Volume 74, Number 41 | February 16 - 22, 2005

Schmeling-Louis: When the whole world hung on a fight

Joe Louis and Max Schmeling trading punches

Max Schmeling, onetime heavyweight champion of the world, died Feb. 2 at his home in Hollenstedt, Germany. He was 99. The story below is reprinted from the April 1966 issue of a magazine called P.S., which turned out to be the one and only issue of that publication. I have taken the liberty of doing more paragraphing here than in the original, but that is all.

By JERRY TALLMER

My uncle, call him Harry Katz, had changed his name to Harry Cabot when he got married. I do not remember him well, but I remember him on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, alone somehow with me, 29 years ago, in 1936, when I was 16 and he was in the pink, a brisk-minded and sympathetic man.

I had gone down for a few days with my mother, his sister-in-law, and he was probably there with some convention of brassiere manufacturers. That was his business, brassieres, and I imagine he was good at it.

We stood on the boardwalk and some young lady passed and Harry Cabot whistled lightly through his teeth and said, or murmured: “Perfect thiry-six.” I was 15 going on 16 and had never heard the phrase. I asked him what it meant.

“Well, kid,” he said, with a trace of wistfulness, “it means a perfect figure. The right measurements, for a girl, 36-26-36. Nice breasts, nice waist, nice ass.”

I had heard of breasts and waists, but I had never heard a grown man or anyone else use the word ass so casually, and it swarmed in my mind, as it still does. He was so calm about it, so bland and grownup. Then he pulled a little white card from his vest pocket, a businessman’s card, and put it in my hand. I still did not know what ass meant in just the way he’d said it. The card announced, in neatly engraved large-and-small caps:

and I looked at it and gradually figured it out. It struck me as very funny and I wondered whether to laugh. In all the 28 years since, with Harry Cabot maybe 25 years dead, the card has remained in my mind and it still makes me laugh.

Why my mother and I were in Atlantic City I do not recall, but I do remember our accommodations in a couple of rooms a few blocks south of where my uncle and I then were standing on the boardwalk. To get there you had to pass the building in the shape of an elephant. You would walk past the Traymore Hotel and then the elephant and then get to this sparse section and the rooming house in which my mother and I were staying, back off the beach maybe a couple of streets.

Now that I think of it, I am still a bit spooked by the house built in the shape of an elephant.

My mother was not (and is not) an Atlantic City type. Another mystery. When my father got married he also changed his name.

The rooming house was run by two old Danish ladies. Old is relative, and I was 15 going on 16. But today in my mind’s eye they seem very old, very gray, very short and gnarled and withered and nasty, both of them. For artistic perfection they should have been German, but I definitely remember they were Danish, or said so.

Many years later I was to learn of King Christian of the Danes who informed the Germans that if they touched one hair of the Danish Jews, he and his family would permanently sew the Star of David onto their own clothes. These two old ladies were different Danes. They had a radio, an Atwater Kent in the shape of a chapel. As long as I live I shall not forget their glee in listening that night to the Atwater Kent.

 Each day that we live, the sport or racket of boxing falls into deeper disrepute, deservedly. And why not? Fifteen years ago, no exaggeration, I met an intelligent 15-year-old who to that time had never heard of Joseph Louis Barrow, at least not really to speak of. He had heard of and knew all about Ed Sullivan and Johnny Ray and Jackie Robinson, but knew barely anything of Joe Louis beyond the name, and nothing at all of Benny Goodman or Louis Armstrong or for that matter J.D. Salinger. Today, somewhere, he is 30 yers old and though we have not met in a long time it is known that he now knows of Goodman and Armstrong and J.D. Salinger and many others, and, not least, of Joe Louis.

Which is one thing, though not enough.

The reason for the disrepute of boxing is elementary: loss of import, loss of character, loss of tension. It is not the fault of a 15-year-old of 15 years ago that he was not 15 years old when Joe Louis was a figure of import, but as it happens I was, and I cannot help sometimes in the dead of night going back to it. I go back to a time when fighting, and one prizefighter, born in Alabama, bred in Detroit, meant more to the world and the future of the world than any prizefighter has meant since.

The two old ladies huddled around their radio and snickered, poked elbows, grinned. I sat across the room in agony and died. A German and a superman named Max Schmeling (later, to Louis, “that Smellin’ ”) was using his right hand and a flaw he’d observed in his opponent to beat an unsuperman into insensibility. He hit him in the head, in the head, in the head. The two old ladies smiled horribly at one another. Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, white hope of a new deal and era, was down and out.

My grandfather, father-in-law to Harry Cabot, father to my mother, was recently back from his native Berlin with whispers I was not supposed to overhear. Not so recently: I’d heard those whispers since at least 1934, and have never yet understood the great ignorance of the world about them until 1944 and thereafter.

My grandfather had already spent a fortune and was to spend yet another fortune saving those he loved from that which for the rest of the world for another decade did not exist. Some went to Shanghai, a city subsequently bombed with assistance from me, some went to Arizona. Joe Louis was on the canvas. Superman was supreme. The two old ladies smiled softly and put on a kettle for tea.

I have not talked of my father, who was a quiet, complicated man. He was a Southern gentleman, from Richmond, Virginia, a true gentleman, self-made, self-educated, self-cultured, wheels within wheels, bookish, musical, unfathomable.

Who would have thought him a Jew? Not very many. Until he neared death he practiced no religion, no more than my mother, nor did he give me any. Only when the machinery broke down, in curious incidents involving waitresses or bus drivers, did he have an angry word; only in privacy did he ever have a vengeful word.

I am now 17 going on 18, a senior in high school, and my parents are divorced five years. We have an apartment, my father, my brother, and I, on the West Side of Manhattan, Amsterdam Avenue and 87th Street. Hitler is in Danzig, in Austria, in the Sportspalast, the Reichstag, screaming, swelling, pointing for the Sudetenland.

We do not talk about it very much. We buy postage stamps together, Washington Bicentennials, and put them in glassine envelopes in an album. We go to the Polo Grounds together and sit in Section 33 where I can cheer for Dick Bartell, shortstop, whom I’d still like to be, or for Carl Hubbell, pitcher, whom anyone in those days would have liked to be, or for Jimmy Ripple throwing himself into a diving somersault in center field and coming up with the ball, arm swept high for all to see. Each time Bartell trotted out on to the field he’d wave his gloved left hand up toward Section 33 as a hello to his special followers. If you ever saw Eddie Stanky, later, or Roy MacMillan today, you know the breed.

It is the night of June 22, 1938, two years and three days after Atlantic City, three months and eight days before Munich. All week the tension has mounted, and my father and I have said nothing about it: not one word. I do not know that he knows there is going to be this fight, for he has showed no interest in it: none. The long-awaited Louis-Schmeling rematch, unsuperman against superman with superman everywhere on the march.

I do not know where my brother is; he is not in memory on the scene. I am alone, nursing my tension, my fears, my dread, the end of the world. I have nursed it alone like that for a week, for a slow crescendo of many weeks of increasing dread.

There is a radio by my bed. I put it on and the bulling, beautiful voice Harry Balogh roars from the tiny amplifier, over the clang of bells: “…in this corner, wearing purple trunks — for the Heavyweight Championship of the World….”

Single clang of the bell.

The announcer starts yelling. He keeps on yelling. “A left to the body, a left hook to the head, a savage left to the…” My father is in the next room, quietly reading his evening paper under the wrought-iron lamp. No he isn’t. He is here in my room, all of a sudden, saying nothing, standing by my bed, white in the face, lips compressed. “Another left — another right — a left to the stomach — Schmeling is grabbing his stomach…”

It is the first round and Schmeling is down, the only man Joe Louis ever tried to kill, and the announcer is yelling, the crowd roaring, the bell clanging.

My father with his white face makes a fist with his right hand. The fight is over. Superman will spend the next little while in the hospital. My father slams the fist of his right hand into the palm of his left hand, once, twice, three times.

“Thank God,” he says, “there is a God. Thank God, there is a God.” Once for each sock of the fist. “Thank God, there is a God.”

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