Maxine (McMasters) Mitchell. Four time Olympian. Finished 5th at her first Games. Four time US National Champion. An “A” rated fencer – with each hand. And growing up, she could whip any boy in the neighborhood.
Maxine Mitchell, around 1955
It’s interesting, writing stories about people who you never knew well. I knew Maxine well enough to recognize her when she walked into a tournament. She was always wearing a USA sweat suit of an older vintage. Even as a newbie fencer, you could recognize the respect given by those around you to someone who had – how would you say it? Been around? Made it?
Maxine was all of that, and unfailingly nice.
Born in small town Washington state, she grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Tough neighborhood now, tough neighborhood then. Playing every possible sport with enthusiasm and size, she never shied away from a fight. Protecting her twin brother, who was smaller and just as feisty, she would stand in for him in fights he would start. (Interestingly, in the interviews with her that I have been able to read, she never mentions losing.) She was the pitcher on the boys baseball team, wrestled and fought with the boys on the summer lawns of Los Angeles and was adept at ditching school without raising the lasting ire of her teachers. Where she lead, people followed.
Her older brothers, as a challenge to her to keep her out of trouble, took her to a fencing class at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, near Pasadena in 1938. Maxine was 21 and she fell in love with the sport instantly. Her first teacher was John McKee from the Cavaliers Fencing Club. Maxine became something of a practice target for the class under McKee’s direction. He thought her size and lack of coordination, coupled with her castoff uniform, would keep her from ever amounting to anything as a fencer. He would put her against the wall and line up the entire class to file past Maxine to lunge at her. For her, everything was a learning experience. She would say she learned to parry and riposte because of drills like that which McKee would put her through. Over time, McKee proved an excellent teacher for Maxine and she began to excel. He kept rigid control of her training, having her do one or two actions only for months at a time, and maximized her size and fighting sense. Maxine described McKee’s as teaching her a heavy handed, rough style.
She married Dorcey Mitchell in 1944 and they had four children. Her first Nationals was 1947. She took a train to New York to compete and placed 5th – an unheard of finish for a first Nationals. She did not compete in 1948, then came back and took 2nd to Polly Craus in 1949. From there, she built on her successes and was a threat to win for the next 15 years and still making finals in 1973. During her career at Nationals, she won 4 times, finished 2nd 5 times, 3rd once, 4th twice, 5th 3 times and 6th 5 times. 20 finals in 25 tries.
Polly Craus shakes Maxine’s hand in this undated photo, but Maxine is pretty young and Polly quit fencing after 1952, so make your best guess.
Polly in the middle with a nice trophy. Maxine to Polly’s left and Jan York Romary on the far left.
Maxine credited Helene Mayer with being a great influence and supporter. She told a great story that reflects the character of the great Helene Mayer. They were at a tournament together in San Francisco at the Olympic Club. Maxine was in the women’s lounge to change, but there was a man with a date in the room. She mentioned this to Helene, who said, “I fix it.” Helene went straight to the lounge and proceeded to undress, driving the man quickly out of the room. Helene also encouraged Maxine to bring some of her attitude to the game. For a final touch, she had a simple strategy: attack, off mask, shake hands and walk off, like “I know.” (Standard foil, remember.) She said, “It’s my reputation. You go out and make reputation.”
Helene Mayer in the middle, Polly Craus on the right. I can only guess this was Helene’s Game Face. Maxine described Helene as being the life of every party, but this look is a bit intense for a party.
Maxine won her first National Championship in 1952, qualifying her for the Olympic team, for an all Southern Cal team: Maxine, Polly Craus and Jan York (before her marriage).
The 1952 Olympic squad for Women’s Foil. There was no team event for the women at this point in Olympic history, so they only had the individual event to look forward to.
From the 1952 Olympic Record, the results of the final pool. Two barrages take place, but they are not recorded. Whether Lachmann beat everyone in the barrage for Bronze is unknown, or if it too came down to touches received (the thought being that to be hit less is better than scoring more) I haven’t yet tracked down.
The final tally, with Jan taking 4th and Maxine 5th is one of the better Olympic results the US has had for an individual Olympic final. Sad that one of them couldn’t have flown just a bit higher and captured a medal. In the following Olympic cycle, Jan again took 4th, but Maxine’s struggles at the 1956 Olympics were dramatic. But before we get there, let’s look at the 1956 US Nationals. Romary took 1st in the individual and Maxine 2nd. Plus, they fenced together as a Southern California composite team, as they represented different clubs; Romary fenced for Salle Nadi, and Maxine had moved from Cavaliers (McKee, in a fit of pique, kicked her out for a perceived offence, thinking she wouldn’t really leave…) for the LAAC under Torao Mori.
But Polly Craus had retired from competition after getting married, so it was just a two person team. Enter “Madame Zero”….
The explanation from American Fencing Magazine, August, 1956.
Lest you think that Maxine dropped a bout or two in there, no. In some of the preliminary matches, they only fenced to a victory, so once Maxine & Jan had won 5 bouts, they stopped. So both of them were undefeated. In the individual, Jan went undefeated through the preliminaries undefeated, while Maxine dropped one bout. In the final, Maxine beat Jan, losing only to Pilar Roldan of Mexico, forcing a fence-off, which Jan took to gain the Gold.
The Los Angelino fencing Olympians for 1956: Jan Romary, Skip Shurtz and Maxine. Skip was the 1954 Epee and 1956 Foil National Champ, and competed in both team events at the Melbourne Olympics.
Maxine’s second Olympic experience did not go as planned. She went undefeated in her preliminary pool, but toward the end, injured her right arm – her fencing arm. Misdiagnosed with muscle strain between rounds, she was given a cortisone shot to kill the pain, but it was administered poorly and she lost all feeling from her shoulder out to her fingertips. Unable to control her arm at all, she turned her glove inside out and attempted to fence left-handed. Even with this, she could not put on her mask unaided. She was eliminated, losing all her bouts. Once home, it was discovered she had torn the ligaments in her arm and surgery was required. Far from taking any time off, Maxine continued to fence left-handed. At the Nationals in 1957, she made the finals and placed 6th, earning her left-handed “A” rating.
National Championship review, August, 1958
In 1958, Maxine returned to form, capturing the National title for her fourth and final time. Not that you could count her out. From 1959 through her last National Championship as a competitor, 1976 at age 59, she 2nd once, 3rd once, 4th twice, 5th twice and 6th three times, the final time in 1973. She was never eliminated earlier than the quarterfinals.
An undated photo signed by Maxine to Ralph Faulkner.
Maxine was on the US Olympic teams in 1960 and 1968, but her final experience in the Olympics was 1984, when she was asked to coach the Panamanian fencing team.
One of the interviews I’ve used as source material for this article was conducted by Mary “Demi” Huddleson, who spoke with Maxine in 1989, about 2 years before Maxine passed away. I’ll leave you with the last thought Maxine shared with Demi.
“Fencing isn’t everything. You have to give something to it in hard work to get something. But it shouldn’t be most important.”