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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 149-154

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The Playwright and the Prizefighter:
Bernard Shaw and Gene Tunney

Jay Tunney

I would like to share with you the story of my father's close friendship with George Bernard Shaw and how they met through the sport of boxing. Their friendship continued throughout the last quarter of Shaw's long life. The two men's lives and interests were converging even before they met in December 1928. Bernard Shaw wrote a lecture in London in 1884 on Shakespeare's comparatively unnoticed play, Troilus and Cressida, saying he thought it marked the crossroad in all of Shakespeare's plays. Forty-four years later, Gene Tunney, then heavyweight boxing champion of the world, was invited to give a lecture at Yale University on Shakespeare. Without notes he spoke for forty-five minutes on Shakespeare's play, Troilus and Cressida.

Soon after World War II, Bernard Shaw wrote to a friend in America—a fellow vegetarian named Curt Freshel: "I have not been given to close personal friendships, as you know, and Gene Tunney is among the very few for whom I have established a warm affection. I enjoy his company as I have that of few men."

Gene Tunney once wrote: "If for nothing else, I am grateful to the profession of boxing for enabling me to know the witty, wise, and altogether kindly George Bernard Shaw. The world is aware of his encyclopedic genius. I know also his generosity, affability, and charm."

I've been asked on various occasions just what drew Shaw and my father together into such a remarkable friendship. I tried to answer these questions on a BBC radio show a while ago in London when BBC aired a thirty-minute program about the unique friendship of Bernard Shaw and my father, Gene Tunney. The program was entitled "The Master and the Boy." It was produced by BBC and presented by me. It was a success with listeners and reviewers alike and played to millions of people around the world. What we tried to cover in the program was: (1) what the friendship was [End Page 149] about between these two seemingly disparate men, (2) why it formed in the first place, and (3) how the friendship revealed both men's true selves.

Upon returning to England in 1929, Shaw was approached by newsmen about his and his wife's three-week stay with the Tunneys off the coast of Italy. "What could you and Tunney have talked about?" queried the newsmen. "Everything," said Shaw. "Couldn't you be more specific?" he was asked. "Everything from ancient Egyptian wrestling to the theosophy of Madam Blavatsky."

Bernard Shaw shared Gene Tunney's love for boxing, and Tunney shared Shaw's passion for books and ideas. It was the key to their relationship—it allowed each of them to validate the other by being keenly interested in each other's fields of activity and supreme accomplishments. This sharing became the bond that held their relationship and permitted both to explore the other's domain: GBS became "the boxing authority" and Tunney became "the writer." The spark that set off Bernard Shaw's and Gene Tunney's friendship was boxing and the fire that sustained it was their mutual discovery of their Irish personalities with all that that implied: warm friendships, love of books, Irish fighting spirit, and spirituality. Both men reinvented themselves. They were determined to be "somebodies" in life, above and beyond their humble beginnings. Like Pygmalion, both men were molded into grander life shapes, transforming the lives they were given into lives other men coveted. Shaw boxed as a young man and he found hitting the bags and sparring with opponents invigorating, making him feel alive and bolder toward people. He was a keen observer of boxing his entire life and identified with the sport as a metaphor for his own life—the battle of an Irish outsider to survive and thrive in English society. He perceived life in a shadow-boxing...


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