LaMotta was the first relative of a Flight 111 crash victim to file. One week after the plane went down with his 49-year-old son, Joseph, on board, Jake sued Swissair, Delta Air Lines (with which Swissair shares reservations systems), McDonnell-Douglas and its owner, Boeing, for $125 million. Why? "Whatever's coming to me, I want it," Jake says. "I don't want to get cheated." It doesn't look good for the defendants. Every few months there are potentially damaging reports: about faulty wiring in MD-11s (a problem Swissair says was fixed before the crash), about a strange odor on the plane a month before the crash. Lawyers on talk shows speak of a possible $1 billion settlement.
LaMotta swears he never made more than $1 million, total, for the punishment he took in 106 middleweight bouts during the 1940s and '50s. He is 77 years old, and he trips over words sometimes, but the Raging Bull still doesn't miss much. On this August night he walks into La Maganette, a bistro on Manhattan's East Side, as if he owns the joint, his face tanned, a nice pomade in his thinning curls. The bartender nods and says, "Hey, Champ." LaMotta's lawyer, Joseph Fell, sits down across from him at the table. LaMotta could become a rich man.
"I saw a movie yesterday: Kirk Douglas, he's an old man, he's going to die and leave a lot of money," LaMotta says. "So true to life! Everybody...cousins...they all get greedy. They can't help it! Money! Aww, the questions people ask me. A lot of people are evil." He stares down at the tabletop and says softly, "Money. Money."
Last year was crippling for him. No other year—not 1947, when he threw a fight to a cream puff named Billy Fox to get a shot at the title, and not '58, when he was tossed in the Dade County jail for six months after he was convicted of corrupting the morals of a minor in his Miami Beach bar—did as much damage to LaMotta as '98. In February his first son, Jack, died of liver cancer. Then came Joe, who had stepped in for Jack as Jake's agent and was en route to Geneva to line up appearances for Jake and promote the family spaghetti sauce.
This idea gnaws at Jake: It was all his fault. He never liked doctors, and Jack took that cue, refusing to get checked until his skin went yellow and it was too late. And wasn't Jake the one who took Joe to Switzerland the first time? If Joe had never gone, he wouldn't have wanted to go back, right?
Jake used to laugh at death. In his early 70s he was heard to say, "I've had six kids and six wives: Two wives died, four are left. I've got to wait to bury four of them. They're all going to die before me!"
He still tries to stay light about death, but the humor has lost some bite. "I say, 'It must be a nice place up there, because nobody ever came back,' and 'Everybody's dying to get there,' " Jake says. "It works. Make a joke out of it.... But, no, I couldn't sleep for months after the crash. It bothered me different. Some people, they cry and go on. Me? I just kept it in. I couldn't talk. I stuttered all the time. Even now, I'm stuttering a little, see? But I'll get over it. I'm getting over it."
The 1980 movie Raging Bull, of course, revitalized his career. Robert De Niro portrayed LaMotta as a bitter, foul-mouthed brute who engaged in bloody ring masterpieces with Sugar Ray Robinson ("I never went down, Ray!"), routinely beat up his wife, Vickie (the mother of Jack, Joe and one of Jake's four daughters), and savaged everything else he loved with a volcanic rage. LaMotta loves the film and says it's accurate except for the cursing. But Raging Bull missed one vital point: LaMotta is an oddly moral man. He believes there is a force in the universe—"retribution, a karma," he says—that exacts payment for every bad deed, and lord knows he has committed more than his share. There was the man he nearly beat to death in a robbery attempt, the woman he raped, the family he lost to drink. He fought so recklessly in the ring because, he says, "I wanted to get killed. I didn't deserve to live."
Now, though, for the first time since he was a boy, LaMotta feels clean. Jack and Joe in the same year? "I think I paid my dues," he says. "I think the scale is balanced now. It's got to be balanced."
He is wearing a black T-shirt, sweatpants, white sneakers. His nose is flat and veers to the side, broken six times, cross-stitched with scars. His green cigar lies slack and smoking between his lips. He makes loose fists with both hands on the tabletop, caressing his fingertips with his thumbs. He is less angry about Joe than about Jack, who was so tight with a dollar that he didn't bother with medical insurance and then refused to pay to see doctors. "I got really pissed off at him," Jake says. "I was closer to Jack than to Joe."