Book Review: Readings

Douglas Century


Barney Ross

by Douglas Century

Schocken, 240 pp., $19.95

Straight out of the Maxwell Street ghetto in Chicago – "that somber city" – came the great "fistic" talents of one Barney Ross (born Dov-Ber Rasofsky), lightweight champion and junior welterweight champion and welterweight champion, all at once. The "Pride of the Ghetto": head down, hands up, footwork like Nijinsky. Hear his story of tragedy and triumph and tragedy again, recounted admirably and enthusiastically by Douglas Century in this new biography of that great yet forgotten early 20th-century scrapper: 200-plus pages filled with legendary boxers and gangsters, jungle warfare, Hollywood glamour, and religious devotion. Barney Ross, champion of the world, the very portrait in miniature of the American urban experience, the penniless, devout Jew from Chicago whose pious, hardworking immigrant father was gunned down in his own grocery store, whose self-sacrificing mother went nearly mad from grief, and whose siblings were dispatched one by one to hard-knock orphanages in a hard-knock city; who fought because it's all he knew how to do, because it's what the American city and American poverty had trained him to do, to protect himself and his own. Barney Ross, who won a king's ransom in the ring and then nearly lost it all at the track – perhaps the worst gambler the world has ever known, once losing an entire $18,000 purse in a single evening – who was a petty thief and street brawler at 14 but grew up to rub shoulders with some of the richest and most famous politicians and Hollywood stars of his day: the little man who became a bigwig; that master of the sweet science who courted showgirls and shiksas, but who always, always loved his mother.

Read about Barney Ross, the marine, hero of the battle for Guadalcanal and recipient of the Silver Star for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy," the compulsive who went off to war addicted to gambling and booze and women and returned home addicted to devil morphine. For immigrant American Jews throughout the 1930s and early Forties, Barney Ross was a giant, a hero who carried the weight of their hopes on his welterweight shoulders, as their old Europe tumbled into darkness. From Madison Square Garden to the Solomon Islands to the Lexington detox hospital, Barney Ross was a true fighter. Step right up and read the book, hear the tales, and marvel at this model of our recently deceased century and at an America now long-since buried in the attic of our collective memory, forgotten but not gone.

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