Excerpt from Chapter 1:
We were poor, but didn't know it, I guess, because everybody else around us was poor. Out on the street we soon discovered there was a power hierarchy, however, and that was kind of like being rich--when and if you were handy with your dukes, and could hold your own in a fight. I saw that right away, and I used to watch the tough kids, the leaders, the ones who knew how to fight. I didn't admire them because mostly they were bullies, but I did admire the way they handled themselves, facing guys way bigger than themselves. Later I could figure out just how they did it. It was in that simple word made out of two other simple words, "foot" and "work." Footwork. Benny Leonard, Lou Buto, Packy McFarland--fighters I saw and admired, and all the epitome of grace. That is what got me into dancing. I learned how to dance from learning how to fight. It was feint, duck, quick dance around your opponent on your toes mostly, then shoot out the arm like a bullet.
One of the neighborhood tough guys, Moishe, indirectly stimulated Jim to fight--and dance. Moishe had a rhythm to his punches. He never flailed, as so many of the street scrappers did. He held up his fists in defensive arc and rushed in only when he saw an opening. He was adept at seeing the instant when his opponents dropped their guard, and when this occurred, he darted his fist in quickly to the target, then out again just as quickly, standing on tiptoe most of the time. As a seven-year-old Jim began to sense the benefits of standing on his toes either to reach up or to reach in. Darting became second nature to him, and it was to become a key characteristic of his acting. The dance steps of his maturity grow directly from these habits.
As bonus, Jim and the other Cagney boys rejoiced in the greatest fight instructor in their neighborhood: Carrie. This very wise woman, painfully aware that two of her four sons, Harry and Edward, were timid, was determined to give little Jim, the runt of the family, the advantage his small size would not allow. She taught him and the others, despite reluctance on the part of Harry and Edward, the fundamentals of boxing. As a girl she had gone to amateur prizefights with a male cousin keen on the game, and she quickly learned that sluggers always got the bad end of the stick, whereas boxers at least knew how to escape punishment. More, she saw that boxers, those skilled in use of their feet and quick arm thrust, always won.
Carrie got her boys together two afternoons a week and instructed them. She saw that Jim, who had learned the basics of fighting well from Moishe, was her prize pupil. She scheduled regular bouts between her boys in their living room. When they occasionally erupted into anger, she separated them and held the opponents firmly against her sides, a process she called "leaning on yuh." The boys learned to avoid this because the leaning was uncomfortable, Carrie being big of heft and strong of arm.
James Senior loved these sessions and acted as a one-man audience, cheering both fighters and booing whenever he saw unfair advantage taken. He roughhoused lovingly with all his boys and was fond of pretending anger by holding a lad by the neck with one hand, curling the other into a fist, snarling exaggeratedly, "If I thought you meant that--," grazing the chin with the fist. "Simple little thing," said Jim. "Yet so goddamned funny, the way he did it. You'd think--there we were, poor as church mice--you'd think there'd be gloom all over the place. We had our bad moments, sure, when Pop got his fits. But all I mainly remember about the Cagneys in those days was laughter. Songs and laughter."
Despite their mother's expert instruction, Eddie, five years younger than Jim, and Harry, the oldest boy, were gentle souls and soon grew to depend on their brother for protection from neighborhood gangs. Generally one had little to fear from tough guys if one learned to walk quickly from home to destination and back. But Jim, deeply partaking of his mother's indomitable nature, refused that kind of protection. He never sought conflict but never avoided it.
Fighting was simply the neighborhood occupation. Every kid on the block was identified by a nickname. Jim was distinguished in that he had three: Red, his hair color, and two pejoratives that always enraged him when he heard them, Runt and Short Shit. The latter particularly angered him, and the block bullies learned this soon and used it as their prime taunt.
There were two other neighborhood preoccupations, baseball and swimming. The latter was a chancy business, but it became habitual. When they lived on Seventy-ninth Street, Cagney said:
We were only a short distance from the East River--which incidentally is not a river at all but a tidal estuary--and in good weather we went there to swim. It was, quite simply, a cesspool, and I suspect it's not much better today. I say cesspool because a large sewer close to our street poured its contents right into the river. And we swam cheerfully right in the midst of all that sewage. Merry turds bobbing by. You just ignored them and kept your mouth shut. We must have been pretty tough because we survived those daily immersions. Except one kid. Phil Dooley. The foulness of the river got to him, and he died of typhoid. Where we used to dive in is now a little park with benches, close to the FDR Drive, built right over where we used to do our daily diving. That little park plus some huge apartment buildings are there today where we used to cavort about so happily.
Excerpted from Cagney by John McCabe. . Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.