Leaping Lena Levy

By Pete Ehrmann on June 10, 2015
Leaping Lena Levy
Westbrook Pegler called King’s most potent weapon “an alley fighter’s right-hand swing.”

She was as famous in the 1930s as her kid brother Harry, a screwball heavyweight contender known as Kingfish Levinsky…

Lena Krakow Levy didn’t exactly leap into eternity 61 years ago — her heart quietly gave out on June 9, 1954 — but then, she’d been out of practice for almost two decades. As “Leaping Lena” she was as famous in the 1930s as her kid brother Harry, a screwball heavyweight contender known as Kingfish Levinsky. Maybe even more.

“Kingfish Levinsky is no small show on his own part,” wrote Grantland Rice, “but he is outclassed by his chief second, the same being Leaping Lena, his sister, second, trainer, guide, philosopher and sometimes friend.”

In 1933, when the Kingfish was riding high after besting Jack Dempsey (in an exhibition bout), Tommy Loughran and Jack Sharkey, a Levinsky profile in Collier’s magazine was titled, “Leaping Lena’s Baby Brother.”

The nickname came about because during Levinsky’s bouts she frequently left her seat to shriek exhortations at her brother (“Hit ‘im in the zeiten!”) or aspersions at his opponents, the referee, judges, and anyone who didn’t agree with Lena that “The King” was the sharpest thing in satin trunks. Dissenters found, as columnist Walter Trumbull put it, that “asbestos earmuffs are small protection.” 

The Kingfish-and-Lena show started on the cusp of 1931 after Lena fired two successive managers because Levinsky wasn’t getting enough buck for his bang.

“The King earned $55,000 in 1930 and got only $15,000 out of it,” she said. “I figured I might as well keep the money in the family, so I fired the manager. I kept an assistant until I found out I knew more about the business than he did, and then I fired him, too. Now I run everything.”

Did she ever. Lena moved the Kingfish into her house, told him what to eat and think, called him “Champ” to his face and “The Personality Kid” in public and relentlessly extolled his handsomeness (actually enhanced, she said, by the punches he took), manliness and the power in the right fist that knocked down Loughran, Sharkey and Mickey Walker (though Walker survived to win their bout). What Westbrook Pegler called “an alley fighter’s right-hand swing” was Levinsky’s most potent weapon.

Whatever Lena did was aces with Kingfish. “I’ll do anything sister says, for she generally knows what she’s talking about,” said the fourth-grade dropout whose maturation ceased with his formal education. Levinsky even cheerfully went along with it when Lena had him dogged by a private detective to “see that I don’t drink too much water or eat too many hotdogs or hamburgers or egg sandwiches” when she wasn’t around.

In 1934 Lena divorced her husband of 20 years, a Chicago cop, who made it an easy decision by punching her out several times. The judge asked how Kingfish would fare against Max Schmeling, and Lena said, “The King would hit Mr. Schmeling so hard Mr. Hitler would feel it in Germany.”

When her managerial duties became especially pressing, Lena took on two boxing savvy partners, Pete Reilly and Harold Steinman, with whom she did not play well. A dispute with Reilly days before Levinsky was scheduled to fight Art Lasky In Los Angeles in May ’34 turned into front page news because Lena and the Kingfish up and took a powder and for five days were objects of a national dragnet second only to that for gangster John Dillinger. They turned up in Chicago, where Lena announced that her brother had suffered a nervous breakdown and he did his part by telling reporters from his hospital bed, “I’m weak. I’m sick. I’m tired. I ain’t the Kingfish no more. I took a look in the looking glass and I hated myself.”

When his own reflection no longer revolted Levinsky it was on to the next fiasco a few months later when Lena announced that the Kingfish was going to marry a 19-year-old fan dancer named Roxanne Glickman. This was news to him, but as always the dutiful brother went along with the program and he and Roxanne were hitched on August 14. It lasted only six weeks, for which the bride mostly blamed her controlling sister-in-law.

“Lena makes scenes,” said Roxanne. “She hollers. She swears and curses. She throws things. And she hits people — mostly King — right on the street… If King and I had our own place instead of living with Lena, we could have gotten along — for more than six weeks, anyway.”

Lena stoutly defended herself on the ground that “I’m a business woman, and when I’ve got a fight on for the King he’s got to train. I don’t want any wife around him when he ought to be keeping all his vitamins by getting plenty of sleep and building up.”

The Kingfish did not contest the divorce. He and Roxanne were “incollapsible,” he told the press, “or whatever that word is. Lena knows. She told me.”

The dizzy year closed on the worst possible note for Lena and her brother when heavyweight champion Max Baer flattened him in the second round of an exhibition bout in Chicago on December 28.

According to Leaping Lena, “The Kingfish got too confident after beating that Baer all over the ring in the first round. He thought he could go on winning just as decisively and did not obey instructions from the corner to be careful in the second round. Why, he was even waving to me that everything was okay when that Baer clouted him on the chin. Oi, such a punch! Even my chin hurts.”

Nobody but Lena gave Levinsky a chance against undefeated Joe Louis when they fought at Comiskey Park on August 7, 1935. “The King will take him in two rounds,” she crowed, using a secret new punch Lena ominously called “The Graveyard Special.”

She cried when the Brown Bomber destroyed Kingfish in a minute and a half of the first round. A week later, Charles Dunkley of the Associated Press was walking on Maxwell St. when a shiny new car pulled up alongside him. “I want you to put it in the papers that the Kingfish ain’t through yet,” yelled Levinsky, behind the wheel.

“That’s right, King, you tell ‘em!” screamed Lena from the back seat. “The King ain’t dead. He’s coming back. And he’ll fight with his brains — his brains, I’m telling you! And any bum that says different, I’ll wind a crowbar around his neck!”

It was her final bellicose pronouncement on her brother’s behalf. On September 6, Lena went in the hospital after what she hysterically told police was an effort by thugs to throw her off an 11th floor fire escape because she wouldn’t cut them in on her brother’s ring action. A man and woman were arrested, but the investigation was dropped after Kingfish identified the former as Lena’s “gigolo.”

A doctor said Lena was suffering from a “highly nervous condition,” and she was an uncharacteristically pitiful sight as she writhed on her hospital bed moaning, “I won’t want no trouble. I don’t want no trouble. I don’t want to manage the King no more.”

Unlike the breakdown Lena had cooked up for the Kingfish, this one was genuine and devastating. Within two months Lena was packed off to a private asylum because the onetime fearless manager had become unmanageable. On December 12, a panel of three head shrinkers said she was suffering from hallucinations and committed Lena to the state booby hatch in Kankakee. Private care was no longer an option because the estimated $300,000 the Kingfish earned in the ring was gone.

“My family always took it away from me,” explained Levinsky. There was the big Chicago restaurant he and Lena opened that went bust, plus his own fondness for big cars and cabarets.

“My sister Lena had an idea (the money) was going to last forever,” he said. “So did I. But I was good to the folks.”

Seven months after her confinement it was reported that Lena, an imposing tank of a gal in her prime, had wasted away to less than 100 pounds. But she was incollapsible, and in 1942 when Kingfish was in Miami rassling for 50 bucks a match and selling electric razors, a columnist inquiring about her was told, “Ol’ Leapin’ Lena, she’s running a dress shop now an’ making a mint of money.”

With nary another peep nor leap, Lena operated the dress shop in Chicago with sons Edward and Adolph up to her death at age 59.

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  1. Bruce Kielty 07:53pm, 09/03/2018

    The King was featured in an anti-boxing documentary by David Brinkley in the 1960s.  Levinsky was then selling neckties in Miami and appeared to be showing the effects of his long boxing career.

  2. Elise Travis 02:02pm, 06/05/2016

    Hi Mary Ann,
    You can contact Sheldon Rosenfeld at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). He has all the knowledge of everyone. There were 4 sisters. Lena, Dora, Annie and Ray Krakow.  Sheldon is the grandson of Dora who was Lena’s sister. Helen and Sol Krakow who are no longer living had a daughter Lisa and son Billy and Ira Krakow. Billy Krakow is a physicist I don’t Lisa’s last name. I am not in touch with any of them.There was also Freddy Krakow and he had a daughter. So, there were 4 sisters, Lena Krakow(Levy), my grandmother, Dora Krakow,Sheldon’s grandmother and Annie Krakow(my Aunt and had no children and Ray Krakow, the youngest (had a son named David Handelman and a daughter named Sonia.(Who passed away before childbirth. And 2 brothers, Kingfish and Fishke and maybe a 3rd. brother ,Samuel.Freddie’s mom was Molly who was the 2nd wife to Fishke or Abraham Krakow. I’m curious where you fit in.

  3. Mary Ann Bateman 06:45am, 06/05/2016

    I would like to locate any family members of the krakow family.I am the great niece to Lena and King fish.My grandfather was their brother Sam Krakow.Thank you

  4. Mary ANN KRAKOW GREAT NIECE TO KING FISH AND LEN 06:34am, 06/05/2016

    I WOULD LIKE TO LOCATE ANY FAMILY MEMBERS OF THE KRAKOW ANCESTORS . MY GRANDFATHER WAS LENA’S BROTHER , THANK-YOU

  5. Elise Travis 12:12am, 06/05/2016

    Aloha,
    Leaping Lena was my Grandmother and King Levinksy was my great Uncle. She died when I was 5yrs. old and this is the first time I am reading in so much detail about her. My dad was Adolph levy. WOW!!

  6. Ronald Levao 03:01pm, 12/23/2015

    So glad the season is finally over.  Haven’t read Pete Ehrmann’s in a couple of years and from what I’ve browsed today, there’s an amazing amount of great stuff to catch up on!

  7. Kimberly 07:38pm, 07/16/2015

    My grandfather whose boxing name was “Keller Crawford” had a female promoter named “Mrs. Emma Debow” in the 1930s. Does anyone know anything about her?

  8. peter 04:07pm, 06/11/2015

    Well written articles like these are what make boxing.com the King of the Hill. This site bridges sport with art. Thank you.

  9. Clarence George 01:32pm, 06/11/2015

    Truer words ain’t never been spoke, Pete.

  10. Pete 01:14pm, 06/11/2015

    Thank you, Clarence. There was no end of fascinating things to be learned in Hooterville, USA.

  11. Dollarbond 06:13am, 06/11/2015

    Interesting

  12. Clarence George 06:17pm, 06/10/2015

    I’m very interested in peripheral characters, and this is nicely done.  The mention of the utterly forgotten Westbrook Pegler is an added bonus.  I’m reminded of a “Green Acres” episode, when Guy Raymond asks Eddie Albert if anyone ever mistook him for Conway Tearle.  Or when Pat Buttram says to Albert, “I bet you ain’t seen anything shimmy like that since Gilda Gray.”  Wonderfully obscure references, even 50 years ago.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:29pm, 06/10/2015

    At different times in the Levinsky bout shown above, Max can be seen moving forward by literally doing the “two step” which not only squared him up to King but resulted in his feet being placed damn near side by side.

  14. Eric 04:29pm, 06/10/2015

    “see that I don’t drink too much water….” Now that is definitely old school training gone wrong. Remember waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back in the mid-70’s during football practice we were denied water or Gatorade (I think there were only two flavors then, orange and green) until after practice. And we are talking in Florida, with full pads. Small wonder we didn’t die of heat stroke or dehydration. You can never drink enough water, especially when you are really putting yourself through the paces.

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