Inspired by the
stage success of his old totem, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Nova then directed his
energies toward acting. He began reading Shakespeare aloud and alone in his
room, and then he took acting lessons. Summer stock and a few movies followed.
In one film called Love and Learn he appeared as a dance-happy mug; Martha
Vickers, with whom he danced, was prevailed upon to wear a set of protective
aluminum caps in the toes of her shoes. By now Lou was reasonably pleased with
his progress and confident that once more he was near the action. The future
looked good—that is, until May 17, 1953 when he began reading an account in the
Los Angeles Examiner of the one-round Marciano-Walcott title fight.
X. Flaherty was lacing Walcott for a nauseating performance, and to show a
contrast he dredged up some gallant efforts of the past. "Less
creditable," continued Flaherty, "were the cowardly appearances against
Louis of Max Baer and Lou Nova. Nova was like a frightened, screaming child at
vaccination time. He didn't throw a punch, but got hit by only one and seemed
happy about the whole defeat. They lugged his carcass and towed it in abject
disgrace back toward his corner. He smiled bravely in the safety of his
dressing room, wiping out the manliness of every victory he had ever won."
Nova sued Flaherty and the Hearst Publishing Company for $200,000. "Since
the article," he complained, "doors have been closed in my face."
People from the motion picture industry urged Nova to drop the suit for his own
sake. Nova pressed for a retraction. Flaherty refused, and the trial by jury
began in May 1955. Nova was now living in New York and appearing as Big Julie
in a revival of Guys and Dolls.
Placed in the
position of having to prove that Nova had been, indeed, a coward, the defense
rolled out its guns, heavy pieces in the form of depositions by Joe Louis and
Gene Tunney and post-fight columns. Nova hung his head as the "vicious and
vitriolic comments" from the columns were read into the record. The most
damaging testimony, however, came in Louis' deposition. "It seemed Nova was
scared," said Joe. How could he tell? "Well," he answered, "you
look another fighter in the face and you know whether he's afraid from whether
he looks you in the eye or not." Well, would he say that Nova was cowardly
during the fight? "The only thing I can say," said Joe, "is that he
seemed to me like he was a little afraid...now whether that makes him a coward,
I don't know. He didn't have the spirit to win...I don't think so."
Tunney's deposition was equally searing.
had its moments, too. There was, of course, Nova's firm denial of cowardice and
the testimony of
Los Angeles Times
Sports Editor Paul Zimmerman. Zimmerman, who
had been at the fight, testified that he did not think Nova exhibited cowardice
or behaved like a frightened, screaming child. "He was not in a position to
defend himself," he testified. "He was slow. Louis was knocking him
from post to post." Flaherty was also called to the stand and confronted
with pictures of the fight. Did Lou Nova, he was asked, look to be a coward in
the photographs? Flaherty had said that on the night of the fight Nova looked
"white as a sheet" to him; it was also pointed out that Flaherty was
not present in the dressing room following the fight, and he had relied on a
colleague for a description.
The jury sought
its verdict for three hours. Was a man who climbed into the ring with Joe Louis
for six rounds a coward? In the end the jury could not digest the word
"cowardly." Nova was awarded $35,000. Later the California Appellate
Court reversed the verdict. "That's all right," said Lou. "I don't
care about the money. I just wanted to be vindicated and I was—by the
Back in New York,
Nova was now appearing as Spike, a pugilistic friend of Anthony J. Drexel
Biddle in a Broadway play called The Happiest Millionaire The star was Walter
Pidgeon, whom Lou eventually came to dislike. "Before we hit New York,
we're on the road," said Lou, "and every town we hit I'm getting all
the ink. The Pidgeon doesn't like it at all. All of a sudden, every time I
start to read my lines, he's whispering, 'Play it down, play it down!'
"Nova later left the play. His reason was that he wanted to go into
training "in order that I can resume my poetry recitals, which were such a
big hit at that church last year." He sharpened up his iambs with private
lessons, and by spring of 1956 he was ready for Carnegie Hall and a recital
sponsored and promoted by Lou Nova.
"Sonnetside"—a play on ringside—printed on the tickets, and on the
night of the performance he poked fun at himself by bringing two
"heavies" along with him. One was a tag-team wrestler, and the other
was an old sparring partner named Mike O'Dowd, who wore a tuxedo. O'Dowd kept
his eyes on the house and fought off the urge to smoke a cigar. "I'd like
to," he said, "but it wouldn't look right." At the entrance Lou,
wearing a dinner jacket and holding programs under his arm, tried to harness
his galloping nerves by conducting informal poetry symposiums with anyone who
stood still. He was quite serious, and he desperately wanted people to
understand that this was a very big thing for him, but he knew he was all alone
and he knew the audience would be there just to scoff at him, to vandalize his
spirit as if it were the hide of some magnificent old elephant gathering dust
in a museum. Once on stage, though, he hid his intensity by playing it for
laughs. He belted a couple of dreadful poems by Robert Service and Edgar Guest.
He then did The Kid's Last Fight, Gunga Din and Polonius' advice to Laertes.
"Here's where I tackle the champ," Lou said, seating himself on a
chair. Shakespeare did not fall easily.
He chose The
Highwayman for his finale, and he threw combinations while handling the line
about the moon being a ghostly galleon, and he ran his hand through his hair
when he became Bess, the landlord's daughter. Taking his leave, he said to the
audience: "I want you to know that I am grateful that you appreciate me as
an actor and not just as a fighter." Frank Fay, a fine actor, said that was
just absolutely brilliant. "His best line of the night!" said Fay.
"A throw-away, but it was legitimate." Lou told reporters that he
planned to make his recital an "annual spring affair." The public
believed him. Only 52 people showed up the next year. Exit Lou Nova.
He has been
talking for a long time now of the '30s and Mike Jacobs. His mother, who is
there to nurse him, is in the kitchen. She calls: "Lou, are you warm
enough? Would you like an egg sandwich?" Lou, who is lying in bed, says,
no, he would not like an egg sandwich but he could do with a nice cup of hot
tea. A close friend named Les enters the room.
"Les, we got
to get out of here," says Lou. There is a quiet desperation in his voice.
"I got to get my leg in a mineral bath. It's the only thing'll help it. You
touted me on this place, and we can't even get up there."