Life Imitating Art
As Jay explains in his writing, the connections between the two men started before they knew each other – before Tunney was even born.
In 1882 Shaw wrote his fourth novel, Cashel Byron’s Profession. The book, the most nearly successful of his five unsuccessful novels, details the life of Cashel Byron, an unlikely boxing champion. Cashel, a restless Irish youth without much of a future, leaves school and paves his own way to success. His smart, clean, and to-the-point fighting skills eventually earn him two consecutive world championship titles, but he then makes the unexpected move of retiring in order to pursue Lydia Carew, a beautiful heiress. The two marry and have four children, and Cashel finds success outside of the ring as well.
The book is not, by any means, one of Shaw’s most popular or provocative works. It was written very early in his career, only a few years after he had moved to London. He was still dependent on his family for support, as he spent his days reading and writing, and his nights socializing with the London intelligentsia. He was still in the process of turning himself into a writer, thinker, socialist and wit – still becoming George Bernard Shaw as we think of him today.
Nevertheless, Cashel Byron is an important piece. It complicates our understanding of Shaw by highlighting his little known love and knowledge of boxing; it has at its crux the idea of social transformation that is so central to many of his later works. In addition, the novel holds great significance as the impetus for one of Shaw’s most meaningful but seldom discussed friendships.
About thirty years after Shaw wrote Cashel Byron, the life of James Joseph Tunney, a poor Irish Catholic kid from the Lower West Side of Manhattan, began imitating art. Like Shaw’s Cashel, Tunney never finished at his Christian Brothers school: he had to leave at fifteen to help support his family. Gene, as everyone called him, began learning how to fight from the local boxing legends like Willy Green, and further honed his skills in the ring during his time as a Marine in World War I. He developed an intelligent, “scientific” fighting style that served him well, was fair to his opponents, but sometimes earned him scorn from the press – Tunney went for the win, not the kill. At the end of an impressive career of professional fighting, in which he lost only one match (to Harry Greb), the “Fighting Marine” went on to reign as the World Heavyweight Champion from 1926-1928. Two weeks after his second championship win in the memorable “long count” fight against Jack Dempsey, Tunney permanently left boxing following his engagement to Mary “Polly” Lauder. They went on to have four children and, after the Second World War, Tunney found further success as a businessman.
In the midst of all these striking coincidences, as Tunney unwittingly lived out elements of the fictional life Shaw had created for Cashel, the two men became close friends.
But, as Jay recounted during our discussion and relates further in his book, Tunney and Shaw got off to a bad start. In hopes of securing himself a post-boxing career as an actor, Tunney approached the producer Lawrence Langner in 1926 about the possibility of starring in a stage version of Cashel Byron’s Profession. Langner posed the idea to Shaw, who gave various noncommittal answers before rejecting the offer. Hurt, Tunney took a verbal swipe at Shaw while in conversation with a reporter, making negative comments about the novel.
Fortunately, as Jay told me with amusement, the playwright was not offended by the boxer’s remarks. In fact, they had quite the opposite effect: “Shaw said, ‘my God that young man must have some taste, I’d love to meet him.’ And that got back to Dad.”
They didn’t actually meet until a few years later, in 1928, when the Tunneys were honeymooning after their wedding in Rome. As Tunney traveled throughout Europe trying to escape the press, Shaw repeatedly tried to contact him but kept missing him by little more than a day. Finally, when the couple arrived in London in December, Shaw and his wife Charlotte (also an heiress) invited them to a luncheon at their apartment in Whitehall Court.
The lunch, which Jay re-creates in detail from his mother’s perspective, marked the beginning of a long friendship between the Tunneys and the Shaws. Each couple developed a great appreciation for the other, and Tunney and Shaw began to realize how much they actually had in common: G.B.S, as he insisted his friends call him, shared Gene’s love of boxing, and Tunney showed his deep interest in literature. A few months later, in April of 1929, the two couples reunited for a month-long stay on Bironi, a small island in the Adriatic Sea.
This stay makes up the heart of Jay’s book. While some chapters span a few years, Jay devotes the better part of five chapters to the month in Bironi. As we come to learn, Cashel Byron’s Profession was far from the only thing that connected the prizefighter and the playwright. From their time in Bironi on, after their many talks and a dramatic period with Polly’s health that solidified the bond between the Tunneys and the Shaws, the two men were also very good friends who communicated on spiritual and intellectual levels. The fact that Shaw’s novel more or less foreshadowed Tunney’s career was merely one of the many coincidences and points of interest that drew the two men together. Time slows down as Jay carefully describes the long daily walks Tunney and Shaw took together and the lasting effect their talks had on both men, on Tunney in particular. Shaw, Jay remarked, “was a great outdoor teacher. That was how their relationship worked: Shaw was the teacher and Dad the pupil.”