The Bookish Boxer
In America Tunney had been told that his profession as a boxer and his love of reading and intense personal discipline were incongruous and strange. The idea of a boxer who read a lot and led a principled, highly ascetic lifestyle did not sit well with many boxing fans and sportswriters. Opinions, Jay told me, were divided: some people thought it was all an act, they didn’t believe that Tunney actually spent his spare time reading rather than, as Jay put it, “having a few beers at night and running around with the girls at the training camps.” Others balked at the idea of a boxer with his nose stuck in a book and were put off by the extent to which Tunney kept to himself. “Reporters would say ‘how can he be a bigger lover of books than we are? We’re the wordsmiths, who does he think he is?’” Jay added, “Dad really didn’t understand that part. He could probably have been more empathetic, but he just didn’t.”
In Europe with G.B.S., however, it seems that the bookish boxer was able to reconcile these two parts of himself and to further his learning. Both men were more or less autodidacts, and Tunney had much to learn from the playwright who was forty years his senior. He came to, as Jay aptly phrased it, “build his intellect like he had built his muscles. He knew that both were buildable things.” According to Jay’s account, they talked about everything from the theories of the 18th-century French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, to the music of Richard Strauss; everyone from Ibsen to H.G. Wells. “Shaw was a real spiritual and intellectual father to Dad; his own father never really made the grade. Dad thought Shaw was a saint.”
The versions of George Bernard Shaw and Gene Tunney that we see in The Prizefighter and the Playwright are departures from the way history remembers each of the men. People considered Shaw to be “kind of a didactic guy, someone who talked down,” Jay said. They had a hard time separating the writer from his works. Through talking with his mother, however, Jay came to realize that the Shaw his parents knew was very different. “It was through her that I came to find that Shaw was actually full of affection… He had a wonderful, devilish, Irish sense of humor that people often ignore. Dad did too, that’s probably part of why they got along so well.” Jay also presents a more complicated rendering of Shaw’s self-proclaimed atheism, exploring the spiritual discussions G.B.S. frequently had with his younger, more devout friend. This difference in belief is not portrayed as an issue of contention, but as something from which both men learned a lot.
Taking readers beyond the bad press his father once received, Jay shows Tunney to have been a complex and highly admirable man. “Dad had a lot of character, always did. He had a strong Irish Catholic upbringing and he was very moral, very principled. His whole approach to life was from that angle.” We see Tunney as a boy, sitting at the kitchen table at night, lining up one hundred matches, end to tip, and then reversing them — all to teach himself patience and discipline. We see him in his twenties as a dedicated boxer genuinely confused by the public’s reaction. We see him, older, as a dear friend, visiting Shaw for the last time at Ayot St. Lawrence, his house in England, before the playwright’s death in 1950. We see him, later, as a father, quizzing his children on Shakespeare and encouraging them to keep journals of word definitions – just as Tunney did throughout his life.
In this sense, there does seem to have been a corrective effort behind the book, an attempt to set the record straight, though it does not necessarily come at the expense of objectivity. Jay admitted that it was initially hard to be his father’s narrator: “The experience was awkward at times. I had to watch my subjectivity.” But he ultimately found that “it had a lot to do with voice. Referring to Dad as ‘Gene Tunney,’ referring to him in an objective way, allowed me to see him in a more objective way.” Indeed, Jay’s portrayal of his father comes across as extremely considered, realistic, and fair.
That a kid who grew up in a cold water flat in the West Village and left school
at fifteen to work in a butcher’s shop would grow up to be a two-time World Heavyweight Champion, husband of a smart and beautiful heiress, and close friend to George Bernard Shaw, is nothing short of amazing. But that very trip down an unlikely path to success is actually the heart of Jay’s book and was, possibly, the cornerstone of the bond between Tunney and Shaw.
As Jay put it, “Shaw was drawn to Dad because he just loved supermen. He loved winners, and Dad was a champion. He transformed himself, he literally transformed himself.” This is key in Shaw’s works too, in characters from Cashel Byron to the flower girl Eliza Doolittle. Thanks to Professor Henry Higgins’ lessons in elocution, Eliza goes from having a thick cockney accent to possessing the manner of royalty — but that isn’t really the important part. Eliza turnss herself into an independent being, one who, in the end, doesn’t need Higgins. As Jay elaborated, “The biggest idea in all of this is reinvention of oneself. You’re going to need your Higgins but you’re also going to have to do it yourself. And Eliza did do it herself.”
He also sees the idea of reinvention as being central in Shaw’s life: “Shaw was the image of self-reinvention, of re-creation. Little timid Shaw arrived in England at the age of twenty. One of the first things he did was write five novels, all of them unsuccessful, but he kept going.” To keep going was no easy task, but it’s something that, significantly, Tunney, Shaw, and many of Shaw’s best characters were able to do. “It’s easy,” Jay added, “for us to be romantic about it, but it really was that way. We’re mostly given the freedom to make things out of ourselves, do something different than what our father or grandfather did, but it wasn’t like that then. Dad broke out of that European trap, so did Shaw.”
At the end of our conversation, Jay concluded, “It really is all about transforming yourself.” Then, with an ease that would have made both Shaw and his father proud, Jay quoted the serpent’s great line from Shaw’s play Back to Methuselah: “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?”