Joe Jacobs was born in 1896 to Hungarian Jewish immigrants. He grew up in the neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, Midtown Manhattan, then a bastion of poor Irish Americans, where his father ran a tailor shop.
For many young males living in that tough setting, boxing was both a badge of identity and a means of survival. Every immigrant neighborhood had its own champions and heroes. Boxing was a flag of ethnic pride, attracting a large and loyal local following.
A shrewd observer, Jacobs was keen to exploit the passion that pugilism engendered and the potential rewards associated with that. Known in Yiddish as Yussel, the youngster was nicknamed “Yussel the Muscle,” although he never was a fist fighter himself.
A restless cigar-chomping, big-spending and fast-talking operator with a razor-sharp brain, he became the smartest manager of his era, looking after seven world champions during his relatively brief life.
Berlin & Boxing
Maximilian Schmeling was born on September 28, 1905, in the Prussian Province of Brandenburg. Having watched a film of the 1921 bout between heavyweights Jack Dempsey and George Carpentier, the former became the youngster’s hero. After learning how to box, he won the amateur national light-heavyweight title in 1924.
In August 1926 he gained the German professional title in the same division with a first-round knockout of Max Diekmann, followed by the European championship when he stopped Fernand Delarge in the first live boxing broadcast on German radio. After defending both titles, Max was hailed a hero in “swinging” Berlin, his adopted place of residence.
Amongst his new friends and admirers were actors, movie stars, artists and writers. He was accepted into an elite of taste makers that rubbished traditional Teutonic stiffness. In the arts, theatre and cinema Jewish Berlin set the creative standards. The city became a cosmopolitan magnet, a “Weltstadt” of artists from all over the globe.
Schmeling was welcomed into Berlin’s avant-garde milieu where sex and sport were mixed in an artistic celebration of the human body. Dark and broodingly handsome, Schmeling was more than the nation’s preeminent athlete. He became the “Classic” model of manhood.
In 1928 the boxer posed for the sculptor Rudolf Belling. Ironically, when the Nazis assumed power in 1933 the artist’s modernist work was damned as “degenerate,” melted down or smashed. Belling was banned from working. Moreover, his first wife was Jewish which spelled danger to his son.
In 1935 he spent eight months in New York City where he held an exhibition in the Weyhe Gallery. Having saved his son from possible arrest, he continued his career in Istanbul.
Towards the late 1920s, Jewish artist Rudolf Grossmann – known for his drawings of contemporary famous figures – produced a lithograph portrait of Max Schmeling (a copy is held at MoMA). The Nazis considered his work “degenerate” too. Dismissed from his professorship at Berlin’s Royal School of Art and unable to continue working, he withdrew into obscurity and died in 1942.
The vibrant community of Jewish modernist artists that had welcomed Schmeling in their midst, was broken up before his eyes.
Having reached the European peak of his profession, Schmeling decided to chase bigger fights and purses in the United States. He arrived in New York City in 1928 at a time that Jews were the “Lords of the Ring,” both in competition and management.
During the years between 1910 and 1940, there were no less than twenty-six Jewish world champions in all eight fighting divisions. When Schmeling started pursuing his American dream, he became part of the Jewish boxing fraternity of New York City.
Initially, his presence was ignored in boxing circles and he was given few opportunities to prove himself. That changed when he was introduced to Joe Jacobs by French world featherweight champion André Routis who was fighting under Yussel’s management. Schmeling joined Joe’s stable. The latter arranged a series of fights for him and relentlessly promoted his latest client.
Having made his debut at Madison Square Garden with an eighth-round knockout of Joe Monte, Max would pull off a string of victories. His name was established on February 1, 1929, when he floored Johnny Risko in the latter’s only loss by TKO. The critics loved his performance: The Ring magazine recognised the win as its “Fight of the Year.” New York City became a second home to Schmeling.
Opened in 1923, Yankee Stadium in The Bronx was the home field of the New York Yankees baseball club, but it also hosted memorable boxing matches. After the retirement of world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, this stadium was the venue where in front of a crowd of some 80,000 fans Schmeling fought Jack Starkey for the vacant title on June 12, 1930.
Starkey won the first three rounds, but he landed a blow below the belt in the fourth. Joe Jacobs jumped into the ring screaming “foul” (whilst telling Max not get on his feet) until the bewildered referee disqualified Sharkey. Schmeling was awarded the championship by default, one of the only times that a heavyweight championship was decided in that manner.
The New York Boxing Commission pressed for a rematch, but Jacobs was not keen. It would take over two years before the “low-blow champion” agreed to a rematch at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Queens on June 21, 1932. Sharkey won a disputed fifteen-round decision. Yussel expressed his anger on radio in a phrase that would become a classic in the world of competitive sports: “We wuz robbed!” (his outburst earned him an entry into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations).
Back in Berlin, Schmeling met Czech-born film star Anna Ondráková, better known as Anny Ondra, the multi-lingual daughter of an Austro-Hungarian army officer. Since her debut in 1920, Anna had appeared in Czech, German, Austrian, French and English films. He fell in love with her and the couple’s wedding in 1933 was widely reported in the press.
All this took place against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power. Trying to exploit the couple’s popularity, the Nazi propaganda machine presented Schmeling an icon of the “master” race and introduced Ondra as an archetypal “Aryan” blonde despite her Slavic background.
The nation had changed rapidly since the day that Max had moved from Berlin to New York City in 1928. The Nazification of German life was in full swing and extended to sport. Sporting events had become part of the political process ever since planning for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin had been set in motion.
Sport was part of the government’s drive to strengthen the Aryan race, to exercise political control and prepare German youth for war. Non-Aryan athletes were excluded from the use of sports facilities and their opportunities to compete were limited.
The change in mood made life uncomfortable for the Schmelings. Max had built up a circle of Jewish friends in Berlin and New York City, whilst Ondra’s career was closely linked to talented Jewish film makers and producers. Both tried to avoid persistent Nazi approaches and refused to accept State honors.
On March 10, 1935, Joe Jacobs accompanied Schmeling to Hamburg to prepare for a bout against New Jersey-born Steve Hamas (his father was an immigrant from Austria-Hungary). Having beaten Schmeling in February 1934, the Hamburg-fight was a rematch.
Although Hamas had suffered a pre-fight injury by tearing a tendon in his left elbow, the event did proceed as scheduled. Schmeling punished his opponent to such an extent that Hamas spent time in hospital to recover. His career was over and he did not fight again.
Some 25,000 of Schmeling’s German fans celebrated his knock-out victory by singing the “Horst Wessel Lied” (a Nazi anthem) with their arms up in Sieg Heil salute. Bemused by the ritual, Yussel Jacobs followed suit, raised his arm holding a huge Havana cigar between his fingers (his “Groucho-moment”), whilst winking to Schmeling. All this was caught on camera.
Photographs of Yussel’s irreverent “Havana homage” were published around the world. The scene did not go well with the Nazi top brass. The head of the Reich Ministry of Sports wrote an indignant letter to Schmeling demanding that he should sack his Jewish-American manager. Max refused.
Jacobs subsequently arranged for Schmeling to fight the legendary Joe Louis in a non-title bout at the Yankee Stadium on June 19, 1936. Max had maintained many contacts in New York and received a warm welcome on arrival. Many of the 46,000 crowd in Yankee Stadium cheered him on when, against all expectations, he handed the “Brown Bomber” his first ever defeat by knocking him out in the twelfth round.
Boxing offered black athletes a rare opportunity to compete as they were excluded from most other professional sports in the United States. White audiences responded in ambivalent ways to their participation. Schmeling returned to Germany a national hero.
Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, hailed his victory as a triumph for the Third Reich. The official SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps) celebrated the event as being far more important than just another sporting occasion: “It was a question of prestige for our race.”
The rematch was planned on June 22, 1938, and billed as the “fight of the century.” As American audiences had become better informed about Nazi Germany, the built-up to the fight carried political overtones.
Joe Louis not only personified the aspirations of the African-American community, but also the support of those who sensed the threat of Fascism. When Schmeling’s liner Bremen docked in New York City more than a month before the night of the fight, pickets and protesters lined the shore. The fighter had to be escorted to his hotel.
Before a packed audience of 70,000 people in the Yankee Stadium (and seventy million listeners on radio), Louis unleashed a series of brutal punches, one of which broke two vertebrae in Schmeling’s back. The bout was over in two minutes and four seconds.
After two weeks in hospital, Schmeling returned home. This time there was no hero’s welcome. His status had plummeted. He was drafted into the German Army and served as a paratrooper. Joe Jacobs died a year later of a sudden heart attack at the age of forty-one.
After the war, Schmeling built a career as a Coca-Cola executive in West-Germany. He did not work for “dubious” companies such as Bayer, Krupp or Volkswagen. At first glance, one might suggest that by joining an American icon he contributed to the Allied-driven process of denazification. Reality was different.
By the time Hitler marched into Austria, Coca-Cola had been in Germany for nearly a decade. After the company’s sponsorship of the Olympic Games in Berlin (with banners featuring its logo alongside the swastika), it conquered the market. On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The American entrance into war stopped all business activities with the enemy.
In addition, the German government threatened to seize “enemy-owned” businesses. Coca-Cola escaped such interference by introducing Fanta. Aimed specifically at the German market, it became the Reich’s favorite drink.
Schmeling was not an anti-Semite. He famously shielded the two sons of hotelier David Lewin on the terrifying Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) when on November 9, 1938, thugs went on the rampage smashing Jewish homes and shops.
More significantly, his glory years in Berlin and New York were enjoyed in Jewish company and he remained loyal to Yussel until the latter’s premature death. If ambivalent about the regime, he never joined the Nazi party.
Max was not particularly racist either. After the war, he and Joe Louis developed a close friendship. The latter died on April 12, 1981, in much reduced financial circumstances. Schmeling helped pay for the burial and was one of the pallbearers at his former rival’s funeral.
At worst, he was a facilitator (never a promotor) of Nazism by not speaking out against the regime; an opportunist who became victim of his own success by being used as a propaganda tool.
Illustrations, from above: Joe Louis (left) and Max Schmeling at a photo session prior to their heavyweight world championship bout in 1938; Rudolf Belling’s bronze sculpture “Der Boxer Max Schmeling,” 1928 (Hamburger Kunsthalle); Joe “Yussel” Jacobs in May 1938, shortly before his sudden death; the wedding of Anny Ondra and Max Schmeling in 1933 (Bundesarchiv); Max Schmeling and Joe Louis fight poster, 1936; and German Fanta ads from the 1940s.