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The incredibly shrinking Harry Wills

By Pete Ehrmann on April 17, 2020

harry wills.jpg

Going on a starvation diet wasn’t easy, Wills conceded, at least for the first few days.

“I have had strange eating habits since I was a boy. It is nothing to be proud of, ashamed nor alarmed about. Bears don’t eat all winter and Harry Wills fasts a month each year.”—Ernest Hemingway letter to publisher Charles Scribner, 1952


The “Black Panther” was a great boxer who according to some experts might have become heavyweight champion of the world if he’d gotten Jack Dempsey into the ring when Dempsey held the title in the “Roaring Twenties.” (Ray Arcel, on the other hand, considered Wills merely a decent journeyman.) But it never happened because the people in charge of Dempsey and boxing then weren’t about to put the greatest title in sports within reach of a black fighter after what boxing and the white establishment had gone through with Jack Johnson.


Harry Wills started boxing professionally in 1911. The 6’2”, 220-pound native of New Orleans was a top heavyweight contender for about a decade, but promoter Ted Rickard and fearful politicians—reportedly including then-New York Governor Al Smith—made sure Wills never went for the big enchilada. He was, however, recognized as the “Colored Heavyweight Champion.”


Thanks to having invested his ring earnings in Harlem real estate, after retiring from boxing in 1932 Wills lived comfortably—except for the first day or two after embarking on his famous annual month-long fasts, when nothing passed his lips except water—or, as Harry called it, “Adam’s ale.”


Exactly when and how Wills decided to deprive himself of food for a whole month at a time is blurry.


In a piece titled “Harry Wills says he expects to live a hundred years and be fighting at 50” in The Afro-American newspaper on January 17, 1925, the author said he first went cold turkey when “I was working as a brakeman on the Texas Pacific. The yardmaster was a great fellow for reading and experimenting. One day he discovered a book that told about fasting as a cure for disease. He was afraid to try it himself, but he wanted to see if there was anything in it, so he hunted me up and asked me if I would be willing to take a chance. In those days it was nothing new for me to go hungry, so I said: ‘Sure, I’ll try anything once.’ I fasted a week that time and felt no ill effects.”


Twelve years later, another article in The Afro-American about Wills’ annual fasts said “It all started way back when he was a habitué of the racetracks in his early 20s. He was kicked by a horse and the only thing that saved his life was going without food for 30 days.”


In Harry’s earlier first-person account he said that at first he fasted for two weeks every spring and then again in the fall. Later he decided to eschew vittles during February “because that was the dullest month in the fighting business,” and the shortest one on the calendar. After he quit the ring he sometimes fasted in March or April instead.


“I never looked for no publicity on it,” he told Red Smith in 1948, “but in 1921 I’d beat Kid Norfolk in the old Garden and Jack Renault was going good then and they wanted me to fight Renault before the circus come to the Garden. So when they come up to see me I told ‘em I couldn’t because I was on this fast. Walter St. Denis was Tex Rickard’s press agent. He sent a reporter up to see me, and that’s how it all come out.”


He’d kept mum about it, Wills related another time, “not because I wanted to have an advantage over my fellow boxers but because they would not understand. If I had told the boys about my fasting they would have said: ‘Harry is daffy. Taking socks on the chin has made him goofy.’”


He swore by the results. “I am always hearty because I drive all the impurities out of my system by fasting,” he said at the conclusion of his 1934 food embargo. “I lay off eating and take long walks and cold showers, and I never have any business with the doctors. You never will catch me in a doctor’s office.”


Fasting had made him impervious to two decades of hard knocks in boxing, insisted Wills. “A lot of fellows who have been in it only 15 minutes,” he said, “look like my granddaddy.” Plus, he told John Lardner in ’36, marathon fasting even “helped my mind and body to bear patiently the disappointment of them sad years when Dempsey wouldn’t fight me—though I never blamed Jack. It was his managers that froze me out.”


Going on a starvation diet wasn’t easy, Wills conceded, at least for the first few days. Asked on Day 3 of his 1934 fast, “Don’t you get hungry at all?” Wills said, “To tell you the truth, I sure do. Tomorrow is the crisis day. After tomorrow I’ll get along all right.”


Once he hit his stride, Harry was not tortured or tempted by the aroma of cooking food, he said, and could laugh it off when friends seeking to undermine his resolve tucked into thick steaks in his presence. Mrs. Wills did not join him in fasting. “I’ll say she don’t,” he told writer Talbot Lake. “She eats everything she can lay her hands on.”


During his fasts, Wills said, he made sure to “refresh my mind with the reading of poetry and contemplation. The mind, understand, has got to be in good condition as well as the body.”


The only time he was in a prickly mood at the end of a fast was during World War II when the whole country was on a diet thanks to government-mandated food rationing. “It was bad enough to go 31 days without pork chops,” 51-year-old Harry sighed in 1943 after his reported 32nd annual fast, “without havin’ people talkin’ forever about where they’re going to get pork chops.”


(Wills wasn’t the only famous faster that year. In India, Mahatma Gandhi went on a hunger strike around the same time Harry began his fast. Gandhi lasted 21 days. “Of course, he’s 73 years old,” Harry magnanimously allowed, “and he didn’t have much of a body to start with. That safety pin was mighty close to his backbone when he started.”)


After a month on the wagon Wills was typically 60 pounds lighter but feeling “fine and strong as a bull.” In 1940 he estimated that over the years he’d dropped a total of 1,820 pounds, and in ’43 it was written, “he has gone two years and eight months of his life without food.” No wonder a writer once said admiringly, “(Wills) reminds you of Job in his best days.”


The worst thing to do after not eating for a month, Wills warned, was sprint to the nearest  buffet, which could have “serious, if not fatal results.” Harry broke his fasts by drinking orange or grape juice at four-hour intervals, then switching to milk for several days before eating a couple soft-boiled eggs.


The total starvation diet kept Wills in the headlines (“Harlem Grocers Are Gloomy as Harry Wills Prepares For Fast” [1934], “Harry Wills Goes On Annual Fast; It’s Guaranteed To Cure Anything” [‘42], “Black Panther Begins Annual 30 Day Fast” [‘43]) every year for decades after his boxing career was done. But it was no publicity stunt. “If everybody would fast like this once a year,” said Harry, “there wouldn’t be much business left for doctors.”


While patronized and largely regarded in the media as a good-natured eccentric, Harry was a hero to health cultists like Bernarr Macfadden (in whose world, wrote Macfadden biographer Mark Adams, “one not only starved a fever, but also a cold, a cough, hiccups, psoriasis, cancer, and just about everything else”) and others who upheld him as a shining counterpart to Babe Ruth, the barrel-shaped ballplayer with a mouth like a vacuum cleaner.


As he got older, Harry’s wife and doctors took a dimmer view of his fasting. In 1958 he went into the hospital with acute appendicitis, and died there on December 21 at age 68. Curiously, diabetes was given as the cause of death. A decade earlier, Wills had disclosed to Red Smith that he had suffered spells of faintness during recent fasts for which his antidote was a “spoonful of sugar.”


Before Joe Louis became the second heavyweight champion in modern history in 1937, Wills expressed doubt it was in the cards for Joe unless “he changes his complexion.” But that wasn’t the only stumbling block facing the Brown Bomber, figured the Black Panther.


“I’d like to have charge of Joe Louis’ training,” said Harry. “He’s eatin’ hisself into the grave.”

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