by Jim Blanchet
In a world packed with woes, there are still plenty of subjects that fail to cause concern. The National Socialist German Worker’s Party, for one, barely even registers. But despite living in the era of the War on Terror, it is still easy to maintain a certain level of familiarity with stories of the Second World War, both factual and fictional. Many read The Diary of Anne Frank and The Greatest Generation. Many more watched the movies Saving Private Ryan, The Dirty Dozen and Schindler’s List (also a Booker Prize winning novel by Thomas Keneally, released outside the US as Schindler’s Ark). That entire mix of WWII media seems to carry a common announcement: Nazis are bad.
Maybe it’s the influence of books, movies or television, maybe it’s patriotism or maybe just common sense, but it is difficult to resist the aforementioned sentiment— Nazis are bad. General disdain for a conglomerate that executes whole masses of people because of race, religion or genetic background may actually be one of few sentiments the majority of Americans share these days. It is this sentiment that makes us all cheer like hell at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, despite its historical inaccuracy.
Of course, raised in a post-WWII United States, young Americans now posses the benefit of historical perspective. Children study the Anschluss in history class, many sickened when exposed to black and white pictures from Auschwitz. But Americans carried different sentiments before the Greatest Generation earned their name—before millions of troops came home to reinforce an anti-German zeitgeist fortified by flying bullets. Prior to the second Great War, Europe still seemed far away and Hitler still seemed to be an anti-Semitic, power hungry asshole instead of a genocidal megalomaniac. Before the harsh truths of Nazi Germany became common knowledge, people thought a little differently.
When the boys came home to their sweethearts, eager to kick off a world-class baby boom, they brought back stories of the girls over seas and shared them on street corners with the fellas in the neighborhood. French girls who showed gratitude for liberation, British nurses who treated their wounds and then boosted their egos, and even German girls who lowered their inhibitions in their Nazi-free elation. The boys congratulated each other for foreign conquests of all kinds, except one. None of those veterans, for fear of judgment, shame or even suspicion of treason, would claim to have taken a Nazi girl to bed.
But what if those boys went “Over There” before the War? How might they have felt about currying the favor of a glamorous German woman, cloaked in both sensuality and rumors of Nazi ties?
A world-class athlete from the sticks of Colorado, sure to achieve Olympic glory at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, might go to Germany and fall for a famous and alluring filmmaker. This man, whose name was Glenn Morris, might take her to bed, fall deeply in love and let himself believe there was nothing wrong with a woman who simply worked with the Nazis to get her films made.
But while the American people may have cheered him on as an Olympic hero, holding only a mild sense of the evil and ambition of Nazi Germany, he would meet a different kind of welcome party, after finishing with his Gold Medal parade. An approaching reporter would not be a surprise to the Gold Medal decathlete, as his story would be well known everywhere. And the promise of a CBS radio appearance to boost his prospects as a professional would pull him right into a waiting taxicab:
In the taxi, the radio man asked about the food in Germany and about the Olympic Atmosphere. He said he was proud to be an American when the boys did so well. They got out at a building on 49th Street, just after they had crossed Lexington Avenue. Something wasn’t feeling right. There were no indications, no signs, that this was CBS’s headquarters. Noticing Glenn’s uneasiness [the man in the taxi] reached inside his coat pocket and held up a wallet badge. “FBI,” the man said. Before Glenn could react, two other men—dressed the same, looked the same—joined them, nodding at [the man in the taxi]. (Pg. 275)
Stolen from his own celebratory parade, Glenn Morris would be pulled out of that taxi, whisked into a tall, unmarked building and placed in front of two mystery men. In that room, in front of “Mister Smith” and “Mister Jones”, he would receive his first reality check on the meaning of an affair with a member of Hitler’s inner circle. These men would demand to know the nature of his German fling:
The younger man—“Jones”—leaned forward. “Near as we can tell, you got laid a lot in Berlin,” he said. “Big movie star, famous woman. Wham, bam, go home. Hey, if that’s all it was, more power to you. We’re jealous, as a matter of fact.”
Smith said softly, “But if you think you can be more than that…”
Jones jumped back in. “Playing house with Miss Swastika herself?” He looked down at his notebook and read aloud, sarcasm dripping from his voice. “Reich Film Board memo, translated. Leni and Glenn: The Actress and the Athlete. To be financed entirely from the Reich Treasury, with funds transferred to a company formed to preserve the appearance of independence. Glenn Morris to receive fifty thousand U.S. dollars, half immediately, half upon completion of the film.”
Jones looked back up and locked in on Glenn. “How stupid can you be?”… (Pg. 277)
Suddenly, this naive, Colorado farm-boy turned international sports star receives a view into the true nature of his Olympic sex romp, along with a heavy dose of the ever-popular “Good Cop-Bad Cop” routine from two mystery men in dark suits. He receives, along with some fresh perspective, a look at some clips from his German lover’s pro-Nazi portfolio. As it turns out, he now sees what she might really be: an ambitious Nazi puppet who sees him as her ticket to international stardom.
This arcane story snippet of Glenn Morris and “Miss Swastika” is placed early in America’s involvement with Nazi Germany, but it comes at the end of Olympic Affair, the recent novel by Terry Frei. While most of the story does not involve depictions of mysterious, government men in back rooms, it is still a good example of why the stories that surround sports often prove more compelling than the competition itself.
After the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Hitler’s Berlin, the name Glenn Morris was well known throughout America. He was, in fact, a Colorado rancher’s son turned decathlon prodigy. His world-record setting, gold medal performance at the Berlin Games briefly made him a national hero, and then he later made himself a failed actor and alcoholic.
Many of the details of Glenn Morris’s life, including his legendary athletic feats, sit firmly on the public record. But sometimes rumors are more interesting than record, and that is where Olympic Affair kicks in. The book is the story of Morris’s affair with Leni Riefenstahl (“Miss Swastika”), a German dancer/movie star turned producer/director, bankrolled by the Third Reich. The affair between Morris and Riefenstahl began with his role in her documentary film, Olympia. This film, which despite the controversy of the games, is still regarded as one of the most groundbreaking sports films in history. It features Morris’ performance and frequently celebrates his physical stature.
Terry Frei displayed interest in the story of Morris and Riefenstahl in May of 2010 when his article, “Glenn Morris: An Olympic Hero rooted in Colorado”, appeared in the Denver Post. The article offers a recap of Morris’s early life, Olympic performance and post-Olympic life, while highlighting a tree-planting ceremony that Colorado State (formerly Colorado A&M and Morris’s alma mater) held in his honor. Included is a second hand account of the decathlete’s last words by Morris Ververs, retired principal of Simla High School (also Glenn Morris’s alma mater), based on conversations with the gold medalist’s brother, Jack Morris:
Ververs recalled: “Jack told us that when Glenn died, he said on his deathbed, ‘I should have stayed in Germany with Leni.’ ” (Denver Post)
Using his initial information for “Glenn Morris: An Olympic Hero rooted in Colorado”, and a combination of deduction and artistic license, Frei fills in the blanks left by history and tells his own version of the story. The combination of the diligent research techniques he used to write his widely acclaimed non-fiction books (Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming (2002), Third Down and a War to Go (2007), 77: Denver, the Broncos and a Coming of Age (2008)) and creativity makes Olympic Affair a success as both a stand-alone novel and historical fiction.
While simultaneously recalling the athletic triumphs of participating nations, Frei builds a tension-filled love affair that steals the show from the most controversial Olympic Games in history. Combining inference and invented dialogue, he forces the reader to invest deeply in even the most outlying of characters, some of which he pulls from history and personalizes through fiction (swimmer/actress Eleanor Holm Jarrett, heavyweight champion/restaurateur Jack Dempsey and even chancellor/psycho Adolf Hitler).
Through the developing plot, the details of the Olympics and the skewed historical perspective of men and women living in a pre-WWII environment, Frei has (maybe unintentionally) created a new sort of story regarding the US-Nazi saga. The story even differs from other recollections of the 1936 Summer Olympics. While other depictions of the Berlin Games highlight Jesse Owens, a triumphant black sprinter/jumper who collected four Gold Medals while Hitler watched, Olympic Affair offers a differing view of a man who Hitler wanted to recruit for pro-Aryan films.
Glenn Morris’s stature and fame among both the German and American people leaves him open for the broadside of betrayal he gets when he learns of Leni Riefenstahl’s true affiliation, which she keeps from him in favor of her ambition. The “Nazis are bad” idea still punches through via the clichéd “Good Cop-Bad Cop” characters of Mister Smith and Mister Jones, but with a different level of enjoyment.
While the level of excitement delivered by Terry Frei might not rival Anne Frank, Thomas Keneally, or the combination of Lee Marvin, Jim Brown and Charles Bronson, Olympic Affair offers a chronicle that proves why athletic drama often goes well beyond the field (or track) of competition. An athletic controversy, a triumph against adversity or a love affair can bring together the fanatics, the casual followers and those who just happen to appreciate a good yarn, no matter the origin. And who better to tell a story of that kind than an acclaimed sportswriter and non-fiction author turned novelist?
Jim Blanchet is a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction and satire living in Philadelphia.
Discussed in this essay:
Olympic Affair, by Terry Frei. Taylor Trade, 2012. 327 pages. $24.95. Terry Frei.
Frei, Terry. “Glenn Morris: An Olympic Hero rooted in Colorado.” Denver Post. 11 May 2010.
Assorted works of Terry Frei.