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A Knight in Shining Armor

Carpentier was often explicitly compared to Joan of Arc, Napoleon and other iconic French warriors, so it stands to reason that the discourse about him also links him to France’s chivalric heritage, describing over and over as a “gallant knight.” As did the comparisons to Joan and Napoleon, depictions of Carpentier as a knight in the 1919-1921 era served the purpose of linking the recent, horrific war to an earlier tradition of French warfare, far removed in time, surrounded by esthetic and romantic myth, and deeply ingrained in French identity.  The Carpentier-as-knight image allowed French journalists to inscribe the war that had just devastated their country and killed such a mind-boggling number of their young men into a version of history that was much more easily assimilated.

It is important to note, however, that Carpentier-as-knight was already an integral part of the Carpentier myth even before the war.  He was perceived to behave “chivalrously” and “gallantly” in his post-war career to a large extent because his already potent legend had conditioned fans to think of him in precisely those terms, In 1914, for example, Hurdmann-Lucas’ hagiography From Pit-Boy to Champion Boxer: The Romance of Georges Carpentier suggested that the young Carpentier possessed not only impressive pugilistic skills but knightly virtues of restraint and self-abnegation as well.  While the author chooses not use the words “knight” or “chivalry” per se, the implications are nonetheless clear:

Here, then, was another commendable trait in the child’s character—the spirit of right and wrong, backed up with a keen sense of justice. (18)

Mansions were placed at his disposal by the highly born, rich coverts were his for the asking, as were the handsomest demi-mondaines. It required a youth with a will of iron to look into this vortex of pleasure without falling in, and yet this remarkably handsome gladiator gazed, smiled, and went on his way contented.  […] The boy had been born a model of physical perfection, his moral attainments and fortitude were no less highly developed. (68)

A piece in the Literary Digest of April 17, 1920, one of a spate of articles introducing Carpentier to the American public on his first visit to the States, describes the boxer and his wife in terms that clearly evoke images of a knight and his “lady” (and in so doing make the implicit but clear contrast between them and more stereotypical boxers and their mates):

She is a lady, just as her husband is an unmistakable exponent of French gallantry and grace, as well as of French valor, intelligence, and endurance. (134)

Around the same time, in the series of syndicated articles destined to introduce Carpentier to an even wider and less elite American audience, his manager Descamps explicitly characterizes Carpentier as chivalrous.  In fact, he compares boxing itself to an exercise in chivalry:

In [boxing], he did not see mere ability to hit, to fight, but he seized upon the very purpose of it—a glorious lesson in chivalry and those man-making properties which caused it to be conceived.

For Carpentier is the soul of chivalry, and the man that is a man in the literal sense is and always has been his ideal. (New York World, May 9. 1920)

In November 1920, just after Carpentier’s defeat of Levinsky had made him the first-ever French world champion boxer, he is quoted in the French publication Je Sais Tout as saying that he always experiences a deep “repugnance” at the idea of damaging an opponent “especially if he is courageous.”[1] A “sportsmanlike” attitude to be sure, but also a chivalrous one.

Writing just before the Dempsey bout, François Mauriac suggests that Carpentier represents not only the physical prowess of a knight but his moral rectitude as well:

Carpentier represents to young Frenchmen this ideal: to be the strongest, the nobility of which endeavor we do not deny. We also agree that it is an endeavor that necessitates a discipline of instincts and that the training of an athlete requires frugality and the renunciation of all excess, in a word asceticism. (Mauriac, “La Gloire de Georges Carpentier,” 41)

The Carpentier as a knight metaphor was famously reprised, many times over, in the coverage surrounding the bout with Dempsey. Irving S. Cobb, writing in the Times the next day, emphasizes Carpentier’s gentlemanly qualities, qualities that clearly intersect with those of a knight:

He fought fairly, did Carpentier, and like a gentleman he was licked fairly and like a gentleman.  As a gentleman and a fighter he bulks tonight as the man the majority of the audience hoped to win and for whom, as a gallant soldier and a brave man, they wish good luck through all his days. (emphasis mine)

The key word here is of course “gallant.”  It is a word that returns with near-obsessive regularity in the accounts, particularly American but also French (“galant”), of Carpentier’s performance in the ring against Dempsey.[2] (Heywood Broun points out that it was to some extent Carpentier’s “gallantry”—his refusal to stay away from Dempsey--that lost him the fight; other commentators on Carpentier’s gallantry are too busy admiring his gallantry to critique it.[3])

As befits a knight, Carpentier was, by virtually all accounts, gallant not only in battle but in defeat as well: “As for Carpentier, he accepted his defeat like a gallant sportsman, as is his custom” (Le Figaro, July 3, 1921, p. 1). At his first public appearance following the fight, a press dinner at the Biltmore Hotel on July 5, Carpentier demonstrated his extreme gallantry, toasting Dempsey as “the best boxer in the world” and, along with his manager Descamps and corner man Gus Wilson, voicing “deep appreciation of the exceptionally fine treatment they had been given by the American press […]” (New York Tribune, July 6, p. 4, column 5).

Dempsey himself, as quoted by French writer Jacques Mortane in a 1926 book on boxing (L’Ame des poings), does not hesitate to use the word “gallant” when speaking of his erstwhile opponent:

[…] no warrior was ever more loyal, nor more chivalrous.  He accepted his Jersey City defeat as only a gallant man can. […]

(127; emphasis mine)

Years later, in his 1940 autobiography Round by Round, Dempsey (or his ghost-writer) uses it again:

He [Carpentier] put everything he had into that second round, only to find out, as he had probably suspected before he made such a gallant effort, that it wasn’t enough. (210-211; emphasis mine)

In the wake of the Dempsey fight, there seems to have been almost a tacit mutual agreement between journalists and their readers that Carpentier must be described as “gallant.” The headline of a syndicated article by Frank Getty that appeared the day after the Carpentier-Tunney bout (June 25, 1924) reads: “Carpentier Makes Gallant Stand in Fight with Tunney.” Getty emphasizes Carpentier’s performance as “one last gallant gesture.” The characterization is highly debatable, given the fact that Carpentier, clearly beaten, tried to win the fight on a disqualification by claiming a lowbrow by Tunney. Writing seven years later, eminent boxing historian Nat Fleischer nonetheless called Carpentier “the gallant Frenchman” in an account of the Carpentier-Tunney bout in his biography of Tunney.[4] 

In Fleischer and Sam André’s standard reference work A Pictorial History of Boxing (1959), Fleischer says of Carpentier’s infamous 1922 fight with Battling Siki: “The gallant Frenchman held his own the first three rounds […]” (189) Never was a fighter less gallant than Carpentier in the Siki fight (a notorious fix) and yet, as late as 1959 when Fleischer was writing, the adjective remained indissociable from Carpentier’s name, even in a description of a fight in which his performance was decidedly unchivalrous. It seems that nothing Carpentier could do would erase the notion of him as a knight in shining armor. Indeed, the adjectives “gallant” and chivalrous” would remain attached to him for his entire life and beyond: writing in 1975, the year of Carpentier’s death, his biographer Olivier Merlin called him “the most chivalrous of all the sports stars.”

[1] Jacques Mortane, “Quelques Souvenirs de Georges Carpentier,” Je Sais Tout no. 179 (November 15, 1920): 1326. Return to text

[2] As early as 1916, years before his first appearance in America, an article in the December 23, 1916 Police Gazette about a possible upcoming Carpentier-Willard fight refers to him as “the gallant Frenchman” (10). Return to text

[3] Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, July 3, p. 1, column 4. Return to text

[4] Nat Fleischer, Gene Tunney: The Enigma of the Ring (New York: The Ring, Inc., 1931). Return to text