Sunday, October 28, 2012

Memories of Arnold II


Again. at our post, dispensing the secrets of the universe.  Enunciating the unspeakable.

One of the great boons that appears out of a blog like this is the reappearance of people -- at least their voices -- lost for years and years inside the fretwork of history.  Most delightful to me was to hear from that timeless beauty Helga Wagner.  Herself an Austrian from the Alps, Helga gently reminded me that Arnold Schwarzenegger does not have a Tyrolean accent because he grew up in Styria, an offshoot of the Alps well to the east of the Tyrol itself.

Helga is right, of course.  I became acquainted with Helga in 2009.  I was working into the manuscript  the last details of my consolidated treatment of Edward Kennedy's life, Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography (Counterpoint Press, 2010).   I had discovered that after his car dumped off the bridge at Chappiquiddick and he nearly drowned swimming across the cut to Edgartown to arrive finally in his hotel room, Ted Kennedy had placed several telephone calls.  One -- key -- was to Helga Wagner, at that time his principal romantic interest, according to Kennedy insiders the love of his middle years.  She had refused all along to talk to anybody about her sensitive relationship with Ted. I wanted to know what Ted -- deeper by the minute in shock -- had been able to tell Helga about the convulsive tragedy that was just then unfolding.

She told me everything she could.  To find out what she said, buy my book.  Helga was very young then; like most sophisticated Europeans, her sense of life, love and most human interrelationships was quite different from that of middle-class Americans.  Having spent several years myself living in the town in the Alps above Innsbruck, Igls, where she grew up, I obviously understood.  That's probably why she talked to me.

I have a hunch that Helga's take on Arnold Schwarzenegger's missteps is equally tolerant.  The Arnold I knew during the 1970s was a fondler, a grabber sometimes, a blocky musclebound egoist, very perceptive, with a great natural sympathy with almost everybody he met.  When Charles Gaines' novel Stay Hungry was made into a movie by Bob Rafelson, and Arnold was invited to star in his first feature film as the leader of a rabble of body-builders, I snagged a magazine assignment and spent several weeks in Birmingham, Alabama, where most of the scenes were shot.

As it happened, I was put up in Gaines' rental house.  Arnold often visited.  One night about four in the morning a call of nature woke me and I shambled out into the hall headed toward the john.  Halfway there I encountered Arnold barreling down toward me -- bollicky bareass, all balls and a yard wide, as the saying goes.  He had stopped off to administer what's-what to Charles' au pair girl.  We exchanged grins and went about our separate undertakings.

Another incident that took place during the production of that film is equally engraved in my memory.  After a day of long and often harrowing takes, the actors and production people were gathered drinking around the pool of the big motel where most people involved were staying.  The building itself surrounded the pool, set back by twenty or thirty feet.  Suddenly one of the younger body-builders appeared on the edge of the roof, a number of stories up, undoubtedly smashed on cocaine.  "Hey, everybody!  Look, look," he yelled.  "Watch this.  I'm going to dive from here into the pool."

Everybody froze -- except Arnold.  "No -- listen, buddy," he called up, his voice warm and confiding. "You don't want to do that.  Ve all know you could make it, but what if you banged your elbow or something and couldn't compete in the next Mr. Olympia contest? I'm going to retire, so you vill be the next Mr. Olympia, for sure."

None of this made any sense, except to the kid about to splash his brains all over the cement of the patio.  Slowly he backed off.

I have a hunch a lot of the same instinct to protect and preserve others was at work when Arnold decided to admit to the paternity of his son by the housekeeper.  Such actions have deep roots.

As things developed, Arnold and I stayed in touch.  I have one very long letter from him, single-spaced  and several pages long.  When he decided to buy the building which housed Gold's Gym in Santa Monica with the $10,000 he got for starring in Pumping Iron he called and asked my advice.  He really didn't need it:  Arnold has made hundreds of millions of dollars through shrewd investments.   For a while he maintained a house in New Hampshire to stay close to the charismatic Gaines.

We are a culture of the descendants of immigrants. They show up every working day, precariously overloaded with dreams.  Arnold Schwarzenegger hoists their banner.


Burton Hersh 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Memories of Arnold


OK, no more excuses.  After more wear and tear than you can imagine we are resettled in our Florida domain.  Where we are master and mistress, as Seinfeld once had it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been making the rounds of the talk shows, flogging his autobiography, excessively straightforward about what a sequence of miracles his life in America has been, an unlikely climb straight up from body-builder to action movie hero to Gubernator.  But then the lightning struck:  that son by his housekeeper -- who is Arnold coming into adolescence, down to the split front teeth.  Not really a great move, Arnold is quick to concede.  Dumb.

There really aren't that many people whose first name is enough to identify them anywhere on the planet.  Madonna is one.  Arnold is certainly another.  As it happens, one of the many strange juxtapositions of my life put me in touch with Arnold shortly after he showed up in the United States, still in his middle twenties, already the coming name in body-building after a stint in Munich, aggressively determined to master the New World.  My good friend and then neighbor, the writer and cultural stylesetter Charles Gaines, had himself taken the sport up, picked up on Schwartzenegger, and approached him as the potential subject of a photo-cum-text book that turned into Pumping Iron, which itself was quickly developed into the documentary by George Butler.

All this was brewing toward the end of the seventies when I found myself checking into the Algonquin in Manhattan to attend a Mister Olympia pose-off  in Brooklyn the next night.  Schwarzenegger and his claque, Franco Colombu and a number of other coming musclemen of the era, filled up the little lobby clamboring for their room keys.  Arnold was definitely the Alpha Dog.   Not that tall, around six feet, he was a triumph of too many steroids and endless hours in the gym.  I remember the prognathous jaw and how he was wearing an XX Large cotton shirt which he had slitted lengthwise in a number of places along the sleeves to accommodate his gigantic biceps.

His English at that time was workable, at best.  But even then, as if to compensate for his overwhelming brute physicality, he had an antic detachment, a sense of the absurdity of his presentation, which came over as a kind of whimsy.  He was very perceptive, with great emotional intelligence.

He won the contest -- Arnold always won the contest -- and afterwards we talked about his background.  He came from a crossroads town near Graz, in the Eastern Austrian Alps, near the Obertauern, where I liked to ski.  His father had been the police chief and remained -- this I discovered once I knew him better -- an early and largely unreconstructed Nazi.  Years later I would wonder how this fit with Arnold's close association with Rabbi Hier in Los Angeles.  Hier ran the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  Wiesenthal made a career out of hunting down and imprisoning top Nazis.

Pushed along by Gaines' instinctive showmanship,  body-building had its vogue in America.  At one point Gaines and Butler managed to persuade the culturati who ran the Whitney Museum to mount an event which was to signify the arrival of body-building as a serious aesthetic presentation, epic, living sculpture.  My wife and I went down to Manhattan for that.  There was a party first at the Astors', then the beefcake display itself in the main auditorium of the Whitney.  Candace Bergen was running around frantically photographing this extravaganza.

Afterwords a dedicated socialite gave a major champagne evening in a penthouse overlooking the East River.  The place was jammed with overdressed Society types.  Arnold settled into an overstuffed chair to watch the lights of the barges going by on the river, and one bejeweled ditz after another in low-cut cocktail dresses kept seeking him out to flirt with and pinch his muscles.

At some point he had had enough.  I was drifting by when suddenly his enormous arm came up and circled my waist and pulled me down onto his lap.  "Ladies," he announced in his heavy Tyrolean accent, "maybe you should know this, der Burton here is my one real love."  With which he gave me a kiss on the cheek.

The women scattered.  There never has been a straighter male than Schwartzenegger.  Except maybe for me.  But Arnold had made his point.  Recently, when he and Maria broke up, I asked Gaines if I should get in touch with Arnold.  Maybe I had a chance.

And there is more.  Next time.

Burton Hersh