Jess Willard lost the heavyweight title to Jack Dempsey on July 4, 1919, and retired from boxing soon after. When the fight money dried up, the Willards packed up Zella, Frances, Jess Junior, Enid, and Alan, left Kansas for good and settled in Los Angeles, where Willard opened a produce market at Hollywood and Afton. By day he dickered with farmers, weighed oranges, shooed flies, and swept up. Nights, he made extra money as a referee at wrestling matches. He continued to listen to boxing on the radio, and eventually to watch it on television, once the screens grew large enough to decently hold two grown men fighting. He read all the boxing news he could find in the papers, too, until holding the paper too long made his arms tremble like he was punchy, and spreading it out on the kitchen table didn't work so good either because the small print gave him a headache, and there weren't any real boxers left anyway, and thereafter it fell to his grandchildren, or his great-grandchildren, or his neighbors, or anyone else who had the time to spare, to read the sports pages aloud to him. Sometimes he listened quietly, eyes closed but huge behind his eyeglasses, his big mottled fingers drumming the antimacassar at one-second intervals, as if taking a count. Other times he was prompted to laugh, or to make a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, or to sit forward abruptlywhich never failed to startle his youngest and, to his mind, prettiest great-granddaughter, whom he called "the Sprout," so that despite herself she always gasped and drew back a little, her beads clattering, her pedicured toes clenching the edge of her platform sandalsand begin telling a story of the old days, which his visitors sometimes paid attention to, and sometimes didn't, though the Sprout paid closer attention than you'd think.
· · · · ·
One day in 1968, the Sprout read Jess Willard the latest indignant Times sports column about the disputed heavyweight title. Was the champ Jimmy Ellis, who had beaten Jerry Quarry on points, or was it Joe Frazier, who had knocked out Buster Mathis, or was it rightfully Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of the title for refusing the draft, and now was banned from boxing anywhere in the United States? The columnist offered no answer to the question, but used his space to lament that boxing suddenly had become so political.
"Disputes, hell. I disputed a loss once," Willard told the Sprout. "To Joe Cox in Springfield Moe in 1911. The referee stopped the fight, then claimed I wouldn't fight, give the match to Cox. Said he hadn't stopped nothing. I disputed it, but didn't nothing come of it. Hell. You can't win a fight by disputing."
"I thought a fight was a dispute," said the Sprout, whose name was Jennifer. Taking advantage of her great-granddad's near-blindness, she had lifted the hem of her mini to examine the pear-shaped peace symbol her boyfriend had drunkenly drawn on her thigh the night before. She wondered how long it would take to wash off. "Boyfriend" was really the wrong word for Cliff, though he was cute, in a scraggly dirty hippie sort of way, and it wasn't like she had a parade of suitors to choose from. The only guy who seemed interested at the coffeehouse last week was some Negro, couldn't you just die, and of course she told him to buzz off. She hoped Jess never found out she'd even said so much as "buzz off" to a Negro boyGod knows, Jess was a nut on that subject. Nigger this and nigger that, and don't even bring up what's his name, that Negro boxer, Johnson? But you couldn't expect better from the old guy. After all, what had they called Jess, back whenthe White Hope?
"No, no, honey," Willard said, shifting his buttocks to get comfortable. He fidgeted all the time, even in his specially made chair, since he lost so much weight. "A fight in the ring, it ain't nothing personal."
"You're funny, Jess," Jennifer said. The old man's first name still felt awkward in her mouth, though she was determined to use itit made her feel quite hip and adult, whereas "Popsy" made her feel three years old.
"You're funny, too," Willard said, sitting back. "Letting boys write on your leg like you was a Blue Horse tablet. Read me some more, if you ain't got nothing else to do."
"I don't," Jennifer lied.
Jess Willard died in his Los Angeles home December 15, 1968was in that very custom-made chair, as a matter of fact, when he finally closed his eyes. He opened them to find himself in a far more uncomfortable chair, in a balcony at the Los Angeles Orpheum, in the middle of Harry Houdini's opening-night performance, November 30, 1915.
· · · · ·
"Where you been, Champ?" Lou asked. "We ain't keeping you up, are we?"
"Ladies and gentlemen, these our volunteers have my thanks. Shall they have your thanks as well?"
Amid the applause, Lou went on: "You ought to act interested, at least."
"Sorry, Lou," Willard said, sitting up straight and shaking his head. Cripes, he must have nodded off. He had that nagging waking sensation of clutching to the shreds of a rich and involving dream, but no, too late, it was all gone. "I'm just tired from traveling, is all."
"My friends, as I am sure you have noticed, our committee still lacks three men. But if you will indulge me, I have a suggestion. I am told that here in the house with us tonight, we have one man who is easily the equal of any three."
Lou jabbed Willard in the side. "Knock 'em dead, Champ," he said, grinning.
For an instant, Willard didn't understand. Then he remembered. Oh yeah, an onstage appearance with Houdinilike Jack London had done in Oakland, and President Wilson in Washington. Willard leaned forward to see the stage, the magician, the committee, the scatter of roses. Lou jabbed him again and mouthed the word, "Surprise." What did he mean, surprise? They had talked about this. Hadn't they?
"And so, ladies and gentlemen, will you kindly join me in inviting before the footlights the current heavyweight boxing championour championMr. Jess Willard!"
In the sudden broil of the spotlight, amid a gratifying burst of cheers and applause, Willard unhesitatingly stoodremembering, just in time, the low ceiling. Grinning, he leaned over the edge and waved to the crowd, first with the right arm, then both arms. Cheered by a capacity crowd, at the biggest Orpheum theater on the West Coasttwo dollars a seat, Lou had said! Hattie never would believe this. He bet Jack Johnson never got such a reception. But he wouldn't think of Johnson just now. This was Jess Willard's night. He clasped his hands together and shook them above his head.
Laughing above the cacophony, Houdini waved and cried, "Mr. Willard, please, come down!"
"On my way," Willard called, and was out the balcony door in a flash. He loped down the stairs two at a time. Sprinting through the lobby, he winked and blew a kiss at the hat-check girl, who squealed. The doors of the auditorium opened inward before him, and he entered the arena without slowing down, into the midst of a standing ovation, hundreds of faces turned to him as he ran down the central aisle toward the stage where Houdini waited.
"Mind the stairs in the pit, Mr. Willard," Houdini said. "I don't think they were made for feet your size." Newly energized by the audience's laughter, Willard made a show of capering stiff-legged up the steps, then fairly bounded onto the stage to shake the hand of the magicianwho really was a small man, my goodnessand then shake the hands of all the other committee members. The applause continued, but the audience began to resettle itself, and Houdini waved his hands for order.
"Please, ladies and gentlemen! Please! Your attention! Thank you. Mr. Willard, gentlemen, if you will please step back, to make room forThe Wall of Mystery!"
The audience oohed as a curtain across the back of the stage lifted to reveal an ordinary brick wall, approximately twenty feet long and ten high. As Willard watched, the wall began to turn. It was built, he saw, on a circular platform flush with the stage. The disc revolved until the wall was perpendicular to the footlights.
"The Wall of Mystery, ladies and gentlemen, is not mysterious whatsoever in its construction. Perhaps from where you are sitting you can smell the mortar freshly laid, as this wall was completed only today, by twenty veteran members, personally selected and hired at double wages by the management of this theater, of Bricklayers' Union Number Thirty-Four. Gentlemen, please take a bow!"
On cue, a half dozen graying, potbellied men in denim work clothes walked into view stage left, to bow and wave their caps and grin. Willard applauded as loudly as anyone, even put both fingers in his mouth to whistle, before the bricklayers shuffled back into their workingmen's obscurity.
"Mr. Willard, gentlemen, please approach the wall and examine it at your leisure, until each of you is fully satisfied that the wall is solid and genuine in every particular."
The committee fanned out, first approaching the wall tentatively, as if some part of it might open and swallow them. Gradually they got into the spirit of the act, pushing and kicking the wall, slamming their shoulders into it, running laps around it to make sure it began and ended where it seemed to. To the audience's delight, Willard, by far the tallest of the men, took a running jump and grabbed the top of the wall, then lifted himself so that he could peer over to the other side. The audience cheered. Willard dropped down to join his fellow committeemen, all of whom took the opportunity to shake Willard's hand again.
During all this activity, Houdini's comely attendants had rolled onstage two six-foot circular screens, one from backstage left, one from backstage right. They rolled the screens to center stage, one screen stage left of the wall, one screen stage right. Just before stepping inside the left screen, Houdini said: "Now, gentlemen, please arrange yourselves around the wall so that no part of it escapes your scrutiny." Guessing what was going to happen, Willard trotted to the other side of the wall and stood, arms folded, between the wall and the stage-right screen; he could no longer see Houdini for the wall. The other men found their own positions. Willard heard a whoosh that he took to be Houdini dramatically closing the screen around him. "I raise my hands above the screen like so," Houdini called, "to prove I am here. But nowI am gone!" There was another whooshthe attendants opening the screen? The audience gasped and murmured. Empty, Willard presumed. The attendants trotted downstage into Willard's view, professionally balanced on their high heels, carrying between them the folded screen. At that moment the screen behind Willard went whoosh, and he turned to see Houdini stepping out of it, one hand on his hip, the other raised above his head in a flourish.
Surprised and elated despite himself, Willard joined in the crescendo of bravos and huzzahs.
Amid the din, Houdini trotted over to Willard, gestured for him to stoop, and whispered into his ear:
His breath reeked of mint. Startled, Willard straightened up. The audience continued to cheer. Houdini winked, nodded almost imperceptibly toward the open screen he just had exited. Following Houdini's glance, Willard saw the secret of the trick, was both disappointed and delighted at its simplicity, and saw that he could do it, too. Yet he knew that to accept Houdini's offer, to walk through the wall himself, was something he neither wanted nor needed to do. He was Jess Willard, heavyweight champion of the world, if only for a season, and that was enough. He was content. He'd leave walking through walls to the professionals. He clapped one hand onto Houdini's shoulder, engulfing it, smiled, and shook his head. Again almost imperceptibly, Houdini nodded, then turned to the audience, took a deep bow. Standing behind him now, feeling suddenly wearysurely the show wouldn't last much longerWillard lifted his hands and joined the applause. Backstage to left and right, and in the catwalks directly above, he saw a cobweb of cables and pulleys against stark white brickugly, really, but completely invisible from the auditorium. On the highest catwalk two niggers in coveralls stood motionless, not applauding. Looking about, gaping, he was sure, like a hick, Willard told himself: Well, Jess, now you've had a taste of how it feels to be Harry Houdini. The afterthought came unbidden, as a jolt: And Jack Johnson, too. Disconcerted, Willard turned to stare at the stage-right screen, as two of the women folded it up and carted it away.
· · · · ·
Jennifer barely remembered her Grandma Hattie, but she felt as if she sort of knew her by now, seeing the care she had lavished for decades on these scrapbooks, and reading the neat captions Hattie had typed and placed alongside each item:
FORT WAYNE, 1912WORKING THE BAGKO'd J. Young in 6th on May 23 (Go JESS!)
The captions were yellowed and brittle now, tended to flutter out in bits like confetti when the albums were opened too roughly.
"I'm a good typist, Jess," Jennifer said. "I could make you some new ones."
"No, thanks," Jess said. "I like these fine."
"Where's the Johnson book?"
"Hold your horses, it's right here. There you go. I knew you'd want that one."
Jennifer was less interested in Jack Johnson per se than in the fact that one of Hattie's scrapbooks was devoted to one of her husband's most famous opponents, a man whom Jess had beaten for the title and never met again. Jennifer suspected this scrapbook alone was as much the work of Jess as of Hattieand the aging Jess at that, since it began with Johnson's obituaries in 1946. Hence the appeal of the Johnson scrapbook; this mysterious and aging Jess, after all, was the only one she knew. The last third of the book had no typewritten captions, and clippings that were crooked beneath their plastic. The last few pages were blank. Stuck into the back were a few torn out and clumsily folded newspaper clippings about Muhammad Ali.
"Johnson was cool," she said, turning the brittle pages with care. "It is so cool that you got to fight him, Jess. And that you won! You must have been proud."
"I was proud," Willard said, reaching for another pillow to slide beneath his bony buttocks. "Still am," he added. "But I wish I had known him, too. He was an interesting man."
"He died in a car wreck, didn't he?"
"That's so sad." Jennifer knew about the car wreck, of course; it was all over the front of the scrapbook. She was just stalling, making noise with her mouth, while pondering whether now was the time to get Jess talking about Johnson's three wives, all of them white women, all of them blonde white women. Jennifer was very interested to know Jess's thoughts about that.
"You fought him in Havana because, what? You weren't allowed to fight in the United States, or something?" She asked this with great casualness, knowing Johnson was a fugitive from U.S. justice at the time, convicted of violating the Mann Act, i.e. transporting women across state lines for "immoral purposes," i.e., white slavery, i.e., sex with a white woman.
"Yeah, something like that," Jess said. He examined the ragged hem of his sweater, obviously uninclined to pursue the conversation further. God, getting an eighty-seven-year-old man to talk about sex was hard.
"I was trying to tell Carl about it, but I, uh, forgot the uh, details." She kept talking, inanely, flushed with horror. Massive slip-up. She never had mentioned Carl in front of Jess before, certainly not by name. Carl was three years older than she was, and worse yet, a dropout. He was also black. Not Negro, he politely insisted: black. He wanted to meet Jess, and Jennifer wanted that to happen, toobut she would have to careful about how she brought it up. Not this way! Sure, Jess might admire Jack Johnson as a fighter, but would he want his teenage great-granddaughter to date him?
"There was some rule against it, I think," Jess said, oblivious, and she closed her eyes for a second in relief. "I be doggoned but this sweater wasn't worth bringing home from the store." He glanced up. "You didn't give me this sweater, did you, Sprout?"
"No, Jess," Jennifer said. She closed the Johnson scrapbook, elated to avoid that conversation one more day.
"I wouldn't hurt you for nothing, you know," Jess said. "Wouldn't let no one else hurt you, neither."
She grinned, charmed. "Would you stand up for me, Jess?"
"I sure would, baby. Anybody bothers you, I'll clean his clock." He slowly punched the air with mottled fists, his eyes huge and swimming behind his glasses, and grinned a denture-taut grin. On impulse, Jennifer kissed his forehead. Resettling herself on the floor, she opened one of the safer scrapbooks. Here was her favorite photo of Jess at the produce market, hair gray beneath his paper hat. He held up to the light a Grade A white egg that he smiled at in satisfaction. Grandma Hattie had typed beneath the photo: TWO GOOD EGGS.
"One hundred and thirteen fights," Jess said. Something in his voice made Jennifer glance up. He looked suddenly morose, gazing at nothing, and Jennifer worried that she had said something to upset him; he was so moody, sometimes. "That's how many Johnson fought. More than Tunney, more than Louis. Twice as many as Marciano. Four times as many as Jeffries, as Fitzsimmons, as Gentleman Jim Corbett. And forty-four of them knockouts." He sighed and repeated, almost inaudibly, "Forty-four."
She cleared her throat, determined, and said loudly: "Hey, you want to write another letter?" About once a month, Jess dictated to her a letter to the editor, saying Ali was the champ fair and square whether people liked it or not, same as Jack Johnson had been, same as Jess Willard had been, and if people didn't like it then let them take Ali on in the ring like men. The Times had stopped printing the letters after the third one, but she hadn't told Jess that.
He didn't seem to have heard her. After a few seconds, though, his face brightened. "Hey," he said. "Did I ever tell you about the time I got the chance to walk through a wall?"
Relieved, she screwed up her face in mock concentration. "Well, let's see, about a hundred million billion times, but you can tell me again if you want. Do you ever wish you'd done it?"
"Nah," Jess said, leaning into the scrapbook to peer at the two good eggs. "I probably misunderstood him in the first place. He never let anybody else get in on the act, that I heard of. He was too big a star for that." He sat back, settled into the armchair with a sigh. "I must have misunderstood him. Anyway." He was quiet again, but smiling. "Too late now, huh?"
"I guess so," Jennifer said, slowly turning the pages, absently stroking her beads so that the strands clicked together. Beside her Jess began, gently, to snore. She suppressed a laugh: Could you believe it? Just like that, down for the count. Without realizing it, she had turned to a clipping from the Times, dated December 1, 1915.
TWO CHAMPIONS MEET
RING ARTIST, ESCAPE ARTIST SHAKE ON ORPHEUM STAGE
Young Jess looked pretty spiffy in his evening wear, Jennifer thought. Spiffy, she knew from reading the scrapbooks, had been one of Grandma Hattie's favorite words. Jess was crouched to fit into the photograph, which must have been taken from the front row. The two men looked down at the camera; at their feet a couple of footlights were visible. At the bottom edge of the photo was the blurred top of a man's head. Someone had penciled a shaky arrow from this blur and written, "Lou." The background was murky, but Jennifer could imagine a vaulted plaster ceiling, a chandelier, a curtain embroidered with intricate Oriental designs. Beneath the clipping, Grandma Hattie had typed: JESS MEETS EHRICH WEISS a.k.a. HARRY HOUDINI (18741926). On the facing page, Houdini's faded signature staggered across a theater program.
Even as a kid, Jennifer had been intrigued by Houdini's eyes. Although the clipping was yellowed and the photo blurred to begin with, Houdini always seemed to look right at her, into her. It was the same in the other photos, in the Houdini books she kept checking out of the library. He wasn't Jennifer's type, but he had great eyes.
As she looked at the clipping, she began to daydream. She was on stage, wearing a tuxedo and a top hat and tights cut up to there, and she pulled back a screen to revealwho? Hmm. She wasn't sure. Maybe Carl; maybe not. Daydreaming was a sign, said the goateed guy who taught her comp class, of sensitivity, of creativity. Yeah, right. Sometimes when she was home aloneshe told no one thisshe put on gym shorts and went out back and boxed the air, for an hour or more at a time, until she was completely out of breath. Why, she couldn't say. Being a pacifist, she couldn't imagine hitting a person, no, but she sure beat hell out of the air. She really wanted to be neither a boxer nor a magician. She was a political science major, and had her heart set on the Peace Corps. And yet, when Carl had walked into the coffeehouse that night alone, fidgeting in the doorway with an out-of-place look, considering, maybe, ducking back outside again, what did she say to him? She walked right up to Carl, bold as brass (that was another of Grandma Hattie's, BOLD as BRASS), stuck out her chin and stuck out her hand and said, "Hi, my name is Jennifer Schumacher, and I'm the great-granddaughter of the ex-heavyweight champion of the world." Carl shook her hand and looked solemn and said, "Ali?" and people stared at them, they laughed so hard, and if I ever get a chance to walk through a wall, she vowed to herself as she closed the scrapbook, I'm taking itso there.
"The Pottawatomie Giant," while mostly my own invention, has a few facts in it. Jess Willard was indeed the "Great White Hope," long anticipated by racists nationwide, who finally felled the great black fighter Jack Johnson on April 5, 1915, thus reclaiming the heavyweight title for the white race. The bout was held in Havana because Johnson was a fugitive from U.S. "justice" at the time. Willard and illusionist Harry Houdini did indeed have an unpleasant quarrel in front of a packed house at the Los Angeles Orpheum the night of November 30, 1915. The whole incident, complete with the near-riot that sent Willard fleeing in ignominy, unfolded pretty much as I have described it. I got to thinking about Willard while reading Kenneth Silverman's fine 1996 biography of Houdini. How poignant, I thought, that this man, who once was world-famous, who must have had his own hopes and dreams and loves, is known to me only as a bit player, practically a stock villain, in the lives of Johnson and Houdini, two figures to whom history has been kinder: I wondered, in short, what the real Jess Willard, the one lost to history, was like. And so I wrote "The Pottawatomie Giant" about a fictional Jess Willard, who addresses some of my lingering questions about the real one.
Review of Andy Duncan's short story collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories