Polly Lauder Tunney

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Mary Josephine Rowland "Polly" Lauder

Birthplace: Greenwich, Fairfield, Connecticut, United States
Death: Died in Stamford, Fairfield, Connecticut, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of George Lauder and Katherine Morgan Rowland
Wife of Gene Tunney
Mother of John V. Tunney, U.S. Senator; <private> Tunney; <private> Tunney and <private> Tunney
Sister of Katherine Varick Lauder and George H Lauder

Managed by: Denise McCarron
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Polly Lauder Tunney

Mary Lauder was a Connecticut socialite and Carnegie heiress whose secret romance and subsequent marriage to the former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney was one of the most sensational love stories of the 1920.

For Mary, who had grown up in a world of wealth and privilege reaching from Greenwich, Conn., to Versailles, meeting and falling in love with a prizefighter, even a famous one, seemed unlikely. But Gene Tunney was no ordinary prizefighter.

Though he had grown up relatively poor in Greenwich Village as the son of Irish immigrants — his father was a longshoreman — Tunney, a high school dropout, had developed an insatiable appetite for classical literature, especially the works of Shakespeare. Handsome and articulate, he lectured on Shakespeare at Yale and befriended George Bernard Shaw, Thornton Wilder and other writers, earning the scorn of the boxing establishment and many boxing fans.

Mary was a striking beauty and met Tunney shortly before he won the heavyweight title from Jack Dempsey in one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history on Sept. 23, 1926. Tunney had originally been introduced to her older sister, Katherine, by a longtime friend, Samuel Pryor Jr., who also lived in Greenwich.

Katherine in turn arranged for Tunney and Mary to meet at a dinner party that she and her husband gave at their Manhattan apartment. Over the next two years, a romance blossomed, though only a few close friends and relatives knew about it.

In August 1928 — less than a month after the last fight of Tunney’s career, a technical knockout of the New Zealander Tom Heeney — Mary’s mother, Katherine Rowland Lauder, announced from the family’s summer home on Johns Island, off the coast of Maine, that Mary and Tunney had become engaged. (Tunney had promised Mary that he would quit boxing after fulfilling his contractual obligations, which included the Heeney fight and, earlier, a rematch with Dempsey, a fight that became memorable as Tunney’s “long-count” victory.)

The engagement was front-page news across the country and touched off a frenzy by reporters and photographers eager to interview the couple. “Wedding Gong Calls Gene,” declared a headline in The Los Angeles Times. But the couple remained out of public view.

In September they went to Europe, separately, and were married in a small ceremony in a hotel in Rome on Oct. 3, 1928. She was 21 when they wed. The New York Times said the scene after the wedding “looked mighty like a riot” as clothes were torn and cameras smashed in a melee of photographers jostling to capture images of the couple.

After spending 14 months traveling in Europe, the Tunneys returned to the United States and moved into a house in North Stamford built in 1742 and began restoring it. Known as Star Meadow Farm, the house sits on 200 acres, where the Tunneys raised Hereford cattle and sheep.

Tunney, who had little to do with boxing after he retired as the undefeated heavyweight champion July 31, 1928, became a successful businessman in New York. He died in 1978 at 81.

Born Mary Josephine Lauder in Greenwich on April 24, 1907, and known since childhood as Polly, Mary was the granddaughter of George Lauder, a first cousin of Andrew Carnegie, with whom he had grown up in Scotland. An engineer, Lauder became, in his 30s, a confidential adviser to Carnegie and a director and shareholder of the Carnegie Steel Company in Pittsburgh shortly after Carnegie founded it in the 1870s.

Lauder’s son, George Jr., inherited much of his father’s fortune and became a well-known yachtsman, owning a 136-foot two-masted schooner. He was a director of Presbyterian Hospital and the Manhattan Ear and Eye Hospital in New York and died of influenza at 37, leaving a fortune estimated at $50 million to his wife and to his children, Mary, Katherine and George III.

After attending private schools in Greenwich, Mary graduated from the Lenox School in New York and the Finch School in New York and Versailles. She was an accomplished equestrian, sailor and swimmer and remained vigorous into her 90s, driving a car until age 93. A patron of the arts, she was a former vice president of the Metropolitan Opera Guild and a major benefactor of the Audubon Society and the Wildlife Federation.

Her son, John V. Tunney, is the former United States Senator of California.


Polly Lauder Tunney (24 April 1907 – 12 April 2008) was an American philanthropist and Connecticut socialite. An heiress of Andrew Carnegie, Tunney drew international fame during the 1920s for her secret romance and subsequent marriage to world heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney. They had four children, including John V. Tunney (born 1934), who was a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator from California from 1965 until 1977.

Mrs. Tunney's grandfather was George Lauder, a first cousin and business partner of industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, founder and head of Carnegie Steel Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father, George Lauder, Jr., was a philanthropist and yachtsman whose 136-foot (41 m) schooner once held the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic yacht passage.

Tunney was an active supporter of the arts. She served on the board of the Metropolitan Opera Guild from 1951 to 1970 and was the board's vice president from 1956 to 1959. She was later a member of the Guild's emeritus council from 1970 to 1992. She was also a major benefactor of the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation.

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Polly Lauder Tunney's Timeline

April 24, 1907
Greenwich, Fairfield, Connecticut, United States
June 26, 1934
Age 27
New York, New York County, New York, United States
April 15, 2008
Age 100
Stamford, Fairfield, Connecticut, United States