Carpentier Tells All
An Autobiography in Eight Installments
A series of eight autobiographical articles, supposedly written by Carpentier himself (highly unlikely, given that fact that his English was almost certainly not up to such a task), appeared throughout the spring of 1920 in the New York World and, in syndication, throughout the country.
The series opens with the story of Carpentier’s childhood and earliest beginnings as a boxer (“Georges Carpentier Tells How He Took First Boxing Lessons At the Age of Twelve Years”), complete with the (apocryphal) story of his coming up from the coal mines and a description of his prodigious natural talent. The second installment, a week later (March 28, 1920), is comprised of Carpentier’s account of his first, heroic David-and-Goliath knockout of Bombardier Wells in 1913. The fundamental tropes of the Carpentier myth, already canonical in Europe, are thus introduced to the American newspaper reading public by the end of the second installment: rags-to-riches, child prodigy, David-and-Goliath.
Perhaps the most significant in this series, however, are the third, fourth and fifth installments, which demonstrate to what extent the articles were intended to establish Carpentier a sort of moral spokesperson for the sport of boxing. The third article, published April 4, 1920 was “Georges Carpentier Tells Why a Fighter Should Get Married,” with the explanatory sub-title “Having Just Had the Courage of His Own Convictions, the Challenger of Jack Dempsey Points Out That a Wife, ‘The Right Sort,’ Is Surest Source of Inspiration.” The article reminds readers that Carpentier had, just before sailing for America, married Georgette Elsasser, a modest, attractive, young woman from a respectable bourgeois family, thereby proving himself to be a young man with honorable intentions, a “family man.” Furthermore, Carpentier himself argues that a stable, upstanding family life is not only compatible with the life of a prizefighter, it is a tremendous help to him in his career. Marriage, Carpentier opines, makes a boxer “feel responsible.” It saves him from a life of selfishness and, most significantly, makes him feel as if he is part of mainstream society. The married boxer is not a marginal figure living in the shadowy world of the fight game but simply another family man with a job to do (in this version of things, the fact that that job happens to consist of beating people up is irrelevant):
To fight for one’s self, to have one’s self to think and trouble about begets selfishness. Now a wife (the right sort) must make the professional fighter feel that he is of the common and the natural world; that there is no difference between his position and that of his next door neighbor, who may chance to be a stockbroker or merchant or tailor or doctor…
With a wife a boxer is not made to feel, as he does feel when he is single, that he is detached from everyday life. […]
[…] Because my business—my profession I prefer to call it—is fighting, am I to be rated as a man abnormal and unfitted for marriage?
All of this talk of marriage is intended to to convince readers that a professional boxer is like any other middle class man, not a grotesque back-alley goon but someone who could well be your next-door neighbor, even if you live in a respectable middle- or upper-middle class neighborhood (note that the potential neighbors cited include a “stockbroker” and a “doctor,” as well as the somewhat more modest “tailor” and “merchant” and that Carpentier prefers the term “profession” to “business”). It is interesting to note that the Carpentier of this article (and indeed, of this series of articles) is an upstanding young middle-class family man, in a suit and tie, as opposed to the more elite, more effete Prince of Wales crony in white tie and tails.
The creation of this boy-next-door image serves several purposes at once. Carpentier is marketed to a middle-class, newspaper-reading public in America as non-foreign, non-exotic and non-threatening. His “true” identity-- as a Frenchman, as a professional pugilist and as a high society hobnobber, virtually disappears in all the talk about cozy marriages, affable neighbors, and white collar professions. In the process, boxing itself is sanitized; it becomes neither more nor less than the unusual but perfectly respectable profession exercised by the nice young man who lives down the street. Boxing rises up from the underworld and takes its place right out on the well-lit, well-swept streets of Middle America. Both Carpentier’s individual career and the image of boxing itself are well served by this shift in image. At a time when the sport was struggling for acceptance and indeed legalization, putting a safe, appealing face of the by next door on it was an essential piece of the effort to market and lobby for the sport.
The Carpentier-as-clean-cut-neighbor image is of course created to stand in stark, if implicit, contrast to the traditional image of the boozing, whoring prizefighter who wanders from back alley to back alley, from seedy arena to seedy arena with no stable attachments of any kind, except perhaps (when he’s making money) with his manager. That kind of boxer’s life was thought to be embodied by Jack Dempsey, whose short-lived marriage had been to a known prostitute, Maxine Cates, had ended in divorce. The ugly truths about Dempsey’s marriage to Maxine Cates were very much in the public consciousness in the spring and summer of 1920, as she was to be the primary witness in Dempsey’s draft evasion trial (he was indicted on February 27, 1920, a pre-trial hearing was held on March 20 and the trail began on June 7).
The fourth article “written” by Carpentier and published on April 11, 1920 addresses the question of refereeing: “Georges Carpentier Calls for More Care in Naming Referees.” In it, Carpentier argues that referess need “more authority” and explains “why competent referees are scarce.” Here, talking about what goes on both in and out of the ring, Carpentier presents himself as the proponent of a well-regulated version of boxing. He emphasizes the importance of boxing as an honest, above-board, by-the-rules activity, engaged in and supervised by men of honor. Careful regulation has become more necessary than ever, he says, given the growth of the boxing industry in recent years:
Boxing as an entertainment has very largely outgrown itself; it is now so big and so vast, and there is such a lot of money in it, that unless it is controlled and regulated in the same way as baseball, football and racing, it will suffer and maybe go back to the “good old BAD days.”
The first thing that strikes one in reading this passage is the unlikeliness of Carpentier, a few scant weeks after his arrival in the US for the first time, making an analogy between the regulation of boxing and that of baseball and (American) football, sports with which he could not possibly had any real familiarity. Aside from that, however, is the fact that this is an obvious plea for the kind of regulation that would justify the legalization of professional boxing in those states where it was not yet legal. To be more specific, the kind of control and regulation Carpentier advocates here is exactly that which is being proposed by the Walker Bill, being debated in the New York Legislature the very month the article appeared in print.
Carpentier (or whoever it was who actually wrote the words attributed to him) proposes that every would-be referee, “before he is allowed to take charge of a contest,” be required to pass a rigorous test of his knowledge of the sport. Particularly noteworthy is his description of the officials who would administer such a test:
[…] he should be set to this test by a body made up of gentlemen whose position is such as to convince all boxers and the public that they are only concerned with the game as a sport.
A reasonable enough idea, perhaps even a good idea. But what is remarkable here is how closely this idea tracks with the proposal of the Walker Bill. Senator Walker himself, arguing for the bill, proposed that “all concerned in boxing, including the fighters themselves” (this would presumably include the referees) would be required to take out a license from “a commission of three, to be appointed by the Governor.” And those three, he stipulates, would be such high-class individuals as to be exempt from any hint of corruption: “’You can depend on our Governor to appoint to this commission men who will not serve for salary, but because they are high-grade lovers of the sport.’” Far from speaking in generalities about what might be done in order to regulate boxing, the article supposedly penned by Carpentier makes a specific suggestion that echoes exactly the legislation pending in New York. Boxing can be kept honest if it overseen by “high-grade” gentlemen, “lovers” of the sport, like Major Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, president of the Army-Navy-Civilian Board of Control that would regulate the sport under the proposal put forth by the Walker Bill.
The portrayal of Carpentier as a law-abiding, rule-respecting pugilist and a spokesperson for a cleaned-up, orderly, modern version of the sport, kills two birds with one stone. Carpentier’s image as a clean-cut hero, a gentleman is reinforced. At the same time, boxing itself is presented as something that can in fact be sanitized, and, with proper supervision by respectable gentlemen, rendered honest and worthy of acceptance by a mainstream, middle-class public.
In fact, Carpentier’s rhetoric goes a step farther than that. More than just an acceptable athletic endeavor, boxing is a noble and patriotic pursuit. Endorsed by upstanding men of all kinds, it actually contributed to victory in the recent war, he argues. The only possible complaint against it is that it lacks proper regulation (clearly another none-too-subtle bid for the Walker Bill):
Here we have a game—a great and glorious game, and one which all thinking, broad-minded men believe had much to do with winning the war, and a game common to all men and all nations—without a semblance of a government.
The fifth article in the series, “Georges Carpentier Suggests a National Academy of Boxing,” was published on April 18, 1920. A banner headline reads (somewhat amazingly): “When the Day Comes for a Boxing College Carpentier Should Be the President.” In this piece, while Carpentier does not announce his candidacy for the presidency of an eventual “boxing college,” he does argue in favor of the creation of such an institution, a “National Academy of Boxing.” At least two goals could be accomplished by the founding of such an academy: the “youth of the land” could be taught “the manly at of self-defense” and retired boxers, who tend to have to retire young and without any non-pugilistic skills, could be put to work as instructors. Carpentier talks of the potential in France, where, despite the fact the country is still “very much the baby in boxing,” there tends to be great emphasis on the teaching and learning of technique (“If you could come with me, I could take you to at least half a dozen boxing academies in Paris. The desire to learn the art of boxing in France is tremendous […]”). A similar desire exists, he says, in both England and America. In England, he proposes that a boxing academy be headed by the great fighter Jem Driscoll, who would make the “ideal boxing master.”
Carpentier’s suggestion for an American boxing academy is equally concrete:
It should be easy for the United States to have a “National School of Boxing,” for already you have the organization. It should only be for your [A]rmy, [N]avy and [C]ivilian Board of Boxing Control to make a definite move, and the rest would be easy.
So the same body which, according to the Walker Bill, would be charged with supervising all aspects of professional boxing in New York State would also, according to Carpentier’s proposal, take charge of the teaching of the sport. Were both of these things to come to pass, Carpentier’s after-dinner sparring partner Major Anthony J. Drexel Biddle would be a very busy and very influential man, a fact of which Carpentier is clearly not unaware. This explicit mention of the board is the single most obvious “smoking gun” proving that these ghost-written articles, published in exact simultaneity with debate in Albany, were directly intended as propaganda pieces for the pro-boxing lobby in New York.
Carpentier also suggests, in passing, that while boxing is currently regulated by “the various boxing commissions,” the sport “could be centralized to better effect.” He does not mention what role, if any, Biddle or the Army, Navy and Civilian Board of Boxing Control might play in such a move to centralize boxing, but it is not difficult to extrapolate, given his previous comments, that the powers of that board might be extended from New York State to the entire country.
According to Carpentier’s idea, the specific mission of a “National Boxing Academy” would be to train schoolboys as boxers, thereby assuring “a nation of boxers able to hold its own against the world.” (At this point, it is entirely unclear to what nation Carpentier is referring: if the idea makes sense for France, and perhaps England, at this point America was already “holding its own against the world” in the boxing ring with little apparent difficulty.) The academy would take young boys and turn them into boxers, the most successful of whom would go on to professional ring careers and then recycle back to the academy as instructors. This National Boxing Academy was thus be a sort of cradle-to-grave system for the pugilist. Not only would the academy create boxers who would represent the nation, but it would take care of them after their glory days were over. The practitioners of such a great and noble sport, Carpentier opines, deserve as much:
Only few pugilists can hope to become champions, but every one of us who embraces the ring as a profession should have the sure knowledge that it can made into a calling worth following. The old boxer should be found employment, and not, as most times happens, be allowed to drift and drag and develop into an unemployable.
Great and distinguished men have paid eloquent tribute to boxing during the war and now it is over cannot the “scrapper” be made to feel that he is still wanted?
In essence, what Carpentier is arguing for in the creation of a National Boxing Academy is nothing less than a socialization of the boxer. As he suggests, the war, through the use of boxing as a training exercise, brought a respectability to boxing that it had not previously enjoyed. With prestigious, upstanding leaders praising the use of boxing as a worthy means of developing self-defense skills and building “manly” character, the sport took on a aura that was far from the universe of savage brawls between disfigured pugs in smoky halls on the wrong side of town. Recruits, many coming from and returning to fine, upstanding middle-class neighborhoods, experienced first-hand the physical and emotional benefits of a putting on the gloves for a few rounds of clean, well supervised sparring. It was, as Carpentier hints, inevitable that attitudes vis-à-vis the sport would change as a result. (A symptom of this shift in attitude toward boxing is the new and fast-growing phenomenon of boxing as an intercollegiate sport, which Carpentier notes in passing and with great enthusiasm: “Splendid!” While the worlds of amateur and professional boxing remain distinct, the very fact of increasing numbers of middle-class college boys putting on the gloves clearly signals a new level of mainstream acceptance of the sport following World War I.
The pupils at the Academy would in principle be under close supervision and would not be engaging in the sort of semi-criminal activity—drinking, gambling, whoring, street-fighting-- that so often characterized (at least in the imagination of the public) the life of the young boxer. The professional boxer in his prime, knowing that he had a berth at the Academy to return to, might not fall as readily into the traps of a facile, illusory, and ultimately destructive lifestyle. And of course, the aging boxer, as a professional instructor with a steady income and a (nearly) middle-class status, would not become a pathetic, washed-up old pug living on the outer margins of society.
While Carpentier’s plan doesn’t go into quite this level of detail concerning the social engineering that would be effected by the creation of a National Boxing Academy, it is nonetheless clear that it would provide a means of bringing about the socialization, the “normalization” of boxing and boxers. For the first time, the sport and its practitioners could be inserted into the mainstream of American society, as the final paragraph of the article makes clear:
If there comes a National Academy of Boxing, the greatest game of all, the most natural game for men, will take its place with all sports that enter so closely into the scheme of things which we call life.
Each of the last three articles in the eight-article series serves to shore up a particular piece of the Carpentier image. The sixth (April 25, 1920) describes the close relationship between Carpentier and his manager François Descamps and details Carpentier’s training methods. Tellingly, the emphasis in this description is put on both the orderly, methodical, common-sensical nature of the training and on the cozy, home-like atmosphere that obtains in the Carpentier/Descamps training camp. Carpentier describes a typical scene in the Descamps home: a “cozy, well-lighted sitting room”, where a Carpentier crony is making his way through the score of La Bohème on the violin, as Descamps sings along and his two children sit “open-mouthed” in wonder at the music, as do their mother and grandmother; soon Carpentier himself will make his contribution to the nightly entertainment. Carpentier is explicit about the fact that he gives this picture of middle-class tranquility in order to counter the traditional stererotypes about the boxer’s lifestyle. Here, as elsewhere, Carpentier’s goal is to define himself as the anti-brute:
[…] I have often wondered what is the layman’s conception of a man who embraces a profession that entails long periods of self-denial, and who thinks. Lives and concentrates his whole mind on fighting.
It is the brute, I suspect, that they only see and understand; yet if they were with me when I am in training for a fight, the picture of the fighting man which I feel sure they have painted would be blotted out; they would see in it an impossible caricature.
Lest readers get the wrong idea about the ultra-civilized Carpentier, however, they are reminded with the seventh article that he is in fact a tough guy both in the ring and out, both physically and mentally. In an obvious move to distance himself from the European tradition of “scientific” boxing and ally himself with an American tradition of hard punching, he criticizes British boxers for depending on “pretty sparring” and lacking “the relentless determination necessary to reach the top.” Carpentier argues that success in the prize ring requires that the practitioners of the sport be, to some extent, “vicious”:
Vice, as vice, is bad and unwanted in any game, but there must be deep down in the make-up of every professional boxer who seeks and hopes to win fame and fortune, that which some may call viciousness—a kind of viciousness that, however, fills a man with determination to do or die.
A boxer must be hard, relentless, uncompromising. He takes the ring to hit hard and with all his might, not merely to make points. Hard hitting is no less a science than boxing pure and simple.
Carpentier points out that a professional boxer should never lose sight of the fact that boxing is fighting. Clever technique and ring savvy are necessary but not sufficient qualities in a successful prizefighter; he must also have “the true fighting instinct.” In short, he must, for the duration of the fight, be genuinely intent on destroying his opponent and be willing to do everything allowed by the rules of the game to achieve that goal. This article appears to have been written very deliberately to counter a perception among American fans that European boxers in general, and perhaps Carpentier in particular, were skilled technicians, capable of “pretty sparring” but no match for rough-and-tumble American brawlers (like Dempsey). Carpentier’s article seeks to put this notion to rest with respect to his own ring style. In so doing, he is reaching out to die-hard (male) fight fans who, in contrast to more mainstream (male and female) middle-class readers, may have been less than impressed by the portraits of Carpentier the gentleman so lengthily painted in the earlier pieces in the series. Boxing is still, this seventh article, assures us, about blood and guts.
The eighth and final article in the series is a sort of apotheosis. Here, Carpentier achieves genuine hero status. Unfailingly humble, he doesn’t inform us himself of his glory; that task is left to his manager and substitute father François Descamps. In a veritable encomium to Carpentier, Descamps returns to the theme of Carpentier as a highly civilized gentleman, a man who “may go into any company.” He has, as we have already been informed in previous articles in the series, transcended boxing, all the while retaining the common touch:
For one who is after all a professional boxer, he can talk on art and literature—intelligently and well.
His passion for music is deep and sincere; he knows by heart the scores of many operas, but whilst his leaning are for the classical, he is gloriousl catholic. He can sing in English most any of those little ragtime melodies you hear every day, and these he will often revel in during his moments of leisure in his training.
It is the breadth of his outlook, his yearning for knowledge of men and things and the world in general, his ability to detach himself from fighting that is the secret of his greatness.
It is important to note the choice of the word “greatness” here, where one might expect the word “success.” Indeed, this final article—as well as the cumulative effect of those that preceded it—seeks to establish nothing less than Carpentier’s greatness. The rhetoric used in the eighth installment is often hyperbolic: ‘[…] in every way he is remarkable;” “[…] Carpentier is the soul of chivalry, and the man that is a man in the literal sense is and always has been his ideal;” “[…] whatever be in store for him, it may be claimed that he has done the greatest possible good for young France.” Neither is the literary nature of Carpentier’s greatness lost on Descamps: “There is not, I think, a greater romance in all the wonderful, fascinating history of the ring than the life and association of Carpentier with myself.”
Carpentier’s true heroism, his most profound and abiding claim to that status, lies of course in his outstanding service as a soldier of France. Descamp’s account of Carpentier’s literal heroism, in the final article, serves as the perfect pièce de résistance for the series. The war broke out, Descmaps explains, just as Carpentier was reaching the peak of his earning potential as a boxer but neither he nor Descamps himself hesitated to answer the call to fight for France:
[…] when Georges was being offered a fortune for life to put the gloves on, when the door was wide open to making colossal sums of money, we left London to fight for our beloved France […]
Indeed, Carpentier answered the call with the verve and courage of a genuine hero, not waiting to be called to duty but volunteering hs services the minute war was declared:
[…] on August 3, 1914, Georges, forgetting that in a week or so he was to fight Young Ahearn, for several thousands of pounds, rushed to me in our room at the Hotel Metropole, London, and with the news of war held high in his hand, he shouted as he embraced me:
“François, you are a solider of France already; and so am I, for if my class will not be called up for some time I go with you to fight now. We must always be together.”
And to Paris we sped at the earliest opportunity.
While Descamps does not belabor the point or provide specific details about Carpentier’s heroism during the war, he does make a point of specifying that he was decorated by the French government. After having been shown Carpentier the boxing prodigy, Carpentier the family man, Carpentier the fair-minded sportsman, Carpentier the concerned and thoughtful citizen of the athletic world, Carpentier the gentleman, Carpentier the tough guy, and even Carpentier the esthete, readers are presented with Carpentier the war hero. For the first time in history, the public had before them a boxer whose life warranted true and substantive admiration. The idol had been constructed; now it was up to the faithful to begin worshiping.
It is important to note that this idol was constructed in precise, nearly point-by-point contrast to the image of the reigning heavyweight champ, Jack Dempsey. Each of the attributes ascribed to Carpentier, including and especially that of war hero, was the antithesis of a quality Dempsey was supposed to possess. The one exception is particularly noteworthy, the idea of Carpentier as a fighter who could punch and even brawl as well as put on exhibitions of “pretty” boxing. In that particular case, Carpentier is not portrayed as the antithesis of Dempsey but rather as his equal. This too was a calculated move: if the contrasts between the two men outside the ring were meant to create interest in their eventual showdown, it was equally important that the public believe that it would be an even match. Knowing that that precise question would be raised by boxing fans, the mastermind behind the series of articles chose to answer it in advance with the disquisition on toughness and combativeness in the ring that is the seventh article.
The articles were very clearly intended as the first, and certainly most thorough, in an ongoing series of publicity gestures designed to garner sympathy for Carpentier in his challenge for Dempsey’s heavyweight crown. While Carpentier’s first visit to the US was ostensibly intended for the purpose of making a film, “The Wonder Man,” LINK TO “THE WONDER MAN” that film itself was yet another means of creating interest in him. Master-minded by the famously media savvy promoter Tex Rickard, Carpentier was presented to his soon-to-be-adoring American fans not simply as a French boxing champion, nor even as a handsome, gentlemanly French boxing champion but, more specifically, as the-handsome-gentlemanly-French-war-hero boxing champion who was going to challenge brooding thug and “slacker” Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight crown. The bad guy in the black hat was already in place, well known and cordially despised by the American public. It was the good guy in the white hat who required an elaborate introduction.
Perhaps the most extreme example of the French tabloid coverage of the bout, Le Petit Parisien (which claimed to publish the greatest number of copies of any newspaper in the entire world) published voluminous, more-or-less American-style in the days and weeks before and after the event. Indeed, beginning in late May and continuing through mid-June of 1921, Le Petit Parisien published Carpentier’s memoirs in daily installments. On the May 24, the day before the first installment was to appear, the front page of the newspaper included an advertisement for the series:
Everyone will want to read these pages, in which one can follow step by step the life of our great champion, a life of athletic work whose success seems to be the just recompense of stubborn effort. This constitutes a sort of novel, very simple and very touching.
This series, which appeared on the front page of the paper, always accompanied by a photo, every day for three weeks, was directly comparable to the autobiographical series that had appeared in the New York World the previous spring, on the occasion of Carpentier’s first trip to the US. It serves to acquaints (or, much more likely, reacquaint, or better acquaints, according to the individual reader) readers with their national hero and fuels their passion for him, thereby selling papers. By putting Carpentier’s face and words in front of vast numbers of readers on a daily basis, the series contributed greatly to the public interest in the upcoming fight, which was in turn covered in great detail by the very same Petit Parisien. The last installment appeared on June 14, 1921 and along with it an ad for Carpentier’s memoirs in book form (Ma Vie de boxeur), to be published “very soon.” Sure enough, a mere twelve days later, Le Petit Parisien ran an ad for the book, already available for sale. Not a terribly sophisticated scheme, but an effective one and one that very closely resembles commercially-minded practices of American newspapers of the period.
 Beginning in late May and continuing through mid-June of 1921, Le Petit Parisien published Carpentier’s memoirs in daily installments. The series appeared on the front page of the paper, always accompanied by a photo, and was directly comparable to the autobiographical series that had appeared in the New York World the previous spring. The last installment appeared on June 14, 1921 and along with it an ad for Carpentier’s memoirs in book form (Ma Vie de boxeur), to be published “very soon.” Sure enough, a mere twelve days later, Le Petit Parisien ran an ad for the book, already available for sale. Not a terribly sophisticated scheme, but an effective one and one that very closely resembles commercially-minded practices of American newspapers of the period. Return to text
 “Boxing Bill Passed in Senate by Safe Margin,” New York World, March 25, 1920. Return to text
 According to this article, Driscoll had distinguished himself in the Great War as a particularly gifted teacher of boxing. Carpentier says: “When I was in the Army, I heard repeated stories of his greatness as a teacher, and I can well believe that when he was at Aldershot he was the best instructor the recruits had.” Carpentier’s interest in the teaching of boxing was no doubt fueled by his own experiences as a boxing instructor at Joinville during the war. Return to text
 Boxing among college students did exist before World War I, of course, as Teddy Roosevelt’s experiences in the ring at Harvard attest, but it was during the period between the two world wars that it had underwent a boom, thus mirroring the boom in mainstream interest in the professional version of the sport. Return to text
 Carpentier the war hero was already a known commodity in some quarters. On March 25, 1920, the very day of the Biddle banquet, Carepntier was fêted, according to an article in the next day’s New York World, by Post No. 750 of the American Legion ( disabled vets enrolled as students at NYU): the “French hero” was made an “honorary member in spirit” by the vets, who “raised [him] to their shoulders and cheered him roundly.” While the vets’ enthusiasm for Carpentier was no doubt sincere, it is tempting to wonder whether this very timely accolade was orchestrated, or at least suggested, by the Rickard/Biddle publicity machine. Return to text
 While both John L Sullivan and “Gentleman” Jim Corbett were widely admired and loved, neither had a persona that had any depth to it. Sullivan, the “Boston Strong Boy,” famously boasted of being able to “lick any man in the house” but his persona did not extend beyond the simple appeal of muscles and bravado. Corbett added good looks and a more debonair style to the mix but the persona remained superficial. Neither was a war hero. Return to text