Outside, the house is neat and trim, not unlike the owner
himself, who possesses one of those perfectly oval faces--bald
on top, bearded on the bottom--that, in caricature class, could
be turned upside down and drawn just as well that way. The
eyebrows are small, the eyes aglimmer, and the mouth is
invariably found in a smile, perhaps because, for so long, it
wasn't much good at dispensing words.
But some things are distinct and immutable, such as the accepted
fact that this fellow with the oval face is the nicest person
in sports (which might be damning him with faint praise) and may
be the nicest person on the face of the earth.
Best Person Around, for $200.
July 12, 1998
Who is Howard Bingham?
We do know this: The one person--and he is a famous person--who
mistreated Mr. Bingham hasn't amounted to a hill of beans since
There is a God.
And now, driving up to his neat and trim abode, here comes
Howard Bingham in his old Camry, one drab and indistinct of
color and loaded with even more junk than miles, which total
108,000. Howard's dog, Clyde, stirs. Clyde is part rottweiler,
part German shepherd, but, as befits the dog of such a sweet
guy, Clyde prefers the learned life of lying about to the
vigilant one for which he was bred.
Howard calls out to one of his neighbors. The women in these
environs of south Los Angeles all look after Howard, feeding
Clyde when Howard is traveling or feeding Howard when he is
home. He's away a lot, though, consorting with the rich and
famous here and there, everywhere. Still, he has lived in this
little house since 1969. It is not far from the house he grew up
in, where his mother still resides. He uses that residence as a
mail drop, sparing the helpful neighbor women postal chores too.
Howard opens his front door. "People don't believe it, that I
still live here," he says. "But I'm not fancy. You can only
sleep on one bed."
Well, you can if there isn't stuff piled on it. Howard's house,
the stationary version of Howard's car, is something of a cross
between a flea market and a mail-order warehouse. Friends like
to say that Howard has "a file cabinet in his head." This house
is the wrong place for a file cabinet. Stuff is piled about,
sometimes nearly to the ceiling--the accumulated effluvia of The
American Man Alone.
One room passes for the eye of the hurricane. This is where
Howard stockpiles hundreds of thousands of his negatives. He is,
by trade, a photographer, and a very good one. For the celebrity
gentry he is the anti-paparazzo, the photographer as gentleman.
Across from the Bingham archives is another room, fashioned as
command central. One of Howard's friends, Mary Williams, a
public relations woman, says that he's on the phone so much that
he reminds her foremost of Ernestine, Lily Tomlin's telephone
operator. Howard works not only the phones but also the fax and
the E-mail while cuing up the TV and the VCR. Also his wont is
to patch people together--people who share nothing in common but
Howard Bingham. Suddenly you are not just schmoozing with
Howard. You are on a three-way hookup with someone you never
heard of in Asuncion, Paraguay. "Hello," says Howard, talking on
the phone to some big shot's secretary. "It's your favorite
"Oh, it must be Howard Bingham," the secretary replies.
But now, brushing his chair free of bric-a-brac, making a small
place for his own self, Bingham has a single call to make to
just one person. He speed dials. He says, "Hi, Bill."
The voice on the other end, barely audible, replies, "Hi, Bill."
The murmur belongs to Muhammad Ali. He and Howard Bingham are
the best of pals, the Damon and Pythias of our time. They have
loved each other for 35 1/2 years, through thick and thin,
championships and marriages and children; through their lives,
across our time.
So, a few days later, in another place, Ali smiles, looking
across the room to Bingham, and behind the trembling hands and
the flaccid face, there is a glint in his eyes that suddenly
shines from a time when the world lay at his feet and he was as
healthy and as handsome as God ever made one man. But never mind
that. It's O.K. "I'm lucky," Ali mumbles. "Did you ever have a
If not so tenderly, but somewhat more poetically, Emerson said,
"A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature." What
is distinctive about Bingham is not only that he has been in
Ali's corner all this time--good god, he even went along on one
of Ali's honeymoons ... at the invitation of the bride--but also
that he is no less the dear friend of so many others. In this
mean gotcha world, listening to people go on about how nice
Bingham is gets downright saccharine. A cross section:
George Jackson, president of Motown Records: "When you look up
the word benevolent in the dictionary, it should have Howard's
picture next to it."
Gordon Parks, photographer: "Just a jewel of a guy." (Parks
doesn't keep a photo of Ali on his wall; he keeps one of Ali and
John Jay Hooker, former chairman of STP Corp., now running for
the Democratic nomination for governor of Tennessee: "Some
people kid Howard that he's a professional guest. But Howard is
entitled because of how he acts. He's traveling this earth on a
special passport. You know, if I learned I was going to die, I
couldn't think of anything I'd rather do than spend some time
with Howard Bingham."
And just as Bingham is loved by everybody who knows him, so does
he somehow end up everywhere. "You know," he sighs, guilelessly,
"I'm in history."
George Fisher, chairman of Kodak, says in amazement, "Sometimes
I think there must be 10 of Howard. It's like he's everywhere."
Before Forrest Gump and before Zelig, there was an old gag about
a little guy named Sam who was ubiquitous. The joke ends at St.
Peter's Square on Easter morning as somebody in the crowd says,
"I don't know who the old man in the beanie is up on the
balcony, but the guy with him is Sam." Thus: Howard. It
surprised no one, really, that when O.J. Simpson left L.A. for
Chicago in the middle of the night after practicing golf shots
in the dark, Bingham was on that flight. And, naturally, at
Simpson's trial, it was concluded that Bingham was the only
witness both sides liked.
Johnnie Cochran, approaching the witness: "Are you a
Bingham: "The world's greatest."
Cochran: "So, we're clear about that."
Later, on cross-examination, when Marcia Clark made a passing
reference to Bingham as an outstanding photographer, Judge Lance
Ito interrupted: "Uh, the world's greatest."
Bingham: "You're a smart man, judge."
For the faceless nobody who was so long dismissed as just
another sycophant in the Champ's entourage--the one who
stuttered; don't even bother with him--the ease and confidence
and humor that Bingham now displays is the stuff of
metamorphosis. But then, Bingham has met presidents and
dictators and a huge segment of the population with Q ratings.
Plus all the right maitre d's. Would it surprise you to learn
that Bingham interviewed James Earl Ray? ("Howard completely
charmed him," reports someone who observed the tete-a-tete
between the black man and the racist.) He's met and photographed
Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson. James Earl Jones lent
his grand voice to a Black History Month radio feature on
Bingham. Here is a picture of Bingham with President Clinton,
Billy Graham and Lauren Bacall. Here is another, with Bill Cosby
and Nelson Mandela. Howard is the one in the middle. On the
Internet, Bingham is on the select list of history's most famous
stutterers, which includes Demosthenes. Surely it won't be long
before someone says, "I don't know who the big fellow is up
there shaking, but the bald guy with him is Howard."
He is amazingly eclectic. He befriends strangers on elevators.
On this particular morning he hands over the Camry to the valet
parking attendant at The Beverly Hills Hotel and strides inside,
where Arianna Huffington and a bunch of Hollywood muckety-mucks
have come to a breakfast to hear Orrin Hatch, the conservative
Republican senator from Utah, deliver a speech. The Beverly
Hills looks, in fact, a lot like Utah, lacking any black people.
Except Howard Bingham.
Hatch enters the room. All the fat cats start to move toward
him. Suddenly, the distinguished senior senator stops dead in
his tracks. He falls into a boxer's crouch. It looks as if
Hatch, usually so impeccable, so controlled, has lost it. But
no, he has just spied Bingham across the way. The two men once
met. They became friends. That's the way it goes with Bingham.
Now, while everybody else looks on in puzzlement, the senator
hurries to the one black man in the room and, beaming, embraces
him. There is more hugging by and of Howard Bingham than goes on
in a whole stadium of Promise Keepers.
At the microphone Hatch tries to rag on Bingham a little bit for
being the lone Democrat in this Republican crowd. But the
senator knows it's futile. Ali couldn't get Bingham to convert
to Islam all those years when virtually all the other
African-Americans surrounding the Champ were Muslims. So what
chance does Hatch have? Ali must see some of himself in Bingham.
It wasn't Ali's boxing talent that made him so special; rather,
it was that he stood up for his beliefs. Well, it isn't just
Bingham's niceness that makes him so special; rather, it is that
he stands up for his beliefs.
"That's hard, too," says Lonnie Ali, the fighter's fourth wife.
"To say to a personality as powerful and overwhelming as
Muhammad--to say, 'No, you're wrong. I don't agree with
you!'--that's very difficult. But Howard was never a yes-man. He
always tells Muhammad what he feels he has to know."
Did you ever have a good friend?
Bingham steers the Camry to downtown L.A., first to a good taco
stand and then to the corner of Fifth and Broadway. This is the
historical part of the tour, the one that revisits the moment of
happenstance that changed Bingham's life. Late in 1962 one
Cassius Clay and his brother, Rudolph Valentino Clay, were
standing on this corner, watching the girls go by. Howard came
along in his Dodge Dart. He was learning to be a photographer at
the Sentinel, L.A.'s black weekly paper. It seemed quixotic.
He'd taken up the craft mostly because, for a guy who couldn't
talk, it seemed like a good way to meet chicks. So far he'd
gotten an F in photography at Compton Community College and
overexposed most of what he shot for the Sentinel. Still, the
paper had sent him that day to a press conference to shoot the
loudmouth young heavyweight who was in town to knock over some
The Clay brothers got into the Dodge Dart, and Howard gave them
a sophisticated tour. Besides looking for girls, he took them to
a bowling alley and home to meet his mother. Later, his
chauffeuring had more of a purpose to it. "Remember, Ali,"
Howard now says to his friend, "I'd drop you off at the
mosque--making sure there were no white folks around to see."
Ali laughs at the recollection of being a closet Muslim,
surreptitiously driven about by the Christian preacher's son.
Otherwise, for more secular pursuits, Bingham and his new buddy
started to hang out. "We just got along," Howard says. It was
all fun. They were free, black and 21. Shortly after Ali
returned East, he sent Bingham a ticket, and Bingham took his
first plane ride, to Miami. There he and Ali picked up the
fighter's pink Cadillac and drove north, to Louisville. It was
wintertime. Bingham had been born in Mississippi and had grown
up in L.A. and didn't have any cold-weather clothes. Ali
outfitted him, and Bingham decided to stay. It was like suddenly
being taken into Wonderland. "I'd never even heard of you, Ali,"
Bingham says now.
"Shows how dumb you were."
"I wish I'd kept a diary," Bingham says. "I wish I'd known you
were going to become the Muhammad Ali the whole world knew."
But he did take pictures, and he got better at it. Before long
the country started to rip apart at its racial seams, but then
(as now) there weren't many black news photographers, and
Bingham got his chance. After all, everybody liked him, and
everybody trusted him. For LIFE, the Black Panthers let Bingham
photograph their huge weapons cache, secure that he would not
reveal where he had shot the arsenal. But always Bingham would
return to Ali, to be with him and photograph him. "I love to go
places with him," he says, even now, in his 60th year. "I get so
mad sometimes when I have to do something and I can't go with
The stacks of pictures began to pile up. Ten thousand, a hundred
thousand, another hundred thousand. By now Bingham may have shot
a half-million photos of Ali. Who knows? How many more snapshots
has Bingham taken for people who spot Ali, jam their Instamatics
into Bingham's hands and plead with him to take a picture of
them with the Greatest? Muhammad Ali probably has had his
picture taken more times than anyone in the history of the
world--and probably had his picture taken by more people.
Now, though, his body slumps and his hands tremble and his eyes
close, and Howard and Lonnie try to stir him. "Open your eyes,
Ali," Howard snaps.
They are in a fancy studio in Manhattan. The fashion
photographer Francesco Scavullo is taking Ali's picture for a
restaurant advertisement. "Lonnie, his left eye is drooping,"
Howard calls out.
Lonnie says, "Ali, Halle Berry is here."
Don't they wish. Children and good-looking women open Ali's
eyes. Luckily, two pretty young women, if not Halle Berry,
arrive. The women are from IMG, which represents Ali. He will
never be one of those stumblebum boxers scuffling for
walking-around money. Poor Joe Louis was called America's Guest.
Muhammad Ali is America's Honored Guest. Now that it is the end
of the century, he is remembered all the more as we tote up the
best recollections of the 1900s. Muhammad Ali! The greatest
this! The finest that! Accept this honor! Take this award! And
he loves it. But, of course, all the accolades, all the
adulation, all the photo shoots don't stop him from shaking or
from falling asleep. Open your eyes, Ali!
Ali spots one of the women, IMG attorney Catherine Lindsey,
hugging Howard. "The famous Howard Bingham," Catherine coos.
Catherine happens to be blonde. Lonnie says, "Good. Muhammad
Howard hugs the other woman, Catherine's assistant, Sheila
Willis, before he can be introduced. Ali takes note of this,
too. His eyes don't droop anymore as he follows the track of
Catherine. "He's flirting and doesn't think I can see," Lonnie
"Flashbacks, Lonnie," Howard sighs. "It's only flashbacks." She
smiles; Lonnie knew Ali long before he married her, when he was
a notorious skirt chaser. Now he's just a looker and a flirter.
A few minutes later, after Scavullo is through shooting, Ali
sneaks up behind Sheila and tries to flick her ear. But she
turns her head at just that instant, and he isn't agile enough
to touch her. Sheila never even knows what happened.
Bingham doesn't see this. But not two minutes later, he sneaks
up behind Sheila and tries the exact same thing. Only he
succeeds at yanking her hair, so she whirls about in surprise.
"Pranksters," Lonnie says, sighing. Sometimes it's hard to see
where Ali stops and Bingham begins. Bingham is 59 and has two
grown children, and Ali is 56 and has eight grown children, but
more often than not Lonnie, who is 15 years her husband's
junior, seems to be the only grownup on the premises, Wendy to
the Lost Boys.
Now it's true that Lonnie sometimes goes into cahoots with
Howard. To all Ali's previous wives, Bingham could say--would
say--"I was here before you, and I'll be here after you're
gone." But Lonnie is different, and, like Howard, she isn't
going anywhere. She was literally the little girl next door; she
met Ali when she was only six years old. Now the two silly
men-boys sometimes drag her down to their level. Their favorite
skit, the three of them together, works best when the mark is a
reporter who is earnestly interviewing Ali while Lonnie or
Howard interprets his murmurings. Invariably the reporter is
very solicitous, very moved that the Greatest is now nothing but
this trembling shadow of what he was. Ali nods off, and the game
is under way. This time, you see, Ali is pretending. Lonnie and
Howard play their parts. Sharply Howard barks, "Lonnie, don't
let him do that. Wake him up!"
She snaps back, "The doctor said to let him go when he does this."
The reporter, mournful, tries to remain composed amid this
sadness. Ali, eyes still closed, starts to throw little jabs.
Sorrowfully, Lonnie explains, "His mind is playing tricks on
him. He thinks he's back in the ring, fighting again." Howard
nods in melancholy.
Then--pow! Without warning, Ali throws a monstrous jab that just
misses the unsuspecting man's chin. Ali's eyes are open wide
now, and he chortles. Lonnie and Howard grin to beat the band.
A lot of life with Ali is Kabuki theater, the same polished
routines over and over. He levitates off his feet, performs the
disappearing handkerchief trick, scowls when Bingham introduces
him as Joe Frazier, repeats the same few timeless gags. "Ali
wants to tell you the Abraham Lincoln joke," Bingham says.
You draw closer. Ali says, "You know what Abraham Lincoln said
after he came off a two-day drunk?"
No, Muhammad, what did Abraham Lincoln say after he came off a
"I freed the whaaaat?" He laughs at his favorite punch line as
heartily as if it were the first time he's heard it.
It is not that his mind is diminished by the Parkinson's or that
he is some old pug on Queer Street. Rather, it seems as if Ali
voluntarily closed down the progress of his mind when the
disease inhabited his body. Now he works only at growing
sweeter. More and more he is like a soul walking. But the past
is all still there, ready to be called back. Why, he can even,
for a few seconds, perform the Ali Shuffle, tossing punches
rat-a-tat-tat while his feet scamper back and forth. That is the
best magic trick of all. But then he is winded, and he
collapses, and, in mock admiration, Howard pats his potbelly.
Another time, in the Presidential Suite of a hotel where the
Alis are staying, Ali sits on the bench of a grand piano and
plays a very serviceable rendition of ... yes, The Tennessee
Waltz. Where did that come from? Howard sits by him and plays
Heart and Soul. How many times have they done that? For how many
Now the two old friends sit together again, watching the video
of a new documentary that Bingham has brought over. It is called
City at Peace, and it is about black and white kids trying to
get along. When one of the girls in the video laments that
whites go in one car and blacks in another, Ali nods knowingly.
"Nature's way," he says, "nature's way."
Bingham tries to dispute this, pointing out that the whole
thrust of the documentary is that the races can get along better
if only they know each other better. But Ali is having none of
that--and never mind that he lives his life race-blind. Bingham
shrugs. It's the old Black Muslim philosophy. "I don't argue
with him on religion," Howard says. "What's the point of that?"
Like the jokes and the magic tricks, though, Ali still brings up
the same standard arguments. Thirty-five years and counting, and
he is still bugging Howard about his "slave name." Bingham tunes
out as Ali begins again: "Germans have German names, and Puerto
Ricans have Puerto Rican names, and Indians have Indian names,
and you can tell who they are, but if your name is Johnson or
Jefferson or Bingham, you don't know who that is till you see
Bingham doesn't bite. But sometimes, when Ali starts in with a
newcomer, pointing out the various contradictions in the Bible,
Bingham pleads with him, "Ali, why don't you stop talking
against Christianity and the Bible? Why don't you just get up a
pamphlet that has your picture on it and tells all the good
things that Islam has done for you? Now, people would like that."
Ali ignores that suggestion, as he always has. So, he and
Bingham enjoy some fruit and some crackers together, watching
the documentary. Soon, though, Ali starts to nod. For real. His
eyes close, his head falls to his chest. Bingham turns to glance
at him. He and Lonnie do not treat the old Champ with any pity,
or really with much sympathy. It angers Bingham that Ali doesn't
work out hard enough. He tells Ali so--to no effect. "Ali's
lazy," Bingham says. "He's overweight, but he's convinced
himself that he can lose weight only in Miami, because that's
where he went to lose weight when he was boxing. He just won't
work at it." The past is the only present left.
There is this irony, too: Bingham was never any sort of athlete.
He could never identify with his friend. But he sees that Ali
has grown more like him. Their impairments are different, of
course, but the point is the same: You owe it to yourself to
deal with whatever infirmity you have. Once, Bingham could
hardly speak, his stutter was so bad. He found out that his
impediment probably came from trying too hard never to offend
anybody. He held everything in. He was the oldest of seven
children--too good, too dutiful, always dependable, never a
Once Bingham understood better why he stuttered, he could work
at correcting the problem. "See--look," he says, and, driving
along in the Camry, he suddenly unleashes a stream of
vulgarities. Then he smiles. "See? I let it out." It was like a
time years ago when he was in a car being driven by Belinda,
Ali's second wife. She turned in front of a truck, and Bingham
screamed, "Look out!"
After they'd escaped danger, Belinda said, "Why, Howard, you
"I di-d-di-didn't h-h-have t-t-time t-t-to."
In fact, everybody pretty much accepted Bingham's stammer. "No
one even perceived it as a handicap," George Jackson says. "It
was just another part of Howard." Another notation on his
But, of course, it bothered him. In 1978, to everyone's
surprise, he ran for Congress in his home district. He had a lot
of support--Marvin Gaye, Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Pryor, the
works. Ali campaigned, too, and he wrote a poem:
Bingham is smart
Bingham is wise
Elect Howard Bingham
Cut our problems down to size.
Unfortunately, at candidates' forums, Bingham would seize up as
his turn to speak approached. He would run from the stage before
the microphone was his. He lost the election.
But even if he never ran for office again, he never stopped
trying to speak better. Now he knows: Muhammad Ali may have been
the Greatest, but Howard Bingham dealt better with his
infirmity. Sometimes, he tells his friend, "It isn't your fault,
Ali, that you're only 50 or 75 percent of what you were, but
still, if you won't give 100 percent of what's left, then you
might as well keep your ass at home."
But at other times he looks at his friend, and he remembers only
the beauty--that wonderful, powerful body, that dashing,
fascinating original that was. "Oh, yeah," Howard says,
"sometimes when I remember, it hurts."
He looks over at Ali on the couch, chubby and droopy, dozing off
again. Softly, Howard reaches out and touches Muhammad--just
enough, on the side of the head, to awaken him. Just enough. Ali
stirs. He looks up torpidly, sees his friend and smiles.
The documentary is still playing. Lonnie is on the phone at the
desk, talking business. Without a word, Ali lowers his head and
goes back to sleep.
Bingham looks after him. It is all right. He feels a sadness for
what was, but a joy for what remains.
Recently, when Bingham was named Photographer of the Year by the
Photographic Marketing Distribution Association, he put together
a collection of his best work. George Fisher of Kodak says, "You
see his pictures, you know he relates to his subjects in a
special way." Bingham included a couple of photos that were
precious to him. They were of Ennis Cosby, who had been murdered
a few months earlier at age 27. Bingham dedicated the award to
The Cosbys have always been important to Bingham. Bill fractured
the tacit color line in the still cameramen's union by bringing
Bingham onto the set of his TV show in 1969--even though it
meant also paying a white union shooter just to sit there. Over
the years Bingham, who is divorced, has also grown close to
Camille Cosby, who refers to the "special bond" she shares with
him. Rarely does a day go by without their speaking to each other.
Despite their age difference, Bingham felt a particularly strong
connection to Ennis. Camille and Bill are almost effortlessly
accomplished; Ennis, though, had to deal with dyslexia, just as
Howard had to contend with his stutter. When the young man was
murdered, the Cosbys turned to Bingham to handle the
arrangements concerning the body in Los Angeles and its
transportation to western Massachusetts, where Ennis would be
A couple of days later, on a bitter January morning at the Cosby
farm, Bingham and a handful of other close friends gathered with
the family. At the grave they stood in a circle and held hands
while each, in turn, gave a eulogy. When it was Howard's time,
he told of the Sunday he had taken Ennis to a Dolphins game in
Miami, where he got the young man down on the sidelines. Later
Ennis told him, "You know, Mr. Bingham, I like going to a game
with you better than going with my father because you can get me
down on the field."
In the midst of their terrible sorrow, all the Cosbys smiled
through their tears.
"Howard's so giving, it's just unbelievable," says Richard
Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in
Society. Annually, the CSSS gives out an award for excellence in
sports journalism, but only twice has it honored the author of a
sports book: Arthur Ashe in 1989 for A Hard Road to Glory, his
study of the black American athlete, and Howard Bingham in 1994
for his work Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey.
Besides being a superb photographic essay, Bingham's book
represented the one time that he tried to cash in on his
relationship with Ali. "The amazing thing about Howard," says
Neil Leifer, who took the photos for this article, "is that not
only did he never abuse his access to Muhammad, but he helped
other photographers gain access." Ali was delighted to help his
old friend publicize the book. So it was agreed that he would go
on The Arsenio Hall Show. Today the mere mention of the host's
name makes every friend of Bingham's shake his head and mutter a
curse. Says Lonnie Ali, "In all the time I've known Howard, I've
seen him upset only twice. First was when his father died. Then,
with Arsenio. I know he was trying not to cry. He just couldn't
"It" was this: Shortly after Ali agreed to appear on the show
with Bingham to publicize the book, the producers began to
request that only Ali appear. It was made clear to them that the
only reason Ali was coming on was that Bingham would be there.
So, reluctantly, Hall accepted the original agreement, and the
two friends went to the theater together and waited in the green
room. When Hall began the introduction, they were ushered behind
a curtain. The host made a big deal out of welcoming someone
very special, went to the curtain and pulled out Ali.
Bingham followed. After about two steps onstage, though, when
Bingham was barely visible behind Hall and Ali, the host reached
down to his belt buckle and made a discreet clutching gesture.
It was a prearranged signal. Instantly, a goon appeared on
either side of Howard, and while his face registered shock and
incredulity, the men restrained him off-camera. The smugly
satisfied Hall stepped forward, basking in the Champ's presence.
Bingham has never gotten over the slight. He still hauls out the
tape and shows it in slow motion: the introduction, the Judas
gesture, the abduction...the deceit. Even now, he is not as
angry as he is disbelieving that somebody would do such a thing
to him, to anybody. "Myself," he says, "I can't stand it if I
even make someone uncomfortable."
Oh, by the way, what ever happened to Arsenio Hall?
By now, everybody knows that the path to the Champ is through
Bingham. He handled all the details when Ali lit the torch at
the '96 Olympics. Bingham discussed it with Lonnie, of course,
but he didn't let Ali know until a few days before the big
event. "He can't keep a secret," Howard explains.
Besides, Ali didn't appreciate the magnitude of the honor. "He
doesn't get excited about anything anymore," Bingham says. In
Tokyo a few years ago, the two of them were together on a high
floor of a hotel when an earthquake hit. Bingham cowered, but
Ali simply strolled to the window to look down upon the
irritated earth. "That's God talking, Bingham" was all he had to
offer on the subject. Thomas Hauser, Ali's biographer, says that
the only thing that really bothers Ali anymore is his fear that
he'll go to a fiery hell for all his sins--carnal division.
Since there is no real time in much of Ali's existence, Bingham
is often the travel clock. They have communicated in the same
way since the '60s: To alert the Champ, Bingham makes a loud
clucking noise twice. Time for Ali to move on. Cluck cluck.
Sometimes Ali goes cluck cluck in return. Loud and clear. You
can hear it even from behind a closed door when Bingham is
searching for Ali. Cluck cluck.
It still confounds Ali that Bingham hasn't done the three things
that most of Ali's acquaintances have: beg, borrow and steal
from him. "Thirty-five years, never asked for a thing," Ali
says, shaking his head in wonder. Actually, Bingham, honest to
the end, volunteers that recently he has hit the Champ up for
some dough. "Why you take some now?" Ali asked.
"Because if I didn't, you'd just give it to someone else."
This is probably true. How many millions did Ali give away--or
let slip away--without hardly noticing? The only thing Bingham
regrets, though, is that when the carnival ended, he couldn't
persuade his friend not to fight anymore. Ali wouldn't listen to
Bingham's pleas, and he kept returning to the ring.
To this day Bingham remains convinced that Ali was somehow
drugged before his fight with Larry Holmes in 1980. "Ali had
just come from the Mayo Clinic," Bingham says. "His eyes were so
bright when he got to Vegas, and my thinking is that [the people
who could profit if Ali lost] saw he was looking much better
than they had anticipated. But he took medication he was given
in Vegas, and in the ring he wasn't perspiring, he wasn't
fighting. It doesn't make any sense. You know, all these years,
I'm still not a boxing expert. I'm just a Muhammad Ali expert,
and.... " He shrugs helplessly.
Holmes gave Ali a terrible whipping, and, Bingham and some
others believe, it was only after that fight that Ali began to
change, to grow diminished. But Ali isn't interested in
Bingham's suspicions, even if that bout might have changed his
life. It's over and done with, Allah's will no less than the
earthquake in Tokyo.
Likewise, whenever Ali learned that somebody in his confidence
had been ripping him off, he avoided any confrontation. There
were even occasions when Bingham revealed to him the hard truth
about some hanger-on, some buttonhole salesman who was conning
him, and Ali got mad at Bingham for being the messenger.
As in the parable of the Lost Son (Muhammad: see Luke 15:11-32),
Bingham has played the dutiful younger son, the one who was
always there, always faithful. But no matter how many prodigals
left with part of Ali's fortune or how truthfully Bingham warned
the Champ about those leeches, Ali's response would be, "What do
you know, Howard Bingham, you with your slave name? You're no
Bingham would accept the slights and stay. "Then," he says,
"when everything I told him turned out to be true, he had to
notice. You see, everybody around Ali had a cause, but not the
cause they said. The cause wasn't Ali. It wasn't Islam. The
cause was them."
Bernie Yuman, manager of Siegfried and Roy, a man long close to
Ali and Bingham, says, "Ali realized that if you're Howard's
friend, then you--not him--are foremost on his agenda."
Herbert Muhammad, a son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah
Muhammad who was designated by his father to be Ali's manager,
became Bingham's most prominent bete noire. Herbert would never
cut the Christian confidant any slack. Bingham, for example, has
an extraordinary ability to recall telephone numbers, and Ali,
impressed by this sleight of mind, would swirl his head about in
astonishment whenever Bingham would throw up 10 digits. It drove
Herbert crazy. Once when Ali voiced his amazement at Bingham's
gift, Herbert snapped, "It's only because he hasn't got anything
else to do."
Bingham's essential sweetness masks a tougher cookie. He sued
Arsenio Hall Communications (the suit was settled for an
undisclosed amount), and he punched out a member of Ali's
entourage, Gene Kilroy, who was once characterized by a writer
as "a white Red Cap." It was a one-punch fight. "He cocked back;
I cocked faster," Bingham says. With Herbert Muhammad he had to
be more subtle, more conniving, but once he almost pulled off a
coup. Bingham persuaded Ali to sign a contract that turned over
his management to his and Bingham's friend John Jay Hooker, a
white Christian. Hooker eventually burned that signed paper,
convinced that the contract would create such a dispute with
Herbert Muhammad that it would, in the long run, hurt Ali more
than help him.
Where he could, Herbert tried to make a nonperson out of Howard.
In Ali's autobiography, censored by the Muslims, Bingham's name
appears only a few times. But Bingham would get some sweet
revenge through Hauser's 1991 biography of Ali--which, though
authorized, was remarkably candid.
Hauser, a stranger to Ali's entourage, understood immediately
who Bingham was in the scheme of things. "I remember
[approaching] Mike Katz of the New York Daily News--he's
supposed to be such a curmudgeon," Hauser says. "I introduced
myself and told him what I was going to do, and the first thing
he said was, 'You'll love Howard Bingham.'"
Katz was right. In fact, Hauser dedicated the book to Bingham,
and he informed Ali beforehand. Delighted, Ali said, "I'm glad
you understand how good Howard is." Then Hauser sat down to read
the manuscript to the Alis and Bingham. He asked Ali to stand up
and read the dedication. So the Champ rose and, speaking quite
clearly, declared, "For Howard Bingham, there's no one like him."
Bingham looked up, stunned. "That's a joke, right?" he said.
Ali shook his head, showing him the page. Bingham began to cry.
In The Camry, Howard is on his way east from L.A. to Claremont,
where he has volunteered to show his pictures and speak to a
high school assembly. He is looking forward to the challenge.
What a wonderful thing it is to stand up and just...talk.
The kids take to him too. Time for questions. Hands shoot up.
Howard points to a pretty girl. She asks, "Mr. Bingham, are you
"Well ... no."
"Good. Could I introduce you to my mother?"
Everybody hoots. Howard beams. More and more, he is coming into
his own. He was chosen to be a keynote speaker at the National
Stuttering Project in Atlanta last month. Piece of cake. Hey, in
Japan in April he stood beside Ali in front of 70,000 people in
the Tokyo Dome and read Ali's greeting to the crowd. Not a halt,
not a missed beat. "You know," Bingham says with a sly smile,
"if I could've just spoken before like I wanted to, there'd've
been no stopping me."
He's thinking about starting a restaurant between Beverly Hills
and Hollywood. Maybe right over there, on La Cienega. The walls
would be filled with his pictures, and he'd greet everybody. The
place would be called just Bingham's. "It's finally coming out
how important Howard is," Hauser says. "And I think Howard likes
the attention. But no one begrudges him that."
"Hey," says Bingham, "tell Ali you don't think I need him
anymore, and see what he says."
Muhammad, I hear Howard says he doesn't need you anymore.
"You tell him he's full of s---."
Well, he's won all these awards, and everybody knows him, and
people are writing stories about him, and he spoke for you
before 70,000 people.
"Wasn't long ago, he couldn't speak at all."
It is obvious: Ali is very proud of Bingham. "Their relationship
is transcendental, almost metaphysical," Jackson says. "But the
evolution of these two men's lives is really a remarkable story
in itself. Now it's Howard moving into the sun, and Ali can't be
understood so well, but there is Howard, his great friend, who
couldn't speak well, able to speak for him."
The misconception people had was that Bingham was just Ali's
friend. But it's never been only that way. What everybody missed
was that Ali was Bingham's friend. It cuts both ways,
friendship. For all the loudmouth stuff, all the doggerel, all
the braggadocio, Muhammad Ali needed to be a friend as much as
he needed to have one. A lot of the time it was just the two of
them, quiet and at peace, driving along, hanging out, as often
as not staying at some out-of-the-way place in a black area.
Just a couple of guys--one of whom, coincidentally, was the most
familiar face on the planet, and the other of whom might well
have been the nicest person.
"You see," says Bernie Yuman, "that's the sign of the most
unqualified faith and love and trust. Bill. Simply calling each
other Bill. It means, maybe you're a big-deal Muhammad Ali to
the world, but that doesn't mean anything to me. To me, you're
just Bill. And Howard became Bill too, because that was Muhammad
saying, O.K., we're on even ground, so you're Bill too. And
names don't mean anything, do they?"
Only love matters to friends. If you have a friend you truly
love, whether you're Howard or Muhammad, well, then you can be a
friend to the world.
He is, by trade, a photographer, and a very good one. He is the
anti-paparazzo, the photographer as gentleman
Ali can't be understood so well now, but Howard, his great
friend, who couldn't speak well, is able to speak for him.
"If I learned I was going to die, I couldn't think of anything
I'd rather do than spend some time with Howard."
Ali and Howard are the Damon and Pythias of our time. They have
loved each other for 35 1/2 years, through thick and thin.
It still confounds Ali that Bingham hasn't done the things that
most acquaintances have: beg, borrow and steal from him.