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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
The atmosphere of Jeffries’ camp was unhappy. The staff had grown: the Olympic trainer Mike Murphy had joined as physical director, while Eddie Leonard (“the Minstrel Man”) and Walter C. Kelly were in attendance as entertainers. In time, Kelly was to become the uncle of the future Princess Grace of Monaco, but at the moment he was known for a vaudeville act called “The Virginia Judge,” which drew its humor from the supposed combination of craftiness and stupidity displayed by Negroes before the bar of justice. Side by side with Leonard, Kelly could put on a show that would fill a Broadway theatre, but at the Jeffries camp the comedians worked in vain. Jim was in such a bad mood that not even the administering of a Mickey Finn to one of the camp servants could bring a smile to his drawn face. Nor could the wonders of nature divert him: he remained morose at the sight of Halley’s comet sparkling across the Nevada skies. “I told you not to wake me up to see no comet!” Jeffries cried. “Who cares about comets? I want my sleep!”
While Jeffries continued to fret, Johnson worked hard. His evenings, however, were all gaiety and relaxation. Jack liked the desert sunsets, and he would stand outside the roadhouse watching the blue sky turn to amethyst and rose. Cool air drifted from the mountains; he would hear the mechanical piano in the taproom strike up “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” and see the glow of oil lamps at the windows. It was time to go inside, get out the bull fiddle, and cut a few capers. Two volunteer masters of ceremonies were usually present at these festivities in the persons of the wine agents Bob Vernon and Harry Lehr.∗ Lehr was also the social consultant to Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish of New York City. As the late afternoon sky began to deepen, Vernon and Lehr would drive out to The Willows at the head of a train of automobiles loaded with eastern society women and hampers of champagne; Japanese butlers accompanied the two salesmen and opened the plentiful bottles, pouring and serving the wine. The fashionable women had not come to Reno to see the fight, but to obtain divorces under the Nevada six weeks’ residence law. Sometimes they caught a glimpse of Belle Schreiber; on the last day of June, Belle went to San Francisco, and Etta Duryea appeared. Like Belle, she stayed in the background, and reporters confused the two women, referring to each of them, on occasion, as “Johnson’s white wife.”
In spite of the merriment in the taproom, The Willows was an armed camp. Johnson owned several pistols, keeping one in his pocket and the others near his bedside. Each night, after the mechanical piano was stilled and the last car had rolled away to Reno, a sentry paced beneath the windows of the house. He was a dependable man named Cal McVey, an old-time National League catcher, and he carried a shotgun. Perhaps these precautions were excessive, but like everyone else, Johnson was reading the papers with their stories of fixes and frames and unidentifiable figures lurking in the background. More practically, however, he was afraid of a robbery. Some of the ablest thieves in the United States had come to Reno, or were on their way. The eminent bank robber Cincinnati Slim was already there, and the bandit known as the Sundance Kid, later to be shot to pieces in South America, was expected any day. Also walking the streets of Reno were such celebrities of terror as Won Let, the hatchet man for the New York branch of the Hip Sing Tong, who was known to have dispatched between twenty and thirty fellow Chinamen. And in the same newspapers that poured out column after column about the training, the gathering crowds, and the betting rumors, there were items about Jack’s money and jewelry, which any reasonably alert jewel thief would surely have noted; Johnson took pains to make it known that Cal McVey was on hand.
Reno came to a boil in the final week preceding the Fourth of July. Rickard had the timbers from the San Francisco arena in town at midnight of June 27; before dawn, carpenters were working by torchlight. They were to get premium pay, but inspiring them even more than the extra money was the meeting of an emergency, the paving of the way for a great event. To the public, Reno became for the next seven days the hub of the universe. Thinking it over when he had become a veteran editor, Henry Wales of the Chicago Tribune wrote that no event in modern times so permeated the mind of the world until Charles Lindbergh’s flight from Long Island to Paris seventeen years later. And no event, said Wales, had attracted so many reporters; by his count more than three hundred were at work in Reno by the end of June. At the time, newspaper pages were broad and deep and set in small type except for the headlines. Reporters therefore had to write long stories, and those at Reno made their editors happy by sending out around one million words a day. What this coverage would have amounted to with radio and television added is beyond estimate.