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 

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