Montague the Magnificent

He was a golfing wonder, a dapper strongman and the toast of the Hollywood smart set—then his past caught up with him

On the golf course, Montague would bet on anything, even if it involved equipment not usually found in a golf bag. (Bettmann/ Corbis)
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Rumors soon circulated about how he had pointed at a string of birds on a telephone wire 175 yards away from a tee at Fox Hills Country Club, picked out a bird in the line, unleashed his three wood and smacked a shot that not only hit the bird, but struck it dead, broke its neck. Broke its neck! He supposedly would open a window in the clubhouse, any clubhouse, prop it open with a water glass, then knock a succession of chips through the small space, never breaking the window nor whacking the wall. He supposedly hit a box of matches off a cocker spaniel's head. The dog never blinked.

The stories and the record scores accumulated in a fast pile. Not only did this John Montague play great and goofy golf, he seemed able to outdrink, out-eat, out-arm wrestle the world. His appetites and abilities seemed almost superhuman. He routinely showed off his strength. Need to change a tire? No jack was necessary. Montague could simply hold the proper end of the car aloft while someone else attached the spare.

In a town of interesting characters, he moved rapidly toward the top of the list. He became someone to know.

"I think I met him the first time in Palm Springs," actor Richard Arlen said. "We played at the only course there was at the time [O'Donnell Golf Club]. Par was either 68 or 70. The latter, I think. O'Donnell was a nine-hole course that put a premium on accuracy. This was one of Monty's strong points. His rounds were 61-61-61-59!"

Arlen, a leading man, star of Wings, which won the first Academy Award for best picture in 1928, became an early friend. The actor was an avid golfer with a low handicap, fascinated by Montague. He played often with him, took him to different courses around the area, eventually suggested that Montague join him as a member of his home course in Burbank. Montague agreed.

The course was the Lakeside Golf Club.

Lakeside Golf Club seemed to have been created by a popcorn-filled imagination. Within hailing distance of no fewer than three movie studios—so close to Universal that it bordered the company zoo, golfers able to hear the lions, tigers and elephants kept on the premises for jungle movies—the club was filled with celebrated faces. Oliver Hardy, Johnny Weissmuller and Douglas Fairbanks were members. Howard Hughes was a member. Charles Coburn. Adolph Menjou. Humphrey Bogart. Randolph Scott. Don Ameche. Guy Kibbee.

W. C. Fields was a member, lived on the other side of Toluca Lake, and sometimes would row across, flask of gin in his pocket, to make his starting time. Bing Crosby was a member. Mack Sennett was, too. Lakeside was a movieland refuge, a playground, a reward for wealth and fame.

John Montague inserted himself nicely into the picture in 1933. In no time at all, he became the club champion. He hit shots that no one ever had seen, drove greens that seldom, if ever, had been driven. He would bet on anything, bet that he could drive a golf ball three-quarters of a mile in five shots, bet he could chip onto the practice green through the clubhouse window, bet he could stack and bury three balls in a sand trap and hit only the middle one out of the trouble.

His feats of strength were just as remarkable. He would walk into the bar, spot Oliver Hardy, grab the 300-pound comedian by the shirt with one hand and lift him onto the bar. ("What'll you have, Babe?") In the clubhouse, he wrestled George Bancroft, a character actor of some renown, a big guy who specialized in playing villains. He stuffed George Bancroft into a locker. He pulled a drowning woman from Henshaw Dam Lake near San Diego. There seemed to be no stopping him.


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