Standing in the doorway at the country club are comedian Phil Harris and ABC sportscaster Chris Schenkel, who lives on the shores of Lake Tippecanoe and is one of the prominent figures in the International Palace of Sports. The men are wearing large white sashes across their chests. Harris' terms him the PRINCE OF PAGEANTRY. Schenkel's reads: KING ARTHUR. Jenner admires Schenkel and considers broadcasting the ideal career. "The only way to do it is to improve myself so they'll keep me on for the 1980 Games as Bruce Jenner, sportscaster, and not Bruce Jenner, former Olympic champion," he says. "I've got four years to prove myself."
For his induction, Jenner will wear a crown and hold a scepter and sword; he might be auditioning for one of those television margarine commercials. Later in the day parachutists will land on the lawn of Camelot Square, where the hall of fame is located. A wax figure of Jenner will be ceremoniously unveiled and his portrait will be displayed as he signs autographs and conducts an impromptu news conference.
The luncheon audience at the country club is composed of local businessmen and their wives, plus a gaggle of girls seeking to be named Queen of the Lake Mermaid Festival. Many are wearing platform shoes, high school class rings and clothes so new that they still have the holes in them from the tags. They cast sidelong glances at visiting celebrity Jenner, who has rarely stopped smiling since he walked into the dining room. When he is presented with a medallion approximately the size of a large pie that bears his likeness, Jenner quips, "Wonder if it'll fit in a parking meter?"
Listening to Jenner you get the feeling that with people like him around, the world will turn out all right after all. Men and women admire him equally, partly because he does not come across as sexually aggressive. In bantering with women, Jenner is disarming but never enticing. When a hard-eyed Las Vegas cocktail waitress spotted him earlier in the week, she sneered to George Wallach, Jenner's agent, "Has he had his Wheaties today?" His laugh is a giggle and he has a habit of referring to himself as the Kid, and speaks a dialect that might be described as Fraternity. And then there is the moral-uplift effect. He tells his rapt audiences that his wife Chrystie had to support him while he trained for the Olympics; that there was a hurdle set up in their living room; that he dreamed he was running in the Games, churning his legs in his sleep; that he consumed 57 vitamin pills a day. They can relate this stirring account of hard work to incidents in their own lives.
Jenner has one basic speech that begins with a reference to his recent motorcycle accident when he hurt his knee, requiring an operation. In North Webster, he is still wearing a cast and walking with a limp—a wounded knight. "Since the Games, things have been kind of up and down," he begins. "Insurance rates went up, Wheaties stock went down." For the past month, Jenner has started a good share of interviews, as well as almost every speech, in this fashion. Schenkel leans over to a luncheon companion and says, "He loves this, doesn't he?" And watching Jenner, it is easy to see that he does. His face lights up as he recounts the drama leading to the final hours at Montreal. A sports announcer could not set the stage or describe the action more expertly. The audience is hushed and attentive. Workers from the country-club kitchen stand in the doorway, peering in as Jenner speaks of reaching for that extra surge of adrenaline. By the time he leads the audience across the finish line and talks of preparing to ascend the steps for the victory ceremony, all eyes in the room are glistening and Shoop, for one, sits before him with tears streaming down his face. "...and then, walking out, I looked back at that empty stadium," concludes Jenner, "and I said, 'Thanks for the memories.' " Suddenly the entire room stands and begins applauding. Phil Harris is on his feet, murmuring, "Beautiful, beautiful," and nodding his head in approval. It makes people happy to know that Bruce Jenner is an American.
One of the first things you notice about Jenner is that he is so sure of himself; he is completely unflappable, a quality that probably stems from never defining his own limits. He believes that he can do whatever he wants to do. When concentrating, he is so single-minded that he becomes oblivious to his surroundings. At a 1975 meet in which he beat Olympic champion Nikolai Avilov and set the then world record of 8,524 points, he was so intense that he did not notice a wildly thrown javelin that almost speared him in the neck. And while signing an autograph, he forgot how to make a J. When he set out to win the Olympic gold medal, he was foresighted enough to plan to write a book about his triumph. Last spring he told
The New York Times
, "I knew going in that if I won the gold medal I wasn't going to be a dummy and let it slip through my fingers. There was a lot of money at stake and I knew if I played my cards right I could set us up for life. The whole ball game is to preserve your credibility and your image, not do something that makes you look like a fool." Since then, however, Jenner has softened his approach. "I don't like to talk about money," he says. "After the Games all they talked about was money, and for me, money was not a part of it. They talked about it more than they did the gold medal. And I didn't like that." In part, for Jenner, the money has become a way to keep score. If Bob Mathias makes $300,000 a year in lecture fees, Jenner wants to do as well. If O. J. Simpson gets so much per commercial, Jenner wants the same. It is another game that he is good at.
"This is how the system works," he says. "No. 1—George Wallach. George oversees everything. He's my right-hand man, my personal manager. From there, the William Morris Agency. The Wheaties deal...they handle all the big stuff. Next is Rogers & Cowan. They are the publicity people. They handle all the press. Their main function is to keep me out in the public, in the proper way. Next is a Speakers Bureau, which handles the college market. Then there is Leisure Concepts, which handles licensing and marketing for clothing lines: the shirts, shoes, sweat pants. And then there is the No. 1 boss, Chrystie Jenner. The Boss. She's a very strong, aggressive, determined lady." Chrystie, who also has written a book and is a burgeoning actress, got her nickname last year when she, Wallach, and Jenner's attorney Alan Rothenberg were interviewing potential accountants. One of the applicants was puzzled about her function in the operation and queried her about it. "Well," answered Chrystie, "I guess you could say I'm the boss."
Jenner has the ability to do 10 straight radio interviews and give each a distinctive flavor. And since the Olympics he has done thousands of them. He also has been given enough keys to cities to fill a locksmith's shop. Tarrytown, N.Y., Lamoni, Iowa, San Jose, Calif. and Newton, Conn. all held Welcome Home days for Jenner, and his high school in Newton named its football stadium Bruce Jenner Stadium. When Jenner took his medal to his bank to put it in a safe-deposit box, all the bank workers crowded around for a glimpse of it, as if it were a newborn baby. America likes its heroes pure and simple, and it has what it wants in Bruce Jenner.
"The money is not the most important thing," says Wallach. He is sitting in Mumm's, San Francisco's posh new private club. Jenner is in the Bay Area for a tour of a number of Macy's stores that are selling his clothing line as well as his book. That morning he also appeared on two television programs and a radio talk show. It was just a few years ago that Chrystie called up a San Francisco radio station and asked if her husband could be interviewed. "We don't interview people who beg for publicity," a staffer said frostily.
Now Wallach is explaining the joy he gets out of working with Bruce Jenner. "We're all going to make a lot of money, but the great thing was being in the center of the hurricane when a hero was born, that electric moment. Inside each of us there's got to be a little bit of Arnold Palmer and Mark McCormack. And I've got to believe that Mark McCormack would rather be on the 18th at Augusta, sinking the winning putt. It's like the brass ring you always dream about. You want to be close to that moment, because after all, don't we all really want to be a hero?"