Monthly Archives:

September 2015

Personal, Politics, Spies

I Spy With My Little Eye

September 30, 2015

“Then we got into a labyrinth, and, when we thought we were at the end,
came out again at the beginning, having still to see as much as ever.”
~ Plato

§ § §

Even after all this time (and perhaps BECAUSE so much time has elapsed), artwork and artefacts from World War II are still being discovered. Purloined paintings spirited away by the Nazis during the latter years of the war will always take centre stage, and rightly so. This story, about a looted oil painting, found hanging in a small home in Columbus, Ohio for 20 years, is a good example of what’s still missing and yet to be found. So too, is the recent unearthing (literally, in this case) of the so-called Nazi ‘gold train’ buried deep in Poland.

However, it’s not just precious metals and works of art from the war years that have remained ‘buried’, and eventually discovered in odd places. Documents, maps, letters, paperwork of all kinds continue to show up in long-forgotten, dust-ridden attic and basement boxes in locales that defy simple explanation.

My recent trip to L.A. was initially a short research excursion in support of a new book I’m writing. The job at hand involved viewing and making notes on a recently discovered cache of formal Nazi documents written in 1945 as the Russians closed in on Berlin. Those documents – including a crudely drawn map that lies at the heart of my new tale – were nothing short of eye-popping. But it was the story of how and where they were eventually found that was equally exciting.

No spoiler alert here, but this is the Reader’s Digest version.

As the top echelon Nazis increasingly saw the writing on the wall in the Spring of 1945, much of their work was occupied, not with trying to counterattack the Russian Army who had already infiltrated the Berlin city limits, but rather in attempting to squirrel away and/or destroy documentary evidence of their war crimes. Included in that effort was the mostly successful attempt to find secret repositories for material central to the their basic thesis of a ‘thousand year Reich’ – a FOURTH Reich, as it were, to rise from the ashes and live to conquer again another day, in another place – South America, as it turned out.

Eventually, more than five years later, some of that material ended up in the hands of the East German secret police archives – the Stasi. Amongst that material was a 22-page dossier – the one I made notes on a few weeks ago. How and why Nazi documents found their way into a massive archive in East Germany – a Communist bloc country (the Nazis, of course, were virulently anti-Communist) – is another, far more lengthy story, and odd enough for any researcher. However, it’s what happened to those documents next, in the early 1990s, that confounds imagination.

As the Eastern Bloc Communist manifesto-driven lifestyle began to falter politically and socially, and eventually fail completely in 1989, the Berlin Wall tumbled to the ground. The GDR, or the German Democratic Republic as East Germany was known, was caught completely off guard according to some historians. Two things were becoming abundantly clear to the members of the GDR politburo. Their ‘partners’ in the Soviet Union were going to do nothing about this deteriorating (to them) state of affairs, and, therefore, it would only be a matter of time before everything collapsed, and newly ‘freed’ citizenry would begin storming political offices and trashing or stealing everything in site. The decision within the secret police was to destroy everything. Ironically, this, in fact, is the reason so much Stasi documentation exists to this day.

The Stasi was the largest, most detail-oriented intelligence organization the world has ever seen. It was also the most devious, ruthless, and arcane. Their interrogation techniques were… creative, to say the least. It is said that at one time or another ALL residents of East Germany were working for the Stasi whether they knew it or not. The smallest, simplest detail rarely went undetected by someone, who then either ‘reported’ it to the police, or spoke about it to someone else in a bar, or on the street, and THAT someone revealed the information to someone else, which found its way to the Stasi. A phone number written on a used paper napkin in a small bistro and thrown away by restaurant staff after the meal would be retrieved and presented to the police in hopes that one day this little act of ‘patriotism’ would be remembered and, therefore, deflect any investigation or interrogation of THEM. It’s no wonder that the Soviet KGB would often send their agents to East Berlin for training in ‘technique’.

The Stasi, by design, destroyed nothing. They kept, and cross-referenced everything! As such, they had no incinerators or paper shredders! Their job was to KEEP everything, not DESTROY it – such was the root of their power.

While they scrambled to find incinerators and shredders in other parts of Berlin and beyond, the police concocted another scheme. Staff members of the Stasi (there were literally tens of thousands of individuals and married couples, as it turned out) were tasked with spiriting away bits, pieces, chunks, boxes, and crates of material. One such box was taken into the German countryside by a husband and wife team and hidden away.

After the tumult of the fall of Communism began to fade away, and Germany once again became unified, this couple emigrated to the United States taking some of the Stasi archives with them. The story goes that the 22-page dossier in question was found less than five years ago. In a steamer trunk. In a barn. On a farm. In the fields of Nebraska!

The dossier became part of a larger assemblage of Nazi documentation, and through some deep, forensic research over the better part of two years, I located its resting place.

Its discovery made me dig into what might have happened with the rest of the Stasi archive. Did it survive in some form? How much survived? How much was destroyed – eventually shredded or incinerated? Where is it?

In a large, very secure ‘business park’ within an office/warehouse complex just outside Berlin, lies the Office of the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records. It is the new international ‘home’ for the Stasi archives. Aside from materials that were ‘taken away’, most of the archive was NOT incinerated, and only a partial amount was shredded, although the word ‘partial’ here is entirely relative.

Inside this complex of buildings, an extensive staff of paid workers, volunteers and even students work tirelessly around the clock, seven days a week piecing back together the entire surviving archive. It is estimated that the job of reorganizing will take decades to complete. Why?

The archive as it now exists comprises almost a billion individual pages of data, which translates to about 111 kilometres of shelf space if it were all laid end to end. That figure doesn’t include 1.8 million photos, negatives, and slides; 30,000 films, videos, and audio recordings; 39 million separate file cards; 47 kilometres of microfilm; and 15,500 garbage bags stuffed with shredded material. Volunteers are painstakingly reconstructing the contents of those bags back into their original individual pages… one shredded sliver of paper at a time. This specialist group is known as ‘the puzzlers’.

Finding a needle in a haystack suddenly seems like so much child’s play!

Internet, Movies, Television

Content Matters Most

September 20, 2015

This thrust of this article is exactly the subject of a series of conversations I had with a couple of Hollywood suits a few weeks ago in Los Angeles. It’s really why we had any conversation in the first place, as it turns out.

My writing portfolio ended up in the hands of a half dozen ‘studio types’ who are involved in the creation of a new entertainment venture. The key to this venture is, plain and simple, content – written content. (A friend passed my portfolio along to a couple of executives, and they in turn handed it to a few others – I had no idea this was happening!) At the end of these conversations I had a ‘first look’ deal for a book with an option on two others in the series.

The whole confab went kind of like this…

Most of the traditional studios – majors and mini-majors – are scared to death of entities such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. They are also very concerned about cable networks like AMC (i.e. The Walking Dead, Mad Men), USA (i.e. Mr. Robot, Graceland), and Starz (i.e. Outlander, Blunt Talk). They are scooping up writing, directing, and acting talent for lower budget fare (film and television), and telling motion picture-style stories in longer arcs. Instead of 92-minute movies, or two-hour films (sometimes even three-hour epics), much of the material is ending up on the outlets mentioned above (and others) as ‘short stack events’. The new “X Files”, for instance, is only six episodes, and they refer to it as an ‘event series’.

The bottom line is the paradigm has shifted once again. Hollywood will always make block-busters with budgets in excess of $100 million dollars (some way in excess of that figure) – the superhero films coming from Marvel would be a good example. But what about everything else – the thrillers, the romcoms, the biographies, the mysteries? And what about all the new distribution outlets, the ‘agnostic screens’ (tablets, smartphones, laptops, computers)?

If it all begins with the written word, then why not have a single, powerful business that starts with the written word (book publishing), and shepherds that book through global distribution and sales (book copies), followed by multimedia exploitation (film, TV), all aided and abetted with purpose-produced social media? Why indeed. The outlets for this ‘word’ can be anything and everything: film chains, TV networks, online streaming, etc. The surprise here (if there is one) is the addition of ‘publishing’ to the overall mix. How that affects and changes the traditional business model of book-to-film is a subject for another time.

This Variety article about the head of AMC Networks is really the first time I’ve seen someone in the business address the subject of ‘content as business model’.

As I was leaving Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd. (where better to have an industry meeting?!) the ‘suit’ who offered me the ‘first look’ deal told me that, aside from content, the corporate consolidation we’ve seen in the entertainment industry is far from over. He said that he and his compatriots are convinced that within two to three years (possibly sooner) someone will make a play for Apple. Impossible, I thought. Who has the capital to make such a pitch? Imagine, he says, Google or Amazon… or a consortium of BOTH (with perhaps a wealthy investment firm as top up)…? NOT impossible, he said. Of course, he continued, the opposite is much more likely – that Apple will buy a major (mini-major) Hollywood studio. They DO have the capital.

And that returned us to the subject at hand: content. Apple doesn’t own or control any content – not yet. But the release of a newly-configured AppleTV barely two weeks later, and rumours of Tim Cook sniffing around some back lots would certainly lead one to believe where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Is that crazy? Tim Cook secretly toured a handful of automobile race tracks and testing facilities leading to the rumour that Apple was going into the ‘car’ business. Most tech pundits scoffed. Ridiculous, they said. Apple then proceeded to hire several automotive executives after discussions with Elon Musk (Tesla) appeared to go nowhere. Barely a month ago, a former naval base at Concord, California, frequently used by automotive manufacturers as a test track, signed a NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) with… Apple.

I’m on this train, and I can’t wait to see where it leads!

Books, Travel

Drive, She Said

September 8, 2015

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.
The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.”

– Albert Einstein

§ § §

Let’s begin with an indisputable fact of nature. No one has ever travelled around the world using an automobile as the means of transportation… ever. Can’t be done. Geography is a bitch in that regard, always putting seawater in the way of a good ribbon of blacktop, or even a navigable dirt road for that matter. Nope, sorry – can’t get there from here.

This doesn’t stop people from suggesting they have, or will do just that – drive around the world.

However, take away the literal context of the journey, and add a ship or three to assist in the ‘portaging’ of said vehicle across vast expanses of ocean, and attempts to accomplish such a feat take on a competitive edginess.

heidi-hetzerHistory shows that for well over a hundred years many would-be thrill-seekers, from all walks of life, have attempted to circumnavigate the globe by car, several also laying siege to the claim of having been the first to do so. Whether merely pursuing a sense of adventure, participating in sponsored or money-making schemes, or simply for the bragging rights, the words ‘drive around the world’ have always held a certain sense of freedom, excitement and escape, even danger. And it’s not just men who have fallen victim to this internal combustion version of wanderlust – women have not only tackled this ‘extreme’ pursuit, they have excelled.

Heidi Hetzer hopes to be one of those women. And therein lies the beginning of a story with more twists and turns than the Nürburgring.

TO INFINITY, AND BEYOND

Heidi owns one of the largest automobile dealership chains in Germany, and cars have always been a part of her life. She is also a race car driver and has competed in many major races including international rallies such as the famous ‘Mille Miglia‘. In 2013, she embarked on her dream quest in her treasured Hispano-Suiza roadster. The car is 91-years-old. Heidi is 75.

hispano-suiza

As Heidi tells it, the inspiration for her long trip comes from a book she read a few years ago about the first woman to drive around the world, a feat completed back in 1929. Heidi thought: ‘Why not me? I can do that, too.’

That ‘first woman’ Heidi read about was fellow German, Clärenore Stinnes. Like Heidi, cars were in Miss Stinnes’ blood, and she was an avid racer. She competed in dozens of automotive competitions and won seventeen first-place trophies by 1927 when she was barely 26-years-old. By then, she was famous throughout Europe for her driving prowess.

Attempting to duplicate this amazing feat of geographical tenacity and skill, if not stamina, is remarkable, especially for someone like Heidi who is now approaching octogenarian status. And taking nothing away from Miss Stinnes’ original accomplishment, Heidi’s plan of following in the footsteps of the first women to drive around the world would be amazing but for one not-so-small detail. With all due respect to Heidi, the story’s not true.

Clärenore Stinnes was not the first woman to drive around the world. Aloha Wanderwell was.

BUMPER TO BUMPER

In a world of competitive ‘firsts’ – first person to reach Antarctica, first person to sail the Pacific Ocean, first person to ascend Mt. Everest – the claim of ‘first person to drive around the world’ has had a murky history, with several men and women staking that claim. Even the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this (and they get it wrong, too).

But let’s compare these two women and put their accomplishments side-by-side.

clarenore-stinnesClärenore Stinnes left Berlin, Germany on May 25, 1927, at the age of 26 in an Adler Standard 6 automobile. She was accompanied by a cinematographer named Carl (whom she subsequently married), two mechanics, and a support vehicle containing spare parts and equipment. The entire venture was supported by the German automotive industry to the tune of 100,000 Reichsmarks – about $25,000 in 1927 (U.S.) dollars, which has a relative value over $300,000 today. Using ferries, ships and other modes of assisted transportation, Miss Stinnes and company returned to Berlin two years after departure.

Aloha Wanderwell left Nice, France on December 29, 1922, having recently celebrated her 16th birthday. She was accompanied by a Polish aloha-wanderwelladventurer and cinematographer named Walter (whom she subsequently married) driving a modified Model-T Ford. This particular ‘Tin Lizzie’ had a canvas roof and plywood floorboards, but no windows. There were no support vehicles, no spare parts and no extra equipment. They had no external cash support whatsoever. The entire venture was supported solely by Aloha’s and Walter’s wits and resourcefulness. Using ferries, ships and other modes of assisted transportation, Miss Wanderwell and company returned to the south of France five years after departure.

In short, Aloha not only began her circumnavigation of the globe while still a teenager, and more than four years prior to Miss Stinnes’ departure, she completed her trip while Clärenore was still on the road.

Was Clärenore Stinnes the first woman to drive around the world? No. Was she the fastest? Quite likely. But there can ever only be one ‘first’, and Aloha is it.

THE AMELIA EARHART OF THE OPEN ROAD

If you suspect that I have an axe to grind, or perhaps a hidden agenda in my telling this story, congratulations, you’re wearing the clever trousers today.

The world is full of people and events lost in the wisps of time. Aloha Wanderwell is one of those.

composite

Aloha was once spoken of in the same company as Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham, Nellie Bly and Amelia Earhart. She was one of the most celebrated adventurers of her day. Her importance is such that museums the world over contain collections of Wanderwell memorabilia and artifacts from her global tours and explorations during the 1920s and 1930s. The Smithsonian Institution maintains a Wanderwell section in their archives for her films and photographs, and they regard her as one of the foremost ethnographers of her day.

Now, a new book will finally tell her amazing story. It will place her and her accomplishments – including being the First Woman to Drive Around the World – back into the pages of history where she rightfully belongs, and introduce her to a new audience.

The new book is called, “Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer”. It is the culmination of many years’ of research, travel, writing and editing by myself and my co-author, Chris Fink-Jensen.

To suggest this project had a long gestation period might give the false impression it was completed in nine months. It was not. The research phase alone took some years and plenty of international travel to both established and esoteric archives alike. The book was written once and rewritten three times because of the eye-popping discoveries we made while attempting to document this adventurous woman’s life and times.

Discovering that she was Canadian was the first revelation… how had we, nor anyone else, never heard of her?! Then, astonishingly, we found ‘Aloha Wanderwell’ was not her real name. We uncovered a birth certificate buried in government bureaucracy that revealed her true birth name and proved she was born in Winnipeg, and then raised in North Vancouver and Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. We unlocked a long-hidden tin box containing her personal diaries begun the first day she left the south of France in 1922 at the age of sixteen. We found her daughter living in an extended care facility in Honolulu, and her son living on a houseboat in Sausalito – both siblings now in their 80s – and two granddaughters. They all opened their homes, their hearts, and their memories to us, thrilled that we were going to tell Aloha’s story. But that wasn’t all we discovered.

foia-fbi

Some photographs and documents hidden amongst her personal memorabilia, and notes, references and marginalia scattered throughout her personal writings, contained references to people, events, places and dates that appeared, at first blush, to have no correlation to the story we were telling. Was there still more to this tale, more to her life and adventures that we hadn’t uncovered?

hooverSixty Freedom of Information Act (FOIA – American) requests, a half dozen Access To Information Act (ATIA – Canadian) requests, queries to British government archives, and countless hours poring over subterranean historical material at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., revealed a second, completely unknown history buried in the shadows.

Documents, internal memos, ‘action reports’ and even personal correspondence involving the FBI, the Justice Department, the Secret Service, purvismilitary intelligence on three continents, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Homeland Security) revealed that Aloha and her companion Walter, were under constant surveillance. They were being investigated for various unsavory matters, including espionage. J. Edgar Hoover himself was so concerned about the Wanderwell’s world tour, he issued specific instructions to more than 20 FBI field offices requesting “…any and all information…” about their activities. Melvin Purvis, the G-Man who a few years later would ‘get’ gangster John Dillinger, was put in charge.

And then, of course, there was the murder. The killing that remains unsolved to this day. What about that…?

Aloha’s life was many things, boring was not one of them.

From the book’s publicity material:

“During the Roaring Twenties a young girl ventured to the ends of the earth armed with nothing but a car, a camera, a few companions, a make-up kit and an attitude. Within a few short years she had driven around the world, hunted elephants and tigers, dined with world leaders, dodged a Russian firing squad, fought alongside Chinese warlords, talked her way into and out of countless life-threatening confrontations and become the kind of media star only Hollywood could invent. She had also become the centerpiece of one of the biggest unsolved murder mysteries in American history. Her name was Aloha Wanderwell. This is a true story.”

PETAL TO THE METTLE

If you think that Aloha, Clärenore and Heidi are ‘vehicular’ exceptions, go stand in the corner.

The first long-distance journey by automobile was also a promotional tour, and the car’s very first endurance test. The year was 1894. The driver was Bertha Benz (yes, THAT Benz), wife of Carl who actually invented the motorcar.

The first person in history ever to pass a driving test was the French Duchess Anne d’Uzes. The Duchess was also the first person in history to ever receive a speeding ticket (you go girl!)

londonderryThen, of course, there’s Annie Londonderry (aka Annie Cohen Kopchovsky), the world’s first ‘spokes-woman’, so to speak. Annie was the first person to ‘drive around the world’ on TWO wheels. She bicycled her way from Boston and took the long way back… in 1895!

Women such as Violet Cordery, Alice Ramsey, Osa Johnson, Dorothy Levitt, and many, many more, all made their mark in the motorcar world long ago. And although Aloha was only 16-years-old when she began her life’s journey, other young girls were getting a head start even sooner. In 1916, the Girl Scouts of America introduced the ‘Automobiling Badge’ for which girls between the ages of 11 (!) and 17 had to demonstrate driving skill, auto mechanics, and first aid.

Ladies, start your engines!