Somewhat. It's a funny word for a man to choose to place in his own valedictory, isn't it? However, it is such an honest, tempered word. It signals to us, more than anything, that you had to have been present when the Third Reich was aborning and then thriving and then crumbling. Then you never would be so sure again. There would always be a somewhat in your life.
Whatever he was before and whatever he's been since, Schmeling will be defined in America as the villain who went to New York City in June 1938 to take Joe Louis's championship back to Hitler. Schmeling was a man of the world, himself the heavyweight champion at the start of the decade. He had spent so much time in the U.S.—rarely fighting anywhere else from 1929 till the war—that as a spiritual German-American he viewed New York as a "second home." Attractive and congenial, Schmeling had many American friends and was quite well received here. In 1936, when he handed Louis his first defeat, knocking him out in the 12th round of a nontitle bout, much of the crowd in Yankee Stadium had even swung round to the German's side.
Ah, but that was the crux of it. In 1936 the rest of the world was not altogether sure about Hitler, and Schmeling was a German. By 1938, what the Third Reich stood for was clear. Schmeling was no longer a German. He must be a Nazi. When his liner, Bremen, docked in New York more than a month before the fight, pickets lined the shore. Schmeling had to be escorted off and sneaked up side streets to his hotel.
He was everywhere reviled, cursed to his face, with mocking Heil Hitler salutes thrown before him. When he did not cooperate by delivering pro-Nazi statements, inflammatory quotes were attributed to him. Yankee Stadium would be packed to the facade for the rematch, and in a nation of 130 million, 70 million listened on the radio. When Louis pulverized Schmeling in barely two minutes, America rejoiced. And Schmeling was left forever as the carcass on the canvas, vilified in our history.
Schmeling had known so well the other extreme. He was a hero to Germany before Hitler—he was the first great German boxer, the first German to win a world championship. That was in 1930, when he upset Jack Sharkey at Yankee Stadium before a crowd of 80,000. The same desperate longing for pride that Hitler would so cunningly exploit in a defeated, ashamed people could be seen first, in a much smaller way, in the adoration of Schmeling. Curiously, too, in counterpoint to what would soon come, Germany was never so free and open as it was in the 1920s. Berlin was, we know, a cabaret. When Schmeling went there from Hamburg, he was astonished—"a city of enormous energy," he would write, with "a hectic lust for life."
As he succeeded in the fight game, the caf� society of the capital welcomed him. Although barely schooled, never more than a laborer before he found the ring, Schmeling was no pug. His new friends were actors and artists, dancers and writers. He wore the finest tailored suits, bought at David Lewin's Prince of Wales shop in Berlin; he appeared evenings in black tie, or even in white tie and tails. He took out movie stars. He starred in movies. When sound came in, he even sang in movies.
Art, sports and sex merged in Berlin, and suddenly, repressions cast aside, the human body was worshiped. Schmeling, dark and broodingly handsome (he was a dead ringer for the smaller Jack Dempsey), possessed a classically gorgeous male form, so he was more than the nation's preeminent athlete. He was a matinee idol, an Aryan god, in demand to pose nude for sculpture. He was very much a part of this new, liberated Germany, this avant-garde clique that thumbed its nose at hidebound Teutonic stiffness.
Schmeling's friend, the dancer Anita Berber, was chastised for dancing too brazenly onstage. Her response to the critics was to dance even more erotically. Then, convoyed by two elegant young escorts, Berber dramatically sashayed into the dining room of the exquisite Hotel Adlon to order three bottles of Veuve Clicquot. As soon as the waiter poured, Berber arose, unclasped the diamond broach on her expensive fur coat and let the coat fall to the floor, revealing that she wore nothing whatsoever beneath. Then, standing there naked in the middle of a room aghast, she calmly raised her glass, toasting her companions.
That was Berlin before Hitler, the city where Schmeling shifted about in the most cosmopolitan, most daring circles, where he returned from New York a world champion, where he fell in love with Anny and married her. In this elite artistic environment, a number of people were Jewish. So were many of Anny's associates in her film company. In New York, Schmeling remembers, "almost all my friends were Jews."
Foremost was his manager, Joe Jacobs, a little American who mangled the English language, most famously lamenting, "I shoulda stood in bed." Jacobs was often known by his Yiddish name, Yussel, so that in acknowledgment of his power in the fight game he was called Yussel the Muscle. The Nazis were not amused. They became downright furious in 1935 when Jacobs came into the ring in Hamburg after Schmeling's victory in one of his rare bouts in Germany. The crowd, in Schmeling's honor, began to sing the national anthem, raising its arms in the Nazi salute, and Jacobs, somewhat bemused, threw up his arm as well, even as it held a huge cigar. Then the little Jew gave a big stage wink to Schmeling. All this was caught on film. The head of the Reich Ministry of Sports wrote a letter to Schmeling demanding that he get rid of his Jewish manager, but Max Schmeling would not give up Yussel Jacobs.