(Another) Fight of the Century

It seems that each generation has its “Fight of the Century,” a phenomenon that emerges from the alchemy of mass marketing, a lust for blood sport, and the madness of crowds. Gene Tunney — a boxer who also wanted to be a public intellectual — was party to at least two of these spectacles in the 1920s.

August 4, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Tunney is most famous for his fights against Jack Dempsey—in some ways they were the Ali–Frazier of their day. Tunney took the heavyweight title from Dempsey in 1926, and again defeated Dempsey in the controversial “long count” rematch one year later, on Sept. 22, 1927. That match was a huge spectacle, staged at Chicago’s Soldier Field in front of 105,000 spectators.

Boxing promoter Tex Rickard saw dollar signs when a scrappy New Zealander named Tom Heeney challenged the champ to a match. Heeney had won the Australian heavyweight title in 1922, and after arriving in the U.S. in 1926 found enough success in the ring to be ranked fourth among the world’s heavyweight boxers.

Writing in his column, “Sports of the Week,” in the July 21, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, Niven Busch Jr. assessed Heeney as a formidable opponent:

NO PALOOKAS HERE…Tom Heeny (left), and Gene Tunney in the late 1920s. (boxrec.com / Alchetron)

This cartoon by Leonard Dove, also in the July 21 issue, joined in the fun…

As for the actual fight at Yankee Stadium on July 26, 1928, Tunney won by a TKO in the 11th round. Perhaps the boxer from Down Under wasn’t in such great shape after all, or so surmised Niven Busch Jr in the August 4 issue:

New Yorker illustrator Johan Bull offered this perspective in artwork that accompanied Busch’s article…

…and for the record, here is a photograph of the victorious Tunney:

Tunney’s winning purse was $525,000 (about $7.3 million today) and Heeney’s was $100,000 ($1.4 million), modest when compared to the recent debacle in Las Vegas that pitted professional boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. against mixed martial arts champion Conor McGregor. Mayweather earned a disclosed purse of $100 million while Conor McGregor brought home $30 million.

Heeney would remain in the U.S. and fight a few more bouts before retiring to Florida, where he ran a bar and fished with his friend, Ernest Hemingway. Tunney, on the other hand, announced his retirement from boxing just five days after the fight. It was time to finally devote himself to a life of the mind. Norman Klein, writing in the Aug. 4 “Talk of Town,” offered a glimpse into that new life:

BRAIN OVER BRAWN…Boxing champ Gene Tunney, left, and writer George Bernard Shaw on a 1929 vacation to Brioni. (Associated Press)

Still not getting enough of The Champ, “Talk” also related this story about Lucky Strike cigarettes, and how that company’s publicists tried unsuccessfully to persuade Tunney to endorse their product:

However the promoter of the Tunney–Heeney fight, Tex Rickard, had no problem taking money from the American Tobacco Company:

THEN I’LL TAKE THE MONEY…The promoter of the Tunney – Heeney fight, Tex Rickard, had no problem endorsing Lucky Strikes in this 1928 advertisement. Rickard would die the following year at age 59, from an appendectomy of all things. (eBay)

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Tunney Was More Exciting

In the “Talk of the Town” the New Yorker cast a jaded eye toward the Ninth Olympic Games in Amsterdam:

Poster from the 1928 games. (www.olympic.org)

And perhaps even less exciting than the Olympics was the magazine’s “Profile” subject, Andrew W. Mellon, referred to in the title as “Croesus in Politics.” Mellon was no Gene Tunney, but he did ensure his immortal fame through his philanthropy, still expressed today by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Below are the concluding lines of the profile, written by Homer Joseph Dodge:

The article featured this terrific caricature by illustrator Abe Birnbaum…

Planned Obsolescence

The magazine’s “Motors” column touted Chrysler’s new “peaked” radiators, which no doubt caused many insecure Chrysler owners to consider junking their non-peaked models of yesteryear:

This ad in the same issue screamed “new, new, new” for what appeared to be mostly the same old, same old…

Our comic comes courtesy Al Frueh, who looks in on the workings of a printing press at a celebrity tabloid:

Next Time: Shadows of the South Seas…

A 100 Percent Talker

Lights of New York would be a forgettable film if not for the fact it was the world’s first 100 percent talking motion picture. Yes, it was a bad film, but…

July 14, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

…even the July 14, 1928 New Yorker had the foresight to note that the film was destined to be a “museum piece.” Despite the corny plot and bad acting, the magazine’s critic “O.C.” had to concede that the film offered proof that sound would improve the motion picture experience.

Theatre Card for Lights of New York. (untappedcities.com)
MAKING SOME NOISE…Helene Costello with a cast of nightclub dancers in Lights of New York. (vintage45.wordpress.com)

The Jazz Singer (1927) launched a “talkie revolution” that would culminate nine months later in Lights of New York, and by the end of 1929 Hollywood was almost exclusively making sound films. But studios still released silent films into the 1930s, since not every theatre in the country was wired for sound.

The New Yorker had been slow to embrace sound in motion pictures (see my previous posts). What helped to win them over was the further refinement of the Movietone process, in which the sound track was printed directly onto the film strip (The Jazz Singer used Vitaphone, which essentially synched a record player with a film and provided a sporadic rather than continuous sound track).

In the same issue, writer Robert Benchley also predicted (in “The Talk of the Town”) that sound in movies would challenge actors whose voices weren’t as attractive as their screen images:

IT’S COMPLICATED…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, however big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow left the pictures for other reasons. Studio politics ended Gilbert’s career, and he drank himself to death by 1936. Bow—famously known as the “It Girl,”—made a few sound pictures, but retired from acting in 1931 to become a Nevada rancher. (Wikipedia/NY Post)
SILENCED…Some silent actors such as Wallace Beery (left), were sidelined not because of their voices but because of their high salaries. On the other hand Raymond Griffith (right), who made only one sound movie, spoke with a hoarse whisper not suited for the talkies. (Wikipedia / silentfilmstillarchive.com)

The New Yorker also noted that sound pictures would prove to a great “bonanza” to voice teachers:

Transition to sound in the late 1920s would later provide the theme for the 1952 musical Singin’ In The Rain, in which Jean Hagen portrayed silent film star Lina Lamont, whose voice was ill-suited for talking pictures. 

SAY WHAT?…Actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) tries the patience of her director (Chet Brandenburg) while her co-star (Gene Kelly) looks on. The scene demonstrated the challenges of acclimating former silent stars (like Lina Lamont, whose voice sounded like squeaky hinge) to “talking pictures.” (YouTube Movieclips)

The New Yorker also noted that the advent of sound in motion pictures would put an end to many theatres operating on the vaudeville  circuit:

In his regular column, “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker gave his two cents about the new world of talking movies:

Paving Over Paradise

In the July 14 “Talk of the Town,” Howard Helm Cushman and James Thurber offered more bittersweet commentary on the city’s rapidly changing landscape. This time it was a famous stretch of lawns on West 23rd Street—London Terrace— that were being uprooted to make way for a massive new apartment block:

According to Tom Miller (writing for his blog Daytonian in Manhattan), Clement Moore, the writer to whom “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”) “had developed the block when he divided up his family estate, ‘Chelsea.’ On the 23rd Street block, in 1845, he commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design 36 elegant Greek Revival brownstone townhouses. The row was designed to appear as a single, uniform structure or ‘terrace’ (a design not lost on the New Yorker writer). Unusual for Manhattan, each had deep front yards planted with shrubbery and trees. He called his development ‘London Terrace.'”

A BIT O’ GREEN…London Terrace, circa 1920. (ephemeralnewyork)

By October 1929, writes Miller, “a few weeks before the collapse of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression, (developer Henry Mandel) had acquired and demolished all the structures on the enormous block of land. All except for Tillie Hart’s house. Tillie leased 429 West 23rd Street and, although her lease had legally expired, she refused to leave. Tillie fired a barrage of bricks and rocks at anyone who approached the sole-surviving house. A court battle ensued while she barricaded herself inside. Finally, just four days before Black Tuesday, sheriffs gained entry and moved all of Tillie Hart’s things onto the street. She held out one more night, sleeping on newspapers in her once-grand bedroom, then gave up. The following day her house was destroyed.”

IT’S YUGE…Farrar & Watmough designed this massive, Tuscan-inspired apartment block, completed during 1930-31. The developer Henry Mandel, sometimes referred to as the Donald Trump of his day, kept the site’s original name, London Terrace. (ephemeralnewyork)

Miller writes, “to describe the new London Terrace was to use superlatives. Consuming the entire city block, it was the largest apartment building in the world with 1,665 apartments. It boasted the largest swimming pool in the city – 75 feet by 35 feet, with mosaic walls and viewing balconies. Twenty-one stories above the street a “marine deck” was designed to mimic that of a luxury ocean liner. It had a fully-equipped gymnasium, a recreation club, a rooftop children’s play yard with professional supervisors, and a large dining room. The doormen were dressed as London bobbies.”

STILL THERE…London Terrace today. (Brick Underground)

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In other diversions, I. Klein looked askew at the latest headlines, namely the big fight between Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney, one of the 20th century’s many “battles of the century”…

…while Helen Hokinson, on the other hand, offered some sketches of seafaring life…

…and looked in on the challenges of buying a hat…

…and then there was this two-page cartoon by Al Frueh, and its disturbing depiction of African “savages” (rendered in blackface?!)…click to enlarge

And to close, a cartoon by Leonard Dove…

…that referenced ads such as this one from the June 2, 1928 issue of the New Yorker… (click image to enlarge).

…and a comedy of manners, courtesy Peter Arno…

Next Time: Beyond 96th Street…