Sharing the story behind ‘The Prizefighter and The Playwright’

Sharing the story behind ‘The Prizefighter and The Playwright’


Jay Tunney | Photo submitted

WESTERLY — Jay Tunney, son of a famous socialite and a famous prizefighter, will be in Watch Hill next week to talk about his parents, his family and his book, “The Prizefighter and The Playwright; Gene Tunney and George Bernard Shaw.”

Tunny, 79, the third son of Gene Tunney and Polly Lauder Tunney, is the summer’s first featured author in the Literacy Volunteers of Washington County’s Joyce S. Ahern Author Series. A longtime friend of Watch Hill real estate agent Bob Richins, Tunney will also sign copies of his book, which details the unlikely and surprising relationship between his father, the legendary boxer and Shaw, the legendary playwright.

“My father was a poor kid from Greenwich Village, the son of a stevedore,” said Tunney last week, from his home in Chicago. “And he leapt from Greenwich Village to Greenwich, Connecticut.”

Writing the book and telling how his father fulfilled his dream of meeting the Nobel Prize-winning playwright, was no easy feat, he added.

“It took ten years to write,” said Tunney, whose brother John V. Tunney, was a former U.S. Senator and Representative from California. “It’s been a long haul.”

Tunney, a retired businessman who lived for decades outside of the states in places like Burma, Hong Kong, and South Korea, said he had long wanted to write a book about his legendary father but his mother was protective of her husband’s and the family’s reputation.

“Mother was absolutely the most private person who ever walked the face of the earth,” Tunney told The Irish Times in a 2011 interview.

Polly Lauder Tunney was a Connecticut socialite and Carnegie heiress whose secret romance and subsequent marriage to Tunney was one of the most sensational love stories of the 1920s, according to her obituary in the New York Time. Mrs. Tunney was 100 when she died in 2008.

Although he was the son of immigrants and a high school dropout, Gene Tunney had an insatiable appetite for classical literature, especially Shakespeare. “Handsome and articulate, he lectured on Shakespeare at Yale and befriended George Bernard Shaw, Thornton Wilder and other writers, earning the scorn of the boxing establishment and many boxing fans,” read his wife’s obituary.

First published in 2010, “The Prizefighter and the Playwright,” which sold out in its original edition, evolved from the acclaimed BBC radio series “The Master and the Boy,” and includes never before published letters, interviews and photographs from Tunney’s family.

“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,” Shaw once wrote. “I enjoy his company as I have that of few men.”

“We grew up in a family where idea were more important than money,” said Tunney.

Tunney said that Shaw also once said that “the becoming factor was the most important thing in life.”

“That meant self-knowledge, self-transformation,” Tunney added. “Shaw said its’ not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.”

“The Prizefighter and the Playwright,” which has been reviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Times Literary Supplement (London), the Toronto Sun and Associated Press, may be on the surface “the story of the friendship between a professional athlete and the acclaimed playwright, offering intimate glimpses of the two,” according to the book’s publisher, Firefly Books, “but it’s also a romance between a rich girl and a poor boy. But ‘The Prizefighter and the Playwright’ is more than the story of two extraordinary men. It tells the riveting tale of Gene Tunney – a self-made man, a high school dropout who not only reached the acme of his sport, but also turned himself into a gentleman who could feel at home lecturing at Yale or discussing novels with the men who wrote them.”

Tunney, whose relatives, the George Lauders, once lived in Watch Hill during the summer months, will be appearing at the The Ocean House in Watch Hill on July 9 at 5 pm. The presentation will be followed by a reception and book signing.

Tickets for the event are $75 per person and available online at or by calling the office at 401- 596-9411.

For questions or more information please contact Jennifer Coduri Ross at

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