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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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At the peak of his wealth, Brundage was worth between $20 and $25 million. He had prospered mightily with his Avery Brundage Company, a construction firm that in 1924, when he was 37, employed 10,000 people and grossed $16 million. Brundage lost almost everything in the Depression, paid his debts and began to rebuild his fortune by investing in real estate. Ruegsegger, who claims he can account for nearly every dime that Brundage spent in the 25 years (1950-75) he worked for him, estimates that during Brundage's best years his income was $400,000 a month. Yet Ruegsegger adds, "A.B. wasn't a shrewd businessman as long as I knew him. He listened to too many other people. As soon as he had a few dollars, he would convert them to little buddhas. I made millions for him, and I did most of it without his involvement."

In his 20 years as IOC president, Brundage paid little attention to business. The travel, the sybaritic emoluments, the homage he was paid, the endless hours he worked were a tonic to him. After his retirement following the Olympic massacre in Munich, he lost both his vitality and his sense of direction for a time. "He had a holy fear of being alone then," Ruegsegger recalls.

"The Olympic movement had been his life," says the IOC's Berlioux. "He kept on turning up at his [former] IOC office in Lausanne, answering calls, reading correspondence. He simply could not believe it was finished. It was a bit embarrassing for Lord Killanin.

"He would call me from Geneva and ask me to keep him company. I would just wander through the streets with him, aimlessly, for hours on end. He would not speak much. He was totally lost. He was desperately lonely."

It was at this moment, when Brundage most needed companionship, that Princess Reuss became a permanent part of his life. A descendant of German royalty, she is a tall woman with close-cropped blonde hair and a striking and unusual high-boned facial structure. She is an athletic woman, with a long manly stride and an ingratiating presence. Donald Pate, a Santa Barbara insurance millionaire with whom she began living shortly after Brundage died, only later to be sued by her over their financial dealings, says, "The woman has great charm, vivacious as hell. She dominates any room she's in. Can play up to a man like nobody I ever saw. I'd call her an exhausting woman, though."

Whatever her charms, Brundage was smitten with her. He was 85 and she 36 when they married in the summer of 1973, but it seems they had actually known each other for many years. Indeed, Princess Reuss recalled that she had first met Brundage in 1955, when she was 19, during some kind of international meeting in Munich. It seemed that her godfather, the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg and a member of the IOC, was the same age as Brundage—they'd known each other in 1912 at the Stockholm Olympics—and he had wanted her to meet the famous IOC president. She and Brundage met once more, in 1959, again with her godfather, and then several times between 1970 and 1972 during preparations for the Munich Olympics.

Mariann Reuss was born in Berlin on July 29, 1936. Her ancestors had once ruled the tiny German principality of Reuss, which her family always described as being "so small that one couldn't wear a hat without crossing the border." Reuss ceased to exist after World War I, and Mariann has never visited the area in East Germany where the principality was located. Her father, Prince Heinrich XXXVII, was a career military officer—a general in the Wehrmacht—whom Hitler dismissed in 1944 because of his ties to the royal houses of Europe. When the Soviet Union invaded eastern Germany a year later, Mariann and her brother fled to live with their grandmother near Munich. "We had no clothes, and my brother and I would run around the American soldiers begging for food," Princess Reuss recalls. "We never suffered, though, for we were happy inside." She was reunited with her parents several months later, and in 1952 she came to the U.S. as an American Field Service student in Georgetown, Del. After returning to Germany, she graduated from an interpreter's school in Munich and began working as a translator at international conferences. She also was employed as a secretary in both France and Greece, and she spent a year in New York City working for First National City Bank.

In March of 1970 she signed on as an interpreter for the Munich Olympic Organizing Committee. About the time the Games began, she briefly lost that job for what has been described as "disorderly conduct." Berlioux says, "She was drinking a lot. I pitied her because I knew she had to work for her living. She appealed to me. I promised if I could save her I would do it. I went to Mr. Brundage and told him maybe he could have a word with Willi Daume [then the president of the Olympic Organizing Committee]. Brundage did, and they kept Mariann." Ruegsegger also played a role in her reinstatement. With such influential help, she got her job back, and she spent some time with Brundage during the remainder of the Games. However, those familiar with Brundage's social life during the Munich Olympics say he was usually occupied with a onetime U.S. swimmer whom he had personally invited to be his consort there.

After the Games, Princess Reuss sent Brundage an 85th birthday card, but she did not see much of him until February of 1973, at a gala Munich dance called Ball des Sports. Cheek-to-cheek, Avery and the Princess swept about the dance floor, and a sensationalist German newspaper immediately predicted that they would be engaged. The paper proved to be correct. With Brundage's help, she got released from her contract at a Munich clothing factory, where she had been doing menial work, and in early May visited him in Chicago. After five weeks of travel, they returned to Chicago, and on June 11, 1973 Brundage announced their engagement at a press conference in his office that apparently caught Princess Reuss unawares. "It all came as a complete surprise to me," she says. "I didn't even have a chance to have my hair done." Brundage had called the bride-to-be's mother in Germany to tell her, but he had withheld the news from Mariann until the last moment. On June 20 they were married in a civil ceremony in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. But only hours before the nuptials took place, a marriage agreement was signed in which the Princess promised that she would "forever relinquish, release, waive and discharge all rights and claims" to Brundage's estate by reason of the marriage. This sort of premarital document is rather common among millionaires—especially aged ones marrying much younger spouses—and Mariann had no objection to signing it.

On July 28 the Brundages were married again in a lavish church ceremony in the German hamlet of Grainau. Two noble children, a niece and a nephew of the Princess, strewed rose petals along the aisle as the couple walked to the altar. Brundage had asked Ruegsegger to be his best man, but Ruegsegger had replied archly, "I will do no such thing," and refused even to attend. Indeed, when Brundage had first told him of the engagement, Ruegsegger had said, "Mr. Brundage, I have one message for you: there is no fool like an old fool." Therefore, Daume did the honors. The choir sang Lobet Gott den Herrn (Praise the Lord) and the bride wept for happiness.

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