Family’s dismay over book detailing life of a West Melbourne legendary strongman

Family’s dismay over book detailing life of a West Melbourne legendary strongman
Brendan Rees

The family of a man who ran a West Melbourne gym and performed legendary feats of strength, including pulling a fully loaded tram uphill with his teeth, has spoken out over a book they say is full of inaccuracies and tarnishes their father’s legacy.

The book, published by Hardie Grant and written by former lawyer and ABC Radio Melbourne broadcaster Jon Faine, titled Apollo & Thelma: A True Tall Tale, details the lives of Paul Anderson, a strongman who rose to fame as “The Mighty Apollo”, and of his sister Thelma who survived for decades running a pub in the outback Northern Territory during a culture of misogyny.

The three sons of The Mighty Apollo, who ran “The Mighty Apollo Gym & Martial Arts Centre in West Melbourne”, the iconic 1926 Art Deco building now transformed in immortalising his legacy with The Mighty Apollo Lane, have criticised Mr Faine’s “story creation”, claiming they were blocked from fully fact-checking the book before publication, despite being given verbal and written assurances.

 

 

Asked about the process of fact-checking details with the family, Mr Faine maintained that he spent a day with Paul Anderson at his home, where he went through “every part of the book that relates to him, his brothers, their father and he made countless changes on his laptop”.

“We went through those meticulously and he [Paul Anderson] requested countless changes,” he said.

However, Paul Anderson and his brother Mark, who spoke to North West City News to “set the record straight”, strongly refute Mr Faine’s stance.

They said Mr Faine, on final draft completion, had sent an email informing it could be viewed, to “tell me where I f****d up and any serious issues we want dealt with”.

According to a further email sent to the Anderson family, Mr Faine said, “I know it is hard to read one chapter out of context, but I am not allowed to send you the entire book. They are very protective of the material until it gets published.” The family said they only had the opportunity to view chapter nine, detailing their childhoods and the traumatic time their mother Rhondahe cut all ties in 1971, abandoning them in front of their primary school.  

Paul Anderson said only one chapter was “fully fact checked” and seen as a final draft before publication, and that this “did not happen with another seven pertaining to the family”.

He said only due to his strong insistence, he was allowed to fact check chapter eight regarding his father. Paul Anderson said to his “surprise and disgust it made, degrading, untrue character references, labelling his father a narcissist, also citing, incorrect, ill-informed, close-minded opinions regarding Apollo’s writings, performance mindset, press books and performances”. 

“He typed my corrections to chapter eight over several hours. I also explained he hardly knew my father to make such disrespectful, wrong assessments and these needed to be changed otherwise our family would justifiably condemn the book,” he said.

 

 

“He said he would make the changes; a final draft was not seen and on inspection of the published book nothing was changed.” 

Mr Faine said the matters the sons were “complaining about are important to them emotionally but they’re peripheral to the story of their father.” 

In writing the book he said he did not portray Apollo as a “bad person” but someone who was capable of “extraordinary, inexplicable feats of really, quite superhuman strength” which included an elephant standing on top of him with all four legs.

“And then it’s really weird that there’s this disconnect between his three sons who want him kind of lionised compared to everybody else who saw him quite differently,” Mr Faine told North West City News.

“[It] causes great distress and pain to me, but I can’t do anything.” 

Mark Anderson said it was “okay to have opinions” even if Mr Faine thought his father was a vain man as it “was never meant to be a hero piece”.

“But to continually call him an embellisher and malign his splendidly collected press books, which supported his career and proved his performance integrity is wrong,” he said.

“My dad was proud of the feats he performed and there was no need to exaggerate, this would have destroyed his reputation. My father has numerous references from show businesspeople.” 

This included Bert Newton, who in 1988, wrote in a letter to Apollo, “For what it’s worth, I pass on that I have never heard a bad word about you in show business - that in itself is a fine achievement!” 

“This is a celebrity who intimately knew my father, unlike Mr Faine, who was lucky to meet him a handful of times in his late 20s,” Mark Anderson said.

Paul Anderson said, “As a family we’ve been contacted by numerous people who intimately knew Apollo and are horrified by the contents of the book, particularly his character betrayal.”

Mr Faine said he understood the family were “not entirely happy, but I think one of the things that Paul Anderson describes in the book is that when his father died, he threw everything out of the gym. And then years later, by sheer serendipity, I helped him find some of those objects back. I think personally, what’s happening now is he’s throwing this book away in an emotional reaction to some of the stories in it.”

In response, Paul Anderson said he had a warehouse packed with his father’s memorabilia on display, all kept since his death and seen by Mr Faine.

 

 

“It’s totally untrue I threw everything out. A very few items disposed of many years ago during moving were only spotted by Mr Faine,” he said.

“He acted like a gatekeeper, blocking contact. A friend also saw these items and immediately passed on the dealer’s number. Both these individuals state in writing Mr Faine had nothing to do with any retrieval.”

Mark Anderson said they trusted Mr Faine “up to a point” but about halfway “we knew it was becoming a train wreck and we were trying to steer him right”.

The brothers said other mistakes in the book included the description of Apollo’s gym and living conditions, portraying him living in “shabby conditions in a kitchen area”. 

This is in stark contrast to photos Paul Anderson said he had, which depicted a gym presented in the style of a “showman’s theatre, gleaming, with comfortable dedicated partitioned living areas, which were all observed by Mr Faine.” 

The sons said the book even “falsely and disrespectfully” described Apollo and Thelma’s funerals.

Mark Anderson said he was disappointed that conversations he claimed that he had with Mr Faine which were “off the record” appeared in the book anyway, including the sum of money they inherited from their aunt Thelma’s estate. 

“I was horrified that Thelma’s death was written in such graphic detail in the book without the family’s knowledge, which was bloody distasteful,” he said.

Mr Faine said it was essential that the sons embraced the book, and it was “essential to me that they were happy with it” and that he was “doing something that they were proud of.” 

In response Paul Anderson said, “Don’t you think if he was being accurate, we would be happy? We wouldn’t be having this conversation”.

“I would be holding up a copy of the book saying how proud I am of it, it’s not the book he told us he would write.”

Paul Anderson said he later challenged Mr Faine for one hour and 17 minutes over the phone a day before the book launch, in which Mr Faine is alleged to have said, “You are right you didn’t see the final draft as the publishers were on schedule and I cannot keep changing.”

 

Caption: Paul Anderson with some of his father’s memorabilia at his warehouse in Melbourne’s inner west. 
Photo: Ajay Viswanath.

 

“I didn’t show you the whole book, I thought I showed you the bits that mattered, clearly other bits I should have shown you and am sorry.”

The sons said Mr Faine should “admit publicly this is the reason for the story creation” reflected in the subtitle change from An Incredible True Story”, to A True Tall Tale without their knowledge.

Mark Anderson said he and his brothers were “not toothless hillbillies … none of us are under achievers here but we’ve been treated that way”.

 

 

“The point is we’re not making any claims that we can’t back up with archival evidence, independent sources, emails, and phone conversations.” 

In summarising the book, Mark Anderson said, “It’s what I call a tall, skewed tale, it’s not a true tall tale”. •

Paul Anderson said he was happy to speak to anyone about the book and their father’s legacy at [email protected] 

John Buncle

John Buncle

February 14th, 2024 - Felicity Jack
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