Joe Louis lies in state today. Caesars Palace built a boxing ring, and the casket is in the ring. The ring ropes are red, white and blue. The ring posts are covered with black cloth.
To see Joe, you walk up six steps on a platform above flowers in the shape of a crown (sent by Redd Foxx) and flowers in the shape of boxing gloves (from Leon Spinks).Then you look over the top of the ring into the casket.
Opera music is playing in the Sports Pavilion, which is a big warehouse kind of place with sheet metal walls. The walls are covered with black cloth curtains 20 feet high.
Caesars has propped up four trees, each maybe 10 feet tall, next to the ring.
At 10:38 this morning, a man with a television camera on his shoulder crawled through the ring ropes and walked to the corner of Joe Louis' casket. He was looking for an angle. He sighted through his machine. No, not quite. A little to the right. There. Now he had Joe Louis' face in the frame, just right so the film would show a mourner and the champ in one shot.
Just when you thought the Joe Louis story could get no sadder, they put him dead in a boxing ring in a tin warehouse. "Caesars says Martha Louis (the widow) wanted the services at Caesar's" said a local newspaperman. "Even so, if Caesars had any class, they'd have told her to take Joe to a park or the biggest church in town, someplace where Joe can have some dignity."
In a touch of kindly grace, President Reagan has said Louis can be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, a hero's place. There, the great old champion at last will be out of the reach of the men who spin roulette wheels. The animals of prey can't get at him there, and word is they don't like that.
"It was a messy scene this morning, when Caesars' people tried to talk Martha out of the Arlington burial," said a member of the family. "I guess they thought it would steal their thunder. If Caesars had its way, they'd stuff and mount Joe and stand him in the lobby forever."
Such talk offends Joe Louis Jr., who never really knew his father except he knew this: he loved him and he wished he could have helped. If some of us, melancholy, see Joe Louis as a wax figure in a museum for decadents, that, Joe Louis Jr., says, is our problem.
"Being at Caesars doesn't bother me at all, because my father loved it here," he said. "He enjoyed his job as a greeter (salary estimates range from $500 to $2,000 a week, not counting gambling money), he enjoyed having people come up to him for autographs and he enjoyed being part of the public environment.
"The only thing that bothers me is when people impose their values on his environment. It may not be the life you like, or the life I like, but it was his life. He loved it. People who talk about him as a freak without dignity don't know Joe Louis. I hate to see people demean him for his life here when it clearly made him happy."
Martha Louis, not Caesars, decided to have the services in the Sports Pavilion, according to the champion's only son. "My stepmother wanted it," Joe Louis Jr. said. "And, of course, Caesars would do anything for her and my father. Caesars Palace has enough promotion and publicity. They don't need this."
Joseph L. Barrow Jr. is his proper name, but in Las Vegas he answers to Joe Louis Jr. Now 33, Joe Barrow has worked the last four years in Washington as director of the Department of Energy's chief marketing office. He resigned recently to become vice president for corporate marketing for Wood Brothers Home, of Denver, the nation's fifth-largest home builder.
His parents were divorced shortly after his birth. He grew up with his mother in Chicago and saw his famous father only occasionally. Their relationship seems to have been limited ot the father's insisting that the son get a college education and the son saying, yes, sir. He became a banker upon graduation from the University of Denver.
It was about then, in 1969, that he signed the papers committing his father to a psychiatric hospital.
We sat in a dark bar at Caesars for an hour Wednesday night. Joe Louis Jr. didn't have many stories about his father. Some he would preface with a label, such as, "There's the famous violin lesson story." Everybody knows that one, about how young Joe Barrow sneaked off to fight under his shortened name when his mother thought he was taking his violin lessons. Joe Jr. tells stories he has read, as we all read them, because nothing much happened between father and son.
There was car ride once, when Joe Jr. was about 3 years old, and he remembers asking, "Is this going to be your last fight?" His father, a burnt-out case at 36, said, "Yeah." That must have been the Marciano fight, Joe Jr. said in the dark Wednesday night, and he remembered being sad when his father lost to the younger man.
"If you ever fight, Punchy," the smiling champ often said to his son, called Punchy because he was a small baby, "remember that I've got a good right, and i'll use it on you."
Joe Louis Barrow Jr. never fought. Last month, watching "Raging Bull," he covered his eyes and shouted at the screen, "Stop the fight." He went to school the way his sharecropper's son of a father couldn't and Wednesday night in the dark he said he had only one wish about his father's life.
"I wish I had older during it," he said. He wanted to know more about his hero/father. At 33, with his father dead, with his father in and out of a psychiatric hospital, with the last 30 years struggle, Joe Barrow wished he could known Joe Louis better so he could have helped him.
"I wish I had been older because with me a banker he'd damn sure have kept some of that money he made," the son said. A touch of bitterness rode on those words, and so I made a note: "Joe defends his dad's life in this pit because he loves him, not because he thinks life here is worthwhile. He would have changed it if he could. This is a city of victims, and Joe Louis was a victim. Joe Jr. knows it."
The champ's son knows more, too, and says it all proudly: Joe Louis was a hero when this country needed a hero, Joe Louis changed lives by showing that a poor black kid can make dreams real, Joe Louis "always smiled on the inside," and if he stumbled a lot in the last 30 years "he still is a great man who is loved by millions of Americans and will be remembered forever."
Bill Murdock, 66, of Las Vegas wept as he looked over the red ring rope into Joe Louis' coffin today. He wore coveralls, had a blue bandanna around his neck and carried a big straw hat. He had come from his job as a gardener.
"I knew Joe for 41 years," he said, weeping yet. "I traveled with him and worked with him all over the world. Of all the men who ever got in the ring, he was the greatest marvel. Of all the warriors and gladiators, he was the greatest. Above all, he was a great human being. If we had four billion people like Joe Louis, we would have a beautiful world. I loved him. God bless him."