Curious things tend to happen to me.
One of the great benefits of driving a vintage Mercedes-Benz is; it opens up a number of different conversations (if you’re open to them). These tend to happen mostly at gas stations. This particular Sunday I was driving on fumes because I had waited just a tad-too-long to refuel and found myself drawn into a station I’d rarely use –
As I started to fill her up, a masked gentleman approached me...
It wasn't someone asking for money or something…it was an older gentleman coming over to have a conversation with me whilst we availed ourselves of Chevron’s finest!!
Ubiquitous questions follow:
“What year is it”?
“How long have you had it”?
“How many miles”?
After my usual 89, 8, 111 shuffle….the conversation segues in the direction of this legendary, and fabulously, wealthy man who’s supposed to live out at Palos Verdes and who's alleged to own (amongst other things), a one of a kind, pistachio green, 1950’s Mercedes-Benz. It was the only one made, supposedly. As we mused a little on this man’s great fortune, I couldn't help but riposte this rhetoric:
“Do you think he shares this one-of-a-kind Mercedes-Benz with others”?
“Should one-off masterpieces like unique cars or pieces of art (that languish in Bank Vaults or on the walls of empty NYC Penthouses) be in fact loaned out (or even donated) to museums so that others less fortunate (but just as in need of the inspiration) can benefit from them?”
“Is it the responsibility of the privileged few (who own such unique treasures) to share them once in a while with all our eager eyes, rather than only keeping them in their Smaug like lairs?”
He said, “I believe all should have the opportunity to enjoy, at least from time to time” ...
My accent registered with him…
“Are you British”? He asked.
“Yes”, I said…
“A refugee” he enquired..?
“No.” replied I.
"My great Aunt Maria was a refugee…at the turn of the century, my family (who were Austrian and lived in Vienna) made a name for themselves in the textile industry…my aunt’s brother-in-law, (Bernhardt), along with her husband (Fritz), designed and created The Worlds 1st V-neck sweater!!
They were tremendously successful, and at one time employed over 1,000 people and exported their product to all corners of the Globe.
The family were fixtures of Viennese society and artists...
musicians, writers, free thinkers and philosophers made up their social set and life was good. Life was creative and beautiful.
Life changed in 1938 with “The Anchloss”. It literally turned upside down. Bernhardt refugeed to Britain with Maria, but Fritz was captured and sent to Dachau. In order to secure Fritz’s release, the Nazi’s forced Berhhardt to sign over his business to them.
Although Bernhardt lost control of his assets, he saved the life of his sibling and that was more worth every sweater possibly could. Eventually, they immigrated to the US and started again. The started again with nothing and eventually built some degree of their fortune back”.
My face was partly obscured by my mask but my eyes were wide open with respect and complete admiration. I just wanted to shake his hand. What resilience what courage…but he hadn't finished making his point, "The story, isn’t about Bernhardt and Uncle Fritz, it’s really about Aunt Maria."
Does the name Adele Bloch-Bauer mean anything to you?”
I said, “I think I know what you’re about to say...”
He replied, “My Aunt was Maria Altmann, she inherited Gustav Klimt’s “The Woman in Gold” from her Aunt Adele and it was she (Maria) who fought for the return of the art works after the Nazi looting and it was ultimately only through that particular paintings purchase by collector, Ronald Lauder that made it possible for all to enjoy the masterpiece. It’s currently on permanent display in his Neue Gallery in NYC”. What a punchline.
As we parted company, I was hoping he his last words might be, “and I love driving the Pistachio-Green-Mercedes-Benz..!”