Fencing … was of the highest importance to all who were or aspired to be gentlemen….
—’The Badminton Library: Fencing,’ 1889
And then along came Jones…. —The Coasters, 1959
Luke Skywalker in San Francisco
Lunch had gone badly. The cigarette-company executive, angry about a delay in moving an employee from one city to another, leaned across the crystal, linen and silver and, in the middle of the elegant restaurant, started screaming at Peter Westbrook. Peter, the representative of North American Van Lines who was handling the account, stared into his plate. Under the table, he clenched his fists.
Let him get it off his chest, he thought.
Part of his job was taking flak when customers were dissatisfied. But this cigarette executive wouldn’t stop. He pounded the table and spewed out personal insults.
Why is he going overboard? Peter wondered.
Maybe he felt he could unload all his stored-up fury on Peter because Peter was just another guy from middle management. Or because Peter was half-black and half-Japanese.
In a low voice that cut through the cigarette executive’s rant, Peter said, “No one talks to me like that.”
By the end of the day, Peter was still upset. Automatically, he checked his calendar for the next day, arranged some papers on his desk blotter, glanced out the window at the crowds scurrying back and forth through midtown Manhattan. He picked up his briefcase and, from the corner where it leaned, grabbed his sabre.
As he walked through Times Square, people stopped and stared. Even in this capital of the unusual, a man carrying a briefcase in one hand and a sword in another attracts attention. A guy in the doorway to a second-story peep show snapped a leaflet at him.
“Pretty girls, hot sexy girls,” the guy said and then goggled at Peter’s sabre. Rearing back, he looked into Peter’s face and said, “I seen you on TV. You’re the sword fighter!”
In the last block before the subway, Peter was feeling loose, relaxed. All the frustration and anger that had built up since lunch was gone. In his head, he was already on West Seventy-first Street at the Fencers Club, clothed in his white tunic and mask, parrying and lunging, the “Là! Eh! Là!” of a dozen fencers ringing out around him, and his own laugh — a staccato “Ho, ho, ho” — booming over the din.
On the fencing strip, Peter is king. He is the best sabre fencer in America.
On his way home from practice one night, Peter was stopped by the police.
“Where are you going with that knife, boy?” the cop asked, gesturing at Peter’s sabre.
“I’m a fencer,” Peter replied.
When cops hear the word fencer, they — like anyone else — think of The Three Musketeers, continental noblemen and, if they’re old-movie buffs, maybe Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel. In the popular imagination, fencers are blond, blue-eyed aristos or, possibly, dark Spanish types, like Zorro. They are not half-black, half-Japanese New Yorkers passing through Washington Square Park at night.
The cop said, “Don’t shit me.”
Peter flashed his Olympic ID card.
The cop was convinced and let Peter go — but not without a warning: “Carry that thing in a bag,” he said. “You’ll scare someone.”
When Peter got home, he glanced around his studio apartment. Stereo on the floor. A couch. A table. Some chairs. The bare essentials. A towel on the refrigerator door. A leak in the kitchen sink. Thirty-one years old and still living like a college student.
He wanted something more substantial, something more elegant. But with practice every day after work, and trips to competitions all the time, he’d never had a chance to fix the place up. Was it worth it? Slowly, he turned to the corner of the room that he used for displaying his trophies: loving cups, ribbons, plaques, certificates, medals, goblets, a photograph of Jimmy Carter congratulating him at the White House. Dominating the display were six of the huge Excalibur-like swords awarded to the best sabre fencer in America. Six of them.
One by one, Peter took down the huge ceremonial swords and posed with them in front of a painting of him in full fencing regalia that had been done after one of his victories.
Five championships was the previous record. Two years ago, Peter had tied that record. Last year, he’d beaten it. He thought of the cigarette executive, the guy passing out advertisements to the peep show in Times Square, the cop who had stopped him in the park.
He was determined that in the 1983 national competition, he would beat the record — his own record — again.
“Try it on,” Peter’s mother said, handing him a new white shirt.
Peter had stopped for dinner at his mother’s apartment in the Portuguese section of Newark, New Jersey. It was a sweltering evening. The three rooms seemed claustrophobic. A fan on the floor in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen gave little relief.
Peter unpackaged the shirt and held it up. It wasn’t his style.
“I don’t think it will fit,” he said.
“What are you so fussy about?” asked Peter’s sister, Vivian, who had also dropped by for dinner. “It’s a freebie.”
Peter folded the shirt.
“I don’t like it,” he said.
His mother compressed her lips and raised her eyebrows.
“So particular!” she said. That’s what happens when you have a son who’s a star, who meets the president. She put a plate of shrimp and rice on the kitchen table for Peter. As he ate, he asked about her plans to visit her family in Japan. She was reluctant to go.
Peter’s mother came from an upper-middle-class Japanese family. His uncle had been a champion at kendo, a form of Japanese fencing that uses bamboo poles instead of swords. When Peter was six, he insisted that his mother make him a Zorro costume for Halloween. When he came home from trick-or-treating that night, he carved a Z in the coffee table.
By the time he was a teenager, Peter was getting into street fights every day. His mother, distressed at seeing her son turning into a hoodlum, offered Peter five dollars for every fencing lesson he took. She figured that in America, as in Japan, fencers — whether kendo or Western-style — tended to be middle or upper-middle class. If Peter started fencing, he’d mix with a better crowd.
Peter showed up on the first day of fencing practice at Essex Catholic Boys High School in Newark, but the fencing coach said it was too late to enroll. Peter’s mother went to one of the priests who ran the school and explained how her brother had been a kendo champion before he was killed by the English during World War II. She said that fencing lessons would be important for Peter’s character. His mother, like Peter, was a fighter. She didn’t give up. The priest talked to the coach, and Peter was enrolled in the class.
Peter learned the rudiments of the sport — how to advance, how to retreat, how to parry — and the differences between the three basic fencing weapons and techniques. The foil, which developed from the dueling rapier, is a practice weapon. The target in foil consists of the torso, front and back. Arms, legs, neck and head are out of bounds. The foil is a thrusting weapon: you lunge, trying to skewer your opponent. It attracts fencers who are slightly built and offers a game that is subtler than that of the épée or sabre. It is a game that most aptly fits the description of fencing as physical chess.
The épée, which developed from the dueling sword, is heavier than either the foil or the sabre. Like the foil, it is a thrusting weapon, but the whole body, from the uncrowned head to the Achilles’ heel, is the target. Its blade is more rigid than that of the other two weapons — as are the épée fencers, whose personalities tend to be less flexible than that of foil or sabre fencers, and who tend to play defensively, hiding behind their masks.
The sabre, which developed from the cavalry sword — the one you see horsemen waving wildly over their heads in movies — is a slashing weapon. You use the side of the blade as well as the point, and you whack as well as thrust. Since traditionally it was unsportsmanlike to kill a cavalryman’s horse in war, even by accident, you never aimed where your opponent’s horse was: below his waist. This custom became incorporated into the rules of the sport. Any part of the body — above the waist — is the target in sabre fencing.
Sabre fencers are the heavyweights among fencers. Peter decided he wanted to be a sabre fencer. Over the years, he began to develop an idiosyncratic technique. Many fencers bound onto the strip — the area of combat (about two meters wide and, for foil, fourteen meters long; for épée and sabre, eighteen meters long) — with a nasty, aggressive attitude. Peter ambles onto the strip as if it were a stretch of sidewalk he happened to be crossing and seems to say: “Hi. Nice to see you. Let’s make this as fast and as painless for you as possible.” His casual manner is aristocratic, the mark of a natural gentleman. Which, given fencings past, isn’t at all inappropriate.
Fencing was introduced to the United States by the children of the Gilded Era, who were trying to create an American aristocracy.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the fastest way a social climber could be accepted as a gentleman was to fight a duel. Since gentlemen dueled only with other gentlemen, if you could find a bona fide gentleman who would condescend to accept your challenge, you were — to use a phrase coined years later to describe the seduction success of a famous movie fencer — in like Flynn.
The years following the Civil War were called the Flash Age, a boom time of conspicuous consumption. There were so many newly made millionaires, war profiteers scrambling to get into society — and therefore so many challenges to duel being flung about — that laws against dueling were more strictly enforced than they had been.
The last duel fought in America — at least, according to legend — was held on January 7th, 1877, between James Gordon Bennett Jr., the son of the owner of the New York Herald, and his fiancée’s brother. Bennett was a hellion, and on New Year’s Day of 1877, drunk as a lord, he either peed in his fiancée’s piano or puked on her father. His fiancée’s brother threw Bennett out of the house and a few days later attacked him with a horsewhip outside the Union Club. Soon after that, they traveled South, where dueling was always more acceptable than in the North. They used guns, not swords, and shot wildly, though apparently not on purpose. Neither of them was injured.
In America, it was clear that dueling no longer served the purpose it once had. A decade after the Bennett fiasco, dueling metamorphosed into a sport: fencing. But unlike dueling, the sport was generally closed to climbers. Fencing took place in private clubs. In order to fence, you had to be a member. And only gentlemen were allowed to join.
Today, there are more than 100,000 fencers in America, approximately 8,000 of whom are registered members of the United States Fencing Association (USFA). Yet, in the past couple of years, fencing’s popularity has increased so rapidly that in 1982, the USFA opened a permanent office with a paid professional staff — a move that also anticipates the 1984 Olympics, where fencing may enjoy the sudden boom that gymnastics did in the last couple of summer games.
“Fencing is changing,” says Carla-Mae Richards, the executive director of the USFA, “but it is still elitist.”
Like tennis was before the Sixties, fencing is still a white, aristocratic game. Certainly not the most congenial activity for a half-black, half-Japanese street kid like Peter Westbrook, who may turn out to be his sport’s Pancho Gonzales.
At last year’s national fencing championships in San Francisco, Peter thought about death.
“Remember Lipitsky,” he said to Don Anthony and Michael Lofton, two other sabre fencers. “He was the Junior World’s Champion. The blade went in his shoulder and out his back, near his waist. He quit after that.”
“And Vladimir Smirnoff,” Anthony said. “He was world champ.”
“Yeah,” Peter said. “A piece of blade snapped off, shot into his eye like a bullet and stabbed him in the brain. No one realized what had happened, not even the guy he was fencing, because Smirnoff turned around and walked a few steps before he died.”
“What about when you got a piece of blade in your eye?” Anthony asked.
“A splinter,” Peter said. “So I had to wear a patch for a while. I liked the way it looked. But remember the time I got a piece of blade through my larynx?”
After that happened, every time Peter took a breath, he heard it whistle out through the hole in his neck. He’d been training and was sweaty. He knew that when he went to the hospital, the doctors would stick him into bed before he had a chance to clean up. So, trying not to pass out, he plugged up the hole with his thumb, showered and dressed, and took the subway, not a cab, to the hospital.
But if death had been conjured up by Peter’s thoughts, it decided to test him not on the fencing strip at the University of San Francisco gymnasium, where the tournament was being held, but on a city street. Don, Michael and Peter had just piled into an old Volkswagen bug with some bottles of wine and bags of Fritos and pretzels when the woman driving the bug swung abruptly into a U-turn on Stanyan Street and missed being broadsided by half an inch. In the back seat, Peter, his eyes closed, said, “I’m not ready to die. I have to break the record again.”
Six hundred fencers had come to the tournament, 106 of them sabre fencers. The championships have been held unofficially since 1888, when they were sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union, and officially since 1892, when they were sponsored by the newly formed Amateur Fencers League of America, which later became the USFA.
At about that time, the country’s first club devoted exclusively to fencing was founded: the New York Fencers Club. It began as a gentleman’s club, which meant that it mixed snobbery and honor in equal parts. A fencer had to speak French on the strip and, during a bout, was expected to call touchés — hits — against himself.
Cultural transformation follows the rules of thermodynamics. Nothing is lost — things just change from one form to another. In the Twenties, the New York Fencers Club shifted from society to sport. It lost its snob appeal but gained democratic vigor. It was egalitarian enough to promote women’s fencing. For years, the club’s wall featured an old newspaper engraving called “Une Affaire d’Honneur,” which showed two women fencing, naked from the waist up.
In 1936, the New York Fencers Club allowed women to become active members, and in 1949, it contributed to the official breaking of the color line. For the first time, blacks could compete in the Amateur Fencers League.
By the Fifties, the Fencers Club had become so democratic that the Social Register dropped it from its listings. And the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) became the home of fencers from society.
The two clubs — the New York Fencers Club and the New York Athletic Club — have been rivals ever since. The competition between them is exacerbated by geography. The overwhelming majority of the top sabre fencers in America come from the USFA metropolitan division, New York City, and belong to either the NYAC or the New York Fencers Club.
The competition between the two clubs is further heightened by race. About ten years ago, blacks and Latins began competing in fencing competitions in increasing numbers.
“Young, talented black kids are finding that fencing is a real sport that pits man against man,” Jack Keane — 1968 national sabre champion and now director of national training for the USFA — told a news magazine a decade ago. “You use your body, brains and personality. Blacks are just beginning to see the thrill of it.”
Many of the blacks and Latins, poor or working-class, combined skill with street smarts and changed the cultural context of the sport. But few of them joined the NYAC Club. Most, like Peter, became members of the New York Fencers Club.
“You might notice that most of us” — the top sabre fencers — “from the Fencers Club are minorities,” says Michael Lofton, who is black. “There’s still a little racism involved. Not much. The Athletic Club guys for the most part are a good group. But a few….”
A few can’t stand the idea that their sport — their aristocratic, gentlemanly, white sport — is being taken over by minorities. Peter is only thirty-one and won’t reach his peak as a sabre fencer for another seven years. By the time he’s past his prime, Lofton will probably take over as champion. He was the under-nineteen sabre champion in 1981, the junior national champion in 1982 and now, at the age of nineteen, is the tenth ranked adult sabre fencer in America. He and Peter could dominate sabre fencing for a quarter of a century.
No wonder certain members of the fencing establishment were, according to Don Anthony — another black, who is the sixteenth best sabre fencer in America — “gunning for Peter” at the last national finals. That was in 1982, when Peter had the opportunity to beat the record for winning the sabre championship.
He was up against the record-holder, Alex Orban, who has been compared to both Bruce Lee and a Jedi knight. Orban was not only a superman, he was white. Better than that, he was a member of the NYAC. Best of all, he was Hungarian.
Hungary is the spiritual homeland of sabre fencing. The sabre is the country’s national weapon. Except for one year, the Hungarians won every Olympic sabre competition, both individual and team events, between 1908 and 1964.
Before last year’s competition, a friend of Peters from the fencing establishment told him that “they” were “out to screw” him. They didn’t want him to beat Orban and become the champion.
It was a grudge match. NYAC against the New York Fencers Club. White majority against nonwhite minority. Old Guard against Young Turks.
In the room where the tournament was being held, Peter sat on one side and everyone else sat on the other side — even Peter’s coach, Csaba Elthes. Elthes, a former Olympic fencer, coaches not only for Peter’s New York Fencers Club, but also for Orban’s New York Athletic Club. Since every sabre fencer in the finals was his pupil — for that matter, since every American champion since 1963 has been his pupil — his loyalty apparently is not to individuals, but to a club. The New York Athletic Club.
Elthes is also Hungarian and, at seventy-one, a symbol of the ancien régime. Without stretching fancy too much, you can imagine him first meeting Peter, resisting the changes in the sport, grudgingly accepting Peter’s superiority — like a swordplay version of Rocky, with the Burgess Meredith role played by Laurence Olivier and the Sylvester Stallone part played by Eddie Murphy.
The director of the match, who had been brought over specifically for the job, was also Hungarian.
The director, the coach and the opponent — all Hungarian. On one side of the contest, Orban’s white, upper-class supporters. On the other, Peter’s racially mixed, working-class and middle-class streetwise supporters.
Peter didn’t suspect either Elthes or Orban of plotting against him. But they represented the world the Old Guard wanted to preserve in fencing. Orban — who, along with Peter, was among the very few world-class sabre fencers in America — became the Great White Hope.
“It was pretty lonely out there,” Peter admits. “When you’re fighting Orban, you’re also fighting the Athletic Club, the building on Central Park South, Central Park South itself, New York City, the whole American social structure.”
During the first part of the bout — which, in the finals, is won by touching your opponent ten times and which runs up to ten minutes of actual playing time — Peter thought he would lose.
“I was fencing great,” he says, “but I kept getting decisions against me. So what could I do?”
What he could do is what he did. Peter slowed down his game. He parried, stopped the action for a split second and then attacked so clearly and decisively that there was no question about his getting the point.
“It was like watching a bout in slow motion,” Anthony says.
Peter won the national championship for the sixth time and beat Orban’s record.
“Tomorrow,” Peter told Anthony and Lofton on the afternoon before he was set to fight in the 1983 tournament in San Francisco, “they’re going to be after me again.”
An Interlude: Obi-Wan Kenobi in New Jersey
The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan.
When I was a kid, I preferred stick swords to cap guns and would rather fight Cardinal Richelieu’s guard than play Cowboys and Indians. If I had to be a cowboy, it was for a duel at high noon. When pressed, I’d settle for Robin Hood and a longbow. But my fantasy was committed to swords. For all I knew, growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, aristocratic New Yorkers still swung from chandeliers and fought with swords on penthouse parapets.
By the time I got to college and learned that people still did fight with swords and it was a sport called fencing, fencing had lost its aura. It was the thing you did in phys. ed. if you were somehow unfit for football or basketball.
Or so I thought.
On a summer evening two years ago, I was mugged by my childhood fantasy. I’d just emerged from a bar in Greenwich Village, and drunk enough to do what New Yorkers rarely do, I stepped into the middle of Sheridan Square and glanced at the sky. Or started to. But my eyes were snagged by an illuminated third-floor window in which I caught a glimpse of a tall man with a Mittel European mustache, dressed in a white tunic, cradling a mask in one arm and holding a foil. It was the sword fighter my ten-year-old imagination had placed in New York. And he was real.
I was drunk. A taxi stopped. I climbed in and rode away. But I was haunted by the image of the fencer in the third-floor loft. That window opened not just on a fencing school — which I later learned is called a salle d’armes — but on something in my past I wanted to recapture.
Half a year later, after I’d published a biography of a man who in 1841 had been involved in one of the most famous American duels, a stranger at a party told me, “It still happens, you know.” He meant sword fighting.
“At dawn,” he went on. “In Central Park.”
I was intrigued. I learned that in 1947, a Cuban senator fought a duel with the then-Cuban prime minister’s brother over an insult to Lucky Luciano. With sabres. In France in 1958, a seventy-two-year-old marquis was challenged by a fifty-three-year-old choreographer to a duel — with épées — and, a decade later, the mayor of Marseilles fought a duel with a deputy of the National Assembly. During the Sixties, Germany had a resurgence of a kind of sword fighting called Mensur, which, although not a duel, per se, was close enough to the swashbuckling I’d only imagined.
But despite persistent rumors, the nearest I ever came to dawn duels of honor in Central Park was in reading a recent news item about a battle in Westchester County this past July between two men, both of whom used the same sabre to slash each other. One of the two men died.
“Americans don’t duel,” one fencing coach said. “They call lawyers.”
Still, America seems to be experiencing a renewed interest in duels. You only need to go to the movies and see My Favorite Year, The Pirates of Penzance, Nate and Hayes and, of course, the Star Wars trilogy.
If Peter Westbrook is the Luke Skywalker of fencing, then the Obi-Wan Kenobi — the past master of the sport — is Giorgio Santelli, the man whose fencing school I glimpsed on that drunken summer night two years ago.
Last year, Santelli gave up his loft in the Village and moved his school to West Twenty-third Street, where it now is run by another Hungarian master, Miklos Bartha. Santelli’s factory — a cottage industry that is a major supplier of fencing equipment and that is staffed by fencers, some champions — moved to larger quarters in Englewood, New Jersey.
In his New Jersey office — not far from where Aaron Burr dueled with Alexander Hamilton in 1804—the eighty-six-year-old Santelli sat next to a photograph of himself as a young man, which had been used decades ago in a cigarette advertisement. He still has the imperial nose and brush mustache of the young man in the picture, but his features are softer. He no longer looks like a prince ascending his throne; he looks like a good-humored king who has found in age a comfortable equality with his subjects. His spirit is as noble as his features. He is legendary for his generosity — driving all night to give an exhibition match for free, simply because someone asked; selling equipment at cost or giving it away to a deserving but needy fencer. He commands not only respect, but affection.
Giorgio was born into fencing. His father, Italo Santelli, was the world’s greatest fencer at the Scuola Magistrale d’Armi in Rome, where modern fencing developed. He outstripped his teachers and coordinated the various local fencing styles into a single efficient method, which by the end of the nineteenth century had made the Italians the leading fencers in Europe.
The Hungarians were infuriated by the Italians’ success. They believed that Hungary should have been the capital of European fencing. In 1896, when Italo was only twenty-five, he won a fencing tournament in Budapest that was part of the festivities celebrating the country’s Millennial Exposition. The Hungarian government — half of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary — asked Italo to stay and offered to subsidize a fencing school for him. Italy made no counter offer. Italo accepted Hungary’s proposal and started training Hungarians, who, from then on, consistently beat the Italians.
Giorgio was born in 1897 in Budapest. He started fencing at the age of six. Whenever his father held an exhibition bout, Giorgio would perform.
“When I was a youngster, fencing was part of every young man’s education,” Giorgio said. “People learned to fence not for sport, but because they might have to go into a duel. Dueling was a very important social establishment in a small community like Budapest. If one man insulted another man, a bad situation could develop; if one man was invited to a dinner party, the other couldn’t be.”
The social circle was small as a noose. In the course of a year, enough men insulted each other to make social logistics impossibly complicated. To keep things simple, duels were used.
“After a duel, the two men would always make up,” Giorgio said. Honor would be satisfied. “Everyone would save face. Everyone could go to the same dinner party. It’s very Oriental — and quite important. It helped people behave themselves.”
By 1922, Giorgio had won the Austrian foil and sabre championship and the Hungarian sabre championship, which was equivalent to winning the world sabre championship. He regularly directed duels at his father’s school, and in 1924, he fought a duel that became a scandal all over Europe.
He had gone with his father to the Paris Olympics — Giorgio to watch, his father to coach the Hungarian team. In one bout, a row developed between a famous Italian champion named Puliti and a Hungarian judge, who called a point against Puliti. Puliti objected to the call and muttered something ungentlemanly in Italian. The judge, who had learned Italian during World War I, understood what Puliti had said and reported Puliti’s unsportsmanlike conduct to the Directoire Technique, the executive committee of the tournament. Puliti was called before the committee. He denied the charge. They were deadlocked until someone remembered that Italo had been sitting in the front row.
Everyone trusted Italo to settle the matter. He was, after all, the greatest fencer in the world.
Italo told the committee that Puliti was in the wrong, and he was disqualified. The Italian fencing team withdrew. And the captain of the Italian fencing team, Adolfo Cotronei, published an article in a newspaper claiming that Italo — who, after all, had left Italy for Hungary — was a renegade and had lied.
Italo challenged Cotronei to a duel. Cotronei accepted. And Giorgio, citing the code duello — the rules of dueling — reminded his father that if the challenger were over sixty, which Italo was, the son had the right to take his place. Giorgio announced that he would fight Cotronei. In a fury, Italo stamped around the room, but there was nothing he could do. Gentlemen lived and died by the code duello.
Benito Mussolini, who had outlawed dueling, gave this fight his blessing. On August 28th, 1924, Giorgio met Cotronei in a hotel ballroom in Abbazia, a summer resort on the Adriatic.
Giorgio had studied his opponent’s style. Cotronei, like most Italians, tended to take a defensive position with his sabre held in front of him horizontally. Giorgio practiced beating away the blade and aiming at the face.
“Maybe,” he thought, “I will cut off his head!”
When they took their positions, Cotronei held his sabre not horizontally, but vertically. Giorgio had to change his tactics. He made a feint. Cotronei went to parry, and Giorgio, using his full strength, whacked him on the side.
The director stopped the match to see how badly Cotronei had been hit, but Giorgio’s blade, deflected at the last moment, had left merely a welt. The duel began again.
Now, to protect his side, Cotronei took the position Giorgio had suspected he would, his sabre horizontal. Giorgio beat away the blade and slashed Cotronei across the left eye. There was so much blood, Cotronei couldn’t see. The duel was stopped.
Although for half a century Giorgio would talk about living in his father’s shadow, when he emerged from the duel it was clear that he had taken his father’s place, not just in this fight but in international fencing.
Giorgio was now the best fencer in the world.
Another champion fencer once said, “Giorgio sleepwalking can outfence anybody on earth.”
The same year as that duel, Giorgio came to America to coach at the NYAC.
“The first day I arrived, they asked me to stage an exhibition with the American champion,” Giorgio said. “We go out on the strip, and I see his mask jiggling up and down. I thought there was something wrong with his jaw. I stopped. And he smashed me in the head with his blade. I thought, ‘Aha! An American trick!'”
It wasn’t an American trick. As he fenced, Giorgio’s opponent was chewing gum.
When he came to this country, Giorgio said, “there were only a dozen real fencers in New York, maybe the same number in Boston and Philadelphia. It was too restricted.”
Giorgio decided to make the sport more democratic, and just as his father had made his adopted land a fencing capital, Giorgio sought to make America — New York, in particular — a fencing capital. Shortly after he left the NYAC, after coaching there for twenty-five years, there were some 11,000 competitive fencers in America — quite an increase from the three dozen he’d originally found. His students at the NYAC and at his own salle included everyone from Olympic athletes to movie stars. Giorgio was the Olympic fencing coach five times before he retired after the 1952 Helsinki Games, and he instructed José Ferrer for his role in Cyrano de Bergerac, Boris Karloff for Captain Hook in Jean Arthur’s Peter Pan, Sir Ralph Richardson, and most of the important midcentury Hamlets. By 1956, Santelli’s salle was the preeminent fencing school in America.
“Fencing has changed a great deal,” Giorgio said. “Especially sabre fencing. They made lighter and lighter weapons, so the game became faster. In the old days, a fencer needed a great deal of technique, especially defensive. Parry-riposte. Parry-riposte. The word fence itself derives from defense. A fencer should be able to parry everything that comes at him. But that has been pushed aside.”
Most modern fencers don’t have as much time to practice as the nineteenth-century aristocrats did. They must earn a living. “So they cut corners,” Giorgio said. “They leave out a lot of the defense and develop the offense. Running attacks. Faster attacks. So it no longer is as complete an art.” Even the distinctive styles of the different nationalities are gone, because with so much international mobility, the trademarks have become interbred. Hungarians used to think foil and épée were decadent. The French were very formal, beautiful to watch. The Italians always had great speed.
“Now all the trademarks have merged,” Giorgio said.
In the past few years, Giorgio has virtually given up teaching. But he always keeps one or two students.
“Being my age, I cannot move very fast,” he said. “I’m clumsy, dottering.” He laughed. “But the moment I put a foil in my hand, I start to move. That’s why I like to give an occasional lesson. I get a kick out of seeing myself hopping around.”
Before my first fencing lesson, Giorgio told me to start jogging to get my wind up, which I did. By the day I picked up a foil for the first time, I thought I was in good shape. After a fifteen-minute lesson, I was drenched in sweat, and my leg muscles were so sore I could barely hobble. I’ve never participated in any physical activity that was so taxing.
“Lunge,” Giorgio said, “don’t plunge. Hold your foil lightly. The French have a saying: Hold the foil lightly enough so you don’t crush the bird, but hard enough to keep it from escaping. Poetic, no? The Italians say, ‘Memo di gomma, braccio di ferro.’ Hand of rubber, arm of iron. The Italians are a little more vicious, no? But it means the same thing. Hey, là!” He touched my left shoulder with the tip of his foil to straighten my body. “Your eye, shoulder, point of the blade and your toe — all should point straight ahead.”
The level of concentration required to fence well obliterates the rest of the world’s concerns. Santelli is renowned for his absentmindedness about everything except what happens in the actual give-and-take of a bout. He even seems oblivious to pain. Once, during a lesson, he grabbed the tip of my foil, as he usually did when I lunged, to check my position.
“When you disengage, make the circle with your point a little smaller,” he said. “You look like a windmill. Do I look like Don Quixote?”
When he released my blade, I saw that he’d been cut.
“Maestro, your finger’s bleeding,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” he said, glancing down. “I didn’t notice.”
Ignoring the injury, he continued the lesson, grabbing my blade every time I lunged to make sure my form was correct. By the end of the half-hour, my blade was bloody for a third of its length.
Thirty years ago, another fencing master, Michel Alaux, was quoted as saying that fencing is “a kind of conversation. The winner is the man with the better arguments.”
Giorgio can convince anybody.
The Empire Strikes Back
The morning of the sabre finals in San Francisco, Peter woke at six, took a hot bath to pass the time and went downstairs to the hotel lounge, where he sat drinking hot water with milk and sugar. He was thinking about how fighting Alex Orban was like fighting the American social structure, when Orban sat down next to him.
“Who won foil?” Orban asked.
“Smith,” Peter said. Mark Smith, who had come in third the previous year, hadn’t been the favorite. Everyone expected the winner to be the defending foil champion, Michael Marx.
“Marx lost,” Orban said. “Well, well.”
“Yeah,” Peter said, “and he was walking around like he owned the place.”
“He had that entourage of TV cameras following him,” Orban said. “Like you.”
They were verbally fencing, trying to psych each other out, and Orban had just scored a point. The implication was that Peter, who also was walking around like he owned the place, would also lose.
“You know who beat Marx?” Peter said. “Ballinger. Old Man Winter.”
Ed Ballinger, the ex-national foil champion, was thirty-one, which is as old for a foil fencer as Orban’s age, forty-three, is for a sabre fencer. Old Man Winter.
“Even an old guy like that still has a chance,” Orban said.
“No disrespect intended,” Peter responded, “but you know what Csaba said: You’re the former champ, I’m the current champ and Mike [Lofton] is the future champ. Not that you might not be champ again. Today, for example.”
“Mike’s good,” Orban said. “Very talented. One day you’ll wake up, and whoosh. You’ll look around, and he’ll have zipped right past you.”
After Orban left, Don Anthony said to Peter, “Alex has been training harder this year than last. He’s going at you to tie up the record.”
There were pockets of conversation about Peter and Alex throughout the gym where the finals were being held. The bouts were loud and argumentative. One fencer from the NYAC, Edgar House, stamped his foot when he lost a point and said, “You have to explain what happened, because obviously [the judges] don’t understand.”
“What if the director is making incompetent calls?” Anthony asked Peter halfway through the morning.
“Do whatever incompetent thing they’re calling,” Peter advised.
“What if he’s incompetent and inconsistent?” Anthony asked.
“Then,” Peter said, “you’re in trouble.”
Nearly every fencer in the room was complaining about the calls. Steve Mormando, a member of the New York Fencers Club, took a break from a bout to replace his sabre, which had snapped. As he walked back onto the strip, he muttered, “Weird calls.” When he lost the bout, he announced to the spectators, “Folks, that’s unforgivable.”
Even Alex Orban disagreed with the judges. When the director declared the losing point on Orban’s key eligibility bout, he threw down his mask and sabre and shouted, “Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Orban wouldn’t be fighting for the gold medal, and, given the idiosyncratic calls of the judges, it wasn’t clear that Peter would be in the final bouts either.
A pattern emerged. In the bouts, members of the Fencers Club seemed always to be matched against members of the NYAC, a coincidence that heightened the tension in the room. Every time a member of one club went head-to-head with a member of the other club, it nudged the crowd a little further into ugliness.
When Anthony won a point in one of his bouts, there were scattered boos, a serious breach of fencing etiquette. When he lost, he left the strip saying, “I thought I had him, but halfway through, something happened. I lost my concentration.” He slumped against the gym wall. Lofton borrowed a dollar, bought a bottle of Gatorade and handed it to Anthony.
“Don,” Mormando said, “don’t let it get to you.”
Peter said, “You fenced good, man.”
Don got up and walked away, scowling. In a few minutes, he returned, cooled off.
“Well,” he said to his Fencers Club colleagues, “we got three in.”
Peter, Lofton and Mormando had made the last round.
Peter wandered around the room, trying to avoid Mormando. He didn’t want to be infected by his friend’s tension. When they finally ran into each other, Peter said, “You can be a real jerkoff.”
“Well,” Mormando said, “you can be an asshole.”
“I know,” Peter said. “I know.”
“I’d rather be a jerkoff than an asshole,” Mormando said, “’cause then at least I get off.”
It was gallows humor. The odds were against the Fencers Club. Their three members in the last round were up against five Athletic Club members. But Peter was confident.
“I don’t want to go too fast at the start,” he said, half to himself. “I don’t want to confuse the judges. I don’t want to beat the shit out of a guy and make him feel bad. I just want to win.” After a moment, he added, “No, it’s not even winning. I just don’t want to lose.”
The first bout of the last round was between Mormando and Edgar House. It was a classic Fencers Club-versus-Athletic Club contest. Halfway through, House stopped to ask for a towel to wipe away his sweat. Mormando grabbed a towel from the sidelines, used it first and, grinning, tossed it to House. Mormando won the match, and House was eliminated. One Athletic Club member down, four to go.
The next bout was between Lofton and Phil Reilly. Although Reilly was a member of the Athletic Club, he was Peter’s oldest friend. They’d gone to high school together. Reilly had been a year ahead of Peter and had been the captain of the fencing team. He used to give Peter lessons.
The audience was for Reilly, partly because of his club association — the audience had consistently favored Athletic Club members over Fencers Club members — and partly because if Reilly, the underdog, made it to the final bout against Peter, the contest would feature two old friends up against each other. It would be an emotionally explosive fight.
Next, Peter fought Paul Friedberg. It was another Fencers Club-versus-Athletic Club bout. Peter started by chasing Friedberg off the strip. He was fencing faster than he had all week, and he began laughing in his characteristic way in die middle of the bout — a staccato ho-ho-ho — a sound intimidating enough to shake the confidence of any opponent who knew Peter’s reputation.
Two Athletic Club members down, three to go.
In the fourth bout of the last go-round, Mormando fought Reilly. When Reilly won, the applause was so wild, it threatened to get out of control. A buzz started around the gym. The bout for the gold medal was almost certain to be Peter versus Reilly.
Peter won the fifth bout against another Athletic Club member, but it seemed harder. A couple of the referees’ calls struck Peter’s fans as unfair. After one call, Peter took off his mask to object. Half the time, when Peter hit his opponent and won the point, the room was virtually silent, with the applause of only a few people — Anthony, Lofton, Peter’s diehard supporters.
When it came down to the final bout for the gold medal, it was as everyone had predicted: Peter against Reilly.
“Here we go again,” Peter said.
A distinguished gentleman with a trim white mustache shook Peter’s hand.
“They say good luck,” Peter said, “but I watch during the bout to see who they’re rooting for. And that guy never roots for me.”
Zero to one, Peter’s favor.
One to one.
Two to one, Peter’s favor.
Every time Reilly won a point against Peter, there was loud applause. Every time Peter won a point against Reilly, there were only a few claps.
The room was for Reilly.
But Peter was winning.
Three to one, Peter’s favor. Four to one.
Despite the apparent hostility toward Peter, he was fencing so beautifully by the end of the bout that, when he finally won, the room exploded in cheers.
As Peter walked off the strip, he said to himself, “Now I can relax a little.”
To Reilly he said, “Hey, man, let me kiss you. I hate this shit, man.”
They stood together sharing a can of soda as the well-wishers swirled around them. When Peter was presented with the Santelli Award and another huge ceremonial broadsword, Peter asked Reilly to hold it up with him.
Peter knew that in any other year against any other competition, Reilly would have been champion.
But it wasn’t any other year. Peter was the competition. And he was the best. He had done what no American sabre fencer had ever before accomplished. He’d beaten the national record and then beaten his own record. He’d won the gold medal seven times.
During a party in the hotel later that evening, Peter hefted the sword, and a hush momentarily filled the room. People stopped talking and drinking champagne. Peter put down the sword.
“Remember Shogun?” said Mik Benedek, another sabre fencer. “Every town had a samurai. Peter’s our samurai. America’s samurai.”