Fencing is both an ancient tradition of honor and a timeless art. The earliest records of fencing in single combat include the combat between Achilles and Hector in Homer’s The Iliad and a manual of fencing called A Treatise on Arms published in the 1400s. However, as cultures have shifted to rely more and more on diplomacy as a way to resolve differences, fencing gradually developed into an athletic competition rather than a form of trial by combat. Read more on fencing’s rich history here.
Although a vast culture shift took place in the 18th century and guns became the weapons of choice (both for wars and for duels), fencing continued to grow in popularity. In addition to multiple American president adepts including President Lincoln, President Jackson, President Grant, President Roosevelt (Teddy, not FDR!), and President Washington, fencing has always enjoyed a certain popularity among celebrities, mostly owing to the challenging and unique nature of the sport. While you may not be surprised to hear of famous fencers in the 1700s and earlier, when dueling was more common and warfare more primitive, I think you may be surprised to learn how many modern celebrities and historical figures are proficient in this time-honored sport.
To that end, here’s a list of the top five most surprising fencing adepts of the 20th Century:
#1 The Modern-Day Three Musketeers
Although actors frequently learn how to fence for films, actors Tom Cruise and Will Smith and British football star David Beckham all fence simply for the love of the sport and one another’s company. They’ve formed a sort of informal “fencer’s club” and they gather as often as possible to train together. According to Smith, Cruise was his instructor, and Cruise has even built a fencing training area into his home. The three use their shared love of fencing as a time to bond (and get some exercise).
#2 A fencing dictator
Although most have heard the name Benito Mussolini in the context of his dictatorial role in Italy during World War II, he also is reported to have greatly enjoyed the sport of fencing (even if he was not terribly proficient at it). In fact, he probably became acquainted with the sword during his military service from 1915-1917. He frequently practiced with his instructor on the gravel drive of his luxurious villa.
#3 The Feisty Princess
Grace Kelly, famous actress later to become Princess Grace of Monaco upon her 1956 marriage to Prince Rainier III, fenced in the penultimate movie in her film career, The Swan. In that film she portrayed a princess who greatly enjoys fencing. Although she had studied fencing early in her career at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in order to achieve the highest degree of accuracy in her role in the film, Princess Grace studied fencing at the University of Southern California under the great French master Louis Jourdan.
#4 The Dueling Entrepreneur
Programming genius and Facebook entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg was a proficient fencer in his high school days. So proficient, in fact, that he was the fencing captain at Phillips Exeter Academy during his senior year. His love of the sport even featured prominently in his essay to Harvard. Here is an excerpt from his response to a prompt that asked about his most meaningful activity:
“Amidst a hectic week of work, fencing has always proven to be the perfect medium; for it is both social and sport, mental and athletic, and controlled yet sometimes undisciplined.”
He also brought his fencing equipment with him to his new Silicon Valley home in 2004 after dropping out of Harvard to launch his Facebook career. Zuckerberg’s disturbing quality of playing with his foil during brainstorming sessions is recorded in David Kirkpatrick’s book The Facebook Effect.
#5 Diamonds (and Fencing) are Forever
Our final famous fencer was so talented and dexterous at his craft that he was offered a full ride to NYU on a fencing scholarship. At NYU he earned two national championships in the sport. Singer Neil Diamond describes his relationship with the sport as a love affair, and he seriously enjoyed the feeling of victory he experienced during his fencing career. Although he sacrificed a promising career in the sport for his career as a musical star, he still remembers his early fencing career with great fondness, even going so far as to display a fencing medal next to his Grammys and Golden Globes.
Honorable mentions go to the famous figures of St. Ignatius Loyola (Spanish soldier-turned-priest), singers Jimmy Buffet and Madonna (the latter featured in Bond film Die Another Day), dancer/choreographer Gene Kelley (who performed in a film version of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers as D’Artagnan), American poet Ezra Pound, Citizen Kane’s Orson Wells (who fenced as Mercutio in his Broadway debut), and actor Robert Redford (who is reputed to have dueled with his director, George Roy Hill, during the filming of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).
So to all of you fencers out there, you are in good company in the land of the rich and famous!