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Joe Marshall
November 05, 1973
Joe Brown once was a boxer, enthralled by the dream of a million dollars and a million friends, but disenchantment eventually would lead him to carve out a new career in sculpture
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November 05, 1973

Heroes With Feet Of Clay

Joe Brown once was a boxer, enthralled by the dream of a million dollars and a million friends, but disenchantment eventually would lead him to carve out a new career in sculpture

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His fifth win seemed to the public an easy decision, but his opponent had thrown stinging uppercuts during clinches, and Brown, who had a wisdom tooth coming in sideways, now found himself with a terribly cut and swollen mouth reading in the newspapers how he had never had a glove laid on him.

He fought four more times, then, near the end of his junior year, quit, 9-0 with four knockouts. A smart fighter, he had grown too smart to fight. He says, "Boxing, to call it by its most flattering name, never has been and never will be a game in the real sense until the rules are changed so that a knockout ceases to be the goal. Look at ourselves. We are willing and anxious to watch two young men, bred in poverty and imbued with little hope but a lot of spirit, try to batter each other senseless. In boxing a brain concussion—the aim of the 'game'—triggers an explosion of applause for the man who triggered the concussion. Where else does that happen in sport? Are we entitled not only to a pound of flesh but to a pint of blood as a chaser?"

Brown learned about those "million friends." Years later he ended a short story (he has published several in national magazines) with this broken-down ex-fighter's rationale for hanging around the ring: "I guess it's like a lotta guys who go to the whorehouse. It's nice to have someone call ya honey once in a while—even if it ain't for real."

Brown discovered his muscles could earn him money in a less violent way—posing for art students. He sat for classes at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and began to wonder why the students' clay versions of Joe Brown resembled no one he knew. He took a lump of clay home one night, completed a suitable version of himself, then "scrunched it up," unbitten by the art. Later he criticized a boxing piece done by the class instructor, Walker Hancock, and when Hancock gave him a lump of clay. Brown went to work. It took him seven months to finish the sculpture, then he ruined it in the casting and had to redo it. He did a sculpture of his brother and a third of a dancer and managed to place all three in the Pennsylvania Academy Annual Exhibition, a remarkable breakthrough that piqued the less fortunate students.

Shortly afterward, R. Tait McKenzie, a noted physician and sculptor who had been the University of Pennsylvania's first Director of Physical Education, saw Brown's work. "You did this without teaching?" he inquired. Brown nodded in expectation of the master's praise. "What a shame," said McKenzie.

"A shame?" said Brown, crushed. "Why?"

"Because these things are so good, it's a shame they're not better."

For the next seven years Brown served a trying apprenticeship under McKenzie, who never paid him more than $15 a week. Near the end of that period, needing extra money so that he could marry Gwyneth King, an artist in her own right, he convinced Princeton University not to shelve its boxing program but instead to hire him as a boxing instructor. He had some unique ideas about teaching the sport ("Boxing is a dance during which two people hit each other"), but more importantly he presented a paper that expressed the sport's shortcomings as he saw them. It convinced Princeton that he was the man for its version of the job. When McKenzie died in 1938, Brown devoted full time to Princeton.

The university soon discovered his artistic talent (he had not mentioned it to the athletic department for fear of scaring it off), and when a creative arts program was initiated in the late '30s, he sold the school on a course in sculpture by describing a college art program as a kind of "sandlot league," a place for developing rough talent. Open to all students, regardless of skill, and with attendance guaranteed by the use of nude female models, the course was enormously popular. It is now fully accredited and has become an institution. But no more so than Brown himself. Through the years his frankness has stirred controversy at Princeton and that, combined with his interesting past and accessibility to students., has made him a campus character. "Please. Call him a personality, not a character," university ex-president Harold W. Dodds used to say without cracking a smile.

Brown ran an annual boxing tournament at Princeton until the early '50s and continued to coach the sport for another decade before it died at the school. It was then that he became a full professor after a long struggle of intermittent, begrudged victories. "They always argued that I wasn't a scholar in the traditional sense," he says. "Hell, I'm not a scholar in any sense. I'm not proud of that or ashamed of it."

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