ome thirty years ago, le demon de midi-a more expressive phrase than "midlife crisis"-propelled me from a nice, safe, prestigious job as Christie's U.S. representative into a job that was anything but nice or safe or prestigious. I went to work for a veteran con man, Dr. Armand Hammer. Hammer had recently taken over M. Knoedler & Co-, the illustrious firm of international dealers. A conniving employee had maneuvered the gallery into financial difficulties in the hope of assuming control, but Hammer beat him to it. Since he had persuaded my old friend Roland Balay, the last of the Knoedler dynasty and one of the best eyes in the art business, to stay on, 1 agreed to take over the gallery's nineteenth- and twentieth-century side. Hammer had also brought in a close associate, the colorful Dr. Maury Leibovitz, an accountant who practiced clinical psychiatry on the side-a great help, he said, in treating patients in the fat farms he ran in California. Patients were allowed to eat whatever they wanted, provided they spat it out before swallowing.
The fourth member of the team was Jack Tanzer, a sportswriter tuned art dealer, whose geniality and canniness saw Balay and myself through some very difficult times. Tanzer specialized in deals of infinite complexity. I loved listening to him at work: throw in the little Renoir to sweeten things, he would cajole another dealer, and the Doctor will let you in on the Eakins; or, give us a half-share of the Canaletto, and Warhol will do a portrait of your wife. Panzer could turn a minor Vlaminck into two Frank Stellas and, after a few more permutations, end up with a Rembrandt drawing. He also had a knack of turning unsalable old masters into profitable assets. For instance, Tanzer knew that Walter Chrysler, Jr.-a rogue whose excessive tax deductions for blatant fakes had been disallowed by the IRS-needed to acquire some respectable old masters on the cheap. And so he arranged for Chrysler to take a number of discredited paintings, which had been on Knoedler's books for fifty years or more at huge valuations, in exchange for one superb Cezanne. This was a deal after Hammer's own heart: nothing tickled the old tortoise as much as getting something for free.
At first I was fascinated by Hammer, watching him fabricate something out of nothing. The boasts, the lies, the comers he cut! It was an education in abracadabra-like being backstage at a conjuring show and seeing how the tricks were done. Hammer turned out to be a master of illusion, sleight of hand, and unctuous, guttural patter. He could transform himself from Mr. Magoo into a Nobel Prize candidate in the blink of an eye. Nothing had any credibility, except possibly the Doctor's friendly wife, Frances, who stood obediently in the wings, ready if necessary to be mesmerized or sawed in half-anything to distract attention from the trickery center stage.
I was also fascinated by Hammer's ability to persuade a great many people who should have known better-Deng Xiaoping, Zia ul-Haq, Edward Heath, Prince Charles, Menachem Begin, and Bruno Kreisky not to mention Brezhnev and Gorbachev-that he was an amalgam of John D. Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Teresa. When he had a captive audience on his plane, he would claim to have saved the world by helping Roosevelt negotiate the Lend-Lease Act in 1941, or preparing Reagan for his Reykjavik summit meeting with Gorbachev in 1986. Hammer would have you believe that he was one of the most farsighted entrepreneurs of his day, who had built Occidental Petroleum (familiarly known as Oxy) from nothing into a $21 billion company; that he had brought off the "deals of the century" (in asbestos, phosphates, and coal) with the Soviet Union and China; that his researchers were about to come up with a cancer cure; and that he was the last great collector of great art. This was virtually all a sham contrived out of smoke and mirrors and bullshit.
Hammer was full of surprises, not all of them disconcerting. His Godfatherish aura had not prepared me for the old-time charm of his New York quarters, a carriage house on West Fourth Street where he had been living since 1919. Nothing much appeared to have changed since the early twenties: the rooms were reassuringly cozy and seedy. Whoever lived there could not be all bad. And then he had a disarmingly louche side: a kink for redheads. This predilection surfaced at a party I had arranged in my London flat for him to meet the leading lights of the British art establishment. I had also asked various women friends, among them the unpredictable, uninhibited, very red-haired Nicky Lane (recently divorced from Kenneth J. Lane, the jeweler). The moment Armand saw Nicky, he grabbed her and took no further interest in the distinguished guests I had assembled. He pulled her onto his knee, where she curled up like a marmalade cat. In an attempt to impress her, he put in a call to Brezhnev and seemingly got through., "Do stop talking to that boring old Bolshevik," she said, "it's rude," and grabbed the telephone and put it back on the hook, Next thing I knew, she jumped off Armand's lap and ran over to me. "He's completely mad;" she said. "He keeps saying I remind him of henna, but I don't use henna." Nicky had not realized that Armand was talking about Jean Jacques Henner, the kitschy nineteenth-century French painter of redheaded nudes, whose work he collected. Back Nicky went to Armand's knee, and a brief romance ensued. There would be many more redheads in Hammer's life.
What soft of ogre was Hammer? Con man? Soviet spy? Crooked financier? It was not until my friend Edward Jay Epstein published his brilliant investigative book, Dossier: Tile Secret History of Armand Hammer some twenty years later, that I was able to discern the full Ian Flemingish scale of his criminality. Epstein's book delves deeply into Armand Hammer's convoluted Socialist past. He was born in New York on May 21, 1898, to a Russian Jewish family who had fled the pogroms in Odessa. Armand's mother, Rose, had been a formidable young woman who worked as a seamstress in a garment factory and also as a waitress. His father, Julius, had rallied to Socialism as a teenage laborer in a brutalizing New Haven foundry, and he named his son after the arm-and-hammer emblem of the Socialist party-not after the romantic hero of Dumas's La Dance aux Camelias as Hammer sometimes claimed. Julius Hammer turns out to have been an enterprising shyster devoured by two seemingly irreconcilable obsessions: fervent Socialist activism (he later helped to found the U.S. Communist party) and rapacious capitalist ambition. By his early thirties he was a power in the Socialist movement; he was also running his own pharmaceutical company and a chain of drugstores. Like his son Armand, Julius had few scruples. Although no criminal charges were ever brought, he took out bank loans in order to support Socialist causes and then declared bankruptcy so as not to pay them off. Later, Julius became a doctor and set up a successful practice in the Bronx His ultimate undoing was an abortion business on the side. Armand followed closely in his father's footsteps.
Of all the skeletons in Hammer's closet, none rattled more insistently than that of the unfortunate Marie Oganesoff wife of a well-off Czarist diplomat, who died in July 1919 after undergoing a botched abortion at the hands of Julius. Although he paid a PR man to bribe a juror, Julius was sentenced to the maximum: three and a half to fifteen years in Sing Sing. He was out in just under three years. After a trip to Detroit to persuade Henry Ford, whose zealous anticommunism did not preclude trading with the Soviets, to let him represent the Ford company in Russia, Julius left the United States for Moscow Lenin rewarded him by putting a palatial thirty-room mansion, known as the Brown House, at his and his three sons', Harry, Victor, and Armand's, disposal. It soon became an unofficial trading office of the American embassy Julius and Armand worked with the OGPU, the Soviet secret police, but were very careful to conceal these and other ties to the regime from the American VIPs who flocked to their door.
To explain away his father's felony, Armand would invoke the influenza epidemic, anti-Semitism, Tammany Hall pressure, and Czarist intrigue. He even persuaded Lenin that the charge of manslaughter in the first degree against his father had been trumped up by the government as punishment for his having founded the U.S. Communist party. It would be many years before Armand divulged the truth to one of his mistresses. Julius was indeed innocent: he had taken the rap for his son. Armand was the one who had caused the death of Marie Oganesoff. He had been standing in for his father.
Although Armand, like Julius, had obtained a medical degree from Columbia and had been accepted as an intern at Bellevue, he never actually practiced. Still, he would always call himself "doctor" and have MD license plates on his cars. After The death of Marie Oganesoff, the prospect of running his jailed father's prosperous chemical corporation was a much more attractive option than practicing medicine. Young Hammer turned out to be a brilliant promoter-not so much of his father's surgical lubricants and saline laxatives as of a highly alcoholic tincture of ginger that pharmaceutical companies called "Jake." Packaged as "medicine;" this product sold so well during Prohibition that Hammer reportedly made $30,000 a day and employed 1,500 workers. This bonanza came to an end when "Jake" was outlawed: thousands of people had suffered paralysis and some had died.
In 1921, Armand defied the American authorities and traveled secretly to the Soviet Union, consumed, he would have us believe, by a philanthropic desire to alleviate famine in the Ural Mountains. Besides wanting to set up a new life in the Old Country for his, father, when he emerged from jail, Armand was out to establish an import-export business: shipping grain and pharmaceutical products to the USSR in exchange for furs, hides, bristles, hair, sausages, lace, rubber, and caviar. When Armand was received in November 1921 by Julius's old friend Lenin, the persuasive young capitalist used the fact that his father had been a founder of the American Communist party to get himself accepted as a concessionaire, a bridge between East and West, between Communism and Capitalism. According to Epstein, the State Department was already keeping an extremely mistrustful eye on him.
On his return to Moscow in 1922, Hammer further ingratiated himself by giving Lenin a comical bronze of a monkey perched on Darwin's Origin of Species examining a human skull that is still on exhibit in the Soviet founding father's office. This helped him win an asbestos concession, a pencil factory, and much else. These ventures would thrive but ultimately fizzle out because the considerable profits that accrued were in blocked rubles. Hence all the lavish parties in the Brown House. A farcical description of one of these affairs enlivens the pages of Eimi, e. e. cummings's Joycean novel about a visit to Moscow in 1931. Hammer appears as Chinesey a mysterious trader who "retires (eyefully) behind thick glass; becoming swollenly a submarine mind." He makes "remarks in handcuffs" and is guarded by "a mighty mastiff cur [that he] personally releases late each night. . . to keep the comrades out."
Realizing that there was no real money to be made in Soviet Russia, the Hammer family returned to America to deal in spurious Czarist treasures. These "crown jeweled objects of art" were actually a very mixed bag: assorted icons, a few flashy bits of Faberge, and storerooms full of lesser artifacts--"the sweepings not so much of palaces as of hotels, restaurants, and junk shops." Despite its shaky provenance, the so-called Hammer Collection of Russian Imperial Art Treasures from the Winter Palace, Tsarkoye Selo, and Other Royal Palaces did surprisingly well when put up for sale at Lord & Taylor and department stores all over the country. The better to peddle this stuff, and to give his brother Victor a purpose in life, Armand opened an outlet in New York, which ultimately became the Hammer Galleries. Armand never really prospered as an art dealer but he learned what a useful role art could play in his entrepreneurial machinations. It started him off collecting and also prompted him to buy Knoedler's. It did not take me long to discover that the only thing the Doctor valued in a work of art was its potential for barter, money laundering, tax deductions, or personal publicity. His collection had been put together by his brother Victor; as a result it showed no discrimination whatsoever except in the one area-old-master drawings-- Hammer had taken expert advice. Compared with the magnificent collections of old and modern masters assembled over the same period by his infinitely more discriminating Los Angeles neighbor Norton Simon, Hammer's pictures were a motley lot, mostly bargains bought for name, not quality. To counter adverse criticism, he roped in a former director of the National Gallery and bought a few good things-Gauguin's Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin and a fine van Gogh-but he failed to weed out the many corny, ugly, or dubious works. Then again, instead of hanging them on his walls, Hammer used his paintings as a vehicle for his worldwide ego trips and as bait for his traps: he lent them to Fort Worth in the hope of corralling rich Texans into investing in a questionable Peruvian oil field; to Beijing to help launch a strip mine; to Edinburgh to curry favor with Prince Charles. After years in orbit, his pictures began to look jet-lagged. Even the better items lost their luster, not least the Doctor's most publicized acquisition: the Leonardo da Vinci Codex that he bought at auction in 1980 for just under $6 million. After renaming this manuscript the "Hammer Codex" and launching it on a world tour with its own armed guards, the showman effectively devalued it. When Time magazine's Robert Hughes pointed this out, the Doctor made vicious efforts to have him fired.
Hanuner's entrepreneurial Joke de grandeur was not reflected in his lifestyle: The house in Los Angeles (Holmby rather than Beverly Hills) where Hammer spent most of his time was downright dingy. Frances and her first husband, a rich man from Chicago named Elmer Tolman, had bought it from Gene Tierney when she was married to Oleg Cassini. This was its only distinction. Although Hammer described his wife as an artist, her taste was Middle America at its most motelish: 1950s Sunbelt furniture, windchimes, and plastic flowers in need of dusting. (In those days, Frances did most of the cooking and cleaning. Later, there would be a maid.) After Hammer visited Beijing, the decor became more ornate "Chinesey" Down a spiral staircase from their bedroom was a dank pool where the old tortoise did his lengths every morning at six Am.-bare-ass because, as he said, "it feels better." For all that Hammer regarded J. Paul Getty as an exemplar, he never went in for Getty's grandiose, albeit miserly way of life, and for a very good reason. Despite his claims to be a billionaire, Hammer never had anything like as much cash. His principal indulgence was overaccessorized, oversize Cadillac Fleetwoods, until he persuaded the Chinese to let him have Marshal Lin Biao's black Mercedes 600the Pullman model.
The only art in the Holmby Hills house was a horrendous fake Modigbani hanging on the wall of the staircase. "Isn't that a great painting?" the Doctor asked, a glint in his saurian eye. My noncommittal mumble was interpreted as admiration. "That painting fools all you experts," Hammer said. "It's a copy by Frances." His wife, attired as usual in a vintage Pucci dress, stirred her iced tea and preened. "So you were the one who painted all those beautiful pictures in Armand's collection," I could not resist saying. Armand drew my attention to another "work of art": an engraving after Hammer's Rernbrandt, Juno. Juno. Frances's face had been substituted for Juno's.
The best thing about the Doctor was Frances: unassuming, unpretentious, unbright-but a far more effective foil for him than his two previous wives. The first of these had been a well-known Russian entertainer, Olga von Root, who had been singing gypsy ballads in a Yalta cabaret when Hammer discovered her. They were married in 1927, and in 1929 she bore Hammer his only legitimate child, Julian. The mother turned out to be drunken and promiscuous, the father shamefully neglectful, so the son can hardly be blamed for growing up to be an alcoholic given to outbursts of insane violence. Julian celebrated his twenty-sixth birthday, May 7,1955, by getting very, very drunk and having a quarrel about money with his former college roommate, Bruce Whitlock, a Golden Gloves boxing champion. Back home in front of his wife, Glenna Sue, Julian took out a pistol and shot Whitlock dead. When Julian was arraigned for mur der, Armand hired a demon defense lawyer, Arthur Groman (later the head of Hammer's legal team); he also invoked the help of his influential friend Senator Styles Bridges; and the murder charge was set aside on grounds of self-defense. Julian teas never incarcerated; later, he would have to be institutionalized.
Armand's second wife was little better than the first. After divorcing the exceedingly unfaithful Olga in 1943, he married Angela Carey Zevely, an aspiring opera singer, who had lost her hearing and, like her predecessor, taken to the bottle. Angela was foolish enough to give Armand a 50 percent share in Nut Swamp, her New Jersey farm, where she and Armand raised Aberdeen Angus cattle. Later, in 1954, when relations between them had cooled Angela suspected she was being swindled and filed for separation. Hammer sued for divorce. She claimed that he had tried to beat her brains out. He counterclaimed that she had been drunk and abusive at a cattle auction and threatened to burn his eyes out. After prolonged court proceedings, Angela was awarded a thousand dollars a month in alimony, but she avenged herself by making off with Armand's most valued possession: an inscribed photograph and three handwritten letters from Lenin. Next came Frances. True, her hair had once been red, but her main attraction for Armand was the sizable fortune that Elmer Tolman had left her. This enabled Armand, shortly after they were married in 1956, to buy into Occidental. Another asset was Frances's garden-club demeanor. Her reassuring warmth and niceness-like an upscale Edith Bunker in A11 in the Family-camouflaged Armand's nastiness.
Hammer had summoned me to his California home to discuss; little ploy he was working on. He had discovered that Knoedler owned a Goya, a dreary but authentic portrait of Dona Antoni Zarate worth around $150,000. He had told me he was removing it from the gallery's stacks and shipping it to Leningrad because the Hermitage did not own a Goya, Hammer planned to squeeze possible prestige out of the gift of "this million-dollar masterpiece from my private collection." To publicize the presentation, he had insisted that the Hermitage exhibit his lackluster paintings. He was also after further quid pro quos: a loan show of Russian masterpieces for Knoedlers and something extra for himself, "What should I request in exchange for the Goya?" the Doctor asked me. "I have more than enough busts of Lenin."
"A Suprematist painting by Kazimir Malevich," I said. "The storerooms of the Tretyakov in Moscow are full of them. Since the Soviets won't let the museum exhibit them, you might be able to get one for your collection." Although Armand had been living in Moscow at the height of Malevich's fame, he had never heard of the man who is arguably the most innovative Russian painter of the twentieth century. "Suprematist? Forget it!" he said. However, as I described how rare and valuable Malevich's paintings were, how high they stood on every modern museum's list of desiderata, and then read him the relevant passages in Camilla Gray's book on modern Russian art, Hammer's distaste turned to greed. He had to have one.
Since Hammer had suborned the Minister of Culture, Yekaterina Furtseva, with a bribe of $100,000 a bribe that would result in her disgrace and suicide-he got his way. Despite the official embargo, the Tretyakov Gallery's curators revered Malevich and were outraged at having to disgorge a major early work, Dynamic Suprematism. True, it was not in the best condition, but it was far more desirable and valuable than the third-rate Goya Hammer had given the Hermitage. When, a year or two later, the curators learned that Hammer had put their Malevich up for sale, they were even more outraged. Long afterward, I learned from Epstein that the Malcvich expert whom Hammer asked to authenticate the painting had confirmed that it was an important example of Suprematism, albeit in less than perfect condition. Rashly, he had communicated his reservations to a German museum interested in buying it, whereupon the museum had turned it down. Hammer unleashed a pack of ferocious lawyers on the expert and did not call them off until the painting had been sold for $750,000 to another German museum. The only acknowledgement 1: got from Hammer was a copy of Bob Considine's unctuous biography, inscribed to "my mentor in the field of art."
So much for Hammer's art patronage. His excuse for selling the only major modern painting in his collection was that he loathed it, This is the more ironical given that, years later, after building his c own museum at the expense of Oxy's shareholders, he would born- L bard the authorities in Moscow and Washington with requests to c have the prestigious Malevich retrospective that was coming to the United States as its opening attraction. Hammer got his way, but the refusal of the exhibit's curator to sign her name to the catalogue, the absence of the directors of the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum (the other museums involved) from the Los Angeles opening, and the withdrawal of a number of loans from other American institutions were a measure of the respect in which Hammer and his museum were held.
That Hammer was as piratical in his dealings with his Soviet friends as he was with his people in the West was one of the more entertaining revelations of a trip I took to Russia with him in March 1975. The purpose of our visit was to negotiate a second loan exhibition of masterpieces from Russian museums to the National Gallery, Knoedler, and museums in various American cities, which had been chosen ostensibly by the Russians but, in fact, by Hammer, for his own strategic reasons. The selection of the old master was the responsibility of J. Carter Brown of the National Galled the selection of modern masters was mine. Frances Hammer cam along, so did a team of cameramen from the Doctor's film company, Armand Hammer Productions (a subsidiary of Oxy). The job was to record the Doctor's state visits to one world leader aft another. Press photographers likewise hovered; if the record w not to his satisfaction, Hammer would have people retouched in or, more often, out of photographs.
In this respect-the falsification of history-Hammer follow traditional Soviet practice. Had it suited him to have met Stalin, would have boasted of it. As it did not, he denied having done so, though Sovietologists believe that Hammer could hardly have attained a power base in the USSR without some degree of access to the dictator. Hammer was equally ambivalent about Libya, Oxy's primary source of oil for some years. He adamantly denied that he had ever solicited a meeting with Qaddafi; according to Epstein, he never ceased in his requests. If the colonel raised the price of oil, Hammer would condemn his rapaciousness, if he lowered it, Hammer would praise his "uncanny cleverness, idealism, perhaps fanaticism."
Shortly before our trip, Hammer had ingratiated himself with Brezhnev by giving him a couple of Lenin's letters he had purchased in NewYork. This gig, coupled with the emergence in the Kremlin archives of Lenin's written approval of Hammer's first projects in 1921, had made him persona gratissima with the Soviet hierarchy. Whether or not the Doctor ever spent more than an hour in Lenin's company, he was able, fifty years later, to parlay this contact into an international power base. Entree to the Kremlin opened up to him not only the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, but also 10 Downing Street, the Elysee and, paradoxically, the White House.
We flew to Moscow in the Doctor's private jet, Oxy One, at that time the only noncommercial plane allowed into Soviet (and later Chinese) airspace. This privilege, of which Hammer was childishly proud, had been obtained through Cyrus Eaton, the maverick capitalist from Cleveland, who had forged close ties with the Russians long before the Doctor's second coming. In gratitude, Hammer agreed to employ Cyrus Eaton, Jr. Once Hammer had plugged himself into Baton's powerful Soviet contacts, he sacked the son.
As soon as Oxy One taxied to a halt at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. Hammer's Russian representative, Mikhail Bruck, rushed on board with unwelcome news. The downfall of Furtseva had deprived the Doctor of a key ally. Her successor evidently wanted to distance himself from Hammer's incriminating largesse, and he was prepared to grant him an audience of no more than thirty minutes-not nearly enough to discuss the complicated protocols that the loan show involved. From the defiant way the Doctor stamped off the plane, he had evidently seen how this reverse might be made to work to his advantage. Off we sped in the cortege of Chaika limousines that had been drawn up on the tarmac. Although Hammer had been absolved from the usual customs and immigration checks, the cars carrying our luggage arrived at the old Hotel National just off Red Square two hours after we did. Brezhnev had not as yet granted Hammer the privilege of a grace-and-favor apartment of his own near the Kremlin; however, he already had the use of a large office as well as the sinister Lenin Suite in the dingily grand Hotel National. To prevent the bugs in the chandelier from picking up the Doctor's gravelly voice and getting wind of his tricks, the TV was always on full blast, which made it almost as difficult for us as for the wiretappers to understand him. According to Epstein, the Doctor, too, had his own set of bugs: tiny ones in his cufflinks.
A day or two later, we assembled at the Ministry of Culture, camera crew and all. Hammer wasted twenty-five of his allotted thirty minutes on needless formalities and photo opportunities: take after take of himself presenting the minister with some Russian daub he happened to have on the plane. Although his Russian was fluent, he preferred to use an interpreter: "it gives me more time to think," he said. Hammer assured the minister that, despite the lack of time for discussion, they could go ahead and "ratify the protocols" in the presence of the American ambassador that very afternoon. Armand Hammer Productions would be filming this historic cultural event for American TV. The minister fell into Hammer's trap. Later that day; in the glare of arc lights, I watched the wretched functionary go ahead and sign the requisite documents, some of which, as he realized too late, the Doctor had covertly added to the stack. Believing he was appearing "live" on American TV, the minister dared not stop signing. Among other concessions, Hammer obtained an exclusive copyright to the Russian paintings for as long as they remained in America.
The two exhibitions that were the outcome of these discussions were not only enormously prestigious, they were also profitable. Hammer had brought off a substantial coup. At the height of the cold war he had persuaded the Russians to lend two groups of masterpieces: a show of Impressionist and Postimpressionist paintings (Renoir, Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse) in 1973; and one of old and modern masters and Russian paintings in 1975. He had also greatly enhanced the image of Knoedler's by arranging for them to share these shows with the National Gallery and other major museums. These achievements provided Hammer with a lot of badly needed clout in the art world, clout that would open a lot of doors hitherto closed to him. After the second show was over, I had had enough of Doctor Hammer and Doctor Leibovitz's deviousness. I decided to leave their employ, but continued to keep an eye on things at Knoedler's.
In 1977, the gallery's London branch was the setting for one of Hammer's most providential encounters. To celebrate the Queen's silver jubilee, Hammer had put on a show of Winston Churchill's flashy, splashy views of the Riviera. Prince Charles was enticed to the opening so that Hammer could lay siege to him. At first rebuffed, Hammer soon snared the heir to the throne by presenting him with one of the great statesman's anything but great canvases.
From then on, the Polonius-like Doctor would pour honey into the royal ear and money into the more newsworthy royal projects: the raising of the Mary Rose, a man-of-war that had sunk in 1545. But the most costly of the princely projects that the Doctor supported was United World Colleges, the concept of Kurt Hahn, farmer headmaster of Gordonstoun, Prince Charles's alma mater. To ingratiate himself with the Prince, Hammer threw himself into establishing the first American United World College in an abandoned Jesuit seminary way up in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Hammer saw to it that Prince Charles paid a flying visit and prevailed upon his cousin, King Constantine of Greece, to send his son there.
In 1985, Prince Charles flew in once more, this tune with Princess Diana, to preside over a United World College charity ball at Palm Beach, organized by the Doctor. His idea of fund-raising was to charge upwardly mobile couples $50,000 for the privilege of being photographed with the Prince and Princess. This made for a financial rather than a social success. Palm Beachers were outraged that a Soviet sympathizer from out of town should exploit the British royal family at their expense for a cause that had no local appeal whatsoever. Worse, instead of having a local grande dance chair the event, Hammer opted for cheesecake: the partly Iraqi wife of one of the Oxy directors, who had posed nude for a sex magazine. Local ladies who had never been asked to pose for a sex magazine boycotted the event. Governor Bob Graham's declaration that the day of the ball would be Armand Hammer Day was the final indignity.
Allowing Hammer to cozy up to him earned Prince Charles as much as $14 million for his charities, but the Prince was too sly to play Faust to Hammer's Mephistopheles. Rumors that Hammer expected to be one of the godfathers to the Waleses' second son, Henry, turned out to be unfounded, but that did not stop the Doctor having another go at the Prince a year or two later. What would Mephistopheles want but help in his quest of the Nobel Prize?
The Reagans had similar problems keeping Hammer at bay. Back in Beverly Hills, Ronald Reagan had been irritated to find Hammer always ensconced in the next barber's chair whenever he went for a haircut. In Washington the Doctor was even more of a pest. Despite the White House staff's attempts to block him, Hammer was constantly badgering the President to pardon him for his hefty illegal contribution to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign. Nancy Reagan made her distaste very clear at the 1988 Moscow summit meeting. When Hammer begged her for an invitation to the state dinner: she gave him an icy look and just said "NO." Nevertheless, the Firs Lady found herself outflanked when Hammer bombarded her wilt donations to her antidrug campaign, to the redecoration of the White House, as well as to the American College of Surgeons for scholarship in memory of her father. These donations did not but the Doctor a pardon, but they meant that he was no longer barred from the White House.
George Bush was more of a pushover. As a reward for a sizable contribution, Hammer was given a place of honor at the inauguration, next to the Reagans and Quayles. Two days earlier, he had he an inauguration of his own: an unveiling of some papers he was giving in the Library of Congress--yet another move in his bid for a first presidential pardon. However, since Hammer had pleaded guilty in his trial; had an appalling record of indictments by the Federal Trade Commission and Internal Revenue Service; had copped a very light plea instead of a three-year jail term; had faked mortal illness (in a wheelchair hooked tip, via a monitoring machine, to a cardiovascular unit); and had failed to express the customary remorse, the president could hardly give him a full pardon. Hammer had to settle for presidential forgiveness.
Meanwhile, Hammer was doing unpardonable things to the widows of his two brothers, who had been foolish enough to appoint him executor. He sold oft the family home of Harry Hammer's widow for $20,000 to spite her heirs. And he behaved even more cruelly to the family of his younger brother, Victor, an endearing buffoon who had spent his life loyally obeying Armand's dictates. With his perpetual smirk and patter and stage-door Johnny outfits (he always wore a white bow tie and white carnation), Victor resembled a ventriloquist's dummy and often served his brother in that capacity.
After the Hammer Galleries' Soviet sources dried up, Victor, with Armand's backing, switched to dealing in minor Impressionists and Americana (then relatively undervalued), including primitives by Grandma Moses. Armand had not been pleased when Victor married Ireene Seaton Wicker, a famously fey entertainer who starred as the "Singing Lady" on a children's radio show; but he was downright furious with her in 1950, for getting blacklisted: she had entertained Spanish refugee children and sung Russian gypsy songs on the air. Joe McCarthy was the last person Armand wanted on his back, hence his disapproval of Victor's gallant attempts to keep Ireene's wrecked career afloat by buying her radio time on into the mid-1970s. By then Ireene had faded into an ancient infant out of a Diane Arbus photograph, her finery and many quaint rings looking all the more dusty and tarnished alongside the mountain of Vuitton bags and baggage, which she used as a kind of defense when Armand was around.
Although Victor had left Ireene over $1 million in assets, including a $400,000 house in Connecticut, Armand, as executor, proceeded to disinherit the aged, ailing widow. He refused to pay her medical bills, and took steps to sell the family house over the heads of both her and her daughter, Nancy Eilan. To protect her mother, Nancy played the only card left to her: going public with her tale of woe. A mistake. Armand prolonged the case, thus using up what was left of his sister-in-law's savings. Then, all of a sudden, after Ireene died in November 1987, the case was settled out of court. Nancy got to keep the house.
Far from having had a change of heart, Armand had begun suspect that his wife's confidence in his probity was beginning erode. By 1987 Frances could no longer stand the perpetual traveling (three continents in two days was typical of their schedule). Also, there had been an embarrassing incident in Moscow. She had slipped and fallen in the Kremlin, and Hammer had left her sprawled on the floor while he rushed over to embrace Gorbachev. Left alone in Holmby Hills, Frances brooded about her ninety-year-old husband's infidelities as well as his treatment of Harry and Victor's dependents. What would become of her own considerable fortune? If she died first, would her family, notably a favorite niece, be treated as shabbily as Ireene and her daughter? Hammer's sudden settlement with Victor's stepdaughter was an effort to put his wife's mind at rest on this score. Too late. -On May 12, 19 Frances Hammer got herself a new lawyer and instructed him to draw up a fresh will. All Frances's separate property and her half-share of community property, including his collection, would now go to her niece, Joan Weiss.
The new will threatened to put an end to the Doctor's dream posthumous glory. As of 1988, these had taken the form of a private museum. After the trustees of the Los Angeles County Museum Art, to whom he had promised his collection, refused to accept megalomaniacal conditions-a separate wing, whose walls we no longer bear the names of previous donors; a curator answer only to Hammer or his curator, Martha Kaufman (who doubled as his mistress); a large portrait of the Doctor on permanent display a place of honor-Hammer announced that he was establishing his own museum in a building to be erected next door to Oxy's Los Angeles office. Frances's half-share of his collection was crucial to Hammer museum project. So was the collection of fifty mostly minor masters that Hammer had presented to the University of Southern California in the 1960s. He now proposed to buy them back. USC was agreeable, subject to a new appraisal. Negotiations stalled when the appraisers, who doubtless knew about the Malevich business, insisted on one condition: if their valuations were not to Hammer's satisfaction, he would not sue. Hammer refused.
Another problem: who would foot the bill for the $100 million or so that this museum was going to cost? Oxy's shareholders were fed up with underwriting the vanity of a megalomaniac who owned less than 1 percent of the corporation, so they sued Hammer and the directors for squandering corporate funds. The stockholders were in for another shock: it turned out that they, and not Hammer, had bought much of the art, specifically the Leonardo Codex, which was destined to be installed in a special shrine.
Hammer had to act quickly. Frances had to be induced to make over her interest in the collection to him. According to a complaint filed after her death on behalf of her niece and heir, Joan Weiss, the Doctor somehow prevailed upon Frances to sign three separate waivers in the few months before she died, on December 16, 1989. Since Frances had had no access to independent legal counsel and was not apprised of the property rights she was signing away, her niece's lawyers contended that these disclaimers were unenforceable. Furthermore, according to Joan Weiss, Frances had been alarmed to find her husband's sexy Mexican mistress, Rosamaria Durazo, an anesthesiologist by profession, hovering in her hospital room the day after her final operation. After Frances's death, Durazo moved into the Holmby Hills house. Hammer refused to allow an autopsy.
Despite these legal tangles and the fact that the shareholders had sued to impose a ceiling of $60 million on the museum costs, Hammer raced to get the place built. However, his great age and seriously declining health made for further problems. The building-a squat cube horizontally striped-was barely ready in time for the opening of the Malevich show in November. To raise funds, Martha Kaufman (who had taken to calling herself Hilary Gibson and wearing a wig so that Frances would not recognize her) organized a series of "hard hat and caviar parties."
While he was doing his best to defraud his wife's heirs, Hammer was in frantic pursuit of his Holy Grail, the Nobel Peace Prize. His "philanthropic" ventures were increasingly directed toward this end, but his record proved as resistant to cleanup as Love Canal, which Oxy had acquired as part of Hooker Chemicals on Hammer's recommendation. After the Doctor got himself appointed to the President's Cancer Panel, the investigative magazine Mother Jones observed that Sid Vicious might as well head a program for battered women, or Qaddafi direct the Jewish Relief Fund. As for the annual Armand Hammer Conference on Peace and Human Rights, the first of which significantly took place in Norway, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, it generated little more than mindless adulation of its begetter. "If [the prize] can be bought;" said Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, "[Hammer's] chances of winning it are quite high:" For once, Hammer failed to get his way. Prince Charles had seen the light and refused to sponsor him. Instead, Hammer, who had always shunned Israel and denied he was Jewish, turned to Begin for help.
In return for a commitment to drill for oil in the Negev and jumpstart Israel's aviation industry, Begin agreed to support Hammer's nomination. To no one's surprise, the Dalai Lama won out over Hammer.
After he reached ninety, Hammer started to falter. He no longer remembered whether he was in Bonn or Berlin, whether to address Zia as a Muslim or a Hindu, whether or not there had been a war in Korea. He was also in appalling pain. Rosamaria Durazo would minister to these and other needs. Hammer's energy was astonishing. Five days after open-heart surgery, he was back in his office There was a certain bravado to the nonagenarian's defiance death. When at the age of ninety-two he informed friends that he had just ordered twelve new suits and twenty-four pairs of pants some of them actually believed him. Hammer also organized a mammoth fund-raiser to celebrate his return to the Jewish faith by having the bar mitzvah that his agnostic father had denied him. But Jehovah withheld his blessing. On the eve of the ceremony, He killed off this shameful old hypocrite before he could glorify himself at His expense.
Epstein is very good on the criminality of the last years and the aftermath. Far from being a billionaire, Hammer turned out to have been worth no more than $40 million, against which there were over a hundred major claims, including one for $440 million filed by Frances's lawyers. Although he had promised to support his kith and kin, legitimate and illegitimate, as well as sundry mistresses, the Doctor had done nothing of the sort. He had cut everyone, including his unfortunate son, out of his will. His grandson, Michael, was his sole heir. The day after Hammer died, Oxy's shares shot up nearly two dollars, and the new chairman set about cleansing the company of Hammer's taint. All $2.5 billion worth of the doctor's pet projects, including the museum, would be phased out or scrapped.
Further evidence of Hammer's criminality would emerge a few years later. While remodeling the Holmby Hills house, which she had inherited from her aunt Frances, Joan Weiss came upon a Nixonian cache of tapes concealed behind bookcases in the Doc- old library. According to Epstein, the tapes-surreptitiously made between 1969 and 1983-record "the disbursement of bribes and other secret payments." Now that all the other monuments that the Doctor had raised to himself have been obliterated, these tapes are virtually all that's left of his legendary deals. As such, they define the old con man's role in history: the builder of a conceptual bridge between Bast and West, which enabled Hammer to set up as a toll keeper and extort outrageous favors from gullible statesmen and corporate fools in exchange for a slice of a huge pie in the sky.
Excerpted from Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters by John Richardson. Copyright © 2001 by John Richardson. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.