Thursday, 5 February 2015

The Gillis Grafström Story, Part Two


You've all read part one of the two parter right? If not, you probably want to start there sweetie or you're going to be sitting reading this going "alright, this crazy skating blogger from Nova Scotia has completely neglected to mention Gillis Grafström's competitive career and needs to get his shit together". That's beside the point! Part Two of this profile on this Swedish skating legend focuses a bit more on Grafström's life OFF the ice, which I think you're going to find just as interesting if not moreso than the look at his skating contributions.


So we've got this gifted skater by all accounts who is a pioneer technically but even moreso artistically, pushing the boundaries of his sport to such an extreme his contemporaries are singing his praises. Yes, that actually happened before Janet Lynn, Toller Cranston and John Curry! Who knew? But who was this guy... really? As Olof Groth touched on in the biography on file with the Swedish National Archives, Grafström was by some considered a little eccentric, a label that seems to be put on all true creative visionaries at some point in their careers, right? His studies in architecture in Berlin led to a career as a professional architect and he was also a talented poet and painter. After his competitive career ended, he even coached the first woman to do an Olympic three-peat, Sonja Henie, for a time.


While in Germany, Grafström married Cecile Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the great granddaughter of famous composer, pianist and organizt Felix Mendelssohn. Their mutual passion for art translated to a massive collection of historical skating art. Steve Milton's book "Figure Skating's Greatest Stars" talks about this impressive collection: "He and his wife Cecile Mendelssohn-Bartholdy began their legendary collection of skating art and artifacts by touring the antique shops of Holland, where skating first became a social and artistic force. At one point, Gillis and Cecile owned the three oldest skating books in print... Much of the collection was donated by the Grafströms in parts, to the World Figure Skating Museum: the first part was donated to the Museum while at its original Boston location, while the rest went to Colorado Springs when Cecile officially helped open the Museum's new home there in 1979." The collection would go on to be called The Skating In Art Collection and before being donated to the World Figure Skating Museum would be exhibited at the Nordic Museum in 1963 and the Altonaer Museum in Hamburg in 1966.


Despite the fact he seemed to face some sort of setback at every Olympics he competed in - whether it was an equipment problem, illness, bad ice or a collision with a photographer - Grafström's life was so successful it is really hard to find a lot of tragedy when you dig in and do the research. That's only until you talk about his death. Only six years after competing in his final Olympic Games, Gillis Grafström died on April 14, 1938 in Potsdam, Germany at the incredibly young age of forty four. At the time of his death, he had been working as a coach in Munich and had been called to Berlin to coach Germany's national team. In a a 2010 article from "Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten", his stepdaughter noted that his death was from a heart muscle inflammation, not blood poisoning which has been claimed repeatedly in modern sources. He's buried at the Bornstedtler Cemetery alongside his widow Cecile who passed away in Hamburg in 1995. Her dedication to continuing to build the collection they started together and generosity to preserving skating history in memory was simply put... beautiful.


The most touching story related to Grafström came many years after his death in the form of a tribute by his widow Cecile as recounted in Mary Louise Adams' wonderful book "Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport". When John Curry won Olympic gold in 1976, Grafström's widow joined Ulrich Salchow's widow (who gave Curry his 1908 Olympic medal) and presented him with a small gold skate engraved with a congratulatory message. According to The London Times, Mrs. Grafström sang Curry's praises saying he "turned back the clock to the unhurried, graceful, elegant days of the 20's" and that his skating reminded her of her late husband's because of his musical interpretation. Much like the Salchow's trophy that Dick Button started the tradition of passing down through generations, there's something touching about Cecile's comparison of Curry to Grafström and her tribute to his artfulness by presenting him with that golden skate. That same year, Grafström was posthumously inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame.


Here's the good news. Although Grafström and Curry are so sadly no longer with us, their passion for musical interpretation and artistry lives on in those skaters that came after them... including the precious few competing today who make room for musical interpretation in the cookie cutter competitive performances the current judging system dictates. Everything comes full circle... and our next Gillis Grafström is probably in a rink somewhere in this world today, skating precociously and with great virtuosity to the music playing on a practice session when the other skaters are busy focusing on their haircutter spins.

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