I am heading out to lunch on a typically glorious June Friday in California when my office phone starts to ring. Should I answer? A colleague at Weider Publications thinks I should. All week I’ve been waiting to hear from one of bodybuilding’s premier targets of female lust—who has promised me his first interview since his decision to come out of the closet. With high expectations, I pick up the receiver.
“Hello, can I help you?”
A gurgling noise at the other end is quickly replaced by a voice straight out of The Twilight Zone: “Ricky Wayne? Hey, well, this is Gironda. Vince Gironda. And I’m drunk. I wouldn’t have the balls to call you sober!”
I can hardly believe my ears. Could this really be him? The legendary trainer of Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia? The genius who famously had produced at his north Hollywood gym California’s two most renowned Dons—Don Howorth and Don Peters—and a constellation of other West Coast superstars, not least among them Clint Eastwood in the time of Rawhide? Even the oddly named, soon to be numinous 21-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, the day after he arrived at LAX from Munich, before he took up more or less permanent residence at Gold’s in Santa Monica, had trekked to Vince’s in Studio City just to press the proprietor’s flesh. I, on the other hand, had been three weeks in the City of Lost Angels following a prolonged hiatus in my native Saint Lucia, and had not even once thought about him—not until he called me!
“Hi, there, Vince,” I said, more than a little self-conscious. “How’re you doing? It’s been a while.”
“I’m drunk,” he said, for the second time in barely ten seconds. “I’m calling to let you know a courier is headed your way with my gym’s front-door key. I want you to train here. If you go anywhere else I’ll die from friggin’ shame.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m highly honored, Vince, but the truth is I’ve hardly touched the weights since leaving New York for the Caribbean more than two years ago.”
“In that case,” he groaned, “don’t you think it’s time you got going again? Ciao.”
We’d met for the very first time nearly a quarter century earlier, in 1962, when England was still home to me and he had come to London on a specific mission to take the year’s Mr. Universe trophy home with him to California—a slightly over-ambitious proposition, as it turned out. At about five-six and hardly heavier than 160 pounds, Vince Gironda must’ve been on the recalled occasion the smallest contender on the overloaded stage of the internationally renowned Scala Theater. The top professional and amateur awards had gone that year to the home-grown hero Len Sell and to the USA’s Joe Abbenda, respectively. But for months afterward, British fans had talked mainly about Gironda’s chiseled abdominals and his awesome posing, and the hell with the fact that the best he had managed was to place second in his class.
At the party that ritually followed the awards ceremony, someone introduced us. Gironda wore a black Stetson and highly polished, brass-studded pointy-toed black cowboy boots. He spoke kindly of my own bodybuilding achievements up to that time and was especially generous with his comments about my writing. He said my style and humor reminded him of the former strongman-turned-Hollywood columnist Earle Liederman who for several years had moonlighted for Joe Weider’s Your Physique and Muscle Power magazines. Liederman passed away in 1970.
Three weeks went by before I acted on Vince’s invitation to train at his gym. The well-built affable young man at the reception desk welcomed me. He said he and his regular patrons, mainly Hollywood hotshots, had for several days been anticipating my heralded visit. My second surprise was that the famous gym was not much larger than the weight room of a small hotel. But there was nothing ordinary about the exercise equipment, much of it designed, I soon learned, by the “iron guru” Gironda himself.
The receptionist handed me the key to my own locker and then introduced me to some of his star clients, among them William Blinn, who wrote the screenplay for Alex Haley’s Roots. Also sweating in his white-trimmed blue Vince’s workout vest
was Carl Weathers, once a football star, now about to start work as Apollo Creed in Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar-winning first Rocky. Ned Beatty, one of the lead actors in Deliverance (also an Oscar winner), was huffing and puffing under a pair of dumbbells. And furiously pumping his biceps was a pale and somewhat pudgy character I immediately recognized as the star of the hit TV series Beretta. He had also starred unforgettably in In Cold Blood, the 1967 hit movie based on Truman Capote’s bestselling novel of the same name. For reasons neither proffered nor queried, my muscular young guide chose to steer clear of Robert Blake.
I met the main man two or three days later. He regretted not having been there to show me around on my initial visit. He’d been away “vacationing in
Hawaii,” he said. Already I had learned from his movie-star regulars that the quoted words were code for “in rehab” but I could hardly wait to take my first workout under his direction. Before that, however, he would explain why there were no squat racks at his gym (“squats do nothing for the thighs and everything bad to the butt—including hemorrhoids!”); why he eschewed bench pressing with a barbell on a flat bench (“only flyes and parallel bar dips, with hands turned inwards, do for the chest what’s expected from bench pressing!”) and why wide-grip pull-downs don’t develop the lats, only the biceps (too many complicated reasons to list here).
Suffice it to say that under Vince’s tutoring my training proved so effective that I seriously set my sights on the year’s Mr Olympia. Alas, just two weeks before the big event, when almost everyone agreed I was in the finest form of my bodybuilding life, an old shoulder injury returned with a vengeance to thwart my Olympian ambitions.
Several weeks earlier Vince had interrupted me during a training session. “Take a breather,” he said, “I want to introduce you to a real gentleman,” as if in all of the United States there was a man, woman or child, black or white, who would not immediately have recognized O.J. Simpson from any distance. His record performances on the football field, his movie appearances, not to mention his TV commercial for Hertz, had not only made him rich but also second in popularity only to Muhammad Ali.
I recall a particularly hot August morning at Vince’s: my workout done, I had retreated to the locker room where three or four movie-industry heavies awaited their turn in one of the always-occupied five showers. Small-talking with them was the famous proprietor, his shock of curly gray hair covering most of his chiseled face. He was holding forth on his favorite topic, the evils of bodybuilding on steroids, when O.J. stepped out of the shower, dropped his towel in a nearby bin and approached our group, his famous horse appendage swinging “like a pendulum do”—to borrow from Roger Miller’s famous song. Just then someone pushed open the connecting door between the locker room and the workout area. Vince abruptly forgot about steroids to address him.
“Bobby!” he growled. “Why couldn’t you be half as nice as O.J.? Why must you always be such an asshole?” The star of Beretta had long grown accustomed to hearing Vince’s makeover hints. Without a word, Robert Blake retrieved his gym bag from his locker, turned around to face Gironda, then in perfect imitation of a Sunset Strip transvestite whore, rolled his yes, pursed his lips a la Jessica Rabbit, and blew his tormentor a great big monster kiss before heading out the gym, his Jell-O ass aflutter.
The side-splitting locker room episode came to mind several years later, by which time I had persuaded Mae, a bodybuilding star in her own right, to come to Saint Lucia and help me set up STAR Publishing. Like millions the world over, we too were captivated by the initial CNN reports on the 1994 murders of Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. As we sat in our living room mesmerized by the televised, now most famous chase in the history of the Los Angeles Highway Patrol, I had a particularly difficult time believing one of the two individuals belting down Interstate 405 aboard that unforgettable white Ford Bronco was the sole suspect in the Bundy Drive killings. Then again, back in the day it seemed everyone considered him the most affable, most desirable man in the world. Wife beating was just about the last thing anyone would’ve associated with O.J. Simpson—let alone double murder!
Now fast forward to 2003: Mae and I are at Miami Airport, waiting to board our connecting flight to the Bahamas. We are scheduled to cover the annual Miss Bahamas beauty pageant and a related fashion show. Accompanying us is the editor of our newspaper Molly McDaniel, an Australian. At one point the two ladies decide to do some window-shopping. I choose to kill time browsing several magazines earlier acquired.
Mae and Molly were halfway up the escalator when I looked up to see them giggling and staring at someone or something left of them, on the down steps. I absent-mindedly followed their gaze then quickly returned to my Vanity Fair. And then it hit me. Talk about delayed reaction. It had suddenly occurred to me, though not to the two ladies, that the arresting figure in white tee shirt and jeans on the down escalator was none other than my old workout buddy from Vince’s.
Our eyes met, up went our arms as in unison we shouted each other’s first names. We hugged and punched each other lightly on the biceps, like close friends happy to meet again after many years in different zones. And then I noticed the scores of inquiring eyes that had also recognized O.J. and now were doubtless wondering whether I might be his often whispered about mystery partner-in-crime. We reminisced for a while, O.J. and I, about hilarious episodes at Vince’s, and then I said: “Hey, what’s with you guys, anyway? First it was Carl [Weathers] with his tabloided wife problems, then you, and now Bobby Blake!”
O.J. chuckled without comment. He seemed more interested in telling me about his great interview with a Miami TV station soon after the 67-year-old Blake was arrested in L.A. for the murder of his own wife, 44-year-old Bonny Lee Blakely. O.J. had taken the opportunity then to offer Blake the following free advice: “Whatever else you do,don’t talk to the cops without your lawyer present.” He had done the precise opposite, he told me, “and lived to regret it!”
And I thought, yeah, right, precisely what Blake most needed in his circumstances: to be associated in the public mind with The Most Hated Man in America! I asked how he spent his time since relocating to Florida. O.J. said he played a lot of golf although a worsening bad knee made that increasingly difficult. When I enquired about Fred Goldman and the singular Denise Brown, the light suddenly left his eyes. “Fuck ‘em!” he grimaced. Presumably he referred only to Ms Brown!
Consider now the following, taken from Dominick Dunne’s 2001 bestseller, Justice. Dunne is recalling details from the so-called Trial of the Century: “The O.J. of the trial is a more muted presence in the courtroom that the O.J. of the hearings, when he allowed his exasperation to show through grimaces, eye rolls, and, on occasion, audible comments or angry gestures. No more. Now he’s like a Thoroughbred, behaving perfectly almost all the time, presumably on instructions from Johnnie Cochran, his slick lead lawyer, who dominates the courtroom. In this passive role Simpson is playing, his inner light has dimmed. Sometimes I feel that he needs verification that his power still exists, outside of the defense team whom he is paying.
“Recently, by chance, our eyes met. After all this time, it was our first contact and we held it. The look in his eye was wary at first, as if he was unsure of my sentiments—was I friend or foe?—but then, for a fraction of a second, his expression softened. I saw and felt that famous devastating charm his friends have told me about. If he were not the defendant in a double-murder trial, he would have had me in the palm of his hand. Apparently, though, Simpson’s passivity is only for public consumption.”
Several days after my weekend in the Bahamas, I wondered why I had not invited O.J. to make a personal appearance in Saint Lucia. He’d have had the whole island in the palm of his hand and happily paying for the privilege.
As for Vince Gironda: the last time we spoke he had just returned from yet another “Hawaiian vacation.” He phoned me at Weider’s one afternoon to say he desperately needed to see me. Days earlier, he had stumbled smelly into the gym and looking like he’d spent the night in a fish restaurant’s garbage bin. One of his caring early morning students had been daft enough to ask how he was and that was all it had taken to set Vince off. For the next 30 minutes or so expletives spewed out of him like raw waste from a busted sewer line.
In the gym locker room the following morning he tried to apologize but I interrupted him. I bear-hugged him, told him I realized he was going through a bad patch and that I was confident he’d soon take care of whatever was the cause. I pretended I was late for an appointment and promised we’d talk again soon. I did not set eyes on him again for until a month or soon later, when we bumped into each other on a rainy evening outside the gym. He appeared fit, tanned and bushytailed as he and Carl Weathers engaged in deep muted conversation. When at last he was ready for me, he said: “Ricky, I just wanted to thank you for not letting me grovel the other day. I felt so ashamed . . .”
News of Vince’s passing reached me in Saint Lucia months after the fact. Whatever his death certificate might say to the contrary, I remain to this day convinced the iron guru died of a broken heart when hard times forced him to abandon his one true love: Vince’s Gym. After that, life for him simply wasn’t worth the trouble it took to arrange another Hawaiian vacation.