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A Study in Contrasts

Carpentier-Dempsey, training footage, 1 of 2


Carpentier-Dempsey, training footage, 2 of 2


At the time of his fight with Dempsey, the level of fascination with Georges Carpentier on the part of the general public, on both sides of the Atlantic, was considerable. Compelling as he was, however, it wasn’t the Frenchman alone who generated the interest. A significant element was the pairing of Carpentier and Dempsey and especially the contrast (both real and press-manufactured) between the two.  The fighters were consistently portrayed as exact opposites in all possible ways.  Interest in the fight was generated and fueled by ongoing speculation about what the confrontation between two such diametrically opposed men would be.  An elaborate and wildly successful campaign of hype, masterfully orchestrated by promoter Tex Rickard and begun more than a year in advance of the actual bout, fanned the flames by underscoring and exaggerating the contrast between the two men.

Rickard’s simple but brilliant idea was in essence to have the press create two largely fictional characters called “Carpentier” and “Dempsey” and depict them as complete opposites in every conceivable way:

Rickard had no intention of promoting Dempsey-Carpentier as a bout between two rugged characters up from the mines, which is exactly what it was.  […] He would promote this on an unimagined scale, or as Rickard put it, “big time.” The Mauler against the Boulevardier, a word Rickard had difficulty pronouncing.  The American Tough against the Urbane Frenchman.  Tiger Jack against the Orchid Man; the Slacker against the War Hero. (Kahn, 199)

Personae were carefully constructed in the press for Dempsey and Carpentier, making of them characters in a play, the final act of which would be the fight itself:

Give the masses of people some rosy-cheeked, clear-complectioned Lancelot to cheer and some thick-bearded, scowling Simon Legree to boo and jeer, and the money would roll in in waves and people of both sexes and all classes would perk up and take notice. (Roberts, 109)

In fact, as Roberts implies, what Rickard did was apply the conventions of the cinema of the day (westerns, melodramas), which required that there be a smiling good guy to square off with the snarling, scowling villain.  This narrative, so familiar and thus so appealing to the mainstream public, was constructed in the way of a mosaic: each of the hundreds of little articles that ran in daily newspapers across the country about this or that detail about one or the other of the fighters in the months leading up to the fight contributed a piece to the overall picture. Though the public would not have known this, the story was all the more compelling because journalists, in pursuit of the most entertaining piece of writing they could manufacture, did not allow themselves to be constrained by the supposedly rigid boundaries between fact and fiction.  Facts were rendered in the style of fiction… and many of them were at least half-fiction to begin with.  Without realizing it, newspaper readers were following a serial, not unlike the serial films they were used to seeing at the movies every week; the knowledge that the denouement of the compelling tale would be real, with two real men really hitting each other, made the whole thing irresistible.

The contrast between the two fighter tended to be represented in simple terms, in both France and the US: Carpentier was a smiling, urbane gentleman while Dempsey was a scowling rustic; Carpentier represented “science” and technique while Dempsey represented brute strength; Carpenter was a war hero while Dempsey was a draft dodger.


The baseline of the contrast was the simple fact of the two men’s physical appearance.  Georges Carpentier was perfectly proportioned, with broad shoulders and slim torso, crowned by a beautiful head of fine, straight blond hair carefully slicked back. His facial features were refined, his skin alabaster-white and his eyes a clear blue.  Dempsey’s looks were entirely different.  He was considerably more muscled than Carpentier.  His hair was an often-unruly mop of coarse black curls and his facial features broader and less chiseled than Carpentier’s.  His nose was not the stereotypical flattened version of the seasoned prizefighter but it wasn’t Carpentier’s “aristocratic” aquiline model either.  (As it happens, both men ended up getting nose jobs somewhat later, in Hollywood, so as to be more camera-ready.)

Furthermore, Dempsey had fairly dark skin, which was emphasized by the heavy blue-black beard he often let grow for a few days preceding a fight and the bronze hue of his torso after weeks of training shirtless outdoors.  Dempsey’s face, when fighting, is even described as “a black face; physically and spiritually black.” It is said that in a fight, “his expression is the whole embodiment of sheer overwhelming unbeatable brutality.”[1] Curiously, this fight between two white men was often--sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly-- talked about as if it were a confrontation between the whitest of all men (Carpentier) and a quasi-black man. With Jack Johnson having been effectively drummed out of professional boxing in the US (he was released from prison in order to be in attendance at Carpentier-Dempsey) and top African-American contender Harry Wills consistently denied opportunities to fight the champ Dempsey, Dempsey himself became the symbolic black man in the ring.

Commentators from outside the world of boxing sometimes drew conclusions about the outcome of the upcoming fight from these corporeal differences.  In the New York Times, columnist Frank Parker Stockbridge suggested that the answer was phrenological: Carpentier’s elongated skull (dolichocephalism) would give him an advantage over Dempsey’s round skull (brachycephalism).[2] Yet another commentator, “no less an authority than Dr. J. M. Fitzgerald, character analyst and psychologist,” fleshes out this reading in even more explicitly phrenological terms, using all the pseudo-science (left over from the mid-nineteenth century) at his disposal:

Dempsey’s low frontal development of the head indicates a lack of benevolence and a high moral instinct.  The bulge over the eyes, the square jaw, and the thick lips show power of penetrating, instinctive animal tendencies.

Ah, but Georges:

The Carpentier head [is], on the other hand, symmetrical.  It is one that would grace the professions.  I gather that he is a man of finer social adaptability and that he is of domestic temperament.  He possesses all the graces and arts attributed to France and with them the fighting instinct.

Jack is a natural fighter.  A punch in the face arouses all the animal instincts in him, the same punch would stir Carpentier to cunning and to reflection.[3] 

It was not just physical conformation that provided a visual contrast between the two boxers, it was grooming as well.  Dempsey let his beard grow for a few days before the fight, to project a fierce and dangerous image; in mist pictures, he does not appear to have had more than a passing acquaintance with a comb or hair-oil.  Carpentier, by contrast, had a barber come to his training camp several days before the match in order to make sure that his coiffure would be just right for the big day.  (The barber, it is noted in the press, proceeded to sell precious locks of Carpentier’s hair to the more fetishistically inclined of his fans.)[4] 

And then there was the question of the smile.  Carpentier seemed always to be smiling, a broad, sincere 1000-watt smile that lit up his entire face and warmed the heart of anyone who saw it.  Dempsey, on the other hand, was rarely photographed smiling at this point in his career; more often than not, he was scowling.  Carpentier looked for all the world like a jovial fellow, a nice guy whose hand you’d want to shake; Dempsey looked menacing, a shadowy figure you might cross the street to avoid.

And Soul

Yet another lens through which the fight was viewed, especially after the fact, was that of a struggle between body and soul, with Carpentier representing the soul and Dempsey the body. A front-page editorial in the Times the day after the fight, by Irvin S. Cobb, stated it plainly: “Carpentier was the soul of the fight, but Dempsey was the body of it.”

The body/soul metaphor is also incorporated in an editorial in the New York Tribune on July 4 (p. 6):

[…] as to the net result of the contest, it was foreordained to all writers save George Bernard Shaw, who is now faced with the necessity of revising some of his theories on creative evolution.  Perhaps he will tell us how to arrive at a being who will possess the beauty and soul of Carpentier with the right and left of Dempsey.

The ideal boxer, presumably, would be a man who can be at once body and soul. The editorialist is right to refer to “the beauty and soul of Carpentier” because the widespread notion that Carpentier represents the soul is, ironically, based nearly exclusively on his physical beauty.  Men and women alike, whether or not they were aware of it, associated Carpentier with the soul simply because of his pretty face. Writing in the Tribune in the days leading up to the fight, James Hopper wondered if “courtesy, grace and graciousness, concealed within a fragile beauty, could conquer strength.”[5] Hopper exemplifies here the confused thinking surrounding the Carpentier-Dempsey matchup, at least on the part of observers not well versed in the realities of pugilism.  In nearly every description of the two fighters, their putative moral qualities, presumed to be legible through physical appearance, are given at least as much attention as their pugilistic abilities. Their training regimens themselves were said to reflect a moral contrast between the two. Sportswriter Heywood Broun , reporting in the New York Tribune described his visits to the two training camps:

Carpentier is full of gesture and vivid posture when he practices.  He apologizes when he hits too hard and maintains all the rules and graces of the romantic hero of sport.  Dempsey scowls and says nothing and cuffs away at his sparring partners as if he were paying off old grudges.  Perhaps he is.[6]

William Judson Kibby offered an explicit, supposedly expert. analysis of the respective characters of the two men in the July 1, 1921 edition of the New York Evening World.  His conclusions, presumably taken seriously at the time, at least by some, are both amusing and instructive.  The very fact of his ranking the two men against each other in moral categories, some of which have little apparent relation to boxing (intellectual bravery, intellectual equilibrium) is itself revealing. The overall score for the two is equal (with Dempsey scoring a 75% and Carpentier a very close 74.6). There were, however, significant differences in some of the individual category scores.  Carpentier dominates Dempsey in all the moral and intellectual categories:

Moral support: Carpentier = 80%  Dempsey = 30%

Moral courage: Carpentier = 80%  Dempsey = 30%

Mental coordination: Carpentier = 95%  Dempsey = 60%

Mental and physical coordination: Carpentier = 95%  Dempsey = 60%

Mental bravery: Carpentier = 95%  Dempsey = 60%

Mental equilibrium: Carpentier = 95%  Dempsey = 70%

Reason/powers of perception: Carpentier = 80%  Dempsey = 60%

Not surprisingly, Dempsey is deemed to be clearly superior to his French opponent in physical terms:

Animal instinct:  Dempsey = 95%  Carpentier = 30%

Physical courage:  Dempsey = 80  Carpentier = 60%

Combativeness:  Dempsey = 95%  Carpentier = 70%

Physical bravery:  Dempsey = 95%  Carpentier = 60%

Tenacity:  Dempsey = 98%  Carpentier = 80%

Of particular interest are the instances in which the two men’s scores are exactly reversed in physical and mental categories of the same quality—i.e., Carpentier wins “moral” bravery 95% to Dempsey’s 60%, while Dempsey best Carpentier in “physical” bravery by exactly the very same margin (95 to 60).  Similarly, Dempsey scores 80% to Carpentier’s 60 in physical courage, while Carpentier wins out 80 to 60 in reason/powers of perception. In this interpretation, then, which despite its claims to expertise is nothing more than a reading of the personae created for the two fighters in the ongoing press coverage of the build-up to the fight, Dempsey signifies brawn and Carpentier brains. In keeping with national stereotypes, the American is the fearless tough guy, while the Frenchman is the cool-headed thinking man.

Similar claims were made repeatedly concerning the two men’s fighting styles.  Dempsey was, as some would have it anyway, pure strength and savage power in the ring, while Carpentier represented speed, technique and boxing ability.  This characterization was not entirely untrue, but gave a very distorted picture.  Carpentier was fast and skilled, yes, but he also possessed a significant amount of power in his right hand (enough, it might be argued, to knock out virtually any fighter in the world at that time except Dempsey); a very good boxer, he did not shy away from infighting and even brawling when necessary.  Dempsey, on the other hand, was a terrific defensive fighter, with the skillful bob-and-weave that was his signature, and a much more skilled (and faster) boxer than reports of him as a “mauler” suggested.[7]

Cave Man vs. Modern Man

Writing in the New York Tribune on July 3, 1921, Grantland Rice says that says that Carpentier’s having broken his hand on Dempsey’s jaw offers proof that “[h]uman flesh and bone are still softer than iron” and compares Dempsey’s jawbone to a “granite wall.” Edwin C. Hill, writing in the New York Herald on July 3, says that Carpentier  displayed “skill,” “courage,” “grace” and “striking power more than most men” but that these human qualities proved insufficient: “They could not win against such an appalling, downright brutally perfect physical machine as Dempsey[…]” In these and other writings, Dempsey is compared to Niagara Falls, the guillotine, a granite wall, heavy artillery, a machine; in short, anything but a human being. Carpentier, by contrast, is invariably described as all-too-human: a lone man heroically coming forward to engage in a battle with the inhuman.

In the piece cited above, Edwin Hill says that Carpentier had “the face of the quick minded, sensitive modern” while there was “nothing whatever about [Dempsey’s] face or expression that was winning, appealing or likeable.” For Hill, Dempsey “personified force” and Carpentier “agility, grace, a certain kind of charm.”  The contrast is not between a man and a inanimate object but rather between two fundamentally different kinds of men:

[Spectators] want to know whether the caveman has smitten down the dancing master, whether the Cro-Magnon man has hammered the breath and senses out of civilized man, whether A.D. had triumphed over B.C., whether the end of the story is to be the conventional end, or whether it is to end romantically in a perfect miracle of sentiment with the victory of the smaller man, the slender man.

Elsewhere in the article, Hill refers to the two boxers as “the cave man” and “the artist’s model” and says:

Carpentier belongs to the twentieth century.  Dempsey belongs to a period so remote that only the geologists can speculate about it as they try to read the record of the rocks.

An editorial in the New York Tribune (July 4, p. 6) calls Dempsey a “fighting animal” and Carpentier the “ideal male human” and opines that the outcome of the fight was already inevitable “centuries” before the bell rang.  It was, after all, a primitive struggle that took place in the ring, one in which the “primitive” man was bound to conquer his “modern” counterpart: “Overhead the droning aeroplanes, the most advanced mechanical achievements of our civilization, circled while the two men struggled with the weapons that the first men used.”

Highbrow vs. Lowbrow

The training regimens of the two men underlined another fundamental contrast between them.  Carpentier trained in secrecy, behind the high walls of a Gatsby-style millionaire’s estate in posh Manhasset, Long Island.  Dempsey’s camp was in working-class Atlantic City and his workouts were open to the public (for a fee, of course). Randy Roberts explains that the fight revealed a widening social and political gap between “highbrows” (who worshiped Carpentier) and “lowbrows” (for whom Dempsey was a hero):

The rich or well-educated, from Heywood Broun to George Bernard Shaw in Europe, mourned Carpentier’s defeat.  Similarly, from the readiness of the public to forget the war issue, one suspects that Dempsey had a large following among the literarily inarticulate. (Manassa Mauler, 128)

The fact that Carpentier-Dempsey served as a manifestation of the increasingly contentious demarcations between differing socio-politico-economic factions in America was made explicit by a July 2, 1921 editorial on page 14 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (quoted by Roberts):

The highbrows have had their day.  They have wrangled over world peace and protection against future war for nearly three years, and they have accomplished neither. They have left no brain cell unagitated to resume the turning of the economic wheels, but in vain.  Now let us see what the lowbrows have done.  In gate receipts alone they have shaken into circulation $1,600,000 from the pockets of people who have been holding back on the monopoly game.  Of this, $400,000 is going into the Federal Treasury, where it will pay for a coat of paint and possibly a big gun or two on one of our sorely needed battleships… A Dempsey-Carpentier fight in every state… would put old doldrums on the blink.

The editorialist may indeed make a good point about the economic usefulness of an event like Carpentier-Dempsey at a time when the Federal government could use all the revenue it could get. However, his assumption that “lowbrows” are exclusively to thank for $1,600,000 in gate receipts is of course entirely erroneous.  As was widely reported in the press at the time, significant numbers of “highbrows” were among the spectators at Boyle’s Thirty Acres.  They may have been on “lowbrow” territory, but they were there in force and had paid big money for their seats. The fact of the matter is that Carpentier-Dempsey is much too complex to be categorized as an exclusively “lowbrow” or “highbrow” event; it belonged equally to the two groups, just as it was written of in both highly cynical and highly romanticized terms.  “Highbrow” fans may have tended to want the dashing, “modern” Carpentier to come out on top while “lowbrow” fans tended to root for the ferocious, “primitive” Dempsey but both groups took a vital interest in the affair.

Hero vs. Slacker

Perhaps the most resonant of all the contrasts between Carpentier and Dempsey was that of the war hero vs. the slacker (what later generations of Americans would call “draft-dodger”).  This was particularly fertile ground, as it not only aroused still-burning sentiments about patriotism and duty left over from the recent war but also spoke to the two men’s characters.  War requires both physical and moral courage and the contrast between the two fighters’ war records was deemed profoundly significant.  Editorialists and other pundits did not hesitate to chime in on the subject:

It really is a pity that Dempsey didn’t put on the olive drab.  He probably would have made a good soldier.  But war—and especially going to war—takes more than physical courage.  It takes mental courage.  To go voluntarily presupposes certain convictions and ideals, a certain love of country or pride of race.  Dempsey’s ancestry might have sent him into the army had not his environment been too strong for him.  He lacked the mental courage to do what he must have felt was the decent thing. […]

[…] you can never tell what mere physical courage will do.  It sometimes falters when the other sort of courage carries on.  We think that Carpentier probably has a higher type of courage than Dempsey.  If Jack ever did really know fear he might break, while the Frenchman probably would force himself to go on whether he was afraid or not.[8]

The hero/slacker contrast was an effective means about stirring up passion about the fight by explicitly linking it to the war and turning it into a sort of referendum about patriotism and wartime service.

The contrast between the two fighters’ war records and the hero-vs.-villain serial, narrative that underscored and propagated it is never mentioned in Carpentier’s autobiographical writings (perhaps because he didn’t read English well enough to keep up with the US press and, training in the US during the period leading up to the fight, didn’t have access to French newspapers). Dempsey, on the other hand, was well aware of it.  The fact that he was cast in the role of the villain didn’t escape his attention:

Georges Carpentier was a brilliant aviator during the war, a French ace who had been decorated for spectacular victories. […] In addition to his reputation as a flyer and a fighter, Carpentier had the gracefulness of an aristocrat.  He had both charm and good looks.  He was immensely popular.  He won new friends in this country as soon as he arrived.  Compared to him, even though I held the championship, I was a bruising plug-ugly.  There have rarely been contests between fighters who differed more widely.[9]

Dempsey biographer Randy Roberts concurs, placing the dramatic hero/villain contrast in the larger context of Dempsey’s career:

[…] during Dempsey’s career, he would again be cast as a scoundrel, but his character would never again be painted in such dark hues, and never again would he face an opponent who appeared to be so pure.[10]

[1] These quotes come from an article by Sophie Treadwell in the New York Tribune, July 3, 1921, p. 4, column 8. Return to text

[2] Quoted in Roberts, 119. Return to text

[3] This quote comes from a newspaper article that appeared in the Beloit [WI] Daily News of June 16, 1921 (with a Chicago dateline): “Phrenologist Hands Bump to Dope on Championship Tilt: Says Carpentier Will Win If the Fight Goes More Than Six Rounds” (no author given). Return to text

[4] See André Rauch, Boxe, violence du XXe siècle (Paris: Aubier, 1992), 143. Return to text

[5] Quoted in Kahn, 249. Return to text

[6] Quoted in Roger Kahn, A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ‘20s (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1999), 248. Return to text

[7] The erroneous obscuring of Dempsey’s remarkable boxing skills in the wake of an insistent portrayal of him as an “animal” in the ring has been noted by boxing historians. See, among others, Elliot Gorn, “The Manassa Mauler and the Fighting Marine: An Interpretation of the Dempsey-Tunney Fights,” Journal of American Studies 19 (1985): 27-47, esp. 41-42; and Alexis Philonenko, Histoire de la boxe (Paris: Criterion, 1991): 247.  As Philonenko points out, Gene Tunney knew better and took careful account of Dempsey’s skills as a boxer when strategizing for their fights. Return to text

[8] Walter Trumbull, “The Listening Post,” New York Herald (July 6, 1921): 12. Return to text

[9] Jack Dempsey, Round by Round: An Autobiography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1940), 206. Return to text

[10] Randy Roberts, Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler (New York: Grove Press, 1980), 129. Return to text