By Ray Schultz
Sure, life imitates art—in grim ways, at times.
In 1933, the Marx Brothers came out with the movie Duck Soup. In an early scene, the President of Freedonia (Groucho), arrives late for his own reception, and inadvertently lines up with the honor guard (“Expecting someone?”) When they extend their swords, he lifts his cigar.
Funny, no? But that scene was replicated in Nazi Germany in 1935, and I’ll leave it to you to decide if it was amusing.
Joe Jacobs, a Jewish-American boxing manager who worked in the corner of the ex-heavyweight champ Max Schmeling, was in the ring when the German audience rose and gave the Nazi salute. What was he to do? He lifted his cigar.
The Nazis saw this action by a Jew as an insult to Hitler. And American Jews were horrified. One New York tabloid summed it up with the headline: “When Yussel went Nazi” (Joe’s nickname was Yussel the Muscle).
This is not some apocryphal tale—there are photos of Jacobs holding the cigar aloft.
So who was Joe Jacobs? Unrelated to the promoter Mike Jacobs, he was a Runyonesque character who typically emerged for breakfast at dusk (except when training a fighter), and was perpetually short of money.
He grew up in the largely Irish neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen in New York, where his father had a tailor shop. In that setting, he learned the rudiments of the fight game at an early age, as A.J. Liebling put it in in a small, unsigned profile of Jacobs that he co-authored with Russell Maloney for the New Yorker in 1936.
Liebling, himself Jewish, used standard stereotypical language to describe Jacobs (“a pointy faced little man”). Or maybe Maloney added that touch. But they went on to explain Joe’s odd relationship with Schmeling.
“The Joe-and-Max combination has intrigued lots of people, because Max is a Reich sports idol and fights frequently in Germany, while Joe is spectacularly non-Aryan,” Liebling and Maloney wrote. “The two get along fine, though; Schmeling has admired the Jacobs brains ever since Joe won the heavyweight championship title for him by keeping him flat on his back. That was in 1930, when he was fighting Jack Sharkey. Sharkey had dropped Schmeling with a low blow. The German, although outpointed in the earlier, and legitimate, boxing, was about to rise when Joe yelled at him to stay down. He was awarded the championship on a foul, whereas if he had got up, technicalities would probably have been forgotten and the slaughter would have gone on. Max thinks Joe is a genius, and so does Joe.”
Schmeling defended the title once, against Young Stribling, and lost it by a disputed decision to Sharkey in 1932.
Then the Nazis came in. Goebbels demanded that Max dump Jacobs, but that would have been a commercial disaster in the U.S., where Jewish fans made up a large portion of the boxing audience. So Schmeling, who brought back vast amounts of currency to Germany, walked a fine line.
But back to the infamous episode.
“Another example of Jacobs diplomacy is the fact that Schmeling is now in training at the Naponich Country Club, a Jewish summer hotel offsets any possible anti-Nazi sentiment among the customers,” Liebling and Maloney continued. “The Nazi question doesn’t bother Joe much. He’s in and out of Germany all the time and says he even gets a special rate at the Hotel Bristol, in Berlin. Last year, when Schmeling fought and defeated Steve Hamas, at Hamburg, the band broke into the Horst Wessel song while Joe was in the ring with the fighters and officials. Everybody raised his hand in the Nazi salute, and so did Joe. ‘What the hell would you do?’ he asked us. “
Six days after that profile came out, the supposedly washed-up Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis in the greatest victory of his career, with Jacobs in his corner. Having beaten the African-American prodigy, feeding Nazi claims of racial superiority, he returned a hero of the Reich, and was feted by Hitler. But his status in Germany plummeted when Louis kayoed him in a single round in the 1938 rematch.
Schmeling was drafted into the German Army and served as a paratrooper during World War II. Joe Jacobs died in 1940.
Was Schmeling a Nazi? That’s unclear even now. Third-party testimony revealed that he shielded the children of a Jewish friend in his hotel room during Kristallnacht in 1938 (a claim he never made for himself), and he seemed ambivalent about the regime, and never joined the Nazi party. But he was an opportunist who enjoyed vast popularity in Germany and was not afraid to ask Hitler for favors. And he did favors in return, assuring the Olympic committee in 1936 that Germany could responsibly manage that year’s games. Strapped for cash after the war, he fought a few bouts, then became a wealthy Coca-Cola magnate.
Liebling had yet to attain his full stylistic maturity when he co-wrote the Jacobs profile. As for Jacobs, one can see his bizarre salute as a piece of Groucho-style impertinence (there’s no evidence he ever saw Duck Soup). or as an irrelevant sideshow to the horror that was about to occur.