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Thursday, July 30, 2009

TOWER OF BABEL

I would say that Victor Lustig knew his audience. The invitations arrived during the late spring of 1925, via special delivery, on stationary of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. The letter invited the addressee to a confidental meeting with the Deputy Director General to be held in the evening at number ten Champs-Elysees, in a suite at the Hotel de Crillon. It was an invitation the recipients, five Parisian scrap metal dealers, were unlikely to refuse.The Hotel had been constructed by Louis XV as government offices, before being bought by the Crillon family and converted into a five star hotel. Its interior was adorned throughout with 17th Century tapestries, Louis XVI gilt and brocade furniture, sculptures, paintings and other valuable art works. Government ministries held public and closed door meetings in the hotel every day. Besides, who would reject the opportunity of seeing the rooms where Marie Antoinette took piano lessons, or where Charlie Chaplin slept? The five 'petit bourgeois' businessmen were suitably impressed.The guests were greeted by an officious bureaucrat who identified himself as Msr. Robert Tourbillon, personal secretary to the Deputy Director, Msr Victor Lustig. The ministry, explained Msr Tourbilliuon, was about to offer a valuable business opportunity to these five men. However, he insisted, everything said in this room must remain confidential. If the guests did not agree with this stipulation they should leave at once. None of the businessmen budged from their seats.A few minutes later Msr. Lustig bustled into the suite and after reminding his guests of the absolute need for secrecy, quickly got down to the subject at hand. The men in the room may have read recently, explained Msr. Lustig, that the government was facing a major and expensive renovation of Msr. Eiffle’s Tower.The tower had been controversial from the moment it was opened on March 31, 1888. Three hundred workers had spent 3 years welding 7,000 tons of iron, fashioned into 18,000 pieces connected by 2,500,000 rivets into an open framework tower which was half proof of concept construction and half work of art. It stood 1,000 feet high, making it the tallest structure in the world; and one of the most dispised.The Paris press referred to it as “…a truly tragic street lamp.” Three hundred influential artists and politicians publically protested the “…useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower”. “Is Paris going to be associated with the grotesque, mercantile imaginings of a constructor of machines?” The inventor of the short story, Guy de Maupassant, had lunch every day in the restaurant on the second level of the tower. When asked why, he explained because it was the only place in Paris where he did not have to look at the ugly thing while digesting.The problem was that seven million tons of iron were not cheaply dismantled. Besides, Msr. Eiffel retained ownership of the “"odious column of bolted metal” for twenty years. In 1909 ownership finally passed to city of Paris, but the tower was making a profit, as de Maupassant’s angry patronage of the restaurant amply proved. And then, to a younger generation which had never known Paris without Msr. Eiffel’s tower, it had become a symbol of France, thanks to its role in the Battle of the Marne. So the tower stayed put. But by 1925, years of defrayed maintenance were catching up with the tower.Every seven years the tower required a year and a half of attention from dozen of workers, applying fifty tons of paint, using 15,000 brushes. Worse, rust and decay required replacement of many structural supports. The Tower was in need of a loan. And in 1925, as the tower officials prepared the public for the refurbishing bill, newspaper articles detailed the expense and difficulties involved. And now, Msr. Lustig explained, the government had come to the conclusion that the tower was not worth the expenses. And so the decision had been made to bring the tower down.The five dealers had been chosen, they were told, because of their professional discretion. If word of the tower’s imminent demise were to become public ahead of time, they were warned, sentimentality might prevent the sale of seven tons of scrap iron. So, Msr. Lustig told the five men in the room, they had four days to present their sealed checks to Msr Tourbillon. The highest value check would have the privilege of dismantling the Eiffel Tower. The value of the high grade iron in the Tower was about the modern equivalent of $2.8 million, meaning the bids could be expected to be in the half million dollar range.Each of the dealers left the room that night with their minds buzzing. There was not much time to budget the project, to figure labor, equipment and insurance costs. And one of the dealers, Andre Poisson, was also concerned about the secrecy and haste. Begging Msr. Tourbillon’s pardon, he asked for a further meeting with Msr. Lustig. What he did not realize at the time, was that just by asking for another meeting, Msr Poisson had insured that his check would be the one accepted.At the second meeting Msr. Lustig listened politely to Msr. Poisson’s concerns. But instead of answering his questions, Msr Lustig said that it was a shame his petty government salary required him to struggle so much to make ends meet. Msr. Poisson understood immediately. In the language of bureaucrats everywhere, Msr. Lustig had just asked for a bribe. Msr. Poisson breathed a sigh of relief. He had no doubt now that Eiffel Tower job was perfectly legitimate and that he had the inside track. Twenty-four hours later Poisson handed over to Msr. Lustig a cashier’s check for $500,000 and a healthy bribe. And then he returned to his office to await the public announcement of his contract to dismantle the Tower. The announcement never came. However both of Msr Poisson's checks were cashed. When Msr. Poisson called the Ministry of Post Office and Telegraphs and asked to speak to Msr. Tourbillon, he was told no official by that name existed. Worse, there was no Deputy Director General named Lustig. Slowly, Msr. Poisson came to the sickening realization that he had paid half a million dollars to buy the Eiffel Tower. Msr. Torbilion was actually an American con man named “Dapper” Dan Collins. Victor Lustig, AKA Count Victor Lustig (above), was a Cezch con man who had been working cons in the United States for a decade. He would never be prosecuted for his sale of the Eiffel Tower, but he would be arrested for other scams and would end his days in Alcatraz prison, dying of pneumonia in 1947. He was just 57 years old.This year the Eiffel Tower is 121 years old. To the best of Parisian authorities’ knowledge, it is sold thousands of times every day.
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