Once upon a time, in a farmhouse in France, a baby boy was born. "Such hands," his father said. "Perhaps he will be a man to match my father."
"But you have told me that your father was a giant," said his wife with a smile. "Was he truly as large as you say? A head above two meters, and 250 kilos?"
"All that and more," the father replied sternly. "I am the son of a giant. Why not the father of one as well?"
And so it came to pass that as the boy did the work, ate the food and breathed the air of rural France, he grew. And grew. And grew again, reaching a height of 6'3" and a weight of more than 200 pounds as he entered his 12th year. Even then he could do the work of a man. One day as he was raking hay beside his father, a friend of the farm's owner drove slowly past the field in a Rolls-Royce.
December 21, 1981
"I will own such a car as that someday," the tall boy said quietly as he paused to watch the elegant machine glide by.
"Stop dreaming and start raking," his father replied. "You are a big boy, but that dream is too big even for you."
Two more summers passed and the boy's body as well as his dreams continued to wax. Neither his clothes nor his circumstances seemed ever to fit. Finally, when he was 14, the farm and the village could contain him no longer, and he left his home and family to seek his fortune.
Five more years went by. Then, one afternoon, while his mother was in the kitchen preparing a quiche, she heard a knock. "Ce grand, who could it be?" she said to herself as she saw a large car out the window on her way to the door. "And me all covered with flour!" As she opened the door she beheld an enormous man, all hands and feet, smiling enormously. She stood there dumb struck.
"Is the man of the house at home?" the huge stranger inquired, at which point she rushed from the room, calling to her husband. Together they approached the doorway and the man who filled it.
"Yes, can I help you?" said the husband cautiously, looking up.
"May I ask how you like the car?" replied the giant. He stepped aside and with a slow sweep of his massive hand indicated a long, shining limousine. A Rolls-Royce.
"It is beautiful, but what has that to do with us?" the husband said suspiciously as the wife drew closer to him.
"Do you know who I am?" the stranger asked, still smiling down at them.
The wife hesitated, then said, "Have I not seen you on television? Are you not the famous wrestler, Jean Ferrè?"
"Yes, I have wrestled often on television," said the colossal stranger, continuing to smile.
Finally, the husband looked out again at the Rolls, peered up again into the stranger's deep-set, twinkling eyes, turned to his wife and exclaimed, "Do you not recognize your own son come home to you at last? Jean Ferrè is only a nom de guerre. This man is our son, Andre, grandson of my father."
Indeed, during the five years young Andre had been estranged from his parents, he had grown so large that even his mother and father failed at first, and even second, glance to recognize him, or to connect the giant they had seen on television with the gangly dreamer who had hied himself to Paris so long before.
What had happened after Andre left for the city was that because of his size and strength he had been hired by a furniture-moving firm. Impressed, the firm encouraged him to develop his already considerable skills as a rugby player. He recalls those days in Paris as his rite de passage, a time in which he not only passed into manhood but passed as a man. He laughs as he recalls buying drinks for a member of the gendarmerie when he was only 14 years old.
When he turned 17, he was seen training at a gym by several professional wrestlers. They were so taken by his size that they showed him some of their moves, and regaled him with tales of their travel and adventures. When one of them was injured soon after and a replacement was needed for a match, Andre was asked to perform. As might be expected, he was, shall we say, a huge success, and he realized he had found his calling. The Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire, has observed that the only education of much value is learning to understand one's true position in the world in such a way as to act on that understanding and improve the position. If Freire is correct, Andre graduated with highest honors that night in his short, preliminary bout.
In his first two years as a professional wrestler, Andre Roussimoff, a/k/a Jean Ferrè, did indeed grow—not only in stature but in wealth and worldliness. By his early 20s he had wrestled in Algeria, South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, England, Scotland and most of non-Communist Europe. Today, at the age of 35, he looms four inches beyond seven feet, weighs approximately 500 pounds and stands astride professional wrestling both literally and figuratively—the largest, highest-paid and best-known performer in the game.
Frank Valois is a Quebecois just turned 60, and, though he goes a bit slowly now, he has a width and heaviness of bone that give evidence of the power he had in his prime. He was with Andre the night of that first match, and for most of those barnstorming early years. Back home now in Montreal and retired after four decades in the ring, Valois promotes wrestling over much of Quebec. He remembers the boy-man Andre.
"What a thing to see he was! Like a young mastiff. He loved to frisk, to joke. And to drink, and feel the drink. He was so happy in the game. For him the hard travel was a joy. Eating all he wanted and drinking with us in bars and restaurants and seeing new people and places, it was a dream for a poor boy from the country."
So imparadised was Andre by his circumstances that he threw himself into the finer points of his new craft, anxious not to jeopardize his life-style. "He was trying so hard always," Valois recalls, "and anything the other guys could do Andre thought he should do also. In that first year or so he was around seven feet tall and he weighed 325 to 350 pounds, but he looked skinny because of his frame. I'm telling you, he broke up some rings and ring ropes learning to do the dropkicks and to use the ropes right."
Asked about Andre's physical abilities, Valois hesitates a moment, then says, "Listen, I tell you this not because Andre is almost a son to me, but because it is true. Many men were afraid to go in the ring with him, especially after he reached his twenties, because he was so large and strong. For all his height and weight, he could run and jump and do moves that made seasoned wrestlers fearful. Not so much fearful that he would hurt them with malice but that he might hurt them with exuberance. He was incroyable. Even his playing was like that. He discovered one day in Paris that he could move a small car by himself, and for quite a while after that he amused himself by moving his friends' cars while they were having a meal or a drink, placing them in a small space between a lamppost and a building, or turning them around to face the other way. His strength was so natural to him that he had no interest in lifting weights. He was interested in having a joke on his friends, not in showing how strong he was. I have lived among strong men all my life. I come from Quebec, the cradle of strongmen, home of Louis Cyr and the six Baillargeon brothers, but I have never seen a man with the raw strength of Andre."
Perhaps this could all be dismissed in light of the often hyperbolic nature of one friend's memory of another, except for the validation of people like Ken Patera, four-time U.S. national weightlifting champion and still the U.S. record holder in the superheavyweight clean and jerk and total. Patera was the first American to clean and jerk 500 pounds, and many knowledgeable observers consider him to have been stronger than the Soviet Union's legendary Vasily Alexeyev during the early 1970s, when they vied for the world and Olympic championships. Standing 6'1" and often weighing well over 300 pounds, Patera entered professional wrestling following the Munich Olympics. He has wrestled Andre often and has seen him work on many cards. Patera is a rugged man from a rugged family, and he understands strength as few men do.
"Let's put it this way," he responded recently to a question about the Brobdingnagian Frenchman. "I honestly believe that if Andre took a couple of years away from the game to train like the top lifters do, and if he developed a close personal relationship with his friendly neighborhood pharmacist, the world powerlifting records in both the squat and the deadlift would fall. No question. Think about it. He already weighs almost 500 pounds, with no lifting and no help from steroids. Hell, he'd weigh 600 or 700 pounds and not be any fatter than he is now, and let me tell you, that's not very damn fat. He's a wonder of nature. I've seen him pick up a 250-pound guy like you'd pick up your overcoat. I guess you know what he did to Wepner."
Wepner. Ah, yes. That would be one Charles (Chuck) Wepner, cardmate of Muhammad Ali in that ill-advised boxers vs. wrestlers promotion back in 1976: Wepner had the dubious distinction of facing Andre in Shea Stadium in the bout preceding the much ballyhooed, ultimately farcical, Ali vs. Antonio Inoki match broadcast by satellite from Tokyo. Although the clash between Ali and Inoki turned out to be more ludicrous than enlightening, the Andre-Wepner prelim had at least one genuinely exciting moment. Wepner had circled Andre during the first two rounds, tapping him experimentally, as a mountaineer might assay the peak he or she had chosen to climb. Andre had permitted himself to be circled, no doubt postponing for the sake of the crowd the inevitable outcome. (The word inevitable is used advisedly, because over the years boxers have fared poorly whenever they have disregarded the obvious technical advantages of wrestling and engaged in a mixed bout. Most of the boxer-wrestler matchups, in fact, have ended by a pin within a minute, according to ring historians.)
At any rate, in the third round, perhaps emboldened by the lack of response to his tapping, to his tapping, to his gloves so gently rapping, Wepner really clocked the Giant as they broke from the ropes. Whereupon Andre, in a more than usually fell swoop, angrily snatched his smaller opponent into the air and pitched him forthwith over the topmost rope, ending the bout. Quoth the Giant, "Nevermore."
Asked recently about this mismatch, Andre smiled and replied, using the word "boss" as so many men in the game do, "Look, boss, the boxer-wrestler business is almost a joke. After all, a man may hit me a couple of times, but if I cut the ring off and close in, what can he do after I put my hands on him? The boxer has no chance, since he can't even wrestle in a clinch because of his gloves." However, lest Andre's words or his haughty dispatch of Wepner imply a disdain for the sweet science, it should be noted that the sports figure to whom Andre gives pride of place is Ali, a man who, with the Giant, hungers a bit after the glittery things in life. How odd it is, then, that of these two eminently successful men, both of whom have made more money in the last 15 years than most people could earn in many lifetimes, the one who by all rights should be richer than a thousand kings has less to show for his athletic and dramatic endeavors. It has been estimated that Andre earns about $500,000 a year while Ali has made as much as $6 million for a single fight.
The difference springs from two related factors—management and entourage—and their effect on the old bottom line. Ali's problems in both areas, of course, are so well known as to require few words here, but Andre's circumstances bear examination. He came to North America first in 1971, to Montreal, and continued to appear as Jean Ferrè, working almost entirely in Quebec, though things didn't go all that well there. The crowds were good at first, but then they dwindled, and even though he enjoyed the ambience of Quebec, Andre realized that a change was in order. And so, through his friend Valois, a meeting was arranged in New York with Vince J. McMahon, professional wrestling's premier promoter.
McMahon is a tall, rather elegant man in his 60s, and he has seen many rough beasts in his time, but he recalls the day he first glimpsed Andre. "My initial thought was, 'My God, I never saw such a man,' " McMahon says. "I'd seen photographs and videotapes, of course, and I knew Andre was 7'4" and over 400 pounds, but I simply wasn't prepared for how he looked up close. He was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and I knew he could become the number one draw in wrestling."
McMahon, whose father, Jess, had worked with Tex Rickard in boxing and wrestling promotions in the New York area and whose son, Vincent K., is being groomed to take over his father's World Wrestling Federation, concluded that what had killed the crowds in Quebec was overexposure. "I saw right away that Andre needed to be booked into a place no more than a few times a year," McMahon says. "Most of our men work one of our circuits for a while and then move to another. It keeps things fresh. A guy may work New England for a few months, for instance, go from there to the South and then on out to spend some time with Verne Gagne in Minneapolis. But Andre's different. The whole world is his circuit. By making his visits few and far between he never becomes commonplace. Now, wherever he goes, the gates are larger than they would be without him. I book him for three visits a year to Japan, two to Australia, two to Europe, and the rest of the time I book him into the major arenas in the U.S. The wrestlers and promoters all want him on their cards, because when the Giant comes, everyone makes more money."
Not only did McMahon divine the best way to showcase Andre, he also realized that the name Jean Ferrè would do little in the U.S. to pull a crowd. But what should the big man be called? What name would produce in the fans the desired frisson? It was a crucial detail. Wrestling has always been filled with creative handles, ranging from the alliterative (Whipper Watson, Killer Karl Krupp) to the ethnic (El Mongol, Abdullah the Butcher) to the ethnically alliterative (Bobo Brazil, Tosh Togo) to the mysterious (The Masked Terror, The Mummy) to the simply and manifestly wonderful (Whiskers Savage, Gorilla Monsoon, Fabulous Moolah), but McMahon correctly guessed that with the towering Frenchman, straightforward accuracy would be best. Hence, Andre the Giant. Perfect.
Fresh come to a land where size in almost everything has been the terminus ad quern everyone aspired; a land where possession of the biggest car, biggest farm, biggest house, biggest pool, biggest boat, biggest football team or biggest building signified rank and worth; a land whose seemingly limitless frontier had produced a people who went to the zoo to see the tiger rather than the ocelot, the elephant rather than the tapir, the gorilla rather than the gibbon and, no doubt, the greater kudu rather than the lesser, Andre quickly became the draw McMahon had predicted.
For many years in the U.S., Andre traveled with a bilingual companion, often Valois or another francophonic wrestler, but as his English developed and he got the hang of life on the American road, he struck out on his own, completely free of the sort of spiritual advisers, camp followers, school chums and second cousins-twice-removed that have had so withering an effect on Ali's profit and loss statement. One of Andre's advantages, of course, vis-à-vis Ali, is that he wrestles 330 to 340 times a year, presenting the same sort of moving target to potential hangers-on that Ali once presented to opponents in the ring.
Three hundred thirty to 340 times a year. Have mercy. What can life be like for this 500-pound, peripatetic butterfly? To find out, I traveled for a time in his company, going with him to Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal, Atlanta and New York. Once, almost 10 years ago, I had met and spent some time with Andre in Macon, Ga., and I was reminded again of that earlier meeting as I approached him in the dressing room at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. As he had been in Macon, he was standing with a group of fellow wrestlers, and again lines from the Iliad describing Ajax came to mind.
Yon Achaian chief
Whose head and shoulders
tower above the rest,
And of such bulk
Such bulk prodigious. Exactly. In an odd way, Andre's height seems somehow less critical to the effect he creates than do his width and thickness. There are, after all, quite a few men these days who are seven feet tall, but they usually weigh around 250; Andre often weighs more than twice as much. Yet neither in his street clothes nor wrestling trunks does he appear to be particularly overweight. No victim he of Donelap's disease, in which a man's belly is said to have done lapped over his belt.
This bulk prodigious results primarily from two physical peculiarities—unusually heavy bone structure and relatively short legs. As for bone structure, the best single indicators are the circumference of the wrists and ankles; the circumference of the wrist, for instance, tells much more about the overall bone structure than does the length of the hand. Consider this. The largest wrist circumference on record of a non-obese person was believed until recently to have been that of Cleve Dean, a 6'7", 450-pound arm wrestler from Georgia, whose right wrist is 10¼" around. Seven inches is about average for an adult male; eight inches is a very large measurement. Andre's wrist, however, is almost a foot in circumference, far larger than most men's ankles. His wrist, in fact, is about average for an adult male western lowland gorilla.
And as for the effect of the relationship between his leg length and trunk length on his body weight, remember that most men of 6'6" and beyond have relatively long legs and short bodies. This produces both their comparative lightness and their somewhat storklike appearance. Andre's proportions are actually quite normal—for a man of about 5'6". The fact that he rises almost two feet beyond that height accounts for much of his weight, because the trunk of a man weighs far more per inch of height than the legs. One of the reasons a gorilla weighs so much, in fact, is that, compared to a man, his trunk is quite long, averaging approximately 63% of his standing height as opposed to 52% in a man.
However, Andre's proportions, added to his height and unique bone structure, are only part of what makes him so truly giantlike. His hands, in particular, have always drawn attention, not only for their length and breadth but for their massiveness. They, like his feet, are disproportionately thick, giving them an almost pawlike appearance. His fingers are so large that he wears a ring through which a silver dollar may easily pass. Shaking hands with him is a humbling experience, producing memories of boyhood in the largest of men. And his head, his enormous jut-browed head, scarred from both rugby and wrestling and crowned with a thick shock of wiry black hair, also appears to be larger than it ought, adding the final touch to his fearful symmetry. In part, his capacity to fascinate must stem from the combined effect his great height and breadth, his slablike feet and hands and his colossal head have on our subconscious, evoking, as they do, our formative years, years of storybooks and fairy tales, years which Andre symbolizes as he towers among us, a living manifestation of our childhood dreams.
Interestingly, it is among children and adolescents that Andre often seems most at ease. They swarm around him at matches and follow him wherever he shows himself in the street, the children yelling for him to lift them high, high into the air. He is unusually gentle and quiet with them, saying, "I try to be very soft with children. I don't want them to fear me. Often, when I go to the homes of people who have small children, the children will run from me even though they have seen me on television. I understand why they do this, but it is a sad feeling for me, even so."
Andre's experiences with small children not only support those who argue that television has an essentially trivializing effect, but they also help explain how anybody feels when first in his presence. Andre never enters a restaurant or a bar without bringing all conversations to a close, as people stop what they are doing and simply watch him, incredulous, as he goes to a table or stool. His visual impact is so extraordinary, in fact, that it sometimes even affects animals. In two separate instances, one reported by Valois and one by Roger Sembiazza, owner of a restaurant in Studio City, Calif., trained guard dogs have turned tail and headed for cover at first sight of Andre. Asked about this, Andre chuckled in his basso profundo and said, "Boss, it was so funny. Dogs often react to me that way if they don't know me, but these two dogs were supposed to be so mean. So vicious. One was a German shepherd and one was a Doberman. Both times I was asked to stand still while the owner brought the dog in, and both times the dog got one look at me and ran the other way as fast as he could go."
Although a giant can apparently stop traffic and even take the starch out of a guard dog, one of the real problems Andre shares with other of history's giants is simply living among men. Many cultures, our own included, have legends of a time in which giants held sway over us, only to be finally vanquished themselves. These days, although Andre doesn't have to fear valiant knights or enraged townspeople or Jacks of any sort, his own life among men is not an easy one. Imagine, if you will, reading about a film like Star Wars and hearing it discussed by everyone, knowing all the while that unless you cared to stand in the back of the theater you couldn't go, because the seats provided would fit neither your length nor your breadth. Imagine, if you will, passing a display window filled with handsome fall clothing, knowing that although you could easily afford to buy whatever you pleased, not a thing in the store would fit, except perhaps the scarves.
Or imagine seeing a Ferrari snap around a corner, and realizing that, whereas a good month's income would give you the title, even a shoehorn and Vaseline could never get you behind the wheel. Many obese people, of course, are similarly excluded, yet with few exceptions they have been partners, often quite willing ones, in their own exclusion. When the truly fat fly they are forced by their avoirdupois to buy a first-class ticket and pray for a slow day along the old alimentary canal, yet they must admit to many thousands of forkings in their lives' roads, forkings which have made all the difference between themselves and people of a more normal size. Their plight, however, seems to us rather more comic than tragic because they usually have the means, if not the will, to rejoin their smaller brethren. Not so with Andre, who has no choice but to suffer many indignities, including the ironic discomfort of a nightly succession of Procrustean beds.
Watching him squeeze into a cab is an almost painful experience. Once, in New York City, he hailed a cab for himself and three friends, ushered them into the back and then somehow jammed himself into the front seat, only to be unable to close the door. The simplest things can present problems. He must use an object such as a pencil to dial a telephone, because his fingers won't fit into the holes in the dial. He must choose his chairs carefully. Going through a revolving door, he must bend and take tiny shuffling steps to make the door revolve. He is unable even to consider learning to play the piano because he would strike three white keys with one finger. Bathing in an average motel is an experience ranging from the unpleasant to the impossible. And, had he become Clark Kent, he definitely would have required a more commodious changing room.
In almost every facet of Andre's life he is hamstrung by his size, brought low by the Lilliputian world in which he must exist. Those few people in history who have been Andre's physical peers have usually been able to accommodate themselves to their fate because they could outfit their homes with special furniture and bathrooms, and they could arrange their work spaces to fit their special needs. Even those who traveled with fairs almost always had wagons or trailers custom-made to suit them. But Andre is, in a very real sense of the word, a jet-setter. He logs tens of thousands of miles each year by air and standard auto and he stays in a different hotel or motel almost every night of the year. He has a lovely home near Ellerbe, N.C., and it is equipped for his unique needs, but such a home provides little balm if you're there just a week or so each year.
It is only when Andre works the Northeast for Vince McMahon that he has access to a vehicle custom-made to ease the burdens of his travels. McMahon bought a heavyduty van, had the ceiling raised about a foot and installed an oversized couch. Naturally, Andre loves it. After a match he can climb in through the side doors, ease back onto his plush couch, stretch his legs and begin his nightly assault on the beer stashed in his king-size cooler.
Recently, as he relaxed in the van after a match in New York City, he asked for a beer and then, as the can disappeared into his awesome fist, leaned back and talked about the related tribulations of size and travel. "Well, boss, it is sometimes a hard life," he said. "Many times I have to ride for several hundred miles in the front seat of a car and my back and neck always get so stiff. You have seen it, boss. I must bend my neck and hold my head down between my shoulders to be able to ride at all in a car. I can't see out very well, of course, and I feel so squeezed together. And, you know, people never seem to realize that I might get tired of being asked how tall I am or how much I weigh. So many questions. That's why I go to restaurants in the middle of the afternoon or late at night. I want to be polite, and to make a nice impression, but sometimes it is hard. I would give much money to be able to spend one day per week as a man of regular size. I would shop, and I would go to the cinema, and drive around in a sports car and walk down Fifth Avenue and stare at the other people for a change. Another beer, please, boss."
Andre does love beer, and his love has a constancy seldom seen in romantic love. Stories about Andre and his beer are legion in the world of pro wrestling and have an appropriately Bunyanesque quality. Friends report that he often drinks several cases during the course of a day. One of his closest associates has sworn that, in 1969, in Mulhouse, France, he got through 117 bottles of German beer. Of course, given the amount of blood Andre's monumental body must contain, he should be able to, in the words of the Coneheads, consume mass quantities.
People who knew of my plans to travel with Andre warned me not to try to match him beer for beer. But was I not myself a large and robust man? Had I not once sat with the St. Louis Cardinals' interior linemen at Jackie Smith's place to celebrate the season's end by drinking gin and tonics out of quart Mason jars? Had I not knocked back successive tumblers of vodka with the previously mentioned Alexeyev to celebrate various of his victories? Was I not, by God, a fifth-generation Texan? Aware, of course, that I probably couldn't stay with Andre in a true contest because of the 210-pound difference in our body weights, I nonetheless felt that for a few hours after a match I would be able to keep up with him. To be honest, I actually looked forward to the opportunity of bellying up to the bar with the biggest professional athlete in the world and swapping tall tales of various kinds.
It was with this attitude that I went with him, after his bout that first night in Philadelphia, to a local motel, where I checked in and agreed to meet him in a few minutes in the lounge. I had been careful in our earlier talk not to mention his fondness and capacity for beer, lest he feel obliged to put on a show for me, and I was somewhat taken aback as I entered the lounge to notice four freshly opened bottles before him on the bar, one of them half gone. The other half disappeared as I walked up.
"Come, boss," he said in his cavernous voice, "what will you have? The beer is cold."
Not wishing to seem competitive, I only ordered two, planning to drink them quickly and get two more and gradually catch up without him noticing. I drank and drank and we were joined in our drinking and talking by Arnold Skaaland, a former wrestler who is one of Vince McMahon's road managers. The talk was good and the beer went fast and I took a few notes as the evening passed, notes which seemed to me to become steadily more perceptive. I smiled often to myself as I continued to drink and talk and write on my yellow note pad. Finally the bar closed, and although I have no clear recollection of going to my room, I know I did so because I woke there late the next morning, fully dressed and lying on top of the bedspread, my mouth feeling as if a cat had littered in it while I slept.
My first thought as my mind swam into hazy focus was of my note pad. Sitting up with a start, I saw it, resting securely on top of the dresser. Not even waiting to shower, I took the pad to the table, sat down and began to read. "Not bad," I thought to myself as I went through the first couple of pages, anticipating the material still to come. But the notes became increasingly unclear, at last achieving illegibility. Caveat potator. Do not match drinks with the Giant. This lesson learned, I spent the remainder of my time drinking with Andre, not against him, and I can report with confidence that his capacity for alcohol is extraordinary. During the week or so I was with him, his average daily consumption was a case or so of beer; a total of two bottles of wine, generally French, with his meals; six or eight shots of brandy, usually Courvoisier or Napolèon, though sometimes Calvados; half a dozen standard mixed drinks, such as Bloody Marys or Screwdrivers; and the odd glass of Pernod. He drinks as many Frenchmen drink—throughout the day—and he takes genuine comfort in his drinking, seemingly in agreement with the line from Housman that "Malt does more than Milton can/ To justify God's ways to man." But during the time I was with Andre, never once did I see him give any indication that the alcohol was affecting him. Several friends who have known him over the years say that on the rare occasion when he feels the need to tie one on he avoids beer or wine and goes quickly through three fifths of vodka.
Because he spends as much time as he does in various watering holes, many people wonder how Andre avoids being singled out by the supposedly ubiquitous drunk with a yen to take on the biggest guy in the house. Two things about that, the first being that it's one thing for a man to get well enough bagged to imagine himself the equal of a 6'3", 250-pound man, but 7'4" and 500 pounds? Come on. The difference is the same as that which allows an intoxicated and/or hot-headed man to drive his fist into, and possibly through, a wooden door but refrain from driving that same fist into a steel girder. However—and this brings up the second thing—Andre actually has had to fight a few times in bars. Skaaland was with him once in Quebec City when a big lumberjack got so full of both whiskey and himself that nothing would do but to try out le gèant. "We were at this little bar after a match," Skaaland recalls, "and I noticed this guy kept staring at Andre. That's not unusual, except he looked like he was building up steam. And sure enough, he walked up to Andre, tapped him on the shoulder and cursed him and called him out.
"We were standing at the bar, and Andre turned around to face the guy and spoke to him softly. He told him he didn't want to fight, and he even offered to buy him a drink, but the guy cursed him again. The words barely got out of his mouth when Andre grabbed him by the neck and belt and drove him into the wall across the room. I think it broke the guy's ribs." Asked about this later, Andre shrugged and said, "I do what I can to avoid bad trouble, boss, but I have seen enough to know when a man can't be talked out of a fight. First I talk, but when I see the talk won't work, I want to make the first move and I want to make it a good one. Twice I have had knives pulled on me and I have had to use a barstool."
Like most people who drink because they enjoy it rather than because they have to, Andre isn't bothered overmuch by the occasional dry period. Last year, for example, after an extended trip to Japan and Australia, he found that his weight had reached the unacceptably high figure of 540 pounds, whereupon he put himself on a strict diet—no alcohol, and only one meal a day. In four weeks he dropped 80 pounds, which becomes less surprising with the realization that he consumes approximately 7,000 calories in alcohol a day.
As for his efforts at table, Andre seems to eat less than might be expected, though, of course, far more than the average person. Four eggs, bacon, hash browns, four pieces of whole wheat toast, a pint of orange juice and two iced coffees suffice to break his nightly fast, and his evening meal, generally taken several hours before his match, will depend on where he is in the world, although the quantity will be about twice that consumed by your garden variety gourmand. Occasionally, however, he will hold back on the alcohol and give full play to his appetite. He recently recounted an evening spent in a small, second-rate restaurant. "I was tired, boss, and I only wanted to have a quick bite and go to bed, but this waitress, she kept pointing at me and talking about me to the other customers. Then she asked me in a loud voice if a cup of soup and a cracker would be enough. And she laughed. I told her no, that I was hungry, and wished the entire menu to be brought, one dish at a time. It took me four hours to eat it all."
As he globe-hops, the Giant usually avoids this kind of unpleasantness by exercising great care in his choice of restaurants. He takes the same sort of delight Hemingway did in scheduling his travel arrangements so as to arrive at the time and place that will allow him a chance to have a word with the owner and local friends and sample the specialty of the house. Although he admits to a slight preference for French cuisine, he introduced me to a Korean restaurant in Manhattan, a delicatessen in Montreal and an Italian place in Albany, all of which were excellent, and all of which were owned by people who welcomed Andre as if he were family. But the spot he seemed most pleased to show me was, understandably, a delightful Montreal restaurant, Le Picher, which he owns and which served a salmon mousse that was, as a friend of mine once said about a $200 bottle of German wine, all it should have been.
As I traveled with him, it was a pleasure to see how well liked Andre appears to be, by people in the game and outside it. He visited the kitchens of the restaurants he favors for a word with the staff, and wherever he wrestled he always made a special effort to speak to all the other wrestlers on the card, even, indeed especially, the men working the preliminary bouts. In bars he never failed to give his attention to those who seemed to need it most, shaking the hands of the men and touching the shoulders or the hair of the women, many of whom seem drawn to him, as women often are to men who in one way or other represent power or majesty. Everywhere he goes there are women, women who range widely in socioeconomic level, age and interest in pro wrestling, and he treats them all the same—splendidly. Andre simply enjoys the company of women, and they enjoy his. He somehow conveys, as he softly rumbles to them, de profundis, over a beer or four, that they will receive no shabby treatment at the hands of the Giant.
No doubt many people, both men and women, seeing the photographs accompanying this article, will find Andre awful in the old sense of the word, perhaps grotesque, a monstre par excès, but to see him move, to speak with him and to watch him in the world, one is more likely to form instead the impression that all aspects of the man cohere.
Even his level of energy is outsized. Many of his fellow wrestlers testify to Andre's ability to outlast them all when it comes to staying up for several days at a time, drinking, playing cards and traveling to and from the matches. Left by his life-style with no real opportunity for hobbies, Andre's primary interests seem to be in cramming as much time, friendship, conversation and provender as possible into his daily life. He is aware, of course, that of the few men who have ever been his size, most have fallen far short of their allotted three-score years and 10, but he seems outwardly unconcerned by this, and eager for the future. "I have had good fortune," he says, "and I am grateful for my life. If I were to die tomorrow, I know I have eaten more good food, drunk more beer and fine wine, had more friends and seen more of the world than most men ever will. I have had everything in life but a family, and I hope to have that one day. For now, I know a family wouldn't work, because of my traveling, but one day, who knows, I might myself have a giant for a grandson."
By all accounts, however, Andre's health is excellent. Until last spring, in fact, when he suffered a broken ankle, he had never been to a hospital. When he did check in, however, he caused his usual stir.
Dr. Harris S. Yett, the orthopedic surgeon at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital who repaired Andre's broken ankle last May, said the Giant was so uniformly large that all aspects of his hospitalization were difficult. Andre had suffered a bimalleolar fracture of his left ankle in a bout on April 13, when Killer Khan, a 280-pounder, mistimed a jump off the top turnbuckle. Not realizing the ankle was broken, Andre actually finished the bout and continued to perform every evening for more than a week, until at last the pain became almost too great for him to walk. According to Dr. Yett, unusual surgical tools and techniques were required for the operation; the largest screws available were needed to fix the malleolus in place, for instance. Two tourniquets had to be used end on end to encompass his thigh, and Dr. Yett described Andre's cast as the largest they had ever had to make.
Fortunately, the hospital did have a nine-foot bed, but Andre presented other problems, such as the method of anesthesia and the fact that the hospital's longest pair of crutches was not quite long enough.
The operation and subsequent confinement were not without benefit. This injury was the first of any seriousness Andre had ever sustained, and the months he spent recovering on his mountaintop estate, though often frustrating, made him realize how much he had been missing because of his life of constant travel. Before long he and McMahon hope to establish a pattern of bookings that will allow Andre at least one week each month in North Carolina to work on his land, to clear more pasture for his horses. Eventually, perhaps in 10 years or so, as Andre envisions it, he will live a life in which he wrestles infrequently, working only the biggest arenas, but is active in promotion. For now, though, he circles the world as before, a colossus of back roads and big cities, a deus ex machina for millions of wrestling fans who pray for him to descend on their particular part of reality, lay hands on whichever evil-hearted villain is making a mockery of fair play, and briefly assuage their many, all too real, wounds.
CASE HISTORIES IN POINT:
• Dwayne, Philadelphia, Pa. Age 43, janitor in a sporting goods store. Born in West Virginia. Married, five children, 5'5", 135 pounds. "Hell, I been coming to the rasslin' for years. I love ol' Andre. These damn Moondogs has got all out of hand. Rex—that big 'un—why, he come in here a couple weeks ago gnawin' on a damn bone big as my arm—hell, bigger 'n my arm. He was wavin' it around and carryin' on, that wild hair stickin' out. It kinda got me sick, him and that damn bone. It still had some damn meat on it. Hell, it did! But didn't old Andre put the skids to him tonight? Snatched that Moondog up by his damn belt and hauled him around the ring like a suitcase. I tell you, it done my heart good."
• Arpine, New York, N.Y. Fiftyish, employed in a doughnut shop. Born in Armenia. Divorced, no children, 5'4", around 200 pounds. "This Khan guy, goom-bah! I can't wait to see him get it. He broke Andre's ankle and now he's going to pay. He's a fatbelly coward and tonight he's going to get it. I don't think he can even talk English. All he does is scream in that high voice and puff his lips out. Last month they disqualified him before Andre could get even, but tonight's Andre's night. He'll go right after Khan and butt his head. And then he'll bodydrop him. I love to see him do that. Imagine that much weight crashing down. Goombah! I brought him some fresh doughnuts, and the policeman down there said he'd take them back to the dressing room. Do you think a dozen is enough?"
• Thomas, a/k/a Punkin, Atlanta. Age 23, unemployed. Born in Talbot County, Ga. Single, lives with his grandmother. Paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. "The Giant is my man. The Giant and Tony Atlas. They be two bad dudes. Bad dudes. Andre, he shook my hand last time he was down here. I got his picture at home, where he be standing so tall and holding up these four girls. The man is bad. He ain't afraid of nobody. He rough, all right, but he always fight clean till they mess with him. He don't talk none of that trash like some of them do. He just stand up there like a man and put 'em all down. He the Giant, and he and Tony my two main men."
When Andre himself was a poor country boy in France, he wanted more than anything to travel, to make money, to be somebody. And because of his size, his physical abilities and a fair bit of luck, he has traveled and made money and become, without question, somebody. In fact, with the exception of Muhammad Ali, Andre the Giant is quite possibly the most widely recognized active athlete in the world.
The thing in his life of which he is proudest is that he has fulfilled his boyhood dreams. He helps his family now. He has a grand home and possessions and a worldwide circle of friends, and he eats and drinks of the best. In fact, except for the inconveniences caused by his size, he has a singularly good and happy life, a life that was made possible by professional wrestling.
As the fans pour through the doors of the arenas where he works, the money they pay to glory as he smites their common enemies goes to fuel his lifestyle. Andre has the fans and the fans have Andre. The circle is complete. Would the world be a better place if Andre drove a road-grading machine in North Africa, as he once planned to do? Or if the Dwaynes and Arpines and Punkins had to live without the thought of the Giant to sustain them? Let it be. May they all live happily ever after.