Without question Gust Lessis occupies one of the most unique roles in the history of Greek strong men in North America. In the very early 1920s, when Lessis first became widely known to the American public, the fabled strongmen of the 1890s had already astonished the world with their incredible feats of superhuman strength. Beginning with the legendary Eugene Sandow and quickly followed by George Hackenschmidt, Louis Cyr, and Louis Apollon audiences around the world were in equal measure thrilled and astonished by these legendary strongmen as they executed in full public view what were then called ‘demonstrations of strength.’ Such were the feats of strength Lessis executed across America that when none other than Sandow the Magnificent first saw “Lessis in action, he remarked to a group of reporters that the young Greek will surpass any one in his strength when he reaches the age of thirty,” (Courier-News Bridgewater, N.J. April 29, 1926).
Unfortunately newspaper accounts on Gust Lessis between 1919 and 1943 vary so considerably that even in the rough guide I provide here innumerable contradictions abound. Yet this Greek strongman not only astonished Americans of the early 1900s into the World War II era but as we shall see has via surviving photographs and newsreels of the 1920-1930s, he sparked a new generation of fans.
It seems most likely that Gust Lessis was born in Livadia, Greece sometime in 1891 to William Lessis and Panagian (nee Giahrusis) Lessis. Lessis arrived in the United States, around 1919, and traveled to reside with two uncles then living in Omaha, Nebraska. At some point Lessis began working in the Pittsburgh Bethlehem Steel Works while struggling to establish himself as a professional strongman (Evening World September 20, 1922). Breaking into public awareness proved more difficult than the bending of metal bars and the snapping of steel chains across his chest. As the newspaper stories relate, Lessis was first (and finally) ‘discovered’ “at Brighton Beach by two New York photographers, Jack Sussman and Bill McGrath, pictured easily wrapping a one-inch bar around his wrist. The sensational new strongman, whose feats have astounded all who have seen him, is but 22 years old and weighs only 185 pounds,” (New York Tribune September 24, 1922).
This well publicized performance firmly established the young Greek’s future career. “On a recent afternoon in a quiet corner of Brighton Beach Park he held a one-ton boulder on his chest while a workman pounded it to pieces with a giant sledge-hammer. Lessis supported himself on the ground with his hands and feet (like a table) as ten workmen put the stone on him. He didn’t quiver as the huge hammer pounded with terrific blows, sending sparks and fragments into his face and eyes. It took nearly ten minutes to shatter the stone, but Lessis stood under the terrific weight without a sign of exhaustion. Furthermore, there was nothing between Lessis’s skin, which is unnaturally tough, and the sharp, jagged rock,” (Evening World (NY NY) September 20, 1922). Quickly dubbed the ‘Human Anvil’ photographs of the breaking of huge pavement stones across Lessis’s chest (and other feats of strength) from that moment forward appeared on the front pages and in the entertainment sections of newspapers all across the nation.
Those who doubt this account can confirm the young Greek’s abilities by viewing the YouTube footage titled ‘Strongmen, costauds, fakirs 1922-1931.’ For the serious researcher an archived newsreel of Lessis dated December 21, 1923 is held at the University of South Carolina Library Archives as part of their Moving Image Research Collections Digital Video Repository (https://mirc.sc.edu/islandora/object/usc:4665). The identifying caption reads, “Gust Lessis, of Greece bending a ¾-inch iron rod around his neck. Lessis bending iron rod around his wrist. Lessis holds a 1,400 pound granite block on his chest to be smashed with sledge hammer. https://mirc.sc.edu/islandora/search/catch_all_txt%3A%28Gust%20Lessis%29).
Still it was a rough go until ‘after weeks during which he almost starved, Gust attracted the attention of theatrical promoters. At one time he was giving exhibitions in Greek restaurants of New York. He further demonstrated his strength by lifting an office safe bodily from the floor. In the end he signed a vaudeville contract to appear for $600 a week,” (Pittsburgh Daily Post July 18, 1923).
From the moment of his break-through Brighton Beach performances Lessis began to perform his feats of strength in theaters, circuses, and other public venues. Less clear are Lessis’ sustained attempts at this time to also establish himself as both a professional wrestler and boxer. In his theater performances Lessis was known for his ability to “break a railroad spike with his teeth.” Another demonstration of Lessis’ strength was the stretching a rubber spring to 1200 pounds. Another was his placement of an inch-and-a-half iron bar several feet long in his mouth while three individuals on each side bent the bar in his mouth while Lessis stood on a rock. The October 1923 issue of Popular Science Monthly shows a photograph of Lessis bending and breaking a thick iron spike with his teeth. The spike was embedded eight inches in a wooden beam. At these various performances Lessis “offered $5000 to anyone who could duplicate these feats of strength; according to the public record no one ever did.” And he toured the country “winning many medals for his wonderful feats of strength,” (Central New Jersey Home News June 13, 1920). gold metals. Again, in one newspaper account after another the local journalists were always astounded by Lessis since, as they assured their reading audience, no fakery whatsoever was involved.
During the 1920s, Lessis was known in the public press as ‘the Greek Samson.’ Clearly the similarity the journalists were stressing between Lessis and Samson was one of incredible strength. Yet, unexpectedly, far more was in play. In 1921, Lessis met and fell in love with a 18 year old American beauty from Rawlings, Wyoming (Pittsburgh Daily Post July 18, 1923). Unfortunately, the news accounts I have discovered so far only cite this young woman’s first name, Lola. Other source material cite Lola’s surname as Gottschalk. Whatever future research may yet reveal it is clear that, as they say in the West, for the young Greek giant, young Lola ‘hung the moon.’
In 1922, when the newly wed Lessis couple first arrived in New York City “the strong man saw that his wife could not resist the lure of the bright lights. He liked the simple life; she wanted always to be ‘on the go,’ it is said. He wanted children; she disliked them. At length Gust saw that, although he loved Lola, they could never get along together,” (Pittsburgh Daily Post July 18, 1923).
Love clearly blinded Lessis.
Regrettably by 1923, newspapers across America were reporting that “Gust has filed suit for divorce. Lola, his wife, hasn’t been true to him…Lola won’t stay at home, it is said. She left him four times, but always came back. He was glad to see her and always made her welcome, no matter how long she had been away. Even now that his suit is filed Gust says maybe he’ll give her another chance – if she will promise to be good and stay with him. But he fears it wouldn’t do much good,” (Pittsburgh Daily Post July 18, 1923). The couple were officially divorced in 1923.
As unlucky in love as Gust Lessis may have been his professional life never faded. For the next decade Lessis moved back and forth across performance forums. As wrestler, boxer, and circus strongman Lessis’ fame continued to expand. Even today, websites devoted to wrestling and body building have rediscovered Gust Lessis and seek only to make his professional life more widely known (c.f. www.oldtimestrongman.com). As Lessis continued to experience professional success throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s there are even published accounts reporting upon a new love in his life. Yet just as his fame grew news accounts in the early 1930s begin to report upon a darkness that unexpectedly entered his life. Tragedy and not untarnished glory followed the athlete known as the Greek Samson to his grave.