The Great John L.: Emperor of Masculinity

By Clarence George on August 19, 2015
The Great John L.: Emperor of Masculinity
As he lay dying on his bed of pain, he asked a doctor, "Am I still a pink powder puff?"

“He dines like Gargantua. He drinks like Gambrinus. He has the strength of Samson, and the fighting talent of Achilles…”

“Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.”—Joyce Carol Oates

The only thing I knew about the poet Vachel Lindsay is that he committed suicide by swallowing Lysol. But in reading Randy Roberts’ Joe Louis, I came across his poetic tribute to John L. Sullivan. “When I was nine years old, in 1889, I sent my love a lacy Valentine,” the poem begins. “Suffering boys were dressed like Fauntleroys.” Ah, but then,

“I heard a battle trumpet sound.
Nigh New Orleans
Upon an emerald plain
John L. Sullivan
The strong boy
Of Boston
Fought seventy-five rounds with Jake Kilrain.”

Gone were the days, Lindsay both recognized and applauded, of the la-di-da American male, fey, foppish, and feminized; “flat-chested, thin-armed, and pencil-necked,” as Roberts puts it. With the sun setting on the 19th century, the Great John L. shone upon a new morning, manfully ushering in new habits of being—smoking, drinking, eating, and fighting. And let’s not forget swearing, except perhaps in the presence of women and girl children. The Sullivan man, Roberts writes, “was silent, strong, independent, and deadly, familiar with saloons, prostitutes, animals, and firearms.”

“A wonderful specimen is this Sullivan,” Roberts quotes Charles Dana of the New York Sun, “He dines like Gargantua. He drinks like Gambrinus. He has the strength of Samson, and the fighting talent of Achilles.”

Writes Roberts, “He was America’s champion, the citizens’ champion, something akin to the president of pugilism, the first among equals. Even more exaltedly, he was the Emperor of Masculinity.”

Boxing was both microcosm and symbol of this world of men without women, or at least of men not deballed by women, and Sullivan’s concept and practice of masculinity remained very much in force throughout the reigns of the Strong Boy’s pugilistic descendants—Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Rocky Marciano. “The boxing ring is the ultimate focus of masculinity in America,” Roberts quotes Eldridge Cleaver, “the two-fisted testing ground of manhood, and the heavyweight champion, as a symbol, is the real Mr. America.” By contrast, think of the average American male’s disdain for that guy with the pointy sideburns who knew how to dance suspiciously well—quintessential lady’s man, Rudolph Valentino. 

The July 18, 1926, edition of the Chicago Tribune featured an editorial entitled “Pink Powder Puffs,” which railed against that son of a sheik for supposedly being behind the installation of a face-powder dispenser in a public men’s room on the North Side.

“A powder vending machine! In a men’s washroom! Homo Americanus! Why didn’t someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo, alias Valentino, years ago?… Man began to slip, we are beginning to believe, when he discarded the straight razor for the safety pattern. We shall not be surprised when we hear that the safety razor has given way to the depilatory… Do women like the type of ‘man’ who pats pink powder on his face in a public washroom and arranges his coiffure in a public elevator?… Hollywood is the national school of masculinity. Rudy, the beautiful gardener’s boy, is the prototype of the American male.”

“Hell’s bells. Oh, sugar,” the editorial concludes.

Valentino hoped to settle matters with the anonymous writer by duel, or at least in the boxing ring. As Gilbert King wrote in an article for a few years ago, “The actor traveled to New York and arranged to have boxing lessons from his friend Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion. Valentino was actually quite fit, and Dempsey tried to help, getting in touch with sportswriter Frank ‘Buck’ O’Neil. ‘Listen, O’Neil,’ Dempsey told him, ‘Valentino’s no sissy, believe me… He packs a pretty mean punch.’

“‘Cut the crap,’ O’Neil told him. ‘I don’t buy it, and neither does anyone else.’” Maybe not, but O’Neil did meet the lavender-robed powder puff on the roof of the Ambassador Hotel, getting himself floored by a left. “Somewhat stunned, Valentino apologized and helped the writer to his feet.”

“Next time Jack Dempsey tells me something, I’ll believe him,” King quotes a rueful O’Neil. “That boy has a punch like a mule’s kick. I’d sure hate to have him sore at me.”

Valentino never did get a crack at the Tribune‘s bad boy. Not that it would have mattered. The palaver of pink, powder, and puffs wouldn’t have perished. Valentino just wasn’t up to Sullivan’s snuff. He knew it and was haunted by it. As he lay dying on his bed of pain, he asked a doctor, “Am I still a pink powder puff?”

Dempsey was right, as quoted by Allan R. Ellenberger in his biography of the movie star, “Valentino was an intelligent, oversensitive individual who allowed himself to be packaged by Hollywood and didn’t like the result.”

There’s that great exchange in The Sun Also Rises: “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” Well, that’s pretty much what happened to Sullivan’s brand of masculinity. Gone the days, to paraphrase the old song, when men were men and loved it, and the gals were sure glad of it. I guess it started in the 1970s, with men wearing platform heels. Then you had guys going to spas to have cucumber slices put on their eyelids. Or is it kiwi? Good God, whatever happened to bay rum! Then came body waxing. To come across as what, androgynous boys? Catamites? Low-hanging fruit for the hard boys of Cell Block D? What’s this, women lacing up the gloves? Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, that is. And now there’s all sorts of craziness that I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around. I’m reminded of the Get Smart episode where in the room with the romance gas you got your female rabbits chasing all the boy bunnies, while in the room with the fear gas the females are shrinking away from them. “Und in both rooms,” as KAOS’ Siegfried wryly observes, “the male rabbits are just sitting around trying to figure out what the heck it’s all about.”

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  1. Clarence George 01:00pm, 08/21/2015

    Jared is definitely going, Irish, it’s just a matter of for how long.  If Caitlin went, it would be to a men’s prison—the law doesn’t recognize her narcissistic masquerade.  Are you referring to Howard’s ludicrous defense of Hillary?  He’s a nasty piece of work.  And weird.  One day, he’ll snap like a dead branch in winter.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:43am, 08/21/2015

    Clarence George-Both Cait and Jared may be going up the river….Cait will do just fine because he/she is already come to grips with his feminine self, in time Jared will as well. Which reminds me…. 99% of the recidivists are gay (particularly the most aggressive predators) that’s why they thrive on the inside. God God Almighty that Howard Dean is one crazy so of a bitch….he should be locked up on general principles.

  3. Clarence George 11:54am, 08/20/2015

    I don’t know, Irish, he looks a bit arch to me.

    You might get a kick out of today’s “New York Post” front-page headline, in reference to Jared Fogle:  “Enjoy a Foot Long in Jail.”  Perez Hilton finds it offensive…which means that I don’t.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:34am, 08/20/2015

    In the photos above Rudy looks more imposing than John L. who looks kinda’ pensive.

  5. Clarence George 05:33am, 08/20/2015

    Peter:  All this talk of deballing and denutting reminds me of a very funny exchange between Sybil and Basil Fawlty: 

    Sybil:  “If I find out the money on that horse was yours, you know what I’ll do, Basil.”
    Basil:  “You’ll have to sew ‘em back on first.”

    I remember your excellent review of the Sullivan bio, which I still want to read.  My brother got me the one on Louis.  He found it on a bookstore’s remainder table.  That says something about the popularity of boxing books…and nothing good.

  6. peter 04:50am, 08/20/2015

    I like “deballed”. “Denutted” works, too. It’s the first time I’ve heard both expressions…As far as Sullivan is concerned, he was the Mike Tyson of his day. Christopher Klein writes in “Strong Boy”, “Among the greatest weapons (Sullivan) possessed were dark, piercing eyes. Sullivan could say terrible things with his ferocious stare, which often crushed opponents before he even threw a punch.”

  7. Clarence George 12:46pm, 08/19/2015


    Just kidding.

    Me, I like boxing, red meat, and girl-watching.  Sorta my own personal take on “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”  Oh, and napping.  Occasionally awakened by an excess of nihilistic noise outside my cave, I emerge to emit a growl or two of disapproval before returning to my snug den to resume my rudely interrupted, much-needed, and well-deserved snooze.  That’s what I’ve done here, a growl in the form of a tribute to no-nonsense Sullivanian masculinity, thus condemning a world gone as mad as the proverbial hatter.

  8. Joe Masterleo 09:17am, 08/19/2015

    Great quote by Oates at the outset, and a telling piece on Sullivan as the personification of manhood in his time—hairy, Neanderthalic, given to excesses, petulant, swashbuckling, impulsive, half-crazed from excessive levels of testosterone, plagued by racial memories of the lost glory of brain cudgeling tribal warfare and mammoth-hunting expeditions, etc. Sullivan lived an era when most things were more sharply defined, and in contrasting black and white categories. For better or worse, definitions of what it means to be male or female, or for that matter, a person (irrespective of gender), have changed radically since John L’s day, even in the last decade. Things are more confusingly nuanced today, with more shades of gray. Perhaps some of the nostalgia for those simpler times is our envy of and longing for same, and not necessarily for good reasons. Meaning, it was far easier in Sullivan’s day to settle for being a man as it was then defined, than to struggle to become a human being, and whatever that entails more wholly, irrespective of race, gender, nation or tribe.

  9. Eric 08:42am, 08/19/2015

    Irish… teehee.
    Clarence… Saw that last night about Yvonne Craig/Batgirl. RIP.

  10. Clarence George 08:40am, 08/19/2015

    Thanks, Irish, and sorry I couldn’t squeeze Novarro in (so to speak).  His was an ugly death.

  11. Clarence George 08:30am, 08/19/2015

    Funny you say that, Eric, because that’s exactly what I had in mind when I wrote, “And now there’s all sorts of craziness that I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around.”

    Just heard that Yvonne Craig has died.  Very sorry to hear it.  What a sizzler!  I’ve never gotten over her as Marta, the green-skinned Orion slave girl.  Requiescat in pace, Batgirl.

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:22am, 08/19/2015

    Clarence George-This is the kind of history I like, still no mention of Ramon Navarro, mores the pity.  “Deballed”! I prefer denutted but deballed works just fine. Reminds me of Trumpy and the Sixteen Geldings. @Eric-Cait spending time at that Beverly Hills Bunny Ranch probably fantasizing about Lamar Odom slipping into his/her boudoir when the other bunnies were out strolling the boulevard.

  13. Eric 06:50am, 08/19/2015

    Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. Never would have imagined this while eating Wheaties back in ‘76-‘77.

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