Doug Moe’s Madison: A long road ends at ‘Nightmare Alley’

The new Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett movie is the final chapter in a story that winds through a 1940s novel, 1950s boxing at UW–Madison, WWII bombs, mobsters and a correspondence between writers.
an official movie trailer photo from Searchlight's Nightmare Alley shows four movie stars in costume from left to right
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.
'Nightmare Alley,' directed by Guillermo del Toro, opened in theaters Dec. 17.

Just how the highly anticipated new movie “Nightmare Alley” connects to my decision, two decades ago, to write a book about the rise and fall of varsity boxing at the University of Wisconsin–Madison will take some explaining.

Bear with me — you will meet some intriguing characters.

The film, which opened Dec. 17, stars Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett and is directed by Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro. Early reviews from Variety and the Hollywood Reporter have been stellar.

I first encountered the title “Nightmare Alley” — referencing a novel and a 1947 film inspired by the book — in spring 2000.

The previous fall, October 1999, I’d published an illustrated biography of the legendary Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko, which got some nice reviews and left me eager to do another.

But what to write about?

I’d been thinking there might be a good book in the brief, brilliant era of boxing at UW–Madison. Some years earlier I’d written a cover story for Isthmus about it: the NCAA championships, the crowds that packed the Field House, the tragic end in April 1960 when Badger fighter Charlie Mohr collapsed after a bout and died, eight days later, on Easter Sunday.

But what really drew me were the colorful campus boxers, men like Madison’s Bobby Hinds, who became a fitness entrepreneur and enjoyed a lengthy correspondence with John Gotti after trying to send the gangster exercise equipment in federal prison.

And Woody Swancutt, from Edgar, Wisconsin, a 1939 NCAA champion at 155 pounds. Swancutt became a major general in the U.S. Air Force and, according to his New York Times obituary, dropped a test atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll, the first atomic explosion announced in advance.

What truly decided it for me was reading a fascinating Vanity Fair profile, written by Nick Tosches, of a man named Sidney Korshak. The magazine story was titled “The Man Who Kept the Secrets,” and Korshak was described as an attorney who intersected at the highest levels of organized crime, commerce, labor and show business.

Tosches wrote that Korshak — who died in 1996 and whose name was little recognized by the public — “knew the secrets of Vegas and Hollywood, of politics and the mob.”

Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter called the Korshak story “a masterpiece. The best thing I will ever have published, in fact.”

What astonished me in the article — collected in the 2000 book “The Nick Tosches Reader” — was one line in which Tosches noted that Korshak attended the University of Wisconsin, where “he was a collegiate boxing champion.”

The century’s most notorious mob attorney was a Badger boxer?

Tosches Book Cover

The Nick Tosches Reader by Nick Tosches.

It turned out Korshak won the 1927 All-University title in Madison at 158 pounds. I found a 1927 head shot of him in The Capital Times morgue. (In later years, according to Tosches, Korshak never allowed himself to be photographed.) I wrote a column in the Cap Times about Korshak, then decided to write the college boxing book.

Cap Times Moe Column On Korshak

Vintage Cap Times column by Doug Moe on Sidney Korshak.

I also became a big Tosches fan. We corresponded. And elsewhere in “The Nick Tosches Reader” I found a short piece titled “Nightmare Alley,” an homage to the 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power, and the source novel, published a year earlier, by William Lindsay Gresham.

Tosches loved the novel — a dark tale of carnivals and cons — so much that when the New York Review of Books reissued it in 2010, Tosches wrote an introduction.

Before the release of the new film, Tosches’ introduction was featured on the estimable crime fiction website, crimereads.com.

Tosches once hoped to write a biography of Gresham, the “Nightmare Alley” author, who volunteered on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and upon returning drank to excess to allay what Tosches described as Gresham’s “inner demons.”

That biography never materialized, and unfortunately, I think it is fair to say Tosches’ later nonfiction never matched his earlier brilliance, which along with the Korshak profile included acclaimed biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin and Sonny Liston.

In interviews, Tosches seemed to sour on nonfiction — he also wrote novels — and his last book-length nonfiction, a biography of gangster Arnold Rothstein titled “King of the Jews,” was poorly received.

Yet Tosches’ obituary, published in the New York Times upon his death in 2019, while noting the later decline — “his writing fell somewhat out of fashion” — also saluted the bravura of much of Tosches’ prose.

Me? I hope Carter still considers the Korshak piece the best thing he’s published, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing “Nightmare Alley.”

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