Verdict: Gene Pantalone’s astonishing feat of research in MADAME BEY’S: HOME TO BOXING LEGENDS is a portrait of both the sport and a developing pre-war America.
Set mainly in a period when boxing was comfortably the financial king of sports – the 20s and 30s – MADAME BEY’S: HOME TO BOXING LEGENDS is the true story of a charismatic woman’s success behind the sporting scenes, but also so much more.
Touching heavily on champions whose names live on largely in the records books, there are more stories in this chunky tome than most could manage in ten lifetimes, each introduced as they cross paths with Madame Bey over the course of her late-life decades in the world of professional fighting.
Tales of exceptional physical hardship come to the fore. Raw, intensive training amongst the simple facilities of a rustic New Jersey farm soon converts to win after win in the ring, and times allow Madame Bey’s boys dominate a wealthy world. Bey’s unlikely springboard: bouncing back from a failed antique rug business.
There’s more than enough action here to keep sports fans glued, but still more compelling are the stories that surround it all. Bey’s life is ably pieced together in a flowing narrative that somehow becomes entangled in murders and race relations, the vagaries of the pre-war press and involvement with some truly ridiculous accompanying characters.
The colorful exploration of fighting figures is a huge strength of the tale: to varying degrees, we explore the glory-hunting world of eye-gouging, hard-hitting Two-Ton Tony; the cocky banter of Lou Nova; the lazy boxing cash-ins of Lew Jenkins and a stretching, interwoven cast of dozens more fist-throwers. Strange contests – one example sees a weight disparities equivalent to a small child – and consequences of 1933’s Great Depression all add colorful context.
In a sense, the real story here is one of a woman that falls on hard times and claws her way back; just another American dream. In another sense, it’s a colorful and unreserved exploration of some vicious sporting antics. The fast-growing and slightly lawless New York of almost a century ago is given plenty of page time, too. For those more intrigued by the factual backdrop, there are also ample carefully recorded references to back it all up.
It all sits in an era where boxing was financially rich but comparatively ill-regulated; a dangerous game where many of the main characters skirted the edges of the rules and conflict often spilled outside of the ring.
Madame Bey’s is a daunting book to contemplate should the subject matter not immediately appeal, but still more than worth checking out. While it revolves almost entirely around boxing’s highs, it’s the depth of character provided through clever quotes and gasp-inducing asides that is Pantalone offering’s true strength.
~James Hendicott for IndieReader