All right, how's this for a new TV series? A family of clean-living, close-cropped, superathletic beautiful people living in Southern California, in contrast to all those degraded hippies and degenerate Hollywood types. Dad was All-America in college—basketball and soccer, let's say—and then played pro ball (get this) while earning a medical degree in pediatrics. Mom is a former Miss America who was also a swimming star and a Broadway show girl, a blonde version of Esther Williams, you know, with that swish-swish backstroke style and that haughty but healthy bod. Mr. and Mrs. All-America. And they have these four groovy kids, two boys and two girls, all of them ultra bright students and kiddie superstars in any sport they try. The kids have those kookie-cutesie names—Kiki and Tauna and Heather and Br√ºk—and because their daddy, the doc, thinks America's teachers have gone soft on physical education, he sets up his own private school and day camp, and he concocts his own supervitamins for young athletes and is even writing a medical manual for juvenile sports—a sort of Spock for the jock. Then this hippie moves into their backyard....
Well, here the plot breaks down, for there is no hippie in the backyard of the Vandeweghe home at 275 Bentley Circle, Bel Air, Calif. Just a long-haired Irish setter named Sidney, a flower child only in that he eats the gardenias whenever he's left alone. In every other astonishing particular, though, the scene is as described above. Not that any Vandeweghe (which rhymes with Mandalay) would have the time to star on a TV series. They're all far too busy.
Dr. Ernest Maurice Vandeweghe Jr., formerly of Colgate and the New York Knickerbockers, spends 11 hours a day with his pediatric practice at the Prairie Avenue Medical Group, in which he became a partner eight years ago, near the Los Angeles International Airport. Ernie devotes the rest of his time to education (the Carl Curtis School, which he bought for his kids in 1964), day camping (All American Village in the canyons above Beverly Hills, which he founded in 1962, along with Jerry West, Don Drysdale and Les Richter), skiing (at Mammoth Peak, where he owns a large chalet) and sundry other sports, ranging from golf through water polo (at the Eldorado Country Club in Palm Desert, where he owns a modest $60,000 "cottage" just down the fairway from the one Dwight Eisenhower occupied).
At 40, Ernie is a brisk and bouncy 6'3½" by 204 pounds, with salt-and-pep-per hair topping a face frizzled in laugh wrinkles. Despite a torn cartilage in his left knee, which knocked him out of basketball in 1954 after five seasons with the Knicks, Ernie still has enough jump to harass a jackrabbit from horseback on the High Desert, drive a golf ball 300 yards, whip his eldest son at tennis (no mean feat, as you will see) or spike a volleyball down the throat of any contending teen-ager. Naturally, Ernie can still swish a basket from 30 feet with disgusting ease—and only a few years ago, while serving as medical consultant to the L.A. Lakers, whipped Rudy LaRusso (ex-Dartmouth) for the "Ivy League Championship of Los Angeles" in a casual shooting match. So much for dad.
May 25, 1969
Mom is Colleen Kay Hutchins Vandeweghe, 41, who was Miss America in 1952 before undertaking a short-lived acting career (Almanac on Broadway with Hermione Gingold, Boston Blackie on the tube with Dick Kollmar). Colleen's major publicity during her "Miss A" year centered on her height (she stands 6'2" in her four-inch heels) and her intellectual prowess in a field that previously demanded none (she was studying for a master's in dramatics at the University of Utah at the time of her coronation). Of course, there were a few news hens who had to be catty about Colleen. Judith Crist, then a women's page reporter for the late New York Herald Tribune, wrote thusly: "Miss America of 1952, the nation's newest, biggest and oldest beauty queen to date, breakfasted with reporters at the Waldorf-Astoria yesterday and, in the true tradition, discussed men, marriage and her future—and wore a sweater." Colleen, who admitted to being (in Crist's phrase) "unmarried at the venerable age of 25," was already dating Ernie Vandeweghe, whom she'd met through her brother, Mel Hutchins of the Fort Wayne Pistons. They were married in 1953, and there went Colleen's acting career. She more than compensates by being an exemplary mother to four extraordinary kids. "I'm the activist," says Ernie, "and Colleen's the teacher. That's the way it should be with dads and moms." Colleen frankly admits that she prefers the tennis court to the kitchen but when in the mood can outcook the Henny Penny Chicken Parlor or garden with the greenest of thumbs (hers are longer than the thumbs of most men). A fervent Mormon and a bit of a mystic, she reads in the occult and practices the power of positive thinking. "You've got to have a commitment," she says. "Mine lies with my children.'
First among them is Kiki—actually Ernest Maurice Vandeweghe III, a name any self-respecting 10-year-old would abhor (shades of the prissy sissies the Katzenjammer Kids used to bug in the funny papers). Kiki got his nickname in Germany, where his dad served for 3½ years in the Air Force as a medical officer and basketball coach near Wiesbaden. The name comes from the German kikilo, meaning cockscomb according to Colleen, and derives from infant Ernest's Afro hairdo during the days of his babyhood. Today Kiki would have nothing to do with anything Afro: watching the Mexico City Olympics last summer, he vowed that when (not if) he wins his gold medal he'll raise a white-gloved fist in challenge to Tommy Smith and John Carlos.
When (not if) Kiki wins his gold medal, it will be in swimming. It might have been in almost any other sport, but a year ago he sat down with his dad and they went over his talents, one by one by one by one, etc., and decided that he was farther ahead of his age group in his ability to "move water" than in anything else. In opting for swimming, Kiki chose perhaps the toughest of disciplines: long hours of arm-heavy laps in the practice pool, where the only view is a shadowy blue blur that may be another swimmer or one's own imagination; the greedy slap and gurgle of arms (reach, grab, recover, reach, as the late Matt Mann rationalized it); the ring around the eyeballs, endemic to the competitive swimmer, caused by chlorine, which makes the whole wide world glow with halos on the way home from practice. Kiki responds well to the discipline—better, in fact, than any other 10-year-old. During a Southern Pacific AAU meet he swam a 57.5-second race in the 100-yard freestyle at Cal State in Long Beach. He had broken the existing record earlier in the year with a 58.8, only to see it lowered by Scott Spann of Greenville, N.C. to 58.2. Kiki stands 5'4" tall, weighs 110 pounds and is growing in size and strength every day.
After Kiki comes Tauna, 9, named for the Taunus Mountains of West Germany, and No. 1 daughter in the Vandeweghe household, not only by virtue of age but by competitiveness. Indeed, Tauna may be the No. 1 Vandeweghe on that score. "She's something else," says Colleen. "After a swim meet she goes around and checks all the times—I mean all of them. 'Oh, I beat you by four seconds,' she tells one child. 'Two seconds for you,' to another. She's really something else." Beyond that, Tauna is as nubile a nymphet as you'll meet this side of Humbert's fancy. All blue eyes and sun-streaked hair, she is graced with legs as shapely as her mother's (her father's are crisscrossed with old soccer and basketball scars) and can charm any man in her presence—including Actor Randolph Scott, who has a nearby cottage at Eldorado. "It's interesting to see what kids want to be when they grow up," muses Ernie from beneath his pediatrician's hat. "Three of the kids want to be doctors, and one wants to be a movie star. Guess who?" Tauna, of course.
Then comes Heather, 7, a happy and husky little chick who demonstrates the independence common to third children. An ardent tree climber, bike rider, feeder of birds and catfish (the water hazards at Eldorado swarm with them), she much prefers to sleep in an old T shirt than in a nightgown. She's also an accomplished grapefruit snatcher. Eldorado is built on an ancient grapefruit orchard, and every morning the kids are sent out with golf clubs and baskets to harvest the day's breakfast. With her daddy's five-iron and a bit of a leap, Heather can snag sun-ripened grapefruit the way Bill Russell pulls down rebounds, catching them as they drop. They call her Heather-Feather, and she floats on the currents of the intrafamilial competition just as lightly as a tuft of goose down. In common with all of the Vandeweghe kids, she rides like an Indian, shoots a hard, straight game of golf and can hold her own with any of her peers on the tennis court. In the Cal State meet she won the 50-yard backstroke for 7- and 8-year-olds.
Lastly comes Br√ºk, 5, whose name is pronounced "Brook" but quickly mutates into Brooksie or Boogie. He's a remarkably well-adjusted last child in a family with such highly developed competitive skills. "Brooksie knows he can't beat any of the other kids just yet," says Ernie, "so he simply works hard at acquiring the skills and bides his time. He knows they can't keep growing forever and that he'll catch up." During a recent "breakfast ride" out of Smoketree Stables near Palm Springs, Brooksie showed the stuff of future victories. He'd drawn a mean-tempered horse that seemed to be practicing for the Calgary Stampede. It snorted, stamped, bared its choppers and sun-fished all over the desert. With the stirrups barely reaching the cinch buckle, the boy rode out the upheaval without once reaching for the saddle horn. "You know what?" he said later. "From now on this horse is a no-no."
All the children show an amazing fortitude, an absence of tears that any parent would be delighted to see in his own children. During another desert ride, Br√ºk's horse kicked out at Tauna's (Br√ºk seems to be bronco prone). The hoof caught her square on the shin. The girl winced and tightened her lips, and although tears came to her eyes she didn't let them run and she didn't complain. "We have a rule in the family," Ernie explains. "You can cry but you have to do it in your own room." When Kiki's 100-yard freestyle record was broken, he didn't sit around the house in a sullen pet. In fact, he didn't even practice much harder. He simply sharpened up his sprinting and waited for the next meet—then won his record back.
All the kids are members of the Santa Monica Swim Club and work out for an hour each night at the Santa Monica Junior College pool. Despite Southern California's fabled sun, it can get mighty bleak and chilly in an outdoor pool during the winter dusk. The kids, along with some 65 others, swim under the guidance of UCLA Coach Bob Horn and his hard-driving assistant, Buz Thayer. After warmup laps in all four strokes (back, breast, butterfly and free), the kids swim their specialty in four 400-yard sprints, completing each in six- or seven-minute intervals, tumbling every turn and taking a tongue-lashing if they "dog it." ("You're dogging it," snaps Thayer. "Take another.") Actually there is very little goldbricking. Most of the youngsters know whom they have to beat to make the A team—or stay ahead of to remain on it—and each 400 turns into a kaleidoscope of personal duels. After practice the young Vandeweghes pile into Colleen's aging Mercedes convertible, pull their knit caps down over their ears and shiver their way home. Dinner can be freaky, what with the appetites stirred up by a few miles of swimming. Kiki has the family's farthest-out taste: often he wolfs down a dozen pancakes covered with chili sauce or a few lashings of Southern fried chicken smeared with honey.
Everyone in the family consumes three of Ernie's own Manna-Vita pills each day. "They contain every known vitamin and mineral beneficial to health, growth and alertness," says he with a pitchman's verve. "I got the idea for them while I was in the Air Force at St. Anton in the Austrian Alps. Our ski instructor was a little guy, only 5'9", and his wife barely made it to 5'. I gave their baby boy a combination of vitamins, and in three years he was twice the size of any kid in the village. Of course, in the States everyone gives vitamins to their infants, but how many teen-agers take them? They take other kinds of pills, but actually a kid is laying on more tissue and muscle during his teens than a baby, and what's more it will be with him longer."
Of course, Ernie views vitamins only as a supplement to what's already there. "Genes play an important role, certainly, but it's really exposure that counts in turning a child into a top athlete," he says. "With our size, Colleen and I make up quite a gene pool, but without exposure to games our kids could have turned out to be average—if outsized—competitors." A firm believer in early training ("Kids are the best learners there are, and the older they get, the longer it takes to teach them"), Colleen had all the children swimming by the age of 3, swinging golf clubs, tennis rackets and baseball bats by 4, skiing, bike and horseback riding, playing basketball and football ever since they were 5. One incident Ernie relishes concerns a young boy who came to his medical office one day with a sprained ankle. "How'd he get it? Playing grade-school football. Well, his team would have to do without him. 'That's all right,' the kid said. 'We've still got our best receiver healthy, and she'll catch all the passes anyway.' She? 'Yeah, Tauna Vandeweghe!' " Ernie hadn't recognized the boy as a student at his own school and a teammate of his own daughter. "She can really play football," he says.
Eye-to-hand coordination is another important factor—and a talent that Ernie believes is best developed by continuous play. Kiki is a fine example. His tennis game is flat, hard and swift, replete with the incipient power of a Graebner and the range of an Ashe. "The only guy with faster reactions than Kiki is me," grins Ernie. And even at that, Kiki slams many a ball past his dad on the Eldorado courts. That's going some, since Ernie was once described as having the fastest hands in basketball ("That's how I caught Colleen"). At the Carl Curtis School in Beverly Hills, where Kiki is now a fifth-grader, the boy learned a popular game called Chinese handball. It differs from the regular game in that the ball—eight inches in diameter—must be slammed on the ground before it hits the wall. Ernie watched Kiki playing it when he was 7 and realized his son was a superb Chinese handballer. With a touch of paternal poison in his eye, he challenged Darrall Imhoff, then playing with the L.A. Lakers, to a test: "Is there any kid that can beat you at any game involving a ball? 'Hell, no,' said Darrall. Well, I took him around to the school, and Kiki whipped him at Chinese handball. They played for two hours, and Darrall never won a game. Kiki took it all in stride—he knows he's good at what he practices."
There are, however, a few things Kiki hasn't practiced. Last year, for example, Kiki seemed a bit unhappy about school. It wasn't his studies (he is running a B+ average) but—shockingly enough—phys. ed. It seems that Kiki had not been doing very well in boxing. In fact, another boy in the gym class had been knocking him silly every day, and Kiki didn't want any more of it. "I took him aside and started teaching him how to box," Ernie recounts. "He told me, 'Dad, I know how to hit all right but I just don't like getting hit.' Well, I told him, then duck and weave and make like Muhammad Ali. 'Our coach doesn't let us,' Keeks said. See, he'd misunderstood what it was all about, and the poor kid was just standing there, letting this other kid clobber him, not moving his head when he saw the punches coming. He cleared it all up the next gym class and gave back a lot of what he'd been getting. Now they don't let anybody box him anymore."
Kiki's talents—and probably those of all the other Vandeweghe children—are still untapped in many areas. Two years ago, as an infielder with his local Little League team, the Rustic Canyon Dodgers, Kiki showed a strong arm, and his coach put him in to pitch during the last half of the season. The boy ran up a 4-0 mark, and his team won the six-team league's "World Series." Tauna saw a unicyclist at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus one night and decided she had to have a one-wheeler. After all, everybody can ride on two. Ernie's mother, who is known in the family as "The Paranoid Purchaser," bought a unicycle, and in three weeks Tauna was cavorting around the Eldorado swimming pool like the shades of Hackaliah Bailey's original circus. The pedals are slightly bent from many falls, and Tauna's knees wore scabs for a while, but she kept at it and won. "None of the rest of us can do it," Colleen says with her ingenue's voice. Then again, they haven't tried. "Give her credit," says Mommy. "She persevered."
If it seems that the Vandeweghe family is all play and no brainwork, then the imbalance is the fault of the writer's emphasis. Indeed, Ernie, Colleen and Co. are as well rounded as—or more so than—the next upper-middle-class family. Colleen's acting experience was not just showmanship. She has a keen interest in arts and letters. For years she held season tickets for the family to the Pasadena Playhouse, where she had studied; the family regularly attends the L.A. Philharmonic and pop concerts at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles' sprawling Civic Center. Colleen is an avid reader (currently: Cheever's Bullet Park), and Kiki is a promising painter (he and his best buddy, Actor Robert Stack's son Charlie, study oils under Portraitist Andrea Day). The girls study modern dance, and even Kiki can be forced into tux and black tie to perform at a local cotillion.
One comes away from a visit to the Vandeweghes with a feeling of awe and—quite frankly—a tinge of angry envy. How can people be this good? Well, nothing can be done about the genes, and one has to grant that Ernie and Colleen got very, very lucky on that score when they fell in love. Another advantage quite beyond anyone's control is that Ernie is the scion of a very wealthy family. His father, who once starred at Colgate in soccer, held the exclusive chemical formula for tanning chinchilla and held it fiercely for the better part of a decade. The Vandeweghes are originally a Belgian furrier family, and Ernest Maurice Vandeweghe Sr. turned fur into a fortune. He also directed his sons (Ernie's younger brother, Gary, is a former All-Ivy basketball star at Dartmouth who practices law in San Jose, Calif.) into sports with a steadfast eye to the virtues of competition. "My dad is a golf nut," says Ernie. "He's always got a putter in his hand. He once golfed his way around the world. He lives for the game, and I'm thankful that he taught us what he did but even more thankful that we're broader in our interests. It all builds and builds and finally it all gets broader and better."
Keep that in mind, and maybe your son will beat Kiki's record or your daughter will upstage Tauna. And remember, eat your vitamins.