Fighter became 'prize husband' to one woman


June 05, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

Berdie Merenbloom's mother slapped her face when she found out Berdie was dating Jack Portney.

"A prizefighter?" her mother said. "You're going out with a prizefighter?"

The year was 1929 and the name Jack Portney was starting to mean something in Baltimore. He was a left-handed welterweight with the chance to be somebody some day, the chance to be a contender, the chance to be a champion.

Which is not quite the way Berdie Merenbloom's mother saw it.

"A bum!" she said.

"A nice guy!" Berdie said back.

"A bum!" her mother said and slapped her face. "Nice guys sell shoes."

Berdie probably could have picked a better time to deliver the next piece of news. But she was 17 and headstrong and very much in love.

"Mom," she said, "yesterday Jack and me got married."

This time, her mom did not slap her. This time, her mom fainted to the floor.

Berdie, who next week will turn 80 , laughs a tinkling laugh remembering it now. She remembers everything about that day and the night that preceded it. She remembers that Jack took her to see Milton Berle at the Hippodrome and how afterward he drove her to Patterson Park "and sat so far away from me you could have fit two people between us, that's how much of a gentleman he was."

And she remembers Jack Portney, only 18, turning to her and saying: "I am going to be a champion some day, Butch. And I need a girl like you by my side."

Berdie -- Jack always called her Butch -- married him the next morning as soon as the license bureau opened and as soon as they could find a rabbi to perform the ceremony.

"Then I became Jack's trainer," Berdie said. "I wanted him to be in shape. I would get up in the morning and drive out to Patterson Park, and I would park the car and get out the bicycle and pace Jack as he ran. In the winter even! With snow!

"And every single day he would go to the gym at Baltimore and Gay streets, upstairs, second floor, and I would sit and watch him work out. And I could tell from the way he punched the bag whether he was in shape or not.

"And when he was in training, no sex! We slept in separate bedrooms. And I had a lock on my door!"

"Honey," Jack would say outside her door on not a few of those nights, "let me in, I've got something to tell you."

"Tell me in the morning," Berdie would say.

"I'll forget."

"I'll remind you."

Berdie never saw Jack fight. She couldn't make herself watch Jack get hit. "Friends would sit with me, and I would listen on the radio," she said. "He fought 12 years, 165 fights, and was never knocked off his feet and never knocked out. I am not making this up. You can check this in Ring Magazine, the bible of boxing."

Berdie's mother and Jack's mother wanted to have the marriage annulled. Their kids were just kids, after all. But Berdie and Jack asked for a chance to make the marriage work. It lasted 62 years. "And let me tell you," Berdie said, "it wasn't an ordinary marriage."

Jack had grown up tough, selling newspapers on the streets of the Baltimore, learning to fight to protect his corner from bigger newsboys who wanted his territory.

Berdie grew up a romantic. When she was 10 or maybe 11, she saw a picture of the Taj Mahal and fell in love with the story behind it. "That a man would build that for his wife," Berdie said, "that was amazing to me. And I would tell my girlfriends: 'Someday I will go to the Taj Mahal with the man I love.' "

"Send us a postcard when you do, Berdie!" her girlfriends would say, teasing her.

"But I always had dreams," Berdie said. "I always had big dreams."

Jack dreamed, too. He dreamed of the day he would fight in Madison Square Garden, of the day he would be champion of the world. The reality, as reality often does, turned out a little differently.

"He would fight in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, all over," Berdie said, "and I would drive him. I was about 18. I would drive all night to get him to the weigh-in the next day and then I would stay in the hotel room and they would have the fight. And Jack would call me from the dressing room right after the fight to tell me he wasn't hurt.

"He was pretty good, you know. He was fast on his feet and clever and strong as a bull. He was a gorgeous man."

Jack was left-handed, which made it hard for him to get fights. Right-handed fighters are not used to the stance of southpaws and the fact that they lead with their right hands instead of their left. (In "Rocky", Apollo Creed is warned by his managers not to fight Rocky Balboa for this reason.)

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