Crazy for Life
For Pebble Beach’s Primo Waldsmith, scribbling his strange stories of pro boxing, murder and Moscow is mandatory.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
What would your life look like if you put it on paper? How would you tell the stories that haunt, tickle and heal you? If you’re Robert “Primo” Waldsmith, you pour the contents of your busy brain onto papers that pile six inches high, each sheet adorned with colorful cartoons or lovingly composed collages of photographs and inspirational phrases like “Even in the darkest time, the lights must never go out.” Maybe, for good measure, you include some sketches of life on a fantasy planet. And you ship it all to the local independent paper.
“People tell me, ‘You could make a movie out of your life,’” says Waldsmith, who grew up in the “rough part” of Pittsburgh and now resides in Pebble Beach. One of his photo collages, starring everyone from former San Francisco Giants to the Peruvian military, features a magazine cut-out stating, “Every great motion picture begins with a single dramatic frame.”
The starting frame for any given conversation with him, however, shifts depending on the day. On a recent morning, Waldsmith’s got Russia on the brain.
“I was hired to do some sales work in Moscow in the ’90s by a guy who turned out to be a crime boss,” Waldsmith says, pointing to one of his Xeroxes where he’s written, “Crazy but true story #38.” Below are photos of “Sasha,” the company president, of Waldsmith at a Russian Orthodox church and Waldsmith’s handwritten notes.
Before he’s done describing how he almost got “rolled” by two Stoli-sloshed mobsters on a Moscow train, however, Waldsmith’s already rifling through the stack to pull out another page. This one, with the message “Welcome to my world… ” scrawled in shaky script at the top, is full of photos and newspaper clippings from his career as a professional boxer, coach and manager. Waldsmith was a respected welterweight who fought at the U.S. Naval Station in the Marshall Islands and was featured on the ABC program Meet the Champs in the early ’50s.
He even managed a Mexican boxer, German Ohm, who was ranked third in the world in 1957 and was co-managed by Frank Sinatra. Waldsmith’s got the fight night announcement to prove it, along with a copy of a paper peso signed “Para mi amigo,” by Ohm.
Another sheet features yellowed stationery from Waldsmith’s ’70s-era Los Angeles boxing gym and photos of Waldsmith and his trainees in an L.A. arena, circa 1972 (and, inexplicably, a profile shot of Mr. T). Primo swears that fighting changed him forever, and sharing the spotlight with his trainees helped him grow.
“I was an extreme introvert before I discovered boxing,” Waldsmith says. “But fighting in the ring in front of 5,000 people made me a different person.” The attention and celebrity was seductive, but the business was crime-ridden and dangerous as hell: Crazy-but-true story #57 is a collection of newspaper clippings about Primo’s “six acquaintances MURDERED!” (“Irish” Frankie Crawford, he reports, was shot on the Las Vegas Strip; Howard Steindler, the prototype for the trainer in Rocky, was found dead in an L.A. parking lot, and so on.)
Waldsmith found less-threatening lines of work – advertising, hospital admin, with a short stint as the manager of a Las Vegas limousine company (crazy but true story #85). He’s now settled on the Peninsula with his wife, Mary, Miss Peru 1980.
“Some of my buddies set up a blind date for me – in Peru,” Waldsmith says, looking wistfully at a old photo of him and his wife on Christmas. “We were in Lima [in 1987],” he says. “We drive up to where I was supposed to meet her, and she’s surrounded by all these guys. But she talks to me, and we hit it off.”
The happy couple, 30 years apart in age, wed later that year, and in 1998 had a son, Anthony, now 13.
“He’s part of the reason I do this,” says Waldsmith. “So he can read about my crazy life after I croak.”
There’s more to it then that, though, or so a sheet near the bottom of the stack suggests. Tucked beneath a series of sketches of the imaginary planet Prebo (and its beak-nosed inhabitants) lies a drawing of a forlorn peddler looking at a trash can. Over his shoulder is a satchel labeled “Primo Art”; over his head is the phrase, “Last Hurrah!”
Is that what these papers are? A final celebration of a strange and storied life?
“It’s my way to escape boredom and tell my story in my own way,” Waldsmith says. “It’s like a saying I carry around in my wallet: ‘I’m my own maestro.’” And on his Xeroxed pages, the maestro’s band plays on.
Visit www.mcweekly.com/primo for a slideshow of selections from Waldsmith’s illustrated life story.