JACK DOYLE, boxer, singer, actor, lover, drinker, was born a hundred years ago this Saturday, Aug 31, in Cobh, Co Cork. His life was preposterous — he knocked out Clarke Gable in a fight over actress Carole Lombard — but it ended, like that of so many prizefighters, in the gutter.
When Doyle walked O’Connell St in Dublin in the 1940s, alongside his wife, the actress Movita Castaneda, who later married Marlon Brando, a couple of hundred people trailed awe-struck behind the glamorous couple.
“He used to always say ‘a generous man never went to hell’. He did like a gamble, but if he had any money he liked to share it with his friends, to spread it around,” says Chris Doyle, 55, Jack’s nephew, whose father Bill acted as Doyle’s valet during the good days.
Doyle was the second of five children. He grew up on the third floor of a tenement building on Queen St, along the water’s edge in Cobh. He had to stoop his 6ft 5in frame while indoors.
The Doyle children subsisted on “the penny dinners” of bread and soup at the local convent. He left school at 12 years of age, and earned money down the dockyards as a labourer, shovelling coal or hiking luggage for guests at the Commodore Hotel.
At 17, he joined a regiment in the Irish Guards, at a recruiting station in Pembroke, Wales, assuring his mother as he departed: “Don’t worry, mother. I’m a big boy now. I’ll take care of myself. And soon I’ll be famous. You’ll see.”
In Britain, he dropped his boyhood name, ‘Joe’, for ‘Jack’. A book by his hero, Jack Dempsey, entitled How to Box, filled his head with pugilists’ dreams, but Doyle wasn’t a technical boxer.
“He had no skill,” says Michael Taub, author of Jack Doyle: The Gorgeous Gael, “and the mentality that he wasn’t interested in learning. He had this explosive power. He led with a haymaker.”
Doyle had 28 fights in the army, winning them all, 27 by knockout. Dan Sullivan, a boxing promoter, bought him out of his army commission. Doyle charmed the boxing world. He smiled when he entered the ring. Women threw flowers at his feet. He won 10 straight professional fights, in 15 rounds. He became the toast of Mayfair. Sullivan cashed in on Doyle’s tenor’s voice, too, on a singing tour of the UK.
In July, 1933, Doyle got a crack at the British heavyweight boxing title. His opponent was Jack Petersen and 85,000 packed into White City to watch the fight. In Ireland, thousands more crowded around the offices of the Cork Examiner newspaper for a radio broadcast.
The hopes of the Irish nation rested on the shoulders of a 19-year-old, who, they hoped, would become the country’s first British heavyweight boxing champ. The fight was a shambles. Doyle was disqualified in the second round for continually hitting low. Taub, who researched his biography for seven years, says a feverish Doyle was suffering from a venereal disease. His £3,000 purse was confiscated and he was banned from boxing for six months.
Doyle took up acting. The social scene in Hollywood suited him, although he was a wooden actor.
His two action-hero films bombed at the box office. His first wife, Judith Allen, was more successful on screen, although she quickly tired of his philandering, ending their marriage with a terse telegram: “FINISHED.”
Doyle’s dalliance with Delphine Dodge, the Dodge car-heiress, ended more dramatically. When Dodge, who was 12 years older than Doyle, divorced her husband to marry Doyle, her family intervened, dispatching a gunman to scare off the Irish gold-digger.
Doyle’s comeback in the ring ended ignominiously with two first-round defeats to British heavyweight champion, Eddie Phillips, in the summer of 1939. Within a few months, Doyle met and married Movita. They established a stage show that packed out theatres in London, Belfast and Dublin.
Doyle was demented and dangerous from drink. “Movita’s jealousy upset him,” says Taub. “He was past his best, but women still flocked around him. He was having loads of women on the side. He didn’t even conceal it. She was absolutely scared out of her wits of Jack. In drink, he was a monster.”
One Christmas Day, Movita caught him cavorting with a woman in a taxi outside their residence. Doyle exploded, and dragged Movita by her hair indoors. He knocked her out. She miscarried, and left him shortly afterwards.
Doyle spent the last 30 years of his life living with an Irish woman, Nancy Keogh, in London, although she left him about 15 or 16 months before he died, from cirrhosis of the liver, in 1978. He had been living on the streets.
Undertaker Peter Barry brought Doyle’s body back to Cobh, where he is buried; Doyle had worked for Barry’s father as a child.
Doyle had put up Barry’s brother, Colin, for three weeks in his two-room flat in London in 1960. Doyle had introduced him around Notting Hill as a son from his marriage to Movita.
“On one particular occasion, he was low on bobs,” says Colin. “Bing Crosby was in London. He conjured up this ruse that he’d go up to the manager of a local hotel and give him a story that he was going to have an interview with Bing Crosby tomorrow. He claimed he was going to get £2,000 for the interview, and asked him would he give him £1,000 on the strength of that.
“I was supposed to be a reporter from one of the London papers. ‘Christ, I couldn’t do that,’ I said. ‘I’d have to take off an English accent.’ ‘Oh, you’ll be alright, son,’ he said. So he got a loan of a briefcase.
“He put about three pens in my top pocket, went up and introduced me to the hotel manager. He went into the office with the manager and I waited outside.
“He was only gone five minutes and he gave me a big wink and off we went to the pub. He put £300 up on the counter to buy the bar drink.”
Roy Brophy drove the hearse that brought Doyle’s body from Dún Laoghaire to his grave in Cobh. He got a puncture at Kildare Town on the drive down. He says Doyle’s body was so heavy that a hydraulic car jack couldn’t elevate the car high enough to change the tyre. He had to perch the car on a high footpath instead.
“I was the last man to box Jack Doyle, so to speak,” he says.
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