Mark Spitz look-a-like contest. First prize; one sexy, petite, foxy chick, 23, intelligent, long golden hair. Enter now. Send photo and phone to . . . —
– Letter to an alternative newspaper, which as a matter of policy does not print sex ads.
Following roughly in the footsteps of, and appealing to much the same audience as Tom Jones and Burt Reynolds; Mark Spitz – —national hero – —has become a symbol of the thrusting unattainable to millions of American women. The new, pelvic heartthrob, as it were.
Today he is seen on billboards, in milk commercials, and is involved in any number of deals which primarily involve the use of his name. His new coaches, upon whom he depends absolutely, are business managers and press agents who fear his widely noted tactlessness could endanger their percentage profits and who keep him from the media with the stubborn tenacity of men sitting on a gold mine. They know there is a goodly number of people who find it easy to ridicule Mark Spitz. In Hollywood, for instance, where the currently chic thing to do is to have a private screening of Deep Throat in your home, the hosts intersperse the reels with Spitz milk commercials in much the same way your local theater shows Porky Pig cartoons.
The majority of Americans, however, see Spitz as a hero; a man roughly equal in patriotic stature to the astronauts. Nearly a third of a million Mark Spitz posters have been sold since September. They show a man on top of the world, smiling triumphantly. Friends from the old days remember the smile well, but they say that in the most recent photos, they detect a note of dark and puzzled brooding.
The posters, in which Mark wears a pair of brief competition trunks, sell well, both to women and to the gay community. In no other world sport is a man quite so naked, with the sole exception of Sumo wrestling. Sumo wrestlers, though, are less attractive than swimmers. They express— – in the extreme— – the objections some women have to athletes as a whole. They are too bulky, they are cruel, they sweat and they smell. Swimmers, by contrast, are lean and supple. Their sport is gentle and as beautiful in its way as ballet. They are clean and they give off only the faintest odor of chlorine. To add to their appeal, they come from a desirable social caste: the WASPish upper middle class. For this reason swimming has been called a country club sport. It now costs between $800 and $1200 a year for a parent to send his child to meets where he encounters national class competition. There are entrance fees, transportation costs, and motels to pay for. Over a career spanning an average of ten years, this is a substantial investment.
There are absolutely no black swimmers of national caliber. Some coaches have actually tried to make the case that a black swimmer is less buoyant than a white, that he has an unfavorable bone-muscle density to lung capacity. Probably more to the point is the fact that there are no social and economic gains to be made in the sport. As soon as there are a thousand professional swimmers making a living in the water, this buoyant upper middle-class sport will undoubtedly be integrated rapidly.
As it stands, a swimming career represents only financial sacrifice to an athlete’s parents. It is a further and somewhat bewildering fact that swimmers, while they may be the best in the state or the country or the world, get about as much space on the sport’s page as a good exciting little league game. Reporters don’t buddy up to them and learn their names. At the University of Wisconsin, where I swam on an athletic grant-in-aid, we used to joke about what we considered the archetypal swimming-photo mention. It would be a dark shot of a lot of splashing water with an arm dangling out and a caption that read: “unidentified swimmer wins race.”
For the athlete, with no hope of money and little chance for fame, workouts are mostly a matter of agony. In context then: It’s six o’clock on a Monday morning and the first day of double workouts for the summer swim team. A hypothetical athlete is two miles through what seems like an endless four-mile grind. In this outdoor pool, in the early morning chill, steam rises from his churning body. His chest is knotted with pain— – asphyxiating fatigue is the technical term— – and his thighs and upper arms literally burn with exhaustion. Standing above, one can see that the blood is not carrying waste away from the overworked muscles quickly enough. The shoulder girdle and upper back is an unpleasant shade of blue.
“Hurt, pain, agony,” are the words Mark Spitz’ Indiana coach used to use to inspire his swimmers. (My coach would say, “Pain is the purifier” or, “There is no barrier.”)
Those who concern themselves with questions of motivation have called swimming – —this lonely and punishing pursuit – —the sport of masochists. It may be more accurate to think of swimmers as ascetics, involved, perhaps unconsciously, in a religion of pure competition. In this faith, stopwatches become sacred objects, and they are greatly feared. Times are a measure of dedication and success. Today they are calibrated to the inarguable 1/100 of a second; and the fast ones – —world records – —are Goals, to be Peaked for, often over periods of ten years and more.
It is no coincidence that many athletes, having quit swimming, fall into severely disciplined religious lives. At least three people who swam with Mark Spitz have spent time in Krishna Consciousness temples.
Coaches are easily seen as priests; Zen masters of the twin demands of the sport which are technique and motivation. Mark Spitz had natural technique. George Haines, his Santa Clara coach said, “I don’t think anyone taught Mark very much in terms of stroke.”
What Spitz didn’t have, and what he desperately needed, was a nebulous quality swimmers call “pysch.” Out of the water he was nervous and unsure of himself. He borrowed strength of character from seven men: his father and his three coaches then; his press agents and business managers now.
The most difficult period in his life was the four years previous to and culminating in the 1968 Olympics. At 14 he was already outswimming college competitors. It was clear he had the potential to become invulnerable, and the older men began to work on his weakest point. He was made to feel stupid and socially inept, where in actuality, he was merely blunt about his own abilities and monumentally tactless.
At the Mexico City Olympics, in ’68, Spitz won only two gold medals, while some national magazines had predicted he could bring home as many as eight. Mark himself announced to the world that he would win six. It is doubtful that Spitz would have quit swimming at this point, but he probably wouldn’t have had the triumph in Munich had he not gone to Indiana University where coach-psychologist Doc Counsilman had assembled the finest —freshman team in the history of college swimming.
Among his peers at last, Mark tried hard to win acceptance. He allowed himself to be spit on night after night in a freshman team tradition. It was much like his fraternity initiation, where he allowed himself to be covered with honey, as well as molasses and eggs. He came up smiling, and slowly found himself admitted into a small circle of friends. Accepted at last, Spitz slowly worked on rebuilding his delicate psych.
* * *
Mark Spitz, like a piece of fine clay, has been pummeled and molded and shaped literally since birth. His father, Arnold Spitz, likes to think of himself as a “forceful individual” and an “agressive businessman.” Arnold Spitz always knew that with his help, Mark could be the best swimmer in the world.
World-class swimmers now begin training about the age of five. Physiological tracts for coaches remind them that in swimming, “asphyxiating fatigue precedes all others and does not harm the organism.” This means that a coach can work a child to exhaustion with a clear conscience; and it is worth noting that swimming is the only sport in which this is true.
Children, however, do not naturally work themselves to the fainting point. This is where the ten-and-under mother comes in. Two-time Olympian Brian Job, Mark’s teammate at Santa Clara, explains the syndrome: “There’s probably some psychological name for it, but your parents, through you, are fulfilling their dreams.” Brian’s mother, he says, pushed him from age five on, swimming him literally until he cried. “I don’t really believe I had a free choice in the matter. She would say, ‘If you want to quit, you can quit.’ Of course, I knew what was lurking behind all that.”
When he was 14, Brian’s mother enrolled him in Santa Clara High School, where George Haines, the appointed 1968 Olympic coach, coached the campus team. Brian lived in an apartment, 2800 miles from his home in Ohio.
“Mark’s situation was worse than mine,” Brian says. “His father was right there all the time, pushing him, whereas my mother was the drive behind me and she pushed from afar. They had an article that said Mark’s father said to him, ‘There’s eight guys in the pool: seven of them are bums.’ OK, well, my mother never went that far, but if I didn’t win, I was up shit creek. I’m serious. I’d just feel like shit. Have to listen to everything I did wrong. And I’m not really sure whether it’s true or not, but from everything I’ve seen, Mark’s father was even more so than my mother.
“The article presented his father in such a way that people took it as a putdown, but to me it showed his father in a way that you could really see what was behind Mark. Some people I know picked it up and ran to me and read the quote where his father says, ‘Mark is beautiful because I made him.’ And the guy said, ‘If my father said that about me, I’d shoot him; I’d hit him; I’d do something.’ But see, that’s the way Mark’s father was. His father and mother – —the whole situation – —I sort of believe was the ten-and-under mother syndrome.”
When Mark was nine, his father turned his career over to Sherm Chavoor, owner and coach of the Arden Hills Swim Club just north of Sacramento. When he was ten, his Hebrew classes conflicted with swimming practice, and Arnold Spitz yanked his son out of the classes, reportedly telling the Rabbi: “Even God likes a winner.”
Chavoor, a short, blunt-spoken man in his middle 50s who still likes to think of himself as a crew-cut flyboy from the Second War, is a curious combination of coach and businessman. A non-swimmer himself, he has taken nine athletes to the Olympics and the Arden Hills Club has accumulated a total of 16 gold medals. He owns Arden Hills, a swimming and tennis complex with a country club-like social facility. He drives a Mercedes 280 SL and describes Arden Hills as a “very valuable club.” His original investment came with money that he made as a school administrator and he continued to build on the strength of “business investments and so forth.”
“I don’t know of any way of working youngsters other than working them real hard,” Chavoor says. “I believe in stroke mechanics and technique, but I believe that’s the incidental part.” Mark left Chavoor at 12, but he was to return to him at 19 for summer workouts. It was during this time that Mark began to absorb much of Chavoor’s economic philosophy.
When Mark was 14, his father quit a job he had held for 18 years so that the family could move to Santa Clara where Mark could train under George Haines. The appointed Olympic coach, a serious and aloof man who is simultaneously feared and respected by his swimmers, changed Mark from a distance freestyler to a butterflyer because “the US needs butterfliers in 1968.” Many people say it was Haines who gave Mark his considerable stroke technique.
It was at Santa Clara that some nationally known swimmers, Olympic heroes themselves, began a four-year program of psych that was to devastate Spitz in the 1968 Olympics. Chavoor says: “They harassed him. They said he was a cocky kid, and they don’t know Mark Spitz. Mark Spitz is not cocky. He’s a nice boy. He’s timid.”
Haines says: “He talked a little too much, but so did some of the other kids. He got a lot of his talking ability from his father. He was fairly cocky and a lot of the older boys didn’t like the idea of being beaten by a young upstart. I think they were at fault, a lot of the older boys on the team, for him not swimming well in the 1968 Olympics.”
One of those older boys was Don Schollander, the blond golden boy of the ’64 Olympics, who came home with four gold medals. “I think Mark looked up to Schollander,” Haines says, “and if you ask Mark to this day who his hero was, I think he says Don Schollander. The only thing is, Don is a little older, and no older swimmer likes to have a youngster get right next to him every day in practice and have his sights on him. And this is what Mark did. They call it dragging on each other . . . or pacing them. Pressure built up on them.”
Schollander was in college when Spitz started swimming with him in the summers. He was charming and articulate and had been tapped for Yale’s prestigious Skull and Bones Society. In swimming circles he was known as a psych artist, a man who could destroy an opponent’s concentration before a race with a seemingly innocent comment. One All-American swimmer said, “Schollander might say something like, ‘Gee, how do you swim so fast with such a poor kick?’ The gun would sound and the other guy would forget everything he wanted to do. All he would be able to think about would be, ‘what’s wrong with my kick?’ “
With Mark Spitz, this particular psych amounted to a subtle and destructive four-year campaign. As Brian Job remembers it: “The first time I ever worked out with Schollander, Mark was in the next lane over. . . . The situation was where Mark would come up with a joke, but maybe it wouldn’t be appropriate at the time, but it might be sort of funny and Schollander would just jump on his head. He would say, ‘Oh Mark, that’s the most disgusting thing I ever heard,’ or something like that. But Schollander could say something and pull it off as being really funny. If Mark would say something similar, Schollander would come down on him. I’m sure that psychologically it stemmed from the fact that here was this kid who was going to be beating Schollander and Schollander knew it.
“It was a problem for Mark. Every time he’d open his mouth, he was made to look like a fool. If it were you, you’d probably start saying things that are really just foolish and not appropriate, and completely lose any sense of humor or sense of what to say. Mark continued doing that for a long time. And people would remark, ‘Oh God, what an ass.’
“I mean, no one on the team hated Mark. He really just wanted to be one of the guys. He was set apart because he was so amazingly good. And he just wanted to be one of the guys.
“I was just a young whatever myself, but I got in my ‘Oh, Mark’s. He could come up with some incredibly bad stuff. . . . He really didn’t have any sense for what was appropriate to say at the right time.” Job believes Spitz has matured considerably over the past four years, though he says, “he still flips every now and then. I’ve seen a few quotes in the paper that I think were true because it sounds like the old Mark again.”
(Job could have been referring to the comment Mark made in Munich in reply to a question about how he felt as a Jew in Germany. “I always liked the country,” Mark said, “even though this lampshade is probably made out of one of my aunts.”)
As Spitz continued to come up with more and more “incredibly bad stuff,” his teammates began to treat him like a mental defective. They said he was stupid, and Mark, the moldable, believed them. “He wasn’t that quick,” Brian Job remembers, “but he really didn’t have any confidence in himself.” Job, an A-average engineering student at Stanford, makes a meaningful qualification. “I don’t believe that intrinsically he’s any less intelligent than anyone else.”
In an effort to gain some sympathetic attention at Santa Clara, Mark made another tactical error. He developed a severe case of prima donna hypochondria, according to a former fellow swimmer. There were causeless earaches, nonexistent strained muscles, and a host of major and minor ailments. “Oh God,” he would say, having read some article about what gives you pain when you swim, “God, I feel the lactic acid building up in my body.” A few days later he would come up with another pain. “Oh God, I got a heart attack. My heart hurts, my heart hurts.”
“Guys jumped on him really fast about that,” Brian Job remembers. “They said, ‘Mark, that’s ridiculous.’ But he kept it up and that was when people would unconsciously lose respect for him.”
In 1967, Don Schollander told Sports Illustrated: “I don’t associate with Mark. I generally hang around with guys my own age. Mark is immature in a lot of ways, but basically he’s a pretty good guy.” In 1968, a few months before the Olympics, the psych was coming down a little harder. Schollander, Mark’s hero to this day, told the same magazine: “Mark is not very intelligent. His inane comments used to bother me. Now, they make me laugh.”
At the Olympics, Mark was “eventually shot down by everyone,” according to Job— – who came out of nowhere that year to take a surprise bronze medal. “We spent nearly a month and a half at training camp and guys did some really crummy things. Like: Mark didn’t want to take his gamma-globulin shots, and so . . . I wasn’t the first, but I picked up the same thing. We were all coming out of the thing going, ‘Ahh, ohh God,’ and faking like it really hurt. And that scared the hell outta Mark. He’s naturally tan and I’ve never seen him turn this white. He went to his room and got sick. . . . Then guys were making fun of him because he passed out when they took blood.”
Sherm Chavoor asserts that some of the harassment in ’68 was specifically anti-Semitic. Brian Job was startled, nearly sickened, when Mark’s own teammates, watching the live events on closed circuit TV, actually stood and cheered when Doug Russel beat Mark in his premier event, the 100-meter butterfly.
It is true that Mark was under a doctor’s care for a cold, for diarrhea, and for altitude sickness (a good many athletes fell prey to Mexico City’s 7500 feet), but his poor showing, many say, was really the result of a textbook case of psych. After the races, Spitz dropped into a severe state of depression. He was used to measuring his worth in wins and losses; he knew that God likes a winner and that he was one of the seven bums in an eight-lane pool. That fall, instead of going to Long Beach State College, as he had planned, he spent six months brooding, treading water in a sea of bad psych.
* * *
“When Mark came to Indiana,” one coed remembers, “he was always going like this.” She pulled her face into a puzzled frown, the kind of expression you might make if you woke up one morning and found that someone had taken everything you owned out of your room. “He had all this tension in his brow.”
James “Doc” Counsilman, the Indiana swimming coach, has taken his team to over 80 straight dual meet victories and five straight NCAA titles. He met Mark in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in December of 1968.
“Mark,” he said, “I understand you’re all set to go to Long Beach.”
Spitz had given some indeterminate reply and Doc talked him into a visit to the Indiana facilities in Bloomington. As Counsilman remembers it, “he was interested in dentistry, but Long Beach didn’t have a particularly good pre-dent course. Mark didn’t think he was smart enough to go into a big university and study dentistry. When I told him that he was, he was very much flattered.”
Doc may have laid it on a touch thick, however. When the announcement came that Mark had decided on Indiana, Counsilman was quoted nationally as saying, “The happiest day of my life will be when I say, ‘Take a look in my mouth, Dr. Spitz.’ “
In his first semester, spring of 1969, Counsilman gave Mark the Cattell Personality test, which showed that he was extremely tense. “The second year I gave the test,” Counsilman says, “he scored perfect on being relaxed. He’d lost his tenseness and he stayed that way.”
Doc teaches sports psychology at Indiana and he had a pretty good idea about what was bothering Mark. “He becomes part of a group more slowly than the average person. And that’s because, I think, he’s been hurt a fair amount. The older swimmers had the social know-how and intimidation factor to shoot down a little kid and knock him flat. I think this is what happened to Mark.”
Counsilman held a team meeting in which he told his swimmers, “Mark Spitz is coming to school and I know he has a reputation, but I personally like him and I want you to give him a chance. You know how I feel about guys belittling, browbeating, and picking on an individual. I’m not going to have any of that crap on this team. Not with Mark Spitz, or anybody. I don’t tolerate that.”
At least one Santa Clara swimmer has the impression that the Indiana men were ordered to like Mark. “Time or somesuch magazine had this article about how they loved Mark at Indiana, which was utter bullshit. We talked to the same guys in that article and some of them were close friends and they would write back and say that they hated Mark more than we did. A friend of mine went up to two guys quoted in the article and said, ‘No kidding, you guys really like Mark?’ And they both look at each other and say in this robot voice, ‘We . . . really . . . like . . . Mark.” They made little quote marks in the air with their fingers. I mean, it was so obvious what they were doing.”
Once again, it was the older swimmers who resented Mark the most. And Spitz himself was sometimes characteristically blunt about himself. Once, sitting in a room with a freshman friend, he smiled a puzzled little smile and said, “I just can’t believe how good I am.”
The freshmen, Mark’s peers, were more forgiving. They devised a formulation to explain the all-too-frequent Spitz faux pas. It was as if he was born without tact and common sense, they concluded, in the same way other people are born without arms or legs. He was something of a social paraplegic, no more to be hated, in their eyes, than, say, someone with a deforming birth defect.
The more they gave Mark a chance, the more relaxed and the less obnoxious he became. Tom Warburton, a college All-American presently living in New York and writing songs, talks about some of the ways people got to know Mark Spitz. “The freshman team at IU has a tradition” he says, “and every night after supper we’d go over to the pool and we would play rag-tag. Like I have to hit you with a knotted up towel and then you’re it and you have to hit someone else. Only the way we played it, it was goob-tag, which is like ragtag, only whoever is it, you spit on them. You’re right there in the water and it sounds very disgusting, but we were all into it.
“If you throw the towel and miss, then you have to go get it and they’d all let it happen all over you. If there’s 20 guys there and I throw it and miss and it lands behind them, I have to run through all of them and they just spit on you. And then, oh man, it feels like somebody opening up an egg on your head or your back. And Spitz—he wasn’t very good at rag-tag. Being the fastest swimmer didn’t help because you have to be good at throwing, you have to be a good tactician, and you have to run. It was a big thing: the whole thrill of victory, agony and defeat. And Spitz was ‘it’ more than anybody.
“I don’t know. I always wondered if people were persecuting him. But he was always ‘it,’ and I laid some amazing goobers on his head.
“We got to know each other through that. And Mark was very good-natured and happy and he would laugh. I would say he was pretty much one of the guys.”
Counsilman made sure there were tutors and that Mark studied. “If Mark likes you,” Doc says, “he’ll go out of his way to please you.” One way he pleased Counsilman that spring and during the next three years was to come over to the coach’s house every night and study. He would sit in the den, at Doc’s desk. At the end of the semester, Mark had compiled a near-A average in solid academic courses such as chemistry and zoology. His self-estimation soared.
That summer Doc said: “The kids all like him; he’s actually learned to laugh and smile.” Out of the water, Mark tended to talk about material things he wanted: A camera, a stereo, clothes and cars. He and some pre-med students planned to buy a plane together when they got established in their professions. One of the would-be plane buyers, now in medical school in Dallas, remembers that Mark had no burning ambition to fix the nation’s teeth. “He liked to work with his hands, and he was good at it. He felt that he could make money at it. He always said he wanted his wife to have nice things.”
Some of the freshmen fixed him up with girls in that first spring. Doc remembers that some coeds tended to idolize him, particularly the Jewish girls. They would stop over to his apartment and bring him cookies, which embarrassed him. He was sometimes attracted to a girl who was cool to him, and, remembering the other girls, he’d have difficulty approaching her. One girl he eventually dated remembers his opening line that got him nowhere. “Uh, would you like to come over to my apartment and wash my dishes,” he asked her shyly.
“Mark was never the aggressor in any social situation,” Counsilman says. “It was the girl who would be the aggressor. When he dated a girl, he would go with her pretty steady. The thing that amazed me was at the Olympics someone asked, ‘How did you train so hard?’ He said, ‘I picked a girl at one end of the pool and one at the other and I’d go from one to the other.’ I guess the image they want is Burt Reynolds and— – at least when he was in school – —nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, he was just the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to go out with. And he wasn’t the type of guy your daughter would want to go out with.
“I should add that he really tries to please those he likes, and he’ll make a good husband because he likes intimate relationships and he doesn’t like a mass of people.”
The last home swimming meet at the end of his career was declared “Mark Spitz Day,” at Indiana. Sportswriters called it the “end of an era.” He had graduated in three and a half years, taken difficult courses, and compiled a 2.7 grade point average. He had been elected co-captain of the team. He had friends. The University president attended the meet and shook his hand. He was awarded two standing ovations and, when he waved his goodbye to the crowd, those sitting closest to him saw that there were tears in his eyes.
* * *
Coming off the high psych of Indiana, Mark set records at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Chicago. He had returned to businessman-swimming coach Sherm Chavoor in the summer of 1970, and Chavoor made every effort to “work with Mark upstairs,” which is a way of saying that he was always there with reservoirs of encouragement and strength.
Spitz was never a verbal psych artist like Schollander, but in Munich he psyched them all. One sportswriter, comparing Munich to Mexico, said that Spitz was “four years older and ten years wiser.”
The fact that he wore his hair slightly longer than everyone else – —and that he grew a moustache— – was one of the great psych coups of Olympic history. If swimming is indeed a kind of secular religion, then shaving your head for a big meet is a sign of dedication in the same way hairlessness is a sign of dedication to Krishna or Jesus. Swimmers are full of tales about people who blew the big one by a tenth of a second; slowed down, one is given to understand, by the drag of a thatch of hair a quarter inch too long.
If anyone thought he was going to psych Mark Spitz, he must have given up all hope when he realized the boy was actually going to swim with a moustache. It was as if the fastest runner in the 100-meter dash had decided to do the race with a sixpack of beer under one arm.
* * *
At the training camp, just before the swimmers left for Munich, one of the coaches asked Mark Spitz if he thought he might like to act in movies.
“I don’t know,” Mark said. “The people I’ve seen make a career in Hollywood haven’t turned out too happy.” “For Mark,” an old friend says, “that was really a profound remark.”
About the same time Sherm Chavoor was saying, “Mark will never go to dental school. He’s going to win so many medals, he’ll be a millionaire.” Just after the Olympics, Chavoor put a more specific price tag on those medals. “I said, boy, he’ll make five million dollars. I almost said seven million, one for each gold medal, but I said five, and I still think he can do it.”
Immediately upon his return from Munich, Chavoor received a call from Norman Brokaw, a senior executive and partner of the William Morris agency, the largest talent agency in the world. After the second world record, Brokaw, watching the tube, told himself, “That boy has charisma.” Chavoor turned Mark’s reins over to Brokaw.
There is a “Game Plan” for Mark’s new career. As outlined by Brokaw in a Life magazine article, it called for an association with a major blue-chip company, followed by a massive merchandising campaign, and culminating in a series of televised specials and Hollywood films.
Brokaw and his associates convinced Mark to move to Los Angeles, specifically to Marina Del Rey, a luxury singles apartment complex on the Pacific Ocean. He’s purchased a new wardrobe and a Lincoln Continental, and has taken up sailing. He will marry UCLA coed and part-time model Susan Weiner late this spring. The two were introduced, a spokesman said, by their fathers.
In the past few months, there have been charges that Spitz is led around Hollywood by his new managers like a steer with a ring in its nose. “Mark has been coached by coaches and they told him what to do to guide him,” Sherm Chavoor points out. “He had his own ability to think, but right now he’s going into a new field and . . . other people will do his thinking for him until he gets to a certain point where he feels confident.”
Not all of Mark’s former coaches are happy with his Hollywood adventure. “Mark Spitz is a very impressionable person,” Doc Counsilman says. “You can talk him into almost anything. It’s just amazing. You give him a suggestion and he’ll think about it for a while and it becomes real.”
Counsilman may have been thinking about the time the Indiana team was flying to an important meet and the swimmer sitting behind Mark saw that he was breaking out in measles. He surreptitiously got up and told Doc, who told the other swimmers to act as if Mark were perfectly healthy.
“Hey,” Mark said, looking at his hand, “I think I’ve got measles.”
“Nonsense,” Doc told him. “Those are freckles.”
Mark swam three winning races in the meet. On the plane back to Indiana, the team told Mark, yes, you have the measles. He spent the rest of the flight lying on the floor between the seats.
“Because Mark is so easily manipulated,” Doc says, “you have to be careful to let him make his own decisions. He has to be careful that he is still his own boss and that he doesn’t let his managers and other people tell him what to do.”
Doc adds a familiar line: “The people I’ve seen make a career in Hollywood haven’t turned out too happy.”
But it was Sherm Chavoor and not Doc Counsilman who was at Mark’s side during the Olympics, and it was Chavoor who pointed him toward Hollywood. “I think people who resent Mark for cashing in on his medals are stupid, jealous people,” Chavoor asserts strongly. “I don’t care if you are a millionaire five times over. Fine. More power to you. It helps our economy. You’ll spend the money. Heck, any man has that prerogative in the United States, which is a fabulous country. He should make everything he can. It’ll help our economy.”
* * *
There is a sickly, sad syrup of deja vu that flows through the crevasses and fills the canyons of the Mark Spitz story. It is composed of the not coincidentally similar history of perhaps the greatest swimmer of modern times, the hero of the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, Johnny Weismuller. He was the prototype of the learn limbed, aw-shucks American hero. The story is that the writer Cyril Hume saw him working out in a Los Angeles health club. Hume took one look at the man’s physique and told him, “We want you to play Tarzan.”
Weismuller clinched the job with a two-word reply. “Me? Tarzan?” he said.
MGM picked up his contract and the rumor – —a fairly well substantiated one— – is that the studio felt an unattached beefcake star was preferable to a married one. They gave his wife $10,000 and suggested she blow town. Which she did.
Weismuller made it a habit never to read his contracts or check his books. He hired financial managers to do that. He played in 17 Tarzan films, married four more times, once to Latin sexpot Lupe Velez— – “Johnny ees my beeg guy” – —who, sometime after the divorce, did herself in with seconals in the time-honored Hollywood tradition.
In 1944, Johnny’s agency, William Morris, closed a deal with Columbia studios. Johnny would play Jungle Jim. At the age of 45, he found himself battling evil witchdoctors, gorillas, rampaging rhinoceroses, giants and head-hunters. In one of the last of the series, he was crowned King of the Pygmy Moon Men while, on an adjacent stage, Columbia was shooting Marlon Brando in The Wild One.
When the Jungle Jim episodes dribbled to a halt in the early Fifties, Weismuller mysteriously found himself nearly bankrupt. A restaurant owner sent two heavies out to his house to impound his Cadillac until he paid a $200 bill. A bill Weismuller never saw because he turned it over to his trusted manager, Bo Roos of Beverly Management Company. Weismuller’s biographer, Narda Onyx, said that Johnny immediately made a phone call.
“Listen, Bo,” he said, “what are you doing to me? I’ve made millions over the years. Where did the money disappear to? I haven’t lived that high. You’re my business manager . . . you’re wealthy. Tell me, Bo, why is it I don’t have a quarter?”
Roos delivered the kiss-off. “What do you want from me, Johnny? I’m a sick man! And you make me nervous. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow never came and presently Weismullar was seen on late night TV advertising Kevo-etts vitamins. He later endorsed Bakelite-Krene swimming pools, but backed out of the deal when he discovered that they fell apart when filled with water. Later he lent his name to Weismuller Steel-Porcelain Pools, a better constructed pre-fab. He worked as a publicist for Big Boy hamburger franchises. Today he helps with the publicity for the Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
In 1968, he showed up at the Olympics. Mark Spitz and the sprinter Jerry Heidenreich were coming around one side of the pool when they saw a well-preserved older man with long black hair beckoning them. They knew who he was, but there was an unholy aura of failure about him and they walked by pretending not to notice. “Mark, Mark,” he called, and his voice seemed high and scratchy to the Olympians.
“Mark, it’s me . . . Johnny.”
* * *
Stan Rosenfield is the man you talk to if you want to talk to Mark Spitz. I first contacted him shortly after Christmas of 1972, and he promised me an interview as soon as possible. Three months later I had still not talked to Spitz nor could Rosenfield give me an approximate date.
Rosenfield works for Mark’s press agency, Jay Bernstein and Associates. He is a short, neat, dark-haired man who looks younger than his 34 years. He seems a little overwhelmed by his job, which apparently consists of telling most callers they can have interviews and then stalling them until they give up. Some of the people who call Rosenfield have been waiting long enough to get hostile.
“Bear in mind,” Rosenfield says, “that we have had some 450 requests and we have to take them one at a time. Also Mark has been sick [with hepatitis] for nearly two months, and we have a backlog.”
How many media people had talked to Mark since, say, Christmas? Rosenfield reminded me that Spitz has a very busy schedule, hesitated for a moment and came up with five or six names. An AP reporter had talked to him for a few minutes. There was a five-minute call to Seventeen magazine. “And we have had press conferences where as many as 75 representatives of the press have been present, so we certainly aren’t hiding him.”
There had been an in-depth piece in Life just after the Olympics. Aside from that, the reigning Spitz experts in the print field seem to be a Newsweek reporter who spent 15 minutes with Mark between tapings of the Bob Hope show, and a woman writer from the New York Times magazine who spent a somewhat longer time with Spitz at Jay Bernstein’s home in Los Angeles. Both stories implied that Mark had been told not to talk to the press, that the press was being kept from him, and that his managers and agents seemed to exercise an unhealthy degree of control over the young hero.
“When we have a press conference, we call all the people who have requested interviews and . . . ” Rosenfield hesitated. There had been at least two press conferences since I made my original request, and we both knew he had not bothered to contact me.
“How come you didn’t call me?” I asked.
Rosenfield shrugged, smiled absently, and muttered something about not having complete control . . .
He seemed desperately anxious that my article not say what was perfectly obvious on the face of it: that he and Jay Bernstein and Associates were keeping the media at arm’s length in much the same way a nervous father might lock his virgin daughter in the cellar.
* * *
Mark Spitz has been known to take bits and pieces of his personal style from the older men he is close to. Today he is close to Jay Bernstein, a bright, 35-year-old press agent with a large Sunset Strip office and some 40 employees. Bernstein has a roster of clients ranging from Susan Hayward and Milton Berle to Isaac Hayes and Bruce Dern. He is the publicist for the Miss America contest and the Ralston Purina TV specials, among others. A chauffeur drives his car, which is equipped with a telephone and a TV. His employees are equipped with electronic buzzers which they wear on their belts. When Jay buzzes, they stop whatever they are doing and call him. All this, Bernstein explains, saves time. He presented some credible examples. “Time is all you have to sell in this business,” he said.
I knew that Norman Brokaw was handling Mark’s career and I wondered if the fact that Brokaw’s son, David, had recently been hired at Bernstein’s had any connection with Jay’s landing of Spitz, which must be the account of the year. Jay said that it did not. Seventy percent of his clients were William Morris clients. He’d had a healthy relationship with Morris for ten years. David had been hired as a publicist “six or eight months ago.” Whether that was shortly before or shortly after Bernstein got the Spitz account, Jay didn’t know. He allowed that this all “sounded bad,” and assured me that no one had asked that question before. He said that someone related to someone from the Morris agency worked with Nat Lefkowitz, Mark’s business manager. Jay implied that there was no connection in either case.
Did Bernstein, I wondered – —shades of Johnny Weismuller— – actually suggest to Mark that he not get engaged. Yes, he had done that, but it was before Mark ever met Susan Weiner. And that was only because fans are a very special thing. . . . Jay thought it sounded bad, the way he was wording it. Fans are fickle, and Bernstein, as a “commercial being” felt it would be best if Mark didn’t mention women because the press tends to exaggerate these things. Now that Mark is engaged, he is very happy for him.
“People say I tell Mark what to do and I promise you, I do not,” Bernstein said. For instance, as soon as he met Susan, “he began mentioning her name” all over the place in direct contradiction to Jay’s advice.
He described Mark as “very warm, very bright.”
* * *
Norman Brokaw, 45, is the key man in Mark Spitz’s new career. He screens offers, makes deals, tries to protect Mark in terms of residuals, re-use, and the various intricacies of legal infighting. He is a short, soft-spoken man with a fatherly manner that is barely offset by a modish, dry-look hair trim. He greeted me cordially and asked if I had seen Mark on the television the night before.
In a previous phone conversation, he had suggested I watch the show, a Bob Hope special. The format was a sort of athletic Academy Awards ceremony where seven athletes were given $5000 apiece to turn over to their favorite charity. Mark was named male amateur of the year and athlete of the year. Flanked by Bob Hope and John Wayne, he donated his $10,000 to the new Mark Spitz Swim Center at the $100 million Cedar-Sinai Medical Center, which will be the largest medical facility west of the Mississippi when it is completed. Brokaw is on the board of directors at the new facility.
Over the phone, Brokaw had said, “You watch Bob Hope and you’ll see the real Mark Spitz. He’s just a superb human being. What more can I say? I’m not just saying this because he is my client. I said, ‘Mark, they need money for this project,’ and he said ‘Norman, I’m going to raise funds for it.’ And he did.”
In his Beverly Hills office, Brokaw explained that Mark had made a life-time commitment to the swim center. “One of the things you might want to know about Mark, and one of the reasons that I think he is one of the finest, most outstanding young men that I’ve ever met, and one of the brightest and most decent men I’ve ever known, has to do with a very touching thing that happened here. We get thousands of letters a week for Mark Spitz, but I remember one in particular. It was from a young boy and it said, ‘Mark Spitz, I love you,’ or something to that effect. An adult letter was attached to it. It was from the boy’s mother and it said, ‘Dear Mark, the attached letter is from my son who is retarded. He has never been able to speak and has never been able to swim. But ever since the Olympics, he is now able to say, ‘Mark Spitz.’ He has been taking swimming lessons and is no longer afraid of the water.’ “
That sat well in our minds. And when we knew we were going to go ahead with the pool, I discussed it with Mark and we immediately committed him to a lifetime association with the Center.
“I think you should know that Mark considers himself very fortunate to accomplish what he did and he told me, ‘Norman, I’d like to help others now.’ So in addition to Cedar-Sinai, you will see within the next 90 days two or three other major commitments which will be slanted towards helping people all over the country. Help to people of all denominations, etc. Help for the health and welfare of as many as possible.”
We talked about the press and Mark Spitz. There had been a rash of recent stories that called him “self-centered,” or “insensitive,” and once even “snake-cold and arrogant.”
“The press likes to build up heroes and then tear them down,” Brokaw explained. A buzzer on his desk sounded. “No, ask them to wait,” he said into the phone. I learned later that it was Mark Spitz and Susan Weiner who were waiting.
It occurred to me that the sudden move to altruism, not a part of the original Spitz Game Plan, would certainly result in better press for Mark. However, I couldn’t bring myself to quit believing that it was all a cynical plot to effect a shift in public opinion, though it would surely do just that.
“Mark is one of the finest, warmest, brightest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” Brokaw was saying. “And I’m not just saying that because he’s my client.”
Aside from the charities, the Game Plan is proceeding apace. Mark has made a “lifetime association” with Schick Electric, Inc., the blue-chip company the plan called for. Merchandising was going well. Mark has signed a contract to help promote Spartan Pools and has told a press conference that he hoped his appointment would “make younger kids go to their mothers and fathers and say, ‘Let’s get a pool.'” He has a contract with a firm that manufactures swim fins, goggles and masks; and another contract with a major manufacturer of water games. There was a captioned picture book in the offing as well as a deal with a manufacturer of sporting apparel.
He has appeared on The Bill Cosby Show and The Sonny and Cher Hour. Plans call for a TV special, starring Mark Spitz and produced by David Wolper, which could be aired this fall. If Brokaw and Spitz decide on a suitable script, he may make a movie as early as the winter of 1973. There are plans for an animated Mark Spitz cartoon show for Saturday morning TV.
I had been in Bloomington, Indiana in late February, a month previous to my visit with Norman Brokaw, and there Doc Counsilman’s son, James, told me that Mark called Doc and talked at length about Hollywood. He seemed depressed, and talked about the possibility of returning to Bloomington and going to dental school.
Norman Brokaw quickly set the record straight. “At the present time, Mark is not going back to dental school. In fact, just recently, in order to make room for someone on the waiting list, he informed the school that business plans would prevent him from going forward at this time. My own opinion is that it is doubtful that he will return to dental school.”
Asked to describe the private Mark Spitz, Brokaw said, “I consider myself a good judge of people and I’m not making this statement just because I represent Mark Spitz, but I must truly say that he is one of the finest young men that I’ve ever met. He’s a warm human being, he’s bright. I think he can be a success in anything he does.”
Brokaw laid both hands flat on his desk in that signal that invariably means the interview is over. “I told you at the beginning that you might have a chance to meet Mark,” he said. “You read where we keep him from the press and no one wants to talk about him. Well, you just walked in and got an appointment right away with me. And Mark is in the lobby right now.”
Brokaw told me that I could say hello to Mark, but then I would have to leave. There was going to be a meeting, and of course, it would have to be a private one. I was somewhat stunned by the idea that Brokaw and I had been sitting there for several minutes talking about Mark Spitz while Mark Spitz sat in the lobby with nothing to do.
Brokaw brought them in and Mark was smiling. When he saw me, he stopped in his tracks, about two feet from the door. He wore a pair of artfully faded jeans and a red turtleneck sweater. Susan smiled contagiously. She wore a white sweater and slacks. Together they would not have looked out of place on any campus in the country, though they looked out of place in that office. Brokaw introduced us, and when my eyes met Mark’s, he looked suddenly away, like a trapped animal. I stepped forward to shake his hand, and he literally flinched, finally taking my hand in a firm fraternity man’s grip.
“I saw you on Bob Hope last night,” I offered.
He stared at the floor.
“You got off one good line, I thought,” I said.
He brightened instantly. “Which one was that?”
“The one where you pretended not to know who John Wayne was.”
He smiled broadly— – the poster smile – —and in that moment, I found myself liking him immensely. “I know the one,” he said. “Where I said, ‘I can’t remember your name.’ “
“Yeah. Was that an ad lib?”
His eyes fell to the floor.
“Yes, that was an ad lib,” Norman Brokaw said proudly.
I wondered how he knew. Susan continued to smile and Mark stared at the floor. “Well . . .” Brokaw said, and cleared his throat lightly. It was a polite signal for me to get my ass out of there.
* * *
On the plane back to San Francisco, I thought about the wise men in Mark’s life. Arnold Spitz through Norman Brokaw. I thought about the specter of Johnny Weismuller that looms over the whole affair. I wondered if the next time Mark Spitz heard a high scratchy voice calling, “Mark, Mark, it’s me, Johnny,” he would stop. What would the two men talk about?