Jake Sawyer’s Story

photo/The Fuge
photo/The Fuge

Jake Sawyer’s Story
The life of the legendary biker, bodybuilder and bad-ass

by Cliff Gallant

Editor’s note: This is the eighth installment of our serialization of Jake Sawyer’s life story. Chapter 9 will appear next month.

In Chapter 7, Jake talked about his exploits in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he was back in Portland, on probation, and in cahoots with legendary locals like Eddie Griffin and Al Martin. Sitting at his apartment last month, notebook open and pen poised, I figured we’d continue into the mid-’70s and beyond, but Jake set me straight. We’d barely scratched the surface of what happened before then.

For example, Martin’s Health Club, the fitness studio and gym Jake and Al operated in the Old Port, was only one of many businesses (legal and otherwise) this once proud member of the United States Junior Chamber was involved in at the time. Jake told me about those other enterprises for this month’s chapter, but he began with the tale of how he wound up in the death grip of the strongest arm-wrestler in the world.


U.S. East Coast Arm Wrestling Championships

The U.S. East Coast Arm Wrestling Championships of 1969 were held in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Having beaten every gristled fisherman, sailor and merchant seaman from around the world who showed up in the Old Port bars (sometimes literally, when they took offense to losing), Jake decided to enter a formal, sanctioned competition, along with his weightlifting buddy, Bruce Chambers.

“Arm-wrestling competition was big stuff at the time,” Jake said. “There were over three thousand spectators looking on and cheering like mad. I became the sentimental favorite after I won my first few matches, because I was so small compared to all the others. The heavyweight class was anyone over two hundred pounds. I was just over that, at two-ten, and some of the others were well over three hundred pounds. Hell, a lot of the bodybuilders who showed up with the idea of maybe competing rolled their sleeves back down and begged off after they saw how big and strong the guys they’d be competing against were. They didn’t want to be embarrassed, I guess, but I took it as a tremendous challenge. I was firing on all cylinders as soon as I walked through the door and saw what I was up against.”

Clipping from a 1969 Portland Press Herald article about Jake. image/courtesy Jake Sawyer
Clipping from a 1969 Portland Press Herald article about Jake. image/courtesy Jake Sawyer

Among the bodybuilders in attendance was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who participated in the Mr. Olympia physique competitions held in conjunction with the arm-wrestling events. “When I asked him if he’d also be competing in the arm-wrestling competition, he looked around the room at all the hairy beasts he’d be up against and went into a little act, like he was very afraid,” Jake recalled. “Then he began laughing and talking in that famous accent of his. ‘No way!’ he said. ‘I might be a little slow, but I’m not crazy!’ Everybody around us cracked up. Right then you knew this guy was going places.”

“The difference between me and the guys across from me was that as soon as the judge lifted his hand, every bit of my physiological and psychological being exploded,” Jake said. “Before my opponent knew what was happening, his arm was halfway down. Those guys had no idea of the fury they were up against. They saw it as a friendly sporting competition, but I saw it as a fight to the death. Maybe they should have taken the fact that I have ‘KILL OR BE KILLED’ tattooed on the inside of my right wrist as some sort of warning, know what I mean?”

“Yep,” I said, keeping my eyes on my notebook.

The headline of the Portland Press Herald article about Jake’s participation in the competition reads: “Arm of Steel, Will of Iron Garner Trophy.” “That said it pretty well,” Jake remarked. “Arm strength mattered, of course, and I had always had naturally strong arms, but it was determination and focus that really made the difference.”

To advance in the competition, wrestlers had to win two out of three matches against each opponent. Jake beat 24 competitors without losing a match — 48 straight wins — on his way to the championship round against Maurice “Moe” Baker. “My longest match on the way to going up against Moe was with a guy from Philadelphia who weighed three-hundred-and-ten and was so strong that it took me seven minutes to put his arm all the way down, after I got it halfway down the instant we started. He was damn rugged, but he wasn’t as strong as Moe, who worked lifting steel in a foundry in Hartford, Connecticut, and outweighed me by only sixty-five pounds.

“Moe immediately kicked my ass,” Jake said. “No excuses. I was pretty exhausted after winning forty-eight straight matches against some of the strongest men on the planet, but he had had a lot of matches too, so that was no excuse. He was just a lot stronger than I was. Case closed. When Moe went on to win the world championship, I was not at all surprised.”

As the daily paper reported, Jake’s second-place finish marked the first time in the 30-year history of the competition that a Mainer placed in the event. Bruce Chambers finished fourth. The next year, Jake did it again, advancing unbeaten to the final round only to be bested by Baker, who went on to successfully defend his world title.

“The arm-wrestling championships were absolutely among the most intense and challenging experiences of my life,” Jake told me. Given all the harrowing experiences he’d already had by then, and all those yet to come, that’s really saying something.


A bail bondsman

By his early thirties, Jake’s résumé, had he bothered to type one up, would’ve already been quite long: paratrooper, car salesman, rum-runner, fitness instructor, Hell’s Angels enforcer, bean factory worker, etc. In 1970, he added another unlikely title to that remarkable list: bail bondsman.

For obvious reasons, Jake would seem to be a poor candidate for a job like that, and he agreed that he was, at least “as far as the standards of today are concerned.” Those standards “were tightened up considerably as a direct result of my three years as a bail bondsman,” Jake said. “You now have to pass an extensive background check, that sort of thing. I’m very proud to have played a part in bringing about needed reform to a critical facet of the criminal-justice system. As far as I’m concerned, there can never be enough law and order.”

I applied my own iron will to keep from cracking up when he said that. And there was something else that puzzled me about this. A bail bondsman must have a substantial amount of capital or property to put up as a guarantee that the person they’ve sprung from jail will show up in court. In last month’s chapter, Jake was renting a room above a bar in South Portland and had only recently opened the health club on Fore Street, earning a modest cut of every $15 blow-job performed by the masseuse on the third floor.

There was, of course, more to the story.

“When I first arrived back in Portland I was making a great deal of money selling marijuana,” Jake said. “I had national connections through my time in California and the contacts I’d made in the various houses of incarceration I’d been in, and it wasn’t long before I was supplying dozens of small dealers all over Greater Portland with as much pot as they could handle.

“I have never done anything in my life with the sole purpose of making money,” he continued, “and the marijuana business I operated was no exception. My greatest motivation was setting deserving people up with a small business, without them having to come up with the capital that is normally necessary. All I asked of them was that they deal with me straight on. Their reputation with me was their capital and, in most instances, everything turned out very well. For those who didn’t keep their word and tried to take advantage of my good nature in some way, things didn’t turn out so well. There weren’t too many of that kind. Pot dealing was an honorable business between cool people in those days, and I’m very proud to have facilitated it in my humble way.

“Of course, I couldn’t declare the income from marijuana sales on my bail bondsman application, but I had converted the income to real-estate holdings, and that could be used. At the time, multi-unit income properties could be had for a song in Portland, and I soon had three apartment buildings on Munjoy Hill, which accounted for the equity I used to guarantee bail for people. Those buildings proved to be very profitable themselves, and they also served to facilitate a variety of my other activities.”

Being a bail bondsman appealed to Jake because it “didn’t require regular hours and it involved a world with which I had become very familiar,” he said. “Believe it or not, I was a very rowdy fellow in those days. I felt like I was king of the world. Portland was small beans to me after managing a health club in the middle of the Combat Zone, running with the Hell’s Angels and spending a couple years in some of the most notorious prisons in the country. I strode the peninsula of Portland like a humongously strong madman on steroids, maniacally looking for fights and wildly crazy sex, and I got plenty of both, often right in the middle of the street or some other public place!

“There I’d be, drunk as a bastard, raising holy hell in a joint like Joe and Neno’s Circus Room, which was a notoriously wild honky-tonk bar on Middle Street. I’d be out on the dance floor, bare-assed naked, dancing my brains out, with some equally bare-assed young lady performing oral sex on me between tunes, right out there in front of everyone. Occasionally other people of both genders would join in, you know, trying to be like me, but that kind of thing can be very hazardous if you don’t go about it in the right way.

“Anyway, in the middle of it all the bartender would yell over to tell me I had a call from the county jail about someone needing my bail bondsman services — just as I’d instructed him to do, for promotional purposes, in case someone in attendance found themselves in need of my services at some future time. Part of the show was them seeing me get dressed and run outside and jump on the orange Harley chopper I had parked at the curb. The bartender told me that the crowd cheered as I roared off to some desperate person’s rescue.”

My earliest memory of seeing Jake around town was as a surprised witness to just such a display. Streaking was briefly in fashion in those days, and many Portlanders of a certain age can recall seeing Jake and his female friends in flagrante delicto in the Old Port bars and dance clubs, or aboard a Casco Bay Lines ferry, or on the grass of the Eastern Promenade, and so on.

The Hell’s Angels in Lowell that Jake had begun hanging around with knew he disliked the nickname Bonecrusher, so they gave him a new one, Jake the Dancer, “because when we went to bars I’d always get up on the dance floor with a bottle of beer in my hand and dance by myself all night, happy as hell,” Jake said. “Dancing is a great way to get those pleasure endorphins firing off like mad all through your body, and I’ve always loved it.”

The other way Jake promoted his bondsman services was by handing out business cards in the bars. The cards read “Dancer’s Bail Bonds” in embossed gold letters on a white background.

At the county jail, which was on Federal Street back then, Jake would “interview” the inmate who’d requested his help. “The thing I looked for was whether or not they had local ties,” he said. “If they did, I’d bail them out because I knew if they were local, they knew people I knew, so becoming a bail-jumper was not an option. If I decided they were an acceptable risk … I made it very clear to them that the deal was a matter of honor between us, and I made them very aware of the consequences of disrespecting me.

“I was able to help a lot of guys get out of jail, and was making good money for my efforts,” he continued. “What you have to understand is that a lot of these guys didn’t even have the ten percent of their bail amount to pay a bail bondsman, and I was the only one who’d trust them for it. In other words, they were getting out of jail at no out-of-pocket cost to them, which was something for which they were very grateful. The deal was that they were to pay me my commission on or before the day of their trial, and every one of them swore up and down that they’d have no trouble with that.

“My commission was a secondary consideration, though. What was more important was that I was liable for their full bail amount, and if they didn’t show up on their court date I had ten days to produce them before the court placed liens on my buildings for the amount of their bail. That’s when I’d become a friggin’ fiery-eyed, ruthless bounty hunter. I’d stalk around town looking for the son-of-a-bitch and put out the word everywhere. If he was still in town, he was mine, and everyone knew it.

“As it turned out, I was successful at apprehending every low-life bail-jumper I had to hunt down, and I ended up not having to hurt any of them too much. They had suffered a great deal already, just knowing I was after them. Normally it wasn’t necessary to do any more than give them a black eye, so their friends would know not to fuck with me should the occasion arise when they needed my services. I’m not some kind of vicious animal who enjoys inflicting pain on others unnecessarily, after all.

“And again,” Jake added, “the money part of it didn’t mean all that much to me, to tell you the truth. I’ve gone through piles of it at various times in my life, from poor to rich and back again, and I’ve always known I could repeat the process anytime I wanted to. What really mattered to me was that the friggin’ bail-jumper had disrespected me. They gave me their word, and anyone who doesn’t keep their word is a piece of shit. End of fucking discussion.”


Jake, at left, with Al Martin, at right, and Paul Anderson, the Olympic weightlifter long known as "the world's strongest man." photo/courtesy Jake Sawyer
Jake, at left, with Al Martin, at right, and Paul Anderson, the Olympic weightlifter long known as “the world’s strongest man.” photo/courtesy Jake Sawyer

Dancer’s Variety 

In 1971, Jake opened a corner store on Spring Street, near the intersection with High Street, where the Greyhound bus station used to be. “I called it Dancer’s Variety and ran it for about three years,” he said. “Dancer’s Variety was a very efficiently and imaginatively run place. We always kept the shelves fully stocked, and had a sandwich counter that couldn’t be beat. The people who came in from the Greyhound bus across the street said our hamburger was the best they’d ever gotten on the East Coast. The fried onions is what made the difference, they all said.

“We also had a very extensive and enticing ‘accessories’ section in the store, featuring my own personally designed brand of water pipes, which I called Dancer’s Water Pipes, with the slogan ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’ written underneath the name. This was at a time when pot was still very illegal, remember. People were doing five years for simple possession of any amount, and here I was selling pot pipes and, allegedly, selling weed across the counter at my variety store.”

There was always a stack of business cards for Dancer’s Bail Bonds by the register, and Jake would occasionally conduct a “used car sale” at the counter. “Having a storefront business was very good for that sideline activity too,” he said. “I enjoyed leaning over the counter now and then and asking a good customer how they’d like to obtain a bright and shiny, almost new Cadillac for about what an old Ford would cost them elsewhere. Their eyes would widen in such an eager way. They knew what was up, of course, but I didn’t see a lot of hesitation on their part.”

Candy bars, cigarettes, hamburgers, bongs, weed, bail money and Cadillacs — that’s variety, alright.


Mystique Figure Wrap, circa 1971, and its "therapeutically designed tables." photos/ courtesy Jake Sawyer
Mystique Figure Wrap, circa 1971, and its “therapeutically designed tables.” photos/ courtesy Jake Sawyer

Mystique Figure Wrap

At the 1969 East Coast Arm Wrestling Championships, fifth-place was taken by John DeCola, a bodybuilder who also won the Mr. America title that year. DeCola used to work out at the gym in the Combat Zone that Jake managed in the early ’60s.

In the early ’70s, DeCola called Jake “out of the blue,” Jake said, “all excited about a very successful business he had started by way of capitalizing on his fame as Mr. America. He wanted to talk to me about opening a franchise in Portland. He was absolutely certain that I could cash in on my golden-boy reputation in the health and bodybuilding world too. He was so confident I’d be a success that he even offered to take the cost of my opening a franchise in Portland out of the profits he was sure I’d be making. What could I do?”

The business was called Mystique Figure Wrap, and the Portland location Jake opened in 1971 was on the ground floor of the Time & Temperature Building downtown, across from Monument Square. Mystique Figure Wrap was “a gift to all of the ‘full-bodied’ upper-income women of Greater Portland,” said Jake, adding that its services were “especially popular with women from places like Falmouth Foreside and Cape Elizabeth who wished to trim off a few pounds for an upcoming special event, or maybe for some grand vacation they had planned. We ran a series of very classy ads highlighting my qualifications as a health-and-fitness expert, and included in the ads was my personal guarantee that the ladies would lose a minimum of six inches from all around their body and drop a full dress size after just one two-hour treatment. Right away, business was very brisk.

“Before we go any further, my friend,” Jake said, “I’d like to make it clear that in no way am I making a judgment about, or snickering about, anyone’s body size. Some of the most marvelous and sexiest women I’ve known in my life have been a little more rounded than curvy, but I’ve loved them just the same. I just want to be sure that gets included here.”

I nodded and kept scribbling as he continued. “The Mystique Figure Wrap experience started as soon as the client stepped through the door. My very sophisticated and friendly special assistant, Cindy, made them feel completely at ease right from the beginning. Once she had taken ‘before’ measurements of their arms, breasts, stomach, waist, legs and calves, she’d lead them to my office, where I would work my boyish charm on them.

Jake in his doctor's smock mixing California High Protein in 1962. photo/courtesy Jake Sawyer
Jake in his doctor’s smock mixing California High Protein in 1962. photo/courtesy Jake Sawyer

“I dressed in a Ben Casey smock, like the one the handsome young doctor in the TV program all the women were into at the time wore. I looked very professional in my doctor’s smock, and I had framed documents all over the wall behind me, including my Kent’s Hill high school diploma, my Paratrooper School graduation certificate, and a penmanship award I was given in the third grade — hey, there was some stiff competition in that third-grade class, believe me! Anyway, the ladies were all very impressed with my credentials and my general appearance, and they were all very pleased when I told them that, in my professional opinion, they could, without a doubt, benefit from the services of Mystique Figure Wrap.”

Jake had pulled the smock act before, about 10 years prior and a block away, when he ran the Portland Health Studio and Figure Salon, on Center Street (see Chapter 3). He’d don the smock when he concocted a potion called California High Protein, “a very popular health-and-fitness drink made from powdered milk, powdered eggs, and beet sugar,” he said.

“The beauty of California High Protein, which I was introduced to during the time I spent managing health clubs in Santa Monica, was not only that it enabled the person to experience unimagined amounts of energy, but also to lose or gain any amount of weight they wished to lose or gain. It was wondrous, really, and the white doctor’s smock I wore at that time was very effective in increasing the confidence of our clients in our product. I was sure it would have a similar effect on my Mystique Figure Wrap clientele.

“The first step of the Mystique Figure Wrap program involved getting a great massage by one of the two full-time lady masseuses we had on duty at all times. I had learned some things about how to give a fantastic massage during my time in California, and it was very satisfying to pass on what I learned to my Mystique Figure Wrap employees, who became quite skilled at putting our clients in a very pleasant and agreeable frame of mind.

“After giving them their special massage, the masseuses wrapped the ladies from their necks to their ankles in wide gauze bandages that had been soaked in very warm water. We informed them that the water had been treated with mineral salts harvested from the Dead Sea and laid out on the shore for a week, on a bed of dried seaweed, to absorb the vitalizing rays of the Mediterranean sun. After being wrapped up in the specially treated gauze bandages, the ladies would lie for an hour on one of our therapeutically designed tables, listening to enchanting music being played softly in the background and basking in the gentle aroma of special incense we had imported from India. Or maybe it was from a head shop down on India Street?” Jake said with a laugh. “I’m not exactly sure how that went, but the ladies liked it, and that’s all that mattered.

“When their hour of meditative relaxation was up, the masseuse would unwrap the ladies, Cindy would come in and take the ‘after’ measurements, and — what do you know? — the ‘after’ measurements would always total at least six inches less than the ‘before’ measurements!

“The ladies were, of course, very pleased, and they’d be giggling back and forth with each other as they went out the door, all excited to get home and try on that special dress. We were anxious for them to get home as soon as possible, too, because we knew that the effect of having virtually all their body parts tightly wrapped for an hour would wear off in a relatively short period of time.

“You know what, though?” Jake added. “In the three years I ran Mystique Body Wrap, I never had one woman call the next day and complain that she had gained the weight back. I think that’s because they enjoyed the illusion while it lasted. Whatever. I really don’t know. All I can say is that as time went on, we had all we could do to accommodate the large number of repeat customers we had.”


Christmas in the joint

“Whew!” I said, tossing my pen down onto my notebook, “you sure you didn’t have any other activities going on at the time?”

“Well, maybe a few other things,” Jake said, “but nothing worth mentioning, I guess, unless…”

“Enough!” I yelled, much to his amusement. I was wondering about something. All the businesses Jake was engaged in during this period ended in 1974. I asked him what happened that year.

“I went back to prison,” he said, “What else?”

“For what?” I asked.

“Maybe we ought to save that for next time,” he said. “There was a lot that led up to it, a real lot. There were crimes allegedly committed on a massive scale, followed by a couple of very colorful trials. Then there were my high adventures at Maine State Prison and at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. We don’t want to get into all that today, do we?”

No, I agreed, we did not. Instead, I asked Jake if he had any memorable Christmas stories to share with his readers, this being the holiday season and all.

“Yeah, OK, my friend,” he said, “I just might have a Christmas story for you, but it means jumping ahead a little bit, if you don’t mind.

“This little tale takes place in December, 1977, when I was incarcerated at Lewisburg. What you have to know at the outset is that Lewisburg is where repeat violent offenders are sent to do very hard time. The outside yard at Lewisburg was an exceedingly dangerous place where the slightest wrong move would cause you to get carved up beyond recognition, and, unfortunately, the greatest matter of contention concerned race. Blacks and whites were forced to be in one another’s presence inside the prison walls — at work, and in the mess hall — but there was no effective way to make us associate with one another out in the prison yard, where we always kept a strict distance. That’s something that always bothered me, big time, and when I got a chance to send a message to the blacks one day, I did so without hesitation and ended up being very happy I did.

“There was a core group of black Muslims among the blacks, and everyone knew they controlled all the contraband that flowed in and out of the prison. One afternoon, after the black Muslims had had one of their little pow-wows in the prison yard, I spotted a black notebook they had left behind on a bench, and I knew it was the little black book of accounts. All the prisoners were familiar with the little black book, because the Muslims had the habit of waving it in the whites’ direction, across the yard, to illustrate the power they had over us. Then there it was, left sitting on a bench, right out in the open.

“My first instinct was to ignore it, because in prison it’s generally best to keep as low a profile as possible, but when I saw a guard moving in the direction of the book my reflexive reaction was to get to it before he did, because I knew the prison administration would have absolutely loved to get their hands on that book. I managed to get to it before the guard noticed it, and as I scooped it up I spotted the black Muslims glaring at me from a corner of the yard. They watched me stuff the notebook inside my shirt, but instead of heading back inside the prison, like they expected me to do, I immediately marched over to their corner and handed the notebook to them. I didn’t say a word — just turned and walked away.

“Most whites at Lewisburg certainly would not have done what I did, and those black Muslims knew it. I guess I did what I did because I knew that allowing the guard to reach the book before I did would have amounted to being a snitch, and as I’ve said to you on many occasions, I consider a snitch to be the lowest form of human being there is. I guess the message I sent to those Muslims was that the code of honor I lived under applied to them as much as it did to any other man in the place, and the reason for that was that I considered any one of them to be as much a man as any one of us.

“So, a few weeks later I was sitting on the cold, wet floor of a darkened cell, locked in solitary confinement on Christmas Eve. We won’t get into why I was thrown into solitary confinement at this point. Let’s just say that I was completely demoralized and at one of the lowest points I had ever experienced in my life. I was also suffering from the effects of physical torture applied to my person by the prison authorities, but we shall get into that gory little story in greater detail the next time we talk.

“Anyway, just when I was feeling as low as I thought I could go, I heard footsteps in the hallway. I knew it wasn’t the guard coming to deliver my food, because dinner was still a couple hours away, but the footsteps stopped outside my door and someone slipped something through the slot. It was a cigarette pack, and it appeared to be empty, which I took to be a cruel joke. But when I opened it I found a book of matches inside, along with a big, fat, beautifully rolled joint!

“I’ve had some wonderful Christmases in my life, but I’d have to say that that Christmas Eve, when I sat all alone in that cold cell smoking the joint my black Muslim brothers had provided, was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had. I was immediately transported back to Portland, into the middle of a fantastic party with family and friends. We opened presents, sang carols around the tree, spent a lot of time under the mistletoe, drank spiked eggnog, all that. We even walked all around downtown Portland in the falling snow, taking in all the decorations.

“The Christmas I imagined that night was what life would have been for me if I hadn’t been such a damn wild man all the time. But there you go. You can’t escape who you are. Still, I felt wonderfully connected to my friends and family in that dark and desolate dungeon hundreds of miles away.

“The moral of the story is … well, you can figure that one out for yourself, my friend. But let me just say, from the bottom of my heart, I wish a very merry Christmas to one and all!”