Jewish World Review March 12 , 2012/ 18 Adar, 5772
A kinder, gentler day when fists settled disputes
By Dan K. Thomasson
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Now and then it's refreshing to step away from the toxic vitriol of presidential politics and the din of discord over current issues of the day and remember what a recent president called a kinder, gentler time.
Nostalgia can be good for the soul, reminding us not only of better days in our lives but also that life goes on no matter what and we probably should not take it all too seriously.
The other day I read that one of the few remaining connections with that tumultuous and energetic time we have come to know as the Roaring Twenties was about to pass from the New York scene. Bill's Gay Nineties Restaurant and Piano Bar, born as a speakeasy in 1924 on the East Side of Manhattan, will no longer offer the history steeped conviviality that has been its stock and trade for all these years.
The owner of the building that has housed it through the generations refuses to renegotiate the lease. And although Bill's owner, whose father bought it from the founder, Bill Hardy, says she will reopen elsewhere, it just won't be the same.
I recalled a night after a hard day of hassling with our agents in the New York offices when I sat at Bill's bar nursing a much-needed martini and chatting with a dapper old fellow who confessed to being at least, as he put it, a little past the octogenarian level. He obviously was a frequent visitor to Bill's, originally named by Hardy as a devotee of the 1890s, with his wife a Ziegfeld girl. He finally sold it in 1965 along with its treasure trove of memorabilia.
"I was a boxer," my new acquaintance said. When I remarked that he showed none of the signs of a pugilistic past, he said, "I didn't last too long." But he went on to note that his brother had been a contender for the flyweight championship and a main draw at Madison Square Garden. "Do you know anything about boxing?" he asked.
I suddenly recalled an incident in my teens I hadn't thought about for more than 50 years. I related it.
In the summer, I told him, a local contractor gave members of the high school football team jobs in construction. One of the foremen was an erudite and well-read man named Long, I believe his first name was Art, but it has been so long ago. Now Long was a gentle man who weighed about 150 pounds. He always had a ready smile. He liked working outdoors so he gave up opportunities more suited to his education.
One day when I complained about some injustice I had perceived, he advised me not to worry because life has a way of balancing things. He told me that during World War I when he was in France, he and his fellow doughboys had been taken off the line and shipped to Paris for R&R, Rest and Recreation. Part of the second R was devoted to boxing.
A corporal lined up troopers across from one another and Long found himself pared off with a muscular man from Pittsburgh who said he was a club fighter. The corporal told him to please take it easy on Long who had no such experience. "Just show him some moves." But Long quickly ended up dazed and bleeding on the ground.
The corporal rushed to his aid and then turned to the Pittsburgh man, who explained that when he fought he didn't take it easy on anyone. "Now show me those moves," the corporal said, donning Long's gloves.
The Pittsburgh "professional" attacked but soon lay on his back completely unable to move. The corporal kneeled down, lifted up his head and said: "Now go tell your Pittsburgh buddies that you just got your butt kicked by Benny Leonard."
The old man at the bar almost fell off his stool. He even caused a stir with his whooping. "Young man," he said, "That is the best story I ever heard. I saw Leonard fight and there was no purer boxer then or now. He was a genius and lightweight champion. My G0d, there is justice."
And if there is, Bill's will thrive elsewhere.
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