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The Fencing Muralist: Victor Arnautoff

There is a great photo hanging on the wall at the Halberstadt Fencers Club on South Van Ness in San Francisco that I’ve always admired.  It shows four fencing masters sitting and watching a tournament at the Funke Fencing Academy when it was housed in the Theatre Arts Colony on Washington Street in the City.  The photo was taken in 1940 while Hans was working as an assistant at Funke’s.  The masters are, from left to right, Hans Halberstadt smoking a pipe, Julio Castello, no doubt paying a social call on his West Coast brethren, Edward Visconti who would, within a year, donate his closed-by-the-war club gear to Hans that he might establish his own salle d’armes, and Erich Funke d’Egnuff.  However, there is another person in the photo.  On the far left, in a robe and casually having a smoke, is the muralist/painter Victor Arnautoff.

A couple of years ago I had tracked down his name, then subsequently forgot to write it down or tag him in a photo.  It escaped me until this week.  As per usual, while looking for something else, I came across his name, did a little dig through my digital files, and was able to reconnect his name with the man in this photo.  I quickly updated all my copies of this photo to add his name.  That’s by the way.  Arnautoff’s name has been in the news in the Bay Area of late and I’d seen the articles but until yesterday hadn’t connected the fencer to the current controversy about his work.

Victor Arnautoff was a Russian-born artist and teacher.  His early life is fascinating and can be read about in the very interesting book, “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art” by Robert W. Cherny.  I’m just into the first couple of chapters myself.  He was in the Tsarist and then the White Russian army as a cavalry officer, learning to fence as part of his training.  When the White Russian forces were defeated in the counter revolution, he crossed into China and taught cavalry tactics to a Chinese warlord’s troops and remained in China for about 5 years. In 1925 he brought his wife and two sons to San Francisco and enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (now the SF Art Institute) to pursue his life-long dream of becoming an artist.  He spent two years in Mexico as an assistant to Diego Rivera, returning to San Francisco in 1931 where he began to establish himself as a muralist.  The Public Works of Art Project, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal WPA initiative, provided funding for one of his first major commissions, the painting “City Life” inside Coit Tower.

Photo courtesy of Dick Evans – San Francisco.  This is one of the paintings Arnautoff did at George Washington High School in San Francisco.  Slave owner and Father-of-the-Country Washington checks in on the work day at Mount Vernon.  Arnautoff, Russian by birth, did not, I think, feel the need to shy away from the historically accurate as he saw it.   Hence the controversy.  I’ll explain in a bit.

While establishing himself as an artist, he was also establishing himself as a fencer.  The earliest references I’ve been able to find for him competing in Northern California tournaments are from 1935.  A member of the Olympic Club, at that time, arguably, the best club around, Arnautoff would likely have been taking lessons from DeForest Rodecape or, a little later, Elwyn Bugge, who also taught at Stanford.  (Rodecape and Bugge both have so far escaped being profiled here but the time is coming.)

This item, as are most in today’s article, is from a scrapbook of Dr. William O’Brien’s that I was able to scan in its entirety.  (Thanks Gerard!)  It’s chock full of articles and other interesting tid-bits.  In his pre-Letterman Fencers Club days, Dr. O kept a pretty thorough record of his placements in tournaments up & down the coast.  At this time, the categories “Novice”, “Junior”, “Intermediate” and “Senior” had nothing to do with age or, necessarily, experience.  It was instead based on your record of success.  Arnautoff’s victory here at a Novice event probably bumped him to Junior/Foil in 1936.  I don’t quite understand all the distinctions about the categories or if it was in any way limiting to what events you could compete in.  Novice fencers competed in Junior events, etc, and anyone could enter an Open event.  Hence the legacy term “Open” that we still use today even though the reason behind it is no longer quite as pertinent – if it was pertinent at all.  With all the age specific events now, anything without an age requirement is almost by default an Open event.  I guess that’s still working the same way.

Arnautoff’s victory secured him a notice in the local news as well.

In addition to normal fencing tournaments, the Bay Area in the mid-30s was also ground zero for another type of fencing competition known as the Patri events.  This was a fencing party game with shades of Calvinball.  The Patri games were the brainchild of their namesake, Giacomo Patri, another Bay Area artist/fencer.  Patri events were set up as standard foil tournaments (this was prior to electric scoring machines for foil, so there wasn’t a choice to be made there) but you could “capture” your opponents, swap in a new fencer in the middle of an action, escape from prison by lunging and hitting your teammate, all kinds of wackiness.  It actually sounds like a lot of fun and I need to publish the rule sheet one of these days.  I bring it up because Arnautoff made the paper in an article all about a Patri tourney held in the city.

Arnautoff on the left parries an incoming attack.  The people standing around in the background are the other members of the two Patri teams facing off.

From the same article, Arnautoff is on the far left and seems to be officiating – or admonishing his teammate with a “You’re supposed to hit HIM!” A pretty, if failed, attempt at a prime parry by the fencer facing front.  Still, it’s for a news photo.  I shouldn’t be so critical.

Another type of fencing event that was once more poplar than today was outdoor competitions.  Southern California’s division had several annual outdoor events, while even foggy and cold San Francisco – and I’m talking about the summer months – held a few over the years.  One such annual event was the Nor Cal Outdoor Fencing Championships sponsored at least once, in 1937, by the Examiner newspaper.  It was held at the stadium at the High School of Commerce and although the pre-event article advertised the ‘free to all spectators’ aspect, you can see by the crowds in the below photo that they didn’t generate too much interest:

One spectator is better than none, isn’t it?  Arnautoff is the fencer on the right.  The way the audience has his hat pulled down, he might be asleep.  I hope the fencing was warm enough to at least keep the competitors from getting a chill.  I mean, it was held on July 4th.  It was probably in the low 50’s.  And foggy.

The O’Brien scrapbook even has an example of Arnautoff’s art, although there is one thing that confuses me.

This says “Drawing of M. Cathcart”.  I believe that is a mis-print.  There was a Cathcart who fenced for the Hollywood Athletic Club (the H.A.C here) but his first name was Charles.  Charles Cathcart was a very popular member of the fencing community and this quick-sketch drawing was probably made at the 1937 Pacific Coast Championships, held in the auditorium of the William Taylor Hotel, now the McAllister Tower Apartments, in San Francisco.  Cathcart won the Pacific Coast Championship Intermediate Epee in 1937.  Two years later in The Riposte Magazine (published from 1935 to 1942) a notice of his passing was printed.  The Southern California division held a Cathcart Memorial Outdoor Epee competition – using point d’arret & ink – until 1960.

I don’t know the end of Arnautoff’s fencing history.  There’s one source I plan to check with who may know but for now it’s a grey area.  He was painting and teaching throughout his time in San Francisco, including a long stint at Stanford that began in 1938.  An avowed Communist, a leaning that coalesced during his time with Diego Rivera, he endured pressure and investigations by the FBI during the heady days of the Red Scare.  Friends and associates were interviewed about his language as government forces attempted to determine if he posed a threat as a potential terrorist.  Did fencing at the Olympic Club fit into the workings of his life as time went on?  Perhaps I’ll find out.  In the early 1960s, after the death of his first wife, he returned to Soviet Russia to live out the rest of his days.

In recent days, his name has been figuring prominently as a controversy swirls around the murals he did for George Washington High School in the Outer Richmond district of San Francisco.  You know, the area of San Francisco that some old maps of the city note as “Uninhabitable Due To Fog”.  One of Arnautoff’s paintings is shown above with George Washington.  Another is below:

Photo courtesy of Dick Evans – San Francisco. Without knowing the compass alignment of the painting, I can only surmise that Washington is pointing West.

Objections to these paintings and the depiction of both slavery and a dead Native American has been around since the 1960s.  And I get how they touch a nerve for a lot of people.  As I mentioned above, I believe Arnautoff’s Russian upbringing gave him a distance from the American mindset about the discussions around both slavery and the slaughter of the native peoples in North and South America. It’s not an easy subject. And now the topic of reparations to the descendants of slaves brought from Africa is in the news and it’s an important discussion to have.  It’s not like I have an answer.  But how do you give reparations to the native peoples of this land wherein dozens, if not hundreds, of native tribes have been erased from existence?  Needless to say, the discussions around race and reparations all come into play regarding these paintings.  Here’s why they are currently newsworthy.  The San Francisco School Board has voted to spend upwards of half a million dollars to erase Arnautoff’s work from the walls of George Washington High School.

I’m not a big fan of the destruction of art in general and the destruction of public art is painful to me, even when it depicts something that I find uncomfortable or downright offensive.  The demigods of the Confederacy whose statues have been coming out of parks throughout the south is one side of this coin, where heroic myths have been built around people who fought to maintain the right to enslave.  I don’t like the statues, what they represent, their placement – or their destruction.  I’m conflicted.  Here, Arnautoff depicts the ugly truth of our history.  Enslavement was a reality.  The slaughter of the native people of this land was a reality.  Arnautoff even represents the duplicity that intertwines with American expansion, as on the far right a trapper smokes a peace pipe with a native chief, while others coming along will deliver genocide.  Difficult subjects all.  But erasing this depiction from the halls of a high school hardly puts a finger in the dyke of the racism that leaks into our society at large.  Rather, let’s find a way to erase the racism.  I’m for that.

I usually talk about fencing on this website.  It seems I’ve gone a little astray but Arnautoff’s name being bandied about in the local news led me to tracking down a wider topic than usual.  As above, I certainly don’t pretend to have an answer.  I’m against destroying the paintings.  I’d rather see them put into historical context by all the players and have that drive unvarnished conversations at the school with the kids who see these paintings every day.  Let’s help them understand the various corners in this fight and why no one side is all right and another all wrong.  There’s a lot of grey here, fog or no fog.

Mori and Kendo

I confess, I don’t know a whole lot about Kendo.  Outside of the countless samurai films I’ve seen (which I don’t pretend are representative of Kendo), I’ve only been around the sport a couple of times.  On my very first fencing team, the best guy had picked up a foil about a year earlier than me but grew up with Kendo in Japan.  Shige Tateishi was a High School or College champion of some sort and I believe he had achieved the 4th dan ranking.  If he kept it up after he went back to Japan, he’s probably a bit higher by now.

I mention all that as a caveat for what I’ve collected, as I’m excited to show off some great images of Torao Mori.  I’ve written about him before of course but always in relation to his time spent with our Western version of fencing, where he was the coach at Salle Vince/Salle Mori in Los Angeles as well as the coach of the Japanese Olympic fencing team for a few cycles – I think ’60, ’64 & ’68.  This time out, it’s all about Kendo.

Torao Mori, in white, teaching Kendo at one of the many locations where he instructed in Southern Cal.

Torao “Tiger” Mori held a very high rank in Kendo, the 8th dan or Hachidan.  He went to Japan to test for this rank sometime in the late 50s, early 60s.  The Archive has some pictures and film that seem to be from this event that were donated in the large haul from Heizaburo Okawa’s water damaged storage unit.  Many of the photos were color slides and they, apparently, don’t take well to water damage and heat.  The film faired a bit better and are of the home-movie variety.

I was reminded of how much Kendo material I had around Mori when I picked up a copy of Black Belt magazine from March of 1964.  It features an article about Kendo masters of Japan taking a tour of the US and Mori is listed as Hachidan, so his promotion to that rank was prior to ’64.  One of the few clues I have to go on.  Here is the headline from the magazine:

I have no doubt that Mori was one of the prime movers behind this tour.  He’s featured in the article and listed as a “technical advisor” to Black Belt magazine.  And he gets a nice picture, too.

I hate it when pictures I’d really like to get a good scan of are in the center of a two page spread. That’s Mori on the left.  This issue of Black Belt features some great Kendo shots, as well as an article on How To Enjoy A Samurai Motion Picture, which includes candid photos of Akira Kurosawa on location while filming “Throne of Blood”. So that’s a bonus.

Mori was good at publicity and promoted Kendo in local papers, national magazines, on television, basically anywhere that would build interest in the sport.  Youtube has a clip of him doing a TV demonstration in 1958 that you can check out.  And, while going through my photos to choose which images to include here, I came across some pages that were glued into the Halberstadt Scrapbook #2 that I’d forgotten about.  (This happens frequently.  I’ve got almost 3 terabytes of images and while I have a good filing system with lots of cross-reference, I still can’t remember everything I’ve got.  And I’m bush league compared to what Andy Shaw has and most of his collection isn’t scanned.  Yet.)

This photo, one of several in the (thank you Hans!) article, is from Fortnight Magazine, 1955.  Panorama Pacific was a CBS television series produced from 1952 through 1964 and featured human interest stories, mostly set in Southern California, I believe.  It was produced in LA through KNXT, the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles back in the day.

From the same article, Mori on the right, scores.

And I had to put this one in and not because of the mis-print of ‘fency’ for ‘fencing’.  Rather, because of this: “Kendo makes European-style fencing easy”. Now, I was just a baby fencer when I knew Shige Tateishi, mentioned above, but let me tell you a story about him.  He and I were on the first fencing team ever fielded by little Cabrillo Community College in Aptos, California, and our first competition was against Stanford’s “B” foil team.  Four-man teams.  Three of us were going to our very first fencing tournament on that day but Shige, the Kendo champion, had been going to such events since he was a little tyke and so had no jitters about the excursion.  When putting together the bout order, our coach, Len Carnighan, made sure that Shige was first up for us.  Upon the command ‘Fence!’, Shige did a little bounce-forward-bounce-back-direct-attack-with-fleché-one-light action.  I happened to be watching Len, who was standing next to Jean Helliwell, the Stanford coach, just as Shige executed that picture-perfect fleché.  Jean’s jaw dropped open in total shock on that first touch, as if to say, “What the… who’s this guy!?”.  Len had that “I’m not sayin’ nothin'” look on his face, with just the tiniest hint of a smirk.  Shige won all four of his bouts easily and we won, 8-8, on the strength of his indicators. Shige is my only personal experience of Kendo-to-Fencing transitions but since he’s my example, let me tell you, he made it look really easy.

One paragraph in the article jumped out at me and I don’t know whether to take it seriously or to write it off as the exaggeration typical of newspaper and magazine writers attempting to increase the validity of their subject matter.  Probably that.

This is handy, knowing that Mori was teaching at four locations in SoCal.  And this was on top of teaching at Salle Vince/Salle Mori.  (I write it that way as I have yet to pin down the exact date that Mori, Vince’s assistant, bought out Vince’s salle and equipment company upon Vince’s retirement.)  Then there’s the last bit.  Adding the “perhaps” to this paragraph gives the writer an out, I suppose.  But “no real competition in Japan” seems a very subjective statement to make by a writer who, I have no doubt, didn’t make much of an effort to find out just how true that may have been.  Not to take anything away from Mori and his unquestioned ability but there’s always somebody else, isn’t there?

Here’s a great shot of Mori, center back row, either with one of his SoCal classes or at a tournament.  Unfortunately, nothing on the back of this photo to indicate location or date.

Mori seems to have frequently traveled to Japan, either on Kendo business or his fencing equipment business. Actually, probably both.  I believe Joseph Vince had a hand in getting Tokyo Sport fencing equipment up and running and Mori kept that relationship going.  I have photos from a 1966 visit and an event in Japan that Mori attended with some of his SoCal compatriots.  I believe this was a goodwill tour/competition that Mori organized for his Los Angeles-based students to get experience and exposure to Kendo in Japan.

Mori in the center of this group with his head turned. There is a slim possibility that the non-Japanese guy with glasses to the immediate right of Mori is Charles Chess, who taught television and film production at San Jose State during my time there.  I found his name on a list of attendees for this event while doing my initial perusal of the Archives’ Okawa collection.  Could be.  The glasses seem right but when I knew Professor Chess he wore his hair in a memorable comb-over.

I don’t know that this is Mori but I believe it is.

And then, there’s this.  One of the real treasures that Greg Lynch and Jamie Douraghy pulled out of the dumpster at Heizaburo Okawa’s place a few years back when an old, leaky storage shed finally gave up its contents was a stack of old home movies.  Some were in color, some in black & white, none had any sound and only a couple had titles or dates written on them.  A few were dateable based on the content but many were not.  Both of the below clips were unmarked and undated.  I’ve strung two clips from two different reels together to feature Mori.  The first, in black & white, was shot in Japan at what I believe to be Mori’s test and award of his Hachidan rank.  You’ll see him receive a bouquet of flowers first, then there are a couple of clips of Kendo demonstrations – either of which could contain Mori but I can’t tell – and last is a demonstration of sword work with a katana.  No equipment here, so Mori is easily recognizable as the swordsman on the right.  The second section, which is in color, starts with Mori giving an iaido demonstration at what seems to be a Kendo competition in Los Angeles.  At the very end, we see Mori awarding a trophy to the winner.  Here ’tis:

I can’t date these earlier or later strictly based on the black & white vs color.  I have some film I’ve dated to the mid-50s in color and some dated to the mid-60’s in black & white, so clearly the Mori’s did not stick to one or the other for their home movies.  My guess though is that the black & white footage here is from the 1950’s and the color is mid-1960s.  Guesswork at this point.  Hopefully I’ll someday track down real dates.

That’s all for today, except for this amazing portrait of a young Torao Mori.  Catch you next time.


The Woman in the Center

I’m always fascinated by people who are the first to do something.  I take little interest in things like climbing Everest, other than reading the current news of how the mountain’s exploitation is causing the needless deaths of adventurous souls from around the globe, as I don’t see much point in so exactly treading in the footsteps of countless others.  I guess the view is nice.  I’ve seen the pictures.

But fencing firsts are a particular favorite of mine.  By their very nature, they cannot be replicated.  You can’t achieve a fencing championship in the same way as anyone previously.  No one can make a reasonable argument against your victory because the results happened right on the strip where someone walked away the winner and another was defeated, one-on-one.  It is, definitively, your accomplishment.

Ruth White in 1970 from Ebony Magazine.

Ruth White was The First in fencing history.  And not in a single category of history but rather in an impressively long list of firsts.  She was the first black athlete to win a US National Fencing title in any weapon.  She was the first black athlete to win the US National Women’s Foil individual title.  She was also the youngest fencer to win the US National Women’s Foil individual title up to that time, winning at 17 years of age.  She also won the U-19 National foil title in the same year.  That’s how 1969 shaped up for Ruth White.  All of those successes led to her being named to the 1969 World Championship team.  Again, youngest athlete ever selected for the US team.  First black athlete selected for the US fencing team.

The 1969 World Championship team in Cuba in front of their hotel.  Seventeen year old Ruth White is standing 4th from the left next to then-fifty-two year old teammate Maxine Mitchell.  It’s an interesting contrast.  Maxine was a grandmother and Ruth was still in high school.

Ruth was raised in Baltimore and started fencing at the YWCA when she was 13.  She fairly quickly outpaced the teacher at the Y and moved to a Baltimore fencing club, taking lessons from Steve Bujnovszky, the first of three Hungarian coaches that guided her.  The other two were Lajos Csiszar in Philadelphia and Bela de Csajaghy at NYU.

Ruth posing with coach Bela de Csajaghy.  I’d have said “during a lesson from”, except he’s holding an epee.

I first became interested in pursuing a story about Ruth when I spotted her name on one of the plates attached to the carrying case made for the Helene Mayer Memorial trophy that is now in the Archive collection, thanks to Kathy Krusen at Halberstadt Fencers Club.  I knew Ruth was an East Coast fencer but she made it out West for this event. Why or for how long I can’t guess.  She took 2nd place to Harriet King at the 1971 Helene Mayer Memorial competition.  If you were looking for the reason I’m writing about an East Coast fencer here on my West Coast site, there it is.  And look!  Photo documentation!

A blurry photo of the engraved plate from 1971 on the Helene Mayer Memorial trophy.

Ruth White, Harriet King and Tommy Angell in San Francisco’s Letterman Gymnasium, the sight of many years worth of tournaments.  The trophy in Harriet’s arms is an absolute treasure.  Made in France, it’s so heavy that it’s no picnic holding it up for very long.  I can imagine taking first makes the burden a little lighter.

It wasn’t until I found an article published in the January 1970 edition of Ebony Magazine that I had the material to make this story fun to look at.  Several great photos with a story spelling out where she’d come from and where she was headed circa 1970 makes for an interesting read.  Especially because she clearly had her eye on her future goals at the age of 18.  She had chosen NYU out of multiple scholarship offers due to the strength of that school’s pre-med program.  And, yes, today it’s Doctor Ruth White and it seems she’s still practicing down in the Los Angeles area.

Ruth White with Ed Ballinger, who became the 3rd black athlete to win the US National Men’s foil title, behind Uriah Jones and Bert Freeman.

But oh, the backstory.  There was a time, and not really all that long ago, when black fencers didn’t have access to fencing competitions.

I have a document in my Archive collection written by Olympic and fencing historian George Masin that details the events surrounding the integration of the AFLA.  As with every sport that faced up to the issue of integration, there are both heroes and villains.  The villains of fencing who steadfastly opposed breaking down the racial and color barriers so long in place, are unnamed in the article.  But the heroes are called out.  Take a bow, Columbia University.  It seems that in January of 1949, a year and a half after Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Columbia was fielding a men’s team that included two black fencers, Justice Cherubin and Ted Reed.  As they prepared for upcoming AFLA-sponsored events, Columbia was approached by AFLA reps who advised they avoid an “embarrassing situation” by removing the black members of their squad prior to entering AFLA tournaments. Well this set then-Columbia head coach Joseph Velarde right off.  He immediately announced publicly that Columbia was withdrawing from participation in any AFLA events due to discrimination against his team members, and did this with the full support of the administration of the University.  Remember, at this time in history membership of the AFLA was nothing like the size of the organization today.  Columbia University put a lot of fencers on the strip at a lot of tournaments.  Their stance on this issue was a big deal.  The two largest facilities in New York City for competitions were the New York Athletic Club and the New York Fencers Club.  Fencers Club had had a racial incident a year or two prior, when they denied entry to Violet Barker, who had won a one-year AFLA membership at a WPA-sponsored citywide tournament.  Here are the details of the incident, as written by George Masin:

Some weeks later, she showed up at the New York Fencers Club for an AFLA sponsored tournament and was met at the door by the president of the Fencers Club. He asked her if he could help her and she said: “I am here for the tournament.” He replied: “Only League members can fence here.” “I am a member,” she responded and handed him her membership card. He ripped the card into small pieces and said: “Now you’re not.”

Her coach, Al Hern of the Harlem YMCA, pushed for filing a racial discrimination lawsuit but Violet declined to pursue one.  Miguel de Capriles, then President of the AFLA and a supporter of integration, contacted the NYAC and was told that that venerable institution had previously admitted black athletes for competitions and would not deny entry to black fencers, either.  That left only the NYFC in play and while there was pushback and ugly language, de Capriles won the argument, stating, “Gentlemen, it is time that we recognize that fencing has changed from the aristocratic sport that it was to the democratic sport that it is.”  And by ‘aristocratic’, I’m pretty sure he meant ‘white’.

Classic 1970s font work from Ebony Magazine.

It took twenty years for that breaking down of the racial barrier to produce a black champion.  Is it ironic that the name of that champion was Ruth White?  Whether karma or coincidence, Ruth White served up a life’s worth of fencing victories during a very short athletic career.  World Championship teams, Pan-American Individual Silver and Team Gold, two U-19 titles, two collegiate titles, two National Women’s Foil titles and a berth on the 1972 Olympic team.  And second at the 1971 Helene Mayer, because West Coast. That’s a pretty dominant four years of fencing.

In the gym at NYU with Csajaghy.

After the 1972 Olympic Games Ruth White put down her foils and headed off to medical school, bringing to a close her meteoric rise to the top.  Medical school proved to be yet another challenge that she faced down, becoming Dr. Ruth White, Champion Fencer and Doctor of Internal Medicine.  She went from beginning fencer to National Champion in four years.  I don’t know if that’s another of her Firsts, but it sure seems like it could be.

Photo Grab Bag

If you’ve been checking in here regularly, you’ll know I frequently haunt the corridors of that virtual thrift store known as Ebay.  Sometimes I find things of fencing interest, sometimes I don’t.  It’s a mix of disappointment and fascination.  It’s not uncommon for the sellers of fencing memorabilia, regardless of the kind of item being sold, to be woefully uninformed on what they’re selling.  The mis-labeling of epees as foils, foils as sabres and sabres as epees is all too common.  The recent trend of seeing beekeeper outfits showing up as ‘fencing gear’ is a little strange.  And why a great photo of Ralph Faulkner training for the 1932 Olympic Games needed the tag “gay interest” added to it is really quite beyond me.

No date to this photo taken at an outdoor tournament with sabre on the near strip and foil on the far.  That’s quite a run of patches on the arm of the sabre fencer.  The top one could be AFLA, AFLA Jr. Olympics or AFLA Olympic Team.  Then there’s NYAC’s flying feet and at the bottom, Salle Auriol.

But this batch of photos that I recently picked up was, and remains, a mystery of another sort altogether.  They were sold under the description of “Vintage Photograph Lot, 30+ Photos US Fencing”. Clicking on the item brought up a number of images of the photos spread out to show what was in the lot.  Large groups of fencing pictures seldom come along and the first thing I wanted to do was try to ascertain, if possible, a region for where they may have been from.  If I could be certain they were from East of the Continental Divide, I would have dropped an email to Andy Shaw to see if it was something he was interested in.  If West, I’d go after it myself.

One of the few photos with anything like a useful hint – in this case, a date.  The girl in the middle has been awarded the World’s Smallest Trophy and it happened in November of 1968.

Lucky me, I actually spotted a couple of people I could put names to.  Not many.  Of the 30+ photos, I can name exactly 3.5 people in two photos.  (The half point is for my own uncertainty on one individual.)   I always hope there will be names on the back of photos to aid me in my work but this group has an almost uniform lack of that particular detail.  Almost.

This is the photo that prompted me to buy the lot.  Robert Marx gets a bottle and a ribbon.  And the other person kinda looks like Yves Auriol…. and kinda doesn’t.   I’m assuming it’s him.  He’s my half-certain guess.

While scanning a few of the better and/or more interesting photos to include in this post, I spotted a stamp on the back of one of the images.  I hadn’t noticed it at all in my first look-through.  But there’s the big hint.  On the back with address & phone number, is the name “Rocky Beach”.

Hello, Pacific Northwest.

These three may be easy for someone to recognize.  Not me, unfortunately.  Maybe you?

Rocky Beach taught fencing in the Portland area for decades.  He was one of the founders of Salle Auriol in Portland which, if you don’t know, is a hugely important and influential West Coast club, founded in 1972, that now goes by the name Northwest Fencing Center.  I never met Rocky but knew him by reputation.  My first coach, Len Carnighan, who also ran a club in Portland, the Studio of American Fencing, knew Rocky pretty well.  Len could be quite sparing in his liking of those he recognized as the competition.  Rocky, according to Len, was one of the good guys.

A group of youngsters figuring it out.  That’s an 80’s Uhlmann box up on the wall, so I’m guessing 80’s.  OES?  Anyone?

Both Len and Rocky are no longer with us.  Rocky passed last year but his legacy lives on through the clubs he founded and the students he taught.

The one other dated photo.  October, 1968.  Love the windows.  Anyone recognize the venue?

I don’t know how this batch of photos found their way to Ebay.  Ebay is one of those monolithic internet entities that was an early adopter of user names instead of actual names.  I go back and forth about the privacy implications of shielding ones identity through screen names which can allow the untrustworthy or imbecilic to hide in plain sight while posting unsavory blather or outright abuse. But the Ebay version of this means I don’t really know how, or from who or where, the sale originated.  Mostly they’re just a bunch of stray photos with no names on the back.  Add a fencing mask to many of the principles in the images and – presto!  Very few identifying characteristics to decide who you’re looking at.

I originally mistook this for another photo of Robert Marx but this time it’s Michael.  Different sweats and Michael’s distinctive mid-80’s beard.  That is Yves, isn’t it?  And it’s definitely Alex Beguinet in the background.

Interestingly, the photos have a pretty broad range in dates from the little information I can be confident in.  A couple have date codes from the printing process.  That gives me 1968 as a starting year.  Then there’s the above photo of Michael Marx with Alex Beguinet in the background.  Alex left the Portland area for the head coach job at Duke in 1985, so I’m pretty confident in a date range of 1968 to at least 1985.

With fencing posters on the wall, I’d say this is fencing club, and likely a modern one.  That’s a newer type of grounded strip, isn’t it?

Here’s another one where someone may recognize the venue.  Old school sabre!  Someone’s about to cross their feet.

Last one.  Youngsters again, looking a bit like a pro-am competition.  I’m not sure the kid on the left was ready for what his opponent was bringing.

As far as the who’s who in most of these, it’s another entry in the mystery file.  If anyone has any ideas about who? or where’s’zat?, I’d be thrilled to add knowledge to my brain.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep copying files to my new storage devices.  I finally outgrew my 5 terabyte drive and I’m replacing it with two 8 terabyte drives, one for movies and one for pictures.  The movies all successfully migrated yesterday, taking up almost 3 terabytes.  That leaves right around 2 terabytes worth of image files on the second drive, which gives me plenty of room to copy images with multiple parties into each person’s individual folder.  It’s a lot of redundancy but now I can afford it.  And it helps me find things quicker, especially when my head formulates queries like: “Where’s that picture of <person_x> with <person_y> at <venue> during the <event> in <date>?”  The more places to find something, the less likely I’ll get this:


Road Trip!

My first introduction to Ferenc Marki was at the 1978 Junior College Championships for Northern California.  Maestro Marki called us all together at the start of the Men’s Team Foil to explain the format and strip assignments.  He spoke for a good 15 minutes and I didn’t understand a single word that he said.  After he stopped, my teammates and I stood around in bewilderment until one of the coaches from another school approached us and said, “Oh, Cabrillo College?  Strip three.”

Whatever other sentiments or exhortations to excellence may have been part of the lecture were lost to us.

Marki with an unidentified fencer.  I wish this photo was in color.  I want to know more about that suit and tie combo.

Fencing in NorCal as I did for many years, it was not possible to miss Maestro Marki.  He was a fixture in the area.  When I was first starting out, he was the coach at both San Francisco City College and San Francisco State University.  He retired as coach at the Pannonia Athletic Club in 1977 – the year I started fencing – after 16 years there, and also taught at Mills College for a long time.  To say he was influential in the region is an understatement.  However, my own interactions with him were fleeting and I never knew much of his history or background.

Needless to say, writing and collecting for this Archive has altered my thinking of who I need to know about in every conceivable way.  Particularly after making the film The Last Captain, I felt it imperative to learn more about the man Dan Magay chose to pursue as a replacement at Pannonia upon the death of George Piller.

Ferenc Marki, left, and a classmate at the Toldi-Miklos school, taken sometime before 1934.

Marki had been Dan’s coach in Szeged, Hungary, when Dan was an up and coming sabre fencer.  Dan began with him after a couple of years of training with the Italian maestro Eduardo Armentano.  Marki taught the Hungarian sabre and Dan had much to un-learn.  Marki turned Magay into a champion, and he was on the Gold Medal winning 1954 World Championship team and also made the individual final at that, his first, World Championship.

Ferenc Marki was trained at the Toldi-Miklos school in Hungary to be a fencing master.  That’s the same school that produced Piller and countless other Hungarian champions and coaches.  In fact, in Marki’s graduating class of 1934, other graduates included Istvan Danosi, Julius Palffy-Alpar and Imre Vass – and those are just the ones I recognize.  I don’t doubt there are several more from that class who went on to great careers in sport – although it’s quite possible some did not survive the coming World War.  In that, Marki was one of the lucky ones.

Marki with his classmates.  He was a radioman during his service years.  That’s him, second in from the right.

He was captured by the Soviets at the end of the war and was sent to a work camp for about a year.  Many in those circumstances were simply worked to death by the Soviets.  Tens of thousands of Hungarian soldiers taken to such camps never made it home.  Marki, however, had a unique survival strategy.  An old sports injury had left him with a bad knee that could be teased into swelling in an alarming way, making him useless as a manual laborer.  Marki was put on one of the first trains repatriating Hungarian soldiers.  When his train began pulling into the station at Szeged, locals ran along side, shouting, “Anyone from Szeged?!”  Marki responded, “Yes! Me! Ferenc Marki!”  He was answered, “Your mother is dead!  But you have a daughter!”

Marki is 4th from the left with a bandaged right knee.  Looks like a speedy winger to me.

Marki’s mother was a successful business woman.  She ran a paprika business and upon her death and his return home, it fell to Ferenc to pick up the work.  He managed the paprika concern for several years and also returned to teaching fencing at the local University and at a private club.

“This is all great, Doug,” you’re thinking.  “But what about the road trip referenced in the title?”

Excellent question.

Last October I made contact with Ferenc’s daughter Juli.  Since I was never around her father very much but wanted to do a profile of him for the Archive, what better way to source information than to go directly to family?  We met up at a restaurant and had a great chat. I heard lots of stories about the family’s history in Hungary,  about how they got out of the country during the Revolution to Romania, and many more.  So much great information.  As it turned out, the family also had some memorabilia related mostly to Marki’s time teaching in San Francisco that they didn’t have great need for but didn’t want to just toss.   With the approval of the family, Juli offered it to the Archive.  The only hitch was it was more than she wanted to try to ship, so I’d have to come pick it up.  In Boulder.

Marki with a Pannonia AC foil team.  They won something here but I don’t recognize the plaque.  Jim Green on the left, then Gerard Biagini, Marki, an unknown, and Ferenc’s eldest son on the far right.

If you’re following me on Find My Friends, you know I’m in the Bay Area.  (Yes I am sad the Warriors weren’t able to grab the ring for a 3rd in a row thank you.) So, my-place-to-Boulder is a commitment for a concentrated driving excursion across multiple Western-sized states.  I’d initially planned to go in May but driving conditions on the morning I was to start proved to have been made untenable by a late season snow storm in the Sierras and I’d likely have been driving two days just to get out of California.  In the snow.  Which I hate.  Last weekend the weather was finally balmy enough to have dealt with the snow over Donner Summit, so off I went.  Across California, Nevada, Utah, a good sized section of Wyoming and then turning south into Colorado got me to Boulder 2.5 days and 1,460 miles later.

Juli fed me a wonderful meal of Chicken Paprikash made in the Marki family style – totally delish – then we took a look through the boxes.  Trophies, mostly from the early 70’s to the early 80’s, lots of papers, several ledgers from Pannonia detailing members and lesson payments, a few photos, and fencing books.  Great stuff.  There were also some family albums that weren’t coming home with me but that I was able to scan, along with some other loose photos and some framed ones that I took apart, scanned and put back together.  All in, about 90 scans, many of multiple images.  Some truly astonishing material.

Juli told me her father easily took to anything related to sport.  I’m sold.  That’s Ferenc Marki diving.

Then back in the car, 1,460 miles the other way and home again, just in time for my oil-change reminder alert.  Couldn’t have timed it better.

Ferenc with Daniel Magay.  Later in his life, Marki was told by his doctors that if he didn’t quit smoking he would soon pay the ultimate price.  He stopped instantly.

So much more to share from this trip.  I’m still carving through the papers and photos, most of which I’ll scan.  I promised Juli to send her photos of all the trophies once I get them taken, along with all the other bits of memorabilia I need to document.  My summer now is pretty set with tasks to tackle and I won’t have to put on snow chains for any of it.  Very thankful for the little things.

The American Greco

It’s a common enough name.  By searching the White Pages for Greco in San Mateo, CA, it returns 388 records.  Widen it to the whole of the US and there’s over 36,000.  In the fencing world though, one family has a lock on who you think of when putting the names “Greco” and “Fencing” together.

I’m referring, of course, to the descendants of Salvatore Greco dei Chiaramonte, the Sicilian anti-Bourbonist and fencing master, and father of Aurelio and Agesilao Greco who started a club in Rome that continues to this day.  That club, maintained for decades by the nephew of the two brothers, Enzo Musumeci Greco, and the family tradition behind it, makes it nearly impossible to imagine a fencer with the name “Greco” not being a member of the tribe.

And, truth be told, I can’t prove definitively that the subject of today’s tale is or is not part of that continuum.  Andy Shaw says he’s been told that he’s not part of the family.  But with everything I’ve tracked down, it doesn’t seem too farfetched to place him in the family tree somewhere.  I just don’t know where, or how many generations removed he may be.

Let’s begin at the beginning.  Anthony (Antonio?) Greco was born in Messina, Sicily, in 1893, the son of a fencing master whose name is, for the present, unknown.  He began learning the sport at the age of seven under the tutelage of his father and in 1924, graduated as Maestro from the National Fencing Academy in Naples, Italy.  He continued his studies at the University of Bologna where he received a Doctorate in Physical Education.  He was also the fencing instructor at the University, taught in private and public schools in Bologna, then operated his own club in Milan.

In 1930 he moved to the United States, teaching first at the Italian Fencing Club of New York prior to opening the Greco Fencing Academy.  The earliest reference to that club I can find is 1934.  He was the teacher of then high school aged Silvio Giolito, future National Foil Champion and 1948 Olympian.  While in New York, and later on the West Coast, Greco sponsored a number of tournaments in his name.  There was a women’s championship, the Greco Open, which I know was won by Maria Cerra Tishman in 1948 in New York, and that was after Greco had left the city.  In the west, the Greco Three Weapon event was held annually as part of the Pacific Coast Championships for many years.

The Greco advertisement from The Riposte magazine, circa 1937.  Note the logo for the club.  It will change to something different when Greco moves west.

Like many a fencing master before and after him, he also supplied fencing equipment and ran that business throughout his career, it seems.  There are addresses for his equipment business in New York, Sunland, CA and Tucson.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  There is a great write up in The Riposte magazine, an early, now long defunct, national fencing publication, that describes the Grand Re-Opening of the Greco Fencing Academy after a change of location.  Here’s that write up.  Many of the leading lights of 1930s fencing are mentioned.

From “The Riposte” magazine, February 25, 1937:


The formal opening of the new Greco Salle on February 21st was featured by a series of exhibitions proceeding an informal dance.  Professor Anthony Greco personally displayed his versatile talents, giving a lesson to his well-known pupil, Mrs. Dolly Funke, and later engaging in a short bout with her; fencing epee with Leo Nunes in a beautiful display of the best Italian school in that weapon and as a closing event of the program, fencing a long and brilliant bout with his professional friend and colleague, George Santelli, in the sabre.  However, the event that most interested the audience, which included the best-known figures in American fencing, was Professor Greco’s sabre lesson to seven year old Leon Schechter, which brought frequent rounds of applause as the young swordsman unerringly followed the master’s instructions even in the most complicated phrases.

Among the other participants in the exhibition were Jose de Capriles and Pierre Netter in epee; John Huffman, in sabre; and Miss Marion Lloyd and Miss Barbara Cochrane in foil.  Robert Marcy announced the events, which were directed by Harold Van Buskirk, president of the Amateur Fencers League of America.

That’s a pretty good cross section of the fencing community with some high-level action.  Leo Nunes was a student of Beppe Nadi, Nedo and Aldo’s famed father & maestro. Miss Marion Lloyd, a two-time National Champ and three-time Olympian, would not long after this event become Mrs. Marion Lloyd Vince, wife of famed Hungarian master Joseph Vince.  And George Santelli shouldn’t need any introduction.  If he does, drop me a note about a glitch in the Matrix.

Headline from a 1937 announcement in the Brooklyn Citizen.

In 1937 Greco also became the coach at Long Island University in Brooklyn, replacing Professor Fritz Semmler.  Greco is also credited with having been a coach at NYU.  If so, he could only have been an assistant to Julio Castello who was head coach there for 20 years and retired in 1947.  The LIU job is easier for me to document, as there are several articles about the results of his collegiate teams.  I can’t find any reference to him at NYU.  But then again, one article makes the claim that he was an Olympic coach in 1932 but that doesn’t wash, at least not for the US team.  And he’s not listed in the 1932 Olympic Record, where every athlete, coach and official is listed in the roster at the end of that 815 page book.  I don’t have too much trouble overlooking that claim.  Even coaches with actual Olympic cred could either purposely or through the magic of editorial license be granted an aggrandized version of the truth.  Hans Halberstadt was more than once quoted as having been a three-time Olympian.  That’s true – if you count being in three events at a single Games as qualifying you as a three-time Olympian.  Which is just nope.  Anyway, it appears Greco doesn’t get the bounce here.

A 1942 news clipping announcing the competition for the Douglas Fairbanks Jr. trophy.  I wonder what that looked like!

Greco moved west in 1946, citing health concerns.  He set up shop first in Los Angeles where he started his own club and taught at UCS and San Diego State.  Of the last three claims, I have no paper trail to verify their accuracy.  I do know that he instituted a Greco event for the Pacific Coast Championships.  The earliest PCC program that I have a scan for is 1949 (thank you, Hans Halberstadt Scrapbook) and it includes a very clear description of how the Greco event works.  I could surmise that such a description, not replicated in succeeding years, is there because it’s the inaugural event.  But I just don’t know.

From the program for the Pacific Coast Championships, circa 1950.

He also has brought along his fencing equipment business with a SoCal address in Sunland.  If that’s where he was living, it was no easy trek to get to USC.  Heck, he may as well have been on the moon.  Even the Red Car didn’t get out that far.  The nearest stop would’ve been Burbank, but the Verdugo mountains are in between the two cities and even today the freeways all skirt around them.  And San Diego?  Don’t even think about it, unless you plan to stay.  However, if he had lung problems Sunland makes a ton of sense.  It was dry, didn’t have the smog problem of downtown LA or Pasadena and in the mid-40s probably offered a chance to spread out before the post-war building boom that turned most of the region into suburbia.

Anthony Greco presents the 1952 Greco Three Weapon champions with the trophy.  Where’s that bit of hardware, I wonder?  This team was pretty unbeatable.  From left, Ed Carfagno, Sewall “Skip” Shurtz and Joe Lampl.  Want to see the final score?

Ouch!  102-32.  Seems like the SoCal squad borrowed a truck and ran over the NorCal team a few times.  Greco was full-time in Arizona by 1952, so I’m guessing he was at the Pacific Coast Championships just to award the trophy and attend the Gala that always followed at the conclusion of fencing.  The Greco Three Weapon usually was the closing event.  Heck, it didn’t even start until 8pm.

There aren’t any news articles from this period to make a guess at the level of success he had in SoCal.  However it went, sometime around 1950 he returned to Italy for an extended stay.  Upon his return, he moved swords, masks and shop to Tucson, Arizona and by Fall of 1951 was the coach at the University of Arizona.  His time in Tucson is full of activity.  In addition to the University gig, he taught at the local YMCA and at least one high school and was making grand plans to form a high school league to build up a base of local talent.  He also got his teams out to the annual Border Invite competition that brought teams from the Southwest US and Mexico to El Paso, TX.  Greco’s team from AZ seem to have come away with the top prize at the Border Invite from the time he arrived, so he was doing something right.

Anthony Greco as seen in the Border Invite program from 1953.

After this point, it all goes a bit murky.  He dropped the Greco sponsorship of the PCCs after 1958, although a three weapon event continued to be held for many years after.  He was still winning the Border Invite in 1962 but after that, the trail goes cold.  No articles to be found, no notice from the University that he’d retired or quit.  At least, nothing that I could find.

Strangely, the final newspaper notice about Greco that I came across was from a Miami, Florida listing of radio programs for January 23, 1968.  That evening, at 9 pm, Larry King – yes, that Larry King – had as one of his guests, “…all-time fencing expert” Anthony Greco.

And that’s it.  Find A Grave has a listing for an Anthony Greco born in 1893 and passing away in West Palm Beach in 1975.  Same guy?  Can’t be certain.

But let’s bring it back to the top.  Anthony Greco used a logo, prominently displayed in his advertisement for Salle and equipment sales, that is a clear knock-off of the logo created by the Greco salle in Rome.  If he wasn’t part of that family somewhere along the line, he was taking a pretty gutsy swipe to associate his name with theirs.

The Greco logo from the club in Rome.  Rather striking similarity to the logo used by Anthony Greco when he moved west.  Was New York too close to Italy?

Now, I do have a first-person narration on the is he/is he not question, thanks to Andy Shaw of the Museum of American fencing and my go-to for questions like this.  He had the pleasure of meeting Renzo Greco, the current generation of Greco at the Academia D’Armi Musumeci Greco 1878 and son of Enzo Musumeci Greco.  Andy had the same question I’ve had (only a couple of decades earlier) about Anthony Greco and posed the query to Maestro Renzo if Anthony was related.  He gave an emphatic “No”.  So, I suppose that’s that, in a sense.  As Andy said in an email exchange recently, “I have run across his name hundreds of times and he has donated many awards… but his teams never won nationals in any weapon that I can recall and no medalist ever represented his club.”

The Greco logo from a 1949 advertisement.  Coincidence?  I think NOT!  It is interesting that he doesn’t seem to have used this logo at all during his time in New York.

It’s certain he knew his business.  He wouldn’t have been able to cross swords with, and been friends with, people like Leo Nunes or Giorgio Santelli had he been an outright charlatan.  They knew the Italian system as well as anyone alive.  If he was a fraud, they’d never have set foot in his salle.  And his teaching theory is textbook Italian of the time.  Here’s a newspaper quote from 1952 about his approach:

Much of Greco’s success in coaching and teaching fencing comes from his simplified method of instruction, which is recognized in European and American fencing circles as one of the easiest and most effective in existence.  Greco constantly strives for efficiency, eliminating all unnecessary movements, and teaching only those which contribute directly to the effectiveness of the fencer.

Now, here’s a section of a description of the Italian methodology, compare to the French system, gleaned from The Riposte magazine, December 1938:

I think it’s pretty clear the threads of the descriptions have the same roots.  So all of that taken together is on the one hand.

On the other, a clear denial of relation from the Greco family.  And maybe it all doesn’t matter.  I’ve certainly experienced my own name synchronicities.  I once rented a house on Sycamore Ave in Hollywood and someone with my same first and last name lived on the same street, six blocks away.  I would get his mail sometimes, and he got phone calls meant for me.  (According to my friends who called him by mistake, I was apparently by far the nicer person to talk to.)  Just because Anthony Greco shared a name with the famed teachers in Rome, his father was also a fencing master and all the Grecos seemed to have originally hailed from Sicily, well, it could still just be a grand coincidence.

File under: yet another unsolved mystery.

Another Fortuitous Occurance

It’s impossible to know why these things happen.  They can’t be planned for or expected yet I’ve been experiencing more than my share of these types of events since starting this archive and I couldn’t be happier about it.  This is simply the latest. I hope talking about it doesn’t bring my lucky streak to an end. Not that I’m superstitious, mind. But I don’t want to take any chances. Be kind, ye fates!

So anyway, I had a memory pop up awhile back, this is back in October of last year.  During my first semester at San Jose State back in 1979, I remember the team going into a screening room at the school to watch some fencing.  I don’t recall if it was on film or videotape. This was prior to videotape being common, so if it was on video I don’t know what format it would have been on.  But whatever media we watched it on, I mostly remember the subject matter. We watched the Men’s Foil finals from the 1976 Olympic Games that were held in Montreal, Canada.

That’s my first year team photo from San Jose State.  All of these people are suspected of having watched the ’76 Olympic footage with me.  Anybody else remember?

This was only the second time for me seeing International-level fencers going at it.  My first coach, Len Carnighan had attended the 1979 Junior World Championships at Notre Dame and came back with the Men’s Foil finals from that tournament – on black & white videotape!  (Check some of it out here!) He had it transferred to a tape we could check out from the Resource Library at Cabrillo College and I most definitely did, many, many times. This Olympic footage Michael D’Asaro got his hands on was in color and very well shot.  I can only assume it was TV coverage since there were titles and graphics. I also know it never showed up on any of the coverage in the US. Fencing never got a hint of coverage that I remember prior to 1980, and the 1980 coverage was only about Soviet foilist Vladimir Lapitsky collapsing on the strip after a broken blade went through his lame and jacket.  (Not for the squeamish, but available on YouTube here at the 9:36 mark.)

There were some great bouts as I recall from my long-ago memory of watching in 1979 but it was the fencing of the eventual winner, Fabio Dal Zotto, that stood out.  His daring approach to his bouts, his speed and running attacks, all made a big impression. He and Alexandre Romankov both went 4-1 in the final pool of 6. Yes, that’s how they did it back then.  Not to mention touches were scored against you, so having your name called by the Director was not good news. Anyway, Dal Zotto and Romankov had to fence off for the Gold medal and the Italian carried off the top prize at just 19 years of age.  There were a couple of old-guard fencers in the final, including Bernard Talvard of France and Vasly Stankovyich, another Soviet fencer. Both fenced in terrifically classic style, beautiful to watch. All of the younger finalists, the last two being Frederic Pietruszka of France and Australia’s Greg Benko, were poised more like fighters.  Well, maybe not Alexandre Romankov. He leans a bit more classical I think, but his fencing style is so uniquely his that it’s hard to put a name to it.

Since it’s recorded in all the history books, I’ll assume I’m not giving away the story to say that the above, Fabio Dal Zotto of Italy, won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1976.  He was just 19 years old when he won, his birthday occurring four days before the event.

For all that, the fencer who I really remember from that viewing was the 24 year old from Australia, Greg Benko.  He finished sixth of six in that final but was in every bout and took a couple of them to 5-4. He was then, and remains today, the only Australian fencer ever to make an Olympic fencing final.  He’d picked up an International victory the year before this Olympics, winning the New York Martini & Rossi, and another in 1982 at the Paris Invitational. He won Australian championships and Commonwealth Games and made four Olympic teams for his home nation.

What’s with all the talk about an Australian on the West Coast Fencing Archive, you’re no doubt wondering?  Well, here’s the story.

In 1977, Michael D’Asaro and Charles Selberg had the very first edition of their fencing summer camps at San Jose State University.  They’d invited another coach to join them as well; Heizaburo Okawa. In 1977, Heizaburo was less than ten years removed from his last National Championship victory, shortly after which he’d turned professional.  Okawa had his own successes as an International competitor and was at one point ranked 10th in the world in foil. Greg Benko, as I remember the story, had spent that summer driving all over the US in a giant old Cadillac and had found his way to San Jose for the summer camp.  Maybe that was a different summer. Someone told me that story a long time ago. Anyway, he was at the camp.

The coaches at the 1977 pre-Nationals camp, from left to right, Charlie Selberg, Michael D’Asaro and Heizaburo Okawa.

Len Carnighan, my first coach, was just beginning his teaching career in 1977, and he was also at the summer camp.  He’s the one that told me the story about the climactic event that summer. Apparently someone came up with the idea that the final event of the camp would be a bout between recent Olympic finalist Greg Benko and still-in-really-good-shape fencing master Heizaburo Okawa.  As Len told it, the expectation was that Okawa would give a good performance, but Benko’s youth and Olympic experience would win out. Benko would have been around 25 and Okawa 38 years old. The end result of this match proved to be rather different. Apparently Okawa took Benko to school.  Or the woodshed. Anyway, not the result people expected and, again according to Len “Here, Let Me Exaggerate That For You” Carnighan, not at all what Greg Benko was expecting.

  Greg Benko, pictured with Vinnie Bradford, at a party during the 1977 summer camp. Seventies hair and puka shells.  That’s how we all rolled back then.

Let’s get back to the actual topic of this thread, which was, if you’ll recall, how fortunate I am.  When the memory of watching that 1976 Olympic final came to mind, I reached out to some of my then-teammates to see if anyone else remembered seeing it and/or, did anyone by any chance have a copy of it.  Michael D’Asaro wasn’t stingy with his videotaped fencing material and I dupe’d one tape he’d shot at the 1981 World University Games. So I don’t think I was too far off base to check and see if someone had this.  But, alas, no. My main hope had been that Greg Massialas might have it but he confirmed that he did not.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago.  I’ve been having conversations recently with Juan Ignacio Calderon, the new head coach at UC San Diego, about the history of that program and helping them sort through some material.  He was kind enough to send me a box of VHS tapes that were sitting around collecting dust as VHS tapes tend to do these days. I’ve built myself a system to transfer those old tapes into a digital format for computer viewing.  Since I can, I volunteered to transfer the UCSD tapes. The first task for a job like this is to make a list of all the tapes. Going through the box checking the labels one tape at a time and finding several from dual meets and other UCSD-specific material, I picked up one that was titled “1976 Olympics: M/W Foil”.


Fortunately, I didn’t break my neck getting from my office upstairs to the table downstairs where I’d set up my video transfer system.  I plugged the tape into the deck, opened up iMovie (I have to use an old Mac Mini to get this system to work.  Slow, sure, but it works.) and pressed ‘play’. The first part of the tape was very worn and the tracking was so bad it wouldn’t really show much other than snow and streaky video noise.  That was a very sad moment. My fear was I’d get nothing off the tape. Hoping that perhaps the first part of the tape had taken the worst beating, I fast forwarded to a few minutes in.  Sure enough, the Women’s Foil finals of the 1976 Olympics showed up! It’s watchable! The tracking goes in and out a bit and the audio seems to have become unstuck in time and is playing ahead of the picture.  But it’s watchable, for sure. The women go on for about 40 minutes. Then, without warning, and not at the end of the women’s final, we switch over to the men’s final, already in progress. In a way, it’s the worst of all worlds.  Because of the bad tracking the beginning of the women’s final is cut off, plus we don’t see it to the end.  Then the men’s final starts up already in progress, although it does go all the way through to the end of the pool – and also has the fence-off for the gold between Romankov and Dal Zatto.  It comes to a very abrupt end right as Dal Zotto is getting a kiss on the cheek from teammates but the bout is all there. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. I’d have been happy with a single bout, and here I have a good amount of both finals.  Since today’s story is all about the Men’s final, rest assured I’ve got another tale to tell about the Women’s final at a later date.  And yes, I can relate that one to the West Coast also!

The Romankov sports trading card.  Tough to find this one but if you haunt eBay long enough, you may get lucky.

So go figure!  Somehow the Fencing Archive angels have smiled upon me and delivered into my hands the very footage I was thinking about 6 months ago.  Watching the matches, it’s very interesting to see how much the sport has changed. The game was played at a much, much slower pace, no doubt in part because the bouts had twice as much time on the clock.  And officiating takes a beating since there was no recourse for a bad call like we now have with on-strip instant replay. Bad calls stand. Too bad for you, Vasyl Stankovyich. I thought you beat Dal Zotto but the breaks didn’t go your way.

The only photo I have, courtesy of Andy Shaw, of Soviet foilist Vasyl Stankovyich, 3-time Olympian, Silver Medalist, and individual and team World Champion in foil.

Other changes are obvious, like Benko ducking his head. He’s not parrying with his mask but on some of his hard and fast attacks, he drops his head. Knowing he doesn’t have a strap on the back of his mask to hold it onto his head makes it looks like a terrifyingly dangerous action.  Covering target while infighting is rampant. Nobody gets hit in the back, flick or otherwise. However, I think the biggest difference is the lack of control of the bouts on the part of the Directors. Fencers are, at best, casually on guard. Sometimes not even that. The on guard lines are mere suggestions.  The distance between fencers on start up between touches is super close and everybody is moving around prior to the command ‘allez!’ In one match after a meter warning – this was the 70s, remember – the fencer who should have been behind the on guard line has both feet in front of it, but hey, “Pret? Allez!” I was very surprised both how much I noticed these things and how much they bothered me.  It really made me appreciate the positive changes that have been made to officiating, both from a qualitative point of view and a technological one. Directors, sorry, Referees are much better trained today, and the use of the replay adds a backstop that wasn’t available to previous generations of fencers who knew, without exception they knew, they’d been ripped off. Oh yeah. We knew.

Wait, what am I doing?  If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a moving picture worth?  Let’s watch some bouts!  Keep in mind, this is from a VHS tape that’s over 40 years old.  The tracking flips a bit and the colors shift around, but you can still see what’s happening.

First up, this bout features the 19 year old Italian Fabio Dal Zotto against Vasyl Stankovych from the Soviet Union, another in the continuum of Ukrainian greats.  At this point in the final, Stankovych has lost to Talvard of France and his teammate Romankov, with one victory against Benko from Australia.  Talvard and Pietruszka, also from France, both have two victories with one bout to go, so dropping this is going to make medaling unlikely for Stankovych.  Meanwhile, Dal Zotto is undefeated, beating both Romankov and Pietruszka 5-1, while Benko took their bout to 5-4.


Next up, Alexandre Romankov versus Greg Benko.  It’s the final bout for both.  Romankov has one defeat against Dal Zotto, who also has one bout left.  Benko doesn’t have any victories but has been in every bout and shown tremendous fight.  Nobody has pushed him around.


Wouldn’t you know?  A fence-off for Gold!  Dal Zotto loses his last bout in the final to Talvard 5-4, forcing a rematch with Romankov.  Here is that final bout!


And the winner:

1976 Olympic Gold Medalist, Men’s Foil Individual, Fabio Dal Zotto.

So that’s the story.  It’s a little convoluted, sure, but that’s how I seem to roll.

The Little Woman With The Big Briefcase

Tommy Angell was the type of person who overcame obstacles.  It doesn’t seem to matter how challenging things may have been; she simply took them on and beat them.   Not just took them on; she seems to have sought them out and demolished them.  Here’s a quick list:

UC Berkeley grad, Law degree U of Michigan, admitted to the bar in 1952, spoke six languages, played on the Field Hockey National Team in 1956, was an ambulance attendant for the Squaw Valley 1960 Winter Olympics, took post-graduate classes for no-credit at Cal in Geography, Nocturnal Zoology and Conchology (the study of mollusks – I had to look it up), and played the accordion.

Tommy Angell on accordion accompanied by her faithful boxer, Duke.

Did I mention she was a fencer?  I guess she had some spare time.

Harriet King, left, battling with Tommy Angell in 1961.

Tommy began fencing while at UC Berkeley.  The teacher for Women’s Fencing at Cal then was Miss Frederica Bernhard, and while I can’t find a reference where Tommy mentions her as her first coach, it seems most likely.  Frederica Bernhard is someone I have yet to profile here on the Archive site but I’m starting to find more information about her, some by searching and some by chance.  If you read last week’s entry about John McKee and the packet of documents given to the Archive by Kevin Murakoshi, one of the things in that packet is a book written by Miss Bernhard (and Vernon Edwards) titled “How to Fence: A Handbook for Teachers and Students”, published in 1956.  Anyway, Tommy.

Tommy, far right, during a 1953 television appearance to promote a fencing tournament.  Unfortunately, I can’t name the other two in the photo.

She dropped fencing while attending law school in Michigan but took it up again after returning to the Bay Area.  Once back home, she fenced for Hans Halberstadt and almost immediately began to get results.  She won the Intermediate Foil at the Pacific Coast Championships in 1953, which graduated her into the “Open” ranks.  In those days, the Junior and Intermediate classifications didn’t relate to age but level of experience.  By 1954, she was a contender for, arguably, the toughest tournament on the West Coast for women at that time, the Helene Mayer Memorial.  1954 was the inaugural Helene Mayer and Tommy finished in 3rd place.  In all, she has her name on the trophy 17 times, winning twice and taking second 10 times.  8 of those 10 times Tommy finished second to Maxine Mitchell, who won the tournament 11 times between 1954 and 1976, the last year Maxine got her name on the trophy.

Tommy and Mary “Demi” Huddleson make the news prior to heading to New York City.

Funny story, courtesy of John McDougall.  One year at the Pacific Coast Championships in the Individual Women’s Foil competition, Tommy had Maxine down 3-0.  At that time, the women fenced only to 4 touches.  (5 touches being considered beyond the capability of their frail constitutions. You know – the stone age. This rule changed not long after I started fencing, circa 1977. )  Maxine left the strip, went to her fencing bag and proceeded to eat a candy bar.  All the while, Tommy, the Director and all the side judges (it must have been pre-1960 when electric events were held only intermittently) just…. waited.  Maxine took about 5 minutes.  Finished the candy bar and calmly returned to the strip.  And won the bout, 4-3.  As John said, “Nobody else could have gotten away with it, but Maxine did.”

Tommy sits while Hans Halberstadt seems to be showing off the inner workings of a fencing glove.  Perhaps it was one of the custom made gloves by former fencing master Edward Visconti, who’s glove making shop was about a block away from Halberstadt’s club.

It was Tommy’s fate as a competitor to have come up during the time that both Maxine Mitchell and Janice Lee York-Romary were in their hey-day.  In local, regional and national competitions, Tommy had to contend with these two time and again.  As strong an athlete as she was, it was the rare day that she was able to get through to the top spot.  And, just as the careers of Jan and Max were winding down – well, not Maxine; she fenced and was a contender into her 60’s, whereas Jan retired in her early 40’s – along came Harriet King, who has her name on the Helene Mayer trophy 11 times, won four National titles and made four Olympic teams.  Tommy was right there but didn’t break through quite often or consistently enough to match up to those three.  Still, she was on the US team for the 1958 World Championships, the 1963 Pan American Games and the 1964 Olympic team.  Her National final appearances were regular occurrences but he most often finished out of the medals.  She had a pair of silver and a pair of bronze finishes in the individual event to go along with two team titles.

The Halberstadt women foilists pick up a medal at the 1955 US Nationals.  Check out the hardware on the table behind them!

Somewhere along the line, I think in the early 60’s, she transferred her club affiliation to the Pannonia Athletic Club, and that is the team with which she won her two team titles, 1964 and 1966.

Apparently, nothing was outside her capabilities.

Her high level sporting experience wasn’t limited to fencing.  In 1956 she was the only West Coast woman selected for the US National Field Hockey squad that traveled to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji for international matches.  This was prior to Women’s Field Hockey being an Olympic event.  That didn’t happen until 1980.  One benefit of this trip was that the team’s visit to Australia coincided with the Melbourne Olympic Games, so Tommy was able to catch some of the fencing action there.

The top three from the 1971 Helene Mayer.  Harriet King, the winner, with the big trophy in the middle is flanked by second place Ruth White on the left and Tommy, third, on the right.

Tommy was not tall at just 5’2″ but she clearly had a passion for battling against the odds, regardless of the size of her opponents.  At a time when women lawyers were less common, she held her own.  Field hockey cost her two broken noses.  And battling against opponents like Maxine and Jan Romary who each had over 5″ of height on her clearly never dampened her enthusiasm.

Tommy Angell in the front surrounded by the legal world she navigated.  Disparity much?  Still, I’m guessing she was able to hold her own in this world, just as she did in all the other aspects of her life.

John McDougall gave me some insight into her character, telling me that Tommy was one of those rare individuals you could trust completely from your first meeting.  You can’t have enough people like that in your life.

Mystery To Me

No, not the classic Bob Welch era Fleetwood Mac album, although that does contain one of my favorite songs of all time, “Hypnotized”.  The mystery to me today is fencing master John McKee from Southern California who trained hundreds and hundreds of fencers over decades.  For all the people he taught and all the times he was in the paper, it’s his nature and character that I can’t get a handle on.

Our subject, the fencing master of the long-lasting Cavaliers club, John McKee.  I was fortunate to get a packet of scanned papers from Archive helper Kevin Murakoshi sometime back and have gone through them a number of times.  Additionally, I’ve perused through various search results on Newspapers.com to pull up contemporaneous articles that can give some insight into all kinds of background detail.  Where he taught, the names of his fencers, what they won, demonstrations given, all kinds of things come up.  And some really sketch photos from scans gone bad.  How can someone working for Newspapers.com not know how to use a scanner?  There are some bad ones, let me tell you.  An example is the photo at the top of the page.  I did some editing and clean up to turn it into an artistic statement, or as near to one as I can approximate.  Added to this source material is a transcript from an interview with McKee’s most successful fencer, Maxine Mitchell, who was coached by him during the first fifteen years of her long career and is pictured with McKee in that top photo.  Maxine’s achievements during her years with McKee include her four-way tie for 3rd, fifth on indicators finish at the 1952 Olympic Games.

One of the papers sent by Kevin to me is titled “A History of the Cavaliers of California” and it is a fascinating document in a number of ways.  The first thing that jumps out at me, because, let’s face it, it’s me… is this sentence: “I am glad that I kept such a detailed record in several thick scrapbooks such as press clippings, telegrams, notes, schedules and competitive results.”

Several. Thick. Scrapbooks.

Let me try to write that in the way I hear it in my head.  “several thick scrapbooks… several thick scrapbooks… several thick scrapbooks…” repeating, over and over again, endlessly knocking against the interior walls of my poor brain.  These are the things that keep me awake at night.

Where are they?

Knowing I can’t answer that question here and now, let’s move on.  The History, as written by McKee, is long on story, short on the type of detail usually found in a history and also plays fast and loose with dates.  That’s not to say it doesn’t start with a bang.  John McKee’s first experience with fencing happened at age 12 after finding a foil in a store room in the house his family was renting in Mexico City.  At the local YMCA he received lessons for a brief time with Lucien Gaudin, moonlighting or vacationing in Old Mexico after winning what is considered the first World Fencing Championships held in 1921.

Lucien Gaudin in a photo from 1928, the year he won gold in the individual foil and epee events at the Amsterdam Olympic Games.  Gaudin began winning international events in 1905 and continued to win them for over two decades.  While contemporaries like Aldo and Nedo Nadi turned professional, Gaudin remained an amateur.  The large purse he collected for his victory over Aldo Nadi in the first of their high profile matchups was donated to charity.  It’s worth noting that Gaudin was 36 years old to Nadi’s 22 years when the two met in that first match.  When Nadi finally defeated Gaudin a couple of years later, on his third attempt, Gaudin was nearly 40.  Just sayin’.  Gaudin committed suicide at age 47 when his business interests failed.

Say what now?  How many fencers can boast of having Lucien Gaudin as their first coach?  Not damn many.  After what I’d like to call his “Summer With Gaudin”, McKee didn’t fence again until 1930 while living in Honduras.  He would have been around 19 years old.  After dating a young woman, he discovered her father was an Italian fencing master, one Luis Scaramuzza.  I’ve been trying to track down information on him with no luck.  My command of Spanish is limited to copying and pasting text into a Google Translate box and reading the results but online Honduran newspapers have yet to reveal to me any information about 1930s fencing masters.  McKee spent two years working with Scaramuzza for two hours a day (presumably with a few holiday breaks) then began flying around the South American region to every competition he could find.  Interestingly, he says he traveled to all these events because his father owned a small airline, TACA, that flew all over the region.

Now, his description of his father ‘owning’ an airline in South America sent me rabbit-holing around the internet to discover what I could about TACA airlines.  First and foremost, it was not owned by anyone with the name of McKee but rather was founded by a New Zealander named Lowell Yerex.  Fascinating story.  That’s not to say McKee’s father wasn’t an early employee.  TACA was founded in 1931 in Honduras and had several planes and pilots working the region mostly delivering mail and freight, although Yerex had dreams of creating a commercial passenger airline.  As McKee tells it, he traveled and competed in tournaments from 1932 to 1935.  According to a chart he created and duly entered into his history, he entered 160 tournaments, winning 71 of them and taking 2nd or 3rd in 34 others.  He states, “I had won 63% of the medals in all my events.”  Either his math skills were poor or what he actually meant was “I had won medals at 63% of the events I entered.”  But as I mentioned above, McKee’s history plays a bit loose with dates, and maybe facts, as evidenced by his final note on his competitive career.  He says he won the Western Hemispheric Championships in sabre in 1962 and 1972, an event he claims eventually became the “Pan American Olympic games”.  In fact, the Pan American Games started in 1951, so a precursor win in ’62 and ’72 is either a typo, a poor remembrance or something entirely inaccurate.  Immediately available history of the Pan American Games lists only one event as a near-precursor to the first actual games of 1951, that being a poorly-attended event held in Dallas, Texas in 1937 that has never been counted as an official event even though it was called the Pan American Games.

Where am I going with this?  McKee was accepted as a quality coach and he clearly had training and dedication.  But the truthiness of his record might not bear scrutiny.  And he makes some fairly outrageous statements in news articles over the years too.  We’ll get to that.  Back to history.

McKee opened his first club as the Guardsmen in 1935 in Glendale, CA.  Around 1940 McKee bought out another club with the Cavaliers name from one Joe Smole and McKee liked the new name so much he gave up Guardsmen.  That coincided with a move from Glendale to Pasadena.  Almost all of McKee’s clubs were housed at YMCA’s.  He has a list of locations from 1935 to 1976 but these weren’t necessarily moves that shut down a previous location.  He sometimes taught at more than one place and he also had student teachers and assistants who would take on the running of a program.  The heyday of his program was between 1946 and 1965 when his membership was over 100 for that twenty year run, peaking at over 200 for five years in the mid-50s.  By the time he wrote this history in 1984, his membership had held steady at around 20 fencers since 1970.

There isn’t much I can do about this scan from Newspapers.com.  It is what it is.  But the caption is what caught my attention in this article from 1953.

Maxine Mitchell, in an interview conducted by her friend Demi Huddleson, spoke of her time with McKee.  Of his coaching, she said McKee taught a firm grip and a heavy hand.  “Rough fencing,” is what Maxine called it.  In her preparation for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics she spent a month in New York studying with Rene Pinchart at the New York Fencers Club where she learned finesse, something she never got from McKee.  That was her first exposure to alternate styles of coaching but by no means her last.  McKee kicked her out of the Cavaliers during a minor tiff in an attempt to show Maxine who was boss, thinking she would beg to be readmitted.  Maxine never went back.  Her final thoughts in the transcript on McKee aren’t terribly kind.  I’ll quote from Demi’s shorthand notes.  “Connived and cheated on little things.  Had 3 successive wives. Lost fencers. Maxine was the only one left from the old timers.”

One of McKee’s early success stories was Moreene Fitz – and that does seem to be the correct spelling for her first name.

Of the “old timers” that Maxine mentioned, one of the top fencers from the early Guardsmen/Cavaliers was certainly Moreene Fitz.  One article mentioned her taking second place to Helene Mayer at a six-person tournament held in San Francisco in April of 1939 and that her placement thus qualified her for the Olympics of 1940.  That the 1940 Olympics were never held is a given but the notion that one tournament qualified her to those lost Games when I can find no record of her making a National finals seems a little offside.  Once again, the lack of a contemporary magazine or newsletter posting results leaves me wondering how often Miss Fitz (later Mrs. Leggewie) was taking first prize in the Southern California regional events.  Another short bio of her noted that she was a finalist at Nationals in 1941 through 1943.  Without an influx of reference material that I don’t even know to exist, I can only speculate on the accuracy of that claim.

Here’s Moreene again from April of 1956 when she had been for five years the fencing coach at Pomona College.  Here, she’s credited as a former Olympic Squad member (usually the top 24 fencers in any weapon), a PCC’s champion and a “contender” for the National title, whatever that means.  If nothing else, we can see McKee’s influence in the Italian foil since his formative training was under the Italian Maestro Scaramuzza.

Another document from the packet from Kevin is titled, “About the Cavaliers”.  There are several stories used to make a specific point to his students and, likely, some parents.  Cavaliers was a “closed club”.  If you were from another salle, you couldn’t show up and fence.  If you were a Cavalier, you couldn’t go to another club and fence.  If you did and he found out about it, you were out and dues were forfeit. He continues with, “We have been through the Courts on this a few times and we have always won!”  For all the charts and graphs contained in the papers, there isn’t one charting the court cases filed against him to repay dues from forfeiture.  I wish there was.  To me, having fenced at lots of clubs as both member and guest, the notion of the Closed Club gets under my skin.  I’ve certainly stepped into clubs where the reception was frosty – and I’m looking at you, Halberstadt circa 1982 – but I don’t think it ever occurred to me that a club would have turned me away altogether.  He describes his logic with a couple of analogies.  “Members of the RAMS football club do not go and play with the Oakland RAIDERS, Basketball pros on one team do not relax by visiting other pro teams.  And so the members of one Salle do not go and visit members of another.  When one does, we know almost immediately!”  As a method of controlling the training regimen of your fencers, ok.  Keeping them on task, working on specific drills, physical training, etc.  If you’re prepping for a big tournament, that focus and intensity is required, no distractions, I get it.  But the way it’s presented here smacks of the whole ‘botta secreta’ notion where the Master proclaims, “Only I have the gifts to make you great!” and that’s always rankled with me.  True, I was tutored by coaches who preached the opposite, pushing me to get out there and learn from everyone, so the polar opposite of that is never going to sit right because of how I was raised up.  Hey, look!  A chart!

There’s a lot going on here.  Locations, number of students, medals won, years active, all in one handy, hand-plotted graph.  I think John would have loved Excel.

When I started looking into McKee’s history in preparation for writing this, I first looked through Newspapers.com to pull out articles from newspapers that could give me some insight.  I pinged Andy Shaw of course, but he had surprisingly little.  Of all the material he has amassed – if you haven’t visited Shreveport, LA for crawfish and jambalaya, go visit Andy’s Museum of American Fencing – and he has an enormous collection, he only has one picture of John McKee.  That’s why I have a subscription to Newspapers.com.  I found a good number of articles, ranging from 1937 to 1987, so fifty years worth of reading.  (It’s less than 40 articles.)  For some reason, I read the 1987 article first.  Here’s the headline:

The headline of an article about McKee from the Los Angeles Times, circa November of 1987.

When I read that headline, I had to stop and think for a minute.  No peers?  That’s a pretty bold statement.  However, rather than stop there and form a complete opinion from the single source, I read back through all the other articles to see how this notion tracked over time.  The results don’t match with reality as I understand it.  Starting in 1956, a news article about McKee states, “There are only 20 accredited fencing masters in America.”  In 1958 and 1960, the number has dropped to 10.  “One of 10 fencing masters in America and ranks second in that category.”  I mean, I could go back and see who the ten fencing masters were that died between ’56 and ’58, except I recognize bullshit when I see it.  Now, I can accept that newspaper columnists and reporters can take a quote from a subject and turn it into anything they like but both the articles in ’58 and ’60 have the same number; 10 fencing masters in the US.  Where did that number come from if not McKee?  Even dismissing the “ranks second in that category” as self-publicizing grandiosity, ten’s a small number.  Especially in light of the notation in his own history, where McKee names the other fencing masters in Southern California during the 50’s & 60’s.  He lists Ralph Faulkner, Jean Herrimans, Henri Uyttenhove, Joseph Vince and Aldo Nadi.  Counting him, that makes for six just in SoCal alone.  But the rest of the country has only four?  It’s not even plausible.  But wait!  It’s gets better – or worse, depending on your outlook.  In 1969, he was simply, “one of the nation’s top ten fencing masters”, but by 1985, it’s: “the United States once had as many as 10 fencing masters and he is disappointed to see the number dwindle”.   This particular article has quite a few zingers.  The “dwindle” quote is follow up with, “…one of only two masters in the United States.  The other is George Santelli of New York.”  That’s some dwindle.  Twenty, then ten, and finally ‘just me & Santelli’.  In surfing, they say, “Go big or go home.”  McKee was living in Huntington Beach during this time so I can only guess he understood this notion, since the final quote from this 1985 article reads, “Here I am, 74 and overweight, and I can still compete with the best of them.”

From the 1987 LA Times article, two years after saying he could compete with the best of them.

The 1987 article starts this way: “John McKee isn’t fencing competitively anymore, but it doesn’t matter.  There isn’t anyone in the United States good enough to challenge him, let alone beat him. And he’s 78 years old.  “It’s like being the best in anything” said McKee of Huntington Beach, this country’s only master fencer, the equivalent of being ranked No.1 in any sport.  “You have to beat everyone else to challenge the champion.  Right now there’s no one like that in this country.”

Santelli passed away in 1985, so I guess that just leaves John McKee.  The country’s only master fencer.

In writing all this and looking through the available material, any conclusions about McKee, who he was, what he was all about, remain amorphous.  That he was dedicated to the sport of fencing is obvious.  He was a tough, controlling task-master, and by no means the only fencing coach with those qualities.  Heck, that stuff’s practically a job requirement.  He promoted the sport endlessly.  He produced champions and taught for more than fifty years.  Mad props for all of that.  But there’s this other side to his character that can’t be overlooked.  Maxine Mitchell spoke of it as “conniving” and “cheating on little things”. I never met McKee and can’t therefore form an opinion based on personal interaction.  And yet, I’m really clear that an overweight 74 year old can’t compete with the best fencers of the day.  It’s errant nonsense.  It reminds me of the story I’ve heard about that was often told by Dr. William O’Brien, how Hans Halberstadt defeated Daniel Magay and Tom Orley when they visited the Halberstadt club in 1957 when Hans was in his 70s, Dan was an Olympic Gold medalist and Tom a Junior World Champion.  It’s pure fantasy.

The one photo Andy Shaw has in his collection.  John McKee is on the far left congratulating a fencer.  Maxine Mitchell is the woman 3rd from the right.

I’m left with a sense of bewilderment, unable to find correlation between the good qualities of John McKee’s ability and results with the obvious exaggeration of his status in the firmament of master fencers.  I haven’t solved anything here, that’s certain.  And he’s a subject I plan to revisit, if only to relay some pretty funny stories that he tells in his History document.  Yet, as much as I like fencing stories, I prefer factual ones.  Are John’s true?  I really have no idea.


The Halberstadt Scrapbooks, Book One

As many times as I’ve mentioned the Halberstadt Scrapbooks on this website over the years, I was shocked to realize that I have not, until now, written a defining story about what they are and (to me, at least) their significance.

Today you can stop in at just about any hobby shop or Michael’s and find entire sections filled to overflowing with all manner of tools and materials to aid you in creating a masterfully designed and meticulously crafted scrapbook.  In the olden days, you got a blank book and you taped or glued in your photos and news clippings and that was that. Well, that’s exactly what Hans Halberstadt did. Hans kept scrapbooks from 1948 or 1949 until his death in 1966.  At least, that’s what we know of.  In the first of his books, there are some very old papers from around 1900.  From another long gone book?  I’ll never know.  If he had yet another from his earliest days in San Francisco, which started in January of 1940, it hasn’t survived to the present day. But sticking to the main subject, seventeen years of fencing history is quite a lot of ground to cover and Hans covered it extremely well.

A fairly standard page out of the Halberstadt Scrapbooks.  This one is from 1949.

I don’t know how many newspapers Hans subscribed to but “a lot” has to be a pretty fair estimate.  Along with the photographs, holiday cards and tournament programs that were slipped into the books, he has articles related to fencing from all over the country and around the world.  He seems to have collected anything about fencing in all the San Francisco papers, an LA paper or two, several Midwest papers including two or three from Chicago alone, and at least the New York Times, if not another paper – or two – from NYC.  He also has articles and clippings from Germany, Italy, France and Argentina. Then there are the magazine articles. And the good thing for me is that he often went out of his way, especially on the magazines, to be sure to include in the clipping the name of the publication and the issue number or date of publication.  That information has allowed me to go off and hunt down copies of several magazines that had interesting articles so that I might have an original, as opposed to just a scan of a cut up little section. I’ve been able to get my hands on several rather obscure magazines with fencing articles for my own collection by using the clues Hans left behind and typing in the information into the search box on Ebay.  Ah, Ebay. Bless you, Ebay.

Sportfolio, a magazine I’d never heard of prior to seeing the Halberstadt Scrapbooks.  A great example of Hans leaving me enough clues to go find an original copy for myself.  The May, 1949 issue of Sportfolio features Casey Stengel on the cover.  That’s the top of his baseball cap you can see just below the magazine’s logo.  Right at the end of the article you’ll even see a mention of Hans’ scrapbooks!

But let us not stop with blessing only Ebay, because many more thank-yous need to be spread around.  The four scrapbooks now in existence at the Halberstadt Fencers Club are not the original books that Hans put together himself.  Those original books were nearly lost in their entirety and the people that jumped in at the right moment to prevent that loss are my heroes forever.  Back in the 1980s, on a dark day in the annals of fencing history, a water pipe burst at the Halberstadt club. Flooding ensued. I don’t know what else got drenched but the original Halberstadt Scrapbooks were among the victims.  It is our great fortune today that the Halberstadt crew at the time recognized the value of the scrapbooks and immediately set to work with towels and hair dryers to soak up water and dry out the pages. That done, one of these heroes, Lee Bridges, set herself the task of re-assembling the articles, photos, etc, onto new scrapbook pages.  She even went so far as to make notations where applicable to identify people in photographs, no doubt using the original books as a guide since some of the people she was able to identify were last seen at the club sometime before 1960.

Another example of a magazine clipping I was able to hunt down on Ebay.  Although you can’t see the info here, this is from Flash: the Picture Digest, September, 1950 and features SoCal luminaries Ralph Faulkner, Polly Craus and Sewall “Skip” Shurtz.

The resulting work, however water-stained, discolored or smeared, still conveys an astonishing amount of history to be mined over and over again.  I’m so grateful to Kathy Krusen at Halberstadt for entrusting the books to me for scanning. I made digital scans of all the material on each page, every page from every tournament program, and photographed anything that was too delicate to handle getting flattened on the scanner glass.  I also made sure to come up with a naming convention based on page#/year that’s pretty easy to figure out – not terribly difficult since every page in the book was dated, making it easy to tell when 1958 changed over to 1959.  (Thanks again, Lee!)  The digital scans I then copied onto a couple of different hard drives for my backups and gave a copy of all the files to Kathy when I returned the books.  The greater the spread of historical data means the greater likelihood of survival, right?

Italy, Chicago and the Bay Area, all on the same page.  The top article from Italy describes a memorial tournament between French and Italian fencers, held in honor of the memory of the great Giulio Gaudini, the six foot, seven inch tall Olympic Foil Champion of 1936.

The interesting thing about how I’ve used my scans of the material is that it isn’t a straight read-through.  My tendency is to have a topic or date range in mind for research and then go look through the pages until what I’m looking for pops up.  What tends to happens though is that some new data point invariably comes along to inform my thinking of some other storyline on a totally different track. And after doing this type of research for better than six years now, every time I go back to the Halberstadt Scrapbooks, the more meaning I find.  Some little article will have a name or something that didn’t mean anything to me the first time I saw it, but a year or two later that name will have been connected through other research and suddenly I’m making more sense of everything.  It’ a fun, if sometimes puzzling, way to do research.

News from Germany, a hand-edited cartoon, and holiday greeting cards from the Funke’s and Helene Mayer, circa 1951.

Now I’m thinking I need to get my Excel on and start making a page-by-page spreadsheet of all the names and dates in all four books to make searching for information a much easier task.  After, of course, spending a ton of time and effort sifting through every page. Huh. Just yesterday my son was asking me what the word was for doing a bunch of work now so that you can be lazy later.  I told him to ask his English-major mother but now I think I need to find out what that word is, too. Is there even actually a word for that? It seems like there must be a word or phrase or something. Like, ‘ what people do, all day, every day’ or ‘that’s life’.  It might be comforting to know.

The 1951 edition of the invitation to participate in the Halberstadt Sabre competition.  For most of the years that this tournament was held, the invitation format stayed the same, listing all the previous winners and ending with the question of ‘who will win it this year?’  And I won’t leave you in suspense.  Salvatore Giambra took the 1951 Halberstadt Sabre prize home and that trophy now resides in the Archive’s collection, thanks to a generous donation of memorabilia from Sal’s daughter.

One happy coincidence with these scrapbooks is the unexpected handoff of history between the starting point of the Halberstadt Scrapbooks and the ending point of the Erich Funke d’Egnuff scrapbook that is also part of the Archive collection.  Funke’s scrapbook, a donation made by Marc LeRoux to whom I am eternally grateful, starts in 1934 and goes through 1947. Its coverage is more on the local level, encompassing a great deal of material from the Bay Area but less, percentage-wise, from other parts of the country. Still, between the two, I can reasonably expect to have information from any SF area competition (at least) from 1934 to 1966.  Funke didn’t have a lot of competition in the form of other San Francisco clubs during his early times in the City. Hans had quite a bit more but never seems to have stinted on putting articles about other programs and coaches into his scrapbooks. If it was about fencing, it went in. Who knows what his personal feelings may have been about his local coaching competitors but if they got press, Hans cut it out and taped it into his book.  I say ‘taped’ because the articles and photos in the scrapbooks as they are today tend to have a lot of old tape markings – and sometimes the old tape – on them. My suspicion is that Lee had to frequently make a choice about whether or not to tear off old tape, as the adhesive residue leads ultimately to paper deterioration. But that has to be balanced against potentially tearing the material when attempting to take off the tape.  I’m glad she had to make those choices and not me. I’d still be working on it.

A 1951 page of miscellany with cartoons, a pretty fencer gal, Bino Bini and… a death-by-fencing notice?  Not the only one of that last item to be found in the Scrapbooks, either.  In this one, it references Mogens Luchow of Denmark, who was the World Epee Champion of 1950 and competed at the 1948 and 1952 Olympic Games.  The victim was an Olympic competitor for Finland at the 1948 Games.

Going through the scrapbooks really does bring up some amazing moments in history.  Hans carefully documented all the events of the arrival of the Hungarians to San Francisco in January of 1957 and the settling in the San Francisco Bay Area of George Piller, Dan Magay, George Domolky and Tom Orley from that group of world class athletes.  There are also numerous pages devoted to the passing of the great Helene Mayer, an Olympic teammate and friend of Hans’ since she was in her teens. There are a number of pages from an Italian magazine reflecting on the passing of Aldo Nadi in 1965, just a year prior to Hans’ death.  And throughout there are notices large and small about local tournaments, Pacific Coast Championships and Nationals. In almost every case where there is a program from a PCCs or Nationals, the names of the finalists and where they finished is filled out in Hans’ own hand. Another nice tidbit are the handbills from the annual tournaments, the Halberstadt Sabre and the Halberstadt Women’s Foil.  Each year to advertise the upcoming event, Hans would include the names of all the previous winners, giving me an excellent record of to whom all the specially engraved and decorated sabres and foils went. (The Archive has 5 of the sabres and one of the foils, and I have seen 5 other of the sabre prizes. They’re each a little different and all very cool. Check out the new “Relics” feature on the website!)  Greeting cards, telegrams, autographed restaurant menus, you name it, it’s all in there, year after year.

I’ve seen a couple of photos of masquerade parties taking place at the Halberstadt club back in the day.  For this one, you had to pay an admission fee of a broken blade.  “Endy” was the nickname for Eleanor Turney, a wonderful, generous woman and a fixture of NorCal fencing for decades.  She gifted me my first lamé.  By 1952, the date for this page, Mills College had lost their long-time fencing teacher, Helene Mayer.  She had married and moved to Germany.  I’m not certain who the woman is in the lower right who has taken Helene’s spot as instructor but that would be one tough act to follow.

That’s the story of the Halberstadt Scrapbooks.  The Halberstadt club has them in their care. I don’t know if they keep them out for public perusal or store them safely away.  But endless thanks to Kathy affording me the chance to scan them, so that I may share cool stories and images from the pages here to keep the information alive and moving forward.

Yikes.  Another fencing death, this time from 1952 in Devon, England.  Let’s not dwell on it.  Norman Casmir was the son of Hans Halberstadt Olympic teammate Irwin Casmir.

Here at the end, let me say that I will just have to do more of these posts.  I was going to try to provide some images that gave an overview of all four books in one go but that’s not going to work as there is just way too much interesting material in each book.  Hence, the images here are all from Book One.  I’ll dive into Book Two another time.

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