The Mysterious Montague: A True Tale of Hollywood, Golf, and Armed Robbery
By Leigh Montville
Doubleday, 303 pp., $26
Sportswriter Leigh Montville has already written best-selling biographies of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth. Now Montville looks at an underground legend. John Montague refused to play in tournaments and didn't want to be photographed, yet Grantland Rice, perhaps the most famous sportswriter in history, considered Montague "the greatest golfer in the world" and devoted an entire 1935 newspaper column to detailing his prowess. Thereafter, both Time and Sports Illustrated extolled Montague's greatness, demanding that he prove himself in tournament play.
Montague made his massive reputation at Hollywood's Lakeside Golf Club playing with stars such as Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields, and Oliver Hardy (the rotund comedian). The blustering and jovial Montague fit perfectly into a Hollywood subculture that was "equal parts alcohol, golf, testosterone, and madcap bravado," writes Montville, a former sportswriter for Sports Illustrated and The Boston Globe. In one ballyhooed exploit, Montague bet that he could beat Crosby at Lakeside's 10th hole using a baseball bat, a shovel, and a rake. Montague birdied the par-4 hole, while Crosby made par. "No one had ever heard of such a thing," writes Montville, and such outrageous feats solidified Montague's celebrity.
Yet Montague had a secret: He was on the run from New York state police, who wanted to arrest him for a 1930 armed robbery. Golfer John Montague had been bootlegger LaVerne Moore, Montville explains. The burly Montague had "worked as muscle in the liquor business" during Prohibition. After he fled prosecution in New York, Moore changed his name and became a Hollywood golf hustler. Montville tells us that the Hollywood stars Montague fleeced didn't mind, mostly because of Montague's breathtaking golf skills and larger-than-life personality.
The publicity Montague consistently shunned finally did him in. After Time ran a story with an accompanying photograph (taken without Montague's permission), police in New York identified Montague as fugitive LaVerne Moore. He was arrested, extradited to New York state, and put on trial. The 1937 legal proceedings created a national sensation. Montague's Hollywood friends hired him the best lawyers money could buy. The outcome looked bad after convicted robber Roger Norton testified that Montague had taken part in the 1930 armed robbery.
Montague took the stand and said he'd been at home with his mother and sisters on the night of the robbery. Montague's ailing mother testified in support of his alibi, as did his sisters. Despite physical evidence connecting Montague to the crime scene, including his golf bag found in the getaway car, the jury found Montague not guilty.
After his acquittal, the mysterious Montague went public with his golf game. He set up a New York City exhibition match with baseball great Babe Ruth and golfing legend Babe Didrikson. Unfortunately, a massive crowd flooded the course, making it impossible for Montague to play his stellar brand of golf. With screaming fans crowding the fairways and greens, "golf would take second place to survival," writes Montville. Montague's golfing debut was a failure and, after his long ordeal fighting for his freedom, both his physical condition and golf game were deteriorating.
Montague tried to qualify for the US Open, but failed at his first attempt. When he did finally qualify in 1940, he played miserably. Montville writes that Montague's "public flop cancelled out all of the stories" about his legendary golfing skills: "How could the greatest golfer who ever lived never win a tournament?" Montague finally seems like other almost-greats, like playground basketball legend (and heroin addict) Earl Manigault, whom Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once called the greatest basketball player he'd ever seen. In Montville's skillful hands, Montague's story becomes an epic drama about a potential hero undermined by his troubled past.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer living in Dorchester.