Leave the astronauts out of it, and the paratroop teams that free-fall for 10,000 feet or skate down by means of those flattish, maneuverable new parachutes. Leave out the six people who have survived the 220-foot fall from the Golden Gate Bridge and the plungers of Acapulco who swan-dive 118 feet, clearing outcrops that extend 21 feet from the cliff. Leave out even the ordinary high diver who enters the pool rigid and pointed after a precise jackknife. Come down from such lofty characters to Henri LaMothe, who on his 70th birthday last April dived from a 40-foot ladder into a pool of water—but a pool of water only 12 inches deep.
The high diver in his development first increases the height of his dive, then crowds more loops and twists into his drop, but LaMothe's progress through the years has not involved ascending higher. Rather, he has provided himself with less and less water to land in, an ambition oddly private and untheatrical. Three feet, two feet, 20 inches, 16 inches, 14 inches. He strikes not headfirst or feetfirst, which would be the end of him, but on the arched ball of his belly. His posture resembles a flying squirrel's. His endeavor over the years has been to manage somehow to jump into no water at all. Since this is impossible, he is designing a breakaway plastic pool whose sides will collapse as he hits, so that except for the puddles remaining on the pavement, he will at least experience the sensation of having done just that.
Apparently nobody else at the moment entertains similar ambitions, although one of the oldtime carnival thrills was for a stunt man to jump feetfirst from a platform into a very considerably deeper hogshead of water, doing what divers describe as a tuck as he entered and partly somersaulting and scooping madly. As the fellow dropped he could steer just a bit by tilting his head—the head being the heaviest mass in the body—but like Henri's feat this one was gilded with none of the nifty, concise esthetics of fancy diving. There were no points to be scored, no springboard to bound from, no Hawaiian plunge after the midair contortions into a sumptuous pool, with a pretty crawl stroke afterward to carry him out of the way of the next competitor. This fellow lived on hot dogs and slept with the ticket seller and often received an involuntary enema through the two pairs of trunks that he wore, got sinus and mastoid infections and constant colds from the water forced into his nose.
LaMothe doesn't jump, however; he dives, into water that scarcely reaches his calves as he stands up, his hands raised in a Hallelujah gesture. The sailor hat he sometimes wears never leaves his head, his back stays dry unless the spray wets him, and yet so bizarre is the sight of a person emerging from water so shallow that one's eye sees him standing there as if with his drawers fallen around his feet. As he plummets, his form is as ugly and poignant as the flop of a frog—nothing less ungainly would enable him to survive—and, watching, one feels witness to something a good deal more interesting than a stunt: a leap for life into a fire net, perhaps.
He wears a thin, white, sleeved bodysuit that looks like a set of long Johns (the crowd is likely to titter) and, up on his jointed ladder, he huddles into a crouch, holding on to the shafts behind him. Very much like a man in the window of a burning building, he squats, stares down—hesitating, concentrating, seeming to quail—and finally, letting go, quite clumsily puts out his arms, creeping into space between gusts of wind. He sneaks off the top of the ladder, spreading his fingers, reaching out, arching his back, bulging his stomach, cocking his head back, gritting his teeth, never glancing down, and hits in the granddaddy of all belly whoppers, which flings water 20 feet out.
Though one's natural impulse when falling is to ball up to protect the vitals, LaMothe survives precisely by thrusting his vitals out. He goes splat. And when a microphone is put to him—"How do you do it?"—Henri says, "Guts!" grinning at the pun. "Why do you do it?" asks a reporter. "I get a bang out of it!" says LaMothe; says that he is "a low-water man." In his long Johns, white-haired, in that tremulous hunch 40 feet up a magnesium ladder that he folds up and wheels about for fees of a few hundred dollars, he is anything but an Evel Knievel. He is from vaudeville, a fire victim, his career a succession of happenstances.
In Chicago, growing up pint-sized with the nickname Frenchy—his father, a South Side carpenter, was from Montreal—he dived off coal tipples, bridges and boxcars, swimming and swaggering at the 76th Street Beach, doing the four-mile swim off Navy Pier. In the winter he swam indoors with a gang that included Johnny Weissmuller, already swinging from the girders over the pool. But Henri's hands were too small, his build too slight for competitive swimming. To make a living he drove a cab and posed at the Chicago Art Institute, where he began to draw, too. He stayed up late, speeding around town to neighborhood Charleston contests, four or five in a night—this being the Roaring '20s—winning up to $100 an evening. He quit modeling in order to Charleston full time, closing his act with handstands, back-bends and a belly flop, sliding and rolling across the waxed floor. His girl friend's specialty was the split; she would kick him into his belly flop, do the split over him and "lift" him up with two fingers and dance on his stomach as he leaned over backward, balancing on his hands. They were local champions, and by and by he invented an Airplane Dance, his arm the propeller—"the Lucky Lindy" for Lindbergh—which he claims was adapted into the Lindy Hop. June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee's famously stingy stage mama took him to New York as one of six "newsboys" in their hoofer show, but he quit to dance in a musical called Keep It Clean. By 1928 he was dancing at the Paramount as "Hotfoot Henri," usually planted among the ushers or as a dummy sax player in the orchestra pit as the show began. The clowning, the pat repartee, the belly busters were right up his alley. Even today on occasion he will flop on his breadbasket into a puddle of beer at home to startle guests, or lie flat and lift his wife Birgit by his stomach muscles.
Although he had been thankful to dancing for whisking him away from the Windy City and the life of a commercial artist drawing pots and pans for newspaper ads, after the 1929 crash he had to scratch for a job. He designed Chinese menus to pay for his meals, did flyer layouts for theaters and bands, and painted signs. He was art editor of the Hobo News, later the Bowery News, and he tinkered, streamlining the stapler that is used everywhere nowadays, and inventing a "Bedroom Mood Meter" to post on the wall, like the ones sold in Times Square novelty shops. He got work drawing advertisements for a Long Island plastics company, and actually prospered—even bought himself a plane. Coming in for a landing, he would think of the pratfalls he had performed in the Charleston contests and his belly flops back on Muscle Beach, clowning his way to popularity.
Clowning on the board at the swimming club for the executives, he had heard the suggestion that he ought to do it professionally; and so, after a stint in a shipyard during World War II, he went swimming with Johnny Weissmuller's troupe in Peru. Then he went to Italy with his own water show, the "Aquacts," in partnership with two girls. One, a Dane called Birgit Gjessing, became his wife. Birgit had been an actress in Germany during the war, a swimmer before that and a puppeteer back home in Denmark, marking time after fleeing the collapse of the Reich. She is a lean lady of 57 with a quick, expressive face; a school counselor now, but she remembers playing chess in a wine cellar near Mainz during the worst of the World War II bombing. At one point in 1944 she traded her winter coat for a bicycle, thinking to swim the Rhine while holding it over her head, then pedal on home.
Henri would emulate the dives the girls did and mess everything up, or get into a race but be towed through the water roped to a car. He dressed as Sweet Pea or Baby Snookums, with a curl painted on his forehead. Wheeled to the pool in a buggy by Birgit, dressed in a starchy costume, he would scramble up on the high diving board while his nurse pleaded with him to climb down. She would fall in, and he would pancake on top of her, landing crisscross. He used breakoff boards to make his dive doubly abrupt, or wore a pullover sweater 14 feet long, which would still be unraveling as he stumbled backward into his fall. With a beret above his French mustache, he would put on blue long Johns with rolled-up newspapers over his biceps and a great cape and, calling himself Stupor Man, bend "iron" bars and launch himself on a mission of mercy from a high place, only to crash on his belly into the water instead. He would "drown," seem to need artificial respiration, but as the girls bent over him he would squirt water at them from his mouth. Then, running to apologize to Birgit, he would trip, belly whop and skid into her.