The Mysterious Montague

A True Tale of Hollywood,
Golf and Armed Robbery

By Leigh Montville

Doubleday. 303 pp. $26


Reviewed by David Cohen


He did not want to be famous.

Usually, it's easy for a person to remain obscure. But John Montague had two things working against him: He was an amazing golfer, and he was playing in the 1930s amid Hollywood's movie colony, with the likes of Bing Crosby, Oliver Hardy, Humphrey Bogart, W.C. Fields and others. He once won a bet against Crosby playing a hole with a rake, a shovel and a bat.

Montague did his best to deflect attention, but word of his play - plus his many trick shots and dazzling feats of strength - got around. Grantland Rice, the best sportswriter of his generation (and perhaps any generation), played with him and extolled his skills in print. The acidic Westbrook Pegler followed, as did others.

The writers found out enough to know they were missing a chunk of the story. "A sinister sort of mystery surrounds him," columnist Joe Williams wrote in 1937. "Hundreds of people have met him, no one knows him."

Eventually it became clear why: The man responsible for all those eagles was actually a bird who had flown the coop. He had been born LaVerne Moore and was wanted in connection with a nasty 1930 armed robbery in upstate New York. After his photo was published in a national magazine, he was finally sent back to face charges. The 1937 trial would bring Montague national attention, for a little while anyway.

Montague's story is the subject of this relaxed, conscientious biography by Leigh Montville, author of books about Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Manute Bol and others. By its very nature, the book can't help but contemplate the nature of celebrity, and that's where the strength of this compelling work lies.

In this era of reality TV, YouTube and MySpace, it seems hard to believe that there was ever anyone anywhere who didn't wish to become well-known. And while, for instance, numerous "stars" of reality shows are famous for being on television and little else, Montague had many people convinced he was among the best golfers anywhere, a capable mixture of power and finesse. With Rice in his corner - "I'll take him as an even bet against any golfer you can name," he wrote in 1935 - Montague could have been a legend.

The author seems to regard this whole tale as a bit of a tragedy. By the time Montague's legal issues were resolved, his golf game had faded. Montague merited plenty of blame for his decline - the author clearly believes his protagonist was guilty of many things, beginning with that armed robbery.

Still, within a few years, Montague was pegged as a novelty act. That long-ago bet with Crosby became a defining point of his identity, and spectators would sometimes kick his ball into the rough, just to force him to try a trick shot. "No guy ever fell out of the sports pages quite as quickly as Montague," wrote Bob Considine in 1940.

Picking up on Rice's cue, Montville believes Montague was actually something more - a skilled golfer who had a new approach to the game.

This book ultimately reminded me of another sports biography,

The Catcher Was a Spy,

Nicholas Dawidoff's book about baseball misfit Moe Berg. The backstory is different - Berg was an eccentric genius who spied for the U.S. government - but both tell fascinating tales of fringe celebrities who became "characters."

The concluding section of the Berg book, capturing him in his messy, pathetic decline, came to mind as I read of Montague in his final decades, blowing through his money as he tries one scheme after another to capitalize on the dying flickers of his fame.

At this point, there's no way of knowing if Rice really had it right about Montague's skills. But somehow it's satisfying to have Montville make the case for them both.

Contact Inquirer staff writer David Cohen at 215-854-5008 or dcohen@phillynews.com.