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1915 Seventy-five Years Ago

May 2024
2min read

Bad press was nothing new to the Shubert brothers, but that didn’t mean they had to like it. Banning particularly negative critics from their theaters in Chicago, Boston, and New York seemed sensible to Jake, Lee, and J. J. Shubert, but the negative reviews kept coming. “I do not mind missing Shubert openings,” said one New York theater critic. “I can always go to the second night and see the closing.” When Alexander Woollcott of The New York Times found himself physically prevented from entering Shubert theaters after he had panned one of the brothers’ productions called Taking Chances , his paper decided to fight back. On April 4 the Times informed the Shuberts that their advertising was no longer welcome on the most important theater page in the city.

The paper secured an injunction against the Shuberts and gave Woollcott a by-line and a raise. Though the New York Court of Appeals sided ultimately with the Shuberts, American newspapers crucified the brothers as never before. After a year in which Woollcott was banned from twentytwo Shubert productions, the Times had noted a rise in circulation and its theater critic had become one of the most conspicuous public figures in the city. The Shuberts gave up in 1916, informing the Times that Woollcott was again acceptable and sending him a large box of Cuban cigars as a peace offering. “The whole thing went up in a puff of smoke,” a triumphant Woollcott said.

∗The heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, a fugitive from the United States for two years, lost his title on April 5 to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. Johnson had fled the United States in 1913 to evade a prison sentence resulting from a conviction under the Mann Act, and Willard’s victory immediately sparked rumors that Johnson had made a deal to throw the fight in return for amnesty in the States.

Jack Johnson’s dominant boxing skills in the first decade of the century scandalized the many Americans who still believed in white racial superiority. Several cities banned films of Johnson’s victory over Jim Jeffries, the original “Great White Hope,” in 1910. But it was Johnson’s flamboyant personal life, which included marrying white women, that made him a target. Where no boxer could beat Johnson, the law did. “It comes down … to this unforgiveable blackness,” said W. E. B. Du Bois. “Wherefore we conclude that at present prizefighting is very, very immoral, and that we must rely on football and war for pastimes until Mr. Johnson retires or permits himself to be ‘knocked out.’”

Unwelcome in the capitals of Europe, Johnson agreed to fight Willard in Havana. “I did not care any more for the title of world’s champion than a child does for the stick from which the lollypop has vanished,” Johnson wrote later. “I despised it.” Johnson easily outpointed Willard for the first twentyfive rounds of the match but went down in the twenty-sixth. As the referee counted him out, Johnson held his knees in the air and shaded his eyes from the sun with both hands. At the count of ten Johnson stood and left the ring.

Boxing historians still debate whether Johnson threw the fight. In his autobiography, though, Johnson described an agreement with the fight’s promoter, Jack Curley, to lose the title for fifty thousand dollars and safe passage to the United States. The homesick boxer agreed, toying with Willard until he saw his wife in the crowd signal that she had received the “additional percentage … owed me if I lived up to my agreement to lie down.” Curley failed to provide the immunity he promised, and Johnson remained in exile, performing in exhibitions in Europe and Mexico. He finally surrendered to U.S. authorities in 1920 and served eight months of his original sentence in Leavenworth Prison.

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