"Louis' life was lie a kite nobody could reel in. " --Barney Nagler, author of "Brown Bomber"
But Martha Louis tried.
"All that lady did for Joe, nobody will ever know," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "Anything you can say about her is inadequate. She rode the rhythms of Joe's life with him, and she made these last 20 years as good as they could be. I love that little and so strong lady."
When the IRS wanted a pound of Joe's flesh, Martha, a lawyer, told the tax men to get off his back -- and they did. When Joe imagined poison gas coming through the air vents of his home, it was Martha who found him escape from his demons. Four years ago, when Joe's heart began to fail, she sent the X-rays to Michael DeBakey in Houston, who said, "Joe has two months to live unless we operate immediately." Immediately, Martha took Joe to the doctor.
What about Joe's other wives? Martha was always asked about Joe's first two wives, Marva and Rose. Didn't it bother her, people would ask, that Joe had all these women around the country, ones he married and ones he didn't? Some newspaper quoted Martha once as saying, "Joe doesn't drop women, he just adds more to the list." There's a kind of innocent gentleness to that line that today, even as Martha denies ever saying it, she can yet smile at the memory, knowing Joe meant no harm.
"Marva and Rose were at the funeral in Las Vegas, and they came to my house," she said yesterday. "Rose invited me to come to her very nice place in New York anytime. We had all those interviewers coming to the house all week and once Rose said, 'Do you want me to stay in a back room?' I said, 'Not at all. Honey, you can't erase history.'
"I'm not a jealous or selfish person. I felt secure when I married Joe (1959) and I didn't feel funny at all with Marva and Rose there. People said, 'But all those other women . . .' I said, 'I'm still Mrs. Louis, whatever they do.' "
Still Mrs. Louis.
The hero's queen.
All Martha Jefferson knew about Joe Louis when she first met him in 1957 was that he was a clean-cut guy who didn't drink and didn't smoke, a clean fighter who didn't take advantage of an opponent who was down. She knew nothing about prizefighting. Her first husband had been a lawyer with whom she shared a practice in Beverly Hills.
Martha instantly liked the old champion, then 43 years old, six years away from boxing. To make a few bucks, Louis had been on a wrestling tour that took him to backwater towns and big cities.What the lady lawyer say, though, was not a broken-down fighter trading on his name; she saw a gentlemanly and amusing man who, as she told biographer Nagler, wouldn't dirty two bedsheets if he got between them.
She came to love the hero not because she listened to his fights on the radio, not because he sent Schmeling back across the water in shame, not because he made this country a better place for black people.
In the chapel at McGuire's Funeral Home yesterday, Martha Louis said the 10 days since Joe's death "have been rough." And yet they have been days of peace, too, for the last four years of Joe's life, the years after the heart attacks and minor strokes, left the proud old champion a cripple. In these 10 days, America has said that it, too, loved Joe because it couldn't help loving him.
Martha loved Joe for his generosity, loyalty and humility.
"Our Joe," said the Rev. Jackson in his eulogy in Las Vegas, "wasn't the 'dumb' Joe you might have read about. Our Joe wasn't dumb -- he was generous. Dumb people get tricked out of their integrity. Dumb people steal from the government, dumb people cheat, dumb people fix fights, dumb people bring shame upon themselves. Our Joe was not dumb, he was generous."
"That generosity and Joe's humility brought him dignity money could never buy," Martha Louis said. "He had so many friends in so many places. And he dealt with them all in the same way, be they presidents or ordinary people. Joe had so many friends he could have stayed in a different person's house every night and he could never live long enough to fun out of places that loved him.
"And loyalty, well, as opposed to many in this mercenary world, there was no price tag on Joe Louis.He could not be bought. He turned down a bid deal as a promoter once because it meant he would have to compete with an old friend. And years ago someone offered him $50,000 or $100,000 to go to South Africa, but he refused. They asked him why, and he said, 'Because of the way it is there.' That, honey, is principle."
She has arthritis in her right hip that has left her with pain and a limp. She is tired now from these 10 days. It hasn't been easy, this funeral business, but she wouldn't have done it differently. Some friends suggested a private funeral, away from the curious crowds and media. Others were upset that she planned the services for the Sports Pavilion of Caesars Palace, as garish a funeral site as imaginable.
Trying to reel in the kite even in his death, the hero's queen said she knew what Joe would have wanted.
"Nothing about Joe Louis was private," Martha said. "He had friends everywhere. They had a right to see Joe if they wanted to. He belonged to them, too. The biggest church in Las Vegas could have handled only 500 people (more than 2,500 came to Caesars for the funeral services). He made his fame in the ring, and so we put his body in the ring. He made the ring, the ring made him."
Joe had everything he wanted in life, his wife said. He had no worries because friends such as Frank Sinatra helped him at every turn.Muhammad Ali bought Joe a battery-powered wheelchair. For the surgery by DeBakey, Joe's four months of hospitalization and her living expenses those four months in Houston, the Louises never could pay a dime.
"Among the tragedy," Martha said, "you can find job because of the blessings that come to you in friends."
President Reagan has waived certain eligibility rules so that Joe Louis, a sergeant in the Army in World War II, can be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Louis donated nearly $100,000 from two championship fights to the Army and Navy. He fought 96 exhibitions as a soldier all around the world, entertaining 2 million troops. It is forever telling of the IRS mentality that it chased an American hero for 20 years, giving up only when the hero's lawyer/queen said there was no more blood in the turnip. Whatever Louis owed the American people -- and it is those people to whom tax money belongs -- he more than paid his bill, by doing those exhibitions and by simply being Joe Louis.
And now he will be buried in Arlington, a hero's place.
"Perfect," Martha Louis said.