The Sportsman and the Writer

Gene Tunney’s son Jay reflects on the famous prizefighter’s life

and his unlikely friendship with George Bernard Shaw

by Judy Carmack Bross

As authors and journalists, new Social Register members Kelly and Jay Tunney join the lengthy list of accomplished artists you’ll find as you turn the pages of our directory. Citizens of the world who now reside in Chicago, this branch of the Tunney family returns to the Social Register after an absence of more than 90 years. Social Register Chairman Christopher Wolf couldn’t be happier about it. Jay’s mother, Polly Lauder, was a cousin of Andrew Carnegie; his father was the boxer Gene Tunney, who beat Jack Dempsey in September 1927 in what was called “The Battle of the Long Count,” which confirmed his title as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

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The Tunney Family, (l-r) daughter Teressa R. Tunney; Jay Tunney; Kelly Tunney, Jay’s wife of 51 years; daughter-in-law Elizabeth Tunney; and son Jonathan R. Tunney. Front row: Granddaughters Evelyn (left) and Ava. Credit: Carol de Anda

Paradoxically, it was the elder Tunneys’ marriage that accounts for the gap in the listing of the Tunney family. At the time they were wed, in 1926, pugilism was one of the professions, such as show business and dentistry among others, generally excluded from representation in the Social Register. This unwritten rule resulted in the newlyweds’ discreet omission —however well publicized by the society press—following the appearance of their marriage notice. Inconsistently applied from the beginning, this policy has long since fallen by the wayside.

 

While the Social Register Association has evolved over the years along with the society it reflects, what has not changed, Mr. Wolf assures us, is its “commitment to maintaining the high standards traditionally employed in selecting its membership, as well as its commitment to recognizing prominence in multiple fields of endeavor.” According to these criteria, both Mr. and Mrs. Tunney certainly merit inclusion in the Social Register.

 

Jay is the author of numerous articles and essays; his work has been published by the New York Times Magazine, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Hartford Courant, the Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies, and The Independent Shavian. He is Vice President of the International Shaw Society. Kelly, his wife, was a war correspondent in Vietnam and the first woman the Associated press sent into a war zone following World War II. She subsequently served as vice president of the Associated Press.

Gene Tunney’s youngest son, Jay, an international entrepreneur who once searched for oil in Burma and later had the happy opportunity to introduce ice cream to South Korea, wrote a powerful book about his father, whom he described as a “self-made man with a driving iron will and the determination to better himself. He was the embodiment of fighter courage, intelligence and morality.” The Prizefighter and the Playwright focuses on the friendship between Tunney and George Bernard Shaw, and Jay is now working on a play and a possible TV documentary on the same subject.

 

“Dad had started life as a poor Irish boxer from the Hell’s Kitchen, then a part of Greenwich Village, and he was desperate to become respectable. In those days, people quoted the great classics of Shakespeare, Shaw, Lord Byron, Keats, Shelley and Yeats. Dad really got into it. He was invited to lecture at Yale. He spent much time with the writer Thornton Wilder. At night he would listen to the music of Enrico Caruso and by day he was determined to make himself into a learned man. Dad was an extreme example of a person wanting to better himself, to have more in life than he had at the beginning. His own father died young, a longshoreman with many unresolved anger issues.

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“He married my mother, Polly Lauder, who was a niece of Andrew Carnegie and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. They were married for 50 years. Polly, who lived for many years in Stamford, Connecticut, died in 2008. She is buried beside her husband, who died in 1978, once the most famous man in the world. Although she was very tender, soft-spoken, and loved poetry, the secret was that she wanted to marry a warrior, not just some lawyer that her parents expected her to marry.

 

“My mother was absolutely the most private person who ever walked the face of the earth and when I first suggested that I write a book about my father she really resisted, but we reached a compromise, She thought that Shaw’s and Dad’s friendship was the solution. She played a vital role until she died 12 days before her 101st birthday.”

 

This, according to Jay, is how the Shaw-Tunney friendship began:

 

“When Shaw came to London from Ireland at age 20, he looked like a timid little rabbit, but he went on to become England’s greatest orator and playwright.

 

“He loved boxing and he loved winners. He wrote about the sport in his fourth novel, Cashel Byron’s Profession, and was in dialogue with Tunney about starring in a movie based on the book. Shaw believed that, no matter what your obstacles, if you tried harder and harder your own willpower could overcome them.

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Polly’s favorite picture from Gene’s boxing days. He holds a speed bag, used in training, in 1928.

“Dad felt that if Shaw could raise the bar of boxing in fiction, he could raise it further in real time by his unmatched display of scientific and moral boxing, by outthinking and outmaneuvering his opponents and by persevering until he won. Gene closed his career with an unsurpassed boxing record of 77 wins and one loss, retiring undefeated as heavyweight boxing champion of the world, the first fighter to do so.

 

“My father, while maintaining his scruples in a scoundrel’s arena, elevated the quality of the audience in the roaring 1920s to include men of politics, business and social stature, and women of refinement—a first in boxing history. His nickname was “Gentleman Gene,” as he often spoke publicly about character, clean living, and the importance of education and books. My father was a different type of sportsman who combined physical and spiritual dimensions. He went on to marry the woman he loved, and to achieve two new careers, one as a man of letters, the other as a businessman.

“It was as if he had stepped right out of Shaw’s sketchbook. With Cashel as a subliminal role model, Gene had permitted himself to envision a gentleman’s life beyond the ring as a realistic

alternative and not a pipe dream. Even more significantly, Shaw’s novel allowed Gene to consider the idea of marriage above his social class, to a woman beyond his world, and to live happily ever after, as Cashel Byron had done.”

The Tunney-Shaw connection was an enduring one.

 

“They would meet periodically in London, Europe, and Jerusalem after they first vacationed together with their wives in Veliki Brijun, the largest island in the Brijuni archipelago in the northern Adriatic.

 

“Dad had an encyclopedic mind and he worshipped what Shaw, who was 41 years older, had made of himself. Many years later, in 1950, along with friends William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Gertrude Lawrence, Upton Sinclair and Albert Einstein, my father helped establish the first U.S. Shaw Society.”

 

Although Jay never met Shaw, he did meet Ernest Hemingway and knew many other of his father’s other favorite friends, including Thornton Wilder, Somerset Maugham, John Marquand, Lowell Thomas and Prescott Bush, grandfather and father of presidents. He took 10 years to write his book about his father, has lectured around the world on the long-lasting friendship between the two legends, and has been a member of the Governor’s Council of the Shaw Festival in Ontario and organized international Shaw conferences.

Writing about his father’s boxing career, Jay noted that his father, engrossed in a book, was almost late to his Chicago re-match with Dempsey, which was dubbed “The Fight of the Century”:

 

“In an upstairs bedroom of a house in downtown Chicago, the heavyweight champion lay stretched out on the bed for an hour and a half, slowly reading the last two chapters of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, a novel that explores the intellectual and emotional development of an orphan raised by a pious uncle.

 

“None of these literary traits endeared him to sportswriters or boxing fans who rooted for Dempsey and booed what they considered Tunney’s pretensions. His choices did win him entrée into a world of words and ideas where he was at home.”

 

During the week before the fight, trains pulling private and Pullman cars had converged on Chicago carrying Hollywood entertainers, European royalty, bankers, industrialists and politicians, greats and near-greats, sports fans, czars of the underworld, the son of the Duke of Marlborough, who came by private rail coach with Harold Vanderbilt, and Princess Xenia of Greece.

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Sitting for a rare posed portrait in Paris were Thornton Wilder and Tunney (front) with F. Scott Fitzgerald (center back) between two unidentified friends.

“By 4 pm, six hours before the fight, tens of thousands of people swarmed across Michigan Avenue, making it almost impossible to walk the sidewalks of the Loop. Grant Park had been cleared of people and 6000 police set up a cordon four blocks from the arena. More than 50 million people, the largest broadcast audience ever, tuned into their radios.

 

“It had only been in boxing’s recent history that a law was introduced that a fighter had to go to his own corner when his opponent was down. Dempsey stood over Dad when he was knocked down in the seventh round, and told the referee: ‘I stay.’

 

“The fact that my father was so well conditioned, that he made his legs so strong by running five miles backwards every day, saved the day. He won the world championship, and the million-dollar prize, because he was quicker and faster and more intellectual than any fighter. Many gave him no credit. They said the reading made him a poser and men said he was too good looking for his own good. Dad felt very humiliated by the sports writers who influenced the fans, he never got over it. But he did set the finest record in boxing history.”

 

His father was “trying to find the answers to life, the answers to happiness,” according to Jay. Much of that came through his family and their life together in Stamford, Connecticut. His family of three sons and one daughter was very important to him and he was delighted that they went to top universities—two to Stanford and one to Yale. His son John served as a U.S. Senator from California. Son Gene served as a district attorney in Sonoma County, California. Jay’s career allowed him to travel the world as an entrepreneur.

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Jay recalled that, as he was growing up, “privacy is what my parents worshipped although they were not recluses. During the late 1800s through the end of WW II, it was not considered in good taste to show off one’s attributes or possessions. There was dignity in humility and people of class often avoided showing off. In addition, my parents had an addiction for reading poetry and classical works of literature.

 

“Both were congenial and participating members of society who enjoyed occasional private dinner parties where they could set forth their ideas in conversation. They loved to travel and enjoyed being in the company of others who were informed by travel, good food, fine music and an abundant life. They enriched everyone who came near them.

 

“Shaw taught my father, and my father taught me, and I have ingrained it in my children, that although money and fame were not important, these traits could triumph in a brutal and unfair world.”

Jay shared one final reflection on his father:

Polly, in her garden, in 1979, the year after Gene Tunney’s death.

“There’s been no one else I’ve ever known who had the gigantic personality of my father, the conviction in what he believed, and the sheer courage to carry it out no matter what the odds.”

He concluded with some recollections about his mother, Polly Lauder Tunney:

 

“My mother grew up on a grand estate on Lake Avenue in Greenwich, Connecticut, the daughter of George Lauder Jr. and Katherine Rowland. Her grandfather George Lauder was first cousin and a close business partner of Andrew Carnegie. Her father was a philanthropist and yachtsman who served for a time as commodore of the Indian Harbor Yacht Club. She went to Versailles for a semester in college and after high school took the traditional European tour with a godmother. Endymion, her father’s 136-foot schooner, once held the record for the fastest transatlantic passage ever made. Upon his death, he donated the land that would become Island Beach—off of which he used to anchor his schooner—to the town of Greenwich.

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Tunney and Thornton Wilder hiking in the Swiss Alps in 1928. Tunney wrote on the back of the print “Just a couple of regular tourists doing the usual thing on the Mer de Glace. Keep this out of the hands of pressmen.”

“Although Mother loved poetry and books, she had another side to her: adventure and the love of exploring distant lands. Her first memories of travel were at age 3, when she visited Dornoch and Skibo, the former home of Andrew Carnegie. She remembered the sundial and playing in the heather in the gardens.

 

“She lived her entire married life with my father on an estate overlooking a large pond and reservoir in the forested hills of North Stamford, not far from her ancestral home in Greenwich. She liked it for its long private drive, the hilltop location which allowed a vista for miles, and because as a young woman she and her Rockefeller friends and cousins next door had ridden horseback through the same trails she walked as a widow. She knew and cared for every tree, every bird on the estate, and devoted immense time and money to preserving the land.”

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Tunney and Shaw smile for the camera while Charlotte chats with friends. Tunney wrote on the picture that they were attending pony races.

Whatever the differences in their origins, or the trajectories their lives took before their marriage, it is undeniable that Gene and Polly Tunney perfectly complemented each other. It is also very likely that, had their union occurred a generation or two later, they would, like their son and his wife, have occupied a well-deserved space in the Social Register. 

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Tunney, the new Heavyweight Champion of the World, moments after winning the 1926 decision. Dempsey is visible at far left, facing Tunney.