Sunday, July 14, 2013

My Dad, Dempsey, Willard and Firpo

Funny how you run into things, how you discover things. It was Friday night and we were laying in bed trying to find something to watch. For all the thousands of channels and video-on-demand, there was nothing but garbage and junk. I took the control and flipped over to PBS, where there was a show about the American painter George Bellows, narrated by Ethan Hawke, who we both like from the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight movies. As we were watching the film about Bellow's life and his interest in boxing, I suddenly found myself staring at a painting depicting a Jack Dempsey falling out of the ring and just about to land among the reporters. Standing in the ring is the challenger, Luis Ángel Firpo.

The thing is that my dad told me about the match when Dempsey got knocked out of the ring in an interview I did with him in 1983, 60 years after the match in New York 1923. I used it in my book about dad -- I’m Adding Sunshine to My Paint -- Harald Sandberg’s Path to the Arts. (Also available on as a Kindle ebook.)

George Bellow's 1924 painting of the Dempsey-Firpo Match.

Jack Dempsey temporarily out of the ring.

Boxing was big when my dad was a little kid in Söderhamn, a coastal town in Northern Sweden, and his hero was Jack Dempsey. He wrote a school essay about Dempsey that was much talked about, and he retold the essay when I interviewed him, but at one point he switched the story around. He had been talking about how Dempsey was fighting Jess Willard, and had hit him so that he landed among the journalists, but then my dad corrected himself and said that it was Dempsey who had been knocked out of the ring. I googled the Dempsey-Willard match and found a video on Youtube, but nobody fell out of the ring. I assumed that dad's memory had failed him, or that his imagination had played a trick on him.

Dad was right about the event, but had mixed up the Willard and Firpo. Three minutes into the Youtube video of the Dempsey-Firpo match -- which took place on September 14 at the Polo Grounds in New York in front of 80,000 spectators -- Dempsey really does go through the ropes. And one of the spectators was Bellows, who soon after painted Dempsey and Firpo, which hangs at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

If I hadn't flipped channels that Friday night, I may never have found out that dad was right about Dempsey's fall, but wrong about the challenger. So it is with much of our knowledge. It just comes to us as an epiphenomenon.

Read more:
'Dempsey and Firpo': The Greatest American Sports Painting
Allen Barra in The Atlantic Montly, April 24, 2012.
Below is an excerpt from my book about my dad, the part where he tells the story Jack Dempsey. Click on the images to read them full size!