A Sporting Life

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Dempsey was the biggest draw American sports had ever seen. But how representative was Heywood Broun’s sentiment, expressed after watching the champion overwhelm the French war hero Georges Carpentier: “It was impossible to root for Dempsey. That would have been like giving three long cheers for the guillotine as Sydney Carton walked up to meet it”?

He was a heavy in the beginning. And he was a heavy primarily because he had been charged with draft evasion in 1920. But you want to preface this by saying that to think of his background and his what we today would call dysfunctional family, his evolution into this wonderfully avuncular fellow just boggles the mind. How could this have happened? He was a young, tough hobo. Life on the boxcars had exposed him to the threat of homosexual rape, so he preferred to ride the rods, which, as he explained to me, is literally hanging on to the brake beams underneath the car. If you fall asleep, you die; if you freeze and you lose your grip, you die. But here came Jack from a life like that. He said, “I was a hobo, but I was never a bum. I have begged, but I never stole.” He was working in a Salt Lake City copper mine. Then he met his first wife, Maxine. She was older, thirty-five to his nineteen at the time he met her, and working in a piano bar. Dempsey later said, “They told me Maxine had another business. I didn’t want to believe them. I married Maxine the piano player.” After some hard times for him, probably terribly hard times for her, they got divorced, and she went back to prostitution.

 

After Dempsey had beaten Willard for the championship in 1919 and signed for the big fight with Carpentier, the first million-dollar gate, the other ladies in the brothel began to tell Maxine, “You’re going to keep doing dollar tricks while your old buddy boy gets a million dollars to fight?” So she wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle , and the letter was published, claiming he had sent her no alimony during World War I and that therefore his draft exemption was fraudulent. They actually went and prosecuted Dempsey on a charge of draft evasion. He won the trial quite dramatically, with a Navy commander named John Kennedy coming off active duty to testify that Dempsey had been trying to enlist.

“Ruth at his peak was getting eighty thousand dollars a year, but if you wanted Dempsey in the ring you had to have three, four, five hundred thousand ...”
 

He was acquitted, but you can never completely beat a charge of draft evasion. There will always be a suspicion. He was “Slacker Jack,” even though Willard wasn’t in the Army either (he was too tall). The sportswriter Grantland Rice, who was otherwise gentle, had himself been traumatized by what he had seen covering the fighting in the Argonne, and he kept up the charge, telling his colleague Ring Lardner: “To make heroes out of these two characters because they’re boxers galls me. I saw skinny, four-eyed bank clerks killed when they charged German machinegun nests. That was courage. These guys can punch, all right, but they didn’t have the guts to fight for their own country. So what does a boxing match like this mean?”

Then, when he went to fight Carpentier, who had won the Croix de Guerre as a French air force spotter over the trenches, it was “the Hero against the Slacker.” That was sort of the built-in promotion. Anyway, this curse stayed with Dempsey through his career until he landed at Okinawa during World War II.

Your portrait of Dempsey is also a biography of the 1920s, and it’s filled with the verve and hyperbolic style of that era’s great reporters. Why did so many of them write so memorably?

This was a flowering, as you had a flowering of playwriting in Elizabethan England. There was essentially no by-lined sportswriting before World War I. Then there came this sports-page flowering. The names ring like a chord: Paul Gallico, with his wonderful book about sports in the twenties, A Farewell to Sport , and Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Bill McGeehan.

Sportswriting still attracted people with a serious literary bent when I started in the late forties at the Herald Tribune . My first job was mixing paste, carrying copy, and stringing. When I finally got a desk of my own, the fellow next to me, Al Laney, who covered the Giants, had once been James Joyce’s business secretary in Paris, and we would go upstairs, and over stale doughnuts and crummy coffee I would say, “Now what did Joyce tell you about writing?”

You’ve said there could be no Dempsey or so-called golden age of sport without a golden age of sportswriting. Does that mean the writers created Dempsey?

The thing I learned from writing this book is that it was always called the golden age, and the title is generally taken to mean Dempsey, Ruth, Bobby Jones, Red Grange, and Bill Tilden, but the fact of the case was that the golden age was Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, Paul Gallico, Westbrook Pegler, Heywood Broun. There was a poem I read long ago by Arthur O’Shaughnessy that talked about forgotten historical empires, and the refrain that ran through it was “They had no poet and they died.” You could have played sports at a high level, but if it had been written the way things were written in 1900, we would not be talking about a golden age. I think it was a golden age for American prose, period.