Doyle, Jack (1913–78), boxer, actor, singer and playboy, was born Joseph Alphonsus Doyle, 31 August 1913 at 12 Queen Street, Queenstown, Co. Cork, eldest son among four sons and two daughters of Michael Doyle, sailor, of Queenstown, and Anastasia Doyle. His schooling, at St Joseph's Presentation Brothers school, Cobh, was ended prematurely when his father was invalided out of the navy and he was forced to take work as a farm labourer, on local coal boats, and as a quay labourer. Inspired by a boxing manual, How to box, by former world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey (qv), he worked on his boxing technique in the evenings and was reputed to have knocked out a donkey with one right-hand blow. On being refused entry to the Irish army on account of his youth, he joined (September 1930) the British army and pursued his boxing career in the Irish Guards. His amateur record of twenty-eight straight wins (twenty-seven by knockout) attracted the attention of promoter Dan Sullivan, who contracted him to fight professionally and bought him out of the army for £28 (February 1932).
An imposing 6ft 4in (1.93m) frame, along with handsome features and relentless charm, earned him such soubriquets as ‘The gorgeous Gael’, ‘The body beautiful’, and ‘The king of clout’. In 1932 he began his professional career with a flourish, as ten straight knockouts (by courtesy of a powerful right hand) brought him massive publicity. Soon after Sullivan sold Doyle's management contract to a greyhound syndicate for 5,000 guineas (£5,250). Doyle's spectacular victories, backed by his looks and a whirl of hype, allowed him to embark on a lifestyle that neutered his talent even as it developed. An insatiable desire for women was unleashed as he courted the socialites of the West End in London and accommodated the many who sought his company. His training suffered, and by the time he was granted a fight for the British heavyweight championship against Jack Petersen (July 1933), he was suffering from venereal disease. In front of a 70,000 crowd in White City, London, he was disqualified for a series of low blows in the second round, inducing a mini-riot as the crowd stormed the ring, throwing chairs, before carrying him shoulder-high to Marble Arch. He was later fined almost £3,000 (his purse) and banned for six months by the British Boxing Board of Control – a decision he never forgave. He won his next fight in eighty-three seconds, but then turned his back on British boxing amid a breakdown in relations with his management and continued wrangling with the British boxing authorities over his purse for the Petersen fight.
The break did enable him to pursue a career in singing, and with a fine tenor voice he recorded such songs as ‘Mother Machree’, which sold heavily. Returning to an adoring Irish public who viewed his disqualification as part of a British conspiracy to deny him greatness, he packed out the 3,500-seater Theatre Royal in Dublin and the Opera House in Cork. In 1935 he moved into the movies as a fearsome fighter and robust lover in the buccaneering McGlusky the sea rover. He later starred in the equally inauspicious Navy spy (1937). In 1935 he went to Hollywood, where he married the actress Judith Allen (28 April 1935). Their passionate and apparently sincere romance did not stop him embarking on a series of affairs with other women, but attempts at reform saw the couple travel to London, where their concert tour was well received. In Dublin, however, distaste at his marriage to a divorcee forced cancellation of shows at the Theatre Royal, and he returned to America where he formed a carousing friendship with Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, and continued to live a hectic social life. He resumed boxing and won his first three fights, but lost his fourth when he was unluckily beaten on a technical knockout in the first round by Buddy Baer in Madison Square Garden, New York.
Chastened, he went to Britain as his wife issued divorce proceedings. He reentered the ring in January 1937, and when in an unassailable position he was disqualified against Alf Robinson for hitting him as he sat on the bottom rope of the ring. He won his next two fights, the second, against King Levinsky, being his only contest to go the full distance, before losing whatever interest he still had in boxing. When fighting former British heavyweight champion Eddie Phillips, he advanced to finish the contest with a haymaker right, but fell through the ropes and into the back row of press seats, where he was counted out. Many believe that having failed to defeat Phillips in the first round, he knew his lack of fitness would be exposed and so took a dive by throwing himself through the ropes. He remained a huge draw, and it was estimated that some 250,000 people attempted to get into White City arena for his return fight with Phillips on 10 July 1939. After putting Phillips on the canvas twice, he rushed in to end the fight, ran into a jab and was knocked out. From 1938 he fought on only a handful of occasions, and defeat in the first round by Chris Cole, a Mullingar blacksmith, in front of a huge crowd at Dalymount Park, Dublin, for the heavyweight championship of Ireland, effectively ended his career in 1943. Only one of his fights went the distance and few lasted more than two rounds. His seventeen professional wins were achieved through the ferocity of his punch rather than a talent for boxing, but his six defeats were the product of a glass jaw, protected by a minimalist defence, and non-existent fitness. Few of his fights lasted more than two rounds.
Even by the standards of his sport, he was an outrageous self-publicist whose flamboyance was not tempered in defeat. He earned a vast amount of money and at the height of his fame kept a large mansion at Ascot, attended by an entourage that included bodyguards, servants, chauffeurs and a singing maestro. A relentless womaniser, he had numerous affairs, including one with the automobile heiress Delphine Dodge, as well as with her fifteen-year-old daughter and her sister-in-law. The Dodge family later paid him £10,000 and threatened him at gunpoint to stay away from the women of the family. Another actress, Betty Strathmore, took poison in front of him in a hotel. He then met Movita, a Mexican actress who had appeared with Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty, and they married in Mexico (January 1939) and then in St Andrew's Church, Westland Row, Dublin (February 1943). The couple toured and performed on stage in London and Dublin, including a successful run at the Theatre Royal, but their marriage collapsed due to his womanising, alcoholism and physical abuse. His violence towards Movita became so extreme that acquaintances began to fear for her life. She left him in 1945, later marrying the actor, Marlon Brando.
A period of homelessness in Dublin followed, during which he slept in the back of a broken-down taxi on Henrietta Street, was incarcerated in Mountjoy Prison for fourteen days for hitting a garda and pursued a brief and tempestuous relationship that led to him being charged with assault. He then made something of a recovery and became a wrestler for a time. For many years, he also performed intermittently on the cabaret circuit. He lived in London with Nancy Kehoe but continued to woo many women while mistreating Kehoe. Having squandered and been cheated of a fortune, he was plagued by alcoholism and lived in poverty. In 1972 he returned to Cork, where he played to a cabaret in the Commodore Hotel, drawing large crowds. His circumstances deteriorated rapidly once Kehoe finally left him in 1976, and he died 13 December 1978 in London after a long illness; following services in London, Dublin and Cobh, he was buried in the Old Cemetery, Cobh. A large crowd attended his funeral.