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Not Hans Halberstadt!

The above picture has been assumed to be Hans Halberstadt for a very long time.  I thought so myself, even after scanning it (thanks Kathy Krusen!) at high resolution and having every opportunity to review it with a critical eye.  If you’ve ever been inside the Halberstadt Fencers Club in San Francisco and seen this photograph hanging on the wall, you probably thought it was Hans, too.  This well-known image is one of a number of photographs that grace the walls of the Halberstadt Club that have survived the years since Hans’ passing in 1966.  The salle, when Hans was still alive, had a great number of photos of Hans as a young man and many photos of his fencing friends and acquaintances.  This one, the lunging nude, was assumed by most, if not all, members and visitors alike, to be a photo of Hans as a fit young man. I checked in with John McDougall, who was one of the people that helped preserve and maintain the club after Hans passed away.  He’d never asked Hans about that photo specifically and couldn’t ID the subject for certain one way or another.  Over the course of the 50+ years since then, the assumption that the photo was of Hans has become commonplace.

Except, it’s not.

It’s the right era and looks much like other photos that Hans had on his walls, in all ways it seems like it ought to be Hans.  Why would he put a photo of a nude fencer up on his wall otherwise?  Well, as it turns out, it was someone Hans knew very well, competed against for years, was Olympic teammates with in 1928, and one of the finest international competitors of the late-1920s until the mid-1930s.

The nude man in the photo is Erwin Casmir.

Francesco Tagliabo and Erwin Casmir.  Tagliabo was trained at the Scuolo Magistrale Militare di Scherma in Rome and made his career teaching in Germany.  He became Casmir’s coach when Casmir moved to Frankfurt am Main around 1924.

Erwin Casmir was an extremely accomplished fencer and has personal records that still stand in his native Germany that are highly unlikely to ever be broken.  His uncle, a two-time Olympian with 2 gold and 2 silver medals in fencing, Gustav Casmir, started him out, coaching Erwin as a young man.  Casmir volunteered to serve in the German army during WW1 as a young man and, after some self-doubt due to poor pre-war competitive results, returned to the sport in 1920 and soon dominated the field.  Take a look at this breakdown of his individual success.

From left to right: Foil, Epee, Sabre

From 1920 to 1928, Casmir won 23 individual German championships.  From 1923 to 1928, he won the individual title in all three weapons.  He continued to represent Germany through the 1936 Olympics, so you might well wonder why he doesn’t continue to show up in the victory column after 1928.  The reason is simple: he stopped competing in the individual events.  After 1928, he only competed in team events.  With his club team from Fechtclub Hermannia Frankfurt he won another 25 titles.

His Olympic results are, in many ways, just as impressive.  He fenced the individual sabre twice and the individual foil three times and never failed to make the final.  He won the individual foil silver medal in 1928 behind Lucien Gaudin in a final that the Italians, at least, felt the officiating overwhelmingly favored the Frenchman.  In the following two Olympic cycles, he finished in 5th and 4th.  In the individual sabre, he had a 6th and a 4th place finish.  At the 1936 games, he was the anchor for both the foil and sabre teams, earning bronze medal finishes in both events.  The results of the 1932 individual sabre are particularly interesting to me.  Casmir finished the final round in a three-way tie for the bronze medal with a bout score of 5 wins, 4 losses.  On touches, he finished in fourth place, behind Endre Kabos and ahead of Attila Petschauer – both of whom he defeated in the final pool.  He also defeated the silver medalist, Giulio Gaudini.  The winner, George Piller (of whom you may well have seen mention on this website previously), defeated Casmir 5-0, but it was the bouts against the bottom half of the pool where Casmir struggled, losing to the fencers who finished 6th, 7th and 8th in the round robin of ten competitors.

(Ok, before I go on, I just have to acknowledge my sincere debt of gratitude to George Masin and the work he has put into the olympedia.org site.  Apart from the broad topic knowledge you can search for, like who was actually on the Moldovan Olympic team in 1972, there is a tremendous amount of revealing detail about exactly how well your favorite Olympians performed at whatever Games they participated in.  Great stuff!  I find myself using it almost daily.  Thanks George!)

Helene Mayer’s family resided in Offenbach, but Helene attended school across the Main River in Frankfurt.  She was taught by both Tagliabo and Arturo Gazzera, another Italian trained Maestro who’s club was in Offenbach.  Left to right, Helene Mayer, Francesco Tagliabo, Erwin Casmir.  This photo was probably taken between 1928-1930.

As often happens when I start writing about fencers, something comes up that makes me wander off on a tangent before I can stop myself.  This time, it was looking at Casmir’s stellar run of German championships and realizing that his best competitive years may have come at a time when he could not compete on the international stage.  The Germans were barred from participation at both the 1920 and 1924 Olympic games.  1920 would have been early, but 1924 would have been right when Casmir was coming into his full strength.  An additional factor seems to have been Germany’s exclusion – or lack of participation – in the World Championships.  That event, which began as the European Championships in 1921, doesn’t have a record of Germans participating prior to 1929.  (The European Championships did not exclude participants from non-European countries.  It was re-named ‘World Championship’ in 1937.)  In that year of 1929, Helene Mayer followed up her Olympic gold  by winning the first ever Women’s Foil World Championship.  Or European Championship, if you insist.

A photo of the participants of the 1922 German Championships held in Offenbach am Main.  Front and center, in matching hats, are Hans Halberstadt and Erwin Casmir.  1922 was the last time Hans Halberstadt would win the German epee championship (his strongest competitive weapon) until Casmir retired from participating in the individual championships.

One thing about the nude not-Hans-Halberstadt photo that I’ve always wondered about, without taking the thought any further for critical consideration, is this – in the nude photo there is no evidence of the two things that have always aided me in identifying Hans in large groups: his mustache, and his glasses.  Hans did, at times, shave off his mustache, but he was never without his glasses.  He was also very seldom to be seen without either a cigarette, a pipe or a cigar, but he only seemed to have combined that habit with fencing late in life, as the oft-told tale of his fencing mask with a cigar-sized hole cut out of the mesh to accommodate his puffing during lessons affirms.  Ask George Nonomura about it.

Hans Halberstadt in an undated photo, likely taken sometime around 1922.  Note the mustache.  And the glasses.  And the serious expression.  I guess this is as close to a Hans nude portrait that we can now claim.

The taking of nude portraits of Erwin Casmir is not relegated to the singular image.  There is another that has survived to this time.  This one, from the image collection of Olympians from fencing historian Andy Shaw, (my source, at least) shows another view of Casmir.  Not a front view, mind.  Just a different pose.

Erwin Casmir, standing with sabre.  This photo is believed to have been taken around 1928.

It just occurs to me that some may find these images shocking, or in poor taste.  I hope not.  They are artfully done with the clear intention of revealing the subject in a new light, and not in any crass or exploitive manner.  Similarly, the nude poses shot by photographer Imogen Cunningham of Helene Mayer in Canyon de Chelly in 1939 are wonderful art photographs while being much more revealing of the subject.  And no swords.  In both cases, the hero is the human form as something to celebrate.

Now onto the reveal.  How do I make the case that the photo at the top is Erwin Casmir and not Hans Halberstadt?  Please welcome, from stage right… Ebay!  That’s right, my obsessive Ebay sleuthing has once again delivered a revelatory piece of history into my grasping mitts.  This time it was entirely unforeseen.  An image came up in one of my standard searches.  Erwin Casmir, dated 1932.  Original press photograph.  Nice fencing pose.  Fully clothed.  Lunging with a foil.  No one else bidding.  Teammate of Hans Halberstadt.  Why not pick it up?  That’s how my process works.  So, I hit the ‘Buy It Now’ button due to my lack of patience and a few days later it’s in my mailbox.

When I started looking at the new photo, I began to realize the similarity to the ‘naked Hans’ photo.  I pulled that photo up and realized I’d unwittingly stumbled upon the answer to a question no one was asking.  “Who’s the nude guy?” is that unasked question.  Well, I’ve got an answer.  To confirm, I first looked at the faces.


Side by side comparison of the heads in the two photos.  On the left, the New and on the right, the Nude.  Both: Erwin Casmir.

Pretty clearly, the same guy.  As bad as the condition is of the existing print of the nude photo, it’s still clear enough to show that it’s the same fellow.  Indeed, the nude photo is actually crisper from a focus point of view.  Comparing the shape of the nose, the eyebrow, chin, even the curve of the shoulder from the rise of the back shoulder down to the bump of the sword arm.  Same and same.  The backgrounds, too, share some features.  The curtain in the back has shifted a bit, but it is nearly the same.  But in both photos, very difficult to see in the nude photo due to its condition, there is a Persian rug for the subject to stand on.

Ok, I’ll stop stalling.  The new photo:

And so you can see them side-by-side:

In the lower right of the dressed Casmir, there is an illegible maker’s mark for the photo studio.  I can’t make out anything other than, “…& Co” for the name of the studio, but down below, it says “Frankfurt”.  On the back of the new photo, there is a date stamp of July 26, 1932 over the top of another stamp in German.  I believe this is a photo distributed to the international press by the German Olympic media reps at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.  The marking on the back matches pretty closely to others from that Games that I have.  However, I’m going to guess that the photo itself was taken earlier.  Casmir started going grey at the temples pretty young, and neither of these photos show signs of that.  I think they were shot on the same day and in the same location and I’ll guess they more likely match the date of the standing nude of Casmir from 1928 – which was likely taken at the same photo shoot.  Or at least, that’s what I’d imagine.

So there you have it!  The answer to a question you never knew you needed answered.  Next time you find yourself at the Halberstadt Fencers Club, take a look at the photos on the wall, especially the oldest ones on the downstairs wall.  On the left, if you’re facing into the club.  There are some great photos to be seen.  I’m not sure if there are any more mysteries to uncover – I’m pretty sure I know the specifics of the rest of the photos.  Then again, I didn’t realize this photo had a story to reveal, either.  I guess I’ll just see what comes.

The Maestro of Clay and Bronze

My first impression of Peter Schifrin was formed by my reaction to seeing his sculpture work used in a poster for a fencing tournament.  It was a photo of his sculpt of his teammates, Vinnie Bradford and Stacey Johnson, and I was fascinated by it.  Both were left-handed Texans, Vinnie tall and lithe with dark hair, Stacey a fiery blonde, and both became Olympic fencers.  The poster was for the NorCal Fencing Championships and it was in a glass case in the entry way of what was then the main gym at San Jose State University.  It was the summer of 1978 and I had arrived for a fencing camp with Michael D’Asaro and Charles Selberg.  Peter’s name was under the photo with the caption, “Sculpture by Peter Schifrin”.  All I knew about him was that he was the top epee fencer in the San Jose State program under Michael.  Seeing the poster, I realized he was also an artist and if the piece in the photo was an indicator of his skills, I was excited to see more.

As it turned out, I got to know Peter well over the next few years.  In the fall of 1979, I started at San Jose as a transfer Junior.  Peter was red-shirting that year and his loss to the epee team left a hole that Michael decided to fill by trying out his plethora of foilists to see who’d be a candidate to move over to the epee team.  I got the nod from Michael after a day where all of us fenced epee while he took note of what was happening.  For the following season, with Michael busy with his more experienced fencers, Peter became my epee coach.

Peter strikes a classic pose in a photo taken by my brother, Garrett Nichols, to help Peter create a brochure he used to assist with fundraising for training expenses during his push toward making the 1984 Olympic epee team.

Peter retired from competition after making the ’84 Olympic team, sculpting and teaching fencing in the Bay Area for a few years before returning to school to pursue his MFA, traveling across the country to Boston University.  While there, he also put his Prevost D’Armes to use and was instrumental in helping two women foil fencers, MJ O’Neill and Molly Sullivan, make the 1992 Olympic team.  Since that time, he has been an instructor of sculpture, teaching at a number of schools, and for the last 15 years or so at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.  His work hasn’t entirely left his sport behind.

Peter used Vinnie Bradford as a source of inspiration again for this small bronze that is now the perpetual trophy for the US Women’s Epee National Championship.  In between championships, this piece now resides with Andy Shaw at his Museum of American Fencing.  Back when we had National Championship events, before our coronavirus world, Andy would bring all the perpetual trophies to the competition for presentation to the winners after the dust had settled.  Vinnie, a four-time winner of the National epee title, holds the distinction of being the only woman to have won both the epee and foil titles in the same year.

Peter’s work has grown and developed over the years and he has had numerous commissions for large bronze sculptures, both public and private.  He has done work that adorn buildings and bridges, and others that dominate landscapes.  But whether he works at small scale or large, his work is very personal and shows the artist’s hand in the print of palm and fingers that have pushed the clay into their final form.  This Archive, too, is the fortunate recipient of one of Peter’s smaller works, the pre-cast clay sculpt of the bust of Michael D’Asaro, who coached both of us in college, and Peter to his Olympic berth.

The final bronze version that Peter gifted to his coach, Michael D’Asaro.

The clay bust that was molded to create the final bronze now resides in the Archive and it captures Michael in a visceral, magnetic fashion.  A man I knew well, in many moods and forms, is encapsulated in this shaped clay.  This angle, too, is the one that resonates with me.  Michael’s eyes looking this way, his love of life caught like a perfect snapshot.  I’ve never seen the final bronze, but this fired clay is a masterful representation of the Michael I knew.

Just a couple of years ago, Peter again turned his hand to sculpt a fencing-themed piece.  In this case, two pieces.  These were produced at the behest of Connie Yu at The Fencing Center in San Jose where, some 40-ish years ago, Peter was one of the program founders and an early coach.  If I remember the story right, Peter was asked to produce a single piece and was working on two different versions to see which one Connie responded to.  As it happened, she liked both, so both were cast and are now, in their full bronze glory, on display at the club.  Unfortunately, I don’t have photos of the bronze versions (why don’t I have photos of the bronze versions?) but I do have photos of the final versions in clay.


These are around two and a half or three feet tall, and rest on pedestals.  Like much of Peter’s figurative work, they speak to form and strength, reaching for, and attaining, goals.  In broad strokes, he encapsulates the human form and his figures embody a sense of movement and purposeful direction.  It was a thrill to learn that Peter had been chosen to produce a sculpture that would grace the entryway of the soon-to-open US Olympic/Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs.

Peter’s inspiration for this figure was Al Oerter, the four-time Olympic Gold medalist in discus.  The discus was Oerter’s only event, and he gave it his all.  Over the course of four Olympic cycles, from 1956 to 1968, he won that singular event, taking the Gold each time.  He is the epitome of the athlete who excels under the greatest strain.  He only once was favored to win and often wasn’t the top qualifier on the US squad.  But when the light of the Olympics would shine upon him, he produced his greatest results.  He set multiple world records, won Gold in 1964 with torn rib muscles and a pinched cervical nerve that required him to wear a neck brace while throwing, and in 1980 at age 44, after years of retirement, he finished fourth in the National qualifiers, just missing selection for the Moscow team.  Oerter is in a small group of Olympians with a singular achievement.  Only five athletes, 4 men and 1 woman, have won Gold in an individual event at four successive Olympic Games.  No one has ever done it five times.

This larger-than-life sculpt of Peter’s has just recently been installed in the entry way of the new museum which is waiting for an abatement in the coronavirus to throw its doors wide.  Peter’s work will be greeting visitors to this site for years to come, inviting them to embrace the physical accomplishments of the human form through the history of Olympians and Paralympians.

This massive bronze is a great testament to Peter’s understanding of the power within the human body.  He expressed this in his own being as an athlete.  Tall and strong, Peter had a classic style as a competitive fencer and was unquestionably my personal role model as I attempted to emulate his form, while remaining entirely unable to match his level of results.

Peter influenced me in so many ways.  As my fencing coach for a year, he impressed upon me the need for focus and concentration, and the desire to strive for precision in my movement and action.  Our coach, Michael D’Asaro, was from the school of thought that the path to victory lay in the perfection of your actions.  That first year at San Jose, Peter was the one who ingrained that deep into my psyche.  At the same time, he personified to me the mindset of an artist.  His approach to viewing the world was through the lens of his art, and it shone through in how he spoke, the questions he asked, the view he took of events.  In later years, my career in managing artists for the animation industry was certainly colored by the lessons I, unbeknownst to him, took from Peter, and I can’t say it was an equal exchange.  During my time at Pixar, Peter asked if he could bring along two of his sculpture students who were interested in animation to have lunch with me at the studio.  While discussing the role that sculptors play in the art process, I mentioned that my own career was achieved almost by happenstance.  I said that during college, I was best known for doing two things: fencing, and watching cartoons.  Peter almost fell out of his chair laughing.  He said, “Oh my god, it’s true!  We all wondered what you would do with your life.  ‘What will Doug do with himself? All he does is watch cartoons.'”  It turned out, watching a lot of cartoons got my foot in the door at a small animation studio.  From there, I was able to make my place as an artist manager.  Getting to know Peter and learning something of the artist’s mindset was my first lesson in that realm.

Seeing Peter’s accomplishments over the years has been wonderful.  His work has range and a rough beauty that I truly admire.  Knowing that this new piece is enshrined in a place of honor in the US Olympic/Paralympic Museum is a great motivator for me to make plans to get out to Colorado Springs when the world opens for business again.

Peter Schifrin was an excellent fencing coach and has been an inspiration and mentor for hundreds of artists-in-training during his many years as a teacher.  While he may never have pursued his accreditation as a fencing master, he’s more than proven his mastery over clay and bronze.  When you next find yourself in Colorado Springs, I hope you’ll have the opportunity to stop in and see this creation by an Olympic fencer, celebrating the Olympic ideal.

The artist and his creation:

Nadi’s Victims in Caricature

If I don’t write something about Aldo Nadi for too long, I get this annoying twitch in my eye that will only begin to calm down with a collection of images and some quality time with my laptop.  Buckle up!  Some time back, I published a four-part series about a very interesting document that Aldo Nadi typed up and mailed out to an unknown number of recipients that details his personal record of fencing as a professional during the heyday of fencing for dollars.  (The copy I have was sent to Hans Halberstadt and came to the Archive thanks to John McDougall.)  Actually, since most of these matches seem to have taken place in France, let’s call it “Fencing for Francs”.  (You can see the first of the series here.)  Nadi’s record as a professional prize-fencer was stellar and he carved up a great number of both French and Italian competitors and masters over the course of about 10 years, with just a few defeats coming at the early stage of his reign.  Once he ascended to the top of the heap, he found it harder and harder to find worthy opponents that would take him away from his quality time as a gambler and womanizer.  His autobiography, “The Living Sword”, published long after his death, goes into his life choices in some detail.  At any event, he left Paris behind and moved to the US in 1935 to begin life as a fencing master, providing a few exhibition matches just to show the Americans why he should be their first choice when picking a maestro.  Self-effacing Nadi was not.  Ever.

All that to bring me to this week’s subject matter.  Still living life under NorCal’s version of quarantine, I continue to find more things to document and organize.  That puts things in my hands that I haven’t perused for awhile and this time it’s an amazing two volume book published in 1924 by the prolific French illustrator/painter/lithographer/caricaturist Georges Villa (1883-1965) titled “Haut les Masques”.  Both volumes feature caricatures of the great fencers from around the world circa 1924.  The French are far and away the most featured with the Italians a distant second, but there are, among others, Brits, Belgians, South Americans, Hungarians and a handful of US personages.  The caricatures themselves are pretty revealing of personality.  Villa was the son of a General and did lots of sporting figure caricatures, not just fencers, but this work seems unique to his output due to its depth and focus on the single topic.  One day I’ll have to sit down with Andy Shaw, the brains behind the Museum of American Fencing and the official historian for USA Fencing, to get the low down on the Americans who are featured in this book and do a story about them.  Today, though, I thought we’d review all of the opponents that Aldo Nadi mentions in his eleven page document of his time as a professional fencer who also show up as caricatures in “Haut les Masques”.  Fun, right?  If you just read their names on the page, the individuals don’t spring to life the way they do when looking at these drawings – at least, they do for me.  I thought about arranging the subjects in the order that Nadi mentions them in his Record, but I’ve been doing so much file management during my stuck-at-home hours that I can’t help but put them down alphabetically.  Am I right?  Who’s with me?

I’d better show a picture.

Nadi mentions Felix Ayat in his record as his having been an opponent twice, once in epee, once in foil.  For the second meeting, with foils, Nadi says he had to promise Ayat 8 touches or he wouldn’t agree to the match.  The final score tally was 14-8 in Nadi’s favor, so Ayat was happy.  In their epee match, Nadi was up 7-1 at the rest point.  It seems that changing officials wasn’t uncommon during the break in addition to giving the fencers a brief rest.  However, it appears that when Lucien Gaudin, lauded and respected by the French and, indeed, fencers everywhere outside of Aldo Nadi’s mind, stepped in to officiate, Nadi tended to lose his mind.  He defeated Ayat in epee, but the score evened up a bit.  The final score was 14-9, and the clear implication from Nadi is that his opponent was heavily favored by the officiating.  More on the Nadi reasoning behind his Gaudin obsession in a bit.

Bonioli doesn’t rate a first name in the book, which isn’t terribly helpful, but I’m going to guess – since Nadi doesn’t provide it either – that this is Paolo Bonioli, professional champion of Italy in 1923.  Nadi states that in 1924, the year of his first Italian professional championship, he challenged the previous year’s two-weapon winner, Bonioli, and defeated him in foil and sabre to become the “Absolute Champion”.  That’s how they did things in Italy in the mid-20s.

I don’t pretend to understand how Nadi’s professional matches were understood from a competitive point of view.  One of the challenges is how to think about a match against an amateur and Olympian like Georges Buchard.  Buchard competed at four Olympic Games from 1924 to 1936 and could not have done so if there was a sniff of his being in any way a professional.  Lucien Gaudin, also an amateur and Olympian and, famously, a Nadi opponent, always and with great fanfare donated his prize winnings to charity.  I have to assume that Buchard did the same, if prize money was forward.  Likewise, I assume that if there wasn’t money on the table, Nadi wouldn’t have bothered.  Buchard was a two-time Individual Silver medalist in epee at the Olympics and won Gold twice in the team epee events.  He also figures in the discussion about Nadi’s perception of Gaudin and I’ll just keep teasing that story until the big reveal a little further on.  Apart from the Olympics, Buchard was also a three-time World Champion in epee, so it says a great deal that Nadi both had great respect for him and also defeated him 12-5 in epee.  Nadi goes so far as to describe Buchard as, “Unquestionably one of the century’s three greatest swordsmen.”  He does not name the others on the list, although you’ve got to assume his own name was at the top of it, with his brother, Nedo, a likely candidate for second.  Brothers, after all.

Cattiau was another of the amateurs that put himself in front of Nadi in an ‘exhibition’ match, since Cattiau could not have been motivated by the purse.  In his Olympic career, Cattiau competed in five Games, 1920-1936, winning 3 Gold, 3 Silver and a Bronze medal.  Two of his Silver medals were in Individual Foil (1920 & 1924) and all the rest were for Team France in both foil and epee.  Nadi defeated him in both foil (10-4) and epee (10-6) at a match in Cannes in 1925.

With Google Translate’s assistance, we learn that M. Cornic was a “Beautiful fencer, always well covered, thanks to his trade in umbrellas.”  Cornic was on the Silver medal winning 1928 French Olympic epee team and the two met in either ’28 or ’29. Nadi doesn’t recall exactly. Cornic and Nadi fenced at Lucien Gaudin’s home club in Paris, the Automobile Club.  Nadi, according to Nadi, crushed Cornic by the score of 30 to 5 or 6 while Gaudin looked on wearing street clothes.  Nadi’s take was that Gaudin didn’t want to appear in fencing gear in the same room as Nadi for fear of having to face him.  Let’s keep in mind that in 1929 Gaudin would have been 43 and Nadi 30.

Leon Dodivers was the professional champion of France and Nadi faced him in 1925 at La Baule, a seaside resort in Brittany.  Nadi writes that his hand wrap, a commonly used appliance to help keep an Italian foil or epee in your hand, was too tight at the start of the match and his thumb went numb.  He kept himself in the match until the break, when he was able to fix his wrap, going on to win the epee match 15-11.  Nadi asserts that Gaudin then challenged Dodivers with the intent of beating him by a greater margin than Nadi had, but could only manage a 15-12 victory, Nadi writing further, “…and I can still hear Dodivers from his grave screaming bloody murder that he had been robbed… and indeed he had been, at the opportune moment, by a very able and extremely smart President of the Jury. I was present.”

Ah, Lucien Gaudin.  He was among the first to be accorded the title of World Champion (epee, 1921) and he competed at three Olympic Games, 1920-1928, winning 4 Gold and 2 Silver medals.  In 1928, he won both the foil and epee Individual Gold.  Nadi defeated Gaudin at the 1920 Olympic Games to help Italy to the Team Foil gold.  It was unexpected by most, as Nadi was considered a youngster at 21 and Gaudin the old hand.  But Nadi faced Gaudin after turning professional in 1922 in Paris and neither forgot nor forgave Gaudin for defeating him in a manner that Nadi objected to most strenuously.  And, I may say, not without reason.  One of the concessions he made prior to the 1922 match was agreeing that hits made on the upper part of the arm, normally not considered valid target in foil, would be considered as such for this match.  That’s pretty much unheard of.  The arm was not, is not, part of the valid target for foil.  Clearly, Gaudin had a plan.  Nadi shouldn’t have agreed, but did.  During the match, Gaudin purposely targeted Nadi’s upper arm – something that most foilists would patently ignore, knowing it to be an invalid hit.  Several times during the match, Gaudin deliberately targeted the crook of Nadi’s elbow and was awarded a touch.  Nadi took revenge in 1924, defeating Gaudin in a rematch, but that was the last time Gaudin would agree to fence him.  In the ensuing years, while Nadi was defeating French fencers up and down the country, news writers made a point of wondering why Gaudin didn’t step in to put the Italian in his place.  At one point, Nadi was offered 50,000 francs, an unheard of sum, to face Gaudin.  Nadi was perfectly willing, but Gaudin would not agree, thus costing Nadi a nice, fat purse.  The other reason that Nadi did not have a particular respect for Gaudin was the story he told of Gaudin’s victory in the Individual epee at the 1928 Olympics.  According to Nadi, Georges Buchard, who took the Individual Silver in 1928 to Gaudin’s Gold, claimed that Gaudin, having won the Individual foil and frantic to win the epee as well, begged Buchard to give the final match to him, and apparently Buchard agreed.  And that’s the story Nadi told of Lucien Gaudin.

Rene Haussy was the last professional champion to defeat Nadi in the early days of Aldo’s reign, Haussy taking him in 1923 by the score of 16-14.  Nadi admits that when Gaudin stepped in to officiate the second half of the match he lost his head and deserved to be beaten.  Haussy, however, didn’t avoid a rematch and Nadi defeated him two years later in Florence 14-9.  Nadi had himself booked the theater for that re-match, billing it the Professional World Championship, as Nadi was then Professional Champion of Italy and Haussy the same for France.  Aldo’s older brother Nedo objected to the title for some reason, no doubt feeling that as the older brother and having more Olympic Gold medals, he shouldn’t be eclipsed by his younger sibling’s title, as he was also fencing professionally.  Aldo ignored him.

Father of Edoardo, Dario and Mario Mangiarotti, who were great in the following generation, Nadi faced the father, Guiseppe, in 1924 while consolidating his Italian professional championship title in all three weapons.  He defeated Mangiarotti in epee 12-8, claiming he could have won without giving up more than 2 or 3 touches, but respected his opponent too much to embarrass him.

Both famous and infamous, Oreste Puliti was at the center of a controversy that rocked the 1924 Olympics and led to Puliti’s suspension from international competition for 2 years.  The central issue was that the Italians were accused in the sabre event with giving touches away to Puliti to give him a better indicator of touches scored vs received as a means to better his chances at taking an individual medal from the dominant Hungarians.  Indeed, 1924 was the last time the Italians – or anyone else – defeated the Hungarian sabre team for three decades.  But more to the point of his ban, Puliti was incensed when Budapest-based Italian Italo Santelli translated an insult made by Puliti toward an official.  The official asked Santelli what had been said and Santelli told him.  This led to the Italians protesting, threatening to leave – maybe they did, actually – but also lighting a fuse that eventually led to a duel being fought.  The Italian sportsman and news writer Adolfo Contronei wrote unkind words about Italo Santelli and a duel was set.  Santelli was keen for the meeting, but his son Giorgio stepped in to fight in his stead.  This didn’t make Italo happy, but Giorgio was within his rights according to the dueling code, due to the age of his father.  Santelli and Contronei fought and Santelli nearly chopped his head off, wounding him badly with his sabre.  Contronei, by the way, is also the man who fought Aldo Nadi in his duel made famous by the written description of it in Nadi’s masterpiece, “On Fencing”.  Contronei went on to fight Nedo Nadi after penning yet another unflattering news article regarding the elder of the Nadi boys.  Nedo had decided Contronei was a menace to society and needed to be dealt with harshly.  He was determined to kill Contronei, but in the moment, struck his opponent’s belt buckle and only wounded him.  Contronei, realizing Nadi’s intent, capitulated immediately and never fought another duel.

Well, I’m stumped on this one.  Le maitre Remay is as good as I can make it.  Nadi only mentions that he defeated the head fencing master from the Joinville-le-Pont French Military school in Paris in 1923 by a score of 12-3, but nothing about a first name.  He was much more excited in the aftermath of the event, when the great French master Louis Merignac, at 80 years of age, approached Nadi with tears in his eyes and simply shook his hand without saying a word.  Nadi clearly couldn’t ask for a greater testament to his performance,

The last of the bunch.  A great caricature of Candido Sassone who defeated Nadi soon after Nadi’s defeat by Gaudin.  In Nadi’s opinion, due to his anxiety over the defeat by Gaudin, anyone could have beaten him.  However, just a few weeks later, Sassone and Nadi fought again, with Nadi slightly ahead at the break and going untouched in the second half of the match.  He relates that after the bout, Sassone exclaimed that he couldn’t understand how Nadi could have been so out of sorts as to let himself be defeated in their first encounter.  Speaking of encounters, Sassone is probably most famous for his long-running feud and duel with Aurelio Greco that took place in 1922.  Apparently they argued – about some topic of fencing history, of all things – and fought a number of encounters to no result until, in the seventh meeting, Sassone took a small wound, ending the affair in Greco’s favor.  However, it did not result in a reconciliation.  By 1925, Sassone had left Italy for Bueno Aires and spent the rest of his life teaching in Argentina with great success.

Nadi fought many others that are mentioned in his Record, but these are the ones who are also fortunate inclusions in this fantastic book of illustrations by Georges Villa.  The book itself came to the Archive thanks to a donation of a large collection of material from John McDougall.  After several years and an Excel spreadsheet detailing everything in the entire collection, I continue to find surprises when I go through this gift from John.

Picture Day!

It was graduation week for my schooled-by-Zoom High School Senior son this week, so I thought I’d put together an album of the best of the magazine covers featuring fencing from the Archive collection.  I thought I’d go from most recent to oldest, so the date range is from 1994 – the one at the top – to 1910, which will be at the bottom.  But don’t skip the middle!  Great stuff ahead.

There are a lot of magazine inside pages that feature fencing, whether for an article or an advertisement, but for this exercise I decided to stick with covers. The Vanity Fair photo up top is pretty well known – arguably the only actually ‘well known’ image I’ve got to share today – and was taken by Annie Leibowitz for a multi-page feature on Olympic athletes.  Nick Bravin is featured right in the middle here.  The cover is actually a fold-out, so my copy had a seam going right through Nick from head to toe.  It took a little touching up in Photoshop to get rid of the most obvious signs from that fold.  Pretty happy with the result here.  Nick made the cover of this issue, but on the inside for the article the featured fencer is Cliff Bayer.  Getting two fencers in any major magazine is a pretty good run.

I just recently picked up this issue of Photoplay from 1946 with actor Cornel Wilde gracing the cover, but was disappointed to find that what is probably the big picture of him on the inside of this copy was torn out.  So no other good pictures of Cornel.  Not that I know whether he’d have been holding  a sword in it – which would have been my reason for wanting it.  Speaking of Cornel Wilde, did you know he was actually a champion foilist during college?  He’s got to be one of the few swashbuckling actors that had a clue how to use a sword before becoming an actor.

The caption for this 1935 press photo is titled with: “Intercollegiate Foils Champs Hold Off Invaders.”   It goes on to say: “The members of the College of the City of NY foils team, holders of the Iron Man Trophy, emblematic of Intercollegiate foils championship, pictured as they prepared to repel the invasion of other colleges taking part in the 42nd annual intercollegiate fencing championship.  Left to right is Cornel Wilde, Emil Goldstein and Nathaniel Lubell.”

This squad from CCNY did indeed win the IFA championship in 1934, upsetting the favorites and thrilling their coach, Joseph Vince.  Unfortunately, they were not able to hold on in 1935, losing out to NYU’s team that featured Hugo Castello and Norman Lewis.  Hugo went on to coach at NYU and Norm Lewis won the US Foil title in ’39 and the Epee title three years in a row: 1948, 1949 and 1950.  He was also on the 1948 Olympic team and became president of the AFLA.  However, the CCNY squad wasn’t a pushover.  Nate Lubell never won a US National title, but he was on three Olympic teams: 1948, 1952 and 1956, and took an individual bronze at the 1951 Pan Am Games, along with a team gold in both foil and sabre, and silver in team epee.  He fenced on all three teams!  For the CCNY team with Cornel Wilde?  Lubell was the #2 man.  At the 1935 IFA where they lost out to the NYU team, Wilde finished third in the individual behind Castello and Lewis from NYU.  I’ve been wondering where to find a spot on this site to feature that picture of Cornel Wilde as a collegiate fencer ever since I picked it up.  Now I know!  Wilde, who played parts that took him to Sherwood Forest and inside the musketeer’s cloak as D’Artagnan Jr., likely could have cleaned up in a real swordfight among the raft of swashbuckling actors we all grew up with.

November of 1943 is the publication date of this issue of Coronet.  There isn’t anything inside the issue at all related to fencing, just a lovely photo gracing the cover.  Here’s the caption, describing the cover:

Equally charming in a fencer’s costume or in the incredible hats she models so well is Bettina Bolegard, Coronet’s November cover girl.  Besides being a top notch model, the sloe eyed charmer has inherited her famous father’s talent for painting.  Her versatility however, is all her own – and she managers her career and  her five year old son with a capable and lovely hand.  Salvos to Paule D’Ome for this striking Kodachrome.

Bettina Bolegard (real name Davis) was a well-known fashion model in the mid-40s into the early 50s.  She retired from the work after the birth of her second child.  She graced the cover of many magazines including Life and Vogue, and lots and lots of fashion features.  The photographer of this shot, Paul D’Ome, was equally busy in fashion, producing a wide array of covers for Mademoiselle and many others.

Two in a row from Coronet, a magazine that covered any topic it could lay its hands on.  I like this photo for a couple of reasons. The jacket looks shiny, like it’s made from satin or some other slick and highly not-protective-at-all material.  However, that jacket is also sporting a Falcons patch from Ralph Faulkner’s Hollywood-based club.  The photographer must have been borrowing some equipment for the shoot.  This cover is from 1941 and the subtitle below the lady with a sword about the 140 million Europeans readying to strike back against Hitler, hoo-boy, did that not turn out. At least, not by 1941. The model’s name is Verna Knopf, who had a fairly successful thing going in Chicago before getting a gig that took her to Hollywood.  She decided to stay and try acting and at the time this was taken, was enrolled in acting and singing classes.  She’s got one mention on IMDB as an uncredited train passenger in the 1944 film “Since You Went Away” starring Claudette Colbert and Joseph Cotton.  I guess the lessons didn’t bring the success she’d hoped for.  The photographer, Laszlo Willinger, had a well-known photo studio in Austria where he was billed as Europe’s #1 glamour photographer.  His mother had been a photographer, as well.  After emigrating to the US, he set up shop in the Hollywood area and continued working with actors and actresses.  In later years, he was accused, apparently correctly, with stalking a number of stars, particularly Charlie Chaplin.  He was found to be in possession of thousands of “personal” photos of Chaplin.  Go figure.

This wacky magazine from 1937 is a hoot.  Subtitled “The Personal Problem Magazine’, I can’t help but wonder just how long it was in publication.  Breaking the trend, this magazine does have a two page spread of fencers entitled, “Fence For A Fine Figure!” featuring women fencers from Salle Santelli.  However, it also features articles titled, “Feminine Beauty Depends on Glandular Activity” and “Good Posture Begins in Babyhood”.  As the cover suggests, there’s also an article about the menace of x-rays, but my favorite is all about “The Man Who Succeeded in Failing”, which can be found in the ‘Personal Problem Department’ on page 6.  I haven’t started reading it yet, but if I get any good notes, I’ll be sure to share them.

The last three covers come from magazines that you may have actually heard of.

Cosmopolitan, circa 1937, painted by well-known “Painter of the Stars” Bradshaw Crandell.  And he backed it up, doing portraits of Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Veronica Lake and Carole Lombard, among others.  He’s in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame and his work sells today for pretty good sums.

But Cosmo will be Cosmo, so the inside of this magazine provides some pretty choice articles.  Here are my favorite examples: “No Money in Her Purse”, “Debutante in Danger”, “Marry for Money” and my personal favorite, the mysteriously suggestive “Cocktails for Three”.  I haven’t looked at an issue of Cosmopolitan for awhile, but I feel like they could update all these stories with a few references to modern technology and re-run them tomorrow.  Maybe that’s exactly what they do.  I should pick up a copy and see.  

Of course, those are just the stories.  The articles, which are all about telling you what to do and how, have some great titles, as well.  One is simply titled, “Bend Your Knees”.  After looking, it turned out to be an article about how to ski, so the title was probably the most useful advice in the whole article.  But far and away my favorite is titled, “Look Eleven Years Younger” and features advice for the reader to avoid old-age mannerisms like The Famous Author Pose, The Bishop Pose and The Idiot Stare.  It ends with a little nugget that is highly applicable today, but for different reasons.  To avoid looking eleven years older – and to avoid the coronavirus – Don’t Touch Your Face!

I bought this 1933 issue of the Saturday Evening Post a long time ago at an antique store and have kept it in reasonably good shape, even while dragging it around through all my various changes of address.  Not all of my long-time ephemeral material has fared as well as this one has.  This painting was done by Alfred F. Cammarata, sometimes wrongly attributed as “Alfred P. Cammarata”. This particular work is all over the place if you’d like to buy a reproduction on sites ranging from Art.com to Walmart.  Type in ‘fencer’ and ‘cammarata’ and take your pick.  Cammarata worked mostly in comics, having a successful career during the Golden Age working on some pretty obscure books.  Titles like ‘The Black Hood’, ‘Spectro’ and ‘Crime Crushers’, to name a few, all came his way.  He signed his comic work as Al Camy’ – with that accent – so if you happen to be at a comic book convention, if they ever happen again, you can be on the lookout.  He continued to work in comics into the 50’s for Fawcett, DC, Charleton and Harvey, so he got around.  The above seems to be his most famous work, but maybe I just don’t know what else to look for.

And finally:

Another antique store find from long ago, this one I only have the cover for.  I can’t, therefore, regale you with the interior contents and what the readers of Life were gleaning from the pages in 1910.  I only know that when I saw this cover in the bin of magazine pages in that antique store, I checked my wallet to see if I had the $7.50 they wanted for it.  I did.  Charles Cole Phillips is the painter for this piece.  Not long after this, he changed his signature from “Charles” or “C” Coles Phillips to just Coles Phillips.  Working out of New Rochelle, NY, he was very well known and produced a great deal of work, but died young in 1927 at the age of 47.  His work is frequently associated with other well known artists of the time like J.C.Leyendecker, who eulogized him at his funeral, Charles Dana Gibson and Norman Rockwell.  He was described as having imbued his women subjects with a uniquely American quality.

That’s it for Picture Day!  If you had a graduate in your family this year, congratulations to you, too!  If not, you probably know one or two.  Give them an extra hug or two.  They’ve made it through a wacky end to their school year.

The Premier Maestra?

One of my favorite subjects to write about is the famous foilist and Olympic champion, Helene Mayer.  There are numerous photographs of her in the Archive collection and since she was based in California for many of her competitive years, her story fits my focus.  However, I’ve never looked seriously into the history or background of one of Mayer’s toughest and long-running competitors.  When a photo of this woman came up on Ebay, it got me to thinking.  The new acquisition is at the top of today’s story, and while we may start with the main subject of that photo, there’s another player involved who piqued my curiosity even more.  The woman in the middle up above is the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics Women’s Foil Champion Ellen Preis, later Müller-Preis.  Then, just Preis again.  I think.  She is again in the middle as seen in the photo below:

From a cigarette sports card (think baseball cards, but with smoking), this image depicts the top three women from the finals of the 1936 Olympics, placed according to height.  In front, Hungary’s Ilona Elek, who won the Gold Medal.  In the middle, Austria’s Ellen Preis, Bronze, and in the back, Germany’s Helene Mayer, Silver.

Preis had, by any measure, a spectacular competitive career that spanned the time from when women competitions at the world level were in their infancy until they stood as firmly established events.  At least, in foil.  She was a finalist at the 1931 World Championships (3rd place), took the Gold medal at the 1932 Olympics, Bronze in 1936 and won World Championship titles in 1947, 1949 and 1950.  She continued to compete at the Olympic level in 1952 (11th) and in 1956 (7th).  In Melbourne ’56, she made the final round of eight at the age of 44.  She lost 5 of her 7 bouts in that final by one touch.  That was also the first Olympic Games with machine-based scoring for foil.

Among the things I won’t write about at length are her Nationalist (read: Nazi) husband Dr. Heinrich Müller, whom she married in 1938 and separated from and maybe divorced near the end of the war (she seems to have kept her married name), and the question as to whether she was or was not Jewish.  I’ve read arguments on both sides and have no idea which might be true.  Moving on.

Another Ebay treasure I recently purchased.  Helene Mayer on the left facing Ellen Preis at the 1931 World Championships in Vienna.  (Officially, the European Championships, but the same event that became the Official World Championships in 1937.) Mayer took home her second of three World titles from that event.

It’s been fun running down the long list of accomplishments made by the woman I’d previously thought of mostly as someone who defeated Helene Mayer in Los Angeles in 1932 – even though Mayer finished out of the medals at that tournament.  Preis’s career stands on its own, clearly.  However, it wasn’t her career that really intrigued me and motivated me to write this story.  Rather, it was my surprise and fascination with what I learned about her coach.  As far as I know, the coach of Ellen Preis is an Olympic and World first.  Ellen Preis was coached throughout her competitive career by her aunt: Elizabeth Wilhelmine “Minna” (Preis) Neralic-Werdnik.  Let’s call her Minna.  I’ve found only one certain photo of her.

Minna began her fencing career teaching at Universitätsfechtclub in Frankfurt, the city of her birth.  Somewhere along the line she met and married Milan (sometimes Michael) Neralic, a fencing master of Croatian decent.  He was the first Croatian to win an Olympic medal, taking the Bronze medal in Master’s Sabre in 1900.  He earned his fencing masters credential at the famous Austro-Hungarian military school in Weiner-Neustädter under the tutelage of Luigi Barbasetti, who was head of that program from 1894 to 1914.  Neralic was a teaching assistant under Barbasetti until 1908 when he moved to Berlin and began teaching at two clubs. 

Milan (Mihajlo) Neralic during his time as a foil instructor under Luigi Barbasetti at Weiner-Neustädter.  If you’re keeping track of the many mentions of Hungarian fencers and masters on this site, you may be interested to know that Neralic was one of the main teachers of Laszlo Borsodi, the coach of Jekelfalussy (Piller) György (George Piller), who is the subject of my documentary feature, The Last Captain (available here).

The start of WW1 in 1914 saw him move back to Austria and take up a teaching position at the Theresian Military Academy and the Vienna Union Fencing Club.  By that time he was married to Minna, how they met, when they married, unknown, and the two were making plans to return to Berlin permanently.  However, in 1917 Neralic took ill, was forced to stop teaching, and died in February of 1918.  Minna, now a widow, continued to teach women’s classes.  From my reading about her history, the consistent reference is that she “focused” on teaching women fencers, but I rather suspect that was a role to which she was subjected rather than chose.  At that time, men could teach fencing to both women and men.  Women teachers such as Minna likely did not have that same flexibility.

In 1922 (or 1925) Minna re-married.  Her second husband was another fencing master, Martin Werdnik.  Werdnik had a long and varied career in Vienna and was a founding member of the Vienna Fencing Masters’ Association.  He also helped established the forerunner of Austria’s current fencing NGB, the Austrian Fencing Association, originally the Academy of Fencing in Austria.  Werdnik volunteered for the army when he was nearly 50 years old and was assigned to teach physical education in Serbia from 1916.  In 1917, he was transferred to Italy and received a wound in his right arm.  He refused a recommendation for amputation, but never fully regained his previous functionality.  After the war he taught exclusively with his left hand.  He passed away in 1930, leaving Minna once again widowed.  She renamed their club Fencing Hall Werdnik and was the head of that school from then until she retired in 1962.

The instructor that can be vaguely seen in the center back of this photo may be Minna Neralic-Werdnik.  Then again, it might be Ellen Preis.  This photo is used courtesy of the nice people at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, or Austrian National Library.  I don’t like using images that aren’t part of my collection without permission, and they couldn’t have been nicer.  The young ladies wearing ties in this photo could, maybe should, set a new style for fencers everywhere.  Very classy, if you ask me.

There are some widely divergent views on where and when Preis began taking fencing instruction from her aunt Minna.  Her Wikipedia entry is very certain that she was Jewish and an Olympic champion after only 2 years’ instruction.  With no opinion on the first, I take issue with the second point, as it’s just too unlikely.  Preis moved from Berlin, where she was born, to Vienna at some point and it is in Vienna that she would have been trained by her aunt.  Another source suggested she began fencing with her aunt over her mother’s objections when she was 13. I’m leaning toward that second idea.  I can’t imagine her (or anyone) challenging for the European Championship title in Vienna in 1931 after one year of fencing. I have the strong notion that a year of instruction won’t get you to Carnegie Hall, because it’s just not enough practice, practice, practice.

Preis wrote an autobiography, or at least, her name is on the cover as author, in 1936 documenting her – up to that point – Olympic career.  It’s available in English and German, but only the German editions seem to be for sale.  I might have to pick one up from a German book dealer, as my discovery of the book has led to the discovery of a photo of Minna that I didn’t know existed until a couple of sentences ago.  Readjusting my count of photos of Minna Neralic-Werdnik to two:

Ellen Preis with Aunt Minna taken in 1936 or thereabouts.

The other nickname for Aunt Elizabeth Wilhelmine “Minna” (Preis) Neralic-Werdnik is a rather telling one.  She was known professionally as “Ms. Professor Werdnik”, which indicates that, more than just being considered a ‘fencing instructor’, she was considered a full Master.  “Professor” was, at that time, a commonly used title synonymous with Master, to the best of my knowledge.  (I base that on reading about Generoso Pavese, who was trained at the Scuola Magistrale Militare di Scherma in Rome and went by the title “Professor” in the US.)  Several sources simply referred to her as a “Fencing Master”, so I’m sticking with that.  It’s my assumption that that title, for women at that time, was a rarity.  I’d love to know different.

When she retired in 1962, she had been teaching for 55 years, which means she began teaching around 1907.  Fencing Hall Werknik was renamed Fencing Club Werdnik in 1955, with Ellen serving as its president for many years.  It finally closed its doors in 1986.  Minna passed away in 1980 at the age of 94 and Ellen in 2007 at the age of 95.  Long-lived genes in that family.

The one for certain photograph of Minna that I knew about before starting to write this story.

That final photograph was probably taken in the early 1950s, or thereabouts.  Ellen is older and Minna (who can just barely be seen) is older still, but I love getting a chance to see even a tiny glimpse of the inside of Fencing Hall Werdnik.  And really, by this point in their partnership, I don’t imagine Ellen actually needed to be reminded to keep her back arm up and her back knee bent, but fencing masters will be fencing masters, especially for a press photo opportunity,  I think I’m going to hop over to my Advanced Book Exchange tab and see if I can still nab that copy of Ellen’s book.  Dust jacket and everything.  My German reading comprehension is non-existent, but I’m patient and know where Google Translate lives, so maybe I can glean a little more information about Ms. Professor Werdnik, the first woman to coach an Olympic fencing champion.


Stories as an Additive Process

Back in December, I took a trip through Southern California to do some research, have conversations, scan a scrapbook and collect some fencing memorabilia.  It was an extremely successful tour.  (Read about it here!)  One of my stops was at Gryphon Fencing in Placentia, expecting to pick up many years worth of collegiate fencing records from SoCal.  I did do that, but in addition I was also gifted a collection of framed and unframed photographs that had been left with them.  They’d been dropped off by some unknown who thought, “well, I’ve got all these pictures of fencers; I’ll take them to a fencing club.”  Gryphon didn’t know anything about the main subject in the photos, so they were kind enough to pass them to me.  I’ve been looking at them off and on since then, gathering more and more information every time.  I’m starting to form a theory about them and I thought I’d write down my Sherlock Holmesian suppositions.

Two photos framed side by side with Frank Andrina on the right fencing Joe Lampl on the left.  Lampl was a long-time SoCal stalwart and probably in his 50’s when he was up against the youngster in these photos.  The right hand caption infers that Andrina is a “world class” fencer.  I wonder.

The photos from Gryphon centered around one particular fencer, Frank Andrina.  He fenced for the Faulkner School of Fencing, known as the Falcons.  The Faulkner school was in downtown Hollywood and because of Ralph Faulkner’s frequent turns as fight choreographer and stunt double in swashbucklers, his club was a good choice for actors, actresses and other entertainment folks to get their sword fighting education.  Frank was one of these.  However, Frank wasn’t in one of your standard Hollywood roles.  Not an actor or director.  Not a grip or a gaffer.  Frank was an animator.  And that makes him important to me.  I worked in animation for 25 years, not as an artist but in production management.  Much fun was had.  Frank had a long and varied career, working on things like the Beatles animated TV show, Jabberjaw and the Gummi Bears.  Mostly television animation and a lot of it.  His first credit dates from 1961 and his last in 2005.

Frank Andrina is the lefty on the left with the medal pinned to his chest.  I believe this is him with his Falcon teammates, but I don’t recognize any of the other fencers.

But before all of that animation work, he was fencing.  I haven’t been able to track down where his interest began or how long he trained and competed before getting notices in American Fencing magazine for his results.  The time I’m going to focus on seems to be his main competitive years, 1957 and 1958.  Those years also coincide with some turmoil that ruffled with waters at the Faulkner School of Fencing, and I think Frank was right in the middle of it.  Not alone, though.

He’s upside down, but that’s Frank Andrina practicing gymnastics at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

Sewell “Skip” Shurtz was a Ralph Faulkner student from the time he was a youngster.  Like 5 years old or thereabouts.  He grew up at the club with Ralph as a surrogate father to a young boy living in a house with his mother and grandmother, both of whom worked to help Sewell land parts in Hollywood films.  Acting took a back seat as Sewell’s competitive career began to take off.  He tore up the Pacific Coast, winning competitions in all three weapons from the late 1940’s on.  Skip was a fierce competitor with a highly engaged fighting spirit, absolutely fearless no matter who he was facing.  He won his first National title in 1954, winning the individual epee. In 1955 he took silver at the Pan American Games* in epee and finished 7th at the World Championships in foil.  He ended his streak in 1956, winning the US national title in foil.

*(The story Skip told me about the Pan Am Games was this; one of the other more experienced fencers on the US squad was expected to challenge for the gold medal.  He and Skip both made the final, so Skip was told to lose his match to his teammate, his first bout in the round robin final of 6.  Skip did as he was told.  He then proceeded to beat everyone else, while his teammate dropped a couple of bouts.  Skip ended up in a fence-off for first and lost to a tough Argentinian.  If Skip hadn’t thrown the first bout, he might have taken the gold medal undefeated.)

Sewell Shurtz with Ralph Faulkner during the epee finals at the 1954 US Nationals.

His Olympic experience in 1956 was a disappointment for Skip.  He was held out of the individual foil event due to bad blood between him and the team captain.  Anger and resentment were powerful forces in Skip and it impacted his desire to continue to compete.  By late 1957, he had an ugly break with Faulkner and began competing for the Los Angeles Athletic Club, an organization that could pay athletes a stipend and supply equipment.  The only expectation was competitive success.  On that front, Sewell didn’t perform.  Burned out, he quit competing altogether and walked away from the sport for many years.

While looking at the Frank Andrina photos, I can’t help but be struck by a couple of things.  Frank was a good looking, strong lefty that Faulkner clearly had high hopes for as a competitor.  The seven framed photos that came to me by way of the kind folks at Gryphon each have a caption included that points out Frank and extolls his fencing superiority to the skies.  While I’ve no doubt Frank was a talented youngster, he was inexperienced.  That’s easy to see by looking at his results.  He got some gold medals in SoCal competitions and helped win some team events at the Pacific Coast Championships, but always in the “Intermediate” ranks, not the Opens.  At the US Nationals in 1958, he was eliminated in the first round in the individual epee.  That’s the only time his name shows up in a National competition, and by 1959 his name disappears entirely from SoCal results as well.

There isn’t a date on this photo taken at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, but it’s got all the players in it.  Frank is fencing, Ralph is watching him and Skip is lurking in the background.  Skip told me that at one point, his relationship with Faulkner got so bad they got into shouting matches with each other during competitions.

Ralph Faulkner was angry at prodigal son Sewell Shurtz.  In the SoCal division in this era, changing club affiliations was a likened to a knife in the back.  It simply wasn’t done.  Post-Olympics, an angry Sewell Shurtz made the decision to take the money at the LAAC and Faulkner was furious about it.

I can’t know if this is true, but I would bet that prior to 1958, the Faulkner School of Fencing was adorned with many, many photos of Sewell Shurtz, winning this tournament or that.  Trophies.  Medals.  Who knows what all.  And when they broke, I’m guessing that memorabilia all came down in one night.  Having the talented and handsome Frank Andrina in the club and finding some success, my guess is that Ralph went all in on Frank and put his photos up where Skip’s had been, with captions that made Frank sound like the type of fencer and winner that Sewell Shurtz actually was.

I don’t know who Enrique Gonzales is or was as a fencer, but I do know he was not the Pan American Foil Champion when this photo was taken.  Hal Goldsmith of the USA was Pan American Champion in ’55 and ’59, and the name “Gonzales” doesn’t show up in the list of finalists anywhere.  So I’m not buying it any more than I buy the latter part where it states that Andrina could have ‘easily defeated’ Christain D’Oriola.  Did anyone?  Ever?  All seven of these framed photos has the small “Property of FSF” plaque at the bottom.

I don’t know how to understand the captions to be seen on the Frank Andrina photos.  Their praise of his ability and comparing his skills to the finest fencers in the world just doesn’t add up.  Coupling that with the false or mis-leading descriptions of the people Frank is seen with in the photos makes it all just seem like the Hollywood version of a competitive fencer, not the actual true story.

Another thing I wonder about is how long these photos graced the walls of the FSF.  It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that they were up until the lights were turned off for the last time.  Frank (or whoever had them prior to the donation to Gyrphon) may have been gifted these when the club closed after Faulkner’s passing.  The longer they were up, the fewer people would be able to look at them with a critical eye and make note of the skewed reality that they represent.  After awhile, new fencers at Faulkner may well have taken the captions at face value, imagining that an intermediate foilist trained by Faulkner could be a match for a multi-time Olympic and World Champion like Christian D’Oriola.  In truth, it’s simply not credible.  But if you don’t know enough to know better, you might not give it another thought.

Frank Andrina taking a foil lesson with The Boss, Ralph Faulkner.

No slight to Frank Andrina is meant, of course, and I hope all this doesn’t imply any.  For all I know, he may himself have believed Ralph’s assessment of his talent and ability.  Without the experience or the reality check, how would you know?  If your coach, himself a member of two Olympic teams, tells you you could handle the reigning Olympic champ if only you had the chance, wouldn’t you want to believe it?  Then again, perhaps that’s why Frank’s name doesn’t show up in results after the 1958 Nationals.  The experience of getting eliminated in the opening round might be a crushing blow to someone led to believe they were the next big thing in the sport.  That’s one possibility.  Another is that his animation career began to take off right around the same time and he found his hours better spent pursuing professional goals.  I haven’t been able to speak with anyone who could tell me about Frank as an animator.  I tried, but it’s been a long time since he was working regularly and only other old-timers are likely to remember him.  There was one quote I found from Floyd Norman, a highly respected story artist who began his career at Disney when Walt was still around.  Learning of Frank’s passing, he wrote simply, “Great guy, great animator.  Goodbye, Frank.”

Frank with Pat Bedrosian at an event at Faulkner’s. (I think.  Hard to tell for sure.)  Pat’s caption for this photo states that Frank was a “famous animator”.  I’m not sure if she even knew Frank was a fencer.  Probably did, but this was after his fencing days.

Sewell Shurtz and Ralph Faulkner, after many years, were able to repair their relationship.  In no small part that was due to Polly Craus, Olympian and National Champ, who looked out for Ralph for decades after she herself stopped competing.  Polly was a few years older than Skip and, like him, grew up around the Faulkner School of Fencing.  More than anyone, she was like a big sister to Skip and she helped the two reconcile.

So what does it all add up to?  I’m not certain I’ve really drawn a conclusion, other than to feel that Ralph Faulkner wasn’t above some rather drastic exaggeration in favor of a student he liked, and may have lashed out in anger against someone that, deep down, he cared for a great deal.  I’m just glad these photos were all kept together.  I’ve been assuming they were with Frank and passed along to Gryphon when he died, but that’s only a guess.  The Gryphon folks didn’t know the person that dropped them off and didn’t get a story to go along with the donation.  That leaves me free to fill in the blanks with the information at hand.  I’m not sure that’s how Sherlock Holmes worked, but it’s all I’ve got for the moment.

Fencing and Wine, 1982

Ever wondered who has the “fencing.com” URL?  Yup, it’s the Silicon Valley original, The Fencing Center.  Proximity and foresight; a powerful combination. The past two weeks of “Shelterinplace Con – 2020″ have been all about San Jose’s The Fencing Center for me.  A few years back I picked up a large collection of boxed historical ephemera from TFC to begin the process of transferring all the hard-copy media into the digital realm.  Poster, hundreds of photos, scrapbooks, photo albums, one lonely 35mm slide, many framed photos, negatives, one 1” video master reel and yet more.  It was quite a haul.  I’ve worked on the digitizing and organizing off and on since then, but I’d been in a lull for awhile and had forgotten how much more there was to do.

Enter, Covid 19.  Early last week I took a trip over to West Berkeley to drop off some boxes of material that I’d finished scanning.  I wasn’t actively looking for more work – I’ve got several boxes of stuff in my garage that needs to be dealt with, if only to win the battle against the silverfish who have been attacking in waves.  They’ve been beaten back for now.  But while doing a little re-arranging to make a hole for the boxes I was adding to the collection, I started going through some of the Fencing Center boxes that had been stacked up for awhile.  You know how after something’s been sitting in one place for a long time, you get so used to seeing it there you forget what importance it has?  Sadly, such was the case with my Fencing Center boxes.  As I started digging through them, it began to dawn on me that: a) there were some really cool photos I needed to scan, b) I was in some of those photos, and c) I had a ton of work ahead of me.  When last I worked on the project, I’d scanned more than 2,000 photos while sorting them into over 80 sub-folders.  Well, that was just scratching the surface.  After bringing everything home and sorting into groups that can be dealt with one at at time, I now have three binders full of photos and ephemera, one binder of negatives, a box of framed photos, a stack of loose negatives, 9 scrapbooks, a stack of polaroids, another stack of miscellaneous prints, and the 35mm slide and 1″ video master tape – all on my To-Do list.  And I’m carving it up.  Finished so far: one whole binder, all the framed photos, the polaroids, the 35mm slide, and the loose negatives.  The main storage folder is currently running at 80gig.  I suspect it’ll be close to half a terabyte before I’m done.

Greg Massialas parries Dean Hinton’s attack.  On the far end is one of two people tasked with catching any fencer who retreated too far off the end of the raised platform.  Not a lot of run-off back there.

Enough with the preamble, or just ramble, about what I’m up to.  Today I want to focus on one of the events that was a precursor to the creation of The Fencing Center back in 1982.  The main people responsible for the preparation of that creation remain a well-known group.  Peter Burchard, Peter Schifrin and Greg Massialas were the top competitors/coaches fronting the group and they were backed up by fencer and organizational master Scott Knies, along with Connie Yu and a handful of other parents of kids that had begun taking classes through Asgard Fencers, The Fencing Center’s precursor organization.  To promote the program, and fencing in general, an event was organized that would appeal to fencers and non-fencers, alike.  It was billed as the “Wine Tasting and Fencing Extravaganza”, and it lived up to its name.

The poster for the event.  If I remember correctly, the image of the fencer was painted from a photograph of Christina Massiala.  I’m not certain who did the work.  Ian Sandiland, an SJSU fencer and artist, did the majority of the t-shirt and poster printing and design for San Jose fencing at the time.  Could well be one of his.

In sorting through the Fencing Center material, I ran across some photos from this event in three different places, some prints, some negatives, probably shot by three different people.  With a personal agenda to see what could be seen in this group of pics, I prioritized my scanning to get all this material together so I could share it here.  Personal, because I was one of the fencers who partook in the Extravaganza.  Almost 40 years ago now, but I still remember that the whole even was a great success on the fun scale.  I hope it succeeded on other fronts as well, but I wasn’t involved in that end of the arrangements.

This photograph is blurry, but by the end of the event most of us were, too.  The finalists, L-R, paired in teams: Jessica Yu and Dean Hinton, Diane Knoblach and Me, Greg Massialas and Laurel Clark, Peter Schifrin and Joy Ellingson.

The day before this event, we held a preliminary round at San Jose State to whittle down the entrants to four mixed foil teams.  Each match consisted of a 10-touch bout with a change-over at the 5th touch.  I don’t recall if the men fenced first or the women, or if there was a coin toss involved, but the Saturday event wound down with the above four teams still standing.  The main organizers were some subset of the people who eventually created The Fencing Center and they had pulled out the stops to get a large number of vendors on board to display their wares in a nice ballroom at the downtown San Jose Hyatt Hotel.  There were many wineries pouring and a number of catering businesses that had food out, so it had everything needed for a rousing good time.  But before the food and drink, there was fencing.

Michael D’Asaro explains the intricacies of electric foil fencing to the crowd of spectators.  Two of Asgard Fencers Juniors, Cyril de Marval and Jamie Jackson, assist and prepare to fence.

To demonstrate how fencing worked, and foil fencing in particular, a group of four of the Junior fencers put on a show to warm up the crowd.  The spectators were probably a mix of about 50/50 fencers/non-fencers, some of whom were parents that had just begun to get involved with this new program and the athletes who were teaching their kids.

The Junior fencing demonstrators: Cyril and Jamie on the left, then Lisa Posthumus and Phil Smith, all of whom started out at the Fencing Center precursor, Asgard Fencers, learning from Peter Burchard, Greg Massialas and Peter Schifrin.

After the Junior crew got the audience warmed up, the tournament aspect took over.  I don’t remember what all the prizes were that had been arranged for the victors, but prizes there were.  Gift certificates for some something or other, maybe some wine.  I don’t recall, since my partner and I, Diane Knoblach, wound up fourth of four.  No prizes for us, alas.

Like the photo at the top of the story, this is Joy Ellingson on the left and a very young Jessica Yu on the right.  Jessica went on to Yale and an Academy Award in later years.  Joy, along with myself and another finalist, Laurel Clark, shared a house owned by Laurel’s mom that was just a few blocks off the San Jose State campus and a 10 minute walk from the fencing salle.

Dean Hinton, on the right, sees his attack crash onto the guard of lefty epee fencer (usually) and future 1984 Olympic team member in epee, Peter Schifrin.

My teammate Diane Knoblach on the left, up against my housemate, Laurel Clark.  I’m not sure what happened with the taping job that was done for “securing” the copper strip on top of the fencing platform, but it did not stay in place.  You can see the wrinkles and the edge popping up near the bottom left of this image.  Footing was challenging and we all were pretty cautious.

Joy blows a kiss to the crowd as she and Peter Schifrin took the top prize.  Greg and Laurel got something nice and Dean has a box of chocolates or something under his arm.  I assume Jessica got one, too.  Me & Diane?  We got a hearty handshake and directions to the bar.

The after-fencing party.  This shot doesn’t fully capture how big the event was and looking at this while trying to recall, I’d say this shows about a third of the group.  There was a lot of wine.  In the middle here, Gay (then) D’Asaro in the blue shirt, Scott Knies in the red and me with the skinny tie.  After the fencing, we all got cleaned up a bit.

Michael D’Asaro and Connie Yu stand in front of the scoreboard, where you can see that Diane and I, the second team listed, have a big, fat “0” in the Total Victories column.  However the directions to the bar we were given along with the hearty handshake were fantastic, so we did well out of the event, regardless.

I’m not sure what the deelio was with the bag.  Laurel, on the left, was wearing it later on.  Might have been a bet between her and housemate Joy, on the right, with Gay D’Asaro laughing and Michael middle background.  Laurel Clark, a few years later, would become the first US American woman fencer to win a World Cup tournament, taking the gold medal in an epee WC in Cuba.

The Yu youngsters.  Jennifer and Jessica standing behind younger sibling Marty.  By this time, Jennifer and Jessica were both regulars at the practices we had at San Jose State, taking lessons from Michael D’Asaro and sparring with the college team.  When the Fencing Center opened, Marty began taking lessons from Delmar Calvert, just to be different I suspect.  All three were very successful competitors, making Junior and Senior teams, and Jennifer won the US National Foil title in 1990.

Dr. William Gaugler listens to Sheri Posthumus in amongst the wine tables.  Dr. Gaugler, a San Jose State Art History professor and Fencing Master, had just begun his Fencing Master’s program at San Jose State, which saw a number of people from the San Jose competitive ranks train for two years to prepare for their USFCA-accredited Prevost exam.

So that was the event at the Hyatt.  Wine Tasting and Fencing and Extravaganza, all rolled together in one package.  It truly was an entertaining event and was one of the formative events that established the founders of The Fencing Center as capable organizers.  Not long after this, the search for a facility was underway to get the program out of a high school gymnasium and into a space they could call their own.  That first location, when they finally found it, was a story all its own.  10 Notre Dame, downtown San Jose, was the former home of the editorial offices of the San Jose Mercury News and had half-glass walls throughout the building.  Cool space.  Long gone, of course.  Downtown San Jose is a very different place now compared to 1982.

For me, back to work digitizing more material from The Fencing Center.  Scanner’s on and warmed up.  Here goes!

Unexpectedly More

It keeps happening.  Coincidence where it’s entirely unexpected.  My good friend Terrence Gargiulo says it’s because I’m in the right place, doing the right things.  He’s smarter than me and more spiritual, so I’ll take his words at face value.  I can always use the encouragement.  Today’s surprising happenstance all went down since I wrote last week’s story.  If you haven’t checked that one out, here’s the outline in brief.  I wrote about a booklet created by the Athletic Institute out of Chicago that was meant to be used hand-in-hand with a filmstrip and a record album.  It was the first time I’d heard of the Athletic Institute, although they published a great deal of sports related how-to books and – clearly – produced a variety of visual aides to assist with training and technique.

Lo and behold, in addition to filmstrips they also produced film.  In this case, film encased in plastic cartridges that were meant to be played in a very specifically designed projector unit.  It’s the exact same technology that Charlie Selberg used for his series, “Modern Foil Techniques” that have been featured a number of times on this site.  This is a completely unique series, produced by the Athletic Institute with the assistance of Maxwell Garret, who’s the same fencing mind behind the booklet and filmstrip teaching aide I was discussing last week.  And, it’s one that I would never have known about if not for the assistance of my new-ish bestie, Ebay.  Have you met Ebay?  Ebay is amazing.  Two words: search parameters.

The funny thing is, I wouldn’t have found this set of five unused boxes if I hadn’t been looking for filmstrips and recordings to go along with the booklet I wrote about last week.  And I didn’t get the entire contingent of boxed film loops, just the first five.  But they’re in absolutely perfect shape.  They seem not only to have been unused, but stashed somewhere away from light or other potential aging agents and left alone.  Since 1969.  That’s when they were produced.  Is that an indication of their usefulness?  Or were they simply purchased and ignored and forgotten?  No idea.  But along comes Ebay and suddenly anything can have value to someone and this time it was me, thanks to the Buy It Now feature.  Full price?  Yes, please.

To me, this type of thing is totally and completely cool.  I love this kind of find.  It’s my particular brand of geekdom.  And it’s not like it’s something I have flashbacks about.  I was never, to the best of my recollection, exposed to this particular type of classroom experience.  Maybe that’s why I like it so much.  Filmstrips?  16mm movies and projectors?  Yes and yes.  These crazy things?  Nope.  I’d never seen one of these cartridges before Matthew Porter of American Fencers Supply gifted me the complete set of Selberg films, and the player was something found on, and purchased from, Ebay based on a search that I constructed from looking at the cartridges themselves.  So this isn’t playing to some deeply ingrained memory of a long-ago classroom experience.  My best guess is that they never completely caught on.  Between filmstrips, which had a much lower entry cost than it’s primary classroom rival, the 16mm projector, I think these things got lost in the middle.

They had the same filming requirements as making a movie, with the addition of requiring encasing the film in these plastic containers – and also needing a unique projector to make them go.  This set was produced in 1969, just a couple of years after the introduction of the entire system of cartridge and projector, and in less than 10 years, videotape would begin to replace film as the go-to media for classroom use.

The lack of sound for this system is undoubtably one of the factors that led to its early demise.  Even the filmstrip people had figured out syncing picture to a record.  Adding a sound component to this player, the way it’s designed to work, would have been nigh impossible.  Soundtracks on 8mm film is not something that was ever on offer, I don’t think.  Even adding a soundtrack to Super 8 was tricky in the best case and expensive, since it wasn’t nearly the market size as either 16mm or 35mm, so this system was always going to have that working against it.  Charlie Selberg tried, with his production, to overcome that with a script that accompanied his film loops.  For each lesson, there was something for the instructor to read before playing the loop, more to be spoken over the noise of the projector during the screening, and additional dialogue after.

This set, instead, came with a tiny little booklet that was the roughly the same size as the cartridges and fit neatly inside the box.  Each of the five boxes I purchased has a copy of the booklet – they’re all the same – and it goes through each of the loops, describing what the learning expectation was for each “class”.  There were 19 lessons in all, meaning I’ve got 14 more to track down if I want to collect the whole set.

Since it’s the only thing I have to compare, I’ll once again contrast this to Selberg’s series. Here, the descriptions are brief by necessity since the booklet is pretty tiny.  They don’t do much more than cover the general descriptions of the actions you see in the film loop and there isn’t a follow-up of ‘things to do with this knowledge’ for the teacher and students to practice.  In general, it’s a little hard to imagine who the audience was.  If it was for an inexperienced teacher, the filmstrip and record player, with the much more in-depth book, provided a whole lot more help.  For an experienced teacher, I can’t think that this would actually be of much value.  In the time it would take to set up everything, sit the students down, give them a brief intro on what was happening and then watch the short clip, you could just as easily have stayed in the gym and taught this lesson and more.

I did a rough-and-tumble recording of the first of the film loops last night, just to see what there was to see.  There’s only a brief glimpse of the fencing master giving the lessons, but I thought he looked familiar.  It definitely wasn’t Maxwell Garret, so I went back and looked at the booklet.  Sure enough, the Maestro in this film series is none other than 1968 US Olympic Coach Michel Alaux.  An added benefit!  The video recording came out watchable, if not as high quality as the transfers I had done of the Selberg series.  I’m not sure the person who did those for me is still working, so I may need to stick with these rough transfers.  He was able to disassemble each cartridge, transfer the film and reassemble the cartridges and they play as well as ever.  I don’t want to trust myself to attempt the cartridge surgery, but since I have a working version of the projector, I instead set it up to play against a white screen (ok, it was actually a pillowcase taped to the wall) with a digital camera right above the projector.  The aspect ratios are a bit different and the projector clearly needs a good cleaning, but it all works.  So without further ado, here’s Loop #1 of the Athletic Institute’s presentation on Foil Fencing, conceived by Maxwell Garret and starring Michel Alaux.

I even left in the projector sound because of course I did.  One other comparison between last week’s entry and this one.  In the filmstrip version that Max Garret put together, I made mention of the outlines of the target having been drawn over the top of the photograph.  After seeing this, I’m no longer sure about that.  The woman modeling the target area – and at this point in time, 1969, it’s now the same as the men – clearly has the target area outlined on her jacket with tape.  (The caption actually says “red tape”, but this type of film’s most obvious sign of decay is the discoloration of the film into the red, so the actual red that was filmed has gone to black and everything else is red.  Go figure.  Common problem with film of this era.)  So maybe they did actually have it taped on the jackets in the earlier incarnation of this particular aspect of the demonstration.  That being the case, and since this isn’t a still image – the model does a 360 spin to show off the target –  why did they put stripes across her shoulder and down her sides?  I can see if you’re doing only front and back, but with the spin it almost seems like the two halves of the target are separate and not just one surface.  I know.  I’m nit-picking.  I’ll stop now.  Still, I can’t wait to see what coincidences are waiting in the weeds for me next!  If this keeps up, I’ll have to get to Vegas or put a bet down on the ponies once the world opens up again.  Here’s hoping it’s not too far off.

Multimedia and Instruction

It’s an interesting time for fencing coaches and clubs, as everyone tries to grapple with maintaining some level of instruction for their students during a global pandemic.  The reach of technology in our lives today makes it easy to deliver, but that wasn’t always the case.  If you’ve seen some earlier stories and videos on this site, you may have taken a look at what Charles Selberg used to combine a solid teaching methodology with film technology to create a teaching aide for classroom use.  (See what I mean here.)  Believe it or not, the technology Charlie used was, at the time, the cutting edge.  Today we’ll go a step backwards.

The Fencing Instructor’s Guide to Fencing Instruction, circa 1960.

This booklet, checking in at 64 pages chock full of pictures and diagrams, was created by The Athletic Institute.  They aren’t around anymore, but they published a lot of books on sports, many of them focusing on the theme of ‘How To Improve Your (pick a sport).  In this booklet, they run through an entire instruction progression for basic fencing that was put together by long-time coach at the University of Illinois, Max Garret.  Max wrote a couple of other fencing books and they were all of a similar theme and style.  This work adheres pretty closely with what he published in 1961, a book entitled, not surprisingly, “Fencing”.

All the fencers who modeled for this handbook together.  Anyone recognize anyone?  I’ve a name to attach to the guy on the right.  I’ll get to him in a bit.

One of the benefits, if I may, of being stuck in my office with nowhere to go for the last 6 weeks is that I’ve clawed my way through a whole backlog of work that has been sitting around and mocking me, some of it for quite a long time.  In my head, it sounds like this:

…if you can picture boxes of books and videotapes, papers that need sorting and photos that need scanning coming together to form a body and voice. This would be it.  (Stir crazy?  Moi?  Heavens no!)

And so it was that the subject of today’s story came from a stash of books that were donated to the Archive by the daughter of Ferenc Marki.  I took a trip to Colorado awhile back to visit with Juli and she was kind enough to donate some amazing material related to her father’s decades-spanning and very successful fencing career.  (That story is here.)  One of the fun tasks – and that’s not sarcasm – I set for myself last week was tuning up and filling out my database for the Archive’s collection of fencing books.  I’d already photographed most all of the book covers, but I needed to create individual entries for every book, including title, author, publication date and current location.

A snapshot of the Airtable db I’ve been filling out.

I probably could have used Excel or Google Sheets for this just as easily, but it had been so long since I’d played with any databases (where I was actually personally invested in the information) that I thought I’d give Airtable a try.  It’s free, it’s all online and none of the information I’m putting in the cloud is of value to anyone but me, so hacked data isn’t much of a concern.  209 entries so far, and I know there are some more books at the club I forgot to take into account, so more work to do.  Many duplicates.  And the Fencing Instructor’s Guide from 1960 is part of the Ferenc Marki collection.

But this wasn’t just a book with writing and pictures, no.  This was a multi-media presentation with moving parts requiring extra hands and plenty of space.  This booklet was prepared to be used in conjunction with one of the greatest inventions of the middle part of the last century: the Slidefilm Projector with Record Player.  Here’s a snapshot of one I pulled from the web:

This ingenious device was a staple of instruction in my youth.  Walking into a classroom and seeing one of these set up was almost as thrilling as seeing a 16mm projector.  Almost.  Keep in mind, this was a long time ago.

This contraption projected images from a filmstrip roll of 35mm pictures.  Slides, but not mounted.  Printed on a continuous roll and meant to be projected one at a time.  There was a handle that someone had to turn and it would step – click, click, click – through one image at a time.  But wait!  There’s more!  The record player had the audio track of the instructional text and every time the monitor was to turn a slide, you’d hear a “beeeep!”  If the monitor got sidetracked or slumped over into a coma, you’d get out of snyc with picture and sound.  You had to stay frosty to make this work.  If you really don’t understand my description, here’s a YouTube video of this system in action:

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Did you get through the whole thing?  For god’s sake, why?  That’s what multi-media instruction of this kind looked like.  This particular example is from a “portable” device that included a screen.  The example I included in the photo up above was meant to be projected on a larger screen.

The booklet was intended, naturally enough, to be used as a supplement to instruction.  However, it was designed more for the novice fencing instructor in an attempt to overcome the lack of experience on the part of that teacher.  At this point in time, in this big country, there weren’t that many accredited fencing masters, but fencing was well known enough that often schools would have a closet full of equipment but no one on staff with more than a passing amount of experience with the sport.  So you take a sports coach, give them some audio-visual assistance and expect them to figure it out, right?

That’s a lot of dang words for a book that I promised was “chock full of pictures.  The good thing about the above page is that it clearly is meant to instill the fear of deviation on the part of the instructor, regardless of the sport being taught.  My favorite sentence is in Point #5: “Wise leadership will see to it that enthusiasm in game participation will not be allowed to destroy all adherence to correct performance of individual skills and team play.”  Do it right or don’t do it at all!

Ok, so we’ve set the stage for this:

A photo example on the left, with the instructional text on the right.  The text was played on the record and after every line of the instructional dialogue was heard, you’d hear the cue: “beeeeep!”

Ah, youth.  A simpler time.  The Sports Institute and Maxwell Garret put a lot of effort into creating this program and I’d so dearly love to have a copy of the filmstrip and accompanying record.  There are many examples of different brands of projector/record player devices on Ebay at any given time, so it’s possible to recreate this experience for a new generation of fencers.  It’s not as exciting as YouTube videos or live instruction on Zoom, but…  well, it might help you get some nap time in.  Full disclosure; watching these types of filmstrip presentations, with or without records (audiotape came into use late in the game), was almost always dreadfully boring.  I speak from experience here.  But what were the options?  This is before home video.  It’s even before Selberg’s jump to the next level of having filmed motion picture sequences, although his chosen technology eschewed the use of accompanying audio.  These slides were static and the narration was almost always done in a dry, clinical fashion that seemed to have been done purposely to induce you to fall asleep.  But that doesn’t mean the whole thing was without merit.  These photos alone are classic examples of just how difficult it is to capture the essence of fencing instruction in a static image.

Imagine the scenario in which you are presented with this type of instruction.  It was challenging, to say the least, to play these sorts of projected AV programs in a gym.  Gymnasiums used for athletics have one particular thing that makes using this type of technology as an in-class aid difficult or impossible: light.  To see the images, you need dark.  Instead, from my reading a bit of the booklet, it was recommended that you show a section of the instruction in a classroom that you could make dark (“Kids!  Nap time!”) and then proceed to the gym and attempt to put in practice what you were supposed to have absorbed of the lesson.

As perplexing as the image above appears at first glance, it’s actually a pretty solid attempt.  The numbers confuse the issue to a great extent, but if you look close, you’ll see our left-hander has, from guard (1) lunged (2), recovered her back foot forward (3), and lunged again.  Pretty sweet, but visually baffling as all get out.

This one captures the mid-point of the lunge in a fun way.  I have the recollection that it’s been pretty effectively proven that, even though most of us from back in the day were taught that the lunge was kicked off from the heel as shown here, in fact, almost all fencers come off the toes of their front foot.  Slo-mo replays pretty well established that as fact, didn’t it?  Am I remembering that right?

If you recall the picture at the top and my mentioning that I could name one of our subjects, here goes:

I thought this guy looked familiar when I spotted him in this booklet, so I went back to look at the photos I scanned from Delmar Calvert’s collected memorabilia.  Sure enough, not only the same guy, but I’m convinced the below was taken at the same photo shoot.

When Delmar was coaching in the midwest for a time, Larry Silverman, above, was one of his students.  Larry won a couple of midwestern championships and made the semi’s at Nationals a couple of times in both foil and sabre.

It’s challenging to represent fencing actions in still photographs for instructional purposes.  It always is.  If you look at any book of fencing instruction that includes photos or illustrations of what you are meant to do, there’s almost always an aspect of the image that makes interpreting exactly how to emulate the action challenging.  This is almost the entire problem presented to anyone that delves into the mystical realm of recreating 16th century rapier play based upon the illustrations from contemporaneous manuals, or any of the other styles of ancient swordplay depicted in various ways over the course of centuries in this or that ancient tome.  It’s not easy to create in a still image, with any exactitude, something that completely and fully conveys all meaning for an action that is meant to be performed at speed with precision.  It’s true whether you’re looking at Capo Ferro or trying to decide what advantage making smiley faces with the golf ball on the end of your foil provides.

When I first glanced at this one, I thought, wrongly, that the dark lines indicating the target area was actually marked on the jackets themselves.  After looking more closely, I realized they’re only drawn over the top of the photos.  And, yes, the above is the correct indicator for the difference between target areas for men vs women.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure when this changed.  Mid-1960s, I think.

That’s a lot of dotted lines to figure out.  The good news is, with all the dotted line watching being done by the side judges, apparently the Director doesn’t need to look at anything.  Or anything specific?  How do you draw that?  I guess you don’t.  Speaking of Directors though, here’s a style of dress for officiating a fencing bout that needs to come back into fashion:

That’s Maxwell Garret in the referee outfit.  And that’s what we call that position now in our sport.  Referees.  Once they were Directors.  Now, Referees.  There’s a story about when this change took place.  Andy Shaw, the man behind the Museum of American Fencing, took it upon himself to show up to officiate at a National event dressed pretty much as you see Mr. Garret above, although I think Andy also added a whistle to his outfit.  If I’m remembering correctly, it was the last time Andy was asked to officiate at a National event.  No sense of humor, some people.  And yet, here’s an example from 1960 of a highly respected and successful coach showing exactly that style of dress as being appropriate to our sport, even if he is without the whistle.  Precedent!  I vote for Referee outfits!  Come on!  Who’s with me?

Well, far be it from me to demand one style over another.  Still and all, we should be right thankful in this pandemical time that we have access to modes of technology far advanced beyond the available tools of 1960.  It’s easy to forget the tech that has long-since been surpassed by far superior innovations that can much more effectively aid in the classroom, or while sitting in front of a computer screen.  I believe this; not only has the means to deliver information increased exponentially, but our ability to assimilate information has increased proportionally.  I don’t want to write a thesis on it, though.  When I imagine myself as a third-grade student in class, I’m sure we could have taken in data at a much higher rate than was offered by slidefilm projection instruction, record player or no.  But that was what it was.  Still, it’s quite true that the appearance of a 16mm projector was a much more welcome sight.

I’ll just leave you with this final image that clearly encapsulates the best of advice that can be given in our sport.  It was true back in the day and it’s just as true now.  So don’t forget.


Dueling Dads of the Pacific Coast

This story began with a listing on Ebay.  It was a photograph of a young woman in fencing garb, back hand on her hip and sword arm raised in a prime parry.  Nice classical form, but nothing much to inspire a purchase. The listing read, “1929 Press Photo Jeanne Vigal, International Woman’s Fencing Champion of Europe.” I’ve looked at a lot of records for Olympic and World Championships for women on the International circuit in the 20s & 30s, but I’d never heard the name “Vigal” before, so my response initially was, ‘Yeah.  Me, too.’ and then off I went to look for something else.  Still, the listing hung around.  No one else seemed to want to buy it, either.  Well, lo and behold, while perusing a newly discovered (by me, at least) digital repository of the old French fencing magazine “L’Escrime et le Tir,” which was published from 1921 to 1939, what do I come across but the same name and a couple of photos!  Well, almost the same name.  The young woman’s name was Jeanne Vical, and she was the daughter of the French fencing and language instructor Captain Charles Vical, who served on the staff of Marshal Foch during WW1.

This photo is from the pages of “L’Escrime et le Tir” magazine, May 1928, and can be seen in the International section.  There are several different online repositories that have downloadable copies of the magazine.  I don’t read French, but Google Translate does pretty well as long as the sections you want to understand are under the character limit that Google has set.  I guess they don’t want it used to translate entire books.  If I could, I’d probably use it for just exactly that.

The Vicals seemed to have landed in St. Louis in the mid-1920s.  There are several notices and articles about Captain Charles Vical, former French officer, in the local St. Louis newspapers dating from 1925 that indicate that the multi-talented Vical was a fencing teacher, language instructor and baritone singer.  Whether the lure of Hollywood drew them to Southern California or it was merely an escape from midwestern winters, by 1928 they were in Los Angeles.  Jeanne entered into the local fencing scene and L’Escrime et le Tir reported on her victory in the Jack Leonard Cup.  The fact that I’ve never heard of the Jack Leonard Cup doesn’t mean that it wasn’t well known or important to the fencing denizens of Southern California in the 1920s.  It wouldn’t be the first, nor the last, named tournament that had its time and was eventually discontinued.

This is the Ebay photo of 21 year old Jeanne Vical and dates from 1929.  I had been tempted to buy it a couple of times, since the back of it mentioned Los Angeles (and I am, after all, the West Coast Fencing Archive) but with the mis-spelling on the listing, it didn’t occur to me to dig deeper.

The back of this photo (below) has the International Newsreel story attached to it, which newspapers could use to create an article for a local paper.  This one was used in just that way.  The reason for using this photo is where everything starts to get interesting.  The below sets the stage:

In 1929, the East Coast dominated the competitive scene in Women’s Foil.  The West had a few tough competitors in the women’s ranks, such as Edith Jane, later Edith Jane Faulkner, but it wasn’t until Helene Mayer arrived that championships came frequently to the West.  All that to say, the Women’s Foil Pacific Coast Championships competition of 1929 was not at the strength it would be in later years.  I’m not even going to get into how winning the Pacific Coast Championships could be more cherished than the International Championship of Europe which, in 1929, was synonymous with the World Championship.  However, the Pacific Coast Championships did have one terrific thing going for them, and that was the presence of John Allaire.

Thanks to Andy Shaw of the Museum of American Fencing for this great portrait!  John Allaire was one of the founding organizers of the Amateur Fencers League of America, the forerunner of today’s USA Fencing.  He represented the New York Turn-Verein, founded in 1850 and was also a member of both the New York Fencers Club and the New York Athletic Club.  He was an elected Vice-President of the AFLA in 1929 when he came west to officiate at the Pacific Coast Championships in Oakland.

John Allaire was best known as a foil fencer.  His name is on the US National Men’s Foil championship trophy.  He was also known as an eminently fair-minded individual, so his directing on the West Coast would seem to represent an entirely unbiased presence who would do his best to be scrupulously fair.  He didn’t have a horse in the race, as it were.  However, this is where everything starts getting interesting.  The third place finisher in the Women’s Foil event was also the daughter of a fencing master.  Georgette Pecqueux was the daughter of Léon Pecqueux, the fencing master at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, and Georgette was defeated by Jeanne Vical in the final and finished with the bronze medal.  In between the two, winning the silver medal, was the aforementioned Edith Jane.  M. Pecqueux was not pleased.  Here’s the opening salvo:

This turn of events was all the rage for about the same length of time that a ‘pretty funny’ meme lasts on the internet these days.  It was spoken of and passed around – newspapers as far afield as Waco, Texas, published articles about the goings-on of these two French fencing teachers ‘way out West.

The above was printed in the Oakland Tribune, April 18, 1929 and it seemed the affair would be quickly pursued to a finish, one way or another.  This is also the only picture I’ve seen of Georgette.

The above is from the San Francisco Examiner’s April 18th edition, as is the below:

Look familiar?  Yes, that’s the same snapshot as the press photo that arrived in the mail this week, as printed in the SF Examiner.  I wonder how she felt about being called the ’cause of war’?

Yes, that title up at the top is actually what was printed in the San Francisco Examiner, April 19, 1929.

It’s unclear what happened after all the noise of this initial challenge.  Vical made it known that arrangements could be made in France and that he would be there and available to M. Pecqueux for three months in the summer of 1929.  Conducting a duel anywhere on US soil in 1929 was out of the question.  It was probably the same in France, but perhaps Captain Vical had connections that might be able to bend the rules in such a circumstance.  Or maybe he was just trying to see how serious M. Pecqueux actually was.  Beyond the initial flurry of articles regarding this, all printed on April 18th and 19th, 1929, there isn’t a single follow-up article about the challenge, the two fencers, or their fathers.  Nothing, in fact, until an article printed in 1934 that indicates that the Vicals have once again settled in St. Louis.  Pecqueux taught at the Olympic Club in San Francisco for only a couple of years, 1929 to 1931, and it doesn’t seem he continued teaching after that.  A quick check on Find-A-Grave provides some closure.

Léon Pecqueux passed away in San Francisco in 1933, so my guess is that he likely retired from teaching around 1931, passing just a couple of years later.  Georgette remained in San Francisco, married and widowed young, but had children and grandchildren.  That’s as far as I can take the story of the fencing careers of Léon and Georgette Pecqueux.

There is a little bit more to say about the fencing career of Jeanne Vical.  There is a hint in the information on the back of her Ebay-acquired press photo above.  In the article, it claims that Ms. Vical is the “International Woman’s Champion of Europe”.  Well, there’s records for that sort of thing and thanks to George Masin, I have them.  The 1929 Women’s European Championship was won by the same woman that took the gold medal the previous year at the Olympic Games; Helene Mayer.  (She won again in 1930.)  Jeanne Vical didn’t finish in the top 3 of the 1929 event and the available records aren’t robust enough to list all the competitors that participated.  That the news flash above mentions that she’s taking her Pacific Coast Championship on the road and headed to Germany to challenge Helene Mayer is a pretty bold statement.  Almost entirely unbelievable, but bold, nonetheless.  If she did, in fact, head to Germany to face “The Blonde He”, we can project what her fate may have been by looking at some fencing records that I do have from a couple of years later.  Namely, the 1932 Olympics.

In 1932, the Vicals were living in Los Angeles, site of the 1932 Games.  1932 would be just the third time that Women’s Foil was included in the Olympics and many countries had not yet organized themselves around the notion that creating a woman’s program and sending a cadre was quite the thing to do.  Since there was no French women’s team, and Jeanne was a French-born fencer living in Los Angeles, she petitioned the French Olympic committee to be allowed to compete for France in the Games and was accepted.  The event was not a crowded field.  There were a total of 17 competitors and Jeanne was the only representative for France.  The format of the event was as follows:  two preliminary pools of 8 and 9 fencers, with 5 advancing from each pool for a round-robin final of 10.  Ms. Vical’s results are below.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that things didn’t go the way Jeanne might have hoped.  She was in the pool of 8 fencers, lost all 7 matches, and scored a total of 8 touches.  That gives her an indicator of -27.  That’s a rough day.  By contrast, Helene Mayer went through that preliminary round winning all her matches, four of them with scores of 5-0, including her match against Vical, and was hit a total of 6 times for a +29 indicator.  Helene Mayer was the top seed going into the final.  (In between the preliminary round and the final, she received a telegram from Germany that her Naval officer boyfriend was lost at sea.  She finished in 3rd place.)  Vical did not end up in last place, however.  That went to a 17 year old from Mexico.  However, for some reason, not all the bouts were completed in her pool of 9 fencers.  Once they had fenced enough to make the qualifications to the final inevitable, they stopped.  The Mexican youngster, Eugenia Escudero, fenced six of her possible 8 bouts, lost all, but scored 11 touches.  With more touches scored in fewer bouts than Vical’s, why was she put in last place?  It’s a mystery I can’t unravel from here.  Maybe they went by age.  Vical was 24 to Escudero’s 17.  Who knows?

As to the duel?  Perhaps cooler heads prevailed.  I’d like to imagine that the daughters of each of the hotheads gave their fathers a severe talking to, something along the lines of, “Stop embarrassing me, dad!”  At any rate, there’s nothing to indicate that any further action was taken.  They lived a good 350 miles apart; perhaps that was enough distance to just let it go.

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