From the Vault of Art Shay: The Story of Kingfish Levinsky
King Levinsky (left) and Ben Schwab, Maxwell Street, 1931. Copyright MMI Phillip Koch, All Rights Reserved.
You're looking at an historic PR snapshot made on Maxwell Street in 1931. It is an early simulacrum of a high five greeting between two toughs in front of a Jewish shoe and cap store caparisoned with a super-goyish Endicott-Johnson "long wear, low cost" sign. The fedora-down-to-his-nose recipient of the expertly staged greeting slap is none other than tiny Ben Schwab, a minuscule pugilist whose greatest achievement in life was having knocked out one Young Hanna in the first round of a Knights of Pythias Lodge exhibition on June 17, 1907.
The swagger-striding 21-year-old slapper about to make contact with Ben is the lean and mean - ears still ucauliflowered! - Chicago fighter King Levinsky, alias Kingfish Levinsky, next alias Canvasback Levinsky. In a year the Jewish streetfighter would beat Jack Dempsey in Dempsey's four round try at a comeback and in that terrible 1932, would narrowly lose to Max Baer on points in 10 rounds, repeating his feat July 4 in Reno in front of such cheering fans as movie cowboy Tom Mix and gruff actor Wallace Beery, probably researching his role as The Champ with Jackie Cooper in the corner of his sentimental heart.
Enter a real champ, Joe Louis, 21, who in 1935 put the Kingfish's lights out in 2:21 of the first round, having already knocked out 18 of his first 23 opponents.
There are, as Algren used to say, has-beens and never-weres. Levinsky (real name: Harris Krakow; real profession: fish peddling) was a crowd-pleasing never-was, and some attention should be paid to him in this, his 102nd year. Alas, he died in 1991 at age 81. He had 79 wins in 119 fights, and used to boast he had earned $350,000. Also leaving behind a reputation as, of all Chicago trades, a creative (in truth aggressive) seller of ties. In South Beach, near Miami near the 5th Street Gym, and in Chicago when the snows cleared away and Riccardo catered to outdoor lunchers and dinner guests who loved eating al fresco on Rush Street in the shadow of the Wrigley Building.
As waiter Alfredo juggled his Hohner accordion through the tables playing "Peg o' My Heart", "Nola" and "Josefina Stop A-Leanin' on My Bell". My favorite was a number Alfredo played with three other singing waiters snaking through the tables marching behind him: "Close the Doors- They're Coming Through the Windows-Close the Windows, They're Coming Through The Doors." The diners chimed in .
The year was 1948 and I was a young Life magazine writer-idea man, new to Chicago. I hadn't yet taken to carrying a camera, unfortunately. I was in the middle of pitching a story to Life on an Italian organ grinder whose sister was coming to see him from Italy. They hadn't seen each other for 30 years. I also pitched the radio-TV show run by Ralph Edwards. Thus it was that the CBS crew came to document this meeting, and we at Life covered them covering it, and a few weeks later I'd dragged the guy and his monkey up to Rosedale Avenue and hired the pair to lighten up my 3-year-old daughter Jane's third birthday party. To put the time frame in perspective-Jan just retired from her law firm the other day.
The TV guys asked me if there were any other characters hanging around Riccardo's they should film. I immediately thought of another story on my to-do list: King Levinsky. Alas, I had no address or phone number for the guy, and even the great columnist Kup said, "Nobody finds him: he finds you."
Why was he on my story list? I had seen him two or three times working the lunch crowd. He would stop at a table, smile, then whip out a big tailor shears... and cut off the tie of his victim. Then he would produce a handful of ties, wave them under the frightened man's nose, and force a tie on him. "Matches real good," he'd say, holding out his hand. "Two-fifty please- and I don't carry no change."
I had not thought of the Kingfish until the other week when a bright couple of documentary film makers, Phil and Sally Koch - who run an outfit called The Film Police - interviewed me and Florence on camera about our memories of Riccardo's restaurant 63 years ago.
In their documentary the Koches hope to resurrect the atmosphere of wonderful nonsense that pervaded that greatest of all gathering places for the Chicago press, show people and sports people who dined there.
In this quest Koch was able to collect and copyright the high five picture at the top of this story. Sad to say, pictures can be found of the King with Louis, Baer and Dempsey - and even on his back on the canvas. But, to the shame of my profession- so far- none showing this ill-starred but likable schlub cutting off a Countess Mara and replacing it with a cheapie from the bunch of dreck under his jacket.
If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Nelson Algren's Chicago, is also available at Amazon.