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Jack of Clubs by Nigel Roth


Just as my chain-smoking father was shutting the liquor store one evening, a ragged man in a tattered raincoat punched on the glass window.


I’d just come downstairs to retrieve a book I’d been reading earlier while minding shop while my father worked on the stocktake for the brewery.


The knock was a little jarring, but the visage of the man responsible, his drawn face and watery eyes, big lumpy hands and unkempt hair, was far worse. I was twelve at the time and my father thirty-six. The homeless alcoholic was sixty-five, but looked much older.


My father checked the clock on the wall behind the counter and unlocked the door. The man shuffled a few steps into the store, and stood there, hunched over.


He didn’t really speak, he just stared at the floor, a little unsteady, and kind of garbled a very long word, before holding out a dirty hand full of coins.


My father walked to the back of the store to fetch a bottle of the cheap cider from the bottom shelf, that he must've known the man drank, and in that moment, a mere few seconds of my own young life, the man looked directly at me.


This is what I saw.


It was July 17, 1933, the first year the Loch Ness Monster appeared and waved at the crowds, and the first year Scotland was seen from the air, thanks to the first female commercial pilot flying for Midland & Scottish Air Ferries.


Back on the ground, Londoners made their way to the now-demolished White City Stadium using Henry Charles Beck’s new Underground map, for the first time.


They were there to see two boxers vying to become the next British Heavyweight champion.


One was the reigning title-holder, Jack Petersen, who had trained for months for the bout, honing punches, building muscle, strengthening his mind.


The other fighter hadn’t done that at all.


He’d done most of his training in the local pubs, and at only nineteen years-of-age maybe he could be forgiven for a lack of professionalism as he emerged, a little unsteady, into the ring.


It was only a few moments until Joseph Doyle realized he’d not be taking that championship belt home with him, and if he didn’t do something fairly quickly to end the fight he might not be taking himself home either.


And so, somewhat ungracefully Doyle punched low to Peterson’s groin, until he was disqualified, and was able to retreat to The Crown and Sceptre or The Pocket Watch or The Queen Adelaide, or whatever bar felt welcoming after you’ve drunk away the chance to be the champion.


Before that, I saw a hardscrabble childhood in County Cork, in Ireland, where Doyle’s almost two-meter height and strong fists got him into the Irish Guards and into boxing, where he knocked out twenty-seven of twenty-eight opponents one after the other. He quickly turned professional and won ten fights on-the-trot, all within the first few rounds.


Feeling fearless, the giantkiller changed his name to Jack, and Jack Doyle soon became The Gorgeous Gael.


As if being the most talked-about heavyweight boxer wasn’t enough, Doyle could also sing beautifully. He was discovered by voice coach Vincent O’Brien who’s career had been cemented thanks to the success of his student, John Francis McCormack, an Irish singer, born to Scots parents, and who became an American.


Doyles “soft tenor voice and handsome looks” had everyone swooning, and he sold out the London Palladium and the Dublin Royal, before being signed to Decca.


The boxer and recording artist now had two strings to his bow, and he went to the pub to celebrate, buying anyone and everyone a round, and then took a ship to the new world, arriving beneath the Statue, in the United States of America.


In the States, he boxed and sang, and even appeared in several movies, McGlusky the Sea Rover (1934) and Navy Spy (1937), and he took to the party circuit like a fish to water, adding gambling and seducing to his repertoire, and every club in town to his list of haunts.


In 1935, Doyle took on another boxer-actor, Buddy Baer, who was one punch away from becoming the Heavyweight Champion of the World had it not been for Baer’s manager stalling after a barrage from Joseph Louis Barrow, or just Joe Louis, in the sixth round of a title fight.


He may have known that Baer would be a hard opponent, as Doyle had just stolen Baer’s brother Max’s girlfriend away, and made Judith Allen his wife.


Whether or not Baer held a grudge didn’t really matter. Doyle’s preparation for this fight was to finish off an entire bottle of brandy before entering the ring, and he went down in the first round “without throwing a punch”.


It may have been the fight or the alcoholism, or his blossoming romance with the beautiful Maria Luisa ‘Movita’ Castaneda, but whichever it was, his marriage to Allen was swiftly over, and Doyle traveled to Ireland to marry Movita, star of Flying Down to Rio (1933, with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, with Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone). Together, they toured gloriously in music halls and theaters across the world.


And then I saw the fight that changed his life forever.


It was in Dalymount Park in the summer of 1943, in front of twenty-three thousand spectators anticipating their hero’s easy victory, with Doyle the outright favorite more because he was well-known and famous than a proven great boxer.


Into the ring came his opponent, the unknown Chris Cole, a journeyman fighter, whose career was neither followed nor heralded in any way. But he was sober.


Doyle actually managed to be late for the fight, having stopped for refreshments in The Clarence Hotel bar, and was so drunk when he entered the ring that he went down in the first round once more, falling even harder this time.


Movita had probably witnessed enough of Doyle’s drinking exploits by then, and decided that was the last ice cube she wanted to see splashing around in a tumbler. She packed her bags and went back to Hollywood to pursue her own acting career, falling in love with and marrying the misogynist Marlon Brando instead.


Doyle, unnerved by another fight loss and abandoned by his wife, was now also being deserted by the friends who’d he'd carried along with him these heady years. All at once, they became disillusioned with a man who used to box, and a man who used to sing, and a man who used to act, and most importantly, a man who used to have money.


And now I saw the downfall.


A spell in Mountjoy Jail for punching a policeman in a pub brawl, and imprisonment and four months of hard labor in Sligo Gaol for issuing a cheque which later bounced. He found odd-jobs when no more boxing or acting offers came along, and survived on a small allowance from the Brandos, to keep him eating, and drinking.


He filed for bankruptcy as he’d spent all his money on, in his words, “slow horses and fast women”, and suddenly realized that he didn’t actually have a home to live in after traveling around but never settling.


He found rents too high for his now-meagre pocket, so traveled to London to stay with friends, sleeping on their sofas, crashing on their floors, drinking their alcohol, and sleeping rough around Paddington, where my father ran a liquor store that sold cheap cider on the bottom shelf.


I was twelve, my father thirty-six, and Jack Doyle was sixty-five when he looked in my eyes and showed me a life.


The Gorgeous Gael died that same year, 1978, in St Mary’s Hospital.

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