"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 26, 2018

Alfred Loewenstein's Final Flight: Review of "The Man Who Fell From the Sky," By William Norris



Throughout recorded history, many prominent people have passed away in some odd and/or sinister fashion. As a rule, these suspicious deaths receive a great deal of publicity and investigation, often for years, or even centuries later.

However, there is one notable exception. In 1928, one of the world's richest men, who had been both a famous and highly controversial figure for some years, came to a violent, unusual, and extremely puzzling end...

...and no one seemed to care.

Alfred Loewenstein was born in Brussels on March 11, 1877. By 1914, he had established a successful banking concern. Investments in electric power and artificial silk made him immensely wealthy and influential. In 1926, he founded "International Holdings and Investments Limited," a forerunner of the now-common "holding company." It raised large amounts of money from investors eager to get a piece of Loewenstein's already legendary triumphs. As a result, even more than most financiers, Loewenstein's continued success depended upon maintaining an aura of success. He would be a winner only as long as he looked like a winner. Loewenstein was a ruthless, bold, and cunning risk-taker. As a businessman, he tended to sail close to the wind and did not hesitate to take financial advantage of those who were less crafty--people seldom become self-made multi-millionaires by playing pattycake--but so far as is known, he did nothing that was actually illegal.

In 1908 he married Madeleine Misonne, a member of a socially prominent Belgian family. She was a beautiful, elegant, and sophisticated woman who was, by all accounts, as warm and emotional as the proverbial iceberg. Theirs was one of those marriages which was essentially a business deal: He gave her all the money her expensive tastes needed, and she provided the social status and glamor he craved. Like most of Loewenstein's business deals, it was highly successful. Although the Loewensteins had one son, Bobby, they saw little of each other. Alfred immersed himself in his two passions, (financial schemes and thoroughbred horses,) while Madeleine drifted between their various mansions, enjoying a lifestyle that would make Marie Antoinette gasp. They were both entirely content with the arrangement. There was no love or passion in their relationship (both seemed essentially sexless,) but they had a mutual respect, and even arguably their own form of affection.



Such was Loewenstein's life on the evening of July 4, 1928, when he arrived at Croydon Airport and boarded his recently-purchased Fokker Tri-Motor for a routine flight to Brussels. There were six other people on the plane: pilot Donald Drew, the mechanic and co-pilot Robert Little, Loewenstein's valet Fred Baxter, his secretary Arthur Hodgson, and two stenographers, Eileen Clarke and Paula Bidalon. (The latter two were necessary because the workaholic Loewenstein was continually dictating business letters and memos.)


Two views of Loewenstein's plane


The weather was calm. The flight, we are told, was completely uneventful until, at some point while the Fokker was over the English Channel, Loewenstein went inside the small bathroom at the back of the plane. The compartment had a second door: one which was the plane's exit.

Alfred Loewenstein was never seen alive again.

According to Drew and Little--the only members of that fatal flight to speak publicly about the tragedy--when Loewenstein failed to return to his seat, Baxter went to check on his employer. He found the bathroom empty. He returned to the cockpit area and handed Drew a note saying that Loewenstein had disappeared.

For reasons which were never satisfactorily explained, Drew did not immediately land at a nearby airfield. Instead, he brought the plane to a deserted stretch of beach near Dunkirk. This beach happened to be military territory, which naturally soon brought them to the attention of army authorities. The crew told them that their boss had vanished. They neglected to mention until some time later that "their boss" was one of the richest and most famous men in the land. They were instructed to fly to the airport, where they repeated their stark, simple story of what had happened. The crew could only assume that Loewenstein had been the victim of a dreadful accident. The plane's exit door, they were careful to say, opened and closed very easily. No doubt, the financier had bumped against the door, it suddenly flew open, and...




The authorities immediately began to search the English Channel for Loewenstein's body.  Meanwhile, his wife Madeleine was hit with doubly disconcerting news: until her husband was declared officially deceased and a death certificate issued, she could not touch a penny of his money. And the Belgian authorities refused to issue this certificate until Alfred's body had been found. If the financier remained missing, she would be left virtually penniless.

An inquiry was held into the incident on July 9. For such a bizarre mystery, it was an incredibly brief and casual affair. No witnesses were put under oath. Drew and Little repeated their story about the exit door opening easily. The judge ruled Loewenstein's (presumed) death to be accidental, and, as far as the authorities were concerned, that was that. The official investigation into Loewenstein's fate ended virtually as soon as it had begun.

So, where was Loewenstein? The question remained unanswered until July 19, when a Channel fishing vessel came upon the financier's badly decomposed corpse, floating face-downward. The body was so decayed as to be unrecognizable.  It was identified as Loewenstein by the clothes it was wearing: these consisted only of silk underwear, socks, and shoes. (The rest of the clothes Loewenstein wore the day he vanished were never found.  When news spread of the grisly find, the publicly traded shares of all his many corporations instantly plummeted by more than 50%.

Madeleine Loewenstein arranged a private autopsy. This examination showed no trace of poison or anything abnormal. (However, the post-mortem indicated that Loewenstein had a small amount of alcohol in his stomach: a curious finding for someone who was a lifelong teetotaler.) The physicians ruled that his death was the result of falling from a great height into the Channel waters. There was absolutely nothing to indicate suicide, or any violence of the sort that would hint at foul play.  His death was nothing but a sad accident. Madeleine quietly buried her husband in an unmarked grave in her family's cemetery plot (she herself did not attend his funeral,) and life, so far as everyone closely involved in the matter was concerned, went on. Loewenstein's spectacularly weird death continued to fuel international headlines, making the complete lack of official and unofficial curiosity all the more striking.

The case eventually became largely forgotten and unexamined until an author named William Norris happened to become aware of the story. His initial interest blossomed into an obsession to get to the bottom of the mystery. He recorded his findings in the 1987 book, "The Man Who Fell From the Sky." To date, it remains the most exhaustive record of Loewenstein's flamboyant life and death.

Norris first tackled the problem of how Loewenstein came to fall out of that plane. Despite the testimony of Drew and Little, contemporary experimentation with Fokkers found that, completely contrary to what they had stated, the plane's exit door was--as you would expect from any aircraft--difficult to open, even on solid ground. When it was airborne, it was practically impossible without great effort. To put it bluntly, there was no way that Loewenstein could have fallen out of the plane by accident. To put it even more bluntly, Drew and Little had lied.



Suicide could also probably be ruled out. Loewenstein greatly enjoyed his life and right to the end, was deeply immersed in plans for the future. His was a hectic, pressure-filled life, to be sure, but he was one of those rare souls who thrived on such an existence. Whatever else the man may have been, he was a fighter. In any case, it was extremely unlikely that he could have opened the door wide enough to fall out, even if he had wanted to.

That left Norris with one conclusion: Loewenstein had been deliberately forced off the plane, leaving everyone else on that flight as either cold-blooded murderers or accessories before/after the fact. But who among them would have wanted to kill Loewenstein? And why would the others acquiesce with their silence?

Norris was of the opinion that the pilot and mechanic were hired hit men: someone had paid them very, very well to see to it that Loewenstein never survived that flight. His research led him to discover that both Drew (who died of cancer not long after the flight) and Little spent the rest of their days living well above their obvious means, suggesting that someone had rewarded them lavishly. Norris was unable to learn what had become of the two stenographers and Arthur Hodgson, leaving him uncertain if they had been paid to disappear--or if they themselves had been victims of foul play.

As for Fred Baxter, his end only adds to the peculiarity of this story. After Loewenstein's death, his eighteen-year-old son Bobby took Baxter into his employ. Bobby was a playboy who, unlike his father, was completely uninterested in business, but he was a genial, easygoing young man who readily gave his father's trusted valet a place in his home.

Alfred and Bobby Loewenstein


All went quietly until one day in 1932. Baxter was visiting Bobby in his apartment, after which young Loewenstein departed, leaving the valet there. According to Bobby, when he returned a short time later, he found a note on the front door. It read, "Don't come in. Go and stay with the Countess." (The "Countess" was one Anna Minici, who lived next door.)

Bobby told police that when he entered the apartment, he found Baxter lying on the floor, with Bobby's revolver lying close by. The valet died a few hours later without gaining consciousness. His death was ruled a suicide. However, Norris could not help but speculate otherwise. Was it possible that Baxter, feeling a sudden need to unburden his conscience, tell Bobby that Alfred's fatal "accident," was really a murder, causing the horrified young man to impulsively shoot this man who had been complicit in his father's brutal death?

Assuming that Loewenstein was murdered, how was it done? Norris theorized that perhaps there had been two exit doors on the plane. Perhaps, before the flight, Robert Little the mechanic had placed a new door on the Fokker: one with loose bolts and hinges that could be opened with ease. Then, after shoving Loewenstein from the plane, possibly after drugging the financier into unconsciousness (remember the unexplained alcohol found in his system,) Drew then made the otherwise inexplicable decision to land on the deserted beach, so Little could quickly take the "trick" door off and put the rightful, difficult-to-open door in its place. (After examining one of the few Fokkers still in existence, Norris discovered that the door to the plane's luggage space would have fit perfectly in the space for the exit.) Given such a scenario, murdering Loewenstein would not have been difficult at all.

Who could have commissioned the brutal deed? When any married person dies in suspicious circumstances, one usually has to look first at the surviving spouse. However, Madeleine Loewenstein had no known motive to see Alfred dead. He may not have been a uxorious husband, but he was an extremely generous one. He was very proud of his decorative wife and wanted her to put on a dazzling appearance before the world. Although Madeleine inherited his wealth, she already had all the money she wanted and the freedom to spend it any way she liked. There is no hint whatsoever that the reserved, glacial Madeleine had any outside romantic interest. In other words, she gained no visible benefit from his passing.

Loewenstein, like all major financiers, had made a generous number of enemies during his career. However, Norris was unable to find evidence that would point to any of them in particular as having orchestrated a murder. A possible motive only emerged when he examined Loewenstein's friends.

In the weeks before his death, Loewenstein was facing a serious challenge to his financial empire. An anonymous document was being circulated among worldwide financial circles, accusing Alfred of every financial crime in the book, and quite a few the book never even considered. As Loewenstein's wealth was tied to his reputation, this screed had a disastrous effect on his finances. The value of his holding company was threatened with ruin, and his paper fortune took an immense hit. Just before his death, Loewenstein ascertained that the writer of this exposé was an old business rival, Henri Dreyfus, and he was looking forward to bringing a criminal libel suit against Dreyfus--a suit that he had good reason to assume he'd win. In the meantime, however, anyone who was currently financially entangled with Loewenstein could be forgiven for looking at him as a possibly catastrophic liability. Norris noted, "there is little doubt that even to his friends, and I use the word loosely, the Belgian Croesus was becoming an embarrassment. And an expensive embarrassment as well. Times were changing, and the heyday of freebooting capitalists...was on the wane. They were being replaced by sober men with stiff collars who put collateral before adventure and respectability before display. Loewenstein, however, was not changing; he was still raiding companies, brewing wild schemes, celebrating victories, and absorbing defeats to fight again. To their eyes he was wild, unprincipled, and perhaps a little crazy."

That brings us to Loewenstein's two partners in International Holdings, Albert Pam and Frederick Szarvasy. They had made massive fortunes by hitching their wagons to Loewenstein's star. On the other hand, if the controversial Belgian went down, he could very well drag them along with him. Money is the most powerful motive there is for murder, and there was a very great deal of cash tied up in the fate of Alfred Loewenstein.

While studying the contemporary financial publications, Norris found a very intriguing detail. Shortly before Loewenstein's final high dive, someone had taken out numerous insurance policies: some on Loewenstein's life (policies which covered both accident and suicide,) as well as others providing against any loss on his company's shares that might accrue from his death. The identity of the person(s) who took out these policies was unknown.

Coincidentally enough, International Holdings Corporation, rather than having been financially flattened by its founder's demise, positively blossomed like a rose. Shortly after Alfred's death, Pam and Szarvasy announced to their shareholders that the company had just made an additional profit of over $13 million. The statement blandly announced that this windfall was thanks to "transactions of a special nature."

Norris got out his calculator, and estimated what all the insurance policies on those shares would have paid. Well, well, well. He came up with a sum that was almost exactly the same as the "special" profit enjoyed by Pam and Szarvasy. In addition, Norris learned that not all the shares in International Holdings had been issued at the time of Loewenstein's death. After his passing, those shares were bought at fire-sale prices by a syndicate led by Pam and Szarvasy. After their announcement of International's unexpected profits, these shares rose greatly in value.

The living Alfred Loewenstein was becoming a headache to his business partners. Dead, he was a gold mine.

Was this enough for these men to commission his murder? Norris' case against them is entirely circumstantial and speculative, but it is not unconvincing, and it at least offers a solution for the many baffling elements surrounding Loewenstein's death.

Or--to offer another theory--did the fearless, feckless financier decide he was weary of his increasingly problematic business empire, leading him to fake his own death so that he could start over?  It must be noted that most of what Norris presents as evidence pointing to murder could also be used to indicate voluntary disappearance.  When Loewenstein's plane landed on that deserted beach, did he leave it alive, after arranging for some nameless corpse to be planted in the Channel?  Could it have been Loewenstein himself who purchased all those insurance policies on his life and his company?  (Incidentally, this would also explain the curiously anonymous burial Madeleine gave him.)

Under this scenario, Drew and Little were bribed not to kill Loewenstein, but to keep quiet about the fact that he still lived.  Admittedly, this may be an even more outlandish idea than Norris' murder conspiracy, but if anyone was capable of pulling off such a stunt, it was the "Belgian Croesus."

"The Man Who Fell From the Sky" is a fascinating book about a fascinating man, and Norris is to be commended for some heroic feats of historical research.  Nevertheless, the question of what exactly happened to Alfred Loewenstein on that summer night in 1928 remains unanswered. I fear it always will.

6 comments:

  1. Doesn't sound like Loewenstein would have faked his death, he just seems too content. Murder then, not poison but definately poisson in this case.

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  2. Very interesting. I've read of this mystery before, but not all of these details. One of the odd facts is the corpse, wearing shoes, but not trousers. How did that happen? The voluntary disappearance sounds almost as plausible as the murder - though I find the complicated nature of the murder - if it was murder - to be a strike against the theory. If Drew and Little killed Loewenstein, they would have had to know that the others on the aeroplane would keep silent, and that seems very risky. Surely there were better ways of killing Loewenstein, less convoluted. Yes, very interesting.

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    1. The more I thought about it, the more all these weird details seemed to point to voluntary disappearance, rather than murder, for the very reasons you mentioned. The trouble is, I just couldn't see *why* Loewenstein would want to "die" and start over.

      I really, really wish we knew who bought all those insurance policies. That would probably explain everything.

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    2. Undine,

      Maybe Loewenstein never boarded the plane at Croydon? Did anyone else at the airport apart from his fellow passengers witness him getting on board?

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    3. I've wondered about that. He was seen by others at the airport, but it's not clear to me if there were outside witnesses who could say for sure that he was on the plane when it took off.

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  3. It's hard to imagine Robert Little becoming involved in a murder scheme. He was a much respected airman who had taken part in many pioneering flights with Mary Russell, the 'Flying Duchess' of Bedford. Strangely, she also disappeared over the sea in her aeroplane. Donald Drew seems to have been a womaniser during his time with Imperial Airways, which would have upset them. But Madeleine Loewenstein seems unlikely to have been involved in an affair with him. I agree, whoever bought those shares probably knew the truth of the matter...

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