Educating Arnie: The Terminator in Forest Gate - in his own words

Wednesday, 15 July 2015


Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of Forest Gate's most famous adopted sons. His stay in Forest Gate was the subject of this website's first-ever, and most visited, post, see here.

Arnie was in London recently, posing with one of the city's "Boris bikes" - see photo, below. So, we thought it would be timely to give his account of his days in Forest Gate - from his autobiography: Total Recall (see footnotes for details).


Arnie, posing recently in London, on a 'Boris bike'

We pick up the story in 1966, when Arnie has just spent some time in Munich, in pursuit of his body-building career:

Three months later, I was back in London, laughing and horsing around on a living room rug with a jumble of kids. They belonged to Wag and Dianne Bennett, who owned two gyms and were at the centre of the UK bodybuilding scene. Wag had been a judge at the Mr Universe contest, and he'd invited me to stay with him and Dianne in the Forest Gate section of London (ed: in what is now the burned out house on Romford Road, opposite Emmanuel's church) for a few weeks of training. They had six kids of their own, they took me under their wing and became like parents to me.
Arnie, Dianne and Wag with some
of the Bennett children, referred to above,

 posing outside his temporary Forest Gate home
Wag had made it clear that he thought I needed a lot of work. At the top of the list was my posing routine. I knew there was a huge difference between hitting poses successfully and having a compelling routine. Poses are like snapshots, and the routine is the movie. To hypnotise and carry away an audience, you need the poses to flow. What do you do between one pose and the next? How do the hands move? How does the face look? I'd never had a chance to figure very much of this out. Wag showed me how to slow down and make it like ballet: a matter of posture, the straightness of the back, keeping the head up, not down.
This I could understand but it was harder to swallow the idea of actually posing to music. Wag would put the dramatic theme from the movie Exodus on the hi-fi and cue me to start my routine. At first I couldn't think of anything more distracting or less hip. But after a while I started to see how I could choreograph my moves and ride the melody like a wave - quiet moments for a concentrated, beautiful three-quarter back pose, flowing into a side chest pose as the music rose and then wham!, a stunning most muscular pose at the crescendo.
Dianne concentrated on filling me up with protein and improving my manners. Sometimes she must have thought I'd been raised by wolves. I didn't know the right way to handle a knife and fork or that you should help clear up after dinner. Dianne picked up where my parents Fredi Gerstl and Frau Matscher had left off. 
One of the few times she ever got mad at me was when she saw me shove my way through a crowd of fans after a competition. The thought in my head was 'I won. Now I'm going to party'. But Dianne grabbed me and said 'Arnold, you don't do that. These are people who came to see you. They spent their money and some of them travelled a long way. You can take a few minutes and give them your autograph.' That scolding changed my life. I'd never thought about the fans, only about my competitors. But from then on, I always made time for the fans.
Even the kids got in on the Educating Arnold project. There's probably no better way to learn English than to joining a lively, happy London household where nobody understands German and where you sleep on the couch and have six little siblings. They treated me like a giant new puppy and loved teaching me words.
A photo of me during that trip (see below) shows me meeting my boyhood idol, Reg Park, for the first time. He's wearing sweats, looking relaxed and tanned, and I'm wearing my posing trunks looking star struck and pale. I was in the presence of Hercules, a three-time Mr Universe, of the star whose picture I kept on my wall, of the man on whom I'd modelled my life plan. I could hardly stammer out a word. All the English I'd learned flew right out of my head.
Arnie, with his idol, Reg Par, at the Romford
 Road Bennett gym, 1966. The 'W' on his vest
 stands for 'Wag'. Courtesy Schwarzenegger archives
Reg now lived in Johannesburg, where he owns a chain of gyms, but he came back to England on business several times a year. He was friends of the Bennetts and had generously agreed to help show me the ropes. Wag and Dianne felt that the best way for me to have a good shot at the Mr Universe title was to become better known in the United Kingdom.
Bodybuilders did that in those days by getting on the exhibition circuit - promoters all over the British Isles would organise local events, and by agreeing to appear, you could make a little money and spread your name. Reg, as it happened, was on his way to an exhibition in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and offered to bring me along. Making a name for yourself in bodybuilding is a lot like politics. You go from town to town, hoping the word will spread. This grassroots approach worked, and the enthusiasm it created would eventually help me to win Mr Universe. ...

Arnie and Wag, by the recently
 removed lamp post outside the
 now dilapidated Romford Road
 house that was home
 to Schwarzenegger in 1966 
My initial success in London had reassured me that I was on the right track and that my goals were not crazy. Every time I won, I became more certain. After the 1966 Mr Universe contest, I won several more titles, including Mr Europe ... 
I knew I was already the favourite to win the 1967 Mr Universe competition.  But that didn't feel like enough. I wanted to dominate totally. ...
So, I poured my energy and attention into a training plan I'd worked out with Wag Bennett. For months I spent most of my earnings on food and vitamins and protein tablets designed to build muscle mass. ...
Arnie went on to win his second Mr Universe title in September 1967.  Forest Gate and the Bennetts slip from his story for a while, but Dianne, in particular, is back making an impact with him in 1971. After four more years of success, following his second Mr Universe title, he was passing through London. The autobiography picks up the story:


On my way through London, I called Dianne Bennett to say hello.
'Your mother has been trying to find you', she said, 'Call her. Your father is ill.' I called my mother and then went home quickly to Austria to stay with them. My father had suffered a stroke."
His father died soon afterwards, when he was back in Los Angeles.  The outline of Arnie's story from there is well-know: after the body-building came Hollywood stardom and a marriage into the Kennedy family then the governorship of California. You can read the detail in the autobiography.


Wag (centre) and Arnie in 2001

Forest Gate and the Bennetts do not get a further mention in Arnie's book, but the close contact between him and his Forest Gate mentors remained, as the photo of him and Wag, celebrating his election as Governor of California in 2001 illustrates (above).

Footnote: Total Recall - my unbelievably true life story, by Arnold Schwarzenegger, with Peter Petre, published by Simon and Schuster, 2012. Available from all good bookshops and Amazon, pb £8.99. Thanks to all concerned for being able to publish the above - and make the story available to a wider, local audience.

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