Life is precious, so you don’t spend it doing something you’re lukewarm about. You hope you can find something you can do with great passion.
So says Peter Gimbel, a devoted follower of his own advice. For most of his 53 years, his passion has been adventure—an addiction that has had him swimming under Antarctic ice to study seals, parachuting into uncharted regions of the Andes and filming sharks off South Africa, Sri Lanka and Australia. Now he and his equally kinetic German-born third wife, Elga Andersen, are busy preparing a film documentary of the latest Gimbel exploit—a 35-day, $1.5 million probe of the liner Andrea Doria. It collided with another ship in 1956 and sank in 250 feet of water south of Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island. As soon as Peter and Elga can line up sponsors, they hope to produce a TV special featuring the on-camera opening of a Bank of Rome safe they salvaged from the Doria’s first-class lounge.
The safe, now stored underwater, probably contains only some waterlogged currency and may be damaged: Bubbles have been leaking out of what is evidently an air pocket long contained inside. But the Gimbels aren’t too concerned, since their main hope is to use their Doria caper to launch a new career—making feature films. Already they’re getting scripts written for aquatic action flicks like those made from the novels of their friend Peter (Jaws, The Deep) Benchley. “Elga and I are branded for the moment as underwater specialists, so that’s where we’ll start,” Gimbel explains. As for adventuring, all that’s behind him. “Now,” he says, “I want with a passion to make films.”
Gimbel has long been something of an Andrea Doria freak. He scubaed down to it on the day after it sank, and in the past 25 years has made 17 other dives to the wreck. During a 1957 exploration he was attacked by a shark and saved himself by plunging a knife into its head. In a 1976 dive he was almost done in by a malfunction in his breathing apparatus. But that expedition also yielded The Mystery of the Andrea Doria, a TV documentary that questioned why the modern 29,083-ton luxury liner sank in just 11 hours. The 1981 visit aimed at finding the answer.
That turned out to be simple: The gash torn in the Doria’s side in the collision was so massive that nothing could have kept the ship afloat, says Gimbel. But to reach that conclusion, Gimbel had to hire a 190-foot support vessel (cost: $35,000 a day), a crew of 32 (including 10 filmmakers and 14 divers) and sophisticated equipment enabling them to work on the wreck up to eight hours at a time (scuba gear allows only 45 minutes or so).
Elga, a former actress (she appeared in the U.S. in Le Mans, a 1971 Steve McQueen movie), thought the venture far too hazardous. In fact, she hated it, Gimbel says. But as she tells it, “When I realized there was no way I could really influence Peter, I had to join the club.” Elga made one dive to the Doha, but otherwise stayed on the support craft as the expedition’s co-director. Meanwhile, Peter and the other divers worked on the wreck by day and spent their nights reading, eating and sleeping in “Mother,” an on-deck living chamber in which the air pressure matched that of the Doria’s depth.
The life was hard. Two storms, including a hurricane, racked the work-boat. Living for so long in a pressurized atmosphere, the divers developed assorted ailments. Gimbel himself got a cold, a bad cough, an earache and eventually a 102° fever. By the 34th day, a violently seasick Elga told Peter, “It’s time to quit.” Gimbel, determined to locate a second Doha safe, snapped back, “No, we’re not finished.” But soon after, the diving supervisor sent him a note pointing out gently that, unlike Gimbel, the divers stood to lose their livelihood if they developed serious illnesses as the operation dragged on. “I was fired up and wanted to go on,” Gimbel recalls. But finally he agreed it was time to go home—and now he is happy to say he’ll never dive to the Doria again. Peter always believed he was indestructible. “But Elga’s worries preyed on me,” he says. “I deeply believe she’s psychic.” In any case, he adds, “I don’t care if people say, ‘Gimbel’s lost his nerve.’ I’ve gone beyond having to prove I’m macho.”
Gimbel’s friends agree. Says writer Peter Matthiessen: “Even obsessions have to die. Thank God this one died before Peter did.” Like other Gimbel chums, Matthiessen has been concerned about his friend’s need to tread the edge: “It’s as if by confronting death over and over again, he might end some awful suspense about it.”
Peter, a scion of the family that built the Gimbel department store chain (it was sold in 1973 to a subsidiary of the British American Tobacco Co.), argues that he hasn’t been dueling with death but trying to live life to the fullest—a goal that has consumed him since his twin, David, died of stomach cancer at the age of 29. Up to then Gimbel’s life had been fairly conventional: With Deerfield Academy and Yale behind him, he spent a year as a Gimbel’s executive trainee (“It didn’t appeal to me”), then, with David, went into the investment business. At the time, Peter explains, “I was very influenced by my twin, and that’s what David thought we should do.” Then David died. Three years later Peter left Wall Street and enrolled at Columbia to study zoology and physics, subjects he thought would prepare him for a new life of scientific adventuring.
In the ensuing years he went through two marriages—first to Connecticut socialite Mary Bailey, by whom he has two children, then to a model, Virginia Taylor. His best professional effort during those years was Blue Water, White Death, a 1971 documentary about great white sharks. That film brought him his first real acclaim—and his third wife.
In 1971 Elga was a veteran of some 18 European films. In June of that year Gimbel was promoting Blue Water when a friend suggested he call Elga, who was in Los Angeles promoting Le Mans. Their first date was at a Japanese restaurant. “I don’t know if Gimbel has ever forgiven me,” says Elga, “but I didn’t fall for him right away.” They courted for two years, and then Elga moved into Peter’s six-story Manhattan town house. Still, they didn’t wed until 1978. “I had certain hang-ups because I had been married unsuccessfully twice,” Peter explains.
Elga was born in prewar Dortmund, the only child of a civil engineer. Two weeks before World War II ended, her parents had a quarrel so severe that her father left to join the Wehrmacht and was sent to the Russian front. He was never heard from again. To help support her mother, Elga quit school at 16 and worked for a while as an English and French interpreter. All the while she plotted to escape Dortmund, where “no one thought like me,” she says. At 18, she fled to Paris and soon got into modeling, then films. Her marriage to a French architect had just ended when she met Gimbel.
The couple finally wed for practical as well as romantic reasons. “Elga is my partner, but we would go to a meeting and the men and women would sit around the conference table addressing only me as if she didn’t exist,” he says. “Now, as my wife, she’s got clout.” Adds Elga: “Before we married, people would come to our house for dinner, and then snub me on the street. It was so humiliating. In Europe I had quite a success of my own.”
The Gimbels go to only a half-dozen parties a year—and “only if we think we’ll have fun,” says Peter. When not adventuring they divide their time between their town house, where they entertain friends such as George Plimpton, Benchley and Matthiessen, and a 100-acre spread in Greenwich, Conn. Now they’re spending their days editing footage of the Doria dive and brainstorming plots for future screenplays. Evenings they like to take the elevator up to their top-floor solarium, where they look out on the city lights and think back to the wreck they hope they’ll never see again. “There are questions about the ship that still niggle at me,” Peter says. But not enough to try to resolve them. “Push the Doria hard enough,” he says with a wary smile, “and you’ll find a way to get killed.”