Eoin O’Callaghan on the curious friendship between a boxing legend and a Nobel Prize winning author.
No one knows for sure but plenty speculate there were as many as 150,000 people inside Chicago’s Soldier Field that night.
The less fortunate huddled around crackly radio transistors. They tuned in from far and wide - even in Greenland, where two scientists from the University of Michigan paused their iceberg research trip long enough to follow along with NBC’s coverage, delivered by the legendary Graham McNamee.
It was the biggest show in town. Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks sat alongside Irving Berlin in ‘ringside’ seats, some of which extended 137 rows back from the ropes. Gate receipts stretched far beyond the $2.5 million mark. 1,200 reporters were there to cover it. That night, everybody – actors, politicians, mobsters, murderers and socialites – sat in the rain, enamoured and absorbed by the spectacle before them.
In the seventh round, the raw energy stopped abruptly and everything began to move in slow-motion. Jack Dempsey caught Gene Tunney with a devastating left hook to the right jaw. As he began to slide to the floor, Dempsey conjured another shot. And then a volley of them. It was the first time in Tunney’s professional career – 12 long years and 76 professional fights – that he’d hit the canvas.
Stunned, the crowd rose.
The din was extraordinary.
“Tunney is down,” McNamee roared into his microphone.
“Tunney is down from a barrage of lefts and rights to the face.”
Afterwards, it was found that nine people died listening to the fight – three of them during the seventh round.
But, unlike them, Tunney was resurrected.
The fight – which took place just over 90 years ago in September 1927 - would forever be christened ‘The Long Count’ because of what happened next.
With Tunney on the ground, Dempsey inevitably circled him. But a new rule insisted he had to retreat to a neutral corner before a count could begin. Five seconds elapsed before Dempsey made his move, at the behest of referee Dave Barry. Only then did Barry start counting. Tunney was smart. With one arm draped across the rope, he took as much time as he could before getting to his feet. He had fallen awkwardly, his right leg bent beneath him.
An irritated Dempsey tried to capitalise and stalked him around the ring, wildly trying to land another decisive blow. But Tunney survived.
And just as he had done the previous year, he beat Dempsey to retain the world heavyweight belt.
Thousands of miles away, unbeknownst to him, a curious friendship was set to begin as a result.
George Bernard Shaw had a long-standing interest in boxing and fighters. In 1882, while he was a struggling author in London and long before he became a celebrated playwright, he wrote Cashel Byron’s Profession – a yarn about an Irish heavyweight who becomes the champion of the world and develops an unlikely relationship with an aristocratic heiress.
Shaw grew to dislike the book and later distanced himself from the sport too. But, in 1919, he was lured back. Tasked with attending the European heavyweight title bout between Georges Carpentier and Joe Beckett in London and producing an essay on the event for The Nation magazine, Shaw was captivated by the handsome and gallant Frenchman, triggering a newfound passion and interest in matters of the ring.
It had been 35 years since his last exposure to a fight but Shaw was mesmerised by Carpentier and though the whole affair famously lasted just 74 seconds, he was lavish in his praise for the victor.
“Prize-fighters are either geniuses like Carpentier, too few and far between to keep up one’s interest in exhibitions, or else poor fellows whose boxing is simply not worth looking at except by gulls who know no better,” Shaw wrote in his commentary of the night, The Great Fight.
But in 1924, when Shaw sat down to watch newsreel footage of Carpentier’s highly-anticipated bout at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan he was stunned by what he saw.
‘The Great Orchid’ was flattened by Gene Tunney, a former Marine who had served in the First World War.
The images stirred something within Shaw. For him, he was watching life imitate art. For him, Gene Tunney was Cashel Byron, his own literary creation.
Growing up in Greenwich Village, Tunney was studious but, as the eldest child in the family, left school in his mid-teens to start contributing to the household. His parents – John and Mary, had emigrated from Kiltimagh in Mayo and John worked on the Hudson River docks, moving cargo on and off the ships that landed there. It was an unforgiving environment and violence was commonplace.
Men would fight as they competed for work every morning while the entire city was plagued by street battles between gangs.
John felt his son, who had been the target of school bullies, needed to toughen up and protect himself. So, on his 10th birthday, Tunney was given a pair of twelve-ounce boxing gloves. Quickly, the abuse stopped and his reputation as a gifted athlete grew
But Tunney was different. He thought of boxing as the perfect combination of mental and physical strength. He detested the term ‘fight’. He preferred ‘boxing contest’. The likes of Jack Dempsey – an obvious, aggressive pugilist – were relatable but Tunney was tough to figure out.
Reporters also dismissed his appreciation for the arts and what they felt was an odd, ill-fitting obsession with literature.
As he became a champion, Tunney devoured as many books as he could, perhaps a reflection of the disappointment he still felt for having to leave school prematurely. Ahead of his first title tilt against Dempsey in 1926, a reporter interviewed Tunney and spotted a mini-library at his bedside. When pressed on what he was reading, Tunney famously replied, “The Way Of All Flesh, an autobiographical novel by Samuel Butler.”
Tunney was drawn to the book because the preface had been written by Shaw, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature the year previously. He had also seen the world premiere of Shaw’s play Saint Joan in New York in 1923.
The press had a field day with The Chicago Tribune gleefully pointing out how Dempsey’s preferred reading material was comic books. Meanwhile, Dempsey himself declared, “I’ll knock the big bookworm out inside of eight rounds”.
That didn’t happen. Tunney upset Dempsey on points after dominating the entire contest, though there was begrudged respect rather than wild adulation afterward.
But, his second victory over Dempsey the following year – this time having immersed himself in Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage during training - marked him as an undeniable and unique star.
Inevitably, various offers began to roll in. Tunney was approached about starring in a Hollywood adaptation of Cashel Byron’s Profession but turned it down.
The central character, he maintained, was ‘a soap-box orator bore’.
Word quickly reached Shaw, who was intrigued.
“If Tunney actually said those things, he must have some literary taste. I’d like to meet the young man.”
Honeymooning in London in 1928 with his new wife – the Connecticut heiress Polly Lauder – there was an invitation waiting for them at the Savoy Hotel. It was from Shaw’s wife, Charlotte, asking them to lunch. It was an intimidating guest-list, one that included author H.G. Wells and artist John Collier.
till, Tunney held his own and despite over 40 years between them (Tunney was 31 and Shaw 72), they bonded and began to correspond frequently. Months after their first meeting, both couples even holidayed together for three weeks on the Brionian Islands in the Adriatic.
When Shaw returned to England, he was asked by reporters what the unlikely pair talked about for the duration of the trip.
“Everything from ancient Egyptian wrestling to the theosophy of Madam Blavatsky,” he replied.
Letters continued, as did the visits, right up until the beginning of World War II. By then, Tunney felt it unfair to bother the ageing Shaw, saying later that he had ‘no right to intrude on his time’.
He had also become a naval officer during the war and, aware of Shaw’s dedicated pacifism, was reluctant to reach out. But, in 1946, shortly before Christmas, Shaw unexpectedly made contact. It’s a startlingly raw and emotional note, with Shaw clearly still grieving Charlotte, who died three years earlier.
“I feel I must give you a mail to show that I have not forgotten our old, happy contacts,” he wrote.
“I have only some scraps of wit left and shall soon forget the alphabet and the multiplication table and be unable to walk more than a hundred yards without two sticks. I hear you and your lady are prosperous and well and have three sons and a daughter. Keep them off the stage and out of the ring if you can,” he warned.
Signing off, Shaw mentioned H.G. Wells, who died earlier that year and told Tunney, “He and I ended as great men and you began as one.” Shaw died four years later at the age of 94. His relationship with Tunney was a rare thing for him: enjoyable, interesting and lengthy. Writing to a friend, he revealed the extent of his admiration.
“I have not been given to close personal friendships, as you know, and Gene Tunney is among the very few for whom I have established a warm affection. I enjoy his company as I have that of few men.”
In retirement, Tunney quietly slipped into the shadows and concentrated on his expansive business portfolio. In 1951, he published the letters he received from Shaw.
“One of the most precious gifts fortune has allowed me was the friendship of Shaw,” he said.
“He was a man who lived above personality in a sort of spiritual and intellectual world free from vindictiveness or malice, with a love for mankind but a shyness that only a few people were privileged to penetrate. I am proud to have known him.”
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