Lord Byron, G. Bernard Shaw,
Gene Tunney and me
Lord Byron, born this day in 1778, in Dover, England
Dear viewers of Westmount Magazine,
Today, January 22 is the 239th anniversary of the birth of the famous poet Lord Byron, arguably the first international public cultural figure.
As our own camera shy reviewer Byron Toben (cultural, business and environment) shares this name, even though not (yet) a Lord, we asked him to comment on this similarity.
Here is his reply.
“My paternal grandfather, Bernard, died shortly before I was born. I surmise that my parents chose the name Byron to honour him, partly since it begins with a B, also perhaps because my father was born in London, UK. They probably never realized how this choice followed me ever since.”
“When in high school, I chanced upon a used copy of a Random house book that had anecdotes of famous people with a few cartoon sketches. One was about the playwright George Bernard Shaw (whom I had not yet heard of) depicted as a sort of boxer/fencer with a pen in hand popping balloons, and another of past world boxing champion Gene Tunney being amazingly a Shakespeare (whom I had heard of) expert. Little did I dream that these two figures would come together not only in real life, but, sort of, in mine.
“For years, new acquaintances each thinking they were colossally original, quipped, “Oh, are you the poet? Hahaha.”
“Later, post grad, an English teacher girlfriend gave me a copy of the collected plays of Shaw so I have now read all 61 of them and seen a number of his plays read, staged or filmed and as my readers may have noticed, often quoted quips from this eminently quotable source.”
“I even joined the International Shaw Society and, at an annual meeting in Guelph, met and became friendly with Gene Tunney’s son, Jay. Jay had recently written a fine book, The Prizefighter and the Playwright that detailed the lifelong post boxing friendship between Shaw and Tunney. My review of the book appeared in both The Suburban and The Metropolitain and I managed to get Jay to Montreal for a press launch at the Atwater Library.”
“Reproduced below is my private summation GBS from Byron to Tunney. My other literary star, Willy Shakespeare, or whoever he/she/they really was, asked “What’s in a name?” I’m still not sure, but these are my thoughts.”
From Lord Byron To Gene Tunney
By Byron Toben
In 1801, George Gordon Byron, later Lord by inheritance from a great uncle, entered Harrow where he excelled in swimming and, despite a club left foot, in boxing.
He went on to become the world’s first international cultural celebrity as a result of tossing off epics like Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan while travelling in Switzerland and Italy.
In 1882, the unsuccessful novelist, George Bernard Shaw, later to become the successful playwright of 61 plays and, arguably, the world’s first public intellectual, published Cashel Byron’s Profession. That novel featured a literary gent who is also a boxer, obviously based on Lord Byron
In 1926, Gene Tunney became world heavyweight boxing champion. As a poetry and Shakespeare autodidact, comparisons as a flesh and blood incarnation of the fictional Cashel were inevitable.
This drew attention to the 44-year-old novel and plans to make a film adaptation. To protect his copyrights, Shaw quickly published The Admirable Bashville, a play version of Cashel Byron’s Profession.
All of this led to a meeting between Shaw and Tunney and, despite a 41-year-age difference a mutual admiration society and deep friendship between the two (as well as between their wives, Charlotte and Polly) which lasted for 20 years.
Shaw and Charlotte joined Gene and Polly on their honeymoon stay on Brioni in the Adriatic. Polly there developed a mysterious ailment and was feared to die. A seemingly miraculous development led to her recovery.
Byron was a wild hedonist and libertine, married several times with many affairs.
Shaw shared Byron’s revolutionary spirit, but was a moral conservative (as well as a vegetarian and teetotaler) married once in a platonic marriage to Charlotte, although rumoured to have had a fling with an actress.
Tunney was a model of self-improvement and rectitude. Married once to Polly and had no affairs.
In the end
Lord Byron died in 1824 in Greece at age 36, reputedly from blood poisoning, while running arms to support Greek patriots against Turkey.
G. Bernard Shaw died in 1950 in England at 94 from complications after falling from his backyard tree while pruning it.
Gene Tunney died in 1971 in Connecticut at the age of 81, from complications of blood poisoning.
Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw died in London in 1943, childless.
Polly Lauder Tunney died in 2008 in Connecticut, just shy of 101, having had 4 children. The one daughter, Joan, was named in honour of Shaw’s St. Joan.
Notable quotes of Shaw and Tunney in mutual admiration
“I have never been given to close personal friendships, as you know, and Gene Tunney is among the very few for whom I have established a warm affection, I enjoy his company as I have that of few men.”
G. Bernard Shaw
“George Bernard Shaw was the saintliest man I have ever known. On no occasion can I remember his using the slightest slang, let alone common profanity, nor did he ever speak ill of anyone. His approach to life was that of a benign observer, seeing all, forgiving mistakes, and helping those who could benefit by his help.
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club