press pass _revisedThis was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.

Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku
Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku

In the summer of 1921, Johnny Weissmuller broke the world record for the 100-yard event in open water. The previous owner of that record was Duke Kahanomoku, the amazing Hawaiian swimmer who won five medals over three Olympics spanning the years 1912 to 1924.

As Weissmuller won race after race, and broke record after record, the lanky, broad-shouldered boy from Chicago was building a reputation for invincibility. No one could beat him as he crossed over into 1922. But many at the time believed that, until he defeated the champion from the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Duke Kahanamoku, Weissmuller would not be considered the fastest swimmer in the world.

At the end of June, 1922, a faceoff was looking very likely as the AAU National Championships were being held off the beaches of Honolulu Hawaii, where Kahanmoku lived. And the press, according to David Davis, in his well-written biography of Duke, called “Waterman“, were licking their chops in anticipation of this battle of the titans.

The newspapers played up their differences. Duke was symmetrically muscular with a powerful upper body and thighs that seemed custom-made for springs. Johnny had “wide shoulders, flat belly, no hips or buttocks, long, slender, smooth-muscled legs and arms,” according to sportswriter Paul Gallic. Duke was a pure sprinter; Johnny was versatile enough to win at distance events up to 500 meters and at other disciplines besides the freestyle. Duke was old school: reserved and circumspect. Johnny was jazz age: he liked to play the rogue and was an inveterate skirt chaser…. The anticipation that Duke, the human fish, would face off against Johnny, the human hydroplane, was keen.

Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku 2In the end, the public did not get to see Kahanamoku swim against Weissmuller in the AAU National Championships. Weissmuiller was there. The Duke, he was there. But only Weissmuller entered the pool.

According to Weissmuller’s coach Bill Bachrach, in David Fury’s biography of Weissmuller – Twice the Hero – Kahanamoku wisely pulled out of the competition, with some prompting by Bachrach himself. The coach said he gave Kahanamoku his stopwatch and time him himself.

Bachrach sent Johnny into the 25-yeard Punahou pool, and he swam at his top speed as the Duke timed him for 100-years. Kahanamoku was stunned as he watched Johnny swim faster than the Duke had ever done, confirmed by the stopwatch held by his own trembling hand. There was fear in the Duke’s heart, because he knew if he raced on the morrow he would be beaten by this relative newcomer to the swimming wars. The next day, all newspapers announced that the Duke had taken ill, and had left Honolulu to recuperate.

The flip side of this battle of egos was that Kahanamoku never intended to compete in the AAU event. According to members of the Kahanamoku camp, the Duke was actually in poor health, having lost some 10 kilos and was in no condition. And apparently, he was readying for his departure to Los Angeles. According to Davis, Olympic track sprinting champion, Charlie Paddock was adamant that Kahanamoku was not afraid of Weissmuller. “Duke did not quit the swim game because of Weissmuller. He quit because of personal reasons, one of them being that it is necessary to work to make a living, and you cannot work while traveling around the country swimming as an amateur.”

Of course, another consideration is that Kahanamoku was 14 years older than Weissmuller, and whose prime years went untested as the 1916 and 1920 Olympics were cancelled. So if Kahanamoku did decide to dance around possible encounters with the young and future king, it would not be hard to understand.

Regardless, whether you were Team Weissmuller or Team Kahanamoku, you had to wait until the 1924 Olympics before the two would go head to head. And as the two stood at the edge of the pool, just prior to the finals of the 100-meter sprint, Duke is reported to have offered this win-win proposition: “Johnny, good luck. The most important thing in this race is to get the American flag up there three times. Let’s do it.”

At the end of the race, only Americans stood on the winner’s podium, the crowd saluting two of the century’s greatest champions.

 

Sgt Pepper cover

 

If you were on the eclectic cover of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, you were likely a giant in your field. Carl Jung, Lenny Bruce, George Bernard Shah, Sonny Liston, Marilyn Monroe were among the 50+ people on that epic montage with the Beatles.

Just over the shoulders of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney was the downcast visage of Johnny Weissmuller, one of the most well-known people of the 20th century.

Not only did Weissmuller dominate the sprint races in the Olympics in the 1920s, he was the most enduring face of Tarzan on the silver screen, starring in 12 films featuring the beloved Edgar Rice Burrough’s creation. But Weissmuller as Tarzan would never have existed if not for Weissmuller as ultimate swimming machine. When Weissmuller arrived in Paris in June 1924 for the Olympics, the world had incredibly high expectations as Weissmuller held most of the world’s swimming records from 50 to 500 yards.

It was all so easy that at the 1923 AAU National Indoor Championships in Chicago, Weissmuller won the freestyle in the 50, 100, 220 and 500-yard competitions, as well as the 880-yard freestyle relay. But according to David Fury, author of Weissmuller’s biography entitled Twice the Hero, Weissmuller threw in a gimme. When told that there was only one more race – the 150-yard backstroke – which was not one of his events, he replied, “It is tonight.” Despite not actively competing in the backstroke, he set a world record.

In 1923, Weissmuller was in his prime and ready for the 1924 Paris Olympics. But when he was 15 years old, he was a tall, wiry youth who worked as a bellhop at a hotel in Chicago to help his family make ends meet, who also happened to enjoy swimming. He had a friend in the famed Illinois Athletic Club (IAC) who trained under Bill Bachrach, considered one of America’s best swimming coaches.

Thanks to his friend, Weissmuller eventually got a chance to show Bachrach what he could do in the pool. According to Twice the Hero, Weissmuller recalled, “as I look back now, my stroke was terrible. I plunged into the water and started to swim my head off. At the end of the 25 yards – 75 yards from my goal – I was completely exhausted. I was ashamed of myself. It was then that I received the most important lesson – in swimming or in life. Bachrach told me to swim for form and not for speed. Throughout my career I swam for form. Speed came as a result of it.”

In the brilliant biography of Duke Kahanamoku, entitled Waterman, author David Davis wrote that Bachrach instantly saw the potential in young Weissmuller.

Johnny Weissmuller age 17_Twice the Hero
Johnny Weissmuller age 17, from the book, Twice the Hero

It didn’t take long for Bachrach to realize that he had found an unpolished gem. Johnny stood six feet three inches. He was lanky yet powerfully build, with impossibly wide shoulders. Beneath a mass of gleaming black hair, he sported a cocky, devil-may-care grin that concealed a Teutonic work ethic. Bachrach bemoaned Johnny’s horrible thrashing in the water but was impressed enough to present him with a golden ticket: membership to the IAC and access to the indoor pool inside the twelve-story clubhouse on Michigan Avenue.

For a year, Bachrach kept Weissmuller out of competition, working step by step, first on his arm movement, and then on his legs. Weissmuller was a devoted student, understanding and mastering the relaxed arm stroke, as well as the leg kick of the greatest sprinter of the time and Olympic champion, Duke Kahanamoku. He mastered the fast start of his teammate and Olympic champion Norman Ross, and mimicked the lane turn of another great swimming champion, Harry Hebner.

Weissmuller was such a good student, Bachrach asked his prodigy to take a leap. Quit the hotel bellhop job, and deal with short-term financial insecurity in exchange for the possibility of becoming the world’s greatest swimmer. Weissmuller had big dreams and they weren’t on the hotel lobby floor.

In January, 1921, only three months after Weissmuller was introduced to Bachrach, Weissmuller participated in a contest at the IAC pool. Apparently he was so nervous he false started three times, but still ended up second in this unsanctioned race. A couple of months later, Bachrach entered Weissmuller into a 500-year freestyle competition, in which he came in second to Ross. Bachrach wanted to see how his boy would react to the pressure, and on the whole, he handled it well. Bachrach kept Weissmuller under wraps for five more months until he thought he was ready for prime time.

Finally entered into an official AAU competition in August, 1921 at the Duluth Boat Club in Minnesota, the 17-year old was up against world-class competition. And on that one day on August 6, Weissmuller, seemingly out of nowhere, won the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard freestyle, 120-yard freestyle and 150-yard freestyle races.

A star was born. Because from that point on for another 7 years, Johnny Weissmuller would emerge victorious in every single competition he entered.

Eiga no Tomo_August 1964_Natalie Wood
Natalie Wood, from Eiga no Tomo_August 1964

Who were the movie stars Japanese flocked to see in 1964? I came upon the August and November 1964 copies of “Eiga no Tomo” (Friends of Film), a magazine devoted to the pictures and stories of the world’s most popular movie stars. Based on those magazines, here are the women both Japanese men and woman loved to look at.

Natalie Wood: At the age of 26 in 1964, Natalie Wood was already one of the most famous women in the world. Before she even turned ten, Wood had already starred in such films as Miracle on 34th Street and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Like George Chakiris mentioned in this post, Wood’s global reach exploded with her starring role in the 1961 musical, West Side Story. In 1964, she was in the groundbreaking, Sex and the Single Girl, with Lauren Bacall and Tony Curtis.

Eiga no Tomo_August 1964_Brigette Bardot cover
Brigette Bardot on cover of Eiga no Tomo_August 1964

Brigitte Bardot: There may not have been any bigger sex symbol in the 1950s and 1960s than Brigitte Bardot. Bardot had released only one film in 1964 – “Une Ravissante Idiote” (“A Ravishing Idiot”). To indicate how the English-speaking world marketed this movie, they referred to Bardot in a revised title “Agent 38-24-36”.

Eiga no Tomo_August 1964_Elke Sommer
Elke Sommer, from Eiga no Tomo_August 1964

Elke Sommer: The slender Elke Sommer from Germany was an up-and-coming sex symbol, featured as Miss September in Playboy in 1964. She was also starring in the second installment of the Pink Panther series, A Shot in the Dark. Sommer was also taken seriously in 1964, when she won a Golden Globe Award as the Most Promising Newcomer Actress category, for her role in The Prize, with Paul Newman and Edeward G. Robinson.

Claudia Cardinale: This Italian-Tunisian bombshell preceded Sommer, co-starring with David Niven in the first Pink Panther film in 1963, where she became known in the US. But Cardinale was already an international phenomenon due to her Italian films, including Federico Fellini‘s , released in 1963.

Eiga no Tomo_August 1964_Claudia Cardinale
Claudia Cardinale from Eiga no Tomo_August 1964

 

Eiga no Tomo_August 1964_Alain Delon at Komazawa
Alain Delon at Komazawa Olympic Park, from Eiga no Tomo_August 1964
Who were the movie stars Japanese flocked to see in 1964? I came upon the August and November 1964 copies of “Eiga no Tomo” (Friends of Film), a magazine devoted to the pictures and stories of the world’s most popular movie stars. Based on those magazines, here are the men who sent Japanese women’s hearts a flutter.

Alain Delon: French sex symbol, Delon, had six films released in 1964, including the film, “Les Félins” (also known as “The Love Cage”). Just released, Delon starred with Jane Fonda. He also happened to visit Japan, and went on a photo shoot at the Komazawa Olympic Park.

Eiga no Tomo_August 1964_Steve McQueen_The Traveling Lady
Steve McQueen in The Traveling Lady, from Eiga no Tomo_August 1964
Steve McQueen: Conversely, McQueen had no films released in 1964. And yet, Eiga no Tomo had a lot of love for Steve McQueen. In addition to promoting a film to be released in 1965, “Baby the Rain Must Fall” (known as “The Travelling Lady” in Japan), in which he co-starred with Lee Remick, he was featured in a photo spread with President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lucy Johnson (during the 1964 presidential campaign, I presume).

Eiga no Tomo_November 1964_George Chakiris
George Chakiris, from Eiga no Tomo_November 1964
George Chakiris: Winning an Academy Award for his supporting role as Bernado in the 1961 box-office hit, West Side Story, George Chakiris was a legitimate Hollywood star. Of the three movies of 1964 he appeared in, one was a movie filmed in Japan called “Ashiya Kara no Hiko” (“Flight from Ashiya”)

Eiga no Tomo_November_1964_Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley in Roustabout, from Eiga no Tomo_November_1964
Elvis Presley: Elvis in 1964 was not only the biggest solo act in the world, he was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. In addition to Roustabout, which Eiga no Tomo was promoting in November, Presley was starring in these 1964 films: The Age of Violence, Viva Las Vega, Kissin’ Cousins.

Sean Connery: For many, Sean Connery is the best Bond, and in 1964, one of the best Bond films ever – Goldfinger – was released. In addition to his third Bond film, Connery starred in two other films in 1964 – Marnie and Woman of Straw.

Eiga no Tomo_November_1964_Sean Connery
Sean Connery, from Eiga no Tomo_November_1964

Roys Star Wars memorabilia

I admit it.

I was a very geeky Star Wars fan. On May 25, 1977, 40 years ago today, I cut school with a couple of other junior high school buddies to see the highly anticipated opening of George Lucas‘ magnus opus at the Astor Plaza Theater in Manhattan.

I own original Star Wars posters, buttons, trading cards and various promotional items from that period. I even created a quiz that tested the Star Wars acumen of my friends, to very nerdy depths.

One thing I didn’t know at the time was that the iconic baddie in black, Darth Vader, was represented by more than two people. We all knew that David Prowse was the body inside, and that James Earl Jones intoned Vader’s menace with his breathy baritone. But we didn’t know that the swordbuckling Vader was animated by a 1952 Helsinki Olympian from England named Bob Anderson.

Anderson of Alverstoke, Hampshire served in World War II with the Royal Marines, where, according to The Independent, he learned how to fence. After the war, Anderson found success in competition, succeeding in the 1950 British Empire Games before joining TeamGB at the World Championships and the Helsinki Games. While his team finished fifth, Anderson went on to coach Great Britain’s fencing teams for the next five Olympics. His teams took silver at both the 1960 Rome Olympics and 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Along the way, Anderson became the go-to guy for swordbuckling fill-ins and fencing choreography in film. He worked with Errol Flynn in The Master of Ballantrae, Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean, and Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Zorro films.

Mark Hamill with Olympian and Darth Vader stand in Bob Anderson
Mark Hamill with Olympian and Darth Vader stand-in Bob Anderson

He was also brought in to choreograph the lightsaber fight between Obi-wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in Star Wars. When Lucas began work for the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, it was likely determined that Prowse could not execute the lightsaber duels to the precision desired. That’s when Anderson the choreographer became Anderson the dark lord. It is Anderson who duels with Mark Hamill in The Empire Strikes Back, and it is Anderson’s Vader who cuts Luke Skywalker’s right hand off.

Anderson went on to reprise Vader’s lightsaber scenes in The Return of the Jedi. At the time, however, Anderson’s screen presence was never officially acknowledged. Upon the release of The Return of the Jedi, which I also saw on opening day, May 25, 1983, Hamill felt he needed to let the world know the truth about his on-screen dad in an interview with Starlog Magazine. “Bob Anderson was the man who actually did Vader’s fighting. It was always supposed to be a secret, but I finally told (director) George (Lucas) I didn’t think it was fair any more. Bob worked so bloody hard that he deserves some recognition. It’s ridiculous to preserve the myth that it’s all done by one man.”

I didn’t know this until recently. I will have to add this to my quiz.

Bob Anderson and Mark Hamill training for ROTJ
Bob Anderson training with Mark Hamill in Return of the Jedi

Eleanor Holm headline news

It was headline news, literally.

For example, the front page of the Riverside Daily Press on July 24, 1935 blared across the full length of the front page, “Gay Cocktail Parties Result in Dismissal of Eleanor Holm Jarrett”.

Under the word “Ousted”, was a lithe Eleanor Holm in a skin-tight swimsuit posing like a Hollywood starlet. The caption read “Eleanor Holm Jarrett, attractive night club queen-swimmer who was dropped from the American Olympic team for indulging in liquor and parties contrary to training rules.” The article started with a provocative lead – “The one member of the American Olympic swimming team who appeared the most certain to win a title, Mrs. Eleanor Holm Jarrett, prepared to return home today.”

Eleanor Holm on cover of Look Magazine

Holm was the Olympic champion in the 100-meter backstroke, having won gold convincingly at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Married to a jazz band leader, Art Jarrett, and very much used to the life as a celebrity, Holm did not take to the third-class accommodations on the SS Manhattan, which was transporting the US Olympic team to Europe and the Berlin Olympics.

According to The Book of Olympic Lists, by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky, Holm – a veteran of two Olympiads – she wanted to be where the officials and the press were: first class. When an executive of the company that owned the SS Manhattan invited Holm up to first class for a party, the only Olympian invited, she of course said yes.

Quick to accept, she stayed up until six a.m., matching drinks with the sportswriters. She had to be helped back to her cabin. The next day there was much joking and wisecracking among the non-Olympic first-class passengers about the “training techniques” of the US team. Embarrassed US Olympic officials issued Holm a warning, but she was defiant and continued to drink in public off and on for the next few days. When advised by friends to moderate her behavior, she reminded them that she was “free, white, and 22”.

Wallenchinsky and Loucky described further examples of Holm’s drunken adventures on the SS Manhattan. On the evening of July 23, shortly before reaching Europe, the ship’s doctor found Holm “in a deep slumber which approached a state of coma”, which he diagnosed as acute alcoholism. The next morning, the American Olympic team manager woke Holm up and informed her that American Olympic Committee had voted to remove her from the team.

The next day, the press included the official announcement from Avery Brundage, the US Olympic Committee chairman. “Mrs. Eleanor Holm Jarrett has been dropped from the Olympic team and her entry has been withdrawn on account of violation of training rules. I wish to emphasize that there is no reflection in any way upon the entire team.” According to the press, Holm was requested to return to the United States.

Unfortunately for Brundage, Holm was immediately hired by news gatherer, the Associated Press to write a column, presumably about anything she wanted (presumably since she felt her Olympic career was over and her amateur status no longer a requirement). With press credentials, Holm was in Berlin to stay, and with her star power, she was at all of the biggest social gatherings. According to Holm in the book, Tales of Gold, Brundage didn’t like playing second fiddle to her.

A funny sidelight to Brundage kicking me off the team was that I was invited to everything in Berlin, and he would be there, too. He would be so miserable because I was at all these important functions. I would ignore him – like he wasn’t even alive. I really think he hated the poor athletes. How dare I be there and taking away his thunder? You see, they all wanted to talk to me.

Eleanor Holm at the press gallery at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Eleanor Holm at the press gallery at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Holm said she hung out with Herman Goering, and regularly got autographs from Adolph Hitler. She claimed that famed documentarian, Leni Riefenstahl, filmed her in the pool, although that footage was apparently left on the cutting floor. Despite the socializing, Holm wrote that she trained every day just in case she was reinstated to the team. In the end, however, Brundage would not budge and the world watched a Dutch woman named Nida Senff win gold in the backstroke.

Holm would go on to divorce Jarrett and marry a man named Billy Rose, who produced a hugely popular music, dance and swim show called Billy Rose’s Aquacade, where she would become an even brighter star, swimming with fellow Olympic champions Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe.

Holm passed away in 2004 at the age of 90, her star dimmed by the passage of time. But in the mid-20th century, during the Depression and War years, there were few brighter stars than Eleanor Holm.

Eleanor Holm 1932 Olympic beauties
Eleanor Holm is number 6; from The Daily Herald Biloxi Mississippi, August 5, 1932

The daughter of a fireman, perhaps it’s no wonder that little Eleanor loved the water from an early age.

“I had no fear of the water, and I used to go way out in the ocean, and a lifeguard had to come out and keep getting me,” explained Eleanor Holm in the book, Tales of Gold, of her childhood at her family’s summer cottage in Long Beach, New York.

Winning competitions from the age of 13, Eleanor Holm was selected at the age of 14 to the national swim team to represent the United States at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Holm placed fifth in her specialty – the 100-meter backstroke.

At the age of 17, the beauty from Brooklyn was offered a chance to travel with the Ziegfeld Follies, one of the dominant entertainment machines of American pop culture of the time, but Holm declined. She was determined to participate and win at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Holm as an adult had a reputation as the life of the party. But in 1932, as she got herself ready for the Olympics, she insists she was very serious, to the point of being a party pooper.

In 1932, when nothing was going to stop me, I used to snitch on the girls if they kept me awake. I’d say to the coaches, “Did you know she was out last night? She didn’t get in until 10 o’clock.” Nobody believes this now.

Holm’s focus paid off. On August 9, the backstroker set a blistering pace to set the world record in the 100 meters. Two days later, with a comfortable, lead, Holm took the gold medal with seconds to spare over Philomena Meaning of Australia.

As The New York Times reported on August 12, 1932, “not once did Miss Holm pay any attention to the guiding line of red flags strung overhead. She stroked rhythmically and perfectly, but her black-capped head was ever turned toward Miss Mealing’s lane. It was not until she was ten meters from the end and well ahead that the Brooklyn girl paid strict attention to her own race. Then she flailed away at the water in a sprint finish that insured her triumph beyond any doubt.”

After her Olympic triumph, not far from the Hollywood hills, a star was born. As she told David Anderson of The New York Times in 1984, ”I was hardly dry at those Olympics when I was whisked from one studio to another – Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount – to take movie tests. In the years before the next Olympics, I took diction lessons and drama lessons but as it turned out, I was only in one movie. I was Jane in a Tarzan movie. Glen Morris was Tarzan.”

In a 1992 interview with Sports Illustrated, Holm said that she signed a contract with Warner Brothers only eleven days after her gold medal victory. “They sent me to school to learn how to act,” said Holm. “I started out at $500 a week, and I was supposed to go to the studio or take an acting lesson from Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s first wife, every day. There was a great director at Warner then named Mervyn LeRoy, and I did bit parts in a few of his movies. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was there then, and Carole Lombard and Edward G. Robinson. The studio would make me go to their sets to learn how to act. And I was impressed, seeing the stars and the celebrities. So I’d ask them for their autographs!”

Eleanor Holm on cover of Time Magazine

But after only nine months, Holm was given a difficult choice. Because the studio wanted her to swim in the movies, she felt that would jeopardize her amateur status and prevent her from possibly competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She would later go on to star in movies about herself, as well as in the 1938 film, Tarzan’s Revenge, but in 1933, she got out of her contract with Warner Brothers.

“It’s funny, but I never really had any ambition to be an actress. God knows the studio tried, but I still have my Brooklyn accent, don’t I? And they spent a lot of money for me to lose it! They tried to groom me for light comedy, but the only thing I ever wanted was to win the Olympics.”

Fortunately, in Los Angeles in 1932, she did. Holm did not get a second chance in 1936.