I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I was pretty intrigued when I looked up the premise. I don’t read many history books and far fewer books about sport, so a retrospective about a Turkish socialite turned boxing madame definitely piqued my interest.
“Madame Bey’s: Home to Boxing Legends” by Gene Pantalone is part-biography, part-history and part-sports section. Loosely structured around the life of Hranoush Sidky Bey, the book chronicles her colourful career from the wife of a Turkish diplomat, through her short stint as an opera singer to her time spent managing a training camp for aspiring champion boxers. Interspersed between are the detailed histories of other historical figures who crossed her path with a particular focus on boxers who stayed at her camp training for world titles.
Pantalone has meticulously researched and gathered together facts, statistics and interviews about Madame Bey and her boys and tied them together in an extremely thorough piece of work. Reading this book gave me an inkling of an understanding of why people are so passionate about films like “Rocky”. Especially between the world wars, boxing was an extremely high stakes and high profile sport filled with dramatic showdowns and comebacks. Pantalone doesn’t skimp on the backstories and the elation of wins and the heartache of losses resonates throughout this book. I also really enjoyed Pantalone’s treatment of race and gender in this book and the way he shines light on major inequalities (such as the exclusion of black men from sports) and more minor ones (such as the exclusion of a boxer’s wife from his change room).
I think the book’s biggest strength however is also its biggest weakness. Pantalone’s enthusiasm for this subject radiates from the pages and he shows off the fruits of his research with a plethora of details. At times the amount of detail, especially about all the boxers, could be a little overwhelming and often overwhelmed the titular figure: Madame Bey herself. However, Pantalone does recognise that this was in keeping with how Madame Bey was eclipsed for the most part by her boys while she was alive.
If you’re a history buff or a sports fan, or you’d like a different perspective on early 20th century American history, this is the book for you.