The founder and long-time fencing master at The Letterman Fencers Club was Dr. William O’Brien. The club’s home was a gymnasium in San Francisco’s Presidio, a windy patch of green near the southern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. In a very real sense, Letterman was O’Brien. He founded the club, was its only fencing master, and it didn’t survive his passing. Hundreds of fencers represented Letterman over the decades of its lifespan and the club space was one of the most-used NorCal tournament venues. If you fenced in the area, at some point you found yourself at Letterman.
Today though, I thought I’d focus on the youthful version of Bill O’Brien and his exchange of letters with a woman fencer of great repute who, like Bill, resided in the Bay Area. Of course I’m talking about Helene Mayer. I daresay Bill started out as – well, this is what we’d call it today – a fanboy of Mayer. Let’s agree that I don’t mean that in a creepy way. Helene Mayer was not only a great fencer, worthy of regard by anyone, but she also got a ton of press. Why not? She was a gold-medal-winning Olympian, a tall, striking blonde, won every American tournament she ever entered except the last one, and drove a black hot-rod convertible. Bill started fencing in the early 1930s soon after Erich Funke d’Egnuff arrived in San Francisco and set up a fencing salle. Funke was O’Brien’s first coach and he represented the Funke Fencing Academy for, I believe, his entire competitive career.
A typical “Helene Mayer” page from the O’Brien scrapbook. By no means is the scrapbook all about Helene Mayer. There’s just so many articles featuring her that she can’t help but stand out. Still, I’m sure Bill didn’t miss a chance to clip & save her stories.
During these early years of his fencing life, Dr. O’ put together a scrapbook. I was fortunate to get a chance to scan it, borrowing it from Gerard Esponda, a long-time O’Brien student (and NCAA foil champion). O’Brien kept every fencing news clipping he came across, glueing them into the pages and writing notes in the margins. In particular, he liked to make note of where he finished in the various events he participated in and had clippings for. Several of the pages are exclusively Helene Mayer-centric. Again, she got more press than anyone else, so if news clippings were going to feature fencing as a topic, odds were good they’d often be about her. For fun, here’s a sheet O’Brien put together about his tournament results.
Don’t know whether this was a running tally he had kept, or if he went back through his own scrapbook to create this breakdown. On pages where he medaled in an event that generated a news article to clip & save, he always made a note of his finish, and often all the other medalists.
As time went on, he became friends with his fencing idol. They exchanged letters about a variety of topics and three of Helene’s letters to Bill have been preserved in his scrapbook. I thought I’d share them. Here’s the first:
I assume from the header of this letter that prior to this, Helene thought of Bill simply as “O’Brien”, the way she would have seen his name on a scoresheet.
This one intrigues me, as it infers that Bill was involved in some sort of a jewelry store or antique store or something. Perhaps someone who knew him better than I has some idea of this pre-war career as a diamond ring repairman, dealer in fine silver and sometime-expert on George III period water pitchers. The best thing about this is, naturally, Helene’s classic signature. Unmistakable. As is her handwriting, as seen on the envelope at the very top of the article.
The next is during wartime, dated March of 1943, and comes in the midst of a back-and-forth regarding the arrangements for a demonstration in San Francisco.
Love this. It reads almost breathlessly, as if she was running around while typing. Which, of course, no. But the tone is so informal and full of the why’s and wherefore’s that it really brings out the character of the writer to me. I particularly like the last paragraph where she complains that special delivery letters never come sooner than regular letters. After all, San Francisco to Oakland just isn’t that far.
The last letter has a similarly breathless tone – and is again signed “in a hurry”, but it has some other bits that show another side of the times.
Dated May 10, 1943, this letter, like the last, provides details on arrangements for an upcoming demonstration.
“…who knows what will be by September 1943?” Boy, doesn’t that statement say a lot about where things stood in the midst of a World War that impacted every aspect of life. This also pins down O’Brien’s rank circa 1943. I don’t know what rank he held at the end of his military career. I’ve got his hand-written CV, but it makes more reference to his education and fencing career than his military one. The one thing I know about Dr. O’Brien is that he was an avid storyteller and not above a little exaggeration for effect. So mysteries remain in my mind.
Left to right: Colonel Laurance Brownlee, Hans Halberstadt, Peter Schwarz and William O’Brien.
I’ll close with the above photo taken in August of 1964 at the Mexican National Championships in Mexico City for two reasons. One, it’s got Bill O’Brien in it. And two, it has Colonel Brownlee in it. On Tuesday I’m having lunch with one of Colonel Laurance Brownlee’s daughters! I’m looking forward to learning a great deal about this fencer who I’ve seen many photos of, but have little concrete information on. Woo-hoo! I love my job!