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. Prologue



History lessons

My grandfather Leo Birnbaum was tall, strong, willful, charming, virile and handsome as Cagney, and with a mind that resisted deep thought as naturally as rock sheds water. In short, he had just about all the gifts a man needs for happiness. He was however born a Jew in 1892 in backwater Austria, which means he was condemned at birth to a life narrow and impoverished, the kind of life that Heinrich Heine might have had in mind when he slyly lamented that Judaism was “not a religion [but] a misfortune.”

The slums of New York City, to which Leo’s parents emigrated at the turn of the century, were another misfortune. The family was poor and large, and Leo fended for himself from a young age, never finishing grade school. But somewhere along the way he heard the great American claim spoken out loud: Nothing is fate. He believed in little, but he acted on that. In his late teens he became a professional boxer and he took a new name, Bobby Dawson.

Why Leo became a boxer is clear: respect, money, and women. Prizefighting was the street game that mattered in his time, a seedbed for local heroes and punk millionaires, and the transforming dream for tall, strong, willful young men who never made it past sixth grade. Traveling the city’s expansive circuit of boxing clubs and arenas for the 10 years his career lasted, Leo made lots of money that he spent on lots of women, lots of booze, and lots of pals.

Why he chose a ring name, however (not to mention “Bobby Dawson”), no one really knows. It wasn’t his way to explain. He certainly didn’t change his name for business reasons. Being a Birnbaum in the fight game in New York City in 1910 was in fact a decided market advantage over being a Dawson, and there were fighters who falsely intimated Jewish identities, who sewed stars of David to their trunks so they could improve their box office. Nor does the family’s pious legend seem likely—that Leo wanted to spare his mother the shame of a son who brawled for a living. I knew Leo for 30 years, and if he was ever constrained by the prospect of causing embarrassment, I didn’t notice it. He was the grandfather who annually stole the show at my father’s earnest Passover seder by removing his dentures from his mouth to attack the matzo as it was passed; the grandfather who referred to his long-suffering wife as “tsures,” a Yiddish word meaning “troubles,” and a pun on her name Sureh; the grandfather who into his sixties insisted on demonstrating his strength by doing a headstand in any handy living room while his cuffs slipped past his broad white shins and coins dropped from his pockets and rolled on the floor beside his purple face.

No, what seems clear from all the available evidence is that Leo chose to be Bobby Dawson (he never had his name changed legally) so he could pass, disappear into America, live a life in which he didn’t have to be a Jew—whatever that meant to him and to the world—on top of everything else a man had to be. And so for decades after he’d worn out his gift for boxing, Bobby Dawson was a presence in arenas, athletic clubs, the celebrity bars along Broadway, and in many loud, merry, or nefarious places where a heavyweight who’d once nearly gone the distance with Tunney (a TKO in the seventh round) could provide cachet and earn a few bucks as a chauffeur, bodyguard, cook, bartender, masseur, poker foil, or drinking buddy. And Leo Birnbaum was at the same time a shadow husband and father across the river in Brooklyn, a man who turned up on occasion to drop off some cash and to rest from exertions he never spoke of.

There are all kinds of reasons for passing, some more pressing than others. Life and freedom can certainly depend on it, as was the case with the subjects of our cover story and as is the case today in too many places. In other instances, it’s ambition that’s on the line. Would Iosif Dzhugashvili have done as well career-wise as Stalin? Could Anna Maria Italiano have had Anne Bancroft’s film credits, or would Hollywood have mired her in bosom-and pasta comedies as a second-tier Sophia Loren (Sofia Scicolone, actually)?

For most people who take the trouble to pass, though, the real inspiration is the opportunity to set aside the dreadful burden that W.E.B. Du Bois famously called “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

I believe that’s what Bobby Dawson was about. Leo Birnbaum had ego, certainly, and he had rage enough to drive his arms and legs in the ring (and elsewhere), and charm and looks enough for the women. But what he could not claim was a life in which he could rest, a life in which warring identities—immigrant, native, Jewish, gentile—did not short-circuit and spark. And so he made up that life. He created Bobby Dawson, his personal golem, a man who laughed and drank and had no real history.

One day when Leo grew too old to live Bobby Dawson’s life, he returned to the family apartment in Brooklyn. His children were grown and gone, but Sureh—long suffering and expert at it—triumphantly took him in and installed him in the small spare bedroom beside the kitchen, like a guest in his own life.

Our story on the Healys’ passage begins here.

Ben Birnbaum

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