Arnold Schwarzenegger planned the release of his autobiography, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, the way Gen. Eisenhower plotted the D-Day invasion. Although Arnold is full of backslapping bonhomie, he is an immensely calculating man, and he controlled everything that happened, building publicity day after day until he appeared on 60 Minutes Sept. 30, the evening before the book’s release.
To get Schwarzenegger to sit down for lunch with me in Beverly Hills before the book’s publication, I had to promise not to divulge the contents of our conversation until he appeared on the CBS program. I had written his biography, Fantastic, in 2005, but I hadn’t seen him for several years. He looked far smaller than the legendary Arnold of bodybuilding and movie days. His famous features now appear less like a face than an image on a medal or a copyrighted product.
Once I turned on my recorder, Schwarzenegger was off on a ceaseless monologue, touting his book like a sideshow barker. He boasted about his bodybuilding career, his rise to movie stardom, and his two terms as California’s governor from 2003 to 2011.
I figured he couldn’t call his book Total Recall unless he talked about the scandal that had torn his image to shreds. In May of 2011, it was disclosed that in 1998 he had impregnated the family housekeeper and because of that humongous indiscretion he was separating from Kennedy heir Maria Shriver, his wife of 25 years.
The housekeeper, Mildred Baena, was no décolleté Mary Poppins, but an aging mother of four. As his old buddies saw it, Arnold’s conduct was worse than a sin. It was an embarrassment. This was the only aspect of the scandal that Maria could laugh about. She was still a beautiful woman, and Maria confessed to her friends that it was hard to believe Arnold had cheated with her in their house with this?
But even the titters of movieland gossip did not temper Schwarzenegger’s self-regard or, perhaps, his career. In July 2012, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that “the scandal seems to have been forgotten,” and Arnold was ready to get on with it.
“The book is straightforward about the scandal,” Schwarzenegger said. “How I screwed and here was the kid and when I found out about it. I was governor already and I now had to deal with it. So do you go out now and tell them? No, of course not. You don’t want that to become the main issue of the governorship. So you try to work on that, and then after I admitted it to Maria, it was inevitable that her four brothers would know and they would go out in public.”
Maria’s four brothers deny having anything to do with leaking the story, but they say they were there for their sister. Tim Shriver flew several times across the country from his Washington home when Maria needed companionship.
“For 20 years, Simon & Schuster asked me, ‘Why don’t you write your autobiography?’” Schwarzenegger said. “I said, ‘Thanks, I’m getting $20 million a movie and you want to pay me only $5 million? That’s not going to cut it. You work a year on a book. You work only three months on a movie. And it’s a tedious job.’
“But it became interesting after I left office. I felt there’s an interesting story there. I was not so hung up with money anymore because they were offering me much more money, and on top of it I don’t do things for money anymore.”
Maria has told family members I spoke to that she is heartsick about the book and how it will affect her two daughters and two sons and doesn’t understand why he wrote it in the first place—or why he felt compelled to include the scandal.
Schwarzenegger’s years in Sacramento were like an addiction: the phalanx of state troopers, the rush from event to event and meeting to meeting where almost always he was the central focus. But he said he had no trouble coming down from that endless high. “Lots of these politicians fly around with Secret Service and Air Force One and all that,” Schwarzenegger said. “Then they step down and all of a sudden they’re flying first class on a commercial plane. I don’t have to do that. I have a private plane. But I fly commercial when I go to environmental conferences.”
Schwarzenegger is at an age when most stars’ best roles are in the Hollywood Wax Museum, but he is convinced that he is going to be a major star again. “I think that people are interested seeing me on the screen,” he said. “Remember I stepped out of show business with a movie (Terminator 3) that grossed $430 million. I went out on top, and wherever I go, I get the question, ‘When are you coming back?’”
Schwarzenegger played a cameo role in Expendables 2 last summer. His next two films are The Last Stand and The Tomb, hardly auspicious titles for a Medicare-ready actor who wants once again to be a heroic superstar.
No one knows Arnold better than Sven-Ole Thorsen, who has worked on most of the pictures Schwarzenegger has made, as an actor, stuntman, and first friend. Thorsen told me that before Schwarzenegger played in the 1977 RFK Celebrity Tennis Tournament in New York, he told his friend, “I’m going to meet Maria Shriver, and I’m going to marry this Kennedy princess.”
Schwarzenegger is a man of monumental ambition who sometimes plans his crucial moves years in advance. It was perfectly plausible that he had targeted a Kennedy to be his wife, although Arnold denies it. “I was never aware she existed,” Schwarzenegger said. “I had no idea. What did I know?”
Months before Schwarzenegger met Maria, he had become friends with Bobby Shriver, her brother. Bobby is so close to his sister that you can hardly be with him for an hour before he mentions her. It was inconceivable that Arnold didn’t know who Maria was when, after the tennis event, she invited him to the Kennedy family summer home in Hyannis Port to spend the weekend.“I was there because Maria must have liked me,” Schwarzenegger said.
Schwarzenegger dated Maria for almost a decade. When he shot Red Sonja in Rome, in 1985, his 22-year-old costar, Danish model Brigitte Nielsen, says that she carried on an “outrageous affair” with Arnold. When the shooting was finished, Thorsen and his wife planned to go skiing in Austria with Schwarzenegger. When they stopped en route at the Munich Airport, there was Nielsen, ready to join them. Thorsen says he told Arnold: “It’s one thing that you and Brigitte have fun when you are working together, but I know you are going steady with Maria Shriver, so if you bring Brigitte on your skiing vacation, that’s crossing the line, and I want no part of that!” Thorsen and his wife did not get on the plane as Schwarzenegger and Nielsen set off together to Vienna.
The trip with Nielsen happened just a few months before Schwarzenegger was set to be married, and family members say Maria confronted her fiancé with the accusations that he had carried on a quasi-public affair with the actress. Arnold was spellbinding in convincing her that the tales were absurd, obvious lies.
“Let me talk a little about Maria,” I said, as Arnold’s intense blue eyes gleamed with anticipation. “On the Maria stuff, we’re managing all this,” said Arnold’s publicist, who had arrived late for the luncheon. “We’re not getting into this in the interview.” “I just want to tell you something,” I said ignoring the publicist and turning toward Schwarzenegger. “The Sunday before you gave your first State of the State address as governor of California in January 2004, you were at your house in Sun Valley, Utah. Any other politician would have been obsessing about the most important political speech they ever gave. But not you. You were on the slopes skiing. Maria was in the house. That day she talked to me for two hours, and it was a Maria unlike any I had ever known or heard.”
Schwarzenegger is adept at disguising his true feelings beneath a mask of preternatural calm, but he was suddenly doubly alert.
“I would have thought that in that situation you do something to make your husband look good,” I said. “But she saw it as a zero-sum game. She felt if you came out good, she would come out badly. That’s the way she saw the world.”“By the way you don’t have to respond,” the publicist said, realizing that his client wanted to speak.
I went on to tell Schwarzenegger in detail about my long talk with Maria. I was startled by Maria’s attitude, since she had just saved her husband’s career. Six days before Arnold’s first California gubernatorial election on Oct. 7, 2003, the headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Times read “WOMEN SAY SCHWARZENEGGER GROPED, HUMILIATED.” The article told the story of six women, some telling stories from as long ago as the 1970s, saying that Arnold had “touched them in a sexual manner without their consent.” Although he said that “a lot of” the stories were not true, he apologized in public, blaming the “rowdy movie sets” that had led him astray. But it was Maria’s stalwart defense that made the difference. “He has the character to govern,” she said in a speech, though she remained silent on whether the allegations were true or false.
Without Maria’s support, her husband might not have been elected, and he surely would have begun his tenure in office with an enormous liability. Despite that crucial effort, she felt unwanted, unappreciated. She believed she was the convenient receptacle of blame.‘If Arnold mistreats people or doesn’t call them back, they don’t get mad at Arnold, they get mad at me,” she told me that day. ‘During the campaign, if he lost it was going to be my fault. If he won, it was five guys who did it.”
“You don’t have to talk,” I said to Schwarzenegger as he sat mulling the words his estranged wife had spoken.“Obviously, with what they’re going through, the divorce, they stay very close and talk and they still have a relationship,” the publicist said.
“My point is despite the scandal, as early as 1994, there were problems in this marriage,” I said. “And I’ve been told that right when the scandal hit and you walked in here to this restaurant, some woman shouted out “pig"!
“I never heard it,” Schwarzenegger said.“But were you surprised how people reacted?”
“You have friends that side with you. They rally behind you. But they know you fucked up. But I’m very proud of Maria because of the way she’s dealt with me and the kids. I’m also very proud of the way the kids have handled the situation. I hear many times of how sweet they have been about the whole thing.”I knew from interviews with five Kennedy family members that the children were distraught over their father’s conduct. They still see him, but they are incredibly close to their mother.
“I get a sense that you’re not as close to some of your old friends as you used to be?” I asked. I had talked to four of those friends who had told in a half-embarrassed way how they no longer saw their old friend so often and he did not confide in them anymore.
“Well at my birthday party a few days ago, the most common comment was, ‘Arnold keeps his friends a long time.’” Schwarzenegger countered.“With your old friends, the take is you haven’t helped them,” I said. “You’ve hurt them.”
“If you’re talking about somebody I competed against in bodybuilding competitions and beat them for six years, maybe it was pretty devastating for them,” Schwarzenegger said.
“It’s the idea that you are threatened by friends advancing in their careers.”“I am the most helpful and open up doors for everyone and I like to share,” Schwarzenegger insisted.“That’s a heavy accusation,” the publicist interjected. “If you’re going to write that, you kind of have to be able to back that up. It’s very serious when you say that.”
“I’ve talked to your friends and they say you’re more alone now and they miss you,” I said, once again changing the subject. “In Conan the Barbarian, you end up killing your nemesis, the evil Thusa Doom, but with your victory comes emptiness. The hero always ends up alone. Does that make sense to you?”“I know what you’re saying,” Schwarzenegger said thoughtfully. “But I’m as much a people person as anyone that I know.”
“You always have people around,” the publicist insisted. “I mean when he does trips he’ll bring two friends with him because he wants them hanging around. Stallone also brings two friends, and Bruce Willis brings three friends.”
“I mean in a different way,” I said turning toward the publicist. “I mean inside his soul, a journey alone.”“I know what you mean,” Schwarzenegger said starkly. “Everyone knows a part of my life. No one really has a sense of the whole thing.”“And being 65 now,” I said. “Does that mean anything?”
“Yeah. It sucks. Mentally I’m young. But you cannot stop the body from aging. Someone like myself despises the thought of death. I have a real problem with that. And after you run up the stairs 10 times, your knees hurt the next day. What the fuck is that? You know what I’m saying? I mean, no one told me that’s part of the deal. So it’s like you hear about it as a kid. Then you grow up. But you don’t pay any attention to it. And then all of the sudden, you’re at that age and you say, ‘How did that happen all of a sudden?’”