The real-life story of a Turkish opera singer who improbably became a major figure in the history of American boxing.
In 1881, Madame Bey was born Hranoush Aglaganian in Istanbul to an Armenian father and a French mother. She spent a few years studying opera in Italy as a young girl and also attended the prestigious American College for Girls in Turkey. Her husband, Sidky Bey, got a job as the second secretary of the Imperial Ottoman Embassy, and the two of them set sail for New York City in 1897, settling in Washington, D.C. Madame Bey wasn’t the typical wife of a Turkish diplomat, as she spoke excellent English—as well as five other languages—and had considerable liberty to socialize. The couple became a fixture in the Washington political scene as well as good friends with President William McKinley and his wife, Ida. Madame Bey often sang at the White House and was eventually invited to join the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (She declined out of deference to husband’s objections.) After Sidky left the diplomatic corps, they ran a rug and antiques business that fell on hard times during World War I; they bought property in Chatham, New Jersey, but struggled financially. Champion boxer Freddie Welsh attempted to start a health resort right next door, but after it failed, it became a well-known training camp for top-tier boxers. When Welsh re-enlisted in the Army in 1923, Madame Bey took over management of the training camp, a job she held for the next 18 years. Despite a deficit of experience in the sport, she became something of a legend, making up for her lack of knowledge with maternal instinct. Debut author Pantalone’s research is impeccably meticulous, although he sometimes has a tendency to bury readers in a mountain of historical minutiae, particularly about secondary figures, which can be distracting. Madame Bey’s life was truly a remarkable one, however, and the author’s understated prose rightly permits her biographical details to take center stage: “Madame Bey gave the weary brutes away from their loved ones intangibles that Welsh could not provide. Most importantly, she gave them a home.” The book also provides a vivid account of American boxing’s golden days, including such big names as world heavyweight champions Jack Dempsey and Max Schmeling as well as the eccentric “Two-Ton” Tony Galento.
A rigorously researched history of a singularly impressive life.