Biography becomes essential when it discloses the moral, psychological, and historical dimensions of an individual's existence.Thus Plutarch's biography of Coriolanus remains riveting because it is the history of a man of high aspirations brought low by overweening pride and blind allegiance to his militaristic creed. Plutarch begins his biography stressing that his subject came from an illustrious family, known to have done the state great service. Coriolanus (an honorific won in war) is brought up by his mother, Volumnia, after his father's early death.
The boy prospers, Plutarch emphasizes, in an era that prized martial valor. Devoted to Volumnia, but becoming his own authority in adolescence by feats of arms, the choleric Coriolanus never learns the political skills that would enable him to govern as well as conquer. When he refuses to pander to the populace, he is banished from Rome, and then he becomes its nemesis, halting his invasion only when his mother pleads with him to desist. He capitulates to her, however, realizing that like all tragic characters, he has contrived his own doom.
Barney Ross (born Beryl Rasofsky) came from an Orthodox Jewish family, grew up on the tough streets of Chicago, and became a legend of "Jewish toughness" that his biographer, Douglas Century, first heard about in the 1970s, when he was 10 and a student at a small Yiddish elementary school in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Beryl's father had died a violent death trying to stop a holdup, and his wife had to bring up her feisty son, who successfully kept from her his pugilistic career until he became a local sensation ("The Pride of the Ghetto") and the subject of newspaper articles.
Beryl Rasofsky changed his name, Mr. Century suggests, as part of his effort to prevent his mother from discovering his shameful profession. Proper Jewish boys did not fight - although, in fact, as Mr. Century shows, Jews had been boxing for generations, ever since Daniel Mendoza (1763-1836), a Sephardic Jew touted as "The Light of Israel," "reigned as the Sixteenth Champion of the London Prize Ring."
Invoking Mendoza's story is apposite to Ross's biography because Mendoza published a book, "The Art of Boxing," and positively gloried in his Jewishness. So too Ross, author of "Fundamentals of Boxing" and an autobiography, "No Man Stands Alone," who not only remained passionately attached to his faith but in later years became a Zionist and a gunrunner for the Irgun.
Ross is the right choice for Schocken's Jewish Encounters series of biographies precisely because his life was a continual confrontation with what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. Ross's story, in other words, is worthy of a Plutarchian biographer, one who recognizes that it all might have turned out quite differently for Ross,who grew up doing small errands for Al Capone and could have gone on to more corrupt and deadly missions.To ask a Plutarchian question: Why didn't Ross turn out something like his Chicago friend Jacob "Sparky" Rubenstein, better known to the world as Jack Ruby, a man who often succumbed to rage attacks and who changed history for the worse?
Ruby's story snakes its way through this biography (Schocken, 216 pages, $19.95) as though Mr. Century were writing a modern version of Plutarch's parallel lives. Ross, by the way, did not forsake Sparky, even appearing as a character witness for Ruby before the Warren Commission. The answer to the Plutarchian question is framed thus in Mr. Century's elegantly simple and stark prose: "For Barney, whose own ascent as a prizefighter paralleled the emergence of the Jewish state, it seems natural not only that he would lend his fame to the cause of Zionist freedom, but that this would be perfectly in keeping with his American values."
This is a breathtaking sentence, considering that many of Ross's fellow Jews were not merely changing their names but assimilating in every sense of the word, so that the Jewish moguls in Hollywood, for example, could never make a film called "The Barney Ross Story" that would emphasize the crucial Jewish element in his character. Indeed, when John Garfield (Julius Garfinkel) decided to film Ross's life, the Jewish element was downplayed, and when it became known after the war that Ross, the war hero who single-handedly staved off a Japanese attack, had become a drug addict, succumbing to the morphine that originally had been administered to alleviate his pain, Garfield's independent production company dropped the film.
Sort of. Garfield's electrifying performance in one of the greatest of all boxing films, "Body and Soul," retained so much of Ross that the fighter went to court and won a $60,000 judgment against the filmmakers.
Ross was a fighter all his life. He checked himself into a rehabilitation facility for drug addicts, remained clean, if not always sober, and waged a one-man war against drugs, showing the courage to use his own story as an example. When a writer told Ross he did not want to expose his hero's drug addiction because it would shame him, Ross replied: "So shame me."
As with James Braddock, the world heavyweight champion and the recent subject of a magnificent film, "Cinderella Man," it was virtually impossible to knock Barney Ross off his feet. Ross fought in several weight classes from junior welterweight to lightweight to welterweight and won world titles in all of them. Between 1933 and 1937, he dominated the sport.
And then, suddenly, he was played out, losing his welterweight title in 1938 to Henry Armstrong in one of the most brutal fights in boxing history. Ross refused to go down. His brother George wanted to walk out during the beating but stayed because he did not want his mother to see him acknowledging his brother's defeat.
Ross then retired and, like many boxers, made a mess of his life, losing all his purses at the track and the tables. When he volunteered for combat in World War II, only his brother George knew that it was not out of patriotic fervor but because of a suicidal depression. George never told anyone the true story until Mr. Century, a biographer who also has worn boxing gloves, earned George's confidence.
Suicidal feelings, the wounds of war, and drug addiction did not overcome Ross, because he retained his religious faith. During the war he became best friends with a Catholic priest who was there for Ross right to the end of his life, when Ross died in excruciating pain from cancer. As important as his Jewish faith was to him, Ross's respect for faith itself, the ability to fight against the odds, was ultimately what redeemed him.
It is not often that a modern biography ennobles not only its subject but the genre itself, but this is exactly what Mr. Century has accomplished, crafting a narrative as unsparing and inspiring as its subject.