About the Book | List of Characters | Chronology

The playwright George Bernard Shaw and boxing champion Gene Tunney liked each other the first time they met.  Tunney was the retired boxer who wanted to become a writer and who sought to learn more about literature and books in order to educate himself.  Shaw, hailed as the greatest playwright of his time, had a razor-sharp wit and a passion for social justice that carried through all of his writings and had vaulted him to the world stage. What did these two well known men have in common that allowed their relationship to endure for the rest of their lives in spite of distances, across an ocean and through a world war?  What did they share that was so important to them both to have forged a deep and abiding friendship?

The book The Prizefighter and the Playwright examines this relationship through concurrent themes, which trace the lives of both men from their Irish roots to experience in the ring, and to fame and fortune.  Ultimately, it’s a book about love, belief in the future, seeking to better oneself, and friendship.

Forty years before Tunney became a household name, Shaw wrote a novel called Cashel Byron’s Profession about a poor Irish boxer who becomes world champion, retires and marries an heiress.  This story paralleled in many ways Tunney’s own story years later, and the similarities were not lost on either the public of the 1920s and 30s, or Shaw.

Shaw first took notice of the boxer when Tunney fought the French champion Georges Carpentier in 1924.  Shaw saw the fight in newsreels in London, and was fascinated with Tunney’s classic, scientific boxing style, which resembled that of his fictional Cashel Byron.  In fact, the earliest contact between Shaw and Tunney was a long-distance public squabble in the press over the validity of Cashel’s character and the way the book was written.

Love story
The book is also a love story, and traces Tunney’s secret courtship of the shy but beautiful steel heiress, Polly Lauder, a match that became the biggest love story of the year, an American fairy tale which culminated with their 1928 marriage in Rome. 

In April of 1929, the Shaws joined the Tunneys for a month-long holiday on the island of Brioni in the Adriatic.  Tunney and Shaw spent hours talking about philosophy, music, literature, Shakespeare, world politics, war, and the future.  Tunney called it an education into cosmic thinking. Suddenly Polly fell gravely ill and with the doctors unable to help her, the Shaws became surrogate parents as the biggest crisis of Tunney’s life unfolded.

The book traces Tunney and Shaw through letters, travels and their final visit in a garden at Ayot St. Lawrence. It examines the Shaw plays that were influenced by his friend the boxer and also looks at the playwright’s abiding lessons to Tunney, and to all men.

"One of the most precious gifts that fortune has allowed me was the friendship of George Bernard Shaw," wrote Tunney. "In all our conversation and correspondence, I never knew him to say an offensive thing or to ever malign anyone's character or personality.  He was a man who lived above personality in a sort of spiritual and intellectual world free from vindictiveness or malice, with a love for mankind, but a shyness that only a few people were privileged to penetrate.  I am proud to have known him."

List of Characters | Chronology | About the Book

Major Characters:

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950):  Irish-born playwright who spent his adult life in England.  Generally considered one of the greatest dramatists of the twentieth century, he wrote fifty-three plays, five novels and countless articles, reviews, critical essays and prefaces. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.

Gene Tunney (1897-1978):  Irish-American boxer who twice defeated Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight boxing championship during the 1920s Golden Age of sports.  He became the first champion to retire undefeated, and he said he did so to devote more time to reading and scholarship.

Polly Lauder (1907-2008):  Heiress, daughter of a yachtsman and related to steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  After a secret romance, she married Tunney in Rome and nearly died on her honeymoon, with both her husband and Shaw in attendance.

Cashel Byron:  The main character in an 1883 novel written by Shaw about an Irish boxer who becomes world champion, marries a wealthy aristocrat, and transforms his life. Cashel was the mirror image of Shaw himself and the novel became the catalyst for Shaw’s lifelong friendship with Tunney.

Minor Characters:

Pakenham (Paquito) Beatty:  Irish poet, Shaw’s first longtime friend in London. He introduced Shaw to boxing.

Lawrence Langner:  One of the most powerful theatrical producers on Broadway in the 1920s, he represented Shaw’s plays exclusively in the United States and became the middleman for the first long-distance contact between Shaw and Tunney.

Dame Laurentia McLachlan:  The Abbess of Stanbrook Abbey, a spiritual confidante of Shaw.

William Lyon Phelps: A Yale University professor of English literature, he invited Tunney to lecture on Shakespeare, creating a storm of publicity and media coverage and eroding the fight crowd’s support for Tunney as champion. Also an acquaintance of Shaw.

Charlotte Shaw:  Shaw's wife, a wealthy Irish aristocrat.

Thornton Wilder:  Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and playwright, a lifelong friend of Tunney.

Boxing References :

George Carpentier: French boxing champion, a favorite of Shaw because of his ring charisma and classical boxing style; in 1924 he lost to Tunney in the bout that brought Tunney to Shaw’s attention.

Jim Corbett: World heavyweight boxing champion 1892-1897, dubbed “Gentleman Jim,” an idol of Tunney.  Earned Shaw’s wrath after he played Cashel Byron in an unauthorized stage production in New York.

Jack Dempsey:  World heavyweight boxing champion 1919-1926, retired from the ring after twice being defeated by Tunney.  Nicknamed the “Manassa Mauler.”

Long Count: Name given to the second Tunney-Dempsey fight, considered one of the biggest and most controversial sporting events of the twentieth century.  In the fight’s seventh round, Dempsey refused to follow the rules and go to his corner after knocking Tunney down, giving Tunney approximately four extra seconds on the canvas, the only knockdown of Tunney’s career.

Chronology | List of Characters |About the Book

Tunney-Shaw Chronology

  1. 1856
    George Bernard Shaw born in Dublin, Ireland on July 26.

  2. 1876 
    Shaw emigrates to London on March 31. He will live in England the rest of his life.

  3. 1883 
    Shaw completes a novel (his fourth) based on his boxing experiences, Cashel Byron’s Profession (published in serial form between April 1885 and March 1886). On March 17, Shaw and his sparring partner Pakenham Beatty are listed as participants in the amateur boxing championships.

  4. 1897 
    Gene Tunney is born into an Irish immigrant family in New York City on May 27.  Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, the playwright’s seventh play, opens at New York’s Fifth Avenue Theater on October 4, and is an instant success.  It’s the first Shaw play to be financially successful and the first to be produced in America.

  5. 1898 
    Shaw marries Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a wealthy Irish artistocrat.

  6. 1901
    To protect his copyright from upstarts in the American theater, Shaw writes The Admirable Bashville, a three-act play in verse based on his boxing novel, Cashel Bryon’s Profession.

  7. 1906 
    Former heavyweight boxing champion James Corbett for the second time revives a play based on Cashel Byron’s Profession, with him in the lead role. Corbett is young Tunney’s idol, and Tunney reads about the retired champion in the daily newspapers.

  8. 1907
    For his tenth birthday, Tunney receives his first gift ever – a pair of used boxing gloves. His passion becomes boxing in order to stand up to neighborhood bullies.

  9. 1915
    Tunney, who like Shaw left school at age fifteen and took a clerical job, becomes a professional boxer to earn money for the family.  He wins his first fourteen fights.

  10. 1918 
    Tunney joins the Marine Corps and goes to Europe to fight in World War I. To avoid guard duty, he offers to box to entertain troops and earns the American Expeditionary Forces light heavyweight boxing championship.

  11. 1919
    Tunney is discharged from the Marines. He returns home to learn that his closest brother and sparring partner, John, has been murdered. He vows to become heavyweight champion of the world. His consolation during long hours of training is books, including Shaw’s Cashel Byron’s Profession.

  12. 1923 
    Shaw writes Saint Joan which premieres in New York City in December. Tunney sees the play on Broadway, identifies with the heroine and calls it a masterpiece.
    He will later name his only daughter Joan.

  13. 1924
    Tunney defeats French champion Georges Carpentier for the light heavyweight boxing title, surprising Shaw who sees the fight in newsreels and had never heard of Tunney. Shaw is pleased that Tunney is Irish and a classical boxer.

  14. 1925
    Shaw has written over twenty plays and become what the London Observer calls “the most famous man in the world,” quoted almost daily in newspapers for his views and his wit on politics, religion, economics and the future of the world.

  15. 1926
    Shaw is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (for 1925). In September, Tunney, a so-called scientific fighter who uses his brain instead of brawn, crushes Jack Dempsey and captures the world heavyweight boxing championship.  Some 145,000 people see the bout in Philadelphia, more people than have ever witnessed an outdoor sporting event.  An excited Shaw watches the fight in newsreels.

    In October, Tunney visits Lawrence Langner, exclusive agent for Shaw’s plays, and suggests he star in a stage/screen adaptation of Cashel Byron.  A month later, the new champion tells a reporter that Shaw’s boxing novel is poorly written.  An embarrassed Tunney and a delighted Shaw spar through the press. Shaw says he would like to meet the young man.

  16. 1927
    Tunney successfully defends his championship against Dempsey in a battle that would be known as the Long Count. It would become one of the most famous sporting events of the twentieth century.  Shaw is ecstatic and sees in “Gentleman Gene” Tunney’s win the ultimate scientific boxer beating a ring brawler. Tunney takes home a check for one million dollars, the biggest single payout ever awarded a sports figure.

  17. 1928
    Tunney lectures at Yale University on Shakespeare. The lecture is front-page news all over world, and the professor who instigated the lecture dines with Shaw in London.

    In July, Tunney defends his championship one last time, then retires, the first champion to do so undefeated since the fictional Cashel Byron. He goes to Europe on a walking trip with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Thornton Wilder and on October 3 in Rome, the boxer-turned-gentleman marries Polly Lauder, an heiress he had wooed with books and music.

    On December 14, Shaw and his wife host a luncheon at 4 Whitehall Court, London, for the boxer and his bride. It is the first meeting between the two men.

  18. 1929
    April-May, Shaw and his wife spend a month with the Tunneys on the Italian island of Brioni.  Shaw and Tunney are two of the most recognized celebrities in the world and they work to keep their visit private.  In sharing the near-death of Tunney’s bride, the two men bond and form a life-long friendship.

  19. 1931
    The Shaws meet the Tunneys in Jerusalem.  Both men travel separately later in the year to the Soviet Union.  Shaw writes Too True to be Good, some of which reflects his conversations with Tunney, and also people he might have met in Brioni.

  20. 1932 
    Tunney writes A Man Must Fight, the first of two autobiographies.  The second, Arms for Living, will be published in 1941.

  21. 1933
    Shaw makes a first, brief visit to America, but Tunney, who is abroad, misses him. They continue to correspond and meet privately in London, Ayot St. Lawrence (Shaw’s country home) and Venice
  22. 1934
    Shaw finishes The Millionairess, which includes affectionate humor directed at Gene and Polly.

  23. 1936
    The Shaws and the Tunneys visit aboard the S.S. Arandora Star after Shaw’s ship docks in Miami, Florida. The meetings, as are all their visits, remain private.
    Shaw invites Tunney to Malvern for his eightieth birthday, but Tunney’s third son is born in June and they cannot attend. Tunney visits the playwright in the autumn.

  24. 1937 
    Tunney invites Shaw to visit Hobe Sound, Florida to escape the winter, and Shaw urges Tunney to come to England instead, which he does. They discuss the war in Europe.  Great Britain and France declare war on Germany in September, 1939.

  25. 1940
    Tunney is commissioned a Lieutenant Commander and named head of physical education for the U.S. Navy. The United States declares war on December 7, 1941. Tunney spends much of the war in the Pacific and retires as Captain at war’s end in 1945.

  26. 1943 
    Charlotte Shaw dies.

  27. 1946
    Correspondence resumes between Shaw and Tunney following World War II
  28. 1948 
    Tunney visits Shaw at Ayot St. Lawrence on July 27, one day after the playwright’s ninety-second birthday. Following their time together, Shaw writes a powerful and personal letter about his friend to the Abbess at Stanbrook Abbey, calling the saving of Polly’s life in 1929 a miracle.  The Benedictines and some scholars see the letter as proof that Shaw is a deeply religious man. 

  29. 1949 
    Shaw writes a play for two puppets which takes place in a boxing ring. He calls it Shakes versus Shav.

  30. 1950 
    Shaw dies on November 2 at Ayot St. Lawrence at age ninety-four.  He is cremated and his ashes are later mixed and scattered with those of Charlotte in the garden of his country home. Tunney said Shaw was the saintliest man he had ever known.
    In the following years, Tunney mentions Shaw in letters, continues to read plays and books, but keeps his personal relationship with Shaw private, and in particular rarely talks about Polly or the experience that brought the two men so closely together. Tunney, a prosperous businessman, serves on a dozen corporate boards.

  31. 1978 
    Tunney dies at age eighty-one in a hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut, with Polly at his side. He is cremated and, following his wishes, the service and burial are private. He bequeaths the surviving letters from Shaw, and a portrait and bronze bust of the playwright to Cornell University.

  32. 2008 
    Polly Tunney dies at age one-hundred at her home in Stamford, Connecticut.



“Jay R. Tunney does
full justice to an unexpected and private friendship... of huge historical significance.”

william stevenson, best-selling author of a man called intrepid


Did You Know?
Gene Tunney’s 1928 wedding in Rome to the steel heiress Polly Lauder was the biggest love story of the year, an American fairy tale, and reporters and paparazzi trailed the couple all over Europe.“The story is one as beautiful as any ever written by a romanticist or a poet,” wrote the columnist Walter Trumbull.

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