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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

March 1997

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I was the only third secretary, the diplomatic equivalent of a second lieutenant, when I arrived at our embassy in Lisbon in January of 1948 on my first Foreign Service assignment. As part of my indoctrination, the ambassador decided that I should work for a month in each of the sections of the embassy. He had begun his career, he said, in the file room of our embassy in Paris and thought it the best place to get a good idea of what an embassy did.

So I was sent first to help Miss Booker in the file room. Emma Booker was a gentle, white-haired woman a few years from retirement. She had not been in the United States for over twenty years, and it was evident she never intended to return. She had a cozy small apartment in Estoril, a pretty resort town to the west of Lisbon at the mouth of the Tagus River, a devoted maid, and two cats. She also had a hobby: the roulette table at the Estoril Casino. Miss Booker had found a croupier, she said, who rolled the ball so uniformly that she could plot a pattern to the numbers. She made small bets and claimed to be slightly ahead of the game.

After a fascinating month with Miss Booker, reading everything that came in and went out of the embassy, I moved on to work for the special assistant to the ambassador. Ted was about fifty, trim, handsome, with iron gray hair and mustache. He was of Greek ancestry and had grown up in humble circumstances in New York City. After graduation from high school, he entered the Foreign Service as a clerk and was assigned to Rio de Janeiro.

Bright, handsome, and personable, Ted was soon fluent in Portuguese and made friends in the young circles of Rio society. At the embassy he rose rapidly from clerical tasks to become personal aide to the ambassador and his wife. He made himself indispensable in helping the ambassador move and function in official Brazilian circles. Ted married the daughter of a prominent Brazilian industrialist, and stayed on in the Rio embassy in the special niche he had made for himself.

His wife died during World War II, and Ted, grief-stricken, asked to be transferred to Lisbon, where he remained for the rest of his Foreign Service career. His fluent Portuguese and social graces soon established him in Lisbon society. He had a spacious and elegant apartment furnished with Brazilian antiques and rented a box in Lisbon's rococo jewel box of an opera house, San Carlos. He became the valued personal aide to a succession of ambassadors.

He also found another niche. Portugal had been a neutral during World War II, and Lisbon became the refuge for deposed monarchs, pretenders to thrones, and a collection of of European aristocrats from a dozen countries fleeing the war and the Nazis. There was the Count of Paris, last of the Bourbons; Don Juan, son of the deposed Alfonso XIII of Spain; King Carol of Romania, and his mistress, Magda Lupescu. Ted cultivated these exiles, kept track of their plotting, and became their trusted channel of communication to the United States government.

He was also the channel for someone vastly more powerful and important. One day he said, "Wear you best suit tomorrow. After work I'm taking you to call on Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian."




Gulbenkian was born near Istanbul to a wealthy Armenian family in 1869. His father was a banker who imported Russian kerosene into the Ottoman empire. Calouste was educated in Turkey, France, and England and received an engineering degree in 1897, from Kings's College in London. He became a British subject in 1902.

Gulbenkian became convinced there was oil in Mesopotamia in what later became Iraq. In 1908, he organized a consortium of English and Dutch oil companies in the Turkish Petroleum Company, reserving five percent of the ownership for himself, thereby earning his nickname -- Mr. Five Percent.

After World War I, Gulbenkian was the principal architect of the Red Line Agreement. Four major oil companies -- one British, one Anglo-Dutch, and two American -- bound themselves in 1928 to joint development of all oil found in the former Ottoman empire in an area which included all of the Middle East oil-producing areas except Kuwait and Iran. Gulbenkian retained his five percent and the huge oil discoveries in Iraq and Saudi Arabia made him one of the world's richest men.

As the millions rolled in, Gulbenkian was reluctant to see any of it drained off in taxes. He moved back and forth from the Ritz Hotel in London to the Ritz in Paris. He had himself accredited to the Iraqi embassy in London, and with diplomatic status, was exempt from taxation.

However, by 1942, the British Inland Revenue was closing in on Gulbenkian, so he moved to Portugal and lived for the remaining thirteen years of his life in the Avid Hotel in Lisbon. It was rumored that Salazar, Portugal's dictator, had granted him exemption from taxation.




Throughout his long life Gulbenkian was an avid art collector. A billionaire with exquisite taste, he amassed a rich collection of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities, Persian and Islamic art, rugs, gold coins, and Japanese and Chinese art.

He bought French impressionist paintings from the Hermitage when the Soviets needed cash in 1930 and added them to his fine collection of Flemish and English paintings. Perhaps in gratitude to his adopted tax haven, he left his art collection to Portugal and endowed a foundation to display it.

On the northern edge of Lisbon on seventeen acres of park stands the Gulbenkian Foundation complex of theater, concert, and conference halls, a library of 400,000 volumes, and the Gulbenkian Museum. It is one of the world's great museums because it was designed specifically to house and highlight his collection and because it reflects the discerning taste of one man.

The range of Gulbenkian's enthusiasms was broad, but in each he was interested in quality, not quantity. Between each section is a room for the visitor to rest, admire through large windows the subtropical park, and prepare for a new phase of the collection. If Lisbon had no other attractions, the Gulbenkian Museum alone would make a stopover worthwhile.

All this was far in the future as Ted and I went into the Aviz Hotel on a rainy evening in February 1948. The Aviz was no ordinary hostelry. It had been the palace of one of Portugals ancient royal families. It had fewer than twenty rooms and only the very wealthy stayed there. Gulbenkian had a ground floor suite.

He received us in the bar, and he and Ted did their business quickly. Then he turned to me. He had a short, massive body, a round bald head, bushy white eyebrows, and piercing black eyes.

"Young man," he said, "Ted tells me you are beginning a career in diplomacy. I have some advice for you. You need to know how to make a perfect martini. You must use Gordon's gin and Noilly- Prat vermouth stirred in a four to one ratio. Do not vary this formula. Do not economize on the vermouth. Good bye and good luck."

Mr. Five Percent had launched me.





For more information about Turkish billionaire Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian and the cultural foundation that now bears his name,
please click here
.

Ambassador Underhill, a thirty-five-year veteran of the U. S. Foreign Service, had a column in Volume I, Number 2 of American Diplomacy. This article appeared first in the Hendersonville, NC, Times-News of June 25, 1995; republished with the permission of the author.

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