He walks into the coffee shop and heads turn. He’s that type--the type who looks as if he must be famous, or else was famous once. No one walks that way, frowns that way, unless he has some inside knowledge of fame.
He wears billowy black sweatpants, a red windbreaker, a sleeveless black muscle shirt and Uggs. Not your typical outfit for Lake Tahoe in late fall--nor for a 69-year-old man anywhere in any season. But he makes few concessions to age. Against age he’ll never stop punching. For instance, he’s had three hair transplants and doesn’t care who knows it. Blow-dried, delicately molded across his head, his hair is also tinted black to match his razor-thin mustache.
On his waist rides his most telling fashion statement, a small black fanny pack in which he usually keeps a loaded 9-millimeter Glock. But not today. Today, thank God, Jethro is unarmed.
He looks mad, which is good. That’s how I pictured him. That’s why I came up here to Lake Tahoe in the first place, because I’d heard Max Baer Jr.--who played Jethro in the 1960s sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies"--was mad as hell about Ron Howard’s 2005 boxing movie, “Cinderella Man,” which Baer Jr. felt desecrated the memory of his late father, Max Baer Sr., the great heavyweight champion of the 1930s.It was a big story, for a few days, because it was such a kitschy contretemps--Jethro vs. Opie. In dozens of TV and radio interviews, Baer Jr. excoriated Howard and vehemently defended Baer Sr. Then the story went away, since there was nothing more Baer Jr. could do. The dead can’t claim libel, so their kin can’t sue. Baer Jr. was left to deal with his rage, and “Cinderella Man” was free to go into the world as the most widely and readily available depiction of his father.
Even after the story faded from the headlines, however, it retained its hold on me. Baer Jr.'s battle to save his father’s reputation reminded me that we are nothing but our stories. After we’re gone, our solid, linear identities will dissolve and fragment into loose collections of stories, and it will fall to our loved ones to gather up and keep those stories alive--a task that might require more than just knowing and telling the truth. It might require fighting off strangers bent on tampering with the truth to serve their own stories.
Baer Jr. shakes my hand and slides across from me in the corner booth. “I’ll have the usual,” he tells the waiter, and he’s surprised that the waiter doesn’t know “the usual” means Egg Beaters, flapjacks, sausages, potatoes and coffee. Baer Jr. reminds him, then turns to me and abruptly launches into a remarkable stream-of-consciousness tirade. He’s all riled up, but not about “Cinderella Man.” He’s riled up about the state of the world. Mark Foley. Nancy Pelosi. Global warming. He’s giving me his take on just about everything, from Iraq to “Rocky"--and the many sequels each seems predestined to spawn.
Like Jethro, the hyperactive man-child he played for nine years, Baer Jr. has no indoor voice. He’s permanently loud and his volume is ever-rising, especially when he’s mad. Customers who stared when he first walked in are openly gawking.
Now he’s yelling. No one’s disagreeing with him, and yet he’s yelling, as if trying to drown out some chorus of dissent only he can hear. He’s stabbing an exclamation point into the end of each sentence. He’s working himself into a full-blown rage, and it occurs to me that he might lose all control, punch someone, and I’m the likeliest target since I’m two feet away. I worry that I’m seconds from a Jethro throw-down. More troubling is how far he’s drifted from the reason for my visit. I try to steer him in that direction.
Ron Howard? “Cinderella Man?”
It’s actually a good movie, he says, calmly forking Egg Beaters into his mouth.
“Ronnie Howard did a terrific job. Craig Bierko, who played my father? Did a good job. The way he wipes his gloves on his boxing trunks? That’s just how my dad did it.”
Gone are the exclamation points. Ellipses now fall like soft rain after each conciliatory phrase. I put down my pen.
Of course, he adds, Howard and his team decided they needed “a villain with no redeeming characteristics,” so they made Baer Sr. a figure of pure evil, a caricature, which was not only untrue, it was less interesting than the truth.
I pick up my pen.
But, he adds, as an actor, as a showbiz veteran, he was able to look past all the inaccuracies about his father and appreciate the film for its many fine qualities.
I put down my pen.
Isn’t he still even a little mad about the movie?
“I don’t think I lost a moment of sleep about it. One thing I know in life is I have zero control over what happened yesterday.”
Suddenly Jethro is a Buddhist.
Something strange is going on here.
It’s one of the cardinal rules taught to cub reporters and law students: The dead can’t be libeled. The dead are fair game. Say whatever you please about the dead, they’re powerless to stop you. More importantly, so are their descendants.
“That’s the original tradition of English law, which was imported into the U.S.,” says Rod Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond School of Law and an expert on defamation.
The family of Mickey Mantle is outraged by a forthcoming novel that reportedly depicts seamy details of Mantle’s sex life? Tough. Relatives of Jackie Onassis are anguished about a new book that portrays her as a rape victim and spy? Too bad. Her stepbrother, Hugh Auchincloss III, recently told a newspaper: “It is terrible to toy with a historical figure’s memory in such a cavalier manner. None of these things are true.”
Presumably his lawyers have explained to him by now that posthumous truth is irrelevant.
From Princess Diana to John Dillinger, dozens of famous dead people recently have been reinterpreted, or outright defamed, depending on your point of view, and their descendants have all confronted the same blunt fact: When it comes to reputation, you not only can’t take it with you, you can’t count on leaving it behind either.
The thinking behind the legal tradition is simple. If Person A, who’s alive, finds himself libeled, only he can sue. It’s a “personal tort,” as the lawyers say, so his family and friends have no right to damages. And if Person A is dead? Same rule applies.
The principle played out in a very clear way several years ago when attorney Johnnie Cochran sued a disgruntled former client for libel. Cochran won, and the ex-client was prohibited from making any more public statements about him. The ex-client appealed, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court--then Cochran died. And so did the gag order against his ex-client.
Every now and then a crusading state legislator or lawyer will take up the cause. A bill is proposed that would prohibit speaking ill of the dead. But each new crusade to help the dead eventually dies.
In other nations--France, for example--the rules are different, says Kelli Sager, a partner at the Los Angeles firm of Davis, Wright and Tremaine who specializes in 1st Amendment issues. A ghost has some recourse when his good name is besmirched. But in the U.S., free speech in the here-and-now has always trumped good standing in the hereafter, and likely always will.
“If we were to modify the rule about there being no libel of the dead,” Smolla says, “if many jurisdictions were to move in that direction, there would have to be some free-speech safety valve, because at some point people move into history.”
Baer Sr., however, isn’t quite history. Besides his son, plenty of Americans still vividly remember when Baer Sr. was a beloved figure, sharing the national stage with giants--Babe Ruth, Seabiscuit, Jack Dempsey. Funny, dashing, handsome, iconoclastic, he was also brave. In 1933, with the Third Reich on the rise, Baer Sr., whose grandfather was Jewish, put a Star of David on his trunks and strode into Yankee Stadium, where he blitzkrieged the Nazis’ superb boxer, Max Schmeling. It was one of the few defeats Hitler suffered in that terrible decade. One year later, Baer Sr. took the heavyweight title from Primo Carnera, a 275-pound hulk with mobster backing. Baer-Carnera featured so many shuddering knock-downs, it reminded some of Dempsey-Firpo, a berserk alley fight transformed into American mythology by painter George Bellows.
Even in defeat Baer Sr. was important. His career on the wane, he served as a pivotal step toward credibility for a young phenom named Joe Louis. Their 1935 bout, among the most anticipated of the century, took place just hours after Louis’ wedding. Over four blood-soaked rounds, the groom exploded one big right after another into Baer Sr.'s gorgeous face, finally depositing him on the canvas for the first time in his life.
It was a gruesome mismatch, according to Esquire magazine’s man at ringside, Ernest Hemingway, “the most disgusting public spectacle, outside of a hanging, that your correspondent has ever witnessed.” But it led to one of the wittiest lines ever uttered by a boxer. Fear, Baer Sr. later said, is “standing across the ring from Joe Louis and knowing he wants to go home early.”
Baer Jr. laughs when I mention this remark.
Though his father was a great champion, Baer Jr. says, he could have been one of the all-time greats, if only he’d taken the sport seriously. The problem was, he preferred to make people fall down laughing, not bleeding. He liked clowning around, cracking up the wags and politicos who attended his fights, and he especially liked flirting with the starlets and gun molls on hand. Like some kind of testosterone undertow, he pulled them all in--before and after he married Baer Jr.'s mother, Mary.
The New Yorker, struggling to describe his primal allure in 1934, called Baer Sr. a “magnificently shaped animal.” He had Charles Atlas shoulders winnowing down to schoolgirl hips and a ridiculous reach of 80 inches. There wasn’t much room for improving on such natural endowments, so he often didn’t try. One day, the New Yorker reported, he went out for a training run in Central Park, but quickly stopped, stretched beneath a tree and read a book on etiquette instead. He was far more interested in becoming a proper gentleman than a champion.
Fans shouldn’t have been shocked, therefore, when he lost the championship so fast. One year after beating Carnera, Baer Sr. fell to Jim Braddock. A hard-luck plodder who’d recently been on public relief, Braddock out-pointed a poorly conditioned Baer Sr., scoring one of the most dramatic upsets in boxing history.
Baer vs. Braddock is the climactic magic ball of Howard’s fairy tale, with Braddock in the Cinderella role, Baer Sr. as the wicked stepmother. Aside from the surname, however, and a slight physical resemblance, there is little connection between the Baer Sr. of the movie and the one in reality. No reference is made to the Star of David. Nothing is said or implied about Baer Sr.'s vast following or magnetic personality. Rather than an affable playboy, he’s depicted as a homicidal ape who warns Braddock ominously the night before their fight, “People die in fairy tales all the time.”
In the same scene Baer Sr. verbally abuses Braddock’s wife, telling her she’s too pretty to be a widow, but not to worry, he’ll sleep with her after Braddock’s dead.
Keen as he was about being a gentleman, Baer Sr. was incapable of such loutish behavior toward a woman, his son insists. Nor would Baer Sr. ever have threatened an opponent’s life. Having caused the death of one opponent, he was plagued by the horror of doing it again.
It happened Aug. 25, 1930. Fighting in Northern California, where he was raised, Baer Sr. delivered a brain-loosening blow to another West Coast kid, Frankie Campbell, sending him into a coma from which he never awoke. Baer Sr. wept profusely at the hospital where Campbell died hours later, his son says, and again at Campbell’s funeral. He apologized to Campbell’s widow. He also took part in a charity boxing match, donating all proceeds to Campbell’s family.
Nothing, however, could assuage his guilt. Years later Baer Sr. would bolt awake at night, sweating and muttering, “You’re OK! Please be OK!” Baer Sr.'s recurring nightmare was always the same, his son says: A man lies prone on a canvas and Baer Sr. tries in vain to revive him.
“I felt as if I never wanted to see a boxing glove or enter a ring again,” Baer Sr. recalled, years later, in an interview with Nat Fleischer, editor of the Ring magazine. “My enthusiasm for the game had gone. What I wanted was to get away from California, go somewhere else and try to forget.”
But this was the Depression. There were few alternatives available, besides slaughtering pigs on his father’s ranch. He quickly forced himself back into the fight game.
Fleischer, in his 1942 biography, “Max Baer: The Glamour Boy of the Ring,” sizes up the Campbell episode this way: “There is no doubt that Max, as kindly a chap as ever lived, suffered keenly from the consciousness that he had unwittingly caused the death of a fellow creature.”
More than his love of fun, Baer Sr.'s good heart and dread of his own fists probably kept him from reaching his full violent potential as a boxer. When Schmeling was dangling “helpless” against the ropes, Fleischer notes, Baer Sr. thought of Campbell and thus “held back what might have been a lethal wallop.”
And yet it wasn’t enough to have Baer Sr. remorselessly kill one man in the ring--"Cinderella Man” repeatedly says he killed two.
Sure, it’s only a movie. And yes, a director must balance the demands of a streamlined, suspenseful story with the murky, often contradictory claims of Historical Truth. On blogs dedicated to movies and boxing, many rise to Howard’s defense, insisting the director is an artist who needs, and deserves, creative license. But when treating history, don’t filmmakers have some moral obligation, if not a legal one, to be good to the good guys?
I’d like to put this question to Baer Jr., but I simply can’t get him to stay on the subject of the movie. He’d much rather talk--yell--about taxes, Congress, the Clintons.
I’d like to put this question to Howard, but his representative says he’s busy with pre-production on another historical movie. I’d like to put it to the screenwriter with whom he worked on “Cinderella Man.” He too is unavailable. Last year, when Baer Jr. was publicly protesting “Cinderella Man,” a Howard spokesperson released a statement: “The script was written from the point of view of the Braddock family. To them, Max Baer Sr. was a real threat.” But even Braddock, in an interview years after their fight, said Baer Sr. was “a nice fellow"--though he also repeated the myth that Baer Sr. had killed two men in the ring.
Somehow, before we leave the coffee shop, the subject of guns comes up. Baer Jr. tells me about the small arsenal he’s assembled back at the house. Forget the Glock, he says. It’s a peashooter compared with his other pieces.
Why all the firepower?
As a man gets older, Baer Jr. says, he gives more thought to muggers, intruders, punks. “I want to make sure even if I can’t kill ‘em,” he says, “I’ll put enough lead in ‘em to sink ‘em.”
I wave for the check.
Hours later, I meet Baer Jr. for dinner at a restaurant in Carson City, not far from the site where he hopes to build a Beverly Hillbillies casino one day.
His buddy and business partner, Jay Timon, joins us. Soft-spoken, reserved, Timon clearly takes a vicarious pleasure in Baer Jr.'s voluble personality. As we’re seated in the center of the dining room, Timon laughs and pretends to be scandalized by Baer Jr. stripping down to his muscle shirt. He grins mischievously as he tells me about the time Baer Jr. burst into a local convenience store and waved his gun around, pretending to be a deranged customer. The clerks loved it, Timon says. Everyone loves when Max acts crazy.
“I’m not crazy,” Baer Jr. says. “I’m eccentric.”
Timon brings up “Cinderella Man.” He never saw the movie, he proclaims, and never will, out of respect for his friend. Is that a look of gratitude I see flash across Baer Jr.'s face?
Timon then asks Baer Jr. what he’d say if he could sit down with Howard, one on one. Nothing, Baer Jr. snaps.
I sit up straighter.
Wouldn’t even take the meeting, he says. What would be the point? What’s done is done. “You can’t unring a bell.”
It’s the same thing he’s been saying all day, more or less, but this time he says it differently. An edge to his voice, a look in his eye, makes me think he hasn’t been altogether honest with me. Or with himself. Maybe all that initial rage he expressed about “Cinderella Man,” which he so freely expressed after the movie came out, has turned to a deeper hurt, which he’s reluctant, or outright afraid, to let anyone see. Possibly, like his father, Baer Jr. fears what might happen if he lets go.
But I think I can make him show me. I think I see a way around his defenses. I don’t want to hurt the man. But for his father’s sake, for his sake, I just want to hear him, one time, admit he’s hurt.
We meet the next day at the same coffee shop, order the same brunch, and Baer Jr. resumes the same tirade about the state of the world. This time, however, when he pauses for a bite of Egg Beaters, I slip in a jab.
Where were you when you heard your father died?
Air Force Reserves, he says. Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala.
He was lying in his bunk when the bulletin crackled across the radio. Former heavyweight champ Max Baer, dead of a heart attack in Los Angeles.
He flew home, finished his hitch at a base near his widowed mother and two siblings, then mustered out and drove straight to Hollywood. Within a year he was starring in the No. 1 TV show in America.
I ask if he regrets that his father, a born performer, didn’t live to see him break through as an actor.
No, he says: God took Dad at just the right moment. Baer Sr. was bound to be unhappy as he faded from the limelight, which was his fate as a retired champion. The old man wasn’t cut out to be once-famous.
After brunch I ask to see some of his father’s memorabilia. We head back to Baer Jr.'s house, which sits halfway up the mountain on a twisty road that overlooks the lake. His dining room table is covered with four enormous scrapbooks, which Baer Jr. has pulled out for me. He hasn’t opened them in a long time, he says. Dust-covered, crumbling, each scrapbook holds hundreds of clippings from Baer Sr.'s career.
Help yourself, Baer Jr. says.
But first he shows me his arsenal. Out comes his .357 magnum! Out comes his sawed-off shotgun! Out comes the Glock! I crouch behind a wall as he slaps in a clip and demonstrates the laser aim. He looks as if he’d like to squeeze off a few rounds, just for fun--into that lamp. Or that couch! I suggest meekly that we get back to those scrapbooks.
The suggestion doesn’t grab him. In fact, he seems as fearful of those scrapbooks as I am of the guns.
When he finally holsters the Glock, I open the first scrapbook and turn the brittle pages slowly. Here’s a photo of Baer Sr. with Dempsey. They look like two rough customers--but also like a barrel of laughs. Here’s a photo of Baer Sr. with Myrna Loy. They look too beautiful to be true.
They were an item, Baer Jr. yells to me from several feet off, keeping a safe distance between himself and the scrapbooks.
Your father and Myrna Loy?
“Marlene Dietrich. Jean Harlow. Ha ha ha--he had ‘em all!”
The first time I’ve heard him stick an exclamation point at the end of a statement about his father.
I open the next scrapbook. Here’s coast-to-coast coverage of the thrilling title fight with Carnera. Here’s the front-page banner headline from the Los Angeles Examiner when Baer won. And here’s a batch of clippings from the later years, when Baer Sr. was trying to mount one last comeback.
Baer Jr. edges closer, peeks over my shoulder. “Look at him!” he says, squinting at one exceptionally glamorous photo of his father.
I can almost feel the son drop his psychological guard.
“When you asked me the question about my dad and the movie,” he says heavily, “I had to take and separate the two. It would hurt me if I allowed it to. I had to dissociate myself and say, ‘OK, that’s not my father! That’s a character in the movie!’”
I tell him I understand. But then, as he’s dangling on the ropes, helpless, I deliver the lethal wallop.
Look, I say. This clipping mentions you.
Smiling, he leans into the scrapbook and reads aloud:
“Vowing he had reformed, Max Baer arrived yesterday, stayed for one hour, then hurried to his Lakewood, New Jersey training quarters to prepare for a bout with Tommy Farr. ‘I am a different man,’ Max said. ‘I’ve had enough of New York and Broadway and I don’t want any more.’ Max talks incessantly of his baby, Max Jr. He carries the baby’s picture with him constantly and shows it to--"
He jumps back from the scrapbook. “I can’t read that,” he says.
As he paces nervously I read to him, yell to him, the rest of his father’s lovely quotation. “‘I’ve promised the baby I’ll win back the heavyweight championship--and I’ll do it!’”
I force him to hold still and look at another photo of his father, holding his infant son.
Baer Jr. breaks away and begins lurching around the living room, yelling stories about his father, one after another, in no particular order. The time he fought outdoors in the brutal heat of summer, in Reno. Twenty rounds! They had to pour ice water in his shoes! The time he stopped in the middle of a round because he spotted a writer at ringside slumped over his typewriter. The writer had suffered a heart attack and no one noticed! He’d have died if my dad hadn’t pointed and said--Hey, something’s wrong with Harry!
Baer Jr. stops, stands before a scrapbook. He studies a photo of his father and Carnera. After their fight, he says, the two became close friends. When Baer Sr. died, Carnera was out of the country, but on returning to California he asked to be taken immediately to Baer Sr.'s crypt. He had to see his old foe, his old friend, right away. Someone drove Carnera to the cemetery, but it was late. The gate was locked. So Carnera climbed over. Nothing could keep him from his friend’s side. “Twenty-seven years after my dad beat him,” Baer Sr. says, “he liked my father enough to--!”
His voice chokes. Spinning away, he lets fly a stream of expletives, then staggers into the kitchen and leans against the sink, crying.
A minute passes.
Finally, staring at the trees outside the window above the sink, he says: “It’s tough when people think he’s an asshole. That’s one of the reasons you got to change something. You can’t do that to people. It’s all they got. The only thing people know about him is nothing but lies. It’s not right. It’s not fair.”
He returns to the living room and stands before me, dabbing his eyes. “People come up to me and ask me all the time about it! When the movie came out, when it was on cable, ‘Jesus, your dad, was he that mean?!’ ‘Was he glad he killed those guys?!’”
I continue to turn the pages of the scrapbooks and come to a letter. Baer Sr. to Baer Jr.
“He wrote that to me on my twenty-first birthday.”
I read it aloud.
My son: May God always be in your corner. As I read, Baer Jr. recites along from memory. May your future bring you much health, happiness and success. I am very proud of you and how you are now thinking, doing, and acting. From a guy going down the other side of the mountain on life’s highway, my son, walk straight and walk carefully.
Hotel Roosevelt, Los Angeles. 1958.
“A year before he died,” Baer Jr. says.
He disappears into his bedroom. Where the guns are. Soon, to my relief, I hear a crowd roaring. I go and find Baer Jr. lying on his bed, watching a TV suspended by chains from the ceiling. A black-and-white Movietone newsreel is playing. I stand beside the bed and together we watch Baer Sr. clubbing Carnera senseless, then turning to the ref and telling him mercifully that Carnera’s had enough.
“Look at my father!” Baer Jr. says.
Cut to Dempsey, praising Baer Sr. “A thorough gentleman in and out of the ring,” Dempsey says. “I predict Max’ll be champion for a long time to come.”
Cut to Baer Sr., wearing a natty suit, surrounded by reporters. A reporter asks how he’s going to walk now that he’s a champion. “Why, I’m going to walk like my old pal Dempsey!” he says, then turns from the camera and does a cocky little penguin dance, very funny, touchingly graceful.
The reporters laugh. Baer Sr. laughs.
Baer Jr. laughs too, rolling on the bed. “I forget about him being my father!” he says. “If I were to see that guy, I’d say, ‘He sure seems like a lot of fun! I’d like to hang out with him!’”
He hits rewind. Again Baer Sr. does the penguin dance. Again Baer Jr. laughs.
I slip out to the living room and tidy up the scrapbooks. Then I gather up my notebooks, my jacket and scarf.
Time to go.
Because this is how I want to remember them both forever.
The father: debonair, invincible, heavyweight champion of the world. The son: flat on his back, looking up with love.
Still not sure what hit him.