Before Foxcatcher: The story of the Swimming Hall of Fame and the John du Pont not depicted in FOXCATCHER, the movie

© Bruce Wigo, President/CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame

Foxcatcher, the movie, has been called a true-­crime psycho-drama about wealth, patriotism, class, manipulation and the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz by millionaire John E. du Pont. It has won acclaim at film festivals around the world and so has a magnificent ensemble cast of Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Vanessa Redgrave. By all reviews it is a dark, disturbing story with a tragic ending that Rotten Tomatoes scores 86/100.

Johnny Weissmuller, Buck Dawson and John E. du Pont in 1967, when du Pont was Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame Museum, in Fort Lauderdale, can be seen under construction in the background.

Johnny Weissmuller, Buck Dawson and John E. du Pont in 1967, when du Pont was Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame Museum, in Fort Lauderdale, can be seen under construction in the background.

I was interested in seeing the movie because the real John du Pont portrayed by Steve Carell in the film, is the same John du Pont who served as the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. I never met John du Pont, but I wanted to find out more about him and his relationship to swimming before seeing the movie. What I learned from the coaches and swimmers who knew him best was that, before he fell victim to mental illness and killed Dave Schultz, John du Pont was a much more interesting, humorous, complex and tragic figure than the character in the film who How ard Stern describes as a “creepy psycho” that makes you “want to hate him.”

“The Carell character in the movie is not the man I knew,” said coach Frank Keefe, who walked out of the film before it ended in disgust. “The John du Pont I knew was my friend, a patriot and a hero. He was a man with great ideas and unlike most of us, he had the resources to turn his ideas into actions that helped a lot of people.”

Stanford Coach Jim Gaughran, remembers du Pont as “a friend who was generous to a fault.“

John Leonard, Executive Director of the American Swimming Coaches Association called him “a national treasure.”

“Behind this terrible tragedy,” says Coach Jack Simon, “was a man who believed in people and did much to assist their success.”

Coach Richard Shoulberg says “I loved the man! John wasn’t the nut depicted in the movie, he was mentally ill. He needed help and didn’t get it. That’s the tragedy.”

Heir to the DuPont Chemical fortune, John Eleuthère du Pont was born into a family of almost unimaginable wealth. His parents divorced when he was two and he grew up on Liseter Hall Farm, an 800- acre estate outside of Philadelphia. Growing up he had few friends and devoted himself to fishing and collecting specimens of birds, seashells and stamps. He became an expert in all three fields under the tutelage of some of the world’s leading experts who were hired by his father. His social interactions were primarily with his mother and the servants. He swam for the Haverford School and in college at the University of Miami (FLA) and had aspirations of making the 1964 Olympic swimming team. Following his formula for success in his other interests, he bought an estate in Atherton, California, in 1963, so he could train under the world’s best swim coach, George Haines.

“I think he was someone without much selfesteem, and he was desperate to fit into something, to prove himself,” said Olympic great Donna de Varona, a member of Santa Clara’s Swim team. “But he worked hard, was never late for practices and ultimately, he earned some respect and affection from the people around him. I think that was the happiest he ever was,” she said.

“He was different,” remembers Hall of Famer, Steve Clark, “but he kind of fit in.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 6.08.04 PMThe first time 1960 Olympic backstroke champion and Santa Clara swimmer Lynne Burke met du Pont was when her younger brother brought him home after practice one day. Within a few weeks he had become a fixture in the Burke household.

“It was a little odd at first, because here was John coming home with a boy, my younger brother, who was ten years younger than he was,” says Lynne. “I don’t think John ever had friends before and he found a friend in my younger brother. John was a bit socially awkward. He giggled a lot and had a bit of a speech impediment. One time my mother made him a birthday cake and we had a little party for him. He was in his mid-­twenties and had never had a birthday party before. He seemed to be amazed by ordinary people and was shocked that people liked him. I have a lot of happy memories about him from those days.”

John du Pont would later recall in his book, Off the Mat, that the sense of joy, camaraderie, family and accomplishment he found training with the Santa Clara Swim Club changed the direction of his life.

In coach George Haines and Lynne’s father Bob, he found the father figures he had never had known. In the champions he swam with he saw all that was right with America. They were “Citizen – Athletes” who would go to good colleges and become doctors, lawyers and stalwarts of their community. In time he came to see it as his responsibility to help young athletes become champions, both in competition and in life.

When it became clear to Lynne’s father Bob and Coach Haines that John wasn’t going to make it as an Olympic swimmer, they sat down with him and suggested that he pursue his Olympic dream in the sport of pentathlon. They told him this was HIS event! He already knew how to swim, ride horses, run and shoot, he just had to learn how to fence. He wasn’t a natural athlete, but unlike the depiction in the movie, he was a decent athlete and better than average swimmer. Wealth, of course, was another advantage, as there were only about 25 people in the country who could afford to seriously compete in the sport.

Du Pont seized upon the idea, and it became his obsession for the next five years. He dedicated himself to a strict regimen of running, swimming, riding and shooting and he hired one of the top fencing coaches in the country, Lajos Csiszar, to teach him to fence.

One fall, when George Haines was preoccupied with the Santa Clara high school program, some of Santa Clara’s college swimmers, Dick Roth, Mike Wall and Greg Buckingham (brother of Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham) took him with them to train at Stanford. There he met coach Jim Gaughran who would become his coach, friend and confidant through the 1970’s. Jim traveled the world with John to pentathlon competitions and with his wife, accompanied him on expeditions to places like Fiji and Samoa to collect shell and bird specimens for du Pont’s natural history collection.

Haines, Gaughran and the friends he made in swimming were often invited to Liseter Hall Farm, back in Pennsylvania. The main house was a replica of Montpelier, James Madison’s Plantation in Virginia that was designed by Thomas Jefferson. The original Montpelier was owned by the du Pont family and in 1983 was gifted to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

On her first visit to the farm, Lynne Burke noticed an immediate difference in John’s demeanor. While he was a relaxed and sometimes silly boy in her home, he became formal and proper at Liseter Hall where they engaged in patrician activities like fox hunts.

“When dinner was ready, we were taken into a room with an enormously long table” says Lynne. “John would sit at the head. We would all be seated at the opposite end. The servants would bring out the meat and set it in front of John. He would raise his knife and fork in the air and then ceremoniously start to cut. The servants would put the pieces on a plate and serve us one at a time at the far end of the table. It was hysterical, but we dared not laugh.”

“After dinner, we would sit in the parlor, decorated with thousands of trophies and ribbons his mother had won in horse shows, and talk,” says Lynne. “John could still be a prankster, like putting one of his giant parrots on my head. But about nine o’clock he would announce it was time for bed. We would all go to our rooms until we heard John shut his door. Then we’d race down to the kitchen with his mom and talk into the night. His mother was nothing like she is depicted in the movie. She was down to earth, normal and fun loving. The problem was that she had absolutely nothing in common with her son.”

In 1965, John wanted to turn the farm into a training center for the pentathlon. He carved out running paths, built an outdoor shooting range and wanted to replace four tennis courts on the Farm with a 50 meter swimming pool. As was usually the case with his ideas, he ran this one by his mother. Knowing that his father had left his mother to marry a professional tennis player, she readily agreed to let him rip the courts up and build the pool.

Living just down the road was Suburban Swim Club coach Frank Keefe. Looking for a long course pool to train his senior swimmers, he approached du Pont about using his pool. While the two talked, Frank learned that John’s father had trained champion thoroughbred horses on the farm under the moniker of “Foxcatcher Farm.”

“We were going to train thoroughbred swimmers,” said Keefe, “so we called the group of swimmers who trained on the farm ‘Team Foxcatcher.’ When we were leaving for nationals, I told John it was a shame that the pool wasn’t covered, so he and our team could train year round. When we got back, I found contractors at work on a building to cover the pool.”

A short time later, he built an indoor shooting range that Jim Gaughran remembers being “an exact replica of the FBI’s shooting range in Quantico, Virginia. He even hired the same architect and contractor J. Edgar Hoover had used.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 6.10.15 PMIt was about this time that John heard about the Swimming Hall of Fame project, in Fort Lauderdale. He made a call to Buck Dawson and asked what he could do to help.

Buck appointed John Chairman of the Hall’s Board of Trustees and he kicked off the fundraising campaign with a gift of $65,000. It was a gift that stood as largest single contribution to the Hall for many years. In recognition for his contribution, the Hall’s 4,000 sq ft. auditorium and banquet hall bears his name. He attended induction ceremonies, participated in the Hall’s early Master’s swimming meets and sponsored a series of triathlons at the ISHOF until Buck Dawson was fired in the mid 1980’s.

Once the pool and shooting range were built, John created a three-­sport, mini-pentathlon event consisting of only running, swimming and shooting. His idea was to identify talented athletes who could then be taught to ride and fence for the pentathlon. Arguably, it was the start of the triathlon movement in the United States. The first “du Pont triathlon” was held at Liseter Farm in 1966 and he started inviting other pentathletes to join him as training partners. In 1967, the first of many US National Pentathlon Championships were held on the Farm.

One of the young athletes du Pont tried to recruit for the Pentathlon was my brother, Chick, who swam at Penn and been an All-­American swimmer and a county cross country champion in high school. He remembers du Pont as being “a really nice and interesting guy who really seemed to take genuine interest in me. I just didn’t take the Olympic dream John had for me as a pentathlete as my own.”

While John du Pont failed to make the 1968 US Olympic Pentathlon team, he found some solace when Carl Robie, who trained with Keefe’s Foxcatcher group came out of retirement to win the Gold Medal in the 200m butterfly and became “Foxcatcher’s” first Olympic champion.

In the late 1960’s, some of Santa Clara’s swimmers took John to a water polo practice at De Anza college. In those days, most swimmers in California also played polo. The De Anza coach was Art Lambert, who had been the 1968 coach of the US Olympic water polo team.

“John really enjoyed being an athlete,” said Art, “but water polo is a tough game to master if you play at his age for the first time. So even though he was a decent swimmer, we thought his best shot was as a goalkeeper. I don’t think he ever stopped a shot, but he enjoyed being a part of the team and he was a lot of fun to have around.”

In 1969, du Pont sponsored the De Anza club team on a trip to Europe, paying all expenses. Although John was ten years older than most of the players, he was accepted by the players on this team of pranksters.

“I don’t know what he did to precipitate it,” says Lambert, “but in Spainthe team stripped John down to his underwear, tied him up in trainer’s tape and left him out in a very public square. You’d have thought John died and went to heaven.”

In his house in Atherton, John had two giant German Shepard’s that had been taught obedience in in the German language. One of John’s favorite tricks was tell a guest that these dogs were trained to kill. He would then give a command in German and the dogs would glare and snarl at the visitor. Another German word and they would stop growling and lie down. One evening, when Art, Jim Gaughran and Jim’s brother Bob were at John’s house with their wives for dinner, John had the dogs pin Jim up against a wall. “I thought Jim was going to wet his pants,” remembers Bob.” “But it was all good fun!”

On one her visits to Liseter Hall Farm, John walked Lynne Burke out to a giant building she had never seen before. Inside was an enormous jet helicopter. He proudly introduced the copter to her as “my Lynnie.” She had long suspected he had a crush on her, but he was never confident enough express his feelings to her. For her part she never thought of him as anything other than as a friend. But upon seeing “Lynnie” she decided she’d better stop visiting the farm. The day she got married, she received a telegram from him asking, “Why am I always left at the starting blocks?”

“John was an expert helicopter pilot,” says Jim Gaughran. “I remember one time we were flying back to the Farm after a “du Pont triathlon” competition at West Point. He flew the helicopter right up to the nose of the Statue of Liberty and we looked her in the eye for a few minutes. They’d never let you do something like that today.”

Frank Keefe, who had joined John’s coaching entourage, remembers the drive up to West Point with John and Jim to the same meet.

“We drove up to the meet but John didn’t want to drive back, so he had his helicopter flown up to the Point,” says Keefe. “He flew back with Jim while I drove John’s Cadillac back. In the trunk were a dozen guns and a thousand rounds of ammunition. All the way back I was worried John would call the police and report the car stolen. That’s the kind of prank he would do.”

Lambert remembers flying up and down the California coast in John’s helicopter looking for the best diving spots. They’d land on a beach that was virtually inaccessible, go spearfishing or dive or shells, then take off and look for another spot

By 1969, du Pont’s seashell and bird collections had outgrown the great house, so he built the Delaware Museum of Natural History, in Wilmington, to house his collections.

It was about this time that Keefe got the idea to leave Suburban and start his own club. He negotiated a deal whereby he would pay DuPont the pool’s utility bill in return for use of the pool and calling his club “Foxcatcher.” He’d get to keep the fees paid by the swimmers. In 1978, Keefe realized it wasn’t such a good deal. “Never do business with a millionaire,” warns Keefe.

When they couldn’t come to an agreement, Keefe told John he was leaving to accept an offer to become the head coach at Yale University. The parting was friendly, but before leaving John asked Frank what he thought it would take to get George Haines to take over the program. By now, George had left Santa Clara and was coaching at UCLA.

“He measured every coach, including me, against George Haines,” says Keefe. “He just thought George was the greatest, and he was. When I called George to ask him if he was interested in the Foxcatcher job, he told me he was happy where he was, but if du Pont was willing to pay him three times his salary, or seventy-five thousand dollars, he might consider it.”

Steve Clark, one of George’s swimmers who’s in the Hall of Fame, was the lawyer who negotiated George’s contract, which topped $100,000 plus housing and moving expenses. It was an enormous, almost unthinkable sum for a swim coach at the time.

But a month or two into the job, George called Bob Horn. Horn had played in two Olympics as a member of the US water polo team and at one time was coaching both the swimming and water polo teams at UCLA. He had recruited Haines to take over the swimming program so he could focus on water polo.

“Bob,” he said, “leaving UCLA was the biggest mistake of my life.”

“George found out what I had observed,” says Lynne Burke. “John was a different person on the farm. He was controlling and thought he knew as much about coaching as George.”

In hiring George, John had visions of recreating and being a part of the family atmosphere and success that he had experienced in Santa Clara with Team Foxcatcher. But the conditions were very different. For the most part, the swimmers didn’t live in the same community or attend the same high school, like they did in Santa Clara. They came to practice and went home. And John was no longer the swimmer, he envisioned himself, in a way, as being a co-­coach with George, whom he idolized.

“I think the inability of George to recreate what John remembered in Santa Clara and meet John’s expectations, combined with the failure to claim an Olympic champion because of the 1980 Olympic boycott were some of the factors led to George leaving to take a coaching job at Stanford,” says Keefe.

After Haines left, John started taking more of an interest in other sports, like triathlon and later wrestling, but he still maintained his interest and support of swimming. After Haines came Jack Simon, and then Dick Shoulberg, who would coach swimmers on the du Pont estate through 2000.

In the mid 1980’s John was financially supporting many of America’s best triathletes, who trained on Liseter Farm and competed for Team Foxcatcher. In December of 1986, one of John Leonard’s swimmers, was killed after competing in a triathlon by a drunk driver. The boy’s brother said he dreamed of competing for Team Foxcatcher and hoped he could be buried in a Foxcather sweatsuit. John called Dick Shoulberg who was now coaching Foxcatcher, and a sweat suit was made available. When John du Pont heard the story, he told Dick that he’d like to donate $50,000 to a swimming organization and wanted to know what he thought about it to the American Swimming Coaches Association. Dick response was positive and a check was sent to ASCA with the stipulation that the interest be used to fund a young coach’s expenses to learn under a veteran coach.

It was maybe a year later that Dick got an urgent message to meet John du Pont in his office. John told him that he had a call from John Leonard, asking him if he knew anyone who could sponsor ASCA’s new Swim America Program.

“John was furious and started yelling at me and accusing me of having an arrangement with Leonard to get a finders fee,” says Shoulberg. “I told him that I could understand why he was suspicious about peoples motives, but that he shouldn’t worry about that with me. I told him I didn’t need his money where he could shove it. I then explained that Leonard started Swim America because he had a two-year old son who had drowned and he wanted to do something to prevent children from drowning.

John du Pont broke down in tears and told me to leave. Later, I got a call from John Leonard telling me that he had received a check from John du Pont for $50,000 and was negotiating a contract to sponsor Swim America for a whole lot more.

John du PontIn August of 1988, John du Pont accompanied Shoulberg and Foxcatcher swimmers to the US Olympic Swimming Trials in Austin, Texas. He was not with the Schultz brothers at the Olympic Trials for wrestling as depicted in the film.

“John was so excited when Dave Wharton and Trina Radke qualified for the finals,” says Shoulberg. “But after the prelims ended, he took me aside and told me his mother had died and he had to return to Pennsylvania. ‘Please don’t tell Dave and Trina, I don’t want to upset them,’” he said.

When Dick asked him if he needed a ride to the airport, du Pont said “no,” he had arranged for a driver.

“I went with him, even though there was a chance I’d miss the finals,” said Dick. “He had done so much for the program and our kids, and I didn’t think he should be alone. He needed a friend to be with him.”

“I called John after to the finals to tell him that Dave had won the 200 IM and then handed the phone to Trina,” says Dick. “She got on and said, ‘John…. I didn’t make it.’ There was silence on the other end. Then just as John started to say how sorry he was, Tina screamed, ‘Just kidding, I got second and I’m going to Seoul.’ He was so happy he started to cry.”

“The death of his mother was a big turning point in John’s life,” says Keefe. “She had been his base. For his whole life, she was there to keep him somewhat grounded. After she died, he started showing signs of mental illness that progressively worsened over time until he killed Dave Schultz in 1996.”

It’s hard to understand du Pont’s relationship with his parents. According those who knew him best, he saw very little of his father. If he wanted to see him, he had to make an appointment through his father’s secretary. Even with an appointment, he would have to wait outside his office for hours. He never ate a meal with his father, who didn’t dine with children. While his father was generous with his money, he was not with his time. His father died in 1965, when John was just 27 years old. In spite of this odd and cold relationship John dedicated his book, Off The Mat, to his “beloved father… a great citizen, patriot, and winner, to whom I owe my life.” After his mother passed away, he changed the name of Liseter Hall Farm, which had been his mother’s family name, to “Foxcatcher Farm,” in homage to his father.

In hindsight, Jack Simon noticed disturbing changes in John’s behavior years earlier. Something few people know is that George Haines didn’t leave on his own, John fired him. This must have taken a terrible emotional toll on him because George had been his idol, his mentor and the man he aspired to be like.

“John once told me that George was the closest thing to a father that he ever had,” Simon says. “He actually cried when he told me that.”

After George left, Simon says that John started drinking heavily and after sustaining a serious injury in a fall, he became addicted to painkillers. A brief marriage to his physical therapist ended when she claimed he had threatened to kill her for being a Russian spy.

“One morning I passed him as he was driving to the mansion,” says Simon. “He waved me down and said ‘let’s go out to dinner this evening. Pick me up after practice.’ I knocked on the front door, he opened it. ‘What the (#&*K) are you doing here,’ he said and he slammed the door in my face! His ups and downs were mind boggling.”

“I spent a lot of time with him trying to counsel him and while he was always respectful and listened,” says Simon. “But he was back at it the next day.”

As the film portrays, du Pont devoted more of his time and energy trying to create a new family with the wrestlers, with him as the head of it, perhaps trying to emulate his idol, George Haines.

Shoulberg he rarely saw him in the 1990s. “We’d come to the pool, have practice and leave,” he says.

In my opinion, Foxcather, the movie, is a glacially slow moving, boring, shallow and purposeless story. The mantra of great screen writing is creating characters who are transformed by events and/or interaction with other characters. For me, the great tragedy of the film is not the murder it depicts, but in the lost opportunity by the screenwriters to create a compelling character arc that would have allowed Steve Carell, (a perfect casting choice) to combine his considerable comedic and dramatic talents to paint a three‐dimensional portrait of a John E. du Pont. Instead Carell is imprisoned in a cold, unsympathetic, humorless and troubled character that is unrecognizable to those who knew him, and who goes through the film unchanged first his appearance to his last. Unless I missed something, the film also fails to provide the viewer with any indication of what led to du Pont’s mental illness. Nor did it provide any clue at all as to why he shot and killed the very likable Dave Schultz. It could have been so much more if Bennet Miller had just done a little bit of research and looked into the real character of John du Pont, rather than just seeing him through the eyes of Mark Schultz, who never met du Pont until 1987.

“John E. du Pont did so many good things for so many people and for swimming,” says Shoulberg. “I’m not going to forget, and I hope that no one forgets all the all the good things he did before he became a victim of untreated mental illness who for years was protected by a shield and curse of wealth.”

About Bruce Wigo

Bruce Wigo was named President and CEO of ISHOF on Friday the 13th of May, 2005. He is lawyer who has had success in turning around financially troubled non-profit businesses. In 1991, he took over as the Executive Director of USA Water Polo and helped bail out the nearly bankrupt sport’s federation. In his thirteen years as ED, he increased membership from less than 8,000 to more than 30,000, more than tripled the annual budget to over $3.5 million and raised over $1.5 million for the establishment of a water polo national training center in Los Alamitos, CA. His oldest son, Wolf Wigo, is a three time Olympian, is currently the head water polo coach at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Daughter Lauren is the corporate yoga instructor for Allen & Company in New York City and his two younger sons, identical twins Drac and Janson, are NCAA All-American water polo players at Stanford University.

About ISHOF

The International Swimming Hall of Fame is a not-for-profit educational organization located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Our mission is to promote the benefits and importance of swimming as a key to fitness, good health, quality of life, and the water safety of children. We will accomplish this through operation of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a dynamic shrine dedicated to the history, memory, and recognition of the famous swimmers, divers, water polo players, synchronized swimmers, and persons involved in life saving activities and education, throughout the world, whose lives and accomplishments will serve to inspire, educate, and be role models for all those who participate in the Hall of Fame’s experience and programs.

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30 Comments on "Before Foxcatcher: The story of the Swimming Hall of Fame and the John du Pont not depicted in FOXCATCHER, the movie"

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I swam with John at SCSC in the mid sixties – I was a teenager. He was desperately eager to please the older guys … Greg Buckingham, Don Schollander, Mike Wall and others who were genuinely nice people. To me, there was always a weird vibe about him.

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The weird vibe was likely a prodrome to whatever serious mental illness Du Pont had. But it’s a shame that the movie failed to capture his complexity, and I’m glad to learn this before I plunked down any money to see the film. Thanks to Mr. Wigo for setting the record straight.

I loved the movie even thought I would agree that it was a bit slow at times. Aside from some of the factual misrepresentations like the fact that Dupont attended the swimming trials but not the wrestling trials (and these liberties are to be expected in movies), I think that Carrell’s portrayal was very much in line with how Dupont is described in this article.

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