August 7, 2012
America’s first Olympics may have been its worst, or at least its most bizarre. Held in 1904 in St. Louis, the games were tied to that year’s World’s Fair, which celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase while advancing, as did all such turn-of-the-century expositions, the notion of American imperialism. Although there were moments of surprising and genuine triumph (gymnast George Eyser earned six medals, including three gold, despite his wooden leg), the games were largely overshadowed by the fair, which offered its own roster of sporting events, including the controversial Anthropology Days, in which a group of “savages” recruited from the fair’s international villages competed in a variety of athletic feats—among them a greased-pole climb, “ethnic” dancing, and mud slinging—for the amusement of Caucasian spectators. Pierre de Coubertin, a French historian and founder of the International Olympic Committee, took disapproving note of the spectacle and made a prescient observation: “As for that outrageous charade, it will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw, and leave the white men behind them.”
The Olympics’ signal event, the marathon, was conceived to honor the classical heritage of Greece and underscore the connection between the ancient and modern. But from the start the 1904 marathon was less showstopper than sideshow, a freakish spectacle that seemed more in keeping with the carnival atmosphere of the fair than the reverential mood of the games. The outcome was so scandalous that the event was nearly abolished for good.
A few of the runners were recognized marathoners who had either won or placed in the Boston Marathon or had placed in previous Olympic marathons, but the majority of the field was composed of middle-distance runners and assorted “oddities.” Americans Sam Mellor, A.L. Newton, John Lordon, Michael Spring and Thomas Hicks, all experienced marathoners, were among the favorites. Another American, Fred Lorz, did all his training at night because he had a day job as a bricklayer, and earned his spot in the Olympics by placing in a “special five-mile race” sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union. Among the leading oddities were ten Greeks who had never run a marathon, two men of the Tsuana tribe of South Africa who were in St. Louis as part of the South African World’s Fair exhibit and who arrived at the starting line barefoot, and a Cuban national and former mailman named Félix Carbajal, who raised money to come to the States by demonstrating his running prowess throughout Cuba, once trekking the length of the island. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, he lost all his money on a dice game and had to walk and hitchhike to St. Louis. At five feet tall, he presented a slight but striking figure at the starting line, attired in a white, long-sleeved shirt, long, dark pants, a beret and a pair of street shoes. One fellow Olympian took pity, found a pair of scissors and cut Carbajal’s trousers at the knee.
On August 30, at precisely 3:03 p.m., David R. Francis, president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, fired the starting pistol, and the men were off. Heat and humidity soared into the 90s, and the 24.85-mile course—which one fair official called “the most difficult a human being was ever asked to run over”—wound across roads inches deep in dust. There were seven hills, varying from 100-to-300 feet high, some with brutally long ascents. In many places cracked stone was strewn across the roadway, creating perilous footing, and the men had to constantly dodge cross-town traffic, delivery wagons, railroad trains, trolley cars and people walking their dogs. There were only two places where athletes could secure fresh water, from a water tower at six miles and a roadside well at 12 miles. James Sullivan, the chief organizer of the games, wanted to minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time. Cars carrying coaches and physicians motored alongside the runners, kicking the dust up and launching coughing spells.
Fred Lorz led the 32 starters from the gun, but by the first mile Thomas Hicks edged ahead. William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Had he gone unaided an hour longer he might have bled to death. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs. Félix Carvajal trotted along in his cumbersome shoes and billowing shirt, making good time even though he paused to chat with spectators in broken English. On one occasion he stopped at a car, saw that its occupants were eating peaches, and asked for one. Being refused, he playfully snatched two and ate them as he ran. A bit further along the course, he stopped at an orchard and snacked on some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Suffering from stomach cramps, he lay down and took a nap. Sam Mellor, now in the lead, also experienced severe cramping. He slowed to a walk and eventually stopped. At the nine-mile mark cramps also plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed.
Hicks, one of the early American favorites, came under the care of a two-man support crew at the 10-mile mark. He begged them for a drink but they refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites—the first recorded instance of drug use in the modern Olympics. Strychnine, in small doses, was commonly used a stimulant, and at the time there were no rules about performance-enhancing drugs. Hicks’ team also carried a flask of French brandy but decided to withhold it until they could gauge the runner’s condition.
Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.” The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”
Hicks, the strychnine coursing through his blood, had grown ashen and limp. When he heard that Lorz had been disqualified he perked up and forced his legs into a trot. His trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down. They fetched warm water and soaked his body and head. After the bathing he appeared to revive and quickened his pace. “Over the last two miles of the road,” wrote race official Charles Lucas, “Hicks was running mechanically, like a well-oiled piece of machinery. His eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen color of his face and skin had deepened; his arms appeared as weights well tied down; he could scarcely lift his legs, while his knees were almost stiff.”
He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy but refused tea. He swallowed two more egg whites. He walked up the first of the last two hills, and then jogged down on the incline. Swinging into the stadium, he tried to run but was reduced to a graceless shuffle. His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.
It took four doctors and one hour for Hicks to feel well enough just to leave the grounds. He had lost eight pounds during the course of the race, and declared, “Never in my life have I run such a touch course. The terrific hills simply tear a man to pieces.” Hicks and Lorz would meet again at the Boston Marathon the following year, which Lorz won without the aid of anything but his legs.
Books: Susan Brownell, The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008; David E. Martin, The Olympic Marathon. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000. George R. Matthews, America’s First Olympics: The St. Louis Games of 1904. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005; Pamela Cooper, The American Marathon. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998; Daniel M. Rosen, Dope: A history of Performance Enhancement in Sports From the Nineteenth Century to Today. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2008; Charles J. P. Lucas, The Olympic Games, 1904. St. Louis, Mo: Woodward & Tieran Printing Co., 1905.
Articles: “The Olympics of 1904: Comedic, Disgraceful, and ‘Best Forgotten.” Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2004; “Marathon Captivated Crowd at 1904 Olympics.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 14, 2003; “New York Athlete Wins Marathon Race.” New York Times, April 20, 1905; “1904 Set Record for the Unusual.” Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1984; “The 1904 Marathon Was Pure Torture.” Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 3, 2008; “Marathon Madness,” New Scientist 183 (August 7-13, 2004); “St. Louis Games Were Extremely Primitive By Today’s Standards.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 2004; “One Man’s Poison In a Brazen and Forgotten Incident of Doping.” Boston Globe, February 22, 2009.
June 27, 2012
In the spring of 1902 a woman calling herself Cassie L. Chadwick—there was never any mention as to what the L stood for—took a train from Cleveland to New York City and a hansom cab to the Holland House, a hotel at the corner of 30th Street and Fifth Avenue internationally renowned for its gilded banquet room and $350,000 wine cellar. She waited in the lobby, tapping her high-button shoes on the Sienna marble floor, watching men glide by in their bowler hats and frock coats, searching for one man in particular. There he was—James Dillon, a lawyer and friend of her husband’s, standing alone.
She walked toward him, grazing his arm as she passed, and waited for him to pardon himself. As he said the words she spun around and exclaimed what a delightful coincidence it was to see him here, so far from home. She was in town briefly on some private business. In fact, she was on her way to her father’s house—would Mr. Dillon be so kind as to escort her there?
Dillon, happy to oblige, hailed an open carriage. Cassie gave the driver an address: 2 East 91st Street, at Fifth Avenue, and kept up a cheery patter until they arrived there—at a four-story mansion belonging to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. She tried not to laugh at Dillon’s sudden inability to speak and told him she’d be back shortly. The butler opened the door to find a refined, well-dressed lady who politely asked to speak to the head housekeeper.
When the woman presented herself, Cassie explained that she was thinking of hiring a maid, Hilda Schmidt, who had supposedly worked for the Carnegie family. She wished to check the woman’s references. The housekeeper was puzzled, and said no one by that name had ever worked for the Carnegie family. Cassie protested: Was she absolutely certain? She gave a detailed physical description, rattled off details of the woman’s background. No, the housekeeper insisted; there must be some misunderstanding. Cassie thanked her profusely, complimented the spotlessness of the front parlor, and let herself out, slipping a large brown envelope out of her coat as she turned back to the street. She had managed to stretch the encounter into just under a half hour.
As she climbed into the carriage, Dillon apologized for what he was about to ask: Who was her father, exactly? Please, Cassie said, raising a gloved finger to her lips, he mustn’t disclose her secret to anyone: She was Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter. She handed over the envelope, which contained a pair of promissory notes, for $250,000 and $500,000, signed by Carnegie himself, and securities valued at a total of $5 million. Out of guilt and a sense of responsibility, “Daddy” gave her large sums of money, she said; she had numerous other notes stashed in a dresser drawer at home. Furthermore, she stood to inherit millions when he died. She reminded Dillon not to speak of her parentage, knowing it was a promise he wouldn’t keep; the story was too fantastic to withhold, and too brazen to be untrue. But she had never met Andrew Carnegie. Cassie Chadwick was just one of many names she went by.
June 13, 2012
With the Roaring Twenties in full swing and the first talkies on the horizon, Hollywood’s booming film industry already had its share of bankable stars—Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton. But in the summer of 1926, an Italian immigrant named Rodolfo Alfonso Rafaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D’Antonguolla would join them. Known as the “Latin Lover,” Rudolph Valentino would, by summer’s end, single-handedly change the way generations of men and women thought about sex and seduction.
It’s sad Valentino never live to see that autumn. And it’s sadder that he spent his final weeks engaged in an indecorous feud with an anonymous editorialist who had questioned his masculinity and blamed him for America’s “degeneration into effeminacy.”
Born in Castellaneta, Italy, in 1895, Valentino arrived at Ellis Island in 1913, at the age of 18. He lived on the streets and in Central Park until he picked up work as a taxi dancer at Maxim’s Restaurant-Caberet, becoming a “tango pirate” and spending time on the dance floor with wealthy women who were willing to pay for the company of exotic young men.
Valentino quickly befriended a Chilean heiress, which might have seemed like a good idea, but she was unhappily married to a well-connected businessman named John de Saulles. When Blanca de Saulles divorced her husband in 1915, Valentino testified that he had evidence that John de Saulles had been having multiple affairs, including one with a dance partner of Valentino’s. But his refined, European and youthful appearance at the trial had some reporters questioning his masculinity in print, and John de Saulles used his clout to have the young dancer jailed for a few days on a trumped-up vice charge. Not long after the trial, Blanca de Saulles shot her husband to death over custody of their son, and Valentino, unwilling to stick around for another round of testimony and unfavorable press, fled for the West Coast, shedding the name Rodolpho Guglielmi forever.
In California, Valentino began landing bit parts in films and, as he did in New York, building a clientele of older wealthy women who would pay for dance instruction. So charming was the young Italian that he would often show up at movie auditions driving fancy cars his clients had lent him. Impulsively, he married actress Jean Acker, but a regretful (and lesbian) Acker locked him out of their hotel room on their wedding night. She quickly sued for divorce.
By 1921, Valentino was starring in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which became one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era. Also that year, he was cast as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik—another wildly successful film, which would define Valentino’s image as a brooding but irresistible lover. It was an image he would despise.
In 1922, a writer named Dick Dorgan opined, in Photoplay magazine, opined that , “the Sheik is a bum Arab, that he is really an Englishman whose mother was a wop or something like that.” Valentino was infuriated by the insult to his mother and tried to have Dorgan banned from the studio. He also swore he would kill the writer if he saw him. The magazine apologized and promised some favorable pieces in the future, but a few months later, it published Dorgan’s “A Song of Hate,” in which he railed against Valentino’s “Roman face,” his “patent leather hair,” and his ability to make women dizzy. The article was somewhat good-natured—a common man’s jeremiad against a guy who danced too well and was too good-looking—but Valentino resented its references to his long eyelashes and the earrings he wore in films.
Valentino’s next few films performed erratically at the box office, and contract disputes with various studios forced him out of the movie business for a time. In 1922, he married Natacha Rambova, a costume designer, artistic director and occasional actress, but stood trial on bigamy charges because he hadn’t yet divorced Acker. He and Rambova had to have their marriage annulled; in March 1923 they remarried legally.
To make money until he was free to sign a new studio deal (and to pay off Acker), Valentino joined a dance tour throughout the U.S. and Canada. Sponsored by Mineralava beauty products, Valentino and Rambova performed as dancers and spokespersons, and Valentino judged beauty contests. He returned to films with the title role in Monsieur Beaucaire in 1924, under a new contract with Ritz-Carlton Pictures. Although the Louis XV drama was fairly successful, Valentino had to wear heavy makeup and ruffled costumes in an overtly feminized role. The actor, ever sensitive about his masculinity, was determined to be more careful about the roles he chose. He and Rambova would divorce in 1925, leading to public speculation that Valentino was a homosexual and that he had been engaged in “lavender marriages” of convenience to hide it. There is no definitive evidence in any credible biographies written of the two that either Valentino or Rambova was gay; rather, the speculation reflected contemporary sterotypes and prejudices, and was no doubt inspired by Valentino’s personal style and refined European tastes. Simply put, the man dubbed the “Latin lover” by the studios seems to have sought long-term relationships with women.
In early 1926, Valentino joined United Artists at the urging of Chaplin and Fairbanks. Mired in debt, he was practically forced into making a sequel to The Sheik. Though women continued to swoon over him, and some men imitated his mannerisms and slick-backed hair (they became known as “Vaselinos”), many more men grew skeptical of the foreign-born actor. Fairbanks was dashing and unquestionably masculine, but Valentino, with his dandy clothes, his wristwatch and a slave bracelet?
Photoplay published yet another piece, this one by Herbert Howe, that described Valentino’s his influence on leading men after his stellar tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse like this: “The movie boys haven’t been the same,” Howe wrote. “They’re all racing around wearing spit curls, bobbed hair and silk panties.… This can’t keep up. The public can stand just so many ruffles and no more.”
But it was the Chicago Tribune that really set Valentino off. On July 18, 1926, the paper ran an unsigned editorial under the headline “Pink Powder Puffs” that blamed Valentino for the installation of a face-powder dispenser in a new public men’s room on the city’s North Side:
A powder vending machine! In a men’s washroom! Homo Americanus! Why didn’t someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo [sic], alias Valentino, years ago?… Do women like the type of “man” who pats pink powder on his face in a public washroom and arranges his coiffure in a public elevator?… Hollywood is the national school of masculinity. Rudy, the beautiful gardener’s boy, is the prototype of the American male.
Valentino seethed at the editorial’s insinuations and ridicule. Since The Son of the Sheik was about to open, Oscar Doob, the film’s press agent, suggested that Valentino challenge the “Pink Powder Puffs” writer to a duel. Valentino sent his dare to the Chicago Herald-Examiner, the Tribune’s competitor: “To the man (?) who wrote the editorial headed ‘Pink Powder Puffs’ in Sunday’s Tribune, I call you in return, a contemptible coward and to prove which of us is a better man, challenge you to a personal test.” Noting that a duel would be illegal, Valentino said he would be happy to settle things in a boxing ring. And while Doob was immensely pleased with the publicity, he had no doubt that Valentino was “burned up” about the editorial.
“It’s so unfair. They can say I’m a terrible actor if they like, but it’s cowardly and low to hold me up as a laughing stock and make fun of my personal tastes and my private life,” Valentino told a Herald Examiner reporter. “This man calls me a ‘spaghetti-gargling gardener’s helper.’… As for being a gardener’s helper, I specialized in college in landscape gardening because in Italy, that is as fine an art as architecture or painting.”
The Tribune editorial writer did not come forward, but the actor traveled to New York and arranged to have boxing lessons from his friend Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion. Valentino was actually quite fit, and Dempsey tried to help, getting in touch with sportswriter Frank “Buck” O’Neil. “Listen, O’Neil,” Dempsey told him, “Valentino’s no sissy, believe me…. He packs a pretty mean punch.”
“Cut the crap,” O’Neil told him. “I don’t buy it, and neither does anyone else.” O’Neil then volunteered to take on Valentino in the ring, and the actor quickly agreed to fight him the following afternoon on the roof of the Ambassador Hotel. The next morning, reporters arrived at Valentino’s suite, only to see him decked out in an “orchid bathing suit and lavender lounging robe.”
“I’m going back to Chicago and I’ll have satisfaction,” Valentino told them, still incensed over the “Pink Powder Puffs” editorial. Privately, reporters marveled at Valentino’s bulging biceps and wondered what the star would do if he found out the editorial writer was a woman.
Valentino and O’Neil met on the roof, with reporters and photographers attending, and despite O’Neil’s promise that he would not hurt the star, he popped Valentino on the chin with a left. The actor responded by dropping his larger opponent with a left of his own. Somewhat stunned, Valentino apologized and helped the writer to his feet.
“Next time Jack Dempsey tells me something, I’ll believe him,” O’Neil told reporters. “That boy has a punch like a mule’s kick. I’d sure hate to have him sore at me.”
Still, the match proved nothing, and in the coming days, Valentino continued to fume about pink powder puffs. The more he mentioned the editorial to reporters, the more he invited the judgment that he must be hiding something. Valentino even met with the writer H.L. Mencken for advice, but when Mencken told him to ignore the taunts, the actor ignored him instead. Mencken would later write, “Here was a young man who was living daily the dream of millions of other young men. Here was one who was catnip to women. Here was one who had wealth and fame. And here was one who was very unhappy.”
In late July, Valentino attended the New York premiere of The Son of the Sheik. The temperature was close to one hundred degrees, but a mob of thousands formed around the theater, and as Valentino tried to make his way out of Times Square they ripped at his clothes. He escaped sufficiently intact to read about the melee in the next morning’s New York Times review of his film. More important to Valentino, however, was that the review said the film was full of “desert rough stuff and bully fights” and “leaves no doubt” about his masculinity. Referring to the “Pink Powder Puff” editorial, the reviewer warned any writer to think twice before accepting Valentino’s challenge, as “the sheik has an arm that would do credit to a pugilist and a most careless way of hurling himself off balconies and on and off horses. One leap from a balcony to a swinging chandelier is as good as anything Douglas Fairbanks ever did.”
The film was a hit, and the whispering about the star’s masculinity began to fade. As the sheik, he still appeared to be wearing eye shadow, and perhaps his lips bore a slightly darker stain of rouge, but after all, he was in show business.
Two weeks later, Valentino collapsed in his suite at the Ambassador and was taken to a hospital. After emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix, his doctors were hopeful he would recover. Then he developed pleuritis in his left lung and was in severe pain. At one point, he asked a doctor, “Am I still a pink powder puff?” Some reporters and readers were convinced that the actor’s hospitalization and the daily updates on his condition amounted to yet another publicity stunt. But on August 23, Rudolph Valentino slipped into a coma and died just hours later, surrounded by hospital staff.
On the news of his death, more than 100,000 people gathered on the streets in chaos outside the Frank Campbell Funeral Home. Flappers tore at their own clothes, clutched at their chests and collapsed in the heat. The New York Police Department tried to bring the order to the mob, and there were reports of despondent fans committing suicide. Inside the funeral home, four Black Shirt honor guards, supposedly sent by Benito Mussolini, stood nearby in stark tribute to the fallen star. (It was later learned that the men were actors, hired by the funeral home in, yes, a publicity stunt.)
The Polish actress Pola Negri, who had been having an affair with Valentino, fainted over his coffin. Upon reviving, she announced that she was to have been his third wife and quickly claimed the role of the dead star’s “widow.” For the funeral, she sent a massive floral display with thousands of blood-red roses surrounding white blooms that spelled out “POLA.” His body traveled back to the West Coast on a funeral train, and he was laid to rest in Hollywood.
The hysteria following Valentino’s death did not abate, and when The Son of the Sheik was released nationally months later, it was acclaimed as one of his best movies—a swan song of masculinity. Rumors that he actually died by the gun of a jealous husband or scorned lover kept the tabloids in business. And for decades, a veiled woman in black arrived at Valentino’s Hollywood tomb on the anniversary of his death to place twelve red roses and one white one on his grave. Once it was learned to be yet another press agent’s stunt, competing ladies in black began arriving at the tomb, knocking roses to the ground as they scuffled for position in front of newspaper photographers.
Whether the quality of Valentino’s voice would have killed his career in talkies is a subject of endless debate. Some say his accent was too thick, others who knew him well say his rich, husky baritone would only have helped him reach even greater heights of fame. But nearly a century after he arrived on these shores, his very name remains tantamount to a male seducer of women. In that sense, his work outlasted the biases of his time.
Books: Allan R. Ellenberger, The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol, McFarland & Co. Inc. Pub, 2005. Jeanine Basinger, Silent Stars, Knopf, 1999. Michael Ferguson, Idol Worship: A Shameless Celebration of Male Beauty in the Movies, StarBooks Press, 2005.
Articles: “Valentino Still Irate,” New York Times, July 20, 1926. “Why Wasn’t He Drowned Years Ago, Asks Article,” Boston Globe, July 21, 1926. “Valentino Challenges Editor to Fight Duel,” Hartford Courant, July 21, 1926. “Pola Sobs Out Grief During Studio Rests,” Boston Globe, August 22, 1926. “Sheik of the Movies, Wearing Hospital Nightshirt, Beseiged by Worshipping Fans and Press Agents, Even in Grave Illness,” Boston Globe, August 22, 1926. “Many Hurt in Mad Fight to Pass Valentino Bier,” Boston Globe, August 25, 1926. “Pola Negri Prostrated by News of Valentino’s Death,” Boston Globe, August 25, 1926. “Valentino Passes with No Kin At Side; Throngs in Street,” New York Times, August 24, 1926. The Rudolph Valentino Society, http://rudolphvalentino.org/index.html. “Celebrities of the 20s: Rudolph Valentino,: by Anthony Ehlers, http://raesummers.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/celebrities-of-the-20s-rudolf-valentino/.
September 28, 2011
Ananda Mahidol was a slight and painfully shy boy. When he was nine years old in 1935, he became the eighth king of Siam and captured the hearts of his people. But his reign was painfully brief, ending in his bedroom with a single bullet fired into his head at close range. He was 20 years old. Within hours, Ananda’s 18-year-old brother, Bhumibol, ascended to the throne, where he sits today. He has ruled for 65 years, longer than any current head of state, and has amassed a fortune estimated at more than $30 billion, making him the wealthiest royal in the world. His spending on schools and hospitals, as well as on disaster relief efforts, have helped bolster his considerable popularity among his subjects. Ananda’s death, however, remains unsolved and largely unmentioned in Thailand today.
So what exactly happened in Thailand on that June morning in 1946? The answer is no clearer today than it was in the immediate aftermath of a death that shocked Thailand and resonated around the world. Ananda and his brother had been inseparable as children and, by all accounts, remained close as they grew up. One of their common interests was firearms; they were known to take target practice on the Grand Palace grounds in Bangkok. On the morning of June 9, 1946, Bhumibol said he entered his brother’s bedroom chamber in the palace at 9:00 a.m., found him sleeping and left. Twenty minutes later, a gunshot echoed across the palace complex. The king’s page, Chit Singhaseni, rushed into the room and, seeing no one but Ananda, shouted, “The king has shot himself!” The king’s mother, Sangwal, followed the servant into the room. Ananda was lying in his bed, face up, with a bullet hole in his forehead and a Colt .45 pistol beside him on the bed. Sangwal pushed aside the mosquito net and threw herself onto the body, crying, “Alas, ‘Nanda, my son!”
The initial press reports out of Bangkok said Ananda’s death was accidental. “Diffident, bespectacled and boyish,” the New York Times reported, the king was “a fancier of firearms” and always kept a weapon near. Ananda had been within days of a trip to the United States for visits to New York and Washington, D.C., before returning to Switzerland, where he had received most of his education, to finish his studies for a law degree. The Times made a point of describing the worldly young king as “more Western than Eastern in his tastes,” as he “enjoyed playing a saxophone and driving an American jeep about the Palace grounds.” In the days after his death, however, newspapers around the world raised the possibility that King Ananda had taken his own life. His relationship with a 21-year-old Swiss woman in Lausanne had broken off while he had returned to Thailand, and there were rumors that the king had been despondent. He was weakened by intestinal troubles, some reports said. He was a reluctant ruler and he’d been quarreling with his mother, noted others. But the Thai government quickly brushed aside any insinuation of suicide. It was simply inconceivable to the Buddhist people of Thailand that their enlightened king could kill himself. Besides, the government noted, the gun was discovered next to Ananda’s less dominant left hand, and the nearly blind king was not wearing his glasses when he died.
By the end of the week, Thai officials—recognizing the need to solve the mystery of Ananda’s death quickly—ordered a special commission of inquiry to investigate. The government, already riven by power struggles in the aftermath of World War II, was close to turmoil. “Any mention of the king in public,” the Chicago Daily Herald reported from Bangkok, “has brought serious reprimands from the secret police.” (Under Thailand’s constitution and lèse majesté laws, criticism of the monarchy is banned.) The commission of inquiry appointed a committee of 15 medical experts, including one American, to report on the shooting. That panel had Ananda’s body exhumed and made X-rays to determine the path of the bullet.
By the end of the month, the physicians submitted their report: King Ananda Mahidol of Siam had been assassinated, they concluded. “It was absolutely murder,” said Chook Chotikashien, a prominent Thai member of the panel. The American physician, Edwin Cort, concurred. “The position of the wound and the bullet track seem to show that death was the result of assassination rather than suicide,” Cort said. “Accidental death was improbable.”
Louis Mountbatten, the Earl of Burma, who had visited Thailand in early 1946 and described Ananda as a “frightened, short-sighted boy, his sloping shoulders and thin chest behung with gorgeous diamond-studded decorations, altogether a pathetic and lonely figure,” thought he knew who pulled the trigger. “King Bhumibol shot his brother to obtain the crown,” he wrote in a letter to King George VI of England, according to author William Stevenson, who was granted unprecedented access to Bhumibol and the royal family for his 1999 book, The Revolutionary King. But no evidence to support the accusation has ever emerged.
The commission of inquiry took testimony from family members and staff at the Grand Palace. A page boy testified that when Sangwal, the Princess Mother had seen Ananda’s body, she was so despondent that she turned to Bhumibol and said, “Let us take our lives, too.” Fearing that she might indeed attempt suicide, the aide gathered up all the firearms in the vicinity. So many people at the scene handled the pistol used in Ananda’s shooting that lifting fingerprints from it became impossible.
Police arrested a national assemblyman and began searching the homes of journalists who were reporting that the Thai government was suppressing information on the circumstances of Ananda’s death. Premier Pridi Phanomyong reinstated a World War II state of national emergency, and officials censored the slightest hint of unfavorable reporting on the incident from Bangkok’s newspapers. Rewards were offered for information leading to the conviction of anyone spreading anti-government statements.
In late July, King Bhumibol testified before the commission for six hours. He reiterated that he had left his sleeping brother’s room before the shooting, and when asked “expressed no opinion as to the cause of his brother’s death,” in the words of a Reuters dispatch. There has been speculation among historians that Thai generals might have held the threat of a broader inquiry into the monarchy as a means to diminish royal influence in Thailand. Indeed, Bhumibol later said that in the weeks and months after Ananda’s death, the agents of the military kept a watchful eye upon him, until late August, when Bhumibol and his mother left for Switzerland so he could finish his own studies in Lausanne. He would stay there for four years.
Over the next two months, the investigation continued amid a bloodless coup that saw a military regime take power in Thailand from the civilian government, led by Premier Pridi Phanomyong. Within a week, Pridi was in hiding, accused of having had a hand in Ananda’s death. The king’s former secretary, Senator Chaleo Patoomros, was arrested, along with two palace attendants, including Chit, the servant who had discovered Ananda’s body. “There is definite proof that his late majesty was murdered,” declared General Phin Chunhawn, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Siamese Army.
When Bhumibol returned to Thailand, in 1950, he surrounded himself with a formidable staff of Western-educated diplomats, advisers and financial experts who helped the young king navigate the monarchy’s complex political relationships with the junta and the Thai Border Patrol Police (BPP), which was formed with the assistance of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. In an effort to foster a strong anti-communist ally in Thailand, the United States fully supported King Bhumibol, helping to promote his image as a wise and great king selflessly dedicated to his kingdom. As Bhumibol’s fortune grew, he spent visibly on education, medical care and disaster relief. He married a beautiful and poised Thai woman, Sirikit, and they were a spirited and attractive young couple. In the early 1950s, his love of music prompted him to form the Aw Saw Band, which performed Western songs in a popular weekly radio concert. The people of Thailand were completely taken with the royal family. Photographs of the king could be found in every home and at every street corner. Bhumidol had effectively put a halo above his monarchy, and the generals had little choice but to publicly bow to the king if they hoped to hold sway with the Thai populace.
But eight years after Ananda Mahidol was discovered in his bedroom with a bullet hole in his head, the murder case had stalled in the courts. Investigation and trials had proceeded, but the main suspect, Pridi, the former premier, remained in exile. Ananda’s secretary and the two servants were still incarcerated, but because there was practically no evidence against them, the lower courts would not convict. It wasn’t until October 1954 that General Phao of the Siamese Army, who had continued to push for closure to the case, finally secured convictions, which the Supreme Court of Thailand upheld. The three were sentenced to death for conspiracy to murder King Ananda.
Four months later, on February 17, 1955, without fanfare, General Phao sent them before a firing squad. Decades later, Bhumibol suggested that the executions had “caught him by surprise while he was still considering commuting the sentences,” as Paul M. Handley notes in his 2006 book, The King Never Smiles. Yet Bhumibol had given no public indication after the death sentences were handed down that he was considering any commutations. In a 2006 article he wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Handley dismisses the possibility of a political assassination. “I have no idea whether Ananda shot himself or was killed by Bhumibol, the two possibilities most accepted among historians,” he wrote. “If the latter, I clearly term it an accident that occurred in play.”
King Bhumibol is 83 years old, a beloved figure in Thailand today. As recently as 1999, Time magazine speculated that he was “haunted by the death of his brother.” In The Revolutionary King, William Stevenson insinuates that a notorious Japanese spy, Masanobu Tsuji, and not the three men executed in 1955, was responsible for Ananda’s murder. Thai historians summarily dismiss the charge. So does Handley, who notes that Tsuji was nowhere near Bangkok at the time. But given Stevenson’s unprecedented access to the king, it’s hard to imagine that Bhumibol, who cooperated with the author, did not have any say in advancing the theory—leading some people to believe that the king must believe that three men were unjustly executed for his brother’s death. Stranger still, as journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall observes, in the last chapter of Stevenson’s book, “even Stevenson—and Bhumibol—are doubtful about the theory” of Tsuji’s involvement.
The fact is, Bhumibol was politically weak in the years after he returned from Switzerland. It is possible that he didn’t speak out about the executions because he perceived a need to let the Thai legal system take its course. It is also possible that he, too, remained uncertain of the circumstances surrounding his brother’s death.
Bhumibol has been a strong unifying force in Thailand, and his political skills have enabled him to maintain the throne’s power in a country whose political history is rife with coups and military rule. But his health is now in question, and the people of Thailand are concerned about a future without him. One possible successor is his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn; cables from the U.S. Embassy recently released by Wikileaks say that Thailand’s ruling elite considered him a political liability and that there were grave doubts about whether he could maintain a stable monarchy. However, one of Bhumibol’s daughters, Crown Princess Maha Sirindhorn, is extremely close to her father, and just as beloved by the Thai people. Bhumibol is permitted to name his successor. The turmoil surrounding his accession highlights the importance of order in the palace.
Books: Revolutionary King: The True-Life Sequel to The King and I, by William Stevenson, Constable and Robinson, paperback, 2001. (first published in 1999) Paul M. Handley, The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej, Yale University Press, 2006. Andrew MacGregor Marshall, Thailand’s Moment of Truth: A Secret History of 21st Century Siam, http://www.zenjournalist.com/
Articles: “Siam Boy King Shot to Death; Brother Rules”, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 10, 1946. “Gun Kills Siam’s Young King; Palace Death Held Accident”, New York Times, June 10, 1946. “Brother Succeeds Siam’s King; Shooting Accidental”, The Christian Science Monitor, June 10, 1946. “Crisis in Siam”, Christian Science Monitor, June 10, 1946. “Siam Declares a Full Year of Mourning for Slain King”, Washington Post, June 11, 1946. “New Evidence Asked on Siam King’s Death” , New York Times, June 16, 1946. “Mystery Death of Siam’s King Stirs Politicos”, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 21, 1946. “King of Siam’s Coffin Opened; Body X-Rayed”, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 22, 1946. “Report Murder Finding in Death of Siamese King”, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 27, 1946. “King of Siam Slain, 12 Doctors Say”, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 3, 1946. “Siamese Queen To Testify”, New York Times, July 5, 1946. “Siam Puts Lid on Rumors of King’s Murder”, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 7, 1946. “Tension is Increased with Arrests in Siam”, New York Times, July 7, 1946. “New King Aids Probe of Siam Ruler’s Death”, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 29, 1946. “Ananda Murdered, Siamese Declare”, New York Times, November 17, 1947. “New Regime Links Aide of Ex-Leader To King’s ‘Murder’”, Washington Post, November 17, 1947. “Siamese King’s 1946 Gun Death Still Mystery: Material for a Thriller in Palace Tragedy”, Chicago Daily Tribune, August 16, 1948. “Foreign News: Orchids for the Secretary”, Time Magazine, February 28, 1955. “The King and Ire”, Time, December 6, 1999.