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  • The Old Guy and the Champ
  • Stanley Weintraub (bio)
Jay R. Tunney. The Prizefighter and the Playwright: Gene Tunney and Bernard Shaw. Stratford, Ontario: Firefly Books, 2010. 287pp. Illustrated. $35.

At the Adriatic holiday resort of Brioni (now Brijuni in Croatia) in 1929, while a hotel manager tried to intervene, an Italian press photographer pushed through a crowd to position his bulky Speed Graphic. (Paparazzi are not new, just more aggressive and more numerous.) “Move the two old guys!” he shouted. “I need a picture of the champ!” The old guys were Bernard Shaw and Richard Strauss, then the most famous of living writers and composers. Their young companion was James Joseph (“Gene”) Tunney, who had retired, at thirty-one, as heavyweight boxing champion.

He had twice defeated the iconic mauler Jack Dempsey, earning a million dollars—then real money—for the second bout. Soon he would marry a beautiful heiress, daughter of a partner of Andrew Carnegie. Tunney possessed the features and physique that would have made Greek gods jealous. And he was a further anomaly among crumpled and cauliflower-eared pugilists. He read books and loved music, and could quote, from memory, pages of Shakespeare and Shaw. He even seemed to rise from the pages of early Shaw—the embodiment of the colorful prizefighter hero in the underrated and entertaining 1883 novel Cashel Byron’s Profession .

Tunney’s son Jay has now re-created his father’s storied life around the remarkable friendship between Shaw, forty-one years the elder, and the flesh-and-blood Cashel Byron. One might dismiss the book, unread, as only a testament of filial devotion, but The Prizefighter and the Playwright is an engrossing read, packaged in an attractively and liberally illustrated volume. Gene Tunney comes warmly alive as someone worthy of Shaw’s almost paternal interest, and G.B.S. emerges in a more private dimension than he is often seen by biographers trying to encompass an encyclopedic life.

It wasn’t necessary for Tunney and Shaw, but when in extended company, boxing inevitably came up, and then they could discuss authors—Dickens, Hazlitt, Thackeray, Hugo, Conan Doyle, even Shakespeare—“through the prism of the boxing world.” Once, when Yale professor William Lyon Phelps [End Page 226] gave a luncheon for visiting novelist Somerset Maugham, and Tunney was present, he was advised by Maugham to read As You Like It —“because it has a great prizefight scene.” Amused, Tunney said, with no brag in his voice, “You probably mean the wrestling match. There is no prizefight in As You Like It .”

Phelps had brought the two together because he knew that just before the second, “long count,” Dempsey-Tunney fight in Chicago, Tunney had relaxed (it was no stunt) by reading Maugham’s Of Human Bondage . When news of that surfaced, sales of the novel escalated. The “long count,” it should be explained, although the term immediately found worldwide currency, referred to Tunney’s enduring the sole knockdown in his career, after which Dempsey had to be ordered (by the referee) to a neutral corner so the count over his fallen rival could begin. Tunney gained more time to rise, and when he did he battered Dempsey into the ropes.

Tunney would fight only once more, the next year, defending his title in Yankee Stadium in July 1928 against New Zealander Tom Heeney, winning decisively in the eleventh round and pocketing a guaranteed $500,000. Tunney planned to marry, and would never box professionally again.

In London, Shaw followed the Dempsey-Tunney match via radio reports and later saw it on film. G.B.S. and Charlotte had already heard much about Tunney’s genuineness from visiting friends. In a childless marriage initiated in their early forties, the Shaws had informally adopted surrogate children all through their years. Some that are less known are yet to be written about in depth, but Shavians are well aware of the Shaws’ attachment to Harley Granville Barker and Lillah MacCarthy, and to T. E. Lawrence, who legally changed his name to Shaw. The Shaws quietly looked after others, and their children, and often—quietly—supported schools’ tuition and other familial expenses. For Polly and Gene...


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pp. 226-229
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