Many years ago, when the famed prizefighter Stanley Ketchel was reported dead, his ex-manager, Wilson Mizner, had a suggestion: "Start to count to 10. If he doesn't get up, he's dead--or it isn't Stanley Ketchel."
I had somewhat the same reactions of disbelief at the news that my longtime friend, Aileen Eaton, was gone. Aileen wouldn't go if there were a fight to be made, a house to be scaled, receipts to be counted, a promotion to start or a manager haggling over a contract. Aileen never took a 10-count in her life, either.
Boxing's Lady in Red was as tough as any middleweight that ever headlined her shows. "If she'd been a man," manager Willie Ketchum once said, "she'd of been Fritzie Zivic."
Since Fritzie Zivic was known as a fighter who would do everything he had to, legal or otherwise, to beat you, this was high compliment from the fight mob. An indignant manager, after hours of haggling, once rose to sputter at her, "Mrs. Eaton, you're no gentleman!"
Aileen was undaunted. She once said, "I have never met a boxer who was a cad--but I've met plenty of stockbrokers who were."
Aileen brought a touch of mink to boxing. She wasn't crinoline and old lace but neither was she arsenic and old lace. She never showed up at ringside in jeans and a sweat shirt. She didn't chew tobacco or smoke cigars or spit out of the sides of her mouth. She wore gowns and jewelry and perfume on fight night. She couldn't have been more dressed up at the opera.
Her hair was red and she had the temper to go with it. She came from a very proper Vancouver (Canada) family, and I often wondered how tongue-tied the mother who had so much trouble getting out, "My son, the bullfighter," would have been if she had to say, "My daughter, the fight promoter."
Boxing tends to dirty ordinary citizens who get mixed up in its shadowy business but it never laid a glove on Aileen Eaton. She was tough but honest.
Many years ago, I wrote of her start in the business:
"There are certain things no lady should do--chew tobacco, smoke cigars, or promote fights with anyone except her husband.
"The trouble is, a fight promoter is supposed to be a Damon Runyon character in an iron hat and unlit cigar with a scratch sheet in his pocket, his office in his hat and larceny in his heart. He sleeps with his shoes on and, on a crowded day, his office looks like a parole office. He has ulcers, the outlook on life of a condemned man and his rhetoric, while ringing, runs to four-letter words or to a barely comprehensible flow of Greek, Yiddish, or Cockney or shanty Irish.
"Aileen has hair of red and eyes of blue and her English is as good as Churchill's. The first fight she ever saw, she promoted. She was so green that when someone asked her what she did for a living, she said brightly, 'I fix fights.'
"She had a matchmaker for a while who did precisely that. The late Babe McCoy (it was pointed out he wasn't even the real McCoy--his right handle was Harry Rudolph) was a pale, porcine Captain Bligh character. He was a firm believer in the maxim that true art improves on nature, with the results that his fights had an artistic, if unnatural, outcome to them.
"The fight mob was resentful when the state copped his license for the piddling offense of scripting fights, particularly when it developed there had been only 7 of them in 10 years. In the old days, there would have been that many on a single card.
"Aileen got into boxing as a secretary for the lease-holder of the Olympic Auditorium. Owner Frank Garbutt loved fights but, at the prices he was paying, it would have been cheaper to bring them to his living room.
"Aileen noticed that his seat was costing him an average of several thousand dollars a fight. Investigation showed the promoter had a poor grasp of fractions and was scaling each show at 110% of the house. Garbutt sent her down to see if she could get him a cheaper seat.
"Aileen formed a partnership with boxing commission inspector, Alvah (Cal) Eaton, whose job it was to go down in the dressing room before fights to make sure nobody put horseshoes in the gloves. Aileen needed someone who could go into dressing rooms because she couldn't.
"The pair hired McCoy to make matches, but Babe balked when he got a look at the part of the partnership that came in high heels.
" 'I don't work with no dames, especially redheads,' he announced. 'She goes with the lease,' Cal told him gloomily and Babe finally relented but with a proviso. 'OK, but the first time she cries, I go!' He was still waiting 20 years later."
It was a different Los Angeles Aileen moved in. Boxing was the king of sports then. Ringside was awash with the movie greats--busty blondes and bronzed leading men--civic leaders rubbing elbows with prominent gamblers who were shortly to take the act to Las Vegas. Fight night was a happening.
Aileen loved it. She presided over it with a sure, if manicured and jewelled hand. She surveyed it with these bold, fearless blue eyes that looked at the world as if daring it to try to run a con on her.
It would be nice if they have a small fight club somewhere out there today that needs straightening out and has a drawing card with a knockout punch who will work for straight percentage, and maybe Gable and Lombard and Jolson at ringside and a good radio contract.
Aileen will take it from there. Heaven is a Thursday night sellout and a knockout in the main event and a rematch to haggle over in the morning.