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   

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