Elegy for a Fighter
By Douglas Century
Nextbook (Schocken), 205 pages, $19.95.
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If attitudes toward Jewish boxers do not offer an all-encompassing symbol of continuing change in the social and cultural tastes of American Jewry, they probably come close. One of the many revealing anecdotes in this marvelously insightful study of the immigrant generation’s fistic champions is that Barney Ross kept his adopted profession from his mother for as long as possible. So, Douglas Century said, did nearly every other Jewish boxer who left a memoir — a behavior so starkly different from, say, boxing’s Italian Americans or African Americans that one could almost forget another crucial detail: For very large numbers of Jewish men (especially blue-collar workers from the 1910s to the ’50s), boxing was practically the only game in town. Long embarrassing to the literati, as well, boxing is now back, and it’s big.
“Barney Ross” is an intense biography. In barely 200 pages, Century has condensed all the essential information about tough kid Beryl Rasofsky, a Kohen (rabbinical royalty) who, in other eras, would have be destined for the Talmud. Instead, he was brought with his family of a dairyman (and part-time teacher ) from Brest-Litovsk to Manhattan’s Lower East Side and then to Chicago. In a scene made cinematically famous by director Robert Rossen and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky in the 1948 film “Body and Soul,” his father was shot down in his little store by gangsters, leaving behind a desperate family as in his real life. His eldest son soon begins hanging around a West Side gym, where Al Capone’s contacts were legion; stranger by far, the young fellow acquired there a lifelong friend: the future Jack Ruby. The turning point of the boy’s story was perhaps better dramatized in “Body and Soul” than in real life. The boxer’s mother, played by future blacklistee Anne Revere, playing told him that it would be better to get a gun and shoot himself than to become a boxer (Ross’s brother told Century that for their mother, a fighter was “a trumbenik, a Yiddishe bum”). John Garfield, as the son, responded, “You need money to buy a gun!”
In real life, Ross would, of course, become hugely successful. Century goes back to previous generations to trace the rise of the Jewish prizefighter, first in Britain and then in the United States. Always, it seemed, the ethnic angle was a large factor in crowd appeal, with racism, antisemitism and various hateful epithets screaming in advertising and sports coverage for blood revenge. Ross’s success as Lightweight brought big crowds, big purses for the day, contacts with celebrities (not excluding mobsters) and the beginning of a Greek tragedy.
Eventually ranked with Hank Greenberg as the most admired Jewish athlete in America, Ross was ripe for a fall. He drank heavily, hung out in nightclubs, got divorced and, in 1938, took a terrible beating from African American fighter Henry Armstrong. Ross entered the Marines feeling almost certain that he was on a suicide mission, unworthy to return alive. He fought heroically in Guadalcanal. He also became addicted to morphine and sued the star and producer of “Body and Soul,” essentially for cleaning up the Barney Ross story (which was again told, with more pathos but less interest, in 1957’s “Monkey on My Back,” which Ross also hated). He supported the Irgun and reportedly served indirectly as gunrunner in Israel’s War of Independence. Shortly after this, he became a glorified bodyguard for Eddie Fisher. Later on, his name would appear repeatedly in the Warren Commission Report thanks to his connections with Jack Ruby, who was destined to be remembered as a Dallas strip club owner, a mobster and Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassin. The boyhood friends died of cancer within a few years of each other, one in jail and the other a forgotten figure.
Century has made the lingering fascination of the story his own. He first learned of Ross when he was a Yiddish student in a Peretz school in Canada, and he notes at the end of the book that so much has changed since then — the very neighborhoods of Ross’s Chicago boyhood have now literally vanished. But the author’s own memories of “tough Jews,” the uncles of his boyhood, remain with him. Jewish renewals there are and will be, doubtless, in the United States and elsewhere. But to our common loss, probably never that broken-nose, lower-class, self-educated Jewry again.
Paul Buhle is a senior lecturer at Brown University.