Monday, December 27, 2010

The Little Boy Who Shook the Hand of the Man Who Shook the Hand of George Bernard Shaw




In 1956, my father’s company transferred him from New York to Chicago, and he, my mother and I prepared one spring day to take the train to our new home, which was actually outside the city in a post-war development called Park Forest (not to be confused with the tonier Forest Park).
We arrived in midtown Manhattan at lunchtime, even though the train—the fabled 20th Century Limited (think Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in “North By Northwest”) departed Grand Central Terminal at 6 p.m. (I vaguely remember my father had some last-minute arrangements to make at his office, hence our early arrival in midtown).
My dad took us to the Press Box Restaurant on E. 45th Street, so named, I presume, because Hearst’s tabloid, The Mirror (home to Walter Winchell), was located on the same street. This was high-living, at least for me; at age four-almost-five, I’m not sure I’d ever been to a restaurant, (I can, however, vividly remember being taken often to my parents’ favorite saloon, the Vin-Wood Inn on Northern Blvd. in Flushing. I don’t know where that “Inn” came from, since all I recall the Vin-Wood Inn serving were bags of pretzels and potato chips, plus bologna sandwiches. At least those were the delicacies I ever ate there, while downing way too many Shirley Temples).
As we sat at our table in the Press Box, waiting for lunch, several men walked through the restaurant on their way to a banquette in the back. One of them—a tall, handsome, muscular man--stopped, gazed down at me and said, “I’d like to shake this young man’s hand.” He then extended his right hand, which in my memory was the size of a catcher’s mitt, at least in comparison with mine.
I’d been taught by my father always to give a firm handshake, and this I did, in my nearly-five-year-old manner. The man’s handshake was solid, yet gentle. Clearly, he was holding back. He also shook my father’s hand, and smiled at my mother, a natural thing to do because she was so pretty. Then he walked off.
My father was impressed. “Do you know who that was?” he asked me, knowing, of course, that I had no idea.
I shook my head.
“That was Gene Tunney—he was heavyweight champion of the world. He beat Jack Dempsey.”
Those names meant nothing to me. Nor did the concept of “heavyweight champion of the world.” A few years later, when I became a sports fan, I read about Tunney (1897-1978), not just how he’d beaten Dempsey twice, including in the famous “long count” bout, but how he was an auto-didact who read voraciously and was something of an expert on the works of William Shakespeare.
I was reminded recently of my long-ago meeting with the champ when Charles McGrath of The New York Times wrote that one of Tunney’s sons, Jay, had published a book about his father’s close friendship with George Bernard Shaw, a seemingly unlikely relationship unless you knew of Tunney’s literary and Shaw’s pugilistic interests.
Shaw (1856-1950) had written of boxing, including a novel, “Cashel Byron’s Profession.” And in Shaw’s 1905 play, “Major Barbara,” there is a stirring scene of a former boxing champ, now a sergeant in the Salvation Army, turning the other cheek when confronted by a man he could easily pummel. McGrath writes that in 1883, Shaw even entered the Queensberry amateur boxing championship in London, although there is no record that he ever put on any gloves.
Sportswriters had criticized Tunney, a Marine in World War l, during his boxing days as a high-hat for his literary studies. Apparently, the champ was rarely without a book.
Tunney and the Nobel-winning Shaw became so close that they and their wives vacationed together, an unlikely friendship, perhaps, but a charming one to consider. And they were both champions in their fields.
As for the Cosgroves, the Chicago adventure lasted less than a year. My mother, a native New Yorker of epic loyalty, was so depressed by the move that the milkman began delivering red wine he’d made at home to help her get over her homesickness. Alas, my mother was a Scotch drinker—and in mid-1957 we returned to NYC, settling in Queens.
I have fond memories of those first days in Chicago: the thrill of that elegant train ride, particularly when a Pullman porter turned down the upper berth in our compartment; standing in the middle of the famed Loop; and staying at the Palmer House before our place in Park Forest was ready to inhabit. But no memory is greater than that of my brief, New York encounter with Gene Tunney, the man who shook the hand of George Bernard Shaw.

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