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Inside the Foil's Files

June 14, 1998|Dave Gardetta

According to Andy Shaw, of the thousands of articles ever written on the subject of fencing, only three have been passable: two that appeared in the New Yorker and one written by David Halberstam. Odds are this piece will not join them.

Shaw, whose paying job is general manager of the Westside Fencing Center, makes statements like this in his Culver City office. There he keeps company with Clara Schumann and Comanche, his dogs, and shelf upon shelf of assembled volumes labeled "Accident" and "Bio and Obit" and "1823"--in short, the country's most comprehensive history of fencing.

Shaw is an intense man with wire-rim glasses, a toothy smile and an angular face that seems to forever be in the unyielding forward motion of, well, a fencer, something he has been since 1958. His unpaying job is official historian of the United States Fencing Assn., and while it's an occupation that takes almost all of his free time, it hasn't drawn many onlookers. "I haven't met a soul who's interested in this collection," says Shaw, 48, "so I am concerned about its survival because I could drop dead at any moment. Forget the fencing accident--a car could knock me off!"

This is funny because, looking at the multiplex, you would think it's a high-profile year for fencing--Leonardo DiCaprio desperately waved a foil in "The Man in the Iron Mask," and come next month, Antonio Banderas will carve his fashionable imprint in "The Mask of Zorro." Indeed, every actor from Banderas to Gabriel Byrne to Dustin Hoffman has been trained in combat by a Westside Fencing instructor. Yet Shaw is not as impressed with cinematic fencing sequences ("That's Suzy's School of Ha Ha Ha Fighting for 20 Minutes") as he is with the idea that no other soul will ever look into his library. "I don't think anyone but myself will ever know what's inside these books," he says. "But it's kind of like the woman I'm with--I couldn't care less about whoever else wants her."

Theodore Roosevelt fenced. A little-known surgeon died in the 1880s from a fencing blade in the brain. The Astors, passengers on the Titanic, were members of the New York Fencers' Club. Shaw began hand-compiling his own collection more than 20 years ago; in 1991, after the USFA removed its former historian--"He was brilliant but bitter," Shaw says--the organization asked him to fill the position. He found the world full of undiscovered leads: helpful strangers on the Internet, a 93-year-old woman with incredible stories, a man who hates everybody but can't be ignored because he knows so much about fencing.

Shaw has amassed more than 100 volumes that date to 1734 and yet, he says, the library will never be complete. "My goal here has nothing to do with fencing," Shaw says. "It's a salute to the loveliness and drive of people who did things in the past and have now been forgotten."

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