This piece originally appeared in the January 1981 issue of Inside Sports. It is reprinted here with permission of Jeanine Flaherty.
All lives are failures in some degree or another. Somewhere along the line we fudge the pristine youthful dream. Even when we achieve, the compromises we’ve made, the injuries we’ve inflicted, sully the prize. But most of us can live with this, since we deal in minor declinations of the soul.
Not so with Jake LaMotta. LaMotta’s fortunes and misfortunes have been so cosmic they could be considered godlike if it weren’t for the sacrilege implied. The ruin he has heaped on himself, and on many of those who’ve come in contact with him, seems pagan. Those who lament LaMotta would have you believe Attila the Hun would have to move up in class to get it on with Jake.
When you go in search of the good word on LaMotta, no soft, illuminating adjective is forthcoming. Since most of the naysayers are from within boxing, the word is even more damning. The ringed world is awash with evocations of loving motherhood, guiding priests, and golden-hearted gladiators. Cauliflower corn pone bows only to the jab as the basic element of boxing.
But when the talk turns to LaMotta’s character (his boxing ferocity is always lauded), the usual benediction of hot water turns to spit. The only bow to grace is that no one wants his quotes attributed, though this “nicety” could be interpreted as fear of retribution, since no one believes the 58- year-old LaMotta has mended his savage ways.
Thus, one of the game’s gentlest promoters calls LaMotta “a reprehensible, obnoxious, despicable sonnuvabitch,” and then apologizes that he has characterized a human being in such a fashion.
To be sure, it’s a tough assessment, but even LaMotta wouldn’t deny he worked like a bull to earn his unsavory rep. Born on the tough Lower East Side of New York, he and his family moved to the Bronx when he was a boy. In that borough of hills (peaks and valleys in psychological jargon), LaMotta’s cyclonic emotions got untracked. Young Jake wasn’t one of those angels with dirty faces, a wayward street urchin with tousled hair who pinched apples from outside, the grocery store and puckishly threw rocks at schoolhouse windows. Jake’s mayhem was main arena, armed robbery, assault, rape.
As a teenager he pummeled the head of the local bookie (whom he liked!) in a robbery attempt and left the man for dead with a crushed skull. Subsequently, the papers falsely reported the bookie’s death and LaMotta did not learn until years later, after he won the middleweight championship, that the bookie, following a hospital stay, had moved to Florida to recuperate. In fairness, LaMotta had ongoing pangs of conscience about “the murder,” but the primal concern of the heart was how best to beat the rap, not the devil.
The horror his early violence wreaked also didn’t stop him, in later years, from battering various wives for “love” and numerous opponents for loot. LaMotta’s Life has been so unappetizingly gamy, so foully unpalatable, it bends the conventional limits of social understanding, as graphically documented in the film of his life, Raging Bull.
Even those who shared the same mean streets can find no sympathy. An Irish trainer from the same boyhood Bronx said, “Look, he just went too far. I grew up there, too. We always hustled a fast buck, put out other guys’ lights in fistfights, and even brawled with cops. Hell, the Irish are great cop-fighters. But we stopped short of some things, the animal stuff. Beating people’s head in with weapons and wife-beating, Christ, that’s as low as you can get.
“Ask anyone. That bastard didn’t even know how to say hello. But don’t take my word for it. The Micks are notorious. for not having a good word for Wops. Go ask his own kind. His own kind hate him because he was a squealer. He even screwed them. You go ask the Italians what they think. When your own kind hate you, that tells you something.
Indeed, the “wise guys,” the sharp money guys who always have leeched on the tit of boxing, long ago wrote off LaMotta for his testimony before the Kefauver Committee that he went into the water for the mob when he fought Billy Fox in Madison Square Garden in 1947. But even before that, he wasn’t acceptable. Hustlers who live off “the edge” dislike dealing with a “crazy” man.
Even Italian-American director Martin Scorsese, while creating a technically beautiful film and coaxing marvelous ensemble acting from his cast, was in the moral quandary about what to make of LaMotta the man. If the film had to stand on redeeming social qualities, Raging Bull would have been castrated by the censors. Scorsese, like so my who have faced LaMotta, was overwhelmed with the brutishness of the life and in the end, using Robert DeNiro’s great talents, settled for an exposition of poetic rage. The violence is softened by slow motion and an operatic score. This creates the illusion that one is dealing with a demon.
But the frightening things about LaMotta is that he is very real, and removing him from our orbit with technical skill and art is cleverly slipping the punch. The only way to explore LaMotta’s life is to delve into the festering place in his heart of darkness.
The LaMotta you meet today hardly qualifies for a portrait in ferocity. If it weren’t for his classically failed soufflé of a face and the thickness of his articulate speech, you wouldn’t suspect he had made his living at demolition. His weight is back to the 160-pound middleweight limit, and his manager is deferential. His hands belie their destructive force in that they are small, slim and tapered.
“I should have been an artist, or a fag,” he jokes. But the jibe has insight. They look like the hands of someone who would beat helplessly on the chest of a bully.
Only the eyes give a clue to his former life. They are so sad and placid, they almost look burned out. Twin novas which which didn’t survive the Big Bang, memos to some terrible past.
So you’re not surprised when he responds to a question about his current life, “I’m a recluse. I stay at home and read, play cards, and watch television. And I love to cook. I’m a gourmet cook. It’s a knack.”
His oldest son Jack Jr. (by his second wife, Vikki) concurs: “I’d rather eat at home with him cooking than go out to a fine restaurant.”
LaMotta’s forays outside are restricted to long walks, infrequent trips to an East Side bar to meet Rocky Graziano, who pulled time with him at reform school when they were in their teens, and some evening blackjack games. “I don’t want to go out anymore,” he says. “I seen it all, and I had it all.’ Fame, fortune, Cadillacs. There’s nothing out there for me. Besides, I don’t like the kind of people I attract.”
When asked to elaborate, he has trouble pinning if down. “I don’t know. Other people like to go out. It must be me. I dislike a lot of people.” He amends, “I don’t mean a majority of people. Maybe I’m too cynical. But sometimes I hear the first word out of their mouths, or see a smirk on their faces, and I know they’re not sincere. They’re jealous or something. Jealousy is a word I use a lot, but I think it’s right. Well, I think like that anyway. I guess I attract those kind of people, so I stay home.”
The recluse pose is really nothing new, if one applies it to LaMotta’s inner emotions. In his fighting days, though public, he was notorious for being a loner in the things that mattered. He managed his own career, ostracized the mob until it promised him a shot at the crown for dumping to Fox, and had the intimate counsel of no one. He viewed his wife of that period, Vikki, with insane jealousy and suspicion, and forced his brother Joey, who worked his corner, “to do my bidding.” The adjectives applied to Jake were “suspicious,” “paranoiac.”
Now divorced from his fifth wife, he is even more insular. The film is a hiatus in this isolation. Jack Jr. is up from North Miami Beach on leave from his job to guide his father through the publicity maze connected with the film. Vikki and his five other children also came to New York for the film’s opening and some of the attendant hoopla. But when the stardust settles, he will be back living alone in his Manhattan apartment. The isolation may be complete for a long period if some job offers don’t result from the film since LaMotta, in earnest, declares, “I’m now practicing celibacy,” which could be construed as the last word on the people one attracts.
Jake attributes his decision on unilateral withdrawal to “the failures of my romantic life.” His first marriage broke when he met Vikki, “the love of my life.” Vikki left when LaMotta lost all control of his temper, his calorie and alcohol intake, and his ability to find his way home to his wife’s bed after his retirement. “I think I suffered a nervous breakdown during that period,” he says, “and didn’t realize it. I was crazy. I was drinking a bottle or two a day. I owned my own joint [in Miami Beach], the price was right. Plus, there were a lot of broads. I blacked out a lot and didn’t remember. I really think I was crazy and didn’t know it.”
LaMotta seems to be hesitant about going all the way back. His notion is that life would have been fine if he and Vikki could have worked out their problems. If they had been “mature” enough to realize he was going through a bad time after retiring, “the small death” all athletes must face, as the novelist John Updike called it. Similar is the lament that three marriages broke up because finances were tight, and the one thing he regrets is his dump of the Fox fight. The one thing?
LaMotta deals with his woeful experiences piecemeal, not as the pattern of a life. For LaMotta, to have led a conventional life, it seems he would have had to be born in different circumstances, or somehow been able to overcome the ones he was dealt. The latter is no mean trick. The should is cankered with barnacles of who and what spawned us. Only the imperial George Bernard Shaw had the audacity to state that if he had one thing to change in his life it would have been his parents. And for good reason. There’s a reverberation in that shot that might ricochet back to our own siring.
LaMotta makes some earnest attempts. “You know, I think they brainwashed us. You know, this is your life, you’re poor, and this is the way it’s going to be. I always felt I didn’t deserve good things. I was always guilty. I thought I killed someone, but it was more than that. Years later, I even thought of the way I fought. Letting guys hit me in the face. I didn’t have to do that. I think I was brainwashed to be punished.”
If you want to find the man, it helps to find the boy, and then the father of the boy. LaMotta’s father was an Italian immigrant who beat his kids and beat his wife, and it’s safe to say Jake was tutored in raucous romance early. And even though LaMotta hated the bullying, like so many sons of fathers who beat, drank, molested or committed suicide, he replayed the old man’s aberrations. The psychiatric statistics are too firm in these area to be taken as happenstance. In dismal surroundings finesse is lost, you take what is offered.
Since the home life was a microcosm of the neighborhood, he had only to expand the MO of violence. In such neighborhoods the glittering prizes of bread, broads, and booze went to the wise guys. “Artists and fags” (same thing really) need not apply.
To anyone who knows those streets, the real triumph is to make it through time-honored devices in the neighborhood, not in the outside world. There’s a sense of betrayal when one makes it “legit” and moves away. You turn your back on the highest gutter canonization—a regular guy. It’s not for nothing that artists with such roots can’t completely resist the swagger, highlighting the accent, the tough-guy stance. These are love notes thrown back over the barricades from their now “effete” surroundings. Worldly success is so much manure—the real bones are still made back on he block.
LaMotta only seems an aberration to us because he achieved celebrity and money and didn’t find the happy life. That is the height of anti-Americanism. But to use Willard Motley’s phrase, “Knock on any door,” and you could find countless LaMottas—violent, suspicious, self-destructive, who have left disasters in their wake, but there was nobody there to chronicle them. We prefer happy endings to our social neglect: saccharine Sylvester Stallones. Pugs who are pussycats or flower girls who end up at Ascot.
But even in the field of achieving and then destroying celebrity, LaMotta is not unique. Streetwise black basketball players with fat NBA contracts still get high on more than slam dunks, and up-from-the-pavement union leaders who have had access to the seats of government can’t resist the chance to turn a little change on the side. The outside world might be astonished, but the boy on the block understand all too well. What’s felonious to some is “regular” to others.
When LaMotta got the chance, he didn’t get out. When he made his score in boxing, his first move was to buy an apartment house in the Bronx for his family (parents, brother, sisters). Obviously, to erect a shrine in such heathen lands as the other boroughs never occurred to him, nor should it have. It had to be accessible for worship by those who lay down turf theology.
Years later, when he was broke and serving time on a Florida chain gang for allowing a teenage prostitute to work his nightclub (he claims innocence about her age and trade), his father sold the apartment house (it was in his name but Jake’s property), deserted his family, and moved back to his native Italy alone. That’s the caliber of doublebank that makes street legend.
If one knows the code of the streets, wife-beating is no surprise either. Women (mothers exempted) were only revered as sexual trophies. The language of lovemaking sounded like contracts: “bang,” “screw”—love delivered from a running board. Jealousy is easy to divine, too. You simply ascribed to others the reason you wanted women. If your own intentions were base, so were the world’s.
One has only to remember the photos of Vikki LaMotta then, or to look at her now to realize her erotic worth as a trophy. At age 50, after giving birth to four children (three by Jake and one by a subsequent marriage that also ended in divorce), she still could make a bishop want to break a stained glass.
Vikki realizes the cloud a sexual aura casts. “People see the blonde hair, the beautiful body and look no further. They never search for the dignity. My problem with Jake was that he consumed me. He did it in a very beautiful way, but he consumed me. I was only 15 when we met in June 1946, and we were married in November of the same year. In a way you could say Jake kidnapped me.”
It’s a lovely turn of phrase: “kidnapped me.” It evokes Fay Wray and her rough-hewn suitor. “Our marriage was fine when Jake had control. On the beginning he trained me, molded me to be his kind of woman, but later on when I matured and deviated from what he wanted, he couldn’t handle it. I watched Pygmalion on television the other night, and I saw many similarities.”
LaMotta’s mad jealousy was fueled by the long periods of sexual withdrawal when he was in training. He believed in the old adage that sexual activity sapped strength. “It was a mistake, but in a way it worked. It made me an animal in the ring. Bu now I think I should have had it once in a while.”
Worse, the intensity of training began to render LaMotta impotent when he wanted to perform. For a man like LaMotta to fail at all, but especially with his “kidnapped” goddess, was excruciating. So instead of swatting airplanes, Jake disfigured opponents such as Tony Janiro, whom Vikki found handsome; his brother, who had introduced Vikki to Jake, and who made the mistake of kissing her warmly whenever they met; and Vikki herself, for offering her cheek to be pecked by friends.
The beatings were serious enough to require medical attention, and once when Vikki retaliated, she said, “It was a mistake. He reacted like a fighter. He came back at me and nearly killed me.”
Yet for all this, she claims they had glorious times together (rarely shown in the film), and finds her ex-husband spiritual. “Just look into those sad, soft eyes. Whenever I’m sick, Jake is the first at my bedside. What greater love? I love him dearly. No longer in a sexual way, but who knows? That could come back, though I’m frightened to put the heat back into the relationship. It’s so loving and warm now. I just don’t think of him in a sexual way. To be blunt, I have no desire to ball him. He doesn’t like me to say that, but it’s the truth. And I’d need that to get back with him. I’m a woman, and a woman means hot. But love him I do, and who knows what the future will bring? That’s the exciting thing about the future.”
They have stayed in constant contact 34 years. Jake visits Vikki in North Miami Beach (in the home he bought for her) a few times each year and stays at the house. “Separate bedrooms,” he is quick to add. He talks to her by phone three or four times a week. And he admits that his continuing affection for Vikki hindered his other marriages. “Aw, they knew,” he says. “I’m not smart enough with women to hide anything.”
Of course, LaMotta’s love for Vikki might be heightened by their golden period together. “We had everything,” he says. “Love, home, children, money, the championship, his and hers Cadillac cars.”
Their children hint at more solid stuff. The two boys I met, Jake Jr., 33, and Joe, 32, seem well-adjusted and carry no scars. Neither remembers the parental brawls. Those took place in private, and Vikki says that when she was black and blue she retreated behind her bedroom doors until the damage healed. There is a courageous civility about that.
Jack Jr. is sympathetic about the forces that fashioned his father’s life. “He grew up in the Depression, and everything was struggle. Everything was denial. His generation had to fight to get out. That’s why you don’t see fighters with the ferocity of the ’40s fighters anymore.”
Jake concurs. “The fighters today are spoiled. Only Duran and Muhammad Ali could have stood with the greats of the past. You know, we fought every three weeks. When I started to make money, I couldn’t get enough. It was a Depression thing, I’d fight anyone. Then when I made it, I didn’t know how to handle it. After all those years of denying myself, I went crazy with everything from booze to broads.”
Fight everyone, he did. Nobody puts a knock on LaMotta as a fighter. Harry Markson, the retired president of Madison Square Garden boxing, said “Outside Sugar Ray Robinson, he was the greatest middleweight of that era. He fought black fighters, both light-heavyweight and middleweight, that no one else would touch. He was fearless.”
Much is made of LaMotta’s dump to Fox, but many forget he was top-ranked for five years without getting a title shot. And going in the water wasn’t his province alone. It is common knowledge that good black fighters of that era often had to swoon for the mob to get bouts. Robinson was one who refused and had wait until he was 30 to get his crack at the middleweight crown, which, perversely, was granted by LaMotta.
Also, some members of the pious press didn’t seem to have the clout to force legitimate showdowns. This wasn’t for ignorance of fistic worth, but for the most venal of reasons. You still hear gossip about members of the fourth estate who picked up “envelopes” under the guise that they were gifts for their kids’ birthdays, graduations, or some such.
Harry Markson, while making no case for LaMotta’s action (“Robinson never did it”), added that boxing commissions were either nonexistent or had no clout, and that the press and television didn’t have the power they have today. “Let’s just say that in that period there was ample skullduggery.”
LaMotta’s sole defense is that he wanted the crown. “I always hated those creeps and never let them near me. They offered me a hundred thousand to dump, and I refused. I only wanted the title. And even when I went along, I still had to kick back $20,000 under the table to get the fight with Cerdan.”
Jake testified before Kefauver when the statute of limitations ran out. In his original affidavit Jake named Blinky Palermo as the fixer, but later testified he didn’t know who masterminded the dump. “You know who was around in those days. Palermo, Carbo, draw your own conclusions.”
LaMotta, in a way, is like John Dean. He validated the bad news in high places everyone knew about but no one wanted to talk about. Finking no matter how cleansing, is never appreciated. It isn’t strange that LaMotta can recite verbatim Brando’s Terry Malloy speech, “I coulda been somebody …” from On the Waterfront with feeling.
When Jake finished talking about this painful period, Jack Jr. massaged his shoulders into relaxation. “No one knows my father except his family. They only know of him back then. Not what he became. A gentle, sweet man. The ending is the exciting part of his life.”
Jake, grandiose as ever, proclaimed, “Now I have the patience of a saint. You’ll lose your temper before me.”
Joe and Vikki concur. Jake, realizing the “saint” line is as gaudy as his leopard-skin fighter’s robe (the material of macho bathing suits in the ’40s, though LaMotta didn’t add the black slim comb as a final fillip), tempers his canonization: “I still make mistakes, but less and less. Isn’t that what life is about? It has to be less and less, if I am going … going to …” He trails off.
Jake Jr. says he finds lessons in his father’s life: “There are deep meanings in dad’s struggle.” LaMotta, where his family is concerned, seems not to have passed on the sins of his father.
Martin Scorsese defends his unrelenting, unprobing film portrait of LaMotta by declaring he didn’t want to apply tired psychology, that he found LaMotta to be an “elemental man.” By which I gather he means a man unfettered by influences. It’s a quaint notion: The Abominable Snowman Comes to Mulberry Street. The director’s peg tells us more about Scorsese than about LaMotta.
Numerous articles have related that Scorsese was sickly child, consumed by movies and movie magazines, looking down from his window on those mean streets below. As a man, the same articles tell us, he is still house bound, running endless private tapes of movies in a more spacious, affluent setting. This sequestered life comes through in all Scorsese’s films, the art of a meticulous voyeur.
Scorsese gets the mannerisms, the speech patterns, the language, and the interiors precisely right. What formed the tableau seems beyond him. From a bedroom window—his first viewfinder—barbaric action in the street with an opera record playing in the background might indeed look like the rites of a primal society.
The only way to dispel reverential awe was to know those streets. Saloons and pool rooms were not pagan temples, merely colorful neon way stations in a drab culture. Bright bars were concrete equivalents of the neighborhood’s best painted women, and a rack of pool balls cascading under fluorescent lights transported the shooter into a colorful galaxy. People didn’t die gothic deaths on those streets. Life was drained by the dullness. If LaMotta’s hook were a little slower, his temper a shade less manic, he would have been the Friday night undercard in the local beer joint, not a celebrated “Raging Bull.”
For Scorsese to plumb LaMotta’s psyche he would have to have a narrative curiosity, and that is not the art of a window kid for whom stories take place down below—on the streets. Talk is the province of the comer guys, the verbal spritzers who gaudily throw it around in lieu of money, dreams, or hope.
And, of course, narrative is interruptive. It breaks up, sullies the purity of the scene. To visually oriented artists such as as Scorsese, narrative is as sacrilegious as inserting dialogue balloons on a Magritte
So Scorsese took an astringent tone in his film. With Raging Bull, he effectively holds boxing films such as Champion and Body and Soul, which explored social beginnings, up to ridicule. Through attempts at reason and understanding, these films made overtures to the heart. To Scorsese, obviously, these were cluttered films, weakened by sentiment. So he used his camera as an unsympathetic X-ray machine, the bed boy finally making his bones.
Contrary to stereotypes, “house-grown” kids are often filled with confidence. The doting of parents, the coloring books and ice cream brought to bedside, the extra blanket for the precious body, the music spinning in the background are the trappings of tyke kings. Consequently, they learn to manipulate an audience early. So it’s not surprising Scorsese couldn’t understand LaMotta’s self-loathing and lack of confidence. LaMotta was only one of the litter.
Also, LaMotta feared and hated priests early. When Scorsese made a bow to such emotion in his Mean Streets, he had Harvey Keitel sacrilegiously bless his whiskey glass, evoking Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The Jakes and Studs Lonigans of he world took damnation seriously, not as baroque artistic fodder. To LaMotta, the fear of immolating fire was never aesthetic, it was real: “I felt for some reason my opponent had a right to destroy me.”
Since street kids get by with hustle, not substance, they always doubt themselves. The leopard skin was worn to keep outside tribes at bay. Street kids feel con, not concreteness, is their deliverance. When you work with con and swagger the final damnation is going to be your unmasking in the larger world.
When I was first published at age 30, after working the docks for most of my life, I was terrified instead of being elated. When I was at a social function with my betters, Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, Arthur Miller, I laced myself with booze against the impending mass denunciation I felt would expose me as a cultural bodysnatcher. This dread was fortified by the oppressive Catholicism of the ’40s and ’50s. The most deeply felt commandment was that earthly glitter was suspect; it was tawdry, whorish rouge on both your religion and your roots. God, like the old gang, only dug regular guys.
An operatic score is much too florid for LaMotta’s life. It is a cultural pretension, akin to the canard that all the Irish are familiar with Yeats. For LaMotta’s odyssey of self-loathing, the Catholic hymn; “Lord I Am Not Worthy,” would have come closer.
Indeed, it is because LaMotta is not “elemental man” that he survived and softened his life. LaMotta is what he is today because he has made intellectual decisions, not visceral ones. Through reading, self-hypnotism and study of various religions, through studying acting and grooming himself as a lecturer—all things foreign to him and elemental man—he has found some grace in life.
These are disciplines of the mind, and LaMotta knows his is a life that has to be sentried. He carries this over to his physical well-being by dieting and shunning booze. His decision to be reclusive and his acquiring the domestic arts of cooking and cleaning are further monitors. In the future, he wants to talk to kids about violence and alcoholism (“I think they’ll listen to me”) and do charity work in hospitals. “You know, tell people stories, do some recitals from my stage and nightclub act. Make people laugh.”
He’s a man who declares, “I love to do things. To keep busy. That’s why I love Vikki and the kids with me now. I cook every meal. I won’t let any of them touch a dish. I love projects.” Projects are the Dobermans that prowl his darker impulses. He is still a man who suspects before he greets. In frustration, Graziano says, “He’s very complex, very deep.
I tell him to relax, but he can’t. I introduce him to someone, and he says, ‘Who is he? ‘What does he do? What does he want?’ He can’t realize it’s someone who just wants to meet him; he just don’t know. I say hello to the world. He just don’t know.”
Even now, when someone greets Vikki in public with a kiss, he looks on with distrust, but he doesn’t act. Reason has brought him to that simple point. He mistrusts success, as well he should. Every high point in his life has been followed by a crash. The title “nobody is going to take from me” was gone 20 months later, lost to Robinson. From the crown, he went on to divorce, alcoholism, and conviction on morals charges. He says now, “I can’t be happy, everything is going so well.”
Not quite that well. Again, success has a rectal side. The IRS has leaned on him for money accrued from the movie, his fifth wife is suing for an alimony settlement, and his brother is suing the entire movie production staff, including Jake, for their portrayal of him. In his most emotional statement, Jake declares, “Aw, that’s nothing. It’s part of living in this vicious, fuckin’, mixed-up, sick world.”
To LaMotta’s credit, he keeps such dark rage on a tight leash these days. He has learned the elemental lesson of those streets. You can’t go back because some unhealed part never leaves. In this world our initial address, like tragedy, forever haunts.