Marine Le Pen, the Vélodrome d'hiver, and Jack Johnson

The heavyweight championship of the world leaves traces of itself in the most unlikely places, if you know where to look. Sometimes a back story can be glimpsed in current headlines.

"I don't think France is responsible for the Vel d'Hiv," Marine Le Pen has said, to great condemnation. The French presidential candidate was referring to a grim episode in July 1942, when French police rounded up thousands of Jews and kept them in the sweltering Vélodrome d'hiver, an indoor bicycle arena, without lavatories and with scant food and water, for five days, before shipping them off to concentration camps. Only about 800 of the more than 13,000 Jewish men, women, and children survived. 

What happened in 1942 is not in dispute. Le Pen claims that she meant that since the French government was in exile, it was Vichy that was responsible for Vel d'Hiv, not the French Republic. She disagrees with the gestures made by former French president Jacques Chirac and current president François Hollande to apologize in the name of France

I'm embarrassed to say so, but I first learned of the Vel d'Hiv incident when reading a biography of Jack Johnson. In happier times—28 years before the roundup, on June 27, 1914—he defended his heavyweight title in the Vélodrome d'hiver.  He was 36 and not in the best of shape, but he was still far too good for challenger Frank Moran, whom he defeated easily on a 20-round decision. (The New York Times, showing how far back such complaints go, called it "positively the poorest bout ever staged as a championship event.") Johnson and Moran fought before a high-culture crowd in an atmosphere that felt more like a night at the theater. In attendance were members of the French royal family, various Vanderbilts, Goulds, and Rothschilds, novelist Colette, actress and singer Mistinguett, and hundreds of other women in evening wear, many wearing jewels. The setting was made odder by the canopy of purple silk over the 16-foot ring, meant to disguise the electrical tubes used for lighting for the movie-cameras. The combination, in the words of the London Times, “threw a greenish tint over everything . . . and made everything and everybody look ghastly.”

As it happened, that night marked the end of an era. The next day, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, and Europe would soon be plunged into the Great War. Troops began massing in the Paris streets. Jack Johnson, who always needed money and who never stayed in one place terribly long, found himself on the move again. The Vélodrome d'hiver was demolished in 1959.