"I don't know what I'm doing here. I can't sing. And I can't dance. But just to be sociable, I'll fight the best man in the house."
—ROCKY MARCIANO, addressing patrons of The Rifle, a London pub, circa 1967
She sensed what had happened the instant that she heard her mother scream. Sat frozen for a moment in her bedroom at the top of the stairs. Knew for sure what she had lost out there, someplace in the Midwest, out there among the cornfields in the dark.
Mary Anne was only 16 then, but old enough to know the chances that her father had been taking, day after day, as he crisscrossed America in all those storm-whipped, wind-sheared private planes, often holding in his ample lap a grocery bag filled with $100 bills, as much as $40,000 a bag, looking like some pug-nosed desperado who had just knocked over a savings and loan. By then, by that late evening of Aug. 31,1969, Rocky Marciano was just a few hours shy of his 46th birthday; it had been 13 years and four months since the April day in 1956 when he had finally risen from the crouch and retired, at 49-0, as the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history. He had moved through those years as he had once moved in the ring, in a relentless, unremitting pursuit of what he desired—money and women, celebrity and respect, all that he ever wanted as the poor son of a shoe-factory worker growing up in Brockton, Mass., during the Depression.
By that August night Marciano had become his own savings and loan, rich beyond his most extravagant boyhood dreams, a kind of wandering minstrel of money, in fact, dispensing cash loans with the careless facility of song. Indeed, he had accumulated vast stores of cash since he had quit the ring, mostly through personal appearances, and by 1969 he had at least $750,000 in loans on the street, not including the $100,000-plus he had lent to a loan shark linked to the Cleveland mob whose business he was helping to finance. He had even more money squirreled away in assorted hiding places—stuffed in pipes, in safe deposit boxes, in curtain rods, in all his favorite places—from Cuba to Florida to upstate New York to Alaska. He never paid for anything if he could help it; he could, for example, beat the telephone company by using slugs or a tripping wire to get his money back from coin-operated phones. Even if he had a round-trip commercial airline ticket, usually part of the deal when an appearance called him out of town, he would try to scrounge a freebie lift to his destination, often by calling on a network of private pilots who were willing, for the pleasure of his company, to bear him where he wanted to go. Back home in Fort Lauderdale, of course, he would hustle off to the airport to exchange the ticket for cash.
Mary Anne knew well the perilous edge on which he lived. In 1965, on a trip from Los Angeles to Honolulu, Rocky had hitched a ride on a cargo plane and loaded Mary Anne and a friend of hers in the hold in back. "They put little jump seats in for my friend and me, and my father and his friend were sitting on the top of the luggage," Mary Anne recalls. "A window blew in and we went into a nosedive and a red light came on and I thought, I'm 12 and I'm going to die. My father kept saying, 'Don't worry. You're gonna be O.K.' " He had escaped serious injury in a light-plane accident a year or two earlier, and for a long time his family and his friends had been importuning him to fly on commercial jets. "You are trying to save money in the wrong places," one of his closest friends and fellow skirt chasers, couch designer Bernie Castro, used to scold him. "You are risking everything...."
On Sunday, Aug. 31, Marciano was in Chicago with one of his oldest pals, Dominic Santarelli, and handling the logistics of his life as recklessly as ever. His wife, Barbara, had turned 40 on Aug. 30, two days before Rocky's 46th, and he had promised her that he would be home to celebrate their birthdays on the day that fell in between, Aug. 31, a family tradition. In fact, that afternoon, in the Marcianos' oceanfront home in Fort Lauderdale, the gifts had all been wrapped and the guests had already arrived. The sweetest gift of all was waiting there unwrapped. Unbeknownst to his lather, the Marcianos' 17-month-old adopted son, Rocco Kevin, had learned how to walk while his father was gone, and Barbara had arranged a welcoming scenario that had the toddler carrying Rocky's presents to him when he walked in the door.
"We were all waiting with the birthday cake," recalls one of the friends, June Benson. "Then Rocky called from Chicago. He said, 'I'm gonna make an appearance in Des Moines, and then I'll fly right back. Hold everything.' "
That was the last his family ever heard from him. Frankie Farrell, the nephew of Marciano's pal Chicago mobster Frankie (One Ear) Fratto, was opening an insurance brokerage in Des Moines, and he had convinced Marciano to fly there with him from Chicago to make an appearance. Farrell had hired Glenn Belz, who had not been cleared to fly by instruments and had logged only 35 hours of flying at night, to pilot the single-engine Cessna 172 from Midway Airport to Des Moines. They took off at 6 p.m., despite warnings of a storm front billowing in front of them, and three hours later had made it as far as Newton, Iowa, when their plane was seen flying barely 100 feet off the ground, into a roiling bank of clouds. Reappearing once, it rose and disappeared again. In his laudable 1977 study, Rocky Marciano: Biography of a First Son, author Everett M. Skehan wrote: "The plane crashed into a lone oak tree in the middle of a cornfield. It was totally demolished by the impact, which killed all three passengers. A wing was sheared off and landed 15 feet from the tree; the battered hull skidded on and came to rest in a drainage ditch 236 feet away. Rocky's shattered body was found braced firmly in the scat of the wrecked Cessna...Belz and Farrell had been thrown clear...."
It was late evening in Fort Lauderdale when the doorbell rang on North Atlantic Boulevard. Mary Anne heard her mother answer the door. She bolted to the staircase after she heard the scream. Jack Sherlock, the Fort Lauderdale police chief and an old friend of the family, was standing just inside the door. "Are you sure it's him? Are you sure it's not Rocky Graziano?" Barbara was saying, referring to the former middleweight champion of the world with whom her husband was often confused. "It can't be. Are you sure?"
Mary Anne started down the stairs. "Is my dad dead?" she asked.