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“jeff, It’s Up To You!”
When the Negro Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries at Reno in 1910, more than the world heavyweight championship seemed at stake. To the many alarmed by Johnson’s unsavory reputation, Jeffries seemed nothing less than the “Great White Hope”
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
It happened that King Edward VII of England was a frequent patron of Carlsbad, finding the waters beneficial and the place convenient for his attentions to a number of ladies in the spa’s luxurious hotels. Thus it was not surprising that on his first morning in town Jeffries encountered the King taking his usual walk. Edward VII was identifiable—in spite of the dark glasses over his brandied and protuberant eyes—by the familiar gray Homburg, “torpedo” beard, and projecting paunch. The lantern-jawed Jeffries was also a recognizable celebrity because of his great height and bulk, and the King hailed him in his characteristic wheezing and guttural tones.
“Hello there, Jim Jeffries!” said the genial monarch. “Going to fight the blackfellow, eh? Jolly good! I say it’s great luck to meet you. I hear all Americans know about furs. Come along and help me pick out a few.”
With that, the King seized Jeffries’ arm and pulled him into a furrier’s shop. Jeffries was strait-laced where women were concerned, and looked on in disapproval as the fawning proprietor laid out skin after skin; the King demanded his opinion of each item. At last Edward bought five thousand dollars’ worth of silver fox scarves and allowed Jeffries to go. Later in the week the Carlsbad doctors told him he could safely reduce to ring weight within a year. He took the waters, and then travelled back to the United States at a leisurely pace, sending word to Johnson early in October that all they needed now was an acceptable promoter and financier.
While this matter was being settled, Johnson continued to cut a fashionable figure with his dozens of well-tailored suits, his handmade shoes, his racing cars, and his women—who always seemed to be white, blonde, and not given to formality of manner. Today they would be called “models” or “starlets,” but they were in fact prostitutes. Johnson paraded them with ostentation, thus arousing disapproval not only because the racial mix irritated both white people and conservative Negroes, but also because his flouting of morality stimulated the reformers and stirred them to action against drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Johnson made things bad for everybody, and so was detested not only in Sunday schools but among the host of pimps, whores, gamblers, distillers, brewers, and their customers, who believed that where business and pleasure were concerned the less said the better.
Johnson’s favorite companion was a well-known prostitute named Belle Schreiber; he had another, named Etta Terry Duryea, also a white woman, who occupied a respectable station in life. Born twenty-eight years before in Hempstead, Long Island, and brought up in Brooklyn, Etta had been divorced from Clarence C. Duryea, an eastern racing man. Jack referred to Etta as “Mrs. Johnson,” but continued to associate with Belle Schreiber; in spite of this Etta maintained the relationship, and it was eventually legitimized in marriage on January 18, 1911.
The search for a promoter continued. Jeffries’ man Sam Berger had been talking with Tuxedo Ed Graney, who had staged a number of sporting events in California, then one of the few states where the law permitted “exhibition boxing bouts.” Tuxedo Ed and his associate Jack Gleason proposed to raise money for a San Francisco stadium and to supply the gratuities for local officials and the press. Graney and Gleason knew their business, yet failed to convince Jeffries and Berger that they saw the full possibilities of the Johnson-Jeffries fight, which was to be called the Battle of the Century. Jim Jeffries believed that an unusual opportunity called for a unique entrepreneur, and so the choice remained in the air.
Then, out of Alaska came a man who seemed to meet every requirement that Jeffries demanded a fight promoter should have: his name was George Lewis Rickard. Respected as a gambler who always paid off, “Tex” Rickard travelled first class even when he was broke. Except for his metropolitan tailoring, he might have passed for the steely-eyed western movie star William S. Hart; he had acquired that same cold, level gaze as a faro dealer in the Klondike. Back in the United States now and looking for a sound proposition, Rickard talked to Jeffries and suggested that the fighters ask potential backers to bid for the match. He also interviewed Johnson, giving a journalist the chance to manufacture a tale that he poured out a shower of gold coins to dazzle Johnson into agreement. The truth is that Johnson was far from simple-minded and needed no tricks to catch his attention when Rickard sat down to talk. Rickard had the backing of Thomas Cole, a rich Minnesota mining engineer with whom he had done business in Alaska, and looked as good to Johnson as he did to Jeffries. Both principals agreed to come to New York to make a final selection among the possible promoters, naming December 1, 1909, as the day of decision.