Artie Zeller

by Al Thomas

             I met Artie Zeller in February of 1970 at Joe Gold’s gym. I had just arrived the day before in Venice for a sabbatical that was destined to be split between the Huntington Library and Gold’s. The well-known bodybuilder and ex-wrestler, Seymour Koenig, whom I’d met just a few minutes earlier, introduced me to his fellow New Yorker. And, in a response that would come to define him, Artie invited this utter stranger “to come on out to the beach. I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, a very interesting character that I know you’d like to meet.”

          And forthwith, dismissing my thoughts of an afternoon’s research at the Huntington, I tagged-along to the beach with the master lensman and Seymour for my first encounter with a larger version of the Austrian Oak than I could have anticipated from the few late-60s photos I’d seen of Artie’s “interesting character,” the magnificent Arnold. Very smooth, but very big. There was Arnold, resplendent in the aura he somehow programmed in any audience, even beach-loungers, as he strode toward us, beaming, with that big-toothed grin of his and that big, flat hand extended to us – to the whole world, it seemed. BIG! (Any notation of “smooth-ness” having long since fled as the full impact of Artie’s “buddy” took shape in my central nervous system.)

             One of the joys of Artie’s friendship was that, as one came to know this voluble transplant from Manhattan’s Lower East Side (this erudite son of a legendarily erudite Cantor), one came, in that process, to meet everybody known to this (consensus) Mayor of Muscledom – and that was everybody who was anybody on “the beach.”

Much will be remembered about Artie the incomparable photographer. His photography has always amazed and thrilled me: hardly less his preternaturally sensitive studies in the tradition of Weegee than his better known physique displays, best known among them his incomparable studies of Arnold.

Much will be remembered about the “beautifully cherubic” and     “plump-muscled” Artie in the famous Lon photos: displays that brought together just-about the best in that era of both physique display and physique photography. I remember being in the presence of a woman who, upon seeing Lon’s Zeller studies, screamed, “…a beautiful cherub, a plump Angel with big muscles, right out of Botticelli.” And he was, indeed, a most impressive young man of muscles. Few better among his contemporaries.

But to me – whatever the reality of his apostasy – Artie was inescapably the Cantor’s son. (He said several times that what he “liked” and “hated” most about me was my “inescapable preacher’s-son-ness”: “You’re a neurotic Jew,” he once dead-panned to me in the midst of an argument: “a Jew scratching to get-out of his even-more neurotic Christian skin.” (An observation that, despite all the reservations Artie had about his own clergyman’s-son-ness, was meant (I think) as a compliment (of sorts).)

For all his gainsaying, Artie was ever the Cantor’s son, the man in love with the “holiness” (no less than the Zeller-ian sense of humor) to be found in words. He was a man for whom words were rich with a sense of the sacred and the profane, as rich with puns as with Old Testament sorts of “prophecy” – as rich with implication as they’d ever be along the auroral sands of Venice-Santa Monica.

To me, Artie was, from the beginning of our relationship, and in his own East Side beginning, a man of words (almost, in those “pagan” environs, a man of the Word): the Old Testament Word made flesh, in this case big-muscled flesh.

Even more than his wonderful photos or youthful big muscles, words were his domain – and ultimately, not just words, but sometimes-grimly-ironic considerations of THE Word: religion and philosophy “writ large,” in the way that topics were always enlarged and universalized in Artie’s unflinching gaze.

Shocked at your ignorance, he’d look at you straight-on, and (with an almost –rabbinical world weariness) he’d map-out even the most complex of polemics with an eye to the perfection of syntax required to carry the day. And then, delivering himself, Zeller-like, of a couple throat-clearings, he’d have-at-you, but all in a manner that managed never to offend anybody, despite this consummate wordsmith’s obviously studied application to the demands of a lovingly embraced, because precisely conceived, devotion to syntax and to its half-brother: fastidious usage.

If ever the lie were given to the notion of the dumb muscleman, it was given by this Renaissance man, this graduate of the University of the Lower East Side, this restless God-man’s son, in whose “Beginning” “Was the Word” (and, also, just-plain words aplenty). In any final reckoning, he was a man who, despite all his agnostic arguings to the contrary, lived as exemplary a life as any practitioner of the capital-“W” Word-Made-Flesh: as exemplary a life as any Cantor or preacher, anywhere or anytime. Amen.

Within a few weeks of this life’s end for Artie, he sent me two letters (March 16 and March 18, 1999) in which he warmly praised his much-cherished East Side buddy, Marvin Eder, and then went on to discuss with utter Zeller-ian clarity his own impending life-course: “By the way, at sixty-seven, Marvin is still incredibly strong. The things he tells me sound impossible: sets of 80 chins, and 100 dips. For legs, he does squat jumps, starting with a set of 100, then 200, 300, and 400! Superman.”

And: “Imagine. Before this I had never been seriously ill, and then, suddenly, the worst thing imaginable. One of my close childhood friends, Vince Edwards [“Ben Casey]) died of this [cancer]. He didn’t last very long. And although my doctor says each one is different, I can feel what this thing is doing to me, and doubt I’ll last for any length of time.”

As close to death as Artie was, and knew himself to be – in the same two letters, and in the most manly and powerfully-crafted syntax – Artie commiserated with me relative to a medical issue and, then, ever-Zeller, embarked (below) upon his painfully-shouldered vocation: the education and correction of those less blessed in matters of language and the blessed word: “I have two criticisms” (the first related to what he deemed my “too great sensitivity” to my “age” and my “baldness”).

“Secondly, your use of the word ‘Chinaman’ [in a recent piece I wrote at the time of Grimek’s death], instead of Chinese! Is it possible, Al, that you are unaware that this is an unacceptable, derogatory, and patronizing word? I am really quite disappointed in you. The usage stands out incongruously in an article that is otherwise…filled with tender feelings. This sort of thing, my old friend, has to go. It’s unworthy of you, Al. Surely you see this. It’s got to go.”

Secure as you are there in the Universe. Loved and supported as you are there in the Universe, Artie, I send along my thanks for your kindly counsel and will try, manfully, to earn a better estimate from my dear buddy the next-time around.