By Theodore N. Beitchman
In the great and grand scheme of things, a kid from the Bronx coming down to Philly to run in the 1960 Penn Relays with his DeWitt Clinton mile relay teammates doesn’t (with apologies to Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”) amount to a hill of beans in this sports crazy world.
However, Penn track coach Boo Morcum liked what he saw that April day at Franklin Field and asked the kid to give him a call. A grant-in-aid was offered and the kid came to Penn and Penn Law and is today an accomplished Philly lawyer, playwright and arts advocate — not to mention a poster child for out-of-towners who have moved here and dragged stuck-in-the-past Philly into the 20th and 21st centuries.
Three weeks later, a skinny 18-year-old from Louisville arrived at the Cow Palace in San Francisco to compete in the U. S. Olympic boxing trials. He made the team, won a gold medal in Rome as a light heavyweight and then became either the greatest boxer of all-time or No. 2 or 3 to Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Not to mention becoming the most reviled American and then the most revered man on the planet. Or, as he would say: The Greatest.
This is the story of Spencer Wertheimer and Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, how their paths crossed and how their lives meshed.
Dressed in a natty gray suit with a yellow tie pulled up to his white collar, still 1960-slim and trim.
Lawyers often rely on their ability to act, and Wertheimer has a leg up on the competition. For he has been a working actor, having performed in New York and at Malvern’s People Light and Theatre.
He specialized in the 400 meters, triple jump and broad jump at Penn, and that variety and dexterity held him in good stead once he hung up his law shingle after a two-year hitch in the Army, including a tour in Vietnam.
“When I got back to Philly after the Army, I did some criminal work and lots of intellectual property law,” he says. “I even represented the actor John Lithgow.”
Then, with some detours defending the Philly Redevelopment Authority and the Fraternal Order of Police, he decided to concentrate on entertainment-related clients.
“I had met Garrett Brown,” he says of his client, the award-winning cinematographer and inventor of Steadicam, which allows camera operators to film while walking without the normal shaking of a hand-held camera.
“The scene in ‘Rocky’ when Stallone is running up the steps of the Art Museum was his big break.”
Then he repped Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and the Soul Survivors — who would become Philly musical royalty — and his career path was set.
He was neatly melding his interest in the arts with his business:
“I repped the Wilma Theater all the while acting in small plays in New York.”
He even found time to write a play about the Chicago writer Nelson Algren and the French intellectual and author Simone de Beauvoir, who carried on a torrid affair in the 1940s.
“Your Simone” was mounted for three weeks in the Culture Project in lower Manhattan in 2004, and several other Wertheimer productions have made the leap from page to stage.
He sprinkled in arts-related work, including chair of the board of Philadanco, the world-renowned local modern dance company begun by Joan Myers Brown; the Philly Music Alliance, the Art Alliance and chair of the Mayor’s Arts and Culture Advisory Counsel under Ed Rendell, his Penn classmate.
But, boxing, Spencer?
“I have always been a big boxing fan,” he says proudly. “My uncle was a boxing writer for the New York Post, and I used to go the fights when I was a kid at the old Garden and St. Nicholas Arena.
“I never saw Ali fight in person, but when he knocked out Sonny Liston [in February 1964] I was at Penn and my friends and I went wild running in the streets.
“He was a god. No one could touch him.”
In the meantime, Clay had become a world-class pop poet, proved the doubters and bettors who made him a 7-to-1 underdog wrong and had beaten Liston to a pulp (watch the tape and you’ll see that he won the fight in the 1st round when Liston swung and missed on all but one punch), joined the Nation of Islam, changed his name to Ali, refused to step forward when drafted into the Army in 1967, was stripped of his title by the racist American state boxing commissions, lost his ability to box for bucks for three and a half years, came back and lost in 1971 to Philly’s Joe Frazier, regained his title against George Foreman in 1974, lost it to Leon Spinks and won it back in 1978, and retired in 1981.
The scene at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when Ali lit the torch though his hand was shaking from Parkinson’s completed his transformation from the man everyone hated to the man everyone loved.
It was through a combination of theater and boxing that Wertheimer’s life changed in 1997.
By then he had married and divorced, with a son, Josh, who is now 45 and working in the music biz in New York.
He was head of the city’s Arts Council when he showed up for an event at Penn Annenberg’s Center.
“I walked in and spotted my friend Jackie,” Wertheimer recalls with a smile, alluding to Smokin’ Joe’s daughter, Jackie Frazier-Lyde, who is now a municipal court judge in Philly.
“Jackie was there with a beautiful woman who is her best friend, Khaliah Ali. And Jackie dragged me over to meet her.
“She was beautiful and I was immediately attracted.”
A year later, Khaliah and Spencer were married — “Jackie performed the ceremony,” he says proudly.
And a year later their son Jacob was born.
“We went up to Manhattan to meet Muhammad,” he says, “and he was doing card tricks and reading the Koran in his room at the Waldorf.”
Spencer was surprised at the size of Ali’s hands — “Khaliah and her sister Laila also have big hands!”
And Ali “was a great guy to us, a great guy to me.”
Spencer, Khaliah and Jake were the first Ali family to return to the Congo, where Muhammad whipped George Foreman in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” when the country was known as Zaire.
“We went to school openings — they loved Jacob. People used to come running up to him and say, ‘We love you!’ “
Jake is 6-1, 195, an academic whiz and a javelin thrower at Haverford High who is ticketed for Harvard in the fall.
Jacob Wertheimer also plays basketball, runs the 100 and throws the discus.
“He wants to be a decathlete,” his proud pop says.
Who knows. Maybe one day another Ali will represent the USA in the Olympics.
There would be a certain poetry in that.