Captain Alfred Lowenstein, Companion of the Bath, multi-millionaire, aviator and sportsman, friend of kings, maker and loser of fortunes, was going to his grave almost alone at the age of fifty-one.
Here is the true story of the gaudy life and bizarre demise of 20's tycoon Alfred Loewenstein – and the modern-day quest to solve the tantalizing mystery of his death
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About the Author
William (Bill) Norris has been a professional writer since joining his local newspaper as an apprentice reporter at the age of 16. After working for a variety of newspapers in England and Africa, he was appointed Parliamentary Correspondent to the prestigious Times (of London) ten years later - one of the youngest ever to gain this position. He held the post for seven years, revolutionising the art of the "parliamentary sketch", then transferred to become Africa Correspondent for The Times, covering political events and wars in Biafra, Nigeria, Angola, the Congo, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. He became Associate Director of the PressWise Trust (a British media ethics charity) in 1997, in which post he counselled young journalists and promoted the cause of journalistic ethics. The latter, he said, was rather like preaching the virtues of continence to a shipload of sex-starved sailors. Six years ago he moved to the South of France, where he lives with his wife, Betty, two cats, and two exhausting dogs. He is also an experienced public speaker, having addressed such varied venues as a World Health Organisation conference in Moscow, a European Union conference on journalistic ethics in Cyprus (at both of which he was the keynote speaker), and international post-graduate students at the University of London. A member emeritus of the Academy of Senior Professionals at Florida's Eckerd College, he now spends much of his time advising journalistic students.
Read an Excerpt
It was hot enough to make the angels sweat. Their marble faces glistened in the harsh sunlight, sorrowing blindly, as the small cortège made its slow way along the curving path between them to the north-east corner of the vast cemetery of Evere.
There were no crowds. The group of curious villagers who had gathered at the gate to see the wealthy and the great pass by was left in puzzled disappointment. Tongues wagged. Was this the way the rich buried their dead? The flowers were some small recompense for their long wait in the baking heat: great mounds of wreaths and sprays that filled the motor hearse to overflowing, hiding from sight the expensive coffin. Their embossed cards of condolence read like a page from the Financial Times. Bankers and boards of directors from around the world had paid their floral tributes. But they had not come to say goodbye. Nor had the donor of the huge wreath of orchids, violets and pansies, which occupied the place of honour on the coffin lid. And she had been his wife.
Captain Alfred Loewenstein, Companion of the Bath, multi-millionaire, aviator and sportsman, friend of kings, maker and loser of fortunes, was going to his grave almost alone. He was fifty-one years old.
At least he would rest undisturbed. In the cemetery outside Evere, which serves the city of Brussels, there are three classes of graves. For those of lesser means, plots may be purchased for fifteen or fifty years, at the end of which time the occupants are dug up and the plots resold. It is a practical arrangement.
No such indignity awaited Alfred Loewenstein. His tomb, covered with a plain black slab of polished marble and occupying the space of three graves, had beenpurchased in perpetuity. The cost, and the occupancy, was shared with the Misonne family, into which he had married. Above all else, Alfred Loewenstein was a businessman.
The hearse had driven hard to take the empty coffin to Calais on the French coast, collect its occupant, and return. Now it crunched to a gravelled halt beside the open tomb. A motley collection of cars, from limousines to taxis, tagged on behind. The mourners emerged from them like beetles, murmuring to each other with as much solemnity as they could muster. There were just seventeen of them, all men, and they perspired freely in the black constriction of their formal grief. They looked with sympathy at the pallbearers, staggering under their load: the massive oak coffin was lined with lead, which was a thoughtful gesture.
Alfred Loewenstein had died two weeks before, falling 4,000 feet from his private aircraft, allegedly unseen by any of the six other people on board. His condition was less than fragrant.
To the general relief, it was quickly over. A few perfunctory prayers from the cemeterys resident priest, and the coffin was lowered into the vault. The mourners departed, the slab was replaced, and Madeleine Loewensteins wreath was laid carefully on top. The remainder of the flowers were heaped haphazardly upon the graves on either side, to fade and rot in the sunshine of that spectacular July of 1928.
In the weeks that followed, no mason came to carve the name of the famous man on the marble slab. Nor would they ever come. Alfred Loewenstein had been tidily consigned to the obscurity of an unmarked grave.
If there was little mourning, there was certainly wailing and gnashing of teeth. The death of Loewenstein had brought financial disaster to stockbrokers and small investors across the length and breadth of Europe. Little old ladies and country gentry alike who had clung to his financial coattails in the hope of becoming rich were suddenly poor once more. Dealers in London and Brussels caught on the margins went to the wall as stock in his companies tumbled. In Berlin and Zurich, Paris and Montreal; almost everywhere where men dealt in money the story was the same. For the best part of a decade, the man they called the Belgian Croesus had commanded the headlines and mesmerised them all with his flamboyance, his daring, and the sheer effrontery of his behaviour.
They had danced to his tune, dazzled by his wizardry, hopeful that his Midas touch would transmute their savings into gold. And so it did, while he lived. But the tune was ended, and the melody lingered not. Alfred Loewenstein had wound up bobbing on the cold swell of the English Channel. In a manner as bizarre and strange as the way he lived his life, the third richest man in the world had died and left them holding scraps of paper. They were puzzled, angry, and afraid. And they were much, much poorer.
In the spring of 1984 I knew nothing of this. Loewenstein had died five years before I was born, and though I had worked in the newspaper game for most of my life, I had never even heard his name. And this was odd. Headlines fade and stories are forgotten, but the truly sensational lingers on in some backwater of the journalistic mind. The unexplained death of one of the greatest financial czars of the century ought to qualify him for some sort of place in the reporters hall of fame.
But not Loewenstein. For me, and for the contemporary world in general, the extraordinary life and death of Alfred Loewenstein might never have happened. Until, that is, I happened to visit New York and took a ride in the elevator to the fifteenth floor of the Pan Am building on Park Avenue.
All things considered, it was an odd place for me to be. I had just finished a book that was far from complimentary to Pan Am*, and which had had a few unkind things to say about American aviation lawyers. Yet here I was in the heart of the enemy camp, about to visit a friend who was, of all things, an aviation lawyer. Stuart Speiser was and is, I hasten to add, a lawyer of a different stamp from those I had been writing about. He is also an unashamed millionaire, a writer and thinker of no mean distinction, and an inveterate collector of strange stories. His generosity in passing these on can sometimes be an embarrassment.
"You might be interested in this," he said as I was about to leave. A brown folder was thrust in my direction. "I came across this story years ago. Always wanted to write it, but never found the time. It might make a book for you. I know you like turning over stones and seeing what crawls out."
I made polite noises. Stuarts idea of a good story and my own did not always coincide. And, truth to tell, I had recently discovered that writing books was a splendid way to live but a lousy way to make a living. I did not need another one.
But to refuse would have been impolite, and impecunious writers are not rude to millionaires, even when they happen to be friends. So I thanked him kindly and stuffed the folder in my briefcase. And there it stayed.
My briefcase is a filing system of some sophistication. Papers are added at the top until it is full to the point of bursting a process that may take weeks or months. Seen in cross-section, the resulting mass of material, when removed, forms a perfect archaeological record of my procrastination. By mere measurement I can tell almost to the day when I forgot to do something.
The brown folder, when finally excavated, definitely fell into the New York, or "hassle with publishers" period of my life. I frowned at it, vaguely remembering its origin. Should I read the contents? Well, why not? Whatever lay inside would be an improvement on my preoccupation of that moment, which was paying the telephone bill. I put aside my chequebook. I opened the folder.
There was once a lady named Pandora who regretted similar curiosity. Investigative writers are supposed to scorn such superstitions. Yet here were demons of a sort. What I held in my hand were blackened photostats of cuttings from the New York Times more than half a century old. Some were hard to read, and some downright impossible. But there was enough to tell me that here was the story of a remarkable man who met an extraordinary death. More to the point, that death had never been explained. It was a mystery; the sort of convoluted locked-door puzzle beloved by fiction writers of the 1920s except that it was more curious than any fiction.
The questions crowded in. How could a man so prominent, so rich and famous, die violently without any trace of an official investigation? If he had committed suicide, what had driven him to such desperation? There was nothing in the cuttings to indicate the slightest reason. Could it have been murder: If so, who had means and motive? An accident, then? But how do you step "accidentally" out of an aircraft in mid-flight, and do so, moreover, without any of your fellow passengers noticing? The detached attitude of the police, who hardly figured in the stories at all, was curious to say the least. Nor did it seem that Loewensteins associates had been anxious to do anything more than staunch the financial bleeding that followed his disappearance. There was certainly no indication that they wanted to find out how he had died. Quite the reverse: reading between the lines, there was the distinct impression that an embarrassment had been removed from their staid, stiff-collared world of banking. The man had been a bounder. Good riddance to him.
The longer I looked at those faded cuttings, the more convinced I became that they failed to tell the whole story. I had never been an admirer of financiers, and there were clear indications that Loewenstein had not been one of the most attractive of the breed. Yet whatever else one said of him, this had been a man. And no man deserves to die quite so unloved and uncared for, even one as rich, as brash, as arrogant as Alfred Loewenstein.
Yet what good would it do to resurrect it all, even supposing that I could? The man was dead; nothing could change that. And if no one had cared at the time, why should anyone care now to find out how and why he died? Why should I waste my time and money on a wild goose chase after the solution to a mystery more than half a century old?
Fifty-six years is a very long time. Loewensteins murderer, if there had been such a person, would be long beyond the reach of human justice. And witnesses, if any survived, would be senile at best. Or so I thought at the time. As it turned out, I could not have been more wrong.
In short, I found a dozen reasons to forget the whole damned thing. The trouble was that none of them could override my curiosity. I wanted to know the truth, or at least come as near to it as I could. And for some unaccountable reason I found myself caring about Loewenstein himself. It seemed time that someone did. With a slight sinking feeling, knowing that I was hooked, I turned over the pile of cuttings and began again.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Alfred Loewenstein was an obscenely rich financier who was very famous in his time, but he is remembered today (when he's remembered at all) mainly because of his strange death. One bright and sunny day, the financial tycoon Alfred Loewenstein was crossing the English Channel in a small private plane with his valet, the pilot, the plane mechanic and two secretaries. Somewhere along the way, Loewenstein mysteriously vanished. No one noticed for about ten minutes. His body was found floating in the channel, looking about how you would expect for someone who fell out of an airplane and then drifted in the ocean for a week. Loewenstein's fellow passengers suggested he opened the wrong door on the way to the bathroom, but later investigation proved you couldn't open the outside door while the plane was in flight; it was impossible, due to the air pressure. So what happened to cause Loewenstein to fall to his death?Nearly sixty years after the fact, William Norris wrote this book on the mystery. He proved Loewenstein was murdered and produced a plausible theory as to how the murder was committed, and offered a good guess as to who did it and why. This book was excellent, engagingly written and as suspenseful as any detective fiction. I did tend to get lost in all the financial stuff about how Loewenstein made his fortune, but the story would be incomplete without it.