May 5, 2008

Legend From Lakeside

Before he was a celebrity defendant facing robbery charges, John Montague was the talk of the L.A. club scene in the '30s

Montague was center stage at a 1937 exhibition in New York.

Montague was center stage at a 1937 exhibition in New York.

There was nothing quite like seeing John Montague pick up Oliver Hardy with one hand and place him on the bar in the grillroom of the Lakeside GC. No strongman act in the circus was more impressive. No scene in "Sons of the Desert" or "Babes in Toyland" was funnier. This was not some cinematic trick, something out of the nearby Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, Calif. This was real.

One minute the most famous fat man in America, full name Oliver Norvell (Babe) Hardy, 303 pounds according to Ripley's Believe It or Not!, would be standing in his plus fours, his over-the-calf stockings, his two-tone shoes and his cardigan sweater of the day, chatting amiably about the perils and pleasures of 18 holes of armed combat with a small white ball. The next minute -- woops! -- the comic actor would be lifted about four feet in the air and deposited, plunk, in front of Eddie the bartender.

"Babe, what'll you have?" John Montague would ask, normal as could be.

The process was so fast and efficient that the various customers in the room, many of them famous Hollywood film celebrities of 1934, would share the same startled reaction no matter what level of insobriety they might have attained. They couldn't believe their eyes. Montague's right-handed grab of Hardy's cardigan or shirt or jacket was so casual. The lift seemed so easy.

Who else in the room could do this?

Who else in the world?

The fat man would sort of teeter precariously on the edge of the bar. His predicament -- "Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten me into" he would say to his comic partner, Stan Laurel, if this were a movie -- was compelling. If he teetered the wrong way, he would fall and land with a distressing splat that probably would make international headlines. If he didn't fall, well, the danger of falling still existed. He was an overweight tightrope walker, suddenly very nervous in the middle of the trip. He was Humpty Dumpty, watched by all the king's horses and all the king's men.

What next?

Montague would drain the uncomfortable moment for 10 seconds, 20, maybe more, then offer a hand. The fat man would return to the floor with a semicoordinated jiggle and bounce. Drinking would resume.


If Montague were waiting, this routine would happen almost every time Hardy came into the grillroom at Lakeside. It happened so often that Hardy started sticking his head in the door and asking "Is Montague around? Is he at the club today?" before he entered. No matter how many times it happened, it was funny. No matter how many times it happened, it was an amazement.

Lee Montville's book on Montague

John Montague was an amazement. Every day.

He was a new guy, a member at Lakeside for only a year, but already was the club champion, the most outrageous golfer anyone ever had seen. He was about 30 years old, a big man, but different from Oliver Hardy's version of big. His height was 5-feet-10, normal, but he weighed as much as 220 pounds, big-boned and powerful, wide across the chest, construction-worker arms; a handshake best to be avoided, always too strong and too long. He was a well-padded isosceles triangle, but built upside down, built as if he were born to break down doors.

Handsome enough, he best resembled an Irish tenor on a world tour, with a round face topped by wavy black hair that always was well trimmed, perfect. He moved with a mixture of menace and mirth that attracts the attention of other men. The mirth mostly was in the foreground, jokes and bets on anything, good cheer, but there was never a doubt that the menace was in his back pocket. John Montague was a better man to have as a friend than an enemy. That was the feeling. He was fun and insurance at the same time.

"We were out one night and somehow or other there was an altercation with the driver of another car," Lakeside member Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimmer and reigning Tarzan in the movies, reported. "Seems like he thought Monty should have stopped and let him ahead of us. The guy started cussing and generally harassing us and walked up to the car and kept it up. Monty didn't say anything, he just got out of the car, walked up to the front of the guy's Lincoln, picked it up about yea high and let it drop. One of the lights fell off and Monty just walked back to the guy and said, 'What did you say?' The smart guy almost fainted as we drove off."

The normal constraints of gravity and distance and the limitations of the human body didn't seem to exist for John Montague. Pick up a car? He could pick up a car. There were dozens of stories about him picking up cars. He supposedly held one up long enough for a friend to fix a flat tire. His strength was a constant source of conversation.

"One time there was a big 1928 Buick out front of this club where we were playing golf in Whittier," golfer Gene Andrews said. "Montague said he'd move it over three feet to get it out of the way. And, sure enough, he went to the front of the car and picked it up and moved the front three feet. Then he went to the back and moved the back three feet. He moved the whole car three feet."

Exaggeration was part of his daily routine. This was a man who lived in extremes. He seemed to drink more than anyone else, eat more, need less sleep. His wardrobe was flashier. His cars -- three of them at last count -- were faster. He seemed to do everything louder, bigger, quite often better.

He would walk up to the pool table and bet that he could put all of the balls, including the cue ball, into the far corner pocket on the right with one try. Any takers? He would lift his end of the table, tilt the table to the right and all the balls would roll into the designated hole. Next? There were reports that three times, playing pool, he shattered the cue ball with the force of his break shot.

In an oft-described incident, he wrestled with George Bancroft, the character actor, in the Lakeside locker room. Bancroft was noted for playing villains in the movies, people with names like Two-Gun Nolan, Cannonball Casey, Bull Weed, Thunderbolt Jim Lang. He had the size and the face to portray cinematic evil, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who had filtered west from Philadelphia after completing active duty and found a solid level of fame and success.

In one version of the incident, Montague heard Bancroft curse in front of women at Lakeside. Upset and offended, he confronted the actor in the locker room. In another version, the confrontation was friendly, two large men in a contest of strength. In all versions, and there may have been others, the outcome was the same. Montague picked up Bancroft and stuffed him in a locker. Upside down. And shut the door. Bancroft had to plead to be released.

"Stuffed him in a locker," was the oft-used phrase around the club. "George Bancroft." And then, of course, there was the golf ...

Montague hit a golf ball farther than anyone who had ever played at Lakeside. The greats of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen at the top of the list, all had played the course. Bobby Jones even had made a series of instructional films at Lakeside in 1931. But no one had played the way Montague played. He used custom-made, oversize clubs. His driver weighed 18 ounces, maybe more, almost twice the weight of the average driver of the day. The clubhead was huge, again twice the size of the clubhead on the average driver of the day. Only a very strong man could use such a club. Only Montague, it seemed, could get the desired results.

His drives consistently traveled more than 300 yards at a time when few drives went that far. With these bombs, he carved the course down to a more manageable size. He hit niblicks (9-irons) and wedges for second shots on par 4s, hit the green in two shots on par 5s. The 13th was the monster hole on the course, 595 yards, the river hole. Montague could reach it in two. Or land somewhere in the vicinity.

He consistently toured the 18 holes in under 70 shots and had tied the Lakeside record at 63. He won the club championship with ease, beat Bud McCray, a good golfer, 7 and 5, in the 1933 final. The scores -- and reports came back about how he had broken course records in Palm Springs, tamed Pebble Beach, played various area layouts in remarkable numbers -- were impressive, but his shots were what made him so different.

He did a bunch of things that nobody else even tried. He supposedly hit 10 balls from the tee of a 347-yard par 4 one afternoon at the course. He reached the green with seven of them. He supposedly used a putter as a driver and drove the ninth green from the back tees, a distance of 245 yards. (He threw the ball into the air, swung the putter like a baseball bat and connected with the ball at the exact point where the shaft met the middle of the blade of the putter.) He supposedly said he could drive a ball three-quarters of a mile in five shots. Bets were made. Everyone went to the beach, where the distance was measured out. He made the three-quarters of a mile with room to spare.

Doomed to give strokes to virtually everybody at the club in head-to-head matches, even scratch handicappers, he devised other unique wagers. He would offer to hit every one of his tee shots into the woods and play from there. Or, better yet, he would let his opponent take care of the drive. Montague would hand the opponent his ball. Go ahead, put it where you want. The opponent could pick a spot an inch from the tee. Or deep in a bunker. Anywhere. Montague, shooting two, would play from there, from the spot.

Every 18 holes, every idle moment, seemed to feature some new challenge, some wager, some trick. He would step on a ball in a bunker, completely bury the ball; blast it out, no problem, with a brassie (2-wood). He would hit two balls at once with a mashie (5-iron), sending one of the balls right, the other left. He would ask a caddie to lie down, then place a wooden kitchen match in the caddie's mouth and light the match with a full swing of a cleek (2-iron). He would hit a small box of matches off the head of a patient cocker spaniel. It all seemed to work. The cocker spaniel survived. The caddie survived.

One of his basic tricks took place indoors. In the Lakeside locker room or in a hotel room, anywhere, he would ask someone to open a window slightly and keep it ajar by inserting a glass in the opening. Montague then would begin to chip balls through the small opening. He never would miss, never would break the window or hit the wall. Everyone seemed to have seen him do this. The size of the glass varied as the story was told. A water glass, a cocktail glass, a shot glass, the balls always would go through the opening without a problem.

"He practiced that," Lakeside employee Eddie Gannon said. "Everyone else would be gone from the locker room and I'd hear the sound of balls hitting the walls. Montague would be in there by himself, hitting chip shots toward the window. Then he'd bet guys he could chip through the window onto the putting green. He was always doing something like that." There was a time frame, of course, to the things he did -- maybe he hit the box of matches off the cocker spaniel's head on Monday, stuffed George Bancroft into the locker on Tuesday, reached the 13th green in two on Thursday, or maybe in July -- but they were all soon lumped into one great ball of chatter. The anecdotes were like comic routines or, better yet, fables, embellished and bent into different shapes by each particular speaker. They spun through did-you-hear-this conversations, wonder stories that didn't need time or date or even atttibution.

The story that spun the fastest involved the dead bird.

"I was playing in a foursome at the Fox Hills CC," Montague eventually told Darsie L. Darsie of the Los Angeles Herald, establishing the framework for the tale. "At the 10th tee, which is probably 75 yards from Slauson Avenue, we were forced to wait for players ahead to get out of range. As I stood on the tee, I casually said to the others: 'See those birds on that telephone wire? Watch me pick off the farthest one to the right.' I teed up an old ball, took out a brassie and hit a full drive. It hit the bird in the neck, snapping its head off. The bird was perhaps 175 yards from me when I hit the drive."

The magic of that shot -- if it really happened -- was undeniable. If Babe Ruth could generate national awe and controversy when he pointed (maybe) toward center field and then delivered a home run in that direction to the Wrigley Field bleachers off Chicago Cubs pitcher Charlie Root in the fifth inning of the third game of the 1932 World Series, "The Called Shot," what matter of feat was this? To point out the bird, the particular bird on the right? To deliver a golf ball with such accuracy from such a distance, far longer than the Babe's homer, that the ball not only hit the right bird, but hit the bird in the neck and knocked its head off? Annie Oakley couldn't have done that with a rifle and a bullet. Montague did it with a brassie?

The story, told and retold by Lakeside people, developed its own dramatic life. Grew larger. Multiplied. The site changed from course to course, hole to hole. The playing partners changed, different people claiming to be witnesses. The club changed, from brassie to driver to mashie, depending on the distance of the shot, which also changed. The species of bird changed. Dead crows, pigeons, starlings, sparrows, many headless, many not, littered the manicured ground of memory and imagination. Montague kissed the head of his trusty and lethal golf stick after each impossible shot and slid the club back into its holster.

Who wouldn't be impressed with that picture? Added up, Montague apparently had wiped out an entire aviary.

"I remember playing one time at Oakland Hills CC, in the valley towards Anaheim," Johnny Weissmuller recalled years later in an interview with Norm Blackburn for the Lakeside Golf Club of Hollywood 50th Anniversary Book. "We were playing team matches. The whole telephone wire was full of birds. And he said, 'Let me see if I can knock one of those birds off.' They were very little sparrows, but he hauled off and hit one of those guys right in the nose. He didn't think he ever could do it, but he just had a hunch. He has done so many of those things."

Hit the sparrow right in the nose. There you go.

Who even knew sparrows had noses?

Excerpted from The Mysterious Montague: A True Tale of Hollywood, Golf, and Armed Robbery published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. © *2008 by Leigh Montville *