When the U.S. 4-x-100-meter relay team finished first at the 1948 Olympics in London but then was disqualified for an illegal hand-off, Harold Conrad was there, knew the people who had films of the race, arranged for them to be shown to officials and was responsible for the reversal of the incorrect decision and for the Americans' returning home with their gold medals.
When Fidel Castro marched into Havana in the final stage of his revolution and "the town [had] gone wild," Conrad was there at the bar of the Havana Hilton, drinking Cuban coffee and brandy and cutting up old touches with Ernest Hemingway, whom he called Pops because he had trouble saying Papa. Conrad was still with Hemingway and therefore included when Castro sent an emissary to say that Fidel would be honored if Hemingway and his party joined him for another coffee.
When Bugsy Siegel slugged a stranger in the bar of the biggest illegal gambling joint in the country, knocked him down and kicked him "twice in the ribs with his pointed George Raft elevated shoes," Conrad was there as PR man and could report the incident to Bugsy's and his own then boss, Frank Costello, and hear Costello say, "That's very bad manners. He never shoulda kicked him."
You may gather, correctly, that Conrad possesses two of the indispensable qualifications for a successful promoter and publicity man: He knows all the right (and wrong) people, and he has the knack for being in the right (and wrong) place at the right time. And now he has put 35 years of his experiences with all kinds of people—the sole requirement being that they're famous—in all kinds of places, especially bars and sports arenas, into a book. Dear Muffo (Stein and Day, $14.95). Why it is called Dear Muffo is the least of the reasons it is an unparalleled voyage of pleasurable nostalgia.
June 6, 1982
Conrad was a sportswriter on the old Brooklyn Eagle, a drinking buddy of the Winchells, Runyons, Hemingways and Hellingers, and a confidant of many of the champion athletes of the day. His career in sports continued long after the Eagle folded in 1955. Conrad publicized many of Ali's fights, Evel Knievel's Snake River Canyon jump and dozens of other extravaganzas. While his attempt to revive the six-day bike races at Madison Square Garden with the aid of Sophie Tucker was merely a funny, and costly, failure, there was nothing amusing about the years of effort he put in to regain public acceptance for Ali after the champ was, in effect, banished from boxing because of his opposition to the Vietnam war. That campaign was successful; it was Conrad who put together Ali's return bout, against Jerry Quarry, in Atlanta, which eventually led to Ali's showdowns with Joe Frazier.
In reading Conrad's reminiscences, it's amusing to note how often he and other principals were wrong in their judgments of people and events.
•Hemingway refused to have that coffee with Castro. "I'm an expert on revolutions," he said. "In six months, maybe a year, he'll be gone and I'll still be here."
•Conrad learned, too late, why his promotion of the Ali-Al (Blue) Lewis bout in Dublin was destined to be a financial failure when a local in a pub told him, "It's an affront to ask an Irishman to pay to see a fight."
•Sonny Liston, taken by Conrad to an early Beatles concert, listened to one number and growled, "Is them bums what all this fuss is about? Sheet, man, mah dawg play better drums than that kid with the big nose." (Conrad makes a case—circumstantial and psychological—to support his conviction that Liston didn't die of an overdose of drugs administered by his own hand, but was murdered.)
The publishers of Dear Muffo have also erred. Apparently in the belief that Conrad isn't enough of a name to carry the front cover, they give equal billing to "Introduction by Budd Schulberg" and "Foreword by Norman Mailer," and they spoil the back cover with a typically inept sketch, of Conrad, by that darling of the artistically undiscriminating, LeRoy Neiman. Schulberg's tribute is sincere and fair enough, Mailer's bit is junk—and this book doesn't need either. Mailer is very pleased, as other adolescents will be, that the book contains a number of four-letter words. Read it anyway.