Lou Stillman & His Famous Filthy Gym
“The golden age of prizefighting was the age of bad food, bad air, bad sanitation, and no sunlight. I keep the place like this for the fighters’ own good…”
I was a short, skinny teenager and my father was concerned that bigger boys might pick on me. My father, who was a skillful boxer and friends with heavyweight contender Abe Simon and other boxers, knew Lou Stillman, owner of Stillman’s Gym. The place was named “The University of Eighth Avenue” by A.J. Liebling in a New Yorker magazine article. My father had driven us into Manhattan from our home in Queens and found a parking space on a side street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.
We arrived at 919 Eighth Avenue and went up a flight of stairs. There was Mr. Stillman sitting at a desk near the door. He had a big, ugly cigar stuffed into his face that smelled like rotten cabbage. Hair billowed out from the sides of his head. He wore a shoulder holster that contained a snub-nosed .38.
“Howyadoin’ Bob?” said Mr. Stillman said to my father.
“This is my boy. I want him to have those ten lessons that I called you about.”
“It’s all set,” said Mr. Stillman. He called over his manager, a guy named Jack Curley.
My father handed over several bills, and Mr. Stillman called over a young middleweight, a good-looking Italian kid with dark, curly hair.
“I’m Nick. Follow me kid,” he said.
He led me through one of the filthiest gyms in existence. It smelled of sweat and lineament. There were the sibilant sounds of soft soled shoes skipping rope, the thwack thwack thwack of gloves hitting body bags, and quick pop pop pop of gloves gyrating against speed bags. Nick took me to a locker, where I changed out of my jeans and polo shirt. I put on a cup, a pair shorts, a Stillman’s Gym t-shirt and was then led to a body bag. Nick had me stuff my fists into a pair of large boxing gloves then tightly tied them in place. He taught me to jab with my left, punch straight out with my right, and deliver an effective right cross. “Always keep that left jabbing like a jack hammer,” he said. “And when your opponent can’t take his eyes off that jab, smack him with a right cross. Jab again and then deliver a right upper cut. That should stop him.” In addition, I learned to duck, to feint, to swing a left to the body and a right to the jaw. I learned how to protect my head and to look for openings. I learned how to create openings. Nick had me shadow boxing and skipping rope. He wouldn’t let me get into one of the rings. “You’re too young,” Nick said. “You’ll get killed.” Nevertheless, I loved it and became a fan of boxing. I attended those sessions for ten Saturdays and felt that I had learned to protect myself against bullies. Upon my graduation, I was given a Stillman’s t-shirt, though I suspected my father had to pay for it. Stillman was not known for giving away his merchandise, though I later learned that he often staked some poor fighters.
Lou Stillman was a character out of a Damon Runyon story; he could have played himself in Guys and Dolls. So who was Lou Stillman? He allegedly started out as cop named Louis Ingber. He left the police force and got a job managing a boxing gym called Stillman’s that was started by a starry-eyed philanthropist named Marshall Stillman. It was Stillman’s idea to save poor kids from lives of crime by teaching them to box. He had hired Lou Ingber to manage the gym, after meeting him on a trolley car. They apparently had shared a seat and engaged in conversation about the day’s social problems. Stillman’s initially became a Mecca for young Jewish boxers, led by lightweight champion Benny Leonard, who had left another gym after its owner claimed that World War I was started by Jews and “those people are responsible for all the wrongs of the world.” Since Ingber managed the place, the boxers referred to him as Mr. Stillman. Lou conveniently changed his last name and went on to become a boxing legend as did his gym. Some of the greatest champions trained at Stillman’s, including Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano, Max Baer and many others. Stillman charged a couple of my friends fifty cents each for watching champs and contenders train. The gym also became a hangout for managers, promoters, gangsters, bookies, and sports writers. The place was probably filthiest gym in New York. The floor was one gigantic spittoon; the windows were dark with grime and never opened. Stillman claimed that fresh air was bad for fighters. “It’ll kill ‘em.” He added that “The golden age of prizefighting was the age of bad food, bad air, bad sanitation, and no sunlight. I keep the place like this for the fighters’ own good. If I clean it up they’ll catch a cold from the cleanliness.”
Lou was known as a tough guy; he had a hair-trigger temper and could let fly with an array of foul-mouthed epithets at anyone who made him angry. He was not intimidated by the biggest boxers, not by the gangsters who were always on the look-out for a fight to fix. And none of his targets ever responded in kind. They took Lou’s abuse as if it were part of the price to pay for being in Stillman’s Gym.
In 1959, Stillman’s Gym was targeted by the wrecker’s ball and was cleared from its site to make room for an apartment building. Today there is no sign to commemorate the legendary gym; it is known by those who visited it, worked out there, and learned their trade of boxing. It’s a fond memory for a dying generation and soon Stillman’s will exist only in the evanescent works of a few writers and as background in some movies. If you want to catch glimpses of Stillman’s and enjoy a great boxing movie, then watch Somebody Up There Likes Me, starring Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano. One old boxer told me it brings tears to his scarred eyes and a smile to his weathered lips.
Jeffrey Sussman is the author of the book, Max Baer and Barney Ross: Jewish Heroes of Boxing. This article was originally published in the East Hampton Star and is reprinted with its permission.