The Mysterious Montague | One of sport’s most enigmatic men

David Smith

John Montague once beat his celebrity friend Bing Crosby on a golf hole (366 yards par 4), using baseball bat, a shovel and a rake.

This, however, is far from the most amazing thing about the American golfer.

Little was known about the New Yorker – born in Syracuse in 1903 – when he emerged on Hollywood’s golfing circuit in 1934.

Montague became something of a celebrity, and rumours of his golfing prowess and athleticism abounded.

The charismatic golfer was extremely popular in Hollywood, and socialised with the likes of Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields, and Oliver Hardy.

He set a course record of 58 at the Palm Springs Country Club, and his feats on the golf course – particularly his long drives – and his alleged freakish natural strength soon became urban legend.

Montague once stuffed famous actor George Bancroft into a locker during a wrestling match in a locker room, and could seemingly lift 300 pound comedian Oliver Hardy at will.

Despite his obvious talent – renowned sportswriter Grantham Rice described him as “the greatest golfer in the world” in a 1935 newspaper column – Montague refused to partake in professional tournaments, and avoided being photographed.

Similarly, George Von Elm, the 1926 U.S. Amateur champion, called him “the greatest golfer I ever saw.”

It was Grant’s aforementioned article, published in Time magazine, which finally shed light on Montague’s mysterious background, in a storyline almost reminiscent of The Great Gatsby.

The article, which included an unsolicited photo of Montague, came to the attention of New York State Police inspector John Cosart a robbery which had taken place seven years earlier…

August, 1930

Four masked, armed men broke into Hana’s restaurant in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The men subdued the Hana family and escaped with about $750 after physically overpowering Matt Cobb, with the police hot on their tails.

The four thieves broke into pairs, and the driver of one of the getaway vehicles, a Ford, died after crashing the car during the attempted escape, and his partner was subsequently caught by the police.

The other two men fled in a Pontiac, and were pulled over by police for questioning, but the passenger managed to convince the officers of their innocence, and the thieves were able to escape undetected. The driver, however, handed himself in to the authorities several days later.

The passenger remained at large, but evidence retrieved from the boot of the Pontiac – including golf clubs, letters, a driver’s license – led the police to believe that the fourth armed robber was LaVerne Moore from Syracuse.

However, when they arrived to Moore’s family home, his mother revealed that he had vanished without a trace shortly after the robbery at Hana’s.

The runaway thief had reinvented himself as a larger-than-life world class golfer, and his celebrity friends had no idea of his past.

Once John Cosart made the connection, he contacted the LAPD, who arrested  Moore/Montague and charged the enigmatic Hollywood celebrity with armed robbery.

Once released on a $10,000 bail, he and signed his release papers “John Montague,” but admitted his birth name was indeed LaVerne Moore.

It wasn’t even the first time that Montague had impersonated someone else. In 1927, the enigmatic golfer was arrested for impersonating a police officer to a grocery store owner who sold alcohol during Prohibition, which earned him a fine but not a prison sentence.

On August 21, 1937, he was extradited to New York from Los Angeles, where a cheering crowd awaited when he arrived. He was released on a $25,000 bond after one night in jail, and he promptly made his way to a cocktail party after being released.

There was intense public interest and media hype around the trial. While the evidence against Montague seemed strong (e.g. his personal items being found in the car), his sisters and mother provided an alibi, claiming he’d been at home asleep on the night of the robbery.

William Carlton, one of the four thieves convicted of the crime, told the court that Montague wasn’t involved in the crime.

The jury deliberated for five hours, and much to the horror of the judge Harry Owen, returned to the courtroom with a verdict of not guilty, and Montague was carried from the courtroom on the shoulders of his supporters.

He was now 34, and a free man, but years of partying caught up with him, and his golf suffered as a result.

Montague entered the U.S. Open in 1940, but then didn’t make the cut, and was released by his sponsors Wilson Sporting Goods after a tour of Japan, the Philippines and Hawaii.

His wife Esther Plunkett, with whom Montague had two children, died in 1947, and Montague never recovered.

In May, 1972, Montague had a heart attack and died at the age of 68.

Shortly before he died, Grantham Rice wrote:

“A great many will tell you that Montague, originally a Syracuse boy, was overplayed. That isn’t true.”

Author Profile

David Smith
David is a 27-year-old journalist from County Meath.

He has previously worked for RTÉ and Australian Associated Press, and has been published by publications including The Irish Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, ESPN and Fox Sports.