Dream Big! by Michaela Cordes | 1st December, 2023 | Personalities
World-champion bodybuilder, highest-paid Hollywood star and governor of California – Arnold Schwarzenegger is a superstar unlike any other. Dian Hanson talks exclusively in GG about working very closely with the extraordinary icon over a ten-year period for the new book “Arnold.”
It all began in 2012 with an email from Benedikt Taschen, founder of the publishing house TASCHEN; also my boss. He asked me to meet him that same day in the roof garden of his Beverly Hills bookstore, keeping the reason a mystery. We arrived and sat down. He had a devilish look, so I knew a surprise was coming, and it quickly appeared: Arnold Schwarzenegger! The great man sat down next to me and Benedikt began to explain: He intended to publish a large coffee-table book on Arnold’s life and many careers. “At first, I was a bit surprised that he had chosen me to author the book, but not entirely, because Benedikt knew that I trained with weights, and had been doing so for 30 years. He didn’t realize, however, that it was Arnold who inspired my interest in bodybuilding. “In 1981, when I was working for OUI magazine, I proposed covering the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding contest, knowing that Arnold was promoting it. Back in 1977, when his movie “Pumping Iron” came out, everyone was suddenly interested in muscles and fitness. Men were emulating Arnold, and women were intrigued by Arnold. I remember pushing my way through the crowd to get a photograph with him. He was obliging, if not eager, but still radiated charisma and gave me a smile. What struck me when standing so close was his flawless skin, the most beautiful skin I have ever seen on a man. I would be turning 30 in less than a month, and if this was what weight training did for you … I joined New York’s first women’s bodybuilding gym when I returned home – and I’ve been training ever since. “Over the following years, I watched Arnold’s film career take off; I saw “Conan the Barbarian” and the Terminator films like everyone else, but for me personally, Arnold’s biggest impact was what he did for fitness. “As a young woman living in New York City, I’d often felt vulnerable, but as I built muscle I grew physically and psychologically confident. One night I heard two men walking behind me, apparently planning an attack, until one said, “Forget it! Look at her muscles. She’ll kick the sh*t out of us!” Arnold saved me by showing me how to save myself. In one of our early interviews for the book, he told me his goal had always been to create a world where there were more gyms than supermarkets, and he’s come pretty close. “It took longer to convince Hollywood than the public. In the beginning he was told, ‘Nobody cares about muscles anymore – that went out with John Wayne. Now men are defined by intellect and sensitivity.’ They couldn’t see past the muscles – and the heavy Austrian accent – to realize that Arnold also had the intellect.“But back to the meeting on the roof. The decision was made to do the book, starting in a year, because Arnold was writing his autobiography. I didn’t want to wait a year, though, so I started researching images as soon as I returned to my office and collecting all the magazines that ever featured Arnold Schwarzenegger. Eleven months later, he agreed to meet at his house for our first interview. “An assistant ushered me in, telling me straight away that Arnold didn’t have much time, just a couple of hours. But no sooner had Arnold made his entrance than he began telling stories. He’s a brilliant storyteller, a brilliant performer, acting everything out, complete with sound effects, and always jokes. His assistants kept cutting in, looking at their watches, saying, ‘Arnold, Arnold, we have to go.’ He waved them away – ‘Not yet’ – and kept going. When I finally got up to leave, I saw we had been talking for five hours. “Over our ten years working together, Arnold told of his triumphs in detail, and revealed his troubled childhood more slowly. In the Netflix documentary he shared these painful memories with the world. He talked about being the second son, born at the end of World War II when no one in Austria could afford a second son, and growing up in a village where everyone seemed defeated, hopeless. He said he never fit in, always wanted a bigger life. His elder brother was his father’s favorite, and the little money the family put aside bought a new toy for his brother at Christmas, while Arnold received the broken toy from the year before. They had no running water in the house, and had to haul it for their weekly bath, filling the tub in the middle of the kitchen. Everyone bathed in the same water: first the mother, then the father, then the older brother and finally, Arnold. “Today, Arnold speaks openly about the fact that his father often came home drunk and was a very hard man to please, and that his parents never attended his bodybuilding contests. He talks less about his mother, but she was the one who held the family together. In the difficult post-war years, she went from farm to farm begging for food to feed her children. Arnold’s mother was a pillar of strength in his life, an inspiration for his strength. We think of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a hyper-masculine figure, but throughout his life, he has surrounded himself with strong women. In an early magazine interview, he said: ‘The woman who is a ten for me might be a five for another man’, adding by way of explanation, ‘because what attracts me most is a woman’s intelligence and what I can learn from her. Her appearance is secondary.’ “He proved this as governor, when he appointed more women to his cabinet than any California governor before him. He hired women with personalities as strong as his own, especially those who could joke and banter while doing their jobs. As an example, he surprised everyone by hiring Susan Kennedy (no relation to his wife, Maria) as chief of staff. She was a tough lesbian Democrat intimidating to most men in the state capitol, but Arnold governed with her side by side, treating her as his equal. Though they belonged to opposite political parties Arnold won her respect and she won his, because they fought together to tackle the state’s problems. Plus, she smoked cigars with him; always important! “His ex-wife Maria was a strong woman, and Heather Milligan, his partner of many years now, is strong too. A physical therapist who runs a successful clinic, she’s supportive but independent, a complete woman and not a Hollywood trophy.“This background helped Arnold and me became friends very quickly. We laughed and joked through that first long interview at his house, and after our second interview, he said: ‘Dian, you don’t have to just come over here for interviews, you can come over just to hang out.’ That was the greatest compliment imaginable.“And I suppose the second greatest compliment came when we presented these fabulous new TASCHEN books to an audience of 1,000 in the Geffen Theater – the biggest, grandest, most beautiful theater in Los Angeles – at the Academy of Motion Pictures Museum. Just before we went onstage, Arnold said: ‘I haven’t prepared for this at all. You know me better than anyone, better than I know myself. I can talk, and you just lead me where you want me to go.’ Heather, who was sitting next to him, laughed, and said: ‘Arnold is never happier than when a group of women is leading him.’ All the performance fears melted away. We went onstage and talked and joked just like we did in his home and instead of seeing a stiff interview the audience took part in something warm and personal.“And Arnold was right that I know him. Over the years I’ve become an Arnold scholar, reading all his interviews, going back to the beginning in 1967. As any editor knows, there are books where, as you get to know your subject better and better, you end up liking them less and less. With the “Arnold” project it was exactly the opposite. The more I learned about Arnold, the more I appreciated who he is, and what he’s done. “His most endearing qualities are his openness, self-knowledge and self-reflection. He’s not afraid to look at any part of himself, though he says he’s not too happy looking at his abdominal muscles at age 76. Something I understand at 71. Arnold’s greatest vulnerability is physical: the congenital heart defect that is his Achilles’ heel. So far, he has had open heart surgery three times: in 1997, 2018 and 2020 to replace faulty heart valves. So many want to believe it comes from taking steroids as a bodybuilder, but the same heart defect killed his grandmother and his mother. Tragically, after his first surgery Arnold tried to convince his mother to have surgery too, but she refused and died just a year later. The knowledge that he will have to undergo further surgeries, because these heart valves must be replaced every ten years, helps keep him in touch with his mortality, and reminds him to enjoy every minute of life. “Arnold is good at enjoying life, too. He says he’s always filled with joy, but admitted that when he first came to America he thought only of himself and achieving his goals. This changed around the time he turned 30, when he started using his strength to help those who were weaker. He was invited to the University of Wisconsin after making “Pumping Iron” to teach weight training to intellectually challenged people, to see if it helped their health and confidence. He said at the end of the day he experienced a feeling he had never had before, an unfamiliar joy – the joy of helping others. He started working with the Special Olympics, and in 1990 his friend and president, George Bush, Sr., appointed him Chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In the book, there’s a photo of him at a prison coaching convicts in weight training: He’d heard committed weight trainers had better prison records and wanted to help there too.