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June 22, 1959
As fugitive, loser, prisoner and failure, Jack Johnson Kept his dream of glory intact
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June 22, 1959

Jack And The Game

As fugitive, loser, prisoner and failure, Jack Johnson Kept his dream of glory intact

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When the fight took place, before a fashionable audience at the V�lodrome d'Hiver, McKetrick saw he had been terribly mistaken about Moran's chances. It was true that Johnson was not in first-rate condition, but his superlative defense held up, and he was able to evade the dreaded Mary Ann and give Moran a severe beating without the full use of his left arm. Johnson had a rather preoccupied air, for he had heard rumors of writs and lawyers and knew but too well that this always meant trouble. And, as he feared, he was told after the fight that French police had grabbed the money and taken it away.

"Goodby, money, you're going to be long gone," Johnson muttered, shaking his head, and drove out to his villa in suburban Asni�res for a victory banquet of chicken, lobster, whisky and champagne, all obtained on credit. These events took place on the night of June 27, 1914. Next day, in the provincial Bosnian town of Sarajevo, a political assassin shot the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand. Within 48 hours McKetrick's lawyer was called to military service, and in the excitement he left without giving his client the necessary papers to get the funds out of the Bank of France. When McKetrick cooled down and applied for the money the bank officials told him they had no authority to release it. It had taken McKetrick four weeks to get into a mood to talk business, and by this time World War I had broken out; and so the settlement would have to wait until the lawyer could get back to Paris on a furlough. But that brave man, unhappily, was killed in one of the first engagements, and to this day not a single sou of the gate receipts has ever been sprung. And so the Johnson-Moran match must be recorded as history's only world heavyweight championship fight in which the contestants worked without pay.

Taking inventory as he recovered from the victory celebration, Johnson correctly assumed that it would be hopeless to try to collect what had been promised him for risking his title against Moran. There was no other opponent in sight, and a tremendous white folks' war was obviously brewing. At the moment his only chance to make money was in vaudeville, and he decided to fill all the bookings he could get "before the big balloon went up." Accordingly, the three musketeers, as Johnson and his wife and nephew called themselves, took a train for Russia, arriving in St. Petersburg early in July.

Here they found a great uproar of mobilizing troops and hysterical officials running around in a frenzy. Johnson's visit was promoted by another American Negro, a onetime valet named George Thomas, who had become a theatrical producer and was such a notable personage that he had connections at the court of Czar Nicholas II and attended social functions at the palace. Years afterward Johnson was still marveling over an introduction furnished by Thomas late one night at a gathering of important people. Here the showman presented the boxer to a bearded priest, who was none too clean and had a glittering eye—Rasputin.

"Some day somebody gonna kill that man!" whispered Thomas. But it was Johnson who was nearly annihilated on this occasion as he tried to stand against the weird monk, drink for drink, at the vodka tables. Johnson got back to his hotel at daylight. A few hours later the police rushed in, made Johnson get dressed and hustled him—suffering with a frightful headache—to the station house. There an official told Johnson to get himself and his party out of Russia. "They invoked the five-and-10 law," Johnson said. "That means five minutes to pack and 10 minutes to get out of town." Through Thomas' influence Johnson and his companions managed to load their 14 trunks on an outgoing train. In this connection, Jack recorded that Thomas drew him aside just before his departure and slipped him a package of papers. Thomas said that these were copies of personal exchanges between the Czar and the Kaiser and had inconceivable importance. Johnson was to take the documents to London, where Thomas would let him know what to do with them. Whatever he entrusted to Johnson, George Thomas enraged the new rulers of Russia three years later by his prosperity, his nationality and his color and escaped from St. Petersburg one jump ahead of a mob of Bolsheviks who wanted to lynch him. He settled in Constantinople but never again was as wealthy and famous as he had been in the days of the Czar.

When Johnson and his party at last got back to Paris the confusion was even greater than in St. Petersburg, and they were about as welcome as a squadron of uhlans. Obviously, the only thing to do was head for England. Johnson went to Asni�res, got his car out of storage, and they started for Boulogne. On the way he went off the road at high speed down a 50-foot embankment, but by incredible luck nobody was hurt. With this kind of driving Johnson managed to reach the port over roads which were choked with military traffic, only to arrive in the middle of a stampede of 4,000 cavalry horses on the pier. But even more memorable was the sight of British troops disembarking. There were neat, smart-looking London regiments and kilted Scots; their marching song had a haunting lilt and was about a place in Ireland. "It's a long way to Tipperary," they were singing, "it's a long way to go."

Twenty-four hours later, as Johnson stood in the wings of a London music hall near the Elephant and Castle, he heard the same song used as the closing number of the turn preceding his. "Come on now—everybody!" cried the performer, and the audience burst into the chorus. Johnson could not resist it. Arms aloft and golden smile agleam, he marched on stage and joined the singing. For once he had an audience absolutely with him, and they gave a cheer.

"Good old Jack!" the audience shouted.

"Good old England!" cried Johnson in return.

There were plenty of music-hall bookings now in a country under emotional tension and hungry for the relaxation of a show. Johnson did his best to provide a cheerful note and at least added vivid sartorial decoration to the London scene. Walking in Piccadilly, he rivaled Bernard Shaw's fictional prizefighter Cashel Byron in the elegance of his dress, being observed in a biscuit-colored silk suit, a pale golden trilby (hat) and shoes made of doeskin and crocodile leather. But it was becoming plain even to Johnson, with his habitual unfounded optimism, that many British people did not regard him with approval. Their dislike was based on something considerably more than mere envy of his fine clothes and the white Benz touring car, upholstered with leopard skin, in which he frequently took the air. The casualty lists were beginning to come in; and it was widely reported that Johnson had made unforgivable pro-German remarks while drunk. One evening—so Johnson recorded in his memoirs—he and Lucille returned from the theater to find that their flat had been entered and their belongings scattered on the floor. Nothing had been taken except the papers from St. Petersburg, which Johnson had hidden between the pages of his favorite volume of Herbert Spencer. Knowing Johnson's great sense of fantasy, some students may be inclined to place this incident in the same class of romantic creation as the raid on the rooms of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson by agents of Professor Moriarty. But it cannot be questioned that a few evenings later a stern-looking man stepped up to Johnson, placed a paper in his hands and said, "It is my duty to give you this order to leave England within 24 hours."

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