Gunther Gebel-Williams, the longtime star of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, with one of his charges in 1969.
By JOYCE WADLER
March 21, 2013
I have noticed these days that reporters never talk to each other about sleeping with their subjects.
I chalk this up to respectability and the fact that when I had these conversations I was in my 20s and worked for the old New York Post and now I get into movies on a senior discount and write for The New York Times.
Even then it didn’t happen much. There are only a few men I met on stories I can remember going out with and I always followed the journalism rule:
You can have a personal relationship with a subject only after the reporting and writing are finished and the story has run, and, if you do, you can never write about that person again. You have kissed objectivity, among other things, goodbye. Or as a former executive editor of this newspaper put it and I’m going to have to clean it up — " ‘I don’t care if my reporters have intimate congress with an elephant, as long as they do not cover the circus.’ ”
Which is kind of appropriate, because the subject I am telling you about was Gunther Gebel-Williams, the star animal trainer at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. I interviewed him for the first time when I was about 25, and even now when the posters for the circus go up in spring I think of him. Oh be still my statin-protected heart.
I first saw Gunther at Madison Square Garden, riding around the ring standing up on a white horse with his pet leopard, Kenny, around his neck. The first thing I noticed was that both the leopard and horse seemed fine with this arrangement, the second that the star of the show obviously dyed his hair, a very bad amateur job, white peroxide blond.
“What a ridiculous guy,” I thought, but simultaneously there was a feeling, which, were I a cartoon character with a bubble coming out of my head, would have been something like, “Arr-arrrf, Woof, Woof!!” If there was animal magnetism, this guy had it, unless it was the horse.
I went behind the arena, near the elephants, to interview him. It smelled like dung and sawdust and popcorn – in short, like circus, to me one of the world’s greatest smells. As the star, Gunther, who came from Germany and spoke English with a heavy accent, was allowed to have the trailer he shared with his wife and two children here. A tiger had recently given birth and Gunther had taken the cubs from the mother and was bottle-feeding them. If a tiger gives birth in captivity, she kills her cubs rather than have them live in a cage, Gunther said. I had no idea if this was true, but it’s the sort of detail features writers are suckers for.
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