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The Swells at Ringside

In addition to the sheer numbers of people at Boyle’s Thirty Acres for the Carpentier-Dempsey fight and the considerable sums of money they paid to be there, it is important to note the kind of people in attendance.  The Carpentier-Dempsey crowd was remarkable in terms of quality as well as quantity.  While the vast majority in the arena were anonymous boxing fans and general thrill-seekers, the rich, famous and powerful were remarkably well represented at ringside as well.  A number of newspapers included long lists of the celebrities and socialites in attendance in their day-after coverage.  There were representatives of nearly every sphere of American celebrity:

High-society/wealthy industrialist types; William H. Vanderbilt; John D. Rockefeller, Jr.; Percy Rockefeller, Jr.; Henry Ford; Harry Payne Whitney; Vincent Astor; Harry Guggenheim; Bernard Gimbel; Joseph W. Harriman; Angier Duke; Sailing Baruch; “several Rhinelanders;” “a dozen Philadelphia Biddles;” and various other representatives of the American upper-crust;

Show-business personalities: movie stars Al Jolson (at the height of his popularity), Tom Mix, Laurette Taylor and Douglas Fairbanks; George M. Cohan; Myron Selznick: John Ringling (of circus fame); Broadway producer David Belasco; Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. et al.;

Foreign dignitaries: the Spanish ambassador, the Dutch chargé d’affaires; a counselor from the Russian embassy, Rumanian minister Prince Antoine Bibesco; the Peruvian ambassador; several members of the British Parliament and at least one of the Canadian Parliament; and numerous aristocrats;

American politicians: twelve senators and ninety members of the House of Representatives; Governor Edwards of New Jersey; Mayor Hague of Jersey City; New York State senator (and later New York City mayor) Jimmy Walker; and three of former President Theodore Roosevelt’s children: his daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth (along with her husband, representative and future speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth), son Theodore Jr. (then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and son Kermit;

Sports personalities: Colonel Jacob Ruppert, owner of the New York Yankees, along with the owners of both the Red Sox and the Braves; Gustavus Kirby, president of the American Olympic Committee; legendary boxers Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Gunboat Smith, Joe Choynski, Joe Jeannette, Jim Corbett et al.; and the entire rosters of the Newark and Jersey City baseball team (International League).[1]

As one reporter summed it up in the next day’s New York Times:

A sweeping glance at the boxes and the $50 ringside seats of the Jersey City arena presented an animated view of “Who’s Who in America” and the “Social Register” combined, but so numerous were the notables that “being among those present” didn’t seem to count.

The significance of this kind of critical mass of rich, powerful and prestigious spectators cannot be underestimated.  Never before had the “swells” turned out for a prizefight.  As Roger Kahn says: “If you want to select a date when high-society Americans, well-coiffed, bejeweled superrich Americans came first to embrace sports with a passionate hug, again you come to July 2, 1921.” (231) This blue-chip seal of approval conferred on the entire sport of boxing a respectability and glamour that had been unthinkable just a few months before. The strong showing of interest and support on the part of the upper reaches of American society made it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to argue against the sport. Indeed, it made being a boxing fan nearly a must for anyone who sought, as so many did in the 1920’s, to be in the swing of things. Boxing became, and would remain for the rest of the decade, every bit as much a “national pastime” as baseball.[2]

[1] The list here is a compiled from information given in Roberts, 121; Kahn, 261-263; Dempsey, Dempsey by Jack Dempsey, 135; and The New York Times of July 3, 1921. Because there is some discrepancy among accounts of celebrities present, inaccuracies are possible. Return to text

[2] The yet-to-be-written history of the relationship between the sport of boxing and the elite American social classes is long, complicated and fascinating.  It includes Teddy Roosevelt’s love of the sport (not only did he box at Harvard, he had a ring installed in the White House and sparred regularly while in office); the practice tradition of boxing training, which often included sparring, at elite gentlemen’s clubs in the larger cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Gentleman Jim Corbett, fittingly enough, began his career as a sparring partner at San Francisco’s Olympic Club; Philadelphia Jack O’Brien regularly trained scions of wealthy and prominent East Coast families; etc.); and the popularity of boxing as an intercollegiate sport at the then-socially exclusive Ivy League universities in the 20’s and 30’s. An Underwood and Underwood photograph from the Corbis archive that would appear to date from circa 1925 shows youngsters Alfred Roosevelt and David Hunter going at it in the ring as part of a sports tournament for children sponsored by the exclusive Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, Long Island, as spectators look on, including two men standing at a discreet distance who would appear to be chauffeurs. All of these phenomena were of course directly derived from older incarnations of boxing among the elite in England (see Lord Byron, the National Sporting Club, etc.) and were clear, if not always conscious, expressions of Anglophilia. Return to text