THE STORY of John Montague never made it to the big screen, which makes one wonder where Hollywood writers have been looking for ideas all these years. After all, Montague's legend sprouted in their backyard and was burnished by some of the town's biggest stars. Montague appeared in Los Angeles in the early 1930s and, as a fixture at celebrity-ridden Lakeside Golf Club, became known as the country's best and most mysterious golfer. He was a scratch player, but his appeal was mainly as a trick-shot artist and strongman. "His talents," former SI senior writer Leigh Montville writes in The Mysterious Montague, "were talents that all of the otherwise talented men [in Hollywood] secretly wanted."
Montague could knock a bird off a wire from 175 yards away. He could lift 300-pound Oliver Hardy with one hand. He once beat his pal Bing Crosby, no slouch on the course, using a baseball bat, a rake and a shovel. Or maybe he didn't. As Montville, the author of best-selling biographies of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, points out, the facts were difficult to separate from fiction. Montague became a celebrity among celebrities—he played with Howard Hughes, drank with Johnny Weissmuller, was written about by Grantland Rice—yet shunned publicity himself. He refused to have his picture taken, and never entered a pro event. "Montague simply refused to pursue his talent," writes Montville. "Why?"
The mystery unraveled after TIME surreptitiously snapped his photo in 1937: Police in Oneida, N.Y., realized that the so-called Sphinx of the Links was actually LaVerne Moore, an ex-bootlegger wanted for a 1930 armed robbery. Relying heavily on newspaper accounts, Montville vividly re-creates Montague's high-profile trial. (The golfer was acquitted, thanks to a defense lawyer hired by Crosby.)
But The Mysterious Montague is more than a recoloring of Depression-era tabloids. Montague was a quintessential figure in '30s Hollywood, a place where, to borrow from Lionel Barrymore, half the people were dying to be discovered and the other half were afraid they would be. Montville paints Montague as someone who thrived (and later in life suffered) because even celebrities can be starstruck. Hollywood missed this story, but the screen's loss is Montville's—and his readers'—gain.
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