SHOPPER: They were terrified.
STEPHENS: Who were acting as guides and they were sort of the crème of the German crop, so to speak, ‘cause they wouldn’t have been selected.
SHOPPER: Yes, honorary position, too.
STEPHENS: And they would come up and visit with, say the American girls in the afternoons when they had some off time, and they would tell us a lot of stories and they would actually throw themselves down on the beds and just cry uncontrollably because they were scared to death that some soldier was going to grab them and they would become pregnant and they would have to do this and they wanted higher education and they couldn’t get it, and these were intelligent kids…I guess, God help the poor Jewish girls. Now I don’t know whether this was generally a true or not, but that’s what they told us.
SHOPPER: And that was the University of Berlin?
STEPHENS: Well, ah, people at the university there, they would talk in guarded tones. Everyone in Germany seemed to want to look over their shoulder and under their armpit before they would talk to you.
SHOPPER: Yes. They were fearful?
STEPHENS: There was a feeling of fear, impending disaster, I might say. I got that impression, I even felt that way. For instance, we arrived on the boat that docked in Hamburg, and we were taken to the City Hall for a reception and they served us wine in 400 year old wine glasses. And the mayor got up and made a big speech. Then of course after it was all over we departed for Berlin but by the time we got to Berlin the authorities in Hamburg called ahead or wired or whatever, and said that a lot of those wine glasses had been confiscated by the Americans and all the Americans were noted as souvenir snatchers so an awful lot of those glasses had disappeared and they said that if they didn’t have those glasses forthcoming that they were going to put the entire American Olympic Team in jail.
SHOPPER: Quite a threat.
STEPHENS: Well that was a threat immediately and of course, as soon as we got to our quarters there at the Olympic Stadium, everybody was told by their coaches or those in charge that if they had any of these wine glasses to cough them up, to turn them over to the German police. Well, I had an opportunity to get two or three sets of those things but I never had one because I didn’t take one and I know they didn’t get them all, but I suspect they got the majority of them back. So, we learned right away that these Germans meant business. They would smile and shake your hand, but, you know, there was a feeling there.
SHOPPER: You don’t mess with them.
STEPHENS: They wasn’t about to be messed with.
STEPHENS: Another time, I remember, after the Olympics, we were down at the town of Wupper Tal and there was an International Track Meet and the people in charge of us invited us all to go down and tour a jewelry store and look at all the prizes we were going to get. During that tour someone took a wristwatch and I don’t think it is necessary to name any names, but nevertheless when we got back to the hotel there was a policeman there and he said that they wanted that watch returned and if it wasn’t returned, I don’t know, in a couple of hours that they would take every one of us. I think others other than the Americans, other teams, were there, from other countries, they were going to take the whole lot of us down, and put us in the local jail. Well, of course, our people in charge of us, coaches, assistants and such, they get up on the scheme of having every one of us walk through a room, there was no one in it, and there was a table in the middle of the room, and they expected that watch to be there. Well, when everyone passed through, that watch was there. So, they pounced on you over the smallest item. I remember, and I never have been able to understand, how these communications got through to me, but, just a day or so prior to my running my 100 meter race in Berlin, I got telegrams from Germans, and evidently they were German Jews, because they told me to get out on the race or track to run my 100 meters and then stand up and refuse to run and then when asked why I wasn’t going to run then I was supposed to give them the names and numbers of certain Jewish people held in concentration camps, so until these people were released, I wouldn’t run. I cannot understand how those telegrams came through the German telegraph service, and they were delivered to me in the Olympic Village.
SHOPPER: Hmmm. That is a bit of a mystery.
STEPHENS: One of the mysteries about that whole thing, and I never could figure out how they got through unless the German authorities or people at the telegraph office took full note of these things and recorded it and probably the person or group who sent it were pounced on later, or maybe immediately, for all I know.
SHOPPER: Do you think some of the other athletes got similar messages?
STEPHENS: Perhaps they did. I can only speak for myself.
SHOPPER: But I guess that was not…
STEPHENS: But you know, the reason I got it, as far as being with women, because I had the reputation as being the fastest person in the world.
SHOPPER: I see, so you would be…
STEPHENS: And I was the one they zeroed in on. Well, anyway…
SHOPPER: It sounds like that was a lot of pressure on you, when you were 17…
STEPHENS: Well, I was 18 at the time. But I felt that there was something going on here, something rotten.
SHOPPER: That much you could see.
STEPHENS: There was something wrong. And…it just left an impression – that stayed with me, you know.
STEPHENS: And of course those telegrams, I think I had to turn over too. I turned them over to the coach who probably, like the letters I got in New York, they were…they probably went to the Olympic Village. Who knows what happened to them. I don’t know.
SHOPPER: Sure. Did you have any thoughts of doing what these telegrams suggested?
STEPHENS: No, no.
SHOPPER: You were there to win.
STEPHENS: I went there to win the gold medal. And noone was going to deter me from that.
SHOPPER: I guess you had a lot of confidence at that time, a lot of hopes. People were really banking on you.
STEPHENS: I figured I’d win that medal if I didn’t trip or fall down for some reason. Now I didn’t feel that way about the discus throw, but I felt that way about the running. I’m only sorry they didn’t have the 200 meters on the program.
SHOPPER: That would have been your speed?
STEPHENS: That would have been another medal. And I defeated the crème of the Olympic Group in a post Olympic Meet in running that 200 meter including Stella Walsh and the top Germans. And they were the competition, the Germans and Stella.
SHOPPER: She was Polish, wasn’t she?
STEPHENS: Yes, she represented Poland.
SHOPPER: You were talking before about the Ouija Board, saying that it was certain that you’d get to meet Hitler. Did that ever come about?
STEPHENS: Well, after I had won my 100 meter race, I guess it was maybe 10 minutes after, I was still perspiring heavily. A German messenger came up, and I was standing there with Dee Boeckmann and he asked if, in English, if I would accompany him up to Hitler’s box that the Fuhrer wanted to meet me. And I had previously made plans to up and speak over CBS radio back to America and Dee and I were in the process of going up there. We were just getting ready to leave and she spoke up and told him that, you know, we couldn’t do it at this time, but after the broadcast we’d be available. He said, “I can’t go back and tell the Fuhrer that you won’t come. He’ll shoot me.” And we said, “Ah, he won’t shoot you, there are too many people around.” So he went back, reluctantly looking over his shoulder. But when we came out of that broadcast up at the top of the stadium, he was there to take us down, and Dee went with me. We were ushered into a room behind Hitler’s box and it was a long room and we hadn’t been there but a few seconds and the door swung open at the other end and about 20 Black Shirt guards came in and arrayed themselves around this room and pulled their German Lugers, loosened their holster, to see if their gun would come out easily, and they all stood stiff at attention and we looked at each other and wondered, “What is going on here?” Then Hitler came in.
SHOPPER: Was this sort of scary to you? Or just mysterious?
STEPHENS: Well, it was sort of, what is going to happen next? Is this security or what? So anyway…
SHOPPER: But you didn’t feel in danger personally?
STEPHENS: NO…no. And then Hitler came in the other end of the room. He was accompanied by his interpreter and strode forward and gave me a sloppy Nazi salute and I didn’t return it and I gave him my ‘ole “Missouri” handshake I always say. And he immediately came up and began to pinch me and squeeze me and pinch my fanny and all that stuff. I was kind of shocked, you know, the leader doing that.
SHOPPER: Not the kind of thing you’d expect.
STEPHENS: You know. And he was asking me what I thought of Germany and what I thought of the Olympics and so forth. I was giving him affirmative answers and, I asked him if he would give me his autograph. He started to write it, then a flash bulb went off and he jumped about three feet up, straight up in the air and began to spout German and it was a little photographer, a fellow about five feet tall, a little guy and he began to kick him and he had these gloves draped over, his kid gloves draped over his arm, and he took those off and hit him across the face (MAKES SLAPPING NOISES ABOUT FIVE TIMES) and he motioned to those guards to come and get him – you know sick him and three or four of them came forward and one of them grabbed the guy’s camera and he picked it up and bashed it on the floor and glass flew, you know the lens I guess breaking.
STEPHENS: And then they began to kick that around in there like soccer, (MAKES FAST SLAPPING SOUNDS FIVE TIMES) you know, in that room, kicking that thing all over the place. And these four guys grabbed this little guy and carried him – his arms and legs stretched out – to the door and then they went, “One, two, three,” and threw him out against the hall and he scooted right down the hall and then they kicked his camera out after him. Then Hitler just returned and said, “How would you like to spend a weekend with me in Berchtesgaden?” Dee spoke up right away and said, “She’s in training. She’s got a track meet here.”
SHOPPER: This was a real proposition then? At least that’s the way it sounds.
STEPHENS: Well he did take a few of them down there but anyway that’s what happened and after a few more squeezes and he said, “I was a pure Aryan type and I should have been running for Germany. I should be a German.” Then he shook hands and he left.
SHOPPER: As you described him slapping the photographer, it was as though some of his gestures were effeminate. Is that the impression?
STEPHENS: Well, that was but, no, he didn’t impress me that way. He was just…(SLAPPING NOISE) and he kicked him. He had on boots. He had on boots.
SHOPPER: With a temper.
STEPHENS: Oh a temper tantrum. I had read he chewed carpets and slapped statesmen and stuff like that and so I was, I was seeing, you know, I was seeing something here up close. No record. Now that picture appeared on a postcard which was sold in the stadium the next morning. I got six of them. I can’t locate any of them at the present time but I’ve got the picture, you know, copies. The thing of it was – I think I bought six in the morning maybe around 10 o’clock and I went back around one o’clock because somebody told me, “Hey you ought to get a bunch of those. You’re going to need those in the future. You don’t know what you got there. It’s something important. People will be wanting this years later.” Which has been true. The picture has been in much demand. It has been published in books, newspapers, and used on T.V., everything – all over for years. And they said, “Why we didn’t sell that thing. We didn’t have that picture.” The very place where I bought it they denied to me personally that I ever even bought it from them. Now why? I think that it goes back to the fact that the first event on the Olympic Program was won by a German and Hitler invited him up to his box and he kissed him on both his cheeks and gave him the Iron Cross and made a big hullabaloo about it and maybe I believe several people after that, now maybe not all German either, of course, Hitler was the center of attention in that stadium. I have said in rebuttal of this business, that Jesse Owens was the star of the ’36 Olympics. As an athlete, yes, but in that stadium, Adolf Hitler was king. Everyone in there, including the athletes on the field, had their eye on Adolf Hitler. What’s he doing? Is he standing up? Is he cheering? Is he mad? Who is with him? And this, you know, I heard it. I saw it. He was the real star of the ’36 Olympics and there were kings and sports people, movie people, royalty of all kinds in that stadium, but people were not interested in those people…they were interested in Adolf Hitler. Period. Of course he was usually surrounded by Hermann Goering or Rudolf Hess – that other little fella – Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda and “Dirty Tricks” and it was a scene – I tried to drink it in and stamp it into my memory forever, and I think I did a good job of it. I can see it all.
SHOPPER: Yeah. It certainly sounds as though you have a very vivid…
STEPHENS: And when I returned to Berlin in April of this year to make a CBS movie, “American at the Olympics,” for Bud Greenspan and when I went in that stadium in early morning with no one in there in the quietness of it all, I just closed my eyes and just expected that I would see those stands filled with people – Adolf Hitler down in the box and those people yelling at the top of their lungs, “Sieg Heil. Seig Heil. Seig Heil,” which they did on the slightest provocation of anything. It was a feeling that is hard to describe but it was certainly one of, recalling the past, nostalgic and all that sort of thing.
SHOPPER: How did they deal with Jesse Owens being such a…
STEPHENS: Well propaganda in ’36 was that Hitler was opposed to America’s African legions.
SHOPPER: That’s what he called them?
STEPHENS: That’s what the press called them. I don’t know whether he said that or not. There was much made of the fact that he supposedly snubbed Owens when he was in the process of competing in the running long jump. And the people seemed to forget the fact that Hitler arrived every day in that stadium at a certain time. You could set your watch by that. He came in there in the afternoon and he left – I think as I recall it – it seemed like he came in around one o’clock or one thirty and stayed till about four o’clock. And he left promptly – left with his group. And this event of Owens was going on, you know, darkness was setting in, and of course they always said that Hitler didn’t shake Jesse Owens’ hands. Well, I started to say while ago that the reason that Hitler acted up so when he was caught with me and slapped the photographer and so forth – going back to why that happened – after he had met several different Olympic groups or individuals that had won medals, the International Olympic Committee asked the German Olympic Committee to please ask Hitler not to be calling gold medal winners up to his stand because if he did it to one, he would have to do it to all and those that he didn’t do it to would feel cheated, would feel snubbed. He would get bad publicity and so forth, and therefore it might be better if he didn’t meet any. And as I understand it, he agreed then, “Look, I won’t meet anyone else. I will just sit up here and enjoy it and that’s the end of it.” Well he did want to meet me. But he didn’t want a record of it.
SHOPPER: I see.
STEPHENS: So therefore he didn’t want any photograph of it. That’s why he had the fit. And I didn’t know why he was having the fit at the time because I didn’t know what had happened and it was only afterwards that I put that together. And so that’s why he didn’t meet Owens.
SHOPPER: I see. So there was no special snub involved?
STEPHENS: Well that’s – again, you can say the press did that. They played it up, but you all read all this stuff about Jesse Owens went over and he put Hitler in his place. He showed him all this and that and the other. He didn’t, in my opinion, show him anything other than the fact that he was the fastest man in the world running. That’s what he showed him.
STEPHENS: I don’t recall that Hitler stopped his war plans in any way whatsoever. His idea of dominating the world because Jesse Owens was in Berlin in 1936 and ran down the track one afternoon, or Helen Stephens for that matter. That’s assuming too much importance of a sporting event – that it’s going to influence world history. It didn’t influence anything.
SHOPPER: And yet a lot of people seem to have all sorts of hopes and fantasies that they would make use of the Olympics for certain purposes of their own, I mean by telegrams and letters and this sort of protesting.
STEPHENS: Well they were not the last to try that. It’s been tried every time since.
STEPHENS: We did a good job in ’80. They are doing the same thing and Russia gave us our comeuppence and revenge. They took a little revenge on us this time by refusing to take part over here. I never expected those Russians to be here. I said in 1980 that, “Well, maybe that’ll work but I don’t think it will.” I supported that boycott in 1980 because I had been a government worker for over 30 years and there was a bit of pressure brought on me all the way from the White House to support them. And since the Congress of the United States supported it, the general consensus of opinion was that the majority of the people in the United States supported it. I don’t say the press supported it.
SHOPPER: The athletes. Do you think they supported it?
STEPHENS: Well I don’t think the athletes supported it. Some did. Some didn’t. Some former Olympians changed horses in the middle of the stream several times on the matter. I remember Jesse Owens, he was for the boycott and then he was against it. I said, “Well since that seems to be the will of the Congress and the President of the country, I would support it.” I never changed my stance. The members of the United States Olympic Committee contacted me asking me to please change my stance and I said, “Well, I was committed.” I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. Once you take your position, it’s taken. I wasn’t making any money on it either way. Stand up and be counted.
SHOPPER: How does the White House bring pressure on you to take a stance?
STEPHENS: Well how do they bring pressure on anyone? They call you up and appeal to your reasons. And then you feel like a traitor if you don’t, right?
SHOPPER: I guess so. I’ve never had pressure put on me so…
STEPHENS: Well, we all have pressures.
SHOPPER: Yeah. So this was staff people at the White House?
STEPHENS: Yes, I suppose.
SHOPPER: And they figured your voice would be an important one to get.
STEPHENS: And as I was a former government employee too. They had several agencies involved. I’m not going to name them.
STEPHENS: There was more than just the White House.
SHOPPER: What sort of government work had you done?
STEPHENS: Oh I worked for three agencies in my lifetime. I worked for the Rural Electrification Administration, REA, they called it.
STEPHENS: And I worked for the General Accounting Office, which was a Department of the Army. And then I worked for 26 years for the Defense Mapping Agency Aero Space Center here in St. Louis.
SHOPPER: That’s where their main headquarters are.
STEPHENS: And I was a librarian there. I retired in 1976. Took off and went to Montreal for the Olympics.
SHOPPER: I understand you went to Los Angeles for the Olympics this summer?
STEPHENS: I went out to the opening, yes.
SHOPPER: Change much?
STEPHENS: Oh yes. Oh yeah. They put on a great show out there. Now Germany had put on a classic Olympics in ’36, probably one of the best that have ever been put on up to that date and everything was precisioned. They did do a grand, magnificent job. And we were talking about how – I am just giving you the impression that I had – I remember when underneath the stadium, there were great huge tunnels, oh maybe 12, 15 feet wide, maybe eight feet high or so, these were tile covered walls and you could start walking in these tunnels before you got to the stadium, as well as they went under the stadium. And of course they had exits up into the stadium, and I remember our guides telling us one time when we were walking over there, either going or coming, I don’t remember that part, but they said that come the war, “We’re going to beat to the hell out of you.” Now these are American-speaking guides.
SHOPPER: These are the same girls?
STEPHENS: Yes, the same girls that may be crying on our beds a few hours later, but they laughingly said, “You know we’re going to treat you as nice as we know how for the two weeks you’re here, but there is going to be a big war and we are going to beat the living hell out of you Americans, and you’re walking here in this tunnel where when this war happens there will be anti-aircraft guns, there will be, these will be shelters for us to take refuge into. And I don’t know how ornate they may have been or there may have been tunnels away from the main tunnel that we were using. And I understand that during World War II they did have anti-aircraft guns emplacement, probably the outside entrances to these things. And I was, you know, we were sort of taken aback at this kind of talk. But those Germans would, they would drink beer with you, you know in all friendliness, but tell you, “Hey, we’re committed. We are going to take a, get our revenge for the Treaty of Versailles. This is like driving a page out of the history book, we’re going to get revenge. We’re going to show you.” But you see, they had been brought up and instilled and there was a corp of Germans, the younger ones, that were just sort of, I think they were gung-ho. They were just like they were getting ready to go to a big college football game or something, you know, and it was World War II. I remember one Saturday morning. Of course Hitler was trying to put forward his best foot when we were over in Berlin. On a Saturday morning, this Hitler Youth would come out on these playing fields, soccer fields what-not, near the stadium which I was surprised at, on Saturday morning. These kids maybe 10,000 of them would come out there and would march around with wooden guns all in military. They were sort of the equivalent of, maybe we’d call them the Boy Scouts. And I’m sure they had a military man in charge of them or more than one. But here they were just marching by the thousands, carrying flags and wooden guns.
SHOPPER: Very regimented?
STEPHENS: Very regimented, very military. These kids maybe 12, 13, 14, maybe 15, were just like an army.
SHOPPER: They started young.
STEPHENS: And these German girls would say to us, well, “That’s our army, they’ll be fighting you in a few years.”
SHOPPER: And they were proud.
STEPHENS: Well sure they were proud. Now, they were right though. Those were the kids that were to fight us a few years later.
SHOPPER: Did the athletes who were with you take all this talk seriously?
STEPHENS: I don’t know.
SHOPPER: Did you?
STEPHENS: Well, I remember it.
SHOPPER: Yes, so it made an impression on you.
STEPHENS: It made an impression on me. If I came back and said that was going to happen nobody would believe it. You know we like to stick our head in the sand, I think. Maybe the world now gets fed too much information. You know with all the bad things that happen around the world right now. How many people today are worried about Afghanistan? How many people care that those people are over there having their throats cut and all that stuff. It is great to read about it, you know people read about it and then they stop reading about it.