Bunce Diary: The Torment of Tunney

The incredible story of the former world heavyweight champion’s troubled daughter

IN THE world of heavyweight boxing headlines, this is surely one of the finest: “Tunney’s daughter admits slaying: Goes to Asylum.” It was Broadmoor, by the way.

So, here’s the story.

It is 1970 and Gene Tunney’s only daughter, Joan, is living in London’s so-called Stockbroker Belt in a village called Chenies, near Amersham.

Joan and her husband, Lynn Carter Wilkinson, a property developer, had lived there for about five months. It seems it was chosen as an ideal place for Joan to spend some quiet time. She was not well.

The year before, during a family holiday in Bergen, Norway, Joan vanished. She just walked off and was missing for nearly two months. There was a genuine international search across various European countries.

Her husband and two daughters, Alexandra and Erin, waited for her in Hamburg, where it seems they were in the care of Max Schmeling. In 1930, Schmeling had followed Tunney as heavyweight world champion and the men were close friends.

Gene was unable to travel to Europe to help with the search as he was recovering from an operation on his back at New England’s Baptist Hospital. However, he was able from his sick bed to write the press release. He sent one of his three sons, Jay, to Europe to help with the search. Schmeling put up a cash offer of $1,300.00 for any information leading to Joan’s safe return. It must surely be one of the oddest figures attached to a reward bounty. “Gene is my friend,” Schmeling said. There were grave fears for her life.

Joan and Lynn married in 1961, they had been in the Peace Corps together, she had demonstrated against the Vietnam war and had blamed the CIA for the war. The couple were often described as hippies. And that was not a compliment.

After going missing, she was spotted on a ship in German waters; then the reported sightings started. Tunney was convalescing from his spinal operation in sunny Arizona and was still unable to take charge of the search. It was a desperate time for the champ’s family.

And then, Joan showed up over 2,600 kilometres away in a forest on the outskirts of Marseille. She had vanished in August and reappeared in October; she was skinny, confused and vacant. She had no idea how she had got from Northern Europe to the very edges of the French Mediterranean coast. She was diagnosed with amnesia and was also suffering from malnutrition.

The conspiracy theories seem to start from her sudden reappearance; was she drugged, kidnapped, pretending? There was a theory that she had some information about the Kennedy Family; Gene Tunney’s only daughter had moved in high circles. The great champion was helpless to help his only girl.

It had been over 40 years since Tunney had retired, walked away from the championship after just one loss in 67 fights. He is, arguably, the most overlooked and under-appreciated heavyweight world champion. His back-to-back wins over Jack Dempsey and his wins over Harry Greb guarantee him a spot at the very highest of tables. Tunney was a real matinee idol; he had the looks, the high-society marriage and the fighting pedigree. He was a marine, a war veteran who read and quoted Shakespeare. He would have 50-million followers today.

After Joan was found, it appears that she returned to America briefly with her husband and her girls. However, there were problems – she was obviously sick – and she needed rest and that is how, at some point in late 1969, they all end up in the Buckinghamshire village of Chenies. And then the tale turns bleak and savage.

She had, it emerged, been diagnosed nine years earlier with schizophrenia.

In March of 1970 she took a hatchet to her husband’s head in their cottage in Chenies. She killed him and confessed immediately. She was put on trial at the Old Bailey. I have seen the pictures of her in police custody. She looks both vacant and aloof. Perhaps she was sedated. The real fear was that she would kill again.

Gene was still too sick to travel, but his three sons all made the unholy pilgrimage to support their troubled sister. “I’m shocked and saddened,” said the great Gene Tunney. He was in a wheelchair, wrapped in a blanket, a broken man. The fallen champ.

Joan Wilkinson, somehow in June of 1970, managed to get transferred from a British court to America’s most infamous asylum for the insane. She became a patient at the McLean hospital in Massachusetts in June of 1970. Her influential brothers, one was a senator, had sorted her passage back to America. Gene would get to see his daughter.

The stories and rumours continued long after she was detained. There was a suggestion that her disappearance was handled by the Sicilian mafia, that she had been held ransom by a drug gang in Marseille and that she had information about a car accident involving one of the Kennedy brothers. They are all fine and colourful and fanciful tales. However, the truth in this tale is often as brutal and shocking as the theories. She had killed, this is an awful, bloody fact.

Joan’s medication was reduced by 1976 and in 1978 she was freed. She walked free the same year her father died.

Joan married again and died in 2008. Her first husband had been “slain with a hatchet”, she had confessed to the murder, served her time and then lived her life. She was free for 30 years. She left behind a wonderful tale and a violent trail. 

The footnote to this crazy story is that in 2000, one of her brothers made contact with me. A producer I worked with at the time had visited Tunney’s widow, the socialite and granddaughter of an early billionaire industrialist, and there was talk of a film. My name was mentioned. The brother asked me to send him some of my columns. He liked them and then the project vanished, a bit like Joan. Now, they are all dead, but back then they were all living and all had a tale to tell. Boy, I messed up there.

That’s all, folks.

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