The Quiet Man who appeared in a suit — He was the Real Thing!

22 Jun

MaxSchmeling1 Sometime in 1954, a well dressed booted and suited executive from the Coca-Cola Company announced that he was making a detour on his business trip. He explained to those who would listen that he wanted to break away from business to find and visit a man who he had neither seen nor spoken to for many years. There was something that he simply wanted to clear up. Given that he was an executive of the company and that he stood in a muscular 6ft 1 inch frame few were going to argue with him—besides he announced his intention with such charm and sincerity that few people would even think of standing in his way.

It was against this background, that the executive found himself in Chicago seeking out his prey. He was not difficult to find right enough, famous people rarely are, and at one point the man who was the subject of Mr Coca Cola’s search had been the most famous on the planet.

The executive stood in his suit, shirt and tie and waited for the door to open. When the door swung back on its hinges, suddenly there he was— older, fatter, out of condition, but undoubtedly the same man he had stood before all those years ago. His brown skin was mottled, his eyes a little uncertain, but still sitting clear in a head that stood on top of a large and muscular body, an inch taller than the executive.

The black man had fallen on hard times, but that did not matter as wealth was not the driving factor here, as something far more important was at stake. For the visitor, dignity and doing the right thing was the prize — a prize that no sum of money could buy.

For the man who opened the door, he simply saw a large white man in a smart suit standing in his doorway. Perhaps he was a little uncertain at first, but it was the eyes that revealed the visitors identity. You could perhaps disguise the visitor in a suit, add-on a few pounds from when they had last met, throw in a few grey hairs and so on— but those eyes would always tell him the identity of the surprise visitor standing in front of him. He had looked into those eyes long ago and would never forget them. “ Hello Joe, good to see you.” Said the visitor in heavily accented English. “ Max?” questioned the host “ Max Schmeling?” enquired Joe Louis……

And instantly the two men shook hands. Louis-schmeling-1971

The story of Joseph Louis Barrow and Maximilian Adolph Otto Siegfried “Max” Schmeling is a well-known one — or is it?

Louis and Schmeling would meet in two famous fights in which each man could claim a single victory over the other. Each would knock the other out in sensational circumstances and each fight would be hijacked and politicised way beyond the control of the two men concerned.

Neither fighter would be able to escape the consequences of either victory or defeat as seen through the eyes of others, and both would be harassed and bullied by the very governments who lauded and praised them one moment, but who sought to humiliate and demean them the next.

In many respects their boxing “legacy” had little or nothing to do with boxing. By the time the two men first met on June 19th 1936, Joe Louis had earned a fearful reputation being unbeaten in 28 fights. The black man who was originally from Alabama was seen as the overwhelming favourite and was on track to become the first black heavyweight champion since the controversial Jack Johnson.

Despite a widespread popularity, there were still those who were dead set against Louis in the United States because of his skin colour, and in the Southern states a fight between a black man and a white man was still illegal.

On the other hand, Schmeling was by this time seen as more of a journeyman fighter. He had been the German and European champion almost a decade before and he had held the world title between 1930 and 1932 following the disqualification of Jack Sharkey who was deemed to have hit Schmeling with a low blow in their first title fight.

After a solitary defence of the title, Schmeling would lose the crown in a rematch with Sharkey which the “Boston Gob” would win by way of a very controversial decision.

Thereafter, Schmeling’s record was up and down with a couple of wins and defeats to Max Baer who knocked him out in 1933 and a points loss to the clever Steve Hamas in 1934— although he would knock Hamas out a year later.

The fight with Baer was the first big fight promotion by Schmeling’s hero – Jack Dempsey– and it is worth noting that Dempsey had picked up a trick or two from his own former manager the wily Jack “Doc” Kearns.

Here for the first time, Schmeling was painted as “The German” Enemy or “ Maxi the Nazi” who faced Baer who was supposedly defending his Jewish faith. The bout was a raging success being voted fight of the year by ring magazine and grossed a healthy profit of over $233,000 of which Dempsey retained a significant chunk.

By 1935, world politics was seen as a good background against which to set a big boxing promotion, and so when Louis fought Italy’s “Ambling Alp” Primo Carnera in June of that year, Carnera was painted as Mussolini’s puppet – although the truth is that Carnera was much more likely to be under the control of the New York mafia than the influence of Il Duce.

So it was against this background that the 1936 fight between Louis and Schmeling took place in Yankee Stadium with a black American population totally cheering on the unbeaten champ in waiting ( with many but not all White folk sharing their enthusiasm ) and Schmeling being painted as an almost no hoper representing the Third Reich —- a regime which had done absolutely nothing by that point to proclaim Schmeling a hero.

In fact having already lost to the Jewish Baer, The German government of the day made moves to distance themselves from the unfancied Schmeling — who unknown to most Americans had already started to have run ins with the authorities in Germany.

The fight was almost ignored by the Nazi press, after Hitler privately questioned the wisdom of taking on the invincible American; but Schmeling’s shock victory led to wild celebrations in Germany. He received congratulatory cables from the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels; and also from Marlene Dietrich, by then an American exile.

For the 1936 fight, Louis wouldn’t train properly. He was cocky and sure of himself and felt Schmeling was an easy pay day. He played golf (a lifelong passion ) instead of training and did little to prepare properly. On the other hand, the 30 year old German studied Louis, detected what he thought was a weakness and set out to exploit it ruthlessly.

That weakness was that Joe was apt to drop his left hand after a jab, and so every time he saw the hand drop Schmeling unleashed a thunderous right cross to Louis’ unprotected head. In the Fourth round Louis went crashing to the floor for the first time in his professional career and in the twelfth round Schmeling knocked him out with a series of murderous blows.

Perhaps no one noticed that on immediately being declared the winner, the victorious Schmeling carried the dazed Louis back to his stool?

The differing reactions to the result could not have been starker. In New York streets black men, women and children especially wept while in Germany Hitler proclaimed Schmeling a hero and ordered that he return in triumph on the airship Hindenburg to a hero’s welcome.

By the time the two would meet again in 1938, Louis was world champion having taken the crown from “Cinderella Man” Jim Braddock in June 1937. Braddock, his handlers and the boxing authorities had refused to give Schmeling a shot at the title fearing that the Heavyweight Crown would be hijacked by Hitler and his propaganda team. Where the Third Reich had distanced themselves from Schmeling before, his victory over Louis was now proclaimed as a victory for the Aryan race and proof of the philosophies of the Nazi regime – though as we shall see the problems between Schmeling and the politicians were already growing steadily.

Louis for his part refused to recognise himself as Champion until he had avenged himself against Schmeling, and so the scene was set for the German to return to Yankee Stadium and challenge the Brown Bomber for the title.

As the politics between an ever aggressive Nazi Germany and the United States worsened, so Joe Louis and Max Schmeling were hijacked by the politics of the day. Schmeling was photographed with Hitler and his cohorts, Louis was photographed with Roosevelt. The papers absolutely heightened the tension with supposed quotes from Schmeling which he did his very best to deny. He released statements saying that while he was proud to be German he was not a Nazi— and in fact caused some ire back in his homeland when he revealed that he had steadfastly refused to join the Nazi party when asked,or was that ordered, to.

This made little difference. Joe was the humble black boy fighting for the US of A against Schmeling’s Nazi supremacist leanings irrespective of what the challenger said publicly — although there were still many in the States who wanted to cheer on Max against “Chicken eatin” Joe.

This time Joe trained and dominated his 32 year old opponent knocking him out in 240 seconds. He landed a body blow which produced an audible scream from Schmeling and within 42 blows the fight was over when the German challenger was knocked down for the third time in a round.

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Louis had won this time.

Schmeling suffered broken vertebrae and was badly injured.

Max would describe the carnival scenes he had to endure in the streets when he was being driven to the hospital. There were bands playing and crowds singing in the black neighbourhoods and all shouting the name “ Joe Louis” — it was clear the bad guy had been defeated.

In fact the bad guy had been defeated before he stepped into the ring. Where ten years before Max Schmeling had enjoyed some celebrity in New York and was reported as humble, dignified and down to earth – in the days before the fight he was molested in the street by mobs who would mock him by giving him the Nazi salute, booing him and so on.

As he walked to the ring for the fight he was pelted with garbage and refuse of every description. Whilst in New York he received death threats and hate mail by the sackful. Further, his manager, Joe Jacobs, was banned from sitting in his corner— for reasons that had nothing to do with Schmeling or this fight — everything was done to upset and disrupt the challenger.

Not that it would have made any difference to the outcome.

Schmeling’s team refused Louis visiting rights at the hospital which only heightened the hatred in the streets and when he returned to Germany he was no longer lauded and praised and was seen as a national embarrassment by the Reich. Louis had won, Schmeling had lost—- and that could have been the end of the Louis Schmeling story.

Yet it wasn’t, and what’s more it was not even the beginning of the real Max Schmeling – Joe Louis story.

Years later it became clear that far from being a Nazi sympathiser, Schmeling was fighting small battles with the Third Reich throughout. Of course he was seen in pictures with the Führer — who could refuse with safety? However, away from the cameras he realised when he was being used for political purposes and when he could he used his celebrity and position to resist “requests” from the Fuhrer and his men.

For example, Schmeling had married the actress Anny Ondra in 1933. Anny was glamourous and would go on to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s first talking movie “ Blackmail”. However, she had been born in Poland and had been raised in Prague. She was not seen to be sufficiently Aryan and Schmeling was “advised” to divorce her for his own good. He refused and they remained happily married for 54 years until her death in 1987 at the age of 83.

Schmeling’s manager was Joey Jacobs. Schmeling had first come to New York in 1928 and could not get any fights until he hooked up with Jewish Jacobs who was known by his nickname “ Yussel the Muscle”. Even before his victory over Louis, Schmeling had been criticised in his native Germany for his open associations with Jews. When he returned victorious after the first Louis fight he was told to ditch Jacobs and associate with more German types — which he once again refused to do. This gave rise to the ridiculous sight after one fight in Germany where Jacobs ran into the ring after another Schmeling victory and gave the obligatory Heil Hitler salute while wearing his hat and sporting his large torpedo cigar in his mouth! To some in Authority this was seen as an outrage and an insult coming from a Jew and Schmeling had to calm the tension with the authorities.

However, after his defeat to Louis, Schmeling’s influence with the German government not only waned — it disappeared.

Unlike any other major German sportsman he was drafted into the parachute regiment and in 1941 was flown into Crete where he was severely injured in battle, and hospitalized for months. It is said that whilst in Crete he visited the allied POW camps and argued for better conditions for those who had been captured and were held prisoner.

Yet despite this, he was still officially the German and European Heavyweight champion although by this time his celebrity and fortune were gone.

After the war, Schmeling was nearly destitute and fought five more times for the money. He retired after a 10-round loss to Walter Neusel in 1948 at the age of 43 with a record of 56-10-4 with 39 knock outs.

Back in the USA Joe Louis was still world champion – a title he would defend successfully on 25 occasions though some will say that many of the defences were against what became known as “The Bum of the month” club.

He would fight throughout the war years, and would be drafted into the military though he would never see active service or anything like it. He announced his retirement from boxing whilst still champion of the world on 1st March 1949 —- only to run headlong into the biggest fight of his life— with the United States Government.

Where he had been once lauded by that Government as the great American hero, he was now hounded due to so-called income tax arrears. He was forced to come out of retirement and fight again on the sole basis that all the purse money was to go to the tax man.

In September 1950 he challenged Ezzard Charles for his old title and was soundly beaten and eventually he fought for the very last time in what could only be described as a desperate fight against Rocky Marciano who stated openly he did not want to fight Joe and was only doing it because Joe needed the money! The outcome was inevitable, and for the first time since the first Schmeling fight Joe was knocked unconscious by the murderous Rocky.

Apparently there were tears from Sugar Ray Robinson and his handlers in his dressing room. There was an apology from Marciano. Yet Louis just shrugged it all off and went on his way. He still owed the IRS and there was no way of paying them off— Joe Louis was broke!

Back in Germany, Max Schmeling had been broke after the war too. He mounted the brief comeback mentioned above and fought a few fights purely for money whilst at the same time undergoing scrutiny for his supposed “role” in Nazi Germany.

He was cleared of any involvement with the authorities and his stock rose considerably when it was revealed that he had refused to join the Nazi party despite considerable pressure, had refused to sack his Jewish manager and had refused to divorce his Polish born wife.

After the war and after retirement, Schmeling tried his hand at a few things but on the advice of a former boxing promoter he contacted the Coca-Cola Company and bought the rights to the German bottling franchise. He set up a factory and became very successful with the most American of companies with his fortunes going from good to very good.

However, there were certain things that had always bothered him, and one of these was the publicity and propaganda surrounding the Louis fights — and Joe Louis himself.

It had often been said that insulting remarks attributed to Max and his camp before and after the 1938 fight, exacerbated by the bitter conflict between Nazi Germany and the United States, caused an estrangement between Schmeling and Joe Louis. However, some who knew Louis best, including his son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., say that Joe never had any animosity toward Schmeling.

However in Schmeling’s mind there was a misunderstanding and so on that Coca Cola visit to the United States in 1954, Schmeling sought out Louis in Chicago.

In his memoirs, Max described their emotional reconciliation which was sealed with a firm handshake. Schmeling wrote that the experience was more meaningful to him than any third bout could have been and that he had to go to make sure that Joe knew that he had never meant him – or his people — any malice.

In turn, Louis would write in his autobiography “We hugged each other and now we’re real friendly and keep in touch by phone.” In fact the friendship would be kept alive by far more than telephone calls. Schmeling would visit the troubled Louis once a year and in his later years, when Louis was virtually destitute and suffering cocaine addiction problems, Schmeling would provide considerable financial and emotional assistance to his old boxing foe as the years went by.

While Schmeling prospered in Germany, Louis struggled to scrape a living in the US. At times he would be a meeter and greeter at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and at times he would appear as a professional wrestler. He would always remain vulnerable and a sad semblance of the once magnificent athlete he once was. Eventually Joe Louis died on April 12th 1981.

Max Schmeling carried his coffin and paid for part of the funeral.

former-rivals---and-firm-friends---joe-louis-and-max-schmeling-share-a-drink-in-london-in-1966-136390116161210401-140512144749

Not only that, Schmeling handed an American based friend an envelope which contained $5,000 dollars in cash with the instruction that the money had to be given in cash to Joe’s widow for maintenance. Under no circumstance was any part of the money to go to the US Government!

This would be a good story if the Max Schmeling tale ended right there — but it doesn’t.

Schmeling wrote an autobiography in which he told of his problems in Nazi Germany and in which he revealed that he was glad Joe Louis beat him in 1938. He said that had he won, Hitler would have given him a medal and he would have been held up as some kind of Aryan superman, which he was not. He was just a boxer, an athlete, not a politician and certainly no Nazi or believer in the Nazi policies.

He accepted that he was used by the party at times, and indeed allowed himself to be used if the need at times demanded it — in his opinion.

He said that had he won , and had he been feted by the Third Reich after 1938 he could have been seen as a collaborator and a war criminal and that this had always bothered him.

In the intervening years I have seen many articles which continue to portray Schmeling as a “Die Hard Nazi” an “Ardent Nazi” and as “Hitler’s Showhorse”. None make reference to his kindness to Joe Louis or the findings of the British Military investigations into the actions of Schmeling before and after the war — which investigations concluded that he was not even a member of the party and had distanced himself from the regime on numerous occasions.

However, we often hear of someone coming forward after many years to reveal the truth of a man or woman’s actions in the days of the Third Reich and the dreadful pogroms it initiated. Often as not, what is revealed is unsavoury and the lengths someone will go to distort or hide an unpalatable truth.

Earlier, in this story, I mentioned that Schmeling gave an envelope to man in 1981 to pass on to the widow of Joe Louis. That man was Henri Lewin. Henri Lewin is a name that will not be familiar to too many folk, but he was an executive for the Hilton hotel group and is hailed as one of the men who was at the forefront of creating the strip at Las Vegas Nevada. He was a worldwide hotelier with an international reputation during his lifetime. He has been hailed as an International Hotel visionary.

He was also born a German Jew.

In 1989, several years after the death of Joe Louis, Lewin invited Max Schmeling to a dinner at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas supposedly on the grounds of celebrating the former world champion’s boxing career and his great rivalry with Louis.

However, when Lewin got to his feet to speak, he revealed a story that had never been heard before. He educated his audience about Kristallnacht —  a pogrom carried out against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria on 9th and10th November 1938,  by SA paramilitary and civilians.

German authorities looked on without intervening.

The attacks left the streets covered with broken glass from the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues. At least 91 Jews were killed in the attacks, and 30,000 were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked, as the attackers demolished buildings with sledgehammers. Over 1,000 synagogues were burned (95 in Vienna alone) and over 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed or damaged in just 48 hours.

No event in the history of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was so widely reported as it was happening, and the accounts from the foreign journalists working in Germany sent shock waves around the world.

The Times wrote at the time: “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.”

The pretext for the attacks was the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a German-born Polish Jew resident in Paris.

Kristallnacht was followed by additional economic and political persecution of Jews, and is viewed by historians as part of Nazi Germany’s broader racial policy, and the beginning of the Final Solution and The Holocaust. Few of those taken away on these dates were ever heard from again. It was both the beginning and the end of the worst of nightmares for those who were targeted.

This was just 5 months after Schmeling had lost to Louis when his stock in Nazi Germany was at an all time low. He did not enjoy favour with Hitler and his officers and the Government regime had already started to ostracize him. He was undoubtedly a man under a degree of pressure in his homeland.

Yet according to Henri Lewin, Schmeling was still a famous public figure and everyone knew his name when they saw him in the street. He was instantly recognisable.

On that night when so many disappeared, Lewin’s father sought to hide his two sons from those who would either seek to kill them or bundle them on to the trains bound for the concentration camps. Lewin senior feared for his life and that of his family and had nowhere to turn.

In desperation, he turned to a friend – Max Schmeling.

Henri Lewin described how he, aged fourteen, and his fifteen year old brother, Werner, were taken to Schmeling’s suite in the Excelsior hotel in Berlin. Schmeling hid them there for several days telling the hotel staff that he was unwell and was not to be disturbed. After a few days, Schmeling smuggled the boys out of the hotel and got them back to their parents who were also in hiding.

Thereafter he assisted the entire family in escaping to Shanghai where they were free of the Nazi threat – although they were later interned by the Japanese.

Lewin openly shed tears as he told this most unexpected of tales to an amazed audience in Las Vegas. He went on to state quite clearly that what Schmeling had done that night was an act of complete and utter treason: a complete breach of the law and policy of the Third Reich. Harbouring persons wanted by the authorities could have and should have resulted in death for the perpetrator and put simply “ He risked his life to save me, my brother and my family for no reason whatsoever other than that he knew my father.”

Schmeling himself had never discussed the Kristallnacht incident: not in the countless interviews he had given until that point, nor in his published reminiscences, not even in his defences when under enquiry about being a Nazi and his involvement in the war.

He had modestly told the Lewins that what he did for them in 1938 was the ‘duty of a man’.

Even after Lewin’s revelations he was most reluctant to talk about the episode but in 1993 he gave an interview and finally broke a silence saying “I don’t want anyone to say I was a good athlete, but worth nothing as a human being — I couldn’t bear that.”

As a result of Lewin’s speech and revelation, Schmeling later received an award from the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation for risking his life to hide the two Jewish brothers and helping their parents during Kristallnacht on Nov 9th 1938.

Over the years, Schmeling gave hundreds of thousands if not Millions of Dollars to help the elderly and poor through the Max Schmeling Foundation. He remained a private man and in many ways shunned the limelight as the focus was always going to be the Louis fights and the propaganda that surrounded the two fighters on both sides of the Atlantic.

He did not want to be remembered for that.

Maximilian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling, boxer, born September 28 1905, died on February 2nd 2005 at the age of 99.

At his request he was buried privately with no great pomp beside Anny his wife of some 54 years. They had no children.

The German Chancellor, Michael Schumacher, The Klitschko brothers whom he helped, and many others paid tribute to his modesty and humanity. According to his good friend, German soccer great Uwe Seeler, the former boxer did pass away with one regret after all. “He absolutely wanted to live to a hundred; I would have wished him that,” Seeler said. “But he passed away peacefully in his sleep.”

He was one hell of a man!

A righteous man who fulfilled his moral duty at a time of great oppression and put himself in great danger for the benefit of innocents.

Yet to this day there are American and British reporters who still castigate him as an ardent Nazi. He came to meet Joe Louis out of the blue one day — just a quiet man in a suit. He was the real thing — and not many can say that.

I thought it was a story worth the telling.

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18 Responses to “The Quiet Man who appeared in a suit — He was the Real Thing!”

  1. Murdochauldandhay June 22, 2013 at 1:03 am #

    Incredible story BRTH a very moving & fascinating read

  2. BMCUWP June 22, 2013 at 2:43 am #

    BRT&H

    I don’t know how you manage it,mate. Every time,I am thoroughly entertained and enlightened.

    Have an extra Night Nurse,say I said it was ok!

  3. David McG June 22, 2013 at 4:04 am #

    That was excellent.

  4. Paul Black June 22, 2013 at 6:12 am #

    Great read! Thank you.

  5. onthebaw June 22, 2013 at 7:30 am #

    ”I thought it was a story worth the telling.”

    And well worth the reading, thank you. A wonderful story.

  6. martybhoy June 22, 2013 at 9:54 am #

    Wonderful story from an equally wonderful storyteller.
    Get well soon sir.

  7. Mikey June 22, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    What a great read ! Cap doffed !

  8. Bobby Murdochs Ankle June 22, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    BRT&H

    You’ve done it again, brilliant read. You’ve set the bar high for Greenock in August.

  9. campsiejoe June 22, 2013 at 6:19 pm #

    An incredible story
    It shows that good will always triumph
    Well done sir

  10. iamateapot (@iamateapot1) June 22, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    Bravo, yet again Sir!

  11. Carntyne June 23, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    It is stories like this that renew your faith in human nature.

    An antidote to all the negative things in life.

    A wonderful read BRTH.

    More power to your quill.

  12. W Mcdonnell (@waco61) June 23, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    thnx for telling us this great story BRTH,i sat reading with a tear in my eye because it brought back memories of someone i knew in my youth,a kind family man who kept a secret similar to Schmeling, all his family and friends only found out after he died that he saved countless jewish children by smuggling them across the swiss border,the acts of a true human being

  13. Andrew H June 23, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

    Another excellent read. When are you going to put all these stories in a book? This would be perfect for taking on holiday.

  14. wjohnston1 June 23, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    BRTH.
    Absolutely brilliant. What else can I say.

  15. David McCarthy June 23, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    Great read and what a wonderful insight into two great sportsmen. Thank you.

  16. Tetraplegic Bhoy June 24, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Thank you BRTH

    I started and couldn’t stop. Now I am running late to meet a friend but I will send him the link, I’m sure after reading he will understand.

    A natural born talent for telling a story that flows from start to finish, completely engaging.

    Thank you for taking the time to share that story.

  17. Numpty June 29, 2014 at 7:58 am #

    This website is an absolute treasure. Thanks BRTH.

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