When her brother said she wanted to box, Lena Levy couldn’t imagine herself as a pioneering female boxing manager or being dubbed Leaping Lena because she couldn’t sit still when she was fighting the likes of Joe Louis.
If the New York boxing commission had its way, she’d have been the last woman to coach a fighter between rounds. Turning down another woman’s application in 1934, the commissioners said they didn’t intend to renew Leaping Lena’s license.
Before managing her brother, Lena and her siblings started out in the fish market stall her parents ran on Maxwell Street, Chicago’s Old World market. Her first thought about her brother was that he was crazy. The second thought was that she needed a new delivery boy once his prowess in the ring started turning heads.
Her brother liked to say he realized there was more to life than watching his mother or sister gutting and scaling herring. But as a compulsive raconteur, he offered alternate versions of his life’s chapters. One was the story he told in a dressing room before a 1930 fight.
“A customer saw me weigh my hand with a sturgeon,” he said. “My sister Lena ran me out of the market and the cops ran me out of the neighborhood.”
By then he’d dubbed himself King Levinsky, which some sports writers rendered as Kingfish Levinsky, a nod to his previous trade. His real name was Harris Krakow.
He was winning fights, but Lena suspected he wasn’t being justly rewarded. Boxing is repeated with tales of managers reaping big bucks while their fighters get chump change.
Lena complained to Illinois’ boxing commissioners that King got an $11,000 purse for a fight, of which they each received $100 from Al Miller, King’s then-manager.
“Miller contended that training expenses and other sums, which he declined at the time to specify, but which he asserted as common demands on a rising fighter, accounted for a considerable portion of the $11,000,” the Tribune reported.
The commission voted Miller out and Lena in.
She quickly took charge of the King’s life, in and out of the ring, despite the plea of certain sports writers that declared the prizefighting world as no place for a lady. But her Maxwell Street brashness helped her fit right in.
In 1934, the King married Rose Glickman, a fan dancer known at the 1933 World’s Fair as Roxana Sand. She filed for divorce six weeks later, alleging that he hit her and was unfaithful. But speaking to a Tribune reporter, she cut to the chase:
“Lena may be OK as a prize fight manager, but she’s a frost at managing our marriage.”
Lena chose the King’s opponent, negotiated with promoters, did the cooking at her brother’s training camp and was her de facto shrink. King disappeared on the eve of a bout he was to fight in Los Angeles on May 15, 1934. No one knew where he was until he appeared at the Chicago home of Dr. Morley Sherlin Lena had driven her brother from California in a big, black car, King’s favorite.
“Mrs. Levy brought Levinsky to my residence around midnight Tuesday and when I saw his nervous condition I took him to Jackson Park hospital for observation,” Sherlin told the public.
When negotiating the financial terms for a bout, Lena dug in her heels. The traditional rule of thumb was that the bigger name got the larger share of the pot.
She nixed a match with Max Schmeling, a former world champion, because she and the German fighter’s management couldn’t agree on the split of the gate receipts. Her attitude was that, in Chicago, it was her brother who brought out the fans.
To the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper, the King evoked images of Maxwell Street’s antecedents, the Jewish hamlets of Eastern Europe:
“Levinsky is a happy-go-lucky young chap and reminds one of a shtetl wagon driver or butcher.”
Indeed, even Lena couldn’t get the King to obey boxing’s rules. Inside his 200-pound, 6-foot hulk was an adolescent street fighter. He lost a 1929 bout by repeatedly fouling Ted Ross.
“On one occasion, he seized Mr. Ross’ chin between the thumb and mit of his glove and socked him with his free hand,” the Tribune reported. “Then in the sixth round, Levinsky placed one thumb in Ross’ mouth and the other in his eye.”
Yet the King’s antics only increased his marketability. So, too, did his manic rush at an opponent, a strategy that Lena devised. If he landed a punch, he won by a knockout. If he missed, he was vulnerable to a counter punch that would drop him to the canvas.
Miller, the deposited manager, attributed the King’s success to Lena. The King knew what awaited him in the dressing room, should he screw up.
The King claimed credit for himself. “The personality kid, that’s me,” he said in a news conference where the reporters threw him a verbal sucker punch. “What do you think about Muscle Shoals?”
“I can lick him, too,” the King revised.
Muscle Shoals is a town in Alabama, and it is even money whether Levinsky’s malapropos were spontaneous or scripted. Either way, Lena brought him through the ranks and pay grades of the heavyweights.
In 1935, she booked him into the definitive match of his career: 10 rounds with Joe Louis before an anticipated 40,000 fans at Comiskey Park. The winner would likely get to fight the world champion.
Louis was taciturn and methodical. The King was a clown and boastful.
“This guy Louis never had no punch hit him like the punch I got,” the King confidently predicted.
But on the night of the fight, the starting bell was moved up. It was feared that Levinsky would bolt, as he had in California.
The fight lasted a little more than two minutes, as the Tribune reported. Louis threw: “Three rights to the jaw and six hard lefts to the stomach,” that “left the Kingfish sitting on the joining strand of the ring ropes in a neutral corner when Referee McGarity stopped the bout.”
Having hardly thrown a punch, Levinsky was remembered as the palooka who froze in the ring with Louis, who went on to be one of boxing’s most celebrated champions.
The dethroned King went on to peddle custom-made neckties in nightspots frequented by celebrity hounds. Riccardo’s in Chicago in the summer, Miami Beach analogs in winter. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army.
After World War II, he resumed his necktie sales. If you were lucky, you got a story with your purchase, like: “I’ll bet you don’t remember when I fought Joe Louis. Well, neither do I.”
In the 1970s, Levinsky and Helen, his last wife, spent summers in Newburyport, Massachusetts. There, they spent their time getting chauffeured between Ann’s Diner and the Flying Yankee Tap. Levinsky was buried there in 1991.
After the King moved on to other fight managers, Lena became the manager of a dress shop at 23 N. Crawford Ave. with her sons Edward and Adolph. She died in 1954 at age 59. Her obituary was brief: “Sister and former manager of Harry (King) Levinsky.” She was a celebrity’s relative, just like when she was divorced 22 years earlier. She tested then to a judge that her policeman husband deserted her. The judge’s next question was: “Do you think the King will ever get a chance to fight Max Schmeling?”
“If my brother ever hit that lug, Hitler back in Berlin would feel it,” Lena replied.
But to this day, Lena and the King remain a brother and sister act to be true boxing aficionados. They picture Lena as the Daily Forward described her: “Among fans, she’s known as ‘Leaping Lena’ because she gets excited during her brother’s fights and jumps up and screams at Levinsky, usually with a flourish of colorful curses.”
And as the Tribune noted: “Mrs. Lena Levy has a siren voice. So have the New York harbor tug boats.”
Vintage Chicago Tribune
The Vintage Tribune newsletter is a deep dive into the Chicago Tribune’s archives featuring photos and stories about the people, places and events that shape the city’s past, present and future.
Sign up to receive the Vintage Chicago Tribune newsletter at chicagotribune.com/newsletters for more photos and stories from the Tribune’s archives.