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Australian Author

Les Darcy

D'Arcy Niland had a lifelong interest in the life of the Australian boxer, Les Darcy.

In his youth, D'Arcy Niland worked as a spruiker and amateur boxer in fairground shows to entertain communities in country towns. These experiences gave him extra insight into the characters and workings of the boxing fraternity.

Many of his stories entail vivid descriptions of 'going the knuckle'.

Les Darcy 1916

Les Darcy 1916
Father Coady hung this photo in his study until the end of his life.

D'Arcy always intended to write a biography of his namesake Les Darcy. Throughout his life he collected names, anecdotes, scraps of paper with scribbled notes, newspaper articles, photos and conversations relating to the personal and professional life of Les Darcy.

In 1961, D'Arcy and his wife, writer Ruth Park, travelled to Memphis, Tennessee to further his research and learn first-hand from people who were still alive to remember Les Darcy on his American visit in 1916-17.

Because of his sudden death in 1967, D'Arcy Niland was never able to complete the story of Les Darcy. However, in later life, Ruth Park took on that challenge. Using the extensive material they had collected over many years, Park wrote Home Before Dark: the story of Les Darcy. It was published in 1995 by Penguin Australia.

Reprinted below, is an article written by Ruth Park in 1978 in which is described the US trip she and D'Arcy Niland made in 1961, the characters they met and the stories they uncovered surrounding the legendary Les Darcy.


by Ruth Park

THE LES DARCY STORY is more than the brief biography of a phenomenal boxer. It is the history of a charismatic personality who became, along with Ned Kelly, one of Australia's two great non-Dreamtime heroes.

I thought of starting this piece this way:

The wrong person is writing these articles. But as the right one, the novelist D'Arcy Niland, checked out of this world some 11 years ago, I have no resort but to transcribe his tapes, decipher his interview notes, verify the dates, and use where possible his own text. Then I thought: the hell with that.

During D'Arcy Niland's months in America, I was there as, well - assistant gumshoe, secretary, companion on a trail that was 45 years cold and that we feared might well be blown away on the wind, or mummified in brown-edged files - in newspaper morgues.

I imagine that those who read this piece already know something of Les Darcy. He was, in short, a young man from East Maitland, NSW, in whom heredity, physique and temperament had linked themselves to create a kind of boxing genius.

In six amazing years, he matured from a big barefoot kid, roaming around with his gloves over his shoulder looking for spars, to a dazzling prizefighter who seems never to have been fully extended.

In five years of professional fighting, from 16 to 21, he skittled some of the best middleweights in the world. He held the middleweight and heavyweight championships of Australia. Two of his fights were billed for the middleweight championship of the world, but were not recognised by America. In all, he had 44 important fights (Raymond Swanwick lists 50), losing two on points, one on a foul, and one when he himself was fouled in the fifth round by Jeff Smith and his second, Dave Smith, threw in the towel. The referee had not seen the foul and awarded the bout to Jeff Smith.

George Chip, Darcy's last opponent in Australia, was a terrific puncher and, two years previously, had held the middle-weight championship of the world. Chip had beaten iron man Frank Klaus, who had beaten Carpentier of France. Darcy chopped Chip down in nine rounds, completely demoralising this tough, experienced boxer. A joyful and expansive character, modest and easy-going, Darcy was the idol of Australia. Then, in the middle of the nation's first bitter and often bloody conscription controversy, he slipped away illegally to the States. He wanted both official recognition of the world middleweight title, and the money which would secure the future of his family.

The year was 1916. He was 20. In: five months he underwent the complete human experience - adulation, treachery, persecution, vindictive abuse and death. As far as can be told, he didn't lose his cool from beginning to end.

Wherever old fighters gather in Australia, Darcy yarns are told. But would America remember him? We had no clue, for in all those years which had intervened since he died in 1917, in Memphis, Tennessee, no one else had followed the track of Les Darcy during his last embattled months. This can be said confidently, for in the vast collection of Darciana amassed by D'Arcy Niland, there is no intimation that anyone else ever attempted the task.

As our journey was made in 1961, the people then interviewed were old enough to have seen and known Les Darcy, so they are now almost all dead. I can see them yet, the black ex-sparring partners, the ruthless Roman faces of New York sporting executives, the crumbling old sports-writers.

Most of all, perhaps, the men of Memphis, with their soft accent, their endearing farewell, "Y'all come back now, you heah?" And I thought that if we could find Les Darcy anywhere it would be in that small Mississippi town of half a million population.

At that time D'Arcy Niland himself was dying gradually and with characteristic serenity, so I accompanied him everywhere, hunting up crummy Broadway offices where ancient promoters - always with some promising youngster from Wisconsin - sat like cold spiders, rich with lies and dishonest compassion for champions who ended with heads full of soup and broken mouths full of boasts that no one listened to any more.

There were once-celebrated sports-writers, who peered at us with bulging biblical eyes glazed over with tears and talked about that "poor, persecuted lad," when in the briefcase we had photocopies of articles they had written in 1917, steaming righteously about traitors and slackers and cowards, and the God-given privilege of a fit young man to join the colours.

This, in spite of the fact that the underage Darcy had twice attempted to enlist, and his oft-reiterated statement that all he wanted was five fights with worthy opponents, and then he would enlist either in the States or in Canada.

"And at the same time, Hollywood and Broadway were hopping with British actors who had cleared out at the beginning of the war, not to mention several Australian boxers who had gotten permission to leave their home country without trouble," commented Jimmy Breslin, now probably one of the three most famous newspapermen on the East Coast, and even when we met him, a vivid sports reporter.

Meeting James Breslin was our first break. A literary agent mentioned a bar where he might be tying one on - he'd, lost out on something, girl, job or award - and so D'Arcy went along to see. Sure enough, there he was, a handsome New York Irishman, morose as a badger, but ready enough to warm up to someone from "Where? That place? You got good pugs and swimmers down there."

He quickly dispelled D'Arcy Niland's fears that Les Darcy might be forgotten in America.

"He was plundered, that poor guy. He stayed on America's conscience. You couldn't expect him to defuse a situation which was politically emotive, and complicated by slime-green bitchery. Once Tex Rickard took away his sheltering arm and money, he was helpless. You can't blame Tex, he was a promoter, athletes were just so many pounds of valuable meat to him." Then he said a perceptive thing.

"That Darcy wasn't dumb, for all he was such a kid. He was a kind of frontiersman in his head, that was all."

He gave D'Arcy some addresses of old gyms down near the Battery, where the old pugs hung out, and introductions to people like Nat Fleischer, scribbled on the back of his card. Gene Tunney was in town, he said. He had a fancy for Australia, maybe because his pen company, Eversharp, did so well there, so go see him. Like most people in the States, Jimmy Breslin referred to Les Darcy as "Less." The forename Leslie seems rare, and, from the beginning, Americans often thought the boxer's name was short for Lester. In the newspapers of 1917, he is repeatedly referred to as Lester Darcy. Gene Tunney, however, had the name right. He looked like the kind of man who would make sure of the accuracy of anything he pronounced upon.

Dignified, astute, probably 60 or 50, Tunney still had the open-faced charm of the classic "college boy" boxer who took the heavyweight championship from Jack Dempsey in 1926. He was kindly, too, and talked for some time about Darcy.

"I think you'll find that he's well remembered in this country," Tunney said. "He was not only a boxing prodigy, a nonpareil, but he incarnated the hero principle as well. Young gladiator stuff. He was just a kid when he defeated some of the best middleweights this century ever produced. "If he had lived - to 24, say - he would have been a marvel of marvels. As it was, I would call him the best middleweight of all time. See if Mr Dempsey doesn't agree with me."

We walked down to Jack Dempsey's unpretentious restaurant, near 49th St. D'Arcy said, "I hope that the old Les heard that."

I said, "I hope the old Jack offers us a cup of coffee." We were nearly always ravenous, for we had just enough money to get by.


D'Arcy Niland and Jack Dempsey 1961

Thank God, the old Jack offered us a hamburger along with the coffee. Meeting him was an event for me, for he had been my father's criterion of manhood. As a child, I had constantly heard horses, dogs, pigs and Maoris described as "game as Jack Dempsey," "wild as Jack Dempsey," "hungry as Jack Dempsey."

And here he was, not only my father's but Gene Tunney's hero principle, in the flesh. In some mysterious way a hero resonates with the public; you can feel it sure as you can tell heat from cold. Dempsey helped us understand the Darcy myth. Tunney, of course, understood it well. He had defeated Dempsey twice, and the public never forgave him for it.

Flawlessly dressed, mighty paws manicured, with sleek jaguar head and Inca eyes, Dempsey chatted to us hospitably about his life as hobo, fighter, restaurateur and "Less" Darcy.

"Never saw him myself. There was a possibility we'd meet, you know, when it became obvious that Carpentier wasn't going to come fight him. So some of my handlers went to Goshen, where he gave an exhibition spar with Fred Fulton.

"Believe, me, Fred was a dinosaur, a nice dinosaur but twice as big as Less. But Less skittled him. He was one hell of a fighter. They sold him a bill of goods, Less. He got sick and I think he died of a broken heart.

"Who are we to say about the way he left Australia? Easy to throw stones. I was called a slacker later, and so was Jess Willard."

"Do you think you'd have licked him, Jack?"

"I reckon. But I tell you this straight: I'm working on the saying that a good big man can always beat a good little man. Less and I were the same age bar a few months, but he was giving away nearly 45 lb in weight, and nearly 7 inches in height. But, who knows? He was a game boy, I wish I could have shook him by the hand."

While we were interviewing people we were also working several hours a day at the New York Library. Stone walls, richly inlaid and intaglioed roof with gilt encrusted panels, a Renaissance effect. But a pain in the neck to work in. No air conditioning, everyone in shirt sleeves and glistening with sweat.

Not many libraries nowadays will let you examine old newspaper files, because the paper gets so crisp with age it can literally fall into a heap of scraps, like flaky pastry, in your hand. So I had long sessions at the microtape viewer, that demoniac contraption that drags out your eyes to waggle and bounce as if on springs.

I was examining the New York Times files, and it was curious to know that these very headlines were read and discussed enthusiastically by US fight fans SO long ago:

"Darcy Coming On Cushing."
"Les Darcy May Battle Carpentier."
"Wild Race Among Promoters To Reach Famed Antipodean First."

Most interested, I fancy, were the contenders for the title which had been in dispute ever since the murder of the previous holder, Stanley Ketchel.

No other overseas athlete had ever been greeted with such extravagant excitement. However, the level headed Darcy had never identified with his popular reputation, and the mad scramble of entrepreneurs to sign him up 'was described in his plain-man manner to his friend, Will Lawless, of The Referee:

"Soon the oil boat (Cushing) was surrounded by tugs filled with fight promoters and vaudeville managers, newspapermen, photographers and others - all clamouring to see us. It was as funny as a circus. The quarantine officers came alongside, and we had to sign our names in the book and show about $25, but we never went into quarantine on Ellis Island. They say anything in the papers."

Anyone who tackles history or biography must be prepared to read old newspapers by the thousand. You go through them, day after day, looking down bug-eyed from your high perch in the future, watching a story build up - the inaccuracies, the downright lies, the deliberate propagandist blandishment of the reader. You see the lies consolidate, or fall to pieces in the light of your hindsight.

In Australia, misinterpretations of canards concerning Les Darcy lie around the ground like bird lime for the biographer to stick in, and here in these old brown newspapers one could spot where many of them originated. The stories were so contradictory and imaginative that it was easy to see how confused Australians must have been by the hysterical cables from New York correspondents.

Whom was Darcy going to fight? Who was his manager? Tex Rickard, who was evidently advising him? Jack "Doc" Kearns and his partner, Jack Curley, who were threatening to sue him for breaking an already existing contract, which was never produced? Mr E. T. O'Sullivan, who had stowed away with him on October 27 in the Hattie Luckenbach? Why hadn't Darcy gone with his inseparable mate, Mick Hawkins, who had discovered him and been trainer and rubber ever since?


Les Darcy and E.T. O'Sullivan on passage to USA, 1916

As it came out later, Hawkins had intended to leave with "my boy" but his father died, and he promised Darcy he would follow him as soon as possible. Darcy left him the money for his steamship ticket.

But who was E. T. O'Sullivan? He was variously known as Ted, Tim, Sully, and nearly always as Sullivan. Even Darcy, in his early American letters, sometimes refers to him as Sullivan.

He was a "sporting blood," a strapper around racing stables, a handler of one or two young unimportant boxers, an occasional referee, a hanger-on in sporting circles, not very well known by anyone.

Some writers of the time frankly say he was a "shanghaier." He had contacts; he could get you out of the country for whatever reason you had. Darcy paid £75 each for himself and O'Sullivan to stow away on the Hattie Luckenbach, and it seems pretty incontrovertible now, that the captain was in the know. O'Sullivan also was of military age, and anxious to get out while the going was good.

Why would Darcy go against the advice of his best friends and tell so few of his plans - his family; the O'Sullivans of the Lord Dudley Hotel; his sweetheart, Winnie O'Sullivan; his teacher and adviser, Father Coady; Mick Hawkins - and go off with this dicey character?

The answer is that there was no other way he could do it. He had been refused a passport though his solicitor had made application time and time again. He did not know why, as he had offered to post a large bond against his failure to return in six months. Other people in his age group were getting them, as Jimmy Breslin pointed out.

He had the choice of clearing off to America or finishing his career at its prime because Stadiums Ltd, caught up in the fearful public furore both for and against conscription, had, with Darcy's consent, announced it would give him, at the expiration of his current contract, no more fights until he enlisted.

Without conscription (and both referendums failed during the first World War), enlistment was a man's personal choice. But there was tremendous pressure, emotive (don't let your pals down, look how many of them died at Gallipoli...), political (Prime Minister Billy Hughes had in his rash, inflammatory way promised the British Government heavy reinforcements for the AIF) and moral.

There were numerous ways Darcy could have compromised with all these stresses. He could have done an Elvis. The suggestion was put to him many times, not only by Australian military authorities but by Canadian ones. He could have enlisted - wonderful PR for others to do so - and been tucked away in some safe job as physical instructor.

He could have enlisted and remained in Australia and been given extensive leave for boxing. This also was offered.

Why then did he not compromise? Because, anomalous as it seems of a man who was called traitor, runaway, cur, he believed in enlistment, and also in conscription. Many of his dearest mates had been killed at Gallipolli. When he joined the Army he wanted to go to the front, as the brilliant tennis star Anthony Wilding had wanted.

Darcy said this over and over again. He just didn't want to go until he had the opportunity for a few fights in America, so that he could consolidate his family's future. He felt, as he had felt since he was a small boy, that his first duty was to them.

In the old New York newspapers, one could also sense the resentful reluctance to get into a war which did not concern the States, and characteristic American anxiety about the nation's correct position in global politics.

In fact, when Darcy arrived, the country was already secretly committed to entering the war, and did so, the following April. Conscription was never submitted to a plebiscite as it was twice in Australia; it became a fact of life when America threw its military weight in with the Allies.

But conscription was an issue as touchy as a boil. The question of moral liberty was an itchy one (it did not start with Vietnam demos), and this famous boxer's ambiguous departure from a homeland already at war was eagerly seized upon as an argument both pro and con.

A moonlight flit by Joe Blow would not have raised an eyebrow, but because of his eminence Darcy became the focus of every confused attitude towards war - patriotism, compulsory service, liberty, martyred little Belgium. Though he had no choice, psychologically Darcy could not have timed his entry into the States worse.

The news of Darcy's flight, from Australia had reached the States by faster ships than the Hattie Luckenbach and the Cushing, the Standard Oil tanker to which he had transferred in South America. Stadiums Ltd had rushed its story to the New York papers long before December 23, when Darcy arrived.

"For the last two years, this great boxer's name has been a household word. Les Darcy has been the flappers' ideal and the schoolboys' hero. But alas, the scales have fallen from their eyes and Les Darcy, instead of being looked up to, will in the future be looked down upon."


This came from the boxing circular always republished in American sports columns. It was written by Snowy Baker, then owner (though possibly only part-owner with the builder and original proprietor, Hugh D. Mclntosh) of Stadiums Ltd.

A later circular stated: "Owing to Les Darcy's unpatriotic actions in clearing out of his country at a time when he should be doing his little bit along with his Australian comrades, it has been decided to strip him of his middleweight and heavyweight titles."

As a matter of record, all Darcy had done against the law was to contravene the War Precautions Act. Still, one must see his act against the emotional climate of 1916-17.

There was also a suggestion in government circles that Darcy's property be confiscated. Wild rumours about the value of this property ran around, £100,000, and so forth. In fact, he had put nearly all he had saved into a house and farm for his mother and elderly father. His estate, when declared probate after his death, was £1,800 (Will Lawless says £1,700).

Hugh D. Mclntosh's paper, the Sunday Times, launched the first broadside in November, 1916. There's a good deal of it, classic flak: "For the fellow who bolts in a dreadful funk when he begins to deem it possible that his duty may be thrust upon him, there can be nothing but disgust and scorn."

This, in spite of the fact that Mclntosh himself had, in the early days of 1916 - far closer to the national horror and grief over the bloody debacle of Gallipoli, offered Darcy a contract for £5,000 for five fights in America against unnamed opponents. From what Kearns said later, one gets a spooky feeling that this contract was to be hawked to Kearns and his hardboiled associates, a powerful managerial co-op and rivals of Tex Rickard.

Neither Mclntosh nor Baker, though in the required age group, enlisted, though Baker later formed a highly publicised "Sportsmen's Battalion." In Father Coady's words, Stadiums Ltd had lost a goldmine and were out for blood.

Australian papers, all of which had. taken a strong line either for or against conscription, followed the high tone of The Sunday Times, and chose to speak for the majority of the Australian people, who really had no chance to speak for themselves until Les Darcy had died and they were able to demonstrate their real emotions at his funeral.

"The majority," announced Sydney People from its papal throne, "said in their hearts, you're a shirker, Les Darcy, and we thought you a real man." Les Darcy, though at the time he was fully aware of Baker's involvement - however unmalicious it has been claimed to be in this campaign, makes no reference to it in a letter. "I have a chance, right now, of setting my family, on their feet and can do it in a short time, and then I don't care what becomes of me. I still intend to enlist, Mr Baker, and if I have a few fights over here, and if the authorities over there in Australia will overlook my wrongdoing, I will return and enlist in the Australian army."

This letter was published in the Australian Referee, also owned by Hugh D. Mclntosh, and was followed by a squelchy addendum, perhaps, perhaps not, written by Snowy Baker: "The fact of a sinner confessing and expressing sincere contrition, and also promising to do all that lays in his power to make amends, has moved many a stony heart to favourable consideration. The matter rests, with Mr Pearce, the Minister of Defence."

New York readers of the sports pages were well aware of the flurry in Australia, and Les Darcy knew this. He had scarcely stepped on American soil before he made a direct and simple statement in the terms with which he expressed his intentions to Snowy Baker. "I do not want anyone to consider me a shirker for leaving Australia, just as soon as I have earned what I consider a sufficient sum to keep my family in comfort I shall go to Canada or England and enlist."

Great controversy was to surround Darcy in the States, but it did not happen all at once. The boxing promoters knew that they had the diamond ice cream within their grasp, and fantastic offers were made for this match and that.

Both Darcy and O'Sullivan knew that these offers were dream-stuff, created solely to get the young fighter's name on the dotted line. They accepted none. Tex Rickard, on the other hand, who had established the two newcomers in the Broztell, a comfortable Edwardian hotel on East 27th St, said downright that he was not Darcy's manager: "All I desire is to get his signature to box for me, and that will end his connection with me. Naturally I should not care to have him get into the clutches of the harpies who habitually fleece boxers, and I shall do my utmost to see that he gets a capable and conscientious business manager."

Darcy was entranced with New York. He had never seen snow before, and, of course, New York is a great city at Christmas.

The New York we saw in 1961 was considerably unlike the megalopolis of today; more like the one Darcy wandered around, like an old picture with the paint peeling off here and there, showing other objects and territories, other human intentions aborted or superseded.

He rode the streetcars and the underground, fooled around in the snow, started training at Billy Grupp's gym on 116th St. Darcy was always able to cram an incredible number of things into one day.

Almost from the time he arrived he worked out daily in the gym, for he had put on weight on board ship and was well over the middleweight limit. He skipped, punched the bag, worked on the pulleys. Wisely, Tex Rickard had advised him not to spar in public.

Someone called Jack Moore that we met in a derelict, crow-poor gym had seen him work out at Grupp's. "Natural-born fighter, fine-looking, well-built fella. Nice head of hair. Funny thing, though."

"What was funny?"

"Said he'd die young. Came straight put with it. It was one of those things, maybe, a premonition. That was why he was so desperate to get into the big league quickly." At the time, D'Arcy Niland did not give this much thought, beyond commenting that the war had indeed got Darcy, though not with a bullet Some weeks later, in Philadelphia, we found a January 7, 1917, quote from Darcy. "Les Darcy, the marvellous Australian champion, is a fatalist. He believes his end is not far off. He is prepared to die.

"'My people come first with me, even before my country. I don't believe I'll survive the war. I expect it and I'm ready for it. I'm ready to do my duty, but I would be shirking a duty if I gave my life before I provided for my own. So while I'm here I'll fight anybody they offer bar none, the devil himself if need be, to get money."

In the filthy, three-quarter-dead gyms in New York and Chicago we gathered a heap of endearing anecdotes for the book on Darcy that D'Arcy Niland hoped to write, but pretty useless for this article, so I'll touch only on one.

In these establishments the walls were sodden with that sweat stink that lasts forever, the towels stood up by themselves. The gyms were frequented only by aimless youths slamming the split punching bags, and gimpy old guys who had nowhere else to go.

"Lose da broad!" they commanded fiercely as I entered this decomposing man's world.

"The broad stays," said D'Arcy Niland, and I stayed, melting cryptically like an insect into the dereliction and the melancholy, while the old pugs with their scabby hands and their, faces of Renaissance hit men, retold fights, bell to bell, moving stiff shoulders, throwing short aborted jabs, snuffling through gorilla noses.

They'd all heard of Les Darcy. "It ain't true that we poisoned him. He done got pneumonia."

The old boxer, Sugar Boy, said, "Mr Less, he a draft dodger."

"Naw," said someone, "it was for the reason of some big guy with a lot of pull in Australia got the ear of Governor Whitman and so he was banned from fighting in this State. That Whitman, he hated pugging, some kind of nut."

Governor Charles S. Whitman certainly was anti-boxing, almost to the point of obsession. He described it as coarse and brutalising and had done his best to push through legislation proscribing it in his State.

When Darcy was given such a royal reception in New York, Whitman took it personally, describing it as a slap in the face, and a bad example to prospective American draftees, that a deserter, as Darcy was at first erroneously called, should be given such adulation.

At this time, many States had outlawed prize fighting, so professional promotion became sub rosa; the bouts were advertised as exhibitions; purses were privately slipped to winners, and no decisions were given except by the newspapers.

Only in States where boxing was allowed could championship title fights be held. Al McCoy, whom Darcy was soon booked to meet at Madison Square Garden, had won his title this way.

Nevertheless, boxing was legal in New York State, and Whitman's sudden thumbs-down on Darcy, but not on other boxers, can be explained only by some outside pressure. The ban was announced on March 3, 1917. It must have been a shocking blow, not only to Darcy, but to Tex Rickard and his associate, the oil millionaire and speculator Grant Hugh Browne. At the time Darcy was training at Browne's palatial quarters at Goshen, some way outside New York. He had been offered $30,000. for a 10-round bout, and naturally he was jubilant.

Browne had a long association with the US Army, as he had a contract for provisioning Army horses and mules. It was his belief that America's entry into the war was imminent, and that the Federal Government of Australia, desperate for reinforcements for the AIF (and having a battle to get them at that time), had requested its ambassador to ask the US governors to put pressure on Darcy as an example to other "shirkers."

There is no doubt that in Australia grief, fear, anger, and confusing propaganda formed a critical mass that blew, apart both politically and popularly several times. We know, for instance, that employers constantly dismissed men of military age, thus causing a kind of involuntary enlistment among the unemployed. One can scarcely believe that every employer was so crammed with love of the Mother Country that he would put off a young, fully-trained mechanic and take on his aging dad instead.

There are high smells in every trade at this time, and it is impossible to dismiss the conclusion that both State and Federal Governments (particularly the latter) were involved.

In order to begin training for the McCoy bout, Darcy had, on February 11, cut short his vaudeville tour with the Freeman Bernstein theatrical set-up.

Regrettably, we were never able to track down - if indeed he were still alive in 1961 - Freddy Gilmore, an old opponent and friend of Darcy from Sydney days, who was Darcy's sparring partner on this tour. So we have few details of the tour except that it was a fizzer.

In those times vaudeville or stage performances by celebrated athletes were commonplace. Everyone from John L. Sullivan to Hackenschmidt, the great wrestler, had toured giving demonstrations of their skill.

The Bernstein tour began in Connecticut on January 11. Perhaps Tex Rickard thought it would get Darcy away from the storm of would-be managers, promoters and pests, and the snowballing bad publicity sparked off by the yelps from Australia.

Darcy was offered 15 weeks at $2,500 a week. He was short of money. Rickard had advanced $5,000 to O'Sullivan for expenses, and the tour might have seemed an easy solution to the repayment of the debt.

Darcy had done a tour in Australia and enjoyed it, regarding the whole thing as a great lark and a chance to see the country. Besides, it was fairly obvious by the first week in January that Georges Carpentier, whom, it seems, Darcy wished to meet above all, was not going to come to America.

Mick Hawkins arrived in San Francisco in late January, apparently not having had any passport trouble, though he was a fit man of military age.

The desultory conversation of the old men in gyms in New York and Chicago, D'Arcy Niland's complete absorption in it, made me aware once again that it's almost impossible for a woman, however observant, to get any real gut-feeling about how men look at fist-fighting. It is the most ancient and natural form of man-to-man combat, and the epitome of the masculine principle of overcoming an opponent solely by strength, courage, and bodily skill.

Of course, when you live with a fight aficionado like D'Arcy Niland, who not only wrote about boxing but had in his youth been a keen amateur as well as aggressive "grassfighter" there's some unavoidable osmosis, but not the absolute comprehension and almost total recall.

In conversations with men like Jack Dunleavy or Jimmy Sharman, D'Arcy could say, right off the board, things like: "Chip crashed to the canvas on hands and feet. Darcy came in like a steam-engine, slipped inside a left lead and slammed a right to Chip's heart.

"In the final round, the American landed a left hook square on Darcy's mouth. Darcy moved back on his right foot and, as Chip whipped out a left lead, crossed his right. Chip went down head-first; he tried to get up at eight, but no go."

This, of a bout in 1916, Darcy's last professional fight.

In spite of some absorbed knowledge, I knew I would be a dummy to try to assess Darcy professionally. It occurred to me then, however, that in America, Darcy was not a boxer - he had only two semi-private spars - because he had ever been allowed to box.' In the States, as nowhere else, he had been a person.

So I thought, okay, you tend to the boxing side, mate, and I'll look at the character. What made Les Darcy what he was, how did he come to die so young, what did the ordinary people think about him in spite of the power of journalistic untruth.

We were close to being skint, New York was getting hot, and D'Arcy Niland was looking grey-skinned and getting pains in his legs and chest - a bad scene in a coronary case.

Added to that, we had phenomenally bad luck; it was almost as if we were intentionally thwarted in our attempt to talk to old opponents. Fritz Holland settled in New Zealand. Jimmy Clabby had disappeared from view, some thought in Western Australia, Jeff Smith was now a businessman in Levittstown, New Jersey, under his true name of Jerome Jeffords.

After numerous promises to meet and talk with D'Arcy Niland, he evaded him, perhaps because of embarrassment over his reputation as a dirty though brilliant boxer. The two Darcy fights ended with brazen fouls; Smith was disqualified from ever fighting again at Sydney Stadium, and his share of the gate was withheld. He sued for it, lost the case and skipped to America, leaving a great many unpaid debts.

Game Eddie McGoorty had taken the downward path so common to pugilists - booze and frightful hidings ending his life at 40. He made several visits to Australia. He said, "Down there they treat the loser better than they do the winner here."


Les Darcy and Eddie McGoorty

We could not trace Buck Grouse and, of course, saddest of all, Freddy Gilmore, who had been at Darcy's deathbed. All we knew was that he had given the game away after the death of his friend and gone into the building trade in Chicago.

We met no one who had seen Darcy fight, even on film. Of course, Jack "Doc" Kearns had, when he took Billy Murray over to Australia; saw him whipped, and did his eloquent best to persuade Darcy to come on the American circuit and pick up a bit of the gelt lying around. From his luxury home in Florida he answered civilly, but by that time we couldn't afford the trip.

It was either "Doc" Kearns or Memphis, and as Jimmy Breslin said, "Doc Kearns has been as documented as a man can be. You don't have to see him. He was with Soapy Smith in Alaska during the gold rush, you know. Soapy would steal his brother's eyes-' and pawn them, and then poke the sockets in, and Doc was his faithful disciple.

"He is a corsair, he has more sass than a dozen. His real name is Leo McKiernan. To Doc, in his big days, there was no inhibiting authority. Besides that, he had all the magic tricks. He invented publicity.

"Pity Les didn't go to the States in 1915, when Kearns was so keen that he should. He would have made a pile, and no trouble. But Les had heard of his reputation, he was scared of being chewed up and spat out. Everyone had warned him against American promoters, especially Doc and his ilk. As it was, Kearns took against Darcy - he never let up on that boy. He saw millions disappearing out of his grasp."

Kearns must have been a vivid old guy, and we would have liked to meet him. He died a couple of years later, bust but content. He was a genuine rogue guru of the fight game.

So we went to Memphis, by bus, and by then we hated buses - back to motels and semi-starvation again, long trips among the lolling heads, the open mouths; the lemony light that soaks the vitality out of the already fatigued and dislocated; early-morning arrivals at drear terminals in nasty parts of town.

We felt grubby and lousy and hopeless about whether we'd ever get Les's story right. We wanted to travel by day, to see the countryside that is constantly mentioned in the many postcards and letters Darcy sent home to his friends. He was a farmer at heart, keenly interested in animals and crops; the Irish countryman in him, I suppose.

I once asked Winnie O'Sullivan, his fiancee, whether she thought, if he'd lived, he'd have settled down as a tubby publican as so many boxers do - should they survive their brief and perilous careers.

She smiled and said, "No, he would have been a farmer. I was agreeable, the man mattered, not the place."

But mostly, because of the cheaper fares, we travelled at night. During these abominable journeys we pored over our notes, re-ran the tapes. It was a stressful time. D'Arcy Niland grew tenser, obsessed with the desire to "get the old Les right."

Sometimes I felt I was travelling with two men, both with identical heredity and background, the same indomitable stubbornness - one with black hair and blue eyes, and the other with brown hair and grey eyes "of striking clearness and directness."

Knowing that D'Arcy Niland was going it too hard, I was often spooked. Biography, if you're honest, is no snap job. It isn't Polaroid stuff. It takes time and backbreaking patience.

What obscures your vision, though, isn't the years, but oldthink. You look backwards through curtain after curtain of changing mores and attitudes, like sheets of soiled Perspex, through which you can see your subject moving, all right, but often in a dreamlike blur.

And Les Darcy's life had such a rapid flow. There was never a moratorium for him, to delay momentous decisions, to reconsider the situation. He was born into shocking poverty, and was the close-knit family's breadwinner from an early age. Moreover, he was the one they all psychologically depended upon ... the lovable, generous, often ill mother, the many little children, the elderly father who was not equipped in any way to cope.

And if he had this thing, this belief that he would die in the war, what urgency he must have felt. He was no fool, he knew that a boxer's prime time is short, that he could easily end up like Griffo.

One night in some dump in Atlanta I tried to persuade D'Arcy Niland to cut the arduous business short and go on to England, where we had business waiting. He said, "No. If anyone is going to tell the truth about Les, I am. Ned Kelly and me, we understand him. I was my mother's husband when I was 12, too."

He had given the word its classic meaning - the householder, the provider, the one who shouldered the responsibilities.

"I think we have all the clues to Les's character. He always told the truth, but the truth seemed just too simple for people to believe. Not even the sportswriters misrepresented what he said, though they misrepresented everything else as if they were writing fiction. "On the other hand, we know that E. T. O'Sullivan was a liar. Let's look more closely at him."

© Ruth Park 1978, 2010 [reproduced with permission].

Read Part Two