Monday, March 22, 2010

Guadalcanal and Barney Ross

I posted before on Barney Ross. An update, I believe I found the Ross family living at 355 Madison Street in 1910. Soon after they moved to Chicago. The clip above came from a pretty bad, as I remember it, 1957 movie called Monkey On My Back
from rotten tomatoes
Synopsis: Andre De Toth's MONKEY ON MY BACK stars Cameron Mitchell (HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE) as ex-boxer Barney Ross. Ross returns from military service in Guadalcanal, where he became addicted to morphine after succumbing to malaria. Unable to kick his craving, Ross becomes a fully-fledged heroin addict, much to the dismay of everyone around him. Although the film isn't graphic in its depiction of a fallen man caught up in the throes of a powerful addiction, it was still very much ahead of its time. Otto Preminger's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM precedes De Toth's film by two years, and its tale of a poker player trying to give up heroin is the most obvious cinematic predecessor to MONKEY ON MY BACK. But such films were few and far between in the 1950s, making this a brave stab at tackling addiction in a time when drug taking was barely mentioned in the movies. Based on the true story of boxer Barney Ross, Martin Scorsese's docudrama RAGING BULL is another close cinematic bedfellow; if nothing else, De Toth's film certainly keeps some impressive company

an excerpt from the excellent unrepentant Marxist
Barney Ross and the "tough Jew"
In the mid-1950s, my family lived in an apartment above the Kentucky Club, a nightclub catering to NY Jews who stayed at bungalow colonies and small hotels during the summer. Most of the acts were veterans of the Jewish stage like Molly Picon or Moishe Oysher but the biggest draw was the Jewelbox Revue, a group of men who performed in drag. One day I came home to find one of the performers in our living-room, where my mom was sewing some sequins on his costume as a favor. She nonchalantly introduced this charming Black man as "Miss Peggy", as he preferred to be called.
The Kentucky Club had hired famed ex-boxing champion Barney Ross as a "greeter" one summer, which one I can't exactly remember. But I do have vivid memories of spending time with him on the street corner in the evenings as he took a break from his duties. Resplendent in a tuxedo and puffing on a cigarette beneath a streetlamp, he cut a dashing figure. He was always happy to chat with me, as were many of the people at the Kentucky Club who treated me like their mascot.
Since that time, I have learned few details about Ross's life, other than the obvious fact that he was a Jewish boxer and that he had kicked a morphine addiction developed as a way of suppressing the pain of wounds suffered at Guadalcanal. His struggle was dramatized in the 1957 biopic "Monkey on My Back."
When I learned that a new biography of Ross by Douglas Century had been published, I would have bought it even if it were nothing but a standard sports biography. I was really curious about who Barney Ross was and how he compared to the image of him that lingered with me all these years.
"Barney Ross" is the third volume in a joint project of Schocken and Nextbook publishers called "Jewish Encounters" that seeks to promote Jewish literature, culture, and ideas. Although a biography of Barney Ross might be the last thing to expect in the same series of already released studies of King David and Maimonides (Moses, Spinoza and others to follow), Century does achieve a kind of monumentality. Century connects Ross not only to legendary figures that preceded him, like Daniel Mendoza the British Jew who was the champion of the London Prize Ring in 1792, but to a host of important cultural and political figures such as Saul Bellow, who came out of the same hardscrabble Chicago streets. Additionally, Century draws out all the interesting political and social implications of Barney Ross's amazing tendency to cross paths with controversial Jewish personalities from Irgunist Peter Bergson to Jack Ruby.
Beyond the interest that is sustained in Barney Ross as an individual, Century also addresses a phenomenon that is the subject of two earlier works by other writers, namely the "tough Jew." In considering Barney Ross and the Jewish boxer in general as an example of this phenomenon, Century contributes to a debate on the "Jewish Question" that will remain unresolved until contradictions between Jews and their ostensible antagonists are resolved on a higher level.
Dov Ber Raskofsky, who would assume the name Barney Ross after launching a career as a boxer, was born to Itchik and Sarah Rasofsky on the Lower East Side on December 23, 1909. Although his father had taught Hebrew back in Brest-Litovsk, he made a living as a small grocer. This was a trade he would continue once he arrived in the USA, following his departure in the aftermath of state-sanctioned pogroms in 1903.
Within two years of his birth, Ross and his family would depart for Chicago to take over a grocery store in the Maxwell Street ghetto, also the home of bandleader Benny Goodman, future Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, actor Paul Muni and William Paley, who would one day run CBS.
Maxwell Street was a poverty-stricken rat's nest that was a breeding ground for pneumonia, TB and diphtheria. It also bred many Jewish criminals, who, like the Jewish boxers of the time, were considered "tough Jews." This included Jacob Guzik, who was Al Capone's financial adviser and Samuel "Nails" Morton, who provided protection to Jewish businessmen against marauding gangs from other ethnic groups. In 1917 Morton was arrested for nearly beating to death several members of a Polish gang.
Barney Ross began running with young Jewish hoodlums at an early age and soon gained a reputation for being an effective street fighter despite his small size--his nickname was "Runt."
In 1923, Itchik Rasofsky was shot and killed by robbers in his store. Shortly afterwards, Barney Ross dropped out of high school and started hustling on the street. His younger two brothers and sister were put into an orphanage. Two years later, at the age of fifteen, he began hanging out at Kid Cross's gym where Jackie Fields (born Jacob Finkelstein) trained. Fields would win the gold medal at the Paris Olympic in 1924 before turning pro. In this period, it is estimated that 30 percent of all professional fighters were Jewish. Despite the deep prejudice against sports in general and especially fighting in the Jewish community, many men became boxers for the same reasons that Irish, Italian and Blacks would: to escape poverty. But other nationalities would not have to overcome the psychological hurdle created by a millennium of Jewish traditions.

Ross at Guadalcanal
When the Japanese, attacked Pearl Harbor, Ross — beyond draft age at 32 — received a waiver to join the Marines. Assigned to serve as a boxing instructor, Ross instead asked for combat duty and was shipped to Guadalcanal, sow* of some of ft bloodiest fighting in the Pacific. On patrol one night Ross and three comrades were attacked by a superior force of Japanese troops. All three of Ross’ comrades were wounded. He gathered them in a shell crater and defended them through the night by firing more than 400 rifle rounds. When he ran out of bullets, Ross threw 22 grenades at enemy machine gun positions. Ross claimed that he said two hours of prayers, "many in Hebrew," hoping to make it through the night. Finally, at dawn, with two of his three comrades dead, wounded in the leg and foot himself and out of ammunition, Ross — who weighed less than 140 pounds — picked up his surviving wounded comrade (who weighed 230 pounds) and carried him to safety. Ross, whose helmet had more than 30 shrapnel dents, was awarded the Silver Star for heroism.
Ross all the morphine he asked for. When he got out of the hospital, Ross toured military plants to raise morale among workers, but couldn’t shake his need for morphine. When his habit began to cost him $500 per week and his wife left him, Ross sought admission to a federal drug treatment facility. While few gave him much chance of breaking the habit, Ross went "cold turkey" and, after much agony from withdrawal, emerged 120 days later having kicked the habit. While he lived in constant pain from his wounds, Ross spent the remainder of his life speaking out against drug abuse. Hollywood later turned Ross’ autobiographical account of his addiction into the movie "Monkey on My Back."

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