The Heavyweight Bookshelf: Jack Dempsey

“The Dempsey literature,” Roger Kahn wrote in his 1999 biography of Jack Dempsey, “is extensive and uneven.” That’s hard to dispute. As might be expected for one of the iconic sports stars of the 1920s, and a man who lived a long and varied life in the public eye, Jack Dempsey had plenty of books written about him, and he wrote several (with ghostwriters) himself; and yet, something about the man and his story still seems elusive.

Dempsey’s career exemplified what became known as the Golden Age of Sports—the Roaring Twenties, when big-time sports started to become the major commercial properties that they are today. He had as much, or more, to do with that development as any athlete, including Babe Ruth. But the athletes weren’t doing it by themselves: the twenties were also regarded as a Golden Age of sportswriting. Dempsey and his peers were covered by writers whose names still echo in the American literary pantheon (though more faintly now): Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Paul Gallico, H.L. Mencken, and others. He appears, in one way or another, in too many books to cite. Rice and Gallico wrote retrospectives of their sportswriting era—The Tumult and the Shouting, by Rice, and Farewell to Sport and The Golden People, by Gallico—in which Dempsey figures prominently, as he does in Skyline, another memoir of the era written by one of its less-remembered scribes, Gene Fowler. I haven’t cracked the biographies of Hollywood figures like Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, or Charlie Chaplin, but Dempsey was friends with them all, and many others besides, and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t pop up somewhere. He even shows up on the opening page of Bob Dylan's Chronicles.

Being so central to heavyweight history—and thus boxing history—the Dempsey saga also features prominently in innumerable boxing books. When I was a kid, John Durant’s The Heavyweight Champions introduced me to him, and Nat Fleischer’s Pictorial History of Boxing and Bert Sugar’s 100 Years of Boxing and The Great Fights added to the picture. John D. McCallum has a solid chapter on Dempsey on The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship, and John Grombach covers his career as well in Saga of the Fist. Rex Lardner’s terrific The Legendary Champions, which I didn’t get my hands on until more recently, might be the one among all these that you don’t want to miss, especially for its photos. Dempsey features prominently in Charles Samuels's The Magnificent Rube: The Life and Gaudy Times of Tex Rickard, his biography of the great 1920s boxing promoter. Perhaps the most extensive Dempsey material in a nominally non-Dempsey book can be found in Tunney: Boxing’s Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey, which, as its subtitle hints, winds up being just about as much about Dempsey as it is about Tunney. Material about Dempsey, either by way of career summary or later-life anecdotes, appears in biographies of other heavyweight champions as well. If you’re writing about the heavyweight title, he’ll come into the narrative, one way or another.

And, of course, Dempsey’s own story was told, too, in biographies and autobiographies. Even today, few boxers have a tale more vivid, more rooted in genuine poverty and hardship and hardscrabble living; while assessments of Dempsey’s historical rank vary today, the influence, and imagery, of his career remains central to boxing. As I wrote in The Boxing Kings:

In the end, it doesn’t really matter where Dempsey ranks—as it doesn’t for Sullivan or Johnson, either. Like them, he forged something that hadn’t existed before. No one could ever be Dempsey again. No one would ever duplicate the Willard massacre; such savagery would never again be permitted. No one would re-create the madness of the Firpo fight, its chaos suggested but surely not fully captured in the jumpy old silent film. No one could restage the Long Count. And the Dempsey archetype—the lean, hungry fighter, stripped of adornment—remains the defining one in boxing, as Mike Tyson would prove nearly sixty years later. Against all this, modern judgments can only say so much.

Courtesy JO Sports, Inc .: Signed  first edition  of  Round by Round , $300

Courtesy JO Sports, Inc.: Signed first edition of Round by Round, $300

Dempsey’s collaboration on three autobiographies may have been motivated by purely commercial considerations but could also suggest that he was never quite satisfied by how his story had been told. The first, Round by Round (1940), written with journalist and author Myron M. Stearns, is the best—though it is also the least remembered, and copies of it are scarcer. Round by Round is unique among Dempsey books for its extensive portrait of the champ’s boyhood and youth, which covers nearly 100 pages. It’s rich in detail about his life as a boy in rural Colorado, in which activities included raiding bee hives for wild honey, setting coyote traps, and roping and riding wild burros. It’s strong on Dempsey’s boxing career, too, or at least as strong as Dempsey’s own accounts get: he relates the events of his career in a matter of fact way that makes me wonder whether he is leaving things out on purpose or simply not inclined to reflection. I suspect the former. (All three autobiographies stick with the same basic description of his one-round knockout at the hands of Fireman Jim Flynn in 1917, a version that conflicts with newspaper accounts of the bout, which lend credence to suspicions that Dempsey threw this match.) Round by Round also reminds us of how much of what we think we know of the Dempsey story rests on shaky ground. In his later autobiographies, he told the story of how his manager Jack Kearns wagered $10,000 of their purse that Dempsey would knock Jess Willard out in the first round; in Round by Round, it’s a collaborative enterprise, with both Dempsey and Kearns involved in putting the money down. Which version is right? Or is the whole bet story just a story?

Dempsey: By the Man Himself (1960), as told to Bob Considine and Bill Slocum, is a quick read. There is much less material about the early life here, and more about fights and fighters—and a lively section at the end where Dempsey talks about his experience in the military during World War II, updating the story nicely from Round by Round. But there is a thin-ness to the treatment of everything that, again, leaves a sense of incompleteness.

Dempsey, the old champion’s last shot at it, appeared in 1977. Writing this time with his devoted stepdaughter, Barbara Piatelli Dempsey, the former champ, now 82, tries to set down the whole account, and he and Barbara succeed well enough that they captured the imagination of at least one young reader—yours truly. This stuff was all new to me then: the mining work (he tells of being squeezed inside a mining shaft, deep inside the earth, and having his light go out), the saloon fighting, the climb to the top, the excitements and disappointments of fame. To my eyes now, the book reads pretty thinly—events and people just skip by—but Dempsey’s voice, unpretentious and willing to laugh at himself, redeems the project, and this final autobiography also contains the most extensive portrait of the champion's later years as a restaurateur and sporting icon.

In the 1920s, Ring magazine’s Nat Fleischer wrote Jack Dempsey: Idol of Fistiana, and then, in early 1970s, gave it another try, with Jack Dempsey. No doubt other books from this era and afterward have appeared and disappeared. Dempsey was also the subject of not-infrequent magazine profiles.

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Still, it’s remarkable that, Fleischer’s efforts excepted, there was no attempt made at a serious biography until 1979, when Randy Roberts’s Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler appeared. Roberts, a Purdue University professor who has gone on to a distinguished writing and teaching career, was only in his 20s when he wrote the book, but he was already an old pro. The Manassa Mauler has it all: it’s extensively researched, engagingly written, overlaid with scholarly insights that broaden out the treatment at every point, and has a strong feel for its character and for boxing. Nearly 40 years later, Roberts’s biography remains the best book written about Jack Dempsey, and it’s not even close.

The only other soup-to-nuts biography of the fighter that tries to relate him to his times is Roger Kahn’s A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties (1999). Kahn, best known for his baseball writing, knew Dempsey a bit, interviewed him, and had wanted to write a book on him for some time. Flame is at its best when it delves into the boxing manual that Dempsey wrote, and analyzes his skills through this lens. This was a valuable effort on Kahn’s part, though he lacks any objectivity about Dempsey, and thus we are asked to believe that a man Gene Tunney once described as not a good thinker in the ring was actually a brilliant tactician and something of a ring scientist. Most of all, Flame needed a stronger edit. The book is far too long, loaded with anecdotes and asides, many of which seem wholly tangential to Dempsey. These excursions not only interrupt the narrative but also clearly reflect Kahn’s political obsessions and apparent taste for sexual gossip. Kahn is needlessly nasty to targets whom he apparently dislikes, like Tunney; in the book’s afterword, he even goes after Randy Roberts, mocking his Ph.D. and suggesting that he didn’t know much about boxing. And Kahn relates dialogue from a discussion he supposedly had with Dempsey in the 1950s—but many of the things Dempsey says appear to be lifted verbatim from Dempsey’s 1960 autobiography. Kahn’s book has its moments but is too self-indulgent to be reliable or definitive.

In November 2017, Thomas Brennan published Jack Dempsey: Million Dollar Man (Regent Press), which I have not read.

I sometimes think that the Dempsey bibliography reflects the man’s own itinerant ways, in his early life—it’s scattered, as he was, to the four winds. Lots of good writing about him appears in books that aren’t proper biographies. These include Mel Heimer’s The Long Count (1969), an account of the one year between the first Dempsey-Tunney fight, in 1926, and the rematch in Chicago. There is a lot of Dempsey in here, and Heimer captures the man well. The Long Count also features prominently in Bruce Evensen’s When Dempsey Fought Tunney: Heroes, Hokum, and Storytelling in the Jazz Age (1996), a scholarly examination of sports and spectacle in the 1920s, with Dempsey (and, to a lesser extent, Tunney) as key figures. Evensen has sharp insights about the role of media manipulation and what he calls “storytelling,” focusing particularly on Jack Kearns and Tex Rickard’s promotional efforts, though he also possesses the academic’s tendency to overstate the artificiality of public figures and the response they generate. Dempsey wasn’t all invention; public response to him, and to his fights, wasn’t all the result of manipulation.

The contemporary taste for looking beneath the headlines, exploring the social context, and asking questions that go beyond the ring has been picked up in recent years by authors examining discrete segments of Dempsey’s career. Thus, we have Jim Waltzer’s The Battle of the Century: Dempsey, Carpentier, and the Birth of Modern Promotion, which examines the Dempsey-Carpentier fight, in 1921; and Jason Kelly’s Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown, about the Dempsey fight with Tommy Gibbons in the remote location of Shelby, Montana. Though his appears to be a more straightforward history, John Jarrett has published Dempsey and the Wild Bull: The Four Minute Fight of the Century, examining Dempsey’s 1923 battle against Luis Angel Firpo, in which Dempsey was knocked out of the ring but prevailed.

The most enduring myth about Dempsey—and one of boxing’s signal bits of folklore—is that his gloves were loaded with Plaster of Paris for his fight against Jess Willard in 1919, in which Dempsey bludgeoned Willard over three rounds to win the title. It’s a legend that mostly owes to Jack Kearns, who published an infamous Sports Illustrated article in 1964, shortly before his death, alleging that he had loaded the gloves himself but that Dempsey had not been aware of it. (Kearns’s posthumous memoir, The Million Dollar Gate, appeared in 1966 without the Plaster of Paris story, since in the meantime Dempsey had filed a libel suit against Sports Illustrated and reached a settlement with the magazine.) All the evidence points to a more mundane explanation: Dempsey wore handwraps wound with a tightening adhesive, likened to bicycle tape—more than sufficient to make his hands feel like rocks. The tape was not illegal at the time, and the testimony of multiple parties suggests that Willard’s people made no objection to it. Dempsey biographies have shot down Kearns’s claims, but no one does it with so much such documentation and analysis as Monte Cox, in his 2004 article. In 2015, Carlos Acevedo explored the issue further.

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Finally, a book deserves special mention because it is so valuable and took such extraordinary efforts to produce, and because it preserves part of a world that is vanished forever, and with it, a piece of the Dempsey lore that would otherwise have disappeared. This is Toby Smith’s Kid Blackie (1987), for which Smith traveled around Colorado and Utah in the mid-1980s, talking to people about the young fighter who had once made the area his home. In the 1980s, some people who had known Dempsey were still around to share their stories; others were relating tales told to them by their deceased parents or grandparents. Pretty much all of them have good things to say about the boy and young man who left this rugged but beautiful region behind to become an American legend.




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