SI Vault
Chris Mead
September 23, 1985
By World War II, Joe Louis was a hero for all Americans, but financial troubles, illness and changing racial attitudes dimmed his image
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September 23, 1985

Triumphs And Trials

By World War II, Joe Louis was a hero for all Americans, but financial troubles, illness and changing racial attitudes dimmed his image

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Destitute as he was, Louis never lacked for financial support from women who loved him. On Christmas Day 1955, he married Rose Morgan, a black woman who owned a prosperous beautician's business in Harlem. She paid all the couple's bills—at first. But Louis traveled a lot, and when he was home he slept or played golf all day and partied all night. Rose Morgan tired of this, and in the summer of 1957 the marriage broke up.

Louis soon met another strong, financially secure woman—Martha Malone Jefferson, the second black woman attorney to be admitted to the California bar. She and Louis were married in 1959, and he moved into her big house in Los Angeles. During the day, while she worked at her large criminal law practice, he watched television and played golf. At one point Martha Jefferson set Louis up in business as a boxing promoter, but he quickly went broke because he insisted on paying his boxers too much.

Through the years she supported him without complaint despite the fact that he had many affairs with other women. She once told a journalist, "If these sort of women like living on the side streets of a man's life, I wish them well. But I am his wife, and when I come on the scene they got to get the hell out." Martha tolerated some shocking things. Louis got involved with a New York prostitute known as Marie, who in December 1967 gave birth to a boy. She told Louis that he was the father. When Martha learned about the baby, she sought out Marie herself, and knowing that the young prostitute couldn't take proper care of the boy, she offered to raise the child. Marie agreed, and the Louises legally adopted the baby, naming him Joseph. Martha eventually adopted three more of Marie's babies, even though Louis was not the father of any of them.

Around 1970 Louis began to show signs of emotional stress. With growing frequency he voiced fears that someone was trying to kill him. The central cause for these fears was his relationship with a mysterious woman named Annie, whom he had met in the late 1950s. Much of what really happened is uncertain, for Louis was the only source of information about Annie, and he told most of the stories after he had become severely delusional. Among other things, he claimed that Annie had introduced him to hard drugs by giving him a surprise injection in his rear, that she had traveled with him often and used him as a front for dealing drugs for the Mafia, that she and her Mafia friends had once tried to get Louis to appear in a pornographic movie and that they were now trying to murder him. He feared they would poison his food, so Martha traveled with him, packing a hot plate and canned soup so she could cook in their hotel rooms. He feared they were trying to gas him, so he put tape over air-conditioning and heating ducts wherever he stayed, and smeared mayonnaise on cracks in the ceiling to block the gas. He had trouble sleeping, and when he did go to bed he remained fully dressed and piled pillows and furniture around the bed to form a makeshift cave to hide in.

Martha took him to several doctors, but neither they nor she could chase his demons. Finally, during a stay at their summer home in Colorado, she got a court order forcing Louis to undergo five months of treatment in a psychiatric hospital. The first thing the doctors determined was that his problems were not the result of brain damage from his boxing career. Then they began psychiatric therapy, and Louis made progress. Ash Resnick, an old friend who ran Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas, convinced Louis to come to Nevada to continue his recovery. Resnick set him up in a large house with a swimming pool and paid him $50,000 a year to be a "greeter" at Caesars Palace. Louis spent nights in the casino, gambling with house money, signing autographs and shaking hands. Except for a rare paranoid outburst, symptoms of his illness were not apparent. He still talked about his fears with Martha and his friends, but they either ignored him or tried to joke with him.

Martha scaled back her law practice throughout the 1970s in order to spend more time with the children. Joe lived out his last years amid a bustling, young family, but he did not play either the loving father or doting grandfather. His autobiography revealed his careless attitude toward his children: "Sunday morning, bright and early, Martha's getting them together to go to Sunday School. The boys are in the church choir. Sometimes I even get there if I don't get home too late from Caesars Palace the night before."

In October 1977, at the age of 63, Louis had an aortic aneurysm. While hospitalized for that ailment he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. For the rest of his life he was confined to a wheelchair.

He managed to attend some functions at Caesars Palace, including the Larry Holmes-Trevor Berbick heavyweight championship fight on April 11, 1981. As friends wheeled him into the sports pavilion, the crowd began to applaud, and soon all 4,000 people were standing, cheering the sick old champion. The next morning at 9:30, Joe Louis collapsed at home and died of a massive heart attack.

Obituaries, columns, and editorials dwelled at length on Louis's financial troubles, his health problems and his job at Caesars Palace—which many writers seemed to regard as degrading. Such reactions lacked perspective, because Louis was happy in Las Vegas. He didn't care if there was an element of charity in his job at Caesars. When he retired, he had fully intended to live off his fame and popularity. He had expected people to give him things—just as they had done during his boxing career. None of this made him feel small or helpless.

The need to see Joe Louis as a pathetic figure probably fits a general tendency of liberal whites to see blacks as victims. A common assumption is that they would be like us if they had the choice, but that the society that we have created does not give them a choice.

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