A couple of Fridays past, I was able to spend an hour speaking with Gerard Biagini. Now, if his name is not familiar to you, it really should be. He’s been a mainstay of fencing in the Bay Area since before most of us were born. I first became aware of Mr. Biagini as a young fencer, as he would invariably show up at tournaments at the Pannonia Athletic Club, back when it was still a going concern in San Francisco.
“There’s Mr. Biagini,” was spoken to me in hushed tones.
“Who’s he?” I asked.
“He was really good,” came the response.
The “really good” implied much more than ‘he used to fence’ or ‘he won some tournaments’. There was a sense that he was ‘somebody’ in the sport. Not just involved in the sport, or a past winner, but a man well respected by his peers. A man deserving of that respect.
I had that original impression compounded in the past few years since creating this Archive. In my conversations and interviews with fencers of past eras of competition, when a memory of an event or the name of someone was too elusive, I often heard, “Well, Jerry Biagini would know,” or “Jerry would remember.” With such confidence in his knowledge of history, compounded by the many, many people who invoked his name, it was inevitable that I would contact him. I was finally able to arrange some face-to-face time with Mr. Biagini and he more than lived up to his reputation. He knows things.
Gerard Biagini, Youthful Swordsman
Gerard Biagini began fencing at a young age at the Unione Sportiva Italiana, a San Francisco club founded by the Italian community. From 1925, the instructor there was a Mr. Edward Visconti. Visconti taught there until the club was shuttered around 1941 or 1942 as a reaction to some of the members professed fascist leanings. Visconti retired from active coaching and gave the equipment from his club to Hans Halberstadt, thus giving Hans a starting point for his own Halberstadt Fencers Club. Hans had been teaching as an assistant at Erich Funke d’Egnuff’s club before opening under his own name. Visconti went into the glove making business, and all the smart fencers of the time wore Visconti’s handmade doeskin fencing gloves.
Hans Halberstadt, Gerard Biagini and Edward Visconti.
Talking with Jerry is the opportunity to hear an encapsulated history of fencing in Northern California. He takes every opportunity to laud his influencers and contemporaries.
Visconti: “He had an enormous talent for teaching excellent basics.”
Edward Visconti, from the wall of the Halberstadt Fencers Club.
Jack Baker: “He singlehandedly built the NorCal division into the largest in the AFLA outside of Metro New York.”
Biagini’s good friend Jack Baker in 1964, running a tournament at the Letterman Gym.
George Piller: “Just a wonderful man.”
Biagini taking a foil lesson from George Piller at an exhibition at the San Francisco Fairmont Hotel, 1958.
Michael D’Asaro: “An amazingly talented coach.”
1984 Olympian Peter Schifrin taking a lesson from Michael D’Asaro, Sr.
Daniel Magay: “Dan was the epitome of what a sabre fencer wanted to be.”
Dan Magay, 3-time US National Individual Sabre Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist, with Gerard Biagini, taken around 1964.
Tom Orley: “In his first US tournaments, he looked a bit like a hobo with his borrowed equipment, but he could do extraordinary things with a sabre.”
Tom Orley & Jack Baker in 1957. Orley was the 1954 Junior World Sabre Champion, fought the Soviets in the streets of Budapest, appeared on “This Is Your Life” in 1956, won the US National Championships in sabre in 1959, graduated from Stanford University and competed for the United States at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which was both his honeymoon and fencing swan-song. He put down his sabre after 1964 and took up golf.
While Mr. Biagini may be the most self-deprecating of men, he nonetheless has an extraordinary list of accomplishments in the sport. And notice of his talent was taken early, as evidenced by this item from the October, 1940 issue of “The Riposte” magazine, one of several precursors to American Fencing Magazine, which began publication in 1949:
He was noticed again a few years later when he attended his first National Championships:
(As an aside, Gary Martin was, as noted, a pupil of Aldo Nadi’s. A great talent, he apparently lost interest in the sport after only a few years, having amassed a stellar record of victories up and down the West Coast, as well as catching the attention of the Easterners, as noted above. According to a teammate of Martin’s, Taylor Sloan, Gary quit, citing fencing as “too easy”. )
A couple more articles from American Fencing:
From 1951. Not a bad three-weekend run – and winning two fence-offs.
Also from 1951, Biagini takes 2nd at the NCAA Championships, defeating future Olympian (1956) Harold Goldsmith.
Mr. Biagini also has the 2nd highest number of wins of the Halberstadt Sabre competition, held annually from 1947 until 1962. Salvatore Giambra won the event a record 5 times, Biagini 4 times, and Dan Magay 3 times. Other winners included Sewell “Skip” Shurtz and Alex Orban. The sabres, made and presented by Hans Halberstadt, were slightly different every year. Here’s an example:
The 1952 version of the Halberstadt Sabre, in a case at Halberstadt Fencers Club and donated by the ’52 winner, Skip Shurtz.
From the Halberstadt Scrapbooks, here is a picture of Mr. Biagini from 1962, holding his presentation Halberstadt Sabre. As far as I can determine, this was the final Halberstadt Sabre Tournament held. By this time, Hans was about 77 years old, and possibly not up to making any more trophy sabres.
The 1962 winner of the Halberstadt Sabre.
In addition to local events, Biagini also made a mark on the National stage. Along with his Pannonia Athletic Club sabre teammates, he won three straight National team championships in 1960, ’61 and ’62.
The 1961 edition of the Pannonia Athletic Club’s US National Champion Team Sabre squad. From left to right: Jack Baker, Alex Orban, Julius Palffy-Alpar, (someone unknown by me, but Andy Shaw probably knows), Daniel Magay and Gerard Biagini. Alpar was coaching at the San Francisco School of Fencing at this time, but several of the members of this team were taking lessons with him. George Piller had passed away in 1960 and wasn’t replaced at Pannonia until Ferenc Marki arrived in 1962.
Not sure of the year for this photo, but here is Gerard holding the Sherman Hall Trophy for National Sabre Team Championships.
One last clipping from American Fencing, this one from 1985:
Many a young student attending San Francisco high schools owed their introduction to the sport of fencing to Gerard Biagini. I don’t know the full history of how he began the program or how many schools were involved, but I know he was a big reason why it lasted through the years. I believe it continues to go strong and they award some pretty cool trophies that I spotted in a Facebook post last year.
With all the above data points and photographic evidence, it still does little to present the true measure of this man. Gerard Biagini is a Gentleman, in the truest definition of the term. I’ve never, ever heard a bad word said about him, and the people who have mention him to me as a source spoke more truly than they may have realized.
Gerard Biagini – he knows.