Monday, February 20, 2012

Jack Johnson's Tragic Love Story

Jack Johnson and Etta Duryea
If you're familiar with the movie The Great White Hope, you probably know that the Jack Jefferson character portrayed by James Earl Jones is based on the real life American boxer Jack Johnson.  During the Jim Crow era, Johnson became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915).

Geoffrey C. Ward wrote an excellent biography of Johnson entitled Unforgivable Blackness, which was made into a PBS documentary by Ken Burns. 

Johnson's success brought fame and riches, and to the dismay of most of white America at the time, he disregarded the social and economic standard set for blacks in American society.  He flaunted his wealth in fine clothes and fast cars, and broke the taboo of a black man consorting with white women.

The charismatic Johnson was married three times, and all his wives were white. In January  of 1911, Johnson married Etta Duryea, a glamorous Brooklyn socialite who was well educated, played the piano and sang.  She was also the former wife of businessman Charles Duryea, the engineer of the first ever working American gasoline powered car.

Etta was prone to depression, and after news of her marriage to Johnson made it back to Brooklyn, the isolation she suffered from being cut off from family friends, along with Jack's raucous lifestyle, contributed to her suicide in 1912.

In Unforgivable Blackness, Ward recounts how appalled Etta's relatives were that she had married such a man as Jack. At her funeral, one of Etta's family members accused Jack of never having loved her, and to this he said something like, "I have eyes and I have a heart, and they told me I loved her."  (I must confess, I was so touched by that line, I used it myself in my novel The Governor's Sons.

If you'd like to learn more about the real life Great White Hope, be sure to read Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson or check out the PBS Documentary. Johnson's story is truly a fascinating one! 

Had you ever heard of Jack Johnson?

Thanks for visiting!


Old Kitty said...

What an amazing array of characters! Jack and Etta's story deserve to be told - wonderful people - larger than life and completely tragic. I'm sure I've seen the film - I would love to now!! Take care

Kittie Howard said...

Yes, I've heard of Jack Johnson and knew the basics about his remarkable life and would love to see the PBS documentary. Thank you for sharing. I'm going to see when it's playing in our area.

shelly said...

I learned something I didn't know about Etta.

Intangible Hearts said...

I don't remember and your story brings back so many memories. By the way they did a story on the Lovings on the news on Valentine's Day. You are ahead of your time Maria!

Maria McKenzie said...

@Old Kitty: It is an amzing story! Jack Johnson really was larger than life!

@Kittie Howard: I actually just learned about the documentary when I wrote the post. I'm not sure how old it is, but you can probably get if from the library, which is what I'll be looking into:)!

@Shelly: I was amazed to learn that Etta was a socialite!

@Desert Rocks: I found out their story would be on HBO during Valentine's Day a couple of weeks before I wrote my post;)!

Jennette Marie Powell said...

I'd heard of Jack Johnson, but that's about it. Funny thing, I think I ran across his name while I was researching for my post on boxing history in Dayton, so he's probably gone a few rounds here! I love the quote, too. Timeless and beautiful!

Kittie Howard said...

What an amazing coincidence, Maria! My eyes popped! When Father Collins filled out the paperwork to retire from the Navy, he listed Mrs. Collins (with a Boston address) as the next of kin. A Yeoman asked if she were his wife or his mother, a routine question. I heard that when he replied "wife," the yeoman looked really surprised. Anyway, Father Collins then put in his papers to leave the priesthood. I don't know that Mrs. Collins hadn't been a nun, but since Father Collins was from the Boston area, like is wife, I doubt that they would have ended up on the West Coast. But, having said that, there are warm fuzziness that life has been good to your neighbor. Thank you for dropping by and sharing!

Kittie Howard said...

Thanks for stopping by, Maria. Ohhh, wouldn't it be something if he's the same person? It would be nice to know, but, just like we kept walking that night, it would feel awkward to reactivate his past career. But please let me know if he's the one.

Maria McKenzie said...

@Jennette: I'm sure Jack was in Dayton at some point!

@Kittie: I'll let you know what I find out;).

@Come At Me: Thanks for stopping by my blog!

William Kendall said...

I have indeed. I've read Ward's book, and I have the Ken Burns documentary among my collection, so his story is one I'm quite familiar with.

Maria McKenzie said...

Wasn't that an awesome book! I stil haven't seen the documentary but I plan to:).

Mr. White said...

For those who have never heard of or seen photo footage of Jack Johnson stop taking history for granted.