What made you decide to do this book?

I had grown up on stories about the Shaw-Tunney friendship, so the subject matter was not unfamiliar.  In the late 1990s, some 20 years after my father’s death, I co-wrote and presented a BBC Radio-4 program on their friendship called “The Master and the Boy.” The program aired worldwide in 2000 and was a huge success.  The enthusiasm for the story led to my decision to do a book.

What kind of sources did you use in writing the book?

Initially, because Gene Tunney was my father and because Shaw was a distant though ever present family member much of my life, I felt that telling the story of this friendship would require only minimal investigation. I assumed that I could rely on both my and my family’s memories.  Ultimately, however, the research spanned hundreds of books and interviews, multiple visits to Ireland, England and Brioni, now Brijuni, visits to archives housing Shaw material in three countries, examination of newspaper files and databases in Italy and the United States, and the private Tunney Collection which includes letters, notebooks, hundreds of photographs, family movies, postcards, diaries, old cablegrams, menus, cartoons, scrapbooks, and 25 file drawers of my father’s letters. 

Did you ever meet Shaw yourself?

I only met Shaw through my parent’s recollections.  My first impression as a young boy was that Shaw was my father’s business partner because both dad and Shaw backed a business venture to sell a vegetarian yeast powder.  The middleman in this partnership, Curtis P. Freshel, used to visit our house and over lunches, he and dad exchanged many stories about Shaw.

Did your father and Shaw talk about their friendship?

Not publicly. Shaw occasionally mentioned Tunney in interviews, but rarely, if ever, did either of them say anything meaningful. In general, it was considered by outsiders to be an odd-couple relationship: a boxer and a Nobel playwright.  Shaw and dad kept the essence of their friendship private. Dad, and particularly my mother, did not like publicity and Shaw also was a private man by nature.

Did you learn things you didn’t know about your father?

Absolutely!  The core of the book takes place in the time period of the 1920s and 30s, before I was born. There were many things I did not know about my father and mother from this time period, and I read thousands of news clippings that portrayed a boxer whom I felt I was sometimes meeting for the first time.  One of the things that made it easier, however, is that I grew up knowing most of the participants – this made piecing the story together easier.

Specifically, what did you find out?

For one thing, I didn’t realize how misunderstood and unpopular my father was with the press when he was heavyweight champion.  This must have been a heavy burden, but he never mentioned it.  One of my siblings was shocked when I said that some people actually booed him.

Wasn’t your mother a key source for the book?

The book couldn’t have been done as thoroughly and with such great detail without my mother.  Though she was already in her 90s, she helped with the BBC program on the Shaw-Tunney friendship, and the success of that presentation compelled her to accept the idea that I do a book.  I had hours of interviews with her, and she followed the book’s progress with tremendous pleasure.  She enjoyed making corrections and asking questions, and in particular seemed to enjoy reliving a time period that was so important in her life.  My mother always felt Shaw was dad’s greatest mentor and spiritual father.

Has your mother seen the completed book?

Mother died at age 100, before the book was in print. I had read virtually the entire book to her by that time.   After her death, we discovered some letters and details, which were added to the manuscript.  I think she would have been pleased.  She had always wanted the story of the friendship shared because she knew how much our father valued Shaw, and she also felt that the man she married was not always appreciated as the man she knew.  She wanted others to know the Gene Tunney she fell in love with and was married to for 50 years.

Are there things you dropped from the book that you were sorry to lose?

Yes.  I found out for myself as an author that one never wants to cut material that has taken hours, days, weeks of research and writing.  Ultimately, however, I think the material essential to the Tunney-Shaw friendship stayed in tact.

Did your father talk about boxing at home?

Dad sometimes talked about boxing at home—especially if we had a guest who asked.
He preferred to discuss the theater, music, business, politics, books—ideas in general. I didn’t realize my father was famous until I was in school.  When I was about seven, the family attended a rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York City and Roy Rogers, my hero, was the star.  Roy rode into the center ring on his horse Trigger, took the microphone, and as giant searchlights panned the audience and came to rest on our family, he told the thousands of people in attendance that the famous retired world heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney was in the audience.  Thousands of people stood and clapped.  I was amazed.

Did your father want you to box?

My father wanted me to get educated.  He didn’t want any of his three sons to become a boxer.  One boxer was enough in the family, he said.   That said, we did all put on the gloves from time to time, but none of us showed any special gift for the ring.

“The book explains why celebrated authors like Thornton Wilder and especially Bernard Shaw thought
the world of The Champ and were so proud to be in his corner.”

tappan wilder

Did You Know?
Bernard Shaw is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and a Hollywood Oscar (1938), for his contributions to literature and adaptation of his play Pygmalion to film.

Copyright © 2014. All Rights Reserved.