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Biofile: Jack Dempsey Interview

By Scoop Malinowski

This Biofile was done on April 15, 1997 in New York City with Jack’s wife Deanna Dempsey.

Status: Former World Heavyweight champion 1919-1926.

DOB: June 24, 1895  In:  Manassa, Colorado

Childhood Hero:  “John L. Sullivan.”

Nicknames:  Kid Blackie, Manassa Mauler (from Damon Runyan), Manassa Jack, The Man Eater, Jack The Giant Killer.

Hobbies/Interests:  “Reading, golf, opera. He discovered opera when he was 80. Madame Butterfly, which was also my favorite. He told me how sad he was that he never saw one younger.”

Funny Memory:  “We met Muhammad Ali in San Juan, Puerto Rico after he beat Jean-Pierre Coopman in 1976. He was young and handsome and vital and so full of life. After the fight, as he was coming down the steps from the ring, Ali spotted Jack and he said, ‘Mr. Dempsey, can I call you Jack?’ Jack said, ‘Everybody calls me Jack.’ Then Muhammad said, Oh Jack, you were the greatest!’ And Jack said, ‘But Muhammad, I thought you always said YOU were the greatest?’ Ali said, ‘Jack. When I say I’m the greatest, it’s all bullshit!’”

Pre-Fight Feeling:  “The night before the fight he was agitated. I think all of them are. I don’t think he slept well the night before. He told me when he went into the ring against Jess Willard, Willard was there already, standing very tall with his hands up over his head. When Jack saw that, he said to himself, ‘I’m not fighting for the title, my God, I’m fighting for my life!’”

Favorite Movies:  “Gary Cooper movies. They were friends. News reels.”

Musical Tastes:  “Classical, Verdi, Puccini, Frank Sinatra.”Favorite Book:  “War & Peace.”

Childhood Dream:  “He wanted to be a champion when he started to fight. They were terribly poor. He was very good to his mother when he became champion.”

Favorite Meal:  “Spaghetti, meat sauce, cheeses, with a glass of water. He wasn’t much of a drinker.”

Favorite Ice Cream Flavor:  “All kinds.”

Favorite Breakfast Cereal:   “Pancakes. He likes pancakes the best.”

Closest Boxing Friends:  “Floyd Patterson. Gene Tunney. He liked all of them but he was closest to them. He beat Luis Firpo and then they became friends. Jack was just that kind of person. In 1956, Firpo invited Jack to come visit him in Argentina. When Jack arrived to the hacienda and he saw so many people, he asked what they were doing. Firpo said he was giving Jack a party. Jack asked, how many people did he invite? 14,000!”

Favorite Vacation Spot:  “Italy. He loved Italy. Rome. Venice. He loved Italian people. They were so kind. He also liked London, England.”

(Jack Dempsey oil painting by LeRoy Neiman.)

Greatest Sports Moment:  “When he was 75 and Madison Square Garden gave a party for Jack (the same night as Jerry Quarry vs. Mac Foster in 1970). And the whole Madison Square Garden was filled. When they called Jack, everybody stood up and sang Happy Birthday to him. Gene Tunney. Georges Carpentier. Jack Sharkey. Joey Giardello. Joe Frazier. George Chuvalo. Jose Torres. Emile Griffith. Dick Tiger. Sandy Saddler. Ismael Laguna were all there. It was a very moving moment for Jack. And also for me.”

Most Painful Moment:  “He said he felt bad every time when he beat somebody. He felt bad that he had to do it. But he had to do it. When you have to do it, you have to do it. When he knocked out Carpentier, he immediately went to his side to make sure he was all right and helped him to his corner.”

Worst Injury:  “Broken nose many times. And when Firpo threw him out of the ring, he hit his back. He suffered very much through the years with arthritis in his back.”

Most Treasured Possession:  “I never saw the belt. I think he gave it away. He was a giver, he wasn’t a taker. He would take off his watch and give it to somebody.”

On Retiring At Age 32:  “When I asked him why he retired from the ring, he told me, ‘Sometimes when you get one more fight, something happens to you. You are not the same anymore.’”

People Qualities Most Admired:  “He liked intelligent people. People with brains. Because that’s what he always missed. He didn’t have a good education. And he always admired people who were doctors. He had great respect for doctors.”

First Memory Meeting Jack:  “I used to work in the lobby of the hotel. He would come by and visit me at my boutique. When he first told me his name, he told me his name was John L. Sullivan [smiles].” 

Jack Dempsey KO’s Jess Willard in 1919

(Note: I did not have the fortune to meet Jack Dempsey but I did meet his wife Deanna at a LeRoy Neiman art showing in NYC and we later met at her apartment and did this interview. – SM)

Copyright: Scoop Malinowski

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