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Jack Dempsey will be sixty years old next June, a statistic to give pause. Not that he looks it. One can see him almost any day at his Broadway restaurant, a little heavy now, the beetling yet handsome face a little puggy, but his curly hair still dark and the massive body moving lightly, lithely among the old fighters, the new hopefuls, the wolf-eyed managers, the sports-writers, the sharpies, and the plain tourists who wash in and out on a tide of nostalgia. They all want to say hello. Most of the tourists want him to sign a menu or a postcard picture of the restaurant to take home for their little boy; and rather shyly they accept Dempsey's handshake—the hand that nearly killed Willard, that destroyed Georges Carptentier in the first million-dollar gate, that crushed Firpo, Brennan, Miske, Sharkey and so many others. Here among the photomurals and red leather and chromium trim is the living legend, chewing on an unlit cigar, greeting all comers.
And the tourists go home and tell their friends and show their trophies and someone is sure to say, "They don't grow fighters like Dempsey any more." Which is the plain truth. Marciano may have a stronger punch. Louis may have had a sharper left; one can argue that Louis even was a better all-round fighter. Yet in the combination of elements—spirit, personality, ability—that make greatness, Dempsey was the alltime champion. The question is, why? What made him the marvelous fighter that he was? Agile though he remains, age inevitably is pushing him into a corner, and this is a good time to set his record straight.
Everybody knows the legend of the early Dempsey: the raw, rough hooligan fighting his way through hobo jungles until chance paired him with a fast-talking manager called Jack Kearns; and how the two of them, Dempsey fighting and Kearns maneuvering, barnstormed the West until Dempsey became the challenger. So far as it goes, the legend is mostly true. Yet the impression it leaves is false. The young Neanderthal with the "killer instinct" was an invention of Kearns and of journalists looking for color, who were happy to interpret Dempsey's fighting crouch and snarl as manifestations of an innate blood-lust. Perhaps because he came up so fast—he was a nonentity a year and a half before he forced Willard to accept his bid—no one bothered to dig much deeper.
PULLING IN STRINGS
This writer has had many talks with Dempsey and with Kearns and others who were closely associated with him. SI's correspondents have hunted down other old acquaintances in many parts of the West, and the assembled true story is a good deal more interesting than the legend. It begins properly not in Manassa, Colorado but in West Virginia; and it begins with a religious conversion, which is not the incongruity it may seem.
Logan County in the West Virginia hills is rugged country populated by a tough breed descended from Irish and Anglo-Saxon frontiersmen. Religion always has been a strong factor in the lives of the hill folk, and when a Mormon missionary arrived from Utah in the mid-1870s he found good audiences, especially when he talked about the fruitful life the new Canaan promised. Logan County was poor. Hiram Dempsey (he was Irish with a touch of Choctaw) had had a little education, enough to enable him to teach in a one-room schoolhouse and to give him curiosity about the world. He and his wife Celia (she was a Smoot, English with a little Cherokee) became Mormon converts, sold some timberland he had inherited and set off with their children in a covered wagon for the West. The new Mormon community of Manassa, where they settled, was populated largely by backwoods folk from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, so that the culture there—where the future champion spent his most formative years—was largely that of the Eastern mountains, flavored with the wild West and with the communal and religious spirit of Mormonism.
William Harrison Dempsey, called "Harry" during his boyhood, was born in Manassa on June 24, 1895, the ninth of Hiram and Celia Dempsey's eleven children. Some months earlier a blizzard had swept down from the mountains and a pack peddler, seeing a light in the Dempsey home, had fought through the drifts to ask refuge. Hiram was away, but Celia let him sleep in the haymow and gave him breakfast the next day. Gratefully he invited her to take anything she wanted from his goods and she asked for a book. The only one he had was a life of John L. Sullivan. When Hiram returned a few days later she told him about the gift and declared that although she had never liked men with mustaches, what she had read so far inclined her to think that Sullivan was a fine man. She continued to read in idle moments during the rest of her pregnancy and formed a high regard for John L., a prenatal influence to which, in later years, both she and her son attached importance.
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Celia Dempsey, devout and respectable though she was, encouraged Harry to enter the ring and to fight his way through to the championship. Indeed she was the dominant influence of his life; and Dempsey, speaking of her with a sentiment which still brings a lump to his throat, says earnestly: "I was a mama's boy."
She was a black-haired, small woman but wiry and tough, as she needed to be with her huge family and the haphazard, poverty-ridden life to which Hiram's itinerant tastes committed her. In Manassa she took in washing to help make ends meet, and at the same time kept her house neat, her children scrubbed and their raggle-taggle clothing patched and the pantry filled with home-canned fruit and garden truck. Dishonesty outraged her; and she had a temper. Once, her son remembers, a gypsy woman borrowed a silver dollar from her to place in her own mouth "to make the spell work" while telling her fortune. When the fortune was done, the gypsy gulped and exclaimed that she had swallowed the money. Celia studied the situation a moment, then grabbed the woman by the neck and choked her until she turned blue and spat it out. Dempsey recalls affectionately, "She would fight a buzz saw." She had convictions. Her advice to her children was, "Live by the Golden Rule and keep a'going."