When reporter Brian Bell stepped into the tiny mountain cabin where boxer Gene Tunney lived while training for a fight, he noticed books piled near Tunney’s bed.
“What are you reading?” Bell asked.
“The Way of All Flesh, an autobiographical novel by Samuel Butler,” Tunney replied.
The boxer said he’d bought the book for 50 cents in a second-hand bookstore because it had a preface by his literary hero, George Bernard Shaw, the controversial Irish playwright who’d won the Nobel Prize a year earlier, in 1925. Tunney said he’d seen Shaw’s play St. Joan and was so impressed that he read the script and memorized passages. He showed Bell his bookshelf, with volumes by Shakespeare, Jack London, H.G. Wells, Thornton Wilder and, of course, Shaw.
Bell had stumbled on a genuine gee-whiz story: A boxer who reads great literature! It was like discovering a racehorse who sings arias or a striptease dancer who performs brain surgery. Tunney wasn’t some blue-blood college boy. Son of an Irish immigrant longshoreman, he dropped out of school at 15 and joined the Marines during World War I. He’d learned to box so he could defend himself against the kind of schoolyard bullies who enjoy tormenting bookworms.
Bell’s Associated Press story on Tunney sparked a media flapdoodle because Tunney was preparing to fight Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight champion, on September 23, 1926. Shocked to learn of a bookish prizefighter, America’s sportswriters grumbled that it was a hoax or a publicity stunt or, worse, evidence that Tunney was some kind of freak.
“I think Tunney has hurt his own game with his cultural nonsense,” wrote Paul Gallico of the New York Daily News.
“Mr. Tunney, the refined prizefighter who will endeavor to smear Mr. Dempsey’s paraffin nose all over his (Mr. Dempsey’s) features, is reading Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh,” noted the Chicago Tribune. “Mr. Dempsey confines his reading to the comic strips, his trainer reading the two-syllable words aloud to him. We applaud Mr. Tunney’s love of great literature…. However, and after all, the two gentlemen are to meet in a fstic combat and not in a competitive examination on English literature.”
Nearly everybody figured Dempsey, nicknamed the “Manassa Mauler,” would pulverize the bookworm. But in London, George Bernard Shaw—a former amateur boxer and avid fight fan—watched films of Tunney’s bouts, and said that Tunney was the kind of scientific boxer who could beat the mighty Dempsey.
Shaw was right. Fighting outside, in a heavy rain, Tunney danced around Dempsey, peppering him with quick punches, and won the fight handily, with the judges awarding him all 10 rounds. A year later, the two met in Chicago for a rematch and Tunney beat Dempsey again.
Now rich and famous, the handsome new champion received many lucrative offers. One seemed particularly interesting: Shaw’s agent suggested that Tunney star in a show based on Cashel Byron’s Profession, Shaw’s 1886 novel about a prizefighter. But when Tunney read the novel, he balked.
“The character of Cashel Byron is badly drawn, and the story is silly,” Tunney told a reporter for the New York Sun. “Shaw understands neither the temperament nor the psychology of the professional boxer, with the result that Byron is made to appear as no more than a blundering vulgarian.”
“TUNNEY TAKES A SWING AT SHAW,” read the Sun’s headline, and the story kicked off more controversy. It was bad enough for a boxer to read books, critics groused, but far worse for him to start instructing Nobel laureates on how to write them.
But Shaw didn’t mind. He’d already proclaimed that Cashel Byron’s Profession was one of his lesser, “immature” works—and he seemed amused. “Did Tunney really say those things?” he asked reporters. “If he did, the young man must have some literary taste. I’d like to meet him.”
Shaw got his wish in December 1928, when Tunney arrived in London with his new bride, the beautiful Connecticut heiress Polly Lauder, during their European honeymoon.
Arriving in the Royal Suite at London’s swanky Savoy Hotel, Tunney, 31, found a note from Charlotte Shaw, the playwright’s wife, inviting the Tunneys to lunch. He eagerly accepted.
The newlyweds were nervous when they arrived at the Shaws’ apartment, but Charlotte quickly put them at ease. Then her husband bounded into the room. With his snow-white beard, smiling blue eyes and bright pink cheeks, Shaw seemed younger than his 72 years, and both Tunneys immediately had the same thought: He looks like the Uncle Sam cartoon come to life.
Shaw led them into a room decorated with portraits of Descartes, Einstein, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche—plus a bust of Shaw. He introduced his other guests, who included novelist H.G. Wells, writer and painter John Collier, and the legendary British wit Max Beerbohm and his wife, the actress Florence Kahn. It was an intimidating lineup of intellectual heavyweights but they asked Tunney the same questions everybody else did: What was Jack Dempsey really like? What was it like to fight him in the rain? Who are the best young boxers?
“When I wanted to talk about books,” Tunney later recalled, “they wanted to talk to me about boxing.”
At lunch, Shaw, a famous vegetarian, dug into a huge pile of carrots and turnips while everybody else, including his wife, ate meat. The playwright was a man who relished being the center of attention and he regaled his guests with stories of his youthful boxing exploits. Then he talked about boxing scenes in literature, from Virgil’s Aeneid to William Hazlitt’s classic 1822 essay “The Fight.”
‘Tunney said he loved “The Fight” and always carried a copy in his traveling bag. Then he brought up what could have been a sore point— Shaw’s Cashel Byron’s Profession. This time he didn’t call the novel “silly.” Instead, he praised—and quoted— Shaw’s description of how an artful boxer avoids an opponent’s punch while setting up his counterpunch. Shaw was delighted that the champ had memorized the passage.
Soon, Tunney stood up to act out a dangerous moment in his 1922 fight with Jack Burke and Shaw popped out of his chair to play the role of Burke, holding his fists up as his guests chuckled. Then Tunney demonstrated the quick right cross that KO’d Burke, missing Shaw’s chin by inches. The playwright roared with laughter.
After the other guests departed, Shaw showed Tunney his studio, filled with books, filing cabinets and a Remington typewriter, which Tunney said was the same model he had.
“Can you really write here?” Tunney asked.
“I can write anywhere,” Shaw replied. “On railway carriages, busses, in restaurants.” He told Tunney he carried a notebook wherever he went. “You might try it, too.”
“Oh, I already do,” Tunney said, pulling a black notebook out of his pocket, and flipping through it to show Shaw some Tennyson lines he’d jotted down.
The boxer and the playwright became fast friends. Five months later, in the spring of 1929, they took their wives to a beach resort in Italy, where Shaw and Tunney spent hours floating on their backs in the Adriatic Sea, talking about boxing and books.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.