The woman lived her life as she wanted
baseball World Series winner and unrepentant agitator Greenfield Jimmy Smith, her father, and a deep roster of garrulous notables connected to each, including no less fully drawn a character as Steelers founder Art Rooney himself.
But I suspect they all knew where the real star power lay, and that was within the unrestrained soul of the former Miss Ocean City, New Jersey, where Mary Louise loved to frolic in the surf from the time she was a teenager until well into her 80s.
“She’s what I would call self-authored,” said Michael Conn, the youngest of her three sons, in town with his family from California. “She had her own playbook. She lived the life she wanted to lead, not the life somebody wanted her to lead. She was, ‘Damn everybody. I’m gonna marry the man I love.’ She was 18 years old and she was going against the strongest old guy alive, her father.”
Greenfield Jimmy said he’d be damned if any prizefighter would be marrying his Mary Louise, but on the night Billy Conn pushed Joe Louis within a couple of rounds of being the ex-heavy-weight champion in 1941, his daughter was with her Aunt Helen at the Waldorf Astoria in New York after telling her father she was headed for Ocean City.
After the fight, they eloped, beginning more than a half-century together that would be described in just about every way except dull.
“Just think about what she went through in her whole life,” said Tommy Smith, Mary Louise’s younger brother. “She was a beauty who ran away and married a boxer. She was living with Billy, who was a wonderful guy in some ways but a little crazy in others, then losing her only daughter [Suzanne] to breast cancer.
“I was only 5 when she ran away with Billy, so I don’t remember a lot about that, but in later years we got very close. She was doing really good up until two weeks ago. At the end she was in and out, you know, and they’d put some gloves on her because she kept pulling at her [oxygen] mask. So I said, ‘Mary Louise, Mary Louise, it’s Tommy. Don’t be doing that with those gloves. Those are Billy’s gloves from the Louis fight.’ And then she did this . . . ”
And with that Tommy put up his fists in a boxer’s pose, the last conscious thing he ever saw his big sister do.
“I took her to Kennywood on a trip for the Little Sisters of the Poor [her last residence] and she wanted to ride the rollercoaster,” said Tim Conn, the oldest son among Billy Jr. and Michael. “She wanted to ride The Racer. We could barely get her into it. But she rode it. Twice. In her 80s.”
Mary Louise Conn was among the very few individuals who could take a genuine interest in others whether she’d known them for a minute or a lifetime. She trafficked in compliments and questions. She took great satisfaction in communing with her grandchildren, especially the girls.
“She was just such a character, so wild,” said Meghan Balzen, Michael’s daughter. “We always looked forward to her visits. She’d have a drink with me when she was 21. She’d help me with my makeup. We’d talk about boys. She just lived live to the fullest. She taught me how to have fun. Not to take anything too seriously. Any time we’d talk on the phone she wanted to know all about my life. What does your apartment look like now? What are your friends up to now? What kind of clothes are you buying? She was just very involved and really caring.”
The grandkids called her Mimi, and Michal laughed in recounting a quote from his niece, Kelly McMahon: “Mimi taught me everything I ever needed to know about makeup, men, and martinis.”
In the weeks after the first Louis fight (Conn lost a rematch that wasn’t nearly so compelling), Billy and Mary Louise left for Hollywood and the filming of “The Pittsburgh Kid,” a Republic Pictures project Billy would soon refer to as a stink bomb. Mimi’s handsome leading man played himself in the movie, but the producers were more enthralled by Mary Louise, whom they quickly offered a bit part as a cigarette girl as well as a screen test for future consideration.
Billy was having none of that, it turned out, but just as Greenfield Jimmy was having none of Mary Louise marrying a fighter, no attempt to constrict her ever really succeeded.
The last time I spoke with her was for a column on the 75th anniversary of the first Louis fight last June. She told me what she told everybody, “I’m great!”
“I talked to her last Monday,” Michael said, “and she said what she always did, “Don’t worry about me; I’m fine, I’m happy, and I’m the best looking person here.”
“Mimi taught me everything I ever needed to know about makeup, men, and martinis.” Kelly McMahon, niece of Mary Louise Conn