The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln
The astonishing thing about confidence men, when their careers are viewed from the broad perspective allowed by biography, is their ability to persist in the face of what would be to the ordinary mortal paralyzing odds. Exposed, condemned, run out of town, they nevertheless seem to rise like the phoenix from the ashes of innumerable ruined careers and convince yet one more millionaire or heiress that they possess the fire of genius. Clearly they do, but the genius of these remarkable figures lies not in their ability to perform miracles but in their charisma, their gift of inspiring trust.
I. T. Trebitsch Lincoln, the subject of The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln by Bernard Wasserstein, is a classic example of the type: a Hungarian Jew who became a Presbyterian missionary, an Anglican curate, a Member of Parliament, an international financier, an architect of the “Kapp Putsch” in Germany in 1921, a would-be double agent, and the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in pre-revolutionary China. Lincoln inspired revulsion in those he defrauded and betrayed, but he never lacked for new patrons and disciples. Each defeat awakened a stranger sense of paranoia, but the sense of persecution seemed to invigorate him. There was always a new city to explore, a new conspiracy to hatch, a new group of gullible investors or unscrupulous entrepreneurs to ensnare. “Who could believe in such a man?” the reader, with full knowledge of Lincoln’s successive intrigues, is tempted to ask. Yet the answer is that almost everyone did, at least for a while. The force of such a personality must sweep away doubt, and even common sense.
Ironically, The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln marks the final triumph of its subject. Wasserstein, an academic historian who suspects that his book “is likely to be regarded as something of an affront to the austere canons of [his] profession,” came on his subject by accident, while browsing in the Bodleian Library. He was intrigued somewhat against his will by the sheer outrageousness of this minor figure who contributed so little to the serious political history of his day and yet acted on so many of the world’s stages. The author’s fascination is a pale shadow of what Lincoln’s contemporaries must have felt: a deep curiosity mixed with annoyance, disbelief, and mistrust.
Born Ignacz Trebitsch in 1879 in a small town south of Budapest, Trebitsch Lincoln as a child was a restless, insubordinate truant whose knowledge “was that of a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles rather than the product of profound or systematic learning.” His intelligence was undisciplined, but he had a gift for languages and, as his later career shows, a marked sensitivity to the weaknesses of those around him. After studying briefly to be an actor, he fled Budapest to escape being imprisoned for theft and ended up in a British hostel outside London, run by an evangelical society dedicated to the conversion of the Jews. He robbed his benefactor—the first in a long line of disillusioned patrons—and ran away again, this time to Hamburg, where he became a convert, first to the Presbyterian faith, then—thirteen days later—to the Lutheran. Sent to Canada to run a mission in Montreal, he disappointed yet another pious clerical benefactor, deserted his sect when the mission failed, and joined the Church of England.
The mental and physical peregrinations of the restless convert become complicated; each journey could encapsulate a different man’s career. Trebitsch soon turned up again in England, where his earlier mentor, whom he had robbed of a gold watch, wrote on hearing of his return: “He is thoroughly bad, a genius, and very attractive, but taking the crooked way always for choice.” With the help of the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Among the Jews, he was appointed as curate in the village of Appledore and pointed out as a future bishop, but he failed ignominiously the examination which would qualify him for ordination into the Anglican priesthood. Taking an English surname and moving to a London suburb with his German wife and her son, Lincoln left the church and entered a new phase...
(The entire section is 1706 words.)