Heavyweights: When F. Scott Fitzgerald Met Gene Tunney

by Lisa Kerr

A.J. Liebling, the writer who first called boxing “the sweet science,” once said, “A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone.” For centuries it seems, writers have had a unique and enduring fascination with boxers and boxing.  From Homer to Nelson Algren to Joyce Carol Oates, writers have revealed an obsession for the sport that, at first glance, seems odd. However, Liebling’s statement may explain the connection: both writers and boxers face their opponents–another boxer, a blank page–alone. Both know the pitfalls and the rewards of solitary struggles.

On September 23, 1926, when boxer Gene Tunney defeated Jack Dempsey, stripping him of his heavyweight title, the boxing world and many of its fans took the blow personally. Thomas Wolfe, who was still an aspiring writer at the time, wrote in a letter to his lover Aline Bernstein, “I shared in every circumstance of a champion’s humiliation. It was not he who was beaten, but myself.”  However, Gene Tunney quickly earned a winning reputation of his own, captivating the world with his singular blend of physical strength and high intelligence.

One of the most surprising fans of Gene Tunney was F. Scott Fitzgerald.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had met many impressive people in his life, but his biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeurreveals that he was particularly impressed with Tunney when he met him at a New York party in 1927.  Although the account of Fitzgerald’s association with Tunney lacks detail, the story suggests that Fitzgerald had come into New York City from Wilmington, Delaware to attend the party, which was given in honor of Tunney. All night, Fitzgerald is reported to have “stuck close” to Tunney, and when the time came Fitzgerald “did not want to leave.”

Perhaps it was Tunney’s intellectual qualities that appealed to Fitzgerald. Tunney was known to be a gentleman boxer, a fighter who gained advantage over his opponents by using as much brain as brawn. His ability to outthink and outbox his opponents earned him 67 wins and only one loss in his long career. Perhaps Fitzgerald was aware that Tunney was a man who loved literature. Tunney was somewhat of an enigma because of his literary leanings. Fans, who were used to less literate fighters, were intrigued.  In a 1927 article, Tunney wrote a response to one of his fans’ biggest questions: “What are your favorite books?” He responded by downplaying his bookishness:

[. . .] I have a genuine interest in books, or rather the ideas contained in them. It is a hobby with me just as Jem Mace, a bare-knuckle champion of the 1860’s, played the violin, and Jem Ward, another prize ring title holder, painted pictures. Because a man is a boxer it doesn’t follow that he has to be illiterate.

Tunney went on to admit that he had read a great number of classics, listing Shakespeare’s tragedies among his favorites. The truth was that Tunney could quote passages from Shakespeare. One day he would even go head to head with Irish Writer George Bernard Shaw in a “quote-off” contest. Shaw won, but Tunney was a tough competitor–so tough that Shaw went on to develop a 20-year correspondence and friendship with him.

Tunney’s unwillingness to promote himself as a reader and thinker revealed the same humility that informed all of his interactions and won him many friendships. For example, when asked if he and Dempsey had spoken during their famous bout, Tunney replied with the same generosity of spirit:

We did very little talking. Early in the bout Dempsey hit me a low punch. He did it unintentionally. He fought a clean, sportsmanlike fight. As the blow fell below my belt, I merely called his attention to it by saying: “Keep them up, Jack! Keep them up!” Dempsey said in acknowledgment: “Excuse me, Gene.”

Tunney defeated Dempsey twice and retired the undefeated champion in 1928, having lost only one fight in the history of his career. However, he exhibited a respect and admiration for Dempsey throughout his life. Years later, Tunney and Dempsey were friends and visited one another often.

Like Tunney, Fitzgerald was also known for his generosity, and may have seen a kindred spirit in the boxer when he met him that night in 1927. For example, Fitzgerald was active in promoting younger writers in whom he saw promise, often bringing them to the attention of Scribners’ editor Maxwell Perkins. Also, Fitzgerald literally gave away money and items of clothing to friends although he and Zelda were often in financial straits. Friends of Fitzgerald’s noted that, at certain points in his career, he may have tried to disguise or cure his own unhappiness by attempting to make others happy.

In 1927, Fitzgerald was struggling to recapture the youth and popularity that he had enjoyed after the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Although The Great Gatsby is today considered one of the greatest American novels, upon publication in 1925 the novel had produced disappointing sales, and Fitzgerald was having difficulty settling down to work on the project that would eventually become Tender is the Night. Combined with the fact that his marriage with Zelda had been strained by her relationship with French naval aviator as well as his attraction to young actress Lois Moran, these hard knocks had Scott, at 30, struggling.

Fitzgerald and Tunney were both 30 years old when they met. Although Fitzgerald was eight months older than Tunney, he admired to the prizefighter, recognizing a man at the top of his game.  Whether or not Tunney had read Fitzgerald and felt a mutual admiration is unclear. What does seem clear is that Fitzgerald was reaching out, seeking to make some connection with Tunney.

The most revealing information about Fitzgerald’s state of mind occurred after the party. After finally agreeing to leave Tunney and the soiree, Fitzgerald took a taxi back to the Plaza, where he was staying. The night was stormy. From the back of the cab, Fitzgerald saw a paperboy standing in the rain. He opened the door and bought every one of the boy’s papers.

The sad warmth that has, for me, come to define Fitzgerald’s writing is here in this account of his life–the tendency toward kindness, the desire to connect with others, the vulnerability of always being both insider and outsider. One can envision Fitzgerald as one of his own characters–a desperate Gatsby, a boyish Amory Blaine. To Fitzgerald, Tunney must have been one of those glittering people with who so many of his characters desired to associate. At 30, Tunney had reached the height of his career and was able to revel in his success. At 30, Fitzgerald had written arguably the greatest work of his career but had no clue what an impact he would ultimately have on American literature. At that moment, Fitzgerald had no way of knowing that it would be his name that would be synonymous with the jazz age and the “lost generation” even 110 years later.

Fitzgerald’s true emotions and motivations that night can only be speculated. Tunney’s reaction to Fitzgerald is unrecorded as well. Had he read Fitzgerald’s work?  Did he recognize that a heavyweight of a different color stood beside him? These questions provoke the imagination, especially in the minds of those who seek to understand the link between writers and boxers. Certainly, to have stood ringside on the rainy night F. Scott Fitzgerald met Gene Tunney would have been enlightening. Certainly, it would have been a knockout of a time.

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