Drinking Tea with Muhammad Ali

As the world began to mourn the death of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali on Friday June 3, 2016, his spoken words were remembered as well as his punches. Modernist poet Marianne Moore is mentioned in The Slate article “’I Done Handcuffed Lightning’: The Exuberant Spoken-Word Poetry of Muhammad Ali” for writing the liner notes for his album of spoken word poetry, I Am the Greatest.  I dug into our collection of Moore’s correspondence, to see what else I could find about their friendship. There is a lot of bob and weave, duck and evade,  shuffling, and finally, a connection.

Journalist George Plimpton, with whom Marianne Moore had a working relationship, is responsible for introducing the two poets. Writing to Moore on March 29, 1964 about an article on the boxer, then still known as Cassius Clay, Plimpton asked if she would like to meet Clay and offered to bring him for tea. On April 2, 1964 Moore responded, asking him to do so “when pressure abates.” Two months later Plimpton explains that the plans for tea have not come together because Clay had been in Africa and he also cautioned Moore that he did not want the introduction to “appear ‘cute’ or forced.”

Plimpton and Moore continue to exchange letters over the next six months, discussing their current writing projects. Plimpton would routinely ask Moore, an admirer of sports and athleticism, to answer questions in essay form, providing opinions and perceptions about sports figures. Meeting Clay is brought up several more times, but “his people” provide vague schedules and make no promises of an appointment. On December 10, Plimpton mentions a conversation with the boxer in Boston, saying that he was enthusiastic and would call when he next came to New York. Moore responded eagerly, but nothing was arranged. Nor did they meet at the Patterson-Chuvalo fight at Madison Square Garden in January 1965, or in October 1965.

World Wide Photos. Cassius Clay and Marianne Moore at Toots Shor Restaurant. 1966.Moore XII:D:11.Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Marianne Moore and Cassius Clay did eventually meet at Toots Shor restaurant in Manhattan, though it appears that the boxer dined on beef stew while Miss Moore alone drank tea.  Together they (mostly Ali) wrote “A Poem on the Annihilation of Ernie Terrell.”  Although there are many other letters between Plimpton and Moore in our archives, we do not have any letters written immediately after their meeting in 1966. In July 1967 Plimpton refers to, “our ‘tea’ with Cassius Clay.” As was his routine, Plimpton asked Moore a series of questions, including what she had expected Clay to be like and what she thought of him as a poet. While there is no mention of beef stew, Moore mentions, “For him to exhibit the shuffle indoors despite trying circumstances, I did admire.”

As a tribute to Ali, a selection of these letters, and the photo of his Toots Shor “tea” with Marianne Moore, will be temporarily on display in the library partner desk, accessible via our hourly house tours.