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The Idol of America

The Idol of France became, in the build-up to Carpentier-Dempsey, the Idol of America as well, a fact that was celebrated in the French press. While some French newspaper writers complained at length about the excesses of the American newspapers in the build-up to the Carpentier-Dempsey fight, even more took pleasure in describing, sometimes exaggerating, the burgeoning love of the American public for the Idol of France:

A swarm of journalists and photographers track the least little piece of information concerning, or movement made by, the two boxers.  Every day, there has to be some new information: if there is none, one is invented.  And the capacity of invention on the part of our American counterparts is limitless.  

Behind the interviews, the technical studies, the accounts of subjective impressions, what do you find? A certain amazement at Carpentier’s speed and the power of his punches, and a clear swing of opinion in favor of the French boxer.

No one, not even the most fervent Dempsey partisans, can resist the attraction that Carpentier exercises over his visitors.  And our champion is always an object of curiosity, even when he indulges in the pleasures of fishing or yachting on Manhasset Lake [sic]. (Gabriel Hanot, article: Arsenal, Ro 17.769, document 4)

On June 28, the sporting journal L’Echo des sports ran two stories on its front page, each making the same point from opposite angles: “Even in America, Carpentier is Popular”, immediately succeeded by “Dempsey Is Not the Favorite of All Americans.”  In its July 2 edition, an article in  Illustration by David Cousin points out that Carpentier’s popularity in the US is a function of the widespread contempt for Dempsey in the wake of the “slacker” accusations:

While Dempsey has his fanatical partisans, he also has terrible detractors.  This is why one had been seeing a poster around New York lately with a picture of Dempsey working in a prison-yard and, next to it, one of Carpentier the war-time aviator flying over enemy lines. (Arsenal, Ro. 17.769, document 6)

The day before the bout, the front page of L’Intransigeant included a story by Gaston Bénac entitled “New York Has the Fever,” describing not only Americans’ excessive and passionate interest in the match but also their surprising partisanship in favor of Carpentier:

Almost all merchants, industrialists and bankers are for Carpentier and back up their feeling with considerable sums of money.


If Carpentier wins, the news will resound all through America in a way that cannot be imagined in France. (Gaston Bénac, L’Intransigeant, July 1, 1921, p. 1)

Nor does an article such as Bénac’s fail to point out the Francophilia implied in all the Carpentier worship. Among the “industrialists” backing Carpentier is none other than Henry (or “Henri,” as the article would have it) Ford. Not only will he be at ringside, he intends his presence to communicate two specific messages: a protest against the anti-boxing reformers and  an “affirmation of his great love for France.” Later (July 9), Bénac will tell his readers about having been introduced to the new American ambassador to France, Myron Herrick, who informed him that “all Americans wanted to see a victory by Carpentier, the brave solider, whose shining example serves the cause of France.”

After the fight, French reporters of course inform their readers about the prodigious outpouring of admiration and affection for Carpentier in the American press. French reports of the bout virtually always include, and are indeed often dominated by, coverage of the US coverage, not only its overblown quantity and content but the fact that Carpentier is spoken of in near-reverent terms.  Bénac’s article in the July 5 edition of L’Intransigeant, is entitled “’The Esteem and Admiration of All Americans’ Have Now Been Acquired by Carpentier: What the New York Papers Are Writing.” In the body of the article, he reports on the quantity of press coverage but also on the praise being heaped on the Frenchman:

All the Sunday papers devoted entire pages to the big match.

The record is held by the New York Times and the New York Tribune, each of which devoted thirty or so articles to it, spread out over the 52 or 56 columns of the paper.  The Times, the largest newspaper in New York, gives seven columns to the match as opposed to one column announcing the peace between the US and Germany.

All the press, while recognizing Dempsey’s superior power, is full of high praise for Carpentier, who fought an admirable fight, full of science, speed and courage.

He goes on to prove his point by quoting the praise for Carpentier, with excerpts (translated into French) from not only the Times and the Tribune  but also New York World,  the Evening Telegram, New York Herald, and the Morning Telegraph.  The following day, he informs his readers that the coverage continues, “all of it emphasizing once again the magnificent exhibition put on by Carpentier, ‘undisputed king of the light heavyweights.’”  And again he proves his point with a quote.

André Glarner, writing for Excelsior, says much the same thing.  His article is entitled “Carpentier Is More Popular in America Now Than Before the Fight,” with the following subtitles (in decreasing font-size): “All the US Newspapers Pay Homage to the Courage and Valor of Our Champion, Whom They Consider the Best Boxer in His Weight Class” and “They Believe that Carpentier Was Beaten ‘By a Physically Stronger Man’ Whom He Succeeding in Shaking Up in the Second Round.” The body of the article takes at its primary thesis the fact that Carpentier’s valiant performance in the ring has made him even more popular than he already was, despite his having been knocked out:

Our pugilist is much more popular in America today than he was yesterday.  The 91,000 spectators who were present at the spectacle were stupefied and impassioned by the admirable fight put on by the Frenchman.  He has moved up considerably in the worldwide rankings of boxers.

Somewhat hyperbolically, Glarner explicitly states that “in all likelihood, no one in any sport has ever been as popular in America as Carpentier.”

The emphasis in the French coverage of Carpentier-Dempsey on American adulation of the French boxer was entirely justified. It was indeed a strange and wondrous phenomenon.  Very large numbers of Americans, helped along by their daily newspapers, fell into genuine hero-worship of a Frenchman; that hero-worship only grew in intensity after his defeat.  

Gaston Bénac, writing just before the fight, is explicit about the fact a Carpentier victory will give the French new-found status as the athletic equals of the Americans, in both reality and American perception:

Carpentier is fighting tomorrow not only the fight of his life, but also the most important battle ever fought by French sport.  If Georges triumphs tomorrow, the Americans will consider us as their equals from an athletic perspective. But if he is beat, they will continue for years to come to treat us as their students.

[…] So you see the importance taken on by this fight, which far surpasses both Carpentier and boxing. (L’Intransigeant, July 3, p. 1)

What Bénac does not make explicit but is nonetheless clearly the case is the fact that the symbolic importance of the fight exceeded the limits not only of the sport of boxing, but those of sport in general.  Carpentier was fighting for the right of Frenchmen to identify themselves as the equals of Americans in all combative domains, including and especially that of war itself.  The consequences of Carpentier’s loss, however, were not as dire as Bénac predicted: because of the adulation lavished on Carpentier after his loss, a certain sort of equality (or at least respect) was conferred by the Americans on the French. Carpentier had lost the bout, but he had proved to the overwhelming majority of spectators that he “belonged in the same ring” with Dempsey, which served as a reminder to both sides that the French had belonged in the same war with the Americans. American praise for Carpentier assured the French that not only did they view the relation between the two countries as one between equals, but that the Americans did as well.  At a time when the French were still actively involved in the process of offering up elaborate gestures of thanks to, and admiration of, the Americans (witness the Fourth of July celebrations taking place in Paris just two days after Carpentier-Dempsey), Carpentier worship in America allowed the French to be on the receiving end of some admiration themselves, to render the relationship—albeit in a symbolic and fleeting way—reciprocal.

Some French commentators of course were more impressed by American adulation of Carpentier than others.  At the extreme end of things, John Rosstous saw fit in 1922 to publish, in France, an entire book devoted to the subject, Carpentier As Seen By the Americans (Carpentier vu par les Américains).[1] Writing a year after Carpentier-Dempsey, Rosstous explains in a prologue that there are significant things the French need to learn from a closer and more detailed acquaintance with the US press coverage of the fight. His own close reading of the American newspapers, he clearly implies, will provide French readers with a more accurate view of the entire affair.  (The fact that, one year later, few Frenchmen who were not committed boxing fans were likely to still be interested in minutely detailed analyses of the fight and representations thereof does not seem to have occurred to him.)

Not surprisingly, Rosstous is a die-hard Carpentier worshipper.  Everything he wants to teach the French public about the fight is intended to serve the same goal, the apotheosis of Carpentier.  The work consists of the following: hyperbolic assessments of Carpentier’s performance, condemnation of Dempsey, endless quotation and rehashing of the Carpentier-mania in the US press, vitriol against the few American commentators who dared expressed skepticism about Carpentier in print and condemnation of any and all suggestions by French reporters or commentators that Carpentier was in any way less than perfect.  

Rosstous’ tome is defensive and rhetorical to the point of madness; at moments, it borders on the paranoid. He suggests, for example, that it is no mere coincidence that the Americans he has identified as Carpentier’s primary detractors, H. L. Mencken and Harry Van Raatle, both have what he perceives to be German surnames.  In a moment of sublime wackiness, Rosstous points out the phonetic link he perceives between “Mencken” and “Mackensen,” the name of a well-known German field-marshal in World War I (August von Mackensen, 1849-1945).  After having interpreted Mencken’s comments about Carpentier as symptoms of “a profound hatred” for the man and the “country he represents,” he says:

Mencken!  The very sound of that name does not bode well.  Mencken and Mackensen indeed seem to be closely related names. Yes, we would bet 9 to 1 that there is as much of a Teutonic element in the first as we know there to be in the second.  If so, we understand everything!  We understand, without needing a referee to give us a count of ten, why Mr. Mencken unleashed his torrent of sarcasm with so much force. Teutonically clever, he even pushed his impudence to the point of leading us to believe that the spectators at ringside shared his point of view.  Unfortunately for him, he had to see, the day after the match, in reading the accounts written by various writers, that his assumptions were those of a fool.  (Rosstous, 57)

Mencken’s cynicism vis-à-vis Carpentier is nothing less than a heartless German attack on a battered and valiant French soldier, according to Rosstous:

Carpentier! The brave poilu that all Frenchmen carry in their hearts, just as they carry all those who saved the fatherland!  According to Mr. Mencken, you are covered with a stain, as black a stain as there ever was: in his eyes, you made the grave mistake of sending Mackensen and all the true believers of his tribe scurrying back home in 1918.  How could one think that he wouldn’t make you pay for that? (Rosstous, 57-58)

In response to a passage written by Harry van Raatle in the New York World, in which he uses a pastiche of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” as a clever means of recounting the fight and especially Dempsey’s knockout of Carpentier (“[…] Gorgeous Georges, the idol of Paris, France, slumped down on the resin and began to dream of shoes and ships and ceiling wax and cabbages and kings and things”), Rosstous, completely oblivious to the borrowing from Carroll, maniacally seizes on the word “cabbage,” using it to bolster his “Teutonic” conspiracy theory:

There he goes with his sarcasm!  But, instead of letting it bother you, reader, note in passing the cabbages: van Raatle betrays himself here. He’s got his favorite dish is on the brain; he is German to the very marrow. (Rosstous, 64)

Ultimately, Rosstous compares Carpentier to “our majestic cathedrals” and dismisses his two “German” detractors as gargoyles, ugly figures who serve only to enhance the overall beauty of the structure:

Here, in the case of our athlete, who fought with the bravery we all know, we have […] a monument and the two grimacing figures we have pointed out only bring out all the better his worthiness.  Consequently,  Georges Carpentier, the object of so much glorification […] can withstand, like towers withstand gargoyles, the detestable silhouettes of Mencken and van Raatle. (Rosstous, 66)

Rosstous believed that the French insufficiently valued Carpentier after his loss to Dempsey-- in contrast to what he considers the suitably hyperbolic praise of Carpentier in the American press.  His book aims to inform French readers of just how much prestige Carpentier brought to the “name of France” during his sojourn in the US and to what extent the boxer represents their country.  For him, things are clear: those who praise Carpentier love France and those who disparage him hate France. Not only a Carpentier fan but also clearly an ardent French patriot, Rosstous wants his readers to understand how deeply America respects France and how big a role Carpentier-Dempsey played in revealing and reaffirming that sentiment.

In spite of the fact that the French papers repeatedly reported on American Carpentier-worship, in some cases in detail and with quotations, Rosstous clearly believed that the French needed to be reminded, a year later, that this was the true legacy of the entire affair. He need not have worried: the affection and esteem in which Carpentier was held by the American public quickly became, and has continued to be, one of the central pillars of the Carpentier legend in France.  Carpentier, according to both oral tradition and written histories of sport and popular culture in France, is not only the great French boxer but the great French boxer who captured the hearts of America.  The idol of France became the idol of America and, in so doing, reaffirmed France’s place in the world. To cite but a few of the standard sources on the history of boxing in France:

In just ten minutes, the “kid from Lens” had been adopted by America […] (Benamou, Les Grands de la boxe, 110; this quote refers to the ten minutes of the Carpentier-Levinsky title fight and is thus something of an exaggeration)

Everywhere he went, there was delirium.  The Yankee public had adopted him as if he were one of their own. (Benamou and Terbeen, Les Grandes Heures de la boxe, 65)

The Americans go nuts for this modern hero with the face of an angel […] In Jersey City […] the American crowd receives Carpentier triumphantly […] (Droussent, Encyclopédie de la boxe, 65-67)

The extraordinary outpouring of affection and adoration toward a Frenchman, on the part of very large numbers of Americans, remains in fact the single most enduring aspect of the Carpentier-Dempsey affair for French fans and historians of boxing.  The Frenchman lost the fight but conquered America nonetheless.

[1] There does not appear to be any information available about John Rosstous and it is not clear how widely circulated his book may have been. It was published in Marseille, by “Typographie et Lithographie Barlatier” and may have been an author-subsidized project. It was in wide enough circulation, however, for a copy to end up in the collection of the New York Public Library. Return to text