Leni Riefenstahl and Glenn Morris during decathlon competition. (National Archives. NA-242-HD-245-1.) 


In this excerpt from Olympic Affair, the August 1 opening cerermonies of the 1936 Summer Games are a few days away. The American athletes have been in Berlin for nearly a week, and the affair between American decathlon man Glenn Morris -- from tiny Simla, Colorado, and a former football star and student body president at what now is Colorado State University -- and German actress/fimmaker Leni Riefenstahl already has started. While uneasy, Morris has bought Leni's explanation that she is an unaligned artist, not a Nazi, even as she films chilling documentaries about the Nazi party congresses at Nuremberg. (He will be bitter about his naivete later.) In this passage, Morris joins other athletes in a final night on the town before the Games begin.






Aren't You Thomas Wolfe?


About thirty Americans -- half of them trackmen -- were among the athletes on the two buses. The German guides meeting them at the stop near the Brandenburg Gate emphasized in several languages -- Spanish, English and Japanese -- that buses would load up and leave from this spot at 23:00, 24:00, and 01:00.


"The ones unfortunate enough to miss the buses will be on their own to get back to the Village," one guide warned in English.


"You mean the ones lucky enough!" an Australian runner said jauntily. "Lucky enough to have found an hospitable fraulein!"

"You're dreaming," another Aussie said. "If you miss the last bus, you'll be passed out in the gutter."


Glenn loved hearing the Aussies' banter at the Village. In fact, even when they were talking about the mundane, just passing the word about a team meeting time, they could sound like they were teasing each other.


The Olympians went several directions, and the Japanese took off together. Most of the Americans, plus a few Australians and Spaniards, followed Jack Torrance, trusting him because he claimed the Germans working out at the Village track had recommended a spot, at least as a starting point.


The Essen Haus turned out to be a giant hall with long tables. The German customers spotted them, but other than the raising of steins in their direction for welcoming gestures, left them alone at first. None of the German men were in uniform, though, which surprised Glenn. Up to this point, it had seemed as if half the men in the country wore uniforms. Gradually a handful of men -- all in their twenties, it seemed -- wandered over. One of them just started talking to Torrance, as familiarly as if this was a corner bar in Denver and everyone knew each other. Or as familiarly as it could be when half the conversation was in a second language. Because of the noise, only those closest to Torrance could hear, but Glenn was part of it.


"Americans, correct?"


"Most of us," Torrance said. He gestured up and down the table. "Australian and Spanish, too."


"Welcome," the German spokesman said. He raised his glass, and his German friends did the same. Glenn reached out and tapped a few of the Germans' steins and glasses. Smiles all around.


Another German, skinny with floppy light brown hair parted in the middle, materialized at Glenn's side. Glenn was starting his second beer, and had just told himself he would stop there.



"What do you think of our country?"


"So far, it's very impressive," said Glenn. "Everybody seems nice."


The German smiled. "Not what you expected?"


"I wouldn't say that."


"There are a lot of lies being told about us," the German said.


An Aussie broke in. He wasn't challenging, asking it almost breezily.


"Like what?"


"Like . . ."


The German stopped.


The Aussie asked, "You mean like . . . how you treat your Jews?"


The German waved his hand. "I'm sorry to have raised this. There is no need to talk about such serious matters. These Games should be about friendship . . . between your nations and ours."


Before long, the Aussies announced they liked the Essen Haus just fine, so there was no need for them to move on to another tavern. The American trackmen, Glenn included, decided to walk back to the Unter den Linden and wander a bit before picking out a spot for another round . . . or a nightcap.


As they made it clear they were about to head out, the German who had mentioned "lies" approached again and leaned in close to Glenn. Now Glenn noticed that he seemed to be on his own, not with the other Germans.


"You fellows misunderstood," the man said.


Glenn peered at him quizzically.


The German continued, "The lie is that by now, we are all Nazis. We are not. And even many who have joined the party for reasons of pragmatism do not advance the party principles."


"I think most of us know that," Glenn said.


"Do you? Then tell your journalists to stop saying ‘Hitler's Germany' or ‘Nazi Germany.' It still is the Fatherland. Deutschland. Germany. There are many of us who love our country, but are not Nazis. Remember that during the Games."


Glenn smiled. "I'll try to."


The German said earnestly, "No, I am serious! During all the salutes of Hitler, please remember that. Some Germans are doing what they have to do, not out of enthusiasm, but necessity and duty. It is no different than if you were a member of your President Roosevelt's opposition party, acknowledging he is your head of state. I've read that many in America believe his policies are against your nation's traditions."


"That's true," Glenn said. "They're called . . . Republicans."


"It's much the same here."


"But Americans can openly disagree. Can you?" Glenn challenged.


The German leaned even closer. "No. We can't," he said conspiratorially.


Then he backed off and reached out. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Morris. Good luck in the Games."


Suddenly, he was walking away.


"Hey!" Glenn called out. The German gave a half-wave over his shoulder. 


Glenn had wanted to ask how the German knew his name, but then he suddenly realized his face had been all over-or, if that wasn't the reason for the recognition, someone else could have disclosed his identity. At least that's what he thought until they were on the street, and hurdler Forrest Towns caught up with Glenn.


"Wow, Long sure looked like he was telling you something important," Towns said.




Glenn was thinking he meant another American, and he didn't know of a team member named Long.


"The German you were talking with," Towns said. "You don't know who that was?"


"No," Glenn admitted.


"Geez, I thought you knew . . . That's Luz Long. The German. Only man in the world who might be able to beat Jesse Owens."


Glenn was genuinely confused. "In what?"


"Broad jump," Towns said. "If Jesse gets too tired because he's doing everything else, too, that guy'll beat him!"


Glenn's first instinct was to pass along what Long had said, but then quickly realized that would be betrayal. He was reminded by that, too, when they were back on the Unter den Linden, draped with the huge swastika banners hanging on long poles from the front of the buildings amid moving spotlights. Then Walter Wood, in charge of picking a second spot, called out, "Next stop, Café Wilhelm!"


The spacious café and bar was sedate, at least compared to the beer hall.


The Americans settled at several tables, near the back. Glenn was with Wood, Torrance, and Towns. Soon, they noticed a huge man loudly speaking English at a nearby table. His back was to the athletes and he hadn't noticed them. He wasn't as big as Torrance, but even seated, he appeared to be strikingly tall and burly. His companion, facing them, was a smartly dressed blonde young woman who, judging from her accented attempts to respond during his rants, was German. The man was drunk, that much Glenn could tell. He also seemed familiar. Turning slightly, he looked up at the waiter and announced, "Your country is magical! If there weren't a Germany, someone would have to invent one! If your publishers were just a little more honest in accounting for royalties, it would be perfect!"




After the waiter left, Glenn walked over to the American's table. "Excuse me . . ."


The man looked up.




"Aren't you Thomas Wolfe?"


"Now why in the hell would you confuse me with that fat hack?" Noting Glenn's embarrassment, the man laughed and added, "Of course I am."


"I'm a fan," Glenn said.


"Of course you are."


Wolfe didn't seem interested, so Glenn began to back away. "Just wanted to say . . ."


The writer turned. "You want an autograph." It was a statement, not a question.


"That's all right. You're busy."


"Oh, don't mind me," Wolfe said. "Just been a long day, getting here and right away meeting with Ambassador Dodd -- I must have signed a book for everyone in the embassy -- and doing the interview with the newspaper in my suite. And now Thea here" -- he gestured at the woman -- "has gotten me very drunk on this exquisite Pfalzer wine."


Wolfe had turned slightly to keep Glenn in his sight, so he caught sight of the other Americans at the back tables. "You boys all Americans?"


"Mostly," Glenn said.


"Well, I'll be damned . . . you're our athletes!"


Glenn grinned self-consciously. "Right."


"Well, how come you're not in bed? Or drinking milk somewhere? Or putting yourself to sleep by reading Sinclair Lewis?" He laughed at his own jokes and gestured at one of the extra chairs. "Sit down!" he roared.


"Just for a minute," Glenn said. He introduced himself. Wolfe's handshake was firm. He seemed genuinely pleased when Glenn told him he had started Of Time and the River on the SS Manhattan, was making steady progress and was enjoying it. Glenn thought about asking, but didn't, if Wolfe was offended if readers skipped some of his painstaking description and philosophical rants to get on with the story. After doing that some in Look Homeward, Angel, Glenn was doing more in Of Time and the River.


"Enjoying it is good," Wolfe said. "But are you appreciating it? Appreciation is the lifeblood of an author."


Glenn couldn't resist. "I thought it was selling books," he said. "Lots and lots of books. Which you seem to do."


Wolfe chortled. "That, too." After a pause, he asked, "What sport are you in?"


Thea leaned forward and told Wolfe, "He is your decathlon man."


To Thea, Wolfe said, "How do you know who he is?"


"His picture was on front pages this week," she told the author, and then smiled at Glenn. "Berliner Tageblatt," she explained. Offering her hand, she added, "I am Thea Voelcker."




Wolfe told Glenn, "Thea is the newspaper artist. Drew my picture, and I am sure it is wonderful, for the story that is in soon and will send my German edition sales soaring even higher! For that, she has earned the right to shortly return to my suite."


Thea shrugged. Glenn wasn't sure if that was confirmation or denial.


"Did you come for the Olympics?" Glenn asked.


"Two birds, one stone," Wolfe said. "I was here a year ago and loved it. I was going to come over sometime for promotion and to check on whether I'm being robbed, and we agreed this would be a good time, with all the journalists and other influential folks here. I'll be meeting with some of them. Plus, I'm working on six books and I decided a break would do me good."




Wolfe shrugged. "Give or take."


Glenn asked, "You going to any events?"


"Dodd said I could use his box whenever I wanted. Said I could look behind me and see Hitler." He paused. "So let me ask you, since you have shown yourself to be a man of fine judgment and terrific literary tastes . . . how do you like Berlin so far?"


"What we've seen is great," Glenn said carefully. "The stadium is stupendous, and, well . . ." He made a sweeping gesture that might have described the café . . . or all of Berlin. "Who wouldn't be impressed with all of this?"


"New York has its charms," Wolfe said, "but it's filthy compared to this. This is so wonderfully cool and clean after New York! Did you see the cobblestones on the street? They look like they're scrubbed two hours a day! And now, the energy!"


Glenn nodded. "But our Village is way to the west, so we really have to work to get in here." He thought of Leni and his earlier visits: If he only knew. "And I'm pretty sure it's going to be the Village and the stadium only for us from here on out . . . at least until we're done with our events."


Wolfe asked Glenn when he was competing. Glenn told him, while being fairly certain the novelist wouldn't remember the days.


"I'll leave you alone," Glenn added. "I just wanted to say hello."


 Ten minutes later, as the Americans were ordering what they promised each other would be their final round, including a beer Glenn would only sip, Wolfe and Thea passed by, heading out. Glenn had briefed his teammates about both the author and his companion.


"Win lots of gold, gentlemen!" Wolfe bellowed.


Thea, strikingly tall herself, looked over her shoulder, and it seemed to Glenn that she was trying to make it clear she was just putting up with him to his door -- and not beyond.


"That dame is gorgeous," Torrance said, voicing the obvious. "And she even looks smart. So . . . what's she doing with that jerk?"


Towns reacted in mock horror. "Wait," he announced to Torrance, "you are belittling a true Southern gentleman of arts and letters, one of the finest craftsmen in the history of American Literature, a titan of the written word!"


Torrance gave him a withering look.


Towns laughed and added, "Our Modern American Literature professor called him all that, and I was brought up to believe that if an LSU professor says it, it must be true. So I just went along with that and I got a ‘B.'"


"I'm glad I didn't take that class," said Torrance, the fellow LSU grad.


"The guy's still a jerk."


Glenn cut in. "Now we'll be in his next book," he said. "He writes about his own life, you know. Just changes the names of the people and places. Instead of ‘Baby Elephant,' you'll be ‘Moose' or something like that."


"Just so I win the gold," Torrance said with mock solemnity.


They caught the midnight bus back. That's why you don't drink. Much.


Glenn berated himself for trying to keep pace with the boys-at least until the last round. He wasn't drunk; he just felt light-headed and on the verge of nausea.


In the room, Glenn grabbed Of Time and the River, hoping to make it through another fifty pages. He tried to picture the huge man from the café, no longer just the man whose picture was on the book cover, at a typewriter, writing the words on the pages in front of him.


After about twenty pages, he caught himself nodding, and gave up.


As he went to bed, he told the picture on the desk: Night, Karen.


As he closed his eyes, he wondered: What did Leni do tonight?


Read Chapter One of Olympic Affair 


Olympic Affair page on this site