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DOUBLE IMAGE OF A CHAMPION
Frank Graham Jr.
December 04, 1961
Gene Tunney is a magic name in sport, one that evokes an instant and recognizable picture to millions of people, even though it is 35 years since he upset Jack Dempsey and won the heavyweight title. No athlete ever went to more pains to establish a public picture of himself but, incongruously, no athlete ever succeeded in obscuring his own great skills so completely. The story of Tunney then (left, in 1926) and Tunney now is the story of a man who has been almost unbearably successful
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December 04, 1961

Double Image Of A Champion

Gene Tunney is a magic name in sport, one that evokes an instant and recognizable picture to millions of people, even though it is 35 years since he upset Jack Dempsey and won the heavyweight title. No athlete ever went to more pains to establish a public picture of himself but, incongruously, no athlete ever succeeded in obscuring his own great skills so completely. The story of Tunney then (left, in 1926) and Tunney now is the story of a man who has been almost unbearably successful

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Bronson's is not a lone voice. A few years ago a discussion came up among reporters and boxing men about which of the old champions would have had the best chance against Rocky Marciano. The discussion ended in a unanimity rare for boxing circles: Gene Tunney's name led all the rest.

Asked thousands of times who he thinks was the greatest of all fighters, Tunney always looks his interviewer in the eye and replies that it was Dempsey. The unstated but obvious next question: How good was the man who beat the almost unbeatable Dempsey? Tunney lets the interviewer arrive at his own conclusions.

It is ironic that Tunney's skills, not always apparent to the fans, are recalled today with admiration by boxing men and sportswriters. For the fight mob and the writers resented him as champion, believing that Gene "high-hatted" them. To be more specific, the boxing men were appalled by the spectacle of a fighter who directed his own affairs; while the reporters mocked him for the hours he spent reportedly reading Shakespeare, not because sportswriters are necessarily against good literature, but because it made Tunney inaccessible for interviews.

The common man's grudge against "Tooney," summed up best perhaps by Will Rogers in his role as spokesman for the people ("Let's have prizefighters with harder wallops and less Shakespeare"), goes deeper and is therefore harder to eradicate. " Tunney wasn't my kind of fighter," an old Maine lobsterman said this fall when talking boxing with a friend. "I was always for a scrapper like Dempsey."

Not wildly popular during his reign as champion, Jack Dempsey was, in retrospect, everybody's hero. To Tunney accrued the emblems of villainy reserved for the man who smashes a public idol. Gene says, "I root for the fighter whom I can identify with." It puzzles him that more Americans weren't able to identify with Gene Tunney.

If people seldom give Tunney his due as a fighter, they nearly always say that they respect his way of life. The news that he actually read books while training to fight Dempsey excited a great deal of interest. It appealed to the same kind of people who in a later, TV-saturated age got their kicks from watching marines answer questions about cooking and little, white-haired old ladies rattle off batting averages. Tunney's erudition came to light in 1926. Two years later this ambitious son of a Greenwich Village stevedore had completed his self-portrait in the likeness of The American Dream: he became a millionaire and married a beautiful heiress.

His purse for the second Dempsey fight was $990,445.54. He gave Promoter Tex Rickard a check for the difference and accepted Rickard's check for an even $1 million. (Today its framed photostat hangs in Gene's garage, "where every time I drive in I am reminded of those days. It is very gratifying.") The embryonic income tax laws of that time took little of his earnings.

After his retirement in 1928 he made a grand (and private) tour of Europe, visiting the British Isles and later hiking through Provence with Thornton Wilder. In Rome he was joined by his fiance´┐Ż and her family. There, on Oct. 3, 1928, Mary (Polly) Lauder, whose grandfather had been a first cousin of Andrew Carnegie and the first treasurer of the Carnegie Steel Company, became Mrs. Gene Tunney.

Guided by his new friends, Tunney made himself a businessman in the same way he had mastered the left hook or a passage from Shakespeare: by dogged concentration. Today he owns a 200-acre estate in Stamford, Conn. on which he raises white-faced Hereford cattle. He has four children, three boys and a girl (she is named Joan, after the martyred heroine of his friend George Bernard Shaw's most celebrated play), and he shields them from publicity with an insistence he has not always exercised on his own behalf.

When the talk gets around to his family life, Tunney tries to direct it elsewhere; he dislikes the tendency of the press to poke about behind the curtains. "I don't know whether I should talk to such ungentlemanly fellows as you," he once pouted in front of reporters. "You are not independent. You are biased. You write what the public wants. Nice people instinctively steer clear of you."

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