By Robert A. Hageman
During the heyday of prize fighting (back in the 1920s, the 1930s and even in the 1940s) there grew up an internationally known training camp for fighters. It was run by a woman in Chatham Township at 516 River Road and situated on a hilly thirty acres of farmland. The camp was simply known as Madame Bey's.
Each morning, throughout the year, world boxing champions and their trainers could be seen jogging along River Road, up Fairrnount Avenue to Southern Boulevard, down Snake Hill and back to River Road. The array ' of champions was numerous. Some of the more prominent and well-known ones were: world heavyweight champions Gene Tunney, Max Schmeling, Primo Camera and Max Baer; world welterweight and middleweight cham pion Mickey "Toy Bulldog" Walker; Henry Armstrong (world featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles simultaneously); Freddie Steele (world middleweight champion); Freddie "Red" Cochran (world welter- weight champion), and Tony Canzoneri (world lightweight champion). John T. Cunningham in his book Images of America CHATHAM TOWNSHIP writes: "Undoubtedly, the best known portion of Chatham Township before World War II was Madame Bey's training camp for professional prizefighters."
Who was this Madame Bey? Where was she from? How did she ever get started in running a training camp for prizefighters? What did the fighters think of this woman, who to a great degree, had a controlling role in their lives for months at a time?
Born in Turkey in 1881 to French and Armenian parents, Hranoush Agaganian attended The American College in Constantinople where she met her future Turkish husband Mehmed Sidky family of Sidky and the Christian family of Hranoush opposed any matrimonial designs on the part of the young couple.
Shortly thereafter, Sidky was offered and he accepted the position of Secretary of the Imperial Ottoman Embassy in Washington D.C. They left for America together, were later married and settled into Washington's diplomatic life where the restrictions of the Moslem religion did not apply to the Christian Madame Bey.
She spoke seven languages and was the only woman in the Turkish Legation who spoke English. Quickly, the young girl became a popular diplomatic hostess in the Capital. She developed a close friendly relationship with President and Mrs. William McKinley. Since she had a highly trained mezzo-soprano voice the McKinleys requested that she sing " The Star Spangled Banner " at the opening ceremony of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York on September 5, 1901.
After the President's address Madame Bey was standing near President McKinley when he was shot by an assassin's bullet.
Over the next several years, besides her diplomatic hostess duties, Madame Bey gave several concerts in Carnegie Hall and was asked to join the Metropolitan Opera which she declined.
By 1908 the "Young Turks," a nationalistic movement, had seized control of the Turkish government. Sidky Bey threatened to leave the diplomatic service, but the Government offered him the post of consul general in New York which he accepted. He served in this position for another six years at which time he was ordered to Berlin when Turkey entered World War I on the side of Germany. Handing in his resignation, Sidky and Madame Bey remained in America.
Both of the Beys became citizens and before long Sidky and long-time friend Ehsam Karadag entered the oriental rug business. A few years later, as the business grew, Bey and his wife bought a thirty-acre spread at 516 River Road in Chatham Township, about one mile from close friend Freddy Welsh and his family.
In the post World War 1 period heavy fighting be- tween Russia and Turkey resulted in a rug shipment loss of $200,000 for the firm. They were out of business!
One afternoon the Beys received a call from their neighbor, Freddie Welsh, former world lightweight champion from 1914-1917, who operated a businessmen's health farm on his 150-acre estate which was also in Chatham Township. It was located on the left side of Meyersville Road (heading towards Meyersville) near the intersection of Fairmount Avenue. He explained to them that he was being commissioned in the U. S. Army as Captain and that his wife and two daughters were moving to Long Island while he would be in the service. He then asked the Beys to run his health farm while he was away.
Sidky said no!
Madame said yes! Perhaps it was in retaliation for her husband's refusal, years before, to support her in an operatic career or perhaps an income was needed. In any event, she accepted.
The Beys basically moved from their home (which they kept) to the Welsh mansion where the Madame became the cook and put her highly competent businesswoman's head to work replacing Welsh - who was a sub par businessman.
Virtually overnight, the health farm became successful as the Madame took in prizefighters to train. They stayed for weeks and months at a time for their upcoming fights in Madison Square Garden and lesser known arenas.
One day Madame Bey received a call from Captain Freddie Welsh who was stationed in Washing- ton, D.C. Apparently he had heard that one of the prizefighters that Madame Bey had taken in was a heavyweight known as Battling Siki. He had a play- boy reputation and it had been reported that he was fond of wild animals and had even walked around Paris with a tiger on a leash.
Welsh insisted that Siki be told to leave or that Madame Bey must go! Now in a dilemma, she conferred with several of her fighters such as middleweight champ Johnny Wilson, light-heavyweight champ Paul Berlenbach, and bantamweight champion Joe Lynch. They all said that Siki was not an embarrassment, that he should not be told to leave and that they would support the Madame if she left to setup her own training camp. In fact, they would all leave with her. Her decision was made.
Back at the Bey compound at 516 River Road construction of a gymnasium and other training facilities began immediately with lumber and bricks purchased in Summit and money lent to her by the fighters. The construction was led by Jim Buckley, Johnny Wilson's trainer and a former carpenter.
When Welsh left the Army shortly thereafter, he went back to his health farm, but the business began to falter with fighter after fighter going to Madame Bey's newly established facility. This occurred despite Jack Dempsey training with Welsh for his heavyweight championship fight with Georges Carpentier in July, 1921 - boxing's first million dollar gate.
By November, 1926 the Welsh property faced foreclosure. The next year, jobless, virtually broke and separated from his wife and two children, Freddie Welsh died of a heart attack at 41 years of age while living at the Hotel Sidney which was located at 65th Street in New York City. It was another sad end to one of the great boxing champions of the past.
Meanwhile, the Beys training facility continued to prosper. In George J. Hatem's book It 's in the Genes A Family History & Autobiography he describes the training camp in the forties as a large yellow farmhouse with white trim and a barn. On a hillside, up a long driveway, was located the gymnasium-dormitory "which was noth- ing but a wide, wooden, barrack structure with windows on three sides." Between the windows were autographed black and white photos of champion boxers.
In the basement were the dressing rooms and showers. Above the gym floor was another level with small bedrooms for some of the fighters and their sparring part ners. Each room had a bed, table and a chair. The dormitory could accommodate twenty-five at one time. The more famous fighters stayed in the five available bedrooms of the main house. The facility also had an outdoor ring which was covered by a roof, but open on the sides.
Meals were served twice a day breakfast at 7:00 am and dinner at 5:00 pm. The fighters ate at a large table in the Bey home. Madame's knowledge ofEnglish, Armenian, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish and German plus the meals which were prepared with a nationalistic flair made the fighters from different coun- tries feel very comfortable. They would often go to the theatre in Summit in the early evening, listen to the radio, play cards or even sing around the piano with Madame Bey. Lights went out at 10:00 pm.
She ruled with a firm motherly hand, forbade drinks, "guests" were not permitted, and sometimes she had to reprimand one of her boy's. She had nicknames for her fighters. Gene Tunney was "my polished., emerald", Mickey Walker was "my lion-hearted little Mickey" and Max Schmelimg was simply "my Max".
Madame Bey never saw one of her boys fight. Why?, she was often asked. "... because it hurts me to watch them getting hurt. I know they are not bruisers, but artists in a sense, who are doing the thing they know best in order to earn a living. I see these boys not only as punishing boxers, but also as human be- ings with a burden of doubt under theiryouthful pose of being extremely hard and wise".
An inscription on a photo from Tony Canzoneri (world lightweight champion 1930-1933) sums up the feeling the fighters had for Madame Bey. It reads, "To Mademe Bey, a mother to boys from one of her boys. Tony Canzoneri".
Her husband, Sidky Bey, died of heart disease in 1937. Madame Bey passed away five years later on January 30, 1942 of a heart attack. She was only sixty years old. Funeral services were held at Calvary Episcopal Church in Summit. She was buried at Fairmount Cemetery in Chatham.
The Beys had a son, Rustem, who was born in 1898. He attended Summit High School graduating in 1919. He was also the first and only Chatham Township police chief, serving in that position from 1941 to 1953. Rustem was married in 1925 and had two daughters.
Following Madame Bey's death, ownership and operation of the camp went to Ehsan Karadag. He had been in the rug business with Sidky and when that went under, the long-time friend became the general handyman for the Bey estate.
The business remained successful for another de- cade and world champion fighters continued to pour in and train. Notables such Kid Gavilan, Rocky Graziano, Kid Chocolate, Ike Williams, Jake LaMotta, Sandy Saddler and Jersey Joe Wolcott were among the champion prizefighters.
But over time, beginning in the mid-fifties, the fight- ing game began to wane. The former training locations and clubs began to die. Suburbia began to spread out further into the more isolated regions where the camps had been based. Highly modern training camps were be- ing developed at the luxury hotels in the Catskills which also gave many of the nationally known fighters free room and board and a percentage of the admissions as an in- ducement to train at these locations.
Ehsan's facilities closed in the early sixties and were sold in 1969. There stands today a red brick house on the previous site of Madame Bey's gymnasium.
Photos courtesy of the Historical Society of the Township of Chatham