The thief who reinvented himself as a Hollywood celebrity
THE GOOD LIFE: During the height of his fame, Montague’s Hollywood pals included Bing Crosby, Mack Sennett, and Oliver Hardy.
The new guy showed up as a guest at the Lakeside Golf Club in 1932, paid the $600 membership fee to join a year later, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, he won the club championship the first time he entered it. His said his name was John Montague.
|The Mysterious Montague: A True Tale of Hollywood, Golf, and Armed Robbery | By Leigh Montville | Doubleday | 320 pages | $26|
The Lakeside membership at the time was an all-star cast of Hollywood glitterati that included Bing Crosy, Mack Sennett, and Johnny Weissmuller, along with Oliver Hardy, the broad-beamed half of the famed Laurel and Hardy duo. Montague lived for a time in the home of the recently divorced Hardy, and one of his favorite party tricks involved picking up the rotund comedian with one hand and depositing him on the bar.
When it came to an afternoon fourball he was everybody’s first choice of partners, but by all accounts the new guy would have been considered a valuable addition even if he’d been a mediocre golfer. A hail-fellow-well-met, he was a witty conversationalist who could eat and drink with the best of them. Late-night card games were a staple at Lakeside, and if his skills as a cardsharp didn’t match his abilities on the golf course, it only made him seem less of a hustler.
Montague could do things with a golf ball nobody had ever seen before. He not only regularly drove the par-4 greens at Lakeside, but once, after calling the shot beforehand, picked a bird off a telephone wire with his niblick. In one stretch he played golf nearly every day for a solid month at courses in Palm Springs and Hollywood without ever scoring higher than 68. (His low round was 59.)
His strength was prodigious (on one occasion he cleared the way for a proposed shot by lifting up and moving a 1928 Buick with his bare hands), and in a legendary match he beat Bing Crosby using only a fungo bat, a shovel, and a garden rake in lieu of golf clubs. (Montague’s drive, with the bat, landed in a greenside bunker. He pitched onto the green with the shovel, and then, using the rake as he might have a pool cue, sank the 12-foot birdie putt. Crosby conceded the match on the spot.)
Some might have wondered why such an accomplished golfer hadn’t joined the pro ranks. Montague protested that he was happy to remain an amateur, a gentleman golfer. Besides, in those days the leading money-winner on the PGA Tour earned less than $7000 in purses. Although he apparently didn’t need the dough — he was reported to own “mining interests in the desert” — Montague probably made more than that playing $50 nassaus at Lakeside.
But he was curiously disinclined to enter the more prestigious amateur tournaments — events often won by guys he beat regularly in money games around LA.
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