Read Carlos Acevedo’s fascinating account of Jack Johnson’s life in exile
APRIL 5, 1915 — down at last, in the 26th round of a bout fought under a blistering sun before thousands of hecklers, even there, in Havana, more than 300 miles away from American bedrock. Down, and at the feet of “The Pottawatomie Giant,” Jess Willard, a cowpuncher who lumbered out of The Great Plains, shucking spurs, lassos, chaps, all the way to the heavyweight championship of the world. From the moment he lost his title to a primitive “White Hope” in an equally primitive ring set up in Cuba, Jack Johnson, renegade, dandy, scourge of America, where, to his everlasting misfortune, interracial marriage was banned in several states, was a burnt-out case. Even before losing to Willard and relinquishing his status as “The Black Avenger”, Johnson had sent a telegram to his mother in Chicago that read in part: “I AM TIRED OF KNOCKING AROUND.”
Johnson had been wandering through fugitive days for years, ever since fleeing Chicago in 1913 after being convicted of violating the Mann Act, a federal law meant to curb prostitution but occasionally used to enforce Bible Belt virtue by prosecuting celebrities with libertine tastes. And Johnson was a staunch devotee of lowlife: Although he ran a lavish club in Chicago, his preferred milieu was brothels. And his preferred company? Prostitutes, usually more than one at a time and, to the dread of many Americans, white prostitutes. When Johnson took up with a pale-as-alabaster 19-year-old courtesan within weeks of his first wife, Etta, committing suicide, public fury prompted legal action. After his future mother-in-law charged Johnson with kidnapping her daughter, Lucille (who would eventually marry Johnson in a bid to avoid testifying against him in court), authorities closed in. But it was an earlier moveable tryst with another working girl, Belle Schreiber, which ultimately led to his conviction on May 13, 1913.
A larger-than-life embodiment of what sociologist Thorstein Veblen had recently called “conspicuous consumption”, Johnson swaggered through the early 20th century at odds with the established racial mores of the U.S. Like other hell-raisers of his era — Abe Attell, Stanley Ketchel and Ad Wolgast – whose days and nights were perpetual scandals, Johnson lived life without a speedometer. Unlike his fellow rowdies, however, Johnson was black. That fact, combined with his audacious attitude — his defiance, his drinking, his omnivorous sexual appetite — in an age when black men were still targets for lynch mobs, made Johnson the object of near-hysterical outrage.
Where his title-winning KO of Tommy Burns had merely caused shock, his thrashing of Jim Jeffries in 1910 spurred race riots across the country. Not only did Johnson pummel Jeffries but he also humiliated “The Boilermaker”, taunting and grinning, gold-capped teeth glittering in the sun, as he dealt out punishment.
In the wake of the Civil War, institutionalised slavery morphed into “Jim Crow” laws, a series of municipal rulings whose sole purpose was to disenfranchise blacks throughout the South. But Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, an active seaport which functioned, for commercial purposes, naturally, as an international zone. Under these utilitarian circumstances, Galveston found itself both racially mixed and relatively tolerant. Compared to growing up in Mississippi or South Carolina, childhood in Galveston seemed almost idyllic. “No one,” Johnson said, “ever told me that white men were superior to me…”
Whether or not Johnson consciously took on the role of racial revolutionary, his actions required extraordinary courage. He stood out, virtually alone, on the bleak horizon of pre-Civil Rights America, a symbol of resistance to many black Americans. “I always take a chance on my pleasures,” he once said.
Sentenced to 366 days in prison for his reckless disregard of all that Jim Crow prohibited, Johnson fled America on June 24, 1913, an outlaw on the run, certainly, but with his overriding sense of Joie de Vivre still intact. He toured England, Argentina, France, Germany, Barbados, Spain — all without a Baedeker at hand.
Now, however, he was an exile to himself. As champion, Johnson earned more than the racist cartoons his notoriety generated. No matter how loathed he was by a public that viewed his personal excesses as a blatant disregard for the moral order of the ironically named Progressive Era, Johnson was an exemplar of sporting supremacy in an age when the heavyweight championship could still be viewed in near-mythical terms. That status, left behind in Havana, could no longer help him in exile.
A few days after being stopped by Willard, a dejected Johnson boarded a steamship bound for Europe and for the last unsettled years of a life that had long since spiralled out of control.
Upon arriving in London in May 1915, he was not met with the fanfare that had greeted him on previous trips. Without the distinction of being heavyweight champion, Johnson was already on his way to has-been status. His revue, Seconds Out, played to waning box-office receipts and his personal life, which ultimately led to his prosecution in America, prompted mass revulsion. In addition, his quicksilver moods — he was sued for assault at one point — soured everyone around him. In January 1916, Johnson was ordered to leave England under the Aliens Restriction Act. With the First World War raging across the Continent, Johnson ultimately decided that neutral Spain would be his safest option.
In Barcelona, Johnson was still enough of a curiosity to attract his share of attention. He opened a short-lived advertising agency, performed in parody bullfights, revived his vaudeville act and played the carefree boulevardier for a retinue of hangers-on. Ultimately, however, Johnson knew that making enough pesetas to continue living high-style under straitened Old World circumstances would involve his fists. Nearly a year after losing his title to Willard, an out-of-shape Johnson returned to boxing by scoring a dubious seventh-round stoppage over Frank Crozier on a theatre stage that doubled as a ring in Madrid.
As a pro in America during the last lawless era in boxing, Johnson understood the lucrative kinship between prizefighting and carny sideshows. With that in mind, Johnson hooked up with one of the unlikeliest figures ever to step into a boxing ring.
Born in Switzerland in 1887 to British parents, Arthur Cravan, whose real name was Fabian Lloyd, was one of the first personalities to kickstart the Dada movement in art. Cravan was a one-man modernist-wrecking crew who published an irreverent literary journal called Maintenant filled with pre-surrealist verse and diatribes against his contemporaries. For years, Cravan had idolised Johnson, and he included “Lil’ Arthur” on his list of culture heroes alongside Rimbaud and Wilde. Inspired by seeing Johnson perform his vaudeville routine in France a few years earlier, Cravan transformed poetry readings and lectures — where he often held forth wearing only a jockstrap — into free-for-alls, sometimes firing a pistol into the air while hurling objects and insults at the startled crowd.
Despite their apparently unbridgeable backgrounds, Cravan and Johnson were remarkably similar. Both men were nomads who had criss-crossed the world; both men were provocateurs who had been thrown in jail more than once.
And, of course, both men were boxers, although Cravan gloved up mostly in salons and ateliers when boxing was a fad among artists such as Picasso, Braque and Miro.
One last similarity brought them together in Barcelona: both men were also on the run. Despite his riotous approach to life and art, Cravan was obsessed with avoiding conscription and thereby the killing fields of Europe. As the carnage spread across the continent, Cravan wound up in Spain, where he and Johnson hatched a plan to meet in the ring.
On April 23, 1916, Johnson and Cravan squared off at the Plaza De Toros Monumental in Barcelona. Over the years, the events surrounding the Johnson-Cravan fight have been embellished to the point of being fictionalised. This, in part, is due to the fact that so many chroniclers have relied on the memoirs of Blaise Cendrars, a poet and eccentric who elevated the imagination above all else. His recollections of the Barcelona affair are as reliable as the war reminiscences of Baron Munchausen.
In his whimsical account of the fight, Cendrars claimed that Johnson knocked out Cravan in the first round and that the crowd erupted into a riot, rushed the ring, and set the arena on fire, forcing officials to throw Johnson into jail overnight for his own protection. None of this is true. With pioneering Spanish director Ricardo de Baños on site to record the events, Johnson and Cravan were prepared to extend their travesty for as long as possible in hopes of cashing in on theatre replays. But trying to convince a crowd that the inept Cravan could actually last a few rounds was no easy task, and the bout dragged on, marred by clinching and posing until Johnson finally put an end to the hoax with a single blow that legitimately dropped Cravan on his face in the sixth round.
The film footage was useless and word-of-mouth forced Johnson to enter the ring under similar but less remunerative circumstances across Spain. In an interview with El Nuevo Mundo dated March 15, 1918, Johnson was asked how much of his money he had saved. He replied, with aplomb, “Not a cent. With the same ease that it came, it went, and the same hands that won it lost it.”
Once a clotheshorse who changed lavish outfits twice a day, Johnson was now night-crawling through the winding streets of Madrid looking threadbare for a dandy who had, years earlier, been compared to Beau Brummell.
For Johnson, keeping solvent meant hustling from day to day, and his money-making prospects soon dwindled.
In March 1919, Johnson returned to Havana – site of his diminishment four years earlier – and upon disembarking immediately announced that his loss to Willard in 1915 had been a fix. Unfortunately, this startling claim distressed the Cuban government, which promptly issued a warrant for his arrest. Again Johnson sailed on, this time to Mexico, where some brave entrepreneurs assured Jack that there was a fortune waiting for him in set-ups. In keeping with his knack for chaos, Johnson arrived during turbulent times in the wake of the Mexican Revolution.
At odds with the United States over oil rights, President Carranza saw Johnson as a public relations opportunity he could not pass up, and he welcomed the former champion to Mexico City. Under the patronage of Carranza, Johnson waltzed through exhibitions, put on his strongman act, and eventually ran a bar in Tijuana. But Carranza would not live long enough for Johnson to truly prosper. Carranza, ousted by a coup after appointing a figurehead to the presidency, was assassinated before he could flee Mexico. With Carranza dead, Johnson found himself the enemy of yet another state. Ordered to pack his bags by the Mexican government, Johnson contacted the Bureau of Investigation and offered to negotiate terms of surrender. For seven years, Johnson had wandered across the world, often under duress, and now, with nowhere else to go, he was ready to trade one form of exile for another. On July 20, 1920, Johnson met U.S. agents at the Los Angeles border, where crowds had gathered on both sides to see the former heavyweight champion of the world relinquish the last thing he had of value: his freedom. Always ready for a publicity op, Johnson, in a ratty suit, paused dramatically before crossing so that photographers could capture the moment. And then, Jack Johnson, for years a Janus-like symbol of both hatred and pride, stepped over the borderline and, once again, into the unknown.