Floyd Patterson—my personal favorite heavyweight champ—moved to Great Neck Estates in 1965. Once nicknamed “Freud” Patterson by sportswriters, the fighter was now surrounded by Jewish psychiatrists. Here is a speculation on his inner life, from my upcoming novel, All Roads Lead To Great Neck.
Floyd Patterson bought a $75,000 home in Great Neck Estates, surrounded by Jewish psychiatrists. This was ironic because Patterson had long before come to be nicknamed “Freud” Patterson by the sporting press. Introverted and suffering depression, words always hurt him more than left jabs. “The killer instinct can be harmful,” he said, often helping his opponents to their feet. The most conflicted of heavyweight champs, Patterson, it was said, had “the instincts of a fighter and the compassion of a priest.” He was urbane, devout, baptized Catholic right before winning the title in 1956. “I’m not a great champion,” he said. “Just a champion.” His feelings remained delicate.
Patterson had previously lived in Mt. Vernon, a neighborhood bordering Scarsdale, which was the Great Neck of Westchester. Back in 1956, the residents of Mt. Vernon seemed delighted to have the new heavyweight champ in their midst. But along with Floyd came his extended family of children, brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents. The Patterson family experienced several “relatively minor” racial episodes. His neighbor, Dr. Morelli, built a high Redwood fence along the ninety feet adjoining their properties. Patterson countered with his own fence. The Morellis moved. His eight-year-old daughter, the only Black girl at a Catholic school, was harassed by older white boys. And the washing machine serviceman was continually hitting on his wife Sandra, while the fighter was upstate training. Patterson figured the service guy rigged the machine to continually break so he’d be called back.
Patterson saw Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” about moving from the slums into the suburbs. The domestic “mama-on-the-couch” tragedy made him cry. He decided to move and relocated to Rockville Center. But that was not upscale enough. By the mid-60s, he decided that if there was any suburb in the whole of America where a successful Black man could raise his family in splendor, it would be Great Neck. Scarsdale be damned. And not just any part of Great Neck, but the Village of Great Neck Estates. Enclave of Jewish psychiatrists. Patterson was welcomed with bouquets of flowers, left on his doorstep by local merchants and housewives.
But he was a loner. There were two Self-Righteous Negroes already living in Great Neck Estates. One was a surgeon who drilled military manners into his boys, and the other a Black psychiatrist. When Patterson happened upon both, all were terribly uncomfortable together. The doctors were pillars of upstanding morals and citizenship, as if self-consciously doing public relations for the whole race. Patterson was merely down to earth. James Brown also expressed a desire to move to Kings Point in Great Neck around this time. Both doctors were against this.
Patterson led an ascetic, spartan life of training. He never carried an entourage. He simply loved to box. A tough guy’s chess ballet. He didn’t like to hurt opponents, didn’t like to cut them, and seemed mortified when he knocked someone out. Particularly Ingmar Johannson, in their second bout, when Patterson avenged his loss and regained the heavyweight championship for the second time. He saw Johannson’s left foot twitching in convulsion as he lay unconscious on the mat. That gave him nightmares. The two became lifelong friends.
And so, Patterson would visit Johannson in Sweden at least once a year. Which begged the question--Why not move to Sweden? He started five Floyd Burger hamburger franchises in Sweden, where he remained ever popular because of his fights with Johannson. American Blacks had abandoned him, considered him an Uncle Tom like Louis Armstrong. There were no fight people in Great Neck, no brothers from the streets of Bed-Stuy where he grew up. Yet Swedes acted like family. Old Swedish ladies kissed his hand, gave him gifts. He didn’t want special treatment and was uncomfortable being a celebrity.
In Great Neck, Patterson would find peace, after the initial fanfare of welcome. Surrounded by analysts. Well, everyone left him alone, respected his privacy. But one day, at the local A&P supermarket, Patterson experienced an incident, relatively minor if not for the outrageously inappropriate manner in which it transpired. While standing in the checkout line with his cart, Patterson felt a blow to his back. He intuitively fell into a crouch and turned around, stunned. There stood Dr. Herbert Goodman, a psychiatrist, who punched Patterson in the back while standing behind in line. Grinning like a boy. An attempt at sophomoric camaraderie with the illustrious champ, whom Goodman had recognized. The soft-spoken Patterson was tolerant but terribly unamused. “Please never do that again,” he firmly told the doctor. Would Patterson have lobbed a psychiatric diagnosis at Goodman on the supermarket line?
Months later, at another grocery store, Dr. Goodman again found himself joining his place in line behind Patterson. In a gesture of sporting humor, he once again socked the legendary athlete in the back. Patterson pivoted and stepped forward with a stiff open-handed blow to the solar plexus, which sent the psychiatrist reeling backward at great velocity, where he crashed into a pyramid of soup cans that collapsed over his body. Like a stupid scene in a lamebrain comedy.
Patterson came to help him up, just like in the ring. Chuckling as he gathered his wits on the floor, Goodman, clearly shaken, brushed off the cans with a goofy smile.
“Wow,” said the doctor, as if blessed by his good fortune, “I’ve been floored by the champ.”
But once again, Patterson’s psyche was wounded. Would anyone have dared to playfully punch Sonny Liston in the back? Was Patterson regarded as some teddy bear? Could it be that Goodman was so sheltered within the psychiatric profession, that he’d become socially retarded beyond reason? That he could exercise such incredibly bad judgment in public?
The next incident of note occurred one lazy Sunday in the gentle suburb. Patterson made his first visit to Irving’s Delicatessen on Middle Neck Road. It specialized in smoked fish, lox, carp, the foods one eats with bagels. He’d already gotten his Sunday Times at Frederick’s, which rested under his arm as he looked over the appetizers behind the counter glass. He took his ticket.
The pressure on Irving in the days before Yom Kippur was relentless. You wouldn’t believe how much aggravation, when families broke the fast. The amounts of lox to be sliced, the pre-orders to be assembled before for the High Holy Days. Irving put every bit of his haunch, paunch and jowl into the effort. There was a customer, Mrs. Kalish, who had the gall to complain about her elderly father’s gastro-intestinal rejection of Irving’s sesame seed bagels. Undigested sesame seeds lay in his intestine, for G-d knows how long.
“So don’t eat the sesame bagels. Try onion,” said Irving, throwing up his hands. Such were the scenes of drama at Irving’s. Then he saw the champ standing in his own store and turned all smiles.
“Can I help you, Mr. Patterson?”
“Do you carry Swedish meatballs?”
“Sorry, that we don’t got.”
“What do you recommend?”
“Well, Mr. Patterson, have you ever tried gefilte fish?” said Irving, rolling up his sleeves over hirsute forearms.
“No, but give me five of them.”
“You got it. How about chubs?” asked Irving.
“What are they?”
“Oh, gee, I don’t think I’d want baby anything,” came Patterson. He saw the shriveled eyes of the poor whitefish staring back.
“How about chopped herring?” asked Irving. “It’s Alan King’s favorite chopped herring. Here, try it,” he said, offering up a spoonful to this most distinguished customer.
Patterson put it to his mouth. His lips puckered in a foul expression.
“No thanks. But I’ll take 10 onion bagels.”
“Morty,” yelled Irving, “Bag a dozen onions. Two on the house.”
A fresh delivery just arrived from the East New York Sanitary Bagel Corp. in Brooklyn. Rolled by master bagel baker, Hy Masel himself.
In the corner, amongst the customers who took tickets, stood a large, white-pompadoured man. Aflie Hertz, Great Neck’s own Jewish albino pimp, an anomaly in the trade. With one of his vixens, who looked like a Vegas showgirl. That he splurged for delicatessen on Sunday said a lot about the care and feeding of his girls. The ditzy brunette, with ample cleavage, removed a box of Cracker Jacks from her pocketbook and popped a few in her mouth. Alfie suddenly slapped it out of her hand.
“Traif!” he shouted, tugging at the box, “At least put down the traif while you’re here!” It was a Yiddish term for pig-slop.
“But I want my Cwacka Jacks,” she whined, reaching to the floor. The small store fell silent. Alfie bitch-slapped her across the face, in plain sight and sound of all the customers, Irving and Patterson included. This ignited within Patterson the position into which he found himself involuntarily thrust so many times.
Here a woman was being violated in his presence—the presence of a fighter at the time ranked ninth in the world, a ranking that vexed Patterson to no end, having slipped down from third since he just lost to Cassius Clay. But a man, nonetheless, who treated all women with respect, who did a slight bow upon meeting them. It was a situation he found himself in repeatedly—that of superman in the midst of trouble that he could easily resolve by using his super powers. But could not use on ordinary citizens, except in dire circumstances. His fists were licensed weapons. Licensed by The New York State Athletic Commission, of which he’d soon become Commissioner himself. Once Patterson encountered a road-raged driver in Queens who came up to his car window and stabbed him in the hand with a knife. Only then did he get out of his car, hook the guy unconscious, stand him up against a wall, and leave. The attacker had deserved much worse.
So what should he do now, turn away? What would Sonny Liston do? Well, that was easy. Liston would have done nothing, he could care less how an albino pimp treated bitches. Liston would probably side with the pimp. But this was Floyd Patterson, the anti-Liston, on a bagel line in Great Neck. Liston had never waited on line for bagels in his life.
The pimp raised his hand again to the woman.
“Excuse me, Sir,” Patterson interjected, “is that necessary?” Patterson’s voice was far from commanding. But Hertz stopped bolt upright and squinted his eyes at the familiar face. Patterson looked every bit the movie star. The sly upward curl of a muscular eyebrow, the squint that made him unwittingly cool and suave. And Black. But Hertz knew that squint, and had already faced down every spade pimp this side of the Nassau County line. There weren’t many. Maybe a couple. He could sense Floyd was no ordinary fellow, but the fact this was the former heavyweight champion of the world didn’t enter his mind.
At that moment Irving himself came to the rescue, toddling from behind the counter in his apron.
“You can’t do that in here,” said Irving, belly up to the disturbance. “This is an appetizing store.”
“What?” said Hertz, aware by now that the squint of Floyd Patterson was fixed upon him.
“Don’t bother us," said Irving. "Go bother someone else.”
Irving didn’t seem to care if it happened somewhere else, if this nuisance was redirected upon some other unfortunate proprietor, his fellow man. Just don’t do it here.
“I think you’d better leave,” said Irving.
Alfie stuffed some particularly horrid-smelling coins in the Muscular Dystrophy box at the register. Then took his charge by the arm and stormed out.
It was a TKO. Irving had 86’ed the pimp from his store. Patterson was relieved. Nobody could guess what he would have done had the pimp slapped the woman again. Give it even odds as to whether he would have acted. In Patterson’s mind, he really preferred not to make news of an altercation with an albino pimp and prostitute in a Great Neck bagel store on Sunday.
Patterson left with a sack of fresh onion bagels, a half-pound of lox and a pint of cream cheese. And the gefilte fish, which he never ate.
--Josh Alan Friedman