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HE BEATS THE DRUMS FOR CHAMPS AND BUMS
Robert H. Boyle
July 08, 1963
Sartorially elegant and with a Hollywood flair, imaginative Harold Conrad is the most improbable fight flack in the business. At the moment he is selling Liston vs. Patterson as one of the great bouts of all time
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July 08, 1963

He Beats The Drums For Champs And Bums

Sartorially elegant and with a Hollywood flair, imaginative Harold Conrad is the most improbable fight flack in the business. At the moment he is selling Liston vs. Patterson as one of the great bouts of all time

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Harold Conrad, the drumbeater, publicity man or flack, for the Liston-Patterson fight in Las Vegas on July 22, is in creative ecstasy. He is so excited about dreaming up stunts, or what he calls "gimmicks," to captivate the public that he is unable to sleep at night. Conrad lives for gimmicks. When he thinks of a particularly bright one, he is overjoyed. He figures he needs at least a dozen good gimmicks for a heavyweight title fight. He doles them out over a four-week period, beginning with the more basic gimmicks that set the mood (grimly determined underdog, blithely confident champ) and ending up, a few days before the fight, with the superdupers (secret sparring, hushed-up injury, the visiting hypnotist). Each week Conrad dispenses a ration of gimmicks according to a planned schedule of hoopla. On a Sunday, a slow news day, he might plan to have the underdog flatten a spar-"ring partner. On a Thursday, when the newsreels are in town, he will arrange to have one of the managers chased from the opponent's training camp.

What makes these gimmicks distinctive is that a) they are plausible and b) they are artfully based, somewhere, somehow, on the truth. When, for instance, a manager is tossed out of the rival camp, it is not because the ouster was faked but because Conrad knew the manager would be thrown out if he dared to appear. Of course, it was Conrad who not only suggested that the manager show up but also tipped off the other side that the manager was in the crowd. Indeed, Conrad treads the delicate line of truth with such mingled brass and aplomb that Ben Hecht, who covered the first Liston-Patterson fight, hailed him as a "press wizard."

Conrad is unlike any other drumbeater of recent years. Instead of being short, squat, rumpled and cigar-smoking, he is tall, slender, well tailored and addicted to a cigarette holder. Elegant is the word that Conrad's friends use to describe him. On the most routine working day, he can be found dispensing hokum in a $250 suit, Ascot tie and dark glasses. His ensemble is so sartorially striking that Sonny Liston and his manager, Jack Nilon, are often slack-jawed in awe. Once when Nilon managed to pull himself together for a contemptuous snort, Conrad dismissed him with a flick of a manicured hand. "I'm around to give you bums some class," he said.

Conrad is the thinking man's press agent. In his spare hours he reads omnivorously, paints abstractions and reworks furniture culled from the Salvation Army. He is married to Mara Lynn, an actress-dancer who has appeared in films {Let's Make Love), on the stage (This Was Burlesque) and in numerous television shows. With their 9-year-old son, Casey, they live in a cavernous old-fashioned Manhattan apartment that Conrad has done up in burnt ocher and black. "Who else but Harold would have dared to have done that?" says Dr. Carl Fulton Sulzberger, a psychiatrist friend and old Broadway buddy. "Harold has superb taste." All in all, Conrad is a man of such varied attainments that he may well be the most unusual character to attend the fight in Vegas.

He has, among other things, been a Broadway columnist; shot pool with Leo Durocher; done publicity for a Florida gambling house run by Frank Costello and Joe Adonis (his job was to keep the joint's name out of the papers); "won" a gold medal for the U.S. in the 1948 Olympics (while working for J. Arthur Rank, he forced a British producer to show the film of the 400-meter relay race that proved the U.S. was not guilty of a technical violation); written Joe Palooka radio scripts (Ham Fisher, the Palooka cartoonist and a slow payer, used to mollify Conrad by inserting his name in the strip); and maintained fervent palships with Serge Rubinstein and Ed Leven, two of the age's most gifted swindlers.

Milton Berle, an old Hollywood acquaintance, esteems Conrad as a first-rate raconteur, and, for a spell, the Duke of Windsor found him a charming drinking companion on the Riviera. Conrad met the duke one summer while trying to buy Monte Carlo for an American syndicate. The deal fell through, but Conrad used to pass the evenings buying a round for the duke and talking about boxing, while the duchess played chemin de fer with Louis Jourdan. The relationship came to an end one night after the duke toddled off to bed. "How come the duke never springs for a drink?" Conrad happened to inquire of the bartender, an Englishman. As Conrad recalls it, "The bartender drew himself up like a fusilier and said, 'Sir, the King never buys!' "

Sophisticate that he is, Conrad has been stunned but once in his life, and that after Robert Harrison, the publisher of Confidential, asked him to do a film script based on the magazine. Given the key to the magazine's secret files, Conrad spent a couple of entranced days going through them, emerging with a pair of sprained eyeballs. He never wrote the script (the idea of putting pen to paper apparently caused his hand to become unsteady) and even today, when asked about the experience, his face glazes over and he is only able to muster a dazed, "Wow, gee, golly."

Much of Conrad's deep interest in boxing stems from his fascination with the rogues populating the sport. He looks upon them as works of art in an all too pedestrian time, and when he encounters a character such as Evil Eye Finkel, of Slobodka Stare and Double Whammy notoriety, he will spend an hour chatting at close quarters, even if the Eye has not been bathing of late.

Conrad first became involved with boxing in his late teens when he went to work for his home-town Brooklyn Eagle. At the time there was at least one fight club going every night, and Conrad covered them all, including the Broadway Arena, where the boys from Murder, Inc. hung out, giving one another hotfoots and forcing spiced candy on fans in the lobby.

Around the Eagle, Conrad was a dapper figure who dazzled the staff. He took to wearing a Chesterfield and derby and squiring Manhattan show girls. He became friendly with Damon Runyon and, from the late '30s until the war, he wrote a thrice-a-week Broadway column for the Eagle. Once a year the paper sent him to Hollywood for two weeks, where he furthered his taste for high life.

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