After spending the better part of this week running down stories that haven’t yet fully revealed themselves, I thought I’d revisit one of my many favorite subjects: Helene Mayer. There are a lot of photographs of Ms. Mayer out there, but several of the following are, I believe, unique to the interwebs until now. Much credit to Kristen Harber for having the foresight to make copy photographs of these images from a scrapbook, and Harold Hayes for introducing me to Kristen. Kristen allowed me to scan the images she had taken and voilá, we arrive here. The photos I’ve selected are from a shoot that took place in the 1940s at the Halberstadt School of Fencing. That’s what it said on the door in gold letters.
The sign on the door of 3145 Fillmore Street, San Francisco. Hans’ home and salle for 25 years.
It’s handy to know a photographer. I lived with my photographer brother while in college and he came with me to several fencing tournaments. Never shy about shooting multiple rolls of film, I now have mementos of tournaments long past that I would otherwise have trouble remembering. Hans Halberstadt and Helene Mayer knew Emilie Romaine. Emilie and her husband Karl had a photography studio in San Francisco for decades and Emilie began fencing in the 1930s under the tutelage of Erich Funke d’Egnuff. Karl and Emilie were particularly well known for fashion portraits and nudes, often working with dancers, as Emilie felt they were more adept at striking and maintaining a pose.
Emilie Romaine at work in 1958, preparing for a photography festival that took place that year in Golden Gate Park.
Sometime in the mid-to-late 1940s, Emilie and Karl gathered up their gear and set up at the Halberstadt salle for a photo shoot that centered around Helene Mayer. The purpose of the shoot or the intended use of the images is entirely unknown. A few, well, at least one, has made it out into the ether of the net, as I’ve spotted it on another website than mine and I don’t believe it was grabbed off my site. It’s been interesting to make note of when and why people grab images off this website. I’ve seen them on other sites and even in books. Well, it’s a small world, after all. Anyway, here’s the crowd of fencers that were on hand that day:
The players, left to right, are: Salvatore Giambra, Emilie Romaine, Hans Halberstadt, Helene Mayer and Bunny Fratessa.
As you look through these pictures you may, like me, be intrigued by a photograph or something else of interest in the background. The foreground subjects are fascinating, but if you’ve ever been to the Halberstadt club, you may have noticed that some of the images on the walls you can see in these photos are still on display at the club. Some are not, but after nearly 80 years in existence, it’s nice that they have any of their originals remaining. There’s some other interesting bg stuff. I’ll point out the ones I like as we go.
Helene Mayer strikes a classic pose.
I haven’t worked these images over in Photoshop to attempt to present them in a neat-and-clean version. I rather like them like this. They show their age, certainly, but it’s also a factor of them being several stages away from the original source. My guess is they were shot with a medium or large format negative, if only because that’s the sort of camera that shows up in the images I have of Emilie Romaine with a camera.
A promotional photo of Emilie Romaine taken in the 1962. She’s shown here with a portrait camera set up to shoot a 4×5 negative, although it looks like she may have had the option to use smaller or larger film negative on that rig by replacing the back. That’s a big rig, though. I wonder if she only used that in her own studio, or if she took it with her for a shoot like this at Halberstadt.
What I wonder, what I always wonder, when I think of the Romaines, is what happened to all the negatives they shot? There’s very little about the two of them online. I know Karl outlived Emilie by more than 30 years and passed away in 2004. With all the photos in which Emilie appears in her fencing garb (I’m assuming Karl shot quite a few of the photos of Emilie that appeared in local Bay Area papers), I can’t help but wonder if those negatives could somehow be rescued from obscurity, or if they’re already lost. I hope not.
Hans Halberstadt and Helene Mayer. They’ve re-arranged the salle to make this shot work. You can see the rubber mat they’re standing on has been only partially unrolled, as the bulk of the mat is blocking the door that led to Hans’ apartment.
The above photo also shows the distinctive trophies that Hans had in his possession when he escaped Europe after a brief stay in a concentration camp. Nothing of gold or silver was allowed to go with him. all of the precious metals were taken by the Nazis, so his cups and trophies are of bronze or plated metals. Some of them remain on display at the club. Go visit! Take a look!
Helene Mayer on the left puts her point-in-line, taking aim at the target of Salvatore Giambra.
Ever wondered exactly how to keep an Italian foil in your grip if you don’t have a wrist strap? Here you go! Interestingly, Helene does have a wrist strap – she also used an Italian foil, having been taught by Arturo Gazzera in Offenbach – but Salvatore is using the hand wrap to keep a grip on his foil. As it happens, the daughter of Sal Giambra donated a number of items to the Archive that made up part of her father’s fencing kit, and it included a hand wrap just like the one in this picture. It may well be the one in this picture, for all I know. It’s certainly well-worn enough. Sal is also the fencing partner of Helene Mayer for a film that was made at UC Berkeley and is available on the website of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Have I posted this before? Probably. Here’s the link.
Helene checks her form while Sal Giambra watches.
In this shot, they did not re-arrange the rubber mat and Helene lunges across the strip into the mirror that shows both her and Salvatore. Hans kept a set of dumbbells and Indian clubs on the rack to Helene’s left. Indian clubs have long since fallen from favor as a common accoutrement in gymnasiums in this country, but they were once all the rage. Proponents of this system of exercise would perform heroic feats of endurance in timed contests, twirling the clubs in set patterns for days on end without rest or sleep. No foolin’. Here’s a link to a YouTube video that explains.
The other background tidbit to point out here is the arm with the foil that protrudes from the wall on the far right of the photo. I don’t know what it’s made of or how it’s constructed but if you’re looking for ideas on how to create something like this to unburden some tension during the current lockdown at home world we live in, maybe this will give you some ideas. Here’s a better look from another similar shot:
I’m guessing it’s a Hans Halberstadt Original Contraption and it appears to be made from a Luxo Lamp. You can take it from here. Good luck.
This last photo I like for it’s looseness. It’s a fun little moment, with Helene jumping up with both feet. She’s four or five inches off the ground with a smile on her face like they were just caught for a moment clowning around and having fun. And yet, she’s still maintaining a classic guard, knees bent, hand up, point on target. She looks like she’s having a bit of fun, and everyone around was probably in on it. From all I’ve read, she enjoyed being the center of attention and paid that back with laughter and a love of life that was infectious. By all accounts, it would have been a treat to know her.