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Babes, beatings and bitter end of the Gorgeous Gael


Pride of Cobh: Jack Doyle with his second wife, actress Movita Castaneda

Pride of Cobh: Jack Doyle with his second wife, actress Movita Castaneda

Jack Doyle with Nancy Keogh walking over O'Connell Street

Jack Doyle with Nancy Keogh walking over O'Connell Street

Jack Doyle with Judith Allen, his first wife

Jack Doyle with Judith Allen, his first wife

Marlon Brando, whom Movita married after Jack Doyle

Marlon Brando, whom Movita married after Jack Doyle


Pride of Cobh: Jack Doyle with his second wife, actress Movita Castaneda

'When I was young and I was in my day, I could steal what woman's heart there was away." Thus begins Jimmy McCarthy's famous ballad, The Contender, which has as its subject Jack Doyle, known to one and all as The Gorgeous Gael.

Doyle was something like a cross between Eric Boon and Richard Burton, a hot-headed, womanising playboy whose far-fetched life and times took in brawls with Clark Gable, affairs with billionaire heiresses and heavyweight title fights. One of the most notable hearts he stole was that of Movita Castaneda, an actress who had also counted Marlon Brando among her loves. She died peacefully in Los Angeles this month, aged 98.

She and Doyle were the Burton and Taylor of their day - she was said to have stood up Howard Hughes to meet Jack - and when they came to Dublin to be married at the church on Westland Row, hundreds of people followed them down O'Connell Street.

They would capitalise on the celebrity by putting together a stage show, which toured Britain and Ireland. They recorded a hit song, South of the Border, and opened a nightclub in London, the Swizzle Stick. She was jealous of his wandering eye, however, and it would be their downfall as a couple.

"Movita's jealousy upset him," Doyle's biographer Michael Taub later wrote. "He was past his best, but women still flocked around him. He was having loads of women on the side. He didn't even conceal it. She was absolutely scared out of her wits of Jack. In drink, he was a monster."

On Christmas Day, 1944, Movita caught him kissing another woman in a taxi outside their residence and confronted him. Doyle exploded with rage, and pulled Movita by her hair indoors. He punched her and knocked her out. She miscarried, and left him shortly afterwards; they were divorced just as World War II was ending. It was, perhaps, poetic justice that their lives went in opposite directions after that - she married Brando, earned roles in a string of Hollywood movies, and died a wealthy woman, while Doyle's sad descent, which ended when he died in 1978, is legendary.

If he didn't seem to mind much ending up in the gutter - he shrugged "a generous man never went to hell" when asked about his fall from grace - perhaps it was because that was pretty much where he started. Doyle grew up in Cobh, Co Cork, the second of five children. His family lived on the third floor of a tenement building on Queen's Street on the water's edge. It could not have been good nutrition that built his frame into the 6'5" behemoth he became - so tall, he had to stoop to get inside the door of the family home.

He and his siblings subsisted on "penny dinners" from the local convent. Doyle left school at just 12 years old and went to work on the docks with men twice his age. It was hard manual work and Doyle, still a child, arrived home each day covered in soot.

At 17, he joined a regiment of the Irish Guards, telling his mother as he left for Wales: "Don't worry, mother. I'm a big boy now. I'll take care of myself. And soon I'll be famous. You'll see." He would soon make good on his promise, although whether he was famous or infamous was a subject of debate.

In England, he dropped his given name of Joe and began calling himself 'Jack', after his hero Jack Dempsey. He also began to affect an upper-crust English accent. He wanted to capitalise on his extraordinary physique and become a prize fighter. While still in the army, he began to make his name as a boxer. "He had no skill," wrote Michael Taub, author of Jack Doyle: The Gorgeous Gael, "and he wasn't interested in learning. But he had this explosive power. He led with a haymaker."

Doyle had won all but one of his 28 fights in the army by knockout. Dan Sullivan, an illiterate yet deeply streetwise boxing promoter, bought him out of his army commission after just two years on the job. Doyle had star charisma right from the start, charming the boxing world and cutting a wide swathe through the socialites of Mayfair. He walked on a path of flowers, thrown by admirers, on his way to vanquishing each new opponent. They said he was the Rudolph Valentino of the ring.

Doyle won 10 straight professional fights, in 15 rounds. He became the toast of London. Still only 19, he drew a crowd of 90,000 people to London's White City. In Ireland, thousands more crowded around every available radio for a broadcast of the fight. Doyle stood a chance of becoming the first-ever Irishman to win the British heavyweight title fight. The fight was a mess, however. Doyle was disqualified in the second round for continually hitting below the belt.

The borderline delirious Corkman was said to be suffering from a venereal disease and three sheets to the wind. His £3,000 purse was confiscated and he was banned from boxing for six months.

Doyle took up singing - he was offered a recording deal by Decca and recorded a number of standards, such as I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen - and acting. Just as in London, he was a huge hit with the women of Hollywood, and although his first two films tanked at the box office, he would meet his first wife, Judith Allen. Their union was short-lived, due to Doyle's philandering, and he took up with Delphine Dodge, the Dodge car-heiress. Her family were convinced Doyle was only after her wealth - she paid off all Jack's gambling debts and gave him $5,000 - and hired a gunman to scare him off.

Doyle lived out the last years of his life with an Irish woman, Nancy Keogh, in London. She left him about year before he became ill from cirrhosis of the liver. By then, he had also spent time in Mountjoy for assaulting a guard and had been alternating between living on the streets and sleeping on friends' couches.

When he died, his body was brought back from London to Ireland. The hearse reportedly got a puncture on its way from Dun Laoghaire to Cork and Doyle's body was too heavy for the car to be elevated to change the tyre.

Due to be buried in a pauper's grave, the Ex-boxer's Association in Cork paid for the funeral and lined the streets of Cobh as his coffin, topped with his trademark red carnation, was brought to the cemetery.

Sunday Independent