“I’ll be back,” is inscribed on a lintel at the bottom of the stairwell on the way out of the humble, 200-year-old forester’s cottage where Arnold Schwarzenegger was born and grew up.
It seems that Arnold is back in the Austrian village of Thal quite often, even if he doesn’t stay long. Perhaps it has provided welcome refuge from sensational headlines about his private life in recent months. He last swooped by in October to celebrate the inauguration of a new museum, Arnie’s Life.
Located in Schwarzenegger’s childhood home, the museum features his iron bed; his first, homemade dumbbell; dozens of 1960s and 1970s photographs of his sculpted bodybuilder’s torso; a “Conan the Barbarian” sword from the 1982 movie; the Harley-Davidson from “The Terminator” and a replica of his vast, polished California governor’s desk.
The manager of the museum is Peter Urdl, who says he has maintained contact with Schwarzenegger since the two were at Thal village school together in teacher Dora Fiedler’s class. The mind boggles at the idea that the 6-foot-2-inch muscleman could once fit into the minuscule school desk on display.
I asked Urdl whether Schwarzenegger was a good pupil. He laughed. “I guess we were both pretty average,” he said.
What distinguished Arnold from his schoolmates was ambition, Urdl said.
“Arnold used to tell us that he would be Mr. Universe one day,” Urdl said during a tour of the museum. “We always told him he was a dreamer.”
He went on to become the youngest-ever winner of the Mr. Universe title in 1967.
Schwarzenegger, now 64, entrusted Urdl with overseeing the establishment of the museum. Urdl, who was mayor of Thal for 20 years and knows each of its 2,300 inhabitants, also owns a 20 percent share. The majority owner is Christian Baha, the founder of Superfund Asset Management GmbH, a Vienna-based hedge fund.
Arnold provided most of the exhibits himself; Urdl tracked some down in Thal.
“We found the bed and I was pretty sure it was Arnold’s but wanted him to confirm it,” Urdl said. “He took one look at the base and said: ‘Yep, that’s where I used to stub my toe.’”
The weight-training equipment Schwarzenegger used as a teenager -- he left the family home aged 19 for Munich -- looks antique and dilapidated. As a teenager, he was obsessed with training, often staying until 10 p.m. at the gym, and with no time to date girls, Urdl said.
“It became clear that he was athletic and would have sporting success,” Urdl said. “But none of us could have predicted the acting career, let alone the political career.”
The family toilet was a pit latrine with a wooden seat and no flush. In a pre-central-heating era, life revolved around the sparsely furnished kitchen warmed by a tiled stove.
A recent photograph hanging in the kitchen shows Schwarzenegger tucking into some local apfelstrudel (his mother Aurelia’s was reputedly a legend).
In the garden behind the family home, a monumental bronze sculpture by Ralph Crawford shows a larger-than-life Schwarzenegger in skimpy trunks in his bodybuilding days. His rippling physique adopts the classic pose, fist raised to forehead and biceps flexed to maximum width.
It is vaguely fascistic and fetishist, recalling the Aryan heroes of Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite sculptor, with additional anatomical detail in the protruding veins and carefully cultivated bulging muscles. It’s imposing, disturbing and kitschy at the same time.
Arnold’s life with Maria Shriver is documented in photos as well as with a monument. By a tranquil lake in forested, mountainous Thal, the row boat where Schwarzenegger proposed is turned on one end, with a picture of the couple and an inscription inside, celebrating their marriage.
This shrine to marital bliss looks empty and forlorn given current circumstances. Schwarzenegger disclosed in May that he had fathered a child with the couple’s housekeeper more than 10 years earlier. Shriver filed for divorce in July.
“I never would have thought this would happen,” Urdl said. During visits with his wife to stay with the couple in the U.S., Urdl said he got the impression of a happy family life. “We must remember, the marriage did last 25 years.”
The museum has had 7,700 visitors since opening to the public in July. Urdl is happy with that tally and says the new attraction is bringing visitors to peaceful Thal.
“If I see a car with, for example, Slovak number plates on the way to Thal, I know they are coming to the museum,” he said.
Arnie’s Life is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Information: http://www.arnieslife.com.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)