A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s

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9780151002962: A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s

Jack Dempsey was perfectly suited to the time in which he fought, the time when the United States first felt the throb of its own overwhelming power. For eight years and two months after World War I, Dempsey, with his fierce good looks and matchless dedication to the kill, was heavyweight champion of the world. A Flame of Pure Fire is the extraordinary story of a man and a country growing to maturity in a blaze of strength and exuberance that nearly burned them to ash. Hobo, roughneck, fighter, lover, millionaire, movie star, and, finally, a gentleman of rare generosity and sincerity, Dempsey embodied an America grappling with the confusing demands of preeminence. Dempsey lived a life that touched every part of the American experience in the first half of the twentieth century. Roger Kahn, one of our preeminent writers about the human side of sport, has found in Dempsey a subject that matches his own manifold talents. A friend of Dempsey's and an insightful observer of the ways in which sport can measure a society's evolution, Kahn reaches a new and exciting stage in his acclaimed career with this book. In the story of a man John Lardner called "a flame of pure fire, at last a hero," Roger Kahn finds the heart of America.

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Review:

Jack Dempsey (1895-1983) launched the age of big-money, high-visibility boxing with his 1919 defeat of heavyweight champion Jess Willard. Then when Gene Tunney beat Dempsey in 1927, assisted by a referee's controversial "long count," it foreshadowed the end of an era. With his good looks, free-and-easy ways, and roughneck background--including an ex-wife who was a prostitute before and after their marriage--Dempsey was the perfect hero for the brawling, cynical 1920s. Even his sensational trial in 1920 on charges of draft evasion and "white slavery" (he was acquitted) suited the decade's appetite for lurid tabloid stories. Roger Kahn, who met the fighter in the mid-1950s, takes an idiosyncratic approach to biography. He begins with a 1960 encounter in Dempsey's restaurant, moves back to the fighter's hard-knocks apprenticeship, covers Dempsey's childhood after an account of the 1920 trial, and intersperses snapshots of the American scene with recollections and reflections from the champ throughout. This technique pays off. Readers get a vivid sense of the period and of Dempsey as its hard-living but honorable exemplar, and they come to share Kahn's affection and respect for the thoughtful, generous man he became in later years. Squeamish readers, be warned: along with the cultural history, there's lots of boxing action, graphically described. --Wendy Smith

About the Author:

Widely acclaimed as the greatest baseball writer of his generation, Roger Kahn is most famous for his modern classic, The Boys of Summer, which James Michener called the finest American book on sports. Kahn is the author of 16 books, most recently The Head Game, Baseball Seen from the Pitchers' Mound. His magazine articles won five Dutton Best Magazine Story Awards and his book The Era: When the Yankees Dodgers and Giants Ruled the World was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Born in Brooklyn, he now lives in Stone Ridge, N.Y. with his wife, the psychotherapist Katharine Colt Johnson.

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