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A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s

A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s

4.5 2
by Roger Kahn

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Jack Dempsey was perfectly suited to the time in which he fought, the time when the United States first felt the throb of its own overwhelming power. For eight years and two months after World War I, Dempsey, with his fierce good looks and matchless dedication to the kill, was heavyweight champion of the world. A Flame of Pure Fire is the extraordinary story


Jack Dempsey was perfectly suited to the time in which he fought, the time when the United States first felt the throb of its own overwhelming power. For eight years and two months after World War I, Dempsey, with his fierce good looks and matchless dedication to the kill, was heavyweight champion of the world. A Flame of Pure Fire is the extraordinary story of a man and a country growing to maturity in a blaze of strength and exuberance that nearly burned them to ash. Hobo, roughneck, fighter, lover, millionaire, movie star, and, finally, a gentleman of rare generosity and sincerity, Dempsey embodied an America grappling with the confusing demands of preeminence. Dempsey lived a life that touched every part of the American experience in the first half of the twentieth century. Roger Kahn, one of our preeminent writers about the human side of sport, has found in Dempsey a subject that matches his own manifold talents. A friend of Dempsey's and an insightful observer of the ways in which sport can measure a society's evolution, Kahn reaches a new and exciting stage in his acclaimed career with this book. In the story of a man John Lardner called "a flame of pure fire, at last a hero," Roger Kahn finds the heart of America.

Editorial Reviews


A Man of the People

The best tickets in the 1920s were those to Jack Dempsey's heavyweight bouts. His brawls repeatedly drew 100,000 superstars, gamblers, and gate-crashers -- the rabble-rousers who gave "The Roaring '20s" its name. In A Flame of Pure Fire, acclaimed sportswriter Roger Kahn re-creates the scene of Dempsey's stirring fights and tells the story of a cultural phenom and a phenomenal man.

"Boxing is a very tough game," said Dempsey, "and not many fellows who grow up with butlers in their homes are willing to put up with all the training and all the punishment you have to take." Born in Manassa, Colorado, in 1895, Dempsey grew up in a broken and poverty-stricken family that he was forced to support at an early age. He mined and begged for money and was admittedly "a hobo, but not a bum."

At 16 years old and 150 pounds, Jack Dempsey first made his living as a "freelance bar fighter," challenging any man in a mining-camp bar to a brawl for a buck. There he fought some of his toughest bouts and honed the skills that would make him a champion. Though later thought of as more of a "fighter" than a "boxer," Dempsey perfected the skills of his craft: A shifty bob and weave made him tough to hit; he carefully protected his chin with his left shoulder; and his devastating left hook was set up by a well-rehearsed clinching maneuver.

On July 4, 1919, Dempsey challenged the mammoth Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio, for the heavyweight championship. Willard, who had previously killed John "Bull" Young with a brutal uppercut, was wary of his potential to similarly bludgeon Dempsey. Giving away nearly 50 pounds to Willard, Dempsey also feared for his life. Kahn masterfully recaptures the prefight scene with descriptions of the city, the crowd, the seedy promoters, and the journalists who covered it all. It was 114 degrees in Toledo that day, and the sweltering atmosphere was the crucible in which Dempsey earned the heavyweight championship of the world.

Kahn covers the subsequent Dempsey epics in similar fashion. Each has its own storyline. In 1921, Dempsey fought Georges Carpentier, a stylish, secretive French war-hero who was a darling of the press. Though the bout was fought in New Jersey, the Frenchman received more crowd support than the American "slacker." The match, later deemed "The Battle of the Century," drew an unprecedented official gate of 80,183 fans. The actual crowd was larger. Writes Kahn, "If you want to select a date when it was proven publicly that American sports had become big business, July 2, 1921, certainly makes sense."

Following his mashing of Carpentier, Dempsey met Tommy Gibbons in a fiasco in Shelby, Montana. When it turned out that the overeager promoters couldn't support the bout, Dempsey insisted on fighting anyway. Ultimately Dempsey gave a lackluster performance, and he and his swindling manager, Doc Kearns, were the only participants paid for the showing -- poor Gibbons fought 15 terrifying rounds for nothing.

The champion's boxing career climaxed on September 14, 1923, with a thunderous knockout of the huge Argentine Luis Angel Firpo. For one and a half rounds, the giants blasted each other. There were 12 knockdowns in four minutes of fighting. At one point, Firpo knocked Dempsey clear out of the ring. Controversy ensued. Reporters helped lift Jack back up, which technically should have disqualified the champion. Nonetheless, Dempsey had clearly proved that he could give and take punches like nobody else.

Dempsey's next serious bout came three years later. More than 135,000 fans watched the champion fight Gene Tunney in Philadelphia. Tunney, a heavy underdog, was obsessed with beating Dempsey. His strategy of jabbing and retreating worked to perfection. For 10 rounds, the rusty Dempsey chased Tunney around the ring, unable to catch him. Reporters were stunned at the outcome. Some speculated that Dempsey had been poisoned before the bout, but he denied that any possible poisoning had an effect. Gracious in both victory and defeat, Dempsey gave full credit to the new champion.

When they next fought, in September 1927, Dempsey was 32 years old and well beyond his fighting prime. The match took place in Chicago, and the arrangements seemed slanted in Tunney's favor -- the ring was of the largest allowable dimensions, and the referee was of a shady background. Kahn asks, "Where but in Chicago during the 1920s could a bootlegger, or a bootlegger once removed, a working criminal, so to speak, be hired to referee a heavyweight championship fight?" By most accounts, Dempsey would have won the rematch had it not been for the infamous "long count." As it stands, the former champion went down swinging.

Kahn colors the narrative of the championship bouts with cultural icons of the era. Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scopes trial, the philandering President Warren Harding, Bill Tilden, Charles Lindbergh, and Al Capone all take a bow. In a show of his ethics and good sense, Dempsey declined Capone's offer to bankroll a fight, and he later pleaded with the Mob leader not to interfere in Dempsey-Tunney II.

During the Roaring '20s, prejudice, corruption, and moral ambivalence were all the rage. Kahn vividly illustrates the bureaucratic ineptitude of New York state boxing officials, as well as the blistering insidiousness of racism. During Prohibition, the fight promoters made sure that alcohol flowed smoothly for reporters, whose articles could help rake in money or convince public opinion of the victor. In an age of loosening morality, Dempsey drew ample attention from beautiful young women, both in the United States and abroad. His fame and fortune predictably made him an object of the envy of such figures as Babe Ruth and the young writer Ernest Hemingway.

Dempsey's fights in the ring were clouded by legal battles outside of it. The "Slacker Trial" initiated by his first wife would haunt him for years; not only was he stung by his wife's betrayal, but his patriotism was repeatedly questioned. (He later saw combat in World War II at the age of 49.) Dempsey also faced lawsuits from another former ally, his manager, Doc Kearns. Somehow, pocketing 50 percent of Dempsey's prize winnings were not sufficient for Kearns, who was dumped after a conflict with the fighter's new love, the beautiful Hollywood star Estelle Taylor. Kearns's legal attempts at extortion were ludicrous. Though a criminal, however, Kearns was also a true character, emblematic of the wild decade. At the first Tunney fight, Kearns cried as he watched his former protégé lose.

In A Flame of Pure Fire, Kahn writes that "[t]o see Dempsey box was, quite simply, to see a brave man going about his business in an extraordinary way." Dempsey reveled in the Roaring '20s, while simultaneously transcending its corruption. For that he was more than just a sports hero, but a cultural leader of a vibrant era.

—Brenn Jones

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"He was the wild and raucous champion of the wild and raucous 1920s," writes Kahn (The Boys of Summer, etc.) of the legendary heavyweight William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey. This "hobo, roughneck, brawler, fighter, slacker, lover, millionaire, gentleman" provides Kahn a vehicle for chronicling the jazz age itself. Dempsey emerged out of the still-wild West, having fought in mining towns throughout Utah and Colorado, lean and hungry for success as his country stood on the precipice of unprecedented wealth and power. His transformation from rural tough, the "Manassa Mauler," into the preeminent athlete in the world marked the arrival of sport as big business in a prosperous new America. When he won the heavyweight championship in 1919, Dempsey did it in front of 20,000 people. Less than eight years later, he drew a crowd of 120,000 for his first bout with Gene Tunney (which he lost), still the largest ever in boxing, and made a fortune. In graceful and fluid prose, Kahn presents the con men, gangsters, prostitutes and starlets who inhabited the turbulent, Prohibition-era story of Jack Dempsey. The larger-than-life storytellers of the age--legendary sportswriters like Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon--feature prominently. Kahn delivers a performance of which any of those whiskey-swilling, rakish scribes would have been proud. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
A decade after its publication, Kahn's sweeping biography of the majestic career of boxing great Jack Dempsey—set against a rollicking backdrop of 1920s America—makes its way to audio. At over 17 hours in length, the unabridged title certainly allows listeners an ample opportunity to immerse themselves in the colorful atmosphere surrounding one of the earliest athletes to become a pop culture icon. Admittedly, the full cast of gangsters, flappers, showbiz royalty, politicians and Wild West hoboes may not always come to life in evenly vivid detail. But at his best, Kevin Yon captures Kahn's unabashed hero worship, especially as the author reflects on his relationship with Dempsey during the Champ's later years. Yon also manages to create a compelling characterization of Dempsey, whose high-pitched voice and unassuming manner of speaking provide a stark contrast to his ferocity inside the ring. A Harcourt hardcover. (July)
Library Journal
Kahn's (The Boys of Summer) detailed biography of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, a New York Times Notable Book of 1999, wonderfully captures the boxer and his era, arguing that his impact on the future of sports was greater than that of any other athlete of the 1920s. This audio edition takes some getting used to owing to narrator Kevin Yon's (kevinyon.com) halting reading, but this, combined with his rough-edged delivery, truly suits the colorful Runyonesque figures inhabiting Kahn's tale. For all listeners interested in sports, media history, and American history in general.—Michael Adams, CUNY Graduate Ctr. Lib.
Ron Fimrite
This is quite smply Kahn's finest work since he made The Boys of Summer part of the language.
Sports Illustrated
Kirkus Reviews
With spellbinding results, a writer better known for his immortal baseball books crosses over—both to another sport, boxing, and to another literary genre, the sprawling social history. Born in 1895 and reared amid the hardscrabble surroundings of Colorado mining towns, William Harrison Dempsey entered adulthood as America girded for entry in the Great War. Exploding onto the boxing scene after felling the giant champion Jess Willard, Dempsey found himself at the center of a storm. Withstanding accusations of brutality from a spurned wife and charges of draft dodging in the war, Dempsey throughout the 1920s proved himself a good man and no dope, to boot. He was courted by kings, Hollywood moguls, and a parade of beautiful women. Meanwhile, in the ring, he faced legendary opponents in fights that even today are recognized simply by the names of the combatants: Dempsey v. Firpo, Dempsey v. Tunney. As the title suggests, this book is about boxing as both a "sweet science" and a corrupt spectacle. More than this, however, Kahn plumbs the times, and what times they were: the Great War, baseball's 1919 "Black Sox" affair, the Roaring '20s. And Jack Dempsey was the cynosure of these times—a man praised at his passing at age 87 by the writer Jim Murray, with the following words: "he took an era with him." Kahn chronicles the people and events that propel the narrative, among them, presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, the Scopes trial, Knute Rockne, Babe Ruth, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Lindbergh, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Al Capone. He also gives an exacting and gripping portrait of sport in its golden era. Kahn pays tribute to a generation ofsportswriters—Lardner, Gallico, Pegler, Runyon, Broun, et al.—who shared equally the credit for making the times seem so grand. An intoxicating panoply of legends and heroes, surely one of the most solid and delightful sporting histories of recent times. (16 pages b&w photos) (Author tour)

From the Publisher

"One doesn't have to be a fan of boxing to be enthralled by this story of a nice guy who didn't finish last."—The New Yorker
"An intoxicating panoply of legends and heroes, surely one of the most solid and delightful sporting histories of recent times."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.29(h) x 1.56(d)

What People are Saying About This

Richard Snow
A Flame of Pure Fire, Roger Kahn's utterly absorbing account of Jack Dempsey's career, moves with the color and pace of a good novel as it takes its subject from his gritty beginnings to his place at the zenith of American sport in its grandest era. Along the way Kahn introduces the aracana of the prize ring with an easy mastery that will enthrall even the most pacific reader, offers a moving and surprisingly intimate account of Dempsey's turbulent first marriage, and finally puts the fighter's life in its largest context to give us a portrait not only of a fascinating man but of the nation that made him its greatest hero in an age of heroes.
Ring Lardner
The fact that Jack Dempsey was one of America's preeminent celebrities in the 1920s was the result of both the man himself and the special decade in which he flourished. That is why Roger Kahn devotes almost equal attention to the two phenomena. Together, they give us a brilliantly written picture of a champion and his era.

Meet the Author

Widely acclaimed as the greatest baseball writer of his generation, Roger Kahn is most famous for his modern classic, The Boys of Summer, which James Michener called the finest American book on sports. Kahn is the author of 16 books, including The Head Game, Baseball Seen from the Pitchers’ Mound. His magazine articles won five Dutton Best Magazine Story Awards and his book The Era: When the Yankees Dodgers and Giants Ruled the World was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Born in Brooklyn, he now lives in Stone Ridge, N.Y. with his wife, the psychotherapist Katharine Colt Johnson.

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A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Knowing little about Jack Dempsey, other than having seen him stand up old and elegant at various prize fights in the 1970s on TV to take applause, the 20's and boxing, this book filled a gaping empty gap. The author mentions his admiration of Dempsey in the Epilogue. And the refrain throughout the book: 'He (Dempsey) spoke openly of his own fear,' 'To see Dempsey box was, quite simply, to see a brave man going about this business in an extraordinary way,' 'Demsey never got overly impressed with himself' evokes almost an ode to the erstwhile heavyweight champ. An ode, based on facts served, justly earned. Two literary devises used by the author drive the narrative quality of the biography. The first, along the Dos Passos method but expanded, sprinkles in tastes of the 20's: GB Shaw and HL Menken at ringside, Warren Harding's amorous escapades, Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Cappone, Hemmingway in Paris. I loved this. The second, first person experiences with boxing and personal meetings with Dempsey, didn't work for me. I wanted to dwell in the 20's and recreate the time; these allusions disturbed my attempt. All told, however, I now understand the difference between a street fight and boxing. I also know something about the 20's and Jack Dempsey. Dempsey 'lied less than most and beat down the huge bullies'. How couldn't I enjoy such a read?
Guest More than 1 year ago
Roger Kahn has done it again! In this mesmerizing biography of Jack Dempsey, Kahn has brought back to vivid life a time in America's history that my parents and grandparents used to talk of with such fondness. I was hooked from beginning to end. This book is a must-read for not only people interested in the life of Jack Dempsey, but for anyone who longs to experience another time and place as can only be conjured up by a magical author. Surely as spellbinding as anything Kahn has written and easily the most enjoyable read I've had in a long time.