Here’s a great story about Fiske and his team-mates.
By Andy Bull, The Guardian.
The sled careened down the mountain. Sixty miles an hour and still accelerating. The runners shrieked on the ice. One after another come the blinding banks, 10, 20, 30 feet high. The four rattling riders leaned over, helpless, straining, gasping for breath against the wind. They were hardly in control at all. Blinded by spray, tears streamed from their eyes as they raced towards Shady corner. The sled was doing 70mph when it hit the top of the incline. 500 pounds of steel and oak, it smashed through the top of the bank. Four bodies hurtled through the air, and disappeared into the ravine alongside the track.
“We raced up the slide,” remembered Edward J Neil, a journalist covering the race for Associated Press, “and helped carry the four battered blood-soaked unconscious forms to the ambulances. Grau has a fractured shoulder, a broken hip, a fractured spine and skull. Brehme’s skull and wrist are broken. The calf was all but torn from Hoppmann’s leg.”
A mile and a half away, at the top of the mountain, a telephone rang. The trilling bell pierced the freezing air, and the polyglot conversations of the assembled athletes, French, Swiss, Italians, Romanians, Americans, stopped. They waited for news of the German sled from the bottom of the run. “They’ve gone through the bank at Shady,” said the track official, raising a red flag to show that the track was not clear, “into the ravine. The ambulance is with them now.”
The crowd fell quiet. After a time Henry “Hank” Homberger, the USA’s No1 driver, spoke up: “That’s the way it goes.” Twenty minutes later the next sled set off down the track.
Tom Wolfe called it The Right Stuff, and these men had it. “It was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life, any fool could do that,” wrote Wolfe. “No, the idea seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment – and then go up again the next day.”
There have been a lot of extraordinary Olympic champions over the years. This is the story of four of them.
There were 20,000 people crowded on Mount van Hoevenberg that Sunday. Officially the 1932 Winter Olympics had closed the previous afternoon. But nine miles south-south-east of Lake Placid, high in the Adirondacks, 52 men still had business on the mountain.
The final of the four-man bobsled final had already been postponed three times because of warm weather. “There was not enough ice on the bob run,” noted Neil drily, “to make a drink cold.” The event was supposed to be the centrepiece of the entire Olympics. The Lake Placid track had opened the previous spring, the first of its kind in the world. It was the reason why the Olympics had been awarded to this tiny town in upstate New York, rather than Chicago, which had also bid to be host. It cost $200,000 to build, and was the fastest bob run in the world.
Hank Homberger knew that better than anyone. He had designed and built it. In 1932 he and his team, the Saranac Lake Red Devils, had set a new world record on it for a mile-and-a-half run. They covered the course in 1min 52sec. Saranac Lake was a short way up the road from Lake Placid. Homberger’s crew were local heroes – his brakeman was the town florist – and this should have been their Olympics.
There were only three drivers who had a chance of beating Homberger and his Red Devils on that course. The first was the German fighter pilot Captain Walter Zahn. Unlike the other teams, who were racing open-sided sleds, Zahn was competing in a revolutionary bullet-shaped hull, a prototype of the bobs used today. But two days before Grau crashed, Zahn had lost control on a turn. His sled went over the top and sped 120 yards over the snow before smashing into a tree. He broke his left arm, and his No2 fractured his spine. The second challenger to Homberger was Grau, and he was in hospital. That left the USA’s No2 team, driven by Billy Fiske.
The competition finally got started on the final day of the Games. By then, though, the organisers were so alarmed by the casualty rate – six men were in hospital – that they insisted extra safety measures were taken. The run was filled with fresh snow. Fiske took an early lead over Homberger on the first of the four runs each sled was due to make. But the times were slow. After the second run the bobsledders made a group decision that they would not race in such sluggish conditions. “It’s a travesty on bob racing,” complained the florist Paul Stevens. “If you insist on making us race in these conditions, you will go on without us.”
The sledders agreed between them to return to the mountain the next day, the Sunday after the Olympics were over, when the track would be clear of snow, to finish the race. Overnight the Red Devils trailed Fiske by 3.8 seconds. Homberger felt confident he could pull it back. This was his course. It was his world record. Billy Fiske’s men would need to produce two of the sharpest, fastest runs of their lives to hold him off.
The sled careened down the mountain. Sixty miles an hour and still accelerating. The runners shrieked on the ice. Fiske pushed his vehicle wide, searching for the fastest route across the rutted track. He needed all his speed if he was going to stop Homberger stealing the lead. The sled howled into the Whiteface turn, climbing up the 35-foot bank, rising perilously close to the rim.
Years later, Fiske’s No3, Eddie Eagan would remember that moment well. “That run will always be vivid in my memory. It took only about two minutes to make, but to me it seemed like an eon. I remember the snow-covered ground flashing by like a motion picture out of focus. Speeding only a few inches from the ground without any sense of security, I hung on to the straps. My hands seemed to be slipping, but still I clung.”
The outside runner of the sled crept towards the lip of the track. If it reached, the race would be up: “Just picture a steel comet with four riders hurtling through the air”, as Eagan put it. The riders, an inch away from disaster, leaned desperately into the run, bracing themselves on the footholds and clinging to the leather.
And that is where we will freeze them. If you were taking a picture, that would be the moment to press the button, to capture these four remarkable men. You would see, from the front of the sled to the back, Billy Fiske, Clifford Gray, Eddie Eagan and Jay O’Brien: four giants of the jazz age, and the four heroes of this story.
The driver: Billy Fiske: fighter pilot, bob prodigy, and golden boy
Look long enough and you will find the tablet erected in memory of Billy Fiske in St Paul’s Cathedral. It is mounted on the back wall of the crypt, between Nelson’s tomb and the gift shop. It is a cold grey slab of granite, fixed opposite a bust of the poet WE Henley, and alongside a frieze of an astronomer named William Huggins.
“William Meade Lindsey Fiske III,” it reads. “An American citizen who died that England might live. August 18th 1940.”
Underneath, mounted on green felt in a small golden frame, hang a tattered pair of RAF pilot wings.
Billy Fiske was born in Brooklyn in 1911. “He was the kind of man,” his biographer wrote, “who the sunlight seemed to follow around. He could have stepped out of the pages of a Scott Fitzgerald novel.” After a stint in Chicago his parents sent him to school in St Moritz. It was there that he caught the bobsled bug. Preposterously talented for his age, Fiske persuaded a group of schoolmates that they should enter trials for the USA bobsled team at the 1928 Winter Olympics, which was being held in St Moritz on a run that Fiske and his friends knew well.
Fiske won selection as a driver for the USA’s second sled. He went on to win the gold. He was 16 years old.
That feat does not even merit a mention on Fiske’s memorial. Nor does his gold at Lake Placid in 1932. In between his winters Fiske was flitting around as his fancy suited. He spent three years studying history and economics at Cambridge, and then dilly-dallied in the movie business, moving to Tahiti to co-produce a schlocky romance called White Heat, about an interracial love affair between a slave and a plantation owner.
The film tanked, but Fiske found other ways to amuse himself. He took flying lessons; raced the Cresta run; set a new record for the night-time road run between Nice and Cannes in his green Bentley; married a divorced countess and, eventually, took up a job in his father’s banking firm. It was only when war closed in that Fiske really began to find his purpose in life. He had always been outspoken in his dislike of the Nazi party, passing up on the opportunity to compete in the 1936 Winter Olympics in Bavaria because, he told his team-mates, he did not want to perform in front of Hitler.
In August 1939, as it became clear that war was inevitable, Fiske left the USA to enlist in the RAF. The RAF was not actually accepting American citizens into service at the time, but this did not deter him. He simply decided to blag the recruiting officer that he was Canadian. He wrote in his diary at the time:
“There is really only one reason, other than my own amusement, and that is the fact that I believe I can lay claim to being the first US citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of war. I don’t say this with any particular pride, except perhaps in so far as my conscience is clear.”
To enlist, Fiske had to con his way through a meeting with the Air Chief Marshal William Elliott. He played a round of golf at Roehampton the day before, to “give myself a healthy look. Needless to say, for once, I had a quiet Saturday night – I didn’t want to have eyes looking like blood-stained oysters the next day”.
After training Fiske was posted to No601, nicknamed the Millionaires Squadron because they had been handpicked from the ranks of White’s Club in St James by Lord Edward Grosvenor. They had a reputation for playing poker (for £100 stakes) and polo (on Brough Superior motorcycles). Fiske, foreigner though he was, fitted right in.
Fiske flew his first operational sortie on 27 July 1940. Over the next 27 days he flew 42 operations in the thick of the Battle of Britain. He made six claims for enemy kills, including a Heinkel bomber which, having already run out of ammunition, he forced into a barrage balloon. “Saw 4(?) probables” reads his log book on 11 August, “3 badly damaged. Sqdn lost 4. Terrific fight. Terrified but fun. Had to lead the sqdn in. Willie’s engine failed!”
On 16 August his luck ran out. His Hurricane was damaged in a dogfight with a group of Stukas over the east coast at Selsey Bill. Instead of bailing out, Fiske nursed his fighter back to Tangmere. The operation record book notes that his engine had stopped so he “glided in over the boundary and landed on his belly”. The fuel tank exploded as the airplane came to a stop. Fiske was trapped inside.
“I taxied up to it and got out,” recalled Squadron Leader Archibald Hope. “There were two ambulancemen there. They had got Billy Fiske out of the cockpit, they didn’t know how to take off the parachute, so I showed them. Billy was burned about the hands and ankles.”
Tangmere’s medical bay had been bombed, so Fiske was given a shot of morphine and taken to hospital in Chichester. He died of his wounds two days later. He had been the first US citizen to join the RAF, and became the first American airman to be killed in the second world war. “Unquestionably,” Hope would later remember, “Billy Fiske was the best pilot I’ve ever known. It was unbelievable how good he was. He picked it up so fast it wasn’t true. He’d flown a bit before, but he was a natural fighter pilot.”
The memorial tablet to Fiske in St Paul’s was erected partly as a political move. Winston Churchill had an interest in promoting the story. The USA had not yet joined the war, and the inscription on the plaque was designed to have propaganda value. But there is another, smaller and more honest memorial to Fiske in Boxgrove Priory, just outside Chichester. There, he has a full stained glass window, showing a draped Stars and Stripes. It was opened in 2008 in a ceremony involving two of his old squadron members. The inscription on his headstone reads simply “He died for England.
The No2: Clifford ‘Tippy’ Gray: actor, songwriter, man of mystery
Information about Clifford Gray is a lot harder to come by than it is for Billy Fiske. There is no memorial in St Paul’s this time, though it is thought there may be one in the Old Ipswich Cemetery. Nobody knows for sure. The confusion has come about because Gray switched his name as often as other people change their pants.
Born Percival Davies, at some point he became Clifford Gray. Which he sometimes spelled Clifford Grey. Then he became Tippy Gray. Or Tippi Grey, or indeed Tippi Gray and sometimes, yes, Tippy Grey. It all seemed to depend on his mood and the company he was keeping. His history is a mixed-up muddle of pseud-de-plumes and nomdonyms. The upshot is that Clifford Gray seems to have lived two entirely separate yet somehow entwined lives, one as a double Olympic champion bobsledder, and another as the star of a string of silver-screen silent movies with names such as Wall Street Tragedy, The Weakness of Strength and The Girl Who Feared Daylight.
Gray did not make his fame as an actor, but as a songwriter. If You Were The Only Girl (In The World) was one of his, along with 3,000 or so others, a selection of which still turn up today on the soundtracks of period pieces such as Gosford Park. Gray also has some 35 plays and film scripts attributed to him.
The one thing that really is not clear is exactly how he ended up taking the No2 seat in the bobsled behind the 16-year-old Billy Fiske in 1928, a role he reprised in 1932. It is believed he was on vacation in St Moritz at the time of the trials. But then the same source that says so also insists that the musician and actor was, in fact, an entirely different man from the Olympian.
Given that Gray was born in Birmingham (Warwickshire, not Alabama) to English parents it does seem a little odd that he managed to get away with moonlighting in the USA’s Olympic team. Gray’s own children have said they were oblivious to his life as an Olympian until after he died. It seems he led a secret life as a champion bobsledder. After a lot of searching, a crucial piece of this incomplete jigsaw popped up in the “New York Society” column of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, Saturday 15 December 1934:
“Word comes back from Southern California that the indefatigable world wanderer Tippy Gray has finally found anchorage. For 15 years he has led the blow-torch life flitting to all corners of the earth. As Clifford Gray he has written tunes for the Folies Bergeres, and as Tippy Gray he has been prominent in bobsledding at San Moritz and Lake Placid. Recently he has purchased a hacienda near Hollywood and has taken up tennis and sunshine permanently. At least so he thinks.”
They were obviously confused as to how to describe Gray in his own day too. “World wonderer” is a description that pops up time and again in the society pages, along with a handful of references to an excessive amount of time spent “gadding about on the ocean”. Quite what attracted him back to Ipswich, where he died in 1941, aged 54, is, like so many other things about the man, not entirely clear.
The No3: Eddie Eagan: heavyweight boxer, Rhodes scholar, hall of famer
As a boy Eddie Eagan read a lot. His favourites were Gilbert Patten’s Frank Merriwell novels. No one reads them now, but Merriwell was the original high school hero. He was a goody-two-shoes, studied hard, didn’t drink or smoke, excelled at each of the several sports he turned his hand to and spent what spare time he had left righting wrongs, solving mysteries and having capers.
Eagan was born in Denver in 1898. His father died in a railroad accident a year later. With no male authority figure to draw inspiration from, Eagan ended up inheriting his world view from his fictional hero Merriwell. The character, Patten would later say of his creation, “had little in common with his creator or his readers”. He can never have met Eddie Eagan, who would write in his 1932 autobiography: “To this day I have never used tobacco, because Frank Merriwell didn’t. My first glass of wine, which I do not care for, was taken under social compulsion in Europe. Frank never drank.”
Eagan first flourished as an amateur boxer. He was a heavyweight, and during stretches as a student in Denver and in the artillery corps in the first world war he won championships in the US and Europe. While he was at Denver, Eagan fought an exhibition bout with Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the world.
“I landed a hard punch on his jaw,” Eagan remembered, “then Dempsey hummed the tune ‘Everybody Two-Step’, keeping time with his whole body. Then something fell on my head. It felt like a rafter from the roof. Soft brown cushions like fairyland balloons were making circles before my eyes. One came toward my nose and halted lightly on it, then fell like a bomb on my neck.”
Like Merriwell, Eagan ended up at Yale. While he was there he made the US team for the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. He won gold as a light heavyweight.
From Yale he went on to study law at Harvard, and then travelled to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. There he befriended the Marquis of Clydesdale, whom he taught to box. After graduation the two men toured the world, Eagan challenging the amateur champion in every country they visited. “He finished the tour undefeated,” recollected Eagan’s wife Peggy, “so when you talk about undefeated champions, my husband was one of them.”
Among other things, Eagan found time to do a little big-game hunting in Africa. He continued to box, and though he scorned several offers to turn professional he did become the regular sparring partner of Gene Tunney, the man who eventually took the title off Dempsey. It seems one of the few things Eagan did not get around to doing before he settled into a legal career was to go bobsledding.
In fact Eagan had never actually been near a bob until he arrived at Lake Placid in January 1932. A member of Fiske’s original team had pulled out, preferring to enter the two-man competition. The warm winter meant that the US Olympic Bobsled Committee had not been able to hold any trials, so there was no one on hand to fill the slot. Jay O’Brien, the Bobsled Committee’s head and the fourth man in Fiske’s crew, was a good friend of Eagan.
“One night,” Peggy Eagan explained, “Eddie came back from dinner with Jay and said: ‘Guess what. I’m on the United States bobsled team’.” Eagan later explained that he “was practising law at the time and finding it a little cobwebby”. As though entering the Olympic bobsled was something akin to a weekend break in the country, he added: “I felt the change would do me good.”
Eagan was a natural. Like Merriwell he had excelled at every sport he tried – tennis, fencing, swimming and wrestling as well as boxing. Bobsledding came easy. “Eddie was absolutely fearless,” Peggy reminisced. “He would try everything just for the thrill of it. After a few practice sessions the team performed like they had been together for years.”
Eagan’s bobsled career was short, but could not have been more successful. The four races at Lake Placid were the only competitive runs he ever made. He went on to become the assistant attorney to southern New York. When the second world war broke out he joined the air logistics corps, and rose to become a lieutenant colonel. After that he served the Eisenhower government, and later became boxing commissioner for New York.
He died of a heart attack in 1967, aged 69. He remains the only man in Olympic history to have won gold in different events in both the Winter and Summer Olympics, a feat which ensured he was one of the seven inaugural nominees in the USA Olympic hall of fame.
The brakeman: Jay J O’Brien: jockey, gambler and playboy
They say James O’Brien was a man with three pursuits. Chief among them was riding horses, then came chasing women and last of all was making money. It was a cute design for life: he was a champion at the first, which made him a success in the second, and that looked after the third.
Born in 1883, O’Brien made his name as a dashing gentleman jockey in the late 1900s. He would race at the hunt clubs and turf tracks of upstate New York. The first of many references to O’Brien’s name in the national press came in 1906, buried deep in a report in the New York Times. Leading over the first lap of the three mile Vanderbilt Cup, he swung his horse out too wide on one late corner and “scattered the closely packed line of men and women, causing them to scamper back towards the automobiles parked along the field”.
It was not a mistake he would repeat. Later that month he rode four winners in a single day at Huntington, and from that point on whenever his name appeared it was in the headlines, not hidden in the copy. Over the next six years news of O’Brien’s latest victories became a regular fixture in the back pages. Each of the reports, though, would begin with a long list of the high society nabobs who had been in attendance at the meet. That was the world O’Brien was moving into.
In 1914 O’Brien made headlines by betting big on the World Series. He had, the papers announced, wagered $2,000 on the Boston Braves and was “willing to go further but only if he could get 2-1”. It was a shrewd bet. The “Miracle” Braves had been bottom of the National League on 4 July. But they went on to win the first clean sweep of the World Series. “The man who studied the form, the scientific bettor, placed his money on the Athletics,” said The Day newspaper’s betting correspondent. “The man with the hunch was the one who cashed in.”
O’Brien made $10,000, and a reputation as a “daring bettor and operator in the market”. At least, that was how he was described in the society pages when news broke that he had married the actress Mae Murray, otherwise known as “the Gardenia of the Screen”. Murray was on the up and up in Hollywood. After joining MGM, she would become one of the biggest stars of the 1920s. “Once you become a star, you are always a star!” was her catchphrase. In 1965 she was found destitute and sick at the age of 75, living rough on the streets of St Louis.
Their marriage lasted less than a year. O’Brien soon found his second wife, the stage actress Irene Fenwick. That marriage lasted a little longer, 18 months or so.
O’Brien had long since given up jockeying and taken up polo, a sport better suited to a man of his station in life. In 1923 he was playing a match at the Long Island estate of the yeast magnate Julius Fleischmann, one of the richest men in the America. It was there and then that O’Brien met the great love of his life. She was Fleischmann’s wife, Dolly. The ensuing scandal was one of the biggest of the decade.
So smitten was Julius Fleischmann that it was said he had “never refused his wife anything she asked”. That included a divorce. Dolly Fleischmann eloped to France with O’Brien. Officially Fleischmann denied that he knew the two were having an affair. “I know nothing of such a contemplated marriage,” he told the world, “but it is true that Jay O’Brien has been my guest here. He has played polo on my field. But it is foolish to say he is my friend.”
It soon became public knowledge that much of that million dollars a year Julius had been lavishing on Dolly had been making its way into O’Brien’s pocket, funding his investments on Wall Street.
Jay and Dolly married two months after her divorce was finalised. “What is he?” spluttered Fleischmann in the Pittsburgh press. “He is just one of those strange figures on horseback who appear on the fringes of society and wealth. His only means of support are the four legs of his horse.”
O’Brien had a little more than that now. Dolly was worth around $4m, enough to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed for a year or two. The pair hit the French Riviera. They were still there, four months later, when news reached them that Julius Fleischmann had died of a heart attack while playing polo. One of the last things he did was to tear up his will and write a new one. If Dolly had stayed married to him for another six months, she would have inherited $60m. As it was, she got nothing.
Jay became infamous as the man who had cost his wife a fortune. His story was splashed across the gutter press. “Supposing that he happens to be the greatest lover of all time, is it still possible he can make that good?” asked the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “$60m returns $8,000 in interest every day,” the paper pointed out. “Every time Mrs O’Brien gazes at her husband across the dinner table it must be apparent that within the next 24 hours he must deliver $8,000 worth of tenderness, gallantry, wit, sympathy and attention or she has made a bad bargain. Can any husband be worth $50,000,000?”
As it turned out the answer was yes, he could. When Dolly died in 1965, her friend Suzy Knickerbocker wrote an obituary.
“Love was the most important thing in the world to Dolly, and she and Jay, beautiful creatures, set out to conquer high society. They became the toast of Paris and London, and the darlings of Biarritz and New York. They entertained dukes and duchesses and played golf with the Prince of Wales. They brought an enormous property in Palm Springs and christened it “The Garden of Eden”. Dolly and Jay were dazzling and brilliant and golden. And very much in love and very happy.”
Somewhere along the way, and even after all the research I’m not sure where or when, Jay O’Brien also became an Olympic-standard bobsledder. I suppose he tired of riding horses, just as he tired of chasing women. Certainly the habit came late. He was 48 when he was competing at Lake Placid, which makes him the oldest gold medallist in Winter Olympic history.
Otherwise he spent his time investing in real estate in Palm Beach, where he became a grandee of the community. He died of a heart attack in 1940 and, Knickerbocker wrote: “A part of Dolly died with him.” She married her fourth husband, a Bulgarian count, six years later. And then dumped him for Clark Gable.
Let’s cut back to the sled, just where we left it that February Sunday in 1932, frozen on the rim of the Whiteface turn an inch away from oblivion, the four riders leaning desperately into the track. “If any other man than Billy Fiske had been at the wheel,” Eagan said, “we would have gone. We survived only because of Billy.”
Fiske pulled hard, and the sled surged back towards the centre of the track, the four men fighting the forces of gravity and momentum. They shot out of the curve and flew down the straight away, catching their breath as they went.
They passed on through the Shady turn that had finished Fritz Grau, and ran on into the notorious Zig-Zag curve at the end of the track. The sled bucked to the left, thumping off the ice wall, then leapt off a jump, all four runners off the ground. As it landed it whipped back to the right. “My head snapped backward as we went through a zig-zag,” wrote Eagan. “I was dizzy as my head snapped first to the right, then to the left. And then finally it was over.”
When the sled crossed the line the clock stopped at 1min 56.59sec. Fiske’s final run was his fastest. Homberger would need to beat his own world record to steal the gold. “He made a spectacular effort,” said the man from the Spokane Daily Chronicle, “riding the curves high and taking every chance but the best he could get out of his sled was 1min 54.28sec.” It was quick, but not quick enough. Fiske, Gray, Eagan, and O’Brien had taken the gold.
There are a handful of photos of Billy Fiske and his crew after the race. They are posing on their sled, each flashing a broad grin. In one they are being presented with a trophy by captain Walter Zahn, his arm still bandaged. The Americans are wearing neat double-breasted white jackets, and their hair is slick and gelled underneath their peaked caps. The Olympic flag stands in the backdrop.
It was the last time that the four would ever be in a bobsled together. Eagan never went near a bob run again in his life. Fiske declined to race at the 1936 Games, and O’Brien was too old to consider a return to the track. Gray made himself available for selection, but did not make the cut. By 1941 three of the four would be dead. Only Eagan survived the war. These four amazing men came together in that bob for just two days of competition, and in that time they wrote themselves a small slice of history. There has never been another team like them.