By Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald

On this particularly significant centenary – we will get to it – how to explain the significance of Les Darcy to those fresh to the story?

Darcy was no less than an Australian Muhammad Ali, a boxer from poor circumstances beloved by the people, capable of taking on the world’s best and besting them, before a war changed everything.

The second son of a family from Maitland, the charismatic and always smiling Darcy first beat every middleweight in his home town, then Newcastle, then Sydney, then all comers from across Australia and New Zealand, before taking on American champions.

When Darcy was fighting an American in Sydney Stadium, aka the “old tin shed”, at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney, the mines of Cessnock would empty as the miners rushed to support their hero, put their hard-earned money on him, and win!

And then the war came. The government, of course, wanted Darcy – a symbol of the best of Australian manhood – marching off to war. But the recruitment officials who visited him were absolutely clear: it wasn’t him as a fighter they wanted; it was him as an agent of recruitment.

If he joined he would receive an immediate officer’s commission and be given a job in charge of physical culture. Darcy declined, quietly telling his family he refused “to strut around like a prize peacock and be treated as a hero, for acting as bullet bait for the cream of the country”.

His primary concern at the time was to earn enough prizemoney to pay for the house he had bought for his mother and family in Maitland, and then he would quietly join, while still refusing to promote recruitment.

Almost overnight he became a symbol of cowardice with white feathers arriving in the mail. No matter that only a third of Australian males did join up, and those who declined included such future eminences as Sir Robert Menzies, who later, quite rightly, and with great eloquence, said in Parliament: “There are some things for which a man need not answer in the public domain.”

The way things panned out, it was Darcy who became the symbol, who was so overwhelmed with accusations of cowardice, that even the boxing promoters turned on him.

The only way out?

Darcy decided on an extreme solution. Kissing farewell to the love of his life, the winsome Winnie O’Sullivan – whose parents owned Paddington’s Lord Dudley Hotel – he stowed away on a ship moored off Stockton, Newcastle, and made his way to New York.

So famous was Darcy that on his first night in the Big Apple he was presented to the crowd at Madison Square Garden, where he received a standing ovation. This is the great Australian fighter, who defeated all our own champions!

And, yet, though initially hailed as a conquering hero, once the US entered the war, he was attacked as “a shirker”, and state after state refused to allow him to box there.

His luck had just turned, however, and he had lined up a lucrative fight at last in Memphis, Tennessee, when he fell ill – likely due to mercury poisoning from a dental procedure, following his last fight in Australia at the old tin shed.

O’Sullivan had just arrived in California to see her Les, when she got the telegram from his trainer, the ever-faithful Mick Hawkins: “Les sinking fast in private hospital in Memphis. Please come at once.”

At Winnie’s first sight of Les in the hospital, she knew that her love was in serious trouble. Somehow, with all his weakness and wasting away, one of the most feared fighters in all the world now looked like a very young boy again. He still had the strength to say: “Oh Winnie, when they told me you were here, I thought they were joking me.”

Hawkins quietly left the room so the two could have some time alone together, to softly talk. And really, Les even did seem to perk up a bit with Winnie’s presence. After getting updates on what everyone at home had been up to when she’d left, and what she’d heard since, Les asked Winnie to be sure to write to his mother to tell her that he was going to be OK.

“Mum thinks I am going to die,” he weakly laughed, “but I’m not … ”

Late that night Winnie reluctantly left Les at the nurse’s insistence that the patient must rest, and she found lodgings for the evening.

When Winnie returned the following morning, exhausted after an extremely restless night, she was greeted with the news that her man was poorly and that she mustn’t stay long, as it would be too tiring for him.

As Winnie came into the room, Mick, Fred, the promoter Billy Haack snr and a nurse all moved away from the bed so she could see him. Les looked up, smiled wanly, a mere echo of the smile he had once beamed, spoke to her briefly, and said he felt sleepy. He was drifting … just drifting … drifting … away.

Winnie – torn between the desire to stay, go, weep, stay strong, and howl – whispered a little into Les’ ear, stroked his brow, said her goodbyes, and turned to go, as her love softly closed his eyes. The young Australian woman had just reached the door when the nurse called her back: “Come quickly!”

Winnie ran back to the bed, and instinctively knew what had happened – as much as she tried to fight the realisation – even before she threw her arms around him. Les was gone. It was 100 years ago today, American time, May 23, 1.45pm.

The grieving Winnie then accompanied his body back across America and then on the ship the Sonoma across the Pacific Ocean to Sydney, where he arrived on the misty morning of Tuesday, June 26, 1917. By that afternoon the 21-year-old Les’ body was fully on view, in an open coffin at Wood Coffill & Co’s funeral parlour on George Street, as tens of thousands of Sydneysiders filed past – the women crying, the men trying not to.

Beneath an enormous crucifix, with lighted candles all around throwing out an ethereal and flickering light, Les lay there, dressed in his Sunday best, eyes closed but looking content and at peace. The pressure of the crowd against the plate-glass window became so great at one point, that with a dreadful scream of agony, it cracked and then collapsed.

That was how famous, how beloved Les Darcy was. When they finally put him beneath the sod in Maitland, one estimate said 750,000 were there. Unlikely, as NSW did not boast that many people.

But all up, an extraordinary man, extraordinary life and a tragic death.

One hundred years on, mate, we have not forgotten you. Vale, Les Darcy, a great Australian.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

Some of this account is drawn from Peter FitzSimons’ book, The Ballad of Les Darcy, HarperCollins 2007.

Peter FitzSimons is managed by The Fordham Company.

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