Thursday, July 2, 2009

Finding Relna

Continuing the theme of “great discoveries while researching,” started yesterday by Vicki Cobb….

I’m not sure which was the more amazing discovery: finding Relna Brewer’s pictures or meeting her in person. I found her pictures in 1995, when I was doing photo research for my book, Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports. In those days, one could rummage around in the backroom of the Bettmann Archive in New York City for long-forgotten news photographs. I spent an afternoon looking through banks of file cabinets, opening every folder whose label had anything to do with sports. In one file—I forget which—I found two exquisite black-and-white photographs of a bathing beauty flexing her biceps for the camera. I immediately put them in my pile of photos to be copied.

Besides the Bettmann I.D. number, there was only the sketchiest of information on the backs of the photos: “Strongwoman Relna Brewer, Venice, Ca 11/22/37.” In the days that followed, I searched high and low for more information on Relna, to no avail. (This was three years before Google was invented. Searching for information was a much more time-consuming and frustrating process back then.) Meanwhile, my publisher suggested that we colorize the photos and use them on the front and back covers of the book. I agreed. I thought they represented a breakthrough in the image of American women, co-opting the traditional “bathing beauty” pose to emphasize the appeal of a female athlete’s muscles and strength.

When the book was published in 1996, I still had not found Relna. But then fate intervened. Author and book reviewer Kathleen Krull (now a fellow I.N.K. blogger) received a copy of Winning Ways to review for the Los Angeles Times, and she was surprised to see her husband’s aunt on the cover. Kathleen contacted my publisher, informing them that our cover model, now Relna Brewer McRae, was alive and well and living near San Diego. We sent her an autographed book and a few months later I traveled to San Diego, where we spent a few days together and did a joint book signing.

Meeting Relna was such a thrill. I spent so many hours staring at those photos, imagining her story, but her life turned out to be infinitely more interesting than I envisioned. At the time the pictures were taken, she was one of the pioneers at Muscle Beach, the plot of sand in Santa Monica, California, famous for launching the careers of bodybuilders, gymnasts, acrobats, stuntpeople, and at least a few Olympic athletes. Relna’s brother, Paul Brewer, was one of the men who staked out the beach in the early 1930s, and Relna was the first girl to perform there. But that was just the beginning. She later became a weightlifter, a trapeze artist, a swimmer, and a skater with the Ice Follies. She also did stunt work in the movies and even served as a decoy for Marilyn Monroe, helping the actress slip away from the omnipresent news media.

Today, Relna is still alive and well, just a few months shy of her 90th birthday. She is the mother of three and grandmother of four, and this weekend, she will be the newest inductee in the Muscle Beach Hall of Fame in Venice, California. According to its Web site, the hall recognizes “individuals who have inspired, informed, entertained and advanced the art, sport and the science of bodybuilding and physical culture.” On Saturday she will join the ranks of other Muscle Beach immortals, including fitness guru Jack LaLanne and Joe Gold, founder of Gold’s Gym. It's a long way from the backroom of the Bettmann Archive and a fitting honor for a genteel woman who newspapers once labeled "Pretty as a Picture and Stronger Than Most Men."


Vicki Cobb said...

What a nice story! I checked out the video about Reina. The problem with being a pioneer is that often you're not recognized until you're gone. I'm sure your discovery played a large part in her recognition. Congrats, Sue!

Mark Herr said...

She sounds like an amazing person. I can only imagine the stories she had to tell.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Serendipity strikes again!

Laurie said...

Great story about this beautiful cover. You commented, "This was three years before Google was invented. Searching for information was a much more time-consuming and frustrating process back then." This encourages us to think anything can be found with Google; while that's sometimes the case, as with a person who has a distinctive name, like Relna, searching with Google does not find everything, or sometimes finds too much. I'd be interested to hear from you authors about research for your books that can't be accomplished online, and how you figure out where to go next when a Google search comes up short.