Fight of the Century

Joe Louis’ boxing match against Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in 1938 remains one of the great sporting events of the 20th century — even though the fight in front of nearly 70,000 spectators lasted all of two minutes and four seconds.

Some 67 years after that fateful night of fisticuffs, David Margolick, a Vanity Fair contributing editor and former New York Times staffer, has written the authoritative account of a time when the fate of nations seemed to hang in the balance of one boxing match. “Beyond Glory” (Knopf, 2005) is a book that Margolick describes as “so Jewish” — even if its protagonists were not.

Margolick’s journey to write this book started, he said, when he was 8 or 9 and his father played “I Can Hear It Now,” an Edward R. Murrow/Fred Friendly recording that featured Clem McCarthy calling the second Louis-Schmeling fight. Schmeling had won their first bout — and as the rematch approached, it seemed as if the men in the ring were stand-ins for a fight between Nazi supremacy and American democracy.

Many years later, as the 20th century passed into the 21st, Margolick was surprised to find there was no book on the subject. Margolick realized that in Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, he had two great stories that provided “a natural architecture, almost like a double helix, as they chased each other and met.”

At the same time, the story encompasses the sport of boxing in its glory days, during a moment in time when two men’s personal dramas enthralled the nation and the world. “Beyond Glory” is an account of the 1930s — “the fateful decade” as Margolick called it. Unavoidably and inevitably, “Beyond Glory” is also the story of race relations in the United States and of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.

Margolick has created this historical page-turner, weighing in at 351 pages, the old-fashioned way: with exhaustive research in archives and on microfilm in libraries all over the world. He has amassed a Himalaya of detail, distilling it seamlessly into a cohesive, compelling narrative that takes the reader from the boxing ring to the streets of Harlem, to cities in the North and South of the United States and even into Goebbel’s living room, where Schmeling’s wife listened to the fight with the Nazi leader and his spouse.

In the mid-1960s, Truman Capote famously applied the techniques of fiction to reporting “In Cold Blood,” and as the film, “Capote,” tells us, “he changed the way nonfiction was written.” There is no question that many have followed down that road — writing in a style that delivers a breathless you-are-there quality.

Margolick, by contrast, is old school: He gives the readers the facts and lets them draw their own conclusions. “Beyond Glory” is not the story of what Margolick thinks; it is an account of what others witnessed. Margolick’s love for his subject and respect for each detail is evident in his meticulous account.

Margolick’s approach is informed by his training as a newspaper reporter, as well as his background as an attorney, and by his experience writing about judges, lawyers and cases as the former “At the Bar” columnist for The New York Times. (In that capacity, Margolick was responsible for my own 15 minutes of fame, when he profiled me as an attorney-turned-author of a book about the Demjanjuk trial in Israel).

In person, Margolick conveys strong opinions about Louis and Schmeling. For example, he feels Louis’ impact on civil rights in America is largely forgotten because, by the 1960s, he was regarded as a retro Uncle Tom figure.

“People had forgotten,” Margolick says, “what a colossally important cultural figure he was.” He also feels that Louis’ victory against Schmeling was a touchstone in American Jews’ identification with the plight of African Americans — way before the civil rights movement.

In “Beyond Glory,” Schmeling comes across as shrewd, a boxer who properly assessed Louis’ weaknesses in their first fight in 1936, to beat him. This shrewdness also showed outside the ring, where Schmeling cultivated the good will of the Nazi leadership, without ever joining the Nazi party. And after the war, he smartly maneuvered to receive the German Coca-Cola franchise that made him a millionaire. He would live long enough to be perceived in post-war Germany as an athletic icon.

History was kind to Schmeling: Over the years, he wrote three autobiographies without risking his reputation to a competing serious biography. His post-war renown also was enhanced by a curious twist of fate. On Kristallnacht, Schmeling protected two young Jewish children, brothers, who were his neighbors. They survived and prospered, and years later, Henri Lewin, now a Los Angeles resident and successful Las Vegas casino owner, was alive to speak of Schmeling’s act of courage.

Still, Margolick felt the true, entire story of Schmeling had not been told. Margolick tried in vain to meet and interview Schmeling (who died Feb. 2, 2005, at age 99), even going so far as to travel to Germany and knock on his door, only to be rebuffed.

For the record, Margolick judges Schmeling more harshly in person than the book does. In Margolick’s estimation, Schmeling, although loyal to Jews he knew personally, during the war years showed “microcourage and macrocowardice”

Margolick faults Schmeling for never speaking out against what was happening in Germany. Margolick makes the case that Schmeling could easily have lived in the United States, could have led his career here — many non-Jewish Germans did, including Marlene Dietrich. In the end, Margolick sees Schmeling as symbolizing all Germany, where average and not-so-average Germans individually and collectively allowed evil to thrive, even as they were willing to prosper in its midst.

In this way, “Beyond Glory” is in Margolick’s estimation, “a Jewish book because it’s about civil rights, a natural Jewish affinity between blacks and Jews. It’s a book about Nazism, about Hitler’s rise and about how one boxer reacted to it.” Furthermore, as Margolick told me, “Boxing was a Jewish enterprise. Half of the people in the seats were Jews.” The promoters, the managers, the trainers, the writers were mostly Jews.

However, the fundamental reason that “Beyond Glory” should be considered a Jewish book is because any book Margolick writes is inevitably Jewish.

In his omnivorous research, Margolick read the Yiddish papers, which normally didn’t cover sports but covered this. And not only the Yiddish papers but the Polish Yiddish papers (which the Yiddishist Eddy Portnoy helped him with) and the Polish Jewish newspapers (read by assimilated Polish Jews). It was there that Margolick found a poem that appears in the book, written by Wladyslaw Szengel, a Polish Jew living in Warsaw:

Hey Louis! You probably don’t know
What your punches meant to us
You, in anger, punched the Brown Shirts
Straight in their hearts — K.O.

Szengel’s fate in Poland can only be imagined; Margolick said he was especially proud to include the poem: “It brought back to life this man’s voice.”

Who else would include that poem in a book about the Schmeling-Louis fight?

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.