Book Review: Madame Bey’s: Home to Boxing Legends
The question isn’t so much who trained at Madame Bey’s in Chatham Township, New Jersey, from 1923 to 1942, but who didn’t…
“I am swamped with remembrances on Mother’s Day.”—Madame Bey
I’ve always been interested in boxing’s peripheral characters, who are no less interesting for being peripheral; if anything, more so.
Madame Bey, who “stood tall with the giants of the sport,” certainly fits the bill, as recounted in Gene Pantalone’s impressively researched and written Madame Bey’s: Home to Boxing Legends.
For those exclusively, or even primarily, interested in boxing history, the author devotes perhaps more space than necessary to the lady’s particulars. The biographical information and material is interesting and well presented (a frequent and favored guest at the White House, she was standing just a “few feet” from President McKinley when he was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901, the president dying eight days later), but the boxing fan may well find himself hurriedly, if inadvisedly, flipping through the pages to get at the meat — the boxers.
And what boxers. The question isn’t so much who trained at Madame Bey’s in Chatham Township, New Jersey, from 1923 to 1942, but who didn’t. Mickey Walker, he was there, as was Gene Tunney; Max Schmeling; Tony Canzoneri; Primo Carnera; Jack Dempsey; Bob Olin; Arturo Godoy; Lou Ambers; Max and Buddy Baer; Tommy Farr; Henry Armstrong; John Henry Lewis; Joe Louis…you get the idea. In fact, Pantalone includes a welcome section — “Notables During Madame Bey Era” — an alphabetical list of all the names, from Georgie Abrams to Teddy Yarosz (not excluding managers, trainers, cutmen, and sportswriters), who were at Madame Bey’s, each accompanied by a much-appreciated biographical blurb. All told, the camp hosted 78 Hall of Famers and 12 world heavyweight champs.
“An unwritten hierarchical structure existed,” writes Pantalone. “The best boxers, champions, former champions, contenders, and Bey’s favorites lived and slept at the farmhouse. At meal times, the resident champion garnered the head of the table with the better boxers sitting closest to him. They had conversations at the table with a range that had no limit. World heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott described the relationship that existed. ‘It always seemed like a family. Like a bunch of brothers sitting at the table. We were brothers in the same profession.’”
And where there are brothers, there must surely be a mother. “It makes no difference whether men are kings or tramps, princes or pugilists,” Pantalone quotes Madame Bey. “I have learned a few rules, and they apply to all men. Feed them well, give them comfortable quarters, and then leave them alone,” adding, “You see, they are just like children, and they sometimes have to be made to eat everything on their plates so that they will get a balanced meal.” Freddie Steele, for instance — “my little prince,” as she called him, but better known to most as the “Tacoma Assassin” — didn’t get a second helping of potatoes until he finished his string beans.
Hard to believe that she had a clean-your-plate problem (what with dinners boasting “thick steaks or chops”) with boxing’s Falstaffian bad boy, “Two Ton” Tony Galento. A character who could give Max and Moritz a run for their money, Tony once rather indelicately referred to the establishment of the indulgent, albeit aristocratic, Madame Bey as “out where that brunette tells you what to do.” As Pantalone puts it, “Two people could not be more different. They were opposites in both the way they approached boxing and life. They did not get along, but Madame Bey would not discuss it with the press.”
Conversely, she had her favorites, including her “two big boys,” Tunney and Schmeling. The former was her “polished emerald.” For Madame Bey, he was “That dear Gene! That marvelous, handsome, intelligent Gene Tunney — ah, there is a man for you!” The latter, who had no money when he first came to the camp, was told to “Stay,” by Madame. “Stay as long as you wish. Some day you will be a champion, and you will remember me then.” But favorite or not, “Every blow they take,” she said, “I take with them.”
Pantalone makes clear that most of the brood got along well with each other (though there were exceptions — Schmeling and Paulino Uzcudun’s relationship, for instance, “was not one of admiration”) and with their much-loved mother hen, who “gave them a home.” More, he provides a wealth of detailed information on the boxers, their training, and their fights, as well as their entourages. Most impressive, boxing’s Golden Age, in all its grit and color, is brought to vivid life in a book that is a delight for readers and essential for researchers.