There are many books about famous literary friendships. John Keats, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley have more than a few dedicated to them, as do Edith Wharton and Henry James; Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. While these relationships are certainly interesting to dedicated readers and valuable for scholars, the bonds between writers and their non-writer friends can be even more compelling because of their unexpected nature and their basis in something outside of literary pursuits. For instance, T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx exchanged letters for years; Mark Twain was a close friend of the Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers. As the recently published The Prizefighter and the Playwright explores, such a friendship existed between the great Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw and Gene Tunney, the two-time World Heavyweight Champion.
“The things that brought them together were boxing, a love of literature…and a few negative comments,” the author Jay Tunney explained during our conversation in his Manhattan pied-à-terre. Jay, the third son of Gene Tunney and Polly Lauder Tunney, had wanted to write a book about his father for quite some time, but struggled to figure out an angle from which he could approach the story. After many years working on a successful entrepreneurial venture in South Korea, where he introduced premium ice cream to the market, Jay sold his company and returned to the United States. It was then that he approached his mother with the idea of a book about Tunney, who had passed away in 1978.
“I was ready to do something else, to do a book about Dad, but Mother was absolutely the most private person who ever walked the face of the earth and didn’t really want that,” Jay recalled. She was, it turns out, very justified in her fear of the public eye: during his boxing career Tunney was the target of much ridicule and skepticism from the press because of his literary interests – considered rare for a pugilist – and the Tunneys had been excessively stalked by reporters around the time of their marriage, after word got out that the heavyweight champion was engaged to an heiress from Connecticut.
But mother and son eventually reached a compromise. “In the meantime, there were other biographers who wanted to come in and do [official] biographies of Dad, but Mother especially didn’t want that.” Luckily, a family friend suggested Jay focus on Tunney and Shaw. As Jay remembers it, “the former U.S. ambassador to Sweden, Frank Fosberg, who was a great friend of my father’s, suggested I write about Shaw; he thought it would be a wonderful story. I thought it was a great idea, I checked that with Mother, and she was very happy…She thought that a book about Shaw and Dad’s friendship was the solution.”
Next came the research. About twelve years ago, Jay began interviewing his mother, who, as he discusses in the book, proved to be a valuable but complicated source of information. “Our mother wanted the story of their friendship shared because she knew how much our father valued Shaw’s friendship…” he writes in the epilogue. But, he adds “to our mother, everything was personal.” He fondly describes how she was, at times, forthcoming with information, even giving her first and only broadcast interview for a BBC Radio 4 program Jay co-wrote in 2000. At other times she wanted to call off the project, but still played a vital role in Jay’s writing until her death in 2008, twelve days before her 101st birthday.
For further information, Jay began going through the many letters between Tunney and Shaw. He conducted extensive interviews with his siblings, other relatives, and any friends of his parents and the Shaws who were still alive. He compiled photographs of Tunney at significant points throughout his life and career, and rare images of Tunney and Shaw together – many of which are reproduced in the book. He sought out various resources on each of the men and immersed himself, as he put it, “in a crash course on Shaw.”
This was a real learning process for Jay. As a child, he recalled, he knew of Shaw on three peripheral levels: as the man in one of the two John Lavery portraits that hung in the family’s living room, as the torso captured by a Jo Davidson bust a few feet away from the painting, and as the driving force behind the lack of bacon in their household. (Shaw, a vegetarian, was responsible for putting Tunney in touch with Curtis Freshel, the man who would become Tunney’s business partner in marketing Bakon Yeast, a powdered bacon substitute). But that was about it. It wasn’t until Jay was older that he began to understand who Shaw was and the effect he had on his father, and it wasn’t until Jay began his research that he came to realize just how great that effect had been. A love of words and literature, for example: they had always been there, but Jay’s work makes it clear that Tunney’s relationship with Shaw augmented these interests, turned them into real points of developed knowledge and pride. This was dedicated work, and from it all emerges a much broader picture of the prizefighter, the playwright, and their surprisingly deep friendship.