Let George Do It

Whether he’s playing polo with princes or sailing the coast in search of shrimp and adventure, George Radcliff is a man who certainly knows how to lead a one-of-a-kind life.

George takes a stroll out on the Celeste property that was once a burden. After oil was struck there, George used the revenue to travel and enjoy the pastime of polo. Photos by Matthew Coughlin

I knew George when I was a kid. Mr. Radcliff to me. For several years he lived not far from my childhood home in Point Clear. I distinctly remember the first time I realized he was more than just another neighbor.

One morning, someone stole the outboard motor off their skiff. Big George and his 14-year-old daughter, Fontaine, chased the thief down in their other boat, firing a .45 at him. When the man finally surrendered, George held him at gunpoint while Fontaine roped his boat to their stern cleat. Then they towed him back to the house to await arrest.

I was 12 years old when that happened. I heard the gunfire. Now, 32 years later, I’m going to interview George and listen to some of the stories I couldn’t get at that age.

I’d been warned George is wary of publicity and might not be very forthcoming with his stories. So a couple of hours before we meet, I drive to the Causeway to have lunch with his son-in-law, Sandy Howard, and George’s good friend, Dudley Dawson. I think maybe they can give me a few subjects to nudge the interview along.

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Howard and Dawson tell me George stories like they’ve been waiting years to get them out. They reveal he’s not into pop culture or most technology. He likes horses. He likes boats. He loves women. And he’s never turned down a fight.

I leave the restaurant and headed to meet with the man of the hour, armed with a healthy list of topics. Radcliff has lived at Celeste for close to 30 years now. This is land he inherited from his father, 2, 000 acres of piney woods in the boonies near Citronelle. I pull up to the electric gate, it swings open and there he is, sitting in his pickup, somehow looking exactly as I remember him. Then I realize his appearance is all in his eyes. A mischievous boyhood twinkle.

Perhaps Radcliff’s most famous story is that of “the oil.” By the time he was in his early 30s, he was barely holding on to Celeste. He had it leased to hunting clubs and borrowed money every year to pay the taxes. Then they struck oil. And not just a little. At that time it was the biggest oil find east of the Mississippi River. Radcliff went from flat broke to fabulously wealthy.

I follow him in my own pickup past his horse stables and pasture and polo field. We continue into the woods and past the “big house” that Fontaine now lives in. We continue downhill and finally arrive at his cabin on the lake where he lives with his third wife, Karen. Karen brings us iced tea as we settle into chairs on the front porch, then leaves us to talk.

He starts by telling me he hasn’t been too excited about the interview. The only reason he agreed to it was because he knew me. And I ought to know that most of what I’d heard about him was a bunch of lies.

“I won’t write anything you don’t want me to, ” I say.

With confidence, he replies, “You can’t embarrass me.”

Origins and First Impressions

“He’s the toughest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever seen in my life. But he’ll do anything for you. Absolutely anything.” – Sandy Howard

Radcliff was born in Mobile, but his father died when he was six weeks old. His mother remarried a wealthy executive from General Motors and moved the family to Manhattan, where Radcliff was suddenly a privileged boy in the finest of clothes.

“Little sailor suits, ” he says.

A few years later his stepfather took early retirement and moved them to St. Petersburg, Florida, where Radcliff lived until he was 16.

“That’s where I learned to fight. When I was a kid down there, these boys used to tease me about my clothes on the way to school. They’d take my lunch and knock me around. One day I showed up with a baseball bat and straightened ’em up. They didn’t mess with me again.”

When Radcliff was 16, his stepfather died, and he moved with his mother back to Mobile. Not long after that, he was sent to live with his Uncle Bo in Galveston, Texas.

“What did Uncle Bo do?”

“He was crook.”

Uncle Bo owned a string of honky-tonks and put Radcliff up in a “little wood-frame” house. He says his roommate was a short, red-haired kid who called himself a crooner. Uncle Bo would let him play at his honky-tonks and promoted him as the next big thing.

“He was awful, ” Radcliff says. “I was embarrassed to listen to him.”

Years later, when Radcliff was back in Mobile, Uncle Bo showed up for a visit and had him listen to a single called “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.”

“I told you Willie was gonna make it!” Uncle Bo said.

“That’s not him!” Radcliff exclaimed. “That doesn’t sound anything like him!”

“Come on, ” Uncle Bo replied. “He’s in Biloxi tonight. We’ll go see him.”

Radcliff drove to Biloxi with Uncle Bo and reunited with Willie Nelson backstage. From then on, whenever Nelson was in town, he let Radcliff’s son, “Little George, ” come on stage and play the drums with the band during the concerts.

“During the concerts?” I repeat.

“Oh, yeah, ” Radcliff replied. “Back in those days Willie’s band was just a bunch of drunks and convicts. They didn’t care.”

I consult my story list as I’m thinking of Texas.

“What about John Wayne?” I ask.

He grins. “Aw, there’s not much to that, ” he says. “I was down in Mexico workin’ on a ranch near Torreón. We’d go into Durango to this nightclub. John Wayne was always makin’ his movies down there,  and his crew showed up in the place after work. I got to be buddies with one of the stuntmen, and he told everybody I was a big movie star. I got free drinks and hung out with John for about two weeks before they started catchin’ on to me.

“Years later, I was up at the Kentucky Derby with a friend. John comes strolling by with his entourage. He sees me and says, ‘George, how you been?’”

Radcliff chuckles. “Man, my buddy couldn’t believe I knew John Wayne.”

Radcliff’s grandson, Sandy Jr., arrives and takes a chair next to him. I can’t help but think he’s been sent to make sure his granddad doesn’t say anything they’ll regret. But soon Sandy’s egging him on, and I realize he’s actually there to keep him talking.

The conversation comes around to “Forrest Gump, ” which I knew it would. As much as I wanted to be original and leave it out, it’s just too big to ignore.

Winston Groom’s novel, “Forrest Gump, ” is co-dedicated to Radcliff. It’s also rumored to be much-inspired by him. But Radcliff is a smart man. It’s all over his country boy grin. Nonetheless, I can’t help but attribute a certain Gump-like quality to most of his stories. It was becoming clear to me that he is one of those rare individuals who strolls through life attracting fascinating people and fortunate events in spite of himself. Some call it luck; I call it magnetic optimism.

“After ‘Forrest Gump’ came out, I had all kinds of people wantin’ to talk to me, ” Radcliff says. “Magazine reporters. TV people.”

“Tell me about the arm wrestling match, ” I say.

Radcliff grins again. “Well, Groom invited me and Jimbo [Meador] up to New York for the movie premiere. After the show I got to havin’ drinks with this little Englishman. He told me he was a musician. Eventually he asked me if I wanted to arm wrestle. Of course, I did. And, I mean, I slammed him. The next morning I wake up and Winston says ‘Radcliff, I just can’t take you anywhere.’”

“I said, ‘What’d I do?’”

“‘You almost broke Paul McCartney’s hand!’”

“‘That little drunk English guy?’”

“‘You really don’t know who he is, do you?’”

“‘Sure, I talked to him all night. Said he was a musician.’”

“‘He’s one of the Beatles!’”

“I said, ‘Really?’”

Today, George Radcliff spends quieter days at the farm in Celeste, enjoying time with family and his beloved horses. But, he fondly remembers many extraordinary tales of days gone by — traveling, playing polo, making unlikely friends and occasionally fighting for one.  

The Master Fighter

The next week, I drive out to Celeste again to meet with Radcliff and Fontaine. I’ve been told he’s more comfortable when Fontaine’s around. Also there is a childhood friend, Bobby McBride, and a past secretary and longtime friend, Noreen. This time we sit on the porch of what they call “the barn, ” which is actually an elaborate horse stable with all the comforts of home. Beyond are the pastures with a few grazing horses.

We begin to talk about his college days and more Gump-like situations arise. Recently, he was presented with an award for starting the University of Alabama ski team. Which he says he had nothing to do with. But he hung up the award anyway.

“I didn’t start that ski team, but I did start the swim team. Only thing that kept me in school. I was always gettin’ into trouble. Coach Bryant (athletic director at the time) was pretty good about gettin’ me out of it for a while. I was the best swimmer they had, and he needed me. I wasn’t really that great, but I’d been on the swim team in Florida, and for a place that was just gettin’ started, I was pretty good. Eventually I jumped into a fight to help out John Carrington. I pulled this fellow off his back and beat him up. Turned out to be the assistant dean. Coach said he couldn’t help me with that one.”

“Then they kicked you out for good, ” Fontaine adds.

So far, Radcliff has mentioned getting kicked out of the University at least twice.

“Well, no, ” he continues. “That wasn’t the last time. They kicked me out one more time after that. I went home and got married to your mother. Then I came back, and they enrolled me by mistake. They finally figured it out and sent security for me. That was the last time.”

It’s not lost on me that many of Radcliff’s stories involve getting into fights. And he doesn’t mind telling me about them. I recall another story Sandy had me put on my list.

“What about Joe Dean?” I say.

He leans back in his chair and gets the twinkle in his eyes. He likes that one.

“Gave me the worst ass-whippin’ I ever got in my life, ” he replies. “Joe was this big lineman from Ole Miss. I was still up at Alabama when me and Joe got into it at the Deke house for some reason. I told him we needed to take it out front. I said if we went out back then nobody’d see me whip his ass. I hit him in the face and he didn’t move. Then he beat the crap out of me and left me lyin’ on the lawn.”

I recall Sandy’s description of the situation: “From then on, whenever Joe would come to town, George was always hidin’ in the bushes waitin’ to ambush him. He’d jump out to fight him and Joe would kick the stew out of him again. I mean, this went on for a long time.”

“One day, ” Radcliff continues, “Joe gets finished with me and picks me up off the grass and hauls me inside into the bathroom. He holds me in front of the mirror and says ‘George, just look at yourself. Look at your face. You got to quit this.’”

Radcliff chuckles. “Man, I was a mess … I asked him if we could call it a draw.”

He has us all laughing, even Noreen, who has been sitting quietly this entire time.

“I’ve never understood liking to fight, ” I say. “But some people really like it.”

He has an expression that looks like a grin, but perhaps it’s something else. He just studies you and doesn’t say anything. Answering without answering.

Bobby helps me out. “The thing about George is he always had a sort of code. He was the defender of the underdog.”

Fontaine chimes in. “You always took up for your friends, didn’t you, Dad?”

Radcliff shrugs. “Well, you know.”

“But you never picked a fight, did you?” Fontaine adds.

“I never picked a fight in my life, ” he confirms.

“But you liked it?” I say. I can’t help but imagine that if George fought you, he’d be grinning the whole time.

“Well, if I saw there was some trouble startin’ up,  I’d jump in.”

“And sometimes George’s friends would pick a fight just to see George jump in, ” Bobby adds.

He nods in agreement. “There may have been a little of that.”

Except for a few years working out of town for his brother, and a brief stint in Texas, Radcliff stayed in the Port City and managed to scrape by on the waterfront until they found the oil.

“Then what did you do?”

“I had a good time.”

The People Magnet

While playing on polo fields all around the country, the boy from Alabama rubbed shoulders with some of the most influential heirs and royalty in the U.S. and abroad.

I’m not sure the good times for him ever had a starting and stopping point, but he was certainly able to take the fun to a more expensive level. George told Fontaine that they were going to use some of their fortune to buy a boat and sail around the world.

“Then he bought this shrimp boat called the Baghdad, ” Fontaine says. “He thought it was awesome. Then he just wanted to shrimp around Mobile Bay all the time. It wasn’t what I had in mind.”

But after he got shrimping out of his system, Radcliff purchased the Bounty, a 57-foot ketch, famous to all of us on the Eastern Shore, but also known throughout the world as one of the most beautiful sailboats ever built. Radcliff skippered the Bounty throughout the Virgin Islands, around Florida and up the East Coast. It became not only his ongoing vacation, but also his home base as he stopped off at such places as Sarasota and Palm Beach to pursue his second love, polo.

He was into polo before most of us knew what it was. He was quoted in a newspaper article (before the oil), “If I had the money, all I’d do was play polo.”

And his mother was quoted, “George doesn’t have money, and all he does is play polo.”

“We’d get out the bush hog and clear a pasture and go to it, ” George says. “We were a joke. I mean, we literally got our horses from the dog food sale.”

He tells me he met some of the finest people he’s ever known on the polo field. After the oil, he played against and became close friends with some of the most famous personalities in the world. Along with celebrities such as Tommy Lee Jones and Major Ronald Ferguson, George still maintains close ties to the Coca-Cola heirs, the Armstrong brothers of King Ranch, the Busch beer family, and Tim Gannon, founder of Outback Steakhouse.

“Did I tell you about playing the U.S. Open with Kenny McLean?” he asks me. It seems I don’t need the list anymore. George is finally having fun.

“We were at a party after the polo match, and I’m with my second wife, Kay. Everybody’s wearin’ tuxedos. This little brown fellow walks up to us, and Kay asks him to get her a scotch and water. He doesn’t miss a beat. He turns and leaves and comes back with a towel over his arm and hands her the drink. Then a buddy of mine introduces him as the Maharaja of Jaipur. Kay’s jaw just dropped.

“He was a good sport. He invited Kay to fly to India on his jet and said he’d send an elephant to pick her up.”

Radcliff has been married three times and had many girlfriends. Of all his feats, the one that impresses me most is that he gets along unusually well with all of his exes.

“The women even like each other, ” Bobby says, incredulously. “They get together and go to parties and call each other, ask about each other’s health. It really is incredible.”

I suddenly recall something else that Sandy told me at our earlier meeting out on the Causeway: “He’s the toughest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever seen in my life. But he’ll do anything for you. Absolutely anything.”

George has helped quite a few people through hard times, both financially and emotionally. And whether he’s fought you or not, it all eventually comes around to a friend who’s got your back for life.

He tells me that he hasn’t played polo in 20 years. Then, Fontaine chimes in that he hasn’t been in a fight since she was in high school. George sold the Bounty many years ago, but he still keeps a boat that requires less maintenance at Dog River. Life is slower and quieter these days, enjoying his home at Celeste, watching over the horses in the pasture and the geese out on the lake.

In the days I spent with George, I never heard him mention any regrets or grudges. Life’s been a good ride for him. And in a roundabout way, he’s arrived exactly where I believe he always wanted to be: with family, friends and horses. Quite a few wins under his belt and just one draw.

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