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AVERY BRUNDAGE: The Man Behind the Mask
William Oscar Johnson
August 04, 1980
Since the Modern Olympic Era began in 1894, six men have served as president of the International Olympic Committee. Demetrius Vikelas of Greece was the first. Ireland's Lord Killanin, whose tenure will end with the conclusion of the Moscow Games, is the most recent. But none of these men wielded more authority, had a greater influence on amateur sport—or embodied so many contradictions—as Avery Brundage of the U.S., who died in 1975 at the age of 87.
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August 04, 1980

Avery Brundage: The Man Behind The Mask

Since the Modern Olympic Era began in 1894, six men have served as president of the International Olympic Committee. Demetrius Vikelas of Greece was the first. Ireland's Lord Killanin, whose tenure will end with the conclusion of the Moscow Games, is the most recent. But none of these men wielded more authority, had a greater influence on amateur sport—or embodied so many contradictions—as Avery Brundage of the U.S., who died in 1975 at the age of 87.

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Brundage's larking led him to the boudoir instead of the barroom. He was a bachelor until 1927, when, at age 40, he married Elizabeth Dunlap, an elegant and artistic socialite who was the daughter of a Chicago banker. Ruegsegger, 60, who worked for Brundage for 25 years and became his best friend and closest business adviser, recalls the first Mrs. Brundage. "In the early years she traveled with him some of the time," he says, "but usually she was at their home in Santa Barbara. She suffered a stroke in 1964 and rarely left the country after that. When she learned of his sons by reading a blind item in a San Francisco newspaper, she was terribly hurt. She had many friends there. Everyone knew who the item referred to."

The revelation appeared in Herb Caen's San Francisco Examiner column on Nov. 1, 1954: "Talk of Redwood City—the big home that has been bought by a nat-lly known sports figure (married) for his beautiful blonde keptive, a recent import from a Scandinavian country."

In actuality, Dresden had been in the country since July 22, 1948, and had moved into the house after young Avery's birth. Brundage had attempted to keep the purchase quiet by putting title to the house in the name of his secretary, Frances Blakely, as trustee. According to Ruegsegger, "Mrs. Brundage once told me that Avery had been romantically involved with Blakely, who was very wealthy and continued to work for him until she died. She was totally possessive of him, but she disapproved of what he had done and what he was doing. Mrs. Brundage said that Miss Blakely had once assumed she and A.B. would be married—until she suddenly read in the papers that he was engaged to Elizabeth Dunlap. It was a shock. She had had no idea he was about to marry someone else." Elizabeth Brundage died in 1971 at the age of 81.

When people asked Brundage if he had any children, he would reply somewhat elliptically, "Mrs. Brundage had no babies." He wouldn't elaborate, and few if any caught the distinction. When Brundage was 81 he had an international harem of girl friends that included a Bulgarian, an Austrian, a Finn, an American, a Mexican, a Swiss and a German. He was able to juggle his trysts tidily enough as long as the women remained dispersed across the globe, but during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City collisions were all but inevitable. At least one screaming battle occurred between the Swiss and the Mexican women over a gift of jewelry from Brundage that had somehow been incorrectly delivered.

A notorious skinflint when it came to tipping waiters and porters, Brundage was a relentlessly generous sugar daddy. He had a favorite parfumerie on the rue de Rivoli in Paris, and during his frequent visits to that city, he would buy expensive perfumes in the biggest-sized bottles available—confident that he knew exactly which lady preferred a Jean Patou and which would deign to use nothing but a Chanel. He also sent regular monthly checks of $500 or more to perhaps half a dozen women at a time. Even among women back in Santa Barbara, Brundage always seemed to be operating. One local matron recalls Brundage's behavior during parties at the Montecito Country Club, which he owned: "He was a terrific dancer and danced us off our feet, often until 2 a.m. He'd never take liberties on the floor, but you always knew that a very macho guy had hold of you. He'd use French words to flatter his partners."

Well into his 80s Brundage was in phenomenal physical condition—obviously—for a man his age. Perhaps this could be attributed to his willingness to suffer extreme punishment to build stamina during his days as an athlete. One of his favorite events was race walking, an excruciatingly painful exercise that Brundage himself enthusiastically proclaimed to be "the closest a man can come to the pangs of childbirth." At the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, he represented the U.S. in the decathlon and pentathlon, finishing 15th in the former and fifth in the latter behind Jim Thorpe, who won both events.

In 1914, 1916 and 1918 (at the ripe age of 30) Brundage won the American "All-Around Championships," an ordeal consisting of 10 events (including the half-mile walk and the shot put) that had to be performed in a single afternoon with no more than five minutes' rest between each event. He remained a physical fitness fanatic all his life—decades before it became an American fetish. He did the painful heel-and-toe walk for two or three miles daily until he was past 80. He also was an avid handball player, but gave up the game in the early '40s, when he suffered severely pinched blood vessels in his back and groin and almost died. Doctors blamed it on "overexercise," but Brundage recovered and for many years would say with a chuckle, "Those doctors died long ago—of just the opposite."

Whether or not his "overexercising" was the foundation for his incredibly energetic after-hours life, Brundage was a physical wonder. One IOC staff member recalls, "He'd keep us at meetings at the Palace Hotel in Lausanne until midnight. We'd be exhausted, nearly conked out. Then he would slip out of the hotel to the Tabaris nightclub nearby to check out the merchandise. He was a real night bird and never seemed tired."

According to Brundage's paternity agreements, he met Lilian Dresden in November of 1948 in Chicago. Dresden is unwilling to provide any other information about their relationship. She is still blonde at 61, and she lives in the Redwood City, Calif, hills in a house purchased in 1960. It's an unassuming place, with dozens of potted plants on the porch, Christmas lights strung beneath the eaves even in July and a 1977 Thunderbird parked in the driveway. The license plate reads 1 SUOMI—that being the Finnish for Finland. She is courteous when confronted with requests to discuss her relationship with Brundage, but she refuses to speak about him beyond saying, "He was a good man."

Her sons, now 27 and 28 years old, have also kept silent, presumably because of confidentiality clauses included in a March 1955 trust agreement and a June 1980 estate settlement. Their relationship to Brundage came into the open because of suits they had filed beginning in August 1978, in which they demanded, as Brundage's only offspring, two-thirds interest in his estate. Originally, they had been left nothing. The amount in the estate, after bequests to the University of Illinois, the Chicago Art Institute and the city and county of San Francisco, was about $1.5 million—meaning the sons were suing for $500,000 each. Early in June, the two Dresden men settled out of court for $62,500 apiece.

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