The spy who loved us

„He’s CIA“ my dad used to say. Adding „he saved me from bankruptcy in Africa“ without much of a break. It was hard to believe that this least clandestine, very tall and friendly person would be a spy. But if secret operations of the seventies mainly entailed living in the penthouse and sipping champaign, he was certainly their grand master.

Make no mistake, he was too big and too american for Bond, even too much so for poor Felix Leiter. A commercial type through and through, his air implied access to luxury was only a matter of resolve and essentially a human right. He made any riches look like something that a little willpower could attain within minutes. Therefore Fred was the walking-talking definition of the american dream, even if he refused to live there for much of his life. He was too busy with all sorts of businesses ranging from rockets to trucks, but also bringing Ali and Foreman to the heart of Africa in 1974 (DER SPIEGEL).

So when my dad was responsible for the construction of a hotel and sports facilities for the „rumble in the jungle“ in Zaire (today’s Kongo DRC), it was only because Fred had the initial idea of suggesting to Mubutu Sese Seko to put his country on the map this way. Afterwards, when Mubutu refused to pay the bills, Fred eventually managed to wrangle most of my dad’s money out of Mubutu’s pockets. All Fred needed was a night at the bar of the Kinshasa Hilton to come to the conclusion that my dad was an earnest guy and mostly harmless.

Even when my dad tried being german with the Kongolese, Fred rode in the police car with him from the hotel bar to prison. They were led into the most horrific penitentiary facility, stripped to their underwear and dragged through all the aisles and cellars. Finally they arrived at the back door of the compound, only to climb back into the same car that brought them there. „I knew they weren’t serious“ Fred said, already on his way to more Vodka at the hotel bar. My shook-up small-town dad got seriously tanked that night.

One of Fred’s gifts was that he would never make a difference in his attitude to anyone, regardless of his counterpart being the porter at a hotel in Istanbul, a french flic in St. Paul-de-Vence or the juvenile son of a friend. All was his and while you were on his side all that was his was yours. He did not need to defend his interests, because he would give you the impression they were for your own good by definition. Eventually he of course moved to Monte Carlo and I remember watching the F1 races from his balcony directly opposite the Loew’s, where you get the best view of the cars of all places on the course. Fred didn’t even look at the race, smiled at my exhilaration and enjoyed the cool inside with friends. When the race was off, he took me to the casino opposite his residence and marched me through the premises, telling me what all this was about. One flick of his hand was enough to stop the only guard trying to hold us back, me being a minor after all. It wasn’t offensive, it just seemed to say „it doesn’t apply“.

Fred’s (invariably ravishing) wives, fiancees and girlfriends weren’t ever reduced to quick affairs, for all I knew. All of them seemed like true loves of a big man with a big heart. Strangely their appearance as well as their departure was silent, no drama, no lenthy battles. Nonetheless his many children had a hard time to cope with his nomad life-style and eventually ended up in Europe’s costliest asylums for rich kids one after the other. Money was never a problem, attention always was.

If only one of them wasn’t very close to being a brother, I could keep my distance to all of that. Not least since I learned all the lore of boarding school nonsense from this one almost-brother. That son of Fred’s slowly killed himself with alcohol and I cannot help to think it was also partly his father’s fault. I miss them both.

Despite that I will never walk by the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich without thinking of Fred inhabiting the penthouse, making it all look so easy. I still see him lifting a painting off the wall in his suite showing me the big and bright red letters saying „stolen“ written on the wallpaper behind it, commenting with his sly grin: „as if anyone would care to steal this piece of crap Daniel“. His deep voice made me feel like I was old and good enough to be his fellow spook and left no doubt that there wasn’t any other side to be on than his.

To the penthouses. And the notion that came before entitlement became a public nuisance: sheer presence.


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