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Pretty is as Pretty Does

Carpentier himself attributed much of his appeal, and rightly so, to the simple but compelling fact that he was a boxer who didn’t look like a boxer.  The contrast between his “frail” appearance and his ferocious fighting abilities was a central leitmotif of Carpentier’s story from beginning to end. Shortly before his death, Carpentier himself opined that it was probably this very disjuncture between appearance and reality, and the fascination it provoked, that accounted for much of his popularity:

If I was able to meet the kings and the important people of the world, it was because I didn’t look like a man who punched people and even less like one who got punched […] It is this opposition, this contradiction if you will, between my angelic face and my diabolical fists that attracted and held people’s attention to me. (80 Rounds, 217-218)

He says that being “physically presentable” was the “the greatest piece of luck” in his life.  Carpentier was clearly an astute interpreter of his own story.  

The dichotomy between his looks and his abilities was commented on at great length every step of the way:

Look at him! He looks like he’s just come back from Sunday School! (Will Rogers on stage, just after the Carpentier-Dempsey bout)[1]

It is hard to believe that this fellow who dresses like a movie star can strip a fighter.  But it is so, and seeing is believing.

There is no denying the fact that Carpentier looks rather frail in ordinary street dress […] (New York World, 27 March 1920)

[…] looking as unlike as possible the conventional conception of a low-browed, eats-‘em-alive ring hero […] His clean-cut features are unblemished by the slightest scar for all his many battles in the ring […] Altogether he looked more like an actor than a fighter. (Literary Digest, 17 April 1920)

One figure, Carpentier, stood out astonishingly from the rest.  All the others had the faces and the carriage of bruisers.  Nobody could have taken Carpentier for a boxer.  He might have been a barrister, a poet, a musician, a Foreign Office attaché, a Fellow of All Souls; but not a boxer.  He had an air of intellectual or artistic distinction.  And long contact with the very physical world of pugilism had not apparently affected his features in the slightest degree.  […]  He seemed excessively out of place in the ring.  You could not comprehend what on earth he was doing there.  Surely he must have lost his way!  (Arnold Bennett, “The Prize Fight,” The New Statesman, 13 December 1919: 319)

“[Carpentier] looked like anything but a professional prizefighter” (Jack Lawrence, New York Tribune, 3 July 1921: 1)  

Carpentier comes first, slim, boyish, a trifle pale and drawn looking, to my way of thinking.  He looks more like a college athlete than a professional bruiser. (New York Times, 3 July 1921)

One’s first impression of him is his slimness, his fineness of body.  He simply doesn’t look like a heavyweight prizefighter.  There is nothing of the pug about him to outward seeming.  He is hard and lithe, apparently as fit as can be. (New York Herald, 3 July 1921, p. 2)

Moulded on exceedingly delicate lines, Carpentier seemed to have inherited the form of an Apollo rather than the grosser one of a Milo, or Hipposthenes. (Hurdman-Lucas, 42)

No less a figure than novelist François Mauriac comments on Carpentier’s un-boxer-like looks and opines that they are the secret to Carpentier’s particular appeal to intellectuals:

In truth, Georges has what it takes to seduce even the sourest of intellectuals: he comes close to, even if he doesn’t achieve it altogether, the ideal of the honnête homme dear to Pascal and the Chevalier de Méré.  There are indeed hardly any men of letters and even fewer philosophers who don’t wear their profession like a badge […] Professional boxers make themselves known as such […] from first sight, by a battered and bumpy face.  Nothing of the sort with Georges, who wears evening clothes with strict elegance and whose Greek face has just the right measure of asymmetry to bring to mind those Adonises grazed by a blow from the pick-axe that is exhuming them.  His muscles don’t roil indiscreetly beneath the fabric of his evening clothes; how he must disconcert the brutes that he knocks out with nothing but the terrible grace of an exterminating angel![2]

Mauriac goes even farther, insisting on the importance of the fact that the honnête homme is a specialist whose appearance and manners do not reveal his field of expertise:

It is imperative that one not be able to say that he is a mathematician nor a preacher nor an orator, but that he is an honnête homme.  This universal quality is the only one that pleases me.  When one sees a man and immediately remembers his book, it’s a bad sign.”  Let us complete this thought by Pascal: it is an equally bad sign if, in seeing a face, one remembers that its profession is being punched.[3]

Significantly, Mauriac talks of Carpentier’s appeal to the masses (le people); they are attracted to precisely the same quality that constitutes his appeal to intellectuals, the fact that he does not look like a boxer.  This duality would thus seem to be a universal (and powerful) attraction:

We find […] Pascal’s requirement deformed by the masses of today; if—on stage, in the movies, in the ring, they adore the gentleman burglar, the gentleman boxer, the criminal in evening clothes, it is because of the pleasure of admiring, in this perfect man of the world, this darling of the upper crust, a being who does not betray his field of expertise.  Who can deny that the charm that belongs to Georges Carpentier alone is that of not looking like a boxer or rather, as one lady confided to me, of only looking like one just enough so that we can be enchanted, vis-à-vis Carpentier, by the idea expressed by a line of Baudelaire’s: “In the dormant beast, an angel awakens.”[4]

At the other end of the spectrum, Jack Dempsey himself comments on Carpentier’s unlikely physique: “[…] he was frail-looking and well, I thought of him as anything except a fighter […]”[5]; “He was thinner than I had expected and chalk white.  He looked like a graceful statue.  I looked like a street fighter.”[6]

On the one hand, it is literally impossible for many to imagine that a man who looks “frail” and “delicate” and “refined” will be able to beat up a man who looks husky and rough and fierce.  The fascination for Carpentier is fueled by the knowledge that in his case, the unimaginable often—quite often, in fact-- actually takes place. But the opposite conclusion can be drawn from Carpentier’s unlikely physical appearance as well: to a wiser observer, it is precisely his “pretty” face that advertises his skill as a boxer.  In order to have fought as many rounds as he had, without getting a mark on him, he had to be a remarkably skilled fighter.  In many instances, Carpentier knocked his opponents out so quickly they didn’t have a chance to lay a glove on him.[7]

It is important to take note of the fact that not only did Carpentier not look like a boxer, what he did look like was an exceptionally handsome man.  Carpentier has been called “the handsomest boxer of all time ”[8] “the most glamorous boxer of all time”[9] and “one of the most beautiful bodies the prize ring has ever known.”[10] Carpentier’s beauty was a source of faith in his invincibility.  How could such a handsome fellow lose?  As one French writer put it, looking back decades later on the popular passion for Carpentier in France in the days leading up to the Dempsey fight: “In all of France, and especially in Paris, we looked at Carpentier as Juliet looked at Romeo. Georges would win because he was the handsomest.”[11]

Playwright and boxing aficionado Tristan Bernard explains the thinking behind the irrational but profound notion that Carpentier’s beauty guaranteed his success, based on a belief that beauty was inextricably linked to power:

Carpentier gave us the spectacle of a perfect boxer, elegant, capable and strong, whose physical beauty seemed to be at once the consequence and the condition of his power.[12]

Carpentier’s beautiful body not only suggests his power, however, it is also thought to be the reflection of a beautiful mind and soul.  The myth of Carpentier is often based on this very logic, his beauty serving as implicit grounds for his deification.  He looks like a “god” and so must, in some sense, be one. And not just any old god: a Greek God.  Mauriac’s philosophical essay on Carpentier links the French boxer numerous times to Ancient Greece:

Perhaps, without intending to, Georges Carpentier indulges us in our nostalgia for Athens, such as we imagine it wile reading Phédon and  The Banquet […] (39)

Nowhere, however, is the link more lovingly and earnestly articulated, however, than in a 1912 paean to Carpentier by F. Hurdmann-Lucas:

The athletic world, generally speaking, has known many heroes, but not since the old Athenian days has it heralded the advent of so extraordinary a youth as the one who is today dubbed the French Idol.  Of humble parents, he was born to greatness, for, apart from his symmetry of form, the gods were equally lavish in their distribution of good looks, when Carpentier passed through their hands.

Comparison to Greek Gods were intertwined with comparisons to Greek statuary:

[…] gracefully formed as some statue of an Ancient Greek and brilliant in his ring performances […][13] 

[…] this boxing Adonis […][14]

[…] a Greek athlete statue of Parian marble warmed to life […][15]

Moulded on exceedingly delicate lines, Carpentier seemed to have inherited the form of an Apollo (Hurdmann-Lucas, 42)

[…] his magnificent body had assumed the symmetry of perfection.  Here was a model for Praxiteles.  His features too bore all that charm of roseate boyhood just blossoming into youthful manhood.  […] Sought and fêted by all, it is a wonder that this modern Adonis did not allow adulation to go to his hear. (Hurdmann-Lucas, 61)

[…] a priestess of the white Attic times come forth to some harmonious sacrifice[…][16]

[…] a Greek statue […] so perfectly symmetrical was Carpentier’s build[17]

Perhaps the best summation of Carpentier’s divine qualities comes from, of all people, is long-time friend (and sometime enemy) Maurice Chevalier:

Around 1911 there was a revelation: a kid from Lens, Georges Carpentier, who, through his dazzling performances in the ring, became in just a few short years an international Demi-God.  He had been blessed with all the gifts of heaven: beauty, skill and dynamite.  His story remains unique.[18]


[1] Carpentier by himself, 35; translation revised. Return to text

[2] François Mauriac, “La Gloire de Georges Carpentier,” La Revue Hebdomadaire (2 July 1921), 38. Return to text

[3] Idem. Return to text

[4] Idem.  Carpentier was quite “flattered to have served as the theme” of Mauriac’s “philosophical dissertation on the athlete’s intelligence” and noted the fact that Mauriac’s salient point was that he didn’t look like a boxer. He proudly corroborates that fact, saying: “I didn’t wear my profession on my face.”  See 80 Rounds, 160. Return to text

[5] Jack Dempsey, as told to Bob Considine and Bill Slocum. Dempsey by the Man Himself (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 133. Return to text

[6] Jack Dempsey, with Barbara Piattelli Dempsey, Dempsey (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 136. Return to text

[7] Carpentier the “pretty” fighter brings to mind of course Muhammad Ali.  There is in fact a surprisingly direct link: Muhammad Ali, as he himself has said on a number of occasions, was inspired to a significant degree by professional wrestler “Gorgeous George” (George Raymond Wagner, 1915-1963). “Gorgeous George,” whose ring career began in 1938, clearly took his inspiration from Georges Carpentier, who was often referred to American sportswriters throughout the 1920’s as “Gorgeous Georges” (the earliest example of this nickname I have come across is in an article published the day after the 1921 Carpentier-Dempsey fight).  Aside from the name, any number of details of the Gorgeous George persona were borrowed directly from Carpentier: the fact that his “signature color” was “orchid”—Gorgeous George’s ring robe was emblazoned with orchids, he drove orchid-colored Cadillacs and would be laid to rest in an orchid-colored coffin (all of this an unambiguous homage to Carpentier, whose quasi-official ring nickname was “The Orchid Man”); his self-described “Hellenic look” (see Carpentier’s “Greek god” persona); the fetishization of his blond hair (with “Grecian contours”); and his use of supposedly French perfume in the ring (“Chanel No. 10, twice as good as Chanel No. 5”).

Gorgeous George had his own spinoff, the “black Gorgeous Georges,” whose ring name was… Sweet Daddy Siki, named after Battling Siki, whose devastating defeat of Carpentier in 1922 virtually ended Carpentier’s career.  And in the 1950’s, one of wrestling’s stars was “Edouard Carpentier,” a Frenchman who had emigrated to Canada and who claimed (falsely) to be Carpentier’s nephew.  All of this can be read as proof of the staying power of the legend of Georges Carpentier in America. Return to text

[8] Joseph O’Brian, “The Business of Boxing,” American Heritage 42 (October 1991): 75. Return to text

[9] Randy Roberts, Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1991): 109. Return to text

[10] Heywood Broun, cited in John Lardner, “That Was Pugilism: Boyle’s Thirty Acres and the Revolution” The New Yorker (4 November 1950): 135. Return to text

[11] This quote actually comes from Carpentier’s obituary in Le Figaro.  See Jean Fayard, “Un Soir, il y a 54 ans…,” Le Figaro, 29 October 1975, 28. Return to text

[12] Tristan Bernard, Autour du Ring: Tableau de la boxe (Paris: Galliamrd, 1925), 195. Return to text

[13] Nat Fleischer, Jack Demspey, The Idol of Fistiana (New York The Ring Publishing Company, 197. Return to text

[14] Gilbert Odd, Ring Battles of the Century (London: Nicholson and Watson, 1948), 7. Return to text

[15] This quote comes from “a female reporter” for the Morning Telegram.  Cited by Roberts, 109. Return to text

[16] James Hopper, in the New York Tribune, quoted in Roberts, 109. Return to text

[17] Heywood Broun, quoted in Roberts, 109.  John Lardner says that the insistence on the sculptural metaphor with respect to Carpentier on the part of non-sportswriters actually got in the way of any real sports reporting on his training in the weeks leading up to the Carpentier-Dempsey fight: “the professional reporting at Carpentier’s camp was largely submerged in the flow of ecstatic, sculpture-minded reporting by writers from other fields.”  See John Lardner, “That Was Pugilism: Boyle’s Thirty Acres and the Revolution,” The New Yorker (4 November 1950): 144. Return to text

[18] The quote is from Chevalier’s preface to Georges Peeters, Pleins Feux sur le ring (Paris: Editions de la Table Ronde, 1970). Return to text