Thursday, December 09, 2004

George and Benito and Bert

Was my rough-edged but expansive Jewish grandfather an admirer, as a young man, of Mussolini? Did this conservative, worldly-wise businessman, with his love of good living and good jokes, once enjoy a friendship with a notorious psychic and spirit medium?

Not the kinds of questions most people get to ask about their relatives!

But then most people's family archives don't contain a letter like the one we found in grandpa's papers after he died in 1986. It's still in the original envelope, addressed in a bold, spiky hand to

Marchese Paulucci De Calboli, Baron
Privat Secretary of Mr Mussolini

The engraved return address on the envelope is of a "Prof. Bert Reese", of 230 W. 99th Street, New York. The enclosed letter, also on the professor's letterhead, and in the same dramatic handwriting, reads as follows:

May 29th [19]25

My Dear Baron

The Bearer of this is a large Real Estate Man, and a very good friend of mine, Mr. Gross. He wishes to shake hand of Mr Mussoline, please dow anything you can for him while in Rome thanking you in advance for any Curtese you show him Iam with best regards to you and Mr Spavini [?] please if Mr Spavini from Napilo is in Rome at present show him this letter and he also can ad to this Gentleman who is accompanied by his wife my best wishes to Mr Mussolini and yourself I am yours

Very truly
Prof Bert Reese

Since we found this letter only after he died, I never got to ask grandpa whether he and grandma ever did meet Mussolini and if so what kind of handshake the dictator had. (George Gross's handshake, at least in later years, was firm and insistent, punctuated by "How are ya, how are ya, how are ya".) No one in the family had heard stories of what happened on this trip or knew anything about the Prof. Reese who tried to serve as go-between.

We'll likely never know whether or not the handshake took place. But I wonder about George's interest in meeting Il Duce in the first place. While in 1925 Mussolini's alliance with Hitler was more than a decade away, it had been three years since the Blackshirt's "March on Rome" brought Mussolini into power as Italy's Prime Minister. He was hailed as a statesman of genius, the savior of Italy -- even as he forged a corrupt and brutal one-party police state. In May of 1924, a year before George's visit, the assassination of a Socialist leader by Fascist thugs triggered a crisis that almost brought down Mussolini's government. In 1925, however, he was re-elected as Prime Minister, in a fraudulent election that confirmed his grip on power, as well as his loyal support by Italian oligarchs and much of the middle class.

I like to think George, a conservative but big-hearted man, saw the historical writing on the wall before shaking the hand of the writer. But it's not so shocking, after all, that a rising American real estate mogul should want to brush acquaintance with one of Europe's biggest bigshots. As something of a self-made man, George respected success in every walk of life, and had many friends in high places in local and national government. He could've been one of the millions in the 1920's, including many intellectuals, who sincerely admired the charismatic strongman who rebuilt his country, made the trains run on times, and drove back the rising tide of Socialism -- even at the cost of some lost liberties and a few broken heads. Real estate too was a world where you had to be smart and tough. Or perhaps young George was drawn to the sheer power of celebrity, and the chance to enjoy the fruits of his own hard work and high connections.

Which brings us to Prof. Reese. Who was this "good friend" of my grandfather's, with his florid handwriting and colorful foreigner's English -- and a close acquaintance with one of Europe's leading dictators? Unlike Il Duce, history has almost forgotton Bert Reese. In his day, however, the Polish born "Professor" (1851-1926) was a world-famous psychic and "mentalist" -- hailed by audiences, studied by Thomas Edison and European psychic researchers, debunked by Houdini, and the subject of at least one lawsuit for "disorderly conduct" related to his act (which he won). Reese's most famous trick was "reading" the contents of notes scribbled either by audience members or his assistants, and then shuffled or passed around so that no one could recognize them.

I could use some of that talent now! Thanks to the post-modern magic of Google, however, I have at least been able to piece together some of Reese's story, including his residence for much of his life in New York City. And, thanks to my grandfather's letter, we also know about Reese's association with another of history's great showmen -- the father of facismo. Perhaps Mussolini shared the same fascination with the occult as Hitler and many another paranoid, delusional dictator. Unlike Mussolini, the professor managed to weather the ups and downs of notariety and die a natural death, to all appearances at the top of his game. His achievements have been honored posthumously by many professional magicians, for whom the name "Bert Reese" still conjures up one of the field's most ingenious illusions.

In many ways, the idea of a friendship between my grandfather and a figure like Reese is even odder than grandpa's wanting to meet Mussolini, courtesy of the professor. It's here though that the family historian is stumped by want of data, beyond this single, almost too suggestive item. Perhaps further digging in the collective Gross family memories -- or the private papers of Mussolini -- might yield some fruit. In the meantime, the following modest venture into historical fiction brings us, I feel sure, very close to truth. Here goes (with apologies to the Da Vinci Code):

George was somber on the long limousine ride back from the West Side. He watched the sun set blood red over the streets of New York, and thought about his meeting with The Professor.

The old man's strong German accent and awkward English had been almost comical at first. But the rising tone of urgency riveted George's attention.

"Ze Italian musst be shhtopped. He was vith us vunz. But zay haf betrayed ze sacred vision of ze Brotherhood."

The professor looked around his drawing room, smirking ruefully at the trappings of the professional spiritualist. "I haf made of myself a clown to the world, to protect our mission. My life comes now to an end. But I can help you get close to him -- and see his evil deshtroyed, before I close my eyes for ever."

He held out the small envelope, addressed with his familiar jagged scrawl. George slipped it into a side pocket, his gaze never leaving the face of the old man -- now lit up with a strange, stricken look of hope.

"We can never meet again, my friend," said the professor, his trembling hand resting heavily on George's shoulder for a moment. "Got be vith you, and all of us."

George's mind was reeling as the door of the old brownstone closed behind him. A gust of wind blew unexpectedly cold through the May afternoon. He buttoned his jacket and and bundled himself hurriedly into his waiting limousine. He never noticed the white rectangle flicker from his pocket and under the deeply upholstered seats.

It was years before the envelope turned up again...


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