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On the Wrong Foot

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Illustration by Lincoln AdamsAlways dress appropriately.

Sweats are fine for the gym, but not so much for a wedding. A bikini (or less) is OK for a French beach, but not if the beach is in Iran.

Boxer Jack Dempsey learned this lesson the hard way. In 1918—the year before he became heavyweight champion of the world—he posed for publicity photographs at Sun Ship in Chester wearing overalls and patent-leather shoes.

Dempsey’s stated intention that day was to encourage workers to take jobs in defense plants. But the contrast between his overalls and his shoes made it obvious that he was no shipyard worker—which raised questions about why a guy who lived by combat wasn’t in the Army. That, combined with damning words from his estranged ex-wife, eventually led to his indictment and trial for draft evasion. It nearly destroyed Dempsey’s career.

“Dempsey, 6-feet-1 of strength in the glowing splendor of his youth, a man fashioned by nature as an athlete and a warrior, did not go to the war, while weak-armed, strong-hearted clerks reeled under pack and rifle,” sneered the New York Times. “Our greatest fighter sidestepped our greatest fight.”

Born in a log cabin in Manassa, Colo., William Harrison “Harry” Dempsey was the ninth of 11 children. His parents, Hyrum and Celia, had come in a covered wagon from West Virginia, where they were converted by a Mormon missionary who also told them of wonderful possibilities in the Mountain States—possibilities never realized for Hyrum, who spent his life as a day laborer.

Manassa was a scrappy sort of town surrounded by ranches and silver mines. Its rough-and-tumble workers enjoyed a good fight. Dempsey and his brothers picked up the ethos. And because of their Irish last name, they competed with each other for the nickname “Jack.”

An earlier and unrelated—but also Irish—Jack Dempsey had held the middleweight title from 1884 to 1891. Dubbed “The Nonpareil” for his excellence in the ring, he’d been memorialized with a somber poem, “The Nonpareil’s Grave,” lamenting his early death and unmarked resting place:

’Tis strange New York should thus forget
its bravest of the brave
and in the wilds of Oregon
unmarked, leave Dempsey’s grave.

“My brothers and I all knew that poem,” the later Dempsey recalled. “All of us wanted to be the new Jack Dempsey.” So when Harry Dempsey turned out to be the best fighter in Manassa, he also won the right to be “Jack.”

In 1911, after finishing the eighth grade, Dempsey quit school and left home. For five years, he lived on the road. He took any kind of job, from washing dishes and scrubbing floors to mining coal and picking fruit. And when he couldn’t get work, he begged for food and hopped railroad cars. A photograph of Dempsey from this period revealed a face on which were written his reasons for leaving home, observed one biographer.

“The nose, broken in several places, the expressionless mouth, and the cold haunting eyes suggest a childhood that had been less than kind,” wrote Randy Roberts, author of Jack Dempsey.

Dempsey also began to fight as a source of income. Calling himself “Kid Blackie,” he fought an estimated 100 fights in Colorado, Utah and Nevada by mid-1914. Sometimes he lost because, as Roberts wrote, “In the world of miners, cowboys, railroad workers and lumberjacks, there was frequently someone who could maul a 130-pound 16-year-old.”

But often he won. In Nevada, he once walked from Tonopah to Goldfield in the desert heat of July to fight a fellow known as “One Punch” Hancock for his ability to put opponents on the floor quickly. The fight was in the back room of a bar. Fifteen seconds into it, Dempsey knocked out Hancock with one punch. The purse was $5.
 

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In 1916, Dempsey found his first real manager. By then, he’d beaten all legitimate fighters in the Rocky Mountain States. So the pair used what money they had to buy train tickets to New York, where they slept in Central Park. In July, Dempsey beat the well-known “Wild Bert” Kenny in 10 hard-hitting rounds, winning $14 and the attention of influential local sportswriter Damon Runyon.

He also got noticed by John Reisler, a Manhattan fight promoter, who soon took over Dempsey’s career. Reisler set up a fight with black boxer John Lester Johnson, who broke three of Dempsey’s ribs in the second round. But Dempsey fought back for the entire 10-round match. Johnson won the decision, but his opponent earned the crowd’s cheers and $170, of which his new manager took $135. “This comes out to 10 bucks for each broken rib and $2.50 for each black eye,” griped Dempsey at the time.

Disgusted, the fighter rode a freight home, took a job shoveling in a copper mine and, in October 1916, married a prostitute named Maxine Cates, who also played piano at Maxim’s, a Salt Lake City saloon. Years later, Dempsey recalled that “something like electricity” ran through him when Cates had leaned forward in a revealing dress and said, “Hi, stranger. I’m Maxine from Maxim’s. Who are you?”

He was 19; she was 35.

The couple grew apart within a year. Dempsey was away, fighting and looking for fights. Maxine, who liked the fast life, drifted back to prostitution. The couple finally divorced in 1919.

In 1917, Dempsey met John “Doc Kearns” McKernan, the manager who would lift him to stardom. Kearns, a former welterweight, knew boxing. That spring, as the United States was preparing to enter World War I, Dempsey began a string of nine fights. He won them all.

In 1918, Dempsey won 21 of 22 matches from Buffalo down to New Orleans. On 11 different occasions, he knocked out his opponent in the first round. By 1919, he was the only logical choice to go up against heavyweight champion “Big Jess” Willard—who stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 245 pounds.

In 1915, Willard won the title from Jack Johnson at a sweltering outdoor match in Havana, Cuba. Johnson was black, so Willard was dubbed “the Great White Hope.” He defended the title twice in 1916, but championship matches were suspended during the war. After three years of inactivity, Willard was overly confident and poorly prepared.

Dempsey put the boxer down seven times in the first round. He broke Willard’s jaw and cheekbone, and knocked out several teeth. Willard was done after the third round. (You can view the fight, which was filmed, at youtube.com.)

Dempsey was now the heavyweight champion. But he soon had problems. In 1917, he registered with Selective Service, requesting 4-A classification as the sole support for his wife and mother. That exempted him from military service. How much support Dempsey provided would be disputed.

Draft avoidance was hardly unique. Babe Ruth enlisted in the Massachusetts National Guard but never missed a game. Huey Long was exempt as a notary public, Conrad Aiken for his poetry, and Edsel Ford for being an employee of Ford Motor Company—all essential civilian activities.

In the super-heated patriotism of World War I, such tricks were scorned. In Manhattan, wrote Roberts, society women stopped men in civilian clothes to present them with white feathers, symbols of cowardice. Actual or suspected draft dodgers were beaten and jailed.

In the fall of 1918, Dempsey was still relatively unknown. But Kearns had great plans for his up-and-coming young fighter. Probably, he thought it’d be a good idea to depict Dempsey as an active supporter of the war.

“In the shipyard,” Dempsey recalled, “I was given a pair of striped overalls and told to slip them on over my street clothes. Snap. Snap. Snap. And that was that. The next morning, I unfolded the newspaper, and there I was, dressed in those crisp overalls with my shiny patent-leather, suede-topped shoes sticking out like sore thumbs.”
 

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Kearns’ stunt had backfired. Dempsey was an example of what many scorned.

“Dempsey is the champion boxer, but not the champion fighter,” wrote sportswriter Grantland Rice. “It would be an insult to every young American who sleeps today from Flanders to Lorraine, from the Somme to the Argonne, to crown him with any laurels built of fighting courage.”

This might have faded—but, by 1920, Cates was divorced, working in a brothel in Wells, Nev., and jealous of Dempsey’s glory. She wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle that he’d lied to Selective Service about supporting her. “To tell the truth, I had to support him,” she wrote.

Cates also claimed to have letters in which Dempsey asked her to sign an affidavit that he has supported her, so he could dodge the draft. And she said the heavyweight champion had broken her jaw in an argument in their hotel room.

Indicted within weeks, Dempsey would be acquitted in seven minutes. Cates couldn’t produce the letters, and the defense showed that she had tried to extort $40,000 from her ex-husband. Dempsey’s mother testified that she had received support, and the fighter produced receipts for money sent to Cates. A naval officer testified that Dempsey had tried to enlist, and other evidence showed he had fought matches that yielded nearly $300,000 for war relief.

There was only the testimony of Cates, an admitted prostitute who would die four years later in a brothel fire. Dempsey could’ve married better, of course. But was the Sun Ship photographer in such a hurry that the fighter couldn’t have pulled on a pair of work boots?

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at dixon_mark@verizon.net.
 

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