Gene Tunney, Portrait of a Legendary Boxer

“Boxing is what you did, not what you are.” That’s what Nobel Prize-winning author George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) once said to the legendary heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney (1897–1978). 

Gene Tunney was recently introduced to The Conservation Center by way of his son, Jay Tunney, when he brought in a beautiful portrait of his father painted by family friend and Irish artist Sir John Lavery (1856–1941) in 1928. While Gene Tunney’s heart was in boxing—a fighter Muhammad Ali called “the greatest of the old-timers”—the painting does not depict what you would traditionally expect to see in a portrait of a tough, prominent athlete. Instead, the man on canvas appears to be handsome, dapperly dressed, well-coiffed, with a professorial quality (Tunney was a guest lecturer of Shakespeare at Yale University, but we’ll get to that later). It is this duality which piqued our interest in Mr. Tunney: “The Fighting Marine” who twice defeated Jack Dempsey, versus a gentleman who would also go on to discuss literature with the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hemingway.

Jay Tunney remembers his father fondly in this way as well, which makes the conservation process of this portrait so important: “I was eight years old before I realized that he was, in those days, a great celebrity. But I had always felt he knew more than anyone else in the family or anyone I'd ever known, including my teachers at school. There was never a chance we (brothers) could outsmart him or out think him. He could quote Shakespeare all day long and it seemed he read every newspaper in the country so profound was his knowledge of current affairs. In addition he was muscular and exercised by lifting dumb bells, skipping-rope, swimming and taking long walks in the 150 acre woods behind our house. He traveled widely, was culturally and intellectually astute and was an extraordinarily vital man up until the end.”

James Joseph “Gene” Tunney was born in New York City on May 27, 1897. The son of Irish Catholic immigrants, Gene learned to fight in the streets of Greenwich Village after being gifted a pair of boxing gloves at the age of 10. He turned pro in 1915 when he defeated the young but accomplished and more experienced boxer Bobby Dawson.

After the United States entered into World War I in 1917, Tunney joined the Marines and was stationed in France. While there, he won the American Expeditionary Force light heavyweight championship. Upon his return from Europe, he continued his professional prizefighting career: Tunney amassed a professional record of 77 wins, one loss, one draw, and one “no contest.” He successfully fought one of the “greatest punchers” of all time, Jack Dempsey, in 1926 to become the heavyweight champion. He also retained his title against Dempsey for a second time at Soldier Field, on September 22, 1927, in front of more than 120,000 spectators. That fight was remembered in the annals of professional boxing as “The Battle of the Long Count” and drew a gate of over $2.5 million (approximately $22 million today)—breaking the $2 million record set in the 1926 Tunney-Dempsey fight.

That electrifying night at Soldier Field in Chicago can be remembered as a defining moment in Gene Tunney’s boxing career. Known for his scientific approach to boxing, in which he would study his opponent carefully beforehand, Tunney entered the ring prepared for Dempsey.  In the seventh round, with Tunney dominating the scorecard, Dempsey unleashed a violent storm of punches, flooring the champion for the first time in his career.  As the seventh round is remembered, Tunney was down for fourteen seconds: five of which Dempsey was standing over him, while during the remaining seconds of referee Dave Barry’s official nine count, Tunney managed to recover—earning the battle its iconic name. For the remainder of the fight, Tunney battled smartly, keeping Dempsey at a distance, winning a unanimous decision after ten rounds (supposedly costing Al Capone $45,000 because he bet on Dempsey, leading to rumors that the match was fixed). Despite the outcome, both opponents proved to be true gentlemen: Tunney and Dempsey remained good friends until Tunney’s death in 1978, a testament of the character of both men.

Although Tunney only went on to compete in one more match, his life after boxing was far from what most would consider dull. Tunney soon married the philanthropist and Carnegie heiress, Polly Lauder, which made headlines. He also began a lucrative business career, while fostering his love for the arts and literature (the basis of his friendships with Hemingway and Shaw, both of whom were fans of boxing). This culminated in Tunney penning three books: Boxing and Training (1928), A Man Must Fight (1932), and Arms for Living (1941). Additionally, Tunney wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on boxing in 1945. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, Tunney was transferred from the Marines to the U.S. Navy and commissioned a Lieutenant Commander and appointed head of the Physical Education Program of the Navy by Assistant Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal for the duration of the war. After returning home he resumed his career in business. He and Dempsey also successfully argued before Congress for a creation of a national committee that would oversee boxing.

It is this version of Gene Tunney—author, veteran of two world wars, businessman, and doting husband to his wife and father to his children—who we get to see through Sir John Lavery’s painting that was brought into The Conservation Center. The 31-year old champion, only visible from the neck up, wears the face of a man conscious of his thoughts and aware of his purpose in life. This perfect encapsulation of the man is testament to the talents of Lavery, an artist who is best-known for his portraits. George Bernard Shaw urged Tunney and his wife to purchase the piece, lest it end up in some backcountry English estate or exhibition archive, as the likeness was so exceptional. 

As for the portrait itself, it was in pretty good condition, considering the age and its sole ownership. The general wear and tear of the last century resulted in a layer of grime on the surface and discolored varnish that had desiccated and become brittle over time. This varnish layer obscured the detail and tonality of the work by becoming darkened and discolored. The canvas had some small gouges and a scratch with some frame abrasions on the sides from not being properly fitted into the frame. The frame had some damage to the gilding and the gesso layers and was slightly unstable in the miters. 

To treat the painting, our conservators were able to surface clean the work and remove the grime before using different solvents to remove the varnish layer. We were then able to in-paint the small areas of damage to the paint surface with reversible conservation paints and then re-varnish the piece to return it to its original, intended appearance. 

The frame was surface cleaned before the losses were consolidated. The miters and joints were stabilized to ensure safe housing for the painting. The areas of loss were then in-painted to reduce the appearance of the damage. This treatment allowed us to stabilize the structure of the frame and minimize the appearance of the damage, while still maintaining the aged-look of the frame.

Gene Tunney’s portrait has been in Jay Tunney’s family for 86 years. Now that the portrait is refreshed, Jay Tunney reminisces “…my father was not only a sportsman, but a far more complex man than most people realized during his lifetime.” The conserved portrait now allows his personality to be seen.


Luncheon Discussion: Jay Tunney's The Prizefighter and the Playwright

Thursday, December 4, 12:00pm

The University Club, 76 E Monroe, Chicago

Tickets: $25 for non-members of the University Club

To purchase: call The Book Stall (847) 446-8880


Mr. Jay Tunney will discuss the unlikely relationship between his father, a champion boxer Gene Tunney, and George Bernard Shaw, a celebrated man of letters.

Gene Tunney, the world heavyweight-boxing champion from 1926 to 1928, seemed an unusual companion for George Bernard Shaw, but Shaw, a world-famous playwright, found the Irish-American athlete to be "among the very few for whom I have established a warm affection." The Prizefighter and the Playwright chronicles the legendary—but rarely documented—relationship that formed between this celebrated odd couple. From the beginning, it seemed a strange relationship, as Tunney was 40 years younger and the men could not have occupied more different worlds. Yet it is clear that these two famous men, comfortable on the world stage, longed for friendship when they were out of the celebrity spotlight. Full of surprises and revelations about Shaw and Tunney, this handsome book is also a fascinating look at their times.

Author Jay R. Tunney is the son of the famous fighter, and his book is a beautifully woven and often surprising biography of the two men. The book evolved from the acclaimed BBC radio program "The Master and the Boy."
Fans of George Bernard Shaw will enjoy the little-known stories in this intensely personal account that includes never-before-published images from Tunney's own family collection.