Jay Tunney’s “The Prizefighter and the Playwright,” recounts a remarkable story about the unlikely relationship between his father, the legendary heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney, and George Bernard Shaw, the fabled Irish poet, playwright and personality. TSD recently had the good fortune to meet Mr. Tunney and ask the author about the fascinating events in his superb book.
TownSquareDelaware: The similarities between your father’s life and those of Shaw’s fictional character Cashel Byron (created years before Tunney was born) are uncanny, and a thematic thread woven through your book. What do you make of that astounding coincidence and how do you think it ultimately influenced the bond between the two men?
Jay Tunney: The book, Cashel Byron’s Profession, was the spark that initiated discussions about boxing between the two gentlemen. The novel demonstrated Shaw’s knowledge of prizefighting and gave Shaw credibility with Tunney and the public. There are a number of fascinating likenesses between the fictional Cashel Byron and the real Gene Tunney. Both were Irish, both articulate, and both were world boxing champions for just two years before retiring undefeated to marry heiresses. And they both had successful careers following the ring.
Cashel Byron’s Profession is a parable. It’s the story of a young outsider, Cashel, who began with nothing and finished successfully through perseverance and adherence to principle. Gene Tunney was also an outsider, a clean-living gentleman who, like Cashel maintained his principles while engaging in a dirty business.
The moral of Shaw’s novel reflects the makeup of Shaw himself, and also of Gene Tunney. That is to say, while money and fame were not unimportant to both men, truth, integrity, and character were more important. They both believed that these traits would triumph in a brutal and unfair world. Shaw felt the personal value of his novel had less to do with its literary worth than with its importance as a record of his personal transformation.
TSD: Your book is clearly focused on a specific time and relationship in your father’s life, and only a few glimpses into life in the Tunney family are revealed. One question the reader must be wondering is whether your dad ever encouraged you and your two brothers to box?
JT: Dad never encouraged my two brothers and me to box in anything more serious than a school gymnasium. His main interest was in seeing to it that we received a first-class education.
TSD: For those unfamiliar with Gene Tunney, your book will be a revelation about the intellectual capacity of a man – a boxer from an impoverished background with very limited formal education – that seems near-impossible to believe. How do you personally account for your father’s incredible hunger for knowledge and his love of literature?
JT: Gene Tunney wasn’t the only man without a formal education who hungered for knowledge and became devoted to books. Shaw, for example, was another who drowned himself in art and literature after dropping out of school at 15, and through his will and determination went on to become a giant in literature. There are many other examples.
Gene’s Irish roots went a long ways to making him an innate lover of books. Ireland after all is the land of saints and scholars. It’s also the land of story tellers and dreamers and men who want to improve and perfect themselves – often by emigrating. Shaw said the English robbed the Irish of everything, and all the Irish could do was rob the English of their language – the Irish polished it, and polished it until they produced a poem out of it and raised it to heavenly heights. From this tradition emerges the Irish archetype: the man with the gift of words.
TSD: It was a surprise to learn how much money your father made – and held on to – as a prizefighter. How did he manage to be so successful financially when so many others in his situation, even champions, ended up in penury?
JT: My father was an intelligent man though he was brought up under penurious circumstances. Coming from such a background he developed an intense sense of purpose and responsibility. He was sensitive to his surroundings and his own station in life, and keenly aware of those who came from a higher social stratum. He negotiated all his own fight contracts, though he had hired managers for this purpose, and ended by winning, in an era of negligible income taxes, the largest single purse in boxing history up to that time, $990,000. After retiring from the ring, he married my mother, Polly Lauder, a steel heiress. Later he became a very successful businessman in the 1950s and 1960s who sat on the board of a dozen corporations listed on the New York Stock Exchange and was CEO of a NY-based building materials company, named McCandless Corporation.
TSD: You are vice president of the International Shaw Society. What does the Shaw Society do, exactly, and at what point did you become a devoted “Shavian?”
JT: The International Shaw Society keeps the memory of Bernard Shaw alive by holding annual symposia and conferences in cities where Shavian academics and scholars gather. Talks are given and Shavian ideas and philosophies are discussed. I became a Shavian when I wrote a book on Shaw’s and dad’s friendship. My book reveals much about each man’s personal life, motivations and ideas.
TSD: Not long after your parents married, while vacationing with the Shaws on an island in the Adriatic, your mother nearly died. The circumstances of the events that saved her life are quite miraculous. Were you aware of these details before you began researching the book?
JT: I was not aware of the finer details of the events that saved my mother’s life. The general outline of my mother’s near death had long been discussed within the family by the time my research began. It was a research that included hours of discussion with my mother, and her vivid memories of the most important period in her life, some seventy five years earlier.
TSD: And did this extraordinary experience have any impact on your parent’s religious faith? Was your father a practicing Catholic?
JT: Dad had let his Catholicism lapse after becoming a successful boxer, but his experience on Brioni in 1929 reawakened his spiritual side and for the rest of his life he found that the power of prayer gave his life a further unified purpose.
TSD: What would GBS make of professional boxing today?
JT: GBS would carefully pick and choose between his favorite boxers today, probably on the internet which he would have loved. His choice would be a clean fighter, one who was ethical in the ring and who danced lightly on his feet, in and out, and not one who mauled or unnecessarily bruised his opponent. He liked scientific boxers who thought out their ring tactics and strategy clinically before and during a fight.
TSD: Why do you think boxing was so much more a part of popular culture in your father’s era than it is today?
JT: Boxing in the 1920s was the dominant sport with the most spectators and biggest purses. It was boxing’s golden era. Other modern day professional sports were just developing a fan base. When men got together to relax over a beer, they just as soon sparred with one another as talk over the events of the day. The individual at that time was more rugged than today’s version. There was no sense of entitlement in the air.
TSD: Despite retiring as an undefeated world champion having beaten Jack Dempsey twice, it seems the boxing world never accepted your father as their champion nor did they fully acknowledge his supreme skills in the ring. Would you ascribe this to a kind of reverse snobbery because of his bookish and shy nature?
JT: Yes. It’s perverse, but you’re accurate to say that the majority of the fight crowd never accepted Gene Tunney as their champion nor did they acknowledge his supreme skills in the ring. Gene Tunney defeated their idol, Jack Dempsey, and they never forgave Tunney. In addition, Gene reminded fans more of a student than a fighter — in his looks, in his constant reading of books and listening to classical music in his training camps and his choice of using big words during interviews and press conferences.
Fight fans felt students belonged in classrooms not prizerings. A fight crowd traditionally enjoys seeing blood and punishment in the ring. A scientific boxer does not ignite the same emotional enthusiasm and is usually looked down on as a little less than a man. Champion Jim Corbett ran into this same twisted attitude with the fight fans during and after his contest with John L. Sullivan. And to this day the boxing establishment and media centered in New York shows reservations about giving Gene Tunney the acclaim he deserves. They still reserve the hero status for Dempsey, not Tunney.
TSD: You tell a story about the time Ernest Hemingway took a shot at your father and your dad quickly returned fire. Like so many scenes from your book, this one was right out of a movie. Have you seen Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris?’ [in which a pugilistic Hemingway character is constantly putting up his dukes]
JT: Yes, I saw “Midnight in Paris” and thought it was an amusing Hollywood-style distortion of Hemingway’s character. I have also seen HBO’s current “Hemingway and Gelhorn” and I was reminded that every move Hemingway made in his life seemed to be framed for a movie that would someday be made of “Papa.” He was a walking screen drama waiting to happen, and not always responsible for his actions.
Hemingway took a shot at dad because in another life he would have loved to have been an undefeated heavyweight champion prizefighter – someone who can lick any man in the house after all talk breaks down. Call it a quirky hang-up, but that’s the kind of thing Hemingway did to his friends. He was something of a bully. But Dad and Hemingway were friends, went fishing together, sparred together and exchanged visits in Europe, Florida, Cuba and New York.