By Brad Dison
Red was small for his age, smaller than the other kids in his neighborhood of Yorkville, New York. In the first decade of the twentieth century, all young boys were expected, with few exceptions, to join the neighborhood gang. To be exempted and respected, a boy had to have a good excuse such as being crippled, small, or having tuberculosis. Even then it might earn a nickname such as gimpy, short sh*t, lungsy, or coughy.
“I wanted no part of running the gang,” explained Red during elderly years, “and size was a prerequisite of power. The biggest kid usually took control simply because he was the biggest. He could have been stupid, as some of the leaders were. But because he was big, he was the boss. That was fine with me. I never ran with the gang anyway.”
Red’s two brothers were on the smaller side as well. For this reason, their mother began teaching them to box.
In the evenings after school, Red’s mother cleared the small living room in their meager home and used it as a boxing ring. Two brothers boxed while the third one rested, all the while Red’s mother instructed them on foot movements, types of punches, and blocks. Red’s mother had learned about boxing from Red’s father, an amateur boxer turned bartender, who was usually away from home in a drunken stupor. When the bouts got too heated, as they often did, Red’s mother separated the boys and explained that to lose their tempers meant losing the fight. The boys and Red’s mother quickly noticed that Red had a knack for boxing. He was light on his feet, could get in, jab a punch, and get out before his opponent could react.
Word spread quickly to the boys in the neighborhood gang. “They would call me in to beat up a bully,” Red said. “The gang knew I was available. I became a kind of combination troubleshooter-backup man and never really part of the gang.”
The streets were full of bullies who pushed the younger, weaker kids around, usually to take what little money or candy they had. “Send for Red” became a regular request, and Red would appear and “clean some kid’s clock” who was usually far superior in physique. Red disliked having to fight on the streets, but he disliked bullies even more.
One day, Ed, Red’s younger and smaller brother, whom his family always referred to as Gentle Ed, was playing with a golf ball he had found in the street. A new bully on the block spied the golf ball and wanted it for his own. While the golf ball was in mid-bounce, the bully darted in, pushed Gentle Ed to the ground and grabbed the golf ball. Gentle Ed tried to reclaim the ball, but the bully shoved him to the pavement. Gentle Ed tried again, and the bully shoved him harder. This continued until Gentle Ed was bruised and bleeding. Gentle Ed returned home and told Red about the incident.
In a fury, Red began searching the neighborhood for the bully. When they finally met, a fight broke out like nothing any of the boys, especially Red, had ever seen. The bully not only took Red’s punches but was able to return them in equal measure. A large crowd gathered to watch. The boys fought tit for tat until a policeman broke them apart. They met up the next day at a prearranged spot and the fight continued. A larger crowd gathered before a policeman broke them apart again. On the third day, an even larger crowd gathered to watch what, to them, looked almost like a professional boxing match.
One woman yelled over the crowd, “These boys are killing each other. Where are their mothers?” No one knows where the bully’s mother was, but Red’s mother was in the crowd cheering for Red. During the bout, Red had broken four bones in his left fist, but the adrenaline allowed him to keep fighting. The bully sustained several injuries and was bleeding severely. Finally, the boys realized it was a draw and ended the fight with the stipulation that they would finish the fight once they had both healed.
In his adult life, Red became what he detested as a child, a bully and a gangster. Red detested the bully in his childhood, but he used those experiences to his advantage. Red and the bully never met again. The bully eventually became a semi-professional boxer. During the Great Depression, more than two decades after the boys fought, the bully sent Red a letter in which he explained that he, the bully, had fallen on hard times. The bully knew that Red had become successful and asked for, not money, not food, but for cigarettes and any extra clothing that Red could spare. Red sent the former bully a package with the requested items along with an undisclosed amount of cash.
You see, Red was only a bully and a gangster in films. He played characters based on the bullies he had known during his childhood. In real life, Red was described by everyone who knew him as a sweet, kind, and gentle man, which was exactly the opposite of the characters he was known for playing. So different were the parts Red played that Orson Welles opined, “[Red] maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera.”
The kids in his old neighborhood knew him as Red, but you and I know him as James Cagney.
Source: John McCabe, Cagney (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1997), 16.