Legendary illustrator Vebell lands in US Fencing Hall of Fame
Published 3:23 pm, Wednesday, July 2, 2014
As a teenager growing up during the depression, Ed Vebell read about the exploits of swashbucklers in books like "The Three Musketeers." He was captivated by the duels in movies like "The Mark of Zorro." And he fantacized about fencing.
The stories painted pictures of chivalry and heroes who handed out justice with their swordsmanship. The tales also planted the seeds of an avocation that -- 80 years and multiple lifetimes worth of experience later -- has landed the 93-year-old Westporter in the US Fencing Hall of Fame.
People in Westport's arts community may know Vebell as one of the nation's leading 20th century illustrators. But his fencing career, which started in his youth on the south side of Chicago, carried him to international championships and the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.
"He's one of our greatest fencers," said US Fencing Hall of Fame director Andy Shaw. "He was the first American to win an international epee competition; he was great in two techniques (epee and foil) and his game was developed in a number of different places."
At the Helsinki Olympics, Vebell reached the semifinals and placed 13th. He won the North American Championships in 1953, and, in 1964 became the lone American to win the World Cup.
All of his fencing accomplishments coincided with a career of a different kind. Vebell developed into one of the most well-known illustrators in the United States, a career that lasted 70 years with his work appearing in virtually every significant magazine in the country, including Time, Life, Sports Illustrated and Reader's Digest.
Vebell began fencing at age 14 and was largely self-taught through books. He competed in the Chicago Championships and won the novice bracket before the advent of war changed the course of his life forever.
"I started fencing mostly because I read a lot of romantic books," Vebell said. "It kind of fired my imagination; and the early movies by Douglas Fairbanks. I was fascinated by fencing."
In 1942, at the age of 20, Vebell was drafted into the Army and was sent to North Africa. When his artistic talent was discovered, he was offered a job as an illustrator with Stars and Stripes, published by the Defense Department and the nation's most widely read military newspaper. Not only did that keep him out of the front line, it allowed him a unique opportunity to continue his fencing training with some of the best teachers in the world.
"(Stars and Stripes) allowed time to get trained for fencing in North Africa," Vebell said. "I trained at the French officers club because they had a gymnasium attached to it."
Vebell moved from Africa to Italy and onto France as the war progressed, illustrating the battlefield while honing his fencing craft. He received one-on-one instruction -- which he partly paid for with Army-issued cans of Spam -- from the game's brightest minds.
"I got great instruction because they were the best in the world; the French and Italians," Vebell said. "I was training for the Olympics while in Europe; I think I was the only one to do that during the war."
With Stars and Stripes, Vebell covered many significant war events, including the Nuremburg trials in 1945.
Vebell remained in Paris following the war to receive more training before moving to New York in 1947. While he didn't have the necessary time to accumulate ratings points to compete in the 1948 Olympics, Vebell finished in third place in the individual epee competition at the Pan American Games in 1951 and helped the US finish first in foil and second in epee.
Although Vebell enjoyed success on the domestic level, competing against the best fencers in the world posed a different challenge. Vebell trained six hours a week and dueled with Europeans that made the sport their full time jobs.
"For many of the great (Americans), we had to deal with the European being sponsored," Shaw said. "Many countries would give everything to their athletes. If you work a job, and you go to work and fence on the weekends. Compared to (the Europeans) fencing all day long. You don't have to earn money if you are sponsored."
In 1952, Vebell reached the semifinals of the Helsinki Olympics. In the semifinal round, he was matched up with Italian brothers Dario and Edoardo Mangiarotti, who ended up winning gold and silver.
"I felt if I could train like the Europeans, I would have been much stronger," Labell said. "I still did very well, 13th in the Olympics isn't bad; all of the other Americans were out in the first round and I lasted for three rounds."
Following the Olympics, Vebell moved to Westport in 1953 to continue both interests. Vebell freelanced for a variety of magazines while continuing his twice-a-week training schedule with hopes of placing higher at the 1956 Olympics. His hopes were dashed as he suffered a detached retina in training leading up to the games.
"Things happen, athletes get hurt, which is very common when you're training so hard," Vebell said. "You have to be lucky; sometimes it's not winning, it's avoiding injuries."
Vebell was ranked No. 1 in the US heading into the 1960 games. Fate again intervened when his wife Elsa -- the two were married for nearly 60 years -- gave birth the night before the National Championships. Vebell was left of the team after an uneven performance the following morning.
"All I needed was a night's sleep," Vebell said. "We had to fence at 8 a.m. after being on my feet all night long."
Vebell rebounded and, at age 39, finished first in the 1964 World Cup, a tournament held in New York. The tournament featured most of the best fencers in the world, with the exception of the Soviet Union, which chose not to participate.
"I was world champion, but the caveat was that the Russians weren't there," Vebell said. "I might not have done as well if the Russians were there. The Europeans were tough. That was my biggest victory for sure."
Vebell's fencing career began to wind down following his World Cup win. He taught the fencing at Roger Ludlowe High School in Fairfield as he turned his attention to illustrating and continued to compete locally before retiring in 1980.
His studio in Westport, the same one since 1953, remains a museum of years of books, artwork and warfront collections. Among stacks of drawings spanning years of history is a small pile of fencing photos dating back to 1944.
"Fencing is the reason I've arrived to this age," Vebell said. "The repetitive motions; I think it's conducive to longevity. It's helpful physically."
And at 93, he's proof of it.