Critically acclaimed author Robert Klara's The Devil's Mercedes chases down one of the most improbable stories of the postwar era: the national drama that erupted when Hitler’s armored limousine surfaced in the US.
In 1938, Mercedes-Benz began production of the largest, most luxurious limousine in the world. A machine of frightening power and sinister beauty, the Grosser 770K Model 150 Offener Tourenwagen was 20 feet long, seven feet wide, and tipped the scales at 5 tons. Its supercharged, 230-horsepower engine propelled the beast to speeds over 100 m.p.h. while its occupants reclined on glove-leather seats stuffed with goose down. Armor plated and equipped with hidden compartments for Luger pistols, the 770K was a sumptuous monster with a monstrous patron: Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party.
Deployed mainly for propaganda purposes before the war, the hand-built limousines—in which Hitler rode standing in the front seat—motored through elaborate rallies and appeared in countless newsreels, swiftly becoming the Nazi party’s most durable symbol of wealth and power. Had Hitler not so thoroughly dominated the scene with his own megalomania, his opulent limousine could easily have eclipsed him.
Most of the 770Ks didn’t make it out of the rubble of World War II. But several of them did. And two of them found their way, secretly and separately, to the United States.
In The Devil’s Mercedes, author Robert Klara uncovers the forgotten story of how Americans responded to these rolling relics of fascism on their soil. The limousines made headlines, drew crowds, made fortunes and ruined lives. What never became public was how both of the cars would ultimately become tangled in a web of confusion, mania, and opportunism, fully entwined in a story of mistaken identity.
Nobody knew that the limousine touted as Hitler’s had in fact never belonged to him, while the Mercedes shrugged off as an ordinary staff car—one later abandoned in a warehouse and sold off as government surplus—turned out to be none other than Hitler’s personal automobile.
It would take 40 years, a cast of carnies and millionaires, the United States Army, and the sleuthing efforts of an obscure Canadian librarian to bring the entire truth to light.
As he recounts this remarkable drama, Klara probes the meaning of these haunting hulks and their power to attract, excite and disgust. The limousines’ appearance collided with an American populous celebrating a victory even as it sought to stay a step ahead of the war’s ghosts. Ultimately, The Devil’s Mercedes isn’t only the story of a rare and notorious car, but what that car taught postwar America about itself.
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About the Author
ROBERT KLARA is the author of the critically acclaimed FDR’s Funeral Train and The Hidden White House. His unveiling of the private world of the famous funeral train was hailed as “a major new contribution to U.S. history” by Douglas Brinkley. His second book, a dramatic account of Truman’s fight to save the White House, was called “popular history at its best” (The Christian Science Monitor). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, among other publications.
Read an Excerpt
The Devil's Mercedes
The Bizarre and Disturbing Adventures of Hitler's Limousine in America
By Robert Klara
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Robert Klara
All rights reserved.
THE STOCKHOLM DEAL
Though he'd read philosophy at Oxford, strung for The New York Times, and slipped into wartime Egypt as an emissary for the State Department, no experience in his thirty-six years could prepare Christopher Janus for what lay at the other end of an ordinary telephone call on a summer day.
It was June of 1948, and Janus was in his office at the Chicago Board of Trade building. The magnificent art deco skyscraper dominated the Loop, stretching its gray limestone neck above the din of taxi horns and the haze of locomotive smoke from LaSalle Street Station. Janus was the managing director of Eximport Associates, a firm in the business — as its name suggested — of exporting and importing. Eximport's inventory was nothing especially fancy: "hardware, office equipment, household supplies, drugs, cosmetics, and other lines," its opening announcement in the Chicago Tribune had said. But with the war over, Europe rebuilding, and American consumption surging by double digits, it was a good time to be buying and selling almost anything.
Eximport itself was only two years old, though its founder, a Turkish-born entrepreneur named Milton Baldji, had spent thirty years in international trade. In contrast, Baldji's junior partner was green. True, Christopher Janus had traveled the world and even once lunched with philosopher-poet George Santayana in Rome, but he had never run a business. This day Janus was on an international call patched all the way through to Stockholm. It was one of his first deals, and it wasn't going well.
A few weeks earlier, Janus had exported thirty-five thousand dollars' worth of machinery (auto parts, mainly, including a large shipment of ball bearings) to Sweden. Bildels AB, the firm that had bought the parts, had agreed to pay Janus in dollars. Now that the note was due, however, it was clear that Bildels didn't have greenbacks, only Swedish kronor. In postwar Europe, that currency was unstable, and Janus wouldn't touch it. What to do? Janus's shipment had already left America, and he risked red ink if he didn't come up with something. That's when the buyer suggested a trade.
"What do you have?" Janus asked.
"An automobile," said the Swede.
Janus considered. He did need a new car, and there was a long waiting list for them. Scrambling to retool its factory lines after years of armaments production, Detroit had only recently begun introducing new models. "I was tempted to accept the car for that reason alone," Janus admitted later. Still, even a top-of-the-line convertible like a Cadillac Series 62, priced at three thousand four hundred dollars, didn't come close to the money Janus was on the hook for.
"I'm not interested in a car for thirty-five thousand dollars," Janus countered.
"It's not just a car," said the man on the phone, pausing. "It is Hitler's."
Adolf Hitler's car. The man was not speaking of a Volkswagen. The automobile in question was a limousine, specifically, a custom-built 1941 Mercedes-Benz Grosser 770K model W150 open touring car. It was twenty feet long, could carry eight passengers, and, with its 11/4-inch bulletproof windows and armor plating, tipped the scales at nearly five tons.
To this heady piece of information, the offer wholly out of left field, the young Chicago broker could say but one thing: He would call back.
* * *
That an automobile that had belonged to the most notorious and despised man of the twentieth century would end up as collateral in a ball-bearing deal out of Chicago was, if anything, the product of incredible odds. And yet, in his memoirs, Janus does not confess to a feeling of surprise in being offered Hitler's car. Perhaps it was merely because wheeler-dealers (and in time, Janus was to become a very good one of those) do not betray their emotions. Or maybe it was because Christopher Janus was accustomed to long odds already. It was, for instance, no small miracle in the first place that Janus was in Chicago with money in his pocket and a tailor-made suit on his back.
His family had come to the United States from Greece in 1910, settling in Montgomery, West Virginia, where his father had found a factory job. The Januses' relative stability lasted only until 1918, when another visitor from the old world, the Spanish flu, slipped in the door. Within weeks, Janus's father, sister, and younger brother were dead. The three surviving family members headed north in 1926, settling in Montclair, New Jersey. But without a breadwinner, it was clear they could not keep going. Janus's older brother struck out on his own. His mother returned to Greece. A now-teenage Janus had few prospects — until Dr. and Mrs. George Biggs, a well-connected local couple of considerable means, took an interest in the polite, dark-haired boy who could read Plato in the original Greek. The Biggses gave him a stipend, a place to stay, and pulled a few strings. By 1932, Christopher Janus was on his way to Harvard.
This Algeresque deliverance would later lead Janus to say that he'd lived life with an angel on his shoulder, one always on the lookout for the right opportunity to steer his way. Another stroke of luck had been meeting his wife, Beatrice, a beautiful heiress whose father, Jeffrey R. Short of the J. R. Short Milling Company, had set them up comfortably in Chicago. Could Hitler's old Mercedes be still another opportunity? Janus had a feeling that it was. An idea had occurred to him during that difficult telephone call: What if he took the limousine and put it on a tour of the United States? Wouldn't Americans want to see the prized possession of the despot they'd just defeated?
"Hitler's car would be a great attraction to make money for charity," Janus later recounted —"and, incidentally, to get my investment back and even make a profit." Surely he could sell the car for a tidy sum, especially once he'd succeeded in getting the newspapers to write about it. In the years just prior to his joining Eximport Associates, Janus had done stints as a daily reporter and later as a copywriter for the ad agency J. Walter Thompson. He understood the value of publicity and how to create it.
But the life-changing patronage of Dr. and Mrs. Biggs had also taught Janus something else: the value of knowing the right people and of soliciting their advice. Janus suspected that bringing such an ignoble automobile to the United States would be no small affair — though, on this spring day of 1948, he had no inkling of just how massive and messy an affair it would become. "I wanted to discuss the project with people who knew show business," he later recalled. And so right after he'd hung up the phone with the man from Stockholm, Christopher Janus called Spyros Skouras.
Though his name is largely forgotten now, in the late 1940s Spyros Skouras was one of the most influential tastemakers in the United States. Even those who didn't know his name had seen his work. Skouras was president of 20th Century–Fox, one of Hollywood's "Big Five" movie studios. He was rich, powerful, and, as Damon Runyon once put it, "a good man to have as a friend."
That Janus even knew a mogul like Skouras was, once again, the work of his angel. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Janus was one of millions of American men who made tracks for the nearest recruitment office. But the sight in Janus's left eye was poor, and the navy sent him away. Dejected, Janus cast about for other ways to help with the war effort. He found them in fund-raising work — first for the families of men off fighting in the navy, and next for Greece, whose citizens were literally starving under Nazi occupation. It was his work with the Greek War Relief Association that introduced Janus to influential business leaders of Mediterranean descent, among them Milton Baldji, with whom he would work at Eximport Associates, and Spyros Skouras, whose telephone number he now dialed.
An executive like Skouras could be anywhere in the world at a given moment, but he spent a great deal of time at Fox's New York headquarters at 444 West Fifty-sixth Street, which is where Janus most likely found him. Fox's East Coast offices filled a redbrick edifice that loomed over the tenement blocks of Hell's Kitchen, a grimy neighborhood of gangsters and longshoremen, which was an unlikely backdrop for the varnished opulence of Skouras's corporate lair, itself bigger than most New York apartments. With his hair slicked back like Errol Flynn's and his face almost as handsome, the pinstriped potentate sat behind a desk the size of a piano, a slab of beige marble sunken into its cabinetry. Behind him, below a map of the world pinned with the location of every Fox satellite office, stretched a long credenza jammed with family photos and telephones.
Spyros Panagiotis Skouras had fled Greece for America at seventeen with two brothers and empty pockets. Yet within four years, using pooled savings from their wages as hotel waiters in St. Louis, the young brothers —"the greatest family act since the Medicis," Skouras would later say — managed to buy their first theater. By 1926, Spyros Skouras was the most formidable operator in the Midwest, with thirty-seven movie houses under his control. He took over theater operations for Warner Bros., then Paramount. The merger between Fox and Twentieth Century Pictures had been his enterprise and had made him into a magnate. Though Skouras still spoke with an accent thicker than a lobby carpet, he was renowned as a passionate and convincing orator. He was also tempestuous, mercurial, and capable of arguing conflicting viewpoints at the same time. Callers to Skouras's third-floor office never knew what they were going to get when in audience with the "tiger of motion pictures," as journalist Jim Bishop would call him, but just like sitting in the front row of one of Skouras's old movie palaces, they could at least be assured of a good show.
When Skouras picked up the phone, Christopher Janus — "Chreese," as Skouras pronounced his first name — explained his export deal gone bad and then posited his idea of accepting this Hitler car in lieu of American dollars. No sooner had Janus uttered Hitler's name than Skouras hit the roof.
"You must be out of your mind! Chreese, are you crazy?" Skouras shouted into the phone. "You want to get involved with that monster Hitler? What will people say? Do you want to ruin your reputation?"
Scolding of this sort was a Skouras trademark. Just a few years later, playwright Arthur Miller — treated to a Skouras tirade in this very office — would observe how the movie executive "worked over many an actor and director with his persuasive mixture of real conviction, paternalism, and the normal show business terrors of bad publicity."
And such tactics usually worked. But when Skouras realized his failure to sway his young friend, he downshifted to a more practical line of reasoning. "Who is going to pay to see Hitler's automobile?" Skouras challenged. "He is the worst person who ever lived."
Janus spoke up to agree: Hitler was the worst person who'd ever lived. But, Janus added, he wasn't taking up with Hitler (who'd been dead three years, in any case); he was only interested in his old car — and solely as a business venture.
Skouras couldn't get his arms around such a preposterous idea, and he didn't try. "Take the Swedish kronor and play roulette at Monte Carlo," he said. "Your chances of success are infinitely better." Then Janus heard the line go dead. Spyros Skouras had hung up.
The truth of the matter was that Janus's mind had been made up before he'd even called Spyros Skouras. "When we ask for advice from a friend," Janus later explained, "we often really want them to agree with us." That Skouras didn't agree perhaps deprived Janus of some added assurance, but that was about all. The older man's warnings about the trouble the car would bring had been sensible, but Janus didn't seem to have heard those. He picked up the phone and called the man in Stockholm back.
Yes, he would take Hitler's car.CHAPTER 2
THE SCREWBALL OF WINNETKA
Janus could have had the car transported to Illinois, but he was so eager to see it that he "went to New York personally from Chicago to receive it," he later said. June 28 was a humid Monday, the bleary skies threatening rain. Well turned out in a striped necktie and lightweight summer suit, Janus found his way to Pier 97, where West Fifty-seventh Street ended in a splay of cobblestones in the shadow of the West Side Highway. Beyond the tall brick archway of the Swedish American Lines' headhouse, the 11,650-ton MS Stockholm pulled at her mooring ropes as she bobbed gently in the eddies. The white paint of the ship's 525-foot hull bore a striking contrast to the black iron shed of the pier, sticking out like a bony finger into the foul-smelling bilge of the Hudson.
Since the Stockholm could make only 19 knots, her crossing had been slow. Coupled with the time it had taken to load the car in Sweden, Janus had waited three long weeks for this moment, when his prize automobile would be hoisted from the ship's cavernous belly.
Janus looked around and realized that many of the men on the dock were not waiting for the ship's passengers but for him. "Word had gotten out that there was an American who had bought Hitler's car," he recalled, "and when I arrived at the 57th Street pier to pick it up, I was greeted by no fewer than 20 reporters and cameramen." Janus suspected that someone at the Swedish American Line had tipped off the papers, but he was not upset. If publicity is what he wanted for his car, it might as well start now.
Possibly because so many reporters were present, Janus was invited to come up to the forecastle, where the whitewashed cargo cranes moved like giant insect legs above the chain lockers and acres of teak decking. The Stockholm's forward hatchway lay open to the sun, hoisting cables disappearing into the inky darkness of the well below.
Janus watched as the drum winches began to turn. It took a long while for the derrick to pull the Mercedes all the way up, for the car had crossed the Atlantic at the bottom of the No. 1 cargo hold, far down on D deck and well below the waterline. No passengers were permitted this far forward in the vessel, only freight and crew. Hitler's limousine had crossed the ocean in the company of the postal workers and the kitchen boys, whose bunks lay on the other side of the bulkhead.
The car's windshield appeared first, its thick greenish glass braced by heavy strips of chromed steel. Seconds later, a wedge-shaped grille rose into view, fronting a narrow hood that looked longer than a bowling alley. Slowly, the rest of the titanic limousine emerged from the hold, the hoisting ropes netted around the car's fat tires straining to lift the burden. The car was nothing less than a monster — seven feet wide, and nearly as long as the front of a tenement house. The 1941 Mercedes-Benz now floating in the humid harbor breeze weighed as much as an Asian elephant, as much as two thousand red bricks, as much as the clock mechanism for Big Ben.
Even as it dangled in space, the phaeton looked like it was lunging forward, its bulbous fenders slipping over the tires like panther paws, the fat chrome exhaust hoses snaking out of the engine before diving below the running boards. In the full sunlight, Janus could see that what at first looked like a big black car was actually a deep, dark blue. August and imperious, sleek and sinister, this limousine, he was assured, had been the pride and joy of the most hateful man the century had yet produced. And now it was his, all his.
The crane whirred and lifted the Mercedes over the Stockholm's gunwale. The dockers pulled at the ropes to keep the limousine's right front fender from grazing the pier shed, whose reflection danced ominously close in the car's glossy paint. When the crane finally landed the tires on American asphalt, Janus pulled open the limousine's leaden door and climbed in. He obliged the photographers by sitting on the back of the driver's seat and waving. He seemed either giddy or overwhelmed. It was probably both.
"What did you pay for the car, Mr. Janus?" asked a reporter.
He wouldn't say.
"What do you plan to do with it?"
"I don't know what I am going to do with it," Janus said.
He looked down at the car's dashboard, an ivory-white field of forty chrome dials and switches. The steering wheel was as big as a life preserver. The shifting rod, a stalk of glistening black steel, jutted out of the transmission below the floor, its eight-ball-size knob etched with the boxy footprint of the car's six speeds — five forward, one reverse. It must have occurred to Janus then that he had no idea how to operate the goliath beneath him.
Janus slipped down and attempted to start the car, but the engine would not turn over. He had no way of knowing it, but it took seven steps to start the engine of a Grosser Mercedes 770K, and this one also had a hidden master switch behind the instrument panel to foil intruders. The impasse left no alternative: Stevedores ganged up and began to push the Mercedes toward the headhouse. His media moment over, Janus made a quick exit in hopes of finding license plates, gasoline — plenty of that, since the Grosser had a fifty-two-gallon tank — and, of course, someone who could teach him how to drive his new car.
Excerpted from The Devil's Mercedes by Robert Klara. Copyright © 2017 Robert Klara. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Stockholm Deal 1
2 The Screwball of Winnetka 8
3 The Great Mercedes 31
4 "The Göring Special" 48
5 The Finnish Connection 73
6 Men with Cars 90
7 Running Off to Canada 108
8 The Big Tent 117
9 Suspicions 138
10 Dutch Wonderland 153
11 Stalemate in Ottawa 163
12 Like Marrying a Movie Star 168
13 The Sleuth 179
14 The Cult of a Car 199
15 California 213