears.
"Cuco, go over there to the arena—they say they got some money now," says Parnassus.
Cuco sighs. "I'm going to have trouble over there."
"You? The manager! That's your business!" says Parnassus.
Cuco shakes his head and says, "Ninety percent Italian, that crowd going to be." He departs glumly.
"My eyes are burning like they got charcoal behind them!" cries Parnassus. "This is a terrible thing. And what does it mean to me? Not a biscuit!"
The events which have brought Parnassus through the years to this particular pass give good reason to believe that somehow he will carry on. "Twenty-six years ago," he recalled recently as trainers and managers wandered casually in and out of his Los Angeles office in what used to be the Elks Club, "they were making book I wouldn't live overnight because of my asthma. I used to go to the gym every day though. They would carry me upstairs, carry me down. Somebody passing on the stairs—halfway joking, you know, but also in a serious way—would say, 'Well what's the odds we don't see him anymore?' But I never slacked up, I never felt that I would die. To live out your years, you know, that doesn't take any brains. But to stretch them...!"
Parnassus took a sniff from his pocket inhaler and smiled gravely. "I've been in the boxing business 51 years, and it hasn't handicapped me in the least. I have a wife 47 years, Rosalie, and let me tell you something. We are more in love today than when we first married. I have a son a doctor, I have a son a monsignor. I was introduced to a couple kings and many presidents. I had an audience with Pope John. Oh, he was a great man. He put his hand on my head and was moving on. Someone said, 'Mr. Parnassus is in the boxing business.' The Pope put his hand back on. He said, 'Bene! Bene! Bene!' Only through boxing!" Parnassus' face lit up and he almost chortled.
And yet if Parnassus had known what he was getting into when he left his home in Methone, Greece to visit the United States, he would have stayed in Greece, he says. He emigrated to Los Angeles in 1915 because he thought his brother, who had preceded him, was well-to-do. When he found out the truth, that his brother was having to scramble just to get by in America, Parnassus had to find manual work. "I washed dishes in the Alexandria hotel. I worked on the railway with pick and shovel. I saved my money and got a checkroom concession in a nightclub. Years ago it was a tremendous business, because everybody used to wear a hat. Today nobody wears a hat."
From hatchecking Parnassus went into the restaurant business, eventually buying a place in Phoenix where most of the customers were Mexican and many were boxers. There he met Rosalie Montez De Ocas, a manicurist, married her and learned to speak Spanish. "If one of the boys in the place was fighting, I bet a few dollars on him. If he won, I give him a free meal ticket. Before I knew it, if anybody asked them who was their manager, they would say Parnassus."
By the mid-'20s, managing was his profession. At one time Parnassus had "43 fighters, plus a Studebaker and a seven-passenger Hudson. I'd put 10 fighters in each, go somewhere and put on the whole night's show. You know, the crudest fight you want to see is between two stablemates—ones that sleep together, eat together. I did it once. Tommy Elks and Arizona Joe Rivers, two boys who were raised together, who fought cops together. We had to get the cops in the ring to separate them. They were biting each other on the shoulders."
In 1928 Parnassus returned to Los Angeles, where the fight scene was what might loosely be called glamorous. Suey Welch, a former Canton Bulldog football teammate of Jim Thorpe and a longtime fight manager around L.A., says that when Parnassus arrived "he looked like a Greek cook. Or a waiter. But he was always a cutie, he knew his way around. Those were big days at the Hollywood Legion. Every Friday night was a sellout. Jolson always had a fighter or two, and Doug Fairbanks and George Raft. Mae West had a boxer as a chauffeur. Bing Crosby would hang around at ringside. Lupe Velez, who was going at the time with Gary Cooper, would jump and holler and throw her clothes around. She was a real fight fan."
Tom Gallery, a former director of sports for NBC, was then a matchmaker at the Hollywood Legion—and married to Zasu Pitts. He recalls meeting Parnassus one night in Fatty Arbuckle's nightclub and witnessing an epic brawl over the maidenly virtues of Texas Guinan, whose bodyguard, Raft, hid under a table throughout the action. If Parnassus shares the memory, or others like it, he no longer talks about them.
Always he took care of himself. "I never was drunk in my life. I went to bed at five o'clock, and if I had to be someplace at six o'clock I'd be there, a little bit ahead of time. I ask fighters and ex-fighters: When did you feel worse—the day after a real tough fight or the day after a real drunk? They all agree—the day after a real drunk."
The fighter for whom Parnassus had the most affection was Enrique Bolanos, a lightweight who twice, unsuccessfully, fought Ike Williams for the title. "He was the nicest boy you ever want to meet, but he had one great fault," says Parnassus. "He couldn't say no to his friends. The night before a fight they'd say, 'Come on, Enrique,' and he would go. But a great fighter. I enjoyed watching him box, especially knowing the condition he was in.
"Two days before a fight I'd take him home and sit in a car outside until his lights went out. Then I'd drive around the block two times, and his lights would still be out. So now I would get some sleep myself. I go to Santa Monica, to bed. The phone rings, the fellow is very sorry to disturb me—'We like you and we like Enrique, but you better come get him, he's drunk.' A real friend will make you cry, an enemy will make you laugh. Enrique has a good job with an electrical company now. He doesn't drink anymore."
But Parnassus did not indulge his fighters in any more nonsense than was necessary. Quite the contrary. "In front of strangers, to my fighters I was always Mr. Parnassus," he says.
In 1934 Parnassus found his first titleholder, though he did not seem a likely one at the time. Ceferino Garcia had been knocked out five times and his Filipino manager had deserted him. Two years after Parnassus took him over he fought Barney Ross for the welterweight title, and in 1939 he knocked out Fred Apostoli to become middleweight champion. "I got him into condition, I got him ambition," says Parnassus, "and I kept him the same age five years."
Parnassus says he was able to maneuver Garcia and later lightweight Juan Zurita and bantamweight Raton Macias into titles without resorting to underworld connections. "I was in Chicago when Capone was at his height. I know all those people. What am I going to do if someone says, 'Hello, Mr. Parnassus.' I have to be civil. But I never looked for anything I didn't have coming. Couple of times in New York, before a fight, somebody might come with this balonya—for a couple of thousand dollars they can take care of it. I laugh it off. I say, 'Oh, nobody can take care of it.' I go ahead, take care of my business. Somebody gets up at six to get ahead of me, I am up at four."
In 1952, though by now wheezing heavily with his asthma, Parnassus even took on a new career, in another sport, out of pique. "I went into the newspaper office in Sioux City, Iowa to ask information about wrestling there," he says. "The sports editor, he wouldn't even look up. 'Better leave town, you haven't got a chance,' he said.
" 'You play me a dirty trick,' I tell him. 'I didn't mean I was going to stay and promote, but now you say I haven't got a chance, I'm going to. Walking down the street, I didn't see anybody with three eyes or five arms. You give them what they want, they'll come out.' They did, too. I stayed three years."
In 1957 Parnassus became a licensed matchmaker for Cal and Aileen Eaton's Olympic Boxing Club operation in downtown Los Angeles. As a matchmaker he came up against Jim Norris' International Boxing Club, which was accustomed to putting on whatever it wanted. Parnassus guaranteed Carmen Basilio $60,000 for a nontitle fight with Art Aragon in Los Angeles' Wrigley Field. "The Norris people brought all kinds of pressure to bear trying to get Basilio to pull out, give them the fight," recalls Parnassus gleefully. "Between Madison Square Garden and Chicago Stadium they had millions of dollars, and here I am with a roast biff sandwich. But they can't take the fight away. Then somebody comes up with Floyd Patterson and Roy Harris, a title fight, in Los Angeles 18 days before the Basilio fight. I protest to the state athletic commission, but they let it go. So I stand up in the commission meeting and bet the other promoter $5,000 I would out-draw him whatsoever—I peel it off in $100 bills right there and embarrass him. He got to bet. And I won. Then Norris announced Zora Folley and Pete Rademacher would fight in Kentucky. I get Folley and Rademacher together, and I take the fight away from them. Whoo! I did!"
Parnassus was never a man to be trifled with, at high levels or low. "One time I saw some people tearing down my retaining wall after a fight at the Olympic Club," he says. "So I go up to them and I say, 'What are you doing?' 'We are tearing down the wall, Mr. Parnassus,' they say. 'Why are you doing that?' I ask. 'Because we do not like the decision,' they say. 'I do not like it either,' I say. 'Here, let me help you.' And I take out a few bricks myself. They stop tearing down my wall."
It was unrealistic to think the Parnassus-Eaton matchmaker's match would go the distance, and it did not. Parnassus recalls one occasion when "I agreed to $50,000 with a man for TV. He brought me a check for $35,000. I said—phooey. He went to Aileen Eaton and cried to her. I heard her say from her office, 'I'll talk to George.' I shouted, 'You'll do no such damn thing! If anybody goes over my head I'm going to go down there the night of the fight and yank all the wires out! Is that clear enough? And you look at me right here in the eye and see if I mean it!' "
In 1966 Parnassus and Mrs. Eaton parted ways. When he decided to renew his California license and go into business for himself in 1967, Mrs. Eaton opposed him, unsuccessfully, in a stormy California Boxing Commission hearing. "My family wanted me to retire," he says, "but then Mrs. Eaton tried to force me to. I guess I owe it to Mrs. Eaton I am still in the business today."
In 1968 Parnassus signed an agreement with Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Forum, which makes him a larger operator, in terms of average gate, than the Olympic, which has a fight every Thursday night but does not have Parnassus' extensive Mexican connections.
Since his first days as a manager Parnassus has been traveling in Mexico and dealing with its people, and for years he has been friend to its presidents. "Everywhere I go, people stop to talk," he says. "Even the dogs know me in Mexico." Only one of Parnassus' main events at the Forum has lacked a Mexican fighter, and as much as half of a top Forum turnout of 15,000 to 17,000 is likely to be Latin, including thousands of Mexicans who have taken buses up from as far as 500 miles away. Of the 101 title fights Parnassus has promoted or helped promote around the world, none have been in the heavyweight division, and most have been welterweight or lighter. In 1969, counting only gate receipts, Parnassus grossed $1,086,400 in eight Forum attractions, an average of $135,800. Madison Square Garden, relying on heavyweights, where all the money supposedly is, grossed $1,531,500 for 14 shows, an average of $109,392. In 1970, with six shows, the Forum average was more than $150,000. No promoter in history—except for Tex Rickard, who worked at it less regularly and handled only potential blockbuster events—equaled the average gates that Parnassus has produced at the Forum. Parnassus keeps his big matches coming by paying the small men purses they never hoped for a few years ago—$100,000 to bantamweight Lionel Rose, for instance, when he fought Ruben Olivares.
Dealing with Japanese, Australians, Italians and South Americans, as well as Mexicans, requires a mastery of the telephone. "I know all the time zones," says Parnassus. "I know when to call a man anywhere in the world so I get him when he is just up in the morning. I phone a man in Japan, tell him, 'You get out of your house right now and get up that money.' A letter or a telegram, he can put in his pocket." Parnassus stays within grabbing range of a receiver 24 hours a day except when he is in transit, and he likes to be the one who grabs. "I don't believe in having a secretary to ask who is it. If someone is calling me, he must have a reason. Every day of the week, I am at the office at six a.m., making calls. Anywhere I am in my house, the phone is with me. My telephone bill is $1,000 a month. If I was to be a blabbermouth on the telephone I'd be in the poorhouse. I know three minutes—after all these years with three-minute rounds I know it right to the second."
On or off the phone, Parnassus prides himself in the value of his word. "I went to London to sign Hogan (Kid) Bassey to defend against Davey Moore—$65,000 for Bassey. His manager was in the hospital. The only thing we did was shake hands and embrace each other when I was leaving. That was all we needed. I went to Paris to sign Alphonse Halimi to fight Becerra. The manager of Halimi, Philipi Filipi, was known as a difficult fellow to do business with. He said, 'From Mr. Parnassus, all I want is to shake hands.' I'm not ashamed to say I got tears in my eyes.
"Irving B. Kahn of TelePrompTer—he came into my room at the St. Moritz to talk a contract with a tape recorder in his jacket. I said, 'Here, take off your coat,' and zip, I take it off before he can stop me. When he finished he said, 'Doing business with Parnassus, a handshake is good enough.' And to hear Irving say that.... He is a tough man.
"In boxing," sums up Parnassus rather mellowly, "I have met more honorable people who on their word you can do a $100,000 deal. Other businesses, for much less money, you have to have all kinds of papers." But even in boxing, wise men take precautions.
Cuco Conde has returned from the Syracuse arena with only one $12,000 check. Parnassus groans. Grudgingly, he stops insisting that Cuco get all the money before the champion steps into the ring. The show goes on.
Backus wins the welterweight title in a stunning upset, absorbing beautiful jabs for three rounds, then in the fourth filling Napoles' eyes with blood from cuts. Parnassus is outraged. "Do you see how they steal the fight! It was not bad enough a cut to stop it. Backus was cut worse. The referee was too anxious to take it away from the champion, which was in very bad taste...." He makes his way toward the cashier's office.
"It's a toff business," says Cuco. "I'm telling him for a month, I don't want to come here. A lot of Italians." A reporter asks Parnassus about a return bout. "We take their word," Parnassus says, "that it meant enough to them to get a chance at the title that they will give a return."
"Where?" asks the reporter.
"A neutral site," says Parnassus. "Los Angeles." All the while he is eyeing the counting that is going on in the cashier's office.
Napoles' money, in several odd-sized checks and a thick bundle of bills that Cuco takes under his arm, is at last produced. Parnassus heads back to the hotel, relieved.
"Backus was courageous and strong," he goes so far as to admit, once he is settled down in his suite with a drink. But he has not forgotten "the griff I went through the last three days. I been wishing why didn't I get sick? Why didn't I have a stroke or something instead of coming here?"
A stroke of genius, perhaps, for soon he murmurs, "Olivares-Castillo and Na-poles-Backus on the same bill."
"That would be a fantastic promotion," someone says. Parnassus raises his eyebrows owlishly. And now he has a few final words to offer about his role in Syracuse: "Maybe I'm the only one in the world, but I can say this—no fighter, no manager, can give me a nyickl. Not even expenses."
Suddenly he disappears into the next room and returns with a legal-looking paper. It is a contract with Backus for a Napoles-Backus rematch in the Forum, he says. "This they sign for my efforts in getting him a title bout. It is null and void if Backus does not win. It is null and void unless it is the kind of bout that calls for a return. They didn't pay me—not a roast biff sandwich. Just, if it was the kind of bout that calls for...." It does.
"So," says Parnassus with a smile. "Now we're in business."