43. Dempsey cocktail

16 Nov

The New Jersey courts are trying to determine whether the late Battle of the Century was a “boxing exhibition” or a “fight”.  They should ask Georges Carpentier.

— “Life Lines”, Life, vol 78 (20 October 1921), p. 8.

Greek gods are no match for Tarzans in this game.

— Christopher Morley, “Dempsey vs. Carpentier”, Plum Pudding of Divers Ingredients, Discreetly Blended & Seasoned (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1921), pp. 234-8 (p. 238).

This cocktail, according to Robert Vermeire, who was the first to publish the recipe, “was introduced at Deauville, 1921, after Dempsey’s victory over Carpentier” (Cocktails: How to Mix Them, p. 26).  Jack Dempsey’s third defence of his world heavyweight boxing crown against the French challenger Georges Carpentier, who simultaneously held the European heavyweight and world light heavyweight titles, on 2 July 1921 in Jersey City, New Jersey was a key moment in the history of the “manly art” and ushered in the age of mass spectator sports. Thanks to the efforts of promoter Tex Rickard, who was the first to marry boxing and ballyhoo, the contest billed as the “Battle of the Century” set a number of precedents. The 90,000 spectators smashed the previous record for attendance and generated prizefighting’s first million-dollar gate (to be precise, $1,789,238 worth of tickets were sold). It was the first bout to be broadcast on the radio: transmission of a “voice description of each incident”, one magazine breathlessly announced, was “not only a novelty for the annals of sport, but a new development in the field of applied science” (“July 2nd Fight Described by Radiophone”, Wireless Age, vol. 8, no. 10 [July 1921], p. 10). An estimated 300,000 people, the biggest audience so far, tuned in. And this was a truly international event: millions of people all over the world, from Santiago de Chile to St John, Newfoundland, from Toledo to Tokyo waited impatiently for the opening bell.

The fight also turned Dempsey into one of the most famous men on the planet. Yet in the long build-up to the fight he was cast in the role of the villain. It was Carpentier, blond, good-looking, elegant, a decorated aviator during the war, who found himself playing the hero. He set women’s pulses racing and sportswriters’ hearts aflutter. The “First Citizen of Lens” was, according to George Bernard Shaw, a Greek god, the spitting image of Charles XII of Sweden, a genius, the greatest pugilist in the world who ought to be the 50 to 1 favourite. In Carpentier, proclaimed Frank Parker Stockbridge, “stands the prototype of Achilles, Launcelot, Siegfried and Roland, endowed with mystic powers that enable their possessor to conquer his opponents without disturbing the part in his hair or even breathing hard” (“Carpentier the Mysterious, Dempsey the Favorite”, New York Times, 26 June 1921). His gentlemanliness, his effortless nobility was inscribed in his physiognomy (specifically, his “dolichocephalism”):

If Carpentier has any decided advantage in the coming contest in Jersey City, it is in that long head. Phrenology is far from being an exact science, but it is certain that a head of that shape packs a different sort of mental machinery from that carried in a more clearly spherical brain-case. It may not be any better; it may not be for pugilistic purposes as generally useful; but it certainly must be different. And the importance of this difference to its possessor lies in the fact that his instincts must necessarily impel him, many times, to do just the opposite of what a round-headed opponent would do under similar circumstances. Therefore, when the long-headed boxer, who is rare, meets the round-headed boxer, who is the usual type, long-head has a distinct advantage. (Ibid.)

Dempsey, it goes without saying, was a round head. In fact, he was, or seemed to be, everything Carpentier was not. Dark-haired, squash-nosed, unmannered, the “Manassa Mauler”—the nickname says it all—was a thug, a slugger rather than boxer. He had, after all, snatched the heavyweight crown from Jess Willard by rearranging the reigning champion’s features in a ferocious display of punching power. Newly minted middle-class fight fans sniffily disapproved of the man who had started his career as a barroom brawler:

Dempsey was a familiar type, and, speaking for the sensitive American man, a detested one. […] The rough-neck may be typical of millions of Americans and his roughness may be part of the pioneer virility that American still requires. […] But it makes no appeal to the protected educated urban population. They see in Carpentier a man of high spirit and high intelligence, “a man, damn it, whom you’d be glad to meet in a drawing-room”. In Dempsey they see a mere bruiser.

— “Carpentier: A Symbol”, New Republic, vol . 27 (20 July 1921), pp. 206-7 (p. 206).

And where his dashing French opponent had won the Croix de guerre and the Médaille militaire, Dempsey had been tried (and acquitted) of draft dodging. He had been, the New York Times admitted, “in many ways the most unpopular of white champions” (“Dempsey Proves Prowess”, New York Times, 3 July 1921, p. 1).  Everywhere people were praying that right would triumph over might and that the hero would vanquish the slacker, brain beat brawn, the Olympian subdue the Titan, the panther overcome the grizzly bear. “May a real fighter and a real man win” the Tennessee branch of the American Legion wired the Frenchman, “and carry the belt across the seas until this country can produce a one-hundred per cent American able to regain it” (“Legion Cheers Georges on”, New York Times, 2 July 1921).

Finally the day of reckoning arrived. Never before had a boxing match attracted celebrities and high society, but here among the crowd were William H. Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Henry Ford, Harry Payne Whitney, Vincent Astor, Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., George M. Cohan and Al Jolson, who had closed his show in Butte, Montana, and flown all the way across the country just to take his $50 seat.  Twelve US senators and 90 Representatives joined foreign princes and dignitaries ringside. Atlantic City politician and racketeer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was present. And, again for the first time, a sizeable contingent of women onlookers.

Carpentier was cheered as he entered the ring; but it was obvious from the outset, as the two men stood together, that the contest was a mismatch. Giving away at least 16 pounds to the characteristically unshaven Dempsey, Carpentier was clearly not even in the same weight class as the Utah man. In the words of the veteran sportswriter Grantland Rice: “they couldn’t have ballooned the Frenchman into a bona fide heavyweight, except in the papers, with two sandbags for added ballast” (Grantland Rice, The Tumult and the Shouting: My Life in Sport [New York: Barnes, 1954], p. 118). And whatever the extent of Carpentier’s vaunted “mystic powers”, Dempsey’s fistic powers were far superior. The challenger may have got away the first punch, and he walloped the champion with a right hook in the second round; but otherwise the “Golem” dominated (Scofield Thayer, “Gladiators, Brown Skirts, et cetera”, The Dial, vol. 71 [1921], pp. 246-9 [p. 247]), pounding away remorselessly at Carpentier’s body, before flooring him a minute or so into the fourth round. The “Lily of France” sprang up after an eight count, apparently fresh as, well, as fresh as a daisy, but he lasted just a few more seconds, when his jaw connected with “Iron Mike”, Dempsey’s fearsome right fist. As 90000 spectators rose up as one, Francis Hackett managed to catch “one glimpse of a god on all fours” (“Dempsey—Carpentier”, New Republic, vol 27 [13 July 1921], pp.185-7 [p. 187]).

From: Dial, vol. 71 (1921), p. 246.

In spite of what Shaw and American snobs might have told themselves, the outcome had never been in doubt. In the words of Edwin C. Hill of the New York Herald: “Dempsey won because miracles are so rare. Slim, pale boys are not sent out to beat down rugged men. The deer does not slay the lion, nor does the thoroughbred prevail over a bull with horns” (quoted by S.C. Lambert, “‘Fight Copy—Its Lesson for Advertisers”, Printer’s Ink, vol. 116 [14 July 1921], pp. 73-6 [p. 74]). If the fight, and the circus surrounding it, was the first sporting product of modern promotion techniques, of ballyhoo, it was also the first to demonstrate that such events rarely live up to the hype. You wouldn’t have known it from the press reaction the next day. The New York Times ran an eight-column banner on its front page and filled six of its eight news columns with stories of the fight. (Only the day’s news of President Harding, an attempted suicide and the marriage of the Duchess of Marlborough were permitted to share the page.) For the next twelve pages there were, again, nothing but fight stories and pictures. As if in apology, the staid old journal editorialized that same day, “The world may now gain its equipoise” (“Dempsey Still Champion”, New York Times, 3 July 1921).

The cocktail, then, is a generous tribute by an unknown French mixologist to the conqueror of the Gallic pugiliste.  (Dempsey, in fact, became extremely popular in France, and he and Carpentier remained friends for the rest of their lives.) Here’s the formula as reported by Robert:

2 dashes of Absinthe.

1 teaspoonful of Grenadine.

1/6 gill of Gin.

2/6 gill Calvados.

Craddock’s later version in the Savoy Cocktail Book equalises the proportions of gin and Calvados, but also reduces the amount of grenadine to just a dash. Personally, I think this combination needs a touch more sweetness than that; be careful, as always, with the absinthe. Incidentailly, that the drink contains Calvados is no surprise: the glamorous seaside resort of Deauville, where the drink was allegedly invented, is located in the Calvados département, the only place where the eponymous apple brandy may legally be distilled.


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