2 minute read

Joe Louis

Declining Years

For the rest of his life, Joe Louis would struggle with financial difficulties. Money came from personal appearances, exhibition matches, and even a mercifully brief stint in professional wrestling. From 1955 to 1958, he was married to Rose Morgan, a successful beautician with her own business who could foot most of the bills. In 1959, he married attorney Martha Malone Jefferson, moving into her home in Los Angeles. Under political pressure, the IRS settled with Louis for payments of $20,000 a year on taxes owed, but even that sum remained out of reach.

In the 1960s, Louis' life began to unravel. He took up with a prostitute, identified as "Marie" in his autobiography, who presented him with a son in December of 1967. The Louises adopted the boy, naming him Joseph. At the same time, Louis began to get involved with drugs, including cocaine, and began to show signs of mental illness, warning his friends and family of plots against his life. For a few months, he was committed to a mental institution in Colorado. Martha stuck by him, and with her help and encouragement, he quit cocaine. Unfortunately, his paranoid delusions continued intermittently, though much of the time he was his old, genial self.

In 1970, Caesar's Palace, in Las Vegas, hired him as a greeter, a job which involved signing autographs, betting with house money when the action seemed a little slow, and playing golf with special guests. The job suited him, and the casino even provided him housing, as well as $50,000 a year. Joe Louis lived and worked at the Palace until a massive heart attack felled him on April 12, 1981.

Joe Louis' funeral became a huge media event. A nation that had almost forgotten him suddenly remembered everything he had meant, hailing him anew as a great boxer who had restored class and integrity to professional boxing. Three thousand mourners gathered to hear tributes from speakers like Jesse Jackson, who saluted Joe Louis for "snatching down the cotton curtain" and opening up the world of big-league sporting to black athletes. Perhaps the greatest tribute came from Muhammad Ali, who told a reporter: "From black folks to red-neck Mississippi crackers, they loved him. They're all crying. That shows you. Howard Hughes dies, with all his billions, not a tear. Joe Louis, everybody cried."

Champion: Joe Louis

Journalists repeatedly wrote that Louis slept and ate a lot, read the comics, rooted for the Detroit Tigers, and liked to play baseball and golf. Coupled with the habit of quoting Louis in Uncle Remus dialect, these stories began to shape an image of Louis as a typical "darkie."

There was no truth to any of these generalizations. Even in the ring, much less outside it, Louis did not exhibit cruelty. He did not foul or eagerly attack his opponents when they were hurt or show pleasure at their pain. Nor was he indolent; Louis trained hard, and any writer who covered his training camps knew it. As far as his mind went, Louis was no intellectual, but what boxer was? All this imagery arose from one thing and one thing only: Louis' race.

Source: Mead, Chris. Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America. London: Robson Books, 1986.

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsBoxingJoe Louis Biography - Growing Up, The Amateur Years, Turning Pro, Chronology, The Brown Bomber, Awards And Accomplishments - SELECTED WRITINGS BY LOUIS: