Sabers in the City
Olympic medalist Tim Morehouse wants to make you fall in love with fencing
by Christopher Petkanas photography Tatijana Shoan
"Fencing in the U.S. is like a Picasso sitting in a basement without a frame – totally amazing, but neglected and badly presented," says Tim Morehouse between the elegant thrusts and suave parries of a training session at Manhattan's New York Athletic Club. A huge charmer with a pert, retroussé nose that gives fans jelly knees (alas, Tim's heart is already promised, to his girlfriend 60 Minutes producer Rachael Kun), Morehouse, 33, swanned away from the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a silver medal in men's saber team fencing. From there it was on to Oprah and Access Hollywood, a modeling contract with Wilhelmina and a shilling deal with a "doctor-designed, chef-prepared, athlete-tested" meal-delivery outfit. In a photo-op for Chicago’s (losing) bid to host the Games in 2016, Morehouse even jousted on the White House lawn with the President. Famously, the First Lady judged her husband's performance "pathetic." No reflection on Tim, of course.
All of Morehouse's energies today are focused on digging fencing out of the basement. This summer in London, he is determined to become the first American male to win a gold medal in the sport since Albertson Van Zo Post in 1904, and hopes to grow fencing with the publication in April of his engaging memoir, American Fencer: Modern Lessons From an Ancient Sport (Acanthus Publishing). His goal: To make fencing known to a wider public by promoting and capitalizing on its built-in elan and hauteur, qualities shared with classical ballet.
"I know because I've cross-trained with ballet," Morehouse says after practice over a Cobb salad, scrupulously avoiding not just the bread but also most of the salad. "There are just so many parallels: Balance and precision, discipline, mental and physical control."
Ladies who lunge
In the mid-1800s the sport arrived in New York via the floods of immigrants escaping political upheaval in Europe. Sword exercise is of all others the most "graceful" and "invigorating," wrote Matthew Berriman, an American Army captain, in his classic 1858 fencing manual. It "gives poise and agility to the figure, quickens the eye and hand" and "sends that chivalrous hot current through the veins which only the practiced Swordsman can experience." More than any instrument of defense or attack, Berriman rhapsodized, "the sword is the weapon of the gentleman…of chivalry and romance…"
The late 19th-century passion for fitness in America, thanks in part to the German ideal of cultivating a sound mind through a sound body, dovetailed with the new concept of leisure time, and culminated with a vast population of amateur fencing enthusiasts. Women were perhaps the greatest winners. Flushing in public, not to mention sweating, had been seen as signs of sexual arousal, as if a bead of perspiration couldn't form without a woman having the hots for some passing hard hat or sailor in flap-fronts. Now she could flush without having her virtue attacked.
For support, if she needed it, she could always count on The New York Times. "The argument formerly employed against fencing – that it encouraged dueling – could not apply to women, even were this a dueling age and country, which, fortunately, it is not," the paper agitated in 1880. "A good many fashions and customs originate in New York that are unworthy of countenance or imitation. Fencing is not one of them."
Founded three years later, the Fencers Club still carries on as New York's oldest institution devoted exclusively to what The New Yorker writer Kevin Wallace called "the swordsman's courtly charade of attempted homicide." (Wallace's "Salle d'Armes" is regarded as one of the two finest examples of modern fencing journalism, the other being David Halberstam's "Anatomy of a Champion.") The Fencers Club was the center of life in the city for anyone interested in fencing in the ’20s and ’30s, swordplay's heyday as a spectator sport.
"Carnegies and Astors not only watched but fenced," says Morehouse, hauling his giant nylon bag of cutlery up Seventh Avenue to his next practice. "The National Championship was held at the Waldorf. At the Times, fencing was a beat. It was a society – an anybody who's anybody is fencing this season kind of thing. Then baseball and football adapted with the advent of television, but fencing fell behind. But sports are popular because people make them popular; it's not destiny. Fencing has some self-esteem issues, but things are starting to change. What's the saying, 'Build it and they will come'?"
Styling by Annie Ladino / The Wall Group