forgottennewsmakers

JOHN MONTAGUE (1903 – 1972) Fugitive Golfer

In Biography, California History, Golf, History, Hollywood, Sports on November 30, 2010 at 6:44 PM

John Montague (photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis)

When John Montague arrived in Hollywood he brought his golf clubs and some secrets.  His personal strength and the way he played golf were so incredible that he made friends easily, and nobody cared where he came from or why he was there. 

Montague was born LaVerne Moore in Syracuse, New York to a blue collar family.  He distinguished himself early on from his older brother and younger sisters as an energetic kid with a quick mind.  He spent hours developing his body by using the beams in the attic as his jungle gym.  What he did to develop strength and stamina might seem like torture.  After lifting weights, Montague strapped weights to his wrists and ankles and stood motionless in the dark for an hour.

A natural athlete, Montague excelled at baseball, football, basketball, skiing, pool and golf.  For all his impressive talent on local teams as a kid, it was golf that made him famous.  When he was seven years old, he found a golf ball in the street and fashioned a club out of a discarded elbow from a gas pipe and a broom handle.  He whacked that ball directly into the plate glass window of the cigar store across the street.  

 DEVELOPING A SKILL SET                   His dad’s reaction was to pay for the window and buy Montague a set of clubs.  His brother, Harold, became his first instructor, and as a teenager he developed a powerful drive and some tricks.  One crowd pleaser was to bury three golf balls on top of each other in a sand trap and ask which one he should hit.  Every time he sent the designated ball flying, leaving the other two resting in the sand. 

About 1934 Montague brought his talent, pranks and bag of custom, oversized golf clubs to Hollywood and fell in with the celebrity crowd at Lakeside golf course.  At five foot ten inches tall and 220 pounds, he became the club champion at age 30.  Everything about Montague was bigger, stronger and wilder than anyone had seen before. 

Montague lived with Oliver Hardy for a while, and every time his 300 pound friend walked into the grill room at Lakeside, Montague would singlehandedly pick him up and hoist him onto the bar.  He stuffed character actor George Bancroft upside down in a locker and shut the door. 

But it was his golfing that gave him the most notoriety.  After winning a round against Bing Crosby, Montague proposed a bet to appease his complaining partner.  They would play one more hole, 366 yards par 4, with Crosby using his clubs and Montague using a baseball bat, a shovel and a rake.  Crosby hit a drive about 250 yards, then got to the middle of the green but missed the putt for a birdie by two feet.  Montague tossed his ball into the air and hit it into a greenside sand trap.  With one swipe of the shovel he got onto the middle of the green about 30 feet from the pin.  Then he got down on the ground and used the rake as a pool cue to sink his ball in three.

Montague loved the attention he got, but he let everyone else do the bragging about his exploits.  He refused to talk about himself or disclose his background.  He only admitted to being an amateur golfer and claimed to have some mining interests in the Nevada desert.  Even though he was often encouraged to join the pro tour, he would reply that he played golf for other reasons.  He refused to play in tournaments or to have his picture taken. 

Sportswriter Grantland Rice played a few rounds with Montague and wrote an article that brought him into the public eye.  Time magazine published an article about him in 1937, and they hired a freelance photographer to hide in the bushes and get photos.  Montague was barely recognizable, but they were published anyway.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?                                  In August 1930, a few years before Montague surfaced in California, Hana’s restaurant in the Adirondack Mountains of New York was robbed by four men wearing masks and wielding revolvers.  The dining room was connected to an apartment where the Hana family lived.  One gunman forced Hana and his wife to the floor while another one went into the residence and bound and gagged the children.  Another robber found the grandfather, Matt Cobb, and when he tried to defend himself, he was hit on the head with the butt of a gun.  Elizabeth Hana was forced to empty the safe, and after another brawl with Cobb, knocking him unconscious, the thieves escaped with about $750.

The cops were staked out looking for bootleggers making a run, so when a speeding car shot by, the chase was on.  Two of the thieves were in a Ford, and the passenger turned off the headlights causing the driver to go into a ditch, killing himself.  The cops arrested the passenger.  The other two accomplices were in a Pontiac that was stopped by State Police a little later.  The passenger, who identified himself as Lawrence Ryan, talked the pair out of the situation.  Two days later the driver turned himself in.  After finding a set of golf clubs, letters, a driver’s license and draft notice in the trunk of the Pontiac, the police were convinced that Lawrence Ryan was really LaVerne Moore of Syracuse. 

Five days later the police went to Moore’s house and talked to his mother.  She said her son had left the day after the robbery and had no idea where he was.  In fact, no one did; Moore had just disappeared. 

YOU CAN RUN BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE   When New York State Police inspector John Cosart saw the article about Montague in Time he was excited.  He had been working on the Hana case for seven years, waiting for the fourth robber to surface, and the similarities between Moore and Montague’s athletic prowess could not be coincidental.  He asked the Los Angeles Police Department for help, and John Montague was arrested and charged with armed robbery.  In jail he admitted that his real name was LaVerne Moore from Syracuse, New York.  He was released on $10,000 bail and signed the papers “John Montague,” giving “LaVerne Moore” as an alias.

Since he was no longer on the lam, Montague posed for photographs and answered reporters’ questions. He didn’t reveal anything personal; he just said he had made a mistake when he was a kid and had been trying to make good.  Montague’s celebrity friends were shocked to learn he was a fugitive and expressed their support.

Being wanted was not totally new to Montague.  Back in 1927 he was arrested for impersonating a police officer to a grocery store owner who sold alcohol during Prohibition.  He was trying to extort payments from the shopkeeper to keep mum about the liquor sales.  He agreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge and got off with paying a fine.

On August 21, 1937, Montague was extradited to New York.  When he arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles for the three-day trip, he had porters carrying 20 bags with his wardrobe, and there were a hundred people cheering him as he boarded the train. 

When he arrived in New York, Montague spent his 34th birthday in jail while the judge decided on bail.  The next day he was released on a $25,000 bond.  Montague hadn’t communicated with his mom in the seven years he was away, and he had told reporters that when he was released he would go directly to her house.  When the time came, however, he went to a cocktail party instead. 

HAVING HIS DAY IN COURT               People from all over the country were following the trial of the decade.  Additional phone lines had to be installed to accommodate the influx of reporters.  Montague stayed at the Deer’s Head Inn where he rented 17 rooms for himself, his lawyers and out of town friends.  Photos of Montague signing autographs for teenage girls outside the courtroom were published in papers nationwide. 

Witnesses for the prosecution included members of the Hana family, police officers, and Roger Norton, one of the convicted robbers.  The personal items found in the trunk of the Pontiac were entered as evidence.  Mrs. Hana and one daughter incriminated Montague saying they heard one of the robbers call another by the name of “Verne.” 

In his defense, Montague’s lawyer called four character witnesses and then his mom, who gave him an alibi.  She said her son was home sleeping in his bed on the night of the robbery and also the next night.  His two sisters corroborated their mother’s testimony, and a friend testified that he hit balls at the driving range with the defendant the night of the crime.  William Carlton, another one of the convicted accomplices in the robbery testified that Montague wasn’t the fourth partner and explained that his stuff was in the trunk of the car because they had taken a trip together and were planning another one.  And then, to everyone’s surprise, Montague took the stand on his own behalf, recounting the last seven years of his life.

After five hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict of not guilty.  The crowd cheered when it was read.  The judge disagreed with the verdict and told the jury that he was disappointed they didn’t convict Montague.  Nevertheless, Montague’s celebrity status and expensive lawyer paid off, and he was a free man.

TRYING TO GET HIS LIFE BACK      On November 14, 1937 Montague was to play his first public exhibition match in a foursome with Babe Ruth and Babe Didrikson.  Unfortunately, it was not a fun match to play.  So many spectators showed up that Montague waited 15 minutes for the crowd to move back far enough so he could take his second shot on the first hole.  By the ninth hole, the players were ready to quit.  They all got their balls on the green and walked away without putting.  

A week later Montague, 34 years old, was back in Hollywood, overweight from too much partying.  He legally changed his name to John Montague and started playing competitively, but his game was not the same.  His friends tried to defend his reputation, but his high scores spoke louder.  He finally got Wilson Sporting Goods as a sponsor for a tour of exhibition games in Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan, but they dropped him when he returned to the States.

Montague secretly married the widow Esther Plunkett who had two kids.  This was one positive thing in his life, especially since she helped out with financial support, but his professional endeavors never lived up to their expectations.  He entered the U.S. Open but then didn’t make the cut.  He joined an investment opportunity with Johnny Weissmuller, John Wayne and Fred MacMurray but then sued them when it went bad. 

Montague’s life spiraled downhill after his wife died in 1947.  Within two years he was arrested for drunk driving and had a heart attack.  In 1963 he fell off a ladder and was in the hospital for seven weeks.  He had dozens of ideas to make money, but none of them ever panned out.  In May, 1972 Montague had another heart attack and died.  His body lay unclaimed in the mortuary for a week.  Finally a friend identified Montague and planned a funeral service that only 29 people attended.   

QUESTION:  Have you ever gotten away with something you knew you should have been punished for?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Montville, Leigh, The Mysterious Montague. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,882762-1,00.html

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,758136,00.html

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/montague-the-magnificent.html

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