The Cimetière Sud de Saint-Mandé is possibly the city’s least interesting graveyard, short of charm and celebrities (a sign at the entrance highlights a handful of ex-mayors and the wife of the founder of the Grevin waxworks museum). In one corner though, framed by a solid block of thriving horse chestnut trees, stands perhaps the cemetery’s single striking monument – the half-naked statue of a strong and healthy-looking young man.
Who is this verdigris demigod? A closer look at the tomb provides an answer – but also provokes further questions. His name was Calixte Delmas – a lutteur et rugger (wrestler and rugby player) born January 17 1906 in the southern city of Perpignan. More poignently, the date of death reads April 5 1927. Tragically, the 21 year old had succombed to “an accident at the école de Joinville.” Finally, at the bottom of the plinth is a bas-relief portraying wrestling and rugby and a list of his numerous sporting achievements.
This is the only time I have seen ‘rugger’ used to describe a person in France (today the term used is ‘rugbyman’, one of several curious anglicisms used in sporting contexts), but my ruminations drift elsewhere. What exactly had this 21 year old – forgotten today – done to inspire such a monument? What was the école de Joinville and exactly how did he die? The story is one of glory ending in grotesque calamity.
Calixte Delmas was the offspring of a line of wrestlers, a southern dynasty of sport fanatics who also enjoyed gymnastics and rugby. The family were far from being burly giants though. Calixte, following in his father’s footsteps, competed as a lightweight wrestler (less than 67kg), and lined up as a hooker for the Sang et Or rugby team, traditionally a post reserved for smaller players.