duminică , 19 noiembrie 2017

Georgette Porumbeanu, daughter of Andrei: “My father was sort of a hero of the working class”

Georgette Porumbeanu, known as “Gigi” from many news features that were published 57 years ago, talks about her father, Romanian born Andrei Porumbeanu, in an exclusive and candid interview for LaRevista.ro. She was a very young girl when her dad was on the cover on LIFE magazine, along with the woman he had just eloped with, Gamble Benedict, heiress of the Remington fortune. Their complicated story was of national interest in the U.S., at the beginning of the 60s, and fascinated millions of people. Decades later, I came across that old issue of LIFE in an antique store. I got curious, learned about it and published everything I found out here, on LaRevista.ro. There were many details, though, that I did not have access to, so I am very grateful that Georgette Porumbeanu agreed to speak with me and reveal what she recalls about that part of her dad’s life.

Andrei’s daughter, who is now 67 and lives in Los Angeles with her mother (Helma, Andrei’s first, actually only, wife), not only remembers the details of the Benedict – Porumbeanu story, but paints a bigger picture, by placing it in the social context of the time. She also reveals very important information: sometime in the 50s, Andrei became a U.S. Air Force Intelligence officer. Gigi speaks fondly of her father, whom, she says, “just didn’t fit” in this world, and remembers him as a man with an artistic personality, interested in culture and fine things, and simply living life fully.

~ In memory of Andrei Porumbeanu, bon vivant. ~

Where did your father first meet your mother?

They met in Salzburg, Austria at the end of the war, when he joined the U.S. Army, after having served in the Romanian Army during the war. He worked in the kitchen. People were starving at the time, and he would bring everyone in the neighborhood where my mother lived food. My grandmother said to my mother: „Marry him, he’s going to take good care of you, the way he does everybody.”

Many years later my father told me he first fell in love with my mother’s singing voice before he even met her, having heard her sing opera on the radio.

Where were you born?

After they married and my mother was eight months pregnant, my father was determined that I be born in the U.S. Through his contacts in the army, he arranged to have her flown to the States, just in time for me to be born an American citizen. In those days immigrants to the U.S. had to be sponsored. My father arranged with the Romanian church in Cleveland, Ohio to sponsor us. We lived in Cleveland for a short time before moving to New York City, when I was about a year and half old.

Did your mother pursue an artistic career here in the U.S.?

No. She was an opera singer in Europe. In fact she had won 1st prize at the famous Salzburg Music Festival, but she gave up her singing career as soon as she came to America. Unfortunately she started smoking, and then she was just looking for jobs and going to secretarial school. She worked at the Gruen Watch Company for many years, almost until they closed in the late 70s.

Do you know anything about your father’s parents in Buzău, Romania?

All I know is that his father was a colonel. I know nothing about his mother. He never spoke about them. He had a brother there, too.

Have you ever talked to them?

No, I don’t know any of my relatives there…

So I guess you have never visited Romania.

I’ve had great curiosity to visit, but the opportunity never arose to me to go there. I would love to! I love Romanian food! I learned how to cook it and every once in a while I make mititei and sarmale. And mamaligă! (smiles)

Really? That’s great! Did your dad ever speak Romanian to you?

No, we always spoke English. I didn’t know Romanian, I knew a few words, but not enough have a conversation. It’s a shame, because it’s such a beautiful language. When he and my mother were together, they always spoke Romanian. I think they did that whenever they had adult things to discuss, so that I wouldn’t understand.

So your mother speaks Romanian?

Yes, because she was brought up in Romania, in Bucharest. They met in Salzburg, but they both came from Romania.

I didn’t know she grew up in Romania. Was she of Austrian or German descent? Who were her parents?

My mother was born in Bucharest, Romania and was of German decent on my grandfather’s side, and Romanian from my grandmother’s lineage. Both my grandmother and grandfather were teachers. The whole family spent most of the war running from one enemy and another. First they left Romania and went to Poland. When the Russians invaded Poland, they ran to Germany. There they were put into work camps until the Americans liberated them.

„All I know is he was in Air Force Intelligence.”

What are the most vivid memories of your childhood?

There are so many, I wouldn’t know where to begin! I always felt like I loved my father and my mother, and I always missed them when I was away from one or the other. I lived for a while with my grandparents in Germany, while my father joined the Air Force, and then my mom and I joined him in Morocco. He was there as part of the Intelligence. I have very vivid memories of Morocco. We went back there for a Christmas holiday and it was just fascinating.

Do you know when your dad was recruited to be part of the Intelligence? And which service did he work for?

I believe he was recruited while he was in training at a fort in Texas. All I know is he was in Air Force Intelligence. When my father died and was buried at Arlington, the government would not give me any information about his service in the Intelligence agency, for obvious reasons. His work was secret.

Left: Andrei’s father, who was a colonel in the Romanian Army. Middle: Andrei, in 1951, a young U.S. soldier in Topeka, Kansas. Right: a rare image of Andrei with his wife Helma and their daughter Georgette. 

When your father met Gamble, in the summer of ’59, where your parents still together, were you all still a family?

No, they were separated for a number of years, so when I read what was being reported in the news about my father, it didn’t shock me, as if he had an affair. I don’t know when my mother got that Mexican divorce, which is not recognized by the state of New York. I can’t ask her now, because she’s too old and she wouldn’t remember. But anyway, when he married Gamble, that made him a bigamist in New York.

Did your parents actually ever get a divorce?

I don’t think they ever followed through on getting a divorce. None of them ever remarried, so it didn’t seem to be an issue. I’m sure they would have gotten a divorce if any of them had wanted to remarry, but it was never the case.

They never got back together either?

No. When he would call me, she’d get on the phone sometimes and they were friendly, but they never got together again.

Did you get to see your dad often after your parents got separated?

For a while I was living with my grandparents in Germany, so I have a few blank spaces. At some point, at the beginning of the fifties, I did go with my father to Morocco, but there are all these years of blank spaces where I don’t know what my mother and father were doing.

Then later, around the time of the elopement, he and Gamble came to visit in New Jersey, where I was staying. But then they moved to Switzerland, they lived in Europe through most of their marriage. They stayed in Switzerland for a longer time. Their second son, Gregory, was born there.

Where in Switzerland did they live?

They lived in Zürich and rented a villa overlooking the lake.

Exclusive image: Gamble and Andrei Porumbeanu, photographed in their villa in Zürich, Switzerland, at the beginning of the ’60s.

But he didn’t interrupt his relationship with you once he met Gamble?

No, he didn’t. We were very poor at some point, years before this episode, and he was very upset about it. He promised my mother and I: I’m going to get you out of this! Shortly after him and Gamble moved to Switzerland, he showed up one day at our place in New York, in a limo, and he went to my mother and said: I want to take Gigi with me to Switzerland so she can go to school and get an education there. So I moved there with them for a while. I went to a private school in Lausanne and then in Lugano.

For how many years?

One year at a French boarding school in Lausanne, another year at an American school in Lugano.

Do you know what your father and Gamble did in Switzerland?

I was in school most of the time. I think my father was looking for a job, he had some interviews at a few banks. I don’t think that worked out. Fitting into that kind of modern job world was very problematic for him. Lack of skills, lack of formal education, lack of any of those qualifications they were looking for. But later on, after the marriage with Gamble ended, he got a job at a PR firm in New York, so he got to do something that was a little bit more along his lines. Most of the time though, it was a struggle for him. He just didn’t fit, really. There’s this whole system, we have to get a job from 9 to 5 and all this, instead of following what we love. And what my father loved was life and being able to enjoy the beauty of it. He described himself as an existentialist. He once gave a book to my mother, I think it was “Crime and Punishment,” by Dostoievski, and he wrote on it: Life is to be lived, not to prepare for it. So he saw all these things as traps.

What did they do next? How come they left Switzerland?

After a while, they moved to an apartment in Rome.

Why Rome? Did you move with them?

Actually they moved to Rome because of me. I fell in love with Rome when my mother, a friend, and I visited one summer and I wouldn’t stop badgering my father and Gamble about moving there. So they thought, why not, and found a beautiful apartment right by the Four Fountains. But after a while, Gamble left him. She came back to the US, she arranged for me to come back, and then my father came back as well.

You have the same name as that guy Andrei! Oh God, I love that guy! He’s my hero! He did it, he did it!

How do you feel about the way your father was presented to the public?

Well, the media just creates these impressions for readership, because it’s gossip to people. If you can demonize somebody, then it becomes more dramatic and interesting to the public. I think there was a lot of demonization, because no human being is that one-dimensional. Obviously, I have a different point of view.

I want to tell you an interesting anecdote that will help you understand how he was perceived by the public. Many years ago, I was in New York and I called a cab. I had to give my name, and he cab driver recognized it. He didn’t think I was related, but he said: You have the same name as that guy Andrei! I said: Yeah, and he said: Oh God, I love that guy! He’s my hero! He did it, he did it! So my father was sort of a hero of the working class. This man was making a living driving a cab and he was probably thinking: Gee, I’d love to marry a rich woman! I think that’s what captured the popular interest, especially in New York, because my father and Gamble were in the daily news for years. New yorkers were reading about them every day. There are so many immigrants in New York, and the story appealed to immigrants who were having a tough time. They could relate to it. Plus, there are so many iconic things about America in this story. Remington was just huge, it was such a big part of the industrial revolution. The typewriter was a fascinating novelty, and on the other side there were all these immigrants struggling.

I don’t know if you know this story that I’m going to tell you. There were these cows being led to slaughter, and there was this one cow that jumped the fence and ran off. It was such a big story that people started donating money for the freedom of this cow, and eventually the cow lived, they didn’t kill it. I kind of see my father as that cow that jumped the fence, and I guess that how the people who read the story perceived him, too. He found a way out of this whole system that a lot of people were struggling with. There were a lot of people coming back from the war, there was a lot of competition for jobs, it was a hard time. I know the fifties were such a boom for the economy, but there was always strive for that.

„He really had a hard time fitting in where the world wanted him to fit.”

How do you remember your father? What kind of man was he?

He was a great father to me. When I lived with him in Switzerland he took me everywhere, showed me everything, excluded me from nothing. He was very interested in my education and wanted me to see Europe, see museums, appreciate art. He first took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, and afterwards I made a habit of visiting because we lived about a block away. I still have books that he gave me, about all the impressionists. He was always trying to get me interested in books and art, took me to concerts, he wanted me to be cultured and well-rounded in my education.

I think the problem my father had was that he just didn’t fit. He was from another time. One of his friends said he wouldn’t have been happy working in the military, because he was an artist, he had this artistic personality. His father, the colonel, sent him to military school and wanted him to be in the military, but that wouldn’t have worked for him. He really had a hard time fitting in where the world wanted him to fit. The idea of buying a little house and working a 9 to 5 job, he just couldn’t adjust to that. If you knew him, you’d be able to tell he wouldn’t have lasted in a situation like that.

He went to Columbia University and studied Economics. He got a job at Standard Oil for a while, as a translator, and I’m not sure, but I think he worked at Radio Free Europe. He tried many different things, and he just didn’t fit. It’s sad that the situation was how it was, that he couldn’t realize his better self, his potential, but that happens to so many of us.

His one talent was attracting women. At first he was a bell-boy in an apartment building in Manhattan, where he got to know many wealthy women and discovered that they found him charming, interesting and attractive. I think there was a point where he just decided: The only way out for my daughter and for all of us is to marry a wealthy woman! So that’s what he did.

Andrei Porumbeanu, photographed in Paris, in January 1960

There is a wealthy woman I’d like to ask you about: Ileana Bulova. Do you know how he met her? Because he was living in her house in Southampton when he met Gamble.

I’m not sure how they met, they probably had an affair. My impression from what I read in the press is that she let him use her home in Southampton, where he had all these parties, and that’s when he met Gamble.

Do you know if he ever worked as a chauffeur for Ileana?

I’m not sure. I think they had an affair that she didn’t want to go public with, so when the press asked her who he was, she probably said: Oh, he’s just my chauffeur! I guess that’s how the chauffeur thing started. But he was never a chauffeur for the Benedict family, like some newspapers wrote.

Did Ileana Bulova help your dad and Gamble move to Switzerland? At the time, Ileana was married to the Swiss chocolatier Auguste Lindt and was living in Switzerland.

I don’t think she had any connection to them moving there. I don’t recall that my father had any contact with Ileana Bulova after he met Gamble. But he knew some very interesting people: the sister of the (deposed) King of Egypt, a lot of ambassadors were coming to their home, probably people he had met while he was in the Intelligence service. The grandson of Haile Selassie was a guest who stayed at the villa in Zürich. Gamble and I later had lunch with him in Rome. He spoke of his fear of being assassinated. Sadly, that’s what happened.

My father always had a lot of interesting people around – lawyers, diplomats, usually prominent people. He was a very sophisticated and intelligent man, very entertaining and charming. Everybody liked having him around! He was also very elegant in the way he dressed. He had exquisite taste.

How do you feel about the way the Benedicts talked about him?

Well, it’s understandable. My stepmother was upset, he did have an affair, so she was hurt, angry and pretty vengeful. So I understand that, and I also understand my brother George. I don’t know Gregory at all, I only met him once. But I had the chance to spend some time with George and his wife, and I was trying to tell him about his father. He just cut me off, he said he didn’t want to know anything. His wife told him: Let her talk, let her tell you about your father. He just said: I don’t want to know him. He grew up with his mother and he was influenced by her anger. I understand that. It doesn’t change how I feel and my experience with my father. I think he always wanted to be a good father, and when he could be, he would, and when he could help, he did.

„He would pour himself some wine and put on some Romanian music, and the tears would just start falling.”

Did he ever express any regret about what happened?

I don’t recall him talking about that. When my father got sentimental or emotional, it was usually about Romania. He would pour himself some wine and put on some Romanian music, and the tears would just start falling. He had a very strong attachment to his homeland. He missed his home country, and he could never go back, because he had deserted the army. He had been in the Romanian army, who was fighting on the side of the Nazis, and he was opposed to the Nazis, so he joined the Americans. He simply didn’t return to Romania at the end of the war, and joined the Americans instead. He didn’t want to live under Communism. Since he was still in the Romanian army and didn’t obey the call to return to Romania, he was considered a deserter.

Did he ever go back to Romania?

He did go back to Romania one time, but for many years he couldn’t. He eventually arranged with some people to have that overlooked and he went on a trip there.

Did he go by himself?

Yes, he went by himself. I actually took him to the airport.

Do you remember what year this was?

It might have been in the early 70s.

Did he ever tell you how the trip went?

I only remember him telling me he met with artists.

What maid? You don’t have a maid. I have a maid. Go and make your bed!

What principles and traits of character do you think you inherited from your father?

I’m pretty studious. I may have inherited that from him. Also, from my father I think I have a love for America. He really did love America, the principles, the freedom, the ideals. And I do, too, I think I got that starting with him. I believe in democracy, in people standing up for themselves and their rights.

When he first drove me to the school, in Lausanne, his advice to me was: Stay away from stupid people, they can be dangerous! Some kids in that school in Lausanne were pretty mean, and I guess he was trying to prepare me. What he said probably reflected that he had some bad experiences in military school.

I think his parents were landowners and he had a more aristocratic perception of the world, but he always instructed me to have great respect for people who work. When I was in Switzerland with him, it was my birthday and I got up and went to breakfast, and he said: Did you make your bed? And I said: No, the maid will make it. And he said: What maid? You don’t have a maid. I have a maid. Go and make your bed! I told him: But it’s my birthday! And he said: Good, it’s a good time to learn a lesson! So he always told me to respect people who work and not look down on people. He taught me a lot of good things, he taught me to have a good character.

How did he react when he saw that you and your mother went to court to testify in favor of Gamble, in 1964, when the marriage was annulled?

He told me many years later: I understand, you were influenced by your mother and your stepmother. And that was basically what it was. I think some of the things my stepmother said in court were not true. She made up this story that he showed up with a gun and he tried to get my brothers. I think she was lying.

October 1964: Gamble, along with Helma and Gigi, at the court in New York where the marriage was annulled

She also said that he was aggressive and had “affairs with several women.”

I only know of one affair that he had, which was the one that broke the relationship. He might have had other affairs, I don’t know. But one thing I know about my father is that he would never lift a hand to a woman or a child. He was a lover, he wasn’t a hitter. So anything she said about that, I don’t believe. My mother and father had a tumultuous relationship, they had many fights, but he never hit her. And he never hit me. Gamble was just vengeful. She was very young, when she met him she was swept off her feet. She wasn’t prepared to deal with a man that was more complex and who had a lot of different life experiences.

Gamble and Andrei, in Paris, in January 1960

Do you think that was the main reason why things didn’t work out between them?

One of them, yes. And then, Gamble and her family, they were White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. My father had Latin blood. They had a very different background, and I think there was a big psychological contrast between them.

And then there was Katharine, Gamble’s grandmother… Did she eventually accept their marriage?

No. Gamble was disinherited by her grandmother. The only inheritance that she got was from her mother Josephine, who as you know committed suicide, and that was half a million dollars. The grandmother had stipulated in her will that Gamble’s children would only be able to get the inheritance after their mother’s death. So she never inherited 20 million dollars. I was actually with my father and Gamble in Como, Italy – I think this might have been in 1963 – when they got the phone call from the lawyer, that the grandmother had just written that will and cut her up.

So the only money that she ever got was $500.000?

Yes, that was from her mother. The grandmother didn’t have any rights to that money. And I think Gamble’s brother, Doug, got the other half.

An interesting anecdote that my father told me is about when he met the grandmother at her mansion in Manhattan. She showed him these Albrecht Dürer sketches, she was very proud to have about 150 of them. My father asked her: Why don’t you rent them to museums? She said: Oh, no, people would then know that I’m wealthy. But they already know you’re wealthy!, my father said. And she responded: Yes, but I wouldn’t want them to know that I’m that wealthy! So you can just tell the difference between her and him.

From Gamble I know that her grandmother always went for sales, basement bargain sales, and she had some tenants downtown. Gamble said that she would take her with her to collect the rent from these poor immigrants. So there’s a definite demarcation between the mentality on her side and my father’s side.

„Then I found out that he was robbed and beaten on the subway, and he ended up in the hospital.”

What happened after your father’s marriage to Gamble was annulled?

That was a big blank period, when I didn’t hear about or from my father. I don’t really know what happened. At some point he called me, we had lunch. That was when he was working for that PR agency in New York, it must have been 1968 or 1969. He was an executive at that agency, I remember visiting him at his office. I don’t know for how long he was there.

What did he do after he left the PR agency?

I know he was a restaurant manager for a while.

Do you know what restaurant it was?

I don’t remember the name.

Was he living with anybody in New York?

He was involved with another wealthy woman, I can’t remember her name, her family was in real estate. We all went and ate together. He was staying with this woman in an apartment in New York, that’s all I know. After that I didn’t talk to him for quite a while. Then I found out that he was robbed and beaten on the subway, and he ended up in the hospital.

Do you remember when this was?

It must have been in the late 80’s, maybe a year or two before he became ill and died. When he was released from the hospital, after the robbery, I met with him and had dinner.

After that, did you stay in touch?

Yes, we talked on the phone periodically, but we only met that one last time, when he was released from the hospital, after the robbery. That was the last time I saw him. Then he got very ill, he was in the Veterans Hospital and died there of lung cancer.

He was a very heavy smoker, he smoked about three packs a day. And drank very much. On the day before he was released from the hospital, I went to visit him. He took me to the window and said: See that liquor store across the street? Can you go there and get me a bottle of whiskey? I refused. Maybe I shouldn’t have, because he was just too far gone in his alcoholism.

How did you find out that he became ill with cancer?

His friend called me.

Was it his lady friend?

No, this was a male friend he knew for many years.

He died in 1988, but when did he receive his diagnosis? Did he get any treatment?

I don’t know. His friend called me to tell me he was very ill just before he died. I only found out later that it was cancer. I didn’t visit him when he fell ill. I found out too late…

How was he feeling when you last saw him? How did he look like?

He looked great, as dapper as always. Even though he wasn’t wearing expensive clothes, he still managed to look elegant. It was never just the clothes, it was his presence.

What do you remember about that last meeting?

I remember that he told me: When I die, I want to be buried at the Arlington Cemetery. I said OK, and he said: No, seriously, you have to fight for it, they owe it to me. So I’m glad that he was buried there, because I know it was very important for him.

When he died, I got a call from the Veterans Hospital in New York, and his friend told me: It’s all being taken care of, he’ll be buried at Arlington. I went to the funeral and I was the only relative there. I couldn’t believe how beautifully they organized it. There was the manager of Arlington, and a woman who was there to console me in case I fell apart. A sermon was read by an army Chaplain. Then came the 21-gun salute. 21 soldiers firing their guns in the air all at once. It startled me at first, I didn’t expect it. It was very loud. There was a bugle player who played the tradtional „taps.” Then the soldiers folded the flag very carefully, solemnly, wearing white gloves, and a soldier handed me the flag.

It is one of the highest honors in the military to be buried there, so I know he would have been proud.

Did your brothers ever see your father again?

Not at all. Unfortunately, Gamble wouldn’t let him see them. George would probably remember him a little bit, because he was with him in Switzerland until he was about four years old.

Gamble, Andrei and their first son, Gheorghe Mihail (today, George Michael Gallagher), who was born in April 1961

You told me you never really got the chance to know your other brother, Gregory. Why?

Not really. I met him one time, he was working as a DJ in a club in Philadelphia. I was staying with some friends in New Jersey, and I went to see him. But I didn’t really get the chance to talk to him, because he was working. We talked shortly during his breaks. We basically just met. But I did spend some time with George, at his home in orange Country, Los Angeles. He later moved to Maryland.

What was your impression of Gamble? What kind of person is she?

I liked her a lot. We were actually friends. She was very gracious, very sweet and kind, and very supportive towards me. She was 21, I was 14 years old, she was more like an older sister or a friend. So I can’t say anything bad about Gamble’s personality. She was also very attentive towards my father, towards guests, she was a very pleasant woman. My father never said anything bad about her, and I don’t have anything against her.

Have you two stayed in touch?

I talked to her a few times, we emailed, and then we just broke off, we couldn’t keep it up. It wasn’t unfriendly, but it was a little strange I think. There were all these years in between, too much had happened. But she came to visit me once in Los Angeles, with George and his wife and their son.

How has your life been? 

I did some modeling in New York and then I went to drama school, to “Stella Adler,” for four years. Then I came out here with Stella. That’s what really brought me to Los Angeles.

With Stella herself? Wow!

Stella taught in NYC during the year and the summer in L.A. A bunch of us students came with her, that is to say we came to attend her class, not exactly on the same plane. But I didn’t pursue an acting career.

Why?

I never really went to Stella to learn acting. I was discussing with a friend, a playwright, what I want to do with my life. I told him I wanted to be a writer. He suggested I go to Stella Adler. I asked why, she’s an acting coach. He said she’s much better for writers and directors than actors. When I took her classes I found he was right. I took some journalism courses at UCLA and got a job at Burda publications.

I think your father was happy to see you doing that.

At the time I worked at Burda, yes, he was happy about that.

„He wanted everybody around him to be happy. He had a very generous personality.”

Have you ever felt different, in the U.S., because your parents were from somewhere else?

Yes, I did. The thing that comes to mind was after I had my first school years in Germany. After the war there was a total elimination of any form of nationalism and I was rather taken aback when I came to America. I think I was in the third grade when everybody was saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I remember I didn’t like the way all the kids were doing that, like little soldiers, mumbling these words that none of us understood at that age. I just didn’t like doing it and I was sent to the principal’s office.

Other than that, kids were generally interested where I was from, they were very kind and accepting, so I didn’t have any problems. The fact that my parents were from somewhere else sort of made me a curiosity among other kids, it actually helped me make friends.

Is there any part of you that you feel is profoundly Romanian?

I definitely think so. It’s more in my gut and it can’t really be verbalized, but I was brought up with Romanian music and culture and the longing I felt from my father, for the country. It’s definitely a very big part of me.

Do you think your father was happy?

I think he was happy when he was happy. He rolled with the punches, you know. He enjoyed life fully when he could, and when he couldn’t, he drank. He wasn’t perfect, he has his weaknesses – drinking, smoking, women. But when he was happy he was very happy, and wanted everybody around him to be happy. He had a very generous personality.

When you close your eyes and think about him, what do you see?

I see him smiling, enjoying life. He always had that joi de vivre.

***

Photos:

The personal archive of Mrs. Georgette Porumbeanu

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