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White Tie and Boxing Gloves

Carpentier, Anthony Drexel Biddle and the Fight to Legalize Boxing in the State of New York

If Carpentier hadn’t existed, they would have had to invent him.  It is nearly impossible to imagine a figure more perfectly suited to become the object of the collective transference that was to take place surrounding his 1921 fight with Dempsey.

The very first image of Carpentier in America was the first of many theatrical gestures he would make during that and subsequent visits: he is on board ship, saluting the Statue of Liberty. The image shows the French war hero saluting the iconic monument to freedom and to America, but also to the enduring kinship between  the two countries, making for a densely-packed bit of marketing. Several days later, on March 25, 1920, in a stunt that seemed designed to showcase Carpentier the “gentleman boxer” just as that first photograph of him saluting the Statue of Liberty had been designed to underscored his persona as war hero and friend-to-America, the Frenchman improbably put on the gloves with Philadelphia blueblood/heir and self-described “former amateur heavyweight champion” of the US, Major Anthony Drexel Biddle, for a bit of after-dinner sparring in front of the members of the International Sporting Club, an assemblage of American captains of industry and other notables.[1]  The banquet (and the exhibition bout that followed it) was described by the New York Herald “easily the most distinguished and important meeting ever held in this country in connection with the sport” and by the New York Times as “a select gathering of more than 1,000 devotees of the sport […] perhaps the most representative gathering of boxing enthusiasts that has ever been assembled for such a bout in this country”[2] 

The highly theatrical and somewhat surreal circumstances of the exhibition between Carpentier and Biddle was described in detail in the next day’s Times. Joe Humphries, the “veteran ring announcer” (who would in fact be the announcer for the Carpentier-Dempsey “battle of the century” the following year), introduced Carpentier to the crowd, at which point “General O’Ryan, commander of the famous 27th Division,” issued a challenge to Carpentier from Biddle.  Carpentier declined the challenge, to which O’Ryan replied that in that case, he was claiming the European heavyweight title for Biddle.  The real theater-piece then began:

Carpentier was all action immediately.  With a “No, No,” he began divesting himself of his coat, vest, collar and tie.  Major Biddle was none the less rapid in getting ready for combat, and before the diners really knew what was happening the two combatants were facing each other in the ring.[3]

Celebrated light heavyweight champ “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien served as Biddle’s second for the contest, Carpentier’s manager François Descamps as his, and promoter Tex Rickard as the referee.  The bout itself apparently consisted of a minute or two of the middle-aged Biddle swinging and missing and Carpentier deftly slipping and side-stepping without attempting to land even the lightest of punches.

Curiously, however, the account of the affair in the next day’s Times treated it as an accurate barometer of Carpentier’s ring skills.  In an article entitled “Carpentier Dons Gloves and Gives First Exhibition of His Skill in This Country: Carpentier Gives Proof of Ability,” the seriousness with which what was essentially a parlor stunt is treated is striking:

Georges Carpentier is one of the most consummately clever, skillful boxers who have demonstrated their ability in this country.  Combining speed of hand and foot, the agility of an expert dancer, and withal a brain capacity which works in perfect harmony with his fast traveling feet and hands, Carpentier possesses potential ability which leaves an indelible impression.  In short, the visiting boxer is all that has been said of him—and more.[4]

In short, according to the Times, it was a “brilliant exhibition of boxing.”  Although the Times  article does include appropriate caveats about the match (specifying that the two fought in “evening dress,”  that punches were “pulled,” and that “the men boxed with gymnasium gloves, of the size commonly referred to as ‘pillows’”), the casual reader might nonetheless get the impression from reading this description that Carpentier had actually “proved” his skills to a US audience for the first time.  The fact is of course that not only was this was not a real fight, neither was it a real sparring match nor even a real exhibition bout.  While this means that some of Carpentier’s (defensive) skills as a boxer were no doubt displayed, proclaiming him the next big thing in the fight game on the basis of this performance is a questionable gesture.[5]

Carpentier’s own account of the incident gives what is no doubt a more accurate version of exactly what the incident entailed:

A couple of days after our arrival Descamps and I were invited to a banquet of the International Sporting Club held in the Commodore Hotel.  Fifteen hundred guests, men only, and every last one of them in evening clothes.  After dinner, the president of the club, Major Drexel-Biddle, a man of about fifty, suddenly said to me: “What do you say you and I put on a friendly little boxing exhibition, right now?”  

At the proposal all the guests applauded enthusiastically.  I was a little taken aback, but I thought to myself: “Well, why not?  Perhaps it’s an American custom; they box at dessert-time instead of singing.  Descamps was suspicious as usual and he whispered in my ear: “Be careful.  We don’t know these Americans and with these guys…”  The warning was unnecessary.  I am always on my guard when asked to box, even, and especially, if it all seems to be in good fun.  

So the major and I slipped off our dinner jackets, put on the gloves (there were boxing gloves at hand, as there always are in the best establishments) and squared off.  And everything proceeded in all niceness.  The President went after me with gusto, but he was no Dempsey nor even Beckett.  Without throwing a single punch, I slipped his punches with small movements and they all missed by a mile.  One time, swinging wildly, he lost his balance and ended up sprawled out among the spectators.  The crowd went wild.  Finally, after a couple of minutes, he raised his hand, signaling that he had had enough.[6]

Elsewhere, Carpentier characterized the little sparring session as “a match for laughs”[7] and explains that his actions consisted of slipping punches and thereby letting his “strange opponent” tire himself out, all in order to “amuse the audience.”[8]  Clearly, for Carpentier, the event did not represent anything like the serious demonstration of his boxing skills depicted by the Times article.  Carpentier explains that it wasn’t until the next day that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and he finally understood what had motivated the strange little event:

The next day I was astonished to receive a check for $5000, signed by the very same president of the International Sporting Club—and not an accompanying word!  But the newspapers related the anecdote in great detail…which made Descamps and me think that the whole thing had been staged exclusively for publicity purposes.[9]

Carpentier biographer Olivier Merlin’s paraphrase of the passage above puts even greater emphasis on the fact that Carpentier had no idea that the “match” as intended as a publicity stunt: “[…] the next day, the scene, which, unbeknownst to Carpentier [à l’insu de Carpentier], had been put on for publicity purposes, is recounted in detail in the newspapers.”[10]

Upon more careful inspection of the circumstances surrounding the incident, however, two things become clear: that the sparring match was indeed intended as a publicity stunt, and to some very specific ends; and that Carpentier was clearly in on the game from the start.

Carpentier indeed claimed repeatedly, both at the time and decades later, that he had been startled and puzzled by the impromptu invitation to take off his dinner jacket and put on boxing gloves after a formal banquet, and forced to speculate that this was some sort of odd American folkway.  His surprise seems rather unlikely, however, given the fact that the event was announced in advance in several of the biggest New York daily papers.  The banquet exhibition took place on the evening of March 25 and was reported in the papers the following day.  However, the Times edition of March 25, on the newsstands the morning of the banquet, included an article entitled “To See Carpentier In Action Tonight: Visiting Champion Expected to Don Boxing Gloves at Dinner of Welcome.”  The same article reports that Carpentier had had lunch with Major Anthony J. Drexel Biddle at the Ritz-Carlton the previous day.  In fact, the article specifies that Carpentier had agreed to the sparring match:

 […] it became known that Carpentier may don boxing gloves for the first time in this country in this city tonight.  The International Sporting Club has arranged to tender him a dinner of welcome at the Hotel Commodore this evening, and Georges has agreed, with a proviso, that he will box a short exhibition for the edification of those present.  The proviso is that he is feeling better than he has since he landed in this country.  [Carpentier was still suffering the effects of a nasty bout of seasickness contracted on the journey to America.]  […] he said yesterday that if he feels better he will encase his hands in padded mitts and do a little ring work for those at the dinner tonight.

The headline of a separate story, placed just below the one cited above, reads: “Eagan to Box Carpentier: Yale Captain to Meet Frenchman in Bout Here Tonight” and reports that a letter “received at Yale” from Major A. J. Drexel Biddle states that Carpentier “will meet Eddie Eagan, “former middleweight champion of the A.E. F. and captain of the Yale boxing team, n a four-round exhibition bout at the International Sporting Club, New York, tomorrow night […].”

In the same day’s edition of the New York World (March 25, 1920), a headline reads “Yale Boxer to Face Carpentier.”  Even more detail is offered here: according to this article, Eagan held the titles of amateur middleweight champion of the world and amateur heavyweight champion of the US; the AAU, we are told, had sent Eagan a letter sanctioning his exhibition bout with Carpentier and assuring him that the match will have no effect on his status as an amateur boxer.

It is very clear, then, that elaborate preparations had been made in advance for Carpentier to box an exhibition that evening and that he himself had agreed to such an event.  Even the last-minute substitution of Biddle for Eagan couldn’t have come as a surprise to Carpentier, since—at least according to Eagan’s account of the evening—this was a decision made by Carpentier himself.[11] 

Furthermore, if the incident itself was even half as theatrical as it was described in the Times the day after (Biddle’s “challenge,” Carpentier’s initial refusal followed by a sudden change of heart and removal of his jacket, etc.), it was clearly a routine choreographed in advance, with Carpentier, the consummate ham, playing his role to perfection.

The motivation for such a publicity stunt from Carpentier’s side is obvious.  The bout with Biddle and the publicity it attracted was not merely one of a myriad of strategies that served to get the Frenchman’s name in the papers, it was, unlike the others, an opportunity for newspapermen to focus on Carpentier the boxer, as opposed to Carpentier the film actor, socialite or all-around celebrity.  It allowed for the sort of hyperbolic praise of his ring skills necessary to remind the public that the handsome Frenchman with the winning smile and elegant wardrobe was in fact a prizefighter.  Because of the elite context of the entire story (Yale, the swanky Commodore Hotel, the blueblood Biddle and all the swells in attendance, the formal attire) it transported Carpentier’s status as the darling of the gentlemen’s club set in London directly to New York.  In short, it created an image of him as both a real boxer and a real gentleman.

In so doing, it helped set the stage for one of the most important aspects of the much-hyped Carpentier/Demspey contrast of the following year: Carpentier the sophisticated “aristocrat” vs. Dempsey the rough-and-tumble saloon brawler.  An eventual Carpentier-Dempsey fight was already, in the spring of 1920, the object of much speculation in boxing circles (the picture of Carpentier  in the New York Herald the day after the Biddle bout claims to “[…] show[s] how he will appear if he is matched to enter the ring with Jack Demspey.”).  So it is safe to speculate that the publicity surrounding Carpentier’s sparring match with Biddle was the result of savvy manipulation of the press by promoter Tex Rickard, who was carefully preparing the terrain for the “Fight of the Century.”

What is less obvious, however, is the other purpose this seemingly frivolous little incident was intended to serve.  If Rickard and Carpentier had an agenda, so too did Major Anthony J. Drexel Biddle.  

The sports pages of the New York dailies in the last week of March 1920 were not only taken up with Carpentier and his after-dinner pugilistic exploits.  They also contained detailed reporting on the status of the Walker Bill, a bill being debated and voted on in the New York State Legislature that would legalize professional boxing in the state. The articles cited above in the March 25 edition of the Times (“To See Carpentier in Action Tonight: Visiting Champion Expected to Don Boxing Gloves at Dinner of Welcome” and “Eagan to Box Carpentier”) appear in the second column of a page whose banner headline reads: “Walker Bill Allowing Fifteen-Round Bouts in This State Passes Senate.”  The story about the Walker Bill’s having passed the Senate the previous takes up the first column of the page, meaning that the Walker Bill and the Carpentier after-dinner bout appear literally side-by-side.[12]  The bill proposed specifically that professional boxing matches of no more than fifteen rounds be legalized and conducted under the auspices of the Army-Navy-Civilian Control Board.  In his defense of the bill he authored, Senator Walker explained to his colleagues that a commission of three men, appointed by the Governor, would issue licenses to individual boxers.  He assured them that there was no cause to fear corruption, given the type of men Governor Al Smith would select as commissioners: “You can depend upon our present Governor to appoint on this commission men who will not serve for salary, but because they are high-grade lovers of the sport.”

At this point in the process, no names of “high-grade lovers of the sport” were cited as potential members of the proposed commission, nor were any more details given concerning the Army-Navy-Civilian Board of Boxing Control.  As it happens, however, the president of that board, which would, with the passage of the Walker Bill, assume responsibility for supervision of professional boxing in New York State, was also the president of the International Sporting Club: none other than Major Anthony J. Drexel Biddle himself.  Biddle thus played a central role in the unfolding drama surrounding the legalization of professional boxing in New York, meaning he too stood to gain by the publicity generated by his after-dinner bout with Carpentier.  

What Biddle sought above all was to create an image of professional boxing as an elite entertainment, as far removed from nineteenth-century images of the smoky, sawdust-floored backroom brawl as possible.  Clearly, sanitizing the image of professional boxing in the popular imagination was crucial to its acceptance by the general (read: middle class) public (including members of the state Legislature).  The Carpentier-Biddle event, taking place as it did under the aegis of the elite International Sporting Club and in front of a ballroom filled to capacity with prominent men in evening clothes, underlined above all the link between professional boxing and the upper classes.  The event was a clear attempt to echo, in America, the long-standing tradition of boxing matches at elite gentlemen’s clubs in London.  Indeed, the International Sporting Club was itself, as it name attests, a simulacrum of the famed National Sporting Club in London, the cradle of that tradition.  

Biddle’s choice of sparring partner was anything but arbitrary.  Carpentier, the ultimate gentleman boxer, as much at his ease in white tie and tails as any of the “real” gentlemen in attendance the evening, had been the darling of London society for some time.  The idea was clearly that, in America as had been the case in England, the traditional middle-class nightmare images of prizefighters as a battered, grizzled, scowling primitives would simply melt away in the presence of the smiling, dashing, elegantly-attired, slick-haired Carpentier.  This matinee idol could not only sell tickets for a promoter like Tex Rickard, it was believed, he could also “sell” the very notion of boxing as an acceptable spectator sport for respectable people and thus turn it into a commercial enterprise on a previously unimaginable scale. This is exactly what came to pass. The Walker Bill would become the Walker Law, a landmark piece of boxing legislation that paved the way for the legalization and regulation of professional boxing in numerous states and established the New York State Athletic Commission.  Just as opponents of the bill feared, boxing as big business was on its way. [13]

[1] Biddle was the subject of a Disney movie made in the mid-1960’s, The Happiest Millionaire, starring Fred MacMurray as Biddle.  The movie makes much of Biddle’s “eccentric” fondness for boxing and tendency to insist on putting on the gloves with dinner guests in evening clothes. Return to text

[2] New York Herald, March 26, 1920, 9; New York Times, March 26, 1920, 14. Return to text

[3] New York Times, March 26, 1920, 14. Return to text

[4] “Carpentier Don Gloves […],” New York Times, March 26, 1920, 14. Return to text

[5] The March 26, 1920 edition of The Sun and New York Herald also included a big write-up of the sparring match, with a banner headline on the sports page (p. 9 and a photograph of Caprentier in fighting stance.  While this account puts a bit more emphasis on the joking nature of the event than does the piece in the Times, it also blurs the lines between seriousness and joking to some extent.  The headline reads: “Before Noted Throng Carpentier Engages in His First Boxing Contest in America in Ballroom of Commodore Hotel: 2,000 See French Champion in Bout: Distinguished Crowd Watches Carpentier Exchange Blows with Major Biddle in Two Furious Rounds: Ring is Set in Commodore Hotel Under Auspices of International Club.” A casual reader, skimming the paper and spying phrases like “ first boxing contest in America”, “exchange blows […] in two furious rounds,” next to a photograph of Carpentier in fighting stance with the words “His First Fighting Pose in America,” would surely come away with the impression that Carpentier had engaged in a contest that was much more serious than was actually the case. Return to text

[6] Carpentier by himself, 125-126; Mon Match, 169-170 [official translation revised]. Return to text

[7] Georges Carpentier, Ma Vie de boxeur (Amiens: Roger Léveillard, 1921), 207. Return to text

[8] Mes 80 Rounds, 143. Return to text

[9] Carpentier by himself, 126; Mon Match, 169-170 [official translation revised]. Return to text

[10] Olivier Merlin, Georges Carpentier: Gentleman du ring (Paris: Olivier Orban, 1976), 47. Return to text

[11] Eddie Eagan, Fighting for Fun (New York: Macmillan, 1932), 130-132.  Eagan recounts that he attended the banquet, ready to box Carpentier, “rough or gentle, as occasion demanded,” only to be informed by Biddle, after dinner no less, that his services would not in fact be required.  Biddle explained, says Eagan, that Carpentier was still ill from his crossing and that the contract for his upcoming movie (he was scheduled to begin shooting of The Wonder Man in a matter of weeks) forbade his boxing Eagan.  A much less serious exhibition  of “light sparring” with Biddle had thus been agreed upon, which Eagan describes as “a tame exhibition in which Major Biddle seemed quite serious and Carpentier appeared to be joking.”  Eagan, whose memoir is by no means characterized by its modesty, says: “It was fatuous perhaps to think Carpentier feared me, but I did know that his manager had looked up my record.  I was deeply disappointed.” Return to text

[12] See also the March 25, 1920 edition of The New York World, where the articles “Carpentier Makes Tour of Metropolis in Auto” and “Yale Boxer to Face Carpentier”  are on the same page “Boxing Bill Passed in Senate by Safe Margin;” and The New York Herald of March 26, where an account of the Carpeniter-Biddle sparring match appears on the same page as  “Methodists Protest Against Boxing Bill,” in which Methodists are quoted as characterizing boxing as “legalized barbarism” and claiming that the pending bill would be a “stigma and disgrace” for the state of New York. Return to text

[13] In the debate about the floor on the floor of the state senate, one opponent, a Senator Gibbs of Erie, stated flatly that “the main purpose [of the Walker Bill] is to pave the way for Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier to meet in Madison Square Garden.” Interestingly, Sentaor Erie was not an opponent of boxing per se, having himself introduced a bill the previous year to legalize the sport; it seems that his objection was that the Walker Bill would lead to an commercialization of boxing, beginning with a Carpentier-Dempsey bout in Madison Square Garden. For his part, Biddle called the idea put forth by Canon William Sheafe Chase of Brooklyn that the Walker Bill was actually sponsored by Englishmen seeking to promote a Carpentier-Dempsey fight “a mendacious falsehood.”  Clearly not one to mince words, Biddle actually—as reported in a front-page headline—called Chase a “liar” and said that he “dishonor[ed] his cloth” by implying that the Walker Bill was fraudulent.  The verbal scuffle between Canon Chase and Biddle was, interestingly, a bit of Episcopalian-on-Episcopalian violence. Chase was the rector of Christ Church, Brooklyn, while Biddle was a communicant of Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, where he conducted remarkably muscular Bible classes for men, which (famously) included boxing instruction, as memorialized to comic effect in The Happiest Millionaire. Return to text