The chairman of the board of the McCandless Corporation spoke in a deep, cultivated voice as he sat in his 12th-floor office over New York's Vanderbilt Avenue. He is handsome and vigorous, his dark brown hair lightening to gray now on the sides, the ridges of his ears faintly thickened and blurred by the thousands of punches that have grazed them and passed on. Through the fabric of his casual conversation he wove prominent names, obscure words and allusions to some of the 16 other companies he serves as a director. Gene Tunney, healthy, prosperous and eminently respectable, remains at 63 the showpiece of boxing's alumni.
"I don't have the time I once had to devote to literature," Tunney was saying. "When I return from a business trip I always find that things have piled up terribly. Now I spend a good deal of my time reading these."
He indicated the business reports stacked neatly on his broad desk. "Boxing is another matter, though. I attend a bout occasionally, but I would not consider serving as a federal boxing czar or in any of the other positions my name has been mentioned for. A man of my station has other interests."
The years have not changed Gene Tunney. More aloof from his public than any other great fighter we have had, he was also among the most sensitive to its reactions. It has been 33 years since Jack Dempsey's conqueror retired as undefeated heavyweight champion (or "chompion," as Gene says it), but he is still acutely conscious of his public image.
Curiously, Tunney's image as a fighter did not grow in proportion to his skill and accomplishments. He is chiefly remembered as a bookish young man who came out of nowhere to tame the wild Dempsey. The meagerness of these recollections implies a similar meagerness in Tunney's career, a distortion he has sometimes compounded. This is hardly fair to his boxing record.
Long before Tunney beat Dempsey in 1926 he was an experienced and highly rated contender. In 1922 he outpointed Battling Levinsky to win the American light heavyweight title. A few months later he lost the title to the tireless Harry Greb. In this, the only defeat Tunney was to suffer in 77 professional fights, he took a terrible beating. His nose was broken in two places, his mouth was cut and both eyes were slashed and closed, prompting Grantland Rice to write that "Greb handled Tunney like a butcher hammering a Swiss steak."
A beating of this kind would have ruined any but the most courageous fighter. Tunney not only stayed on his feet for 15 agonizing rounds but, upon recovering his faculties, demanded a rematch. He outpointed Greb in the return bout, then beat him three more times. During the closing rounds of their last fight, he had the satisfaction of hearing Greb whisper, "Don't knock me out, Gene. Let me stay."
On his way to the first bout with Dempsey, Tunney knocked out Georges Carpentier and Tommy Gibbons (who had withstood Dempsey for 15 rounds at Shelby, Mont, in 1923). But Tunney's best fights were against Dempsey. He won both of them by lopsided margins. Many reporters who saw them claimed that the only round Dempsey won in the two fights was the famous seventh in their second bout, in Chicago, when he knocked Tunney down. Westbrook Pegler described the end of their first bout:
"Dempsey tottered to his corner at the last bell with his left eye sealed shut and the entire left side of his face bulging like some horrible growth, to plunge into the arms of his handlers in collapse. Tunney, unmarked and with the same pained smile that he wore when he entered the ring, turned to his corner, dazed, almost as badly as Dempsey, by the unexpected ease with which he had won."
Jimmy Bronson, an oldtime fight manager who first saw Gene box as a marine during World War I, spoke warmly of his ability during a recent interview. "If either of Tunney's fights with Dempsey had been scheduled for 15 rounds," said Bronson, who is nearly as articulate as Tunney, "he would have knocked Jack out. As it was, both times he had Jack helpless at the end of 10 rounds. Gene was still three or four fights from his peak when he retired. I believe that had he fought another year or two he would have been recognized as the greatest of all heavyweight champions."
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 fianceé 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."
In his office now Tunney picked up a sheaf of business papers and began a discussion of his association with the McCandless Corporation, a holding company that controls a number of rubber manufacturers, and of his frequent trips across the country to attend board meetings. He mentioned names like the Pittston Co., Eversharp and Brown Co. Suddenly Tunney paused and looked sharply at his right hand. Its fingers were cramped around the papers in a rigid cluster.
"I've had trouble with my hands for several years," he said. "It's a disease that contracts the tendons in the palms."
He leaned forward, flipped a switch on the office intercom and spoke into it. "Will you write out the name of my disease for this gentleman?"
A moment later his secretary came into the office with a filing card, across which was typed the phrase "Dupuytren's contracture."
"I've had several operations on my hands," Tunney went on, "and they're opening up pretty well, except for the little finger on my right hand. My doctor has assured me the disease did not result from boxing. It may be hereditary. I gave up golf, but it hasn't caused me any real inconvenience. Yet there were times when it was embarrassing for me to shake hands. Someone would be brought over to meet the former heavyweight champion of the world, and all I could offer him was a dead fish."
"What about your clubs, Gene?" his visitor asked.
Once more Tunney flipped the switch and spoke into the office intercom. "My clubs are listed in Who's Who, aren't they?" He nodded at his secretary's reply, then turned to the bookcase embedded in the wall behind him. He ran a finger along a row of books. Shakespeare...Whitman...The Ring Record Book...the Bible...business directories...Who's Who in America.
A brief check turned up the Metropolitan Club, The Brook, Banshees, Saints & Sinners, Augusta National, Burning Tree and Blind Brook. "Aren't you a member of the New York Athletic Club, too?"
"No, no," Gene said, his tanned face brightening as something came back to him that he hadn't thought about for a long time. "When I was the heavyweight champion, one of my close friends was Henry W. Putnam Jr. He was an outstanding member of the New York AC. Lived there, in fact.
"So Putnam decided that I must become a member too. He submitted my name, and it was approved by the membership committee. Suddenly there was a terrific uproar. Most of the members objected to me on the grounds that I was a professional athlete. The issue was clearly drawn: amateur versus professional. I even got a telephone call from Father Duffy, asking me to withdraw. By this time I was more than willing to forget about it, but it had become an affair of honor with my friend."
Tunney shook his head as he recalled the dispute. "Well, a vote was taken among the membership, and my application was rejected. Men whom I had sailed with on Putnam's yacht couldn't see their way clear to vote for me. Friendships were shattered. Putnam, who had lived at the club for 20 years, resigned."
"And you've never gone to the club again?"
"Many people since then have tried to get me to join," he said, "but I wouldn't hear of it now. Yet in my heart I know that those people who voted against me were right. The issue was clear. I was a professional, and I didn't belong there."
Tunney sat back, clasped his hands, and the memory was dismissed. "I'm not much of a clubman, anyway. I've just been admitted to The Players, but I have no idea when I'll go. I prefer to meet my friends in restaurants."
"But in public places you're subject to more interruptions."
He shrugged. "I've heard of fighters being molested by pests in restaurants, but I've had very little trouble. Oh, here's a story that might interest you.
"One of my favorite restaurants is the Press Box, east of Lexington Avenue. Polly and I were there having dinner one evening with Westbrook Pegler and his wife. There were four men at the table next to us, and one of them, a little fellow, began to heckle Pegler. When he became rather vicious I got up and walked over and asked him to be quiet. But a moment later he was at it again. I got up and went back to his table.
" 'Now listen to me,' I said. 'I am going to identify myself, so there will be no misunderstanding. I am Gene Tunney. I want all of you to leave this restaurant. Now.'
"I picked the little fellow up by the back of his neck and began to assist him out the door. His friends came along very docilely. I could see they were embarrassed, and when the little fellow had left, two of his friends stayed behind.
" 'Do you mind if we have a drink at the bar before we leave?' one of them asked me.
" 'No, of course not,' I said.
" 'Will you join us for a drink?' the fellow asked.
" 'Of course,' I said.
"I could see that they were very much embarrassed. One of them told me he had never been thrown out of a place before.
" 'If you hang around with that little fellow,' I said, 'you'll be thrown out of a great many places.'
"Finally they asked me if they could stay and have dinner, provided they ate in another room. I told them I certainly had no objection to that. They were really quite nice."
Tunney's clear blue eyes came alive with laughter. "I understand the little fellow never came back. Perhaps he thought the Press Box employed Gene Tunney as a bouncer."
It is the dream of a large part of mankind to be able to boast, as John L. Sullivan did, "I can lick any man in the house." Like Sullivan, Tunney could once boast (tastefully, of course) of licking any man in the house—or the world. But it has been his ambition to impress his fellows as much with his intellect as with his fists. Since America solicits the opinions of her athletic champions on matters ranging from juvenile delinquency to breakfast foods, Gene's victory over Dempsey provided him with a rostrum from which to air his opinions about literature.
Asked in 1927 for his appraisal of G. B. Shaw's prizefight novel, Cashel Byron's Profession, Tunney replied with all the directness of a straight right: "Cashel Byron is stupid and boring. He is always on a soapbox. Shaw knows nothing about boxing—or women."
To which Shaw is reported to have made the petulant reply: "If Tunney thinks he can write a better story about 19th-century boxing, let him try."
Looking back on the incident now, Tunney grinned the grin of a man who feels he has been proved right. "Sometime later, when I got to know Shaw, he told me that he'd never said any such thing. What he really told the reporters was: 'Did Tunney say that? Why, that boy has acute literary perception. My early novels were just readable enough to be intolerable.' "
Tunney, as champion, made one of his most celebrated appearances as a lecturer before Professor William Lyon Phelps's Shakespeare class at Yale.
"I don't know whether Shakespeare is truly embedded in Gene's soul," Phelps once told a friend, "but I do know that he can quote as extensively as anyone I've known."
Even Dempsey had a comment when he heard of Gene's lecture. "If it helps his racket," Jack shrugged, "why not?"
Unfortunately, Tunney's inclination to poetry has encouraged a manner that obscures the qualities that his friends admire. The public sees one Tunney, his friends another. The verbal facade he built as a young man is responsible for many of the apparent contradictions in his personality.
"When you ask what kind of guy Gene is," one boxing man said recently, "you've got to specify where—and when. In public he is apt to make high-sounding speeches, and then he usually puts his foot in his mouth. But in a small group of people he's interesting and genuine. And there's nobody around who's been more generous to guys who need help. Too bad, but it's the public Tunney that gets in the papers."
In Tunney's office now, the talk moved from Shaw and Shakespeare to American literature, and Gene spoke of his admiration for Ernest Hemingway.
I mentioned Dempsey before," he said. "Now Dempsey has always seemed to me an especially gentle man. Completely lovable outside the ring. But Hemingway was really a brute.
"Whenever I went to Cuba, where Ernesto lived, I'd call him and go out to his home. We'd spar sometimes. Barehanded, no gloves. One day I was demonstrating a move that a friend of mine, a fellow who got his start on the docks, had shown me. This fellow had lost the thumb on his left hand, but his four fingers were like steel.
"In fact, they called him Fingey. He would get in a brawl with somebody and show his overhand right like this, and when the sucker looked up, Fingey would come in low, this way, with that left hand and dig his fingers into the fellow's groin."
Tunney shook his head in admiration. "When Fingey got a man like that, the poor fellow toppled face forward. Well, I showed this maneuver to Ernesto.
" 'Try it again,' he asked me.
"I was merely demonstrating, of course, but when I went in with my left hand, Hemingway shot his right elbow into my mouth. If I hadn't had strong teeth, he would have knocked them out. As it was, he cut my mouth."
At this point Tunney went into action in his chair, shifting his shoulders, moving his hands before him. "I shoved Ernesto back against the wall—quickly—and threw a short left which I pulled at the last fraction of a second and laid against his chin. Then I did the same with my right. Bang! Bang! Hemingway went white. It was the only time I ever saw the man flustered."
"They say only a sucker tries to beat a man at his own game," his visitor said.
"That's right," Gene chuckled. "I certainly wouldn't have attempted to beat Ernesto at writing."
Nevertheless, Tunney has said his piece on any number of matters outside boxing. He has been especially eloquent on the subject of smoking. During the reign of Joe Louis as heavyweight champion, Gene was invited to speak at a boxing writers' dinner. He devoted his time to a discussion of tobacco.
Among other things, he claimed that if Louis were to smoke two packs of cigarettes each day for a month, he, Gene Tunney, would come out of retirement and beat him. Louis sat next to the microphone when Tunney spoke. As Joe left the building, he met Toots Shor, the saloonkeeper.
"You didn't have a cigarette in your kisser while Gene was making that speech, did you?" Toots asked him.
A sly look came over Louis' face, and he shook his head. "No, sir," he said. "I afraid Mr. Tooney he hit me."
A lapse on the scholarly Tunney's part led to a flurry of newspaper nonsense in the 1930s. As the dilettante sports editor of a publication called The Connecticut Nutmeg, he revived the old argument about a man's chances in hand-to-hand combat with a gorilla. Gene declared himself on the side of humanity. He claimed that a good left hook in the stomach would demoralize an ape.
"He didn't spend years doing bending and mat exercises," Tunney wrote of the gorilla. "A man has 24 ribs. Your encyclopedia will tell you that a gorilla has but 13.... Twenty-four ribs are much more protection than 13."
He went on to claim that Gargantua, the world's most celebrated circus gorilla, could be beaten by "any one of a dozen third-rate heavyweights I know." The newspapers took up the discussion. Someone advanced the name of Two-Ton Tony Galento, then in his heyday, as a suitable opponent for Gargantua, a nomination Galento brusquely declined.
The tempest subsided when a studious reporter checked his encyclopedia and found that Tunney's research had been somewhat deficient: a gorilla has 13 pairs of ribs, one more pair than a man.
A more rewarding crusade has come out of Gene's passion for physical fitness. During World War II he served as a lieutenant commander—and later as a commander—in charge of the Navy's conditioning program. No one could have taken the job more seriously. In his war against the potbelly ("which eventually leads to a moral collapse") he even designed a special slenderizing device for portly sailors.
Today, though his tastes in food and drink are rich, Tunney is a splendid product of sensible conditioning. His weight never goes above 220 pounds, or below 215. He takes daily setting-up exercises, walks and steam baths. He swims in the spring-fed pond on his Connecticut estate and in the icy waters off Maine, where he has an island summer home. And, despite his poor grip, he plays tennis frequently. In the Gene Tunney of 1961 it is not difficult to see the magnificent athlete of 1926.
"Tunney always enjoyed more and better physical conditioning than anybody he ever fought," Grantland Rice wrote. "He dedicated himself to the task as no other athlete, with the exception of Ben Hogan, ever dedicated himself."
This single-minded devotion to training was, of course, one of the keys to Gene's ultimate success. As a skinny kid growing up on Perry Street in New York's Greenwich Village he became interested in boxing. There were few escapes from the area's pervasive poverty; some of the boys chose the direct, criminal way out, while others, like Gene's brother Tom, joined the police force (where he became a much-decorated detective).
Gene first looked on boxing as a recreation, not as a career. His education was limited to nearby parochial and business schools, and afterward he boxed in the evening recreation center at P.S. 41. By the time he entered the Marines in 1918 as a well-developed young man, he had had 12 professional fights.
In France he displayed his talent before company officers and received permission to take time off from his military duties to train more effectively for Marine boxing shows. When his big chance came, he was ready: he won the light heavyweight championship of the American Expeditionary Force in Paris in 1919.
It was about this time that Gene began to see in boxing the opportunity to seize the wealth, fame and position he had dreamed about for a long time. He had grown supremely sure of himself. Taking up boxing in earnest, he built up his wrists and forearms by squeezing hard rubber balls. To strengthen his brittle hands, he chopped wood one winter in a Canadian logging camp.
He disdained the unhealthy, smoke-filled gyms of New York, preferring the "flower-scented air" of the country training sites. Sure of his destiny now, he applied himself to hours in the gym perfecting his various punches, and other hours on the road building up his wind and legs. He even practiced running backward, in which he achieved a facility that was to serve him well after he arose from The Long Count.
There was more behind Tunney's success, of course, than superb conditioning. While he liked to read, he had a fighter's toughness of mind, as well as body, and he could deal out—or take—a brutal beating. His five brawls with Harry Greb are still looked back on as monuments of their kind.
It is as unsatisfactory to describe the style of a great athlete as it is to transcribe birdsong to the printed page; but it can be said that Tunney was a stand-up fighter, crafty and graceful, with an accurate, cutting jab and one of the most damaging right-hand punches to the body that boxing has known. After two fights with Tunney, Dempsey refused a third because he feared blindness.
Tunney directed his own career once he had established himself as a professional. "I had a manager named Sammy Kelly," Gene recalled, "but he kept making matches without consulting me. I was still very young and I'd say, 'No, I'm not ready for that fellow.'
"Finally, one day Kelly said, 'Well, who the hell are you ready for?'
"I made out a list of the men I considered suitable opponents at that stage of my career. Kelly was disgusted. He thought I had no heart. So I went with Doc Bagley, because New York State regulations said that a fighter must have a manager. It was monstrous, but it was the law. I stayed with Bagley until after my first fight with Greb. I had taken a frightful beating. Awful. But the next morning Bagley said:
" 'You certainly gave me a hard time last night, kid. Working on those cuts. It was rough.'
"While Bagley talked to me, the doctor was sewing up my eyebrows with a big needle. It felt as if he were pulling my eyeballs out. 'Yes,' I told Bagley, 'you had it rough.' But in my mind I said, 'I'm going to get rid of this fellow.' I bought my contract back for $5,000. He didn't want to sell, but I insisted."
Billy Gibson managed him during the period when Tunney was campaigning for a championship fight with Dempsey. "Gibson was a grand old fellow," Gene said, "but at this time he was a menace to me. I didn't know he was suffering from paresis. He made contracts and concessions that I couldn't possibly honor. Later there were all sorts of lawsuits. It cost me a lot of money." Tim Mara, a onetime New York bookmaker and owner of the New York Giants professional football team, and Max (Boo-Boo) Hoff, a Philadelphia bootlegger, brought suits against Tunney for services they claimed to have rendered—Mara on the grounds that he helped to get Gene his first match with Dempsey, Hoff that he had somehow "protected" Tunney's interests in that fight. Only Mara collected—$30,000 from an out-of-court settlement—but Tunney's legal expenses were heavy.
Meanwhile, Tunney worked frantically, and often at cross-purposes with his manager, for a championship fight. He finally signed to meet Dempsey in a 10-round bout in Philadelphia. There, on a rainy September night in 1926, Gene's long quest came to a relatively simple climax. He methodically beat the tar out of Dempsey and became the heavyweight champion of the world.
One year later, on Sept. 22, 1927, the two met once more, this time in Chicago, in the Battle of the Long Count. Tunney reacts to questions about that fight much as a veteran trouper rises to a cue. There is the little start of recognition in his eyes, the involuntary squaring of the shoulders, the flow of familiar words:
"I had been in command of the fight through the first six rounds," Tunney recalls. "Then, in the seventh, I started a left lead, and Dempsey crossed his right over it. I never saw the punch clearly, nor do I remember much of what followed. I counted seven blows in all when I saw the movies afterward."
Tunney went down, clinging to the middle strand of rope with his left hand. Referee Dave Barry, acting on the rules of the Illinois boxing commission, tried to get Dempsey to go to a neutral corner. Sensing the kill, Dempsey refused to move. Barry finally led him away, then returned to his position over the fallen Tunney and began the count once more at "one." Some observers claimed that Tunney was on the floor for 14 seconds.
"He was down 17 seconds," insists Jimmy Bronson, who was in Gene's corner. "We had a stopwatch on him."
Tunney is candid: "I have no idea how long I was down. I only know that when I began cerebrating I heard the referee count "2". By "9" my head was clear and I got up."
He survived the round, frustrating Dempsey by the speed with which he kept out of reach; those hours spent running backward had prepared Gene for an exercise in Fabianism of which Shaw must have been proud. Exasperated, Dempsey gave up the chase at one point and motioned to him with his gloves. "C'mon and fight, you son of a bitch!" he snarled.
Dempsey's taunt enraged the young champion, but he continued to circle out of range. Safely back in the corner between rounds, he thought out his problem: how to avoid being hurt again. Alexander the Great, shown the Gordian knot, simply severed it with his sword. Tunney's solution to his own problem was equally direct. When the bell rang for the eighth round, he went out and hit Dempsey on the chin and knocked him down.
From that point on, only Dempsey was in danger of being knocked out. The decision at the end of 10 rounds was clearly Tunney's.
Jack Sharkey now emerged as the most attractive challenger for the heavyweight title. Tunney, however, with an artist's sense of what is right, knew that his second bout with Dempsey had been the climax of his career; he merely wanted to append a satisfactory coda before withdrawing into retirement. Years of concentration had led up to this moment, and he was determined not to leave anything to chance. As the foil for his last bout, he chose a game, durable and somewhat less than dangerous New Zealander named Tom Heeney.
Nobody, apparently, wanted to see Tunney fight Heeney—except Tunney. Tex Rickard lost $150,000 on the promotion of the fight, which took place in New York on July 26, 1928. The fight itself developed into what boxing men call a "pigsticking."
Let me give you a story I've never completely told before," Gene said. "I was in my best form for this fight. Absolutely indefatigable. I was determined to knock Heeney down with my first punch. I walked out and hit him with a straight right hand—a terrific blow—but he didn't go down.
" 'Oh, oh!' I said to myself, 'this fellow is tough.' I decided then to box him. For four rounds I hit him so often about the head that my wrist began to get sore and I shifted to his body. Then in the eighth round I hit him again with another solid right, just above the eye. I saw Heeney back away, trying to pry open his eye with his glove, even though the eye hadn't been closed.
"I knew what had happened. I had had two personal friends lose the sight of an eye after being hit in that spot. It damages the blood vessel, you know. Heeney had been temporarily blinded. I stepped back and did not hit him again for the rest of the round.
"Between rounds it was my habit to observe my opponent's corner. I saw Jimmy Dawson, a boxing writer, rush over to ask Charley Harvey, who managed Heeney, what had happened. Then I saw Harvey make a jabbing motion with his thumb, implying that I had stuck my thumb in Heeney's eye."
Tunney shook his head at the old memory. "I was furious," he said. "For the next two rounds I gave Heeney a terrible beating—the worst beating of his life, and all because of his manager. But in the 11th round he was still rushing me. 'There's heart!' I said to myself. I evaded him, and he almost fell. Then I turned to the referee and said:
" 'If you want me to go on hitting this man, I won't be responsible for the consequences.' And he stopped the fight."
"Have you ever seen Heeney since?" Gene's visitor asked.
"Well," Tunney said, "this is very interesting. During the last war I made a trip to the Solomon Islands. I found that Heeney was also there—he had become an American citizen and a first-class seaman in the Seabees. I had him transferred, which was a very difficult thing to do, and made a chief athletic specialist, tripling his pay.
"Now sometime after the war I ran into Ernest Hemingway, and he said, 'Tom Heeney tells me you were a dirty fighter.'
" 'Tom Heeney said that? Do you mind if I ask him about it?'
Hemingway said he had no objections. So the next time I was in Miami I took a cab over to Heeney's bar on the Beach. I walked in and had a Martini, but there was no sign of Tom. Then a woman came over and said she was Mrs. Heeney. She said that some men at the bar had told her I was Gene Tunney.
"She called Tom, who was at his apartment, and when he arrived I repeated what Hemingway had told me.
" 'Yes, Gene,' Heeney said. 'You were a dirty fighter.'
" 'Tom, I don't understand you,' I said. 'Would it be reasonable for me to try to maim you, and then immediately step back and allow you to recover?'
"Heeney had to admit that it wouldn't be at all reasonable. Well, we parted friends, but I don't know even today if that man believed in his heart that I was telling the truth."
As his visitor was preparing to leave, the retired undefeated heavyweight champion got to his feet.
"Remember just one thing when you write this story," Gene Tunney said. "I would never want to hurt any of my friends' feelings. Life is too short for me now. I would like to think that I have the goodwill of all my friends, and not their bad report."
Tunney was honored with a triumphal parade in New York City after he defeated Dempsey and won the heavyweight championship of the world.
Tunney criticized George Bernard Shaw novel but in turn was praised by G.B.S.
During World War II, Tunney, commissioned as a lieutenant commander, directed a physical fitness program for the U.S. Navy in the States and the South Pacific.