Some people are so narrow-minded that they have to stack their thoughts vertically," the large man says. "They can see through a keyhole with both eyes." And with that, this man who has a mind as broad as all outdoors—and a body to match—accepts an invitation to sing in the tiny Greenwich Village restaurant where he is dining. Understand, this is no piano-bar drunk getting up to do I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
Erland van Lidth de Jeude has an operatic bass-baritone voice of impressive quality and promise. And when he stands, his hand resting lightly on the baby grand at Bianchi & Margherita—where the main fare is opera à la carte, sometimes served by the customers—he commands attention.
At 6'6" and 400 pounds, Erland, 25, does turn heads; he can also do pretty much what he wants. Which explains why he recently unabashedly walked up to a fellow puffing away on a New York subway under a sign prohibiting smoking, snatched the cigarette from the man's mouth and snarled, "That NO SMOKING sign also applies to illiterates."
As Erland sings, the feeling comes not just from his heart but also from his soul. From deep in his soul. His audience of perhaps 75 people is enthralled—save the boorish table of eight back by the kitchen—as he sings Non pi‚Äö√†√∂≈ì√Ñ andrai from The Marriage of Figaro and Gremin's aria from Eugene Onegin. Afterward the cheers are long and loud, and he accepts them like a man who knows he deserves them.
October 21, 1979
Why not? The only thing bigger than Erland is his ego. That explains how he had the nerve to try out for crew when he first enrolled at MIT, even though he knew he could not possibly fit into a shell. "Erland assumes that he can do everything," says his 280-pound brother Philip, 27, who sings with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. "Sometimes that's very hard to live with."
Not for Erland. He is sure of quite a number of things. Among them: that he will be performing with the Metropolitan Opera in a few years; that he will become a movie star (currently he can be seen in The Wanderers, in which he plays the part of a Bronx gang leader named Terror. His best line: "If I had a dog with a face like yours, I'd shave its ass and teach it to walk backward"); and that he will someday own his own computer company. But of all his certainties, he is surest that he will be a member of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team next year.
Asked what he thinks of when he hears van Lidth de Jeude's name, national wrestling coach Stan Dziedzic says, "A 400-pound canary."
Erland's mother, Eveline, sits in the Ridgefield, Conn. family home, in a room containing two baby grand pianos and one upright piano, and calls her son's interest in wrestling "a strange devotion." Indeed, there are no trophies visible anywhere in the house because, Erland says, "First she'd have to tell her friends I was a wrestler, then she'd have to apologize for it."
As for Erland, does he think he can win a gold medal in Moscow?
A medal of any color?
"Ah, now that is quite possible."
In truth, it's an iffy proposition. Jim Peckham, athletic director at Emerson College and a veteran international coach, says, "Erland is so loaded with talent that he doesn't understand himself. He could make an Olympic team, but it would mean dropping everything else." Wil Chassey, Erland's wrestling coach at MIT, says, "He knows what he has to do. Now we'll just see if he wants to. He's good enough." One of Erland's rivals, 250-pound Greg Wojciechowski, says, "You can't count out anybody that big. Frankly, I go out in fear any time I wrestle against a guy over 300 pounds." And Dziedzic says of the canary's chances, "Sure, he's definitely a contender."
Others are not so kind. John Bowlsby, formerly of the University of Iowa and a premier performer in the unlimited class, sniffs, "He's not a very good wrestler, and he's always in such lousy physical condition. I'd say his chances of making the Olympic team are slim and none, and slim just left town."
There will be two unlimited spots on the U.S. team. One will be on the Greco-Roman squad—Erland's best chance—where Pete Lee and Wojciechowski clearly are the insiders. The other spot is on the freestyle team, which former Oklahoma State star Jimmy Jackson seemingly has wrapped up, although Bowlsby also has a chance. Lee and Jackson were on the 1976 Olympic team.
Erland's best moves are a double-arm salto and a headlock. When he loses, it is often because of stalling, a common occurrence among the heavies. As his mother says, "All it is two big bulls pushing each other around. Very seldom anything happens." Dziedzic cannot ascribe a unique style to van Lidth de Jeude. "He's certainly big enough," he says. "He just hasn't been able to motivate himself physically." Former U.S. Coast Guard Academy wrestler Jim Murray, who beat Erland in eight of nine encounters, says, "He might be too big."
Whatever. The fact is, Erland, who lives in an apartment in Brooklyn, has never won a national championship. The most important title he has ever held was the 1977 New England championships, in his senior year at MIT, when his record was 21-1. "A strange thing always happens to me in national competitions," Erland says. "I lose." However, he has sung the national anthem before many of his toughest meets, and after one such performance got a thunderous response. "It wasn't just because they thought the song had merit," says Erland. "Really, it is much more fun to sing. It doesn't hurt." Snipes one critic, "Imagine if he could wrestle as well as he sings."
Erland's proudest wrestling moment came almost three years ago when he finished third in the Aryamehr Cup competition in Teheran, beating the Iranian national champ. "They loved me," says Erland. "Everywhere I went I caused a riot. Iran is sort of backward."
Why does van Lidth de Jeude persist in the face of his mediocrity?
"I've become hard core about wrestling," he says. "Besides, I kind of like being in the spotlight. But I wouldn't want to do anything if I didn't think I could be the best. And it wouldn't even be worth doing if it wasn't a challenge." He says he presses on because it recently occurred to him that "the top guys in the country weren't that much better than me, and I was improving." The possibility that the others may also be improving does not occur to Erland. The crux of the matter, of course, is that his size—he's still growing in one direction or another—automatically makes him a contender.
Beyond that, Erland appears to be taking this Olympic business seriously. He recently quit his $25,000-a-year job as a systems programmer with New York's Citibank; the bank refused to keep him on the payroll while he took time off for training, a legal way to subsidize prospective Olympic athletes. And he is starting to work out. The team for a pre-Olympic trip to Russia will be picked next month; Erland hopes to make it. Still, getting ready isn't his idea of a good time.
"The problem with training is that you can't do what's fun," he grouses. "Wrestling I enjoy. Training to wrestle I do not enjoy."
At the 1976 Olympic training camp, at which Erland was an alternate, Peckham became enraged. He identified van Lidth de Jeude as "a dumb slob, an irritating and arrogant S.O.B." And moments after that explosion, he turned to Erland and said, softly, "You know I'm right." Except Erland isn't dumb. If it were simply a case of mind over matter, he would always win; because it's not, he sometimes loses.
Erland was born in Holland where, long ago, the van Lidth de Jeudes had been allowed to claim the title of baron; all the branches of the family did, save Erland's. "Our side said, 'We are high-class enough without any title,' " says Erland. Apparently uppityness had been a family trait long before Erland came along. Later, though, a forebear figured a title would smooth his way around diplomatic circles and claimed the rank of Jonkheer, which is just below baron. And means? "Nothing," says Jonkheer Erland van Lidth de Jeude.
The van Lidth de Jeudes left Holland in 1958, when Erland was 3½ years old; they feared the Soviets might overwhelm Western Europe. His mother had spent four years in a prison camp when the Japanese overran the Dutch East Indies in World War II and was anxious to find a safe harbor. The U.S. was it, and eventually they found themselves in the lush, rolling countryside of Ridgefield, 54 miles northeast of New York City. "We were considered odd growing up," says Erland. "We had respect for our parents, and we liked school."
And always, of course, there was music. Great music. Erland was a soloist at several churches. One, in Melrose, Mass., fired him, however, when he fell asleep during the service.
Each day, his mother would send him off to school with the admonition, "Be smart." "So I was," says Erland. "I was brought up to be an overachiever." Sports were of interest "only because they were something to round you out." He played football but hated it. He never wrestled in high school. When it came time for college, he turned down an acceptance from Harvard to go to MIT. "A bachelor's from MIT is worth a master's from anywhere else," he says. His undergraduate degree is in computer science and electrical engineering.
Chassey recalls the day he looked off in the distance across the MIT campus and saw a mountain he had not seen before. "Then," he says, "it disappeared." He immediately gathered his team members and said, "Find him." They did, and Erland's wrestling career was thus launched—inauspiciously. As a freshman, his record was 9-9. Worse, he had no uniform. The largest football jersey that the New England Patriots had (a red one) was acquired; he wore basketball sneakers (one a size 16, the other a 15) instead of wrestling shoes. "I looked like a clown," says Erland. "I had to start winning so people wouldn't laugh." Ultimately, Chassey took home two size 44 MIT jerseys and had his wife sew them together to presumably make an 88. (Actually, Erland was only a 56).
During his last two years at MIT, Erland had a 40-6 record. One maneuver Chassey admits he was never able to teach him was to push himself back from the table. Is all the weight healthful? "Probably not," says Erland, "but it's effective." By Olympic time he intends to be at 350. "I'm overweight but not grossly overweight," he says. "There's a lot of bone in me. I'm a big fellow." Once criticized by Chassey for being in poor condition, Erland protested that his heartbeat was only 52. Normal people are around 72 and in-shape wrestlers are around 50. "I checked," says Chassey, "and it was. That says to me his condition is not as bad as it seems."
Erland's enthusiasm for wrestling grew when he found his schoolwork a snap. He went through a semester of calculus and analytic geometry in 18 days; over one summer, he read a three-volume work on physics, then spent the school term correcting his physics professor. Genius I.Q. starts at 140; Erland says his is 160. "But," he adds, "anything around 180 is unstable, so I'm well within the stable range." He doesn't think there's anything special about his brain power because "a lot of people are geniuses, at least 1% of the population."
Erland got into movies accidentally, because a producer was looking for a big man. When he found out the pay was $785 a week, plus overtime, his interest increased. Ultimately, for 15 days of work in The Wanderers, he got almost $7,000. In one scene, tiny Linda Manz hits him in the stomach. Before the shooting, she asked Erland, "How hard can I hit you?" "Whomp away," he said. Later, Erland lamented, "I didn't realize we'd do the scene 70 times. And then she said, 'Hey, my hand hurts.' " Erland laughs when he thinks that friends in Holland might see the R-rated film and ask, "How can a nobleman debase himself so?"
Recently, Erland noted a casting call for "unusual types" between the ages of 25 and 55 for a Woody Allen movie. Six thousand showed up; 200 were called back for a second look, Erland among them. "You're certainly unusual looking," one of the movie people told him. "You'll get something." He did, as a bit player. "A lot of people have the idea that bigger is better," Erland says. "It's the American mentality. But you have to have a sense of humor about your size. If you don't, you'll leave a trail of broken bodies behind." Naturally, Erland has always wished he were bigger, say at least 6'8", instead of 6'6".
But when you're so big, there's not really much you can do about it—right, Erland? "Sure there is. Don't sit on rickety chairs."
If wrestling is uppermost in his mind now, singing is closest to his heart. "There's no doubt that I am most happy when I am singing," he says, as he strolls down a Brooklyn street, singing along with an ice-cream truck.
His voice teacher, Ellen Rulau, says, "His only problem is that he sometimes puts other things first, like wrestling." Peckham, on the other hand, sneers at "this theater-and-singing thing. He has to wrestle." And Citibank has nixed the idea of coexistence between wrestling and working. Erland is clearly a man being pulled in many directions. He knows, for example, that he would improve his Olympic chances by moving to a wrestling hotbed like Iowa where he could work out with the best. He has a ready excuse. It's impossible, he says, because "my voice teacher is here."
For all his arrogance—albeit appealing arrogance—Erland is no snob. He loved seeing The Barber of Seville sung in English. He is not ashamed that one of the books on his shelf is Cheaper by the Dozen. He laughs when he tells of the time he fell asleep during an X-rated movie in New York's Times Square and awoke to find his pockets slit and all his money missing—except for one subway token. And music needn't be high-toned for Erland. In Greenwich Village, he'll occasionally do The Impossible Dream, and there is special feeling when he sings: "To try when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star!"
And should he reach that unreachable star, he'll be easy to recognize. He'll be the large man getting the gold medal, then singing the national anthem.