"Compared to Europe, everything in America was a holiday for me," says Gebel-Williams. "Except for that."
Yet friends say he was not so much troubled as amused. "The wives were no problem for him," one recalls. "Gunther cracked the whip both ways. He works that incredible will. He muscles women just as he muscles animals. People and animals respond the same. They want his good word."
A Gebel-Williams performance, indeed the man's very presence, is so wired for sensuality—the flowing yellow locks, the revealing tights, the bare chest, the smile, the charisma—that he is beleaguered by adoring women from 6 to 60. Even Howar, a bestselling author and habitu� of the Manhattan-Washington cocktail circuit, got into the act. Her interview with GG-W on Who's Who sounded like the "How's your love life?" toothpaste ads. Gebel-Williams jokingly implied that he was sneaking around. Sigrid, also on the show, retorted that this was nonsense, only a fool "would trade in a Rolls-Royce for a Volkswagen."
Tabloid troopers all the way, the couple knows a good thing when they see one. "Nobody want us to say Gunther come home to mama every night," Sigrid says. "What kind of sex symbol would that be? I don't worry about groupies outside the circus. There is enough trouble with 30 beautiful showgirls inside. Well, maybe 25 beautiful ones. I think it would not be so nice to have a husband like this and nobody look at him. I want them to look. They all think he's available. He's not."
"Every year I am hiding more," says Gunther. "In car, in trailer, in train. Ladies say, 'Come home, train my cat.' I am polite and sign autograph and run away. Absolute. I talk to everybody. I have no problems with peoples. I make everybody believe my style."
Outside the big top, Gebel-Williams is a homebody. He does not go to restaurants, movies, parties. He seldom stays up late and does not smoke; an occasional Scotch and Coke is his one concession to wild living. His usual postperformance evening consists of a quiet dinner and TV in his trailer or railroad stateroom with his wife and Buffy and Tina, Sigrid's 14-year-old daughter by a previous marriage, who has blossomed into a horse trainer/elephant rider/showgirl and appears in the Ringling Bros, show no less than six times during a performance.
Though he permits himself few close friends and does not socialize with other circus performers, Gebel-Williams has a friendly greeting for everyone—trapeze artist, pie-cart cook, roustabout alike—which is to say he is the one who calls out hello first. Besides being the hardest worker and performer in the circus, he may be its most popular, too. When the Lenzes cracked up their car and house trailer last year, Gebel-Williams offered them $7,000 in cash as well as his own dressing trailer. He said he could change his clothes in the arena men's room.
"I wish I could think of a single incident where Gunther pulled a prima donna number," says Irvin Feld, "but I can't. People just don't believe what a fantastic, natural, honest guy he is. Gunther is a prince. He gets universal love and respect."
Peggy Williams (no relation), a famous clown who along with the other funny people of the circus calls Gebel-Williams "Goober Giblet," places him on an even higher plateau. "I've never met a person so in touch with everything in life," she says. "It is difficult to look on Goob as a star because he is such a human. He never pulls rank. He never lets anybody down. That smile on his face—the ladies will tell you he's no phony. His eyes see farther than most people's eyes. Goob could do any job here; he's just the supercitizen of the circus. It's an honor to know him."
"The man is ego-less," adds Jimmy Briscoe, another clown.